Pain at Christmas: Coping with the Loss of a Life Partner and Thinking of God in the Holiday Season


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Puchong Skyline © TS Goh

Puchong Skyline © TS Goh

This will be my first Christmas without my partner R.[1] We were together for five years, four months and eighteen days – the happiest and most fulfilling period of my life – before an unexpected illness took him away from me. R. was diagnosed with a terminal illness on June 9, 2016. That was the day that our lives turned upside down. Over June, July, August and September, we were in and out of hospital for a total of four times due to various complications that he developed due to the illness. Our good friend Razwan and I took turns to care for him in the ward during the day. At night, however, I took over the caring of my beloved completely. I made the choice to do this, because there was no other choice that I could imagine when it came to loving my man. Sleep came un/easily though, because the day was spent at work, or making sure he was comfortable, talking to his doctors, changing him when he needed to be changed, sponging him when he needed to be sponged, soothing him when he needed to be soothed … but also worrying about his worsening condition. Soon, it was evident that the illness had advanced to a stage at which hospitalisation could no longer offer him any help. With full awareness of the consequences, R. asked to go home. At 4:00 pm on Sunday, September 18, 2016, with our good friend and me beside him, my beautiful R., my husband, my partner, my confidante, my beloved, my family, my world, my everything, transitioned from this consciousness to the next.

So this will be the first Christmas since we met that R. will not be physically with me. ‘Joy to the world, the Lord is come’, sings the Christian world, but for me, it’s more a matter of ‘pain to my heart, the beloved is gone’. I am writing this reflection as a way to cope with the pain, as a method of grieving and healing, and as a way to make sense of my own faith as an interfaith Christian[2] who is going through bereavement over the Christmas period.

The Man I Love

R. and I met for the first time in 2010. For me, this first meet was little more than seeing the face of someone whom I had never met before. Unbeknownst to me, he had been looking forward to this get-together for some time. He was dressed in a black tee, black shorts and black flip-flops. We met at his place (which eventually became our place), and he took out his best whiskey. From the first moment we met, I knew there was something special about him. He was handsome, intelligent and funny (all 6’2” of him), and I liked him instantly. As we conversed (and drank), we found out that we had a lot in common. We were both academically inclined, we both wanted to do something to change the lives of others for the better, we enjoyed a drink or two, and we loved Balinese gardens.

I adored his sense of humour, his comical facial expressions, his unexpected bursts of laughter, his obsession with particular brands of collared tees and perfume, his appreciation of unusual artefacts, his incredible generosity towards others and his insatiable thirst for going around the world. After several weeks (yes, only weeks) of seeing each other, we realised that we loved each other. We agreed to enter into a relationship. In all these years, we disagreed but we never fought, as we found more sense in talking through things than petty squabbling. I found myself loving the man more and more each day, and it has not stopped until now.

Our life at home was similar to that of many people. We took turns to cook. I did the dishwashing, he did the laundry. We spent quality time every day, often regaling each other with our experiences of the day, as well as watching movies. We would often go to the country in the weekends if we did not have any pressing academic demands to fulfil. R. had his ways, and I had my ways, but love allowed us to accept each other. In short, my life with him was fulfilling and life-giving.

What did Christmas mean to us?: Raw Memories, and now Loss

Since childhood, Christmas has always been my favourite time of the year. It was a time of festive food, midnight masses, cooler weather,[3] presents, fascinating TV programmes, catchy Christmas carols and permission to lounge around and do nothing.

I looked forward to Christmas even more after I met R. One of our favourite activities was to go around the city looking for beautiful ornaments that we would hang on our tree. It was also a time when I would cook special dishes on Christmas day, based on recipes that I got off the internet. We would have an aperitif, and chat about anything and everything. Then we would have appetizers before moving on to the main meal. We would take a fifteen-minute break before finishing with dessert and a movie. Christmas was also a time when my folks would come over and spend time with us. Mum and dad loved R., and we would go on interstate road trips and try out new eating places. Christmas was family time. It was during Christmas that I felt complete and happy. R. and I had five Christmases together, and for this, I am grateful.

Those days are gone now. I miss him. I wish to God he were with me in the flesh. I would give up everything I have, I would cut off my right arm just to have him here with me again, but it’s not going to happen. It’s not just about missing being in a relationship, it’s about missing being in a relationship with him. I miss the ‘us-ness’ that nourished and sustained us over all these years, the arms that held me, the lips that kissed me, the familiar voice that warmed my heart. I miss his touch, his scent, his patience, his unconditional love.

