Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book Lament for a Son is a short book. Topping just over a hundred pages, many of which are only half written, he honors the life of his son Eric who died tragically in a mountain climbing accident. Within its contents we are given a glimpse of what it means to experience the soul-scaring pain of grief, and how a Christian conscience deals with irreplaceable loss. Though it is short, no one should read this book in one sitting. One cannot help but stop and think about how love can be better expressed to those who care for us and those whom we care for.
A little bit about the author, Wolterstorff is a gifted philosopher who teaches at Yale University, and is known for his ability to master new disciplines in a short amount of time and then contribute to them with great fluency. He is best known for his work in epistemology, aesthetics, philosophy of religion, and political philosophy. And though he makes his living working and communicating within the upper echelons of academia, his exceptional writing style is personal and approachable to the common person—the person who could suffer grief.
Here are some snippets:
“It’s the neverness that is so painful. Never again to be here with us—never to sit with us at table, never to travel with us, never to laugh with us, never to embrace us as he leaves for school, never to see his brothers and sister marry, All the rest of our lives we must live without him. Only our death can stop the pain.”
“All around us are his things: his clothes, his books, his camera, the things he has made—pots, drawings, slides, photos, notes, papers. They speak with forked tongue, words of joyful pride and words of sorrow. Do we put them all behind doors to muffle the sorrow or leave them out to hear them tell of the hands that shaped them? We shall leave them out. We will not store the pots, not turn the photos. We will put them where they confront us. This is a remembrance, as a memorial.
“But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as a 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 skimmed some books on grief. They offered ways of not looking at death and pain in the face, ways of turning away from death out there to one’s own inner “grief process” and then, on that, laying the heavy hand of rationality. I will not have it so. I will not look away. I will indeed remind myself that there’s more to life than pain. I will accept joy. But I will not look away from Eric dead. Its demonic awfulness I will not ignore. I owe that—to him and to God.”
“Blessed are those who mourn… Who then are the mourners? The mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God’s new day, who ache with all their being for that new day’s coming, and break out into tears when confronted with its absence. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm of peace there is no one blind and who ache whenever they see someone unseeing. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one hungry and ache whenever they see someone starving. They are the ones who realize that the in God’s realm there is no one falsely accused and who ache whenever they see someone imprisoned unjustly… They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm of peace there is neither death nor tears and who ache whenever they see someone crying tears over death. The mourners are aching visionaries.”
“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.”
Wolterstorff’s thoughts are written in what might have been a diary. Day by day he catalogs the pain of grief, the thoughts it inspires, and the emotions felt. He mocks the vanity of trying to think of “solutions” to the problem of evil or pious answers that appeal to God’s sovereignty. The idea of God shaking Eric off the mountain, as he puts it, is “deaf to the gospel.” The gospel is about God’s overcoming death. To offer comfort by saying he causes it, is no comfort at all.
Instead, Wolterstorff embraces the suffering and pain caused by death and finds in God an attribute of compassion that weeps with him as well. What emerges in the end is a God of passion who grieves deeply along with the grief of his creatures. To love is to suffer. “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.” Love in our kind of world is suffering love.
Of course, in this view, why could there not be a world where love-without-suffering is meaningful? This is a question Wolterstorff cannot answer. It compounds his “gaping wound” into a “gaping question.” For now, all we can do is work towards love, justice and mercy and lament those instances where they are thwarted. Our labor is not in vain, however, as God is working for and alongside us.