Five months in Antwerp. 40 years old. 9 months without my son.
This all makes for a mix of emotions. We are enjoying the city and loving the church. I think a lot about mortality. I find that grieving is not so much something that I do as something that happens to me. I’ll take it in that order: enjoyment, reflection on mortality, and grieving.
I convinced the family to check out an event in Antwerp a few weeks ago. Free tulips were available for the picking just outside the central station, so we took the train down, an eight-minute ride from where we live in Ekeren. I heard about the event from a local blog, https://nessascityblog.com/, which provides convenient tips on upcoming local events. Fifteen tulips each makes for quite the bundle. After picking the flowers, we checked out a board game shop and cafe in the central station. You can buy a game or use one of theirs while you drink a coffee. That was such a hit that the kids insisted on returning the next Saturday.
The week after, we followed another tip from the blog and headed down to “Pateekesweek,” an exhibition of some of Antwerp’s many bakeries. We traded in vouchers for pralines (chocolate, vanilla, lime), boba, bubble waffles, brownies, and brownies with ice cream stuck on a speculoos cookie, and possibly more that I’m forgetting. It was a lot of sweet stuff.
Rebecca’s comment after these three fun Saturdays: “I’m seeing the benefits of living close to a city that has things going on.” I have heard some people say that Belgium is boring, but compared to small town California there is an abundance of activities. It all depends on what you like. The mix of city stuff with options for exploring by foot or by bike is quite nice. And this week the kids are on break from school, so we’re making a quick trip to Aachen, Germany. It’s only an hour and a half drive to this ancient residence of Charlemagne, the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He was buried there in 814. I’ll report back on his tomb and his treasures.
Along the way, we discover interesting things related to food.
Along the way, I also think a lot about mortality. As one ages, I imagine one’s thoughts naturally turn towards the contemplation of one’s death. I turn 40 tomorrow, but in my case, my thoughts were forcibly turned in the direction of mortality by the death of my son. I sometimes think with anxiety and fear about myself. What if I become disabled and unable to work? What if I lose my mind? What if I live to 100, decrepit and alone? How would I survive if my wife or another child dies before me? What if Rebecca’s condition becomes worse?
I just read a few chapters in a book by and about grieving dads. It is some comfort to know that I am not alone. And also, I could be much worse. Over and over men quoted in the book say things like, “There’s absolutely no pain worse than losing a child.” I’m not sure how you could know that without experiencing every other possible pain, but let’s agree that losing a child is an awful thing. And many times I still feel awful, though it has hit me in some unexpected ways. Maybe it’s true that there’s no worse pain than losing a child. If it is, then God understands the worst pain of all.
Rebecca and I attended a support group for parents who have lost a child. One couple mentioned that it used to be the case that people in mourning wore black. Everyone knew what it meant. Most people had experienced a period of mourning themselves and knew how to respond. But now their friends don’t know what to do with them. “It’s been six months,” their friends say. “Everything is alright now?” they ask, with two thumbs up. No, it’s not alright at all. Their world will never be the same.
People in Europe and the US increasingly ignore God. Our societies avoid death, perhaps because it’s too painful to confront death when you have shut God out of life. As a result we have forgotten how to grieve.
The fact of death, especially when it’s a child, can become an obstacle to belief. Why did God let my child die? But is a person any better off without God? If I imagine that path, I see the utter emptiness to which it leads. The Jewish and Christian Scriptures are full of talk about injustice, death, pain, and sorrow. It seems like their rock solid certainty about this one fact – God – gave them the courage to confront death. And when they do they express every human emotion. Some of my greatest comfort recently has come from the Psalms that talk to God about our own mortality. “You lay us in the dust of death,” says Psalm 90. And Psalm 39: “Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure.” The Psalm writers were not afraid to accuse God of bringing sorrow upon them. Psalm 39 concludes with a startling plea: “Look away from me, that I may enjoy life again before I depart and am no more.”
Psalm 49 reflects on how the sense of security brought by wealth and success is no security at all. “People, despite their wealth, do not endure; they are like the beasts that perish.” But this Psalm takes a sudden turn to confidence: “But God will redeem me from the realm of the dead; he will surely take me to himself.” The writer’s relationship with God leads to one of the boldest statements in the Old Testament about the continuation of that relationship after death.
The people of Israel knew how to grieve, which they did in the presence of God. Confusion, anger, accusation, sorrow – all of it came out in their life of prayer to the God they knew was there but who sometimes seemed so inscrutable, so hard to understand.
Grieving feels not so much something that I do, as something that is done to me. Sure, there are things that I do. I reflect, I write, I pray, I look at pictures, I talk with people. All the sadness I feel was expected. I don’t mind the fountain of tears. But grief has been an unpredictable beast: physical symptoms, difficulty sleeping, periods of depression, fear, apathy, and most recently, anxiety. This anxiety, like it did during a couple wrenching years in seminary, manifests itself as a kind of existential angst. In those times I wrestle with my anxious thoughts. Doubt looks for any foothold in me, and I look for a solid place to stand. But it’s not so much that I actually doubt anything, it’s more of a mood, a feeling of doubt. (Indeed, if I relied on my feelings as the basis for my faith, it would be like a game of tennis with my soul). I find solace in prayer, especially when fasting and praying with the group that meets at our home every Monday at midday. I truly enjoy preaching, and it gives me the opportunity to encourage myself with the truth along with others. It feels good and right to comfort, encourage, and strengthen others. I enjoy my children. There are times when I feel deep gratitude for the gift of life. Within this mortal life there is gratitude and grief, joy and sorrow. I knew that before. But the truth of it has now taken on an existential weight.
When overwhelmed, I find that the Psalms give words to my feelings: “My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught…My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen on me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me” (Psalm 55). Where do you find such open expression of emotions today? The book on grieving dads complains that society gives no room for men in particular to grieve. These ancient prayers and poems are teaching me how to grieve. I wish I didn’t have to, but as mortal beings it is inevitable.
Our son Peter was confident that he was going to Jesus. Even in my worst moments, sometimes I suddenly say, “Oh, there you are Jesus.” Like he’s in the room with me. When I feel like I don’t know anything else, I still know Jesus.