When Grief Sucks Us Dry

how to rehydrate creativity

My little church experienced two unexpected deaths in two weeks — fatal heart attacks of otherwise healthy persons. During that same period, a good friend of mine was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died within a month.

I did all the things a pastor does. I visited hospitals and put together funeral services and preached the resurrection. But I surely felt the toll of all that emotion, both my own grief and the grief of others. I felt sad and shriveled up.

I wondered how — and even if — I could replenish my well of creativity. I stumbled across one answer unexpectedly. Months ago I purchased tickets for the whole family to see a musical, “Fun Home.” It was to be an early Mothers Day celebration. Our daughters were excited about the show and that was enough for me. I like to experience a show with a blank slate, so I was glad I didn’t know much about it — only that it was a memoir set to music, and much of it takes place in a Funeral Home.

As life would have it, my friend’s memorial service was set to take place at noon on the Saturday of the show, in downtown DC. The matinee began at 2:00, just a few blocks away. I wondered if it would be better to sell the tickets and book something for another day. I worried that we might all experience emotional whiplash, going from a real funeral to a staged one.

In the end we decided to do both. The show was near the end of its run and rescheduling would be impossible. Besides, my friend who died, the Rev. Dr. Jeff Krehbiel, had been the type to live large. He would smile to know of our plans. So we attended the memorial service all together, at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. The sanctuary is gorgeous and historic and the service was a beautiful testimony to a life well-lived. We listened to every word, shed tears, sang the hymns, greeted a few people (far too few because of our rush), then got ourselves to the theater.

“Fun Home” was extremely well done, with tight dialogue and intertwining stories. I especially loved seeing three versions of the same character on stage — a creative way to capture one person’s childhood and adulthood, through her own eyes as a memoirist. There was simplicity and power in that, and when the three versions of one person sang together, real depth.

In the span of a few hours my family experienced the whole range of pathos and joy that life can dish out. But it wasn’t a simple division — the memorial service being pure pathos and the broadway musical pure joy. Instead, both events were full of laughter and tears. Both events were orchestrated by people with immense creativity. Both events celebrated the lives of people who were fully committed to the power of love — love for family, for community, and in Jeff’s case, for the gospel.

As a sort of coda, the next night my husband and I took advantage of an opportunity to hear a group of a cappella singers perform Aaron Copland’s amazing work “In the Beginning.” The beauty of the piece fed my soul.

The next morning I noticed that I had begun to feel more like myself than I have in a long time.

So let me remember this for next time, and pass it along to you: When life sucks the juice out of you — and it will! — try immersing yourself in someone’s life story. Whether obituary or memoir. Whether a celebrated life or unknown. Whether a story tilting more toward pain or more toward redemption. The long view of any life will restore your hope. Certainly the creative juice that was poured into the telling will serve as marinade to plump the parts of you that feel withered.

Isn’t this why we’re put on the planet in community? To tell each other our stories. To remember the power of love. To hold tightly to the promise of resurrection. To refill each other’s wells.

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I'm a Presbyterian pastor and the author of two spiritual memoirs. RUINED was named a "2017 Book of the Year" by Christianity Today.

I welcome your comments.

2 thoughts on “When Grief Sucks Us Dry

  1. Thank you for this! I feel like I am still grieving too many loses that started when I lost my dad as a nine year old girl and I’m 51 now. Uncles, grandparents, father-in-law, brother, Godmother, miscarriages, many pets and livestock…add to that being the victim of a sexual assault, an abusive relationship with a boss, a failed first marriage and the pain is still shallow at times and at times overwhelming. I suck it up buttercup and keep moving forward mostly for my eight year old daughter and loving husband. And there are times I’d rather crawl back in bed, or in a hole or run far away.

    • Beth, thanks for writing and reaching out. I’m glad my post spoke to you. My heart hurts to know that a sexual assault is part of your past and still affects you. I know that experience and have written about it. I encourage you to find some sort of regular support for yourself. Peace to you today! ~Ruth

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