Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Childlike Hunger of Grief

    At the National Writer's Series at the Opera House in Traverse City, I met Tom Perrotta, author of The Leftovers (among many other books).  The book is a certainly a dig at the Left Behind crowd (the Leftovers are people who remain after a Rapture-like event), but that plot device is just the backdrop for a story about grief and loss.

    When I began reading, I thought this book would perhaps be a screed against the idiocy of Christians who believe in the Rapture. By the time I was done, the precipitating event has given way to a poignant story of the effect of cataclysmic loss on a small town.

     As the evening progressed at the Writer's Series, two main thoughts struck me.

     First, Mr. Perrotta and I are very different when it comes to our view of God, faith, religion, and social issues, though he was very tactful when talking about people and beliefs with whom he disagrees.  He was careful to note that he used the Rapture scenario because it was in the culture's imagination thanks to the Left Behind series, and he decided to use it as a way to explore how communities respond to such massive upheaval.

     Second,  grief unites us in spite of our differences, and (I suspect) with more meaningful bonds than happiness. I have talked with fellow Christians who seem to assume that non-Christians just don't have anything insightful to say about life. That sentiment does a terrible injustice to our common humanity, and this book highlights a particular area in which we all walk life's road as fellow travelers.

    Mr. Perotta writes the following about a daughter whose mother disappeared:

"For a long time after she left, Jill found herself overwhelmed by a childlike hunger for her mother's presence. She missed everything about the woman, even the things that used to drive her crazy - her off key singing, her insistence that whole-wheat pasta tasted just as good as the regular kind, her inability to follow the story line of even the simplest TV show. ..Spasms of wild longing would strike out of nowhere...leaving her dazed and weepy...She eventually stopped crying herself to sleep, stopped writing long, desperate letters asking her mother to please come home..."

    On the next page:

"These days, the only time Jill consistently missed her mother was first thing in the morning, when she was still half-asleep, unreconciled to the new day. It just didn't feel right, coming down for breakfast and not finding her at the table in her fuzzy gray robe, no one to hug her and whisper 'Hey, sleepyhead...'"

    A father whose son disappeared notes an unusual event:

"One night, my son came to me in a dream. You know how sometimes you see people in dreams, and it's not really them, but somehow it is them? Well, this wasn't like that.  This was my son, clear as day..."

    I get all three of those examples.  They resonate with me.  The "childlike hunger" for my dad's presence after he died; the desire to hug him like Vincent hugs me now; the empty loneliness in the ordinary moments of life; the dreams that are both ethereal and real.  I've been there.

     If Mr. Perotta had written a clever story about laughing while tubing down a river, I would have felt connected with him to some degree, but not like I did.  Good times are good - thus the label - but hard times are cohesive in ways good times aren't.  When I talked with him in the book signing line, I discovered we both have lost fathers.  Ahh, that explains it.  In spite of very different lives, we have shared the "childlike hunger" in the ordinary moments of loss, and we have been granted the dreams of those whom death has left behind.

   I was thinking on the drive home that my best friendships have been forged through the furnace of grief and hardship.  The friends who never seem far away are the ones whose lives intertwined with mine when the going was tough. Tim, who cried with me (and I with him) when our lives hit some rough spots; Clint, who gave a lot of money, time and friendship when my Dad died;  Don, who lost a brother to cancer and allowed me into his spiritual journey in the aftermath; Ben, who helped me through a breakdown before I walked with him through his tumor.... the list goes on.

     I wonder if that's why Jesus was "a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief" (Isaiah 53:3).  If we are looking for a God with whom to identify in the midst of life's struggles, we don't need a laughing Savior. We are not looking for the assurance that God understands our lives when we are at a party, or luxuriating in a sunrise, or enjoying a solid meal with friends.  A Jesus who was a "man of laughter, acquainted with happiness" would be good (and I'm sure he did both), but if that was our primary memory of his life here, would we really turn to him when the bottom drops out?

     When we "bear each others burdens" (Galatians 6:2)  - when we weep with those who weep - we fulfill the law of Christ, which means we love God and others (Matthew 22:37). And that's a good thing, even if it is best experienced in the midst of pain.

(This post first appeared on "Jump," a blog I write that focuses primarily on the journey through grief.)

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