(These photos I took last weekend on a family outing to the medieval village of Gruyères in the foothills of the Alps, less than an hour’s drive from our home. I only realize now after writing this post, that in these shots Randall is wearing the leather bomber jacket I mention below. I also note that these days he wears a smile far more than he wears tears. But he’s never wanted to remove the stains.)
“Mel,” my husband said as he inched toward me, an open letter in his hand, “I think I need to talk through this one with you.”
Randall was wearing a brown leather bomber jacket, the one he’d bought Parker for his senior year in high school. Throughout the five months since Parker’s death, my husband had been wearing that jacket every day; on his long drive to the office, during his lonely lunch hour walks, during 15 minute breaks hiding in his car in the underground parking lot, on that lonely, howling drive back home. By now, the leather was so speckled and discolored from tearstains, it looked like armadillo hide. A pockmarked hand-me-down from his dead son. A mourning uniform. An extra heavy skin for his skinlessness.
As he stood there, I could see fresh stains on the chest of the jacket. They looked like cartoon exclamations – “Pow!” or “Bam!” – dark bullet holes all spiky round the ridges. Randall’s eyes were red, and he tugged the jacket around himself when he sat on the sofa, then held the letter in both hands, unable to read it to me.
I took the paper and saw it was from a valued friend, a person we respect and love, a good and devoted church associate from many years earlier, a person with whom Randall had been able to remain in contact despite all our geographic moves.
As Randall stared at the floor, I read the letter to myself. By the fourth sentence I knew why it had triggered tears and the feelings Randall would “have to talk through.”
Our friend was writing with concerns. Some mutual associates had reported having seen Randall, and noted that Randall was “still quite sad.”
And so our friend felt to check in. And felt compelled to offer some advice.
I hear you’re still very sad, Randall, the letter began. So I feel a responsibility to ask: Are you praying? Reading your scriptures? Attending your church meetings? Have you tried fasting? When was the last time you attended the temple? Have you pondered on our Father’s plan of happiness?
At this point in telling you this story, I’m already so uncomfortable, and realize I’m cornered. No matter how I continue here, I know I’ll sound petty or pouty or jerky or prickly or a dark shade of snarky.
So I’ll quick-edit to the sweet ending, three months later, when Randall and I just happened to run into this very friend at a large international conference. We’d long since folded up that letter and tucked it in a safe padded place in our hearts, but when I first sighted this friend from across the expansive hall teeming with people, there was the faintest smell of a burning memory, darn it, with its distant sizzle and tiny paisley swirls of smoke.
I was recalling how Randall and I had coached each other through the compounded sorrow, reasoning that this friend must have written that letter with love and concern, maybe even desperation. This friend had probably seen others who, in the wake of tragedy, had lost their grasp on (or had pitched altogether) their faith. So our friend was intervening.
But this kind of intervention hurt. It hurt because the unsolicited counsel felt almost like a reprimand, particularly since we had been praying, reading, attending, fasting – doing all those things listed. What’s more, we’d being doing them not because anyone had prescribed them, but because our souls utterly craved them. We craved them with a wild feral hunger I find difficult if not impossible to describe.
It was not the points themselves that were bad, of course. In fact, living in a way that draws you close to the Spirit is vital to strengthening the soul under the burden of grief. Vital as in a question of life and death, I’d say. No, it wasn’t the points. It was the dispensing of the points in that context that was not helpful. Because the implication was that our grief was incompatible with faith. How could we be sad – still sad – and still be faithful?
Or the reverse: How could anyone be faithful yet still be sad?
What would have been a more helpful letter? Maybe something like this:
I hear you’re still very sad, Randall.
And of course you are. I’m still sad, too. Very, very sad.
Love, your broken-hearted friend.
Randall thought many times of writing back to this friend, and was in fact in the process of doing so when we miraculously landed in the same building on a warm April afternoon.
In that big hall we met eyes, this friend and I, and I recognized right off that the look in that face across the room was one shadowed with something that looked like remorse. I, though, was smiling. Broadly. In a matter of seconds, my heart felt full and tender towards him. Who can explain it?
So where was my husband? I craned my neck to find Randall. He’d want to see this friend, I knew it.
“Honey!” (I blurted it too loudly for the setting,) “Randge, hon-ey!” (My heart was hopscotching and blowing shiny soap bubbles everywhere) “Look who’s here!”
I corralled our friend through the crowd and right up behind Randall, who was talking with someone else, and when I whispered the friend’s name, Randall whipped right around. In an instant, their two faces simply melted.
“Please, Randall,” this friend said, head shaking, eyes cast downward, “I’m so sorry for that letter, so sorry for. . .I don’t blame you if you’re angry with me, I was so – “
“Angry? No, no. I love you.”
And I could see: My husband really meant it.
In the middle of the packed hall, the two embraced. Lots of folks were greeting and hugging in that hall, I couldn’t help but notice, but this hug right here was the most moving of all possible hugs.
