“The anguish completely paralyzed me,” wrote Henri Nouwen in The Inner Voice of Love. “I could no longer sleep. I cried uncontrollably for hours. I could not be reached by consoling words or arguments … All had become darkness. Within me there was one long scream coming from a place I didn’t know existed, a place full of demons.”
Anyone who has fallen through Nouwen’s “house without floors” can relate, at least in part, to this description. Despair can be triggered by a specific event — like the death of a loved one, a failed relationship, a traumatic move.
Sometimes despair has no apparent cause, and descends without warning. Life feels suddenly meaningless and exhausting. The smallest tasks, like licking a stamp and attaching it to an envelope, require Herculean effort. No amount of coffee cuts the gloom.
Some people find that they suddenly cannot pray. It’s like those dreams when you’re trying to escape a stalker, but your legs refuse to move and you struggle to scream but no sound comes out. A priest friend of mine recommended that the best thing to say to a person in this situation is, “Don’t worry about praying for now. You concentrate on surviving, and I’ll pray for both of us.”
During a recent mini-bout with despair, I developed a bonus aliment — a flu complete with fever and the shakes. I crawled into bed and called my friend Amber, hoping to get a sympathetic chuckle out of her. “I’m on my deathbed,” I said. “I think it may be a step in the right direction.”
Two Kinds of Despair
Despair is the death of hope. Judas experienced this after he betrayed Jesus. In one of the Gospel’s most poignant scenes, he suddenly realizes what he’s set into motion. He bolts to the temple leaders, begging them to take the money back and release Jesus.
They don’t want his blood money, however, nor do they intend to let Jesus go. Judas throws the coins at their feet and flees. When he realizes that there is no going back he hangs himself.
Jesus, also, struggled with something like despair when he was languishing on the cross, as he cried out to his Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus felt abandoned. Some of his best friends, with their freshly-washed feet, the taste of bread and wine still on their lips, pretended like they never knew him while he was being led away. Even God seemed to withdraw — offering no solace or comfort as he hung on the cross, just a shattering, expansive silence.
Jesus’ anguished question echoes through our own moments of despair, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”
Anyone who has given birth without the help of anesthetics may have some idea of what Jesus was getting at. There is a common phenomenon — a moment of despair — that strikes women during natural childbirth. The pain has become excruciating, her body limp with exhaustion, and her potential best ally during labor — her mind — shamelessly betrays her.
She may begin believe that the labor will never end, that her ultrasounds were some kind of cruel trick to dupe her into thinking that she was actually going to have a baby, when she was actually suffering from an extreme case of appendicitis all along.
This may seem like an exaggeration, but despair (in and out of labor) can be out of touch with reality — even delusional. The most unusual thing about the moment of despair in labor is that it strikes different women at exactly the same phase — just before transition when the pushing is about to begin. The despair is actually a hopeful signâ€”the baby is breathlessly close.
Nature is like that as well — bleak moments lead to new life. In Chicago the winters are so wretched, that by mid-February, I start envisioning an Apocalyptic Return of the Ice Ages. Usually, a few days later, the Great Thaw begins. It is no accident that our journey through lent into Easter parallels to the reawakening of the natural world.
The Way Through
Even if we know that spring is coming, winter still seems endless. When C.S. Lewis was grieving the death of his wife, he described the vicious cycle of sorrow: not only did he have to suffer, but he had to continually think about the fact that he was suffering.
Lewis’ journal, A Grief Observed, offers a window into his heart after Joy died, as he cycled through grief, rage, despair, confusion and hope. Lewis invites us, by example, to be honest about our own pain.
Several years ago, I met an Episcopal priest who had survived the death of two wives, the first by cancer, the second in a hit-and-run accident. He told me that after his second wife died he went into a chapel and he started yelling and sobbing. He cried and raged, and then cried and raged some more. And then, he told me, a silence unlike any he had ever experienced descended on him.
“Let God have it,” this priest told me. “He can take it.”
The silence he experienced might have been similar to what Lewis describes near the end of A Grief Observed. “When I lay these questions before God I get no answer, but a rather special sort of ‘no answer,’ he wrote. “It is not a locked door, but a gaze, certainly not uncompassionate, not in refusal, but waving the question, saying, ‘Peace child, you do not understand.'”
