Winter, Loss, Love, and the Crises that Bind Us

 

Our own prolific contributor Susan Quinn says more thought-provoking things in a week than I think in a year, and I appreciate her for it. One of her recent posts, G-d Interrupted, prompted an interesting conversation about the theological implications of suffering. It’s a profound topic, one that has been visited again and again throughout history by thinkers greater than any of us here. If it remains an open and interesting question (and one at least tangentially related to her subsequent post, Do People Really Believe in Prayer?), that’s because it is, in my opinion, a question for which no satisfactory answer will ever be found, and yet a question that all of us must eventually ask ourselves.

Susan’s posts resonate with me right now for several reasons, for a confluence of personal tragedies suffered by people close to me. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my mother passed away at Thanksgiving, in the middle of weeks of family health crises and the internecine tension that almost inevitably accompanies such painful transitions. I spoke this week with one of my oldest friends, whose teenage daughter recently took her own life. Tonight I learned that a friend’s high-school-aged son collapsed yesterday on the basketball court at our little Catholic school, his EKG showing frightening abnormalities that have him in the hospital now for extensive tests. I had lunch recently with a friend who lost her only two children in a tragic accident: I don’t know how people recover from something like that.

Suffering is real, and I would not wish on my fiercest enemy — had I enemies — that he experience the pain of great loss.

But. But.

When my wife passed away, more than a decade ago now, I remember the people who came to visit me and the children. I remember that they had no words, and that they said as much. (No one has words; no one ever has words.) I understood then that the purpose of their visits — not their intentions, but the reason we make such visits to a grieving family — was to force those of us left behind to acknowledge their presence, to thank them, and, in doing so, to however briefly reenter the world of the living. Because it’s necessary that we re-enter that world. To acknowledge compassion is to grasp a lifeline.

My friends and I reached out to the family whose son is in the hospital. We offered to take their dog, to mind their home, to do whatever (however little) we can do.

I can never say to those people, nor to any parent who has lost a child (much less two), that there is a beautiful aspect to loss. But it’s nonetheless true: Loss, and responding to loss, is one of the powerful things that bind us together. The people who stand with us when our child is in intensive care, the people who quietly pick up the pieces when we’ve suffered a devastating loss — these people are forever knit into the fabric of our lives. It’s impossible to say that the loss of a loved one is a price worth paying for the social cohesion it brings — impossible to say that to anyone who has suffered that loss. But the reality is that, as winter makes the promise of spring more glorious, so too does the unity that springs from and is inspired by inevitable (and it is inevitable) tragedy forge and sustain deep and lasting bonds that join us.

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  1. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat
    @GossamerCat

    Henry Racette: I understood then that the purpose of their visits — not their intentions, but the reason we make such visits to a grieving family — was to force those of us left behind to acknowledge their presence, to thank them, and, in doing so, to however briefly reenter the world of the living. Because it’s necessary that we re-enter that world. To acknowledge compassion is to grasp a lifeline.

    Beautifully expressed and so true.   It is a powerful reminder that no matter how uncomfortable it is, we should visit or call.  It isn’t our words, it is our presence.

    • #1
  2. navyjag Coolidge
    navyjag
    @navyjag

    Jesus, Henry. Another example of how I may be one of the luckiest guys on this planet.  Parents lived into their 80’s and 90’s. Wife’s mother until 94.  3 healthy kids. Same with the nephews. None of my friends had children die.  But you made it through. With a more realistic outlook about life than mine. 

    • #2
  3. Annefy Member
    Annefy
    @Annefy

    Oey. My father, while he didn’t process a profound loss well, became an inspiration to his children. And his children’s children. When in doubt, do something: bake a cake, walk a dog, show up with a Starbucks.

    There was nothing beautiful to my father’s loss. There might have been something beautiful to its legacy.

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  4. Chris Hutchinson Coolidge
    Chris Hutchinson
    @chrishutch13

    Henry Racette: It’s a profound topic, one that has been visited again and again throughout history by thinkers greater than any of us here. If it remains an open and interesting question (and one at least tangentially related to her subsequent post, Do People Really Believe in Prayer?), that’s because it is, in my opinion, a question for which no satisfactory answer will ever be found, and yet a question that all of us must eventually ask ourselves.

