Monday, February 02, 2009

On Loss

The other day, my mother sent me a quick email asking me to call her as she had some "theological questions" for me. When my family members raise "theological questions," they tend to be things like "Can I see a psychic to have my Tarot cards read?"

In this case, her question was startlingly simple: What do you say to a parent who has lost a child?

Mom had just come home from a funeral for a young woman - just 17 years old - and was grappling with this question. Interestingly, she did not want me to answer over the phone. Rather, she asked that I blog about this in hopes that I may say something that is helpful to others.

So here goes.


To the Parent who has lost a child,

Allow me to begin by acknowledging the depth and breadth of your loss. No words of mine can fill this void and, to be sure, this is not my intent. Your heart is breaking, nay, it is broken, and there is nothing that I can say or do that will change this. I have no delusion of dispelling your grief. But if it is helpful to you, I ask your permission to say some things that aim only to give you some comfort.

Recall you child's infancy. What hopes and dreams did you have? Could you have imagined the first-steps and words, birthday parties, new school years, dances, sleep-overs, sporting events, and proms? Each time you placed that little bundle into the crib for a nap, could you for a moment have anticipated the joys and the hardships of being a parent?

Can you remember envisioning the seemingly unlimited future of your baby? Perhaps in the still of the night, you rocked your baby to sleep and, as you waited, you imagined all sorts of possibilities. In those moments, maybe you envisioned the joys and excitement of the life to come. In those moments, maybe you also felt the stirrings of fear: an uncertain world, illnesses, heartbreak, even death.

If you were fortunate, you were able to dispel those fears quickly. You were able to bracket out the darkness and fear and dwell on the hopes and promise of your baby's life. And each time you brushed your lips over her forehead, or said to him "I love you," you sought impress upon your child the seal of love that would protect and strengthen him throughout his life.

Do not, for a moment, forget this. You loved your child. None of us ever loves perfectly, but you know the depths of your love. You know the many ways you showed it, ways your son or daughter never could have realized: the sacrifices, the scrimping, the reshuffled schedules, the countless acts of love and self-giving that you filled your lives with. And you did these not to make yourself feel good about yourself, but you gave wholly and generously for your child's future.

And now that future has been stolen.

You are right to be angry. This is an offense - things like this should not happen. Babies should not die suddenly. Little boys should not be diagnosed with leukemia. Little girls should not be killed by stray bullets or drunk drivers. This suit should have been worn at his graduation, not at his funeral; this dress should have been worn at her prom, not at her wake. Such losses offend everything within us that calls for justice and rightness.

Your child should not be dead. All of the hopes and dreams, promise and potential, have been dashed. Those feathery kisses that danced across sleeping foreheads, high-fives, and silent smiles seem now to have been thwarted in the most ghastly way imaginable: your baby, your child, is dead. And you are supposed to continue living with this gaping whole in your heart. It is, I suspect, as though the very air that you breath has been stolen away from you.

Surely, you will be accosted by many well-intentioned people. When they begin to say things such as, "She's in a better place" or "God wanted her to be with Him" - please, put your hands over your ears and run. Do not be afraid to stare at someone offering such blithering idiocy and to tell them to GET LOST. These are profoundly empty and meaningless platitudes, words that are meant to give a REASON for something that is, one the whole, UNREASONABLE. I think when people offer such nonsense, it's done with the best of intentions - to make you, or themselves, feel better. Don't allow yourself to be used in this way. This is your time to grieve.

Know, first, that this is going to be harder and last longer than you can imagine. People will bring trays of lasagna over for a few weeks, and you'll receive many calls for the next few months. Soon, the food and the calls will diminish and then, not long after, people will begin to expect that you'll "get back to normal." But what is normal, anyhow? A major piece of your life has just been ripped away. It takes weeks to recover from a broken bone. Months to recover from certain types of surgery. Following the death of a child, it seems to me that the recovery period is a lot longer: like the rest of your life.

I say this, not as a pessimist but, rather, as a realist. And this might be freeing for you: you have all the time you need to grieve. The first cycle of grief will force you through the calendar year, with all of its important dates: birthdays, anniversary of death, holidays, etc.. Each date will evoke a memory, a feeling, and will seem to re-open your wounded heart. Your life is adapting to its new normal: a life without one you love. No amount of time will fill this void, but you will grow accustomed to it.

But right now, as you feel yourself suffocating, allow yourself to grieve. Be angry. Be Furious. Cry out "WHY!!??!!?" and allow yourself to be angry at the silence. Give yourself permission to grieve. We live in a culture where entire cities go into a state of depression when they lose a major sporting event. If this is the response to something inconsequential, your anger at this loss is more than justified.

If you believe in God, I encourage you to let God have it. God is very big and has heard many things. Let the Almighty have it. If you are a Christian, you now find yourself at the foot of the cross. Know that Jesus, the Son of God, also met a terrible death. Know that his mother had to stand by before, during, and after his execution. This, too, is part of the Passion: the broken, pierced heart of Mary as she watched as her son is nailed to a tree like some animal. But our belief as Christians is that death is not the final answer to our life, and that the promise of the resurrection gives us hope for life eternal with God. The cross neither makes sense of our suffering nor takes it away from us. The cross marks the horrific reality that suffering and death is a part of human life. The cross also symbolizes the belief that life is more powerful than death.

Even if you do not believe in God, or cannot any longer believe in God, I should like to think that what I have said is applicable to you, too. The heart of the Christian, the Jew, the Muslim, the Buddhist, and the Atheist beats the same; each is susceptible to grief and loss. For you, know that your love and care for your child has contributed to the betterment of the world. Your love, like all love, poured out into the world through your son or daughter. Christians will claim that their love pre-figured the Kingdom of God; without being beholden to this belief, know that through love you helped to re-figure our own world as one that is more open to and able to give love. You will live forever with the memory of the one you have loved, and he or she will always be a part of you.

To you, dear parent, allow me to offer my sincerest and most heartfelt sympathies. I do not know your particular pain, but I do know something of loss and, in the solidarity of grief, I unite my heart with yours. I cannot give you answers, nor can I make the pain go away. I can only encourage you to trust in the power of love which transcends and unites all human traditions and urge you to be patient with yourself and with others. Know as well that you are in my thoughts and prayers, for I pray daily for those who have lost children. Finally, trust that with patience and time, with grace and perseverance, you will grow into the new normal of life after loss. You will bear forever the mark of the one you have loved, and it is my hope that you will bear that scar into the future as you continue your journey of living and loving.