Today we remember the short life of our second son Vincent, who died on November 20, 2010 at the age of 18 months. As we pass through the anniversary cycle a sixth time, I find the old adage holds true: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Planet earth has become a different place since the day we said goodbye to Vincent, but the reality of his absence remains a constant.
This year, my appreciation has grown for what I’m calling “grief-aids,” that is, resources that aid me in grieving. To be clear, grief-aids aren’t like band-aids that hide our wounds from view. Quite the opposite, grief-aids are prompts (books, films, songs, activities) that help express more of my grief-shaped emotions, not less of them. Since avoiding the work of grief comes so naturally for me, the task of cooperating with it requires some “aid.” This infrequent blog is an example of my avoidance!
American society saturates us with band-aids to suppress the grieving process. Anyone who so much as sniffles mid-sentence feels pressure to apologize for deviating from the list of accepted emotions. When it comes to bottling mine, I’m as adept as the next bloke. Churches can be part of the problem too, at least to the extent that they traffic in theology that discourages the public expression of unfiltered sorrow. By contrast, a good grief-aid will cut through the layers of blockage and numbness, helping release overdue tears that need to flow.
Vincent may have lost his battle with liver cancer, but my responsibility to be honest about this loss did not die with him. Grief work seems out of place on a to-do list, yet it’s no less urgent than paying bills or servicing the car. And because it doesn’t happen automatically, I’m learning to intentionally pursue grief the way I might seek an imperfect airport restroom before boarding a 5-hour flight. The pursuit isn’t a joyful one, but it beats the alternative.
Strangely enough, I sometimes treasure the moments when a song, film, or book prompts unexpected tears. These are invitations to grieve. Where I might have resisted such occasions in the past, I now recognize these grief-aids as opportunities to connect with Vincent’s memory. So I receive them—not every time, but more often than before.
Want some examples of grief-aids? Here are a few recent ones that have helped me:
1. The film Arrival (currently in theaters) is marketed as an alien invasion thriller, so I didn’t expect the opening minutes to reveal its protagonist as a grieving parent. A wondrously evocative film by any standard, I found its depiction of grief among the most potent I’ve ever seen. As Amy Adams’ character labors to save the world from destruction, she takes action fully understanding what it means to experience profound loss. This film reminds me that grief isn’t just about sadness or pain, but the full scope of answering God’s call to be ambassadors of reconciliation, justice and peace. Rather than portraying grief as a barrier to meaningful participation in the world, Arrival affirms the power of vulnerability—power impacting everything.
2. Jessica Kelley’s book, Lord Willing? Wrestling with God’s role in my child’s death (Herald Press, 2016) juxtaposes the author’s narrative account of losing her son to brain cancer with a robust critique of theological assumptions frequently held by (some) Christians regarding God’s role in human suffering. She had me in tears before I finished reading the introduction. Having been on the receiving end of numerous offhanded quips about “God’s perfect plan” and “greater glory” intended to explain Vincent’s death, this book is a breath of fresh air, reminding me there’s nothing heroic about trying to shield God (or our view of God) from the reality of suffering. God doesn’t need rescuing, but our theology might. We don’t have to choose between taking suffering seriously and taking God seriously. Isn’t that what healthy grieving is all about?
3. Earlier this year, I was introduced to the music of Tim Be Told when they performed at an event sponsored by Fuller Seminary’s Asian American Center. After the concert, I bought a CD, couldn’t stop listening to it, then proceeded to purchase all their other albums and made an old-school “mixed” CD of my favorite TBT songs to play in the car. So why do I like them so much? Perhaps it’s because I’ve been starved for songs that speak to the complex experience of being an Asian American Christian, but it’s more than that. TBT is my grief soundtrack. As their twitter bio states, they make “sad songs disguised in happy melodies.” Songs like Lament express disappointment with God directly, but grief-tinged themes loom more subtly in Wasted, One Chance, and Mighty Sound, which asks, “Can a short life still make a mighty sound? Can a broken world still make a mighty sound?”
I think Vincent would say yes.