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“When a Child Dies” #12 . . . the aloneness of grief

2012 February 21
by Mike

We’ve all said it—all of us who are married. At least we’ve said something like it: “for better, for worse.”

But how could we have possibly known how bad “worse” could be. We imagined aging, failures, mistakes. We did not imagine losing a child.

Of course, many who lose a child are single. But don’t suppose that being married removes the burden of the aloneness.

For in grief, we go our own way.

The eyes of our beloved bear the sadness of our loss. Plus, you rally one day and are brought low by the other’s wretched sadness; then you feel like you’re slipping into a deep abyss just as your spouse is whistling in a temporary reprieve from the hurt.

If you imagine marriage as the perfect place of solace for a grieving soul, you may be overshooting. You imagine marriage halving the sorrow; in some ways it doubles it. For you’ve lost a son or daughter; but you’ve also lost your marriage as you knew it.

Grief takes you into places that can’t be explored arm-in-arm, soul-in-soul.

One of Robert Frost’s most piercing poems is “Home Burial.” Behind the poem is the loss of a child (a grief that Frost knew all too well!). But within the poem is the loss of a relationship. The husband is trying to suck it up and get on with life; the wife is blinded to life’s goodness by the constant sense of loss.

He saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him. She was starting down,
Looking back over her shoulder at some fear.
She took a doubtful step and then undid it
To raise herself and look again. He spoke
Advancing toward her: “What is it you see
From up there always? — for I want to know.”
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.
He said to gain time: “What is it you see?”
Mounting until she cowered under him.
“I will find out now — you must tell me, dear.”
She, in her place, refused him any help,
With the least stiffening of her neck and silence.
She let him look, sure that he wouldn’t see,
Blind creature; and a while he didn’t see.
But at last he murmured, “Oh” and again, “Oh.”

“What is it — what?” she said.

“Just that I see.”

“You don’t,” she challenged. “Tell me what it is.”

“The wonder is I didn’t see at once.
I never noticed it from here before.
I must be wonted to it — that’s the reason.
The little graveyard where my people are!
So small the window frames the whole of it.
Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?
There are three stones of slate and one of marble,
Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight
On the sidehill. We haven’t to mind those.
But I understand: it is not the stones,
But the child’s mound —-”

“Don’t, don’t, don’t,
don’t,” she cried.

(The full poem can be found here.)

The couple is so wounded by grief that neither can stop to understand the other. Grief separates rather than pulls together.

I mention this to say that those who come alongside those who’ve lost a child need to be aware that no part of life is untouched by the loss. Marriage is different; parenting (with surviving children) is different; work is different; church is different.

Grieving parents need patience, hope, silence, help, encouragement. (Note in posts 1 and 2 the preference for silence or brief expressions of love in the earliest days.) Their world is falling apart. When you get a chance, remind them that there is no blueprint for grieving. Encourage them to get help when they need it (from friends, minister, therapist, etc.).

A new world can be constructed—including a renewed marriage. (Some couples look back and see that their relationship is deeper and richer than they ever could have imagined—though they hate the journey that took them there.)

But it will take time. Lots of time.

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Rick Ross permalink
    February 22, 2012

    What a perfect description of the ups and downs of shared grief. Coming from someone who is further down the road than we are, your words bring clarity and validation to our experience. By God’s mercy, she and I are closer today than ever before. Much of that is due to going into this with an awareness of the above, as well as many friends who have specifically been praying for our relationship.

    Mike, this series would be a great “must” for every minister’s library. Thank you, my friend.

  2. February 22, 2012

    Thanks so much, Rick. Blessings on you and your family today as you remember.

  3. Larry Henderson permalink
    February 22, 2012

    Thank you Mike, Diane and all the others who have contributed to the last 12 entries. This has been an emotional learning experience for me and I hope to be more compassionate, more understanding of my loved ones who walk this difficult road. Blessings.