Hold My Hand
For all those times when we simply cannot understand, when we lay questions before God and get no answer, or when we don’t even have the strength to ask, people can help carry us through.
“Find the places in your life where you sense the hand of God, and grab on with all your might,” said one of my seminary mentors. For me, one of the key places is relationships. When I’m tempted by despair, I call a few friends and tell them my woeful, meandering tales. Even when they don’t have answers, it helps to know that they are on the other end of the line, holding me in prayer.
It also helps to remember that despair sometimes gives way to dawn. The Eastern Orthodox word for Easter is Pascha, and can be translated as “the dawn.” I love the way this world captures nature’s answer to night and God’s answer to death.
Years ago, when my husband and I lived next to our church, we used to walk home from the Pascha service at four in the morning, after a long night of singing and feasting. We’d make our way through a slip of dark woods, over a trickle of brook. We’d crawl into our bed, the twilight blue of the almost day framed by our window. And then, just as we were drifting off to sleep, the birds would begin to sing.
It was still dark, but they sang anyway, sensing that the twilight would break open to reveal the dawn.
Copyright (c) 2005 Jenny Schroedel. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. This article was published on Boundless.org on May 26, 2005.
One night when I was in high school, my mom came into my room to tell me that my friend Sara’s father had died. I didn’t know what to do, so I called another friend who had recently lost her father. She said, “Get in your car and go over there.”
So that’s what I did, along with a few of Sara’s closest friends. In the car nobody spoke. None of us had firsthand experience with death and were wary about entering a home where death had passed through and taken somebody we knew.
When we arrived Sara was in her snowy front yard with her beagle, Macintosh. As we approached she opened her arms as if she had been expecting us.
Just Be There
Sara led us to her room, lit candles and asked us to pray with her. I’m struck now by how odd this was, considering that we were uptight college-prep school kids who rarely spoke about spirituality. But we followed Sara’s lead, held hands in a circle and let her initiate prayers.
Years later, I got another phone call. This time, a friend’s newborn baby had died from a genetic abnormality. My friend and her husband were living in Canada and had no family nearby. I remembered the advice given to me years before and asked my friend if she wanted me to come. She said, “Oh yes, please.”
I felt a little awkward in their home, sleeping on a sofa a few feet from the room where their baby had died. I was afraid I’d invaded their privacy, but the baby’s father, a Moroccan Muslim, put me at ease when he told me that my presence reminded him of his childhood. In his community, when a person died, everyone went to the home. They would stay up all night sharing food, memories and grief.
In America, friends and family offer their support by attending the funeral, writing notes and baking casseroles. But afterward, we’re often left to grieve alone. Mother Theresa said that Americans suffer from the worst form of poverty — loneliness. This is felt acutely after a death.
There is a reason that many of us pull back: death makes us tongue-tied. C.S. Lewis described his friends’ awkwardness about his wife’s death in A Grief Observed.
“An odd byproduct of my loss is that I am aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet,” wrote Lewis. “At work, at the club, in the street, I see people as they approach me trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not.”
There isn’t that much to say. We can gently open the door to conversation with, “I’m sorry about your loss.” But after we open that door, even a crack, we need to be open to the possibility of an authentic response.
At seminary, I learned about empathic listening in a counseling class. Empathic listening is a form of active engagement where you silence your own ideas and try to paraphrase back what’s been said to you.
When we role-played in the classroom, one student would be the talker and the other the listener. These early conversations felt awkward, but they demonstrated what empathic listening is supposed to look like. They went something like this:
Jane: “I don’t know what’s wrong with me — I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I barely have the energy to brush my teeth.”
Joe: “You feel listless.”
We thought that if we tried our new “technique” on friends they’d laugh. But the exact opposite occurred — people would open up, as if they’d just been waiting for a chance to speak and be heard.
Empathic listening is difficult. For most of us, the temptation to insert our own ideas and stories into the conversation is fierce. We have to silence our egos repeatedly. A neighbor whose father recently died asked me why people always rush to say something when she mentions her dad. “Why can’t they just be silent for a moment and leave it at that?” she said.
