It’s winter in Michigan as I write. Our doors and windows are closed tightly to block out the winter winds. Many of the churches I have attended seem like that—sealed up tight so no chill can penetrate. There seems to be the assumption that the Christian soul must live only and always in the “warmth” of God. The doors and windows of our hearts must be tightly sealed so as not to let the “wintry winds” reveal the struggle in which we actually live. There is no place for the icy sting of loss or the cold reality of grief. I suspect this practice follows the belief that the message of pain won’t fill pews. Words and music that allow for, or even encourage, suffering would be far too depressing for today’s happy churchgoers.
I honor Jim now with my grief because he was so deeply loved and so dearly treasured. My grief over his death honors his life. My grief is a tribute to what will be missed by all who knew him and by all who never will. My grief honors what this world now lacks because he is absent from it.
I would dishonor my son now if I were to rush through my grief, diminish my grief, or even try to deny it. Celebrating Jim’s life will be appropriate in its time but only in its time. Hurrying back to “business as usual” just to get my mind off things, rushing back to “normal” as if normal actually exists, and forcing the illusion called “closure” would be selfish acts aimed only at relieving my own pain. That would dishonor my son. My present pain is my truest expression of my love for my dear boy. Love is not truly understood without loss—without pain.
The initial numbing shock is starting to fade and now the true pain of loss eats at my soul. Most of the time I can’t catch my breath. My senses are dull, and my hands are unsteady. My heart beats so hard and fast in my chest, I fear it might burst. I wrack my brain in search of what more I could have done to help my dear boy. My mind wrestles to remember the simple sweetness of his perfect smile. I grope for a reason to get up in the morning and grasp for comfort to help me get through the night. There is an emptiness that refuses to be filled and a loneliness that will not be stilled.
I am broken. I am so badly broken.
It has been one month since my son was severed from my side. The wound is larger and more raw than ever. I didn’t know what to expect. I wondered if the “time-heals-all-wounds” salve would soon be making its way to this gaping hole in my heart. It is not. The wound is deeper now, more vulnerable, and far more sensitive.
[God] had no obligation to save Jim. Nothing bound Him to intervene. Yet, the negligence still torments me—the injustice still infuriates me. He could have saved him but chose not to. He chose not to. He chose not to. I hate that.
I’d rather believe that God couldn’t save my son than that He chose not to.
It’s been almost two months since I last saw my son. With each passing day I miss him more. The emptiness grows and grows. It’s impossible to comprehend that Jim is never coming home. Never.
Many fathers have had sons go away—off to school, or work, or the military. The missing grows, the loneliness grows, the longing grows, but those fathers know that one day their sons will come home. They mark that date on the calendar and count off the days. Even though the emptiness grows with every passing day, those fathers are comforted with the assurance of an upcoming reunion. It’s that joyous hope that keeps them holding on.
What am I to do? Where is my assurance? My comfort? Where is my hope? What date can I mark on the calendar to keep me holding on?
What will I do? How can I go on without him? I don’t want to go on without him. I don’t want to go forward. I want to go back—back to when he was young—back to when all the kids were young and healthy and full of life. I want to “re-treasure” him. “Re-cherish” him. I want to reinvest my time, retract some of the things I said and did, relive the good times, rewind the bad times, and “re-do” them all.
The parent who has lost their child isn’t looking for a reason—not in the form of an explanation. They know, without knowing why, there is no explanation that will suffice to comfort their pain or condone their loss.
The parent who has lost their child isn’t looking for a reason why their son or daughter would have had to die; they’re looking for a reason why they should have to go on living.
I’ve cried for fifty-eight days. How much longer can it last? How many more tears can there be? It must come to an end sometime. I wonder, will I notice? Will I notice the first day I don’t cry? I think I will and then—then, I think I will cry.
In the wake of this crushing wave of grief, my life has become numb and dull. A blanket of fog cloaks and covers. Life has lost its color. The vibrancy is gone. Details are blurred. Everything is muted. It’s difficult to hear what anyone is saying. Or maybe I just don’t want to hear. It’s like watching a movie with the sound turned off.
There is a universality in [my wife’s and my] pain that connects us with everyone who has experienced the loss or absence of a loved one. Yet there is a uniqueness to our pain that singles us out from the rest, that separates us from other parents who have lost their children, and ultimately, that divides us even from each other.
We suffer together, yet we suffer alone. We lost the same child, yet our sense of loss is different. The same road brought us into this place of pain, but different roads will lead us out.
I pleaded for God to heal my son, but his condition grew worse. I asked for a miracle, but God refused me. I started to wonder why I ever bothered to pray. What good was prayer, if when I needed it most, it failed? What good was a life jacket that wouldn’t inflate when the cord was pulled? God seemed unmoved and unaffected by my prayers. It appeared that either God couldn’t help my son, or He just didn’t want to.
