Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and W. E. B. Du Bois all shared one harrowing experience that shaped their writing and careers in profound ways, yet few readers know this fact. These great nineteenth-century American figures all wrote in the context of their suffering as bereaved parents. They found themselves inducted into a club that nobody wants to join, yet somehow each of them found constructive ways to remember their beloved dead.
I got to know these four authors more fully as I worked on my recent book, Continuing Bonds with the Dead: Parental Grief and Nineteenth Century American Authors (University of Alabama, 2016). I discovered that their experiences of grief over the loss of a child bore redemptive results. Each of them found ways to make their child’s legacy meaningful for those who survived them.
The more I learned about my subjects, as you might imagine, the less my book was simply an academic endeavor. I chose the topic in part out of a deep appreciation for these individuals, and focusing on their experiences as bereaved parents was opportunity to learn about them in a new light. But in truth, this book was never simply an academic endeavor.
Before I chose the topic, the topic chose me. Like my subjects, I, too, am a member of the club, and it was my own experience as a bereaved parent that led me to take up this topic. This book is not just history. The truths I’m trying to express are important for me personally. I yearn to commune with, and listen to, what Stowe called “those hovering spirits”; the “cloud of witnesses” that is said to surround me (Hebrews 12). In particular: my bonds with my own deceased son Daniel, to whom the book is a tribute in so many ways.
Daniel’s death in the summer of 1999, at the age of six and a half, was the classic before and after moment for me and my wife, Hiroko. At the time when my own tragedy struck, I had been researching the life and times of Mark Twain for the better part of a decade. The day that changed everything came in early summer after my first year on the tenure track at Saint Louis University, a Jesuit institution featuring a warm and friendly environment for my own budding, religiously-inflected research and career. (I know that dramatic language such as “the day that changed everything” seems loaded; however, as my subsequent research would reveal, it’s a very common way of thinking about that moment.) Oddly, in all my reading about Twain, it had never occurred to me how the deaths of his own children (three of four) had affected him. Evidently it had not seemed important to almost any of the other hundreds of Twain scholars, either, as I found very little written on that aspect of his life.
What fascinated and horrified me initially, during my own descent into what felt like near-madness, was the discovery at some point of comments Twain had written soon after the death of his lovely, intelligent, adult daughter Susy in 1896. They are some of the most accurate words I’ve ever read about the emotionally numbing first encounter with disaster: “It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunderstroke like that and live. There is but one reasonable explanation of it. The intellect is stunned by the shock and but gropingly gathers the meaning of the words. The power to realize their full import is mercifully wanting. The mind has a dumb sense of vast loss—that is all. It will take mind and memory months, and possibly years, to gather together the details and thus learn and know the whole extent of the loss.”1
It took me years, that much is certain. Somehow I managed to keep it together enough those first few years to continue getting up every morning and going to work. I lost my scholarly motivations for a good length of time, but as the tenure clock kept ticking away I understood that I needed to produce, so the ingrained habits of mind and body helped me plod along for a while. Work was therapeutic—as it was, I later discovered, for the grieving Mark Twain, and for many other bereaved authors. Despite feeling underwater and disconnected much of the time, I managed, somehow, to get research of varying degrees of import and originality published.
Even so, I found myself wandering around in a haze, almost a trance, for the first couple of years, if not longer. I taught classes and graded papers, went to church even, but somehow felt as if none of it mattered very much. Days and weeks, and then months, went around and around like a carousel, going nowhere. That’s not to say that I didn’t descend to the lower levels of hell: I did. I’ve often wondered since those days how much my colleagues and students perceived my struggles and daily trials. As a result of my experiences, I now firmly believe that a true account of this subject must begin with that aspect: the sheer torture of losing a child, and a resulting view of life to come as hopeless and horrible, all summarized in what Mark Twain memorably described elsewhere as “this odious world.”
