Monday, August 2, 2010

Irresolute Grief

My heart is hurting right now. But this post is not about me. Like all of my posts, the mood is triggered by a personal experience but is not meant to be personal in focus. So, before I indulge, I want to point out that my interest here is in the concept of grief itself and how we cope with it and not about my personal grief, which has only served to bring this topic back to the forefront. As I share my focus of pain you will quickly see that it is nothing outstanding . . . just garden variety sadness. It is pale when compared to the major-league griefs, which I encounter daily—by proxy—through the lives of others.

The painting at the top depicts the intense grief of the loss of a child. Surely this is the most intense human grief possible.

My grief is of that vein but no where near that capacity. My loss is of my children but not to the grips of the irrevocable darkness of death, but only a spatial by circumstances, time and distance.

I am the father of five. My entire world has been centered on that role and the relationships for the past twenty seven years. Since about 2002 about every 15 months I’ve stood in my driveway, packing the back of our little car as a child drives away . . . forever. It is a little like being chained to the wall deep in Jobba the Hut’s dungeon and then once about every year or so he comes down and cuts a piece out of your heart . . . and then eats it . . . right in front of you . . . so you know that piece is gone . . . perpetually gone.

The reason that I feel this more acutely right now is two-fold.

The first son to leave me was Bryan. This past two weeks Bryan, his wife Renee and our new grandson Oliver were here for a prolonged visit. They now live in Minnesota. It was a wonderful visit, which enhances the severity of the goodbye.

I have this bad habit of feeling the grief the most in its prelude. A little over two weeks ago, when I pulled up to SeaTac to pick them up, I was haunted by the ghost of the goodbye to come. I felt it creeping up through my bowels. I knew that the next time I would be pulling into the parking ramp would be to return them. The two weeks passed in a blink and in a surreal way . . . there I was pulling up to give them away again to the shiny bird in the blue sky.

The second fold is the fact that my last child will be permanently moving out in just a few weeks. His departure is the last event of summer. The distance between now and then will too pass as a blink and the prelude to the goodbye grips my heart with great intensity that tears sit precariously inside my lids, just waiting for the chance to be exhumed. On the other side of it, I will be deeply lost. I see a dark forest without a resolution. My adult life has been defined by my kids. In a few weeks I will no longer be a father . . . not a father in the same way as I was before and . . . will never be again.

Now to the big picture.

I often draw from two statements when I think about being a post evangelical. These are defining points. One is by Dave Tomlinson (The Post Evangelical) and the other by Donald Miller (Blue Like Jazz). The former says the post evangelical has a loss of “certainty in all things.” This does mean the loss of all certainty. The latter says that the new gospel does not resolve everything, meaning right now. That is the real nightmare of the Fall of Adam, the one that the Evangelical neglects.

So, my point is, in grief, there is no answer. No conclusion. No step one, two, three to resolution and total bliss. It is left hanging . . . until the new heaven and the new earth consumes the old. Until we race up the waterfall on the backs of our flying hounds.

I then think about those around me whom have lost much more. I personally know people whose children suffered violent deaths . . . some while they were very young. How do those who experience such tragedy go on?

Just yesterday I had two male patients, one my age, one a decade older, who had lost their soul mates (each after decades of marriage). John lost his wife a year ago, Pete almost two. Both men were manly . . . meaning stoic. I had to bring up their wives because I knew them as they use to come with the men to their appointments. Both used the same strategy . . . speak superficially and rationally.

“Yeah,” said John, “I’ve lost some weight . . . which is a good thing . . . because Marie was the cook.”

Later in the day, by the time I got to Pete, I had to move him closer to reality. I used that terrible word that men fear, feel.

“Pete, how do you feel these days without Linda?”

He looked stunned. “Uh . . . well, I guess my back hurts more. I have to do all the cleaning now.”

“No Pete, how do you feel emotionally?”

He blushed. We sat in silence. Only in the tangential light of the window could I see that his chin was quivering. He was fighting reality with all his might. So, out of compassion, I gave him a way out. “Do you still have your beagle?”

“Sure do.” He quickly added with a smile.

So what do we do with grief? Not as Christians per se . . . but as men, and women?

I have many bad habits. I am addicted to iced mochas and I regret that. I know the truth that I never drink them for hydration but for taste. So, I’ve learned to make the most of the taste like a wine connoisseur, by sloshing around tasting each bitter bean on my tongue.

In my jest for life, I savor, in the same way as my mochas, the emotions of each moment. I float on the smell of the sea coming into my bedroom window in the early mornings. But, I also slosh around the feelings of raw pain . . . maybe too much. I want to be alive. I want to feel, even if that feeling is painful.

For someone like me, who has experience clinical depression, to savor the “taste” of grief is playing with fire. I know that it scares the hell out of Denise. She will not let me talk about grief . . . ever. She quickly cuts me off. “You can look at the down side if you want but I’m only going to look at the positive!”

I don’t blame her. I’ve dragged her through two valleys of the shadow of death . . . my clinical depression. The experiences were reminiscence of the The Days of Wine and Roses (which I alluded to recently) but without the wine. (Maybe the wine would have helped.) The last episode of depression was ten years ago, so I think I’m safe but I’m not sure. Clinical depression is to grief as septicemia is to a cut . . . totally different, even though one can lead to the other.

So, back to the big question . . . where do we put the grief?

Denise is an evangelical and handles grief the way that all evangelicals do, and actually most people. At first she refuses to talk about it. I would think that the woman has never had a sad thought if it wasn’t for those moments when the tears come flooding down her face . . . like during the drive back from the airport.

