The Irretrievable Vacuum of Unhappily Never After.


Part of my hospital chaplaincy duties is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.

No—it doesn’t always work out.

The storm doesn’t always pass.

There isn’t always closure.

Not everything will be all right.

I won’t know why.

There’s a moment in the hospital when our illusion of safety is shattered and the stark reality sets in:

Things won’t change,
they won’t get better,
there won’t be a miracle,
and there won’t be a happily ever after.

It looks like God has exited the building, and that maybe He’s not coming back, and that we will never, ever know why this awful tragedy had to happen.

Babies die. Spouses drop dead at thirty. Diseases take and they take and they take. Prayers go unanswered. Drunk drivers walk free and their victims die slowly in a fire. People die alone. Some people don’t know who they are when they die; some people don’t have a single number they can call. They’re cremated by the county without a trace.

I soon found that I was having a series of tiny panic attacks over faith, more and more disorienting, these little underground bombs that threw me into crisis and left me scrambling for answers.

After a particularly hard case where a young woman’s dad shot her mom and then himself, I came home and tried to pick up some random inspirational book from my bookcase. What I found inside was so unimaginably distant and disgusting that I nearly threw it at the wall. I went through a few more books, and words that had once comforted me were crass and trivial. I couldn’t possibly believe that any of these authors had really suffered or seen suffering. I’m sure they had—and that’s what I wanted to see. Their raw edges. Not these luxurious, over-privileged travels and extra tips on mental re-arrangement, completely removed from the wounded. I saw these first-world tales as they really were: shallow, out-of-touch, and bereft of consequence.

I was lost in the whirlwind of malheur, the pain underneath our pain. I was struck by intrapsychic grief, from the loss of what “could be” and would never come to pass. I was a wax thread in a hot oven, my old beliefs dripping and frayed.

I suddenly understood the intensity of the Psalms, all the anger and violence and whiplashes of doubt, encapsulating the moments when we can no longer un-see this garish void of the nether, the unreturned.

I wondered if maybe it was easier not to believe, because believing was so dangerously painful.

Loss is a part of life, I know, and grief is unavoidable—but I have to question the chaotic, haphazard, madness of it all. Loss is a merciless beast that seems unaffected by prayer, by hope, by any fair set of rules. No amount of good deeds or piety is saving your wife from that brain bleed. The liver will fail. The transplant isn’t coming. The sepsis has gone too far. The accident was out of nowhere.

No one is safe.

The conclusion I dread,” C.S. Lewis wrote, in his work about his wife’s death, “is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”

One night I drove home, mad at God, mad as all hell, mad about one more dead teenager whose lungs filled with fluid and drowned him, mad about a pregnant mother who knew her baby could kill her and ended up killing her and then died anyway, mad about a recently married man who came in talking at the start of my shift and was dead before I clocked out. I demanded an answer.

What do You even do, God?

I see doctors and nurses and machines—

—but what do You even do?

What’s Your plan?

Are You in control?

Do You care?

No answer.

And I’m so tempted to end on a hopeful note, to leave you with a glimmer of light.

But I can’t do that. Not all the time. I can’t do that to you; I can’t do that to me.

There was one guy in his twenties, Brian, who had gotten into a car accident and killed three of his friends. In a cruel twist, he was the designated driver; he hadn’t drank at all. And even more, he didn’t have a scratch on him.

The second I entered the room, he howled, “I killed them, I killed them, I killed my best friends.” He balled up his fists and struck his own forehead, yelling his friends’ names in long, anguished cries.

I sat down. I could only let him weep.

Thirty minutes passed. He then turned to me, as if it were the first time he had seen me. His eyes were wide, and I knew he wanted me to say something.

“Brian,” I said. “I’m sorry. I wish I had some magic formula or the right series of words to make it better. But the truth is … this is going to be terrible for a long, long time. You’ll feel it the rest of your life. It will hit you in waves. You’ll be walking down the street or turning a corner in your house, and something will remind you of your friends. People will ask you a lot of questions. Some people might believe you, and others are going to hate you. You might hate yourself sometimes. Everyone will tell you how to be and how you shouldn’t be, they’ll tell you to ‘cheer up’ and ‘get over it’ or ‘it’ll be all right.’ Eventually, you might learn to live inside your own head, but it’ll always be a fight. I’m telling you all this so you won’t be too surprised. I’m trying to be honest with you, because maybe a lot of people won’t be.”

Brian reached up to shake my hand. He shook it, hard. We sat in silence for nearly an hour.

No more words. No miracles.

Or maybe I had to re-define miracle.

