Tambi Swiney serves at The Next Door as the Spiritual Wellness Coordinator. She has been a part of the TND since the very beginning – she is one of the original Wild Praying Women who founded TND! Tambi’s patience, wisdom, and hope for this organization have been such a bright spot at TND this year! Please enjoy her reflections over 2021.
As I reflect on my ministry at The Next Door during the past year, the word that immediately rises to the forefront of my mind is grief. How many conversations have I had with clients and with staff this year about grief? I couldn’t begin to count them. So many people have lost loved ones this year – many due to the COVID-19 pandemic or the overdose epidemic.
Grief and addiction are interrelated. For some people, the loss of a loved one can be a precipitating event – a tipping point when the bereaved turns to alcohol or drugs to comfort or numb themselves. For others who are already living in bondage to addiction, a significant loss can lead to increased abuse of substances. The source of this grief may not be a death. Divorce, estrangement from family and friends, loss of custody of a child, loss of a home, loss of a job – all of these can lead to deep mourning.
In the spirituality groups that I lead at The Next Door for detox, residential, and partial hospitalization clients, we regularly focus on grief. Our clients need to be reminded that grief is a normal life experience, and the grieving process is unique for each person. Although denial, anger, bargaining, and depression are common stages of grief, the experience is rarely linear; there is not a set timeline or a one-size-fits-all template for those who mourn.
As our clients lean into their newfound sobriety, the intense anguish of grief often takes them by surprise. In the midst of their addiction, they postponed the inevitable; the feelings they once sought to suppress surface with a vengeance in the early days of recovery. Some suddenly find themselves grieving for people who passed away many years ago; their grief is out of sync with that of family members who began processing the loss in real time. For others, the recent death of a loved one imperils their recovery, especially if the departed was one of their stalwart supporters. How can I go on living without them? they wonder.
Jamie Anderson’s observations are poignant: “Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot. All that unspent love gathers in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.”
The depth of one’s grief for the one who has died is often in direct proportion to the breadth of one’s love for that person during their life. Grief and love do go hand in hand; life and death are indeed a matched set. I often encourage those who are grieving to look for ways to channel this love that seems to have no place to go. How can they extend their loved one’s legacy? How can they pass on what they have learned from their dearly departed to others? How can they keep the love flowing?
In one of his letters to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul refers to God as the source of all comfort: “God comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us” (2 Corinthians 1:4). As I listen to clients and staff share their stories of grief with me, I am able to draw from the reservoir of comfort that God has showered upon me in the past. I know what it feels like to lose someone to addiction. I know what it feels like to mourn the death of a family member to cancer, to lament the loss of a friend to COVID-19. I have grieved deeply. I have also experienced immense comfort in times of grief.
During the holidays, feelings of grief intensify, especially in the first year after a death. An empty seat at the dinner table magnifies the loss. Once cherished traditions now evoke sorrow rather than joy. Things will never be the same. Strings of colorful lights do little to break through the darkness of a grieving soul.
Yet the season of Advent is a time for remembering that darkness will not have the last word. Long ago, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; for those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine” (Isaiah 9:2). In the prologue to his gospel, John declared, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it” (John 1:5). God’s light was made incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. This divine light is an eternal source of comfort, one that illuminates our way as we navigate the pathways of grief.
On Christmas Day we will celebrate once again the birth of the One who called himself the light of the world, the One who also called us to be the light of the world. We can be a source of divine light for those who are grieving when we comfort them with the same comfort we have received from God.
In her celebrated inaugural poem, Amanda Gorman reminded us: “There is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.” May we look for the light in days of darkness. May we find the courage to be the light in times of grief.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”