For seven hours, we could not leave his bedside. The respiratory therapist continually suctioned from his lungs a pink froth, the sickly foam that clogs airways when lung capillaries break apart.
Nurses rushed nonstop to draw blood work, check results, and inject medications to prod his heart to contract. We pumped dozens of blood products into his veins, and the blood bank struggled to keep up.
“We don’t have enough platelets. You need to slow down,” they pleaded.
“We can’t. He’s dying in front of us.”
His mother watched our efforts with a hardened jaw, as if any inkling of sentiment would shatter her. In turn, I avoided her gaze, afraid that prolonged contact would send my mind reeling. I struggled to push from my thoughts the idea that she once cradled and nursed him, and how just weeks earlier she may have beamed as he posed for pictures in a high school graduation gown.
For over seven hours, we operated, transfused, titrated, and operated again. His blood thinned to the consistency of water and oozed from every surface. When his heart finally lurched into spasms and stopped, we performed CPR, shocked him, and even opened his chest to massage his heart in our hands. Despite all our desperation and striving, his heart remained still.
When the end arrived, the sedateness to which his mother clung evaporated. She screamed, a howl that drowned out the usual murmurs and alarms of the ICU. She clutched my shoulders and dropped to the ground, dragging me toward the floor with her.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled.
I hated the euphemism of my own words. When I realized that she had buried her head into her son’s bloodstain on my scrubs, grief rose within me like a tide. It tightened my chest and lodged in my throat. I broke away from her embrace and rushed to the bathroom. With remorse stealing my breath, I closed the door to a dingy tiled room, leaned over the sink, and sobbed.
As the tears streamed hot down my face, I felt guilty for shedding them. What right did I have to cry? I had just left a mother whose son died in my hands. She had a right to cry. I, on the other hand, had failed. The team and the family remained at the patient’s bedside, while I hid and blubbered. In a moment of shame, I wiped my face with a paper towel, and inhaled a few deep, tremulous breaths. I examined myself in the mirror, with my face flushed and my eyes reddened. Pull yourself together, I thought. I blotted my eyes one more time, and returned to work.
Don’t Be a Crybaby
Pull yourself together. In the face of such a harrowing struggle for life, the admonishment sounds absurd, even condescending. Yet from childhood, imperatives compel us to swallow our tears:
Big boys don’t cry.
Don’t be a crybaby.
Never let them see you cry.
To cry, we reflexively believe, is to admit insufficiency and insecurity. We live in a culture that idolizes power and equates sadness with weakness. Suppress your tears, we learn, so that no one suspects you hurt. Conceal your heartache, and you can deny its very existence. If you blot your eyes and breathe deep, you can pretend the pain isn’t there, that it’s not corroding your heart and emptying you of all hope.
Even as believers, we may feel unworthy of grief in light of Christ’s sacrifice for us. We know that through Christ we have a living hope in the new heavens and the new earth, and that, “surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (1 Peter 1:3–4; Revelation 21:1; Isaiah 53:4).
How can we succumb to anguish, we ask, when God loved us so deeply that he gave his Son for us (John 3:16)?
How can we cry when we know the joy of rebirth in Christ, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:4–7)?
Popular psychology encourages us to embrace crying, to resist the narrow-mindedness of western culture. Studies even suggest that crying has health benefits, releasing endorphins into the bloodstream and ridding the body of stress hormones.
Yet the issue penetrates deeper than science or society. Sorrows arise from our sin nature, from our brokenness as a people. From a biblical standpoint, the only initial response to sadness — to the crippled matters of a world wrenched from God’s perfection — is lamentation.
When Satan decimated his property, destroyed his family, and afflicted him with sores, Job — a man “blameless” before God — fell to the ground in anguish and mourned (Job 1:8, 20). Even this man of utmost integrity, whom God praised, wrestled and cried in the face of suffering.
In the garden of Gethsemane, as he anticipated the cross, Jesus was “very sorrowful, even to death,” and “being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Matthew 26:38; Luke 22:44).
Jesus also wept when Lazarus died. He knew the Father would empower him to raise Lazarus from death. He had absolute assurance in the Father’s sovereignty and goodness. Yet when faced with the death of a friend, he wept, prompting onlookers to remark, “See how he loved him!” (John 11:33–36).
That Christ himself wept illuminates the importance of grief. Christ wept out of love. When we open ourselves to the outcries of our hearts, we embrace the value of that which we mourn. We declare that there exists things in this world of great worth, of meaning, of preciousness. We honor God through both treasuring his workmanship and lamenting its loss.
The path of believers does not ensure worldly comfort and prosperity. To the contrary, Christ promised that we will suffer. “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Matthew 10:22).
Amid our grief, we rest in the assurance that “the one who endures to the end will be saved” and that when Christ returns, “he will wipe away every tear” (Matthew 10:22; Revelation 21:4).
Yet in the meantime, while still locked in a fallen world, we “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). We lament in our sorrows, and thirst for God. We embrace a grieving mother as she collapses to the floor, and cry along with her.
Years later, I again found myself hovering beside a dying young man. At the end, his family asked me to join them in his last moments. They held hands around his bedside. They played his favorite music. As the ventilator sighed, we stood together and watched the numbers linked to his heartbeat slow and falter. And in that moment, as I prayed in earnest, I wept.