Joy and Sorrow

Prescription for Sorrow

Saint Thomas Aquinas is known as the Angelic Doctor. He was a philosopher, theologian, and Doctor of the Church.  While he lived in the 1200’s, the clarity and truth that he taught has continued to hold value even to the present day.  He had a deep understanding of the human person, an uncanny ability to see subtleties clearly, and to articulate his thoughts.  He is well known for combining both profound faith and solid reason to make arguments that are hard to deny.

So what does that have to do with my grief?

I was listening to the “Pints with Aquinas” podcast one day, and the topic happened to be “Aquinas’ 5 Remedies for Sorrow” (episode 39, for those who might care to check it out).   As I listened, I was struck by how much it resonated with the sources of comfort that I had stumbled into on my own quest to remedy my sorrow.  When your child dies, you find that you plummet into what is argued to be the deepest sorrow known to man.  I felt like I was groping around aimlessly in the dark, hoping to grab ahold of something that would ease my achy heart.  If only I’d landed on this treasure from Aquinas sooner, it may have been a flashlight in the dark…a tool to shed light on what could be sources of meaningful comfort.

Joy and sorrow all mingled into one picture as one my sons studies the headstone of another.

Joy and sorrow all mingled into one picture as one my sons studies the headstone of another.

Much of what Aquinas outlines is intuitive…they are things that as human beings, we can discover on our own.  The problem most of us have, is that the true wisdom that leads us to peace and healing gets all jumbled up with things like cultural attitudes, the expectations from the people around us, and our own insecurities, fears, and doubts.  It gets hard to figure out what to keep and what to set aside.  It’s easy to reach for the things that numb us, and the pain seems better momentarily, but after the passing of time…hours, months, or years…we find that those things have really not helped us heal and the work of grief is still sitting in a disheveled pile, waiting for us to tend to it.

I can’t help but wonder, if I had found this list earlier, would it have helped me be more intentional about how I grieved?  Maybe I could have let my tears flow more freely, knowing (from the wisdom of the wisest) that these tears weren’t a sign of weakness, but a sign of healing.  Here’s the prescription from the doctor.  May you find confirmation of your deepest needs, security, and comfort for your sorrow!

The Angelic Doctor’s Prescription to Remedy Sorrow:
Paraphrased for easy reading

1. Weeping:
Thomas Aquinas outlines two main reasons that tears and groans bring comfort to our sorrow.  The first reason is that when we are hurting emotionally and we try to keep it all shut up inside of us, our souls become even more intent on the sorrow.  However, if we allow the pain a path of escape, rather than turning in on ourselves, we can turn our attention outward and the inward sorrow is lessened.  The second reason is that there is some level of comfort that comes from the honesty of showing on the outside what we are feeling on the inside.  When our actions match our internal disposition, there is a level of pleasure that accompanies that congruency. 

How many times did I feel like bursting into tears, and tried to keep them all trapped inside because it wasn’t a good time or place to cry, or simply because I was afraid to break the flood gate?   I thought my tears had no “purpose” so I’d wrestle with them to keep them in.  It is exhausting to try to hold that in.  Eventually, I gave up trying.  When I was in the store and something triggered my grief, I just let the tears do their thing.  A little bashful about it, yes, but it brought so much more relief than trying to hold them in ever did!  It turns out those tears do have purpose…their purpose is to bring healing to my soul.

2.   Pleasure:
The doctor explains that pleasure is a kind of relaxation or peacefulness in our souls that occurs when what’s happening in the moment matches well with our wishes, hopes, and desires; while sorrow, on the other hand, is what we feel when there is a chasm between we want and what actually is.  He gives us the analogy that pleasure is to sorrow, what, in bodies, rest is to weariness.  Sorrow is a sort of weariness that comes from the gap that we feel, and pleasure is a rest in something that feels good or right or beautiful.  Just as rest brings relief of weariness-- no matter what the cause of the weariness, pleasure brings some relief to sorrow--no matter the source of the sorrow.