I visited Sarah, who had been in surgery forty-seven times, and her intestines had twisted up and she needed another operation. She had a terminally ill child and her husband was jobless; the insurance was going to run out for herself and her child; the surgery was no guaranteed success. And she said, “But it’s okay, it’s okay,” really fast, like I was a spiritual parole officer and that’s what she wanted to say to sound like she had it together. I told her, “It’s okay that it sucks right now,” and she laughed and said, “Actually, yeah, it all sucks right now,” and she let it all out and told me about every fear and worry and frustration for over an hour. I didn’t tie the bow. I didn’t connect the dots on her pain to a lesson.

She took my hand and I prayed with her. We sat in more silence. When I stood to leave, maybe I was imagining things, but some color seemed to return to her face.

That had to be good enough.

That had to be God enough.

J.S.


Photo by Ed Dunens, CC BY 2.0

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9 thoughts on “The Irretrievable Vacuum of Unhappily Never After.

  1. We can’t blame God for letting all those awful events, for the suffering and aparent incapacity of men to solve or even minimize them. Mankind has been sparing most of Existence worrying with things that showin his gifts to discover, invent and produce ‘things’ instead of directing his interests to what is essential. Today – though I know this shows how ignorant I am – I understand the reluctance all religions showed against Science. No one REALLY needs to know if the earth goes around the Sun or the inverse, no one needs to know how many planets live in the Universe nor the dimension of each of them, no one – apart from some billionaires – are looking forward to visit Marte, and so on. What the world we live in needs is people interested in solving the questions that are the causes of their suffering and how to invert the situation that is pushing us to something named ‘progress’. There is nothing more stupid and irrational than spend brains and money inventing and producing things to be sold if this things, besides making money to those who trade them, are not good to solve none of the more important things that brought suffering to real life, both body and soul. Noone can believe that Man could go for a walk on the moon, can invent arms of destruction that can spare the destruction of monuments but kill whoever lives there, invent the most sophisticated forms to use Nature without pity, to manage communication to accept as very good and important things all this stuff – most of them are only important concerning Science itself- and not being abble to find solutions for the lots of illnesses that are all the time in front of our eyes and kill the loved ones of so many, to solve the problems of the essential goods one needs to live in health, to discover one, only ONE no more, kind of education capable of makinhg people understand what is good for his nature and the important role soul plays to a heathy body. God, Whoever His name, gave us a simple paradise for us to live and enjoy and work to perserve it. We have all the time doing the contrary. We turn Nature into a place of exploitation, our souls into something someone may well direct the way they want, we turn sex into a game – though producing a lot of moral considerations about it and the consequences of what we do – we produce innumerable medications to entertain the illnesses instead of investing seriously in investigation because producing and selling medication is one of the most prosperous business and investigation costs a lot and we are taught to believe that investigation depends on pharmacological gains. I think God to be just waiting us to realise the mess we created. So great a mess that we donn’t even know how to get out of it and it seems to be worst everyday.

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  2. Thank you JS! Your transparent heart is so touching and so refreshing. I want to know that it is alright to have these very thoughts and that God isn’t going to condemn me for having lack of faith.! Or times of questions. I think that we get into this cycle of thinking God will take care of everything but we forget that life is hard and sucks and is muddy. I recently read a book called Disaster Pastor by Toby Nelson and it speaks to this as well. Like you his transparency is refreshing.

    As a former CNA and EMT I used to get so drunk and or high after dealing with a fatality or a horrible situation because all I ever heard from the people who I went to for counsel or to help with the restlessness was the phony platitudes and it kept me drunk for many years until I broke free from it! We can not live life with the phony platitudes. We will crack if we do!

    Keep being open and transparent with us and I will be praying for you to continue to be a light to those whom you serve.

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  3. Hard to read, but so true. I love that! We don’t have all the answers. We don’t have most of the answers. There is little one can say to comfort someone, so I think listening is best. Listening and letting them know it is OK to not be OK. Even telling them time will heal, which it does to varying degrees, is worthless chatter to one in deep grief. Listening over and over and over again is the best gift I can give at that time.

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  4. Hello Pastor Park,
    Thank you for your honesty here. While you don’t end with any “answers” I am so grateful to hear someone say these things that validate some of my own “pain underneath the pain” and I resonate with your words. I was wondering if you might have some resources to recommend. Particularly along the lines of when such suffering happens to those we care for who don’t know Christ. I have a sort of framework for a theological and intellectual understanding of the suffering of the believer, but I am looking for an understanding of what redemption there is, if any, when suffering like you describe happens to people like your patients who, I assume do not all know Christ. I am wondering not how you explain their suffering to them (since that is probably not appropriate in the moment) but rather how you resolve it in your own mind. If you have any comments or resources to point me towards I would be grateful! Thank you!

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