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    snowdrop flowers by a path

    Another Grief Observed

    Remembering my granddaughter Sydney

    Larry A. Smith

    March 13, 2020
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    • Connie Owsley

      Beautiful tribute to your granddaughter. I am deeply Saddened for your loss and I related so much as I have lost two Son’s and have struggled to understand why they were taken so young when they gave so much to this world. Blessing to you and all those who mourn those taken from us too soon. I recently attended a grief workshop and the man teaching kept saying over and over “ how some losses we never get over but those around us want to be over our loss in a few weeks or months.” We who have lost need to teach others the importance of mourning and being there to listen as others tell their stories. I believe it is the retelling of stories of our loved ones that we start to heal. I am thankful for the friends and family that have understood how the loss of my sons has impacted our life. Prayers for all those who have lost loved ones and blessing that they have someone to hold their hands.

    • Irene Neller

      Thank you for this raw and beautiful but hard to read reflection - it reads like a love letter. What a gift you've given to us who read this - to keep a copy of it and share it with others who walk through unimaginable pain and hurt and loss of a loved one. What I can imagine is what the joy, reunion and celebration will look like when we're joined together in heaven with the ones we've lost! And to think we can request that they be the one to welcome us at the point we pass on - love that visual you've presented here. May it be so. That makes me smile. God give you deep peace and joy dear friend. My love to you and Victoria always.

    • Diana Austen jones

      My sincere condolences for your terrible loss of your precious granddaughter. Through the ashes of grief, the illuminating truths around your personal experience of grief & loss, have shed light and further understanding in the broken and dying world I work in. We love because He first loved us. This love eternal and undying will sustain us, in Him, to love others till he comes again.

    • Thomas Severin

      My eyes began to well up in tears as I read your account of the loss of your granddaughter. My most major experience of death was the sudden and unexpected loss of my wife 15 years ago. My only daughter was 17 years old at the time and I treasured her in much the same way that you treasured Sydney. It wasn't difficult for me to identify with the shock and horror of the loss of your grandchild, especially now that I have two male grandchildren ages 5 and a year and a half. The love of a grandchild nearly supersedes that of your own children. A thought came to mind as I read your account, as to how connected we are as human beings in our experience of suffering. especially, in the loss of loved ones. I somewhat felt that I was there right with you as you described the responses of others who loved Sydney along with the heartbreak of your son's loss. The main positive of loss in death is its potential to unite the living, as well as, giving us a renewed appreciation of the goodness and value of others and all of God's creation. I know that the grief of the loss of Sydney will never go away for you and your family members but I hope that you all can be thankful for the 18 years that you did have with her and that you honor her by continuing her spiritual legacy.

    No one ever told me that grief felt so like horror.

    It was before six in the morning, still dark as I began my daily routine of cappuccino, reading, and reflection. But there was an email from our daughter, nine time zones earlier in California, asking me to call her right away. She informed me, carefully, gently: Sydney, our eighteen-year-old granddaughter, had died in a car accident. I screamed, which awakened my wife, Victoria. She tells me that I collapsed yelling “No, NO,” and she thought I must have burned myself building a fire. All I could say, was “Sydney is dead.” Victoria joined me in screams and tears. We held each other, tightly. We reached our son Ron, Sydney’s father, and could only cry together.

    As an infant Sydney adopted me as her Gabba. She loved to visit and we traveled together. Sydney was kind, smart, fun, and tough as nails when confronting injustice. She welcomed outcasts and stood up for the weak. A few weeks before her death we had coffee and I could hardly hold back tears of joy as she told me about her life and interests. She sensed my response and smiled gracefully as she spoke. Sydney had my number and I was glad to be had. But to be had is to be vulnerable to loss. After five years, that Munch-like scream is still with me, barely out of hearing.

    “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” wrote C. S. Lewis in A Grief Observed, his reflections on the death of his wife, Joy. But Lewis had years to prepare. Horror was my experience of unexpected, unnatural loss.

