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Anatomy of Grief

When a loved one dies suddenly, unjustly, it's tempting to blame God. But scorning the great comforter provides less relief than imagined.

I didn’t exactly know how to open a pomegranate. There was no obvious point of departure, no navel or stem or handle to start working on. So I just dug my fingernails in, scraping off the fleshy shell as best I could, until the purple juice started to spurt out. A sharp twist and the whole thing opened. It was a lovely sight: snugly fit seeds, shiny and smooth, the color of my mom’s engagement ruby. They popped out with a satisfying little noise and popped again between my teeth, kind of the way caviar does.

Settled into my broken seat on the train, I popped out and popped in all those little pomegranate seeds, one by one, till I was left with the empty shell of the fruit of the underworld, the fruit that snared Persephone into being Hades’ bride for all eternity.

It makes more symbolic sense to me now than it did then. At the time all I knew was that my senses were at a feverish level of sensitivity, and the fruit stand in Victoria Station was selling these pomegranates, a delicacy I hadn’t tasted in about a decade, and it all seemed suitably picturesque for my otherwise straightforwardly modern pilgrimage to Canterbury. The trendy shops; the long escalator; the walls of posted schedules; the blue train and the whistles and the broken seat and my fingers turning purple: it’s all still ridiculously vivid, as if there were a TV running in my head whenever the memory strikes. It all makes sense now. Pomegranates, death, and my grandma.

I’m always at a loss to describe my grandma and what made her so important, other than the fact that she happened to be my grandma and did all sorts of grandma-like things with me. When I was little she took me trick-or-treating and when I was big she took me to bingo. She made great soup and let me curl her hair sometimes. She chided me for my bad penmanship and spent weeks every summer making jelly from wild blackberries in a blazing hot kitchen. She memorized the whole Catechism in a language she didn’t understand and taught me how to make doughnuts. She had more grandchildren than any of her siblings and couldn’t carry a tune. She grew up in Illinois, married an Easterner, became a pastor’s wife, raised five boys, and used to tell me stories about it.

She was just a plain old ordinary grandma, and was extraordinarily good at it.

What drove me into that weekend flight from the exchange program in Grantham down to Canterbury, all by myself, on a train, with a pomegranate, wasn’t just my grandma and her death put together. It was how they happened to be put together — how it was possible that an ordinary grandma who lived by faith and showed it in her works could die in a way that defied cosmic justice any way I looked at it.

Cancer would’ve given us some time to get used to the idea; a car accident would’ve been sudden but at least just an accident; a fatal heart attack at home would have been more merciful. (Astounding to note my own callousness towards these means of death now.) Three and a half years after the fact, though, the words “wrongful death” still leave the bitter taste of injustice in my mouth.

The story has been told so many times in our family that by now it’s like reciting a fairy tale. Once upon a time, my sweet kind grandma was told by the doctor that she’d have to have that artery worked on, but when they called her in early for surgery they didn’t bother to examine her heart to see if it could handle the stress of an operation, and then the surgery didn’t work, so to treat it the doctor put a catheter in one of her veins, but it punctured right through, and when some of the nurses realized that she needed blood it took them a day and a half to get the doctors to respond since it was a weekend and they were all away, but by the time they did respond it was too late and her heart had had an attack from lack of blood, and even though they revived her she kept on bleeding internally for the next 25 days and nobody knew it (or would admit to it), and this mistake led to many many more until finally after being drained of life for three weeks she decided to let go and meet her Lord and leave behind a family who couldn’t make any sense of what had happened.

It was easier for me than for anyone else on the funeral day. The three weeks from the onset of her untimely illness to two days before her death were all I could take out of my school program in England. So I said my final goodbyes to my grandma before she actually left this world, and I took myself back to the not-so-cozy isolation of a manor house in the Midlands. My parents and brother were stuck together in Slovakia, forced to return home after having a three-week hiatus like I did, left to look at one another blankly and forget to talk and just cry instead. And everyone else was there at the funeral, my uncle Mark giving the eulogy because he was next oldest after my dad, and tons of people from every part of my grandma’s life there to muster some belief in the face of the unbelievable.

