The Shape of Grief

A friend recently reminded me about the poem “The Shape of Grief” by Albert Huffstickler. I know it well. I wrote a sermon five years ago that referenced it, which I’ll include below. There is a natural shape to our grief, but we cannot know it ahead of time. We have to live it and then, maybe, looking back we will finally understand the shape of it.

As a minister I am charged with holding the space for the spiritual well-being of a
congregation or a community. As a minister without a congregation, I am called to hold the space for a community that is formed whenever people gather, whether it is to worship, to mourn or to celebrate. As a hospital chaplain I am called – paged – to a room to hold the space when someone has just received bad news, when a family has to decide whether or not to discontinue life support and when a patient has just died.

I am called to allow the shape of grief or joy or anguish or ecstasy to arise out of the
assembled souls, each with their own experience contributing to the inherent shape present in the room. It is a calling that never ceases to amaze, humble and, quite honestly, to regularly break me wide open with deep gratitude.

Several years ago I was called to hold the space for a grieving community twice in one
week. I was quite literally called – on the phone – by a board member of the congregation I served at the time in Salt Lake City, Utah. I was home in Dallas for the weekend to officiate at my daughter’s best friend’s wedding, home to hold the space for love and hope for families and friends celebrating a young couple publicly declaring their promises to each other. I had come to the weekend in the midst of preparing for a memorial service for one of the members of the Salt Lake City congregation. A long-time member had died of ALS; it was a death that had been anticipated. It was a death that had been prepared for, including a list of the deceased’s last wishes and what could be included in his memorial service.

The second death was unplanned, sudden and tragic. A board member called me while I was out of town to let me know that a member of the congregation had died in a car accident. Knowing that we had one memorial service scheduled already for Tuesday evening, the family hoped we could schedule her service for Saturday morning. When I returned I met with her family – a family defined for that moment as her former partner and the two daughters they raised together – and we created what we thought she might want, knowing that not many people plan to die accidentally when they are only 51 years old.

The definition of family expanded at her memorial service. The definition of community expanded, too. One thing I learned about the shape of grief in Utah is that it is often fractured by the deceased’s religious past. Many members of our congregation in Utah had left the Mormon faith of their childhoods, meaning many had left behind families hurt and confused. For some families, attending the memorial service of an estranged loved one in a church they don’t understand adds to the shape of their grief. The definition of family expanded at her memorial service. It expanded to include her parents and her two sisters, coming in from out of town – coming in to a life their
daughter and sister had made separate from theirs the moment she rejected the dominant faith of the local religious landscape.

The definition of community expanded both in description and number at her memorial service. I will tell you that I didn’t know the deceased at all; she had never attended church in the four short months I had been serving the congregation. She was a member of the congregation’s religious transition group, a group designed for people to be empowered and nurtured as they navigate religious change. I will also tell you that she was one of those members of a congregation that few know well, but nevertheless consider themselves to be part of the religious community.

When the number of attendees went beyond the prediction her former partner and daughters had made to me at our meeting, the pastoral care committee jumped into action producing more copies of the order of service and brewing more coffee for the reception afterwards. I looked out into a standing room only crowd in the sanctuary when I invited people into the circle of love and remembrance, into a time to begin to make sense of this shocking and tragic loss. I looked out into a community formed by grief and united by the common destiny we all share. I sat and listened to stories about a woman who had been the rebellious youngest of three daughters, the proud mother
of two daughters, 22 and 19, and a dedicated volunteer for the Rape Recovery Center. At the reception afterwards I met a former mayor of Salt Lake City, there to honor the deceased for her advocacy and social justice stand for women and gays.

I also met a woman who thanked me for serving coffee. Mormons don’t drink coffee, you know this. It’s part of what we might label as their dogma. This one small, seemingly meaningless, ritual that most Unitarian Universalists take for granted had made an outsider feel welcome, had connected her grief to our religious community. The shape of her grief, fitting in with ours, true to the form of the grief created by the loss of one well-loved.

As the reception was winding down, people were leaving to spend some time with the
family at the home of the former partner and her current partner (family defining and redefining itself). I noticed the oldest daughter was sent to gather the urn with her mother’s ashes that had been placed on the altar for the service. I went with her and we stood for a moment, pausing, knowing this moment should be more than just a casual lifting of an object and putting it in the car in a box filled with leftovers from the reception.

“It will come in waves,” I told her, “the grief.” I told her this based on my own experience. Not having done extensive research on grief, not learning about it in a class in seminary, all I could tell her is how my own grief had been shaped. “It will come in waves,” I said.