    People can show their heroic best when challenged. Ron opened his home for days to receive Sydney’s friends. He had a word of encouragement for each of them. “Please,” he repeated, “never stop coming by.”

    Charlie, about twelve years old, visited with his mother. For a few years Sydney had tutored Charlie after school. He stood straight before Ron, soldier-like but trembling, tears running down his cheeks, unable to speak. Through his own tears, Ron looked at him and said, “Charlie, you always brought out the best in Sydney. She was so proud of you and loved you very much. She would want you to continue to work hard and to do your best.” Then he took Charlie in his arms, a shattered man enfolding a broken-hearted boy.

    Blayn, Ron’s fiancée, stood by him, her love evident and deepening. Her children stood by their soon-to-be siblings. Ron’s four sisters were at his side.

    Sydney’s memorial was held at a park she loved. Rain threatened but the Texas sun prevailed as the seating area filled. About five hundred mourners came, mostly high-school friends and their families. Dozens of young people spoke at the open microphone, all thoughtfully, often with eloquence. They came in small groups, supporting one another. Paige, Sydney’s fifteen-year-old sister, encouraged them. Sister Claudia, thirteen, spoke clearly.

    The consistent theme from peers: “I was lonely, a bit of an outcast, and she welcomed me . . . she stood up for me when I needed it.” These were hyperconnected teens, sharing hundreds of texts per day. They encouraged each other with all that technology – a virtuous circle. Ron’s remarks hit home: “Do not despair over this generation.”

    To the chagrin of their parents, I am sure, a dozen of Sydney’s friends had new tattoos, either her initials or her motto, “persevere.”

    Loved ones traveled to the funeral: one of my sisters and a brother, one niece, many friends. Afterward, Victoria wrote an exquisite tribute, and we eventually received hundreds of responses. One shared her vision, given as she prayed, of “Jesus himself tenderly lifting Sydney from that car, embracing her and immediately giving her healing, soothing her pain as she embraced him.” One couple honored her with a memorial fund. Lorenzo, an Italian friend who knew Sydney, dedicated to her his public lecture on Dante’s Paradiso, canto 33, in which all things come together in the Trinity, in love. As he concluded he addressed Sydney in prayer, asking her to watch over her grandparents, who “need you now more than you ever needed them.”

    Guided by love, friends did what they could. Community softened the hardness of grief. Profound sorrow, gratitude, and joy are not mutually exclusive. Sharing it all, Victoria and I love each other all the more.

    Horror fades but grief remains. I grieve because of losing Sydney, whom I love. Also because others whom I love are grieving. We grieve together because we are united in love, for Sydney and for one another.

    We can love without grief but we do not grieve without love. And I would rather live in a world with grief than in a world without love.

    We can love without grief but we do not grieve without love. And I would rather live in a world with grief than in a world without love.

    Of the three things that last forever, faith is the source of hope, and hope is for love and restoration of love: so the greatest of these is love. In shared grief we take some comfort, even praise God for the gift of love.

    a clump of snowdrops in the grass

    Easter came just a few weeks after Sydney’s death. Some friends thought the day would be particularly restorative for us – and I appreciate their theology – but the songs and messages are about Jesus being raised, not Sydney. I believe in Jesus’ resurrection and in Sydney’s, but that Easter, ironically, the grave seemed more victorious than overcome. Until she is restored and we are reunited, love’s redeeming work is emphatically not done.

    For now, I ask my Father, or Jesus, or the Spirit – all of them in Trinitarian confusion – to greet Sydney for me. I believe he does, but I also ask him to bring me a word from her. So far, nothing. I am reduced to simply asking, respectfully: “May she personally welcome me when my time arrives?” Also no answer.

    Lewis had a chance to talk it over with Joy: “If you can – if it is allowed – come to me when I too am on my death bed,” he asked her near the end. “Allowed!” she said (a Sydney-like declaration). “Heaven would have a job to hold me; and as for Hell, I’d break it into bits.” I hope the good professor was welcomed by Joy.

