December 3, 2020

“I remember it as dark”

grief angel

Today, as part of my hospice duties, I will be with a family whose ten-month old child died. I will have to come up with some words for the parents, the other children, the extended family and friends, and members of our care team. Mostly I will go to be with them, to mourn with them.

The child died over the weekend, as Gail and I were on our way out of town. I was able to delay my departure long enough to go to the home, hug mom and dad, and sit with them for a few minutes to hear what happened. They were stunned and numb. Though the baby had been expected to live only a few weeks, she lived almost a year. She was never a “normal” baby, but she gained weight and seemed to be stable. Then mom found her in her crib lifeless. The breath had gone out of her. In a moment.

We were as surprised as they were, and had to rally our minds to shift from caring gear into comforting. We thought we would have time to make the transition more slowly. As Michael Spencer wrote, there is always a “day before” when we have no clue. And sometimes the next day comes as a thief in the night.

I am reading (and will soon report on) Wendell Berry’s luminous novel, Hannah Coulter. In it I found a descriptive passage about grief that is so true it almost hurts to read it.

Indiana-Indian mound-Huntington-Warren-Adena-Ohio moundsIt is hard for me to think or speak of the time that came then. I remember it as dark. I can’t remember the sun shining, though I’m sure it must have shone part of the time. I would think sometimes with a black sickness of fear and hopelessness and guilt, “What am I doing alive?”…

…The pleasures that came then had a way of reminding you that they had been pleasures once upon a time, when it seemed that you had a right to them. Happiness had a way of coming to you and making you sad. You would think, “There seems to have been a time when I deserved such a happiness and needed it, like a day’s pay, and now I have no use for it at all.” How can you be happy, how can you live, when all the things that make you happy grieve you nearly to death?

A sort of heartbreaking kindness grew then between me and Mr. and Mrs. Feltner [her dead husband’s parents]. It grew among us all. It was a kindness of doing whatever we could think of that might help or comfort one another. But it was a kindness too of forbearance, of not speaking, of not reminding. And that care of not reminding reminded us, every day, always, of what we could not mention without being overpowered and destroyed. That kindness kept us alive, I think, but it was a hardship too. Sometimes I would have to go to be by myself, in my room or outdoors somewhere, just to get away from it.

…We knew, always, more than we said. One of us lying awake in the night would know that the others were probably lying awake too, but nobody ever said so. In the daytime it seemed to me that we were all kept standing upright, balanced ever so delicately, by our kind silence. Sometimes it seemed that one word, one outcry, would flatten us all.

…Love held us. Kindness held us. We were suffering what we were living by.

May God comfort us in all our sorrows.

Comments

  1. “I remember it as dark.”

    Wow! Out of all the lines in Berry’s novel to pick and use as the title of your essay, this is absolutely stunning and wonderful.

    I remember going to some grief counseling following a tragic event in my life, trying to describe to the counselor what my life felt like. I told her, “It’s like I’m in an amusement park, one that I remember fondly from my childhood, and I’m walking past all the rides, but they’re all closed, because it’s winter, and cold, and it’s not quite dark, but it’s very, very gray.”

    Thanks for sharing this, CM. Yes, may God comfort us in all our sorrows.

  2. That captures the feeling of grief and loss so well, how something that brings such joy can cause such grief. And, yes, the salve of quiet friends and family to sit with, to know they suffer with you. It hurts to know they hurt too, but it lightens the load somehow. After our daughter’s death, I stumbled somehow onto ‘On Joy and Sorrow’ by Kahlil Gibran. An excerpt:

    When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
    Some of you say, Joy is greater than Sorrow, and others say, Nay, Sorrow is the greater.
    But I say unto you, they are inseparable.

    The whole stanza is too long to repeat here, but it brought comfort. I thought of it again as I read Chap Mike’s piece and recalled the chaplain at the children’s hospital and the good pastor who spoke to us and to my young sons and helped them process the loss of our daughter and their sister.

    Thanks Chaplain Mike, for this great work.

  3. Wow….hospice is blessed to have you. Sometimes all we CAN do is sit quietly with the grief-stricken. And it does feel like being struck with a body blow, and then the ice water runs through your veins. There is nothing to say….only the gift of presence.

