On losing a child
June 2, 2013 § 1 Comment
As readers of this blog know, the school where I work (Xavier College Preparatory, in Palm Desert, CA) recently lost one of its seniors in a skateboarding accident. His name was Greg, and he died on Palm Sunday, just a couple months shy of his high school graduation.
Yesterday, at the graduation ceremony, our principal and dean of students handed his parents a diploma. It was, as you can imagine, a moment that brought many to tears. It brought many of us right back to the hospital room, to the funeral, to the sorrow of the days immediately following his fall. Some of my colleagues cried for the rest of the ceremony.
After Greg’s death, I began thinking a lot about the ordeal of his parents, what they would now be enduring. Since I have no way to understand their pain, I decided to turn to a memoir that I had long heard of but had never gotten around to reading. It’s called Lament for a Son, and it is written by the former Yale theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff. Wolterstorff’s son Eric, at age 25, died in a hiking accident.
It’s a short and wrenching book, an honest and haunting and beautiful wrestling with the fundamental questions and mysteries of our brief hours on this earth. It confirms how deeply, inexplicably devastating it is to lose a child and how so many of our theological certainties can be shattered by the events of life. But it also confirms the hope that can emerge, however slowly, through a perspective of faith. It is eloquent, bearing traces of St. Augustine, C.S. Lewis, and the Book of Job.
Everyone is, of course, different, but I felt I owed it to Greg’s family, and to the countless other families (here and around the world) who have lost a child to make some effort to reduce some of my ignorance, to eliminate some of the distance between them and me.
A few excerpts from Wolterstorff’s book that reveal the darkness and the agony:
There’s a hole in the world now. In the place where he was, there’s now just nothing. A center, like no other, of memory and hope and knowledge and affection which once inhabited this earth is gone. Only a gap remains. A perspective on this world unique in this world which once moved about within this world has been rubbed out. Only a void is left. There’s nobody now who saw just what he saw, knows what he knew, remembers what he remembered, loves what he loved. A person, an irreplaceable person, is gone.
Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.
I buried myself that warm June day. It was me those gardeners lowered on squeaking straps into that hot dry hole, curious neighborhood children looking down in at me, everyone stilled, wind rustling the oaks. It was me over whom we slid that heavy slab, more than I can lift. It was me on whom we shoveled dirt. It was me we left behind, after reading psalms.
But even in the face of the above, Wolterstorff finds that he cannot fall into the abyss:
When I survey this gigantic world, I cannot believe that it just came about. I do not mean that I have some good arguments for its being made and that I believe in the arguments. I mean that this conviction wells up irresistibly within me when I contemplate the world. The experiment of trying to abolish it does not work. When looking at the heavens, I cannot manage to believe that they do not declare the glory of God. When looking at the earth, I cannot bring off the attempt to believe that it does not display his handiwork.
Faith is a footbridge that you don’t know will hold you up over the chasm until you’re forced to walk out onto it
We are one in suffering. Some are wealthy, some bright; some athletic, some admired. But we all suffer. For we all prize and love; and in this present existence of ours, prizing and loving yield suffering. Love in our world is suffering love.
“Put your hand into my wounds,” said the risen Jesus to Thomas, “and you will know who I am.” The wounds of Christ are his identity. They tell us who he is. He did not lose them. They went down into the grave with him and they came up with him — visible, tangible, palpable. Rising did not remove them. He who broke the bonds of death kept his wounds.
To believe in Christ’s rising and death’s dying is also to live with the power and the challenge to rise up now from all our dark graves of suffering love. If sympathy for the world’s wounds is not enlarged by our anguish, if love for those around us is not expanded, if gratitude for what is good does not flame up, if insight is not deepened, if commitment to what is important is not strengthened, if aching for a new world is not intensified, if hope is weakened and faith diminished, if from the experience of death comes nothing good, then death has won. Then death, be proud.
So I shall struggle to live the reality of Christ’s rising and death’s dying. In my living, my son’s dying will not be the last word. But as I rise up, I bear the wounds of his death. My rising does not remove them. They mark me. If you want to know who I am, put your hand in.