Wednesday, January 11, 2017

“It is Well with My Soul”: A Journey of Grief and Faith

In this powerful reflection ESR MDiv student Anne M. Hutchinson shares about the loss of her son. 

Everything about that phone call felt wrong, even before I answered. It had started as an ordinary evening in April. I was in an empty classroom preparing for an English as a Second Language class that I was subbing for, when my phone rang, with an unknown number showing up on the caller ID. It was my son’s stepmother, and she quickly put my son’s father on. He said starkly, without any preliminaries, “Your son is dead.” My son? Not our son? When had he become exclusively “my” son? Almost mechanically, I asked the requisite questions: how did it happen, when would the funeral be. My ex said he had just come from the coroner’s office and was too upset to talk any more. My son had taken his own life at the age of 27.
Trying to take it in, I called my sister and a close friend to let them know. It was too late to cancel class. The students would be arriving within the half hour. Somehow, through the shock, I finished my preparations and greeted the students as they arrived. The subject was spring, which would begin in a few days. In a numb state, I put on my bravest face and got through the session. I invited the students to generate English words about spring: flowers, seeds being planted, rain, frogs—of all things. From the words, they created sentences to practice vocabulary and verb forms. They worked in their textbooks in small groups, as usual. Finally, time was up and I sent them home.

            My friend was working late in her office at the university, and she had suggested that she stay there and that I pick her up on my way home. It was raining hard, and I drove the hour-long route barely holding back tears enough to drive. When she came out of her building, she came to my side of the car and hugged me. We went to my apartment, and she sat with me until I went to sleep. I called my supervisor to tell her what happened and that I couldn’t come to work the following day. I knew that life would never be the same again. There was a before my son died, and there would be an afterwards. The afterwards had begun.
There were so many people to notify. My sister held back on telling my mother, not wanting to upset her, until at last I told her that the news would be made public, and that Mother should learn it from us. My daughter, who wailed with pain when I told her, was too upset to continue the conversation. There was my circle of friends, near and far. Some of the people I might have expected to be supportive weren’t, and other people came out of the woodwork and offered unexpected consolation. The following day, my friend Patti brought me a home-cooked meal and a roll of toilet paper, saying she didn’t have any tissues in the house. One friend offered condolences and said, inexplicably, he wished he could do more. Flowers and cards came. I kept the flowers for as long as I could, and sent a thank you note for every card. I wore black for forty days. The spring and the earth in bloom were jarring contrasts to his absence and what was happening inside me. Fall would be just as harrowing, with the knowledge that the glory of the changing colors of the season was gone for him, forever.
My friend Donna came and prayed with me regularly, and brought me a pamphlet of Bible verses about God’s comfort.[1] Psalm 34:18 spoke to me in particular: “God is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” This was a heartbreak like no other. Donna told me that it was all right to be angry with God about it, and that I should take my anger to God.
            I had joined a club I had never thought of joining, never envisioned being a part of: the fellowship of grievers, the so-called grief world. The horizon was blank for me. The days yawned before me when I woke up in the morning. I stayed in bed for the first few weeks, not caring about taking showers or getting out of my nightgown, venturing out only for absolute necessities. I went back to work after two weeks, and stared blankly at my computer. Finally, I told my supervisor that I just couldn’t do it. He sent me home and told me to take another week off. The long commute to work seemed like an insurmountable obstacle. Sometimes I got halfway there and didn’t have the strength to continue, and turned back. The highway seemed to be littered with the bodies of dead animals, more so than usual. I just couldn’t fathom that the world hadn’t ended entirely. When I started going out again, to work and to meetings, I came home to face evenings of emptiness and the pain of my thoughts and memories. I don’t know how I managed to get through those awful first weeks and months, for it wasn’t willpower: It was beyond my own powers. It was grace.
            There is no word for parents whose children pass away, as there are words for other kinds of grievers: orphan, widow, widower. Is it because this pain is too great for words? Is it because of the banality, the frequency of this loss? All the tiny infant gravestones in old country cemeteries, bearing the exact lifespan of each deceased child in months and days stand witness to its universality. Eve. David. Mary. The parents of soldiers and of AIDS victims.
There are so many kinds of loss and grief, so many ways to lose a loved one, and one doesn’t compare with another. I hated it when someone would say that they knew what it was like because they had lost a grandmother or a parent. Does a loss to suicide or traumatic loss hurt more than an anticipated one? I can’t know. I only knew the aching unmendable loneliness and pain that I felt.