Recently I have done a little bit of research on grief and was startled to know that in fact, grief does come in waves. Joan Didion, in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, cites the research as evidence to support her experience of grieving the sudden death of her husband. There is a famous study from 1944, she tells us, by a psychiatrist who interviewed family members of those killed tragically and suddenly. He described the physical reaction to grief very specifically as “sensations of somatic distress occurring in waves lasting from twenty minutes to an hour at a time,
a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing, and an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power, and an intense subjective distress described as tension or mental pain” (p. 28). A well-researched model for grief confirming my own experience. This very clinical description is reassuring, but not very comforting.

Another well-researched model of grief – the Kübler-Ross model – theorizes that we move through a series of stages identified as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The research doesn’t always support the model, but it has become such an accepted part of popular culture that many of us use it as a sort of measurement tool to see how our grief is going. What stage are we in now? How long should we stay in each stage? Are we grieving like we’re supposed to be grieving? Anything can become dogmatic: drinking coffee, how we pray or don’t pray, how we grieve. Models of grief are places to start, but they aren’t the only way to navigate grief. Grief isn’t something we move through as if we have a map. It has its own shape, and according to the
poet “that’s what we’re looking for: not the end of a thing but the shape of it.” (Albert Huffstickler)


Helen Macdonald writes that, “The archeology of grief is not ordered. It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things you had forgotten.” While going through her father’s notebooks after his death, she unexpectedly turns up a key he had sent her. She thinks of his hand writing the note he sent with the key, which sends her to another time and place where her small hand holds her father’s. Macdonald’s grief memoir is also about a sudden death – the unexpected death of her father. In her grieving, Macdonald turns up forgotten connections and wild yearnings. She decides the way to grieve is to retreat from the world and train a goshawk, one of the most difficult hawks to train. This is not a bizarre departure; Macdonald is an experienced falconer. She thinks she knows the best way through her grief. She doesn’t, and by the end of the book she finally understands the shape of it, “I could feel exactly how big it was,” she writes. “It was the strangest feeling, like holding something the size of a mountain in my arms.”

Grief is not just about losing a loved one to death. We experience grief at other times in our lives, of course. Earlier I said I had done a little bit of research on grief recently and really I have been doing a lot of research on grief lately, reading Didion’s book, Macdonald’s book, a book on grief by UU minister Mark Belletini and another book called “Birth, Breath and Death” by a UU chaplain. I have been looking for maps on how to navigate through my own losses and holding the space as people in the hospital navigate through theirs. Any change brings grief. Every change brings grief.

As a minister I am called to hold the space for the spiritual well-being of a congregation or a community. I am also called to hold the space for a community that is formed whenever people gather and when people gather for a memorial service the definition of community expands just as the definition of family expands. When I was called to serve a grieving community twice in one week in Salt Lake City, the congregation made up the core of the community and the outside community came in both times to expand and redefine how we grieved.

As I gathered with the family in my office prior to the service for the man who died of ALS, a member of the pastoral care team whispered in my ear, “they will want a prayer.” “Good to know,” I thought because I don’t often know. Many Unitarian Universalists do not pray, so I often ask. Looking at the make-up of the room: the deceased’s Mormon brother, the UU ex-wife, the exwife’s current husband (religion unknown), the deceased’s Mormon parents and the deceased’s son, an on-again, off-again Unitarian Universalist living between two households, I did what I often do.

I explained that some of us pray and some of us don’t, but that gathering for a moment of centering prayer at a moment like this helped us all to be prepared for the grief that may surprise us in the ritual of the memorial service. Rituals help hold the emotions that are too big for our bodies to contain. Prayer prepares us for feelings the size of a mountain.

The group gathered in my office agreed to pray and as I inhaled to start the prayer, the
Mormon brother began, “Father, God….” In an instant I thought that maybe what the member of the pastoral care team had whispered in my ear was, “the brother will want to lead a prayer.” It wasn’t until later that I learned that Mormons do not believe in women leading prayer.

I am called to hold the space. I am not called to control the space. After the service was over and the reception was winding down, the brother came to me as I stood by the altar pausing with respect before I started to clean up. He told me his brother had always wanted him to light a candle at his church. “Would it be okay if I did that now?” he asked.

It is not the end of grief that we are looking for, but the shape of it. Time does work its
magic. We breathe more freely again, the waves of somatic distress coming less frequently. What caused the grief becomes a fact in a long line of facts that create who we are. Grief turns into love, the pain being true to its form. It is not the end of grief that we are looking for, but the shape of it. All that remains is love. All that ever remains is love.

About Lora Brandis

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister serving the Horizon UU Church in Carrollton, TX. I am also a wife, a mother, a sister, a friend and a deep sea diver. Well, I'm not really a deep sea diver, but a friend once called me that because I like to go deep below surface meanings.
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