sudden traumatic death
"A Grace Disguised:
How the Soul Grows through Loss"
by Gerald L. Sittser
6 minute read
pages 70-74. Used by permission of HarperCollins Christian Publishing. Copyright 1995.
The author lost his wife, his young daughter and his mother in a tragic car accident.
The Amputation of the Familiar Self
Our sense of personal identity depends largely on the roles we play and the relationships we have. What we do and who we know contributes significantly to how we understand ourselves. Catastrophic loss is like undergoing an amputation of our identity. It is not like the literal amputation of a limb. It is the amputation of the self as professional, if one has lost a job. Or the self as husband, if one has lost a spouse through disease or death. Or the self as an energetic and productive person, if one has lost good health. Or the self as a respected member of the community, if one has lost reputation. Or the self as pure and innocent, if one has been raped or abused. It is the amputation of the self we once were or wanted to be, the self we can no longer be or become.
I still think of myself as a husband to Lynda, as a father to Diana Jane, and as a son to Grace. But the people who defined me that way, who played the role opposite me as wife, daughter, and mother, are no longer there. The self I once was, this familiar self, cries out for them, like nerves still telling me that I have a leg or an arm, though only a stump remains.
Loss thus leads to confusion of identity. Since we understand ourselves in large measure by the roles we play and the relationships we have, we find ourselves in a vertigo when these are changed or lost. I sometimes feel like I am a stranger to myself. I am not quite sure what to do with me. It is as if I just woke up in a new house after having gone to bed the night before in familiar surroundings, and I keep tripping over the furniture and walking into walls. It is a new world for me, but I act as if it were the old one. I am not a husband anymore, but neither do I perceive myself as single. I am not a father to Diana Jane anymore, though I think about her often. I am not one-half of a parent team anymore, however much I would like to be. I am a widower, a single parent, a motherless child. It is a peculiar and confusing identity.
My awareness of this amputation of self comes to me like a reflex. Even after three years of widowhood, my psyche is still programmed to look for people who are no longer there. I crawl into bed at night and wait for Lynda to cuddle with me. I sink into the couch after the kids are in bed and half expect Lynda to join me for hot chocolate and conversation. I receive good news and want to call Lynda and tell her about it. What defines me as a person—my sexuality, my intellect, my feelings, my convictions, my plans—still searches for her like a homing pigeon for its roost. But the self I once was cannot find its old place to land. It is homeless now…
…But it is not simply the loss of identity that causes a problem. It is also the difficult conditions under which a new identity must be formed. Catastrophic loss cannot be mitigated by replacements. One cannot escape it simply by finding a new spouse, a new job, a new life. A convenient passage to a new identity is usually out of the question. One moment my friend Steve was planning to pursue a professional baseball career; the next moment he was a quadriplegic. One moment Andy and Mary were planning to raise a healthy first-born; the next moment they became parents of a mentally challenged baby. A widow I know talked with me recently about the difficulty of raising a fatherless son. There was the occasional male coach or teacher who took an interest in him, but nothing could replace the daily interactions of a father with his son.
I too find myself in circumstances that make my new identity as a widower and single father unusual and difficult. I have tried to help my children grieve—to make room for their anger, welcome their tears, listen to their complaints, create order out of chaos, and do this work of comfort in a way that is sensitive to time and to the unique personality of each child. Yet this important task has not mitigated the demands of managing a normal household, which requires attention to an endless list of details.
I have made sacrifices in my profession, since I cannot put in the hours I used to. So I continue to fall farther and farther behind, especially in keeping up with current scholarship. My children have made sacrifices too, since they do not have two parents to give them time and attention. As Catherine said to me recently, “How am I going to be able to grow up without a mom to tell secrets to?” David and John have expressed that same longing for the kind of attention and nurture that only a mother can give. All of them wonder how our home would be affected if their sister Diana Jane were still alive. They miss her very much too.
I have discovered that busyness and exhaustion can sabotage healing. The difficulty of my immediate circumstances only increases my awareness of the magnitude of the loss, as if I were being forced to live on the banks of a polluted river after having lived most of my life near a mountain stream in Colorado. My quest for a new identity seems repulsive to me. Do I really want the kind of life I now have? Do I really want another life in the future? Is that the kind of life I will have to live forever?
I have been told that amputees often feel phantom pains. The limb they lost still announces its presence through pain. For those who have endured irreversible loss, phantom pains of their former identity may linger for a long time. There are reminders of the former life everywhere, and they may appear in surprising ways. Thus a woman who lost her job due to “downsizing” welcomes a new neighbor, only to discover that the neighbor is a new employee at the firm that let her go. A man immobilized by cancer catches himself looking wistfully at a father shooting baskets with his two teenage daughters. A forty-year-old woman is reminded of the three babies she lost to miscarriage every time she sees a young mother holding a newborn.
In my case, it has been over three years since the accident. Yet I still awaken in the morning, wishing that I could greet Lynda. I still hear her singing the soprano solos in Carmina Burana, which she performed while six months pregnant. I still see visions of her canning cherries and peaches in the kitchen on a hot summer day. I still catch myself starting to perform rituals that made daily life special with her, like bringing her morning coffee while she was still in bed.
The crisis of identity, however, can lead to the formation of a new identity that integrates the loss into it. Loss creates a new set of circumstances in which we must live. When, at the right time, we are able to acknowledge the ineradicable nature of those circumstances, we can begin forging a new life for ourselves. Loss establishes a new context for life. I am a widower and a single parent, whether I want to be or not. Someone else is divorced, or terminally ill, or disfigured. That is the undeniable reality of life.