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It is Well with My Soul

November 14, 2009


This Sunday, November 15, will mark the ninth anniversary of the death of our twenty-seven-year-old son Erik. Over these nine years, Clare and I have learned much about the experience of grief. One important lesson is that there are many things that we will never understand in this life. In fact, Clare has said that she is keeping a list of questions to ask God. She plans to take the list with her to heaven.

A major step in learning to grieve is to give up the expectation that things will always be the same. There is no vaccination against loss. It will come to all of us sooner or later. Sorrow will be a part of every life. No one will be exempt. Once we accept that reality, we can make decisions that will move us along through grief to resolution.

Another thing that we have learned is that life moves on. Think of life as a journey down a river. The river confronts us with a series of rapids and stretches of flat, calm water. As we begin the journey, the rapids are generally less difficult, the turbulence less threatening. 

As we successfully negotiate those initial rapids, we learn to handle our paddle and our canoe. Experience teaches us that in calm water we can drift and let the flow of the river carry us along. In whitewater, to avoid boulders and other dangers, we must paddle with more effort and precision.

 Occasionally the river of life shocks us with thundering rapids so turbulent that we have little control. While these severe rapids sap our energy and threaten to sink us, we have assurance that calm water is ahead. As we negotiate the swirling rapids of loss and sorrow, we continue our lifelong journey of learning how to grieve.

Another important lesson for us has been the realization that many others walk through similar valleys of the shadow of death. Just this week dear friends experienced the death of their twenty-seven-year-old son. Though the circumstances were very different than those of Erik’s death, the pain of loss and the experience of grief are much the same as ours.

I have made up a wise old saying. “Don’t ever waste an experience of suffering.” One meaning of redemption is that we find a way to use every experience, even the painful ones, for some good. For us, that has been to help other grieving parents who are part of this fellowship of suffering.

Horatio Spafford was a Chicago businessman in the late-nineteenth century. A senior partner in a prosperous law firm and devout elder in the Presbyterian church, Spafford and his wife, Anna, lived comfortably with their four young daughters. In 1871, when the Great Fire of Chicago reduced the city to ashes, it also destroyed Spafford’s sizable investments.

Two years later, the family planned a trip to Europe. At the last moment Spafford was detained by business. Anna and the girls went ahead, sailing on the ocean liner S.S. Ville de Havre. On November 21, 1873, the liner was accidentally rammed by a British vessel and sank within twelve minutes. Anna was rescued clinging to a floating board. The four children drowned.

A fellow survivor recalled Anna saying, “God gave me four daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Someday I will understand why.” Nine days after the shipwreck Anna landed in Cardiff, Wales, and cabled her husband, “Saved alone. What shall I do?”

 After receiving Anna’s telegram, Spafford immediately left Chicago to bring his wife home. On the Atlantic crossing, the captain of his ship called Horatio to his cabin to tell him that they were passing over the spot where his four daughters had perished. Horatio wrote a hymn as he passed over their watery grave.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

 When we have learned to grieve, we, too, can affirm in any grief experience, “It is well with my soul.”

Kirk H. Neely
© November 2009

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