Last year, my friend’s 19-year-old daughter gave birth to a baby girl at six months. Aptly named Genesis for the new beginning her mother felt she represented, this little human creature struggled in life and after three months, on the day that was her supposed due date, Genesis died.
When my friend and her daughter came home from the hospital, they came to visit me. I have known and loved both these women for well over a decade; I have watched this now young woman grow from a little girl, and as she got older, make some really poor choices. She burned many bridges and came to trust few people. Perhaps due to our shared history, perhaps because of her desperate grief, at least on this occasion, she allowed herself to trust me, if only for the afternoon.
In the Book of Job, Job has three friends who hear of his suffering and come from far away to be with him. In the end, these friends end up berating him for his suffering, insisting that he must have done something bad to deserve such punishment (all his children killed, his property destroyed, his health taken away). His friends are the epitome of doctrine apologists, standing up for the theology of retribution – that the good prosper and the wicked are punished. Even when their own life experience belies this view, they stick to it, believing they are standing up for God and God’s sense of justice. You must have done something wrong, they implore, despite Job’s refusal to submit to their accusations. Rather than defending God, they defile God – in my humble opinion.
Yet those three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, did not begin with Job in this manner. In fact, they started in quite the opposite mode: they sat in silence with their friend. Stunned by his suffering, in solidarity, they stayed with him in silence.
“When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” (Job 2:12-13, NRSV)
Professor Mark Scott of the University of Missouri-Columbia praises the friends when they do this, calling it “companion theodicy,” which is “the assumption that those in the throes of suffering find comfort in our solidarity with them, not in ill-timed and ill-conceived theological theories.” Scott points out how so many of our explanations for suffering or evil veer toward blame, despite our intention to soothe and be of comfort. Better, then, to be silent together, as companions.
As soon as I read Scott’s brief meditation on theodicy, I heard the wisdom in what I read. Companionable silence and quiet witnessing are two acts that are healing – I do not dispute that. The skills involved – the capacity to absorb strong emotions, to sit with silence and ambiguity, to convey an attentive presence without words – are essential to any chaplain, pastoral presence, or healer.
Yet, on the day after leaving the hospital after three months of more or less living in the NICU, my friend, her daughter, and I sat not only in silence, we engaged in conversation. My friend brought her grieving, shocked daughter, knowing that she needed deep witness of the gravity of her grief. We understood that not only to bring attentive silence, and not only to ask questions, but also to listen to the stories without cringing, without blaming, without seeking elusive explanations. My friend and her daughter’s visit was a blessing and an honor that I might do all these things and do so with (what I hope was) just the right amount of curiosity that met this adolescent girl’s cognitive, emotional, and spiritual needs around the biggest, hardest thing she had yet encountered in her young life (and may it forever be the hardest).
So few of us can tolerate the topic of death, much less tragic stories of innocent suffering like that of Genesis’ life. We grit our teeth and hope that the story telling ends, that we won’t be told some detail that will haunt us long afterward. Yet so many of us in our suffering and grief long to tell our story, over and over, to give voice to the strange, tender, rarely-acknowledged details of what it is to die, for a body to fail, to witness and feel such utter vulnerability.
It strikes me that there is room and need for both: to witness and invite, both through our silent, loving, companionable witness, and our active, soliciting, companionable witness. May it be so.
This Named New Beginning
Child of distraught essence,
tender mixture of flesh & soul,
long-wild starvation of breath.
Child of ever-imperfect renewal,
of purposed paradox:
letting finally go,
you have been
this brief time,
bringing your beloveds
to the edge of their own lives:
salve against embitterment.
Your fragile life,
mandate to root ourselves
in broken-hearted hope.