Love, Grief, and Hope: Emotional responses to death and dying in the UK
Madeleine Pennington and Nathan Mladin’s report examining emotional responses to death and dying in the UK. 27/11/2023
Daniel Turner explores a Christian understanding of suffering in light of Nick Cave and Seán O’Hagan’s bestseller Faith, Hope and Carnage. 16/02/2023
Suffering. A deeply personal experience, and yet one of the few that is simultaneously universal. Across the spectrum of Christian denominations, you will find many (often conflicting) thoughts and opinions attempting to justify the presence of suffering in a world created by a supposedly all–good, all–powerful, all–knowing God.
Such attempts are noble. I know many people who, following tragic events, have concluded that such a God cannot exist. Often, I fear that this comes from having been sold a false understanding of the role of suffering in the Christian story. That it is something that can be avoided or a challenge that needs to be overcome. A nice idea for sure as then the onus for health and happiness lies solely in your own hands. However, when stacked against the witness of many faithful Christians throughout history, such a theology seems incoherent with the rest of reality.
Perhaps in such circumstances a good theological and philosophical undergirding would have been enough to prevent friends of mine from falling away. But then again, perhaps not. Whilst they most certainly have a place, such remedies very rarely soothe the real pain and real suffering that people go through. So how best we approach the topic of pain with the human tenderness it requires?
Conversations between musician Nick Cave and journalist Seán O’Hagan have proved to be a remarkable source of balance on the subject. Initially listening to the pair’s discussion on The Sacred podcast, and then later reading their book Faith, Hope and Carnage, I found I was not simply faced with attempts to rationalise or explain the whys of suffering. Instead, I had been welcomed into their experiences, and asked to join them in pondering the mystery that it is.
With life comes the inevitability of hardship, and whilst age and circumstance certainly play a part in how much an individual has been exposed to it, O’Hagan rightly describes it as a club that we will all eventually join. Knowing this, it is tempting to want to prepare for its arrival. But can this realistically be done?
Cave and O’Hagan would seem to suggest not. The best guide they provide lies somewhere in the realm of surrender. That by surrendering to the ‘valley of the shadow of death’, (Ps 23:4) something more can be found. “Perhaps grief can be seen as a kind of exalted state where the person who is grieving is the closest they will ever be to the fundamental essence of things”, Cave says. In this statement, he does not explain the suffering he endured, nor does he turn it into a test for him to pass. Rather he suggests it to be a mode of being, a realm of understanding, a prepared table for him to sit at in the presence of his enemies. (Ps 23:5)
Furthermore, Cave highlights that pain, suffering, grief, and death are not mere accidents or errors that fall upon the unfortunate, they are essential components of what make us fully human. Just as the highs of life have their place, so too do the lows and the lowest of the lows. Attempts to fight against this harsh, beautiful juxtaposition are futile. And when looking for meaning, perhaps the only answer is as Freddie Mercury sang: “there must be more to life than this.”
The lonely nature of suffering is perhaps one of the hardest aspects about it. Even collective suffering has the strange ability to be experienced in an isolated manner. Cave highlights this acutely when recalling him and his wife grieving their son Arthur’s death. “I have never experienced such aloneness… Susie was the same. We had each other but we were also unreachable, even at times to each other. We were together, but essentially alone.”
Grief is just one example of this. All over the world, and in each of our lives silent battles occur little below the surface of what appears socially acceptable. Poor mental health, relationship breakdown, addiction, sickness, work stress, each of these bring their own baggage and risk drifting us astray from getting the help we need. In recent times, the COVID–19 pandemic proved to be a good example of this, with O’Hagan aptly describing it as a “collective experience defined to a great degree by isolation”.
What meaning is there to be found then? “To me it feels that, in this dark place, the idea of a God feels more present or maybe more essential. It actually feels like grief and God are somehow intertwined. It feels that, in grief, you draw closer to the veil that separates this world from the next.” These words by Cave strike to the core of the Christian message on suffering. That in these darkest of places there remains someone who “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows”. (Is 53:4)
Christ’s response to those in pain around him was not to simply hand them a justification for the presence of evil in the world. It was instead to compassionately descend to their level and join them in their suffering. That despite the depths of pain felt it might simultaneously become the place of most love received. Love and grief entangled in one mystical experience.
The summit of such entangling can be seen best 2,000 years ago at Calvary, where the cross that hung Christ stood as an eternal expression of the radical lengths He was willing to go to lovingly share in this most human of experiences.
Interested in this? Share it on social media. Join our monthly e–newsletter to keep up to date with our latest research and events. And check out our Supporter Programme to find out how you can help our work.
Image by Jack Flynn on Shutterstock
Daniel is the Content and Communications Officer for Theos and a producer for The Sacred podcast. He previously worked in the charity sector in operations, content and media. Daniel studied Music at Goldsmiths, University of London, and spent time throughout his degree volunteering for an ecumenical Christian university outreach. He has a strong interest theology, with a specific focus on Catholic liturgy and apologetics.
Posted 16 February 2023
See other recent events and articles
Madeleine Pennington unpacks her latest report ‘Love, Grief, and Hope: Emotional responses to death and dying in the UK’. 28/11/2023In Brief
Nick Spencer speaks with publicist and author Pen Vogler. 28/11/2023Podcast
Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.