The Holidays: When Loss Is Revisited

Recently, I found myself on a familiar road. It was a road that I had traveled many times.

I had walked it. I had driven it. I had even herded cattle on it. As I looked down the small hill to the farm below, I saw my Dad walking across the yard in his coveralls, coat, and a cap from the local Co-op.

But this vision of my Dad was not to be seen with the naked eye. It was only to beheld in my recollection. It had been captured like a photo in my imagination as I had witnessed it so many times before. In actuality, my dad will no longer walk across that yard. No longer will I see him in his coveralls, coat, and Co-op cap. Instead, as we drove away from that familiar vista of what I used to call home, the reality became clearer: This is only a memory I can carry within me.

As Christmas is fast approaching, I am quite cognizant that this will be the second Christmas without my Dad and without the family gathering at the farm . . . at home.

Some may say, “Oh, you should be over it by now.” But, they do not understand . . . grief is like a persistent superball: it bounces back. It may surface upon seeing an older man in a store, whose posture reflects that of Dad. It may emerge while watching a new season of Wheel of Fortune, Dad’s favorite TV program. It may appear as I drive by Burger King, Dad’s restaurant of choice. It bounces up in my face upon seeing a store display of Lindt chocolates, reminding me of Dad driving 30 miles to buy them. It hits me when I notice boxes of chocolate covered peanuts with caramel, and I realize such a purchase won’t be made this Christmas. It pulled at me hard during the recent death of a relative. And, of course, it bursts powerfully on the scene during the holiday season.

I confess, I hesitated to write about loss . . . yet again.

After all, it has been a frequent subject of this blog. How much more can one say? And since the death of my Dad occurred 1.5 years ago and since he was elderly and I am an adult, it shouldn’t be a big deal, right? This is the pressure I feel, against which I must push back. You see, prior to my Mom’s death in 2010, I had expected, as Debra Umberson writes,

“[T]his will be a fairly minor milestone in . . . [my] adult development.”[1]

In fact, as Umberson goes on to say, it was not that long ago that people generally held that adults losing parents fail to have any enduring “psychological consequences,” and if they do, they must have had psychological issues prior to the loss.[2] So, for this post, I have had to remind myself that this blog underscores my journey of how I wrestle with issues, integrating them with my own pentecostal faith. And when I read Sally Forth in Sunday’s comics, it confirmed what was already in my heart of hearts, no matter of its repetition. For those of you who do not follow the comics, Ted, Sally’s husband, experienced the loss of his father last year. Ted is now back home for the holidays, and he says to his wife, “It just feels odd going back home and not seeing or hearing Dad.” How true. Yet, unlike Ted, I will not be able to go back home for the holidays anymore. The place of my childhood, the family homestead, is no longer home. I not only lost the second parent, but I also lost my childhood home. As the song says, I’ll be home for Christmas . . . but only in my dreams.

So, I write about loss because processing loss is hard work, particularly the death of the second parent and the loss of home, and because we are kidding ourselves if we believe that the loss goes away. Oh, we may cover it up with many things. Smiles. Work. Spending. Earning. Food. Alcohol. Video games. TV. Busyness. Volunteering. New cause. Even relationships. But the loss continues to exist. In fact, we should not be surprised at its potent impact, as Umberson writes:

The death of a parent imposes an unexpected crisis for most healthy, well-functioning adults. This crisis can result in high levels of psychological distress, increased risk for depression, impaired physical health, or increased alcohol consumption. These effects go largely unrecognized by everyone except those going through the loss, and the bereaved often assume that they are unusual in their strong response to the loss. Most adults are surprised by the intensity and persistence of their reactions, and are thrown off balance when their distress fuels changes in their interpersonal relationships, behaviors, social roles, and even in the ways in which they view themselves.[3]

When we experience the loss of a parent, it becomes a part of us now and forever. Adult children should not expect a parent’s death to leave them unchanged since the loss becomes a part of their very being. So, while we cannot escape it, we can recognize that transformation occurs by expanding our embrace to incorporate the new normal that includes the loss. Such an all-encompassing embrace means the forging of a new identity, particularly with the loss of a parent. Umberson states,

“The death of a parent initiates a rite of passage into a new adult identity . . . The death of a parent transforms the adult child into the adult who is no longer a child—into an adult who glimpses personal mortality and a finds a way to become his or her own parent.”[4]

In some ways, it is a type of emptying of who we were. It means embracing the loss . . . the void . . . of no longer being the child . . . and with the loss of the second parent, it means embracing the reality of “being on one’s own,” [5] as Umberson notes.

We may wonder, “How does one forge a new identity while having lost what shaped your being in the first place, namely the parent?”

Maybe . . . it means the loss of that identity is now what is molding you.

Let me illustrate. The loss of my Dad, the second parent, led to a secondary loss, the loss of the homestead. The homestead was the place we called home. It was not only the place on which my siblings and I were raised, but also my father and his siblings. My grandfather staked a claim on that land. And when he did, his identity became connected to the land as the land molded him. Yet, he not only claimed his identity as being tied to that land but also the identity of his heirs. This became more than a place where people were born, lived, and died. This was the place where we were forged. We were made. We came into being through this place . . . through the land. It is hard to put into words how the land can fashion one’s being. One’s identity . . . one’s essence . . . one’s soul is somehow tied to that land where Grandpa had staked his claim. It somehow gets in your blood. It says, “This is who I am. These are my roots. If you want to know me, then you must know this land.”

