I recently received Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament For A Son, which is a series of short essays composed after Wolterstorff’s 25 year-old son was tragically killed in a climbing accident. Wolterstorff is a Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale, and in Lament For A Son, he certainly writes from a theological perspective, but overwhelmingly, he is writing as a grief-stricken dad.
Suffering is a topic of interest for me; I have written quite a bit about suffering, and specifically, viewing that topic from a theological perspective; I’ve also read a good deal about suffering as well. Lament For A Son is unlike other books I have read; rather than delve deeply into the topic of suffering in an analytical, systematic fashion, it delves deeply through emotional, soulful lament.
The book is short, and the essays are brief and disjointed, but I have found it to be incredibly profound. So much so, in fact, that rather than post a typical review, I decided to do a series of short posts highlighting some of the different ideas brought out in the various essays.
“Death is the great leveler, so our writers have always told us. Of course they are right. But they have neglected to mention the uniqueness of each death—and the solitude of suffering which accompanies that uniqueness. We say, “I know how you are feeling.” But we don’t.” (25)
I think this is a helpful reminder. With the absolute best of intentions, we seek to enter into the pain of others we care about. We want to break into their isolation and sit with them in their grief. We want them to know that we are with them, and that someone understands what it’s like to feel what they are feeling. But that empathetic impulse, as noble as it may be is also, unfortunately impossible to realize. We may imagine how another person feels, but we cannot know; we can neither clone the relationship that the other person had with their deceased loved one, nor can perfectly replicate the emotional responses of another person.
Each person, each relationship between people, and thus, each death which severs the relationship between two people is unique. Let us come close to those who are grieving and let us sit with them. Let us listen to the words and emotions that they share. Let us seek to understand. But let us not heighten the sense of isolation experienced by those who are grieving by saying, “I know how you are feeling” when they know good and well that we do not, truly.