I recently took my wife to see Les Misérables. From the first time I heard it, it became one of my favorite musicals. I did not really understand all of the themes and topics at first, often turning to my mom for explanation as we were listening in the car. When asked to choose something to sing in an eighth-grade music class, I naturally chose my favorite song: “Stars.” My mother cried, of course. “Stars” became my go-to piece for anytime I needed something to sing—this range included anything from high school musical auditions to a “Broadway Night” Performance in Stara Zagora, Bulgaria, to my parents “requesting” me to sing for their friends during dinner in the Pope room at Buca di Beppo. Each time she heard me sing it, my mother cried, of course. It became a running joke. I’d sing a few bars in the car and then stop and ask, “You crying, ma?” Nothing seemed a more fitting encore when choosing the program for my college senior recital, the final for a degree in vocal performance. And for those who are wondering…yes, my mom cried. So, much to my surprise, when I took my wife to see Les Misérables, I got emotional during “Stars.” Then memories of the joy shared through music flooding in: listening together in the car, singing in the choir, seeing concerts and musicals and plays together. The next thing I knew, the cast started singing the reprise of “Do you hear the people sing?” and I could not stop crying. I even had to stay in my seat during the standing ovation to compose myself! It hit me like a ton of bricks: Grief is a funny thing. It has the ability to creep up on you when you least expect it.
While I was sharing this experience with a friend, they asked “Does it feel fresh?” I stumbled to find an answer and could not. The best I could come up with was: “It’s like a scab that sometimes gets picked off.” The reality is that it has been ten years since my mom passed away. I feel like I should be past the point of crying at random, but every so often that scab gets picked off. What does it really mean to be “past” it, anyway? I am not depressed, I am not wallowing in sadness, but I do miss my mom. I do not think that is a bad thing or something to be ashamed to admit. At the same time, I often feel funny when I talk about it, even with my wife, like I should not feel this way. Like I’m less of a man if I get sad. We’re taught from a young age to “keep our chin up” and to not show any sign of weakness—the implication being that any show of emotion is weakness. This lends itself to an idea that we need to simply “move on” and “get over it.” This idea, taken to its ultimate conclusion, threatens to turn us into hardened stoics, unable to feel. On the flip side, I feel awkward posting drawn out, emotional rants on social media outlets, worried that others would see these things as empty cries for attention that threaten to stagnate a healthy process of healing. The result is an internal conflict: a struggle to find normalcy amidst a need to move on while openly grieving.
Grief is a funny thing. Not “ha ha” funny, not amusing, but this weird feeling that has the ability to knock our legs out from under us when we least expect it. How do we begin to deal? To find “normalcy”? To begin, I think we have to recognize that in situations of grief, there is no normal. Grief is an expression of loss, and loss is a recognition that our community has changed. We are built for community and we, hopefully, grow through our experience of community. A shifting of that community, most especially when that shift occurs within our family, may require that we relearn how to function as a community. It may require that we step outside of what is comfortable, into something new and unknown and, ultimately, scary. When we step outside of our comfort zones, however, we learn.
This specific type of learning often comes through experiences in our lives that are difficult. For example, perhaps the most important lesson my mother ever taught me came in the months leading up to her death. In the May 2008 issue of the Word Magazine, the same month as she passed away, she wrote, “I ask God to reveal His will for me.” How powerful a statement, mirrored after Christ’s own prayer in the Garden of Gethsamane prior to His voluntary and life-giving death (Matthew 26: 36-44). As we follow Christ’s way, we grow along His path. At St. George in Phoenix, we call this “The Way of the Warrior Saint”: a life that is practical, biblical, and crucifixional, focused on sacrificing our own needs for the needs of others. Moments of self-offering often manifest themselves through some form of self-denial. Ill-equipped to deal with suffering in our lives, these moments teach us, little by little, how to handle suffering so that when it comes, we might be ready.
During the Paschal season, we sing “Make a joyful noise to God all the Earth” (Psalm 66: 1) as a verse to the First Antiphon at Divine Liturgy, and I often think of my mother when I hear this. Even in her greatest suffering, she gave praise to God. She wrote me an email of encouragement as I was finishing seminary, reminding me to pray each morning to put my mind at ease. She shared with me the Prayer of St. Philaret of Moscow which ends with: “Direct my will. Teach me to pray. Pray yourself in me.” My dad related once that in her final weeks, mom was agitated and uncomfortable for a few days and then was completely peaceful. She put her mind at ease, submitted her will to God’s, and her death was “painless, blameless, and peaceful.” In His moment of suffering, Christ models a response to the suffering in our lives, which my mother passed on to me in her suffering. Though this lesson is difficult to bear, it is through learning that we grow.
Gregory J. Abdalah holds a D.Min. from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and is the Pastoral Assistant at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Phoenix, Arizona, where he resides with his wife Diana.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.