For Those Who Want to Grieve in a Religious Way
I’m in Saskatchewan this week for a speaking engagement. Of course, no matter where I go, all anyone is talking about is last Friday’s horrific bus accident, which claimed the lives of fifteen members of the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team. It is a story for which there are barely words. It’s made headlines around the globe.
Not surprisingly, here in the Saskatoon area (about two hours from the crash site) it’s ground zero. The grief is raw and palpable. Hockey culture runs deep in each of Canada’s prairie provinces. Many people (myself included) have personal experiences of blasting down wintry roads in terrible conditions to play a hockey game. But in Saskatchewan, a sparsely populated province where vast distances often must be traversed to get from town to town, hockey culture is a different level altogether. Hockey binds these far flung communities together in a way that few things can.
All of this adds sadness to a story that would be devastating no matter what. The thought of fifteen mostly young lives cruelly snuffed out on the way to play the game their province so dearly loves is more than many can fathom. As the parent of kids roughly in the age range of these junior hockey players, it doesn’t take a great deal of imaginative work to get a sense of what parents and billet families must be enduring right now. I can envision few things worse than losing your child.
As always, I find it fascinating to observe what we do with our collective grief. In Humboldt, the vigil at the hockey rink was overtly religious and explicitly Christian. The team chaplain’s sermon was raw and honest in a way that many admired, but it was also unabashedly evangelical. It undoubtedly would have made some squirm, if not in Humboldt then certainly those watching from afar. He talked about Jesus shepherding us through darkness, about a God who is close to the brokenhearted. He admitted that he didn’t know why God could allow something like this to happen, but he affirmed that God remained on the throne. It was an approach that certainly wouldn’t have flown in many parts of multicultural, post-Christian Canada. But for the people of Humboldt, it was the right way to grieve. Perhaps the only way.
On the radio stations emanating from larger centres, the talk was obviously not about Jesus and the valley of the shadow of death but about mental health and trauma counseling. The vocabulary was different, for obvious reasons. There is a different “grief grammar” that is permissible in the spaces of secularism. Spiritual longing and religious hope are mostly off the table. These are the kinds of things that you pursue if you’re into that kind of thing. I suppose this is predictable and probably unavoidable in the sociocultural landscape at present.
But as I listened to the various radio programs, one sentence from a mental health expert stood out. They were talking about all the resources available for the families affected, and after going through all the mental health options, they added, “And, you know, priests and pastors, for those who want to grieve in a religious way.” For those who want to grieve in a religious way. What a very interesting way to put it. It makes it sound like grief is like a product we can pick off a shelf. There are religious and nonreligious brands that we can select for our trauma. Like different kinds of toothpaste or gluten free options for those who can’t eat certain things.
And on one level, this expresses an obvious truth. People do grieve in “religious” and “nonreligious” ways. All the time. People somehow “get through” awful things like fatal bus crashes on Saskatchewan highways through various means and with varying degrees of success. But as I listened to this radio program, I found myself thinking, “Oh man, I can’t imagine grieving something like this in anything but a ‘religious way.’” The thought of fifteen shattered young lives being the end of the story is too much for me to process in a non-religious way.
After all the good and necessary talk of mental health and grief counseling and community support, I still find need of Easter for something like this. I need the hope of a God who can raise the dead, who can summon into existence things that are not, things that have been taken away, things that have been broken and rendered unrecognizable. No ethereally vague references to heaven or clouds or being “in a better place” for me. I need things put back together, tears wiped away, suffering somehow redeemed and tranformed into beauty. I need the Jesus who says, “a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.”
I’m not sure I could tolerate anything less than a religious way to grieve. I am far too demanding of life and of God for anything less.