Friday, May 30, 2014


        This is the fourth in a series of articles on my experience of grieving. Scroll down to see the others.  


        Ruth Kuhnle was the very capable secretary at my first church, the Oak Lane Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. She and her husband were special friends of ours, and we continued to stay in touch after our move to Princeton, then out to Indianapolis, then back to Princeton.
        I had not been long on the faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary when Ruth called with the sad news that Bud had died. They had been retired only a short while and were living outside of Philadelphia. She asked me if I would conduct Bud’s funeral and burial service, and of course I said I would. Bud was not a church member.
        During my pastoral visit with Ruth and her two grown children, as we were planning the services, we had an opportunity to reminisce a bit about our Oak Lane days. I remember thinking at the time how well Ruth seemed to be dealing with her loss, as she laughed about some of the funny things that happened in the church. I know now how much she must have been grieving inwardly, as a line from a once-popular song put it, “laughing on the outside, crying on the inside.”
        In the weeks and months that followed we talked on the phone a few times, and Margie and I paid a call on Ruth one Sunday afternoon. It had been about seven months since Bud died, when I received a heart-wrenching letter from Ruth describing the immense grief and loneliness she was experiencing. She implored me to tell my students, who were preparing for ministry, to be aware that those who have lost a beloved spouse will still be grieving after the flurry of support they received in the first days following the death of their loved one has tapered off. “I’m missing Bud now more than ever, and I have no one around with whom to share my grief. I had lots of support in the beginning but now I feel so all alone.”

        Ruth had more to say in her letter about what she was experiencing, but that’s the gist of what she wrote. I shared her letter with the students in my Pastoral Ministry course, and I have never forgotten the lesson she taught us all. That is one reason I not always but usually let some time elapse before writing a sympathy note. I wait until the sharp pain of bereavement has become the dull ache of reality. The initial pain is acute, but the ache is a chronic condition.
        It was exactly seven months ago that Margie died. One advantage I have over Ruth is that three of my four children live in the Princeton area. The fourth checks in on me every night from Cooperstown, New York, and we talk and pray together. Each of my sons and daughters has been an indispensable source of comfort and support. In addition, I live in a community of independent seniors, among whom I have many caring and supportive friends. Ruth lived alone until her death a few years ago.
Our grandchildren miss Margie, too. Here she is with grandson
Seth, of whom she was immensely fond and proud.
        I can attest, nevertheless, that my grief continues, as hers did. And despite all the support I’ve had, I must say that the dull ache has not subsided. In some ways it seems to get worse. Some days are better than others, depending on what is occupying my time and energy at the moment. But the ache is always there. I am learning to live with it, but I’ll  never “get over it.” The constant reminders of Margie’s absence will not permit me to ignore the ache. Every happy memory immediately prompts a “never again” reaction that keeps my aching heart throbbing.
        As I said in my first article, I’m living in two worlds, and I’m still functioning in the outer world, the “life goes on” world. But in my “inner” world the sharp pain has become the dull ache of reality, which in some ways, as Ruth Kuhnle discovered, is harder to bear. Not that it's more painful than the sharp pain immediately following a loved one's death. But it's more depressing, because of the "never again" feeling that it continually evokes.
        I don't think heartache can be dealt with symptomatically. There are no spiritual aspirin tablets to sooth the dull ache of reality. Nor can the prescriptions of well meaning friends cure the cause of what ails me.
        But faith sure helps, and that's what I want to discuss in my next article.


  1. Beautifully written...thank you for these thoughtful, poignant reflections on grief and loss.

  2. Thank you so much, Andy. And thanks for helping me to deal with my grief, even as you are dealing with your own.