For the past twelve months, I have met with a man named Russ Murphy to collaborate on a book he was born to write. His wife of forty years, Saralyn, had passed away suddenly, just four months earlier, and he was bereft. But more than that, he was brave. He wanted to inhabit his grief.
I understood from firsthand experience that there’s a geography to grief; it’s a layered terrain that treks through ridges, peaks, and valleys. I also understood that our Savior and Creator could equip us for the journey, if we would only yield to His heart and surrender to His will.
Russ did that. He was willing to surrender, to go wherever that grief journey would take him. He kept a travelogue of sorts on Facebook, posts that his readers and he called “Not Alone.” We all looked forward to reading what Russ had to say. Not because it was entertaining and not because we were voyeurs on his journey, but because he was so transparent, and willing to share what the Holy Spirit revealed to him along the way.
A singer and songwriter as well as a pastor, minister, and servant, Russ created his own little rituals of mourning, trying to find his way around a prayer circle on his living room floor. His near daily routine of sharing his remembrances and discoveries via social media became a liturgy of sorts, and many who waited for his posts experienced healing and recovery on their own grief journeys.
As we started our manuscript trek, I wanted to understand how different cultures deal with loss. Each society or community has its own sacraments, traditions, and beliefs about what happens to the departed, or what happens to the living. I thought if I wanted to truly help Russ write his story, I needed to understand grief in a new way.
Confucius directed his followers who were grieving to live in austerity for twelve months; unshaven for forty days.Thank God, thank my God, Russ was not asked to do the same; no amount of facial hair could have assuaged his pain and he told me from the very start, personal grooming was a huge challenge in the beginning stages of his grief, when he did not want to put one foot in front of the other.
In the Asian tradition, he might have buried Saralyn in her warmest clothing—her sweats, her thick, wooly socks, her red scarf. Interred in a watertight casket, there would have been no risk her body would be exposed to the elements. The Japanese speak of mourners as “sinking in grief” and Russ has known the desperation of sadness like quicksand.
Had Russ been a Buddhist or Taoist, his grieving might have been stoic, internal; an impossible task for this Caucasian man who wept openly and often, grieving his loss. He might have penned calligraphic poems and left them for Saralyn, alongside incense or sacrifices, creating a shrine to his bride. Instead he wrote her love songs, and sang them to her or the Lord, whispering when grief tightened his vocal cords and made singing painful and impossible.
Hindus allot thirteen days for grief, to sacrifice flowers and fruits and water to gods and gods and gods. No flower, no peach, no plum, no earthen vessel could have been left on an altar to lessen the grief this man endured. Thirteen days of grief would not cut it; he learned only too well there is no timetable, no calendar for sadness or sorrow or healing. He will be the first to tell you his grief was no greater or less than another; but it was intensely personal and intimate and would fit in no predictable box.
Had Russ and Saralyn shared their faith in the Native American tradition, Russ might have buried some token of his love with Saralyn to symbolize the circle of their lives. He could have asked a spiritual leader or Medicine Man to moderate her death service, beseeching his ancestors to join Saralyn in making her transition into the afterlife. As a Native American, he would have embraced the belief her spirit would inhabit the land to which his loved one returned. Instead, Saralyn inhabited the heartland deep inside his soul, and he kept her memory safe and sacred as he mourned.
If Russ and Saralyn shared the Catholic faith, he would have kneeled next to her sacred heart, buried now deep inside his own. He would have sat through mass, participating in the sacraments of anointing and last rites, rosary beads spilling through his long fingers.
Had they both been born into the Jewish tradition, when Saralyn left this earth, Russ might have sat shiva or recited the Kaddish for as many days as it would have taken to learn to let go and leave his grief behind. No music, no flowers, he might have stood silently above her burial box, dropping dry soil atop the plot where she waited for a Jesus she’d never met. But Russ knew Jesus well, and Saralyn had shown him only too fully what a friend we have in Him.
Russ has shown me, through his journey, that our Lord, Jesus Christ, meets us at our point of need, each and every step of the way. While every faith, every religion, has its own rituals of mourning, as Christians we are allowed, for a brief moment, to enter into the suffering of our Lord when we experience our own grief. When we weep, He not only tastes the bitter or sweet of our tears, but He stores each teardrop in a jar. For some of us, that container is a huge earthen vessel. For others, it’s a small vial.
Would that we could go through life with no sorrow, no grief, no tears. Yet what would love be like if such a feat were possible? To lose, to experience great loss, is to understand how deeply we may choose to love. Russ discovered that his powerful love for Saralyn resulted in a profoundly difficult grief passage. As he traversed that path, our Lord allowed him to discover new love, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that He is merciful, good, and worthy to be praised, even as Saralyn left her footprints in the stars. As it turns out, grief is hard-wired into creation. Even a bird will weep, searching over and over for its lost love.
Russ and I met month after month to revise, edit, review, and refine the lessons he received. I interviewed his friends, his family, witnesses to what kind of life he'd lived and was learning to live without Saralyn. There were twists and turns that no one expected. Yet these events showed Russ all he really needed to know. His Lord, Jesus Christ, through the holy Father, would show him the way, when there was no other way.
As we finished the final pages of this manuscript, I understood that something very profound had transpired. Russ wanted to share his journey quickly. He didn’t want to wait to find a conventional publisher. He wanted to put his words in print within days or weeks, not months or years. He wanted you to have what he has: a keen understanding of our faith after it’s been battered and torn.
I want you to buy his book. I know it will change you. It changed me. And I want you to share it with as many others as you can. Not because we want it on the New York Times Bestseller's list. But because we want the insights Russ received to reside in you, the way they have begun to reside in us.
There is a way to heal from grief. There is a way to live that is not only right and good, but amazing. Find out for yourselves.
We are not alone…