Tag Archives: grief

A grief observed… online

Rachel Held Evans was something of an internet phenomenon; a voice of a generation of Christians, especially women, who felt sidelined and marginalised by an institutional church and a form of Christianity many have struggled to reconcile with the Jesus we meet in the Gospels. She took twists and turns that made many (including me) uncomfortable, but her desire (whether you think she got there or not) to take Christianity back towards the heart and example of Jesus was undeniable, so too, her impact on the broader church, especially women and other people the status quo of how the church operates (especially in America). I’m reminded, in moments like these, that it is by grace, through faith in Jesus, that people are part of God’s kingdom, not (mercifully for me, and others) by ticking the correct doctrinal boxes. One just has to glance at the hashtag #BecauseofRHE to see this. She’s an interesting and powerful testimony to the way the internet destabilises the status quo in the church in a similar way to the printing press, giving a voice, and power, to those our structures might exclude.

Rachel Held Evans went to hospital for an apparently routine matter, and complications in the procedures, or with the medication, left her in a pretty dire, ultimately fatal, set of circumstances. The story about her health broke on twitter when an acquaintance published a private Facebook post, without permission, which led to a Twitter wide prayer vigil, and an incredible outpouring of support. The internet collapsed our creaturely separation from these events. Medical procedures happening a world away, to one individual, were suddenly occupying the attention of people around the globe; me included. I refreshed the page updating her condition daily; praying as I did. A new ‘daily office’ of sorts that compartmentalised a small part of my attention; and thus my embodied life, placing it in a virtual hospital waiting room a world away. It did this for many people. One life, a life I have no creaturely, physical connection to, a person I do not know, occupying attention that is limited, and probably has prior claims put on it by those in my more immediate, embodied, orbit.

And then Rachel died. Those updates and the outpouring of prayer and support changed, and there’s now an outpouring of genuine grief; the vast majority of this grief is being expressed by people who had no physical connection to Rachel Held Evans, but rather a spiritual connection. A sense of a connection to her built by her writing, in her questions, in her activism — in what she represents in terms of a challenging of status quos — she represents so many others, especially women who are often deplatformed by the evangelical status quo (and so turn to the Internet for a sense of community and a space to talk, and question, and be recognised). For good or for ill, for most of us grieving, we are grieving the loss of a persona as much as a person, because for many of us, our access to Rachel was always mediated by pixels and in words. All interactions with all people are mediated and the idea of getting an intimate knowledge of who a person truly is requires not simply embodiment, but vulnerability; Rachel’s writing and her approach to the internet in general, has been celebrated as being exemplary human, and vulnerable. Her impact on the church is real, even if virtual. Her loss is being felt by many — even those who had sharp theological disagreements with her online. The questions she confronted us with are not just questions of the content of our beliefs — where I was as likely to disagree with things she said as I was to agree — but with questions about our forms and practices, both in the physical church community, and the virtual space we now occupy.

What’s clear is that while many people are grieving the loss of Rachel Held Evan’s presence, mediated online, there’s a family — especially a husband and two very young children — and friends, for whom this loss, this grief, is more palpable; more tangible; the hole left by this tragedy will not be filled by hashtags or pixelated stories.

Grief is a strange thing to observe; and the internet makes it stranger. In the outpouring of grief around the death of one loved persona we’re seeing the best of the Internet, but also the weirdness of our increasingly disembodied, ‘excarnated’ age — where a local community of believers has, in many cases, for many people outside the norms, been a disappointment, such that comfort, community, and the sense of being known and loved has led many online, and many to voices like Rachel’s. It would be a tragedy for us, as the church, not to learn something from the expressions of grief from around the world, especially from women, and those our communities marginalise (including those seeking to reconcile their faith in Jesus with their sexuality), and to ask questions about where we might have failed locally; where there might be other women like Rachel, or who felt championed by her, in our midst; and where we might need ongoing reform of our church practices — our forms — to align them with our content.

