The Last Walk 11:
It’s been eighty days since Karen died, a bit more than two months since her funeral and memorial service. I am feeling the pain of my loss more acutely than before, not because of Christmas but because of time away from work. I don’t have the convenient distractions of class preps and grading of student papers. Other distractions—holiday concerts, parties, church services, and family dinners—are over. Since Christmas I’ve had some days “off”; something Karen and I used to welcome when we were together, days for walks, for watching a movie, for creative projects. Now, when I walk I cannot escape the feeling of loss. We used to walk these streets together.
Jerry Sittser, a professor at Whitworth, suffered the simultaneous loss of his mother, wife, and daughter in an auto accident. Four year later he wrote A Grace Disguised, and a dozen years after that, A Grace Revealed, reflections on God’s work in his life after loss. (Thank you to Kris Kays, who lent the books to me.) Sittser says that God can use tragic loss as means of grace. God wills to redeem us, and he will use even the pain we suffer to work redemption.
Just to be clear: Sittser does not say, and I do not believe, that God changes evil into good. A drunk driver killing three members of Sittser’s family was evil. Karen’s suffering and death from cancer was a bad thing. The pain I am enduring is not good. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” wrote Paul, and that means that death is a real enemy, God’s enemy as well as ours.
God does not change evil into good, but he uses evil—even the crucifixion of Jesus—to accomplish good. God is changing me, remaking me, through pain. This doesn’t mean pain is a good thing or that God is a vindictive wizard toying with me. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself,” and he did this by the cross, by suffering with and for us. (I’ve written “Atonement as Peacemaking,” which you can find somewhere in the archives of my blog: storymeaning.blogspot.com.)
I told my sister-in-law, Evie, that there is a temptation to paper over pain and loss. There must be lots of ways to do it. Rush into a new relationship. Spend lots of money. Binge on alcohol, food, exercise, or videos. Bury yourself in work. And so on. The effect is to dull the pain, to not feel. To a degree, distraction works; grading student papers helped me get through the weeks after the memorial. But now the papers and parties are over, leaving me alone.
It’s okay to feel loss. At the least, it’s real. I’m not writing a novel or doing abstract philosophy. (Worthy activities, both of them! But as existentialists point out, sometimes remote from reality.) I cannot rewrite this plot; I cannot cancel my loss. I have to feel it, to let it change me.
How will the new me be different? Over thirty-nine years Karen shaped me in ways I cannot know. I would not want to shed those things. The new me will be changed through addition. Immediately, it seems, I have become more aware of death and the limitations of our existence. Suppose I live as long as my friend Arthur, who died recently at 93. That would mean two-thirds of my life is already over. Perhaps I will live as long as my father, in which case four-fifths of my life is over. “Teach us to number our days,” say the psalms. The hope of resurrection puts the count of days in new perspective!
As I walk, I feel a new depth of pain. Surely what I feel is not unique! People all around me suffer similar losses. In imagination, at least, the slow loss of a spouse to Alzheimer’s would be worse—and I have friends who are on that road. What about divorce? I’ve only watched from the outside, but it seems that loss (accompanied by resentments, fears, and guilt) could be worse than mine. What about refugees, who lose their countries? Jerry Sittser says such comparisons are pointless; there is no measure of psychic pain to compare tragedies. Instead, I should allow God to remake me, to use my pain to spur compassion.
My neighbor, who lost her husband years ago, says, “You don’t get over it; you get through it.” Sittser says tragic loss is not like a disease from which you recover; it’s like an amputation that leaves you changed. I want to be open to grace, to be changed for the better. The amputation will always be part of me, and I walk on.