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Our own prolific contributor Susan Quinn says more thought-provoking things in a week than I think in a year, and I appreciate her for it. One of her recent posts, G-d Interrupted, prompted an interesting conversation about the theological implications of suffering. It’s a profound topic, one that has been visited again and again throughout history by thinkers greater than any of us here. If it remains an open and interesting question (and one at least tangentially related to her subsequent post, Do People Really Believe in Prayer?), that’s because it is, in my opinion, a question for which no satisfactory answer will ever be found, and yet a question that all of us must eventually ask ourselves.
Susan’s posts resonate with me right now for several reasons, for a confluence of personal tragedies suffered by people close to me. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my mother passed away at Thanksgiving, in the middle of weeks of family health crises and the internecine tension that almost inevitably accompanies such painful transitions. I spoke this week with one of my oldest friends, whose teenage daughter recently took her own life. Tonight I learned that a friend’s high-school-aged son collapsed yesterday on the basketball court at our little Catholic school, his EKG showing frightening abnormalities that have him in the hospital now for extensive tests. I had lunch recently with a friend who lost her only two children in a tragic accident: I don’t know how people recover from something like that.
Suffering is real, and I would not wish on my fiercest enemy — had I enemies — that he experience the pain of great loss.
When my wife passed away, more than a decade ago now, I remember the people who came to visit me and the children. I remember that they had no words, and that they said as much. (No one has words; no one ever has words.) I understood then that the purpose of their visits — not their intentions, but the reason we make such visits to a grieving family — was to force those of us left behind to acknowledge their presence, to thank them, and, in doing so, to however briefly reenter the world of the living. Because it’s necessary that we re-enter that world. To acknowledge compassion is to grasp a lifeline.
My friends and I reached out to the family whose son is in the hospital. We offered to take their dog, to mind their home, to do whatever (however little) we can do.
I can never say to those people, nor to any parent who has lost a child (much less two), that there is a beautiful aspect to loss. But it’s nonetheless true: Loss, and responding to loss, is one of the powerful things that bind us together. The people who stand with us when our child is in intensive care, the people who quietly pick up the pieces when we’ve suffered a devastating loss — these people are forever knit into the fabric of our lives. It’s impossible to say that the loss of a loved one is a price worth paying for the social cohesion it brings — impossible to say that to anyone who has suffered that loss. But the reality is that, as winter makes the promise of spring more glorious, so too does the unity that springs from and is inspired by inevitable (and it is inevitable) tragedy forge and sustain deep and lasting bonds that join us.Published in