Grieving With (and Without) God
After conversations with scholars of different religions, I understand why faith comforts but also why I cannot accept it.
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
Hope humbly then; with trembling pinions soar;
Wait the great teacher Death; and God adore!
What future bliss, He gives not thee to know,
But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.
― Alexander Pope, Essay on Man
In the classic Indian epic, the Mahābhārata, the story is told of a princess named Savitri, who is both beautiful to behold and devoted to her family and gods. Her loveliness is such that no man dares ask for her hand in marriage, so her father grants her permission to find her own husband. She leaves home to do so, and soon meets a prince named Satyavan, who lives exiled in a forest with his family, who have lost their kingdom. The Princess decides that Satyavan is her one true love and returns home to tell her father of her decision. Back in the palace, the sage Narada informs the princess that she has made a tragic choice, for Satyavan is doomed to die one year from that very day. Though her father pleads with her to choose another man, Savitri marries the exiled prince. A year later, Yama, the God of death, comes to claim Satyavan, just as the prophecy foretold. Savitri, however, so impresses Yama with her devotion and arguments that he gives in to her wish and grants the couple a long and happy life together. In this story, the death of a young man is fated and foretold, but a human’s prayer to a god, born of love and enhanced by piety, changes destiny and saves the young man’s life.
The story recounted above is a classic of Sanātana Dharma, which we in the West know as Hinduism. It was told to me this week by a learned Indian scholar of that tradition as we discussed the concept of fate. I reached out to him to try to understand what his faith had to say to a grieving parent. Though I am an atheist, I understand that one can find great wisdom in many religious traditions, and I wanted to understand how people of different faiths find comfort in a time of great loss. As we continued our discussion, I asked him whether the day of our death has been set ahead of our birth, to which he replied that in his tradition we are each assigned a number of breaths and that life ends when that number is complete. The story of Savitri illustrates that such a fate is not absolutely fixed, however, and that humans, in very special circumstances, are able to extend their allotted time on earth. I then asked him how his tradition would explain the death of my young son. He replied that to understand the answer that question, one must understand the reincarnation of the soul.
For followers of Sanātana Dharma, all souls are parts of Brahman, the Universal Consciousness that defines all life everywhere. They originated from the Universal Consciousness at some point in the past and must return to it one day. They will do so, however, only after attaining Nirvana, perfect enlightenment, which is defined by three characteristics — existence, consciousness, and bliss. When a soul enters a human, the soul’s aim should be to remove all mortal characteristics — good and bad — and to strive for the “perfect neutrality” (a condition devoid of human traits) that defines Nirvana. This process of death and rebirth in the pursuit of enlightenment will take many lifetimes, but lifespans can shorten the closer a soul gets to Nirvana. Thus, when an especially good person dies young, the death can be interpreted as a sign that his or her soul maybe moving closer to perfection and so his or her time on earth need not be long. Enzo, he suggested, may have been such a soul, and so I should celebrate his brief time on Earth as evidence of his goodness. Moreover, I should understand that while Enzo’s physical body was created by his mother and me, his soul was given to him by the divine force who alone has the power and prerogative to decide the day of his arrival and departure from this world. I may mourn the loss of the human part of his being, which is said to “fall off” from his soul in death, but there is no reason to mourn his soul since it was not of me and will surely continue its journey to Nirvana in the body of another human being.
