The Intricate Geometry of Grief

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by Lucky Garvin

Just after midnight, the old lady heard her husband in distress. She got up to go to his bedroom, fell at the doorway and lay there, too frail to rise. As she listened, her husband’s breathing stopped. She was found by neighbors at 11:00 AM the next morning; she on the floor, he dead on his bed. I heard this story from her physician. He told me of the woman’s unavailing grief, made worse by the effects of broken sleep and loss, and by the sudden, menacing prospect of facing the future alone. She hears him yet in her empty house. She thought they’d be married forever. There’s nothing that scours away delusions like burying an old friend. Pray God we never see such a day; but we will…

The finest minds of all time have taken upon themselves this brave and hopeless question: why such things must happen; what is the meaning of loss; what is its final significance? This is an unresolved dilemma, the answer vital to support belief. Thus, it is a question for mortals, angels have no need of faith. After a life-time of marital partnership, such an end suggests God is mythical, Heaven empty; our prayers are dutifully delivered to a non-existent mailbox. Spiritual hearts are at a disadvantage here: we cannot reconcile such a blind indifference to emotionally devastating cruelty, apparently authored by a loving God. The cynicism of unbelievers thunders loud.

I take a tenuous position here, one I cannot ably defend: everything has a purpose, and all events, possibilities. That we cannot often discern the purpose and necessity of pain does not cost us the case, but it does leave us in the courtroom lacking either witnesses or evidence.

So, what might be the possibilities attaching to this poor woman’s loss? Her treating physician is given the opportunity to participate in or to stand back from the woman’s grief; his soul nourished – or not – by the widow’s tears. We are confirmed in the choices we make.

And me, what is my task? Her bereavement sets me to this wondering, and to chronicle her sorrow that it not pass unnoticed, swallowed up in the many moments which shape a day. That’s all, to write it down; to pass on to some anonymous other, who – reading these thoughts  now or years hence – will be moved to thinking; or, by the story, be confirmed in faith, a hovering scale within the reader finally brought down by this tiny weight on the side of loving; of  belief. Better yet, that this reader, now shadowed in the mist of what is to be, take this thought and go further into the mystery than I am able.

There was a little girl with cancer, who, in the process of dying, brought her agnostic physician to faith. Perhaps, like the leaves of a tree, we fall when our work is done… Consider this: the old woman suffered a brief, passing horror soon forgotten by all but her. But her loss – like the little girl’s – may yet be made holy by its effect on another, for I believe the smallest deed – a smile, a sympathy, if it restores or fashions the faith of another – is made holy by its effect.

That effect may be affirmation, or maybe prologue, for the occasioning of the spirit is sometimes revolutionary, usually evolutionary, but every happening has its place.

In the intricate geometries of bereavement, the new widow seems to have come up short in the transaction. Even though ‘‘Angels guard those who weep, and those who forever sleep,” hers seems a task without  reward as she waits alone for prayer’s effect.  She’s lost a husband and spent the night helpless on the floor. To receive the sympathy and solace of well-meaning others seems short measure indeed.

Perhaps I’m trying to solve the mystery having read but half the book. Suppose there is an Elysium, and our existence is eternal. Now on a continuum more vast and inclusive, suppose that when she dies, the pain of his leaving is soon assuaged by the knowing of why it had to be so. The little girl who died of cancer that her physician might come to faith…  Perhaps both she and the widow were given these assignments.

Oh dear. I’m sure, at best, I’ve but scratched the surface; or missed it entirely. But, the more I think of it, the more I’m drawn to life being a series of interactions from which many possibilities arise – indeed, a boundless palette of possibilities. My problem is, I search for oils, and there are only watercolors, an essence captured with a stroke; too subtle for my poor eye; complexities of effect in the here and now, as well as those which reach beyond my lifetime.