Wednesday, October 7, 2009

In Common

I would hardly put myself in the C.S. Lewis category (thanks, though, Cynthia), but it does seem that the experience of what Lisa so aptly terms "crushing" loss does generate universal responses.

Probably the best book I have read, several times over, in the past thirteen (Oh God, soon to be fourteen) months is Nicholas Wolterstorff's Lament for a Son. It was recommended by several people, and given to me by others. My Greek professor (yes, a friendship had developed out of my interminable struggles with that miserable language) said that she had thought to give it to me a year ago but felt it was too soon. By that time, I had already devoured it. Those of us who read incessantly tend to find what we need, sooner or later.

It's not a book applicable only to those who have lost young adult children, but neither is it for the faint of heart. Wolterstorff, an emeritus professor of theological philosophy at Yale, lost a 25-year-old son to a mountain climbing accident, and does not gloss over either the concrete, bodily details of death and burial or the desperate questions of heart and faith that follow such a tragedy. The vignettes are poignant and honest and brutal; in fact, I think that the book served as a model for this blog.

Sadly, I have had occasion to recommend it to the priest who is my spiritual director, as a consequence of three sudden deaths in his parish a couple of weeks ago. He mentioned last night that he had followed my suggestion to purchase several copies to have on hand, which caused me to return to the book for another perusal, after several months away from it. In light of what I had just written, I found this passage arresting:

"Don't say it's really not 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. .... To comfort me, you have to come close.

I know: People do sometimes think things are more awful than they really are. ... But no one thinks death is more awful than it is. It's those who think it's not so bad that need correcting."*

I recall a similar passage in C.S. Lewis as well, which I believe I have also quoted here. (Found it ~ in my other blog, here. Not quite the same, but always worth reading.) It seems that the experience of feeling oneself not heard, of sensing one's feelings being glossed over or ignored, of seeing that others are afraid to stare death in the face as you have been compelled to do, is a common one, and one that demands a forceful protest.

Interestingly, one of my most vivid memories from an early reading of Lament for a Son is of a passage in which Wolterstorff learns of a friend's son's death by suicide. He thinks that that must be easier, to discover that your child did not want to live, and discovers that he is wrong. I myself had thought that it would be easier to lose a child who died doing something he loved, and I was wrong as well. There is no easier. And we all, even those of us who are here in the midst of it, struggle to be present to the rest of us.

* Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1987) pp. 34-35.


Mompriest said...

I have walked with so many, that road at the end of life. Thank you for this book.

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

Thank you for this quotation in particular:

""Don't say it's really not 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. .... To comfort me, you have to come close."

When my brother died unexpectedly 9 years ago . . . because he refused to seek treatment for a repaired abdominal aneurysm that popped open again . . . my sister in law (my husband's sister) kept obsessing about how hard it must be for my mom. And I had no wish to deny that it is unimaginably horrible to lose a child, but I needed my SIL to honor her relationship with ME by acknowledging my pain at losing the oldest brother who had adored me since I was born. She couldn't do it because of her investment in her own self-image as a mother and it hurt bitterly. I've never been able to tell her that. I should have, but I was tending to myself and didn't.

It feels petty that I have never let this go. Yet reading that it was ok for me to be hurt at having my pain dismissed helps me to think I don't have to cling to the outrage anymore. Because maybe I don't need to prove to anyone, least of all myself, that I had a right to it.

karen gerstenberger said...

"...seeing that others are afraid to stare death in the face as you have been compelled to do..." Boy, do I get this. Now that we have been forced to face it, the company of those who are afraid to do so isn't very attractive to me. Yet it's not their fault that they have been spared, thus far; I wouldn't wish this experience on anyone!
What I would wish for everyone is the strength to face LIFE, which includes birth AND death. We just aren't all taught well about how to deal with the difficulties of this life, living as we do in a wealthy country, with many illusions of security around us.

It's natural for humans to have fear of loss and pain. Many times we get that mixed up with fear of death. I don't think death is to be feared; it's to be expected. It's the suffering that I'd like to avoid!
Thanks for your clear and fearless writing.
To Ruth, thank you for stating your own pain. Reading that sheds light on a situation in my life.

Karen and Joe said...

"Lament for a Son"-- also my favorite.

I have also learned that nothing can make a death easier. Every death has it's own custom elements, known only to those closest, that make it uniquely crushing. My daughters often feel that no one acknowledges their grief, but only mine.Their grief is just as intense, but it's different because they lost someone different--a brother with whom they shared their childhood secrets, inside jokes about their mom and dad, and events where we weren't even present. They know and feel things we don't even know.
And for them, "death is evil and demonic", too.

Michelle said...

I think that is why I find comfort in some of the psalms, which do not say "there, there" but "how long, O Lord" and "where is my God?"

I would say that the Exercises taught me to sit in that space, to face death, but that's not really true. Having sat there already, the Exercises pulled all my experiences into that 3rd week. It was no less painful.

We say we can't imagine another's pain -- I still suspect that what we are really saying is that I don't want to imagine it. But how else can we truly listen?

Gannet Girl said...

Karen and Ruth, you are both so right.

My brother and I share something very special, because we are the only two people who experienced our losses as children. Our sense of loss as siblings and children of a dead brother and mother has seldom been acknowledged.

And I have done it, too. Occasionally I comment on the lack of understanding borne out of life experience that some of my younger classmates in seminary demonstrate, and my surviving children, who are 25 and 22, roll their eyes and point out that they have acquired plenty of said experience and that I have no idea who may be in similar situations.

Joan Calvin said...

I would like to quote a part of your blog on Breakfast II for my sermon on Job. I love the way you wove the idea of happiness with the Presby and Catholic understanding of our purpose in life. The congregation has suffered so many losses and some I think feel the need to put on the good face and "be happy." I want them to know that Job and God give them permission to grieve. (And I think also not to grieve but to put on a happy face if that's what they need to do. I want to respect their choice, but gently let them know that they are loved no matter.)


Gannet Girl said...

I am honored, Joan; of course you can use it.

Jennifer said...

I've loved this book for a long time without the profound experience you've had and am glad to know that it feels real and helpful to one who knows this journey intimately.