Lament for a Son

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.


8 thoughts on “Lament for a Son

  1. Chad says:

    “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.”

    Very powerful…

    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.

    Very cool…

    Thanks Adam.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Is there anything you can say to me….i am….i mean ….was the mother of a wonderful 23 year old son who died from cancer, just three months ago.

    i am heartbroken……

    • Oh, Jennifer… I am so sorry for your loss… our children are our hopes and our dreams… there is nothing as painful as what you are going through… Just don’t forget to breathe… and take heart, the intensity of the pain does lessen, though it will be with you always, it just won’t kick as hard as it does now… Its been four years now since my son passed… I still miss him with every beat of my heart and every breath I take… but like this book says, its just part of who we are now…
      and listen, you still ARE the mother of your son… he’s just gone into another realm, the realm of the eternal, but he IS still your son… and you will see him again one day… I truly believe that…
      I will pray for you…
      I am a part of a group called “Listening Hearts” a gathering for Bereaved Moms… email us a picture of your son and tell us all about him… we would love to hear… and email me if you’d like to talk…

  3. Anne London Weinstein says:

    My sister died of an inoperable brain tumour discovered a month before her death. My mom is 75 and shattered beyond repair. My sister had just finished law school and her articles and was to be called to the bar last Wednesday. She never made it. She leaves a seven year old son and her husband.

  4. I lost a 25 year old son almost four years ago… I just ran across Mr. Wolterstorff’s book and it SO MINISTERED to me… this book is just how I feel… I don’t think I found one thing in it that I cannot relate to… I have read several books about grief since August 14, 2006, but NONE spoke to my heart like this one… and I totally believe what he said about God’s suffering…

  5. Suzanne says:

    July 22nd 2010 is the worst day and year of my life. Losing my son Chris in a motorcycle accident has left me devastated and angry. Praying all the specific prayers for him asking God to spare his life, speaking life over him and not death. All the ways we are instructed to pray ask anything in my name and it will be done. Don’t ask amiss, is it wrong to ask for life? Everyday could not be more painful. I hate getting up to feel this pain. What happen to if two or more agree it shall be done. How many times I have prayed alone and in groups for this son.

  6. gerry says:

    Fellow mourners,

    On May 1, 2010 I had lunch with my son for the very last time. On May 4 ( Tuesday evening ) I had my very last telephone conversation with him. On May 5, sometime after 3:30 PM he very privately and selfishly took his own life. As Nicholas says, if you want to know me, put your hand inside ( my gaping wound ). In less than a year I have come to realize this is something that will always be with me until death releases me from it. I look at my life before he died, and I think how incredibly fortunate I was, but I didn’t know it then. And nothing will change that, here on earth.

    On May 5, our family plans to convene to read the requiem together ( at the back of the book ), to sit quietly with our tears, to share with our words and tears, to hug and to hold each other and to watch once again, the video that we put together for his service.

    I know your pain because I have it, and I know how I can almost suffer a panic attack when I can’t get past the fact this is the way it is, and it won’t change. God has said he will suffer with us in this life, and walk with us as we do so, but I don’t expect him to reverse what has happened. I just hope we will spend eternity together.

  7. Thomas R. Hunt says:

    On Wednesday, April 7, 2010 my 22 year old son and
    the sunshine of my life was killed riding his bicycle in Boston, Massachusetts. Eric was in his final year of college majoring in computer engineering software when he was struck by a commuter bus.

    Everything you will ever need to know about Eric
    is contained in the following: my son was an organ
    donor and two days after his accident skin tissue
    was removed to be used in children with defective hearts, eyesight and cleft palates.

    As the local paper reported,”hearts will now beat, eyes will now see and children will now smile because Eric was here”.

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