The Grief of Limitations

I’ve been trying to think of the first time I experienced some sort of limitation… maybe the first time I was told “no” when I wanted something… or maybe the first time I learned I wasn’t able to do something… or the first time I really wished for something and it didn’t come true.

I was 4-and-change when I must have been told “no” to having a cute bulldog stuffed animal.  I think this is what happened next: I didn’t like that answer, so I passed on the “no” to my one-year-old brother whose toy it really was, pretended it was mine, and told him that being the great sister I was, I would generously allow him to play with it. Even then, when the no’s didn’t radically affect my life, I didn’t like it. I still don’t like it… maybe more so than then.  A “no” now isn’t about a toy; often it is about life and death.

A few months ago, our health system ethicist suggested that he and I put together an Ethics Grand Rounds on miracles.  We called it “The Quandary of Miracles: Listening for, Waiting on, and Attending to Divine Intervention.” We invited a panel of clergy to speak on the topic, discussed a recent case, and listened as the many participants from multiple disciplines asked questions. One of the questions we considered was, “What are some reasons that patients and families hold so tightly to miracles?” At the time, I spoke about complicated grief, about guilt and about finding peace and reconciliation, about expectations, and about faith and its relationship to doubt, all of which was not untrue.

But this week, as I have been working on Part II of the Ethics Grand Rounds on miracles, and thinking about the families who will come in to be part of this panel, I remembered two ICU families, both of whom had decided to let their loved ones go on the same day: one who had been in a horrible car accident and another who had suffered a devastating stroke. As I went back and forth between those two families that day, one saying goodbye to husband and father, the other saying goodbye to mother, grandmother, and sister, the big NO’s in their lives at that particular moment struck me. And those no’s, fervent wishes and prayers for miracles notwithstanding, broke the families’ hearts and changed their lives forever.

They grieved for the “no” to growing old together. The grieved for the “no” to seeing their children graduate from college.  They grieved for the “no” to having a parent present for the birth of a child. They grieved for the “no” to daily telephone calls and weekly family gatherings, to birthdays and holidays, and to shared tables and lives.

We have learned to deal with many of the no’s in life. Most of us have even developed enough self-discipline to say no to ourselves on occasion.  But the no’s that these families were experiencing were not those sorts of no’s.  These were the no’s of separation, of limits that cannot be overcome by human agency, of separation from loved ones that threaten to separate us from God and even from ourselves.

Today is Holy Saturday.  It is the day Christians remember the resounding “no” of Good Friday and the deafeningly silent “no” of this day that tells us that the incarnate Son of God really died, that Jesus was not just sort of dead, but dead dead.

The Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) tell the narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion as God’s “no” to Jesus’ prayer for the cup to pass from him.  Out of these, the Gospels of Mark and Matthew also tell the narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion as one of abandonment, of God’s “no” to Jesus’ fervent wish and prayer. There is only utter separation and a devastated cry:

“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” – Matthew 27:46b

We keep hoping for a miracle. We keep hoping that “no” is not the final answer. But there is no miracle to be had today. Fervent wishes and prayers notwithstanding, God said, “no” to shared tables and shared lives, to conversations on the way and teachings by the sea. Today, there is only darkness and separation, and the shared journey is only a memory.

"Journey with Jesus" by He Qi

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