That was and still is the great disaster of my life–that lovely, lovely little boy. . . There’s no tragedy in life like the death of a child. Things never get back to the way they were.
–Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969), on the death of his first son at age three
My son, a perfect little boy of five years and three months, had ended his earthly life. You can never sympathize with me; you can never know how much of me such a young child can take away. A few weeks ago I accounted myself a very rich man, and now the poorest of all.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, letter to Thomas Carlyle
My daughter died halfway through the year 2000.
We started that year, “quietly, at home with the children,” I journaled. Although dire Y2K warnings predicted worldwide computer chip failures heralding the Second Coming of Christ or the end of the world, January first that year was a day like any other. As was my practice, I sat with a cup of tea and my journal on the evening of New Year’s Day and reminisced over the previous year, also looking ahead hopefully to what the new year might bring.
The previous year, 1999, had not been a good year. We had trauma upon trauma, with five near-death experiences accruing to family members: a daughter-in-law nearly bled to death after childbirth; twins almost drowned in the swimming pool; my husband had been electrocuted at work and lived to tell about it. My mother used to always say “bad things come in threes,” but to us they had come in fives. I was glad to leave 1999 behind. The year 2000 could not be worse, I thought.
Although I wrote that I hoped to grow in lovingkindness during the new year, I noted that I still felt disabled by the fear so much trauma had caused in 1999. Near-death experiences are almost as good as actual deaths for reminding one of the impermanence of life. They are received as traumas to anyone who is attached to this life.
I haven’t written or spoken publicly about my daughter’s death until now. I recall I could barely communicate about it for the first year after she died. Now it’s time to write about it, and I’m going to write about it here.
Midway through February of 2000, I had an odd urge to read the Old Testament book of Lamentations. What then seemed like an odd urge, I now see as an intuitive knowing. The Spirit searches all things, so at our deepest selves we know things in the unconscious. I think some part of me knew that cause for lamenting would soon be upon us, that death and undoing were already at work in our daughter’s body. On January 1, 2000 we didn’t know, and couldn’t have known that our 11-year-old daughter was already dying: To all outward appearances, she was the picture of health.
The book of Lamentations begins:
How lonely sits the city that was full of people!
She has become like a widow who was once great among the nations!
She who was once great among the provinces has become a forced laborer. . .
All her majesty has departed from the daughter of Zion;
Her princes have become like bucks that have found no pasture;
And they have fled without strength before the pursuer.
An ominous enough beginning, but what follows in this ancient book is chilling. I listed all the lamentations (and accusations) that Jeremiah recorded:
From on high He sent fire into my bones!
He has spread a net for my feet…
He has turned me back…
He has made me desolate…
He has made my strength to fail…
The LORD has given me into the hands of those against whom I am not able to stand.
He has called an appointed time against me to crush my young men…
Far from me is a comforter, one who restores my soul.
He has drawn back his right hand…
He has burned in Jacob like a flaming fire
He has bent his bow like an enemy
He has set his right hand like an adversary, and slain the pleasant
He has poured out his wrath like fire
He has swallowed up Israel
He has destroyed its strongholds and multiplied mourning and moaning
He has violently treated His tabernacle
He has destroyed His appointed meeting place
He has despised king and priest
He has abandoned His sanctuary
He has beseiged and encompassed me
He has made me dwell in dark places
He has walled me in so I cannot go out,
He has made my chain heavy.
He has blocked my ways
He has made my paths crooked
He is like a bear lying in wait
He is like a lion in secret places
He has filled me with bitterness
He has made me drunk with wormwood
He has broken my teeth like gravel
He has made me cower in the dust
Into the Pit
This could not have a good ending. And it doesn’t: Jeremiah wrote, “My enemies have silenced me in the pit and have placed a stone on me” (Lamentations 3:53). We see here a foreshadowing of the death of Christ and, one hopes, the resurrection. I am reminded that the human life is, as Buddha said, one of suffering. Or, to put it as Christ did, “In this world, you have tribulation…”.
Lately, the journals of Mother Teresa have been in the news. She experienced much spiritual and emotional darkness as she worked with and served the sick and dying in the streets of Calcutta. If there was ever a spiritual giant who didn’t experience darkness and the silence of the pit, I haven’t heard of them. Today, when I look back on my grim reading of Lamentations at the beginning of the year my daughter died, I see that all the blame and accusations I would later aim at God, and all of the anguish I would feel, I was reading before it even happened. Eventually, when I was reduced to great inner silence, the words of Jeremiah’s laments would return to me.
He has made me dwell in dark places. . .
While it doesn’t make the loss go away, I do find it strangely comforting to have company in the pit. With or without God or faith of any kind, human beings will suffer. My own preference is to find comfort in the good and terrible company of those who are lamenting. This is part of the agony of being human.