Grief, Love, and One Direction: An Interview with Ross Hastings
On July 28, Regent College will host a book launch for Dr. Ross Hastings's newest publication, Where Do Broken Hearts Go? An Integrative, Participational Theology of Grief. In that book, Ross explores the theology and psychology of grief in light of the death of his first wife, Sharon, after 27 years of marriage. Amy Anderson sat down with Ross to discuss the book's exploration of grief, vulnerability, and the loving heart of God.
I understand you've written a new book, Where Do Broken Hearts Go? An Integrative, Participational Theology of Grief. What inspired you to write this particular book?
I’ve wanted to write a book about grief for a couple of years. It’s not that I felt my grief was unique: many people have gone through worse than I have. But I felt a responsibility as a steward of my experience: I thought it might benefit others to talk about it.
When I first approached publishers about the idea, though, I was told, “grief doesn’t sell: joy sells. Make a proposal for a book on joy.” So I kind of gave up on the idea.
And then – this is kind of funny – I went to a One Direction concert. Our daughter is a big fan, so my wife Tammy and I got tickets for her and we all went. Through the first couple of songs all I could think was, “What am I doing here?” One Direction is a boy band. The people enjoying the concert were mostly young girls. I was really not in my element.
But then they sang this song called “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?” and I was quite touched by it. In fact, I felt like I was visited by the Holy Spirit in the midst of that concert. I even started crying, which is uncharacteristic for me.
As I looked down on these thousands of young people, I realized that many of them are grieving and don’t know how to process it. They live lives trying to escape from their thoughts and emotions, masking their grief with hedonism or turning the good pursuit of music into an obsession in an effort to avoid their feelings. And I felt the prompting of the Holy Spirit to go back and look at the question of grief.
What shape did that take?
The book is based largely on the story of the loss of my wife. It’s quite personal. I don’t think it can be anything but personal. I’ve found that when you’re talking about something like grief, you can’t be abstract or theoretical. The more specific you are, the more personal you are, the wider the range of people who can relate to your experience. It’s kind of a mystery.
But the book isn’t just personal: there’s a theological element as well. The theology is mostly pastoral, but there’s some robust Trinitarian participatory theology as well. Because when we ask, “Where do broken hearts go?” there’s only one satisfactory answer: they go into the heart of the Father. And they do that by means of the high priesthood of the Son, who bears our grief and carries our sorrows and draws us into the Father’s presence.
As you were writing the book, did you have any new insights? Was there anything that came to you in a fresh way?
The mystery of grief really struck me. When we lose loved ones, we’re never quite prepared for it. In my opinion, this is because death is not actually natural. It may have been natural before the fall; it’s probably natural in the life cycle of animals; but I think, with regard to humans made in the image of God, it was not the original intention. We were made to live forever; sin causes death.
It’s a very mysterious thing, death. My wife was 21 months from her diagnosis and 21 days in palliative care before she died, and you would think I had lots of time to prepare. But you’re never prepared. It’s always a shock, a mysterious shock.
In a way, that shock is actually a gift. If we didn’t have shock to numb our feelings, I don’t think we could cope. Grief is the thawing out of that shock: the moments when reality hits us and penetrates the numbness. That’s when we encounter those waves of grief, that mystery of loss.
Even 8 years after the death of my first wife, Sharon, I still feel it. I’ll be watching a movie, or something will happen that reminds me of Sharon. All of a sudden, something so unreal becomes real, and I experience a moment of grief. I and my current wife, Tammy, both lost our spouses around the same time, and it’s a great gift to each of us that neither of us is threatened by the other’s grieving, but it’s still quite mysterious.
Is the book primarily directed at people who are dealing with a loss through death? Or are there other kinds of loss that it stresses?
It relates to all losses. My experience was one of loss through death, so that’s a primary focus, but I do indicate in some detail that this applies to people who have gone through divorce, loss of a job, even loss of a pet. While I was writing the book, a friend reminded me that pets can be a major source and focus of love, so the loss of a pet can be very traumatic in people’s lives. All of those kinds of things are included.
So much grief seems to come out of the fact that we’re made for love. And in many ways, that seems like such a weakness, that God would make us to be hurt. What are your thoughts on that as a theologian and as a pastor?
The vulnerability of love. Yes, it seems to be very much a part of the structure of the universe as God has permitted it. But I think you could go even further than that: it seems that God himself suffers because of love. I don’t think it’s inevitable that God suffers, but I think it is a choice that he has made: to experience suffering in his own being, by creating the world in love, by creating human beings in love, in the hope that they will love also. So, in that sense, the divine parent is himself vulnerable. And therefore it seems to be part of how we are.
I sometimes think about singleness and marriage. Singleness can be very lonely; there can be great pain and loneliness in it. On the other hand, when you marry, you enter into the risk of losing someone. So it doesn’t matter which is our lot: pain is inherent in our human experience.
I don’t think there’s a simple theodicy. My only respite,
the place I go to, is the God who suffers; the God who in Christ suffered for us
and who suffers today, as our great high priest, and who is touched by our
infirmities. I think our vulnerability leads us toward loving God and loving
Christ, as the ultimate lover of our souls.
To learn more about the launch of Dr. Ross Hastings's new book on July 28, 2016, visit our Events page.