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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.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Beth Moyer #

    Right on, Ryan! I so appreciated the inter-denominational service – and the respect of the secular CBC reporters.

    April 10, 2018
  2. Paul Johnston #

    Somebody once said real genius isn’t knowing the right answers, it’s asking the right questions.

    I’ve never understood those who pose the questions, “Why doesn’t God intervene? Why do bad things happen to good people?”

    What foolish questions. We live, unless we seek God, exclusively in a material reality. In this place, death is inevitable, death is immanent. Matetial reality, as vast and as seemingly infinite as it seems to be, is, as far we have discovered, wholly unconscious of itself. In this microscopic corner of it all, we have consciousness.

    Whatever else a fool believes, he cannot believe he gave this consciousness to himself. It came from somewhere else. He was gifted. He is a one in a trillion lottery winner. You must know all this, you must know this true context of existence, before you grieve a single thing, a single person.

    However long or short our lives or the lives of those we love, it is all a gift, it is all a miracle.

    I praise God for my being. For my knowing of my being. For the being of those I love and cherish and I praise Him for every second we have together. However long or short our time here is, I owe him nothing less.

    April 10, 2018
  3. Paul Johnston #

    Btw, as for the last paragraph of your post, I would share a holy embrace with you if I could. 😊

    April 10, 2018
  4. Well said! Tragedy always brings us face to face with the raw truth.

    April 12, 2018
  5. Paul M #

    Thank you Ryan; “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.” – AMEN. I am sharing this on Twitter, thank you.

    April 16, 2018
  6. “I’m not sure I could tolerate anything less than a religious way to grieve.” I know you’re basing this comment on the earlier quote, but I’m always a bit turned off at calling spirituality and contemplative exercise a “religion.” Religion has to answer for it’s part in the social and political ruination of life for vast numbers of people, is clearly implicated in the rise of destructive populism and intolerance in our world. As one who’s been where the parents of the bus accident parents now are, I know that what religionists are offering at a time like this is not hope, it’s opiate. Mitigating the symptoms of grief with platitudes about a literal resurrection may blunt the pain for some, for me it was humanist, honest people’s embrace that helped me recover enough to carry on. The problem I’m getting at here was amply demonstrated by the sad attempts of the team chaplain to put a “God cares and is still in charge” face on the event. That’s what “religion” does; it does it because it can’t provide in anything but words the most elemental of Christ’s teachings, namely that love is the only nourishment for life, the only balm for healing, and that it’s delivered by the hands and words of our neighbours.

    April 16, 2018
    • Well, I suppose as always much depends on what we mean by the words that we use. I know that for many, the word “religious” has negative connotations. Institutional religion has done historical harm—of this there is no doubt, and we must acknowledge it. Religion has also done great good (much of which we seem barely aware of or are unwilling to acknowledge these days, probably because we take for granted many of its deliverances to our cultural moment). But like everything involving human beings, there is a mixture of good and bad. For my part, words like “spirituality” are too vague and often individualistic to be of much use. They seem capable of meaning whatever people want them to mean. But perhaps there is no getting away from this. This is all bound up with simply being human and using language which is necessarily limited.

      Re: your own experience, first I’m very sorry to hear that you’ve ever had to endure the loss of a child. There are some losses that I can scarcely contemplate and this is one of them.

      I’m not sure it’s possible to paint with such broad strokes, though. For some (like you), words like those of the team chaplain represent a cheap opiate or platitudes or whatever. For others, such words are deeply meaningful and an enormous source of comfort and strength. While I certainly would have phrased things differently, somehow affirming the lordship of Christ over the pain of this world falls pretty squarely within the bounds of historical Christian orthodoxy. I myself would not have used such words about a God who is “in charge” in that context (or any context really), but it is undeniable that for many these words are far from platitudes. I have sat with parents burying small children who believed things about why their child was “taken” that made me cringe theologically. But while they deeply appreciated concrete expressions of love and human solidarity, they could not have gone on without a belief in a sovereign God who could redeem this suffering.

      I was actually pretty sympathetic toward the chaplain in Humboldt’s talk. I wouldn’t have put many things the way he did, but at the very least he was honest about his pain and confusion. I’ve heard far worse at funerals in contexts far less catastrophic than this one.

      April 17, 2018
    • Audrey Metz #

      Thank you, George Epp. I have to fight anger when I hear the cheap “opiates”/platitudes “God is in charge”, “It’s God’s will”, etc, especially when it’s said about horrific things that people other than the platitude-stater are suffering. God is NOT in charge – humans were given the job of being in charge of the earth. I’d say – at times – MANY times? – we’re not doing such a terrific job. At the very least, let’s stop giving God/de the credit/blame for what WE have done.

      June 2, 2018

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