Grief, Kintsugi and The Art of Precious Scars

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I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but I live in a city without a lot of historical context. When buildings get old, we tear them down and put up a Starbucks. But when we lived in Louisville, there were buildings that had been there for a hundred years and people could tell you the story. Part of that is that I live in one of the youngest states in the Union, but part of it is cultural. Some cultures preserve history better. Tradition.

Some cultures hold on to things better than others.

I won’t talk about grief all of the time. But, as a Hospice Chaplain, it is something I deal with every day. Grief can begin long before a loved one’s death and last long after. It is the price we pay for love. It shows that our hearts are alive, despite our mind’s assertions otherwise.

Grief is something we will all experience and yet we will not all grieve the same. This includes how we finally come to grips with our grief and how we view ourselves in relation to grief. Some people try to “just get over it” and try to just get back to life without really allowing themselves to pass through grief. For some people, grief is viewed as just that time of crying when someone died, and now I’m back to life. But for others, it is the result of love and it is evidence of the hole that is now left right in the middle of our lives. It is something that shapes us.

The question becomes whether we identify grief as part of our beautiful story or whether we try to hide it.

In some cultures, we try to hide our scars. Makeup. Clothing. Plastic surgery.

We try to hide our brokenness.

Some people are more comfortable with brokenness than others. Some of us want to sweep it under the rug and keep on pretending that no one trips over the big pile under the middle of the rug.

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer mixed or dusted with gold. Sometimes known as “gold joinery,” “golden seams,” or “gold repair,” this is more than just repair. This method brings new life to pieces by highlighting their brokenness. My Modern says:

Beautiful seams of gold glint in the cracks of ceramic ware, giving a unique appearance to the piece. This repair method celebrates each artifact's unique history by emphasizing its fractures and breaks instead of hiding or disguising them. Kintsugi often makes the repaired piece even more beautiful than the original, revitalizing it with new life.

The practice itself arises from several different Japanese philosophical concepts: 

Wabi-Sabi: seeing beauty in the flawed or imperfect. 

Mottainai: regret when something is wasted

Mushin: the acceptance of change 

and

“As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise . . . Not only is there no attempt to hide the damage, but the repair is literally illuminated” (Wikipedia)

What if we treated grief as something not just to “get through” or to bury but understood it as part of life and as part of our beautiful stories? What if we all believed that our stories were beautiful? Kintsugi helps us see how brokenness can be beautiful. But what if we believed it about ourselves?

None of this makes grief easier or diminishes its weight. But I hope it helps give us the perspective that it is part of what makes each one of us so unique. No piece of Kintsugi are the same. No two people are the same. And it is our grief that helps shape us.

  • Read my piece “What Is Grief? And How Can I Learn To Be Thankful For It?”

  • Read my piece “Grief: What to Expect (the unexpected).”

Grief: What to Expect (the unexpected).

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One of the beautifully mysterious, confounding, and yet comforting things about life is that everyone is different. And yet, how often we forget this. We marvel at snowflakes and ignore other people as though they weren’t walking miracles themselves. We inspect and catalog plant species, marveling at their differences while flattening out humanity into cardboard caricatures.

Though “Grief is the natural response to loss or change” and “the price we pay for love,” and everyone grieves, not everyone grieves the same. And grief is more than a simple emotional response to loss. It is a physiological reaction that may differ from person to person. Some people may want to sleep all the time while others won’t be able to sleep. Some will lose their appetites while others will find comfort in food. Some people will need silence and time alone to process while others will find it more helpful to be in crowds and around people. Some people will have guilt or anger while others have only sorrow. None of these is “right” or “wrong,” they are just the different ways people move through grief.

We need to stop trying to prescribe how everyone will do everything. For a religion that claims to be for people who don’t have it all together, Christians often try to pretend that we have it all together. And that we can tell everyone else how to do things. We hold financial seminars telling people how to deal with their money, we have conferences about parenting and marriage. But the truth of the matter is that cultural statistics, bankruptcies, divorces, etc. are not all that different for those who claim to be Christian and those who do not. I’m not saying God’s Word does not have helpful things to say about all of these topics, including grieving, but I am saying that we need to stop telling people how long or how they should grieve.

One of the questions I am most often asked is: How long will my grief last?

