By Ruben Rivera© 7 January 2011
We all know what it means to lose someone dear to us, and 2010 saw many people pass away. Some in internecine and international conflicts. Some due to crime. Some from destitution. Others to illness or old age. And still others as the result of the break up of marriages and other relationships. The latter, psychologists tell us, can be more painful than physical death because unreconciled relationships often harbor feelings of hurt, anger, guilt, and regret, whereas warmth and fondness accompany (and help to mitigate) the passing of healthy relationships.
Many years ago, when my wife's mom and dad passed away within two weeks of each other (that's right: two funerals two weeks apart), it was the greatest loss she had ever experienced. I suffered to see her suffer so. And yet, whatever I said in my attempt to comfort her could not have been profound or eloquent. For I cannot remember a single word. It is supremely difficult when someone who loves written and spoken words is at a complete loss for them.
Great loss will do that. Sometimes, words come only after perspective. And perspective is not the product of one event, even the event of profound loss. Perspective is not the prisoner of any one historical moment. Perspective is accumulated across much time and many events and experiences, and not just one's own. We learn from others too.
Several days ago I received an email notice that a Christian and former professor from my university died this past Christmas day 2010, after falling from his roof while trying to clear it of snow. Died. On Christmas day. Even if I knew the family, I wouldn't have the slightest clue what to say. "Oh, Lord, grant somehow this man's surviving family a sense of the nearness of your presence." I did not know what else to say, so I kept praying that, over and over. I have learned that repetitious prayer need not be meaningless. (Cf. Matthew 6:7; John 17)
On her blog, a dear friend laments the recent death of 1980s R&B icon Tina Marie. This time my loss for words was compounded by the fact that I did not follow Tina Marie. But my friend experienced the loss, and I understood it. Some people find it overblown or even silly when others weep and engage in public vigils at the passing of pop culture icons like Princess Diana, Kurt Cobain, or Tina Marie. Maybe they are too removed, generationally, to care. Maybe they feel that the rich and famous are on the gravy train, even after they're dead, so why do they need further attention? Maybe they fear admitting that their own passing would probably go relatively unnoticed.
Me, I understand the sadness and sense of loss when cultural symbols die. I cried when The Beatles' John Lennon was murdered. I know, he was "just a rock musician," and even he once said that it wasn't important. I'm not saying he was Gandhi. But all I kept hearing was his song "All You Need is Love," and I couldn't help thinking, this guy tried to tell the world something and what does he get? Dead.
Fast forward (idiom of the analog age). The Beave's mom, June Cleaver (Barbara Billingsley) died in 2010. So did Catcher in the Rye J.D. Salinger, Hawaii Five-O's James McArthur ("Book 'em, Danno!"), Easy Rider Dennis Hopper, and many more. I didn't know them personally, any more than I knew John Lennon. But now that they're gone, something is missing. In me. I feel it personally. But there's more. For it occurs to me: when the cultural symbols, icons and trends of our youth pass into history, how long before it's our turn? I'm not too thrilled to discover my selfishness.
But even that discovery is the result of perspective. So is the discovery that even in the midst of such endings, I am happy at the realization of the many things in my past that have contributed to who I am. Many things in my past were far from positive. (Scar? That's not a scar. I'll show you a scar.) But even most of those would have redeeming contributions. Who would have thought? That too is the result of perspective.
I am reminded of a powerful line in the wonderful 1993 film "Shadowlands" (with Anthony Hopkins as C.S. Lewis and Debra Winger as Joy Davidman). "We can't have the happiness of yesterday without the pain of today. That's the deal." (Joy Davidman)
Not long after their unconventional marriage, Joy died from cancer. And Mister "Pain-is-God's-megaphone-to-rouse-a-deaf-world" suffered a level of pain he had experienced only one other time in his life: when as a boy his mother died. The author of many Christian and childrens' classics, a true man of the word, was lost for words. So he depended on Joy's: "The pain now is part of the happiness then."
The pain of missing Joy remained with him the rest of his life. But Joy's life had enriched his, and he was a wiser and more complete human being for it.
So 2010 and all the years before it are gone. But we must continue on into 2011 and beyond; and we will (with God's help) continue to invest our hearts and energies in people and worthy pursuits until we all one day lose them, or until they lose us.
All that we can do to prepare ourselves and others for the days of pain then, is to cultivate a legacy of happiness now. That's the deal.