Don’t Rush It
Like Job, who not only suffered massive hardship but also suffered the ongoing commentary of his peers, my neighbor has experienced some strange reactions. When she mentioned that her dad’s funeral was this past weekend, one friend said, “Wow, it sure took a long time for you to get him buried.” My neighbor was taken aback. “That response made me feel like I was grieving my dad too long. Sort of a ‘Haven’t you moved on, yet?'”
We tend to be uneasy with long processes and overt displays of grief. Ancient religions, however, create space for emotions woven through many seasons. Within Observant Judaism the entire first year after a death is devoted to several phases of mourning. During the first seven days those closest to the deceased don’t work, bathe, have their hair cut, read the Torah or have sex. It intrigues me that Judaism sanctions a break from those things that a grieving person might naturally be inclined to skip.
Within the Eastern Orthodox Church, funerals are followed by 40 days of remembrance and prayer. Similarly, after an Orthodox woman gives birth, she’s not expected to attend church or do much else for 40 days while she bonds with her newborn. I like the idea of a 40-day pause after something as significant as a death or a birth because it takes time to make sense of our rearranged lives.
A Grief Observed chronicles this journey toward understanding. Lewis experiences a cycle of restlessness, rage, grasping, surrender and serenity, followed by fresh tears and disbelief. Over the course of the book, Lewis comes to understand that he will never really “get over” Joy’s death.
Lewis compares being a widower to being an amputee. “He will probably have recurrent pains in that stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones, and he will always be a one-legged-man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different. His whole way of life will be changed.”
Speak No Platitudes
“The worst thing is not the sorrow or loss or the heartbreak,” writes Richard John Neuhaus. “Worse is to be encountered by death and not to be changed by the encounter.” Death changes us in hundreds of subtle and pronounced ways. It is difficult to speak to the significance of this encounter, and most bereavement cards fall woefully short.
It’s better to say nothing than to say something that minimizes the pain as so many of these cards do. Memories aren’t much of a comfort when you’ve lost a 2-day-old baby and time doesn’t seem to heal wounds as much as it slowly numbs us to them.
After a death occurs, there are no perfect words. Perhaps the most loving response is a willingness to linger with our bereaved friend beside their loss. “There is a time simply to be present to death — whether one’s own or that of others — without any felt urgencies about doing something about it or getting over it,” wrote Neuhaus.
Be still, writes the Psalmist, and know that I am God. It is in stillness that we know, in stillness that we hear, and in stillness that we love.
Copyright © 2005 Jenny Schroedel. All rights reserved. Published on Boundless.org on October 13, 2005.
Last summer, when I was round with my second child, perpetually devouring ice cubes as Natalie somersaulted in my womb, a friend came to visit. I had heard that she’d recently had a miscarriage, but she hadn’t yet told me herself. And I was afraid — in the way that everyone seems to be — of what I would say and how I would say it. I hoped that I could somehow be present to her, that my ever-expanding belly would not create a chasm between us.
As I drove to the airport, I wondered how she might bring it up, or if I should, and if I did, how I would. Despite my healthy pregnancy, the shadow of grief covered most of that year — we’d lost three friends in eight months, all under the age of 30. In our tiny church, five women conceived and announced their pregnancies, but only three of us would bring the babies to term. Death was all around us, and yet I found myself tongue tied when my friend climbed into the car beside me.
After telling me a little bit about her flight, she mentioned the miscarriage, and then she said something I’ll never forget. She said, “After my miscarriage, I realized that I needed to tell my story in the same way that women needed to share the stories of the birth of their children.”
As much as she needed to tell her story, there were some that weren’t ready to hear it. And it troubled her that so many people who knew about the miscarriage chose to say nothing. An awkward silence does seem to surround those who grieve this kind of loss — even if they are brave enough to be open about it.
In The Eldest Child by Maeve Brennan, she describes a mother grappling with the death of her 3-day-old infant:
At the time he died, she said that she would never get used to it, and what she meant by that was that as long as she lived she would never accept what had happened in the mechanical subdued way the rest of them had accepted it…. They behaved as though what had happened was finished, as though some ordinary event had taken place and come to an end in a natural way. There had not been an ordinary event, and it had not come to and end.
