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It Is Well with My Soul

November 17, 2013

Our son Erik was a shoe leather reporter.  Rather than sitting at a desk, gathering details for stories over the telephone, he preferred to go to the story.  In his first newspaper job after college, he spent several weeks on the street, working especially at night, among homeless people.  With his good friend and photographer, Thomas, Erik published a series of stories that raised the consciousness of the community of Spartanburg, South Carolina, regarding the problem of homelessness.

When the Charleston Post and Courier hired Erik to cover the North Charleston area, Erik and his wife, June, moved to Charleston, South Carolina, The assignment— reporting on the Goose Creek City Council or the Berkeley County School Board—was not appealing to a young reporter whose bent was to write human interest, feature stories.  Erik viewed this mundane reporting of city council and school board meetings as paying the rent.  

“It gives me an office and a laptop so I can do what I really enjoy,” he said.  

When hired, Erik asked if he could take Monday as his day off and work every Saturday.  His editor was delighted to grant the request, since most reporters want the weekends off.  Erik’s willingness to work on Saturday gained him instant favor with most of the Post and Courier staff.  There was one provision.  He would have to drive into Charleston on Saturdays and work out of the main downtown office.  It was like throwing Br’er Rabbit into the Briar Patch.  Downtown Charleston was just where Erik wanted to be.

Erik telephoned me to share his excitement with his Saturday assignment. “Dad, I just need one big story, a story that will make the front page of Sunday’s paper.”  It took only two weeks for him to find and write the big story.  A ship with a Ukrainian crew had been abandoned by the captain in Charleston Harbor.  The sailors had not been paid, and their supplies were dwindling.  When Erik heard the story, he went to Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian relief organization. That Saturday afternoon the group sent a small boat with food, fresh water, and medical supplies to the stranded ship.  Erik rode on the boat.  He interviewed the sailors, took photographs, and wrote the article.  The story appeared on the front page of Sunday’s newspaper.  Erik had found his niche in his new community.

Clare and I found special joy in our son’s success.  He had been diagnosed with epilepsy when he was six years old, about two weeks after he had chicken pox.  As he entered adolescence his seizures had grown progressively worse.  Yet he had never allowed his disorder to hold him back from accomplishing his goals.  

Clare and I avidly followed his career in Charleston. We subscribed to the Sunday edition of the Post and Courier and looked for Erik’s byline. After a year or so in North Charleston, the newspaper moved him to the main office.  He was assigned to the cop’s beat, reporting on police activity in the greater Charleston area.  

On the night of November 14, 2000, Erik called just before midnight.  He had been working on the tragic story of a mother who had killed two of her three children three days earlier. The woman said that God had told her to sacrifice her children. Erik had been to the school the children attended, interviewing teachers, counselors, and students.  On the day of his call, he had spent several hours with the grandmother of the deceased children, the mother of the woman accused of the murders.

In our conservation that Tuesday evening, Erik said, “This is more than just a cop’s story.  This is a story about religion gone wrong.”  His empathy for the grandmother, the mother, the surviving child, and so many others involved in the tragedy struck me as uncommon.  He wanted my input on the pathology of religious experience so he could write a story that would help the Charleston community try to make sense out of the nonsense. We talked for nearly forty-five minutes, concluding our conversation with our usual “I love you.”  

This was my final conversation with our son.

Last Friday, November 15, marked the anniversary of Erik’s death. Over the years, Clare and I have learned much about the experience of grief.

One important lesson is that we will never understand many aspects of 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 life will always be the same. We have 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 important lesson for us has been the realization that many others walk through similar valleys of the shadow of death. When parents lose a child, 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.” It is possible to 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 an 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 many of 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. The ship sank within twelve minutes. Anna, clinging to a floating board, was rescued. The four children drowned.

Nine days after the shipwreck Anna landed in Cardiff, Wales, and cabled her husband, “Saved alone. What shall I do?”

            Spafford immediately left Chicago to bring his wife home. During the Atlantic voyage, the captain of the ship called Horatio to his cabin to tell him that they were crossing 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.”

            I love you, Erik.

See you when I get there.


Kirk H. Neely
© November 2013

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