But me, I was in Cambridge — a week before the trip to Canterbury — appreciating the fine architecture and youthful vigor of punters on the Cam and nice British bookstores and order and decorum. The day before I was in Oxford. Then London, then Canterbury, then anywhere else I could go that wasn’t my little room with the moldy walls and the dingy skylight and my unquietable brain.

Why is faith in God the first thing to go when someone dies? As if we weren’t anticipating it, as if we didn’t know perfectly well that we will die and everyone we love will die and people have died in worse ways and at worse times. My life was happy and normal and sensible, though, and this didn’t fit in. It wasn’t part of the life I knew to be mine and therefore couldn’t be of God and if not of God then — what? who?

I would sit on the bed with a boxful of tissues and iPod blaring as loudly as I could stand it, and blow my nose, and throw the tissues across the room, and wonder if I could make myself go crazy. If life was just one big non-sequitur, what was the advantage of being sane? How easy, I glimpsed for one deliciously horrifying moment, to relinquish all claims to sanity and jump into the pit of madness. A little bit of concentration was all it would take. I would find myself sitting in the dining hall, watching tears fall on my greasy fish and chips, and thinking that I could, very easily, shed all social inhibitions, stand up on that chair, and start bellowing at the top of my lungs. And who would know how to respond? We don’t have any built-in social mechanisms for dealing with the suddenly crazy, the ones who go mad with grief. Usually, I guess, they throw themselves off cliffs or lose themselves in the moors. I’d stay around instead and find some way to hurl myself into oblivion right there in the open — as wide open as the door to the hospital that wheeled in a living grandma and rolled out a dead one — and wait to see what anybody wanted to do about it.

The fact is that nobody wanted to do anything about it because nobody had any idea what to do. There’s no answer to cosmic injustice but to scream at the stars, and I was doing that just fine on my own. Some people I didn’t know very well offered hugs and platitudes. Someone bought me a present. My closer friends booked out — my best friend stopped speaking to me altogether for awhile — and the others just looked at me strangely, all of them already having lost grandparents, wondering why I was taking it so hard when she was old and bound to die soon anyway.

I didn’t really care. I didn’t want to talk to them anyway. They were going to die too and until then they’d feed me more of the intolerable platitudes since they were still operating under the delusion that there was some scheme and sense to life, so why bother? Better me alone with my grief and impending madness and the great big gap where God used to be.

Madness too seemed to be the curse upon the house where my grandma had spent the last years of her life as we watched her die, packed as it was with madly grieving grandfather, four uncles and a dad, four aunts and a mom, eight cousins and a brother and me and some animals here and there. The days were a monotonous blur of driving an hour to the hospital and driving an hour back, washing dishes, and arguing so that anger could displace sadness, if just for a few minutes.

The whole world order was inverted. The grandchildren — all younger than me, most much younger — somehow knew to clear out and play quietly and not cause trouble. Only one of my cousins, at the age of fourteen, was old enough to have an inkling of what was going on. She was the only one who had begun to see, as I had seen for a long time already, that our grandma was a person and not just a grandma. The rest were cheated of knowing that. The world was inverted as I watched my uncles, heads of their own families and meaningfully employed and usually out hunting on these November days, doubled up with their unfamiliar tears.

One time it was an uncle who started to cry and not me, and I hugged him; me, the niece, giving comfort to the uncle, and once he regained himself the strangeness of it all took over and made us see all the more how badly awry things had gone. And that is to say nothing of walking myself into the hospital room every day, patting grandma’s messy hair and cringing at her discolored skin, whispering to her all the things that it never occurred to me to say before when it didn’t have to be that way.

I have one good memory of that time. Once, through her morphine haze, I made her smile. My dad saw it too. It kept us going for many days more.

