Monday, April 29, 2013

The Added Hurt of a Silent Church and Silent Friends

I thank my God upon every remembrance of you.
Philippians 1:3

Shortly after my release from the hospital, I prepared an announcement of Victoria’s birth and death. Selecting delicate pink stationery, I used Philippians 1:3 on the front page: “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you.” On the inside I wrote: “Our dreams are sure going to miss her.” I made a simple statement about the pregnancy complication and death, along with Victoria’s full name and a request for friends and family to help us heal emotionally and physically.
Many friends and family members responded immediately to our announcements by calling or sending bereavement cards, or writing letters expressing their sorrow and concern. What hurt so much and left us so disillusioned was that we received only three cards from our church family, and no communication from my four closest friends from college.
And we also received meager spiritual support from our congregation. Some saved their voiced regrets for times when they encountered us at church; others avoided us as if we’d contracted some incurable disease. A small number called, but most seemed aloof to our needs and pain. If they were praying for us, we didn’t know; if they cared, we remained uninformed.
Chris and I found it difficult to lay aside our resentment over the glaring neglect and lack of support from our church. We felt deserted spiritually. Where was the edification and bearing of one another’s burdens Paul wrote about to the Galatian church? Still battling anger, I allowed this sad, puzzling behavior of my brothers and sisters in Christ to feed my languishing self-pity. But eventually I had to ask myself: Am I actually enjoying my anger? Do I care more about getting attention than hiding in the shadow of the Almighty’s wings?
Along with this disillusionment, I hurt because I sensed the bridges of college friendships weakening and crumbling as these cherished companions answered my announcement with silence. Feeling certain they’d eventually contact me by letter or telephone, I anxiously awaited some speck of acknowledgement. The daily ritual of riffling expectantly through the mail deteriorated into a futile, depressing activity. Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months, and I eventually resigned myself to the reality that their silence was permanent. With aching melancholy and regret—and new bitterness heaped on my festering resentment—I was forced to acknowledge that perhaps we were separated by something more divisive than geographical miles; that a deep, wide chasm had developed in our relationships.
          Did they truly experience such a profound loss of words, or had time simply slipped by, leaving the critical response time missed and good intentions in the to-do pile? Were they incapable or unwilling to dwell on the grief a person experiences when a child dies prematurely? Or had my loss struck too close to home? Did they mistakenly assume I’d automatically know they were thinking about me? This seemed to be the case with one friend who I wrote to almost two years after the event, expressing my surprise and disappointment in not hearing from her. She responded several months after that with an apology for being such a bad letter writer, professing that she often thought about me, and asking me rhetorically if I were “catching her vibes.” No, I wasn’t catching any vibes; nor did I miss this letter’s stubborn silence about my loss.
Another friend briefly referenced me specifically in her general Christmas letter two years later, saying that I really deserved a page all to myself. The other two friends reduced their communication to once-a-year Christmas cards with perfunctory notes or cursory signatures.
Friendships need love, nurturing and time—time to heal, time to be alone, time to be saturated and distracted in adult conversation, just to have my aching mind re-routed elsewhere. Time to fill empty, stagnant hours. My friends were incapable of sparing me from pain. Yet I needed them to allow me to grieve. Time would heal that grief, if I were allowed to go through the process. And I needed encouragement to mourn, since it is in the act of mourning that healing occurs. In my fluctuating torment, it became increasingly difficult to suppress anger at others’ thoughtless behavior.

I needed God’s all-sufficient grace to forgive their insensitivity. And at some
point I needed to become a willing vessel of His unconditional love to carry forgiveness to the offenders.
Thankfully, many did pour out their regrets in cards and letters, and I repeatedly bathed myself in their tender, heartfelt sentiments, and in the cleansing tears their words evoked. Simple cards, alerting us to someone else’s willingness to share out loss and care about our suffering provided us tremendous strength and encouragement. Sentiments alluding to Victoria’s death authenticated our loss; referring to her by her name validated her existence.
The following is a note written by a man who was, at the time, composing Chris’s family tree. He sent it to my mother-in-law who forwarded it to us:
Dear Laura,
                                    Karen and I were distressed to read about Victoria Lee; Chris and                          Andrea had such expectations and dreams for her future. Although we
                        have never met, any loss as this affects anyone who hears it. I hope that
                        the healing powers of the Lord help all of you.
                                    Victoria’s name will be added to the tree, where she will be in
                        good company with dozens of other children whose flame burned too
                        briefly. On the Mueller branch of the Kirscht family, one couple,
                        (having children in the 1880’s—early 1900’s), had ten children: only one
                        of the ten lived longer than forty-eight hours. Such sadness.
                                    Please keep me apprised of other changes in your extended
                        family—may all of them be far more joyous than this news, even though
                        Victoria is now with God.”

            These poignant, compassionate words were written by a man my family had never met, never known as an intimate friend. Yet his words were no less meaningful or appreciated. Oddly enough, after reading his note, I felt that Victoria was in good company; and I felt somewhat relieved that I wasn’t an oddball loser in a family boasting generations of five, six, seven or more offspring. (I re-read this note twenty years later, on the 13th of this month with the same thankfulness for his time, effort and comforting words.) If a complete stranger could compose these words, why couldn’t—why wouldn’t— a treasured friend?
I’ve since come to realize that there are many reasons people don’t write: fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of their own frailty, guilt over their own “good fortune”, simple neglect, time getting so far away from them that they think the critical window of opportunity has passed and it’s “too late” to respond, or just procrastinating laziness. 
And I confess that I, too, have sometimes fallen into some of these categories, and “blown” it, failed miserably in offering support. Having available internet communication now makes it easier to communicate and stay in touch, but there’s just something about a card arriving in your mailbox, to brighten your day and let you know that someone is thinking about you, praying for you, hurting with you.  
I’m so grateful for my little box of cards. Twenty years later they remind us just how much we were loved…by so many.

NEXT WEEK: Dealing with poorly spoken words…

Thanks for joining me.

Until next week!