I don’t know. How long did you love that person? You will never forget them, so in a sense, grief never ends. I know most people don’t want to hear that; that grief never ends. But it does change. It will not always feel like we’re gasping for air in the belly of the best. But grieving is the process of admitting and accepting our loss and finding the “new normal.” Things go on. Even without the ones we love. There are still bills to pay, mouths to feed, yards, to mow, dishes to do. Only now, we must face them alone.

If grief truly is the price we pay for love, then grief is also the process of discovering life after loss. There will be tears, there will be sorrow, there will be loneliness, anger but there is also the simple process of being changed by our loss. Grief is the redefinition of who we are in relation to what we’ve lost.

If I’m saying anything at all (and believe me, there is much more that I want to say beyond this post), it’s that I would love to see the Church make more space for lament. I would love to see Christians move beyond prescribed 1,2,3 step programs for everything and I would love to see Christians move beyond trite-isms and embrace the grieving process as an essential part of life.

As with yesterday’s post, I very much would like discussion. What has your experience with grief been? How has it shaped you? What was helpful? What was not? What would you like others to know?



What Is Grief? And How Can I Learn To Be Thankful For It?

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It has been said that the only sure things in life are death and taxes.

I think we should add grief to that list.

Live long enough and you will experience grief.

And yet, even though we will all experience grief, it is one of those things that no one likes to talk about, much less consider. As such, there is not always a consensus about what grief actually is. It’s troublesome that we don’t talk more openly about something we all face and it’s even more troublesome that many of us are unable to define such a common experience. One of the first things I do is just try to write out a couple of different perspectives. When I began counseling people through grief as a Hospice Chaplain, one of the first things I did was piece together some basic definitions and try to distill them down to as few words as possible:

Deep sorrow, sadness and a mix of other emotions, especially caused by someone’s death.

Grief is the conflicting feelings, possibly including relief resultant guilt, caused by the end of or change in something familiar.

Grief is the normal/natural emotional reaction to loss or change of any kind.

Grief is the natural response to loss or change.

Grief is the natural response to loss or change. This seems like a pretty fair and straightforward definition which also accounts for the fact that grief will not look the same for everyone.

I don’t know how you begin to think about such topics, but once I narrow down a definition into my own fewest words as possible, I like to look at other people’s words. I like to look at quotes. They’re like different sides of a prism. Since everyone is different and, no one grieves the same (though there will be similarities), understanding how other people process grief can help us process grief ourselves.

“Grief is never something you get over. You don't wake up one morning and say, 'I've conquered that; now I'm moving on.' It's something that walks beside you every day. And if you can learn how to manage it and honour the person that you miss, you can take something that is incredibly sad and have some form of positivity.” (Terry Irwin)

“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” (Anne Lamott)

“the way I think about grief is that it is the great tug-of-war, and sometimes the flag is on the side you don’t want it to be on. And sometimes the game has exhausted all of its joy, and all that’s left is you on your knees. But, today, even though I am sad, my hands are still on the rope.” (Hanif Abdurraqib)

“Every one can master a grief but he that has it.” - (William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing)

“Grief is in two parts. The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.” (Anne Roiphe)

“Grief is the price we pay for love.” (Queen Elizabeth II)

Every once in a while, you come across a quote that just stops you in your tracks. Grief is the price we pay for love.

Everyone wants love but no one wants to grieve. Grief is the price we pay for love. No one wants to think of love as a trade-off; and it’s not really, not in the strictest sense. But grief reminds us that we care. Grief reminds us that our feelings are alive and that, we are still in touch with life; with relationships; with thankfulness. Grief is proof that we are human.

Grief is the result of losing something that was important to us; a job, a spouse, a position in life, a loved one; whatever it is. Grief is the act of trying to adjust to the “new normal” after a loss. Grief is the process of moving on with life when we don’t want to.

It does not mean forgetting what we’ve lost.

It is far too common to hear people say things like: “You’ve just got to move on.” This is not helpful or true and I may explore why in future posts, but for now, let me just say that grief is one of those things that must not simply be faced but embraced in order to move forward. It must be passed through.

Of course it changes us, and that’s part of the point.

I hope to write more about the idea of grief and the process of recovery, but for now, I’d love your thoughts. Have you experienced grief? How would you define grief? How did you move through it (or did you?)? Did it change you? What did you learn?