Yesterday at church I was introduced to a mother whose 26-year old son had been killed two months ago in an accident. I have felt such a burden to be able to help others who are suffering from grief and loss … I have been reading widely on the subject, in an attempt to understand it in my head, so I might possibly find some words which would be helpful, which would be true. But faced with it, I realize that there are no such words. There is nothing on earth anybody can say or do that will relieve even a little bit of the grief of such devastating loss. How could I possible be helpful to those who have suffered such a loss?
There are things I can suggest that can help people deal with it, that can help them crawl out of the dark hole which will be forever in the center of their lives. But not everybody is ready to crawl out yet, and I really don’t think they should be hurried if they aren’t. My loss is different from those who have had a loved one die. My child was missing, and so I not only had hope that she might be coming home each and every day, I had things to DO to try and help make that happen. That busy-ness was a great help. But I think it also helped me to fall immediately into the distraction. And denial. I have always stepped around that hole, and I have paid for my inability to face its darkness.
Apart from grief, there is depression, which is quite a complicated monster. It does not always mean that you are going around being sad. Sometimes it masquerades as a flatness. Frequently it shows up as anger. Anger is one of the defined stages of grief, and also a major expression of depression. I learned this in the second year after Michaela was kidnapped. I just felt angry. I took it out mostly on other drivers on the road, who thankfully were in their own cars and couldn’t hear me. At other times, I felt as though I wanted to smash glass. You know how it is when you are nauseous and you just want to throw up because you know it will make you feel better? That’s how I felt about smashing glass. I did finally go out in my back yard one day and break some dishes. It felt good in the moment, but didn’t really help in the long run. I used to run every morning, in the dark, and that helped. It was on one of my morning runs that the light finally came on and I realized that the anger was really sorrow, turned inside out and thrown outside myself so I wouldn’t have to deal with it. It is a way of avoiding the black hole. It is better, probably, to spend your time there, so you don’t end up going so far astray.
Depression is still something I deal with, almost 26 years later. These last couple of weeks I have been doing a discipleship program with my church, which includes cutting way back on media. As long as I was at it, I figured I really should get eating under control. As a result of these things I suddenly found myself engulfed by depression. I had been burying it for years in food (“let’s eat our feelings,” as my daughter jokes sometimes), and I had been distracting myself with a constant stream of media, television and other entertainment to occupy my mind. (You know, work occupies my mind also and distracts me from confronting my feelings and from my relationship with God as well. I don’t know why they didn’t tell me to give that up instead of television. 😉 )
If you are in that black hole of grief and you do want to get out, though, I think you have to begin by allowing yourself to be happy. It is not dishonoring to those we lost to be happy. I struggled with this in the beginning. I was fortunate to have a lot of people around who made me laugh even in the worst of times. In this respect again I was in a different position than those whose loved one has passed on, to my detriment, because I kept envisioning Michaela alive, terrified, miserable, and how could I laugh when my child was suffering? But me being miserable didn’t help Michaela. In fact, I have mentioned many times the letter I got from the man in Los Angeles who said, “Find something to smile about each day. That will help Michaela, because she wants you to be happy.” I know this is true, and I know I had other children still to care for, and I had to maintain some modicum of sanity for their sake. I say some modicum because I am well aware that I didn’t do that as well as they needed, and I will spend my life being sorry for the ways I let them down. I thank the Lord that they have turned out as well as they have in spite of me.
Those other kids. They kept me alive. Mine were little at the time, ages 8, 3, and 8 months. One of the things that is common after a devastating loss is for your heart to pull back in on itself. You still love everyone you loved, but there is a bit of a distance, as your heart draws back and says no, I can’t love like that, because I could not survive the grief of another loss like this. This is not a full-fledged thing, and it doesn’t result in abandonment, although divorce is really common after the loss of a child, and this might play into that. But for the most part, it’s just an undercurrent. For me, I didn’t really know it was there. I only realized how guarded my heart was when I was pregnant with my youngest child, five years after Michaela was kidnapped, and I lived through the painful fall of the walls around my heart.