  4. God bless you as you walk with this family through this.

    I too feel the darkness – not all the time – but it washes over me at unexpected times, in the middle of happiness, and reminds me that grief is still there; it’s not over yet, and maybe it never will be over. And I’m okay with that – I feel like my grief is borne out of my love, and if my grief ends the love will too.

  5. It was in ‘Patheos’ that I first encountered this moving video about a father whose first hand-crafted coffin was made for his own dead child.
    I found in his witness something of blessing for those of us who mourn and for those of us who will mourn:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/joeljmiller/2013/06/what-a-coffin-maker-can-teach-us/

  6. Sorry this is a long post, but this is a topic that sets me off.

    All you can do is be there with them.

    Remember in the Old Testament, the time when Job’s friends were the most benefit to him is when they sat with him in silence for two weeks?

    Yeah, things only went downhill when Job’s friends opened their mouths after two weeks to criticize Job, give him unsolicited advice, and tried to explain to him why they felt God was supposedly punishing him for his misfortunes, etc.

    The best thing you can do for most people who are grieving is phone the person, or visit, and just let them talk or cry for hours. Do not interrupt them or do much talking, just listen to them. Let them do all, or most, of the talking. Or, just sit there next to them as they cry (they may not want to talk).

    And let them talk about THEM and THEIR deceased loved one, do not make it about you and the time your Aunt Susie died 15 years ago, and how much you miss her.

    Support for the person in grief will need to last for as long as two to three years (maybe longer) after the death. Call them up or send them cards around the holidays in the years after the death to let them know you are thinking of them.

    Most people take several years to get through the brunt of grief, it is not something one gets over in six months or two years, even. Holidays are the toughest, and other special dates, like the deceased person’s birthday.

    A lot of Christians are terrible at handling those in grieving. I noticed this after my mother died.

    After the death, I was either avoided by extended family (and even what close family I have), or I was on the receiving end of judgmental, critical remarks by Christian family, or by Christians at a church I went to after Mom died.

    When I didn’t get nasty comments from Christians, I instead got platitudes delivered in a chipper- sounding tone of voice, which was also painful.

    The end result of all that: I isolated myself. It was hard as hell to wade through the grief ALONE, for four years or so, but I did it. Getting the unsolicited advice, platitudes, and criticisms made the grief and pain even worse, so I pretty much stopped talking to other Christians, to avoid more hurtful or insulting comments.

    The best thing you can do to help someone during a time of loss, or any negative life event, is just sit in silence with the person who is grieving, or sit in silence as they express whatever emotions, whether anger or sadness.

    People in grief do not expect or want any clever comments or any reasons about the death, or why God allowed it.

    As a matter of fact, the more you try to explain why you think God allowed the death to happen, the more inadvertent pain and offense you will cause those in grief.

    Notice after other sorts of tragedies, when Christians attempt to explain reasons they think the tragedy happened – such as John Piper or Pat Robertson saying,
    “God sent a tornado to state such- and- such as punishment (or for His Glory),” or, “9-11 happened and people in the World Trade Centers died because it was God’s judgment on America,” it creates even more pain in people (and anger, understandably).

    The more you try to explain people’s pain and give them reasons for it, the more pain you will create (I’d say that is usually true, though not always, depending on the topic). I’ve not met many Christians who understand these points.

    Preachers especially appear to love to assign probable, very specific reasons for tragedy, natural disasters, and death, when they should just keep their obnoxious mouths shut.

    (And usually, most preachers’ specific reasons given for tragedy are nothing but victim-blaming, i.e.,
    ‘Oh, your son just died from cancer (or auto accident)? Well, you must not have been tithing regularly, or weren’t praying hard enough for his healing / safety, or, the state of American morality today is just awful, what with all the states passing homosexual marriage, and that’s why God took your son’s life. It’s a judgement and warning from God, you see.’)

    Other ways to help someone in grief:
    Practical help. Bring food over, clean their house, take out their garbage, offer to mow their lawn, and stuff like that.