As I’ve spent my emotional energy watching the reaction to this tragedy roll out around the Internet, reading far too many awful, negative, ‘gotcha,’ pieces alongside the genuine expressions of lament, and loss, and connection to Rachel Held Evan’s and what she meant to real people, I’ve felt a little like an outsider; not to the expressions of grief, but to its embodied reality. I’ve felt like one affected by the loss of a persona rather than a person. I’ve been detached enough to start asking questions about the nature of grief, of personhood, of spiritual community, and of the Internet, I’ve not been able to escape the title of C.S Lewis’ writings about grief: A Grief Observed, and wondering if Lewis has much to say about how the Internet and this grief might be doing strange things to our personhood. I’m not without empathy; the thought of Rachel’s husband Dan having to publicly mediate his wife’s last few weeks to a legion of fans, while working through the medical process, and his personal grief, and now the thought of him raising two children who may forget their mother hits me pretty hard; harder than the loss of Rachel Held Evan’s voice — which will live on not just in the mediated pixels of the internet, but in the way her thoughts and experience were ‘incarnated’ into her books. But I also feel like a stranger who has walked in to the back of a church during a funeral service, or who has wandered into a wake and been handed a drink and caught up in what is quite a human experience that properly requires a body and some deep connection to a physical person who is now gone.

In A Grief Observed, Lewis, writing about his wife, H, reflects on how quickly in the absence of her embodied presence, he is left grieving — and recreating in his mind — an image of his wife; a persona, rather than the real person. And how much the reality of a person’s presence overwhelms the versions of them we create in our imagination.

“I am thinking about her nearly always. Thinking of the H. facts—real words, looks, laughs, and actions of hers. But it is my own mind that selects and groups them. Already, less than a month after her death, I can feel the slow, insidious beginning of a process that will make the H. I think of into a more and more imaginary woman. Founded on fact, no doubt. I shall put in nothing fictitious (or I hope I shan’t). But won’t the composition inevitably become more and more my own? The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real H. so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me.”

How much more will this phenomenon be exaggerated by the Internet? How much more will our re-creation or re-imagination of a lost person be accelerated so that they become a sort of avatar if we’ve not been physically connected to a person? These questions aren’t to deny the attachment to Rachel Held Evans, or the reality of the grief, or the deep reality of a spiritual connection shared across time and space by those who have the Spirit of God dwelling in them — but to ask questions about how healthy, or human, such attachments are, and to ponder if this virtual reformation prompted by pioneers like Evans would best happen locally, with those our systems marginalise but who are still in our midst?

Lewis ponders this some more in the same chapter:

“Today I had to meet a man I haven’t seen for ten years. And all that time I had thought I was remembering him well—how he looked and spoke and the sort of things he said. The first five minutes of the real man shattered the image completely. Not that he had changed. On the contrary. I kept on thinking, ‘Yes, of course, of course. I’d forgotten that he thought that—or disliked this, or knew so-and-so—or jerked his head back that way.’ I had known all these things once and I recognized them the moment I met them again. But they had all faded out of my mental picture of him, and when they were all replaced by his actual presence the total effect was quite astonishingly different from the image I had carried about with me for those ten years. How can I hope that this will not happen to my memory of H? That it is not happening already? Slowly, quietly, like snow-flakes—like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night—little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end. Ten minutes—ten seconds—of the real H. would correct all this. And yet, even if those ten seconds were allowed me, one second later the little flakes would begin to fall again. The rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness is gone.”

Love, in some sense, is, and must be, bodily, not simply imagined or excarnate. When the Apostle Paul speaks about love in that most famous of passages, 1 Corinthians 13, he describes not just the physical, expressed, characteristics of love from one person to another; but paints a vision of love as being completely known, not simply imagined by another, not simply a reflection or a persona, but known. This is a picture that describes a future — the renewing of all things, the hope of the new creation.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” — 1 Corinthians 13:12

Until that time all our knowing of an other, all our loving, is mediated — we encounter personas who are on the journey of becoming persons to us; the hope of those of us who believe in the resurrection is that, in the course of eternity, those we know now only virtually will be made real to us, and we to them. There’s certainly a longing for this to be true being expressed by those grieving the death of Rachel Held Evans this week; but also in all our grief.

But I wonder how healthy it is for us, as humans, to pour so much attention and affection — so much love — into pixelated personas; into people across the world where our hope for deeper connection is to be eternally, rather than temporally, realised? I wonder if the accounts I’ve read — and my own experience — feeling gut punched by this tragedy a world away might be time, emotion, and attention better spent locally, in my own (or your own) embodied, incarnate, existence.

