The Table Video

Stanley Hauerwas

Presence and Silence: Lessons from Grief and Suffering

Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Divinity and Law, Duke Divinity School
June 2, 2017

Drawing from his painful experience of being married to someone with a severe mental illness, Hauerwas shares insight on how to respond to suffering.


Back to some of your autobiography. Later in your life when you were married, you had a 20 year marriage to–

Over 20.

Over 20?


And you characterize this in your book Hanna’s Child, as an experience of grief and suffering. I wonder if you would describe, looking back now, what has that taught you?

First of all, we were young, and so in a young marriage, you don’t know this much. It was only, I guess we’d been married over 10 years, where she first started manifesting bipolar symptoms. To learn, to live with someone, that’s seriously mentally ill, turns you into an existentialist, because you never know what the next five minutes is going to bring.

And we had a son, and it was very hard for him. I mean, how do you, a six year old has to tell his mother, “No, you’re not the Holy Spirit, “and I’m not the son of God,” “even though you might have heard that message “on the radio.” I mean, it’s very hard negotiation to, for a young person to have to deal with a seriously ill parent, because mental illness is a black hole, you have no idea what’s going on. What that time I think for me indicated and gave me was, a sense of how important it was that I’d be Adam’s parent, mother and father.

And it created a deep bond between myself and my son, which I am always deeply grateful for. What you have to remember when someone is mentally ill, is that they are in pain. And they’re perpetuating such pain on you. You have trouble remembering they are in pain, but I tried to do that, and to be as, to be as helpful as you can be. But the more you try to make things better, things only get worse. At least that was true for me. It was, there, every, every person that is mentally ill is different, but her anger was volcanic. And that’s what finally killed me. I mean, just the, absorbing the anger.

Evan: Yeah. You describe it as a black hole, like a darkness. To extend the metaphor, what understanding can there be for people who are faced with the suffering of disability and mental illness? What understanding can be had?

Well, your temptation is to say, “Just get a hold, “just, just will your way out of this.” They can’t will their way out, they can’t get a hold, they’re possessed. The best you can do is trying to be present, but I mean, I don’t wanna go into the details, but since she was constantly in love with other people, she, she finally just left, and I was exhausted, and I just let her go.

I just couldn’t, I just couldn’t sustain it anymore. I had to let her go because I realized, as long as she blamed me for her condition, there was no way she was gonna get better. I mean, she had to discover that she had to take responsibility for taking her meds, for example. But, you know, I mean, the lithium will do something for a while, but they miss their highs and then they’re off, and it’s just, it’s just a terror. And it’s a terror for them, no just for those around.

Of course, yeah. Were there words, there’s this Thomas Merton reference, in a letter to someone where he just points out, “Sometimes, there just are no words for suffering, “or grief.” But then, if that’s the case, what is Lamente? And what is it to Lamente and what is, how did you, how did you deal with that?

Well, I wrote a book some years ago, called “Naming the Silences”, and [mumbles] thought that the title, after its first publication was too obscure, so they renamed it “God, Medicine, and the Problem of Suffering”, but it’s “Naming the Silences”. Silences drip off the edges of words I think that often times, what we were too noisy around people who are suffering, by trying to make things okay, that what they absolutely need is presence. They need us to be there. Job, friends, have such a bad wrap, generally–

Evan: Pretty bad wrap [laughs]

But originally, they saw Job from afar and they went and sat silently with him for days. I think that is a sign of goodness.

Evan: It’s when they start talking that they–

It’s when they start talking when thing go bad. So there is a sense that to be with the suffering is first and foremost to be, to be with them, just to be present. Because there’s, I mean, you think about how often times we mislead people when for example, when you’ve gone into a home where a young person has died, and you try to provide comfort, and you come up with locutions like, “I guess they’ve gone to a better place.”

That’s just terrible. First of all, heaven is not a place, I mean, God is not a place, but it’s to try to say something, when what you ought to say is, “You and the person you love will be in my prayers.” And then, you don’t need to say more than that.

Evan: Yeah. Have you been comforted by particular words, that is to say, is there wisdom for the sufferer? Can the sufferer follow a path or a way, that can offer them hope, clarity, a way forward to–

Stanley: I’m sure there is, but it’s not just the words, it’s who says them. It’s very important that, that the designated person of a community called the priest or the minister, know what to say. And it’s very important that friends know how to be there, as well as not to say too much.

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