And this was the place we called home.

Not just because it was a house, but also because the family built this place. The family worked the soil to subdue it. It was their own. And, somehow, this land also claimed them as its own. No matter where I lived, I calculated the number of miles I was from home, from what forged me. Now, it beckons me, “Come back to me. This is where I fashioned you. I made you the person you are today. It was my dust that shaped you. As you worked the soil, you also grew like the tender wheat plants so that your roots are also in me. Come back to me.”

And this is why I called it home . . . the place of identity.

But instead of going home for Christmas, I find a hole . . . a loss . . . a loss of identity. But now the loss, the void, is shaping my being. The loss helps to forge a new adult identity.

This may be seen in the fact that several months ago my husband and I purchased a place. It is a beautiful place. It is more than I could ever dream with its breathtaking views, and I frequently marvel and express my gratitude for it. However, while I call it “home,” it still has yet to become home. At this point in time, it is only a place to hang my hat, a place that is simply walls, floor, and a ceiling. It is yet to be the place where I know my name. Where I know who I am. Where my identity is forged.

Yet, maybe that is the point. Maybe this new place is a metaphor of my new being, one with loss. Maybe this new place is where a different identity is being forged . . . with the loss. It’s a new normal . . . a new adult identity. It’s a new place that will become home. Maybe that’s what embracing a new adult identity involves? Becoming at home with yourself? When viewing these losses with the help of family systems, I am realizing how much my identity has been shaped by others. As the youngest, there is a tendency to want to please others. Now, with the loss of my identity connected to losing my parents and the farm, I am inquiring of myself, “What do you want, Pam? Who do you want to be?” Loss, then, forges the new adult identity.

Of course, this type of an existential experience is easy to state in print, but in reality it is frightening.

At times, I simply want to bury my head under the covers and not come out. Other times, I think about mesmerizing myself by watching television and eating comfort food or whittling hours away by surfing the web or by being on Facebook. Sometimes, I run back to what is familiar in my mind because it is, after all, what I know. Forging a new adult identity that includes loss is craziness. It is filled with uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. In short, it is a journey of vulnerability. It is like peering into a deep, black hole in which you are unable to see bottom. What will I find in there? Why not stay here where it is safe? Why not stay here with what I know?

Maybe it is fortuitous that this fall, prior to the holiday season, I read Andrew Root’s Faith Formation in a Secular Age.

By drawing from Philippians 2, the kenosis passage, Root reminds me that it is in the very nature of God to empty God’s self. To enter the void. To enter my losses. To enter my negation. And by doing so, in Root’s words, God negates the negation. While Root focuses on the crucifixion (2:8), I underscore the incarnation as God negating the negation.

Consider with me Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus. One of Luke’s overall themes is: God is on the side of the vulnerable, which is apparent in the narrative of Jesus’s birth in a stable. According to Luke 2, the first people to learn of the miraculous birth of the divine-human one were shepherds who were in a field, tending to their sheep. Shepherds at that time were considered members of the marginalized. Charles Talbert notes, “[S]hepherds were often considered outside the law. Their testimony was considered invalid because of their reputation for dishonesty (b. Sanhedrin 25b).”[6] Ben Witherington comments that they were considered “unclean peasants.”[7] In short, they are part of Luke’s vulnerable group.

When the angels declared to the shepherds of the Messiah’s birth, the shepherds left their sheep and ran to the stable to see the baby in a manger. If this King, as Matthew portrays Jesus, would have been born in a palace, I doubt the shepherds would have been allowed, let alone comfortable, to burst into an extravagant house of royalty. But when this King enters this world in a stable and is placed in a livestock’s feeding trough, this is a familiar place to shepherds. But more than that, this King entered the shepherd’s void by becoming like an unclean peasant by being born in a stable and placed in a manger. In fact, the kenosis passage speaks of Jesus becoming like a slave (Phil 2:7). Being a slave in the Roman world is described by J. A. Harrill “as a social death,” which is “the denying of a person of all dignity and ties of birth in both ascending and descending generations.”[8]

Thus, unlike earthly kings who are not known to empty themselves, God’s nature is to empty God’s self, and God does so and joins humanity in their negation . . . their nothingness . . . their own vulnerability, thereby negating the negation.

And so as I stand here, peering into the so-called black hole of “who am I now without my parents and the family homestead,” I am reminded that God joins me in my emptiness. God’s nature is to empty God’s self. God’s nature is to join humanity in their nothingness, their void, their vulnerability and thereby God’s presence in this absence, this loss, produces hope for the future.

NOTE: The photograph included with this blog is the family homestead, home.

[1] Debra Umberson Death of a Parent: Transition to a New Adult Identity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 6.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 7.

[4] Ibid., 203.

[5] Ibid., 204.

[6] Charles H. Talbert. Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2012), Kindle ed., 35.

[7] Ben Witherington III, “Birth of Jesus,” in Dictionary of Jesus and Gospels, edited by Joel Green and Scot McKnight (60-74) (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), Accordance ed., 73.

[8] J. A. Harrill, “Slavery,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background, ed. Craig Evans and Stanley Porter (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Accordance ed., 1125.