  4. Paul and Jean permalink
    February 22, 2012

    I worked with Jimmy Jividen at the Hillcrest congregation several years in the 70’s as I led singing and he preached. Shortly after Mack’s death in 2007 we received this poem from him which I cherish to this day. Perhaps it will prove beneficial to others as they as they work their way through grief.

    I hurt.
    My broken heart within my breast,
    Cries out in pain.
    The roar of things,
    the sounds of words,
    And the hustle of activity
    Pass through my throbbing mind,
    But can find neither response,
    nor lodgment there.
    I’m so weary.

    Cherished dreams which rose so high
    have burst like bubbles,
    in a summer wind.
    My fullness has been emptied
    and vacuum fills my bones.
    My soul has been trampled,
    in the dust without mercy.
    My heart is sick.
    I hurt, I hurt. How long
    Oh Lord, how long?

    My free soul which by pride and selfishness
    was lifted up to sublime heights
    now wallows in the misery mire
    of its own making.
    Lord, I’m hurt.
    How long? How long?

    Praise God above, who knows our cares
    and supplies so well our every need.
    I cried, “How long? How long?”
    When wrapped in fear and pain and grief.
    And then his answer came.
    Soft and sweet and reassuring,
    to my fainting heart.

    “My child, fall down upon your knees,
    And you will find your strength renewed
    and the vigor of your weary bones restored.”

    My child, look up,
    And you will see the balm of Gilead
    Which will soothe your broken heart
    and bring new life into your forlorn soul.”

    “My child, reach out,
    And you will find a hand so firm.
    And with a sweet, communal clasp,
    I will dispel the darkness
    of your hungry, empty soul,
    with my abiding presence.”

  5. February 22, 2012

    I can not tell you how much this series has meant to me. You started it on the day our son got sick 3 years ago, and yesterday marked the day we buried him. I have read every post each day as I have traveled back into those dark 15 days in February of 2009. I just want to say, thank you to my precious husband Ron. As we bobbed up and down in the deep end of the ocean it was him 90% of the time keeping me a float. I can’t count the number of times he held me so close as I cried myself to sleep, and not just weeping but the ugly cry. And cried with me as I dug my hands in the dirt at the cemetary, or shook my fists at God and said, you picked the wrong mom. Or the precious moment when he said Nan it’s time you go , after my dear friend Pam invited me to Ghana, and I was so scared to take a leap of faith. I think all 3 of our boys have brought out the best in us, and now Con is still keeping us together. I love you Ron, for better and thru this worse. All my love for all my life
    Thank you again, and again Mike, so helpful and full of hope.

  6. bcop permalink
    February 22, 2012

    Reading through these posts and the related entries has opened old wounds and reminded me of costly lessons. I assumed at some point I would join the discussion, but refrained, until this one. This post didn’t rip a scab off an old wound so much as reveal a pus pocket that I have just incorporated as part of my body, like an awkward protuberance.

    When we lost our two-year-old son, my husband and I were incredibly young. We didn’t know how to communicate without obstacles, much less overcome the communicational blockade built by grief.

    Divorce was the eventual culmination of our processing our loss in such a discordant manner.

    Some days my faith is so firm I can see God’s grace soaking me entirely, leaching the toxins from my “pus pocket”, telling the story from an entirely Jeremiah 29:11-ish perspective. Other days, my faith waivers, and I notice my posture hunches to protect that same protuberance, shielding it in the shadows of falsehood and hopelessness.

  7. Caarolyn Dycus permalink
    February 24, 2012

    Thank you for “Home Burial” Mike…I do relate to that sense of separateness A.M. and I “shared,” even now, 17 years later, when grief breaks out with one of us and the other has to back up and support, even though the one did not experience that moment. I felt very personal and separate grief with our loss and believe A.M. agrees he did too. We certainly shared and continue to share our pain, and all the sweet and bittersweet memories, anticipating seeing Lanny again. I especially needed a still space, alone with the Lord. Am thinking that must be the way it will be with me when I take my final breath. As much as I want my dear ones close by, I believe that moment will be simply and beautifully between GOD and me.

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