What Not To Say
In the Old Testament Book of Job, after everything is taken from him in a heartbeat — his children, his riches, his health — his friends all step in to offer words of consolation, and each friend is more unhelpful than the last, until Job finally says, “How long will you torment me, and break me in pieces with words?” (Job 19:2)
Couples who suffer a miscarriage often also suffer from their friends’ inability to grasp the magnitude of what has happened. Like Job’s friends, they might say insensitive things like “You’ll have other children one day,” or “There was probably something wrong with the baby.”
These statements minimize the bond the parents had with the baby growing in its mother’s belly — a child that they were just beginning to know but may have already come to love deeply. In a letter to his friend after the death of his mother, Phillip Brooks wrote, “People bring us well-meant but miserable consolations when they tell us what time will do to help our grief. We do not want to lose our grief, because our grief is bound up with our love.”
After a miscarriage couples struggle through unanswerable questions. Why would God allow them to conceive only to allow the baby to die? Why hope when life is so fragile? Or “What did I do wrong?”
All these questions, the guilt and blame, and the feelings of divine betrayal that might be connected with a miscarriage only highlight the essential wrongness of what has happened. There are no answers to these questions, because we were not created for death, sickness or sin. No matter how often we wrestle through these things on earth, some stubborn holy streak in us clings to the memory of Eden. A Jewish friend recently told me that in her tradition, there are no prayers for the death of a child, because this kind of thing is not supposed to happen.
Maeve Brennan describes this grieving mother, struggling with those who tell her the death was God’s will:
When she spoke for any length of time they always silenced her by telling her it was God’s will. She had accepted God’s will all her life without argument, and she was not arguing now, but she knew that what had happened was not finished and she was sure that it was not God’s will that she not be left in this bewilderment…. All she wanted to do was say how she felt, but they mentioned God’s will as if they were slamming a door between her and some territory that was forbidden to her.
Naming the Child
The friend I mentioned at the beginning of this article found healing as she grappled with the concrete details of her loss. She and her husband requested that they be allowed to take their tiny baby home from the hospital, they named their child, built a casket for him, and as a family, buried him at a monastery. Their two young girls helped sprinkle dirt on the casket, and perhaps because of this, they know in a very real way that they have a sibling in heaven that they will one day see again.
Even if a couple can’t identify exactly when a miscarriage occurred, making a burial impossible, the act of naming the child is a powerful way to bring to light the reality of that child’s existence. Naming is a holy thing — it was the first act that God trusted Adam with — and Adam’s first opportunity to be God-like. I have heard that there is an Eskimo legend that a newborn baby cries because it has not yet been given a name. We all ache to be fully known, to become who we were meant to be, and a name can be our first guidepost along the way.
Naming a miscarried baby not only makes the loss more concrete — it also allows the parents to bond with their child, to claim her and to prepare for reunion with her — even as they offer her back to the one who is Life.
Maeve Brennan concludes her passage about the grieving mother this way:
She was much calmer than she had been, and she no longer feared that she would lose sight of the shape that had drifted, she noticed, much further away while she slept. He was traveling a long way but she would watch him. She was his mother, and it was all she could do for him now…. She was weak, and the world was very shaky, but the light of other days shone steadily and showed the truth. She was no longer bewildered, and the next time Martin came to stand hopefully beside her bed, she smiled at him and spoke to him in her ordinary voice.
Copyright © 2007 Jenny Schroedel. Originally published on Boundless.org March 22, 2007.
Aslan’s death so filled their minds that they hardly thought of it…. And down they both knelt in the wet grass and kissed his cold face and stroked his beautiful fur — what was left of it — and they cried till they could cry no more. And then they looked at each other and held each other’s hands and cried again and then again were silent.
—C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine died in a car accident. I traveled to Champaign to be with his 28-year-old wife, Rachel, as she grieved. Although I’d just written an article about comforting the bereaved, my experience with Rachel opened my eyes to a different way of grieving.
