loss of a child
In Joe Biden’s very public journey through grief, he inadvertently gave a lasting gift to Americans by addressing common experiences in living with loss. His wife Neila and 13-month-old daughter Naomi were killed, and his sons Beau (2) and Hunter (3) suffered severe injuries in a tractor-trailer accident, in 1972. Just six weeks earlier, at age 29, he’d being elected as Senator from Delaware. When his 46-year-old son Beau, who survived a year of military service in Iraq, died this past May of a brain tumor, the intense emotional memories of that long journey influenced his thinking on mounting a presidential campaign. Few politicians have spoken so openly and bluntly about grief’s profound pain.
Wisdom from Joe
Grief has no predictable timetable.
In the White House Rose Garden, flanked by his wife Jill and President Obama, he spoke of the process of grief.
“I know from previous experience that there is no timetable for this process. The process doesn’t respect or care about things like filing deadlines or debates and primaries and caucuses.”
Heartbreak can rip apart the fabric of life, a suffering that sometimes collapses our sense of self, the world, and God.
A practicing Catholic, he has spoken of his initial anger towards God, and his crisis of faith that gripped him in the days after his daughter and wife died.
“I was angry, man I was angry…I was a practicing Catholic, but I was mad at God. I remember being in the Capital Rotunda walking through to get the plane to go home to identify-uh,anyway-and I remember looking up and saying, ‘God.’ I was talking to God myself: ‘God, you can’t be good. How can you be good?'”
In a 2012 emotional speech for families of fallen military service members at the TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar, he also shared some of his darkest thoughts. Known for his optimistic personality, he admits, “It was the first time in my career, in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide. Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts, because they had been to the top of the mountain, and they just knew in their heart they would never get there again.”
Closure is not a realistic or necessary goal.
At the same military event with survivors, he speaks of normal “grief bursts” that sabotage even years later.
“There was still something gigantic missing. And just when you think, ‘Maybe I’m going to make it,’ you’re riding down the road and you pass a field, and you see a flower and it reminds you. Or you hear a tune on the radio. Or you just look up in the night. You know, you think, ‘Maybe I’m not going to make it, man’ Because you feel at that moment the way you felt the day you got the news.”
But that is not the end of his story. Hope emerges.
Joy will come again.
“There will come a day–I promise you, and your parents as well–when the thought of your son or daughter, or your husband or wife, brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. It will happen. My prayer for you is this day will come soon or later. But the only thing I have more experience than you is in this: I’m telling you it will come.”
Even more, he believes:
There are surprise gifts of goodness in grief.
In his commencement address at Yale University, he tells the graduates,
“I can remember my mother–a sweet lady–looking at me, after we left the hospital, and saying, ‘Joey, out of everything terrible that happens to you, something good will come if you look hard enough for it. She was right.
Because I had the incredible good fortune of an extended family, grounded in love and loyalty, imbued with a sense of obligation imparted to each of us, I not only got help. But by focusing on my sons, I found my redemption.”
He made a decision after the accident to take the train home every night, rather than stay in Washington D.C., so he could be with his boys daily.
“The incredible bond I have with my children is the gift I’m not sure I would have had, had I not been through what I went through. Who knows whether I would have been able to appreciate at that moment in my life, the heady moment in my life (just elected as one of America’s youngest senators), what my first obligation was.”
Vice-President Biden is notorious for his candid off-the-cuff comments, some of which (often televised) cause distress afterwards. But in his natural honesty of telling it “like it is,” he has given families in grief an understanding heart, and public insight into respecting the process of a long and deep sorrow.
With thanks to writings from Amber Phillips, The Huffington Post, Yale University, and his 2012 speech at the 18th annual TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar.
Can grief actually be a friend after losing one we love?
“You won’t always feel this bad.” This was the quiet assurance a friend gave Babs a few weeks after her 16-year-old son died while rolling his truck on a mountain road. Reeling from the loss of her only child, she found “these words gave me immense comfort because I knew she’d been there after her own child’s death.”
She expressed the concern of mothers and fathers everywhere who carry the burden of sorrow beyond imagination when a beloved child dies. It’s a question I also carried after our 25-year-old married daughter was killed while volunteering in Bolivia.