Having spoken with a scholar of Sanātana Dharma in India, I then spoke with a devout follower of Islam in the Middle East who has spent a lifetime studying the Quran and the teachings of its prophet, Muhammad. I asked her how her faith explains the death of my child. She noted that Allah sets the day of our birth and the day of our death, and there is nothing we or others can do in life to change that appointed “inevitable destiny.” Prayer may, in some circumstances, affect what happens in the period of time between birth and death, but it cannot alter the moment of death itself. When a devout Muslim father loses a child, his correct response is to accept what has occurred as Allah’s will. In doing so, he would say: “Indeed we belong to Allah, and to Him we shall return,” filling his heart with gratitude for the time he and his son shared on Earth. The father should also take solace in the belief that if he keeps his faith absolute, God will compensate him in heaven with mercy, forgiveness, and a reward for his piety in the face of such great sorrow. Muslims believe that God’s divine plan encompasses everyone and everything. As the philosopher Abu Hamid Al Ghazali wrote: “A sign that a person has true love for Allah is that he or she does not have any feeling of dislike towards death, no matter when it may come.” If humans cannot immediately perceive the divine wisdom behind the loss of a child, they should be patient, taking comfort in their faith and trusting in God’s will. In fact, the Quran states that one should not even decry the misfortune, for it might eventually be revealed to have been a blessing, since “Allah knows what one does not know.” Enzo’s death, in other words, might very well have averted an even bigger sorrow that would have befallen him later in life.
After my discussions with the scholar of Islam, I spoke with a Jewish professor who has written extensively on religion, philosophy and science. How, I asked him as well, does Judaism account for what happened to Enzo? The death of a child, as with any great misfortune that may befall us, he explained, is a mystery that we cannot possibly hope to understand. He recounted the story of Job, on whom God casts great misfortunes, though he is a model of righteousness. The people around Job suggest that his sorrows must be just punishment for some great sin that Job has committed, but, upon hearing them, God makes his presence known and states that they are all wrong. What God does is not for us to know or seek to understand, God tells Job. Indeed, God is indignant at Job’s questioning and chastises him for seeking answers that are not his to know: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!” God reminds Job he was not present at creation nor has he the power to understand the purpose of the divine will. Judaism teaches us that our duty is to accept whatever happens to us as God’s will, and to carry on being good even in the face of great suffering. In the tale of Job, he accepts that his fate is a mystery, for which God rewards him with a new family, even greater wealth, and a long life. Thus, Judaism comforts a grieving parent with the idea that a child’s death is something that only God can explain and that the parent must bear well, trusting in the ultimate goodness of the divine.
Reflecting on my discussions with these scholars, I considered my own upbringing in, and lifelong study of, Christianity. I imagined the words of a priest who consoles a father on the day he loses a child to accident or disease. For that priest, the child’s death is “part of God’s plan,” and the father should be consoled by the belief that he will be reunited with his child in Heaven. As Paul the Apostle wrote in his First Epistle to the Corinthians: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” For Christians, witnessing the death of a child is like looking at a small corner of a great painting: they can see but a part of the whole, which is visible only to God. He has a plan for every human, Christians believe, and so the death of my son is but the fulfillment of the path God laid out for Enzo when he was conceived. The Catholic Church, to which Enzo belonged and whose faith he held close to his heart, understands that I may question what occurs on Earth, but in reply asks me to consider Mary, Jesus’ mother, who also lost her son. Seek comfort in Mary’s acceptance of Jesus’ own death, I am told, and consider her a model to follow until Enzo’s resurrection and our eternal reunification in Heaven.
When I take a step back, I see that these four great faiths of the world, different in countless ways, agree on one thing: that the death of my son was part of a larger entity — a tiny element within the grand design of a divine power that I can acknowledge and worship but never fully understand. Reflecting on this conclusion (which I had never fully realized until now), I came to see the power and attraction of the theory of a grand design in its different manifestations. There is peaceful tranquility in thinking that Enzo’s death is not simply a random occurrence but a continuation of a cycle of birth and rebirth whose ultimate aim is everlasting bliss. There is glorious hope in believing that I will see Enzo again one day in Heaven, if I have faith in God and follow in the virtuous footsteps of his representatives on Earth. Likewise, there is profound consolation in believing that his soul sleeps in peace, awaiting a joyous resurrection into a paradise from which all sin has been banished and where we exist in perfect harmony for all of eternity.
