I wrote some of this from Iceland, where we unexpectedly spent a couple days after I passed out on a plane. More on that later. I started writing this in the USA. I am now finishing it in Antwerp, Belgium.
I have been surprised by grief. Not surprised that I have experienced grief, but surprised at the forms it has taken.
It has been a month since I watched my son Peter take his last breaths. The memory still makes me shudder. The moment Peter stopped breathing I began howling. The horror of my grief came tearing out of me, cycling through every octave in my vocal range. This was nothing like what you see in movies. This was the pain of my soul facing the incomprehensible fact that my son, from one moment to the next, was gone forever. If there were people in the adjacent rooms, they heard me wailing. This howling did not surprise me. I had felt it in me. I knew it would come. What does surprise me is that I have never heard anyone talk about it. Our grieving in America takes place predominantly in private; so I have walked with people through their grief, but had never seen behind the curtain. I share this so that others will know what grief can look like.
Coincidentally, after I wrote the above, I heard part of an interview with an anthropologist on the National Public Radio show Invisibilia. Renato Rosaldo and his wife Shelly lived among the Ilongot people, a remote tribe of the Philippines known for headhunting; that is, they decapitated people. Renato worked hard to understand their emotional world. Every word he learned had its equivalent in Engligh, except one: Liget. He thought at first that it had to do with energy and productiveness. “But then liget exploded out of that definition into an emotional landscape he had never before encountered.” (The article is here and the podcast is here). When he played back an audio recording of a loved and respected tribal member who had recently died, the room went silent and the faces of the men gathered showed rage. It made them feel liget, they said. “It makes us want to take a head, they told him, over and over. It makes us want to take a man’s head and throw it.”
The anthropologist Renato was astonished at this emotion they expressed. He had no category for it. Until, some years later, in another part of the Philippines, his wife fell to her death. After the funeral, an emotion which began when he looked at his wife’s broken body continued to grow. One day, while driving, he felt its pressure growing inside him. He pulled to the side of the road. If I had thought of it when writing about my grief at Peter’s death, I would have described it as in the article: “a howl came roaring out of him.” In that moment Renato knew, this is liget, the terrifying emotion he had observed as an anthropologist. The closes he could come to describing it in English was “high voltage.” When I heard this, I thought, “That’s what I felt.” The desire to behead someone in response remains foreign to me, although I can understand how the roaring could turn to rage. Burying one’s grief by causing it in another seems unhealthy, to say the least. But American ways of dealing with death seem unhealthy as well.
When Peter died, I felt like my howling would never stop. But grief is surprising; eventually I calmed down. The moment we met our kids at home it all began again, although at less volume. Crying with children can’t last forever. Our daughter asked me suddenly, “Why does it sound like you’re laughing sometimes when you’re crying?” And after we had all cried together on the bed for some time our six-year-old said, “I’m hungry.”
The next surprise was how good I felt. I cried often the next few days, but not as much as I expected. We scheduled the funeral for just four days later. It felt better to have the service sooner rather than later so that it was more connected to the event of Peter’s death. I cried during the service, but made it through the sermon without tears, much to my surprise. We actually enjoyed dinner with family after the service – at the restaurant that hosted Peter’s Make-A-Wish event. I told people in those days that we were doing remarkably well. We felt lifted up by everyone’s prayers. We missed Peter terribly and cried for him often. But we also felt amazingly well at the same time. Sometimes when I found myself thinking about something other than Peter I felt like I was betraying him. I felt I should be sadder. I should think about him without ceasing. I was surprised at how light I felt. We planned a trip to Belgium in early June to visit and check out schools for our kids. We put in our 30 day notice on our rental house. These felt like the right things to do. I thought we might need more time to recover, but we felt ready to move on.
The next surprise of grief was the physical symptoms that sprang on me without warning. While driving one morning I felt a tightness in my chest. Like a balloon inflated just behind and beneath my sternum – bloated, hollow, uncomfortable. I felt like I wasn’t getting full breaths. My heartbeats felt irregular. These physical symptoms triggered anxiety, which made the symptoms worse. Was I feeling lightheaded? I should pull over. Is there something wrong with my heart? Could I have a tumor in my stomach? Over the next few days I cycled through lack of appetite, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, tingling in my legs, and often that tightness in my chest and strange heartbeat. I found myself holding my stomach muscles tight without realizing it. When I relaxed them, strangely, my stomach felt bloated and I became more aware of my breathing, which never felt quite normal.
My anxiety had me second guessing our decisions about moving out of the house and making a trip to Belgium. My anxiety and fear make me all the more amazed at my son Peter. He faced his diagnosis of cancer, the uncertainty of treatments, and the certainty of his death without anxiety, fear, or complaint. I feel something in my chest and I quake with fear. God grant me the courage of my eleven-year-old child!