And it is the question any person carries who lives with the shattering loss of a beloved parent, spouse, family member or friend.
“I liken grief to an intruder who breaks into your house, demands attention and takes over your life,” explained Jan Skaggs, whose only daughter Cameron died in a crosswalk during college.
“It can feel violent, rude, and socially unacceptable, such as when I’d cry in inappropriate places. But in time, I recognized grief was here to stay. It would never leave. I’d never be able to go back to the old normal.”
“So I invited grief to sit at the table and offered hospitality. It became my friend.”
Four Reasons to Befriend Grief
1) Bereavement is a healthy, normal, and universal response to losing one we love.
“If he is worth loving, he is worth grieving,” states Nicholas Wolsterdorff in the classic book Lament for a Son, an eloquent account of his devastation after the mountain climbing death of his son Eric. “Grief is existential testimony to the worth of one we loved. That worth abides. So I own my grief.”
Twelve years later, he said, “The wound is no longer raw. But it has not disappeared. That is as it should be. I do not try to put it behind me, to get over it, to forget it.”
Parental love is forever, and many parents speak of ways they continue bonds with their child. “When thoughts of Dawnya rise up,” says Diana Hartvigson, whose daughter was murdered twenty years ago, “I don’t try to suppress them for fear of the pain. I allow myself to let them arise.”
2) “Attending” to grief often allows for deeper and earlier healing.
After my Whitworth University faculty colleague Jerry Sittser experienced the catastrophic death of his wife, daughter, and mother by a drunk driver, he told me of a terrible nightmare. Fleeing towards the sun, he felt the darkness engulf him. Shaken, he told his dream to his sister. “She reminded me that the shortest distance to the light of the sun is east, through the darkness, until one comes to the sunrise.” Recognizing darkness was unavoidable, he writes in A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Grief of his decision to allow himself to be transformed by suffering.
As many parents expressed, all encompassing grief demands attention for healthy emotional growth. In the second year after Krista’s death, my husband took a solo backpacking trip with our dog Scout into the Olympic National rainforest. Facing his profound sorrow brought deep refreshment on his own pilgrimage through grief.
In contrast, grief counselors observe that “unattended sorrow” can lead some to a narrowing and fading trust in life, emotional distancing, or even life-destructive addictions.
3) Grief can expand wisdom, clarifying what’s really important in our lives.
At Krista’s memorial, I saw a college friend of hers who endured the murder of her 2-year-old nephew. “How did your family ever survive such a loss?” I asked.
Molly paused briefly, and then said simply, “Our joys become more intense.” It’s an insight I’ve never forgotten as Jim and I seek to live with immense gratitude for each day.
When Marilyn Carlson Nelson’s daughter Juliet died in a car accident, this became a crucible moment for Marilyn. In her book How We Lead Matters, she speaks of emerging from her anger and depression at such a senseless death. Now acutely aware that each day could be their last, she writes, “My husband and I made a new commitment to living our lives to the fullest, making each day count.” She later became the first female CEO of Carlson, the world’s largest global travel business and initiated sound principles of love and care into this corporate structure.
4) Grief often becomes a catalyst for positive action.
Beneath sorrow there lies a wellspring of love for the one we have lost. When a grieving person accesses this, it becomes the source of amazing energy and creativity, and the catalyst for positive actions. We see this in the formation of major non-profits like Mothers Against Drunk Driving or the Susan G. Komen Foundation, but also for thousands of local efforts to compassionately address human needs.
“But death can bring fear,” admits Pennye Nixon-West, whose 16-year-old daughter was killed while a Rotary student overseas. “Eventually I had to decide to either wilt or die, or to be open to the opportunities that evolved from Etta’s death, including the willingness to grow.” Many stories in my book Pilgrimage through Loss show the beauty of such growth.
For Jan, who invited grief to be a guest at the table many years ago, has found that befriending grief expanded her heart. “Life has been reconstructed,” she said. “Grief knocked out walls of assumptions, prejudice, and quick judgment and has built a much larger room now. My life is more grace filled, more welcoming to others, filled with a lighter heart.”
Don’t get me wrong. Grief sucks; it really does. Unfortunately, though, avoiding it robs us of Life, of the now, of the sense of living spirit…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.
