Unspeakable Sadness

September 22, 2014

Going back to my original list of reasons for not blogging this summer, today I address the experience of sadness. Several things piled on over time and rendered me still before God, downcast in spirit:

• my mother’s death after a sudden and short illness, in early April
• the developing news of my friend Steve Hayner’s pancreatic cancer
• actions of General Assembly, particularly regarding same-sex marriage
• the beheading of innocents at the hands of ISIS
• the escalating death toll due to Ebola in West Africa
• devastating wildfires in California, at or near some of my favorite places on earth
• the word “permanent” uttered by one of my doctors in reference to my breathing difficulties

I suppose everybody feels sadness in unique ways. For me, it starts in the sternum as an ache and rises to the throat, triggering tears and moaning. Such a feeling of heaviness comes with a sense of loss, a loss to me or a loss to humanity. It is often accompanied by helplessness, because sadness overwhelms after the checklist of “what can I do to fix this?” is exhausted.

Sadness is certainly not new to the human experience. It seems every generation has its own sad history to deal with. I think of Joe Rantz of The Boys in the Boat fame, whose family packed up the household and drove off leaving 15-year-old Joe to fend for himself. What possible reaction can a reader have to such callous abandonment! Sadness, and perhaps anger, hardly do justice to the loss experienced under such conditions.

On the other hand, sadness apart from outrage can be a powerful emotion of its own. Consider the progression of the five stages of grief: upon experiencing a loss, a person goes through denial, anger, and bargaining before coming to depression, or the experience of pure sadness. When the full reality of a loss makes its way into our consciousness, after we protest loudly (to God or neighbor), and try to work out some alternative “solution,” when all of that works its way through our system, we finally arrive at a point at which we can only say, “It is sad. It is so sad.” This is the kind of sadness that silences a person. Job’s friends would have done much better ministry if they had just sat with him on the heap of ashes and bore the burden with him (Job 13:4f).

I think it is possible for a person to be very sad without becoming depressed, but if sadness hovers for a prolonged period one should be alert to the possibility that depression is setting in. In that case, get help! It happens! Tell somebody about it; talk it through!

Even our Savior waded in deep waters of sadness from time to time:

“Jesus wept,” “greatly disturbed and moved” by the show of grief at Lazarus’ grave (John 11:35). He entered into the community’s grief and felt his own fully. This deeply emotional moment was not a sign of weakness but recognition of a friend’s death and sorrow for paradise lost. I can just hear the One who was present for the Creation protesting, “This is not the way it was supposed to be!” And yet, right at this moment, even Jesus was silent.

Sadness stops speech, but it does not necessarily stop action. In his grief, Jesus may have embraced the words of the Psalmist: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5b). And in that anticipated joy, Jesus realized his life-bringing purpose and called out, “Lazarus, come forth!” For us, the action may be wordless, in the form of a hug or a card sent in the mail. Simply by engaging sadness in its most genuine form, we move through it. We have to move through it—thoughtfully, prayerfully, thoroughly—and find what we can find on the other side of it.

For people of the Christian faith, the reality and promise of resurrection goes a long way toward lifting the heaviness of sadness. We can at least become functional again. Some say their sadness never leaves them, and it may not; but eventually the One who is sad with us says, “Okay, my dear one, I am carrying this one with you, but it’s time to re-engage with the world around you.” Anyone who has lost a spouse or a child knows this. The pain is unspeakable, as is the sadness; but sometimes “exercise” helps in the meantime.

For Jesus, sorting out his situation in the Garden of Gethsemane, it was “bargaining” just one last time: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matthew 26:39). When the answer was “No, I want you to walk through the valley of death as we agreed to do,” Jesus summoned the courage available in his being to submit to the Father and face the wayward earthly authorities according to God’s plan. Yes, of course, it led to his death. Our sadness, at a much smaller level, often involves some kind of death, too: the death of a dream, of a home, of a relationship, of a plan. With that death (or loss) comes grief; after the stillness and silence of a first response, we are encouraged by the example of our Savior to exercise our faith, walk in the light, and do our duty.

For me, now, that exercise is writing. Yes, the unspeakable must now be spoken. And in the speaking, the sadness loses some of its power to devastate and gains some power to point us to the morning, and the One who has promised:

[“H]e will wipe every tear from their eyes
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)




3 Responses to “Unspeakable Sadness”

  1. Virginia Wolters Says:

    So beautiful and so meaningful for each of us . . . no matter where we are in life! THANKS for writing it! VA

  2. Lauren Says:

    Mary……very powerful writing from you today. Thank you for being real.


  3. Linda Lee Says:

    Heartfelt feelings we all share…..God is with us…….

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