After a couple of years I began seriously considering the possibility that I was losing my mind. I certainly did not seem to be getting any better. So, like any decent scholar, I began by digging around into the research about parental grief—for the personal reason that I actually wanted to know if it were true, that my mind was going south. I discovered, in fact, that many parents never do seem to “recover”—at least not fully. One of the first and most disturbing clinical studies I came upon showed that this psychological state of “overwhelming life meaninglessness” does not necessarily change with time; or if it does, it takes many years. In other words, there is clinical evidence that the old adage “Time heals all wounds” does not easily fit parental bereavement. (I was also beginning to realize that “healing” from grief is itself a metaphor based upon the mistaken idea of grief as illness, a Freudian concept that was at the heart of twentieth-century approaches to grief counseling.) However, clinical experience showed that a model of healing an illness did not seem accurate for parental grief, and that many parents did not recover within the year or so that seemed adequate for other types of grief. Rather, the opposite seemed more accurate: pain commonly intensifies, especially in the third or fourth year after the loss of a child. Most studies show that parental grief often gets worse with time, at least in the initial years, and that a growing sense of meaninglessness often accompanies it as well. I discovered that stunner near the end of the second year, and it was depressing to realize that I might not have even bottomed out by that point. But at least my experience was predictable. Maybe I was not losing it, after all.
Steadied somewhat, I plunged ahead, genuinely curious as to how Stowe, Lincoln, Twain, and Du Bois managed their own pain. My first serious attempt to apply what I was learning to a literary life focused on Twain, for two reasons. First, I knew the terrain well: I was already familiar with Twain’s life, his writings, and the scholarship on him. Second, I identified closely with his travails, and I admired his sense of humor in the face of life’s greatest tragedies. I had once heard about a study of longevity and mental health that determined that humor was one of the most influential traits of hardy, well-balanced individuals who live long. Well, Mark Twain always has made me laugh—and laughter was something I needed to rediscover, as much and as soon as possible.
I learned three things from Twain: first, he experienced the deepest and most profound versions of hell on earth, and he wrote about that hell in a compelling manner that resonated deeply with me. Second, like almost all bereaved parents, Twain confronted a profound crisis of meaning. Losing a child challenges one’s view of the world, leading frequently into a kind of despair and hopelessness. A child evokes a connection with the past, an investment in the future, and an extension of self. To say it another way, a child is a concrete expression of hope in the future, and when a child dies, much of a person’s hope dies as well. Since Daniel was our only child, Hiroko and I felt forlorn in not having a legacy for the future. Our loss challenged previous assumptions about the purpose and meaning of life—and about God and the life of faith.
Finally, Twain’s continuing bonds with his beloved daughter Susy haunted him for the remaining fourteen years of his life. Some of that connection bore good fruit—it softened his own heart in certain ways, even as it hardened it in other ways. Most importantly, the loss of Susy tended to exacerbate Twain’s sense of moral outrage, helping to inspire some of the finest social criticism of his long career—and, indeed, some of the finest ever to be written by an American. Imperialism and lynching became favorite targets of his rage—as did sour, hypocritical religion and arrogant, idiotic politicians.
Like many survivors of a child’s death, Twain grew more tender toward those disenfranchised and wrongly treated people he met in his travels and at his readings. He also became a sort of pastoral counselor to others who came after him on the road of grief. He wrote kindhearted letters filled with sentiment and wisdom to bereaved parents and spouses. Finally, he became for many years a trusted and merciful caregiver to his wife, Livy, who in some ways never did fully recover from Susy’s death. He was loyal to her until the end, often tended to her daily needs himself, and played a piano and sang Negro spirituals from the next room as she slowly passed away in 1904. In a peculiar way, the death of a child can cement even more strongly a relationship between parents, for these bereaved individuals feel that no one else on earth can possibly understand their loss—only each other.
