I’m learning more about the nature of grief as I make my way through Hilary Spurling’s fascinating biography of Pearl Buck. Pearl’s only child, Carol, was born with a rare, degenerative condition that left her mentally disabled for the rest of her life, and Pearl found herself trying to raise her daughter in a day and age when disability was treated as a shameful secret to be hidden away and not discussed. (I would submit that while we have come a long way here on behalf of people with disabilities and their families, we have a long way to go.) Pearl soon learned in this context that the only way she could really bear her deep grief as a mother was silently and alone.
“Endurance is only the beginning,” Pearl wrote years later. She went on to write, as paraphrased by Spurling, that “learning to bear grief that cannot at first be borne has to be done alone.”
Pearl dissected her grief into stages, beginning with devastation and disintegration. “Despair so profound and absorbing poisons the whole system and destroys thought and energy.”
How often, I wonder, do we apply Bandaid faith solutions to people’s grief? The assurance, “God is with you”- regardless of its inherent veracity- seems empty, disingenuous and even cruel in these times.
I’ll never forget walking with a family whose only daughter, in her twenties, was fighting for her life against a rare blood disorder. Gidgett had put on a brave face for a long time with this lifelong illness, spending days and even weeks at a time in the hospital for transfusions and other interventions.
The turning point came when she was told both legs would have to be amputated.
It was then that she succumbed. Her will to live had itself expired. She survived the operation only to die several weeks later.
I remember getting the call in the middle of the night. Her father stood outside her room and yelled angrily at God through his tears. His only daughter had been taken from him, and the very last person he wanted to see right now was the on-call chaplain.
Grief like this must be borne alone. Even the compassion that friends, family and a community of faith may offer can only go so far in expressing solidarity with the one who has been undone by loss. When the apostle Paul writing to the Galatians instructs them to bear one another’s burdens, I imagine he does so as someone who is very much alone within the bars of his prison cell. And maybe the sacred “burden” we bear for one another is the sheer loneliness of another’s unknowable, often inexpressible grief. We must acknowledge it, I think, lest we do violence to the other. We must be willing to be taught and to use our imaginations in order to construct something of the inner landscape of the one who grieves. This is the closest we can get to “being with” the one who endures deep loss.