If I could offer only one ‘tip’ for the long walk after losing a child it would be to cling to your spouse, and together, to cling to God.
You’ll hear all kinds of other thoughts, words of encouragement or support from others during the time immediately following tragedy, but there is only one person who can truly get it. One person suffering for the same reason, the same person… Truly, in this journey of long-suffering there can only be one other person who knows and who won’t forget and that is your child’s parent.
“We wept together, despaired together, prayed together and we would always find refuge in the Lord. This has been our strength!” -Enrico Petrillo
We are told that “Husband and wife suffer differently” which is true, but dangerously close to misleading spouses to suffer differently, separately and silently. As quoted above by an exemplary example of suffering together in marriage, Enrico shares how he and his wife “cried together, despaired together, prayed together…” suffering together.
I’m grateful and humbled to say that the only reason why I know to cling to my husband is because he first wrapped his arms around me. I cannot take credit for opening myself up to his suffering or for allowing my heart to be spoken to or healed by his. He moved first and continues to, over and over again. The last few years have been an experiment of love as each day brings its own trials and joys. I cannot help but reflect on the details which show all too well what a necessity it is to hold onto one another even when it’s painful. Ironically I am here writing you, to urge you to act as my husband did, and if you’re in that cold, lonely place that I often find myself in, take this as a gentle beckoning to open your heart once again to the one who can come closest to your knowing.
Grieving alone can be so tempting. After all, grieving together takes work, a listening ear and a large amount of selflessness to include another broken person in your brokenness. The ugly side of grief can take us to a place where no-one-else is allowed to go. For example- “They can’t know my pain.” “He’ll try to fix what can’t possibly be fixed.” “She’ll just talk about her past while drowning out mine.” “They’ll say something to further hurt me.” “Not even God wants to be with me in this place.” Suffering alone can end up looking a lot like Hell: “A damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself … Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouths for food, or their eyes to see.” – C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce. It is a hellish torture indeed to hold onto grief as one’s private wrangling, where God and man are not allowed. On the other side of this hardened state is a very broken soul screaming out into the desert… “Somebody, anybody, know my pain. Heal me. Fix this! I don’t want to be alone.”
And who could blame the broken heart of a parent who finds him/herself in this place? We have to wake up every morning, facing life’s responsibilities, while over and over again, battling the temptation to see God as someone who allows children to die, families to suffer and the world to continue on in it’s arrogance, denial and indifference. It is a battle of the heart and mind to choose to let go of the blame and seek refuge in God. It takes a softening of the heart to reach out physically or emotionally to your spouse when you have so much pain to hold onto. But we must not go at it alone unless we truly want to be alone forever, in the emptiest sense. Our Good God wants so much more for our broken hearts.
Cling to what is Good…
Clenching onto the pain of the self goes nowhere fast. Grasping for professionals, friends or family to be there for you in all seasons can be a little unrealistic, often impossible. But the most practical thing you can do is grasp at the covenant that promised you a partner in all things, “In good times and bad.” Many nights I’ve cried, many times when we were close, the pain of creating and losing our sick child has been front and center on my heart when I think of “us.” This marriage thing is hardly easy for anyone, let alone the huge amount of brokenness within a relationship after burying a child. There is plenty of ugly to cling to – sometimes unforgiveness, sometimes the desire to abandon everything or each other in order to forget the pain and start new. All of these options lack one important thing… God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s commitment. Clinging to what is good means clinging to God; His mercy, His promises, His mystery of sacrificial love and a life that beats death. Clinging to these gifts of grace from Him means dying to self and clinging to the spouse He gave you and allowing the brokenness to shape into something good even when our humanly eyes would see that as impossible.
This is not a hopeless venture…
The walk we find ourselves in can all-too-often seem hopelessly heavy, and truly this cross does seem to have life-long effects, but I am wary of seeing mom-blogs that make the journey that much darker by allowing the bitterness to come through with nothing good to grasp onto. I say this from experience, feeding my heart with words that name my pain or anger can be relieving to an extent but can also lead me down a path away from God and less aware of my spouse’s heart, thoughts or dreams. Never, never let the words of others (who don’t know you, your spouse or your child) take priority over communicating with your spouse or your God. It can be an easy fix, a simple taste of refreshingly honest words about the realities of bereavement but it often, dangerously, lacks anything productive for the soul or for the marriage.
Ironically here I am, “mom-blogging” and sharing my own thoughts on grief – and that’s just it, they’re my own thoughts, take them or leave them! But don’t leave the broken heart of your husband or wife to fend for itself. The incredible thing is that this horrific pain can also bring about the strongest, most hope-filled relationships.
A beautiful friend of mine, who lost her precious daughter shortly after birth shared with me once “We’ll never fight about money or something shallow… that kind of stuff could never come between us… We survived losing a kid! We are strong enough to endure anything together thanks to her…” How beautiful is that? And so very true. With God’s inclusion, even the most broken parts of our lives can bring us to a place of strength, beauty and hope. The first step is allowing that hope to seep in, the second to allow the hope to shine in your view of your spouse and the third, to keep choosing to hold onto hope every day for the rest of your lives.
Choosing love and hope…
Just as choosing joy has to begin with each new day, so does love. I cannot claim to be the same person that I was a year ago and certainly not the same person 5 years ago. There have been plenty of times where I hardly recognize who I am anymore… What does this mean for my husband who fell in love with one person and is now married to another? It goes both ways, I am constantly learning and renewing the love I have for the person that my husband is today and we are learning who WE are as one, as a marriage and faith that has been changed very much by the death of our son.
Again, it can be so very tempting to just shut down… to grow old, weary and locked-up inside. Some days it takes a conscious choice to rise above and some days are chocked up as “down days.” The one ‘tip’ I can give is to take the time, to make the effort, to make it your priority in grief to hold onto one another, to be honest, to humble yourself enough to admit where you’re at and selfless enough to allow the other to be where he/she is at, and to move forward together no matter what. The bottom line is once we have entered into this marriage thing, even grief is not our own… it belongs to US. And thank God that’s the case! The times I’ve tried to battle this on my own leads me to a dark, dark path of loneliness and despair. Thank God I have someone holding my hand. Whether he’s broken too or leading me on, together we are that much stronger and together God can guide us to where we never thought we could go. Without my husband I wouldn’t have the ability to call myself out of the darkness, without his heart I wouldn’t have the reminder to think of others and not just myself. He knows so well the void that is our missing child. And while man and wife cannot and most likely will not suffer the same or be able to completely relate to one another, perhaps that complementarity is our hope in healing: While we may not suffer the same we can journey together to heaven, to our boy.
Talk, cry, pray, despair, hope, fear, dance, limp, love, endure, together.