One summer, my friends threw me a surprise birthday party a few days early. After dinner and cupcakes, they took me downtown for a comedy show that was part of Piccolo Spoleto. As we took our seats, I spotted a familiar face two rows ahead of me. I was certain that it was Dr. Goodman, my friend and former professor. And this was very strange, because Dr. Goodman had died in January. There in the middle of our laughter, I was caught off guard by a wave of sadness. A memory washed over me from our divinity school trip to Israel two years before, when Dr. Goodman and several other friends raised a toast to my birthday one night in Jerusalem. Remembering that he would never be there for another of my birthdays brought tears to my eyes. “I certainly did not expect to feel this way tonight,” I thought.
There is a name for this phenomenon, coined by clinical psychologist and author Therese Rando. Sudden Temporary Upsurges of Grief, or STUGs, take many of us by surprise in the months or years following a loss. In her book, Treatment of Complicated Mourning, Rando describes STUGs as “brief periods of intense grief which occur when a catalyst reminds one of the absence of the loved one or resurrects memories of the death, the loved one, or feelings about the loss.” She reminds us that these are a normal part of the grief process, though in the past they have been a cause for concern, both for the bereaved and their doctors. Because they come about so unexpectedly, STUGs can make us feel as if we are going crazy.
Fortunately, I had seen STUGs enough to know that I was not losing my mind. I gave myself a few moments to experience this newly discovered aspect of my loss. Then I took some deep breaths, and went back to having a fun night with my friends, as Dr. Goodman would have wanted me to do. The next day, I wrote about the experience, which is always therapeutic for me, and had one of my “conversations” with Dr. Goodman. Tearfully looking at photos of us together, I told him, “I still miss you so much. I think I always will.”
Grief is a strange sort of blessing. We grieve only because we have lost someone we loved and who loved us. But the depth of the loss is too painful for us to experience all at once, which is why I think God designed grief as a process. For a long time after the initial loss, we get to grieve little pieces of it, to remember again what we have lost, and to give thanks that we ever had it at all. Though I wish I could celebrate many more joyful moments with Dr. Goodman, I am grateful to God for that birthday toast in Jerusalem, and all the other times we had together. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
God our Comforter, you have given us such wonderful gifts in the people we love that we wish we could keep them with us forever. But we know that is not possible on earth. Help us to love those who are still with us while we have the chance, and to be thankful for those we have lost, even in the midst of our pain. We trust you to go with us through our grief, every step of the way. Amen.-- Chaplain Stacy N. Sergent