Saturday, January 26, 2013

How to Say Goodbye

Tell me how to fill the space you left behind
And how to laugh instead of cry
And how to say goodbye…

                Imagine this, if you will. A world of perfection, where no one sinned and no one was sad and nothing died. A place where the grass was more lush and green than any grass our eyes have ever beheld, the fruit was sweeter than any fruit we have ever tasted, and the animals were all tame and friendly and without malice or fear. A world where you could run your fingers through a lion’s mane and he would purr like a kitten. A world where mankind walked in harmony with God and all of Creation. It existed, once. It was called Eden.

                And then, in a moment of pride, mankind succumbed to temptation and the lust of the flesh. In a split second, his eyes were opened to a new reality of sin and sickness and suffering and death. I wonder what our first parents must have thought, how they must have felt when they realized that the garments God gave them to cover their nakedness were made from the skins of their animal friends. That they, indirectly, had caused the first death, the first shedding of blood. It must have been terrible. The sense of loss and pain must have been nearly unbearable.

                We have been feeling it ever since that moment.

                We were not designed to deal with death. In the beginning, nothing was supposed to die, not people, not animals, not even plants. In a world that now seems so hardened and indifferent toward human life, even now, we don’t cope with it all that well, not really. Not when it involves those we are close to, or when it is a result of senseless and random evil, like the 9/11 tragedy and the Sandy Hook massacre. We try and we struggle and we flounder, struggling to make sense of it all. The reality is, there is no one solution, no formula, no foolproof  six-point plan to coping with grief and loss.

                Countless books have been written about this topic. There are allegedly even stages of grief that have been observed, but those who compiled the list admit that grief often deviates from that pattern, that people may move back and forth among the various “stages” , that some may go directly from shock and denial to seeming acceptance and then anger and deep sorrow may come years later. In other words, it cannot be so easily defined. There is no one way we are “supposed” to feel, no one way that all of this should go.

                C.S.Lewis understood this. For so many years this man was able to intellectualize and compartmentalize, and, using logic, he had figured out the reasons why human beings suffer. Then he suffered the most terrible loss of his life, the death of his wife Joy from cancer, and suddenly it just couldn’t be so easily explained. In the following conversation, he is speaking to a friend regarding his loss:

“Life must go on.

 I don't know that it must, but it certainly does.


              - I'm sorry, Jack.

              - Thank you, Christopher.


              - We're all deeply sorry.

              - Thank you.


               Anything I can do?


              Yes, just don't tell me it's all for the best, that's all.


              Only God knows why these things have to happen, Jack.


              - God knows, but does God care?

              - Of course.


              We see so little here. We're not the creator.


              We're the creatures, aren't we?


              We're the rats in the cosmic laboratory.


              I've no doubt the experiment is for our own good, but...


              it still makes God the vivisectionist, doesn't it?


              It won't do.


              It's this bloody awful mess, and that's all there is to it.”



                    “Bloody awful mess.”  It sounds dreadful, doesn’t it? Some might even consider it a not very “Christian-like” expression.  Some may find it offensive, even. I don’t. It’s the reality-the raw, unvarnished, aching reality. It is the utterance of a man who is in despair, the sound of ultimate suffering. I have been there. I have walked that road. I have never lost my faith, or doubted God’s existence, or even thought in any conscious way that He doesn’t know what He is doing. I have, however, wondered at times if He is capable of cruelty. I have questioned why He allows us to undergo such pain. The only answer is that we live in a sinful, fallen world. I didn’t make it this way, so how can it be fair?


                    It’s not. God is not “fair”- but He is just. He is merciful. Above all, He is Love. Because He is Love, He weeps with us and He does not become angry at our questions. He is big enough to handle anything we hurl at Him in the midst of our very human sorrow. He knows. That’s why He came here as a Man. He does not expect that we will understand exactly how we are supposed to get through the grief that death causes. He knows that we are limited, and can only fumble along day by day. He knows that even years down the road we will have moments when our longing to have those we love back with us is nearly unbearable. But as we blindly stumble through unspeakable pain, the one thing we can know, the one thing that was actually promised was that He would not leave us comfortless.


                    I would never try to tell anyone, ever, that there is a “right” way to say goodbye. Grief is very personal. I can have an idea of what someone is going through, but I cannot fully know. I can sympathize and even, to a point, empathize because of what I have been through, but I am still not them and they are not me, and I would never presume to tell them, “This is what you must do/say/feel/ think.”  I know some who try to remain stoic because they think giving in to grief is a sign of weakness or lack of faith. Nonsense. Throw something if you have to, break all the dishes in the cupboard, go outside and scream and shake your fist at the sky, but allow yourself to feel it.  Pretending that it’s not there, pretending that it can’t possibly be terrible and awful because it is “God’s will” is just a lie, and God doesn’t believe that any more than we do. He knows when our hearts are torn and if they are ever to be healed at all, we must acknowledge that it is indeed “bloody awful mess” and we can’t get through it on our own.


                    When contemporary Christian artist Steven Curtis Chapman’s beautiful little five-year-old daughter, Maria, was killed in an accident several years ago, his first instinct was to never write another song. That’s real. That’s an honest acknowledgement that losing a child is unbelievably painful and utterly heartbreaking. Within days he had reached the conclusion that if what he believed was ever true, it was still just as true in the wake of Maria’s death and the world still needed to know. The result was his album “Beauty Will Rise”, which he refers to as his personal collection of psalms. It is a completely honest chronicle of suffering and is probably some of his best work. Another result of the loss is “Maria’s Big House of Hope”, an orphanage in China built with the donations of people around the world in memory of Maria.


                    I believe that the Chapman family still struggles and weeps and grieves. In fact, I know they do, because I am connected to Mrs. Chapman’s Facebook page and she often makes comments that speak of their sorrow. Yes, they have gone on. They live their lives fully and embrace the time they have, but it does not mean they miss Maria any less. Even knowing that we will see someone again in Heaven does not completely ease the pain, because we want them here with us, right now. That is natural and human and there’s nothing wrong with feeling that way. Picking ourselves up and being able to somehow move on does not mean that we forget, ever.


                    I don’t want to forget. I don’t want to forget the good times and the love and the laughter. I don’t want to forget the hugs and the silly jokes and his voice and his eyes. A student of mine who lost her father six years ago says she is afraid of forgetting what he looked like. I told her that she probably won’t, but even if she does, she will remember what he was like and that is what truly matters anyhow.

But I will not tell her that she will ever reach a point where a memory doesn’t move her to tears. I will not tell her that the loss will ever be unimportant. What I have told her is that the loss has made her who she is, and will continue to be part of who she is. I have told her that it has changed her forever, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. We are shaped as much by experience as we are by heredity.


                    If we will but admit that even as Christians, we can only do the best we can in the face of grief, we will seem so much more real to those who don’t believe. Be honest when you are walking in the valley of the shadow. Be honest with yourself and with others. There is no one way to say goodbye. Don’t worry about whether you are doing it right…just trust Him, one step, one moment, one hour, one day at a time.

This hand is bitterness
We want to taste it and
Let the hatred numb our sorrows
The wise hand opens slowly
To lilies of the valley and tomorrow
This is what it means to be held
How it feels, when the sacred is torn from your life
And you survive
This is what it is to be loved and to know

That the promise was when everything fell, we'd be held...
-Natalie Grant

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