The Presence of Absence

“There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled, one remains connected to the other person through it.

It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled, and thus helps us preserve – even in pain – the authentic relationship. Furthermore, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past, not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

This hit me like a ton of bricks when I first read it, about three months after Kissie’s death. I was unfamiliar with the author, a German theologian who died in 1945. His words were a thunderclap, and a resonating voice to the gaping emptiness that overwhelmed me, and that I was unable to articulate. I had read nothing to that point, and little since, that openly advised an enduring connection by the conscious acknowledgement of absence, and the effort to “leave it precisely unfilled.” It was counterintuitive, and yet it made perfect sense. My irreplaceable sister.

In the past fifteen months, I have learned just how hard it is to “leave it precisely unfilled.” Culturally, we do not consider absence a state to be cultivated, with the living or the dead. We’re encouraged from every corner to fill our emptiness with something. Physical, intellectual, and spiritual distractions, compensations, and comforts abound. A philosophy for remaining connected to our deceased loved ones by staying in the presence of their absence is eloquently subversive. So is the idea that the torment of our separation could be transformative.  

Empathy and Sympathy

Choosing sympathy cards has become a lot more difficult for me lately. It’s the language. So many are written with such a pat sensibility that they’re almost cold, and I can’t bear to send one, even with a personal message. When I come across one that feels genuine, it’s not very sympathetic at all, it’s empathetic. I’d like to see them called bereavement cards, and would-be card writers (and all of us who want express our compassion in a heartfelt manner), might be well-served by watching the following video from Dr. Brené Brown. Dr. Brown is a researcher and author, whose TED talk on the power of vulnerability I shared in a previous post.