It is not a matter of “if” … only “when.” The day will come when everything seems finished. A burden so heavy…a grief so smiting…a sadness so overwhelming, it would not matter much to you if your life just ended right then and there.
For me, it was the last Sunday night in October, 1994. My father had a brain attack, one so severe he did not recover from it. He lived a few days but only because a machine kept his body alive. Ten days after the stroke, I gave the funeral homily, my older brother brought the eulogy, and my younger brother sang a song in the very church …the church where I was pastor…the church Dad had just joined the very morning of the mortal stroke that took his life…and, with it, our hearts. That was almost twenty years ago now and I have thought many times about how I survived that experience…the grief and sadness that I only ever feel now and again, but still do nonetheless. I have reflected much on my recovery…how it happened…over what period of time the healing came…and, I have learned a few things about grief and sadness and here are at least four of them.
1. Dark night of the soul. When “the dark night of the soul,” as St. John of the Cross called it, comes…and, be assured, my friend…the night IS coming, you will be in utter shock, denial, and perhaps even panic. If like me, you’ll shift into gear…take charge…and appear to everyone else around you as if you know how to manage unexpected, and unwanted, happenings. What they do not know is that this is normally how you respond to crises. They’ll turn to you for leadership and you’ll provide it. But do not be deceived by what feels and appears to others as strength. You are really just operating from a default position into which you instinctively shift whenever a crisis occurs. It’s a kind of denial position, too, or may quickly become so. It will be just one of many strange things you will do in the days that follow a heart-wrenching crisis.
Everyone responds to the initial shock of things differently. You would wise to acquaint yourself with “the stages of grief” because, although a dated book now, E. Kubler-Ross’ work is timeless and helpful. Knowing the stages of grief…or, knowing how grief works and the likely route it takes…will not help you much at the outset of the journey. But during the days and months, even years, that follow the event you will recognize Kubler-Ross’ path the process of pain follows and it will act as a map on your road to recovery.
2. Spontaneous Negotiation. I did a lot of negotiating with God following the stroke that stole my father’s life. By “negotiating” I mean what Kubler-Ross describes as “bargaining.” I unconsciously did this in the waiting area of the ICU, our make-shift home at the hospital during the long days and longer nights before he passed.
You will, too. Even if you are not a religious person, you’ll bargain with someone or something…the doctor…the nurses…other family members…even yourself, making promises to be different, to do something, maybe anything, if fate would just loosen its noose around your loved one’s neck.
We bargained with the doctors for more time. Daily, they gave us signals that Dad would not recover and that we should begin discussing whether to keep him attached to a heart and lung machine. The signs that they were right were all there. The bleeding in his brain never stopped. The X-rays of his brain showed more and more blood in the cavities of his brain with each picture.
We negotiated with God, however, for more time. We were certain God would answer our prayers. We believed and so prayed for a miracle, promising everything we thought might persuade God to look more favorably upon our plight and grant us our wishes.
The bargaining did not work, however.
Not this time, but there have been others times when it appeared to work. When it does, it reinforces the illusion among religious people that it was their prayers even their skills at bargaining with God. Or, maybe it was the promises they made to God that somehow finally worked.
This IS the illusion, my friend. That’s all I’m saying.
Bargaining is just one of those things we instinctively do. Sometimes, it seems to work, especially, for example, when the sick person no one expects to recover, recovers anyway.
It is still an illusion, however.
How do I know?
Your prayers will not work this way every time or no one would ever die.
Do not make the mistake of thinking it was your prayers that produced the miracle.
You say, “But does not the Bible say, ‘whatever you ask, believing, you will receive?” (Mark 11:24-25).
It does. But even Jesus prayed, “Take this cup from me,” as he bargained with God from the Garden of Gethsemane. The difference is, he went one more step, which is what I’m suggesting to you, and prayed, “Not my will but yours be done” (Mark 14:36).
What will you do if your prayers or negotiations with God fail? Will you still believe?
Real faith is the capacity to let go even of prayer. The fact is, God is not a cosmic geni who requires you to rub a lamp with just the right prayers and promises before he will show compassion. God is a Presence beyond prayer.
Recognize bargaining or negotiating for what it is. It is the natural response to a threat so severe that you feel helpless and hopeless before it. Bargain, if you must. You’re likely too anyway. Pray for the miracle and believe it’ll come. But, in the end, move beyond even prayer. Find the Presence within your pain. She is there. I promise.