Well-meaning friends tell me that I ought to cherish my memories with him, and that I should be strong and move on, but they are completely clueless as to how raw and excruciating those memories are right now. There is this immense and profound feeling of loss that I am experiencing. A part of me has been wrenched out of me, and it is irreplaceable. I know that when he died that day, part of me died with him. On some days, I just feel like curling up into a ball and staying in bed all day. With the exception of one day, I have been crying every day since he passed. To put it in awkward terms, I feel like I am only half myself now. His physical absence at Christmas this year only serves to confirm the deep anguish that I feel in the core of my being because he’s gone.

Where is God When I am in Pain during Christmas?

One of the biggest challenges that I am experiencing is how to allow my faith to guide and comfort me through my loss. I do not blame God for not curing R., or curse God for giving me this beautiful man, only to let him die. For me, that’s pointless scapegoating. I adhere to a theological framework in which I do not believe in the idea of ‘God’s will’, because God invites and never imposes God’s will or interferes with human realities in an other-worldly manner. Neither do I believe in ‘God’s punishment’. In other words, I believe in  a loving God who allows human beings to be human beings, in their joys and their sorrows, but walks with them through it. The incarnation of God in human beings, including Christ, reveals the fundamental goodness and beauty of the human condition, despite its many miseries.

I choose to rely on my faith, on my God during this difficult time. This Christmas, as I brace myself for the pain, the loss, the anguish, I cry out, “Where are you God, when I am in pain during Christmas because I have lost my man?” I admit: I don’t have all the answers. I’m still struggling, I’m still in doubt, I’m still trying to make sense of it all. Yet, I believe that God does reach out to me, and if I open my eyes, my ears and my heart, I will see this God in disguise but actively at work. It doesn’t mean that all my pain will miraculously disappear, or that everything will be magically alright. What it does mean is that amidst the tears and the sorrow, I will be able to cope a little at Christmas because of my conviction that my God is with me.

(1) God in blind faith

By ‘blind faith’, I am not referring to a faith that is unguided by rationality, that I simply believe because I believe, or that my faith glosses over all manner of complexity in my grieving. Instead, ‘blind faith’ is the active (and attempted) exercise of my belief despite not being able to ‘see’ tangible evidence with my bodily eyes. Paraphrasing the words of the father of the possessed boy in Mark’s gospel, I say “God, I am struggling to believe; help my unbelief so that I won’t go insane with grief” (Mark 9:24). Thus, I believe that:

(a) R. exists in a higher consciousness, and we will meet again

Just a couple of days before he passed, I told my partner that I loved him and wanted more time with him, but it was alright for him to let go if he was in pain. I told him that I didn’t want him to hang on and suffer because he didn’t want to leave me. He said to me, “I’m not leaving you; we will see each other again.” R. was an atheist, an avowed believer that when one died, that was the end. His insight at this point in his life is an anchor of faith for me, as it echoes the testimony of the early Christians who placed on the lips of Christ these words: “My Father’s house has many rooms. If that were not true, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2).

I choose to believe that R. is now in another realm of existence, one of higher consciousness and deeper knowledge. I choose to believe that his presence is all around me, and that he can see and hear me. Furthermore, the hope of being reunited with my spouse keeps me sane. It anchors me in the faith that the love we share has not ended. This love continues in a new form now, and this love will attain complete fulfilment when it is time for me to meet him again without any fear of separation because it is fused with the love of God, who is ‘all in all’ (1 Corinthians 15:28). This belief, which I have inherited from my Christian ancestors, allows Christ to say to my heart, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). I’m really looking forward to getting back that feeling of completeness and happiness with R. by my side in eternity!

(b) That my life is precious and worthy

In his gentlest voice, my beloved would tell me not to cry when I would shed tears during sad movies. It hurt him whenever I was hurting. I believe that he continues to feel this way in his higher consciousness. He knows that I need to grieve, and he allows me to do so, because it is a testament to our love. At the same time, I know that he would not want me to live my life wearing a perpetual mourning shroud. In his new mode of existence, my partner who continues to love and cherish me wants me to live my life to the full.

I believe that he appreciates my tears and my missing him. Yet, I also believe that it gives him great joy when he sees me also appreciating all that life has to offer, and despite his absence, acknowledging that my own life is precious and worthy. I am reminded again that God ‘formed my inward parts [and] wove me in my mother’s womb’ (Psalm 139:13), and that the life which God has breathed into me is not meant to go to waste. My good friend James told me that I am R.’s legacy. I believe what James said, and I am trying to keep his memory alive within myself and among his friends in diverse ways. Living my life as though it has ended would be to dishonour his memory.

(2) God is present in those who care for me: Online and Offline

Some of the people I know did not get in touch with me, either in person or by telephone, text messages or social media when R. passed. I’m not sure why. Yet a great number did. So many friends came to R.’s wake. CK, Gary and Tasha brought me boxes and newspapers when I moved to a new place. One and Weng took me out (and to their dining table) for meals, and offered me their home as a refuge when the days of being alone became unbearable. Sharon sent me text messages every day to check in on me, and so did mum and dad before they came over for Christmas. James came to stay with me for a few days and provided a shoulder to cry on.

