Monday, February 28, 2011

On Grief

I reread the book of Job this past summer. You remember Job. He’s the one who loses absolutely everything, and continues to hold fast to faith in God, despite his suffering. I was preparing a piece for a US based Christian magazine, and my reflection focused on my own encounter with mortality, and the ways in which my friends and family walked with me through the hard times.

In the last few weeks, my family has again encountered the pain of death, but today I find myself in the role of Job’s friends. In her seventh month of pregnancy my youngest sister delivered a still-born baby via c-section.

My sister Laura’s apparently perfectly formed baby Emma simply stopped living. No cause, no reason can be found. And my sister and her husband are left devastated.

Babies delivered after the sixth month require burial. I mention this for those who might remember the old days when a woman would often not even see her still-born baby. But today, parents are encouraged to hold their babies after delivery for as long as they feel comfortable. I stood in the recovery room with Laura and Bernie and baby Emma and stroked her tiny perfect face, and held her miniature fingers. In this act of acknowledgement, the dignity of her short life was affirmed. The truth that Laura and her husband Bernie were parents to this child was celebrated sorrowfully but importantly.

A funeral was held for Emma, and she is buried in a cemetery in Toronto near her parents’ home. But my sister’s grief weighs her down, assaults her, and drags her into darkness. My brothers, my sisters, my parents and I try to reach her, try to comfort her, but like Job’s friends we are at a loss. Her friends come, bearing food and kind words, but none of us can find the cure to her pain.

Laura wonders if Emma is alone. She wonders if she, Laura, could have done something to save her child. She wonders where God is in this. And she wonders whether the pain will ever stop, and even whether she wants it to, because happiness might be a betrayal of her baby.

Grief is complex, individual, and often hidden. Words don’t cure it, nor does time on its own. But fellowship can help, and prayer, and the acknowledgement that the one who has died does not suffer, does not yearn, and does not cry. But while the dead are at peace in the arms of God, those who are left behind face the light-sucking pain of loss.

I considered the book of Job again this week. I’ve worked in grief support, but I never find it easy. People grieve individually, in a way particular to their own situation. This may be because, despite our incredible education system, we don’t teach people how to die, and we don’t teach people how to grieve. We learn that on our own, in that unexpected moment when death attacks us. We hide from our mortality until it hits us in the face, unmistakable, and often, gone.

I find that Job’s friends have little to offer me in the way of advice, except for one thing:

They are there. They stay. They tear their clothes, and sit in the dust with their friend. They say useless things, but they do not leave.

And when Job’s friends stay, they manifest the truth about God. Death comes, but God stays. Carrying that presence of God with them, Job’s friends sit with him. Like Jesus on the cross, they do not hide from the suffering, from the truth that the human body must encounter death. The only way to the light of resurrection is through that dark night of sorrow. Love transcends it all, even through pain.

And so my family will continue to sit with Laura and Bernie. We will simply be there, our words useless perhaps, but our hearts certainly full. And we will wait, and wait, until the light comes again.

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