Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Grieving Our Losses

On Grieving Our Losses

There is nothing of which I am aware that is more common to all humankind than the experience of loss. Most of my ministry of more than a half century has been spent with people who were trying to cope with some kind of loss, and a sizeable slice of my own discretionary time for 79 years has been spent coping with losses of my own. I would not go so far as to say there is nothing one can do to avoid the experience of loss, but I will say there is nothing one can do to avoid it altogether. Neither wisdom, not wealth, nor youth, nor fame, nor beauty; no, not even luck can save us from the pain of some kind of significant loss. If you do not believe that, ask the rich and famous, and even the lucky. They will tell you. The manner in which we deal with loss will radically condition the quality, direction, and perhaps even the length of life.

There is nothing more inexplicably painful than some great loss at the moment at which it occurs. Our lives are strewn with losses, some of which cause our world to stop. Some say that there are losses that are worse than death. Perhaps this is true, but it is rarely true. The death of a loved one is an experience that leaves us with a sense of emptiness and profound sadness unequaled by anything. While it is true that it is easier to accept the death of an aged parent whose condition is beyond the power of known medical science to cure, there is still a sadness that defies all our rationale about the inevitability of death and the propriety of the death of an aged person. It is our aged parent, and the finality of death causes our emotions to over-ride our reason. My four siblings and I stood at our 90-year-old mother's bedside and literally watched her take her last breath. There was never a more normal and reasonable departure from this life! It was time to go. But we wept. Just because something is normal does not take away the pain of loss. We would have wept had Mama died at age 120! Do you hear what I am saying to you?

There are some circumstances of death in which the pain of loss is more intense and lasting than the loss of an aging parent. There are no words to describe the depth of grief in the death of a child. It disturbs what we feel to be the normal order of things. Children should bury their parents, not the reverse. A few years ago a young man of my acquaintance and his wife had a child who was born with a completely untreatable digestive birth defect. The infant child literally starved to death. The father held this infant in his arms and rocked her day and night until she died. How can you measure (describe) the grief of that loss? The college-age daughter of another friend was brutally murdered in her apartment by a criminal who was on parole. I am a professional in dealing with grief, but I could not find words to comfort that mother. I just sat and wept with her. A beautiful young man who had just finished his first year in college was killed in a single automobile accident. He came by my office and hugged me the day before he died. I was grief-stricken, but what words do we have in our vocabulary to comfort his parents? This list is not exhaustive. It is only suggestive of a list that is longer than I want to remember.

Montaigne once observed: "Death often weighs heavier on us by its weight on others, and pains us by their pain almost as much as by our own, and sometimes even more". We have all held membership in that tongueless brotherhood and sisterhood of those who know no words that will even come close to touching the grief of those who have lost a child. We can only weep with those who weep. And, if that is all we can do, it is enough.

We have all lost something, and if we live very much longer, we will lose something else. The nature and extent of our future loss is beyond our power to predict. We know death will be one of those losses. If not the death of a loved one, it will be our own death. How do we prepare ourselves to grieve our losses and continue to live creatively? I have a dozen books on grief and loss. I even have a chapter on grief in a book I wrote several years ago. Books help - some. But there is nothing more powerfully helpful than belonging to a community of caring people who will do and be all those things that words cannot do and be for you.

If you do not belong to a community of caring people, find one now. You are going to need these people. I hear that churches tend to be good at that.