Monday, August 28, 2023

Grief and Loss

I am not, I remind myself repeatedly, on familiar ground now.

I've lost dear friends, sure, and as a pastor have walked many folks through the process of grieving a loved one.

But I haven't ever lost a parent.  That doesn't happen all that often in life.  I understand grieving such a loss in the abstract, and I've seen it through the eyes of others.  I've never been there myself, up until this moment.

People extend condolences, and ask me how I'm doing.  I am, as best I can tell, fine.  A little more scattered than usual, sure.  There's so much to do that has to be figured out.  But otherwise?  Functioning within what passes for my normal parameters.  

There've been moments of unexpected sorrow, sure.  Like driving back from picking up takeout Chinese, and Goodnight My Someone from The Music Man comes up on my playlist, Shirley Jones soprano filling the car.  Suddenly I'm back by the bedside on the day Dad died, watching Mom hold his cool hand and stroke his room-temperature forehead, listening to her tell him how wonderful their life together was.  It was so impossibly sweet, so tender, so intimate.

The throat closes, the chest tightens, the eyes brim and overflow, and I let that roll as long as it feels like going.

I had many moments like that when Dad was in the long decline of congestive heart failure, after watching him struggle for oxygen, when death seemed close and pain was present.  Find a quiet place, and let it out.  Being both male and introverted, I grieve alone, like a wounded animal seeks the safety of the shadows.  It's just where it feels right, and that's fine. 

Yet there are other things I don't feel.  "I'm sorry for your loss," someone will kindly say, and I appreciate the sentiment.  But I don't feel it.  I feel no loss.  Perhaps I will, at some point, a great wave of unfillable emptiness.  Rache feels that with her mom, a "hole in the world," as Amanda Held Opelt described it in her lovely book on grief and the absence of a loved one.

Dad just doesn't feel gone.  He's not physically present, of course, not as he was.  He is most certainly dead.  The ineffable processes of life that animated his material being are no longer active.  I will not speak with him again, not share some triumph or struggle, not listen to one of his old familiar stories.  I will miss that.  I do miss that.  I sat with his corpse for hours, absorbed the reality of it, the finality of it.  He is outside of the time and space that I currently inhabit.  

Yet still, he doesn't feel gone.

I'm too Augustinian, I suppose.  My view of life and the soul and God, too close to my ancient North African brother in the faith.  How can anything that God made and loved be truly lost?  How can I, who am connected to my Creator through that same love, be apart from anything else the Maker has made?  I'm at the point in my life where that's not a theological postulation or a convenient abstraction.  That faith is just part of who I am.  That circle remains unbroken, as sure as the gold band around my ring finger.

One could, I suppose, pick at that thought, in the same way one could argue that my wedding band is mostly just the empty space between Au atoms.  But what would be the purpose of that?  Realism?  The willful pursuit of despair isn't realism.  It's just neurotic.

I mean, how could I exist, if Dad had not existed?  He doesn't simply live on in my notoriously unreliable memory.   He lives on in my body, the meat and bone reality of it, of my unique, deeply complex admixture of his deoxyribonucleic particularity and Mom's.  It goes deeper, not just the flesh of me, but the way that I think and act, nature nurture-shaped by a lifetime of knowing him.  It goes past me, into my sons, into their faces, into their minds, into the warm music of their voices.  There he is, intermingled with so much.

If Dad was really gone from being, none of those things would be.  He is forever a part of my little corner of creation.

Not lost.  Just...completed.