Just before the weekend Sam came round to play his drums. He was feeling quite low that day and so it was fortunate that as he walked though the door, there was his mum – a pair of sympathetic ears, a well-disposed heart, ready to listen to the flow of pain, willing to take the strain. I wish he had other friends to talk to – even a paid counsellor – but between their absence and his refusal to approach the need for self-disclosure with any steadfast resolve I usually find myself to be the place where the buck comes to rest. Apart from Jessa, of course – I am sure she comes to the rescue more often than I do these days…
He opened with a phrase that has stayed with me ever since: “Mum, I just have to try and find a way around this big black hole of my grief…” Ha – the eloquence of the young man: that describes it perfectly. Here we all sit on the edge of the chasm, five of us in a circle around the rim, trying not to look into the depths, rarely meeting one another’s eyes, sometimes daring to reach out and touch the sibling, lover, parent, child nearby… Grief is the word.
My old friend Helen, a qualified bereavement counsellor, once remarked that our situation with Sam was doubly hard, living through a kind of living mourning now and later comes the mourning after death. The grief we feel – and most especially him – is all about that sense of living loss. “I shouldn’t even be here, Mum! I am a straight A student, I should be working in a research lab somewhere…” But our son is stuck in poverty, unable to get on or go away, with dreams he cannot find a way to ground and false starts mounting up behind his heels – ideas always wheeling in his head but the tumour claiming squatter’s rights in the place where the ability to bring things to their consummation should be the rightful occupant.
Is it a comfort for him to pour this out to me? It seems to help him somehow… he goes upstairs to take out his anger on the well-battered drum-kit and later, apparently happier, home to Jess. We all need a listening ear, we all need friends – encouragement, support, the reflection of ourselves coming back from a loved face – even a simple expression of affection and care can bring more comfort than very many words. I think the physical contact is so helpful because that black hole of grief in the emotions can be so deep it’s like a bodily wound, a nagging ache in the heart, as if there were an illness or tangible injury. Touch has power words alone do not.
‘Comfort ye my people says Your God’ – the warmth of love and reassurance from the heart of heaven, the promise that things will not always be like this. But in our case – we just cannot be sure. I do believe that in the end all will be well, but the grace to get there is only going to be found as we keep walking. Sometimes that black hole is antimatter, sucking out all hope and emptying the sky of light: it’s not just Sam who needs comfort – we all have bad days. What will happen, how will it happen, when will it happen… will it happen or not?
I realised the other day – a bit belatedly perhaps! – that the reason I have been eating and drinking far too much in recent months is because it is a physical comfort at a time of pain, a way of filling the empty hole. In the past I could muster willpower to diet or fast and lose the weight I’d gained but now that is much harder… Friends have even told me ‘this is not the time to try’: I don’t like it and I don’t want to just lose all restraint, buy another set of bigger clothes – but discipline and comfort are poles apart, the former hard and cold, establishing the fences and the path, the latter soft, like falling into eiderdown – relief and letting go.
In seeing this gaping void for what it is – a need for consolation, warmth and love – I feel just like a little child again: I need a hug, the solace of a pair of arms, the knowledge that I’m held secure and not alone. That’s why food works I guess – a physical need created by emotional space inside – and why I’ve taken to sleeping with a small toy dog in recent months, the kind gift of a most discerning friend! As many children have a ‘comforter’, a blanket or a teddy that they carry round until they disintegrate, my Doggy has become a nightly necessity to me! This is quite worrying at my ripe old age… but once again it indicates the crying child within, the depths of pain beneath the learned behaviour and maturity: the little child is there in all of us. And fortunately Martin doesn’t mind…
Jesus knew this, knew we need a Comforter – He understood the gaping hole within: ‘I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you’. His Spirit is the One Who fills the empty space, the source of grace and only power we have to change. The spiritual, invisible, intangible… yet even that can be a force we feel within our bodies, filling space with peace, replacing darkness with light. Food and other physical comforts cannot meet the deepest need nor fill the black hole of despair – they are but shadows of a more substantial Comfort – and yet He sends these other things as well.
So in our journey of grief and hope, of suffering and endurance, we simply have to pray, ‘Lord fill us with Your Presence once again and give us all the grace we need to walk this road’. We hold on to one another and our friends, to every comforting word and act, with gratitude for ‘wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil that makes his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart’ (Psalm 104v15) – both physical and spiritual expressions of these gifts.
And while it helps I’ll hold on to my Doggy too!