I sat with a family who were lost in their grief. The patriarch of the family had died suddenly, and they were a long way from home. There was little I could say, or do, and I knew it. So I just sat. Handed tissues. Listened. Prayed silently. And waited. It was a very long night of grief and tears…
Months later, I still remember this family. Their heartache was so palpable and raw; they were vulnerable and hurting. I helped with practical questions, calling the Embassy of their homeland, and then speaking with a detective who was processing their case. I arranged for something for them to eat and drink. I went home in the morning, more than ready for my pillow and some tears of my own.
When I processed the experience with a mentor, I couldn’t put it into words. I used words like adrift, lost, hopeless, fearful, and sad. But it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t get past thinking about this family’s loss because though there were aspects of their grief that I had not personally experienced, I felt the depth of that emotion through them. I couldn’t say, “I know how you feel,” (terrible phrase! don’t ever say it!) but I did sit with them in mourning.
This September, I visited the National Portrait Gallery and saw a painting that gave me a mental picture for this experience. Katie O’Hagan created a self-portrait of her personal journey through, as she puts it “great personal upheaval.”
I painted Life Raft in 2011, during a time of great personal upheaval. During this period, I came to truly understand, for the first time, the vital role that art plays in my life. As most of the solid ground I had depended on seemed to erode away, my art emerged as the only thing keeping my head above water. I woke up one morning with this image in my head. I built the raft myself and spent the next couple of months completing the painting. It’s a very literal image, and I felt quite exposed and not entirely comfortable making it at first. Now I see it as something positive to come out of a bad situation. It also marked a turning point in my work, as it has led to a move toward more personal paintings, beyond the straightforward portraiture I was doing before.
There are several aspects of this painting that have helped me be a better chaplain.
I reflected on this experience as I was walking my labyrinth this morning. I remembered the story of Zechariah… how in a moment of “lostness” he considered God faithful and equal to his situation. Even a situation brought about by his own doing!
Zechariah and Elizabeth were related to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Elizabeth conceived John (much to the disbelief of many, including Zechariah!) He expressed his doubts to the Angel Gabriel and was silenced by God for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy! (Doubtless there were other things he had said and done which grieved the heart of God, but Scripture does not tell us.) In those months spent in silence, I think Zechariah had the opportunity to watch God work instead of doing work “for” God. He was given a gift of time — to pray, to repent, to listen.
The story of John the Baptist’s parentage, and his future intersection with his cousin, Jesus of Nazareth, is a wonderful story and part of many Advent readings. But the response of Zechariah, once John is born, is not. In his Spirit-inspired prophecy (Luke 1:68-79), he lists all the wonderful things God has done and will do, ending with this glorious promise:
78 Because of God’s tender mercy,
the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide us to the path of peace.
Luke 1: 78-79 NLT
There are times that we are in that place of darkness and grief, in the shadow of death. In God’s tender mercy, the promised Light into our personal hellish darkness will come. The promise of God’s Presence — personally, tenderly, faithfully — in times of doubt and grief is something we can cling to. The people of God spent many years in a dark wilderness. With eyes of faith, Zechariah realized what was “about to break.”
Self-imposed silence or God-imposed silence — it isn’t easy! For persons who are struggling, the prospects of a resolution seem just as remote as ever. That’s why I have learned as a chaplain to stop talking and listen. I come alongside, not live in their grief. I have learned that the euphemisms that people say to try and help others in times of grief are seldom helpful and often hurtful. To the person in upheaval, stranded on a life raft, all the suggestions are just words. If they had a paddle, they would use it. They do not. They rock along, in the grey shades of loss, worry, anxiety and exhaustion.
As I took in Ms. O’Hagan’s painting, it came to me. Perhaps the best thing I can do as a chaplain, is ride the waves — and keep my eyes on the shore. Together, companions in upheaval, we’ll make it through, eventually. Whatever rocks my boat, or yours, may we know and feel God’s guiding Presence. For truly, it is about to break upon us.