Sunday, February 13, 2011

What is the Heart's Capacity for Grief?

This topic has been in the back of my mind for a while and it has nothing to do with Valentine's day. It started six months ago when I was working on a family tree. History is full of the tragedies of the Fall. The one most connected is that of my father's family.

I gazed at the old photo of my grandfather Jones (below), whom I never met in person. He had to watch as three of his daughters slowly succumbed to TB when they were barely teenagers . . . and this his wife. I think how lucky that while I've lost my father, there have been no other close losses of this magnitude.

I think why this topic is most acute this morning is that I spent last night in the ER with my 19 year old son, Ramsey. He was having a heart problem. I won't go into that here, but there was a moment when the ER physician (who, btw, never made eye contact with me) indicated that, his first impression was that the condition was grim. I had to sit and wait for about 45 minutes before the news seemed to improve and the physician changed his mind. We still don't know what the problem is until a cardiac workup is compete but I'm living in the hope, and odds, that it will be benign.

But the major reason this topic has been on my mind of late is that a neighbor of mine was not so lucky two weeks ago. It was a father's worst (and I'm being factual here when I say "worst") nightmare. He was directly responsible in his six year old son's tragic death. A misjudgment then an accident and his precious little boy's life was snuffed out. I didn't know this man, but knew of him as friends of mine are their friends. Each morning as I drive by their new house, my heart breaks. In his son's window was this, largest stuffed lion I had ever seen. It is still there.

A good paster friend of mine, Rusty, was asked to preach at the funeral. I talked to Rusty about the experience, feeling drawn to the father whose loss was immeasurable. Rusty said that he had never met the family before but was asked to preach because they had visited his church once and that was their greatest religious affiliation anywhere . . . one visit a long time ago.

It really doesn't matter if you are a Christian or not, the grief in this situation is beyond containment by happy words or thoughts and certainly not by answers.

I know that there are pastors (and I hope that Rusty is such a pastor) and other Christians who are wonderful in this situation. Even my old pastor, the one who came into my house and yelled at me, is known for being good in family tragedies. However, I know as a whole, Evangelicalism tends to fail those in pain. You see, the greatest narrative within Evangelicalism is the idea that we have the answers the world is looking for. The bumper sticker slogan, "Jesus is the Answer," use to be the most popular one . . . at least in the Bible belt. I can remember a few of the minority atheists had the bumper sticker (in response) "What was the question?"

The problems is, there are two kinds of questions. One comes from the intellect or mind. Those questions deserve real, honest answers and certainly not cliches. But the other species of question pours out of the furnace of pain. It is rotten stuff that over-flows the brim and pours down the side of the cup like battery acid. Christians often make the mistake of trying to answer those questions. "God did this for a reason." "Your job now is to trust God." You know how it goes.

But the real discerning listener sits, sincerely listens and cries. That's all. I really wish I could go down to this stranger-neighbor's house, knock on his door and when he answers, give him a deep embrace and cry my eyes out with him. I may try to do this.

I did try this, about two weeks ago, with a different friend. He is a retired Marine. I just found out his wife died at Christmas. I saw him here at Starbucks. I approached him and told him how very sorry I was. Then I gave him a big hug. He did not reciprocate but stood awkwardly until I let go. The father of the little boy may do the same. But that's what I offer. Not a word of advice. No directives . . . "You must think this or do that."

But how could a father ever get over this . . . causing the death of your own son? There's no question of the intentions. He was just trying to show his son a wonderful time, but he made a mistake and his son died. Does the human heart have the capacity for such grief? I'm not so sure.

One chiche states that God would never give us more trials than the grace He gives to handle it. But, in my opinion, the Fall of mankind is real. The pain is real and has real consequences here on this earth.

I dated a girl in high school whose little brother accidentally drown and it would be easy to have blamed her mother. And her father did. And her mother did. In the end, her mother went insane (psychotic break) and her father became a life-long drunk. The Fall has real consequences and the resolution of that pain may not be realized on this earth.

This is not to say, that we can't go on. My grandfather went on. My father and his sister went on and had productive lives with no outward scars of pain. But my mother did find my stoic dad curled up in a ball sobbing once. It embarrassed her.

So what's my point? Maybe there is none. But maybe what I'm trying to say is that the pain of loss here on earth is too great to dismiss under a narrative of all things work for the best. That verse is taken out of context. We should not make attempts to explain pain because to do such, is to diminish it. There's not enough chiches in the world to bury pain where the sting is gone forever.

But we don't despair. It is really the hero who, doesn't make sense out of things and go on like nothing has happened. The hero is the one, who after such a great loss, can get up in the morning. Maybe that's all that's required of him or her. Okay, that they can eat once again, and if they are lucky, they can maintain a shell of a happy life. But the hope of the true Christian isn't that our pain vanishes here or that we learn to "deal with it," but that we know someday, somewhere, somehow what's wrong will be made right again.


