August 26th 2015 1 comment so far
When people ask for my thoughts on something, they generally get “same day service” and more words than they want or bargained for—no one ever accused me of being brief. It has been over a week since Patricia Krecklow sweetly asked me to write something for the church blog, saying “whatever is on your mind.” What was on my mind had to pass through feelings before it could be expressed in words. And I had to get permission from beloved colleagues who share the experience and the associated thoughts and feelings before I could make them public.
For you see, Patricia’s request came one day after the 34th anniversary of a birth day: the birth of Thomas Robert Williamson, third son of Roy and Sally, younger brother to Mike, Martin, and Nathan, older brother to Scott and Ted. My thoughts revolved around his birth, life, and death. His was a complete life story told in 31 days.
The birth was uneventful—healthy, pink, 7-pound, 15-ounce boy, blood type O negative, blue eyes, and born with a head full of long, dark hair (his military father swearing to “get that boy a haircut” at his earliest convenience). With his brothers safely enjoying a sleepover with friends, and calls made to joyful family across the country, his birth day came to a happy close.
The first morning of his new life brought a whir of changes: “air med-evac,” was his first adventure. “Ebstein’s anomaly,” “L-Transposition,” and “ventricular septal defect” were added to his physical description. Then David Grant Medical Center and UC San Francisco Hospital were listed as his residences. He met lots of people, all of whom were dressed in medical scrubs. As he neared his one month birthday, his family learned the meaning of “inoperable” and “not survivable.” And then, on a Sunday afternoon in September, with dad and Dr. Keith Meredith looking after him, he opened his eyes wide, gazed at his father and his doctor, and the beeps from the machine that recorded his heartbeat became a continuous tone. There was a quick check with a stethoscope, the doctor’s compassionate hand moving to rest on Dad’s, a choked “Captain Williamson, I’m so sorry,” and Tom’s sojourn in time ended. Later, the NICU staff presented Mom and Dad with a certificate attesting that early that morning this Protestant child received last rites from a caring Catholic chaplain. He was aware of the denominational differences, but did what he could to assure us that our son would be in Heaven. His gesture was unnecessary, as Scripture assured us that our son was safe in the arms of Jesus. But we did deeply appreciate his pastoral care.
Since that afternoon, the details of Tom’s life in time are only found in the memories of those who loved him and his family. His legal record is filed with the California Department of Public Health, and the permanent landmark attesting to his existence is found in the Merced District Cemetery. It was there that days later a future pastor, with family, aircrew, squadron commander, and their families at his side, officiated his son Tom’s funeral.
His mother and I observe Tom’s two anniversaries each year. On these days, images, faces, names, details, and a thousand other memories return and vie for our attention. There is a reason: the pain of this loss will never go away this side of Heaven. Our lives grew around the pain and it became a smaller portion of the overall picture, but periodically the pain is revisited. Sometimes the visit is anticipated, other times it catches us off guard. Sometimes the pain is immediate and intense, and at other times it only produces malaise and sadness. Over the intervening years we have learned that while the pain of grief never completely disappears; it is mitigated by time, tempered by perspective, and surrounded by hope.
Mitigated by time.
Grief instantaneously brought us face to face with our mortality and the undeniable sense of existence beyond time. Joy, duty, and the routine of life all seemed to be too mundane, too temporal while we wrestled with the reality of both our loss and an eternity we could not imagine. In the immediate, pain was all consuming—it seemed to be nearly 100% of our life experience.
When we were in that pain, the only effective analgesic was the loving “presence” of others. Presence is the combined gift of time, focus, emotional energy, and physical energy that one person gives to another. It is not mere “attendance”—physical presence—but is the tangible means by which pain and grief are shared. Those who stood with us at the gravesite were those who had borne the pressures of the previous weeks with us—running errands, providing childcare, encouraging, assuming duties to ensure that mom and dad had maximum time to spend with their ailing son, sharing hope of recovery, sharing tears at the end. These were also the faces we saw almost daily during the intense grieving period. Neal, Kathy, Bob, Patty, Si, and Dot—they were there.
“Presence” does involve words; those who are “present” do express their sorrow. “I am so sorry” is deeply touching when it is uttered by someone who took over your duties or shouldered part of your routine while you were in the midst of the tragedy. Over time, and on the anniversaries, comfort from others in found in the words, “I remember.”
Tempered by perspective.
Romans 8:28-29 is absolutely true, but God’s working all things together for good is only seen in retrospect. Looking back, Sally and I can see the myths that our son’s death exploded—centered around the concept that if we “got close enough to God” or became “spiritually self-sustaining,” we became invulnerable to hurt in this world, untouched by pain, and the “recipients of the spiritual blessing that God is literally tapping His foot waiting to pour out on us.” We can see the blessings that God has showered on us over the years, not to compensate us, but just because God is a loving, giving, generous Father. We can see how so many of the “what if’s” have been dealt with, and in that we see the wisdom of our God. We learned that God’s comfort comes from multiple sources—that the brothers and sisters who stand with you in your pain can come from the widest range of denominational backgrounds. We are family because of our relationship to Christ, not 100% agreement in systematic theology.
We learned that we cannot rush or force perspective; it must come through God’s means and in God’s timing. Often well-meaning people try to force perspective by offering platitudes. Platitudes may help the well-meaning person feel better, but they are sand rubbed in an open wound to those experiencing grief. “It’s for the best” may seem like a paraphrase of Romans 8:28, but death is never “for the better.” It is a penalty—one that has been levied against every person who received the blessing of life! That God turns that penalty into eternal blessing is testimony to His grace and love. Death is still bad. Death is still wrong. It is a defeated enemy but an enemy nonetheless.
“He’s out of pain,” or “he’ll never experience pain ever again.” These statements are true for those whose eternal abode is Heaven, but the words hurt because they ignore the temporal perspective. Our son never experienced the pains of life, like a skinned knee, thwarted puppy love, dropping the ball in the game, or burying a beloved pet because he never experienced the joy that life in time offered: the joy of running across a field while playing super-hero with neighborhood friends, the joy of puppy love, the joy of playing sports, the joy of having a pet. Death of a child removes immediate and anticipated temporal joys. Any temporal joy with our son we now find in memories. We can only look forward in hope to eternal joy.
Surrounded by hope.
Hope of a future reunion is the long term analgesic for the pain of grief. For Sally and me, “hope” immediately after Tom’s death was an exercise in raw faith—at that point, there was nothing in our experience to confirm hope. Over time, perspective has joined hands with hope, both confirming the goodness of God and providing a clearer picture of what the future reunion will be like. We can anticipate joy because we have seen God bring joy in multiple areas of our lives. He will make all things new.
We can’t picture Heaven, but we can see the faces of so many we love who are already there, and the faces of those we love who will join us there. And both mom and dad look forward to hugging our boy again.
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