    Lewis looked over his journal and was “appalled” by his self-absorption, as if Joy’s death “mattered chiefly for its effect on myself.” My grief too has been embarrassingly self-centered.

    In Italian we use the same word, nipote, to denote a grandchild or a nephew. Children are one step from their parents, and two steps from either a grandparent or an aunt or uncle. That was often my sense of things, that I was viewed as more than one step away from Sydney. It never felt that way. I was oddly grateful when Victoria, in her tribute, mentioned that Sydney and I had a “special bond.” I wanted to be pitied but cannot admit it – there are limits!

    Self-centered grief was genuine but of little help to anyone, including me. As Lewis observed, “passionate grief does not link us with the dead but cuts us off from them.” Only after some time did my focus shift to mourning the life Sydney lost, the friend and sister lost to her contemporaries, the daughter lost to her parents – the exceptional woman that the world does not even know it misses.

    My friend Meghan, who is a sort of goddaughter, sent me a letter that I treasure: “To you, Sydney could do no wrong,” she said, observing that this inspired Sydney to live up to the ideal – the kind of champion everyone needs. “I think you did that girl a universe of good while she was with us, and it helped make her into the kind of person who probably did a universe of good for everyone around her.”

    For me, Sydney represented hope – for relationships, family, society, our nation, even the world. She was what I hope we become: engaged, intelligent, confident, iconoclastic, energetic, defenders of the weak, with integrity. She was the child I wish I had been. What a burden to place on a young person! And I did not even realize I had done it until she was gone.

    “You can’t see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears,” Lewis wrote. In matters of love and grief, perhaps you cannot truly see anything until after your eyes have been cleansed with tears.

    A few comments, most well-meaning, were not helpful. Knowing references to the “grieving process,” or the “season of grief” were the worst. There have been no stages, just gradual adjustment as horror recedes. Some weeks after Sydney’s death, friends shared that they had both intended to become physicians, but couldn’t dissect. So I told them about Sydney in biology class, claiming with a straight face to have dissected the family dog. We all laughed, and it was the first time I had mentioned her without immediate tears. On the other hand, not long ago Victoria and I were talking about our wills, and what we would do with a favorite painting. We agreed that we might have left it to Sydney because she would have appreciated it the most, and once again we cried. Truth is, I don’t want to get over Sydney, ever. I love her and look forward to greeting her again.

    The very notion that she lives on in memory is nonsense. Sydney is not alive in my mind any more than she is the lifeless body we viewed. If she were alive she would engage us anew. Today, at twenty-three, her causes and ideas would have evolved from what they were at eighteen. No matter what is happening in the next life, we are left with her here at eighteen.

    Tragedy is part of the system, a mystery of this life, a reason we are grateful that Jesus promised: Blessed are those who mourn.

    A few felt a need to explore the state of my faith, really to assure that I not doubt Jesus’ love in the midst of grief. Not much danger there. The world is full of tragedy and I was well aware of it before losing her. It is part of the system, a mystery of this life, a reason we are grateful that Jesus promised: Blessed are those who mourn.

    I was most put off by the few who inquired about the state of Sydney’s faith, as if they could determine where she now resides. She was a bright teen, getting ready for college, questioning everything. I do not believe that God renders a verdict based on the orthodoxy of the deceased at the moment of her death. Was Sydney’s thoughtful request for baptism at age ten somehow voided by not attending church at age seventeen? This is the inverse of Hamlet’s logic when he chose not to execute his uncle at prayer, concerned that, if Claudius has prayed for forgiveness, the murderer of his father will be welcomed into heaven. What kind of god is that?

    Our Father will redeem all that is redeemable, first for the one redeemed, then for himself out of love for the redeemed, then for the new community, out of love for all of us. Sydney will be included. If that is not the case, I am not so sure I want in – if I am given the option.

    Theodicies fail when limited to the life we know.

