Like many others, I have been closely following the heartbreaking story of little Alfie Evans, the small child whose brain has apparently been destroyed by disease, and whose parents have fought long and hard against the removal of life support by the hospital. By the time I post this, or you read it, chances are there will have been an outcome to these struggles.
It is far from me to comment on the decisions of the parents, the courts, the doctors. Alfie is the centre of all of this but without any possibility of conscious intervention. It is a tragedy for all concerned and I do not envy any individual who has been involved or who has had to take a legal, ethical or medical decision. Alfie will never be forgotten, that’s for sure, and I’ve read that his particular brain condition may be named after him, although that is hardly comforting to his parents at this time.
As we think of those who surround little Alfie – his parents, his doctors and nurses, and all those who care for him – we shed tears for their darkest moments. It is simply horrendous.
When incurable diseases, non-treatable conditions or random accidents arrive in the lives of ourselves or our loved ones, our whole existence is turned upside down. Our loved one’s life-limiting condition is life-changing. Nothing will ever be the same again.
Whoever has sat in the hospital in this situation will never forget the soundtrack of machines beeping, the smells of the hospital, the weary walk back and forth to a drinks machine or the toilet, wishing to be anywhere in the world but here, not because of lack of love, but rather because of it; just wishing, wishing, wishing – praying – that our loved one didn’t need to be here. But they do, or did.
How hard it can be, immediately after our loved one has died, to remember anything but that strange world inside the hospital. How often we revisit that place, in our thoughts or involuntarily in our dreams.
From my experience, it can take awhile to be able to see past that time to the bigger picture of our loved one’s life. And then we have the remainder of our lives to sort out those memories, to cherish all that made him or her the person they were, however young or old.
My little boy Pax died in a pretty awful government hospital in Bhopal, India. The staff were kind but it was desperately poor and the conditions were not nice, putting it mildly. We are talking 1982 and hopefully it is better now. It was an emergency admission whilst we were travelling, and we had no choice but to bring him there. I have a memory of a large open room with beds or tables, and on each one was a desperately ill child surrounded by family. How universal is grief. For so many years, muddled up memories of strange hospitals appeared in my dreams. No wonder.
I don’t think about that often now, and I can mostly focus back to Pax, just 3, playing with his little sister. I can remember feeding him and his love of spaghetti. I can remember walks on the seafront at Thessaloniki. (Yes I have moved around a lot!)
Our lives rarely proceed exactly as we would have chosen. So much is out of our control, like the cruel illness or accident that took our loved one. We find ourselves in very dark places. I’m not going to add a “but” at the end of this paragraph, no cliches about “things working out for the best” or a fatuous “silver lining in every cloud”. Minimising sorrow does not take it away; dismissing someone’s heartache does not cure them.
Life turns us upside down and inside out, often seemingly without rhyme or reason. The worst does sometimes happen, and lightning sometimes strikes twice, or more. We live imperfectly in an imperfect world.
But we live.
We go on living and somehow we seem to get through, though I will qualify that by acknowledging that sadly it is not true for each person who grieves.
The going on and the getting through can be very very tough. It is certainly a bit easier if we are surrounded by love and kindness, though not everyone experiences this.
“Ultimately mourning means facing what wounds us in the presence of One who can heal,” wrote Henri Nouwen. Those with faith may find, though it is tested, that their faith can help pull them through. Others find strength from different sources.
The important thing is to live. Back to Henri Nouwen: “The losses may be nonnegotiables. But we have a choice: How do we live with those losses?”
How do we live with those losses? That is the question we each face and must answer in our own way. As long as we are seeking to answer it, there is hope.
More on finding hope in the darkest times: A light on the shadows of grief