The sorrow that comes with a grief as big as the loss of a child can be all consuming.  We are not capable of grieving and mourning 100% of the time…we need those little breaks that come from doing things that we enjoy, being with people who make us smile, in moments of lightness and laughter.  It’s too easy to feel that doing something we enjoy, or daring to laugh or smile, is somehow a betrayal to our loved one and our grief.  Aquinas shows us that finding times of enjoyment is not a betrayal, but an honoring of our grief.  We know how deep our sorrow is and we can also know how essential moments of pleasure will be to bringing long-term healing and comfort.

3.   Sharing Sorrow with Friends:
While it is natural to find that having the sympathy and understanding of friends and family is a meaningful source of comfort, Aquinas sees there are two reasons for the comfort.  The first, he says, is because since sorrow has a depressing effect, it is like a weight that we strive to unburden ourselves of.  When we see that others are saddened by our sorrow, it seems as though others are sharing in the burden of the weight and the load of sorrow becomes somewhat lighter.  The second, and better reason, he states, is that because when friends sit with us in our sorrow, we see that we are loved by them…and feeling loved is the ultimate pleasure, and every pleasure eases sorrow, it follows that sorrow is lessened by a sympathizing friend.

How true this is!  There were two main groups of people that were my sources of comfort.  One, was other bereaved parents.  They knew the burden, the ache, and the loss in a way that no one else can.  They shared my sorrows, relieved my anxieties, offered me hope of healing, and lightened that heavy load.  I was surprised at how connected I could feel with complete strangers or with people I barely knew because of this shared experience of loss of a child.  The people who entered into my life because they had walked a similar road were an unexpected gift and a Godsend to me.  It is largely what motivates my work of helping other bereaved families find those connections.

The second group of people were the people who loved me before my son died, and continued to reach into my life afterwards.  The ones who shared my sorrow, not because they knew what it was like, but because they loved me.  I concur with the Doctor. The second reason is the better reason.  While I have made many dear friends from connecting with bereaved friends, there is something deeper, more soothing, and more comforting that comes from a sorrow that is shared out of love.

4.   Contemplating the truth:
Aquinas asserts that the greatest of all pleasures consists in the contemplation of truth.  Since we know from what was discussed already, that all pleasure softens our pain, then contemplation of truth is a valuable remedy to our sorrow.  He also explains that the more comfort that you find from this remedy, the more perfectly you can be considered a lover of wisdom. He says, “And therefore in the midst of tribulations men rejoice in the contemplation of Divine things and of future happiness...”

Contemplating truth was a huge piece of my grief-work.  The death of a child had no place in my world view, nor in my picture of an all-loving God.  Yet, the hope that comes from the possibility of being reunited in heaven, made it impossible for me to walk away from the God that promised that.  I needed to understand how suffering and a loving God can co-exist.  I needed to know everything that is available about heaven and what it’s like…there were so many questions to be answered! What is it like there? Who is looking out for him and taking care of him? What might his experience be like? Does he feel the pain of our separation?

These things are hard.  I had feelings of anger and betrayal toward God that I needed to work through.  It didn’t happen all at once, but in tiny fragments.  The work is not done.  I’m still growing, still find new perspectives and understanding that is helpful.  But this is the ultimate source of long-term healing and peace. A healing and comfort that is deep rooted and I think is one that will withstand in the storms that are undoubtedly yet to come.

5.  Warm Baths & Naps:
Lastly, Thomas Aquinas prescribes bodily comforts, such as baths and naps.  He says, sorrow, by its nature is offensive to the physical body; and consequently, whatever restores the body to its due state of wellness, is opposed to sorrow and lessens it.  Moreover such remedies from the very fact that they bring nature back to its normal state, are causes of pleasure…and we know well by now, that pleasure assuages sorrow.

