Grief and a Need to Matter

This last week was the first day since Dad died that I really cried. On that day (like I had done several times previously) I had walked to the top of a hill near my house, which offered me a view of the city. It was in that moment that I was unexpectedly transported in my mind to a small rise on a paved road near the family farm. Such an almost unnoticeable rise allows one to see the plains of South Dakota for miles, like an ocean that never seems to end. For me, it is a much-loved view. However, rather than feeling delight with such a memory, true to the nature of grief, I was hit with a grief burst—I ached with a longing in my soul as tears softly flowed down my face. I was struck with the realization that the occasions on which I again would see that beautiful panorama were limited, and this awakening overwhelmed my being.

As I continued to walk, my mind wrestled with these overpowering realizations. It became crystal clear that the reason we went to the farm, “home,” was because “Dad” was there. In an instant I longed for him to once again be present on this earth. Of course, I did not desire for him to be here as he had been in the last year with increasing dementia, which I suspect in retrospect was greater than what we were aware. Instead, I wanted him to be the way he was in my memory, similar to whom he had been a few years ago. But the truth be told, if he had not died, the confusion would have only increased, and this may have been harder to bear. Yet, in the nanoseconds prior to reaching the latter conclusion, I found myself crying aloud, “Daddy! Daddy! I want you back!” Such an outburst portrays how loss and grief may return us momentarily to being the child who longs for the security of the parent.

As I have said in a previous blog, “home” is gone. “Home” was where he was—the Walter homestead. With “Dad” gone so is “home.” It is as if I have lost my compass . . . I am lost. It is possible that the intensity of this loss could be lessened if my husband and I had not moved so often (fifteen times in thirty years). Every time we moved, the farm always remained an anchor: I knew our current location in relation to the location of “home.” I would calculate how many miles we lived from “home,” or how many hours it would take to arrive at “home,” or what was the best route to “home.” No matter where we lived, I “phoned home,” asking about the weather at “home” or inquiring how the crops were around “home.” In short, I wanted to know what was happening at “home.” That anchor is now gone.

It has been said that with the death of a second parent, grieving adult children may feel like orphans. And perhaps this is what I am experiencing. I only know that in my mind I have an image of this big blue planet, and I am standing on it . . . lost . . . alone. Seriously, who really cares about what I did today? Who wants to know if I walked today or if I saw anyone today? Who is genuinely interested in the grief I am experiencing? Who wonders about my growth, my struggles, and my questions? And frankly, who cares that I even took a breath? These questions that bombard me boil down to a basic need that is common to all humanity: Do I matter?

You see, the farm communicated to me that I matter because I was raised there. The farm represented parents who brought me into the world, who clothed me, fed me, and listened to me about the most inconsequential things—all of which implicitly said, “You matter.” Those who listen to us prattling on and on about the most mundane details of our lives are communicating to us, “You matter.” The mom who hears the elementary-age child talk about the awful food he ate at the school cafeteria. The dad who listens to the daughter sing some nonsensical-soon-to-be-forgotten little ditty. The childhood friend who excitedly interjects as a friend talks about her latest crush on the current dreamy-eyed celebrity (okay, did I just date myself with that adjective?). The college-age sister who responds with great joy at her younger sister’s latest friend—a puppy. The spouse who asks, “What did you do today?” The adult child who patiently and curiously listens to her elderly parent retell an incident without saying, “You told me that.” Mundane? Yes. But oh, what such innocuous conversations can communicate! The listening to such inessential details meets an essential human need: you matter.

Isn’t that what God does? God listens to our concerns, some of which to an omniscient, omnipotent God could be considered rather dull in light of God creating the whole solar system. Psalm 139 tells us that God seems to hang on to every word we say and knows when we sit down to take a break and when we reluctantly rise to go back to work (Pam F. Walter Engelbert version). And take hair, for instance. God is aware of the number of hairs we have on our heads, and this changes daily (more for some than others). Jesus’s words in Matthew 10:28-31 read:

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the one who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. Even all the hairs on your head are numbered. So do not be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows. (NET)

Jesus makes a point to inform me that God knows the number of hairs on my head. So it seems God is into the mundane. Could it be that we are told this because God is fully aware of all of humanity’s need to matter? Humans in every culture and from every era wonder, “Do I matter?” From the enemy to the closest friend. From those who live in B.C.E. to C.E. Peoples from the islands, the mountains, and the plains. Human beings from every tribe or nation and who speak any and, I would add, no language. Each human longs to matter, and God knows this.

What does it mean to me to matter? In order to capture this, I practice a little exercise in which I ask myself, “When this need was truly met for me, what was it like?” This allows me to reflect back on an instance when the need to matter was most powerfully communicated to me. It did not take long for such a strong memory to come to my mind. It was during a time in my life when I was in an immense amount of pain and quite vulnerable because I had suffered a great loss. Upon being open about my pain, someone had abruptly changed his schedule, which I had thought had been set in stone. Such an abrupt change communicated that I mattered. I recall the feelings of surprise and amazement that was accompanied by a sense of confusion because I did not know how to respond. Through this action, I was implicitly told that my hurt, fear, and healing all mattered to this person. I felt empowered, hopeful, encouraged, and free to be. In short, value had been communicated. I mattered.

You may have caught that both this particular past instance and my present circumstance share a common aspect: my need to matter surfaced during a personal, deep loss. As may be the case when any huge loss occurs, my identity—who I am—is questioned. How do I respond to my own awareness of my need to matter? How do I move towards healing? I mourn it. By recalling a specific instance when my need to matter was fully met and thereby seeing its beauty, I am able to grieve a specific unmet need in my current loss, and this is empowering in my current situation. I have discovered that grief tends to be chaotic, unpredictable, and not unlike the experience of herding cats; however, if one is paying attention, one will periodically discover particular needs in her loss about which she is grieving, and this, I have found, adds a certain layer of concreteness, or order, to grief. Instead of simply succumbing to grief’s whims and amorphous nature, my ability to identify and mourn a specific need within the chaos of loss and grief is healing.

So what began as pain became a healing experience, and eventually I came to a place where I sensed an invitation to participate in God’s ministry to humanity in a very particular way. To recap: As I wept while I mourned my father’s absence and the loss of “home,” it was initially overwhelming as grief’s unpredictable nature invaded; however, as I reflected on the meaning of “home” and what it communicated, I discovered a specific need. Yes, I confess that at first the recognition of this need, which was generated as the result of my recent loss, produced more pain. But after contemplating on the beauty of having that need met and mourning that specific need, healing came to a corner of my being. Such healing increased as I was reminded how much God is aware of my own need to matter as Scripture reminded me of how much God pays attention to those mundane details of my life—details that would seemingly not be of significance to anyone else. In the end, I saw how listening to others share the inessential details of their lives participates in Christ’s ministry to humanity: it tacitly informs them that they matter.

Holy Spirit, today may you empower me to genuinely listen and thereby partake in what you are doing in the life of the other.




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