What Gets Lost (1)

A friend I made 62 years ago lost her 42-year-old son on Christmas Eve. While I have not spoken to her, I can only imagine the pain that she and her husband are enduring. Since I heard the news, I have thought a lot about my friend (I haven’t had the privilege of meeting her husband) and what she must be going through.

I have also spent some time thinking about what I have learned about grief over my many years of coming alongside the grieving and stumbling along beside them. That is one of the most difficult learning processes of life: learning what to say, what not to say, when to say what you just have to say, and wondering whether in that moment you have anything of value to say at all.

One thing I have learned is that a lot gets lost when a loved one dies. That is what I want to write about over the next few posts. Grieving people have taught me much over the years about what gets lost when a loved one dies. As I thought about the things they have told me, a way of remembering them just emerged in my mind. I call that way of remember the 4 P’s of loss: (1) Person, (2) Patterns, (3) Projections, and (4) Prospects.

The Person

It doesn’t take a genius to see that when a loved one dies, your greatest loss is the loss of the person. But what is a person?

Not long ago, I spoke to a team of emergency transport pros about the experience of a heart transplant. They are an important part of the logistical train that gets an organ from the point of the donor to the point of the recipient. (You may not know this but when a transplant surgeon is notified that an organ is coming, s/he doesn’t just get up and drive to the hospital. No, the surgeon is picked up and transported via an emergency vehicle with sirens and lights flashing. Time is of the essence.)

What I wanted them to understand was that when they transport an organ they transplant much more than an organ. Given the way we think of hearts, I believe that is especially true when they transport a heart! They transport all of the loves of that heart and all of the love that was given to that heart. Culturally speaking, they transplant the essence of the person, the center of his or her loves, the center of all his/her disappointments and the many griefs they have experienced in a lifetime.

I came to that way of thinking about it after getting into a conversation with someone who objected to what transplant patients sometimes experience: “I feel like the donor is with me.” The objector argued that no one says that when what is transplanted is a kidney or a pancreas. Further, she argued that the heart is merely an organ, a collection of cells, arteries, and valves. That’s it.

At one level, she had a point. As I asked one of my cardiologists who was “taking a little piece of my heart’ in a biopsy, “Dr ____, when was the last time someone told you they love you with all their pancreas?” It’s a weird feeling for the guy who is snipping away bits of your heart to chortle…chortle…and…chortle.

So, my dialogue partner had a point. However, she was also guilty of being ‘nothing buttery.’ (C.S. Lewis) A heart is nothing but an organ.

I wanted to ask her if she regarded her child in the same way- simply a collection of cells, organs, valves, pipes, and other mechanisms.

I didn’t ask but I doubt it.

Well, just as a heart is not simply an organ, so a person is not simply an animated, mobile bag of organs. A person is an organism but a person is also a host of other things. S/he is invested with our affections but also our hopes and our memories and our dreams and our needs, etc.

So, when a beloved person is lost to us through their dying, much more than the person is lost with them.

That I will take up next time.