I’m not a real fan of therapy because I never found it did any good, but I had therapists who just let me blabber on without ever really guiding me into anything. I wish somebody had been able to tell me what was going on inside. I guess, though, that when you discover it yourself you really know it. The next question is whether knowing it changes it. I don’t think it does. What is hurt needs healing, and that comes on a different level. Sometimes it occurs through life experiences, and I have had that happen on a number of occasions — that synchronicity of events that lets you know that there is more to things than what you see, that there is a guiding force, and ultimate love in even the worst of times. The Bible is full of teachings on suffering and its purpose in our lives. And it does have a purpose. It changes us, and we are never the same people we were before. It moves us, often, closer to who we are meant to be and what we are meant to accomplish. But these are things that need to be experienced. These are things that need to be felt. An explanation of these things to a grieving parent, spouse or child might perhaps evoke nothing more than anger, because the fact is that there is NOTHING that justifies the loss to our children of their lives. “My child died (or was kidnapped),” they will say, “so that I could accomplish things and help other people? Well phooey on that, and phooey on any God who would think that’s okay.”
Yes. I know. Believe me, I know. But sit with it. Allow time to pass. Allow it to penetrate your heart, your bones. One thing we who have lost children want to know is that our children’s lives and suffering were not for nothing. They weren’t. Just as you made them into who they were, they are making you into who you will be … and not you alone. A child who is lost will touch and change many, many hearts … a child of any age. They are a part of your essence, a part of the essence of all who loved them, and thereafter, like the ripples from a pebble in a stream, a part of the essence of every life you come to touch. They live in your heart, and you continue to shine their lights into the world. They affect eternal destinities. You don’t need a blog or a facebook, a book or a TV show in order to do this (although you surely can!). The light may be a search light, a spot light, or a warm lamp in the windows, but it is a light.
I have seen a lot of deaths of young people lately. I don’t know what that means. It compels even more me to want to understand, and yet I know that true intellectual understanding may well be beyond my grasp. If I were to tell you that ultimately having a relationship with God is the greatest and only comfort, I know there are those who will not believe me. To that I can only say, it doesn’t hurt to try it. For me, when I have opened up to God just a little bit, he has responded … not usually instantaneously, but he has started calling me, has planted little seeds in my heart until one day I see the sprouts and say, hey, what is this? There is nothing at all in this world that is certain. I have had to acknowledge that because I open myself up to love, I open myself up to the most atrocious pain some near or far day. There is only one who I love that I will never lose, and that is God.
But I know, sometimes, that doesn’t feel like it’s enough.
I wish I could reach out and touch those devastated by grief with some magical healing. But I can’t. All I can say is, you are not alone. You will survive, because I did. It will always be there, but eventually it will be a scar rather than an open raging weeping sore. In the meantime, two things to remember:
(1) Find something to smile about each day.
(2) Hug someone. I personally feel my grief as a literal heart ache, like a soggy, heavy mass in the center of my chest, and the thing that makes it feel the best is the warmth of heart to heart contact with someone else. This morning I even sat for awhile holding my dog heart to heart, a little pound puppy who had certainly known his own sorrows, and it just felt so good, eased the pain in my heart, that I never wanted to let him go.
(3) Trust God. God doesn’t cause the bad things that happen. As my pastor said the other evening, everyone wants free will — they don’t want God messing in their business until something bad happens — and then they want to know, “Where were you God? How could you let that happen?” We live in the world we live in, the world we have created, with evil and with laws of nature and physics that allow for illness and accidents to occur. God doesn’t generally micromanage those things. But what he will do is use the bad things to refine you, to remake your life. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
And one more time, this beautiful song: I’d have thought by now you would have reached down and wiped our tears away, but once again, I say amen, and it’s still raining….