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Grief Can Be an Education

I am reading Judith Guest’s monumental classic, “Ordinary People.”  It was written 30 years ago and was made into an Academy Award winning movie directed by Robert Redford.  It remains an extraordinary novel with life lessons still fresh and relevant today.

Here is a journey into deeply wounding grief, into the dark shadows of shattering loss.

The Jarrets are a suburban family of affluence and refinement.  Calvin, or Cal, the father, is a successful tax attorney.  He appears confident and polished but underneath the suits he wears is a broken man coming apart from sadness and crippling self doubts.  He longs for his family and himself to heal from a terrible event but he does not know how to guide the process.  He is stuck in bewildering passivity.  His wife Beth is a sophisticated, attractive woman, neatly put together in color coordinated outfits.  But she is coldly indifferent to her family, more than high maintenance, she is touchy and cheerless and profoundly artificial.  She has denied sorrow its power and has turned defiant against it and her own real feelings.  Conrad is their teenage son who as the book opens is desperately trying to recover his humanity after having attempted suicide eight months earlier.  He is a good kid, a member of the high school swim team and the glee club.  But he is terrified by haunting memories.  He is deeply angry at himself and life and is lost in a depressive fog of immense proportions that covers all the landscape of his young life.

And, there was another son, Jordan, who everyone called Buck.  He was the oldest—handsome, athletic, great student and more outgoing and charming than Conrad.  But they were close, loving brothers.  Buck, though, died in a boating accident where both he and Conrad had misjudged the weather and found themselves in a dangerous storm.  He only appears in brief flashbacks, when he was winning some athletic contest or laughing with his parents or struggling in the choppy waters on that deadly day.

The book explores how death uniquely touches people and how grief is endured by a family caught in a tormenting crisis of emotional conflict.

Most of us know this story.  We have ourselves trudged through some agonizing personal loss of our own, or we have been with others who have had to do this. 

Loss and grief come to us through many circumstances: the death of a child or a spouse or someone we dearly love; a failed marriage or significant relationship and the long emotional journey of recovering our sense of self and worth; a job termination or some career ending event; bankruptcy or brutal financial debt that takes away our assets and our dignity; chronic illness or the onset of a deadly disease and the ending of good health and all of its amazing benefits.  The list goes on and on.

For each of the Jarrets grief is a corrosive influence.  It eats away all the healthy forces in their lives.  It disables them emotionally.  And it separates them from one another; which is so often one of grief’s worst effects.  It isolates us in some inner darkness that seems so impenetrable both from the inside and the outside.  We can’t seem to escape it and others can’t ever seem to fully enter it with us.

Cal deals with his grief by sometimes drinking too much.  Scotch helps him maneuver the treacherous places where grief takes him.  It gives him a certain reliable comfort that softens grief’s sharp intrusions.  Beth doesn’t really handle her grief.  She has stoically ignored it and has decided to move on in life.  Buck is gone and that is that.  Feelings are for the weak.  And Conrad, the most aware and sensitive of all of them, is trying to put grief into some kind of perspective.  He asks the right questions: What the hell does Buck’s death mean?  Why is life so goddamned unfair?  And how does anyone figure any of this out anyway?

There is a scene in the book where Cal is in his office frustrated with his attractive but inept secretary and fiddling with client accounts that might as well be nameless.  He’s not seeing anything even when he looks at them.  He is suddenly aware it is Buck’s birthday and he is engulfed with emotion. 

Cal remembers as a boy being put in The Evangelical Home for the Old and Orphans by his mother.  He never knew his father and his mother was little more than a stranger.  She died when he was 11 years old while in the Home and he was sent to the Director’s office for a sermon on How a Christian Deals with Death.  He remembered nothing about it.  His mother’s death was not a loss anyway.  He barely knew her.  But somehow, thinking of Buck on his birthday, he wished there was a workable way to deal with death and grief.

The narrator in the novel reveals Cal’s thoughts: “So how does a Christian deal with grief?  There is no dealing; he knows that much.  There is simply the stubborn, mindless hanging on until it is over.  Until you are through it.  But something has happened in the process.  The old definitions, the neat, knowing pigeonholes have disappeared.  Or they no longer exist.”

There is a threshing away of meaningless clichés and dull religious commentary that comes with grief.  Ultimately grief can be an education in finding new ways to understand the precious fragility of life and the desperate intimacy of love, or it can leave us spiritually and emotionally depleted and cynical.

But wherever it takes us there is nothing ordinary about any of us who survive grief’s lessons.


 © 2013 Timothy Moody

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