Teaching Religion and Learning Grief

As a professor of religious studies, a good part of my professional life is spent standing in front of college students and talking about the many ways that religion has shaped and continues to shape their worlds. I present and attempt to explain the beliefs, practices, narratives, and something of the history of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. We compare and contrast different understandings of ultimate reality, what it looks like to live in harmony with it, and why, according to different texts, traditions, and teachers, a person ought to care.

Since I began studying religion as a college student in the early 1990s, it has become clearer and clearer that knowledge of the world's religions is essential for young women and men who hope to make sense of the world around them and to make responsible, ethical decisions about living in it. On most days I love my work. I wish that the evidence for its global relevance were different, but I also get to see up close the many ways that the study of religions inspires, provokes, and reorients students, and this gives me hope.

My father died about this time last year. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in December of 2014. Four months later, on the Tuesday after Easter, he was gone. Pancreatic cancer is a punishing and merciless disease. It took the strong, vibrant father I had known for 44 years and reduced him to a husk in what seemed like no time. The tears that I cried when his breathing stopped were tears of sorrow, to be sure, but they were also tears of relief. This vicious thing had ripped him from us, yes, but his suffering was over. Thank God for that.

Over the past year the relief has faded but the sorrow has not. In defiance of a common metaphor, the grief has not come in waves or followed anything like a cycle. It has behaved more like booby-traps. Seemingly innocent objects lie around devoid of meaning and then explode unexpectedly, cutting me off at the knees because of some connection of which I was only dimly aware: a can of the diet soda that he used to drink; an old, strangely-shaped winter hat; the cleaning solution that smells of hospice.

I am thinking about this today not to offer a riff on the uniqueness of the Easter miracle, but rather to record the surprising banality of grief and to confess, in spite of both my professional life and my Christian faith, my own piss-poor preparedness to process it. As it turns out, being able to lecture on the role of religion in America's developing empire or on doctrines of reincarnation in Hinduism and Buddhism has been worth slightly less than a hill of beans in making sense of my father's death. More generally, the intellectual skills that I have spent so much of my life cultivating have also been basically worthless in a struggle that is far more physical than I anticipated. Grief, I think, is somewhat akin to flight. You can know all about how lift is generated, know Bernoulli's principle inside and out, and still, if you find yourself alone in midair, fall like a bag of rocks.

There are, nevertheless, usable, even important lessons that I have learned over the past twelve months. Most notable at the moment is that through it all, the diagnosis, the death, the grief, the "physician, heal thyself" emptiness that I often feel, I have been blinded by the light of human decency. From friends with food and patience, to strangers on airplanes who have talked of tennis and loss, to students who keep questions coming and keep struggling with concepts that are hard and unfamiliar, the evidence of goodness and its endurance in the world have been persistent.

And in this geopolitical moment, with so many working so hard to make us forget our shared humanity, our ultimate interconnectedness, experiences such as these -- even those brought about by a stinging loss -- are life giving. They are not always and everywhere driven by the teachings of a particular faith tradition, and I am not ready to weave them into my syllabus, but their power to redeem is palpable.

This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at strongertogether@huffingtonpost.com.