On a crisp, autumn Saturday in small town Iowa, I rode my bike across town to my friend’s home for an afternoon of tackle football. Well into the game, I heard my friends mother call my name from her back door, “Bob, you need to get home right away. There has been an accident.”
“What happened?” I shouted. She shouted back “I don’t know, but your mom just said to get home quickly.”
I jumped on my bike and peddled home as fast as I could, my heart racing–not from the peddling, but from all the thoughts that were crossing my mind. “What could have happened? Is the home on fire? Did my dad get in a car accident.?” I thought I had prepared for the worst.
There was a fall. My two-year old sister slipped off the bathroom vanity stool and hit her head on something hard. The Paramedics flew her to the Des Moines hospital for surgery, but she never woke up.
At thirteen, I was wholly unprepared for the effect this would have on me, and on everyone in my family. But then, whoever is?
At first, I did not believe the news. Then, I became weak at my knees and had to sit down. And then came the questions, roaring inside my head like a Midwest tornado. What happened—how—WHY? WHY? WHY?
After some time, I felt an urge to get up and had to do something—like Peter after the death of Jesus, who just had to go fishing. I had to go walking. I walked and walked for several hours, railing my fist at God, blaming him for this tragedy, while trying to make sense out of something that I never would.
I was scheduled to spend the following week at a boy-scout camp. My parents felt I should go. It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I went. I think they were right. I came home a little more restored to my former self. But, I knew something had shifted inside – there was this realization that life is not the solid, straightforward thing I thought it was. It is shifty and tentative.
That would be the first loss in a growing list of gut-punching losses I would face; Loss of more siblings, the loss of my parents, and of aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, in-laws, and friends. The loss of jobs, the loss of love, and eventually a loss of my spiritual self. I have been altogether too acquainted with loss.
Suffering profound loss is just as much an experience of living as sleeping and waking. It is one of many threads that make up this living experience. No one escapes. No one gets out without the scars of soul-wrenching loss.
Part of the experience of loss is the absence of what we lost itself. My sister, and the years I would never have with her. Or the loss of anyone dear- whether through lingering illness or sudden tragedy. Whether the loss is a physical death, or the death of a relationship, career, physical ability, or any type of loss.
The other part, the part that lingers on for weeks, months, years, and in some form never leaves, is the sense of how solitary, and alone, and fragile I am. When suffering loss I face myself in the mirror, and realize that I am ultimately alone.
That is why the words “I know how you feel” are nonsense. You know how you feel when you have a loss, but you don’t know how I feel when I am in the middle of mine. Each one’s suffering is particular to them. It is theirs, and theirs alone.
Ironically, what we do share with each other is our utter inability to get through life without loss. So, although I may not know how you are feeling at the moment you are suffering, since I too have suffered, I can stand with you as one who has. Suffering shared is suffering halved.
When I was a boy, my Uncle Con would drive us around the city of Sioux Falls, SD. In between waving and greeting everyone we passed with made-up names as if he really knew everyone, we would drive by a hospital, or sometimes hear the siren of an ambulance, and uncle Con would make the sign of the cross, demonstrating his hopes and solidarity with those who are suffering. He did not distance himself, but as one who has suffered, he entered into their pain with prayer.
I said earlier that on my long walk, I railed out at God. There was no one else to blame. I know now, the very act of being angry at God reveals my very faith in God, for who can be angry at something that does not exist, or that I believe is not capable of being engaged in our lives?
I was angry because I demanded and felt a right to have a reasonable answer to the absurdity of tragedy and loss. Much smarter men and woman have wrestled with the issues of suffering and loss in life, as if it was a problem to solve, to no avail. Only over time have I been able to accept that life in general, and suffering and loss in particular, are mysteries to be lived through by faith, and not answers to be solved.
I lean into loss as it comes my way by leaning into my family, my friends, and my God. I bear up against loss by staying connected to those who have gone before and have survived profound loss, maybe with scars, probably with a limp, changed from the inside out, but wiser and full of compassion and generosity for those who will come behind carrying that same load.
In the Catholic Tradition, there are two related “Works of Mercy” that Christians, and all people of good will, are admonished to practice. They are to comfort the sorrowful, and to bury the dead.
Today I make it a practice to be present at funerals and memorials as a sign of solidarity. There are few greater gifts we can give one another than to stand with those who are going through the intense pain of suffering.
You who have gone through the gauntlet of loss and have emerged wounded, yet alive—stay ready to stand with others. Tell your story of hope and faith and love, and I, in turn, will tell you mine.