3. The element of surprise. Don’t be surprised if something odd happens in the months that follow your loss. It does not mean you’re losing your mind. Grief, sadness, and sorrow are painful realities and you are likely to have some very surprising occurrences that will surprise you at the oddest times.
I’m thinking of just such a time in my own life. About two months following my father’s death, I was driving down a street in the middle of a torrential downpour. The windshield wipers were working overtime but still it was hard to see.
Suddenly, I heard my Dad’s voice. Distinct. I looked to my right where I fully expected to see him sitting in the passenger’s seat.
He wasn’t, of course.
But then, I heard his voice again. This time, more distinctly and I’m certain I heard him say, “Son, I love you…”
I pulled the car to the shoulder of the road as fast as I could. When the car came to a stop, I turned again, certain I would not see him but certain I was feeling his actual presence nonetheless.
What was this? Grief? Just a psychological projection? Or, was it his actual spirit or presence or energy field with me? I have no clue. To this day, I do not know whether the experience was real or not. And, no, it does not matter. I was comforted by it in ways I cannot express. It was as if the experience was saying to me, or my father was saying to me, “It’s OK son. I know it hurts. But I know you’ll be fine and I will always be with you.”
You’ll have experiences like this, too. Maybe stranger ones than this. Who knows? Such experiences cannot be explained. Or, explained away. They are very private experiences and you will probably want to keep them to yourself, even though I shared mine with you.
Why keep them to yourself?
No one will understand, except those of us who have been through similar experiences. These private epiphanies the universe grants to you and me and it is as if God is granting these experiences to help us survive the loss, find our way, and be reminded that, while the body dies, the spirit lives.
4. You will survive it. There will be times when you feel as if you won’t. But take it from one who’s been there, you will survive.
Having said this, however, I’ve known some people throughout my life who suffered profound loss and did not ever seem to recover from it. When I was a teenager, for example, I was hired by a local radio station to be a morning disc-jockey. My mentor, Jim Mesmer, was a mentor and also my favorite disc-jockey himself. I tried to sound like him every time I took to the air. I never did, as his voice was naturally a rich baritone and mine more like a second soprano.
One day, while on his way to work, Jim’s car ran off the road and he was killed in a car crash. The community was naturally shocked. I was rattled and sad. I knew his parents, too, and, of course, they grieved. Deeply. In the months that followed his untimely death, they continued to grieve. Years and years later, they grieved still more. I saw Jim’s Dad many years after Jim’s car crash and he was bent over, depressed, had become reclusive, and talked to no one. When I looked into his eyes, it was as if he was lost and not there. I’ve always wondered if he died with his son and never recovered from it.
Maybe the death of a child is like this. I do not know. What I do know is that researchers tell us that the death of a child leaves many profoundly changed.
Maybe some people never get up and out of the canyons of grief that have swallowed up not only their hopes but their very lives as well.
I want to believe, however, and this was my certainly experience, when you do not deny what you feel…that is, the sadness, the brokenness, the anger, and even the rage you might feel at varying times, you find yourself living into each and every feeling and your pain eventually gives way to peace.
Dostoyevsky said, in Crime and Punishment, “The darker the night, the brighter the stars. The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”
I found this to be true.
Maybe you will, too.
From a most unlikely place, Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden says, “Grief is a most peculiar thing; we’re so helpless in the face of it. It’s like a window that will simply open of its own accord. The room grows cold, and we can do nothing but shiver. But it opens a little less each time, and a little less; and one day we wonder what has become of it.”
I look back now with gratitude…
I know that may seem weird to you, especially if grief grips you around the neck.
It’s true, though, I look back with gratitude…
…for the memories;
…for the love I shared with my father;
…for the things he taught me;
…for the times we laughed together and cried together, too;
…and, yes, I look back with gratitude even for the grief.
Maybe it’s because I, too, “wonder what has become of it.”
You will likely wonder the same.
Dr. Steve McSwain is an author, speaker, thought leader and spiritual teacher. His books and blogs inspire spiritual seekers around the world. He is a devoted follower of Christ but an interfaith activist as well. He is frequently heard to say, in the words of Mother Teresa, "I love all religions; but I'm IN LOVE with my own." Read more from Dr. McSwain on his blog Your Best Life Now.