    Don’t say to someone in grief, “Let me know how I can help,” or, “call me if you need anything,” – or be careful about saying that stuff, because a lot of people in grief are too depressed, tired, or embarrassed to pick up the phone and reach out and ask for help when they need it.

    So, maybe just phone first and say, “I will drive by your home in two hours to drop off a casserole and then leave, unless you wish for me to stay because you need to talk.” -Then do it. Actually go to their home and drop the food off, and leave.

    One of the most horrible things when you experience a death are the number of people who say junk to you like, “I’ll do anything for you!” or, “call if you need anything!,” and then they proceed to do nothing, even if you manage to phone them and ask a favor, they find excuses why they can’t help after all.

    Lord a mercy, that is annoying. Don’t promise to help a mourner if you are not totally serious about following it up.

    • I remember a friend who ‘sat shiva’ after the death of her belovedhusband who had suffered from a very long illness. She was herself physically and emotional exhausted after his death and greatly in need of support from others. And people came, and sat with her, often in silence, but they were THERE alongside her to comfort her.

      One of the kindnesses from others she especially appreciated included a family that took her old dog and cared for him for a while . . . grooming, feeding, walking, vet, companionship, love
      . . . they just did it . . . for her, for the dog, and for themselves in the memory of someone they too had lost . . .

      after a time, they brought the animal back to her when she was more able to look after him.

      for a grieving person, love for one another is often best reflected in the practical realm . . .

      alone by themselves, words of comfort will fail when grief is too deep to hear them

    • How did it come to pass that we think our main duty is to explain life’s mysteries?

      • @ Christiane . I agree. Sometimes just being there or offering practical assistance to a person in pain is the most valuable thing one can do.

        @ Chaplain Mike

        I don’t know why, but it sure is true that some types of Christians love to dole out answers for everything, which can really hurt someone who is already hurting badly.

        After my Mom died, I badly needed a friend to talk to or stand by me, but after running into so many insensitive or rude comments from people (even from Christians) I gave up and withdrew and dealt with it all completely alone.

        • Hi DAISY,

          . . . is possible we all ‘withdraw’ in some way after losing a loved one

          there is a great loneliness to be borne in grief that was not there before

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        How did it come to pass that we think our main duty is to explain life’s mysteries?

        We think we’re Mister Know-It-All.

        And like Job’s Counselors, Mister Know-It-All is always ready with glib advice for things he has never actually experienced.

      • Perhaps we want to explain life’s mysteries because we think it would help us to endure suffering to know the reasons for it.

        There is some truth to that, when the suffering is limited in duration and intensity, and there is at least a reasonable hope for a not too distant end to it. It’s untrue, though, for the greatest sufferings that reach down to the roots of our being, that make us doubt the meaning and sanity of ourselves and the world.

        In other words, there is some truth to the idea that understanding the cause of our suffering can help us to cope with it, but it only applies to those cases where mystery is not involved.

        But we have a tendency to confuse the smaller sufferings with the great anguish that arises from suffering immersed in mystery, and treat both as if they were the same.

        This, of course, can only lead to greater suffering for those already immersed in the mystery of great suffering.

      • Brianthedad says

        And, it seems, even when they don’t intend it, God gets the blame. I heard, ‘He needed another angel in heaven.’ As if telling you that God is so selfish and uncaring he took your daughter. ‘Its His garden. He can pick any flower he wants.’ Same thing. I would point out that God didn’t take her, He caught her. Most didn’t get the difference.

        I shared the Gibran ‘On joy and sorrow’ poem with a church friend as a way to describe some of the conflicting emotions I was feeling. I got a five minute lecture from her on the danger of Gibran’s mysticism and how I shouldn’t be reading such things in my state of mind. God is in control and I should accept that. Sigh. As if any response other than happy clappy joy joy, was somehow less than faithful.

        But there were others who sat quietly with us, who looked at photos with us, listened to us retell the same memories again and again. Friends. And the pastor and the chaplain. One now departed, the other still a great friend who we stop to see at the hospital regularly.

      • How indeed!

