Triumphant, But Scarred: An Advent Reflection on Life, Sorrow, and Loss

Saturday, December 14, 2013 - 6:44pm

Triumphant, But Scarred: An Advent Reflection on Life, Sorrow, and Loss

On February 6, 2012, I was at work in Delaware when I got a call from Mom in Arizona. Dad was worse, she said. They’d called in hospice.

I hesitated. I was already planning to visit at the end of the month. Did I really need to drop everything — to miss the board meeting of the organization I work for? I phoned the nursing home where Dad lived. Yes, his nurse said. It won’t be long now — maybe hours, maybe days.

I bought a plane ticket, and I missed my board meeting. The next day, looking at the people around me in the airport, I thought to myself, Look at these people, just going about their business. Their fathers aren’t dying. But I also knew that some of them were probably suffering inside just as I was. At least I loved my father, and I knew he loved me. He was 84 and had lived a fruitful life.

My Uncle George picked me up at the airport shuttle stop in Arizona and took me straight to Dad’s nursing home. There he was, lying in a profound sleep, ghastly. It looked like rice paper had been wrapped around his bare skull. He slept constantly, his breathing regular and deep. He didn’t struggle or cry out. When the nurse tickled his foot to check his reactions, he gasped, but his eyes never fluttered.

But he didn’t die — not right away. We waited, Mom and I. We waited by his bed on Tuesday night, all day Wednesday, all day Thursday. We talked to him and cried. I checked e-mail and Facebook. We went to get food and came back. The pastor stopped by, along with several friends, and Aunt Murial and Uncle George, and the social worker from hospice.

I complained to the social worker that Dad was just lingering, and asked her how long it would be. She said, “I can tell that you’re a person who likes to be in control.” Bingo.

“But you’re not in control here,” she said, looking me straight in the eye. “Your father is dying, but he’s dying on his own time. It’s your job to wait.”

That evening, Mom and I went out to eat, but we stopped back at the nursing home before heading home. Mom hugged Dad and cried and told him that she was releasing him to go to heaven. She was finally ready.

And early the next morning, on February 10, 2012, he died. We had his funeral on Valentine’s Day. He and Mom had been married 52 years.

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A month later, my cat stopped eating. I took her to the vet, switched her food. I suspected there was something wrong with her teeth, so I started mixing wet food with warm water to make a noxious fishy soup. Thus encouraged, she ate a little more, but still not enough.

A cat doesn’t compare to a father, but when you live alone, and your cat is the only living thing that greets you at the door when you come home from work, she’s an important part of your life. Like Dad, she wasted away and grew grotesquely thin. Finally, on the day before my birthday, I awoke to find her in horrible shape, staggering around. She collapsed at her water bowl and couldn’t even lift her head. Terrified, I called the vet right away and took her in.

I held my cat as the vet administered the fatal dose. And the vet said that obviously there was some underlying disease — perhaps cancer? — that caused her to stop eating. She weighed less than six pounds by that point.  Bereft, I walked home, crying.

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There is sorrow. There is always sorrow.

I suppose there is nothing inherently tragic about an elderly parent dying. My dad lived well and long, and burying parents is a principal duty of children in every culture and every age. And there’s certainly nothing exceptional about putting down a 17-year-old cat. But we feel the loss, especially at this time of year, even though the loss itself is natural and normal. We miss our dads and our pets. We grieve our childhood home, friends who have hurt us, people in authority who have let us down. And sometimes we weep over bigger, truly tragic events — a typhoon’s destruction, children murdered in their school, a society that seems off the rails.

But just as waiting is part of Advent, so is mourning a part of Christmas. The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t hesitate to include it — in a matter-of-fact way, he says that King Herod slaughtered all the boys two years and younger in Bethlehem and its vicinity. Indeed, in his zeal to show that every event of Jesus’ nativity was a fulfillment of scripture, Matthew writes that even the screams of their disconsolate mothers were foretold. “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah,” he writes. “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” That could be the parents of Newtown, Connecticut. That could be the parents of Philadelphia’s 329 homicide victims last year alone. Perhaps not as dramatically, that could be you — or me. We too have had occasion to lament.

Jesus escaped Herod’s massacre of the innocents, but Jesus was born into a sorrowful world, and during the reign of a later Herod, he was himself killed with his own mother standing by, like Rachel weeping for her children. After his resurrection, he showed Doubting Thomas his scars. And in the book of Revelation, where he is shown in all his glory, Jesus is still described as “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.” The reminder is there. He is triumphant, but scarred.

The Scripture confirms our experience — the world is full of pain, the innocent suffer, and there are no ready explanations. But I still hang on to this hope: In the end, our broken Lamb turns things to right. “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men,” says the triumphant voice from the throne of God in Revelation. “And he will dwell with them. . . . And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain.”

That sounds like heaven to me.