Are there ways you have found that befriending and choosing to give attention to grief has been important? I’d love to hear.
In a Palm Sunday service, our Episcopalian preacher quoted from novelist Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, “What we notice in stories is the nearness of the wound to the gift.”
During this liturgical season of Lent, the forty days of remembrance beginning with Ash Wednesday to this Easter morning’s joyous celebration, her words illuminated this faith journey.
In truth, I have often found the Biblical story of Jesus enduring the cross a profound mystery. Was there really no other way? A brutal death by crucifixion seems an unimaginable way to bear the essence in a story of Divine Love, that “God so loved the world he gave His only Son.” In Good Friday services, when Christians around the world gather in remembrance , I find myself restless, even resistant, as we ponder the devastating wounds to Jesus’s body and soul.
To imagine His sense of human betrayal and then lingering for hours with almost unbearable suffering, this is the heart of a Biblical story that confounds. Then, to imagine the anguish of His mother Mary watching helplessly adds even more to the heartbreak.
With daily news of brutal violence racking our contemporary world, I confess to prefer focusing on the daily actions of a compassionate comforting Jesus, one who lived radically and demonstrated justice and love for all. When my husband Jim, a college professor, returned from taking students to Central America one spring, he mentioned noticing the difference in the creative focus throughout Holy Week, especially with elaborate parades and passionate ceremonies on Good Friday. In contrast, Easter Day celebrations were low key.
“In countries where so many persons endure marginalized life, there appears to be a deep identification with the love expressed by the suffering Jesus and His passion,” reflected Jim. “In America, I wonder if we prefer to focus on Easter Day, with our emphasis on the risen Christ, because it’s a story of hope and optimism?” How true for me, I thought.
What we notice in stories is the nearness of the wound to the gift.
Yet, by giving attention to the mystery of the Great Sorrow, we are invited into a deeper understanding of the Great Gift. There are three details of the Biblical narrative that I find especially compelling: the region’s plunge into three hours of daytime darkness while Jesus slowly died, the veil in the temple rent in two, and the earth quaking when Jesus “yielded up His Spirit.”
I doubt I’ll ever fully understand the “why,” of the crucifixion, those hours of dark agony. But the words from one hymn ring true. “O, the deep deep love of Jesus. Vast, unmeasured, boundless, free.”
So though the cross seems confusing and mysterious, the words of writer Rainier Marie Rilke echo my trust in this narrative, “I believe in the night,” says Rilke. This great darkness that embraces everything.
Because near the Great Sorrow lies the Great Gift.
A Gift that our family so needed when two friends came to our door one beautiful May dawn to deliver news that our 25-year-old daughter, Krista, had been killed in Bolivia when a bus plunged over a cliff. Krista and her husband, Aaron, were on a three-year mission of voluntary service with indigenous families in the remote river valley of Banada de la Cruz.
Her last words in a journal expressed the source of her strength and joy, “All my springs of joy are in You.” Her hope was to live in a way that served God and God’s beloved people. Her early death made no sense in our human understanding and our heart-shattered lives. There are times when each of us are immersed in unexplained mystery, in unmeasurable sadness. When I hear stories from persons who are walking in their pilgrimage of loss, in the raw wound of sorrow, the magnitude of the mysterious Gift of Easter emerges. Earth-shattering, curtain-rending defeat of death’s dominion.
For in Christ’s resurrection also comes the astounding promise of everlasting life.
A Poverty of Imagination
Like most of us, I have a poverty of imagination on what eternity might look like. However, there is no question that believing in Jesus’ joyful promise offers a measure of peace while living with the earthly loss of our beloved daughter. But my own experience also aligns with research that shows that even if one believes in a life after death, this doesn’t take away the yearning, the missing of the physical presence for the one we love.
Sorrow carves deep, but now companioned with quiet joy.
As poet Mary Oliver wrote,
“We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.”
