Lamentations

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.

kollwitz03.jpgWe started that year, I journaled, “quietly, at home with the children.” January first came and went without fulfilling any of the dire predictions of Y2K computer chip failure and resulting doom. 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 came in fives that year. 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.

Lamentations

Midway through February of 2000, I had an odd urge to read the Old Testament book of Lamentations. Knowing what I know now, I think about how the spirit searches all things, and how on the deepest level, I knew that reason for lamenting would soon be upon us. Death and undoing were already at work in our daughter’s body, although at the time we didn’t know, and couldn’t have known this: To all outward appearances, our 11-year-old daughter 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 so 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 it. So, 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.

2 responses

  1. Dear Eve,

    With an extra hour tonight I moved about your site. And while I knew we shared a deep loss of a child, I had not read this painfully beautiful post before now. And that soul touching sketch of an angel that I must guess is your child. I’m broken hearted for your loss that doesn’t let you go because I live within its grip, too. Your post is, synchronistically, my deceased daughter’s birth date: Aug. 30th.

    We are not the same as we were when Olivia and Katie were here, Eve, and how could we be? The agony of a mother’s loss of her child doesn’t disappear; it just goes deeper. Our eyes are in our belly now. Mine have been there only a year longer than yours for better or for worse. They don’t miss much.

    I wish you lived in the Philadelphia area so you could be part of a group I began this year called – Mother’s Finding Meaning Again. I was not ready to run it before this year. We have 11 mothers and you would make it a perfect dozen, 12 disciples. It always feels sacred.

    We band of women are different than other groups I have organized in that we know we are permanent burn victims, we go to one another’s homes, we bring food to our hosting mother, and we drink wine, yes we do. They are also not allowed to kill the leader as part of our group’s process!

    If you came you could tell us about your Olivia. You could use her name and share with us what she was like because we know how people don’t know what to do when we do that in the outside world. We mothers enjoy one another, we grow closer with each meeting and we look forward to being together where conversation isn’t bound with the strain and exhaustion of many normal relationships. Usually we have one formal topic for part of our evening. One example from a past meeting was, “How has the loss of our child changed our friendships?” We have only begun to speak of how our loss has changed family relationships – many being fractured beyond repair. But that discussion is for another night.

    Kindest regards to you, Eve,
    MJ

  2. Pingback: Losing Streak « The Third Eve

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