I am a widower, a husband, and the father of four wonderful children. All my children have been through hell, but only one of them has reached heaven. His departure from our world was far too soon. At the end of Theodore’s life, I came upon a book by accident (or rather Providence). It was Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son. In it are the thoughts of a Christian philosopher who lost his twenty-five-year-old son, Eric, in a mountain climbing accident. I picked up the book a few weeks after my 14 month-old had passed. What I read crushed my soul, or should I say shined a light on my own crushed soul.
What follows is not a review, but rather some of the more compelling quotes along with my own thoughts and commentary. In terms of reviewing the Lament for a Son, I found it to be similar, but superior, to C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed.
Perhaps my favorite thing about Wolterstorff’s writing is that he is uncompromisingly at odds with the death of his son.
His faith is not the type that tells him to ignore his loss and think happy thoughts, but rather his faith tells him that death is the enemy. He mourns, “It’s so wrong, so profoundly wrong, for a child to die before its parents. It’s hard enough to bury our parents. But that we expect. Our parents belong to our past, our children belong to our future. We do not visualize our future without them. How can I bury my son, my future, one of the next in line? He was meant to bury me!” (16)
Again he tells potential comforters: “But please: 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…To comfort me, you have to come close.” (34) “I will not look away from Eric dead. Its demonic awfulness I will not ignore. I owe that–to him and to God.” (54)
Wolterstorff returns regularly to a theme that every death is as unique as every life.
This is a reality that is usually not considered, but oh so true. Every grief is different, every person is different, and we all experience the shadow of death differently. Yet we all experience it. It’s a crime to force our own expectations on others. “Each death is as unique as each life. Each has its own stamp…To see a young life wither and die is as painful as to see it snapped off.” (24)
Would it have been better to not see our baby say his first words? Would it have been better to experience the loss of a kindergartner? There are no answers to this thinking. Each death is unique. Each death is terrible.
How does one continue living “authentically” when the one (or ones) you love the most have passed?
How can the dead still be part of a family, a friend group, or an organization when they are no longer there? We must remember. We must do the difficult but necessary task of intentionally remembering.
Remembering is at the core of the Christian worldview. He observes, “Remembering: One of the profoundest features of the Christian and Jewish way of being-in-the-world and being-in-history is remembering. ‘Remember,’ ‘do not forget,’ ‘do this as a remembrance.’ We are to hold to the past in remembrance and not let it slide away. For in history we find God.” (28)
At Theodore’s funeral, our Pastor addressed the idea of why this happened.
His answer was that we just don’t know. We do know one thing, however, it is not that God doesn’t care. It cannot be that. Every Sunday we remember his body broken for us. We remember that he cares deeply. We remember because “in history we find God.”
Our family will also remember Theodore. History is all we have. In history, in our own history, we see the stamp of God’s goodness. We see it in the joyful smile of our little boy.
Wolterstorff’s perspective is richly Christian.
He is steeped in the truth of Christian hope–the hope secured by the Resurrection of Jesus. It’s his biblical eschatology that makes him so angry at the present reality of death and suffering. Upon being asked about making peace with his son’s death, he counters, “When the writer of Revelation spoke of the coming of the day of shalom, he did not say that on that day we would live at peace with death. He said that on that day ‘There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’” (63)
There is a feeling that I suppose only the grieving person of faith can know.
My wife and I have discussed it of late. It is the feeling of wanting to be in God’s presence, but being unable to look him in the eye. Despite my firm belief that death is Christ’s enemy and his mission on earth was to defeat sin and death, it is still the case that God had the power to save my son from death.
God allowed Theodore’s death. Even that sentence is hard to write. What’s harder is to fully enjoy the presence of God as I once did. I have an issue that I’d love to discuss, but I know it would go nowhere. I have questions that demand answers. If I press hard, I’m sure to get an answer like Job did: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.” (Job 38:4) I know I don’t understand, so should I shut up.
Wolterstorff explores this feeling. The feeling of faith mixed with anger, disappointment, and unresolved conflict. “Faith Endures; but my address to God is uncomfortably, perplexingly, altered. It’s off-target, qualified. I want to ask for Eric back. But I can’t. So I aim around the bull’s-eye. I want to ask that God protect the members of my family. But I asked that for Eric. I must explore The Lament as a mode for my address to God.” (70)
Like Woltestorff, Psalm 42 is the only prayer I can really offer to my God.
As a deer pants for flowing streams, My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?”…I say to God, my rock: Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning?… Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.Psalm 42
In the Scripture, we have the tremendous, usually untapped, resource–the prayers of the saints of old. In these Psalms we see praise, but we also see frustration and sorrow. I must make these my own words. If I align my heart with the words of Scripture, faith will endure. In these times, the Psalms are all the words we have.
Finally, this journey of suffering takes us to the man of suffering.
The man who is said to be “acquainted with grief.” In Christ, we experience the God who suffers. Wolterstorff states, “God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. The pain and fallenness of humanity have entered into his heart. Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God.” (81)
I close with the words of Scripture on which Wolterstorff meditated deeply. May your own soul draw strength from these words.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.Matthew 5:4
Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.Psalm 116:15