THE ROAD IS LONG
With trembling hands and tears in her eyes, Natalie tore open an envelope that contained documents from the State of Utah. We knew exactly what it was before we opened the envelope – but that didn’t make this experience any easier. My sweet wife gasped for air as she poured over the contents of our son’s death certificate. I gave her space and cried, too. It occurred to me at this tender moment that when it comes to grief, the road is long.
While everyone in our lives (at the time) had moved on … the images of Mitchell’s funeral faded and become a distant memory … my tender wife and I were still dealing with the harsh realities of death. It took well over a year before all of the institutions stopped sending us material about account closures, insurance adjustments, school documents, social security cancellations, and more. At least, then, the mailbox stopped reminding us of our waking nightmare.
When it comes to the death of a child, the road of grief is made long in many ways. I’ve observed some kind and well-meaning people who post brave poems and other prose that suggest, because our souls are immortal, death is nothing at all. It is almost as if some wave a banner of liberty that says, “You see, you can stop hurting now.” But that doesn’t assuage sorrow. Some suggest that because they’ve felt peace that “you should, too.” Others might share the notion that our loved ones wouldn’t want us to be sad – that we should just be happy. (A guilt strategy that is as delirious as it is insensitive.) Others tell us our loved ones have merely gone to the next room and that we ought not to hurt so much because they are near. Though our loved ones may be near in a spiritual sense, from time-to-time, they may as well be on the other side of the universe – for there is no mortal door to walk through, no visiting hours, and no rest for weary hearts that wish for one more of anything.
There are a host of other things people do and share that would seem to ignore, deny or marginalize the emotional devastation of death. I do believe that most people only mean to help, unaware how their actions may complicate the sufferer's healing process. I am here to say that death, especially the death of a child, is most significant. It is a pain without equal. And, when others would suggest it’s time to move on or that death is a small thing in comparison to eternal things, they would seem to rob the sufferer the dignity of grief. Sometimes, without meaning to, they diminish the realities of loss and sorrow. The sufferer then tries to find ways to carry their sorrows in silence, often concealing their sorrows from view. There grief continues to live, buried like a cancer that sometimes becomes malignant. They hide their pain from view so they can reduce the criticisms of those who haven’t the slightest clue. Yet, the sufferer still hurts in unimaginable ways. They will hurt for a long, long time … long after the memory of funerals fade. Long after their surviving children have children. Grief remains.
Almost 10 years ago I visited with a dear friend whose father was about to pass away from old age. This father and great-great grandfather lost a child when he was a young parent. For 60+ years, he carried the weight of grief. Yes, he loved his children and grandchildren and lived a full life – but he carried grief, too. When he was on his own death bed I was invited to interview him so that his life stories might be preserved for generations to come. That interview was a tender exchange and there were feelings of love, gratitude and sorrow. This old man, whose tired body was about to find rest, was charming and kind, funny and humble. I marveled at this ancient soul made visible and sensed there wasn’t enough film on earth to capture his wisdom and life experience – however much I wanted to capture it.
Among the most poignant things he said was, “I can’t wait to see my wife again.” He then continued to say, with tears in his eyes, he was most excited to see his fallen child. For it had been so, so long. He cried and I cried with him. After all those years, he still felt grief. On the edge of death, he still sorrowed over his child’s passing almost a generation ago.
I walked out of that home a changed man. I sat in my car at the edge of his driveway and in the cover of night, I wept for him. That was my first glimpse that the road of grief is long.
That road of grief is long for a reason because, among other things, it teaches empathy. At least to me, empathy is one of the richest of all relationship currencies – both because it is so powerful and because it is so rare. It is an outgrowth of love and charity, of understanding and respect for others. It is to see and feel what others see and feel – a selfless act of caring with no thought of ourselves. One cannot feign empathy with hollow words, mechanical gestures or rehearsed behaviors. Empathy is a conversation between souls that is felt more than heard.
I do not write of grief today because I’m stuck in sorrow. To the contrary, I am experiencing more joy and sustained peace than I have ever felt since I lost my son. I suppose I share these entries like an early explorer might journal their findings through undiscovered country. I see beauty and horror, peace and sorrow; I see gardens of new life and wastelands with barren hills. I see beautiful, tall vistas that stretch into the heavens and valleys that reach deep in the shadows of death.
The road is long - but it is not all perilous. This much I know. One day I will be like that old man at whose bedside I sat. Like him, I will still have many tears for little Mitch. Anymore, I seem to identify with the lyrics of an old English folk song, “Though hard to you this journey may appear, grace shall be as your day.” Until that heavenly moment, with gratitude and joy, I will wend my way.