Hobbes resting just last month. Photos by Wade Jones.
Maybe a scholarly English gentleman like C. S. Lewis can observe his grief with detachment, but most of us would rather write something like “Wracked with Grief” to best capture the panic that ensues with great loss.
I read Lewis’s A Grief Observed in youth when I knew far less about grief than I do now. I can’t find my copy, but I remember a passage in which Lewis describes wanting to bang on the gates of heaven after the early death of his wife, to whom he was married late in life and for only a few years. As I recall, he came to believe his panic shut heaven’s gates even tighter.
Right now I am preparing to facilitate a spiritual formation course on the Beatitudes, based on a text by its instructor, my friend J. Marshall Jenkins, entitled Blessed at the Broken Places. Hemingway’s concept in A Farewell to Arms that we become “strong at the broken places,” spiritual director, campus chaplain, and therapist Jenkins adapts to interpret Jesus’ sayings that the poor in spirit, those who grieve, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on, are “blessed”—not “happy” as the Beatitudes have sometimes been mistranslated—but “blessed” with sacred possibilities.
He reminds us that much in the Bible is a crying out from a poverty of spirit or goods or well-being or freedom or equality, from Exodus to Job to the Psalms to the Prophets to the Gospels. Thus I would challenge Lewis’ notion (as I recall it) that panic automatically closes doors to God’s comfort and care and compassion. “Out of the depths I cry to thee,” the psalmist and our liturgies cry. “I have heard their cry,” Yahweh says of the oppressed Hebrews.
That may be why Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes begins with “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” We need to know our need, to have humility, to ask for help, whether from God or others.
Though some may think this an unworthy grief, the death of our beloved dog, Hobbes, two weeks ago came crashing down on us. (See last week’s post, “Hobbes Found Me,” for her great significance to me.) After months of stressful caregiving, we made the difficult decision to have an in-home euthanasia when she could no longer walk or stand, having lost weight and muscle mass because of her greatly diminished appetite and nausea related to a mass on her liver. She was also nearly 16 years old, aged for a Lab/retriever mix.
Wade and I sobbed at the choice, and, as I had done when I needed to do the same for her companion dog, Calvin, I wailed like a banshee! And unanticipated grief comes here and there and now and then, as we notice her missing, from our walks and naps and meals to her many corners and places in our home where she liked to sit or sleep or look out. Think Tiny Tim’s empty chimney corner multiplied by the dozens.
And then I have been wracked with guilt about our decision to euthanize her. Multiply that second-guessing many times and you know the wariness of making end-of-life decisions for family members, or a woman’s decision to end a pregnancy. That’s why those families and those women need all the support we can provide.
Something in the not-yet-published Blessed at the Broken Places helped me with my second-guessing. Jenkins points out that Jesus does not say that those who are righteous will be blessed, but rather those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be blessed. Believing one is righteous easily leads to self-righteousness, an absurd notion of perfection, with no need for God’s help. It is those who hunger and thirst for righteousness who will be blessed.
Trying to do the right thing for our dear dog was our hungering and thirsting for the good, the right, the compassionate. My preoccupation with whether or not we did the right thing at the right time was coming from my perfectionism, a need to justify myself (even in this post!), rather than rely on God’s grace (and that of my readers, as well as of Hobbes!).
I also realized it was a way to avoid fully embracing my grief at our loss, and in “our” I include Hobbes as well as Wade and me. Over-analysis was causing paralysis in my grieving process.
In my book, Henri’s Mantle, I described our need to “stand under” grief rather than attempt to “understand” grief, using a concept of the novelist Albert Camus that trying to understand something is often a wish to be in control, to have “superior” knowledge, to be on top of things, as it were.
Jesus’ Beatitudes are all about “standing under,” knowing our needs, trusting his path.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We’re still a mess, but neighbors, friends, and family have offered comfort with visits, hugs, Facebook “likes” and messages, e-mails, cards, phone calls, flowers, wine, and even brownies. Thank you! And Jesus has offered comfort through the Beatitudes, and providentially at this time, a fresh interpretation of them.
We are also blessed by our many happy memories of our dear friend, Hobbes, whose absence highlights the joy she brought us and the love we exchanged that will endure long after our present pain. Thank you, Hobbes, and thanks be to God for you!
Hobbes waiting for a treat from our table.
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