History: Our How-To Guide to Grief

As humans, we learn to encounter our own grief as a natural part of life. As a pastor, one must also learn to encounter the grief of others as a natural part of the role of caretaker and shepherd. Recently, after officiating a funeral, talking to someone else about their grief, and preparing to attend another funeral within a short period, I was quietly reminded of the timeless nature of our struggle with loss. I am regularly struck by our incapacity to fully immunize ourselves against grief’s contagious efforts to redesign our own life experiences. Many of us know how faith has shaped our own responses in this area, but I believe we are missing out on history as another great teacher if we fail to savor the sorrow together with those who have gone (long) before us.

In a recent article entitled “‘Ala grant temps de douleur languissant’:[1]Grief and Mourning in Girart d’Amiens’ Istoire le roy Charlemaine,”[2]Dr. Daisy Delogu (Professor of French Literature, University of Chicago) opens with a haunting quote from Judith Butler’s Precarious Life: “I think I have lost “you” only to discover that “I” have gone missing as well.” In the subsequent pages we are taken on a literary journey behind the words of the early fourteenth century author as their encounter with loss redefines their personal identity. The original work is unique because rather than a sterile account of the death of a monarch as many other histories provide, Girart d’Amiens shares the emotional response to the loss of such a revered political and religious pillar. Delogu argues that the grief exposed in the Istoire “shapes its public” by forming a bridge between the venerated figure of the past (Charlemagne) and the present-day community connecting both to the contemporary Charles of Valois. In this way, the expressions of grief speak universally, and somehow encourage an unspoken unity all while reminding the reader of tragedy. The grief changes not only the characters in the story but the author and the society that consumes their work.

Moreover, the theme of the work is not simply the sadness of an empire who has lost its leader. The emotional connection of the writing runs far deeper by instead walking through life alongside the Holy Roman Emperor on his more human days and learning from his example. One instance in particular recounts the loss of the queen in childbirth. While Charlemagne’s political power was finally consolidating, and a time of peace was on the horizon, this devastation nearly drives him mad. To a public who also lived these same losses in a medieval world who would come to know death intimately during the ensuing years of plague, the distant, historical leader could become a father to whom children looked to for permission to weep.

In our own lives, we need these examples to go before us into the unknown of loss. Too often historical writing is flat and so devoid of emotion that the characters are hardly human. We should instead be reminded of better examples such as the weeping of Jesus at the loss of his friend Lazarus in John chapter eleven. We should solace in the comfort afforded to the Corinthian church by the promise of a coming resurrection: “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’”[3]Through the words of those gone before us who shout back over their shoulder from the other side of the valley of death we can face a stormy horizon with the comfort of familiarity.

In 1573, Anabaptist Janneken Munstdorp composed a letter to her infant daughter while her own execution was delayed due to her pregnancy. Her husband already dead, and with faithful confidence and raw emotion she writes:

Since I am now delivered up to death and must leave you here alone, I must through these lines cause you to remember, that when you have attained your understanding, you endeavor to fear God and see and examine why and for whose name we both died; and be not ashamed to confess us before the world, for you must know that it is not for the sake of any evil. Hence be not ashamed of us; it is the way which the prophets and the apostles went, and the narrow way which leads into eternal life, for there shall no other way be found by which to be saved.[4]

The human experience is one of loss but let us not forget those who have gone before us to lay their own pavers into the road of grief that we all must travel. Take their hand and lean on their tired shoulders for a few miles.

[1]“The Time of Languishing Pain.”

[2]Speculum, vol. 93, no. 1 (January 2018), 1-26.

[3]1 Corinthians 15:54, ESV.

[4]Denis R. Janz, ed., A Reformation Reader (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 231.

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