One of the subtle shifts we experience when someone we love dies is the re-ordering of our place in life. We struggle to establish our identity apart from our loved one in the external social structure of daily existence. Often we wonder, silently we ask ourselves, "Where do I fit in?"
Often this is less a quandary when, as an adult child, a parent dies because likely we're well-established in our own life. For some time we've not been dependent upon the affirmation or rejection of parents for our own self-perception. We know who we are and what our life is about. When a parent dies, we grieve the loss of a beloved mother or father, or perhaps the lack of a mother or father. Usually, though, it’s not necessary to spend time and energy finding our own identity, especially when a parent dies in the normal aging process of life, "Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12 NIV).
But when a child dies - in utero, as a small, helpless infant, as a growing toddler, as an active source of love and joy in our life - we crash with grief. There are no answers to our questions, even when there are medical reasons that, theoretically, may explain our loss. Our grief is profound. It's a grief like no other grief we will ever experience. We spend some part of the rest of our life - really, we think about it every day - wondering what our child would look like, who he or she would have become, asking "why?" again and again. We may have other children, yet some part of our identity as a parent is lost when a beloved child dies. And though we survive and function, the pieces of our life never quite fit neatly together ever again. There’s a gaping hole, an emptiness in our heart forever – we grieve the one who's part of us. Someone is missing, something is broken - our heart.
And when a child dies, our place as a parent is suddenly skewed. Other parents sympathize and offer comfort, yet suddenly we’re no longer part of the play group or birthday parties or shared events that once included our child. We find ourselves on the periphery of a life that once defined us as a loving, devoted, engaged parent. We live with our nose pressed against the window of our former joy. And even when another parent includes us in an activity or celebration, often there’s a painful, awkward moment when we ask ourselves again, "Where do I fit in?" We look around and see what's lost - our child and our unique place as the parent of that child.
Certainly when a beloved husband or wife dies life falls apart on a grand scale. I know. Without warning, my husband got sick and died unexpectedly in only ninety days. We were soul mates, best friends, lovers, devoted partners. When he died my world was shaken. We were so bonded I had no idea who or what I was without him at my side. This is so for many who lose a spouse, especially those who've spent the majority of their adult life with a loving husband or wife. When a wife dies, men are helpless and desperately lonely. Without their husbands, many wives struggle with the overwhelming responsibilities of daily life. Friends they've enjoyed together as a couple are suddenly at a loss - they don't really know how to plan, include, or be together without a certain kind of "odd man out" awkwardness. The absence of the one who’s no longer there creates a social vacuum that isolates the surviving spouse and prompts the question "Where do I fit in?"
God knows our struggle to redefine our identity and purpose in a life without our loved one. As we grieve, God's abiding presence and steadfast love form and reshape us into who we will yet become. Our place in the divine order of God's creation is secure. Though we're forever changed by the death of one we love, we fit into God's perfect plan for our life.
Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.
1 Peter 5:7 NRSV
Keep me this day, O God, in the structure of your order. Amen.