Saturday, February 5, 2011

When Bad Things Happen

At the recommendation of my therapist, I read When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner.

It is an excellent book, and if you want to talk to me about God, I suggest that you read this book first and then get back to me.  Because the God that Kushner discusses is the only sort of God I want to believe in.

Kushner's book is in large part about grief, and is dedicated to his son who died at the age of fourteen.  But I almost didn't read his book because this is the epigraph:

And David said:  While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me and the child will live.  But now that he is dead, why should I fast?  Can I bring him back again?  I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.  (II Samuel 12:22-23).

A month out from Eliza's death, this was not a sentiment that I could relate to.

Fasting and weeping?  My child was no longer alive, but that was exactly what I was doing.  Maybe I couldn't bring her back again, but I had no interest in going on without her.  So fasting and weeping, it was!  It's not like I had much of a choice, honestly.  I had no appetite and I couldn't stop crying.  To me, this was the only response that was even remotely adequate to the death of a child.  What was Kushner (a bereaved father himself) thinking, opening his book with this story of King David asking for food after he learned his son was dead?  Feasting because he knows he can't bring back his child and has to go on living without him?  What a jerk.  What a stupid, horrible story.

I didn't see how a book with this Bible verse as epigraph would offer me anything I wanted to read.

But I read it anyway.

And in the final chapter, Kushner writes that when he first decided to write the book, he clearly pictured the front page, with a dedication to his son Aaron, and a very different epigraph.  This epigraph was Bible verse also about King David and the death of another child, but with a very different response.  This verse reads, Absalom, my son!  Would that I had died instead of you! (II Samuel 18:33).

Oh, hell yeah.  This was more like it.  This was how I felt.

And Kushner explains that this was how he felt too, when first facing the death of his son Aaron.  It took a year and a half before his perspective shifted, and when he finally wrote the book, he decided to change the epigraph, choosing one that reflected not a suicide wish but an effort to go on and have a meaningful life, to make meaning out of the tragic loss of his son.

Now I'm two months out from the loss of my daughter.  Intellectually, I understand this.

Emotionally, I'm just not there yet.

* * *

A couple of weeks ago, I got a beautiful letter from a woman I've never met, who just happens to be crazy enough to marry my cousin Casey (haha but seriously).  She wrote, among other lovely things, her belief that some day I will find joy again, "and when you do, it's a tribute to Eliza that you are living, smiling, and going on in her honor."

This was a such a lovely sentiment.  It brought me to tears.  How I wanted it to be true!  And yet.  The idea that I could go on and have a meaningful, happy life?  Insane.  The idea that I could do so and that it would be a tribute to Eliza's memory?  Doubly insane.  And really too good to be true.  Surely the kind of optimism that is no longer in the realm of possibility for someone whose child has died.

But this is precisely what Kushner's book says is possible.  And his son died.

So, yeah.  I'm not quite there yet.  I'm still all about the weeping and the fasting and the gnashing of teeth.

But even in the darkest moments of the darkest days, right alongside the pit in my stomach that never, ever goes away entirely (no matter how distracted I might be temporarily), there is the quiet assurance that some day I too will find not a reason for Eliza's death (there could never be a good enough reason as far as I'm concerned) but a way to make her life meaningful in my own life.  That I will be able to continue to live a good life and that my ability to do so will not be a betrayal of her memory, but a tribute to her.

I squash this and I ignore it and I doubt it.  And still, this quiet assurance persists in spite of itself.

* * *

And sometimes I think about this:

My grandma and grandpa on my mom's side were one of those adorable and inspiring couples who remained truly in love their entire lives.  Even after my grandma died, when my grandpa talked about her, you could just hear the love in his voice.

After my grandma died, my grandpa moved back to his hometown.  Several of his friends had remained in town or returned to small-town living after spending a good chunk of their retirement warmer climates.  One of those local friends was a beautiful, classy woman named Maxine.  And eventually, my grandpa started dating her.  Maxine is one of those women who is kind and smart and well dressed and perfectly groomed and wears beautiful jewelry.  These are things she has in common with my grandma.  But, of course, she is not my grandma.  She doesn't laugh with the same kind of wild abandon that my grandma did, for one thing.  Her laugh is more of a polite giggle.  But she is perfectly lovely in her own way.  And even though we all loved my grandma and missed her, we were happy to see my grandpa seeing someone else.  We were glad to see the joy that Maxine brought to his life--and it was true that she brought a sparkle to his eye and a bounce to his step.  Allow me to illustrate:

One summer we were visiting him and on our way to dinner, David and I were in the backseat of his car.  Grandpa was driving and Maxine was riding shotgun.  Grandpa picked up this stretchy beaded bracelet that was in the cup holder of his car and passed it back to David.  "Oh, look at this.  Maxine dropped her bracelet in the park," Grandpa remarked casually, "And I happened to find it!"

A number of things went through my mind, as David inspected the bracelet.  I was marveling at the chances of Maxine losing a bracelet in park and my grandpa happening to find it and recognize it and return it to her.  I was also confused because the bracelet looked pretty cheap (plastic, really) and not like the sort of thing Maxine would typically wear.  I was also wondering why it was still in the cup holder of Grandpa's Buick, but I was mostly distracted by Maxine. "Oh, stop it, Bill," she said giggling like crazy, her cheeks turning bright pink as she playfully swatted him on the arm.  Puzzled, I looked at David who was grinning from ear to ear.  He passed me Maxine's bracelet.