It’s hard to summarize all the redemptive aspects that might emerge from different individuals’ pain and suffering; for that I will suggest that you read the book. I will simply say that my own journey indicates that there truly is redemption in the universe. Some readers may find redemption to be a stodgy, abstract concept; others may think that speaking of such a death as “redemptive” smacks of an offensive arrogance, a trite superficiality. I know just how trite such a statement can sound, as it often did to me in those early years after Daniel died. But looking back, I’m reminded of a quote from C. S. Lewis: “I am only trying to show that the old Christian doctrine of being made ‘perfect through suffering’ is not incredible.”2
For me, as it turns out, redemption from suffering has proven to be true, and deeply meaningful, though it certainly does not diminish the pain. But it’s a hidden wisdom, and mourners should resist the impulse that appeals to redemption will somehow, magically, suffice. Though such superficialities seem well-intentioned, in fact one would almost have to be a “moral cretin,” as David Bentley Hart memorably puts it in his brief study The Doors of the Sea, to mumble something about redemption or God’s will to bereaved parents during the early stages of grieving a dead child. Yes, time does offer consolation—but usually quite a long time. First, one must confront the sheer horror and even scandal of the death. To repeat Twain’s uncanny quote: “It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunderstroke like that and live.”
But Christians do claim to believe that redemption is woven into the fabric of our universe. Even today one often hears survivors describe their stubborn resistance to the idea that their child has “died in vain.” This concept, lifted from I Corinthians 15 and elsewhere, was also a catch phrase in nineteenth-century America. The mystery of redemption, that our labor is “not in vain” (I Cor. 15:58), was captured for all time at Gettysburg by our martyr president in the fall of 1863. A century and a half later, President Obama, speaking in July 2016 at the memorial for the slain Dallas police officers, made similar remarks: “My faith tells me that they did not die in vain. I believe our sorrow can make us a better country.” Just days later, my wife and I watched as a poignant group of speakers walked on stage at the Democratic National Convention: they were the bereaved mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and others. These women pleaded with the audience to do something productive in light of their childrens’ untimely deaths. On the same stage two days later, Khizr Khan gave a poignant appeal on behalf of his son, Capt. Humayun Khan, a slain Muslim American soldier. The prominence of these moments during the convention speaks to the lingering power of the dead child in the lives of their surviving parents, the respect of the public for those survivors, and the hope that the suffering caused by these deaths may somehow find constructive fruit, so that they will not have “died in vain.”
Mark Twain was often labeled a heretic or even an atheist, but even he could never shake those immortal implications, either. He remembered his daughter Susy in redemptive ways for the remainder of his life. And like Twain, I still sense that cloud of witnesses surrounding me—and I predict that my own bonds with the dead will continue, as well, so that Daniel’s death may not be in vain, either. Perhaps my volume, featuring “Continuing Bonds” in the title, is one more example of how the continuing bonds with the dead can bear constructive and beneficial consequences—the “peaceable fruits of righteousness”—in the lives of others. Thus do I hope, just like all grieving parents hope: that our dead children did not “die in vain.”
Lezley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s overwhelmed mother, said publicly in the aftermath of his death in 2012, “My son’s life and death has a bigger purpose on it. He was too good for this wicked world, so God picked the rose too soon.” Her words echo the sentiments of countless survivors of parental grief: the untimely deaths of children cannot deny the ongoing legacy of their lives—as long as we remember them, some mysterious “bigger purpose” can be realized.
In retrospect, that’s also the main reason why I wrote the book. If anything I wrote becomes helpful or encouraging to anyone suffering similar loss, then I would count it a great success—and a legacy of my son, as well. A
Harold K. Bush is professor of English at Saint Louis University and is the author of Lincoln in His Own Time, Mark Twain and the Spiritual Crisis of His Age, and American Declarations: Rebellion and Repentance in American Cultural History.
Twain, Mark. Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 2010.
Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain (C.S. Lewis Classics). New York: Touchstone Books, 1996.