Losing Seth, Part 1: Forever, by Larry Dunn


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.

Seth Play photo

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):

Original Blessing

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 larry.dunn@fresno.edu.


19 thoughts on “Losing Seth, Part 1: Forever, by Larry Dunn”

  1. Jesus ultimately knew of his fate; yet he reached out in love and understanding to those who needed comforting. I recall how in my pain and suffering you reached out and were understanding at the time of my personal loss. I have used this example as therapy in the quest to offer words of comfort. Thank you Dr. for reaching out and offering comfort even as you were going through and enduring yours.

  2. I won’t pretend to understand your incalculable grief, but I know that the future can never be fully right without Seth, not for any of us. Much love to you.

    1. Thank you Amy, and your whole family, for walking alongside us. It was truly humbling, when I could start to look beyond my own pain, to see that we were not the only ones who were grieving. Seth is our son and also a brother and a grandson, a nephew and a cousin, and a friend to so many. All of our lives are richer because of him, and our future something less without him.

  3. An “original blessing,” a dedication, memories in flight, a weeping . . . A love for Seth and you, his Pop, and Mom Susan, brothers Isaac and Eli and family. Prayers. Thoughts. Presence from afar. Thanks, Larry, for sharing.

    1. You’re welcome, Jim. And thank you for reaching out. I remember the day you called as my friend and former pastor, knowing that you had made time in your busy day. It meant a great deal and helped me to feel connected again to you as a parent and to your family.

  4. Larry,

    I know you haven’t heard from me in YEARS, and, I believe it was by God’s hand that I read your article about Seth today.

    I won’t go into all the details of what happened, but, my ex-husband and I lost our oldest son in a weather related car accident on February 21, 2002, and, as you said, life has never been the same. The hardest part for me is that Brandon’s birthday was February 24th. . .he died 3 days shy of his 19th birthday.

    Our only daughter, who was 14 at the time, was in the back seat of the car and has a permanent, moderate Traumatic Brain Injury. (Physically she is fine now, but still suffers cognitively.)

    There is so much I’d like to say, but I feel that here is not the right place. I hope you don’t mind if I e-mail you sometime. Right now, my heart is breaking for Brandon all over again, and, for you and your family over your loss. It is a loss that NO ONE can truly understand unless they have suffered the same.

    My thoughts and prayers are with you.

    1. Michelle, thank you so much for reaching out with your comment, even as it revisits the pain of your loss. I am so sorry to learn about Brandon and your daughter. These scars become almost unnoticeable to others, but one scratch and again they bleed. I would be so glad to hear from you further.

  5. It is as impossible to read your words dry eyed as it is to feel how immeasurable, how deep the pain that continues for Susan and you. It remains oceanic. We will not forget. D and L

    1. Leann and David, words also fail to convey the depth of our gratitude for your love and friendship; for knowing what to say and when nothing needs to be said. You’ll recognize in my post your insight, advice, and other actions that comforted, guided, and recognized the greatness of our loss. Thank you for walking alongside us.

  6. I related to many of your observations of your experience of losing your beloved son. I never knew your family when you lost Seth but remember that time when his tragic loss occurred. I connected with Margaret Edson’s quote “What doesn’t crumble? Our love. Where do we keep it? Safe inside. How long does it last? Forever.” …I know that the love and loss for my child that is now gone will be with me for the rest of my life here on this earth.

    My prayers and thoughts are with you, Susan and your family as you face your fourth anniversary of his death. I always thought of myself as being as a caring, empathetic person around people who had a loss especially of a young life but after now experiencing the loss of a child, I had no conceptual understanding of the depth and breadth of their grief experience.

    Being on this strange and different new life journey
    that you feel as you begin to live your new life with an often misunderstood balance of loving and treasuring the memories of a beloved child and missing all the future you expected to share with them. My heart aches for your loss.

    1. Debbie, our hearts sank with a deep sadness when you joined this terrible club that nobody wants to be a part of. I know you won’t mind if I say how amazed we have been at your strength and dedication to Keith’s memory (because people say it to us all the time), but I also know that you understand that what looks like strength to others is sometimes us barely holding it together.

      I have thought of you and your family so often this past year. One reminder of your loss has come in some music I have found. One artist in particular, Sam Baker, has written several songs that have helped me with entering into the sadness, as I said above, as a way through. My song is “Broken Fingers,” which one of Seth’s friends posted on his Facebook page. The one that has made me think of you is simply called “Boxes.” (Both can be found on YouTube.) You have gone outside those keepsake boxes of your loss where we can get stuck and shared Keith’s life with others so well. We remember.

  7. Larry, thank you for sharing so beautifully and honestly the true agony of grief, the loneliness, not with idealist words that it is something we work and get through. I think of you and Susan often with love.

    1. Yes Dee, we need to hear from others that it’s okay to speak of the reality of grief. Thank you for your thoughts.

  8. Larry.

    No amount of speaking on my part can add comfort to your moments, days, and years of sorrow. I am too often silent, absent and forgetful of wounds that do not heal despite daily reminders– like watching my wife struggle to heal her patients. I am guilty of numbness.

    I do not pretend to know the depth of your wounds and, quite honestly, am afraid to understand them. The darkness is infinite. Yet, it is that same fear of loss that binds me to you–a fear of losing you, your friendship, leadership and a brotherhood. I do want and will continue to walk with you even as unexplainable, unspeakable pain, angst and suffering continues.

    While I too wonder where God is in all of this, I believe a measure of hope lies in walking with you. Sometimes in silence and absence. Sometimes though listening. Yet other times we gather for a meal, drink or just hang out. I know God values relationships and when actions combine with people of likemindedness, he is there. Love is there.

    I am for you Larry, Susan, Eli and Isaac.

    1. Greg, the support offered by you and Geena and the girls since day one has been beyond comprehension – daily visits, meals, cleaning our house and mowing our lawn. You say you cannot understand and have no words, but those are the words. I am embarrassed by what I would have done.

      Whatever fear you may have in the midst of this pain, you have walked with us, invited us to share what you might not want to hear. There are more hard questions, and also hope. I will share that next time. Thank you.

  9. Thank you Larry for this lovely, yet poignant, reflection of your grief and of Seth’s life. I am touched that four years later you still have Seth’s message on your cell.

    I was just thinking of Seth the other day and wondering how many years it has been since his death.

    Holding you, Susan, and the boys in the light this day.

    1. So nice to hear from you June. It’s a great reminder that those who knew Seth (even as a little guy) and loved us all go back far and are scattered wide, making up this remarkable community of saints and friends who stand beside us. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *