Our response to loss can define us. Do we cling to hope even if it is by a slim thread, or do we fall into the temptation to despair? Our choice can open or close a door to God’s grace.
The most painful experience of grief for my husband, Mike, and me came in 2010 when our sixteen-year-old son, Alex, was in a car accident. When we got the phone call, we rushed to the hospital and waited. We were later told that emergency responders almost lost Alex at the site of the accident. They worked heroically to get him stable enough for the helicopter transport to the hospital. He arrived on life support, and we were told that his injuries were too extensive for him to survive. Our six other children were able to come and see him at the hospital before life support was removed. It was a traumatic experience for them but allowed them an opportunity to say good-bye.
Grieving as a Family. The following few years passed like a blur. For a long time, Mike and I were in shock. We were trying to figure out what it meant to be a family without Alex. Our remaining children ranged from age seven to twenty, and we were all grieving individually. Mike and I were walking our children through their grief while grieving ourselves. Some days I was just trying to make it through the next five minutes.
During those years, I came to know what it means to live in the present moment. That’s where God’s grace is. It’s not in the past or the future; it is right now.
Many days I just felt like giving up. It was too hard. My children were struggling and needed so much of me, and I had so little to give. I didn’t have answers for them or myself. At times when I was listening to one of my children as they struggled, I would pray, Lord, I have no idea what to say. No idea what they need to hear. By the time they were done talking or crying, I would find words. I knew they were not my words but words given by the Holy Spirit.
Choosing to Believe. On days when I felt empty, sad, and ready to give up, I thought of the disciple Simon Peter, who said to Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe” (John 6:68-69, NJB). Many of Jesus’ followers had left him, and Jesus asked his disciples if they would also leave. Peter’s words became my words spoken in faith.
I would still be tempted to despair, but I knew it was a temptation to fall into self-pity and let the pain swallow me up. I knew I didn’t want to choose that path. So, like Peter, I chose the Lord. Sometimes the choice was made a little begrudgingly. But still, I chose. And when I felt I had nothing left to give yet something more was needed, God supplied me with strength.
There is No “Right” Way. There will never be another Alex. He was a unique and unrepeatable person. My world is less because he is not here. And that’s as it should be. As Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote in Lament for a Son about his own son’s death, “If he was worth loving, he is worth grieving over. Grief is existential testimony to the worth of the one loved. That worth abides.”
One of the most significant things I’ve come to understand about grief is that it is unique to each person and to each loss. Knowing this frees us to mourn in our own way. I was blessed that those who supported me during my grief journey allowed me to grieve the loss of my son without judgment and expectations. They cried with me, they laughed with me, and never did anyone cause me to feel like I should be in a different place. I was free to express all the emotions that one feels when grieving. I was free to question and to struggle. And if I ever doubt that God’s grace found me in the midst of grief, I only need to remember the many brothers and sisters in Christ who accompanied me on my journey of grieving. They were truly his body here on earth.
Grieving with Hope. Grief is an opportunity, albeit a painful one, to open ourselves more fully to God’s mercy and grace. My heart has been changed as a result of grieving the loss of my son. I have found that when your heart breaks, it can also grow. My capacity for love has increased, as has my ability to accompany others through their own challenges.
Grief is a part of life—a part of love. If we dare to love, we will grieve. I have found myself asking, “How does a Christian grieve?” and the answer I have found is “We grieve with hope.”
About a year after Alex died, we were at the funeral for the fifteen-year-old son of some friends. My heart ached for them acutely because I knew their grief. I still remember part of the homily clearly. The priest said that when a loved one dies, a piece of us dies with them and now exists in heaven. As we go through life and experience more losses, more pieces of ourselves gain a foothold in heaven. The imagery is so beautiful, and so true. The more we grieve with hope in the resurrection, the thinner the veil between heaven and earth becomes. Eventually, entering heaven will be a reuniting of ourselves with ourselves as well as with those who’ve gone ahead of us.
Now, every time we sing the Sanctus at Mass, as our voices are joined with those of the saints and angels in heaven, I feel close to my son. I know there is more grief to come. More loved ones will die. Yet each loss gives me an opportunity to open my heart a little more to the transformative love of God. And I am changed as a result. I am becoming more fully human, more fully alive in Christ.
Kathy and Mike Maslow live outside the Twin Cities in Minnesota.
As Kathy discovered after losing her son, the natural process of grief is a different journey for each person. That’s part of what motivated Sue Erschen to write Finding a Loving God in the Midst of Grief, a book for grieving people and those who love them. As the facilitator of a grief recovery and support group, Sue draws from the examples of ordinary people as well as saints who dealt with grief. Her book will help readers to pray through each aspect of grief and draw closer to God in difficult times. Sue’s gentle approach is both a practical and spiritual resource for those who are making peace with a loss.
Finding a Loving God in the Midst of Grief by Sue Erschen is available from The Word Among Us at bookstore.wau.org and amazon.com.