A Classic on Grief and Healing

William Sloane Coffin

I was reminded today of this beautiful eulogy by the late William Sloane Coffin for his 24-year-old son, Alex, and I wanted to share it with you.  There’s such wisdom in these words that I’ve found it bears re-reading from time to time.

While he was a student, my father heard the feisty William Coffin preach as a young chaplain at Yale.  My dad, who became a doctor, has a weathered copy of Alex’s Death which he has xeroxed on many occasions to give to friends and colleagues experiencing loss.

But just one thing before you read it…  Here’s one of my favorite Coffin-isms, from an interview with Bill Moyers when Coffin was 80:

Chirping optimism is terrible…. And [a lot of people] think that emotional mediocrity is the good life. No. We should be able to plumb the depths of sadness and rise to the heights of joy, even ecstasy, though at my age, it’s not too easy.

William Sloane Coffin’s Eulogy for Alex

Ten days after his son, Alex, was killed in a car accident, Reverend William Sloane Coffin delivered this sermon to his congregation at Riverside Church in New York City.

As almost all of you know, a week ago last Monday night, driving in a terrible storm, my son — Alexander — who to his friends was a real day-brightener, and to his family “fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky” — my twenty-four-year-old Alexander, who enjoyed beating his old man at every game and in every race, beat his father to the grave.

Among the healing flood of letters that followed his death was one carrying this wonderful quote from the end of Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”:

“The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places.”

My own broken heart is mending, and largely thanks to so many of you, my dear parishioners; for if in the last week I have relearned one lesson, it is that love not only begets love, it transmits strength.

When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said. The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister’s house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking, middle-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. When she saw me, she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, “I just don’t understand the will of God.” Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. “I’ll say you don’t, lady!” I said.

For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness. Which is not to say that there are no nature-caused deaths — I can think of many right here in this parish in the five years I’ve been here — deaths that are untimely and slow and pain-ridden, which for that reason raise unanswerable questions, and even the specter of a Cosmic Sadist — yes, even an Eternal Vivisector. But violent deaths, such as the one Alex died — to understand those is a piece of cake. As his younger brother put it simply, standing at the head of the casket at the Boston funeral, “You blew it, buddy. You blew it.” The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is “It is the will of God.” Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

I mentioned the healing flood of letters. Some of the very best, and easily the worst, knew their Bibles better than the human condition. I know all the “right” biblical passages, including “Blessed are those who mourn,” and my faith is no house of rest, came from fellow reverends, a few of whom proved they knew their cards; these passages are true, I know. But the point is this. While the words of the Bible are true, grief renders them unreal. The reality of grief is the absence of God — “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The reality of grief is the solitude of pain, the feeling that your heart is in pieces, your mind’s a blank, that “there is no joy the world can give like that it takes away.” (Lord Byron).

That’s why immediately after such a tragedy people must come to your rescue, people who only want to hold your hand, not to quote anybody or even say anything, people who simply bring food and flowers — the basics of beauty and life — people who sign letters simply, “Your brokenhearted sister.” In other words, in my intense grief I felt some of my fellow reverends — not many, and none of you, thank God — were using comforting words of Scripture for self-protection, to pretty up a situation whose bleakness they simply couldn’t face. But like God herself, Scripture is not around for anyone’s protection, just for everyone’s unending support.

And that’s what hundreds of you understood so beautifully. You gave me what God gives all of us — minimum protection, maximum support. I swear to you, I wouldn’t be standing here were I not upheld.

After the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis wrote, “They say ‘the coward dies many times'; so does the beloved. Didn’t the eagle find a fresh liver to tear in Prometheus every time it dined?”

When parents die, as my mother did last month, they take with them a large portion of the past. But when children die, they take away the future as well. That is what makes the valley of the shadow of death seem so incredibly dark and unending. In a prideful way it would be easier to walk the valley alone, nobly, head high, instead of — as we must — marching as the latest recruit in the world’s army of the bereaved.

Still there is much by way of consolation. Because there are no rankling unanswered questions, and because Alex and I simply adored each other, the wound for me is deep, but clean. I know how lucky I am! I also know this day-brightener of a son wouldn’t wish to be held close by grief (nor, for that matter, would any but the meanest of our beloved departed) and that, interestingly enough, when I mourn Alex least I see him best.

Another consolation, of course, will be the learning — which better be good, given the price. But it’s a fact: few of us are naturally profound. We have to be forced down. So while trite, it’s true:

I walked a mile with Pleasure,
She chattered all the way;
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.

I walked a mile with Sorrow
And ne’er a word said she;
But the things I learned from her
But oh, the things I learned from her
When sorrow walked with me.
–Robert Browning Hamilton

Or, in Emily Dickinson’s verse:

By a departing light
We see acuter quite
Than by a wick that stays.
There’s something in the flight
That clarifies the sight
And decks the rays.

