EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part series titled. The opinions expressed are those of the columnist and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff.
Part I: Coming to terms
Often when speaking to someone older than me who bemoans the vicissitudes of aging, I hear myself saying “We’re all on the same river, just in different boats.” Like most people I suppose, there still lives in me a childish entity of sorts (remember that once fashionable phrase, “inner child”?) who is shocked, indeed incredulous, with the fact that I am ___ years old. Wait! What happened? Wasn’t I supposed to be young forever?
Personally, I am not ashamed to say that I am 54 years old, 55 on the horizon come spring. I hope I will feel the same way about stating my chronological age, good Lord willing, when I am 85. And I hope I will continue to use my gifts to be a blessing to others as I strive to do now.
Nothing brings home one’s mortality quite like the death of someone you love deeply, particularly your parents. Having lost both of mine very close together last year, these events were a forceful reminder indeed. But this momentous arrival at orphan-hood, so to speak, this inescapable sojourn into the landscape of mourning and grief was something that I had consciously pondered often and for some time. Thinking about it was especially unavoidable since my parents both endured very long illnesses in which my siblings and I were involved daily. Some regard thinking about death as morbid; that there couldn’t possibly be anything good about it worthy of contemplating, much less conversing.
Does this sort of “intellectualizing” of my experience amount to a betrayal of my love for Mom and Dad, a negation of my sacrifices for them…? Does analytical thought about their deaths mean that I desecrate their memory or indulge a cowardly escape from my own painful grief?
That would be a gross oversimplification; an accusation tantamount to dismissing me as cold-hearted or unfeeling. Nothing could be further from the truth, as what happens in the depths of my heart is beyond words, literally—a place where only God can go with you. That is one of the confounding traits of grief: language is inadequate to fully express it; even tears are somehow not enough. This is one of the reasons we feel so awkward in our attempt to comfort others in their losses. Words seem so, well, superficial. Yet words are not completely useless either.
This essay is not about death. It is about life. To use an old cliché, death is a part of life. Well, of course! One would assume we accept and understand this perplexing fact, even when the circumstances are sudden or tragic. However, many observers point out that American culture compared to others is more or less in denial about death. And cultural influence has more import than we think. Other people with different traditions apparently have a great many (more) social rituals that help members to corporately come to terms with their losses.
Let’s be realistic here. Life is full of painful experiences of which the death of those we love is but one, albeit the most painful of all. But what about physical or mental disability or traumatic violence or terminal/chronic illness? What about betrayal or discrimination? What about abandonment? What about poverty or cruelty or the destruction of nature? It is a long list. The point is that a wider perspective serves to draw one out of the natural tendency to self-pity.
Grieving the death of someone you love is proper and unavoidable, as is grieving the pain of other emotional wounds endemic to being human. We would do well to pay better attention to these wounds, to tend to them. But there’s precious little teaching or examples of just how to do this; our society has a comparative dearth of rituals to help us. Without doing that work, we carry around unresolved, unconscious pain that can negatively affect present relationships, even our health. These aspects of our lives are ultimately intended for joy and fulfillment.
The other end of the spectrum is to dwell deliberately and repetitively in the raw pain of one’s wounds for too long, but the result is the same: abdicating the joy and fulfillment that is our birthright, in spite of the suffering. In fact, from the Christian view, joy and suffering are paradoxically connected. But this doesn’t mean we enjoy suffering like a masochist. It means that when suffering or injustice is inflicted upon us, there is something in it that has the potential to help us become better, or stronger, or smarter or more truthful, etc. in ways we couldn’t have imagined or learned in any other way. But we must begin by choosing it, not just once, but every day. Beyond initial shock and inescapable pain or disillusionment, we are eventually faced with a choice: resentment and self-pity, or gratitude and compassion. This, I think is what St. Paul means in Romans, chapter 5: “For we rejoice in our sufferings…”
I will never stop missing Mom and Dad. In fact, I started missing them in certain ways throughout adulthood, as our lives began to be lived separately and far away from each other through the years. I especially missed them as dementia took away so much of what made our relationships special, though there was always a remnant there — a mysterious, ineffable connection that nothing could or can take away. And for that I was and am thankful. Missing them has been with me a long time but my life doesn’t stop there. The values they imparted to me and the joys and lessons of our experiences together will never go away. This is love at its most real. As Mom so often quipped… “on to my next adventure!”
Caroline McColloch is a freelance writer, farmer and local foods advocate. She can be reached at (937) 773-0663 or firstname.lastname@example.org.