Abraham’s Search: A Hallmark of Human Grief
In an oft-told Buddhist story, a woman loses her son and is inconsolable. She approaches the Buddha and begs him to bring her son back. He instructs her to go around the village from house to house, seeking a single mustard seed from any home where no one has died. If she can find such a mustard seed, he will restore her son to life. So the woman knocks on each door and finds that there is no household that has not experienced loss. She returns without the mustard seed but with an enlarged awareness of the universality of loss that leads her to a path of compassion and peace.
—Miriam Greenspan, Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear and Despair
When I encounter this parable (often) in my work as a chaplain and pastoral educator, I am struck with the parallels to Abraham’s path after Sarah’s death. Although we do not know from the text if Abraham was inconsolable, we are told that he actively mourns his wife. We also know that Abraham goes on a quest, not to have Sarah restored to life but to find a suitable place to bury her. (Gen. 23:3–16)
Recent developments in psychiatry and neurobiology show that a quest, or what is called the “searching mechanism,” is normal and perhaps crucial to the grieving process. Searching usually occurs unconsciously or symbolically, and may even appear logistical in nature. For instance, many people find themselves picking up the telephone to call a loved one to tell them good news only to realize that the person is no longer alive. Some people embark on a trip to uncover family roots, either by physically visiting the birthplace of deceased ancestors or searching online through genealogy websites. Some people search for answers about the cause and details of death.
Through this searching, our minds and bodies try to fill the void that results from the loss of a loved one. I have heard many anecdotes of perfectly logical bereaved people embarking on some kind of search in the hopes that they would actually find and be reunited with their spouse or child. Yet, we know that this is not possible. However, it seems that the strong drive to be reunited allows us to take the first difficult steps forward, when we lift ourselves off of the ground, as Abraham did, literally or figuratively. Much like the woman in the Buddhist parable and Abraham, we come to terms with the reality of the loss as we search and experience disappointment. Hopefully, we eventually find ourselves walking down a path toward peace and prosperity.