As well as talking wisely about grief, C.S Lewis talked about how the invention of the car and the proliferation of international news via the newspaper, had a profound destablilising affect on our human experience — and not always for the better. In Surprised By Joy he wrote about how new technology — the car — led to the ‘annihilation of space’ — a breaking down of our embodied creatureliness and natural barriers; how much more is this true of the Internet? And how much should we be concerned by how that might disintegrate our attention and thus our affections and our relationships, so that we find our ‘deepest’ sense of being known with people we are not meeting face to face. Lewis said, of the car:

“I number it among my blessings that my father had no car, while yet most of my friends had, and sometimes took me for a drive. This meant that all these distant objects could be visited just enough to clothe them with memories and not impossible desires, while yet they remained ordinarily as inaccessible as the Moon. The deadly power of rushing about wherever I pleased had not been given me. I measured distances by the standard of man, man walking on his two feet, not by the standard of the internal combustion engine. I had not been allowed to deflower the very idea of distance; in return I possessed ‘infinite riches’ in what would have been to motorists ‘a little room’. The truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it ‘annihilates space’. It does. It annihilates one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventure than his grandfather got from travelling ten. Of course if a man hates space and wants it to be annihilated, that is another matter. Why not creep into his coffin at once? There is little enough space there.”

Distance is an essential part of being human; but also of our ethic — of our ability to love well. In a letter to a friend, Bede Griffiths, Lewis talks about the affect of the newspaper — the way news and views from across the globe suddenly, and more immediately, occupy our attention, first because of the connectivity brought about by the telephone, and telegraph — connecting newsrooms around the globe, but now on steroids via the Internet, the 24 hour news cycle, and the citizen journalism of the Internet. Is it healthy or helpful for me to obsessively refresh health updates about a woman across the globe when surrounded by the sick and dying in my city? Or to give attention to Rachel Held Evan’s family not just at the expense of my own, but at the expense of families in my community? These are, perhaps, questions that in our increasingly excarnate age, fuelled by the “annihilation of space,” that we need to keep asking ourselves lest we be lost; disintegrated, broken up into pixels that fly around the world, mediated by glass screens. Lewis said:

“It is one of the evils of rapid diffusion of news that the sorrows of all the world come to us every morning. I think each village was meant to feel pity for its own sick and poor whom it can help and I doubt if it is the duty of any private person to fix his mind on ills which he cannot help. (This may even become an escape from the works of charity we really can do to those we know). A great many people (not you) do now seem to think that the mere state of being worried is in itself meritorious. I don’t think it is. We must, if it so happens, give our lives for others: but even while we’re doing it, I think we’re meant to enjoy Our Lord and, in Him, our friends, our food, our sleep, our jokes, and the birds song and the frosty sunrise. As about the distant, so about the future. It is very dark: but there’s usually light enough for the next step or so. Pray for me always.”

Sound advice in an age not just of outrage, but where the suffering of others we have no embodied connection with is beamed into not just our lounge room, or our study, but our pockets. As the philosopher Iris Murdoch suggests, virtue lies in deciding what to give attention to; and then in how we act; the internet makes the stakes different in this, it brings us closer to those who are far away, but at risk of making us further away from those who are near. The question ‘who is my neighbour’ has always been a vexxing one when it comes to suffering around the globe, and to not ‘annihilate space’ but live a hyper-local life seems to be just as problematic in reinforcing our blindness, but I wonder if the right use of the Internet rests in something like C.S Lewis’ affirmation of the goodness of the car; a chance to journey to far off places, but not forget where home is, a chance to, in our travels to meet ideas and people “clothe them with memories and not impossible desires,” to recognise the power of these ‘memories’ or ‘ideas’ to unite us and make us feel recognised and so not to minimise them, but also to remember that a persona is something slightly different to a person to us and more of a person to those in their proximity, for whom they are embodied.

Marking our time, euthanasia, and a eulogy for my gran

This week I inherited a grandfather clock.

I inherited it from my deeply and dearly loved grandmother who died last Friday. It’s now proudly displayed on our lounge room wall, where it marks my own mortality. Every ticking and tocking swing of the pendulum, every cheerful 15 minute chime, marking both the passing of time and the countdown to that day when my body will also draw breath for the last time.

