Grief as Hunger

On May 12, 2018, I arrived at the hospital to spend my son’s last day with him. He was in hospice care after 10 years of recurring osteosarcoma. Now with an inoperable tumor taking his life before my eyes, David was preparing to breathe his last.

As the end neared, I tried to take in as much of him as I could. Watching him, listening to his labored breathing. Kissing his head, tasting his skin, and breathing his scent, just as I had the day he was born. Hunger and thirst are fitting ways to describe my insatiable need to keep something of my son alive.

The Bible speaks of the soul in terms of hunger and thirst:

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
    so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
    the face of God?
My tears have been my food
    day and night. (Psalm 42:1-3)

Even today, more than two years later, my soul longs—hungers, thirsts—for my son in the flesh. Muscle memory appears unexpectedly when significant dates approach. Muscle memory serves a punch to the gut when an aroma or a word or a photo triggers that emptiness deep down that can only be described as hunger. It’s that place, the gut, where belly laughs come from, and where lurching sobs leave us exhausted.

I’ve tried to fill that emptiness with other things, like my job. But when that was taken from me eight months after David’s death, I turned to alcohol, which only masked the hollow feeling in my gut. Now, after two weeks with no self-prescribed sedative, I’m left with the raw longing for my son.

Now, I’m determined to pay attention to the hunger for him in the pit of my stomach. To live into it. To feast on David’s absence as the presence it is. The presence he is. My hunger will never be sated. I don’t want to ever be satisfied.

The grief of our nation and our churches is palpable today. We’ve lost so much through the pandemic and economic downturn. Death has dominated the headlines for months. It lurks at every door, it seems. It’s important to pay attention to the grief we’re experiencing. What do you hunger for? For what do you thirst? What if everything that has been lost never returns? Loved ones, friends, careers, pensions, normalcy.

The crises of our time have been apocalyptic in the truest sense—they have uncovered the inequities in our societal norms. They have revealed millions of people who have been grieving for generations, hungering and thirsting for equity and justice. In this moment, we have a chance for solidarity, paying attention to one another’s grief, and determining never to be satisfied until all hunger has been assuaged.

My son and every hope I imbued his life with are still with me. Unrequited hope is still hope.

A Coach’s Confession

“The only thing keeping you from getting what you want is yourself. The only thing keeping you from the joy you deserve is the disempowering story you keep telling yourself. But what if you decided right now to offer yourself a new core of belief? What if everything in your life, including the most painful and traumatic events, was happening for you, not to you? What if everything was designed for you to actually have a greater life and have more to give and more to enjoy?” – Tony Robbins

As a coach, I want to embrace comments like these. When I work with clients, I encourage them to reach for the life they want. This is not just something I do because it’s what coaches are supposed to do. I do it because I believe that it’s possible to have the life we want … to an extent.

My hesitancy comes from real life experience. I know that there are limitations in life, and that we cannot always control everything that happens. For example, people with cancer have very little control over the disease. They have choices about treatment options and how they choose to live with the disease, but they can’t wish it away.

Ask anyone with cancer what they want, and they will most likely tell you that they want to be cancer-free. Ask any parent of a child with cancer what they want, and they will tell you they want their child to be well. Unfortunately, we do not always get what we want.

My step-son has cancer. I want him to be completely healed. I want him to live to see his children grow up. When I read articles and books like the one from which this quote is taken (Tony Robbins), I find myself feeling cynical and sometimes angry because they seem to discount real life problems like my step-sons’. Nothing against Tony Robbins or others who encourage us to choose happiness. I agree with them in theory.

I have to remind myself that the article is not about things that happen to us. It is about our emotions and thought processes. My initial reaction to these statements come from the emotional part of my brain because this is a very emotional issue for me. It hurts that I cannot make it all better for my step-son or those who love him most. I cannot wish my son well.

However, I can choose how to deal with what I am feeling about his situation. I can choose to remain hopeful about his prognosis. I can choose to support cancer research. I can make a conscious decision to be joyfully present in the moments I have with him and his family.

Within any given situation, we have the power to choose how to respond. Although I do not agree with Robbins that any life events can happen “for” us, I do believe that we can make choices about how we want to be emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically in any given situation. We can choose to look for the positives and live into these. We can choose to make a situation work “for” us as much as possible. We can choose to live lives of gratitude, hope and grace.

What if you chose to have a greater life and have more to give and more to enjoy?