This has been a popular post so I am reposting here. The original article was published in March and April of 2006 in The Rainbow Reader.
Perfect spring weather, sunshine and blue skies are what I remember most about the start of that day. I had driven into work that morning jamming to the soundtrack from Trainspotting, replaying Bedrock’s scorching techno track, For What You Dream Of. I was a gym rat then; I looked and felt good in my skin-tight black spandex T and black baggy jeans. Noticing my disposition as I came into the office, my secretary, Joyce, commented that I seemed very “up”. Intoxicated by the sun, the unseasonable warmth and the infectious beat still ricocheting in my head, I replied, “Absolutely nothing can ruin this day!”
Resting in my bed less than 12 hours later, a knock came at the door. A policeman and chaplain were there, asking my youngest son if they might speak with a parent. My descent from the upstairs bedroom to the front door was the longest, darkest journey I have ever made. By the time I hit the landing, I had surmised why they were there and as they gave me a brief description of the accident that had taken Chris’ life, the ground beneath me opened and I began a freefall into blackness that would swallow the entirety of the life I had created. Even now, 10 years of hit-and-miss healing later, the void is always one heartbeat in front, waiting for me to stumble into it. That hole is a reminder of the agony of that spring night that brought the severest lessons about living and loving. All time after that night is paradoxical in nature: ecstasy and sorrow, blessing and curse, light and darkness.
Psychologists and counselors agree that the loss of a child is one of the most difficult losses from which to rebound because parents not only grieve individually but also at the “dyadic level”, meaning within the context of their relationship as parents. It is common for grieving parents to separate and divorce following such a loss. The loss of anyone close occasions a reevaluation of one’s own life choices and if, as in my case, the primary relationship is already seriously flawed, the termination of that relationship becomes an imperative part of the emotional housekeeping that precedes the creation of a new life.
I did not then know that there are physiological aspects associated with grief because the brain interprets the loss primarily as a stressor. As a result, corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) is secreted within the brain, impacting the pituitary gland, which in turn causes the release of another chemical, called adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH). When this substance is in the bloodstream the body produces cortisol, which helps the body cope with the stress, but with paradoxical and unfortunate consequences. Cortisol raises blood pressure, increases heart rate and leads to a breakdown in muscle tissue and bone mass. Research demonstrates that grief weakens the immune system and leads to a host of health issues including weight gain, hypertension, fatigue and depression. These factors are particularly associated with men because we are, by nature or nurture, less likely to seek assistance from a social support network. Men tend more readily to abuse alcohol and drugs and to flirt with denial than women experiencing similar grief.
Researchers and quantum physicists have demonstrated that sustained levels of cortisol and other grief-induced chemicals impact our psychological and physical health because we are being affected not only in our larger systems (limbic, respiratory,etc…) but more importantly in our very cellular structure. Grief–and indeed allemotions– have important effects on the individual cells that comprise the human person. Continuing to mask, flee or disguise the reality of these emotions leads to serious physiological complications, which in turn generate additional harmful changes. In short, there is a definite and symbiotic relationship between mind, body and soul.
In my experience, there is only one road out of the darkness: an initial question lies at the heart of significant loss. How one answers this fundamental question determines the success or failure in moving through the grief into a renewed life. The question is: Do I believe in a universe that fundamentally makes sense or that is essentially without meaning? This is the inescapable moment of choosing faith in something or in nothing and both choices have inescapable consequences. Although I had been raised a Christian who believed in the miracle of Easter and the triumph of life, none of that mattered. The seeming randomness of Chris’ death suggested a universe without meaning and through my drug- and alcohol-induced fog I came to the realization that I was affirming a universe of chaos. It never really resonated with my core, however, and if I could no longer accept the simplistic faith of my childhood, I had to admit that on some (cellular?) level I needed to believe that life had some meaning, even if I hadn’t a clue what that meaning might be.
It’s been ten years since the darkness descended and my Chris’ abrupt transition. I’ve received so many blessings in these intervening years that I’m forced to admit that life does indeed triumph in unexpected ways. As a musician I find that I am able to connect with the deepest parts of my audiences, often bringing them to tears, sometimes to another level in our shared journey to wholeness. Having students from many walks of life has made me more compassionate and willing to learn from all whose lives touch my own.
Just then, when things seem to be going so well, the spring weather returns and the anniversary of Chris’ passing draws near. My soul and cells remember that dark night in 1997. I am again acutely aware of Chris’ legacy and of the huge space—now empty—he once occupied in my life. The words of Bonhoeffer echo within:
Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to try and find a substitute…It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap, He does not fill it, but on the contrary, He keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.
I like to think that I’ve grown so much these past 10 years, that I’ve changed for the better and found my way through the hurt and darkness. The reality is that this journey will never end because love doesn’t end. I am once again walking in the light, but then I unexpectedly fall into the hole he left behind. It’s a long way down.