Blue Christmas

Dec 24, 2023
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A Meditation for Those who are Grieving Loss during this Christmas Season, 2023

To write about grief at any time is difficult. To write about grief, as we migrate into the Christmas season, even more so. The character of Christmas as a season of enchantment, makes grief an ill fit. The character of Christmas as a season of collective joy, makes grief incongruous and awkward. The character of Christmas as a time of holiday and rest, makes grief a mismatch. And yet, grief, impossible to share in its entirety, must be shared at least partially through word and tears. The solitary experience itself, must, to some degree become communal, its crushing weight borne by the grace of friends.

I have found this small essay difficult to write, for the constant, unabating question has been, to what degree should I share my own grief? Not to share it, as I approach the second anniversary of my son, Andrew’s death, would be unnatural, stilted. But, to over-share it, would be insensitive, distracting from the burdens that some of you bear at this time of year. How to attain a balance so that my own pain may not overwhelm, but be used to illuminate, so that as you read this, you may say to yourself, “yes, I have felt that”. Ultimately, we are all members of the same species, we are all formed of the same flesh and blood, so let me try!

First, in suffering the loss of Andrew, the initial months were as a fog: a fog that slid into grief. I found that grief dislocates space and time. I found myself in a new geography where other people’s maps were of no import or value. It was this ‘fogged living’ that sowed confusion in my mind as to whether grief is a state or a process. “Will it always be like this?” “Will things get better?” “If so, how will I know?”, I asked myself. What I did discover is that there are no general rules. Not one member of our family – there are twelve of us – conformed to any standard or mode of response to the family tragedy. C.S Lewis in “A Grief Observed”, offered this observation, “Sorrow needs not a map but a history”. In other words, one merely lives it, one lives through it, one lives it out.

Second, in suffering the loss of Andrew, I found that I suffered from a terror that I might forget him. The shock of his sudden death wiped out the memory of earlier times. I lived with the morbid fear that I would never really remember him accurately, that the lost one would be twice lost, twice killed. I spent months examining the family photos, intentionally bringing back to mind the events, the experiences, the circumstances, to ensure that I would remember. I felt that I owed that to him.

Third, in suffering the loss of Andrew – and this was and remains the most painful thing of all – I came to realise that even if I did remember him, even if all the events could be dutifully preserved, that it was not his memory that I wanted. I wanted the real thing – him – an answer, a presence from the beyond. It became clear to me that when someone dies, we want to follow where they have gone. We want to bring them back. But the fact is that to keep living in this world, requires that we mentally and emotionally leave our dead behind in the other one, tearfully accepting, the metaphysical reality of distance between us. Sigmund Freud, wrote something similar in a letter to a friend after the death of his daughter Sophie in January 1920, at the very end of the Spanish flu pandemic.

Although we know that after such a loss the acute state of mourning will subside, we also know that we shall remain inconsolable and will never find a substitute, no matter what may fill the gap; even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else. And this is how it should be…it is the only way of perpetuating that love which we do not want to relinquish”.

But is this all I can or should say? I have no desire to write ‘religiously’, to write of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, not because I do not believe it, but rather because I do not want to use abstraction.* But I do want to reflect for a minute upon consolation, upon solace. I want to ask the question, have I experienced any solace, any consolation these past 23 months?

The Canadian thinker and writer, Michael Ignatieff in an early work, The Needs of Strangers, shared this thought: that “‘we are the only species with needs that exceed our grasp’, needs for ‘metaphysical consolation and explanation.’”

I think that Ignatieff speaks truthfully and wisely about our human need for the metaphysical. Since my son’s death, I have found myself returning to numerous classic speculative theological and philosophical readings that deal with the historical ‘big questions’ of life; those that in one way or another address the problem of death, and life after death. But, again, as just mentioned, I have found such abstraction wanting. Profound as they may be, those readings have not served as the main driver of personal solace. Rather, I have found consolation and solace in what Ignatieff calls the “human chain of meaning”. In other words, that, “it is not doctrines that save us in the end, but people: their example, their singularity, their courage and steadfastness…people [who] show us what it means to go on despite everything”. It is this sense of solidarity, a “fellowship of witnesses”, that tells me that “we are not alone”, but part of a “common world of feeling”. This is what I have experienced as I have spent time with many people of good will in this congregation of Wesley and people beyond, who have made contact and taken time to build a relationship with Gilda and me, in the shadow of our grief.

For all that, as time moves on, as memories of family and friends fade – but Andrew remains with us, his parents – I am mindful that time will never assuage the loss. That I shall finally have to stand on my own feet, finding consolation, solace and meaning in immediacy: in literature, music and the Christian world view. Reading Ignatieff attentively, I turned to his reference to Gustav Mahler’s Kindertodtenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), written by the composer – as it turns out – just prior to the death of his own daughter. The piece is based upon the poems written by Friedrick Rückert. At the very end of the cello melody, in the postlude to In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus (‘In this Weather, this Raging Storm’, sung by Kathleen Ferrier), the music calms, the music soothes, coming to a gentle, hopeful transcendence. The last exultant word of Kindertodtenlieder is this: that death is powerful, yet love is even stronger.

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