And of course I know, even when pain is deep, that God is good. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Yes, but at least, “My God, my God”; and the psalm only begins that way, it doesn’t end that way. As the grief that once seemed unbearable begins to turn now to bearable sorrow, the truths in the “right” biblical passages are beginning, once again, to take hold: “Cast thy burden upon the Lord and He shall strengthen thee”; “Weeping may endure for the night but joy cometh in the morning”; “Lord, by thy favor thou hast made my mountain to stand strong”; “For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling”; “In this world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world”; “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

And finally I know that when Alex beat me to the grave, the finish line was not Boston Harbor in the middle of the night. If a week ago last Monday, a lamp went out, it was because, for him at least, the Dawn had come.

So I shall — so let us all — seek consolation in that love which never dies, and find peace in the dazzling grace that always is.

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6 Responses to “A Classic on Grief and Healing”

  1. This is beautiful!!! Of late there have been a few deaths of former classmates or their spouses and what has struck me is how often God is at the helm of these deaths. The use of God’s will or God has chosen to take… whatever the phrase has always made me uncomfortable. This reflects what that discomfort is and so nice to read it was written by a Reverend. I too have thought God’s heart is the first to break.

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE the Hamilton peom.

  2. Barbara says:

    Here’s how Coffin explained how he managed to write and deliver this eulogy so soon after his son’s death (from an interview with Bill Moyers):

    COFFIN: Well. We all do what we know how to do, maybe. I went right away to the piano. And I played all the hymns. And I wept and I wept. I did grief work. And read the poems.

    Like A.E. Houseman, “To an Athlete Dying Young.” And I wept and I wept. And then, I’m a preacher. So. I wrote the sermon. And the folks in Riverside Church had to know whether or not they still had a pastor. Well, so I wanted them to know, they had a pastor. But I also, couldn’t think of anything else for the moment, but about Alex, and his death. So, I wrote the sermon about it.

    MOYERS: You’re not supposed to outlive your children, are you?

    COFFIN: No. I have a little sentence or two, about the Chinese Emperor who sent his wise man off for a month, to figure out, what is happiness? And the wise man’s gone back. And the Emperor said, “So? What is happiness?” And the wise man said, “Happiness is when the grandfather dies, and then the father, and then the son.” That is on the money. If the order gets mixed up, that’s misery. I know that.

  3. Barbara says:

    And the Houseman poem he mentions:

    To An Athlete Dying Young

    The time you won your town the race
    We chaired you through the market-place;
    Man and boy stood cheering by,
    And home we brought you shoulder-high.

    To-day, the road all runners come, 5
    Shoulder-high we bring you home,
    And set you at your threshold down,
    Townsman of a stiller town.

    Smart lad, to slip betimes away
    From fields where glory does not stay, 10
    And early though the laurel grows
    It withers quicker than the rose.

    Eyes the shady night has shut
    Cannot see the record cut,
    And silence sounds no worse than cheers 15
    After earth has stopped the ears:

    Now you will not swell the rout
    Of lads that wore their honours out,
    Runners whom renown outran
    And the name died before the man. 20

    So set, before its echoes fade,
    The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
    And hold to the low lintel up
    The still-defended challenge-cup.

    And round that early-laurelled head 25
    Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
    And find unwithered on its curls
    The garland briefer than a girl’s.

  4. Leslie says:

    Barbara,

    This is amazing. I feel scorched by how much he insists on truthfulness in grief. In my email signature, I have this quote by him:

    “The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.”

    Thanks for sharing this.

    Leslie

  5. suzy says:

    so if God doesn’t will these things to happen, why does he “let” them happen?

    • Barbara says:

      A good question, Suzy. While I could never presume to know the answer, I do take comfort in this passage from the author Kate Braestrup, which I wrote in my final post on this blog (below). It all makes me wonder if it’s not a matter of God willing or letting, but more like the laws of nature. Cars skid out of control on icy roads, healthy cells are consumed by cancerous ones. And, in spite of all of this, God is wherever love can be found. Kate Braestrup’s book is beautiful, and I highly recommend it to all who are seeking answers…

      “Here If You Need Me” by Kate Braestrup is the autobiography of the chaplain for the Maine game warden who herself was widowed with four young children when her husband – a state trooper – was killed in a car accident. I’ve read and re-read this passage many times:

      My children asked me, “Why did Dad die?”

      I told them, “It was an accident. There are small accidents, like knocking over your milk at the dinner table. And there are large accidents, like the one your dad was in. No one meant it to happen. It just happened. And his body was too badly damaged in the accident for his soul to stay in it anymore, and so he died.

      “God does not spill milk. God did not bash the truck into your father’s car. Nowhere in the scripture does it say, ‘God is car accident’ or ‘God is death.’ God is justice and kindness, mercy, and always – always – love. So if you want to know where God is in this or in anything, look for love.”

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