Monday, March 6, 2023

Looking for Aswers in Grief

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

A reader writes: I have never been a religious person. But it seems that when you have such a tragedy in your life like losing a husband of 40 years that you seem to turn that way because you are looking for an answer. All the books that I seem to read talk about the plan that God has in store for you. Why I get so upset is that I was completely happy with my old plan - being with the love of my life until we were, say, 90 years old (not just 60). So why take my wonderful plan away and make me so miserable because He has a plan for me?
Why tell me I must not be impatient as I have to wait and see what it is. I was completely happy being married, in my cozy little house, with my cozy little life, and my wonderful husband, so why make me so miserable and make my cozy little house cold and my cozy little life upside down and take my wonderful husband which leaves a great big hole inside me that I feel will never heal? Does anyone have an answer for me?

My response: I doubt if there is a person among us who hasn’t asked these same questions: Where is God in all of this? And if the agony of grief is part of God’s plan for me, then I don’t want any part of it! Is there some master plan that controls the events in our lives? (I think of the song, If I Were a Rich Man and that scene in Fiddler On the Roof, when poor struggling Tevya raises his fists to the heavens and cries, “Would it spoil some vast eternal plan if I were a wealthy man?!”)

I struggle with those same questions myself, and I certainly don’t claim to have the answers. I am not a cleric and I don’t want to enter into a debate on the subject either – but I will support completely your right to ask the questions!

Here is what I do know: The explosive emotions of grief (crying out in anguish, “Why me? Why my beloved? Why now? How could this happen? It isn’t fair! I hate this!”) are normal and necessary reactions that must be expressed, not repressed or denied. Give yourself permission to feel whatever you feel and to express those feelings, even if they are not logical. The thinking part of us knows that illness, pain, suffering and death are intrinsic parts of being human, but when the one we love is taken from us, we see it as a sign that something has gone terribly wrong. It is only human to rail against this horrible injustice, to feel overwhelming feelings of pain, helplessness, frustration, hurt and fear, and to scream at the heavens, “Why?!” Such feelings are neither right or wrong, good or bad – they just are. And they certainly do serve to let us know we’ve sustained an injury that needs attention and nurturing.

I know right now you’re struggling with all those “Why” questions, but that is an essential part of the mourning process, as you search for meaning in your losses. It’s been said that life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved. You are not alone in your search. We all struggle with those questions, and we’re all looking for meaning as we help each other come to terms with our own losses.

Noted grief expert Alan D. Wolfelt observes that we Americans tend to hold onto our basic Western cultural beliefs that the world is essentially a nice place, that life is basically fair, and that if we are good, then good things will happen to us, we will succeed in our work and in our relationships, and we will deserve all the bounty that life has to offer. The death of our beloved can change all of that in an instant. In grief we are overwhelmed as we struggle to make some sense of our suffering, and we may find it difficult, if not impossible, to continue believing that we could ever live a happy life again. We may lose faith in our basic beliefs about the benevolence and fairness of the universe, including our trust in God or in a higher power.

In my own lifelong struggle to make sense of the pain and suffering that accompanies significant loss, in re-constructing my own basic beliefs, in my own search for meaning, I am drawn to those bereaved whose personal experiences and subsequent writings reflect ~ over time ~ a similar quest. Read, for example, what these gifted authors have to say about hope, faith, and loss:
. . . Vulnerability to death is one of the given conditions of life. We can't explain it any more than we can explain life itself. We can't control it, or sometimes even postpone it. All we can do is try to rise beyond the question, "Why did it happen?"and begin to ask the question,"What do I do now that it has happened?"  ~ Harold S. Kushner, in When Bad Things Happen to Good People
I am a parent twice bereaved. In one thirteen-month period I lost my oldest son to suicide and my youngest son to leukemia. Grief has taught me many things about the fragility of life and the finality of death. To lose that which means the most to us is a lesson in helplessness and humility and survival. After being stripped of any illusions of control I might have harbored, I had to decide what questions were still worth asking. I quickly realized that the most obvious ones -- Why my sons? Why me? – were as pointless as they were inevitable. Any appeal to fairness was absurd. I was led by my fellow sufferers, those I loved and those who had also endured irredeemable losses, to find reasons to go on. Like all who mourn I learned an abiding hatred for the word "closure," with its comforting implications that grief is a time-limited process from which we will all recover. The idea that I could reach a point when I would no longer miss my children was obscene to me and I dismissed it. I had to accept the reality that I would never be the same person, that some part of my heart, perhaps the best part, had been cut out and buried with my sons. What was left? Now there was a question worth contemplating.  ~ Gordon Livingston, MD, in Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart
The “if-onlys” are natural for you to explore, even if there is no logical way in which you are responsible for the death. What you’re really feeling, at bottom, is a lack of control over what happened. And accepting that we have little control over the lives of those we love is a difficult thing indeed.  ~ Alan D. Wolfelt, in Understanding Your Grief
For a long time I was obsessed with why Mitch had ended his life. I thought that I needed to discover the real cause of his hopelessness. I studied and analyzed what I believed to be his suicide note . . . Finally, I perceived that a death by suicide is a result of factors too numerous to count. I wanted to know why, but I didn't have to have an answer in order to go on living my own life. Even the most experienced and astute investigators are finally forced to make what at best is only an educated guess. It is important, however, to ask why. It is important to worry about why, because one finally exhausts possibility after possibility and ultimately one tires of the fruitless search. Then it is time to let it go and to start healing.  ~ Iris Bolton in My Son...My Son: A Guide to Healing After Death, Loss or Suicide
My children asked me, “Why did Dad die?” I told them, “It was an accident. There are small accidents, like knocking over your milk at the dinner table. And there are large accidents, like the one your dad was in. No one meant it to happen. It just happened. And his body was too badly damaged in the accident for his soul to stay in it anymore, and so he died. God does not spill milk. God did not bash the truck into your father’s car. Nowhere in scripture does it say, ‘God is car accident’ or ‘God is death.’ God is justice and kindness, mercy, and always – always – love. So if you want to know where God is in this or in anything, look for love.”  ~ Kate Braestrup, in Here If You Need Me
I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable.  ~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh
I'll never know why he had to die. And I've come to peace with that. Because I know this: even if God himself came down and told me exactly why Jim had to die ...... the reason would not be good enough for me. Ever. And so I don't ask anymore. ~ Janine Eggers
If I had to choose one life skill that truly stands above all others, it would be this one…. Trusting the journey even when we do not understand it. Trusting in something that is bigger than ourselves, larger than our own vision, and capable beyond our own hands is one of the most elevated, self protective, and ultimately peace invoking things we can do. Trust in what is not yet visible or knowable is difficult, but when we surrender to a faith in the unknown, understanding always comes. When we let go of our need to know ‘why?’ and settle in to the belief that more will be revealed – the struggle ceases and the healing begins. ~ Annette Childs
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