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Jay Blossom

is publisher of In Trust magazine, a quarterly magazine for trustees and senior administrators of seminaries and theological schools. A native Californian, he has lived for the last 12 years in Philadelphia, where he serves on the vestry of Saint Mark's Episcopal Church.

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I was moved by this reflection. It has been a year of grief for me with the death of my father and the death of a close relationship. This advent has been especially poingnant.

Thank you so very much for this meaningful meditation. Several friends are experiencing deep grief and pain this Advent season. These words are helpful reminders that sadness is also part of the story.

Such a beautifully written piece! Covered all the emotions!

Thank you. Truth heals. And as the comment below asserts, this advent has been especially poignant. Blessings to you. Charis

Grief touches all of has touched me deeply this year because I lost my husband in April...thank you for this honest and insightful essay....

I have lost my sister this year. This is so helpful to read, as this Christmas will be the first year without her. She always had our large family over for Christmas day for dinner and gifts. We are all a little lost. Mourning is a part of Christmas. thank you.
I needed to read that and let it be okay.

Thank you for this. I was moved to tears as you described yourself in the airport. My mother suffered a brain aneurysm in 2007, far away from me in FL. As I sat in the airport on my way to be with my father, I got the call that she had actually died. I remember sitting there, looking around me at all the other people in the waiting area, feeling stunned. There they were, on their way to vacations and business meetings and homecomings, and I was off to deal with a dead loved one. It was surreal. And it occurred to me then, as it never had before, I was not likely the only person in that situation. But I had never considered it until that day.

My sympathies about your cat. Been there, done that too. This time of year I find myself in tears a lot. Hymns from childhood remind me of my mom. Advent and Christmas are supposed to be happy times, in theory, and it feels like a strange juxtaposition to hear a beloved Christmas carol and have it make you cry.

I am sorry for the loss of your father. As you know, the sense of loss never goes away, it just becomes more familiar to us as time passes.

Thank you for this beautiful, moving reflection.

Thank you, Jay. Your writing touched me. I am sorry for the losses you've suffered. Time doesn't heal completely.

I'm sharing this with my Facebook friends. I, too, have lost parents, both. One quite young and the other while vital but after a more complete life. I miss them terribly and feel the pain of the loss and the pain that continues in living, along with the joy. This was a beautiful, honest, and concise piece getting at those issues in connection with the Christmas story. Thank you. I need that as I continue to seek hope in my God and don't always feel like I find it.

One of the most moving experiences was being at my mother's passing. Her death was like a birth. Thank you for the wise words. My father in law passed away 3 weeks ago…and this helped.

I've lost several important mentors and teachers this year, one from cancer, one a stroke, and one from murder. I've also had to face my own darkness in these past months as I finally deal with my personal depression. I found this to be so profound and comforting; I never say that about religious stuff. Thank you for reminding me that it really is all natural, that death is the partner of life and that everything, somehow, really is all right in the end.

Thanks, everyone, for your kind words. They mean a lot! Today I was listening to an NPR story about palliative care, and the physician interviewed for the story was so kind, so understanding, and so respectful about the needs of the patient at the end of life -- somehow, his compassion brought my own grief just flooding back. Nevertheless, somehow, it was a good thing. I'm grateful for empathy. That's really what makes it possible to move forward.

I appreciate your insightful reflection. I too lost a dear friend who died suddenly the day after Christmas 2012. She loved Christmas and her favorite song was "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me." I find myself humming this song even though it seems a bit cheesy. Advent tears must be the icicles hanging on the Christmas tree. I miss my Dad still and it has been 7 years his homegoing was also a long vigil for the 5 adult kids but at least we "accompanied him with singing." Blessings.

We are born into a world of sorrow, and just perhaps there is nothing that puts it right and our work is to be with this mourning in a wiser way. The way is love, love without objective. It requires always working at keeping open hearted which means broken hearted. We can live with sorrow. It is not "fixable". It is. And how we come to be able to bear it is with love. May we always be broken open.

Wonderful article Jay. I'm sorry for your losses. Losing parents is indeed very difficult and losing our pets is a grief that is often underrated and not easily understood. Their faithfulness is always a reminder of God's unconditional love for us. Thanks for sharing your vulnerability.

I lost my best friend in April and my mother in November. Mom had a long battle with cancer and Alzheimer's. My friend pancreatic cancer caught us by surprise. My friend's death was unexpected and very quick; my mom lingered for 2 years. The details does not matter as you could never be possible ready to accept the day death comes for your loved one. And we will go on to celebrate the birth of Jesus while we mourn our deaths. Let's celebrate life! Have a peaceful and blessed Christmas.

Thank you for sharing, and for the very moving words of hope at the end - something to hang on to.
I've lost my Mum in a way - she's still alive, but going deeper into dementia. She's with us, but not as she was, and is very unhappy. It's a marathon, not a sprint.

Peace be with you.