Musings + Essays

The Uses of Sorrow.

By: Jen Shoop

Ed. note: This post was accidentally published yesterday morning — apologies for its disappearance and now phantom like reappearance today, its original intended publication date.


The Uses of Sorrow

Someone I loved once gave me

a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand

that this, too, was a gift.

–Mary Oliver

This poem is difficult. Sometimes I think that I try too hard to assign meaning to the sorrows of life, as if grief must have a purpose. I am forever chastened by a reader who once wrote that she had given birth to a stillborn child, and that she could not — would not — allow that God had intended that. Some things just happen, she said. And what to say? The only possible human response was to sit in grief with that reader, and not say all the things that I usually say to buoy myself and my Magpies. To nod, and to cry, and to listen — to make dignified space for the breadth of her loss.

But then I creep back, peering my head around the corner, finding umbrage in the promise that we survive 100% of our bad days and that I believe there is a plan — even sometimes if that plan feels self-constructed — and that it is too difficult and despairing to live otherwise. So though I bristled at first at Mary Oliver’s words, thinking singularly of my friend E., rejecting the idea that her passing could in any way be “a gift,” I think I will let them hang with me for a minute.

A bit dark to share on a Tuesday morning, but —

Just to say, in case you need permission, that it is OK to feel your way through things, to find yourself landing on different sides of the coin, to live in a semi-permanent state of ambivalence. If it took the brilliant Mary Oliver “years” to understand the contours of her own sorrow, it is sure to take me a lifetime.

P.S. More reflections on Mary Oliver here and here.

P.P.S. The sense of an ending.

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18 thoughts on “The Uses of Sorrow.

  1. I am now in my 80th year, twenty-eight years past my son’s death from cancer when he was twenty-three.
    We had time to talk in the week before as he faced his ending. He was not angry at God any longer, or the wife who left him, or even the cancer cells overtaking his big body. He left quietly in his sleep. I was left questioning God and wondering why his life was shortened. It took some years to know that there is no easy answer for an early death. That it is simply part of this life we have here, sometimes too early, and sometimes very late and welcomed. Grief, over time, becomes as comfortable as the memories it helps keep within us. It can become a comfort that we share with others absorbing their own griefs into their own lives.

    1. Hi Laine – Thank you so much for the beautiful, measured, and vulnerable musings. I am so sorry for your loss, and so grateful to you for sharing some thoughts on the ebb and flow of grief over the course of decades. I found it insightful and comforting, and I am certain other readers will feel the same. xx

  2. Love that Mary Oliver poem! It has helped carry me through some dark moments in my own life. Such good food for thought in your post and in the comments.

    Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time mulling over the idea that there is purpose in suffering. While I have deep abiding faith in God, I do not believe that “everything happens for a reason” in the simplistic way it is often thought of in our culture. For now, I have landed here: while I do not believe that there is an inherent purpose in this world’s tragedies (or that God somehow intended for them to happen), I do believe that they can be gifts if we learn from our experiences and if they push us towards greater empathy and compassion. In my personal life, I would never call the mental health crisises my loved ones have experienced or the cancer diagnosis of my 4-year-old cousin “gifts”, but I have tried to walk away from those experiences of darkness resolved to put more light in the world. For me, now that I have a bit more perspective on these situations, that has meant reaching out to people in my community who are struggling with concrete offers of help, advocating for better mental health policy, donating blood regularly, etc.

    1. Hi Megan – I so respect where you’ve landed, and the thought and heartache that’s gone into that reckoning. In it, I see a silver lining where there is usually none. Thank you for sharing this.


  3. Thank you for this post, and also for sparking the discussion in the comments. “The Uses of Sorrow” is one of the poems I included in my “poetry journal” that I kept in high school — more a log of poems that meant something to me than a journal in the proper sense — and I just rediscovered it last weekend. There is SO much to unpack here, and I thank you for making space for us to do so! I loved what Amy and Molly had to say and will be turning their comments over in my mind today.


    1. What a coincidence! Oliver always has a lot to teach me, and she does it so succinctly, in unassuming language. She really knew her way around words.