It was a genuinely golden moment.
Yes, I know I’ve unfairly bungee-jumped the narrative from the hurt point A to the hug point Z. This is because between B and Y there’s a whole dense volume of soul-shifting and an expansion of understanding that would rip the seams out of a snug little blog.
(I might refer you to Dostoyevsky, who can really get under the fingernails of forgiveness.)
I can add this brief aside, though: Grief requires forgiveness. From the first minutes. And from all sides. And for many reasons. There’s no way around that truth.
Some of us on the outside of a tragedy looking in on it might be afraid of the sheer magnitude of what we see. We think perhaps things will be better if we reduce the grief – diminish it – as we might with a three-year-old child overreacting to a stubbed toe. “There, there. You don’t need to cry. Now be a big boy, pull yourself together and go out and play again.”
Or we advise, and in advising we try to manage another’s grief, disallowing it for what it is.
Or we simply dismiss another’s agony, as in any of the following statements:
You know, it could’ve been worse
These things happen to everyone
I sent my daughter to college and it was so hard I almost died. I guess death is even worse?
I sent my son on a mission and it nearly killed me. Death must feel worse?
Well, at least he died as a baby. It would have been worse to get to know him
Remember you have to be strong
Don’t let your kids see you crying
At least you’ve got other children
Your grieving can distract your deceased from her mission
Don’t wallow; Don’t dwell on it
Buck up; Suck up
But separation is just for this life. . .
You’ll just have to. . .
I’m sure you’ll be okay. Just give it some time
(The word “just” sends the message of simplicity, smallness. Traumatic loss is neither simple nor small.)
The above comments, I’ve concluded, are almost always rooted in misunderstanding.
So here is a brief note to stimulate understanding: If grief lasts more than X months or if it is neither tidy nor capable of putting on a happy face, is this a sign of moral or spiritual weakness? Is grief a sin? Is grief a sickness to be cured? Is it necessarily pathological?
As a possible answer to those queries, I suggest that faith is not only entirely compatible with grief, but it can be that there in the depths of grief, there where you feel your bones ground into the roughest bedrock of grief’s valley, that faith can acquire greater density and a far brighter and more durable luminosity than you have ever before known.
From Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward
Mostly I have tried to avoid [grief] by staying very busy, working too hard, trying to achieve as much as possible. You can often avoid pain by trying to fix other people; shopping helps in a pinch, as does romantic obsession. Martyrdom can’t be beat. While too much exercise works for many people, it doesn’t for me, but I have found that a stack of magazines can be numbing and even mood altering. But the bad news is that whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you. A fixation can keep you nicely defined and give you the illusion that your life had not fallen apart. But your life has fallen apart, the illusion won’t hold up forever, and if you are lucky and brave, you will be willing to bear disillusion. You begin to cry and writhe and yell and then you keep on crying; and then, finally, grief ends up giving you the two best things: softness and illumination.
—A. Lamott, Traveling Mercies, 72, 73
One must grieve, and one must go through periods of numbness that are harder to bear than grief. One must refuse the easy escapes offered by habit and human tradition. The first and most common offerings of family and friends are always distractions (“Take her out”—“Get her away”— “change the scene”— “Bring in people to cheer her up”— “Don’t let her sit and mourn”) [when it is mourning one needs]).
—A. M. Lindbergh, Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead, 215
After great pain a formal feeling comes—
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—
The stiff Heart questions—was it He, that bore?
And Yesterday—or Centuries before?
The Feet mechanical, go round—
Of ground or Air, or Ought,
A Wooden way
A Quartz contentment, like a stone—
This is the Hour of Lead—
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—
—E. Dickinson, “The Hour of Lead,” The Poems of Emily Dickinson, 272
When I try to take myself back to that time, to recall the terrible numbness that I lived in, I recoil in fear. I never want to go through anything like that again. Originally, these songs were never meant for publication or public consumption; they were just what I did to stop from going mad. . . .
When [“Tears in Heaven”] came out, it was the biggest-selling album of my entire career. . . . But if you want to know what it actually cost me, go to Ripley, and visit the grave of my son.
—Eric Clapton, Clapton: The Autobiography, 250, 254; Clapton’s four-year-old son Conor died when he fell from a fifty-third-story window in New York City.
Grief is not a hurdle that we jump over at will or a barrier that we can avoid if we are careful. After his wife’s death from cancer, C. S. Lewis recognized the all-encompassing reality of grief: “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything” (A Grief Observed, 11).
—W. Simsic, Cries of the Heart, 10
My father told me, “Mother is sick, she went to the hospital and she died. That’s it—there is nothing more to say.” I was 13. He did not take me to the funeral, and I was not included as a mourner in any of the family’s rituals. As a teenager and as a young woman, I always experienced a sense of malaise for which I have no name, as I got older, I learned I was grieving for my mother. I found words for all the things I was feeling. When I finally asked my father about his behavior—he said that was the advice he was given, to simply carry on and not dwell on the loss.