There were calls from Patricia, Laishan and Joseph, emails from so many friends, constant text messages from Chung, Christine (my former landlady), Melissa, Henry, Ghislaine and Siow San, meals out with Dirk, and countless messages of support and love on Facebook from friends all over the world. I am grateful to Tressa for suggesting that I join a Facebook support group for grieving widowers. I found one, and the unconditional, non-judgemental support, as well as the similarities in sorrow that we shared as men who have lost our men in this particular group has been a great source of strength for me. Catherine did something academically wonderful for R. after he passed, and I will always be grateful for her gesture of kindness.

Scripture says that Elijah’s experience of God was such that ‘after the earthquake came a fire, but God was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper’ (1 Kings 19:12), and therein was God. I have a different experience. God was in the earthquake, and in the fire, and now, I am so grateful that God is also in the whispers of these friends who told me and continue to tell me, “Cry all you want! Hugs! We love you, keep going!” I am trying to embrace the courage to express my grief, and allowing myself to be loved, to be cared for, to be pampered by these wonderful people who are incarnating God to me again and again.[4]

(3) God is present in music

During a very difficult period in my life, before I met R., I found comfort in music. I still do, now that my husband is gone. Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Tracey Thorn have been what my friend Ghislaine refers to as ‘crying music’, but I have found crying to be a necessary element in the process of grieving and healing. I have also experienced a deep feeling of power, energy, peace and love from God in two very special hymns. The first is Bernadette Farrell’s ‘God Beyond All Names’. I cry almost every time I hear the words addressed to God Emmanuel, “You have shaken with our laughter, you have trembled with our tears”. Aside from the fact that it beautifully encapsulates my theological stand, the image of God sobbing and quivering under the weight of sorrow as God sits next to me in my grief fills me with gratitude and strength. The other is Janèt Sullivan Whitaker’s ‘In Every Age’. I am filled with hope every time I hear “Teach us to make use of the time we have. Teach us to be patient even as we wait. Teach us to embrace our every joy and pain. To sleep peacefully, and to rise up strong”. The conviction of an everlasting reunion with R. and the mandate to live the best I can without his physical presence is captured in this hymn, which speaks of a God who is not only present in my sufferings, but who actually feels my pain in the deepest way.

Christmas Hurts

These are still early days, and I find myself struggling to achieve these ideas, or even to be completely convinced by what I have written. I realise though, that my life is a project, not an achievement, and I am incredibly blessed to have had R. in this project for five years, four months and eighteen days. J’taime, mon bébé. Tu me manques. Sans toi, je ne suis que la moitié de moi-même. Mais, pas même la mort ne peut nous séparer. You were, you are, and you will always be the best thing that ever happened to me. I will now say to you what you said to me at home about our relationship the day we found out that you were sick: “The last five years have been the happiest years of my life.” Thank you, my love, for giving me the precious gift of yourself. I will never forget you—I cannot! Until we are reunited face to face, my love, watch over me, stay with me, ‘for it is nearly evening, and the day is almost over’ (Luke 24:29) in the grand scheme of life. Here is something I wrote for you, my love:

I long so much to see your face,

To see each line of love’s own trace,

From times we shared as man and man,

From moments when it all began.

Came challenges yet love still thrived,

The illness raged, still love survived …

With parting pulsating with pain,

The name of widower I gain.

 

I long so much to see your face,

I fear that time will soon efface,

The memories of life as one,

That death declares that all is done,

That only fuzzy dreams remain,

And all is dull and dark and plain …

I know that some I will forget,

But more I will remember yet.

 

I long so much to see your face,

Perhaps not now—another place!

Await my turn to leave my coil,

When I am laid within the soil,

And free at last, your face I’ll see,

United in eternity,

Where all is clear and fresh and new,

Our love at last we will renew.

 

 

—–

[1]. In my reflection, I will only refer to my late partner as R. He was a private man, and did not feel the need to reveal the more personal side of his life to all and sundry. I choose to respect his privacy.

[2]. As an interfaith Christian, my main system of belief is Christianity and my main guru is Christ, but I also believe that the Godhead is: (i) incarnated in Buddha, Kuan Yin, Mohammad, Mary and the saints, and all who radiate goodness, justice and holiness; and (ii) represented in images such as Ganesha and sacred sites throughout the world.

[3]. Malaysia, a tropical country, is never cold enough for snow. Instead, we have a monsoon-driven rainy season from December to February, which brings some respite from the heat.

[4] There have been so many friends who have reached out to me in different ways. I can’t name you all, but you know who you are, and I thank you.

 

© Joseph N. Goh

 

 


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