  4. As you call her, HRH Oliver never fails to prompt introspection. I too have struggled with this question, having watched others in life wrestle with the paths that their lives have taken and the unexpected sorrows along the way. In conversation this weekend, it was proposed that COVID is a sign of the end times or a call back to God – I struggle with the notion that because something has come to America, we are willing to attribute it to divine intervention while ignoring the ongoing agonies of the rest of the world. And yet, we need to ascribe meaning and the power of stories remains important to help us cope with all that is lost. I just finished Erik Larson’s new book “The Splendid and the Vile” which covers 1940-1941 in London, largely focused on the daily impacts of the Blitz. It has given me courage for these times – we as humans have dealt with so much sorrow before and figured out how to move on. London still stands, somehow, despite the incredible loss of life on a daily scale. All this to say, I am left to believe that God is somewhere in the middle. I love the whiteboard example above and love HRH for her ability to write out the joys and sorrows in life.

    1. Hi Amy – Thank you so much for sharing this vulnerable and introspective set of thoughts. I have chased many of the same myself, dipping in and out, studying possible logical extensions. It is a lot to unpack and I usually end up back in the middle of things, uncertain. I also listened to an audiobook memoir earlier this year of a woman who lived through both World Wars as well as the death, addiction, and tragic injuries of multiple of her children, and listening to her speak about persisting through those times and making it to the other side with her humor and wit intact gave me profound hope. This is why we read and study, isn’t it?


  5. I once had a theology professor who wrote “Sh*t Happens” on one side of the board and “Everything happens for a reason” on the other. He posited that God is somewhere in the middle because (and yes, this is a quote from Hamilton!) “there is suffering too terrible to name”.

    I’ve found comfort in the idea that terrible suffering did not happen for a reason for two reasons: 1) that the God I believe in does not have a hand in genocide, childhood death, among others and 2) I can still learn from it; grow from it.

    The problem is actually learning and growing and recognizing the gift – and as you said, if it took Mary Oliver many years it’s sure to take me a lifetime!

    1. Hi Molly – Wow, I can imagine that blackboard presentation leaving a long-lasting mark. What a visual, just the symmetry of those two things and the notion of a venn diagram. There is a lot to unpack in this conversation, and there are muddling inflections of faith, and grasping for reason, and the intensified emotions of loss. Thank you for chiming in here!


    2. I love that Hamilton quote! I think one underrated part of that musical is the way they cover grief. It’s so accurate – sometimes the only way through is to go on long walks – “going through the unimaginable.”

  6. Jen,
    Thank you for this much needed perspective. I lost my little (and only) brother Rob this summer. It has been devastating for both me and my family, to say the least.

    At times though, I think about how Rob would want us to continue on: embracing the best aspects of his life and legacy, with the new understanding that life is fleeting. This, I believe, is the gift referenced by Oliver. So, as he did, I try my best to find joy in friendship, continue his passion for and commitment to education, strive to never turn down a debate, and (post-covid) will continue to travel as often as I can.


    1. Oh Ana – I am so sorry for your loss. I cannot imagine your grief. I love what you have said about Rob and your intentions to celebrate him in the way you live your life. What a beautiful and incredibly mature outlook.

      I am going to keep you and your family in my prayers, along with a lovely Magpie reader who wrote to tell me that she had lost her seven-year-old son this month (today is the funeral).

      God bless you, Ana!


    2. Dear Anna,
      I’m so sorry for your loss. How devastating. Know that you are not alone. My dad’s been gone for about three and a half years and sometimes the question — what would he want me to do — is all that keeps me moving forward. I joined a group called The Dinner Party – (they’re a national nonprofit) and finding community who truly “gets it” has been immeasurably helpful. Take it day by day. Grief is a zig zagging line – and it has a sneaky way of knocking you over when you least expect it. Thinking of you.

      1. @Emily – This is such a kind and thoughtful message. Thank you so much for being a part of this community. xx

    3. Thanks, Jen. I very much appreciate it.

      Emily, Thank you for your suggestion of the Dinner Party organization and thoughts. I’ve had a couple people tell me that those who have lost a sibling at a young age are part of a special group of recovering siblings and that we are all each other’s brother and sister now. Like you, I’ve found that those who have gone through a similar experience are most helpful in getting through the grieving process. One day at a time.

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