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.  

2 thoughts on “The Presence of Absence

  1. I remember clearly when I realized that the place that my dad held in my life was to be “precisely unfilled”. In the first year of my grieving process I looked for “who” would “replace” this amazing friendship and connection that my dad and I shared.
    Would it be my sister? She was the closest to him in emotional connection. Would it be my boyfriend? Would it be my bestie?
    It’s so strange to think about it now. I actually thought that someone would replace him as that “rock” in my life, that constant, that unconditional love. But no one ever did. No one could!!! Suddenly I realized, I am alone in my own way of reassembling the landscape of my life.
    I would have to continue on living my life, while incorporating my grief as part of my everyday experience.
    Precisely unfilled……

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for this reflection on your first year of grieving your dad. Your comment “I am alone in my own way of reassembling the landscape of my life” strikes such a chord. It’s that ground-shaking realization (of the heart and not the intellect!) that our loved one is truly and profoundly irreplaceable! Precisely unfilled…facing and incorporating that distinct emptiness is not something we are taught to do. Grief as everyday experience is something I want to reflect on and discuss more.


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