All of us experience loss. Things, people, circumstances come and go, sometimes slipping unnoticed or not missed in the course of busy and changing lives. Loss that is suffered, however, has a different character. This is the ripping away of what we protect, cherish, covet, need, and think we deserve. The real and meaningful losses we experience take a toll on our identity and challenge our beliefs about fairness, rightness. At its core, loss threatens our abilities and confidence about survival.
There are many losses throughout life, of course; it is the natural order of things. Losing a loved one is among the most difficult to bear-a family member, friend, pet, someone you knew or identify with and who enriched you with meaning and humanity. One of the most difficult sufferings is the loss of a child.
On Memorial Day weekend in 2013, we lost our son, Neal. He was 26 years old. He died from an accidental drug overdose. The police came to our door in the middle of the night to respectfully deliver the tragic news, sentries of a nightmare for any parent. Instantaneously, we were transported into that unenviable group of parents who grieve and suffer and try to make sense of the unexpected and insensible.
How can I bear such a loss? How can I continue with my duties, swimming in a world of overwhelm, swallowing the salty tears and flailing to connect reality with pretense? What shall I say to others? What will they say and think? Is it right for me to burden them with this grief, and is it deceptive or isolating to withhold it? What will happen with my heartache and sorrow, and how might God use it for good?
Why did this happen, God who loves me and loves my son? Why did you take Neal from us at this time? In your natural order, children outlive their parents, difficult as that painful finiteness is, too. Why this exception? How shall I placate my analytical mind’s unanswerable questions, and who will soothe my emotional angst?
In the midst of agonizing loss, vulnerability takes center stage, stark and unrehearsed. The carousel of emotions and coping skills spins aloof, and I’m incompetent at jumping on or off: hurt, despair, confusion, numbness, relief, misery, grief, love, self-pity, rationalization, anxiety, fear, fatigue. Those common and reliable escapes-denial and anger-don't fit me well. I am loathe to wear them, like some old fat clothes that no longer fit, or the garish sports jacket that I wore in college when I was so full of myself.
I am plainly hurt, sensitive, and needy-exposed to the grim reality that what I hold most dear can be, has been, and, in varying measure and timing, will be taken away. This life that I cherish, act in and out, and pretend is my own exists in a context that has greater control than I can ever exert. The painful reality of loss asserts its sobering reminders that all I "own" is temporary. In the bigger picture, I am truly not even my own.
Loss is a natural, inevitable, and unpleasant aspect of life. It is far less predictable than we’d like, and often strikes with sudden terror, leaving us exposed, shocked, and needy. Given the universality and intermittency of loss, we would think to take it in stride, at least much of the time. But that is not the case, even with "minor" losses; to lose something meaningful feels deeply personal and threatening. When something is taken away, the experience cuts to the core of vulnerability, control, security, comfort, entitlement, and the organization of the world we take for granted.
There are no curricula for loss, no courses to teach how to give things up. Our culture exalts "getting" more and holding on to it. This market structure operates on an economy of material growth and confidence, catering to pragmatic needs but insensitive to emotions and the needs of the spirit. Even death has its proper associated industries.
Despite its unanimity, loss remains a private matter, leaving each of us to mourn, resent, pine, wish, regret, and adjust as best we can. There are support groups for processing, close ones for comfort, and "replacements" for some losses. You can get a new car or pet, but you can't bring back the dead. Whether the loss is minor (such as a wallet) or tragic (as in the death of a loved one), no replacement, substitution, distraction, or opportunity teaches the practical and spiritual skills of giving up.
Loss means giving up. Many people view giving up as an act or attitude of resignation or cowardice. To give up can connote a reprehensible loss of motivation or a failure to participate and compete. Giving up can seem a flaw in moral character, in the fiber necessary for adaptation and survival. However, when God takes away something valued, giving up is a choice we can make in response to God's sovereignty. When faced with loss, even devastating, irreversible, irreplaceable loss, we can choose to respond in deference to God's will and with deference and neediness to the one who knows and can meet all needs. This process is called surrender.
Surrender is weakness and vulnerability leaving the soul and spirit. It is the renunciation of control and the capitulation to a force or will greater than one's own.
My wife grieves with me. She wails and laments that Neal will never have a wife or children, never know the challenges and rewards of a developing career, never experience the mixed blessings of aging. My heart echoes these laments, and my mind reflexively reviews the "coulda, shoulda, woulda, if only" thought loops that intrude in the aftermath of this tragedy. I know I did all I could for my son, yet the inexorable finality of losing him exacerbates my helplessness and the smallness of my power and competence in the universe. What is left for me when the exercise of "figuring this out" leaves only repeated fatigue and frustration?
