Friday, December 03, 2010

Death Takes No Holidays

In a heartbreaking scene in the movie, “The Two Towers,” King Théoden mourns the death of his only son with weeping that comes from depths of his soul. “No parent should ever have to bury their child,” he says.

A few days before Thanksgiving, two sets of parents we know lost a child. All through Thanksgiving week, in the midst of the cooking and family happiness, my heart kept returning to these mothers’ and fathers’ loss. Why can’t death and calamity take a break in November and December?

A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they were no more.
(Matthew 2:18)

For this is part of Christmas. The evil King Herod, you may remember, when the three wise men came looking for the baby Jesus, told them to let him know when they’d found the baby. Of course, they knew the king was evil, so after they’d found Jesus, they took a different route home. When Herod found out, he was infuriated, and ordered all the male children in the Bethlehem area under the age of two to be killed.

In the 12 days of Christmas, day four, Dec. 28, is Holy Innocents Day, when we remember the Massacre of the Innocents.

In America, we say that a person is “doing well” if they are holding it together during the funeral and that they are “not doing well” if they cry. That’s pretty sick. With the death of a loved one should come “wailing and loud lamentation.” Yet that does not usually happen until after the funeral. At the time of death there is shock. Then we must make the arrangements. Family and friends gather around us. We receive their offered comfort.

Then, after the burial, after the covered dishes have stopped, after everyone has gone home, then we are alone with our grief.

“Grief is the experience of finding yourself standing alone in the vacant space with all this torn emotional tissue protruding,” writes John O’Donohue in “Eternal Echoes.” “In the rhythm of grieving, you learn to gather your given heart back to yourself.”

This takes time. And even though the loss is shared with others, it is lonely. Nobody else had exactly what you had with this loved one, so nobody else has lost what you have lost.

The grieving loosens its grip when we realize that this person is with us in a different but very real way. The connection between us can never be severed. Although they are absent, we sense their presence. As O’Donohue says, “You become aware of the subtle companionship of the departed one.”

And we know, too, that while someone is absent here, they are present somewhere else. For the Christian, there is the hope/faith that we will again, at our own death, be with them physically. This is a great comfort, but it does not stop us from grieving.

My youngest daughter has lived overseas for 10 years. Before she left, and for several years after, I grieved with the weeping and travail of deep loss. When I visited her or she came here, at our parting I grieved all over again. Yes, I knew I would see her again, but that did not—does not—stop me from missing her.

Too often our culture and community can make us feel that mourning—with its lonely withdrawal—shows a lack of faith. We are expected to snap out of it, to jump right back into living. Yet we need to feel our loss in order to get through the grieving process. A good companion understands this, and makes his or her presence available.

Rachel … refused to be consoled… because she needed time and space to grieve. Even at Christmas.

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