Grief comes and goes at its own discretion. It ebbs and flows with no discernible pattern. Sometimes it’s like a leaky faucet, dripping with a relentless unsettling that never overwhelms you but never lets you rest. Sometimes it’s like the whole ocean, crashing down with such a heaviness you feel you’re being crushed.
The death of my son was a paralyzing shift in reality—an agonizing tear in the fabric of eternity. The suffering wasn’t over. It had just begun. The grief wasn’t beginning. It was already ancient and heavy.
Anything designed to shorten the path only serves to sabotage the journey.
This is my journey and I must take every step. If I don’t get through all of it, I’ll never get through any of it. There are no shortcuts.
What would it prosper me, or anyone around me, if I skipped a step or two in my journey through grief and pain? If it is to speed up the process for the sake of someone else’s comfort, then it is useless to me. I will inevitably have to return to that step at a later and more awkward time. If it is to relieve the pain for the sake of my own comfort, then it is selfish of me. I will never understand my journey nor be able to comfort others along theirs. If I let people rush me through this, I will inevitably end up pretending.
I see my friends and smile, so they say I’m “brighter.” I meet my family and we embrace, so they assume I’m “doing better.” But then, out of nowhere, emptiness and pain collide with me—an emptiness that weighs me down and crushes me and a pain so deep and dreadful that it deadens all my senses.
How can emptiness be so heavy? How can pain be so numb?
I’m living in two dimensions.
I can be in the midst of a group of people, talking and laughing and celebrating their lives, when a switch goes off inside me. The sounds of their voices dull and fade into the background. Images become foggy. Distant and separate, I feel like I’m on the outside looking in. I turn invisible, and my mind shuts down.
I can be in the middle of a conversation with friends or family—engaging and enthusiastic. I can be all “bright” and “better.” But the moment I turn to go, that switch flips off again. I become exhausted and deadened. Everything collapses as if I finally relinquished an awkward position I could no longer sustain. As if I released my grip on a heavy load I could no longer carry. Everything shuts down. Everything goes silent.
There is no “living with this,” yet I live with it. There is no “bearing this,” yet I bear it. I eat and sleep. I go to the store. I mow the lawn. But I do these things as nothing more than sustaining a habit.
I have pondered these matters for hours. This has been another sleepless night of wrestling and writing. I’m exhausted. My soul lies open to the Sacred Space. I miss my dear son so very much. I long to see him. I live in isolation with that longing. My grief is like solitary confinement. My sorrow is like a grave. No one, not even my beloved wife, the mother of my son, can enter my tomb. It is a dark and lonely place. I feel the pain most at night.
It’s now three o’clock in the morning. A great American novelist once declared, “In a real dark night of the soul, it’s always three o’clock in the morning.”
What a coincidence.
It will always be like this. Joy will never be complete again. Happiness will always bring pain. The fun times will always be the hardest. The best we can imagine will always remind us of the worst that has happened. Our worst nightmare has come to be.
Through the years, there have been difficult times and dark nights when LuAnn and I would comfort ourselves with these words: “At least we all have our health.” During those times, when it appeared that our best dreams might not come true, we consoled ourselves with the fact that neither had our worst nightmare. That is no longer true. The very worst has happened. Our greatest fear has come to pass. One of our precious, beloved children is dead.
The death of my son and the suffering he endured has caused me to rethink nearly everything I have been taught about life and about God. It’s like I’ve dumped out all the contents of an old trunk and am now attempting to repack it. Many things have slipped away as unimportant or irrelevant. Nothing gets back in easy. Every belief gets tried and tested. I refuse to believe anything “just because”—just because I used to, just because someone says I ought to, just because it’s easy to, or just because I want to.
There are still moments, years after Jim’s death, when the weight of my grief and pain crushes so heavily upon me that I can hardly catch my breath. There are still times when I feel the sting of my loss so sharply that it seems like yesterday. There are still times when I feel my heart pounding so rapidly in my chest that I wonder if it will burst.
Grief is a selfish thing. People who grieve aren’t selfish; the grief itself is selfish. Grief has emptied me. My soul is a hollow void where bitter wind blows without mercy. I have never been so lonely.
I’ve disappointed a lot of people in the past five years. I have not been a good friend. I’ve had to say I am sorry for that. I have not been the husband and father my beloved wife and precious children have needed me to be. I have asked each of them for their forgiveness. I fear that I wasn’t everything Jim needed me to be in the midst of his suffering. I know that Jim forgives me. (But how do I forgive myself? How does a father forgive himself for not being able to keep his son from dying?)
People tell me I’ve changed. A few say I’ve “come a long way.” What does it mean to “come a long way”? Have I come a long way from something or toward something? I don’t usually ask them what they mean by that. Perhaps I don’t believe it’s true. Or perhaps I know a lot of what they see is just smoke and mirrors. I’ve learned to only let people see what they want or need to see.