Prodigal Grief

A bereaved father's Lenten thoughts on loss -- and new hope.

This article is reprinted with the permission of the Christian Century.

During a Lenten retreat, we were asked to reflect on the feelings and role of the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Though I had frequently thought about the parable over the years, I had not given the father much attention other than to consider him a symbol for God. Our retreat leader, however, asked us to think of the father as a real parent. We discussed parental roles, parents who cannot let their children go, parents who are overly critical, parents who are not available when their children need them. Our leader pointed out that the father in the parable had given his son the freedom to take chances, risk failure, and push limits, not because he was indifferent to his child, but because he had a deep and abiding love for him. The father was able to see his returning son when "he was still a long way off" because the father had been continually watching for him.

As I listened to the discussion, I felt as if I had been kicked in the heart. My only child died when she was 18, just 10 months after she was diagnosed with a rare and virulent cancer. Laurie was a smart, beautiful, lively, and loving young woman. I envied the father in the parable. Even though his son was gone, there was always the possibility that he would return. I would have given anything to have been in his position.

I envied the father in the parable. Even though his son was gone, there was always the possibility that he would return.

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During the month following the retreat, I again felt the anger, despair, and guilt I thought I had overcome during the eight years since Laurie's death. I had gone through grief counseling. I had read books by and about parents who lost children. I had written about Laurie in journals, memoirs, and short stories. I had begun to meditate, first using Thomas Keatings' form of centering prayer and then Zen practices. I had read the mystics and come to believe that my child's death had helped me to understand such concepts as Buddhist emptiness and T.S. Eliot's "waiting without hope." I had become an active lay reader and chalice bearer in my church and was considering doing pastoral care. I thought I had done everything possible to cope with Laurie's death. Yet during that Lenten season, I felt as if I were looking into a void, a blackness, a nothingness completely different from the comforting silence I usually found in my meditations. I would rise from my prayer bench filled with a cold despair.

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Richard Wile
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