In the movie Gods and Generals, the great southern general Stonewall Jackson befriends a little girl at her family’s plantation. But young Janie Corbin soon dies of scarlet fever, and the general breaks down, sobbing uncontrollably.
After so many bloody battles, one of his soldiers wonders why the general never cried for his many men who died. Another soldier observes, “I believe he is crying for us all.”
It was only a sentimental scene in a movie, but it effectively captures my own experience with projected grief. I recall a time when several of us had gone to visit the family of a newborn baby. We knew the child was not going to live long.
When I saw that beautiful infant lying in the crib, struggling to breathe, a volcano of emotions suddenly bled out of me. From somewhere deep inside my spirit, convulsing sobs wrenched their way to the surface. This was all so manifestly wrong! Babies shouldn’t suffer like this.
I have long wondered why that moment struck me so hard. Then I read Lorilee Craker’s booklet on adoption. Craker is both an adoptee and an adoptive mom, and she dares to take an honest look at a topic that until recently was seldom discussed—the grief of adoption.
“Something in me broke the day I was relinquished by my first mother,” she writes. “On some level, the adoptee always pines over the loss of their original family.”
Significant to this story is the fact that I’m adopted myself. Much of what is commonly “understood” about adoption is actually misunderstood. I’m eternally grateful for my adoptive family. However . . .
. . . People often say things that aren’t all that particularly informed; it’s easy to forget that each person’s situation is different. In many cases of adoption, two profound wounds are ignored or overlooked: One is the wound of the baby separated from its mother. The other is the indelible wound of the mother who had to give up her child.
My tears next to the crib of that infant may well have been for all babies and parents who face separation. They may have been for my own birth mother. Or for me.
All of this brings me to the point. When home DNA test kits became available, a primary reason for their popularity was the number of adoptees and birth parents trying to find each other.
My wife had no trouble talking me into taking such a test. My wonderful adoptive parents were gone, so I didn’t need to consider how it might affect them.
It took a couple of years, but one day we got a message from someone in Europe wondering how we could be so closely related. According to the test, we were first cousins. He didn’t know of any Americans in the family.
Ah, but his mother did, and so did his Aunt Cilly—my Aunt Cilly. They were still living, and they recalled my American mother fondly. They knew the story. Within hours we had uncovered the fascinating history of my origins in Switzerland (Swiss father, American mother).
The short version of this story is we had a joyful reunion, even though both my birth father and mother had also died. I had siblings (ten in all) and cousins, aunts and uncles, who were thrilled to learn about me. It’s one of the unusual happy endings.
Except, of course, it’s never the end. Because of what I had learned, my nephew wanted to find out about his father’s birth family. (His father is my adoptive brother.) He took the test and got a match right away.
A woman in St. Louis had been looking for my brother—her son—for years. It was late at night when she saw the message on the DNA website. Thinking it was too late to call my nephew, she searched for him on Facebook. She had no trouble finding his page.
Scrolling through my nephew’s feed, she could see no evidence of his father. But then …
She described the moment to me. “I just kept scrolling, and scrolling, and scrolling,” she said. Her voice stopped abruptly. She began again, “And then I saw …” her tears choked out her voice; she didn’t need to finish the sentence.
What she had seen was a photo of a bearded young man with a bright-eyed Labrador retriever. He was seated on the end of a beautiful granite bench. In the background, beneath a typical gray Michigan sky, stood a leafless tree.
A name was chiseled onto the bench—a name she didn’t know. Below the name was a birthdate. She knew the date well. She could never forget it.
And then she saw the cold, uncompromising date of death. The bench was a memorial—a grave marker lovingly placed there to commemorate the death of one who has gone on before us.
The grave was for the son she had been looking for.
Since she had been 16 years old, this dear, sweet 75-year-old woman had thought about and prayed for my brother nearly every single day of her life. And now, in a matter of hours, she had learned about both his life and his death. This side of heaven, my adopted brother’s mother would never meet the child she anguished to bring into the world. The child she had not wanted to give up.
How do you comfort someone in that kind of grief?
At a graveside in Bethany, Jesus stood with the friends and loved ones of his good friend Lazarus. He was about to do what only Jesus could do. He would call his friend out of the grave—raise Lazarus from the dead.
But then we read a strange, cryptic verse: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Why, if he was about to restore Lazarus to his friends and family, was Jesus crying?
It doesn’t make sense that Jesus was crying over the four-day departure of Lazarus from this world; that was nothing to him. He knew the larger perspective. Was he crying for the grief of the people present? Was he crying about the existence of death itself?
In the great prophetic chapter predicting the life and death of Messiah, we learn a great deal about the humanity of Jesus. “He was despised and rejected,” Isaiah says, “a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief” (Isaiah 53:3).
The chapter doesn’t end there. “It was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down” (v. 4). The reason he went to the cross was for us. “He was beaten so we could be whole,” the prophet says. “The Lord laid on him the sins of us all” (vv. 5–6).
Jesus knows our grief. He was one of us. And it was our sorrows that burdened him. Perhaps, when he wept at that graveside, he was crying for us all.
Grief is a gift. Without it, we wouldn’t long for things to be made right. We wouldn’t yearn for restoration to our Creator, and to each other.
Without grief, we wouldn’t know what we’re missing.