    I am very sorry about the recent loss of your mother, Henry. Despite, learning of your recent tragedies, I liked your post. I agree about those two posts from Susan. I thoroughly enjoyed them and have put a lot of time and thought into what they said as well as the following comments. I agree with your conclusion. I also agree with the above quote. It’s profound and probably shouldn’t have a satisfactory answer because we should wrestle with it regularly. I don’t mean to suggest we should regularly suffer to prompt us, just keep in mind there’s a lot of suffering in the world.

    Right after reading Susan’s article, I stumbled on a FB post by a woman from my hometown. I don’t know her but she’s friends with many in my family. She wrote about her mother, father and brother being murdered in front of her in 1983 as a teenager. I was surprised I hadn’t heard of it in my town. I was a child but plenty old enough to remember. I looked it up. My God, it was horrible. I can imagine besides loss there was a lot of guilt involved as her brother had wrestled the gun away at some point and she had the opportunity to shoot the man but it misfired, then she ran to get help but was too late. I’m not sure the details but later in her 20s she lost a child and her husband in her 30s. I’ve been thinking about it all for days. There are many ways different people could process all that but I was struck by her faith. I am a deeply religious man and often talk the good talk with friends when discussing suffering. I’ve even had my faith get me through pretty difficult times over the years. The truth is though, I have serious serious doubts I could handle even 1/5 of that kind of loss.

    • #4
  5. Keith Lowery Coolidge
    Keith Lowery
    @keithlowery

    My friends and I reached out to the family whose son is in the hospital. We offered to take their dog, to mind their home, to do whatever (however little) we can do.

    @henryracette

    I read a beautiful story when I was a kid about just this kind of thing. The mother in a young family had died, and a neighbor showed up unannounced at the family’s door the morning of the funeral with a shoe-shine kit in hand.  He quietly and unobtrusively sat down in the mud room and polished all their shoes for them in advance of the funeral.

    Practical friendship is a beautiful thing.  And your post was a beautiful post.

    These next words could have only been written by someone who has had the experience:

    I understood then that the purpose of their visits — not their intentions, but the reason we make such visits to a grieving family — was to force those of us left behind to acknowledge their presence, to thank them, and, in doing so, to however briefly reenter the world of the living. Because it’s necessary that we re-enter that world. To acknowledge compassion is to grasp a lifeline.

    When my daughter died, three years ago next week, I was somewhat surprised that soon afterwards I wrestled with feelings of guilt about – to use your words – reentering the world of the living. Getting on with life felt somehow disloyal at first. To have or seek joy? Why, the very idea seemed like some absurd kind of obscenity.   How can I possibly go on living when someone I loved more than my own life has been snuffed out?  That’s how it seemed at the time.

    I think your insight about the need to reenter the world of the living is very – very –  wise.

    I do think there are true answers to be had regarding our suffering. Suffering is not wasted, or at least, it doesn’t have to be. But that is not to say that such answers are satisfying. This world is not, as it happens, what God created it to be.

    • #5
  6. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Well, Hank, now you have me crying. I am touched on so many levels–by your very kind words, by your insight, by the reminders of your own struggles. What a beautiful post.

    This was a good reminder, as so many of the comments on my recent posts have suggested, that when we think we are alone in our suffering, we are never alone. Friends, family members, even acquaintances who barely touch our lives create a loving connection that comfort and sustain us. You are a good man, Hank. I always appreciate the thoughts you share and the kindnesses you extend. Thanks.

    Now excuse me while I try to fix my make-up . . . 

    • #6
  7. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    When my first wife died suddenly and unexpectedly, Joe, one of my oldest son’s friends, took incompletes in his college courses and came to our home the next night.  He stayed with my son for the next week, sleeping ona couch, quietly taking care of things.  He organized a crew of young men to clean up our yard for the winter. 

    I was moved beyond words by his simple gestures of love.

    Ten years later I ran into him at Symphony Hall in Boston and had the opportunity to tell his fiancee that her intended was the kindest man I had ever known.

