Tribulation is Treasure

Writing about my daughter’s death has been disturbing. I’ve found my sleep upset by difficult dreams, even escher5 by you.though they also always contain some symbol of transcendence. I’ve been carrying around a weighty sorrow and disappointment these past few weeks, probably not all arising from her death. But it’s simpler to think that it’s all about that particular sorrow.

Putative Summer

My former son-in-law and I were talking about the trying summer we’ve had, which began with his father’s suicide. He had an email from an attorney addressing his “putative” claim to part of his father’s estate, which was ridiculous because under our state laws his claim is in no way putative. His claim is actual. But, because of the email and the way our summer went, we’ve dubbed this The Putative Summer. It was summer, all right, but we experienced few or none of the usual joys of summer, just funerals and grieving and disturbing questions.

Our Putative Summer made me think about things I don’t want to think about, much. I’ve carried around a tennis-ball sized knot right below my heart for some weeks now. Writing about how I’ve “healed” has, ironically, pushed me back to that place where

The whole head is sick,
And the whole heart is faint.
From the sole of the foot even to the head
There is nothing sound in it,
Only bruises, welts, and raw wounds,
Not pressed out or bandaged,
Nor softened with oil.
(Isaiah 1:5-6)

We seem to have consensus that people integrate their great losses and griefs and go on with their lives, for escher4 by you.the most part. But there may also be unresolved grief, delayed grief, chronic grief, distorted grief, somatized grief, and interferences with grief. Parents who have lost a child may rush to conceive another child or adopt one, replacing the lost child and thus sealing the fate of the unborn with a weight too heavy for a baby to carry. They may make shrines to the dead in their homes, or may become bitter and angry. Marriages end. There is no doubt that for some, there is no “healing,” no return or progression to a state where there is no longer any infirmity arising from the loss.

Putative Friends

What I think about most is not how I healed, but how I changed after Olivia’s death. I changed in such profound ways that I completely abandoned some of my former habits and some of my former relationships. This is not unusual, for only the stout of heart can stick with a friend who is suffering so acutely. As for the bereaved, we wonder why, before the loss, we put up with any fair weather friends. One of my closest friends hurt me deeply as Olivia lay dying. The way she treated me felt like utter abandonment, even though she probably didn’t intend it. Even though we later made peace, I ultimately decided that she was not a friend worth keeping. I would not have escher3 by you.made this decision earlier in my life, for in olden days I willingly put up with relationships that lacked balance or reciprocity.

When a family member later appropriated this once-close friend as a mentor, I inwardly wished them both the best but knew beyond doubt that I’d never trust either of them again. In A Companion Through the Darkness, Stephanie Ericsson writes that we are at our most vulnerable when in deep mourning. This is when the dark-hearted show themselves:

They emerge at fortuitous times, usually when we are at our weakest, because evil will never seek an equal opponent. It is the hyena who waits until the prey falters before it moves in for the kill. […] It is inevitable that evil will rear its head when death visits. In-laws never speak to us again after the funeral. No explanation. No reason. Just silent blame and cruel desertion. […] Many of us who expected our families and friends to stand by us at our darkest hour found ourselves attacked instead. […] I found that everything I thought I could count on, I couldn’t. People I thought cared for me, I discovered hated me. People I never knew cared for me came through as beacons of light.

The most grievous losses have a way of dividing silver and dross through betrayals. I determined to have less dross in my life, and more of what is precious and lasting.

Putative Values

Like many others who have lost children, I changed most in my thinking about what matters. In The Worst Loss, Barbara Rosof writes that the majority of bereaved parents say that their values shifted dramatically escher1 by you.after their child’s death. Their dedication to “the conventional markers of success-promotions, a nicer house, more money and things-all mattered much less to them after their child died. Their commitments changed as well” (258).

Before Olivia died, I was more committed to fostering the growth of other peoples’ real selves than my own. This changed as I became more of my true self after she died. I had held onto God through the most terrifying experience, and He had made marvelous to me His lovingkindness in a besieged city. While this steeled me in my innermost being, it also compromised the patience I’d had with ridiculous people in the past. I became sick to death of hypocritical Christians. I stopped going to church for a year, and stayed home and worshiped God on my own. Some mornings, while my husband took all our children to church, I stayed for an hour and a half on my face on our bedroom floor, my heart rent in two.

My true self sprang out of the head of my old self after Olivia died. She was my teacher even in death, and I think that it has taken every bit of eight years to make sense of what happened. A place that had never been hard in me hardened and became immovable under the developmental demands of middle age and the tutelage of sorrow.

I don’t have time for foolishness any more. I hear the clock ticking.

. . . any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind,
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.
Neither can we call this a begging of misery,
or a borrowing of misery,
as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves,
but must fetch in more from the next house,
in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors.
Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did,
for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it.
No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by it,
and made fit for God by that affliction.
If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold,
and have none coined into current money,
his treasure will not defray him as he travels.
Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it,
but it is not current money in the use of it,
except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it.
John Donne, From “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions” (1623),
XVII: Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris

11 responses

  1. I have to agree with you in this…Losing my son definitely has caused me to stop and think about what and who matters to me…I have disconnected myself from those who didn’t bring me any good before and I feel in doing so…I am actually honoring my son who was never concerned with what others thought about him either…

  2. Amy, it’s weird, isn’t it, how suffering and loss give a person focus? Why is it that usually only after a loss do we stop taking so much for granted? But, at least we learn.

