“For I am already being poured out like a libation….I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance.” (2 Timothy 4:6-8)
The first retreat we ever held was dedicated to the experience of emptiness after a loss. Brokenness and darkness after a loss are in many senses external experiences in grief. The bereaved person experiences them, but the experience is usually a function of external stimuli or relationships. To say it another way, there is a trigger that reminds a person that his or her life is broken or is in darkness because of grief. Emptiness, on the other hand, is primarily an interior experience within the bereaved parent. What is missing because of death and grief resides deep within the soul.
The first evidence that emptiness is present is the sense of a deep ache. The ache of emptiness is found all over. It is the ache of an empty womb. It is found in empty arms, in an empty nursery, in an empty home. It is the emptiness of not being needed when there should be a complete demand on a parent to provide and sustain a newborn child. Life is empty of beauty and meaning. These are the aches of emptiness after the death of a child.
What is needed as the remedy for emptiness is love – love fills emptiness. Not any love is able to fill emptiness. Mere human love has no power to save. The aching chasm left in death’s wake can only be filled with Divine Love. But after the death of a child, one is deeply suspect of God’s love. The claim that “God is love,” (1 John 4:8) seems more than a bit dubious. To love means to choose someone’s good. To love is to orient and direct what one possesses toward another for their benefit and fulfillment. Yet, the death of a child is in no way good. In fact, death of any kind is not good. Death is a consequence from Original Sin and from obtaining knowledge of evil. Further, it is true that God is all-powerful and all-knowing. So the question every parent in the throws of grief asks is: “Why, if God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving, did He not intervene to save or heal my child, rather than to allow him or her to die?”
This question of God’s love in the face of such painful suffering and grief is a deep mystery. It cannot be answered in full by this single post, nor will all the books written throughout all of human history be able to fully explain and express it. But, like John the Baptist, it can point to an encounter with God who is Love itself. In encountering God, He can begin to explain the deepest questions which arise in our hearts after the death of our children.
Before it can be filled with this perfect love, however, the emptiness must be prepared and shaped. Once crafted, it becomes not emptiness, but openness.
Caryll Houselander in her spiritual classic The Reed of God, speaks of emptiness purposefully and in terms of what it is able to produce and allow God to do. She distinguishes between three modes of emptiness:
- Emptiness like a reed that produces music
- Emptiness like a chalice or cup which enables sacrifice and can hold something
- Emptiness of a nest that provides a home
Emptiness is not naturally present, but must be formed. The reed is cut to allow air to pass through to create music. The chalice is made from refined gold, purified in the furnace and hammered into the shape of a cup. The nest is created from collected broken fragments of twigs, feathers, and debris that are all useless individually (p. 29-30). Without being formed, shaped, and placed in an orderly way, the elements that make up emptiness are merely rubble, trash, and loss. Pieces of broken glass can remain broken glass, or they can be cut and arranged to make a stained glass window that radiates light and beauty. Stones and bricks are stacked and bonded with mortar to create an empty space that becomes a home.
In the wake of a child’s death, parents are left with an impossible emptiness and a pile of rubble which was once their life. In a way, it seems without form. It is an absence – the smoke and fumes of death’s visitation. This is the emptiness most useful and desired by God because it is an opportunity for the greatest openness to His Love. While much joy, expectation, and meaning are stripped by death, so too are any hindrances, roadblocks, and barriers to God’s grace, mercy, and love. Caryll Houselander says it like this:
”The most striking example of the material God can and does use to manifest His glory is Lazarus. Lazarus was not even alive; he was dead, and according to his chief mourners, stinking; but Christ used him as the material for showing forth the glory of God in a way surpassed only by His own Resurrection…Each one of us—as we are at the moment when we first ask ourselves: ‘For what purpose do I exist?’—is the material which Christ himself, through all the generations that have gone to our making, has fashioned for His purpose. That which seems to us to be a crumbling point, a lack, a thorn in the flesh, is destined for God’s glory as surely as the rotting bones of Lazarus, as surely as the radiance of Mary of Nazareth.”
