This is a re-post of something I wrote for Reverie Slice last October. Just thought I’d post the full text here as well.
I think when we lose faith, faith in God, faith in an institution, a book, a person…it hurts. As Gerald Sittser has said, “All loss is loss”. No matter whether it’s a relationship, your cat, or a loved one. Losing something you loved hurts, including your faith in God.
For me, I’ve had to come to grips that in one sense, I will never totally be over the loss. I will always have a certain amount of unease between myself and believing friends and family. I will always feel the loss of community that was once church. I’ll never have what I once had, in quite the same way. It’s gone…forever.
Loss and hurt is something we tend to avoid at all costs. When I was younger, I imagined myself living to be a hundred years old. My thinking was, if I could eat right, take care of myself, and live a good godly life-then I could put the inevitable loss of life on the back burner.
My faith in God was another way to try to avoid the reality of loss. I mean, if God was just collecting all my friends and family for a big party in the afterlife, then why did I have to feel so bad about their deaths? Death wasn’t a time of sadness, but a mere interruption of our eternal existence that was to be reunited after my own death. I believed this with all my heart and even felt that showing emotions such as sadness or tears were signs of weakness and lack of faith. Needless to say, for someone who was very emotional, trying to keep any emotions hidden from sight was an enormous effort, and depressing at times. I didn’t feel safe crying, let alone crying in front of another human being.
I was only 18 years old when I got my first taste of death.
My Pop-Pop was a kind old likable soul. He wasn’t a central figure of my life, but he was someone I always loved and enjoyed being around. We would be at his home for almost every holiday and it was a great time to be together with all of my cousins.
Sometimes Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop would visit us on our Jersey Shore vacations and he would let me pepper him with questions about the good old days. It never occurred to me that someday Pop-Pop might get sick and die, it was if I couldn’t even believe that death would ever visit me and my loved ones. But like all gambling houses, the house always wins in the long run.
Sickness and the Smell of Death
I was just finishing up my first year of college when I got the news that my Pop-Pop was sick. He had suffered severe heat attacks but always recovered to the point of drinking and smoking again, this time would probably be no different…right?
My mom called me and asked if I wouldn’t mind staying the Mom-Mom to help her care for my Pop-Pop. I told her I wouldn’t mind and jumped in my car to travel the 15 minute drive to my grandparents home.
As I walked in the front door, I smelled it for the first time. That smell that can’t be washed off and disguised no longer how hard my Mom-mom tried. It was the smell of death.
Pretending Not to Notice
As I settled in for the weekend, I did what I always did when confronted with uncomfortable reality, I pretended. I told myself to ignore the smell and just act normal. I spent most of my time reading Utopia by Thomas Moore and being ready to help my Pop-Pop get out of bed to go to the bathroom or to go to the couch to watch TV.
At nights, I tried to sleep, but I was restless between trying to ignore the death in the air and being ready to help my Pop-pop get up and go to the bathroom.
On one of these trips he nearly fell over and I grabbed him and steadied him. He thanked me and sweetly told me how he would have fallen over if I hadn’t been there. I shrugged off the compliment and acted as if I did this sort of thin all the time. A couple of days later, my time of helping out was over and I went back to my life at college.
What I didn’t know was that I would never see Pop-Pop alive after those moments.
A Funeral Without Tears
Within a week from my time with Pop-Pop, he was dead. I don’t even remember the official cause of death. I didn’t cry, I didn’t do anything except ask for the essential info about the upcoming funeral. I told no one about the loss and I continued life for 2 or 3 days as if nothing had occurred.
On the day of the funeral, I traveled to my parents home and made the journey to the Catholic church 2 blocks over from where he used to live. It was a sunny, warm fall day and I sat through the mass, emotionless. Imagining to myself that somehow withholding my tears was an act of mature faith.
At one point I approached his open coffin, looked him in the face and stoically accepted that death was finally here. It was here to stay, but somehow faith would shield me from the grief. I turned and walked away as we prepared to carry Pop-Pop out of the church and drive him to his place in the earth.
At the gravesite, I played an instrumental guitar piece I had written as a farewell to a man who loved music, but never truly mastered any instrument. Most everyone was crying and hugging me. But I was stiff and cold towards the show of emotion.
It would be over a week before I actually cried and admitted the sense of loss that ached in my chest.
The Wonder Years
If you’re gasping at how emotionally immature I was, you’d be right to be surprised. The depth of my emotional immaturity was great. But I’ve overcome many my fears about loss and I’ve learned to live in the wonder of life itself, while knowing that life can not last forever.
So while loss hurts, I no longer deny that it hurts. I no longer feel obligated to keep my tears from flowing or my heart hidden and locked away for only God to see.
And loss of faith has been no different. It has had it’s share of hurt. But instead of denying it, I’ve learned to embrace the loss and let it teach me about what I really find true and worthy of my time.
And here’s what I’ve found….when you lose your faith, you regain a sane perspective about life and the one’s you love. I’ve found that I no longer feel an urgency about God and his will. Instead of striving to know God through church and quiet times, I strive to listen and love my wife and children. I look at them and know that I will not have them forever. But until that day when there is no strength in my bones and breath seems like a burden, I’m going to love and enjoy them for the wild, crazy people they are.
My hope is that when I leave this world, they will sit and weep, laugh, and curse me for the person I was and the person I wasn’t. I hope they will feel the freedom to let their emotions flow and say to each other the things that need to be said, lay me to rest, and say goodbye with deep affection.
In short, I’ve found that when you lose your faith, you get back your life.
A life that has no guarantees and can hurt like hell, but a life full of wonder, surprises, and adventures that can only be lived with eyes wide open, instead of a life spent holding back and waiting for death to truly begin to live.