My gran, Cynthia Campbell, was 92; she’d lived a full life which included travelling the world as an adventurous and independent nurse before finding love in perhaps the unlikeliest of places; regional New South Wales with a man, my pa, whose sense of place meant he wanted to put down roots and put them down deep. Pa and Gran, as we called them, had two kids — my dad, and my aunty — and they built a home that served as a base for hospitality but also got as close to self-sufficient as a house in town can get. Their veggie patch was a marvel; pa’s toolshed well stocked; and the house marked by his little innovative ‘fixes’ to little problems that arose through the wear and tear of long life in the one place. All of this marked by the ticking and chiming of this clock.

Inanimate objects don’t really ‘witness’ anything; though we might wish they did, so the clock’s connection to the life of this house is mostly in the imagination. It’s timber has not absorbed the smell of the Anzac biscuits baked fresh for our arrival; the chime does not echo the laughter or words of love spoken around the table or on the telephone that sat next to it; the hands of the clock have not learned to give an embrace that is both warm and safe. But the clock was there for these things and so in some ways it roots me to them; to gran.

One of the nice tactile things about this particular clock (and many like it) is that you have to wind it; its marking of time requires clock work and clockwork. It will run for as long as it is maintained; and were I to stop winding it, one day it too would stop (8 days later, in fact). In this a clock is both like and not like a human body. We cannot perpetually wind our bodies up, nor do we vivify our hands so that we go about our purposes marking time; but there comes a time where the clock stops being wound and we switch off. Gran’s death has been the first real opportunity our kids have had to be confronted with death and mortality; and Soph, 6, when we were talking about how gran died summed it up as ‘her body just switched off’; which it did. At 92, and even with a pacemaker helping her heart keep time, no amount of winding or retuning could keep gran going; and so her breathing, once as regular as a ticking clock, started slowing and becoming irregular. And then it stopped. But while we’re a complex mix of biological cogs and levers, we are not machines. A machine with a careful maintenance schedule and the right parts should be able to run forever; but machines have no soul; no sense of themselves, their purpose, or the lives they touch. Machines do not live and so they cannot die; it’s a curious anthropomorphism that we talk about our machines dying. Machines don’t die; but people do; it’s because our best machines outlive us that we can turn them into family heirlooms and pass them on to new generations. 

It’s interesting to consider the changes wrought on the world and how we see it by the simple clock and its clockwork engineering; the ability to measure time with machine like precision, and our ability to observe an intricately integrated and complex machine and make inferences about the workings of the universe… machines disrupt and change the ecosystems they’re introduced to; but machines do this without intent or a will. I’ve long been fascinated by the Luddite movement; an uprising of humans against sophisticated machines that were taking jobs and changing society. I understand the Luddite impulse but I also wonder about the emotions of the creators of those machines as they saw their handiwork destroyed. Those beautiful machines turned into something ugly and pointless… but I wonder if they were more glad that the Luddites took out their anger on the engines not the engineers… machines don’t take jobs, machinists do. We tend to anthropomorphise machines — to expect them to have human qualities and to talk about them dying, but the flipside is that we increasingly see the cosmos, and people, in machine like terms; with the rise of clockwork we even started to speak of God as the ‘clockmaker’ and to imagine him somewhat distantly winding up the universe and then stepping back to watch time unfold; and this means we talk about death in terms of ‘flicking a switch’ or to see it as a natural end to our life, and the operations or machinations of our body being all there is. We see death as something akin to sand passing through an hour glass, as a natural and normal part of the machine-like universe doing its thing. 

But it isn’t.

We see ourselves as cogs within this machine, or as little machines; operating like clockwork, wound up, and now just waiting for the kinetic energy that is loaded up into our bits and pieces to run out so that we expire.

But we aren’t.

Machines are not people; nor are people machines. If I took a sledgehammer to my beautiful clock and destroyed it the world would lose something beautiful and intricately crafted; how much more has the world lost with the loss of my gran? Or the destruction of every human body, bodies knit together more intricately and beautifully than a clock? Death is the ugly destruction of something much more beautiful than our most beautiful machines. Machines break, people die. 

