A Grief Unseen

Living with loss that is not death

by Matthew Patrick

This morning as I walked my nine-year-old son to the bus stop, I reached to hold his hand, as I do every day. But this time he pushed my hand away. He didn’t want the other kids to see him holding his father’s hand.

I realized I probably would never hold his hand again as we walked together. Ever. And so I lost a piece of him, and something in our relationship. And because of his oncoming self-consciousness of adolescence, he has lost my physical reassurance. The moments when he could cling to me literally have now passed. Though we will remain father and son, and I will be there to support him, he will now face a certain vulnerable part of himself alone.

This is a moment of grieving—the kind we experience at so many of life’s turns. Grieving is not limited to death. We go through the grieving process each time a chapter of our life has ended—or even a page. At this moment I felt a quiet grief. But there are many, many more acute events that prompt a profound grief response. Some of the most common: divorce, career change or loss, health change, moving, heartbreak, graduation, empty nest, financial loss, surrender of a dream, anticipation of a future loss.

These events take away some anchor from our lives and leave us unmoored, with seemingly nowhere to regain firm footing. Though no one close to us has died, life will not be the same. Some piece of the heart has been stolen.
Where do we go on in the face of such losses? And where do we find a place to express our feelings?
Often we use the term cope rather than grieve in these situations. But studies show that the same feelings accompany such events as do those of traditional grieving: loneliness, helplessness, emptiness, guilt, anxiety, exhaustion. Usually we don’t acknowledge we are in the process of grieving and are likely to wonder what is keeping us from moving on.

Grief for life’s many losses needs release, not suffering in private.

When we lose a loved one, rituals are in place whereby family and friends offer support, and we are comforted by knowing death’s inevitability. Funerals, memorials, obituaries, tributes and social media posts, and even the statement “I’m sorry for your loss,” however typical, acknowledge what we’re going through. Those around us understand what the grieving process after a death requires. We not only recognize but honor the season of mourning.

But to whom could I express my feelings about my son growing apart from me? If I weren’t in the process of writing this article, I probably never would have mentioned it to anyone beyond a “They grow up so fast” with a fellow parent.

A larger recent experience relates to my other son, who has autism. His condition requires him to attend schools with adequate special needs services, and as a result, we were forced to leave the neighborhood we loved and move to a town that felt more alien to us. His brother had to say goodbye to his friends at his old school. I am happy that my son is getting the support he needs, but every time I drive by our old neighborhood, I feel a pang. These losses take on so many subtle forms; they have nuances other people cannot relate to.

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I think of the tragic experience of one of my dear friends. He is a musician and a virtuoso pianist who all his life has lived for music and little else. He has no wife, no children. Music is his lifelong passion. At 50, he began to suffer neuropathy in his hands. As the condition became more debilitating, doctors informed him he would never be able to play the piano again. Soon his legs began to fail as well, and he was unable to walk, unable to leave the house. Housebound, without music, he felt he had nothing to live for. I struggled to find ways to give encouragement. What could I assure him of? Dubious hope for the future—“It will get better,” and so on—seemed feeble. He hasn’t died, and no one close to him has died, but the disease took all that gives his life meaning. What consolation could I offer?
These losses can be so personal, so private and undetectable to others. There is no tradition in the community to honor the specific suffering experienced within.

“Cast your burden on the LoRD, and he will sustain you” says Psalm 55. Its assurance does not relate to grieving death, but rather, to living with any great burden, including losses. The Bible offers infinite divine recourse at these moments. As Jesus says in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” God is a permanent home, a sanctuary for the soul, and a permanent wellspring of love. God is a perpetual anchor and shelter we know never disappears no matter the losses we face. Attending church provides the reassurance of a community of believers and a constant reminder that we can’t rely only on ourselves to get through these difficult moments.

Another extreme loss I’ve witnessed occurred to two of my closest friends. Through their experience, God not only sustained them, but strengthened them. Each had just left an abusive marriage when they met one another and fell in love. Their previous losses were seemingly redeemed. Given a second chance at love, they wanted nothing more than to share it. They were soon married, she got pregnant, and they were elated to begin their new life as parents. Yet hours after she gave birth, they learned their newborn son had profound birth defects. He would never speak, never eat through his mouth, never be able to hold his head up, never have properly functioning organs, never be able to say, “I love you” or truly, genuinely look any person in the eye. From that moment on, not only would they not have the experience of other parents, but they had to reorient their lives around his disability: equipping a van to accommodate his wheelchair, hiring 24-hour care, preparing food for his tubes. Each day they give him every bit of love they can, and yet in his inability to reciprocate, they daily sense underlying mourning.

This loss of a dream and anticipated family life would seem to lead them to despair. But it hasn’t. What gives them life and strength is their Christian faith. They genuinely believe that ministering to the sick and the needy, in its most immediate form, is part of their life’s purpose. They know this child is a gift, and they do not feel merely capable and accepting but blessed to give comfort and care.

If we have a foundation—a “rock” as the Bible says in so many instances—no loss need break us. Only the weather changes. Our lives are so filled with loss, yet we are rooted in a higher power, a deeper place of rest. We treasure memories as living things—those pictures on the wall capture moments that will never leave us. They are reminders of all that is good and real and worth living for. We are reminded that every passing moment is a blessing, though the moment is always passing.

The Bible reassures us that “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5). And, “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

God is always there for sanctuary. Words in Scripture don’t die, can’t be lost.

People of the Map

A phenomenon of loss that seems not to allow for grief reminds me of a poem I used to teach by the poet Stephen Dobyns—a poem that balances traditional grief alongside life’s losses, and its anticipated losses. He writes of his father and a dear friend waiting in separate hospitals for surgeons to crack their chests. “How can I live in this place without them?” he writes in his poem “No Map.” The loss has not even occurred, but he realizes it is coming, and he already feels the grief that will accompany it—with the added fear, the guilt, the uncertainty. But Dobyns doesn’t stop there. The poem turns to an even greater anxiety and uncertainty. The day is also his son’s birthday, and he lists the gifts the boy will receive and then says, “Where / Is his manual of instructions? Where is his map / Showing the dark places and how to escape them?”

The poem depicts powerful, universal feelings we often don’t have a means to express. It presents losses, and anticipation of losses, flooding forth simultaneously, as they so often do. And yet it ends with confusion. Because the poem is secular, it has no room to make spiritual claims. It can only end with a question. Without a spiritual foundation, the speaker is left at a loss regarding how to care for his son. “Where is his map?”

We can suggest where his map is. In God. To a believer, there is an answer to his question. There is a map. And there is an itinerary, and there is a destination. As Paul writes in Romans 8:25-28, the Spirit helps us in our weakness, and when we do not know how to pray, the Spirit intercedes. And ultimately, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.”

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