I recently heard about an app called KillSwitch, which is designed to automatically remove all traces of a person from your Facebook account with the click of a few buttons. Of course, it’s no surprise that its primary reason for existence is to wipe clean one’s ex-girlfriend or boyfriend from all wall posts, status updates, videos, and photos after a cataclysmic breakup. In anywhere from five to twenty minutes—depending on how many photos, posts and heart emojis you have associated with the other person—every painful or infuriating remnant of the person can be evanesced for good. And just like that, you can get on with things. Or at least look like you are to all of your Facebook friends.
When I first heard about it, I was reminded of the film The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which details the quirky and volatile relationship of a couple living in New York (played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet). After a seemingly irreconcilable and caustic argument, they both participate in a procedure to erase all of their memories of the other person—every miserable and ecstatic moment—in only a night’s sleep. This procedure is conducted through an organization that resembles a dental practice—the relative ease and efficiency of removing the deep, complex emotions and feelings associated with a relationship are placed on the same level as the filling of an aching cavity. The unique and imaginative premise of the film ponders the value of our memories—both the good and painful ones—and the possible danger of washing them away to avoid the pain of emotional loss and heartbreak. It asks the age-old question: is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?
I think most would agree that the loss of a loved one is one of the greatest causes of suffering in life. Whether it’s the loss of a parent, close friend, significant other, or spouse, the stripping of someone we love and care about from our life is always hard, denuding a part of us that won’t ever be quite the same again. Time and God’s grace may dim the pain—and in some cases even remove it—but that lost relationship has left an indelible mark on us. In some mysterious way it’s helped form who we are today.
Things would be easier if we could wipe away the pain and suffering caused by loss, but then again, we would inevitably be bidding farewell to all of the beautiful and meaningful moments as well. It seems God places certain people in our lives to guide, love and nourish us, as well as reveal his love and presence to us through them. But then after a time, as we continue journeying through life, we lose their company as fellow pilgrims, left only with their memory. There are some losses like the slow fading of former friendships that only leave us feeling nostalgic, wondering occasionally how we could have been so close to someone we now barely know. And then there are others that are tragic, from which the memory of the person—such as a spouse or child—still causes sadness and pain even on our best days.
In C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, an unfiltered, honest and raw account of his mourning the loss of his wife, Lewis writes of the stark finality and suffocating pain that the loss of a loved one can render:
“But those two circles, above all the point at which they touched, are the very thing I am mourning for, homesick for, famished for. You tell me ‘she goes on.’ But my heart and body are crying out, come back, come back. Be a circle, touching my circle on the plane of Nature. But I know this is impossible. I know that the thing I want is exactly the thing I can never get.”
And in perhaps one of his most poetic and powerful lines in all of his writing, he offers us a glimpse of the immense emptiness that such a loss can invoke:
“Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.”
The book offers a sobering look at the process of mourning the loss of a relationship, and even though we hold firm to the comforting words of Christ about his wiping our tears away in the life after this one, we are not spared from shedding those tears in the first place.
“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.” C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Jesus wept. I think this short, though incredibly profound sentence in the Gospel is one of the most beautiful in all of scripture. God, the creator of all life—the one who has the power to raise life from the dead—shed tears for one of his beloved children. We may wonder, why? Why did he weep, especially knowing that he would raise Lazarus from the dead shortly after? Many have speculated, but for me, I’m struck not so much by his reason for doing it, but by the image of tears flowing down his face for his love for Lazarus—for all of us who will one day die.
Jesus answers some of our deepest human questions through what he did during his life. When, like Job, we seek an explanation for suffering and evil in the world, God gives us an image of himself on the cross, bloodied, naked and alone. When we struggle to accept the loss of a loved one—through death or the natural ebb and flow of life—we have an image of Jesus weeping for his dear friend—of his sanctification of human tears. Christ came into the world to be with us so that when we do mourn, we will not do so alone.
God calls his children back to him, one by one, leaving the rest of us here to love, pray and weep for them. By keeping their memory alive, by remembering and honoring them with a life that reflects them and their lives of love and service, or by praying for them if they caused us pain and suffering, we are able to bless them in the next life as we continue on in this one. The memory we have of them—despite the aching pain it may cause—allows us to continue to love them.
In our mourning and sorrow we are called to keep hoping in God. We are called to a hope that isn’t contingent on our feelings or circumstances, but one that endures nonetheless. Even though the more people we love the more loss we will experience, we can thank God for having the opportunity to love so many so deeply—for the opportunity to be more like Christ. And as we say goodbye to loved ones, we look forward to meeting them again in the world to come—the world where there will be no more tears, no more cries and no more loss.
“While we are mourning the loss of our friend, others are rejoicing to meet him behind the veil.”
Coming back to that age-old question about having loved and lost, I can only think of God’s response. God had the power to choose not to create and sustain us in love, but he did so anyways fully knowing the cost. It was this very cost that he willingly suffered—the loss of his own life—for the sake of each one of us. It’s no surprise then that to God, it’s infinitely better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
This post was first published at Bishop Robert Barron’s Word On Fire blog.
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