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Rounding the Curtain: Embracing the Senselessness of Grief

I entered the hospital room. She was sitting in a geri-chair looking out the window. The room was stark white with no flowers or cards. The only punctuation to the white was her robe of pink hearts. I introduced myself as the chaplain on the floor. “That’s nice,” she replied. “It’s snowing.” I pulled up a chair, faced the window, and observed her as she watched the snow’s gentle fall.

“At least I won’t be shoveling it,” she said. “I’ve been traveling a lot.”

“You’ve been traveling?”

“I’ve been all over the last six weeks.” She started listing the scattered cities that she had visited.

“When did you come to the hospital?”

She looked at me puzzled. I was still new to chaplaincy, and I was unsure of what to say next. Do I explain to her that she is in a hospital? Do I confront her with reality?

“We join with people,” Trudi, my chaplaincy supervisor, had said. “The goal is to join people in their narrative, to sit in their shoes, and to offer something back so that they know they have been heard.”

OK, I thought, I’ll join the narrative.

Together, we were watching out the cabin window of a cruise ship. As the snow fell beyond that porthole, she spoke of her heart attack, of her bout with breast cancer before that, and of her husband who had died four years earlier and whose body she had just received back for burial. He had rheumatic fever as a child. She spoke of having three daughters and told me stories about two of them. She spoke of it all with frankness and clarity.

Her clarity and her confusion seemed to slide past each other like the brackish waters of the Hudson just outside the window. When ice was on the Hudson you could see it clearly: the tidal ocean waters moving up the sides as the central current continued south. They call it the river that flows both ways.

It was along those brackish waters that I learned not to work so hard to force everything to make sense. It was a hard lesson. Like the other chaplains in my program, I wanted to correct confusion, to direct in the right ways of understanding and relating to God. But controlling this impulse is especially significant in the hospital, where people’s backgrounds, experiences, and ways of conceiving of God are vast and varied. The impulse to defend or explain or justify God is an impulse to resist.

“Ya know, on this trip I haven’t heard the geese,” she said. “I usually hear the geese. I don’t know if they are going north or south . . . going north into the cold?” she made a cringing face and looked back out the window. “The geese—I usually see geese every spring and fall. I didn’t see the geese.”

The mind has its own ways of announcing disruption, of sensing that rhythms are coming to an end. She, in her own way, was grappling with the fact that she was dying. And in the cabin of her ship, I heard. Our conversation came to an end. I put my hand on her arm, rubbed it softly, and offered a prayer. I rose to go and she began again.

“My third daughter died when she was nine. She was my first one. Then God blessed me with two more, but I still cry over my first.”

“I bet you do.” Her revelation caught me short. I paused for a moment catching my breath, as if she had pushed her thumb down on my own wound, before adding: “Our first child was a little boy, and we still cry over him as well.”

“Oh . . . take lots of pictures of your kids, and put them in a book, and mark the dates on them. I did that with the first one, not with the others. Before you know it, you forget, and they grow up, and then they start telling you what you need to do.”

I left her alone to her travels; she turned back to the window.

It was four years earlier that my wife and I sat stunned, staring out the window as all rhythms, hopes, and expectations were shattered. We couldn’t hear the geese either to know which way was north. We were undone by two words: “I’m sorry.” My wife was due on the ninth of December, this was the tenth. Those words were spoken by our doctor. We sat there for three hours, as everything our world had revolved around for the past eight months stopped—the frozen sonogram image of a still heart.

“I can’t handle this. I’ll go crazy,” she muttered, clutching her womb, our dead child locked inside her.

I don’t think we ever felt so alone or isolated or scared.

We called our pastor, the only person who came to mind, though we had only known him a short time. He sat too. He pulled up a chair, put a hand on our knees. And when we could not sit there any longer, he took us back to his house that night. We could not bear to return home. The baby room lay ready, walls painted, crib assembled. We stayed with Thom and his family, laid on their old sofa bed and wept.

The contractions returned. It was a cruel, dark night; a dark night that gave way to a cruel, dark day as we went to the hospital. We walked past the morning weigh-in, where parents grinned wildly at their wiggling babies. We walked the long cold hallway. The windows were dotted with cold gray December rain. It was as if we entered a tunnel of grief and loneliness. Every child I saw punctuated the silence of our home; every griping parent in the grocery store made me protest: “This is not fair.”

But that tunnel led to a secret society of people who had lost children. Their stories found us, stories of parents who had lost a child as a fetus, around the due date of their birth, at age nine, or even at age fifty-nine. We found that you share your grief with these few who might understand.

In time, I started to surface from the depths of my grief. And everywhere I looked I saw the resonance of that dark night—African mothers with withering children in their arms, Indonesian sons and daughters washed out to sea in tsunami waters, the sons of Muslim parents tortured without cause by US forces. Missing children flyers seemed to fill our post office box. Injustice upon injustice. Henri Nouwen wrote of coming to see one’s pain as part of the corporate pain of the world. The path through my private pain burrowed down into the corporate pain of the world. I found that what had seemed like a life-shattering tragedy paled in comparison to the great traumas of the world.

I was reared with a faith rooted in theological and doctrinal claims. Pain and suffering were always the plaguing questions. How do we maintain a belief in God’s love, God’s power, while still accounting for suffering and tragedy? I remember reading Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People, though with the presumption that Kushner had gotten it wrong because he didn’t maintain God’s uncompromised power. I read apologetic works. I had been in Christian ministry for a number of years, doing my part to articulate faith, to persuade people of its logic, and to insist that our lives ought to conform to it. But life had allowed me, for the most part, to hold such plaguing questions at bay. The trauma of losing my son, of walking through that tunnel and being exposed to the loss of so many people around me—it brought all those questions crashing in. No good answers were to be found, and even the questions were not acceptable to me any longer. Theology, that calculus of the divine, I found, would now have to take on a more tentative, open-handed status. The need for life and God’s way of being to conform to some standard of intellectual coherence—I let it go. I had to. God remained real to me. But God made less sense. Theology and doctrine had become like a loved one that I could no longer protect against the dilemmas of experience.

