The Communion of Loss

I was a young clergyman, and we had just brought our first child into the world. She was almost a year old. So was the son of a young couple in our congregation. The phone rang that Sunday night just as we were crawling into bed.  Sunday nights for clergy have their own kind of exhaustion rivaled by no other, even when the clergyperson is young.  I considered not answering the phone, but I did.

The couple had been at the hospital all weekend.  Their 11 month old son’s cold had become more serious, something like pneumonia.  The phone call that Sunday night was desperate.  He was dying.  Please hurry to the hospital, they said. When I arrived at the hospital, 35 minutes away from our small town, I found the couple in a small grief room, holding their baby for the last time.  He had died just a few minutes before.

Twenty-eight years later, remembering that awful Sunday evening and the days that followed are still full of emotion for me.  I’ve written here of the space that our loves make in us, of the craving that comes into that space when they leave us, and how those experiences–never, ever ones that we want–somehow make us more human and humane, or at least they hold that possibility.

There is something else, though.  There is a communion in that kind of loss.  As I tended life with that young couple so many years ago over the following days and weeks, I came home and looked at and experienced our own child very differently.  She was already precious to us. That did not change, but the tenderness and fragility of life together became more real to me. When I went out to the modest home that this couple lived in, or spoke with them at church, because we were parents of little children there was a knowing of their broken hearts that I did not have to imagine.  I heard some of what they heard.  I felt some of what they felt.

Sharing in loss–of any kind–is a kind of human communion.  The communion of loss allows us to approach one another with an unspoken connection, and it changes us.  Nine months later, I would walk into death with another couple in our church as their nine month old died of a congenital condition undiagnosed at birth.  The communion of tears has an anointing that can ordain us to ministries of trust and tenderness like nothing else. I see this in my community at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Gwinnett all the time.  Show me a person reaching out, smiling, touching, and caring for another, and I will show you someone who has experienced, deeply, the communion of loss, the anointing o tears.

Bob Patrick

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