Contemplating truth and warm baths & naps.  The juxtaposition is almost funny.  Yet, I found those bodily comforts also had a valuable place in my acute grief.  I was amazed at how much my body hurt, how physical grief could be.  Every muscle was tense, my empty arms ached, I could feel the sharp edges of my broken heart, headaches and nausea became frequent companions.  I needed to relieve the pain of my body.  I found myself soaking in a hot bath regularly.  I found reprieve in a good nap.  I found that frilly coffees were a delightful comfort food.  A good run, breaking a sweat, and moving my tight muscles, and the endorphin rush that comes with it found a regular place in my search for comfort. 

Being medically minded, the analogy that comes to mind is this: Like many things in medicine, when a patient presents in severe pain, we dull the pain with a pain medication which is valuable to the comfort of the patient, but then we have to work to heal the body on a deeper level.  Pain medicine is not enough for the long haul, but they sure do help get through the most excruciating pain.  Baths and naps are the pain medicine, the immediate comfort; contemplating truth is the deeper healing plan.

Take these remedies and hold them near, explore them, and see if this wise old Doctor really knows his stuff.  I think you’ll find that he does!

In the Wave of Light We Grieve Together

It's October 15...the night for the Pregnancy and Infant Loss wave of light! Lachlan, and all the other babies who have touched my life, have been in my thoughts and close to my heart in the last few weeks.

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I just picked up this new book, "Turn My Mourning into Dancing" by Henri Nouwen. He says this about the dance of finding joy in our sorrow, "And as we dance, we realize that we don't have to stay on the little spot of our grief, but can step beyond it. We stop centering our lives on ourselves. We pull others along with us and invite them into the larger dance. We learn to make room for others--and the Gracious Other in our midst. And when we become present to God and God's people, we find our lives richer. We come to know that all the world is our dance floor. Our step grows lighter because God has called out others to dance as well."

This October, rather than the Capture Your Grief project, my dance has been to accompany a couple of other families as they have stepped into their new worlds of grief and mourning. Truly, in the gift they give by allowing me to be present in their sorrow, my life has become richer.

Nouwen says, "I realized that healing begins with our taking our pain out of its diabolic isolation and seeing that whatever we suffer, we suffer it in communion with all of humanity, and yes, all of creation. In so doing, we become participants in the great battle against the powers of darkness. Our little lives participate in something larger."

Tonight, as we all light our candles in remembrance of our infants and share that light with the world, we take our pain out of its isolation and we participate in something bigger than ourselves. By joining together in a wave of light, we battle the power of the darkness and as we suffer in the communion of humanity we also let our healing begin.

When a life changing grief becomes insignificant

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After Lach died I read a book called Hello, from Heaven. It was a lovely little compilation of stories that people told of their "visits" from their loved ones. There must have been a chapter in there of people who had their visits in the form very vivid and vibrant dreams. I wanted to have that experience so terribly. I did have one dream about toward the end of that first year. However, it was not the peaceful hope-filled dream that I was yearning for. Instead, this one left me feeling the wound torn open and the ache of living without him feeling very fresh again. I definitely didn't want to have that experience again. 
I had a different kind of dream about a month ago and I'm finally deciding to share it. Sometimes things are too big for words and it feels like you are taking something away from a powerful experience by trying to make it conform to our language. However, in the case that it might bring a ray of hope to someone else, here goes: 
It began as I was parking my van in a grassy area of a park that was somehow connected to Nehemiah, a local high school boy that was killed in a car accident 2 years ago. This is a kid that I had some secondary connections to, but had never met myself. As I was backing into the spot, suddenly I could see Nehemiah through my rear view mirror and he helped me get parked. Then he playfully came around the car and greeted me with a warm hug as I got out. As I started to look around, I saw groups of people around the park. Some of the people had colors that were brighter and more saturated than everything else around them. I came to understand that those who were brighter were of heaven and everything that was more dull was of earth. I stood there in awe, slowly taking it in, and Nehemiah communicated to me without words that he'd see if Lach could come. I turned toward my left shoulder, slowing taking in the view in amazement, and as I got about 2/3 the way around, there was a grand piano sitting just off in the distance. Lach was sitting on the bench reaching toward the keys of the piano. He was still 10 months old, wearing the green and orange striped shirt that he wore both in the picture we used for his obituary and on the day he died. Everything is about him was bright and radiant. When I spotted him, he made eye contact with me and gave me a sweet and knowing little pursed-lip grin. I ran toward him and scooped him up, hugging him and kissing him. 
There was SO MUCH love and peace and joy. SO MUCH! As I held him, I came to understand our grief response as a teeny tiny completely natural response to being separated from something we are enjoying. In comparison to the joy of the moment, that all-consuming grief of losing a child dwarfed into an insignificant and temporary loss. It became more like the feeling that we have when something ordinary that we are enjoying comes to its natural end... The amazing movie that is now over, the fall of the leaves in autumn, the roller coaster ride that comes to an end...the faint "that-was-great, too-bad-it's-over" response.
At the same time as I was holding Lach and coming to understand the loss in a new perspective, I was also waking up. I knew that I would be waking up to continue living in my separation from him. I was SO ok with this! It was no big deal! It is so small and temporary and insignificant in comparison to the overwhelming love and joy that is to come. I woke up with tears in my eyes...Joyful tears that came from a delight at the glimpse of the what that reunion might be like, and the the peek at a joy, a peace, and a love that are so abundant they dwarf even a life-changing grief into something that is barely perceptible.

