The slim little book, LAMENT FOR A SON, by Nicolas Wolterstorff was a lifeline for me in the first few weeks after Dominic ran ahead to heaven.
It wasn’t just because both of our young adult sons died in an accident.
It was mostly because Wolterstorff refused to distill the experience down to one-liners.
He admitted that (even ten years later-which was the copy of the book I received) he was still struggling to make sense of all the feelings and spiritual implications of child loss.
And I love, love, love that he picks out every single thread and follows it as far as it goes.
Here is an excerpt on suffering:
What is suffering? When something prized or loved is ripped away or never granted — work, someone loved, recognition of one’s dignity, life without physical pain — that is suffering.
Or rather, that is when suffering happens. What it IS, I do not know. For many days I had been reflecting on it. Then suddenly, as I watched the flicker of orange-pink evening light on almost still water, the thought overwhelmed me: I understand nothing of it. Of pain, yes: cut fingers, broken bones. Of sorrow and suffering, nothing at all. Suffering is a mystery as deep as any in our existence. It is not of course a mystery whose reality some doubt. Suffering keeps its face hid from each while making itself known to all.
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. Some do not suffer much, though, for they do not love much. Suffering is for the loving. If I hadn’t loved him, there wouldn’t be this agony.
This, said Jesus, is the command of the Holy One: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ In commanding us to love, God invites us to suffer.
~Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son
My heart receives two truths from his words:
that if I love, I WILL suffer. That’s the nature of love-risking all for the benefit of another means that my heart is ultimately in their hands; and
pain is part of but not all of suffering. Pain can often be dulled, dealt with, the source remedied. Suffering is a state of the heart, mind, soul and spirit. It can rarely be undone. It must simply be endured.
Understanding that the only way I could never suffer would be to never love helped me embrace this blow with a willing heart. Even if I had known it was coming, I would still have chosen to love my son. All the years I had are worth all the years I will carry this burden.
And understanding that there is no cure for suffering changes my perspective from looking for a way out to looking for a way to persevere.
Nicholas Wolterstorff will never know my name but I will never forget his.
I am so grateful for Wolterstorff’s words.
So thankful that he chose to share them with others.
Forever in his debt for being one of the first hands proffered to me on this journey.
No one chooses pain. No one chooses to bury a child or live with chronic disease or the after effects of stroke.
But others get to choose whether they come alongside, practice compassion, serve as witness and call out courage or just walk away-thankful it’s not them that suffer.
THAT’S a choice.
The news goes out over Facebook, over phone lines, over prayer chains and everyone shows up.
Crowds in the kitchen, in the living room, spilling onto the lawn.
It’s what you do.
And it’s actually the easiest part. Lots of people, lots of talking, lots of activity keep the atmosphere focused on the deceased and the family. The conversation rarely dips to deeper waters or digs into harder ground: “Where was God?”; “Why him?”; “Why do ‘bad’ things happen to ‘good’ people?”
But eventually the busyness and noise gives way to stillness and silence.
This came up in a bereaved parents’ support group and I thought it was a great question: “When you meet someone for the first time, do you tell them about your missing child?”
It’s one of those practical life skills bereaved parents have to figure out.
I remember when it dawned on me a few months after Dominic left us that I would meet people who wouldn’t know he was part of my story unless I told them.
It was a devastating thought.
I had no idea how I would face the first time it happened.
Since then I’ve developed a script and guidelines, but it can still be awkward.
If the person I meet is going to be part of a ongoing relationship or partnership then I tell them fairly soon about Dominic. Depending on who they are, how I sense they may be able to deal with it and if I feel comfortable enough I may give more or fewer details. The main thing I try to communicate in sharing is that I will behave in ways they might not understand without the context of child loss. I’m not looking for sympathy or special consideration but “bereaved parent” is as much a part of my identity as “married”.
If I am attending a social function and it’s a casual “meet and greet” then I won’t mention Dominic in terms of his death unless the conversation lends itself to that revelation. No need to burden acquaintances with my story or run the risk of changing a celebratory mood to a sad one.
I always say I have four children-because I do.But I don’t have to give details. If the person insists I tell them more about my children it’s fairly easy to steer the conversation toward a detail or two about my living children without the person noticing it doesn’t add up to four.
I make sure to tell health professionals about Dominic because the stress, physical, emotional and mental changes grief has wrought are integral to my treatment plan. I’ve had a couple of new doctors since Dom ran ahead and received different responses from them when I shared. One seemed to understand the impact of child loss while another just continued typing without any acknowledgement of what I revealed.
My son’s death is not a dirty secret.
I don’t have to hide it to protect others.
But it is also not a “poor me” card that I fling on the table of relationships trying to manipulate others into showing me special consideration.
I want people to know Dominic.
So I share.
I don’t want people to only think of him in terms of his death.
Trigger warning: I discuss my loss in terms of falling. If you have lost a loved one to that kind of accident, you might want to skip this post. ❤
I really don’t know how to explain it to anyone who has not had to repeatedly face their greatest fear.
It takes exactly as much courage.
Every. Single. Time.
I have had a dozen major surgeries in my life. I am always just as anxious when they start the countdown to anesthesia. Doesn’t matter what they push in my IV line-that moment when I realize I am relinquishing all control to the hands of others frightens me.
I feel like I am falling over the edge of a cliff-nothing to hold onto, no way to stop what’s coming, no way to clamber back up and change my mind or change what’s about to happen.
It’s the same every spring since Dominic ran ahead to heaven.