      • Well, I meant for my comment to be right below yours, Chaplain Mike. “How did it come to pass that we think our main duty is to explain life’s mysteries.” How indeed. This is quite a puzzlement to me. Yet, I have found myself inclined to attempt to “explain” such mysteries. I have felt the tug from within to say those annoying platitudes that are full of emptiness and offer no consolation. Oh, that I would put duct tape on my mouth to keep from singing songs to a heavy heart. We are instructed to “weep with those who weep.” Little to no words are needed. Compassion is something that can be felt beyond words.

  7. Some of the greatest anguish that arises from grief is that it makes us feel very much alone, and at the same time it also makes the attempt to find a way out of isolation extremely painful.

    So painful, in fact, that the attempt by others to pull us out of our isolation may not only seem cruel, but actually be threatening to whatever precarious inner emotional balance we have been able to sustain. I think the quote from Berry illuminates this reality of grief.

    We remember it as dark; and part of the darkness we continue to hold to ourselves, unwilling to let the brilliant and painful light sear us with acknowledged memories, unwilling to speak because of the very reasonable fear of finding more pain in the speaking.

    • At today’s funeral, one family member was hesitant to come to the funeral home, and when he arrived he stayed outside. He knew he would have to “run the gauntlet” of people showering loving sympathy on him. And he dreaded it. Not that he looked askance at their intentions or efforts. The kindness simply sparked too much pain. As Hannah Coulter said, even loving kindness is something we must sometimes get away from when we are grieving. Sometimes even sitting with someone is too much.

      • This is why reticence to talk too much about the deceased, and humor (we’ve all had the experience of walking into funeral parlors where the loudest sound was laughter, not wailing) should always be in great supply at funeral proceedings: they provide psyche sustaining barriers behind which grief stricken mourners may find respite from reality, which, as Eliot wrote, we human beings can not bear too much of.

        • Brianthedad says

          Yes. This.

          We wanted to hear their memories of her. We wanted to hear about the funny things she did when she was at school. We craved that. We weren’t avoiding death and its reality. We were using that joy to process the pain. I can’t quite explain it.

          Others on the periphery didn’t handle it as well. It hurt my wife to the core, to see some parents of our daughter’s classmates avoid her. Why? She felt like they thought having a dead child could be contagious. It was as if they were pretending our daughter death never happened, so they could avoid the reality of the death of a child. When they were cornered we’d get the facile chitchat of how are you doing, good to see you, etc. while you could see them looking for the closest exit.

          • I’m very sorry for your loss. I wish I could give more than prayers. Please forgive me if my words were a hurtful intrusion into your grief. God bless you and sustain you.

          • Brianthedad says

            Oh no! not at all. Sorry it came across that way. Just a different opinion. Frankly, I misread what you’d written before I responded. Each person grieves differently. I learned that well.

            I appreciate your response and reading your comments on this and other threads. Lots of good stuff.

          • “Each person grieves differently. ”

            Yes, and each person is so very different. Sometimes I forget this and speak and act as if it were not so, or should not be so.

            But God loves variety, and it behooves me to do my best to appreciate the variety that he has put into his creation.

            I’m a slow learner, but I am learning.

        • The morticians my family has employed always seemed to have a grab bag of easy jokes on hand. But they were usually dreadfully cheezy and blazingly dry. The funnier part was that such a lame joke was actually used. This did indeed help.

      • CM, I got news of my mother’s death when I was at work (she was in a post-stroke coma and it was just a waiting game for several weeks–she didn’t leave until my father finally told her it was okay with him—)

        I took the call and went back to wheeling newborns out to their Mommies for the 4 am feeding, and then faced my three coworkers and told them I was leaving now to head two hours south….and for them PLEASE for the love of GOD not to hug me, make sympathy noises, or say anything about my “loss” right then. I did not have the time to grieve when so much needed to be done. I am so grateful that these nurses understood my fragile state, and just said goodbye like it was the end of any shift. Later I had time to cry and accept their sympathy, but not right then. This memory is crystal clear, and it happened more than 19 years ago!

    • @ Robert F (and others in this dialogue)

      I don’t mean to rain on the parade, and to each his own, but I did not feel like laughing about my Mom’s death at all, either at the funeral or in years after.

      I know every one copes in his/her own way with death, but that joking and ha-ha’ing it up was not for me.