            And how angry I would become when someone, certainly without thinking, made some remark about what happened as being part of God’s plan. Was it God’s plan that my son’s life should be cut short and for me to live on without him, potentially for many years? I wanted no part of their God. Others asked me if he had been on drugs, if he were in the military. Why would they worsen my pain by suggesting scenarios that had nothing to do with him?
My brother called the day after, sent a card, and has texted me faithfully every week ever since to see how I am doing. He revealed that he had lost his best friend to suicide. He told me to go to grief support groups. He told me to exercise. He told me “persevere” – countless times. My daughter flew in and spent a week with me. She was overcome by emotion at the funeral, and went back to the car before it was over, but afterwards was an island of calm for me. A friend from childhood told me that his faith told him that he would be reunited with his loved ones. It was a comforting thought. But if that were so, how long would it take until that reunion would occur? I thought of the Victorian notion of the long divide, like a wide river, between the living and the dead. I thought of Tennyson’s unreachable hand and voice never to be heard again.[2] A woman in my Quaker meeting said that she would be a fortress for me with her prayers.
            I put photos of my son in prominent places in my apartment: the final photo I had taken of him, looking thin and grim, and a childhood photo of him smiling, at about seven or eight years old. I tucked a photo of him in my purse for when I went on trips. I placed a potpourri bear he had made in grammar school in my bedroom, and I displayed two ceramics bowls he’d made on one of my living room cabinets. I gathered up all the photos and school papers of his that I had, and greeting cards he had sent me over the years, as well as the consolation cards, and put them in a cardboard box in my bedroom closet. After a while it became too painful to look at the photos and the little bear and the ceramic bowls, and I put them, too, in the box. I had kept a plush monkey with get-well messages written on his cast that we had bought for him after a surgery, and the irony of him not being able to get well any more stabbed at me, so I put that in the box also.
            I went to grief support groups for a long time. There, I found people who did know what I had gone through, and learned how they responded. One of the facilitators often said that our pain could help other people. Such a notion seemed, at best, a distant hope. Some of the people at support groups became friends. I finally stopped going after one of the groups I had gone to was so poorly organized that two people dominated the hour, and several people told stories about how their loved ones died in horrible, painful ways, worse than my son’s. Perhaps it was part of their healing, but it was traumatic for me. All in all, however, the grief support groups were immensely helpful.
I also went to a heart-centered healer. With her, during the sessions, I achieved a sense of serenity as memories, pleasant and often not-so-pleasant passed through my mind under her comforting care.  I talked to two intuitives, individuals who have the gift of insight. One of them told her that my son was in good hands. Another one told me that he was still processing what had happened and the enormity of it.
I saw two psychotherapists, and they didn’t seem to connect with what I was going through. To me, it seemed that they saw it as a loss among other losses, the way of the world, and didn’t understand my particular kind of grief. Finally, Donna called me and recommended a bereavement counselor, Polly, affiliated with the local hospice. I saw Polly for about two years. She, too, often told me to persevere. She asked me to tell my stories about my son, sometimes the same ones more than once. She asked what he was like. She asked me if I talked to him. I brought a photo of him to show her, and she remarked on how good-looking he was. I told her the disturbing dreams I had about him, and she asked me what I thought they meant. She always had a warm, welcoming smile and a hug for me. Especially on his birthday and his anniversary—what a new meaning I now associated with the word—she offered her ear and her comfort. I remember asking her several times, illogically and with a tinge of desperation, how long the pain would last. She repeated the same answer, that it’s different for everyone. Later she told me that sometimes it lasts a long time. When I told her about the little potpourri bear that he had made and the monkey with the cast, tears welled up.
            I had stopped drinking three years before, and I had no desire to drink. Certainly, that wouldn’t help, and would definitely make things worse. But I began binge eating. I would stop at the grocery store on the way home from work and buy a bag of gourmet cookies or a brownie mix which I would then prepare, and gorge myself until I felt bloated and ashamed. Later, the sweet of choice became ice cream, which I would buy by the half-gallon and eat voraciously, do what I could to try to stop myself. I surfed uselessly on the internet and kept the television on all the time just to fill the emptiness I felt. Sometimes I would drive to the mall and window-shop aimlessly. For months, I woke up at 2:30 a.m. every day, and couldn’t get back to sleep. I was exhausted and sleep deprived for years. Sometimes I would get up around 5 or 6, drink coffee, eat something, and do my devotions, but then be overwhelmed with the emptiness and pain that I felt, and crawl back into bed for a few hours. Yet, one of my friends wrote to me that “it seems like courage and heroism are housed in your tiny frame...  There is a war going on, but still every day you put on your uniform and go out there to face the bullets.”
I had never stopped believing in a compassionate God who created and sustained, but I had become distant from God. When I prayed, it was only foxhole prayers. I had started praying again a few years earlier, and I repeated the few prayers I knew. I loved Quaker waiting worship, but I was also looking for words to say to God; not necessarily liturgical words, although I was open to those also. Maybe my most devoted prayer was my tears. Often, I said simple one or two-word prayers, asking God to lift me, to give me strength. I started reading the lectionary and a commentary. I learned that the words of 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “give thanks in all circumstances” did not necessarily mean to give thanks for all circumstances, but to give thanks regardless of circumstances, good or bad.
I didn’t lose my faith despite what I felt was an awful injustice that had been done to me and the wrenching pain I was undergoing. I was walking by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7), because I saw no end to the pain and no joy in the future. I so disliked the aphorism that “God gives no burden that can’t be carried.” My burden was breaking my back. I resonated with the words in the Song of Solomon that “love is strong as death” (Song 8:6).  If love never ends, as 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 declares, why should grief pass quickly, if ever? How I detested it when someone would say that I had been grieving too long, that I should “move on.”
            I made impulsive, misguided plans. I thought about taking a job overseas. Thankfully, none of those ideas came to fruition. I started a graduate program where I felt totally out of place, and withdrew within a week. The summer of that year, I had become a Quaker, after having attended meeting for a year. I felt that I had so much to catch up on, and at my age I didn’t feel I had any time to waste. And, sitting on my living room sofa one September day with Donna beside me, we read the words from Matthew 6:33: “Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be granted unto you.” It hit me like a thunderclap. I wanted to seek first the kingdom of God, and other things didn’t matter as they had before. In January I started seminary. My circle started expanding. The good parts of my days started lasting longer, and I began to be more productive. Grief still came in dreadful bursts, though, when I couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t go anywhere. At those times, I prayed for strength, for endurance, for hope.
            I am skeptical of accounts of visions. Yet, while I was staying at Evans House at Quaker Hill, which has seen such a history of generosity and caring, to attend a conference, I had an experience of Christ. I was in a drowsy state, trying to fall asleep, when I perceived a figure, surrounded by light, standing near me. He bent and applied an ointment, a balm, to my foot. Why my foot? So that I might continue trudging through grief? So that I might have the strength to stand? Was it a waking dream? Or a fatigue-induced hallucination? Whatever the case, it had a reality above reality.
            There are moments in life when one recognizes the gravity of what is happening to one. I was at my yearly meeting annual sessions, having breakfast with a friend. Two other Friends approached, asking to join us. I agreed, but said that I was about to get a cup of coffee. One of them said, unexpectedly, that he would get me the coffee. Then I realized that they were on the nominating committee, and what they had to say was going to be important. They proceeded to ask me to be a representative to the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC). One of them said to me that I knew about other faiths, I knew other languages, and that I would be the right person for the post. I asked a lot of questions, talked to my friends, prayed over it, and accepted.
            In January of 2016, I went to Pisac, Peru, to take part in the FWCC Plenary. When I was the focus person of a clearness committee as part of my discernment process related my going to the Plenary, I lifted up the ideas of service connected to my participation, forming friendships in the wider world of Quakers, and “changing my mind,” in the sense of intellectual renewal. Some of those things happened, and I was changed in unexpected ways as well: in heart and in spirit. One of the committee members quoted Teilhard de Chardin: “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”[3] There was joy at the Plenary in Pisac.
Preparing myself mentally for the trip, I worried about the inevitable questions that might arise from people I met about whether I had children or not. I couldn’t negate my son’s existence by not mentioning him. And, I had become careful now about who I shared the fact of his death with. I had a set phrase for those I was willing to tell: I have a son and a daughter, and my son is deceased. I even learned how to say deceased in Spanish. Fortunately, the question didn’t come up much. One of my roommates, an immigrant from Kenya, asked a few days after we met. When I told her, she offered condolences and intoned “my children help me keep going.” And Noemi, a wispy, shy Friend from Bolivia who was in my daily discussion group, gave me a soft embrace when I had to tell her, and told me that I was a very strong woman.
            One evening during worship at the Plenary a Friend told the story of Horatio Spafford and the composition of the hymn “It is Well with My Soul." She related that Spafford underwent financial ruin due to the Chicago fire. Subsequently, he lost his four daughters, who were sailing to Europe with his wife Anna when the steamboat on which they were travelling, the Ville du Havre, sank. Sailing to Europe to meet his wife afterwards, Spafford’s ship sailed over the site of the ship’s sinking. Spafford related “On Thursday last we passed over the spot where she went down, in mid-ocean, the waters three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs.” He then wrote the hymn.[4] We sang the hymn together:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
It is well with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.[5]