I recall a moment walking on a high mountain lane near Priest Lake where we share a cabin with friends. For some reason, I began imagining how wondrous it would be if Krista walked towards me down the road. I felt my excitement rise just thinking of what it would be like to see her again. I remember I would have wanted to ask her, “What it is like to be living in eternity? Had she met my brother Larry, also killed in a car accident at 23, or reunited with her grandparents, and her close friend Heather who died of cancer at 21?” This gave me a tiny glimpse into what the disciples must have felt at the astonishing return visits of Jesus, and the joy and hope this infused in their lives.
It is dawn on Easter morning and the aroma of home-baked almond croissants wafts through our kitchen. I am up early to prepare an Easter ham for a brunch with friends at our home. I’m looking forward to Easter’s celebration at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Washington as we join with faith communities around the globe affirming in music and words, “He is risen…He is risen indeed!”
A Gift that finds deeper meaning after Lenten services that encouraged my restless heart to contemplate the mystery of the Great Sorrow.
For this I am grateful.
Happy Easter to each of you!
“One small step can change your life,” believes Dr. Robert Mauer, a clinical professor at UCLA School of Medicine and author of The Kaizen Way. He consults internationally with organizations and people teaching the potent force of kaizen, the Japanese concept of achieving great and lasting success through small steady steps. This idea, coupled with the wisdom shared from a grieving widow to “Just Do the Next Thing” offered a way of living during the early months of acute grief when sometimes it’s hard to even imagine facing the day.
It stayed in my mind before each hour’s reality, whether it meant buying groceries and cooking supper, grading papers, or making the decision with Susan (our oldest daughter) and Peter to go ahead with their East Coast wedding. Their marriage was exactly one month after Krista’s death and wedding invitations were already out. Other parents echoed this truth as they did the necessary small steps in daily living, whether this meant getting children ready for school, showing up at work, paying a bill, whatever loomed as “essential.” As one widower said, juggling the strains of raising three children alone, “We must mourn, but we must go on living.”
But I’ve also found through the years that the kaizen concept still offers a vital way of moving forward when inertia, inadequacy, or high stress feels paralyzing.
Next week, Jim and I will be going on my book tour in the South that involves a combination of very different speaking engagements in three states. Everything from presentations at medical centers, bookstore special events, several different church keynotes, plus a retreat, and large senior living communities. Some relate to Pilgrimage through Loss, some around cancer, and even one on my earlier book Bold Spirit.
It’s somewhat daunting.
A friend reminded me of earlier experiences with small-step wisdom when I lamented that this significant preparation has kept me from being focused on the blog. “It’s so discouraging because my hope was to write faithfully each week.”
“Write about how you’re feeling when overloaded,” she suggested, “and how small steps have made such a difference for you.”
So I reread a journal entry from three weeks after Krista died that included a list of 16 ideas of “What I can and cannot do.” One said:
Allow myself TIME and be gentle and patient with my own grief. Call on wonderful friends as needed.
Looking back, it seems this guidance of being patient with the depth of sorrow helped me relax. Healing came in gentle infusions of peace as my husband and I continued to re-engage in life day by day. Learning to understand the grieving process, step-by-step, often from authors or friends who walked in loss before us, helped.
British author C.S. Lewis, after the death of his wife Joy, wrote A Grief Observed where he probes the “mad midnight moments” of his mourning and loss where he first questions all he has previously believed. He eventually came to recognize the normalcy of grief in his words “Bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love.”
Today, my entry on “what I can and cannot do” could alter slightly to read,
Allow myself time and be gentle with my own limits. Call on wonderful friends as needed.
YOU have become friends through the pilgrimage blog. More than likely you understand the need to be gentle with oneself during stress. So I will trust that the irregular nature of the blog in the next few weeks will be understood!
But I want to stay in communication with you. To take the first step, I scanned for pictures through the wonderful Zemanta (a tip for all bloggers) and found this exquisite Asian staircase that symbolizes the beauty of small steps. Now excited, since I love artistic gardens, the next step involved perusing the book chapter that speaks of the Pathway to Strength and Renewal by Taking Small Steps Daily. Then memories came flooding in of how the nectar of friendships gave Jim and me both comfort and the courage to live with hope. The last action will be to push the button that says “Publish” even though in an ideal world I’d love time to revise and revise and revise…oh well!
Are there times when you know being more gentle with yourself might be essential? What small steps you have taken that have made a positive difference in your life?