What’s going on?
When I started to read the Facebook post, I felt a knot growing in my stomach.
“It is with a heavy and grief-stricken heart that I tell my friends and family on Facebook that my first-born son Nathaniel passed away this weekend.”
Wait. What? I remember Nathan. He was younger than me. Way younger. Like in his 30s and perfectly healthy. This can’t be real.
“He was not responding to phone calls today, and Denise and I went over and found him — he had died in his sleep sometime since she last spoke to him Friday evening.”
I kept reading, hoping this was some tasteless joke. Jim’s not that kind of guy, but I still hoped.
“We are overcome with sadness thinking ‘How could this be?’ but it is true. He’s gone and we are devastated to have him taken from us like this.”
Ugh. It wasn’t a joke. A friend of mine was experiencing the type of pain and anguish no parent ever wants to confront: having to bury a child.
I’ll be the first to admit: empathy is not my strong suit. In fact … next to humility, it’s probably the one attribute I struggle with most. When I see an upset person, I’m more inclined to turn and run the other way rather than try and find a comforting word to give them solace.
But Jim’s a friend. And while I’ve never experienced the horrors of losing a child, I’ve been close enough with the death of my sister nearly two years ago.
I’ve seen my parents have to deal with that tragedy and know all too well the challenges associated with it.
Unfortunately though, beyond the death of two adults in the prime of their lives, the similarities ended there.
My sister’s death was anything but unexpected. She had first been diagnosed with breast cancer three years before its return, a diagnosis that would be terminal and 11 months before her death.
There was no surprise and we had a chance to say goodbye, which can be both a blessing and a burden.
Beyond the circumstances of their death though, there was another major difference that impacted how I related to Jim’s pain compared to my parents: Faith.
My sister, my parents and myself both fully embrace the tenants of Christianity, and as such, found comfort in the genuine belief that she’s now in Heaven; a place filled with love and devoid of the physical and spiritual pain she experienced here on Earth.
While a cynic/atheist/agnostic may claim that’s hope based on a falsehood, it’s still hope and it still provides comfort and solace to those who do believe. And I can tell you, it mattered a lot to my parents and their peace of mind.
With Jim though, I knew that wasn’t applicable. I didn’t know his son personally, but I do know Jim is unabashed about his atheistic beliefs. He’s mentioned it a couple times and we had discussed our contrasting beliefs in the past.
As such, the standard “your family is in our prayers” or some other Christian-themed cliché seemed hollow, not that that stopped many of his friends.
“Your son was a great person and I’m sure he’s looking down smiling right now.”
“The reunion you two will have will be great.”
“He’s in a better place.”
No, no, no. I couldn’t bring myself to make those statements, knowing full well Jim doesn’t believe it and if his son shared his beliefs, they weren’t applicable anyway.
If you truly believe in a Biblical heaven, then Jim’s son (assuming they shared beliefs) isn’t there, nor will Jim be when he dies … barring a conversion and change in beliefs.
And so, I struggled. I didn’t know what to say that could make him feel better. In that situation, I’m not sure anything would.
Three or four years ago, I was at a ballgame with a friend who had been in the ministry for nearly 20 years. In that time, he had presided over a lot of funerals.
“You want to see true despair or hear the wailings of deep-rooted sorrow? Go to a funeral for a non-believer,” he remarked. “Funerals for believers have an element of sorrow, sure. But that sorrow comes from a sense of missing their loved one, not despair. Those loved ones have something they can hold on to: hope.”
It’s the one thing that might be able to fix a broken heart and it’s the one thing I couldn’t offer Jim.
And that’s a real tragedy.