On the day gran drew breath for the last time, the Victorian government’s lower house passed its euthanasia bill; the word euthanasia is derived from the greek words for good and death, and the pursuit of a ‘good death’ seems noble. And inasmuch as a death can be good, passing away gently in your sleep, with pain managed via the miracles of modern medicine, at 92, and surrounded by family, gran had a good death. A death that made me appreciate what a service palliative care built on the belief that people have a dignity that sets us apart from machinery can be to our world… But as members of my family gathered to say goodbye as we could, and as my folks and aunty were there when gran drew her final breath in as good a death as you might see, I came to realise there is nothing good about death. There gran lay in her room, with this clock on the wall relentlessly beating away like a metronome, while the rhythm of her breathing faltered and the beat of her heart faded away, and there was nothing inherently good about death; which is why we grieve, and this wasn’t simply the mechanical process of a machine being shut down for the last time either. Death stings. We think it’s natural because it happens so much — and will happen to all of us — or is happening to all of us. Death didn’t begin last week for gran, it began 92 years ago with her birth. It’s a lifelong process marked by the passing of time; time which now passes to the rhythmic beating of a second hand on the wall… tick… tock… and if you’re lucky to those cheerful chimes that mark every quarter hour, and peal out some extra notes for each passing hour. If you’re extra lucky you’ll be reminded of your mortality by having to keep winding up that clock every seven days to mark the passing of each week. That’s what clocks, especially grandfather clocks, do; they count down towards our death… and they last beyond it.  

And so I inherit a clock, a clock which hung on the wall still ticking as my gran passed into death, still ticking after her heart stopped, which I can’t help but see as measuring my days. Inheritances are a funny thing, I’ve known my whole life I’d be inheriting ‘the family clock,’ but have not wanted it because to claim it would require the death of the grandparents I loved dearly; first pa, and now gran. A clock that now ticks and tocks, that with careful preservation I too will be able to hand on to another generation of Campbell progeny.

But this clock is not the inheritance I prize most from my gran; the inheritance I most appreciate is one I’ve been enjoying for as long as I remember, it’s more in the realm of the heritage her life (and pa’s) has created for our family, and the things she has been passing on to our family. A heritage of good news about the world and about death. A heritage that has both her son and daughter in vocational church ministry (and a grandson and granddaughter), and that extends beyond her line of her family tree to her siblings, and her nieces and nephews (and their kids).

I love the picture of Timothy in the Bible whose mum and grandma raised him with a heritage so that Paul can say Timothy ‘has known from infancy the Holy Scriptures’ (2 Timothy 3:15), we know it came from his grandma because Paul says earlier: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.” (2 Tim 1:5). Despite what the euthanasia advocates desires (with good intent), there is no good death, but there is a good word about death. On Friday we’ll say goodbye to my gran at her funeral, and I’ll be part of giving her eulogy; like ‘euthanasia’ the word eulogy has greek roots — ‘good’ ‘word’ — I have many good words to say about my gran. About her love for us; her generosity; her hospitality; her kind and anxious soul; that she sacrificed much out of love for her family… but I’m most thankful for the good words I inherited from her; good words that give me hope in the face of her death; hope that we are more than machines; hope that means the ticking of the clock which counts down my remaining days on this mortal coil is not just a countdown to me being ‘switched off’ in the best death I can hope for… I’m most thankful that in these good words I discover good words from my creator about my gran, and about death. Because in the ‘good words’ found in those Scriptures; in the good news of Jesus; I see that God is not a watchmaker who sees my gran (or us) as wind up toys that will fall over and be discarded. I see that God is a father who looks at my gran as a beloved daughter. I see that God is not distant — that he didn’t step back after making a ‘machine’ but stepped forward into this world, in the coming of Jesus, to destroy death, that he holds all things together (Colossians 1), gives life and breath and everything to each person (Acts 17), and that he promises to step in again — to return and raise the dead — because death is not some natural thing — an end — where we can find a ‘good’ — death is an enemy to be destroyed.

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.  For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words” — 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

This is a good word that God speaks into and beyond the grave. This, more than anything, is something my gran wanted her kids and grandkids to inherit — a heritage — a legacy — and while her physical possessions have been divided up amongst our family so that we might remember her — this above all was her desire and prayer for her family.

On Friday I’ll speak some ‘good words’ about my gran, last Thursday as I said my goodbyes I said some good words to her. I kissed her on the forehead for the last time and said “thanks for loving us so well; but more than that, thanks for loving Jesus.” I do not know that I could stand the constant beating rhythm; the tick tock; of my new-but-old clock without this hope. Nor could I face the death of my beloved gran. Or death at all.