When the Unthinkable Happens
“Eva not breathing. PRAY.”
Do you want to read words about the loss of a child? Probably not. I don’t want to write them either.
But I’m grateful someone has.
Within a three-week period last year beginning just before Thanksgiving, Mike and I were stunned into numbness by the sudden deaths of three family members. Aidan - our thirteen-year-old nephew. Mark - my younger cousin. My beloved mother, the third leg of the stool that held up our household.
Aidan and Mark’s deaths came without warning, Mom’s with only six weeks’ notice. Each incomparably traumatic in its own way. Yet the loss that has wrestled our family’s faith to the floor is that of teenaged Aidan.
In decades of pastoral ministry, Mike and I have been thankful for those who can speak into losses that we lack the language for. When we heard of the new release A Chronicle of Grief by pastor Mel Lawrenz - a memoir of finding life again after traumatic loss – I requested a copy immediately.
This is a book an author never wants to be qualified to write. Yet as one reader has commented, Mel’s experience of rawest sorrow has been transmuted into a testament of deepest hope.
Mel is minister at large at Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, WI, a church where I had the opportunity to serve in ministry to women on several occasions. Mel’s wife, Ingrid, is a licensed social worker and counselor. Yet their own expertise could not prepare them for the loss of their only daughter, Eva.
In A Chronicle of Grief, Mel shares about the journey of learning to live again. He describes it this way:
“Months down the road I knew I was facing an important issue: Would this severe separation cause me to want to separate from people or drive me to value and seek connection?
I knew that in those early frightening weeks it was our connection with friends and family that got us through. We soaked up every bit of grace and love and compassion that came our way. Every card, every meal, every conversation was a lifeline.
But inevitably, after a few months, our loss was old news to most people. We could see it in people’s faces. It was not that they didn’t care. But the pain they felt for us had subsided, and ours was still ever-present. Thank God for the handful of friends who continued to feel strongly for us and for those who had gone through a similar loss who knew better than us that the pathway is long. They keep talking to us with a knowing look.
Grieving so often pulls us in conflicting directions. We want to be left alone, but we don’t want to be alone. We want to be in the company of good people, but we have a lower tolerance for the stress that can come from being around people. One moment quiet is calming, and the next moment unbearable. We want people to ask about our loss, but not if they say something insensitive.
It is not a surprise that most people are afraid of saying the wrong thing, and not surprising they avoid saying anything at all. But this is a mistake. Somehow we think that if we ask someone about their loss that we are creating pain.
This is hardly ever the case. It is far, far more painful when people ignore our loss or move on after a season rather than giving us the option of talking about it. People who are in pain always can choose to answer briefly or to say they don’t want to talk about it, but they will not have that option if, after a season, people suddenly seem to forget that we are walking, bleeding.
Our connection with other people is one of the most important treasures of life. We all make choices about this. We are created to have connections; though sometimes it is hard to develop good friendships or get to know our neighbors or find a church where we fit.
Illness may cause us to withdraw. Hurtful experiences may turn us into turtles drawn up into our protective shells. We may isolate ourselves because we don’t want to have to give anything to anybody. But that is a kind of self-imprisonment. It will cut us off from grace. If we don’t ever give, we will have a hard time receiving.
One of the greatest barriers to recovering from a heart-rending loss, ironically, is the fear of recovering. This happens at so many levels. If I find happy moments again, it feels like an insult to my daughter. If I invest in relationships, am I setting myself up for disappointment when the next person is gone in one way or another? If I make it through this, will people have all the same expectations they used to have of me? I feel permanently diminished, yet stronger—which is it?
Surviving traumatic loss is like being forced to move to a new country even though we’ve not physically moved an inch.”
Do you know a family who has suffered devastating loss? Please leave a comment, and we'll draw a name to bless someone with a copy of this moving, life giving little book.