I must yield to God's will and omniscience, for he is my strength and comfort. Accepting what happened and adjusting to life without my son and his future does not mean forcing away my pain and suffering. I know that God feels my feelings because he is the Creator of those feelings. I trust God to comfort me and to bring about healing in his own time. My best efforts are put toward recognizing and yielding to his sovereign will.
It is difficult to think about what happens when you are gone; such thoughts don't compute with worldly reasoning, and it can be scary, especially without secure belief and reassurance about the hereafter. It is so overwhelming and confusing to experience and organize the thoughts and feelings of outliving a child. Yet life is a process of acquisition and loss, and the passion and security of attachment can only be ultimately disappointing. It is a great conundrum that fulfillment and peace appear through blessed involvement and, necessarily, through letting go.
Taking things for granted suits the natural mind, and this part-time illusion helps the nervous system relax and function. Eventually, everything in the material world goes away-but when loss strikes home, it is a traumatic challenge to the processes of attachment and surrender, these life experiences in the earthly and spiritual realms that God wants us to know and resolve through dependence upon him.
Oh, how hard it is to lose, to suffer, to accept and adjust, to yield and surrender to a world that doesn't follow one's plans and desires! For loss that comes unpredictably but inevitably with its trail of hurt and trauma, its specter of fear and vulnerability, it is the salve of surrender that gives the comfort, peace, and security that heals beyond expectation or understanding. And to whom is it safe to surrender? It is the one whose capacity and caring infinitely reaches beyond even the imagination and aspirations of his creations.
I suppose that in time the sharp pains of loss will abate and the open wounds will heal. Memories will soften and somehow fit with the passage of life. The agony will subside to a lessening and perhaps even occasional dull ache or pang, a reminder of injury that never quite disappears, but that can become manageable. Hopefully…
I miss my son with a love beyond reason and words. I want him back-something I cannot have. Each day has multiple reminders of the stark change: I cannot call him or hear from him, give him advice, or respond to his frustrations and complaints. I cannot provide him food and comfort, watch him perform, share an internet link, argue his ideas, or join him for a ride. The change is sudden and permanent. It is reality become chimera: disappearance appearing as the new normal. It is shocking, disorienting, and pushing the limits of my reason and belief.
I have coped with loss many times in my fractured life, recovered well from the hurt, numbness, and sense of exposure and threat. I have many blessings, including a wholeness and stability that stand up well to challenge and trauma. From decades of personal and professional experience, I know that trauma is cumulative, so that those individuals most affected by life’s multiple insults, injuries, and stresses will have the hardest challenge to accommodate the next tough surprise. Thus, I am charged with the responsibility of leadership, solace, and healing for my loved ones who also grieve and suffer greatly.
For this calling I am ready. I know our God is a God who provides comfort and that his grace is sufficient for me. With the discipline of prayer, I defer my spotty understanding to the occasional glimpses of wisdom far too vast and magnificent for me to apprehend. Just as I accept the night as the earth turns even while I’m not making it do so or seeing the other side, I know by experience that the sun will shine on me again. Without full grasp of this process, I stop to marvel and renew my faith that I will be blessed again.
Hope and faith may seem like clichés. But they are as real and necessary as oxygen. God gives and he takes away: the good and the bad, as perceived by man-but God works his own sovereign plan. And so, when struck with tragic loss, I suffer and mourn and work to heal, aided by faith and hope and dependence on a loving, omnipotent God who sees all that has been and will be and who knows everything. I choose the path of surrender, a lifelong practice of releasing my stubbornness and desires to God's will, letting him lead me to greater acquisition and grace. Hope and humility become the surrender that leads to clarity, perseverance, and peace.
When God takes away, he closes doors, often unexpectedly. In his providence, new doors open and opportunities unfold to discover and live out what God has in mind. Loss can be an opportunity to turn disappointment and longing regarding the past into hopeful longing and eagerness about the present and future. With God, the future is brighter. Surrender allows us to let go and move more fluidly toward what God has in store.
How does this manifest in practical ways? How do the daily hardships get handled, the overwhelm settled, the healing accelerated, the work done? How do I abide affliction, conquer fear, and carry on with triumph? And how can you.