August 1, 2011. The axis of our world shifted that day, our lives forever changed in unimaginable ways. Two months shy of his twenty-first birthday, our oldest son Seth died in a tragic accident while we were together on family vacation.
As an academic, I write. It is one of the things we academics do. How such writing relates to our personal lives, however, particularly in relation to difficult matters, is seldom discussed. Though I have read much about grief, I did not set out to write about it. Yet somewhere along the way I came to realize that I had written a great deal: an obituary and eulogy, some reflections for a memorial gathering, a brief baccalaureate address, emails to colleagues, a devotional, an invited chapter—all related to Seth.
My many years of education have trained me to turn almost anything into an academic exercise, to be philosophical. To the extent that academics has to do with learning, I’d have to say that the experience of losing our son has been a miserable failure. I have learned so much more from Seth’s life than his death. Perhaps that’s because I have experienced grief not primarily as an intellectual process but as an emotional and spiritual one. So I offer here an awkward attempt by the head to make sense of the aching of the heart and soul.
I am struck by how much August 1, 2011, has become the point in time around which everything now revolves. First one week gone by and then another; a memorial service in between that now seems like a distant dream. September 1. October 1. Birthdays and holidays. A year and then two, and now, unbelievably, four years without him. Without hearing his voice. Without feeling his embrace. “Hey Pop!” he used to say, and I would reach up to hug him as he towered above me.
This marking of time brings past, present, and future together, each point a painful reminder of life without him. A text message that remains on my cell phone from that morning . . . just hours before. A photo of Seth at work . . . one month before. An event remembered from when our three boys were small, at the time just another moment in our life together . . . now marked as ten years before.
Time before that day becomes a countdown of the time remaining in his life. The innocence of not knowing what could not be known can now be seen in everything we did before that day, seen in our eyes in pictures even before he was born. Innocence no more.
Grief involves not only what was but what might have been and now will never be. Seth was in the prime of his life, on the cusp of his senior college year, ready to launch into the world, full of potential for so much good. Now graduations and weddings and baby showers become reminders of what we and others will miss out on in a future without Seth.
Some recognize the difficulty involved with joining in the celebration of these events and the sadness they can bring on, understanding this aspect of our loss. A few, mostly those who have suffered a loss of their own, gently enter into grief with us. But much of the painful inner reality of our experience goes unrecognized by others, or so it seems. As C. S. Lewis noted following the death of his wife Joy, “Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.”
How long will this grieving go on? How much more time will I need? Will there continue to be moments and days that feel like that first moment, that first day? Why does the pain return with such force when weeks or even months go by that seem to reflect some healing? Why does the head keep pressing for progress, the gaining of insight, the making of sense, the redemption of death’s injustice, when my heart mends ever so slowly? When will sorrow be replaced by gratitude? Where is God in all of this?
Perhaps anticipating these questions, playwright Margaret Edson, in whose play “Wit” Seth had performed at Bethel College, put it this way upon learning of his death: “What doesn’t crumble? Our love. Where do we keep it? Safe inside. How long does it last? Forever.” Our good friend Jean Janzen echoed these thoughts in a beautiful poem she wrote for Seth (used by permission):
Child in the burning,
stopped heart in August,
this valley ripe
with peaches and heat.
What are the words
of original blessing?
Child become ashes,
the heaving and sobbing.
Body from body
into the blaze
of original blessing.
Child in the wind,
its current now lifting
into the arms
of original blessing.
Arms of the Maker,
arms of First Lover,
“Mine” the first word,
and the second, “Forever.”
A space filled with grief and sorrow, suffering and pain, mystery and questions with no answers is not an easy place to dwell. And yet I must enter into to get out of, go through to get past. I don’t seek healing that is free of tears and sorrow since my wound reflects some measure of my love for Seth and his worth to his family and friends and mother and brothers and me.
For now there seems no other way. This is not hopelessness, but the reality of his absence and my grief. It is what makes possible my solidarity with others who endure suffering and loss. Including God.
—Larry A. Dunn, Fresno, California, is Associate Professor at the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies, Fresno Pacific University. He has worked for nearly 30 years as a mediator, trainer, consultant and educator in conflict resolution and is author of Discovering Forgiveness: Pathways Through Injury, Apology, and Healing. He and his spouse Susan are parents of three boys, Seth, Eli, and Isaac. Larry welcomes interactions with this post, whether through the comments section or to his e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.