Emptiness has the opportunity to become openness, and Love must be openly and freely received. It is not in love’s nature to be forced upon someone. It must be freely given and freely received. Two examples from Scripture illustrate God’s ability to use emptiness as the means to save from death and grief.
The first example is found in 2 Kings 4:1-7. A widow and mother approaches Elisha the prophet after her husband dies. The first thing to note is that death was the source and cause of her situation and dire need. After listening to her plea for help, Elisha asks her to collect as many empty vessels as she can find. He then instructs her to use the meager amount of oil she has left and to begin filling all the empty vessels. As her children handed her one empty container after another, the oil continued to pour from this small container of oil and fill every single vessel. The oil did not stop flowing until the very last vessel was filled. She was then instructed to sell this oil and pay off her debts. The money left over was enough for her and her children to live off and start a new life.
God, through emptiness, restored her to life. She was likely very angry and bitter in her grief. These are appropriate human responses to death. But despite the vast array of emotions and difficulties grief brought, she was not closed. She remained open to God’s saving love through His prophet Elisha. In short, she was open to receive the love in the midst of her tragedy.
The second, and most perfect, example of emptiness is Jesus’ hands stretched out on the cross. Jesus was naked and empty of clothes. He spread his arms wide and empty as his hands and feet were pierced through with nails. After his death, his side and heart were pierced through with a lance, and his blood was emptied from his body. This is the greatest proof of the Father’s love for us – Jesus Christ crucified. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father….I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:9,11) In gazing upon the image of a crucifix and recalling the death of Jesus, we see that God loves us to the very depths of our loss and grief. He loves because He knows the pit of grief. He has dredged to the darkest, most hidden corners of grief so that even in our deepest sorrow, loss, and emptiness, He can comfort, heal and save us.
The Father’s love given to us in Jesus Christ crucified leads to the most important, essential, hope-restoring emptiness of all – the empty tomb. “Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O, Death, is your victory? Where, O, Death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55)
Jesus became empty as an act of will. We are empty not by will, but by the death of a child. The act of love willed by Jesus is the act that conquered death. It is a love stronger than death for which death can have no victory over. It is a love that is able to fill the aching emptiness and restore life. The Spirit of Love is present to each of us in grief. He awaits only the invitation to be let into the aching emptiness, to arrange it and to fashion it into one of His most holy and treasured dwelling places. He asks us in our grief to follow Mary’s example and say, “Let it be done unto me.” In trusting God to love us when we have every cause to not trust Him takes a certain courage and yielding, but this trust is the necessary component that allows him entry into the impossible emptiness of grief in order to fill it with His love and bring about redemption.
Trusting in the Father’s love is not the same as trusting that no bad thing or further suffering will be encountered. In living in the world you will encounter trouble and suffering. Trusting in the Father’s love means that you believe that He has overcome the world and its sufferings and hardships. The Father’s love is stronger than death. If this seems beyond understanding and comprehension, look for and ask for the gift of His peace which transcends and surpasses the difficulty of a single event or circumstance – even that of death. The love of the Father is trustworthy. In the wreckage and fallout of grief, He is present and sits with his beloved sons and daughters, even when all others have left. Let us pray that this love comes to us and remains with each of us on this journey of grief!
Journal about your experience of emptiness since the death of your child. List all the ways that your home and life should have been filled, but is now an aching chasm of emptiness. Take these specific things and pray out loud:“Jesus, my Lord and my God, my Savior, you suffered the emptiness of death and conquered it by your own death on the cross. Jesus I give you (list the emptiness you are experiencing). Jesus, in your name I renounce the spirits of despair, loneliness, abandonment, confusion, bitterness, rage, and jealousy, and command them to leave, never to return. Jesus, I pray and ask that the emptiness remaining be filled with your Holy Spirit of love and hope. Jesus be with me. Jesus sustain me in my grief, and provide all I need to make this journey a journey of love. Amen.”
Mary, my Mother and Immaculate Hope, Pray for me, that I too may allow God to fill me and overshadow me with His infinite love!