Sandra M. Levy-Achtemeier, Ph.D.

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Silence in the Face of Loss

Published on Thursday, September 6, 2018

Silence in the Face of Loss


It is my practice to do spiritual reading most mornings while I’m at the breakfast table. For one thing, I don’t especially like to chat at that hour; and for another thing, that is my time of day to nourish my soul with grace-filled reading. But if what I’m reading happens to speak to my inner being, then I want to share it with the one sitting across from me ... and then we can discuss what each of us has heard in the words read out loud.

So in the last few days I’ve been reading a series of reader-generated essays on the topic of Silence (The Christian Century, Aug. 29, 2018, pp. 20-27; see the lead photo). One essay in particular, written by one Joe Miller (my brother’s name, but not him!) from Warren, Rhode Island, struck a chord within me. The little vignette that Miller tells took place in a hospital room when he was doing his Clinical Pastoral Education rotation – that is, learning to be pastoral while in seminary by making “cold” visits to patients’ rooms, whether they wanted him there or not. I remember my summer spent in CPE at Sibley Hospital in Georgetown near D.C. This summer-long training that most seminarians have to undergo is a deep dive into patients’ lives while family members crowd into their rooms. Seminarians often experience harrowing family dynamics that flood the space. CPE is truly a baptism-by-fire immersion into life and death in the extreme.

Anyway, this intern chaplain (which is what seminarians are called) happened to be in a patient’s room when, one after another, a nurse, supervisor, supervisor’s supervisor, doctor, and finally surgeon probed for a vein to draw blood – each sticking the patient’s arm with needles, the patient lying there in bed, suffering pain in the process. Joe, the young chaplain, had no idea what to do, so he just sat mutely in the corner of the room while all this probing was going on.

Finally, the surgeon hit the right spot, blood was drawn, and the surgeon left the room, muttering to himself in the process. Miller writes, “Now the room was empty except for the patient and the would-be pastor. He said to me, ‘Thanks for sharing my pain.’” Seems that Miller’s presence was appreciated although no word had been spoken between them. I was struck by that ending of his story – echoed in another recent Christian Century piece written by Debie Thomas (Aug. 1, 2018, p. 35), all about her trying to “fix” her daughter’s mental angst over the years. Unable to heal her and make her well by various strategies, Thomas writes, “So now I simply sit next to the wall [an imaginary barrier her daughter has erected before her since her preteen years]. I face it and endure it. I live each day in its shadow, hoping my daughter will decide to keep living, too, even in that chilly darkness – and hoping that my presence at the wall shows her something of God’s steady presence in its shadow, too.” Turning to her Bible, she adds, “I read about manna – mysterious sustenance for one day at a time.”

All of this finally brought to my mind a gem of a book I read many years ago: Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987; see second photo below). I have several copies of this book still on my study shelf, ready to give to parishioners who suffer horrendous loss like Wolterstorff and his family experienced in the 1980s.

The cause of Wolterstorff’s writing of this thin little work was the climbing accident and death of his son Eric while on a hiking trip in Austria – suddenly dead at the age of 25. At the time, the author was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University, and he wrote the work as he struggled with his suffering and loss of Eric while also struggling to make sense of God’s loving presence in the face of the evil that had befallen him and his family. The book is a continuous crying out, a howl into the abyss of sorrow and loss.

There is one image that Wolterstorff uses as metaphor for some comfort in grief. On page 34 he asks the question, “What do you say to someone who is suffering?” Some try, some are good with words, some are inept. Some say nothing at all because the topic is too painful for themselves, fearing they will break down in the saying. But the image that stays with me is this:

But please: don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench. [emphasis added]
All through this little book Wolterstorff struggles with the question of theodicy: the “why?” question that we all ask at one time or another. If God suffers with us, if God is indeed in pain beside us on our mourning bench, if all really will be well in the end, as Julian of Norwich says – why does God allow suffering deep down in the human condition in the first place? The author asks: Why doesn’t God relieve His suffering along with ours by eliminating all suffering in the first place? He writes:

God is love. That is why He suffers. To love our suffering sinful world is to suffer. God so suffered for the world that he gave up his only Son to suffering. The one who does not see God’s suffering does not see His love. God is suffering love. ... But mystery remains. Why isn’t love-without-suffering the meaning of things? Why is suffering-love the meaning? Why does God endure His suffering? Why does He not at once relieve His agony by relieving ours?
If you’ve ever read the Book of Job in the Old Testament, you know that that is Job’s question also. And if you’ve read the whole book, you know that there is no answer. And so we hope, we trust in God’s promises, we take the leap of faith. And along with the comfort we give one another by sharing that mourning bench that we all occupy one time or another in this life, we also hope for the grace of God’s Presence as we sit there and mourn the losses that come our way in ths life.

Well, sorry folks for taking on this somber topic. But – it’s a topic that we all live with in this valley of tears. Because we are all in this together, we take comfort in each other’s love, reflecting and echoing God’s love. Let us also remember to give thanks for all the blessings that do come our way – off that bench as well as on it – as we live through both the darkness and the light of all our days together.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.>

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.

I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Other posts by Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
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