I asked myself if or how I could achieve acceptance as Spafford had. What torments did he endure before he achieved acceptance? When, if ever, would I be able to say that “all is well with my soul”? Would I be able to say, as Julian of Norwich wrote, that “all will be well and all manner of things will be well”? Yet, singing the hymn with hundreds of other Quakers in Pisac, I wept in a confused combination of sorrow and joy. More than being in a support group, or in counseling, or in prayer, I felt, at that moment, not alone in my grief, and hopeful that it might be bearable one day. Not yet, not at that moment, but someday. I would like to nail my grief to the cross “and bear it no more.”[6]
            Often now I pray the prayer of the father whose child was cured of epilepsy in Mark 9: “I believe, help my unbelief.” I hope to move from faith to faith, in the words of Martin Luther,[7] that my glimmers of faith might grow. Sometimes I would pray for the strength to pray.
            A day doesn’t pass without my thinking of my son: the pain of loss and of his suffering, and, at other times, happy memories of his younger years. Memory is a two-edged sword: it gives meaning to life, yet it also can also bring sorrow. I firmly believe that God moves through human agents, but I don’t believe that pain is God’s will. God didn’t endorse my son’s death, but God was there with him.
In Jewish tradition, the Baal Shem Tov said: “Happiness is a greater attribute than sadness or weeping. Weeping only opens the gates of Heaven while happiness shatters them entirely.”[8] One day this past December I awoke before dawn with a sense of being surrounded by love and serenity. I felt entirely free of anxiety or worry. Perhaps I have opened the gates of Heaven. I am still waiting for them to be shattered.
I would like to acknowledge the influence of James Loder’s The Transforming Moment and his exposition of the concept of convictional knowing.