All the beliefs considered above — all these beautiful holy promises — offer solace and peace to a parent mourning the death of a child. However, as lovely as they all are, and as much as I would like to believe them, after contemplation I concluded that their acceptance would come at too high a price: truth. I come to that conclusion because within each faith I find deep contradictions that are impossible for me to ignore. If I push — sometimes hard but sometimes only gently — concepts such as reincarnation, karma, fate, resurrection, transubstantiation, divine omniscience, etc., soon begin to raise more questions than answers. These conflicts and mysteries leave me with one simple, and profound, choice: I must either believe in God’s divine plan in the purity of faith or conclude that there is no higher power, no matter how much my sorrow may wish for its existence. Years ago I chose the latter option, and I must once again reaffirm that choice even in the cold isolation of my son’s death.
I do not believe that Enzo’s soul is in another body. I do not believe that his day of death was appointed by Allah, or that God had a plan for him, or that Jesus is going to reunite us one day. Enzo died because the world can be an infinitely cruel place, and it operates by the laws of probability. It was not his fate to die on June 1st, because fate is incompatible with free will, which means it is incompatible with a defining characteristic of humanity: our ability to reason and to choose what is right or wrong for ourselves.
When Enzo died, someone said to me: “it must be tough going through this as an atheist, since you believe in nothing.” I replied that this statement was misinformed. I believe in many things: in the intrinsic value of human life, that good deeds require no justification from a divine power, and that I do not need the promise of a reward in another life to try to be a good person in this one. I also believe that the time I had with Enzo is all the time I will ever have with him, so I will cherish it for the rest of my life, knowing that when it ends so too will all that remains of our love for each other.
Three months after Enzo’s death, I understand now that when you lose a child, you are confronted with two monumental tasks. You must process the loss and you must explain it. I am in the midst of the first task, but I do not struggle with the second. Indeed, I have found, paradoxically, that the more one believes in the divine, the harder it can be to explain the loss of a child. Believers expect God to shield them from the worst the world has to offer. Christians pray to God and ask Him to protect their children, giving them beautiful crosses like the one Enzo was wearing on the day he was killed. It is understandable that those who send such prayers to Heaven are devastated when He chooses to deny their wishes, a realization that sent people I have met into years of intellectual and spiritual conflict after losing a child. Only a person who is able to embrace fully and unquestioningly the concept of divine will, no matter how terribly it manifests itself on Earth, is spared this spiritual conflict.
As for me, I know that Enzo left us because senseless death is part of how our world works. Every day, innocent lives are lost and every day a father mourns a son taken from him far too soon. Someone, Enzo or perhaps the driver who struck him — we still do not know who at this point — made a terrible mistake on June 1st, and our planet, which forgives our follies until the moment it doesn’t, exacted my son’s life as payment for that mistake. His death exemplifies both the human condition and its supreme challenge to every human being: to live in a world that can be random and cruel and yet strive, every day, to be good to all others in the face of this realization. It is a difficult conclusion to reach and I find no comfort in it; yet, because I believe it is the only rationally plausible explanation for why my son was killed, I accept it.
I suspect that most people will think that my conclusion is wrong, and to the great majority who believe in the divine, I wish you solace and peace in your faith. I understand how and why a belief in God can lift you up from the finite to the infinite, from the flawed to the perfect. If it also carries you through the deepest sorrows of life, then hang on to it with every fiber of your being. But in doing so, spare a thought for those of us who walk a different path. We grieve without God, surrounded by memory, consoled by philosophy, guided by human reason, and carried forward by the simple appreciation for the fragile existence we hold for just the blink of an eye.
I read your essays, almost always with recognition that I've pondered similar ideas. When Camille first died, I heard from professionals that everyone's path through grief is different. After meeting others grieving the death of a child and reading your essays, I no longer believe that. Our conclusions may vary, but our thoughts and questions are very similar.
For this essay, I do agree with your conclusion. I remember my surviving daughter once shared that a professional told her she would likely find religion at this terrible time in her life. She didn't. Yet I agree with you that there is great solace in religion. For those of us without it, we grieve without those supporting arms of religion.
Again I nodded my head regarding your lack of a need to explain the loss. I too have never felt that need - for the same reason as yours. For me, Camille's loss just happened. There is no explanation for this tragedy. It just irretrievably happened one very, very bad day.