The New Year is just around the corner and I imagine there are many of us who cannot wait to see the end of 2020. The Corona Virus has delivered a major hit to our communities and our way of life during this year and our New Year celebrations will be no different. Large gatherings and fireworks have been cancelled and we are being encouraged to celebrate at home to usher in the new year. There will be many who might bemoan the inability to party, to gather in huge crowds, to drink and dance the night away, and see off 2020 in a burst of fireworks. Last year, we were stunned into silence by the catastrophic bushfires that raged across our nation. This year some of us may have experienced grief and loss, either as a direct result of the pandemic or due to other causes, and so our celebrations may take on a more subdued tone.
Our New Year celebrations will be a little more subdued and reflective this year. Just days before Christmas, two of our dear friends held their tiny little baby as he slipped away. Their second son, Elijah, was born with serious complications and lived for just five days. While we have experienced grief first hand, it has not been due to the loss of a child, and it is hard to imagine the depth of pain and loss his parents and extended family feel.
Preparing for the birth of a child is a nerve wracking but joyous time. There is so much expectation in the lead up to the birth. We wonder who they will look like most, what personality traits will they inherit and what lays ahead for their future. While we know that there are numerous things that can go awry, our minds are fixed on the singular expectation of bringing home the newest member of our family. Seeing the new parents without a baby in their arms just rips our heart out. This is not the way it is supposed to be. It is outside the natural order.
In the midst of such heart breaking pain, words evaporate. What words could we possibly say? There are no words on this earth that could possibly heal the gaping chasm in their hearts. In our muteness, we feel awkward. We may feel tempted to keep our distance because the last thing we want to do is clumsily intrude into such bitter pain and grief. But that is where we are wrong.
Grief does not require nice words. It’s okay if you don’t know what to say. When we are grieving, we know you don’t know what to say. What we need is your presence. Just being there, holding our hand, holding us tight, is enough. Your presence tells us that you care, that you love us and that you are hurting too.
It always astounds me how much emotional pain hurts physically. It’s funny how we perceive the heart as the source of love even while we know that it is basically just a pump. It pumps blood around our bodies, keeping us alive and yet it is right there, in the middle of our chest, that we feel such intense pain. It can feel as tight as a wound up corkscrew, as heavy as a stone and as sharp as a knife. We sigh and we sigh and we sigh, hoping to relieve the pressure, to ease the pain away and be able to breathe freely.
Every new grief awakens old griefs. The grief and pain of our friends reopens our old wounds and we feel the pain all over again. We are reminded that our journey through grief and loss is life long and while it never ends, it does change over time. The grief of our friends gives me a new perspective into my own. Even now, almost 18 years later, I am still learning new things about grief, and it is not all bad. There are things I see now that I couldn’t possibly have seen when I was the one in the middle of it.
Too often we can look at grief and suffering with a victim mentality. We feel sorry for the bereaved. We may even see them as weak, helpless, broken. Grief is hard. It’s incredibly painful and devastating, and yet in the midst of all the pain and mess of a shattered life, there is room for strength, endurance and hope. We never know what we can endure until we are right there in the thick of it and we are never alone. As our family and friends gather around there is a process of reciprocity. Family and friends give much love and support to the bereaved, but they are also on the receiving end too as they are blessed by the strength of the human spirit.
Elijah was blessed to have incredible and amazing parents. For as long as I have known them, they have been people of deep love, generosity and compassion. Even knowing there were complications, Elijah’s birth was greeted with much joy and infinite love. From the moment he entered this life, he was surrounded by love. Stories were read, songs were sung, his skin was gently stroked and his hair was combed. Knowing his life would be short, Elijah’s family made the most of every precious minute. On his fifth day, Elijah lay in his mothers’ arms, while his father sang to him until he took his last breath.
At the memorial service, the photo presentation gave those of us who did not have the opportunity to meet Elijah in person, a vivid picture of his short life completely surrounded by love. The pictures overflowed with joy, love and tenderness, and we wept. It was so very very hard and yet so very very beautiful. Elijah died knowing he was loved and though his life was so very short, he has had a deep impact on people he never even knew. In such difficult circumstances, love and joy shone like a beacon on a hilltop.
This is where we find real life – not in parties, balloons and fireworks, but in the mess of pain, grief, loss and the strength of a community pulling together. It is in the mess of real life that love comes to us. It comes in the community of family and friends who gather round the grieving couple, surrounding them with all the love and support they can muster. It is found in the medical staff, who despite their best efforts cannot save a tiny baby but are moved by the love and strength of this little family. And it comes most of all in the love of these parents for their tiny son, a love that radiates out to every one they meet.
In grief, a community gathers around the bereaved and as the bereaved become the centre focus, a strange thing happens. It is the bereaved who become the source of strength and comfort. I know this sounds strange, after all, shouldn’t it be the bereaved who look for comfort. Even in their brokenness, pain and suffering, the bereaved act like a magnet, drawing people to their side, giving and receiving strength, love and comfort. In the midst of your deepest pain, you can quite unwittingly be the source of strength and hope. We don’t set out to be that, but it happens anyway. It’s the way relationships work. It’s the way we live as community.
We will celebrate the new year and the end of 2020 with heavy but hopeful hearts. We will probably have more tears yet to shed for this little family, as we walk beside them into their new future. There is always joy, hope and love to be had, but it is tempered by the bittersweetness of our grief and loss. Love and grief, hope and loss – this is the story of real life.
Wishing you a new year filled with love, joy and hope