Anne M. Hutchinson is pursuing her Master of Divinity at Earlham School of Religion. She is a member of Oxford Monthly Meeting of Friends. You can follow Anne on Twitter @hutchinson_anne. 

Tags: grief, suicide, faith, prayer, transformation

[1] Gregg-Schroder, “Comfort from the Scriptures.”
[2]Poetry Foundation, “Break, Break, Break by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.”
[4] “Family Tragedy - The American Colony in Jerusalem | Exhibitions - Library of Congress.”
[5] “It Is Well with My Soul - - United Methodist Hymnal #377.”
[6] Ibid
[7] “Justification by Faith Alone.”
[8] “Printed from The Jewish Press » Blog Archive » The Dynasty Of Mezerich.”

Gregg-Schroder, Susan. “Comfort from the Scriptures.” Accessed December 20, 2016.

“It Is Well with My Soul - - United Methodist Hymnal #377.” Accessed December 20, 2016.

“Justification by Faith Alone: Martin Luther and Romans 1:17.” Ligonier Ministries. Accessed December 20, 2016.

Poetry Foundation. “Break, Break, Break by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.” Text/html. Poetry Foundation, Accessed December 19, 2016.

Library of Congress, the. “Family Tragedy - The American Colony in Jerusalem | Exhibitions - Library of Congress.” Web page, January 12, 2005.

“Printed from The Jewish Press » Blog Archive » The Dynasty Of Mezerich.” Accessed December 20, 2016.


  1. Your message is deeply healing for many people. I am moved by your truthfulness and courage in sharing all the waves you were hit with as you moved into the light from a deep darkness.

  2. Avec toute ma compassion Anne, je me permet de vous présenter ma traduction en français ici:

  3. Oh Anne. Thank you for this profound sharing.

  4. Thank you for the beautifully written blog. I was also at Pisac. My wife's youngest son died a couple of year's previously (from a failed double lung transplant) and we are still working though it. We have been helped by the support from our Meeting, quiet words from Friends and the sense that his campaigning for organ donation is still going on. Everyone's path and culture is different in dealing with such a close loss which is why the expressions of joy at Pisac I found to be healing despite being an unprogrammed Friend. However nothing substitutes for working through the process again and again and round and round with close friends in the listening silence.

    1. Alastair, Thank you for your kind comments and your sharing. My condolences on your loss. In friendship, Anne