From the middle of March to the middle of April my body responds to cues my mind barely registers. Sights, smells, change in the length of the day, the direction of the prevailing wind-a hundred tiny stimuli make my nerves fire in chorus declaring, “It’s almost THAT day!”
There is another underlying dissonance that begs the question, “Why didn’t you see it coming?” Or, at least, “Why didn’t you spend a little more time with him on those last two visits home?”
Dominic was busy that spring-an internship with a local judge, papers and responsibilities as a journal editor along with the demanding reading load of second year Law School meant he didn’t make the 30 miles home all that often.
But there were a couple days he came our way in the month before he died.
One was to bring a friend’s car and do a bunch of work on it. That day was chilly and I popped out a few times to chit chat as they labored under the shed in the yard. I made lunch and visited with them then.
Still, I kind of felt like I shouldn’t hover over my grown son even though I really missed him and wanted badly to talk to him about something other than car parts.
The jacket he wore and dirtied that day with oil and grease and dirt and gravel grit is still hanging in what we use as a mud room.
Because they were coming back to do more repairs in a few weeks.
It is only now finally free of the last scent of him.
The next visit was on a day when I was busy, he was busy and we were all frustrated over equipment that wasn’t working properly. He brought me some medicine from the vet in town for a sick horse and spoke briefly about whether or not we’d cut some fallen limbs in a bit. Then he went to help his brother try to get the backhoe cranked. I was suffering from a severe flare in my ankle so was only able to hobble out to the spot the stupid thing had stopped for just a minute before needing to hobble back inside to put my foot up and allow it to rest.
He left early because I wasn’t up to cutting logs and neither he nor his brother could crank the infernal machine.
I remember that before he left, I made a point of turning him to face me and hugging him tight while telling him how very proud I was of him and everything he was doing and becoming. A little unusual because Dominic was the least huggable of all my children. He was no cuddler.
It was not a premonition-I was prompted by the knowledge he was going into finals and had been stressed lately.
But I am so glad I did it.
And then-poof!-time flies like time does and he and his brother were off on a Spring Break trip. They texted me faithfully to let me know they made it safely to their destination, safely to my parents’ home in Florida for a few days after that and then safely back home.
I never saw him alive again.
Spring is not my favorite season anymore.
While my heart can appreciate the promise of new life declared in every budding flower, every unfurling leaf, every newborn bird and calf and lamb, it is also aware that every living thing dies.
I’m on the edge and falling off.
I can’t stop it.
And it’s just as frightening this time as last time.
I’ve been thinking long and hard about forgiveness lately.
What is it, exactly?
If I forgive then must I also forget? If I forgive then must I also allow unfettered access into my life? If I forgive then do I have to pretend the wounds inflicted by the offense don’t still hurt?
Here’s what I have so far:
Forgiveness means letting go of the feelings surrounding the offense. It means no longer expecting an apology, restitution, repentance, restoration. It means trusting that whatever work needs to take place in the heart and life of the one who has injured me will have to be done in and through them by the power of God, not by me holding their feet to the fire.
Forgiveness means extricating my own heart from the bonds of expectation regarding the other person. We start fresh. Clean slate. I lay down my hopes for how that person should/will/might treat me. It’s a way of liberating myself regardless of whether they choose to remain in bondage to bad habits, a bad temper or unfruitful relationships.
Forgiveness means I have stopped looking to the other person for healing. I must tend my own wounds, work my own field of feelings, deal with my own shortcomings, poor choices and habitual sins. I can no longer use another person’s action or inaction as an excuse for my own delayed healing.
Forgiveness means that I can and should erect appropriate boundaries. Every relationship is not a mission field. I am not required to lay down my life to enable another person’s bad behavior. If the person I forgive chooses not to change hurtful behavior, then I do not have to give them access to my heart and life. I can be kind, receptive and compassionate but I do not have to hug them close just to make it easier for them to hurt me again.
Forgiveness means that I don’t use my injury at the hands of that person to malign his or her reputation. If I have released that person from obligation to me through forgiveness, then I must choose to lay down the offense and not mention it to others. (This, to me, is a good test of whether or not I’ve forgiven someone.)
Forgiveness is an act of my will regardless of the other person’s response to my choice. Love, kindness and forgiveness are in essence the proffered hand. If the person to whom it is extended slaps it away, then it’s on them. I may be ready for a sea change, but the other person may still be resisting
Some people are easy to forgive!
They recognize how their actions or words have wounded my heart and they ask for forgiveness.
Others are much harder!
They either choose to ignore or are unable to see that they have hurt me.
But I am called to forgive regardless because I have been forgiven.
I’ve spent the past two days fighting anxiety and panic.
Breath caught mid-throat, chest pounding, sobs threatening, head throbbing-just like that first day 47 months ago.
A series of events broke down the defense I’ve carefully constructed that helps me make it through most days without tears.
I did pretty good.
I managed a family dinner, church and a covered dish luncheon with no one any the wiser.
Underneath it all I was barely hanging on.
I love that my words give expression to my feelings, thoughts and experience and also help others give expression to theirs. But sometimes I’m afraid that the people closest to me think that because I can write about it, I must be a bit beyond it-detached, clinical, untouched.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
I feel every. single. thing.
My heart hurts like every other bereaved parent. My brain struggles to comprehend the reality of my son’s death and a lifetime without his earthly companionship. I fight for my faith. I cry out to God. I feel lonely, misunderstood, abandoned, frightened, and so, so sad.