  3. Hi Eve,

    Wow, death and grief. Yep I have been there and done that. I lost my step Dad six years ago this past May. I think this was the first year that I didn’t stop to think about his death. I wholeheartedly agree with you that it takes that long to heal from the loss. His death was extremely devastating. I really wanted to die the months following his death. His mother passed away four months later. I was so jealous of that. I know now that they needed that time together. It took me eight months to articulate what I felt. Imagine if you will, tears streaming down my face trying desperately to piece back together the blood red shards of my broken heart. To this day its hard to reconcile the man he became with my childhood memories of him. I find it hard to even speak about them because I feel like it is a betrayal of the love that I did have for him. He died from a hereditary vein rupture. Not quite an embolism but similar. The hospital thought they were treating a heart attack. By the time we got to the right hospital, it was too late. He died two and half days later.

    I have grown a great deal since then. I don’t take anything for granted anymore. I stop and enjoy nature’s beauty, my children’s antics or my animals’ antics.

  4. Dear Eve, your putative summer has definitely been a rough one. Thanks for taking the time out of it to share with us what losing a child has meant to you. It was eye-opening to read such an acute description of grief. When I was a student, a young cousin of mine (she was 10) died of leukemia and her mother was so choked with grief that a year or so later she developed cancer in the glands of her throat (she was late declared clear). I understand both from that and how you write that grief can come in many forms and be overwhelming, physically, spiritually and emotionally.

  5. Irene, oh, thank you. I wonder if I am making any sense, but reading your comment tells me that somehow I am.

    I do agree that there’s something beautiful about the wholeness of just living life consciously. My husband likes to point to Jesus promise about the “abundant life,” stating that a life fully lived is an abundant life; that humans will experience it all, and the question is what we’re going to do with it all.

    What the Librarian wrote was good, I agree. If we make judgments of “good, bad,” then we may well remove the gift that life is trying to give. Better to ask, “what now?” or “How, then, will I live with this?” rather than judging it. All things can, in fact, work together for good if we continue in love. I tend to be able to veer off into dark brooding (I should’ve been a poet or painter!), but there’s also a deep vein of optimism running in me that reminds me, in balance, of just how great it is to be alive, and how much good there is in this universe.

  6. Deb, you’re not off-topic at all. I mentioned middle age, and I cannot agree with you more heartily about the gifts of middle age and beyond. I’ve been grateful day by day about the treasures and gifts of suffering and age. I’m glad that (so far) I haven’t been driven to get stuck or bitter in it all, but have moved on and let it refine me.

    Sounds like we’re both better people than we were. Your illustration about your elderly patient is an example of how compassion can spring out of suffering. I’m so glad you’re out there, sharing your gifts.

  7. Christopher, thank you for the reminder that only pathology could cause a person to just not mourn. You’re correct, at least insofar as psychology is concerned: only people with psychiatric disorders could easily get over the death of someone close.

  8. Dear Eve, moooo too. With tears in my eyes. For me, this is a chance to learn for the future. How difficult it is to remain soft in our hearts, to care for ourselves, and others, whilst maintaining much-needed boundaries that acknowledge our own needs too.

    Reading all you have written over the last few days, I kept feeling things about the definition of wholeness, rather than healing, and I particularly loved what the Librarian wrote about that. Sadness and pain – its not a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing, is it? Reading the poem you quoted today, I thought of how grief, sorrow and sadness are perhaps different colours that makes us… human? By that I think I mean a spiritual being, one with the capacity to contain it all, softly, openly, with consciousness and compassion. How could anyone remain the same, growing in this way? I sense all of this in you as you write.

    I also thought of the Jungian ‘death and renewal’ (as in fairy tales when the King is dying), when some part of our self (or a belief, or structure) needs a renewal of feeling, of depth. I’m not sure why I’ve mentioned this – does this make sense to you?

    Thank you Eve, and thank you to everyone else. So much to chew on, yes.

  9. As I’ve gotten older and hopefully a little wiser, I find I’m less afraid, more willing to take risks, more willing to make myself vulnerable, less willing to accept crumbs.

    I had a patient today that all the other nurses have labeled as needy. He is an 84 year old man, who is slightly demented and speaks virtually no English; for three days every week he’s hooked up to a machine that does something to him. I doubt he has a clear understand of exactly what the machine does but he knows he needs this machine to stay alive. So he needs reassurance that everything is “good”. I don’t have a problem with giving an elderly man reassurance that he is okay, but I have to figure out how to deal with the nurses who want to pigeon hole patients. And this has nothing to do with what you wrote, sorry. I’m rambling.

    But yes, I’m much less willing to put up with shit than I was even five years ago. The times they are a changing, for the better I think. Long live middle age. Again, I’ve veered off topic. Probably time to sign off.

    Take care,

  10. “……….We seem to have consensus that people integrate their great losses and griefs, and go on with their lives………”.

    I think of that tiresome word “closure”, whereby after the so-many-days obligatory days of mourning for the death of a loved one, we are supposed to resume our lives as before.

    But the truth is that, unless we are psychopathic, we never fully recover from the death of a parent, child, or dear friend.

    I think it leaves a wound which re-opens whenever something else down the road happens which emotionally affects us, or the wound simply re-opens of its own accord every now and then. It will always be with us, and, in that sense, we will never have “closure”.

    “…….I completely abandoned some of………my former relationships……..”.

    Reading what you wrote, I think you had to rid yourself of this friend because you had changed. When you became friends you were different to how you are now. So unless she changed in the same way you did, you had little choice but to say goodbye to her.

    What you did, is what we should all do with friends who have become toxic friends, because we changed and they didn’t.

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