I don't dream often, and when I do, there is usually not much to make of it. This dream was something else. It was so clear and so vivid. It gave me new perspective to hold onto as well as hope and courage for the journey. It's a perspective could be applied not just to the loss of Lachlan, but to the rest of life's struggles too.

Hold onto hope all you much as your hearts hurt now, they will rejoice a million times over!

Find him in the Joy

As bereaved parents we often cling to the pain of losing a child because it is the last thing we have of them. We feel like by even thinking of letting go of the pain, we are somehow also letting go of THEM. Yet at the same time it is such a burden to carry that weight and it can rob us of our joy if we let it. In meditating on how to live well in the wake of such a difficult loss, this was the guidance that came. It brought me some comfort and hope, I hope it does the same for you:

Find him in the joy.jpg

Lachlan is not found in the weight of the loss. He is not in the hurt or the pain. By laying those things at the feet of Christ and giving away the pain, you are not losing Lachlan.
Rather, find Lachlan in the life, the joy, and the love. He is in the gift of motherhood. He is in the laughter and happy memories. He is in your smile. By taking the heavy weight from your shoulders you are not losing him, but finding him by allowing more of the beauty and light from his life to shine.
Take courage and trust. Don't look for him in the ache, though you'll find shadows of him there too. Look for his fullness, instead, in the                                                                                                            things that bring love, joy, and                                                                                                            laughter to your days.

Pearls of Wisdom

My message today for the newly bereaved is simply this. You are going to be ok. I know, it doesn’t feel like it. When you are in that new grief and your body physically hurts, when every single moment and thought is entirely consumed by the torment of not having your child in your arms. Your world is shattered and nothing is ok. When you hurt so much that it seems your heart should simply stop beating in your chest. When the idea of living the next 60 years on this planet without your baby is unbearable, it doesn’t feel like it can actually ever be ok again.

I can think of numerous occasions where I’ve met with someone who just lost a baby. When someone asks me how they’re doing, my answer is often, “they are going to be ok, they just don’t know it yet.” There’s no timeline for getting back to good, but it takes a LONG time. You can’t really even perceive that it’s happening, but it does. One day, you’ll just look back and be able to say, “I still miss him, but I’m ok!”

Before Lach died, I viewed happiness and sadness as opposites. Two sides of a coin that can’t both be experienced simultaneously. I know differently now. I can be both sad and abundantly happy at the same time and because of the same event. I always miss Lach and thoughts of him are never too far away, but sadness doesn’t overpower my days anymore. Even on the days I really miss him, I’m ok.

Eventually, you can be even more than just “ok.” You will be happy, fulfilled, content with this life you’ve been given, and able to be joyful with life’s experience. That’s really an understanding that only time can give you. You’ll never be the same, but if you want happiness again, it is yours for the taking, just by making choices most days that lead you by baby steps in that direction.

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