Dana said...

True words.

I've followed the (intermittent) blog of Chris Monroe, who is a Free Methodist pastor in Barstow.

He was on his way to a mid-week church meeting and backed his truck over his toddler son, resulting in the child's death. He and his family have gone on. It hasn't been easy, and he's not a particularly great fan of pat answers of any kind. But it seems he is able to experience joy again.

One thing I appreciate about the Orthodox mindset is that we don't think we have to come up with what God ought to do when we pray; how can we know what is the best thing in any situation, especially a complicated one? And it's possible not to hear correctly from God even when we ask the Holy Spirit to guide our prayer. So we simply say "Lord, have mercy," and leave things in God's hands. He knows the prayer of our heart, and we simply trust him to act for the benefit of those concerned.

May the Lord have mercy on Ramsey and your whole family, and may the issue indeed turn out to be benign.


Eagle said...


The standard Christian pat answer would be to quote Romans 8:28. Part of the reason why I can't be a Christian is becuase to be one means you have to divorce yourself from reality, live in this superfical way and be a master of bullshitting others. I'm not that talented. Though I wish I could say that I am....

I love your blog because of the honesty, love, grace, and open frustration you are not afriad of talking about. If you were my small group leader, pastor , etc.. I wouldn't be an agnostic in Washington, D.C. Instead I probably would be a Christian today.

Getting back to Ramsey. I'm sorry. I'm really, really sorry. I wish I could knock on your door, give you a hug and just let you know that you are not alone. That others care and are right there with you. It's in the hard moments that Christianity becomes so ugly. I realzied this when I was burying my grandmother. I was at her mass and Catholic burial and all I could think about were the Christians I knew (in CCC and mega churches, etc..) would say that Catholics are not saved, and going to hell. All of the sudden the idiocracy of evangelicalism came home and haunted me.

But if I lived in your neighborhood I would give you a hug and buy you a coffee, and shut up and just listen to you.

You and your family will be in my thoughts....

Anonymous said...

(((hugs))) for your son and you all as you work to find out what is going on.

Real feelings. Real parts of ourselves dealing with these feelings. The analytic aspects of me might do just fine, but there are other parts that make up who I am...and they need a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold, someone who understands and doesn't condemn or give platitudes with an air of spiritual condescending smugness.

Real life is so complicated. So beautiful, so ugly, and so all over the middle places of boredom, drudgery, sweat and labor. We all need each other so much. Grace. A lot of grace. And, for some reason, sometimes that's the hardest thing to give.


jmj said...

Thanks for your comments about Ramsey. He's had four attacks over the past couple of months of sudden onset tachycardia (very fast heart rate). Saturday night it wouldn't stop. After doing the initial ECG, the ER doctor said he thought it was Brugada syndrome, which can be fatal and must have an implantable defibrillator to prevent sudden death. By the end of the visit, he wasn't so sure but Ramsey has an appointment with the cardiologist.

My neighbor was taking his son on a ride on his float plane (they live on the lake). When he landed, he said he "braked" too quickly, causing the plane to flip forward and upside down. Dad got out in the 45 degree water but couldn't get his son's seat belt unfastened in the cold water.

jmj said...

Dana, I had heard of this before (in the news) where someone backs over their own child. How do you ever forgive yourself and not fall into an endless whirlpool of intrusive thoughts . . . if only, if only, if only.

I was a Free Methodist once. Maybe they are better prepared to deal with these issues than us Calvinists.

jmj said...

Eagle, I've heard people say that Christianity is at its best during the hardest times, or the light of Christ shines when it is the darkest. I think I agree with you, that is not always the case. The impulse to give answers can't be resisted by some and in response cause further pain.

Yeah, I'm in a different Washington and prefer it here:>)

jmj said...

M, I too wish that there was a better place for just sitting, crying, hugging and giving shoulders. My new church has a ministry (Stephen Ministry), which I know very little. But it may be in this vein.

Rick said...

really appreciated this post...praying for you and your son.

Some good friends lost their daughter a few years back. They got some comments like "it was God's will" and "she's better off now", etc. and it was so not what they needed to hear. I can't speak for them, but what I would want to hear is "this really sucks" and "I'm here for you".

They are heros to me for doing like you say, getting up in the morning every day and continuing on, knowing that they'll always carry the pain of that loss, at least here on earth.

Anonymous said...

Some good friends lost their daughter a few years back. They got some comments like "it was God's will" and "she's better off now", etc. and it was so not what they needed to hear. -- Rick

As well as grounds in all 50 states for punching them in the junk. "Give 'em that Christian Sack Tap."

Headless Unicorn Guy