But that was still when we were hoping for life. After her death, things started to shut down inside me. To compensate for the loss of rational mental function in my brain, my senses became intensely sharpened, as in the case of the pomegranate on the way to Canterbury. I remember the dull ham sandwich in the dull cafe, the mushy peas in the diner, the cobblestones along the path that countless other pilgrims had traveled while telling each other tales. I remember wrapping my way around the cathedral as the November evening settled, pretending to myself that I was in the throes of religious rapture even though I wasn’t entirely sure there was even a God out there, reciting to myself all the terms of my medieval art class, “Ah yes, the triforium, hmm, a blind gallery, and what fine capitals and buttresses those are.”

The inside of Canterbury Cathedral is more like liquid than stone. It’s a work of calculus instead of algebra, nothing but curves twisting and disappearing from sight, drawing me on from my hesitation in the narthex through the ascending nave — mmm, little boys singing plainsong; shouldn’t I be inspired? — and up to the top where a single candle burns for Thomas Becket, a martyr to injustice far more serious than plain old medical errors. I was moved, annoyed, and shamed all at once.

The sarcophagus really got to me. The top was a tidy and artful depiction of the deceased sleeping peacefully, but beneath was another rendition of the real deceased, a withered skeleton with a hollow skull for a face and protruding ribs. That’s what grandma looks like now, or will soon, and the tears started to rise again. And it was right here in the church: Whoever it was that made it or commissioned it wasn’t afraid to stare at ugly death every day at prayer.

How the healing happened I don’t really know. The passage of time helped. I still get a faint twinge of disbelief every time I go up to my grandparents’ house and find only one grandparent there, but now the pain is mostly for my grandpa’s loneliness and deteriorating health without his wife. That first Christmas was miserable: Hard to celebrate birth when all you can think of is death. Back at college I didn’t sleep for the first week of classes, got sick five times in the course of the semester, carried on a short painful romance, acted in a play at a part I didn’t like, and waited for distraction after distraction to come along.

The very fact that life continued after such a cataclysm insulted me deeply, so for awhile I dug in my heels and refused to let myself move forward, as if that were the only way of acknowledging the severity of the situation. It seemed to me that if the universe really cared, it ought to grind to a halt until the injustice had been set right. But no such concession was ever made to my wounded little heart.

By some strange coincidence (or perhaps by no coincidence at all), my roommate’s grandpa had died on the exact same day as my grandma did, so she and I helped each other along. That was maybe the first piece of sense to come back into my life. And gradually more pieces did, and some 10 months later when my senior year of college started I was familiar with my life again and familiar with my God again.

When I demanded justice, God answered me with the same question he had asked Job, Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? It was an answer, though cold comfort. For comfort I was directed towards the cross, a cross which suggested that maybe the rest of my life had been the non-sequitur, and that the faith my grandma showed towards her unjust death was the real proof of sense and sanity in a crazy world.

It wouldn’t have done any good to tell me so then, but now I notice that there is something selfish about grief. The loss was real, and the injustice evil, and both were well worth my tears. But how much of it, I wonder now, was fury that my life had lost the sense that I wanted it to have (my sense, not God’s sense), or sorrow for myself that I didn’t have the pleasure of my grandma’s company anymore, or fear over my own eventual death. It was a bad way to be humbled before God.

I wish I had been more honestly grieving instead of selfishly humbling. But there it is. I am provoked to re-place my hope in the right thing every time I stop by to visit where my grandma lies now, waiting for the day of resurrection, where her confirmation verse is etched for passersby to see: Be faithful unto death, and I will give you a crown of life.

Copyright 2000 Sarah E. Hinlicky. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Sarah E. Hinlicky

Sarah E. Hinlicky was born in St. Louis, but has spent most of her life in New York, New Jersey and North Carolina. She graduated from Lenoir-Rhyne College with a B.A. and departmental honors in Theology and Philosophy in 1998. When she wrote for Boundless, she was a research assistant at the Institute on Religion and Public Life, which publishes the monthly journal First Things.

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