Her second strategy, again much more healthy than mine, is to replace sad thoughts with happy thoughts. “At least our kids are all healthy and all but one are within a few hours drive.” Or she will say after a death in the family, “They are happy now, they are in Heaven . . . who are we to be sad when they are so happy?” Or about the most recent issue, “Mike you will always be a father, now you also be a grandfather too. You should be happy, not sad.”

I just hate it when people tell me to “just look on the bight side.”

Our kids are healthy and I am so thankful for that. But still I feel the grief for the real-life loss. I have my wife, which John and Pete don’t. But, I sense the hint of the prelude to that changing someday, either for me . . . or Denise.

Denise’s favorite TV channel is Hallmark. She only watches shows that resolve. The Hallmark shows end with answers, happy answers. I wish I could live in that world and I envy her. I guess I could live in that world, but I still have this bad habit of savoring the flavors of life, be they good or bad . . . or ugly.

But I do belief in answers but they are on the other side of the looking glass and I can’t comprehend them here. I will never be the father I once was to my own kids. There is no way to resolve that. John and Pete will never be the husbands of the wives they once were. Those days are gone forever . . . unless there is a grand twist to the plot that God is holding up His sleeve.

But I can muster up the faith that some day, in the new world there will be resolution even though I can’t imagine it now. I savor the Fall of Adam and I wish I could spit it out.

So, while most people grasp onto the happy thoughts to cope with the loss, I guess I can do something close. I can fill my mind with distractions . . . with good mochas on sunny days, beautiful music, great novels writing by brilliant wordsmiths (which take me to other worlds), and me writing for no one. Wasn't this the message of Solomon?


Esther said...

One of my closest friends is going through The Grief Recovery Handbook right now (she was recently divorced) with another friend who recently lost her mom. Both of them are in their late 20s and new Christians and they say it's really helping them a lot. Grief is SO real and meant to be experienced. I even look at Jesus when John the Baptist died or right before he got on the Cross. I think as people grief makes us uncomfortable so we don't want to talk about it or actually process it, but I don't think that's the example we're given as Christians. I just think we know we can move past it/not let it consume us because Jesus already finished this whole grief thing for us.

MJ said...

I have seen people not able to get past such a loss. I remember a good friend's parents completely shut down for the rest of their lives (at least for the 3 decades I knew them) after their six year old drown. For three decades they never walked in the boy's room or change anything. The father became an alcoholic and the mother remained in acute mourning--locked in a perpetual state of such.

So there is this balance of feeling grief fully but not getting caught in the mire of it.

Sixwing said...

I don't think grief is always a bad thing. Not depression - that is a monster to deal with - but grief. The sadness of parting, the pain of loss.

These things are real and we need to experience them, or we are denying a part of our own, created existence. As you point out, this is not a matter of wallowing around in it forever but a matter of letting it be, and letting yourself be in it, and moving on when you are done.

Not that any of that is easy, or that saying it is particularly helpful. I wonder if my parents feel the same way.

Nicole said...

I hate it when people say "look on the bright side." Only looking at the bright side denies that there is such a thing as loss and pain. If I only look at the bright side, then I am missing half the picture. And many times those who say "look on the bright side," are not actually talking about the bright side, but rather the denial side.

Looking at and experiencing the depth of the dark, real, brutal side makes me more grateful for the true bright side.

Anonymous said...

This post hits me close to home. This is what I am grieving about...

A loss of a grandmother who I loved. Career problems which taught me God is not in control. Fighting at times same sex thoughts which angers me deeply. A sister who is mentally ill that my family takes care of.

There are times I've screamed at God and cried. I also got so frustarted at church becuase I began to realize that my life is not going to fit into the cookie cutter mentality of evangelicalism. Grief keeps us human...that's what I think.

PRS & ALS said...

I too have struggled with depression through the years. What has helped me is finding people who will let me freely express my feelings of sadness and grief and not try to make the feeling go away or make me look on the bright side. I've actually felt and told people that if I don't get these feelings outside of myself I might hurt myself. They now listen and don't automatically try to make it all better. But it is hard to find people who are able to handle those honest feelings without withdrawing from me. I also try not to overload one person with the feelings, but have several people with whom I can share. I've found that by doing this, along with being aware of when things are getting stressful and making some small changes, that the depression doesn't overwhelm me so often and so powerfully.

MJ said...

It seems like Christians are afraid of authentic feeling sadness. All of you have shared significant thoughts.

Anonymous said...

For someone like me, who has experience clinical depression, to savor the “taste” of grief is playing with fire. I know that it scares the hell out of Denise. She will not let me talk about grief . . . ever. She quickly cuts me off. “You can look at the down side if you want but I’m only going to look at the positive!”

My late father wore the same blinders all his life. It's one of the things that made our relationship about as deep as a coat of paint.

From what you describe, I don't see how you and Denise ever got married in the first place. One of the couple fighting clinical depression and the other wearing happy-clappy blinders 24/7 does NOT sound like a good combination.

Headless Unicorn Guy

(Currently going on 25 years of grieving myself, over losing the closest thing I've ever had to a girlfriend.)

jmj said...

HUG, I think it was 1) a yin/yang type of thing, you know, where opposite attract. Plus 2) I was a fakie-happy guy back then (deeply evangelical). I think too that the balance has been a good thing. I had a girlfriend in high school who was from a very dysfunctional family and she struggle with depression etc. If I had married someone like that, we both would have been in a mental ward.

Sorry about the pain that you still endure. I hope there can be some resolution.