—Thirty-five-year-old woman interviewed in Silverman, Never Too Young to Know, 9
Most bereaved children like to remember and talk about the deceased with friends and relatives. Unfortunately, there is a phenomenon called “the conspiracy of silence” that makes it difficult for others to talk about the dead person because they are afraid of hurting the bereaved’s feelings. The bereaved person, on the other hand, has hurt feelings when people won’t talk about the deceased with them.
—Erin Linn, 150 Facts About Grieving Children, 10
My brother came in and he said, “Ma died” and he just started crying. Then I started punching walls and stuff. I was punching all over the place. I broke one of the pictures in my room. I smashed it all over the place. I was mad. I just went around the house punching everything. Getting mad and freaking out, punching everything and just crying and stuff. I cried the whole night. I didn’t even sleep. I guess my father would have liked me not to be mad and stuff and punch things, but I couldn’t stop.
—A nine-year-old recalling his mother’s sudden death, interviewed in Phyllis R. Silverman, Never Too Young To Know, 85
How do you survive as a couple? How did we work out our differences? We talked, we love each other, and we held each other and we began to appreciate that we were different. . . . Each of us was grieving on different levels. I was very sad at the beginning, and he was very rational. . . . When we went to bed, I would talk about my feelings so I could go to sleep—and then he would have it all and he couldn’t sleep. He got to the point where he said, “Don’t talk,” and then that would breed resentment in me. It was a while after Ellen died, but we got to a place where we could hear each other.
—Interviewed in Phyllis Silverman and Madelyn Kelly, A Parent’s Guide to Raising Grieving Children, 133
Many people tried to make [our surviving daughter] feel responsible for Steve and me, counseled her to “take care of us” because our son had died and it was “so much worse” for us. I encouraged her to ignore this advice. . .
Yet I’ll never forget one thing she told me after many years had gone by. “I didn’t lose my brother but my parents; you were never the same after that. You got old.” That is absolutely the naked truth. Our home was broken in a way that could never be fixed or returned to the normal it was when Adam was alive. Gray hairs popped out where they hadn’t been any before. No matter how hard we all tried to be present with each other, the grief irrevocably created emotional chasms. Moments of closeness faded into the wall of pain we each had around us. Adam’s absence was huge.
—Merryl Webber, interviewed in Redfern and Gilbert, The Grieving Garden, 139
But why celebrate stoic tearlessness? Why insist on never outwarding the inward, when that inward is bleeding? Does enduring while crying not require as much strength as never crying? Must we always mask our suffering? May we not sometimes allow people to see and enter it? I mean, may men not do this?
And why is it so important to act strong? I have been graced with the strength to endure. But I have been assaulted, and in the assault wounded, grievously wounded. Am I to pretend otherwise? Wounds are ugly, I know. They repel. But must they always be swathed?
I shall look at the world through tears. Perhaps I shall see things that dry-eyed I could not see.
—N. Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, 26
The tears came freely, and I did not attempt to refrain them when I was alone. Indeed, for over a year, there was no day I did not weep, and I did not find that tears cut me off from her. It was the tearless void that severed us at times.
––Sheldon Van Auken, A Severe Mercy, 182
Giving myself to grief proved to be hard as well as necessary. It happened in both spontaneous and intentional ways. I could not always determine the proper time and setting for tears, which occasionally came at unexpected and inconvenient moments, such as in the middle of a college class I was teaching or during a conversation. I was surprised to see how inoffensive that was to others. If anything, my display of grief invited them to mourn their own losses, and it made the expression of sorrow a normal and natural occurrence in daily life.
—G. Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 42
During one particular time of prayer, I was lying prostrate with my face on the floor. I had just said to the Lord, “Something new needs to happen here.” I meant it in terms of my relationship with God and with John-Paul [his son who died]. “I am tired of the grief, the heaviness, the loneliness, the longing, the ache in my heart.” Just then someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was my friend Ed Greey. He bent down and said, “Can I talk to you?”
I got up and followed him into the kitchen. Ed is a big, strong, man’s man kind of guy—camping, fly-fishing, a genius with his hands. He was crying. No, he was weeping intensely. He put his hands on my shoulders and said through his tears, “I don’t know what’s happening here. All I know is that God has given me a burden for you—I feel the weight of the grief and sorrow you’ve been carrying these months. And I think God wants me to tell you that he wants to lift it—the grief and the sorrow—and give you joy. And, Gregory, he wants you to know how much he loves you.”
That was it. There were the two of us, standing in the kitchen embracing one another and weeping. As I think of it I am reminded of an amazing line of poetry I heard years ago while driving in the car:
There must be men among us whom we can cry [with]
And still be counted as warriors.
—Gregory Floyd, A Grief Unveiled, 157–59