This shift was complemented by those hospital room conversations, by the time I spent entering others’ worlds as a chaplain. I started to heal in a new way. I found a new way forward where connection replaced intellectual coherence as my dominant value. Where faith took on a deeper texture, one where belief or adherence to doctrine and ideas were not the sum of religious identity.[1] I still bore an instinct to find a narrative that makes sense of one’s experiences of the world, but along the brackish waters of the Hudson, in the seams of confusion and clarity, I learned to listen—to discern where my story and another’s story were splashing against each other. I learned to let those connections and those experiences of listening instruct me.

It was that ten-foot walk, over and over, between the doorway of a hospital room and the rounding of a curtain that changed me. It is the corridor of no return. When you’ve come around the corner, there is no time to discern who you are talking to or whether you agree on the nature of reality; there is no time to warm up to each other. I learned to be present and to connect. When I was sitting beside a child who struggled to breath, a man doubled over with Crohn’s, or a woman who was facing that fateful hour, the questions and concerns that preoccupied me in prior years were displaced. I learned to listen to the story trying to come out—not to make sense of it, just to hear it. And what is more, I found that my own trauma provided a resource from which I could empathize. My loss helped me to sit with another. I had the reservoir out of which to wonder what it might be like to experience their pain. Such ability and willingness to wonder is, I believe, the soil out of which compassion and kindness grow.

The poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes that we must “lose things” before we can know kindness. We must “feel the future dissolve in a moment / like salt in a weakened broth.”[2] I still hold the pain and loss of my son, that dark, earth-shattering night when my imagined future dissolved. When I consider the violent reality of our world, of a Pakistani school obliterated in a moment, an elementary classroom of children bleeding out on the floor, or a black boy gunned down by police, my pain may seem small or insignificant. But my pain was also grand, life-changing, because it caused me to see the pain of the world, the silenced voices, the constant talking past one another, the violence and the oppression. Because I believe that any hope for connection and healing, any hope for God’s kingdom to come on earth, will be through compassion, through being able to pull up a chair for a while in another’s world and join with them in their suffering.

Our theological and eschatological visions have too often focused on the eradication of pain and suffering, of the doctrines of God as just and good and omniscient and all-powerful. I am ordained in the Reformed tradition, a tradition rooted in Scripture and the doctrines of God’s providence, of God’s purposes and plans, and so on. And while theology has an important place, I can’t help but wonder if such visions and theological hopes don’t continually remake a world poised for rupture. We imagine a world as it is supposed to be, come to expect God to act in a certain way. It all so rarely conforms, if ever. Even so, this propensity for belief and intellectual coherence results in some person (like me) telling you what to think in the season of your grief, or what is OK to feel or say in the wake of trauma. It finds us trying to make the experiences of others conform to our conceptual frameworks.

Pain and trauma are the perpetual problems to our theological frameworks. But if our pain and trauma can become our teachers, if our moments of shattering can be embraced as the opportunity for connection, a new way of conceiving of God’s presence in the world can come forth, a new way of finding and experiencing God’s Spirit at work. This is a practical approach, not one meted out for intellectual coherence. It is a faith practice rooted in our common humanity and in the mystery of a God who becomes incarnate and who suffers with us.

We will never understand the world. It will never conform to our constructed ideals. This is a very non-Reformed thing to say, but our ideals often serve us poorly, making us more resistant to others and their conflicting and competing narratives and worldviews. But if we can imagine that God is not consumed with intellectual coherence and belief, that God is encountered in the tender point of connection, then a new ministry and way in the world might be found. If we walk the tunnel from our pain to that of our neighbor, we might share a deep sense of humanity and Godly hope. Then the sufferings of Christ might gain a new light, freed from Anselmian notions of God trapped by his own principles.

My wife and I still grieve our son. We grieve him when we are laughing at a restaurant with our two living children. We feel that space between us, cognizant of what is missing and wondering what his laugh would have sounded like. How would he have fit in with our family’s hugs and play and fights? We grieve him, which in some way is to say that something is wrong; it wasn’t supposed to be this way. This is a claim rooted in a sense of order and ontology, and when I think such things I am caught short. We are different people because of our first son. I am a minister because of him. We have found a new way in the world, a way more open to accepting others for who they are, to hearing their stories for what they are, and to discerning God’s presence and hope as they are. We have found a new way of connecting. We have found our way in the world through that which wasn’t supposed to have happened.

I don’t understand it. But I have come to see each encounter as a moment of rounding the hospital curtain and pulling up a chair. While more spiritual discipline or practice than theology, it has kept me rooted in the love of God in Christ, the only discipline and practice that has come to make sense.

[1] See Manuel A. Vasquez, More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion, 1st edition (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[2]  Nye, Words Under the Words: Selected Poems, 1st edition. (Portland, OR: Eighth Mountain, 1994), 42–43.

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David Pettit :
David Pettit is a minister in the Reformed Church in America and a PhD student in the joint doctoral program of Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver. His area of research is in the narrative and poetry of the Hebrew Bible. He pastors a small Presbyterian church part-time, fly-fishes when he can, and lives in Colorado Springs with his wife and two children.

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