    We live in “the best of all possible worlds,” wrote G. W. Leibniz, the German polymath, in his 1709 treatise Theodicy, an attempt to reconcile the problem of evil and suffering with the existence of a good and all-powerful God. Leibniz argued that if God could improve on this world he would do so, but that he cannot because any adjustment would detract from the total goodness of human experience. Candide was Voltaire’s pillory-response, logically unfair in that he did not engage the argument – but satire was all Leibniz deserved. The idea that God cannot alleviate the suffering of a child or (in Voltaire’s example) the destruction of Lisbon without causing more harm elsewhere deserves no more than a lampoon.

    The world would be better off today if Sydney’s accident had never taken place. She would probably be finishing college, blessing new friends. She might be on her way to becoming a trauma surgeon, as she planned, and to saving many lives. Perhaps she would have met the right man and made him very happy, and eventually they would have children, and each would have thought he was among the luckiest kids alive. All of them would have brought joy to Sydney’s parents. Maybe, if we lived long enough, they would have visited us and we could have shared much of what we love about Italy. And her children would have children, and the world would be a better place than it is without her.

    Losses like ours are not unusual. Less than two weeks after Sydney’s death, Lufthansa 9525 was flown into a mountainside with 150 passengers and crew, including sixteen precious children from the small German town of Haltern. Each child had parents and siblings and grandparents and teachers and friends. In my work I hear of horrible losses. The Book of Job was my subject for years. I read history. The world is a troubled place and I mourn for it. Sydney’s death is unusual only because she was my loved one. Her death is the worst thing I have experienced, but it is not otherwise unique.

    If God is just, there must be more to life than this life. Sydney’s death is simply wrong – as was Lufthansa 9525, and Parkland, and the Syrian genocide. With that in mind, I propose: God is engaged in a project to redeem all that is redeemable. His project is motivated by love, and he intends to recreate, restore, and enable old and new relationships, grounded in love. With Job, I hold that we can count on redemption, because he loves us: “You would call, and I would answer you; you would long for the work of your hands.” (Job 14:15)

    This is more than St. Paul’s “O death, where is your sting?” I still feel the sting! My argument is that the only way to resolve the challenge of theodicy is through faith that God will redeem us; that when considering the losses, evil, and injustice we experience – and believing that God is both good and all-powerful – eternity must exist. My loving Father needs eternity if he is to redeem and rectify all that is wrong.

    In the new life, we will learn another way of being, one which employs and celebrates the gifts he has given, but does not include the possibility of teens careening into a tree at high speed. We will see each other again, as individuals and families and communities, redeemed. Like Lewis, I have no idea what resurrection of the body means, only that it will be glorious. Today’s grief will not be forgotten. Nor will the day when seven-year-old Sydney and I held hands and analyzed paintings by Perugino. And there will be much more to remember. Sydney will be there.

    Again, I look to the promise in Job: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” (Job 42:2)

    “Praise is the mode of love which always has some element of joy in it. . . . Don’t we in praise somehow enjoy what we praise, however far we are from it?”

    With praise, I reflect on the gift of Sydney’s eighteen years, and on hope for restoration. “Praise is the mode of love which always has some element of joy in it. Praise in due order; of Him as the giver, of her as the gift. Don’t we in praise somehow enjoy what we praise, however far we are from it?” writes Lewis. “By praising I can still, in some degree, enjoy her, and already, in some degree, enjoy Him. Better than nothing.”

    We cannot claim restoration on our own. We can only make the best of what we have been given and wait, patiently, for God to invite us to join him, along with our loved ones and those we will learn to love. Until then, we persevere.

    Contributed By portrait of Larry A. Smith

    Larry A. Smith serves as President of ScholarLeaders International, which exists to encourage and enable Christian theological leaders from the Majority World for the Global Church. He is a trustee of Fuller Theological Seminary, and serves on the board of the Institute for Religion and Public Life, publisher of First Things. Larry holds master’s degrees in business from Harvard, and in ecclesiastical history from Oxford. He and his wife, Victoria, have five children and eight grandchildren and live in Cortona, Italy.

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