In the hospital, after Rachel received word that Nate had died, she wept, as you might expect. But you might not be able to imagine (as I couldn’t) what she did next. She started saying, “Christ is risen!” to everyone who would listen: the nurses as they entered the room, her sister on the phone, her dad on the hospital bed beside her. She woke in the middle of the night with ideas for the funeral sermon and she resolved to wear white.
“People thought I was denial,” Rachel said. “But I understood what had happened. At the same time, I glimpsed the reality behind the reality — the deeper reality.”
If you’ve been up all night and cried until there seems to be no more tears left in you — you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing is ever going to happen again.
—C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
My first night with Rachel was her first night back in the apartment she had shared with Nate. It was a night of details — of taking them in like a long, jagged breath. Nate’s coat was slung over a chair, his boots flung on the floor, just as he’d left them when he’d come home from work on the Friday before the accident. Rachel and I thawed chili from the freezer, and it seemed odd to me that we were sitting together, eating that delicious chili, from before.
Later, when I crawled into bed beside Rachel, I noticed something: just above the nightstand, in the soft glow from the Chinese lantern, there was an icon of the Resurrection. Christ was clothed in white, pulling Adam and Eve from their tombs. As I looked at the icon, I realized that each night before Nate turned in he must have seen it. I can’t help but wonder if he knew his time was near because of how well he lived during his last months.
Rachel told me that their last morning together was full of joy. As they got into the car to leave the church, Nate stopped Rachel. “I didn’t get a hug today,” he told her, his arms open wide.
“He never let a day go by without us embracing,” Rachel told me. “He helped me to remember that we needed to embrace each moment we had together. That may be part of the reason I’m able to let him go and accept his death — we lived our marriage as a gift.”
* * *
That night, Rachel asked if I would read Psalms as she drifted off. She directed me to Psalm 126:5-6.
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping,
Bearing the seed for sowing,
Shall come home with joy,
Bringing his sheaves with him.
It was a night of restless grief, but also of unexpected joy. Rachel could only sleep for a few moments before she would begin to speak again. We wept so many times that night that I had to continually get fresh glasses of water from the kitchen.
Rachel and I make some pair. She is a teacher and I am a writer. She, even in her deepest moments of grief, continued to teach. For my part, I continued to take mental notes, struggling to create metaphors so that I could understand what was happening.
At some point during that long first night, I interrupted Rachel’s grief with an idea. “Isn’t this something like being on a river? You just can’t stop the current.”
Rachel, being ever the patient teacher, considered my latest attempt, “Yeah, Jenny, that’s right,” she said, sighing a little. Hers was a twilight grief. That long night was permeated by her very clear sense that the dawn would come.
Within Eastern Christianity we have a term which at least partially captures what we experienced at the funeral. “Bright sadness” is a kind of “bitter joy” or “joyful mourning.” It is a reality which defies all logic, and perhaps because of this, it causes us to rethink all that we thought we knew.
It was bright sadness which inspired Rachel to wear white that day, as she stood beside the casket of her husband in the church where they had married five years before. And it was bright sadness that caused the five priests to wear white vestments as well. I also saw it in the way that they approached Nate at the end of the service, one by one, kissing his forehead and making the sign of the cross over him.
The funeral gathered this reality together and held it for us: the agony of a death we were never supposed to experience with our hope in the Resurrection. Rachel, looking like a radiant bride, even as she wept. As one of Rachel’s friends told her afterward, “The Gospel hung in the air with the incense.”
Weeks afterward, I’m still pondering that thick, sweet air. Thick with sorrow, thick with hope, thick with the knowledge that even in our darkest moments God is there. Recently, on the phone with Rachel, I told her that the funeral helped me to see that the Resurrection is true. It happened — and is happening.
“I think I will use that phrase for the rest of my life to explain those days of mourning and joy,” Rachel told me.
The girls cleared away the remains of the gnawed ropes. Aslan looked more like himself without them. Every moment his dead face looked nobler, as the light grew and they could see it better.
In the wood behind them, a bird gave a chuckling sound. It had been so still for hours and hours that it startled them. Then another bird answered it. Soon, there were birds singing all over the place.
—C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe