04 August 2011

Reading & Writing About Grief

Following Ewan's death, I was given and picked up a variety of books about grief. I had a hard time making my way through the ones that spoke of grief as though it were simply a step-by-step matter of reasoning and surrender, accepting that "these things happen" and the like. It's not that they weren't telling the truth -- the truth is, these things do happen, and there is a matter of surrender. But it's not that easy. No sequence of steps, no matter how logical, will salve a human heart that has been shattered by grief.

There was one book that rose above the rest in its discussion of grief and loss. Jerry Sittser's A Grace Disguised manages to come with both grace and truth to the grieving heart. In 1991, the author was driving on a highway from Idaho back to eastern Washington with his mother, wife, and four children when a drunk driver swerved into their lane. His mother, wife, and youngest daughter Diana Jane were killed in the accident. This is someone who knows something about grief. 

My well-loved copy

I could go on and on about how honest he is with his grief in the wake of the accident and in the years since, and how he manages to do so while also remaining faithful, clinging to what he knows to be true about God. Instead of allowing it to change how he thought of and related to God, he allowed his loss to change him. The best way to share this is to share a few favorite quotes.

"I question whether experiences of such severe loss can be quantified and compared. Loss is loss, whatever the circumstances. All losses are bad, only bad in different ways. No two losses are ever the same. Each loss stands on its own and inflicts a unique kind of pain. What makes each loss so catastrophic is its devastating, cumulative, and irreversible nature." (p.33)

"The passage of time has mitigated the feeling of pain, panic, and chaos. But it has also increased my awareness of how complex and far-reaching the loss has been. I am still not 'over' it; I have still not 'recovered.' I still wish my life were different and they were alive. But I have changed and grown. ... The accident itself bewilders me as much today as it did three years ago. Much good has come from it, but all the good in the world will never make the accident itself good. It remains a horrible, tragic, and evil event to me. A million people could be helped as a result of the tragedy, but that would not be enough to explain and justify it. The badness of the event and the goodness of the results are related, to be sure, but they are not the same. ... I still want them back, and I always will, no matter what happens as a result of their deaths." (p. 198-99)

"The supreme challenge to anyone facing catastrophic loss involves facing the darkness of the loss on the one hand, and learning to live with renewed vitality and gratitude on the other. The challenge is met when we learn to take the loss into ourselves and to be enlarged by it, so that our capacity to live life well and to know God intimately increases. To escape the loss is far less healthy -- and far less realistic, considering how devastating loss can be -- than to grow from it. Loss can diminish us, but it can also expand us. It depends, once again, on the choices we make and the grace we receive. Loss can function as a catalyst to transform us. It can lead us to God, the only One who has the desire and power to give us life." (p. 200)

I was moved, encouraged, and helped enough that I had to write to him. And so on July 8, just before I left for Florida, this is what I wrote to him:

Dear Jerry,

I'm one of thousands of readers you have, I'm sure, who wants to express how grateful I am for your book. I was handed many after the loss of our firstborn about nine months ago, but none spoke to me like yours did. I was increasingly frustrated with the literature that I assumed was meant to be comforting, but instead irritated me with its didactic, almost preachy, tone about how I just needed to trust God, how I just needed to surrender, how "these things happen, you shouldn't be so surprised," and so on. They came with truth, perhaps, but little grace. In the same way Christ came to us, I felt that your words came to me full of grace and truth. I appreciated how you managed to remain faithful to the Christian tradition while also honestly acknowledging the dark and gritty reality that one lives in in the wake of a devastating loss. It is not an easy tension to hold. So often, we so badly want it to be one or the other. 

I know I'll never "get over" losing my son, and quite frankly, I don't ever expect that I'll wake up one day and find that I've come to peace with what happened. I carry the grief with me daily, not seeking to shed it, but experiencing the reality that its weight at once energizes and exhausts me, inspires me, and leads me to weep at surprising times. I still experience anger, and I still ask God why he would so lovingly knit together this beautiful boy in my womb with a body that simply was not meant to sustain an earthly life. And as glad as I am that good continues to come from what my husband and I lost, I will always wish he was here with me, doing the things that a normal nine-and-a-half month old should be. I have experienced and continue to experience that expansion of soul you speak of. It has made me better. My heart is more tender, and it is wiser too -- and because of what we've been through, I've been in a unique position to offer comfort to parents whose little one is facing a devastating illness and receiving treatment in the same hospital where my son spent his 16 days. I'm glad for these things, but it will never make Ewan's death worth it, or make it make sense to me.

I know you must have been and continue to be the recipient of more stories of loss than you can count. And as sorry and grieved I am for the loss that you and your family sustained that brought words to the pages that comforted me, I'm incredibly thankful that you wrote them. I know it doesn't change anything, but I just wanted to say thank you.

Also, I wanted to mention that I grew up in Bellingham, close to Lynden! I'm currently in the Seattle area, but am days away from an impending move to Florida where my husband got a job offer we couldn't pass up. I'm also thrilled to be expecting our second child in early January. I'm confident that getting to be Ewan's mother is going to make me a better parent, and am thankful for the grace of another chance to partner with God in the creation of a new human life. 

I wish you blessings and peace, and again offer my thanks for the sacrifice of your words.

Kirsten Petermann

His reply back to me was humble, brief, and incredibly gracious. He said he was grateful for what I wrote. That it was clear that I "got it." That I understood the tension between the bad and the good that such loss creates, and that "Our only option is to move into it and stay there, finding grace." And he congratulated me on my pregnancy.

I was so grateful myself -- not only to hear back, but to have any of the words he penned at all. Plenty of other books frustrated me, preached at me, and sent a message of "suck it up, already!" His came with a tender heart, a loving arm around the shoulder that said to me: 

"It is awful. You shouldn't be happy, and not all the good in the world, not all the happy descriptions of that further heavenly shore will make up for what you've lost. I get it. I really get it. So cry, grieve, and get angry. Pound your fists and ask your questions. I will not ask you to stop. But move into it -- don't avoid it, don't run away. Let it open up your heart and widen your soul. You will breathe again."