Every relationship ends. We grow apart, we lose touch, tragedy strikes; even in the most hopeful circumstances, one person must outlive the other. Our losses compound and sometimes it gets difficult to engage in new relationships. If a loss is especially traumatic and there is nobody to understand and nurture, in fact it becomes easier to withdraw.
In love, so many marriages end in anger and recrimination perhaps for two basic reasons. The first is the sense of betrayal: I have opened myself to you, and you have hurt me. Anger is a basic reaction to feeling vulnerable. The second is perhaps that it is easier to let go of something you hate than something you love.
Wouldn’t it take extraordinary courage to be able to say, “I love you, and I want you to be happy. Go and do what makes you happy.” Or even, “I love you, and I want us to be happy. We need to be apart for this to work.” It is so much easier to twist that love into rage, drive your partner away, and vow never to love again.
Part of being human is protecting yourself from pain. If you keep loving tragically, eventually you will reach a point where you can no longer bear the pain of it. Where is the balance between tragic love and rageful departure, between saint-like forgiveness and self-isolation?
The death of children is especially tragic. Not so very long ago, we did not christen our children until they were two years old – the odds they would live so long were not good. Investing care in an infant as though it were a human is a modern contrivance, born of the luxury of reasonably expecting our children to live to adulthood. But there is a cost to this.
Nowadays it is much more common to have one or two children than a dozen, and much more common to wait until midlife to choose to have them. This makes each child more special in the literal sense that we have fewer of them, that our hopes and dreams are all in this one bundle.
And choosing to love them, to care for them as precious treasures, sets us up for devastation when the worst happens. When a child dies, or is born disabled, our dreams and expectations for that child die. We find the death meaningless, for what has the infant brought to the world? They have had no chance to live, to love, to learn, to inherit our teachings.
I have been through two miscarriages with my wife prior to my son being born, the second rather traumatic. The doctors tried to comfort us by explaining that there never was a baby, just a clump of cells that never had the potential to become viable and thus were flushed out by the body. But there were babies, at least in our hopes and imaginations. When my son was conceived, we refused to tell anyone until relatively late in the pregnancy, so we would not have to endure any sympathy should things not go well.
This is an old wound I never really dealt with, and now it is especially fresh. My friends, a man I admire and have been inspired by and love very much, and his wife who I love because she loves him, lost their child to premature birth. She lived only a few hours cradled in the arms of her parents – an image so haunting and tragic that I weep while writing it.
What is the meaning of this short life, of this experience of love and grief? My friends will have to decide for themselves what is their personal meaning – knowing them and their courage in love I know they will find such meaning and not give in to nihilism. For me, knowing what I went through and based on years spent with people of disability, even a helpless infant is not a passive receptacle of meaning. Her life is not meaningful because of the dreams we have for her nor for the love we bestow upon her. Rather, her birth is an act of creation, a struggle into the world that creates the love we feel. Whether she lives a long, full life, becomes locked in (as with Rett syndrome), or passes in the first moments of living, the person proclaims their existence through their existence:
I am here, and our relationship is temporary. Do you have the courage to love me and pay the cost of grief your love will incur?
For my friends who must suffer in this moment, I know the answer is yes, yes they have that courage.
— Jason Dias