      As a matter of fact. After I sent an e-mail out a couple weeks after my Mom’s passing, I received a reply from an old college friend.

      I should explain that this old friend and I had a falling out in college. Years passed, and he looked me up on the internet and wanted to get re- acquainted.

      His new e mails to me at this point were completely self absorbed, so I stopped replying to him personally, I would only send him occasional forwards of funny jokes, nothing personal about me or my life, since I knew he would only ignore it.

      So, months, and then years, go by and my FWDs of funny jokes dwindled down to about once a year to him, and he didn’t write me at all…

      Until the e mail where I included him on the CC list saying “my mom has died.”

      Then the idiot wrote me back, said “I’m so sorry” in one sentence and spent the rest of that same e mail going on and on about how awesome his life had been the past couple of years, how he got a new sail boat, took a great trip to France, and other crap I did not care about. He was also jovial in the email.

      I was infuriated. This idiot managed to make an e mail about my dead mother all about HIMSELF. I did not say anything to him at that time. For a long time I did not reply to his jovial email.

      Flash forward two years later, I saw a page on the internet when I was researching mourning and death, and that page said, “How not to reply to a death notification from a friend.”

      One thing that page said was, “When you reply, do not make it about YOU. Now is not the time to play “catch up” and be jovial and ha ha funny and tell your friend everything that’s been going on in your life the past five years. Just tell the person you are sorry for her loss.”

      So I sent that link to that friend to educate him. He wrote back and said, “why did you send that link to me?”

      I explained why. I told him he made his reply to my e mail about my Mom being dead all about him and how super great his life was, and that it was an inappropriate and hurtful response to someone who was grieving. I was very polite about it, even though I was hopping mad at him.

      He then wrote back and scolded me, the jerk! He was condescending in his reply.

      He said when his 176 year old Auntie died years before that he and his family told jokes at her funeral which made it an awesome time for all, so, he said, I should loosen up and learn to laugh about my Mom being dead, etc.

      That made me 14 times more infuriated, and I tore into him in my reply. Where did that jerk get off lecturing me how to feel about my mother being dead and so on? Absolute jerk.

      Again, I’m not against anyone who personally likes to handle a death by turning to humor, but it should be left up to the one in grief.

      If your friend does not want jokes at the funeral or even at a later time, please respect that is all I am saying; don’t say to the person “Oh, but I know what’s best for you, jokes and laughter, it will be good for you, stop being so uptight, learn to laugh at it all.”

      How you would handle a death may not necessarily be how someone else would handle it.

      In my case, I was too broken hearted for humor and was offended that this selfish jerk of a friend (now an ex friend) not only made my Mom’s death all about him, but he also felt fine to chew me out for mentioning to him he handled it all wrong with me.

      • Daisy,
        As I said above, I’m a slow learner, but I acknowledge that we are all different, and our situations are different, and I’m trying to learn to live within the love of variety that God has shown in his creation, and in human beings.

  8. Beautiful. Wise. Sad.

  9. Klasie Kraalogies says

    Very far off topic (sorry): Given what is to be celebrated this Saturday, that first photo of the stone angel makes me ever so uncomfortable…

    • Klasie Kraalogies says

      But that aside – having been close to death more than once, I always found it strange that I felt no fear of it. My mainissuewas pain, and wanting others close to me. Death was never the issue. Death seems to drive fear, into the living. I can’t imagine what the feelings are of parents with a young one like this.

    • I’m dull-witted this morning Klasie. Help me understand.

    • Whatever you do, don’t blink.

  10. scooter's mom says

    I agree with Daisy. This will be the first holiday season without my sister. I love her so much. I had friends come up and tell me to call them if I need anything. Of course I never called them. I found myself, and still do, being resentful that they don’t call and check up on me. I am too embarassed to ask for help because I feel I am bringing their holiday down with my request. I am going thru this alone and it is hard. I have to pretend to be alright, especially at work, and it is very hard.

    I will never again tell someone to “call me” when they are grieving. I will call them.

    • @ scooter’s mom.

      I’m very sorry for your loss. It compounds the loss, IMO, when other people say or do hurtful things, like avoid you, or don’t check in, or give stupid platitudes.