It was a cheap, stretchy beaded bracelet with plastic letter beads that spelled out the word "S*E*X*Y."

I was mortified.  My eighty-five-year-old grandpa had found some tacky bracelet on the ground at the park that said "S*E*X*Y" and was pretending it belonged to his octogenarian girlfriend and was joking with me about it.  No wonder Maxine had turned bright red!  It was totally hilarious and embarrassing.  And kind of awesome, because I hope when I'm eighty-something that I'm lucky enough to be with a guy who still thinks I'm sexy.

When my grandpa passed away, my family gathered together for his funeral services.  There was a lot of talk about how much he loved my grandma and the wonderful life they had together, but also about how much Maxine had meant to him and how we had all grown to love her and how we truly appreciated the loving care she showed my grandpa in his final months.

My great-aunt Beth (also known as "Aunt Beth the Great") is my grandma's youngest sister.  She had idolized my grandpa back when he was a dashing Air Force pilot in World War II, engaged to her eldest sister, and he had always treated her like his own baby sister, buying her treats at the drugstore and giving her Air Force wings to pin to her dress (making her the envy of every other kid at her school).  So time passes and decades go by, but some relationships never change.  In my grandpa's eyes, Beth always was and always will be, a little sister. 

In this case, it meant that there came a time when the eighty-five-year-old man sat down with his seventy-year-old sister-in-law to let her know that yes, he was seeing someone, but that he hoped she would understand that Maxine could never replace her sister in his heart.

Aunt Beth the Great told me that story after my grandpa died, when we were packing up his apartment.  She laughed (a generous guffaw much like my grandma's) as she related the serious concern my grandpa had expressed, wanting to get his little sister-in-law's blessing on this new relationship that had unexpectedly taken a potentially dark time in his life and made it sparkle.  "I told him I was happy for him!  That's the mark of a good marriage," Aunt Beth said to me.  "When you love someone so much that after you've lost them, you want to look for love again."

We all saw that my grandpa and Maxine were lucky to have found each other, and to have brought each other so much happiness in the time they had together.  And even as we recognized this, none of us ever could have doubted for a moment the love my grandparents had felt for each other during their long and happy marriage.  My grandpa's relationship with the sexy Maxine did not diminish that love; it honored it. 

* * *

Right now, I'm still wondering why it couldn't have been me instead of Eliza.  Would that it had been me, instead of her, you know?  Right now the only thing that could make me happy is to have her back with me.  Unless I can have my baby here with me, where she belongs, there's no fixing this or making it better.

But even as I weep and fast and gnash my teeth and shake my fists and curse the world and everyone in it, I can't entirely ignore that quiet assurance, deep in my gut, that says some day it will get better.  I will get better.  Love will come into my life again and light up the darkness and make it sparkle.

Lord knows I'm not there yet.  I still have a lot of doubts as to when (and sometimes, yes, if) it will happen.  But alongside these doubts, I am clinging to the faith that some day I will get there.  Some day, I will laugh without feeling guilty or conflicted about it.  Some day I will no longer walk around with the weight of suppressed tears in my chest.  I will be able to look forward to the future.  I will be truly grateful for the many good things I still have in my life.  I will love another child.  And one thing I know for certain is when I do these things, that love--all of it--will be a tribute to Eliza.


  1. You just wrote your first sermon... And I'm using some of it February 27th! I love you and the way you really think about your faith. I was just telling this to J last night. You believe with confidence because you are sure that it's okay to be unsure. May we all trust enough to be certain that the same god who lets us be angry at God will usher us to a place of healing. Keep preaching the good news, friend.

  2. I hope you use the part about the S*E*X*Y bracelet in your sermon.

  3. This was beautiful. Your grandfather sounds like a wonderful man.

  4. This was such an incredibly beautiful post, thank you so much for sharing it. I've heard other people talk about that book before, but never in a way that made me want to read it until now. I LOVED the story you told about your Grandpa and Maxine, such a beautiful journey they shared.
    Seven months out I can tell you that things are getting better, slowly, but surely I'm starting to have more good moments than bad. Holding hope for you that in the coming months you too will begin to find joy again in the everyday and feel that joy fully ((hugs))

  5. Like I said before, eight weeks is nothing. Don't try and rush yourself. It takes a long time before you can find any peace at all with what happened.

    That was a lovely story about your grandma, your grandpa and Maxine.

  6. Yes...the S E X Y story is probably gonna make the cut...if that's ok:)

  7. Wow- I need to look into that book.
    And I think the SEXY bracelet just gave me quite a smile tonight- so sweet of a memory...

  8. I'm late to your blog - my daughter Lydie was stillborn at 34 weeks 7 weeks ago. We have eerily similar stories. And I love the way you write, so I am finding myself kind of addicting to reading this. And this one gave me hope. Right now, I'm where you were when you wrote this, but I'm also hopeful that I won't always be. And while right now, it feels like a bit of betrayal to my daughter to ever be happy again, I like the idea that is not betrayal but rather a way to honor her. So thank you.