Is this what grief feels like? It’s not what I expected. I found an article about how grief causes physical pain for some people. It was reassuring to hear that I am not alone, that what I have felt is not a sickness, but stress. They say that everyone grieves differently. I am sure this is true. Despite being acquainted with many grieving people over the years, I was surprised by the physical symptoms of grief. It wasn’t that I thought about Peter, felt sad, then experienced physical pain. The symptoms came out of nowhere. Despite my mind feeling clear, just below the surface the grief was still rolling. That grief comes to the surface in many ways. Some of the things that make me cry:
- Looking at one of Peter’s drawings. Seeing his wildly creative personality in them, I wonder what he would have created ten years from now. This one would require interpretation from Peter.
- Whether he was healthy or sick or dying, they all make me think of what we have lost. No matter the situation, though, he was almost always smiling. Which again makes me think of the great source of joy that is now gone.
- Memories – of Peter playing in the creek with his sister after a backpacking trip, or sitting next to me on the couch at Easter, or conversing at the dinner table, or just about anything.
- The suffering of others, whether reading about Jesus’ death in the Gospels or thinking about my father-in-law’s Parkinson’s disease, or thinking of a three-year-old we know with a prognosis as grim as Peter’s. It is good to be sensitized to the suffering of others. I never felt it from the inside before.
- Watching a middle-aged woman at a worship service break out into a full dance. Why? Because I know she loves the Lord and I do too. I just don’t think I could dance right now, but I’m glad she can.
I am not surprised at what makes me cry but I am sometimes surprised by how long and hard I cry. I find that tears often make me feel better, though. I would take tears of sadness over the strange symptoms that feel like anxiety, or that trigger anxiety. That’s what has really surprised me in my grieving. I expected sadness, depression, not physical problems and feelings of anxiety. I realize that I am not always very in touch with my emotions. The advantage is that I am not incapacitated by grief. The disadvantage is that the grief builds until it forces its way out. So now I set aside time to think about Peter, to grieve on purpose. Writing in a journal helps. Writing for others, as I do here, helps too. I hope that it may help someone else in their grieving too.
In the midst of my anxiety, when I feel that balloon inflating in my chest, I talk with Rebecca, cry, and feel the confidence, “We’re going to be okay.” God has seen us through a lot. I have had one major long-term battle with anxiety/depression/a dark night of the soul before. As God did before, he will bring us all through this present grief, and me through the anxiety that has come with it. Even in the middle of it I know deep down, in the words of the Psalm that carried me through the last six months: “I remain confident of this; I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord” (Psalm 27:13-14). We received a card from a family a few days ago with that verse written in it. It came as a reminder from God.
So what happened in Iceland? We flew all night from San Francisco to Reykjavik. None of us slept. We all require a horizontal position for sleep, unlike the happy family of four behind us that slept through the entire ten hour flight. At the end of the flight our oldest son had just fallen asleep, but I had to wake him up during the descent. “I feel horrible,” he mumbled thhickly. His face was white, his lips had no color. “You need to lay down!” I said, seeing he was about to pass out from sheer exhaustion. We transferred to a plane bound for Amsterdam, which is just a three hour flight. “I don’t know how I’m going to make it through this, dad,” he told me. Anxious about him and my wife and other children, I suddenly began to feel unwell myself. “I’m going to pass out,” I said. Next thing I remember was an awful feeling of confusion, of fighting through the blackness to figure out where I was and what was happening. I was taken to the hospital, where every test came back normal. Of course. All I needed was to lay down and I would recover. It has happened before. It’s called vasovagal syncope and I have a bit of history with it. I can count five times when I have passed out and about the same number of near misses. I actually thought that I might have an episode when Peter’s death came. What I got instead was liget. The buildup of stress pounced on me later, with physical symptoms, anxiety, and surely contributed also to me passing out on a plane. I feel bad for the poor people strapped into their seats unable to escape the vomiting man regaining consciousness on the floor beside them. I will be talking to some doctors about what can be done about vasovagal syncope and anxiety, by the way.
Iceland is a quiet, cold, and beautiful country, despite being nearly treeless. Rebecca had always wanted to visit, just not in these circumstances. I found a lot of lupine on the bluff above the bay.
Now I am sitting in the sun room of our future home in Antwerp, Belgium. (We’re just here visiting. We expect to move later in the summer). My body refuses to sleep on non-California hours, so I have been up since 4:00am. I am already grateful for the expansive wooded park across the street and for this beautiful room. Both will be restful and restoring.
Here, friends, is a window into the soul of a suffering man, a month of grieving. But I am suffering as one who is united with Christ, the man of sorrows. Can I say once more: “I remain confident of this; I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”