    When some one suffers a loss like this, don’t worry of what to say.  Be there.

    • #7
  8. Goldwaterwoman Thatcher
    Goldwaterwoman
    @goldwaterwoman

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):
    When some one suffers a loss like this, don’t worry of what to say.  Be there.

    So very true. I’ve noticed many young people have  difficulty with knowing how to react or what to say to someone they know who suffered a great loss.  It’s understandable to feel that way when you’ve never experienced losing someone you love. As time marches on, however, we cannot escape this life without knowing the pain of loss and learn how grateful you feel to someone who is simply just there for you. When my husband died one of my neighbors came over, gave me a big hug as tears poured down her face and stayed for dinner. She said little that night but helped in the kitchen and cleaned up after dinner. I will never forget her kindness.

    • #8
  9. Max Knots Member
    Max Knots
    @MaxKnots

    Henry, a post like yours is why I so enjoy this site. Your insights are perfect.

    (This is not to diminish the many fine contributions of so many others here.)

    Thank you. 

    • #9
  10. Henry Racette Moderator
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Max Knots (View Comment):

    Henry, a post like yours is why I so enjoy this site. Your insights are perfect.

    (This is not to diminish the many fine contributions of so many others here.)

    Thank you.

    Thank you, Max.

    • #10
  11. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    I am sorry that your mother died. I am happy she was born because she gave birth to you.

    • #11
  12. Manny Coolidge
    Manny
    @Manny

    Henry Racette: When my wife passed away, more than a decade ago now, I remember the people who came to visit me and the children. I remember that they had no words, and that they said as much. (No one has words; no one ever has words.) I understood then that the purpose of their visits — not their intentions, but the reason we make such visits to a grieving family — was to force those of us left behind to acknowledge their presence, to thank them, and, in doing so, to however briefly reenter the world of the living. Because it’s necessary that we re-enter that world. To acknowledge compassion is to grasp a lifeline.

    My sympathies on all the suffering you’ve gone through.  It’s tough, and I don’t have an easy answer as to why God allows it.  But here’s an insight I was reminded when I read the quote I took from OP.  From 2 Corinthians.

    Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragement,who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God.2 Cor 1:3-4

    Because of our suffering, and because of the comfort we receive (if one believes of course) from our faith, we can then turn and provide that comfort onto others.  The compassion that is at the heart of God is spread out among mankind through our hearts, linked to God and linked to humanity.  Because we suffered, we have the ability to understand the suffering of others.  Because we are human, and  because we harbor God in us, we can share His compassion.  Some call man just another animal.  Well, it’s a rare animal that actually has compassion for its fellow species, certainly for not more than a moment.  I can’t articulate it fully, but this is part of why I think God allows suffering.

    • #12
  13. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    Manny (View Comment):

    Henry Racette: When my wife passed away, more than a decade ago now, I remember the people who came to visit me and the children. I remember that they had no words, and that they said as much. (No one has words; no one ever has words.) I understood then that the purpose of their visits — not their intentions, but the reason we make such visits to a grieving family — was to force those of us left behind to acknowledge their presence, to thank them, and, in doing so, to however briefly reenter the world of the living. Because it’s necessary that we re-enter that world. To acknowledge compassion is to grasp a lifeline.

    My sympathies on all the suffering you’ve gone through. It’s tough, and I don’t have an easy answer as to why God allows it. But here’s an insight I was reminded when I read the quote I took from OP. From 2 Corinthians.

    Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragement,who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God.2 Cor 1:3-4

    Because of our suffering, and because of the comfort we receive (if one believes of course) from our faith, we can then turn and provide that comfort onto others. The compassion that is at the heart of God is spread out among mankind through our hearts, linked to God and linked to humanity. Because we suffered, we have the ability to understand the suffering of others. Because we are human, and because we harbor God in us, we can share His compassion. Some call man just another animal. Well, it’s a rare animal that actually has compassion for its fellow species, certainly for not more than a moment. I can’t articulate it fully, but this is part of why I think God allows suffering.

    I think maybe you got a point there. I can be more compassionate towards people because of my suffering. As Captain so rightly said, “I need my pain.” 

    • #13
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