good grief

I’ve just finished the final manuscript on a book about The Hobbit. I’ve also just finished a sermon on dealing with grief and loss. And oddly enough, the two intersect. (Although, finding a connection between anything and Tolkien isn’t really a stretch for me. I do it on a scarily regular basis.)

But this connection leaps at me without effort or expectation as I search one passage in the book. Tolkien’s party of dwarves, one hobbit, and a wizard, recovered from their second or third near-death experience, continue their quest. They pause on the edge of Mirkwood Forest, a dark, mysterious place they have good reason to fear, and Bilbo pleads with their departing wizard about the path ahead.

“Do we really have to go through?” groaned the hobbit. 
“Yes, you do,” said the wizard, “if you want to get to the other side. You must either go through or give up your quest.”
“Is there no other way round?”
“If you care to go (hundreds of miles) out of your way. And even then you wouldn’t get a safe path. There are no safe paths in this part of the world.”

There are no safe paths in this part of the world, either. Life takes us to scary places where pain happens and loss blindsides us from places we least expected it. A spouse is unfaithful, a child turns her back on you, a doctor tells you your mind or your body is going to fail, slowly but surely. 

We had a plaque on our wall when I was a little girl with a poem that said, “God did not promise . . . flower-strewn pathways all our lives through.” I used to stand over the heating vent and read that poem a lot. Because it was warm there, and I liked the poem. Now I realize, cheesiness aside, the author sure got that right.

We fear that path of pain, because we fear we may never get to the other side. We may just curl up on the path and end the quest right there. So, we try other ways, detours around, which end up taking us far afield. We pop pills; drink, smoke, or inject something; buy something new; or, if you’re Elizabeth Gilbert and publisher-financed, you escape on an around the world odyssey.

The thing about loss is, like the Forest, we really have to go through. We can’t circumvent it. We can’t ignore it. We can’t put on a happy face and pretend it didn’t happen. We dare not mouth Bible verses or insipid quotes off of Pinterest that make it sound like we’re on a higher spiritual level with the whole thing when we really are not. Those things work only until, having detoured away from the scary giant spiders in the forest, we find ourselves facing goblins and wolves hundreds of miles away and realize we’ve gained nothing and gotten much farther off the path.

Going through makes us healthier people. Wholer people. Better people. People who understand that life has an exquisite tenuousness about it we never valued. Who don’t waste time grasping at grudges or playing hide and seek with honesty. People who look for ways to hold out grace because we know other humans are as afraid as we are. Who realize that being afraid is an illusion that keeps us from completing the quest.

I hate grief. I hate loss. I really hate giant spiders. But I love the other side.