“I would rather go blind,” Etta James sings, “than to see you walk away.” The first time I heard this song I felt the pull of her powerful emotions. Yep, that’s how it feels during a break-up, I thought, though we might not actually trade our eyesight!

How many parents, driven to despair, have offered their lives to God or the devil if only their child could survive? Alas, the bargain is not struck.

After my daughter died, I realized the lyric isn’t just bluesy hyperbole. Many bereaved parents have pleaded with God to take them instead. A struggling child puts the lie to any Faustian fantasies of bartering our souls to gain our desires. How many parents, driven to despair, have offered their lives to God or the devil if only their child could survive? Alas, the bargain is not struck. “Dark is the world to me, for all its cities and stars,” writes Abraham Heschel. “If not for my faith that God in His silence still listens to a cry, who could stand such agony?”

Who among us has not felt cheated and abandoned by deity as our loved one suffers? Our hearts may at times harbor thoughts of self-recrimination, guilt, a sense of betrayal, abandonment, or misplaced trust. Such feelings are normal.  

Goethe felt wholly changed after the death of his cherished sister, Cornelia. He spoke of her as a sturdy, reliable root that had now been chopped away, leaving him—the branches she once nourished—to wither and die. He had no choice but to surrender to nature, he writes, “which allows us to feel terrible pain for a brief time, but lets us mourn for much longer.” A month later, Goethe composed this poem about Cornelia:

The gods, endless, give all
to those they love, entire:
all our joys, endless; all
our pains, endless, entire.

Goethe is hinting that the gods’ largesse may be too extravagant. In giving all, entirely and without reserve, perhaps they give too much. The poet is heartbroken and feeling a tad snide. This is not unexpected. Anger, vindictiveness, and hostility are acknowledged aspects of grief. Many bereaved parents express bitterness, disillusionment, and a sense of betrayal by the divine. They may blame God and perhaps even mock deity’s apparent lack of concern.1

Looking at photographs of fellow sufferers, I am moved by an ineffable yet wholly palpable quality of grief: a sense of communion.

“So you see, I love you so much that I don’t wanna watch you leave,” Etta sings. “I’d rather be blind.” And she’s right. I cannot exchange my sight to have my daughter back, but in a very real way, my expressions and perceptions have changed. If eyes are windows to the soul, then in grief our eyes reveal souls that have taken harm. Look in the eyes of other mourners. You may see yourself.

In 2018, TIME Magazine photographer Adam Ferguson was assigned seven bereaved parents whose children had died in a school shooting twenty years earlier. “Photographing each parent was complex and hard,” Ferguson writes. “No photograph I made seemed able to capture the grief of losing a child.” He needn’t worry. The people featured on his cover of TIME come from many walks of life, yet their eyes tell a shared story that transcends words.

This realization is surprisingly helpful. Looking at photographs of fellow sufferers, I am moved by an ineffable yet wholly palpable quality of grief: a sense of communion. We are not alone.  Emily Dickinson may have understood this when she wrote of her grief  that she is “still fascinated to presume that some are like my own.”

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes – 
I wonder if It weighs like Mine – 
Or has an Easier size.

I note that Some – gone patient long – 
At length, renew their smile –  
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil – 

Other Romantic poets also reflected on hidden sorrow that lingers under the surface of our eyes. “Leave me to my mourning!” exclaimed bereaved father Friedrich Rückert. “My eyes are accustomed to it now. Each ray of eastern light will darken my soul, adding grief to grief.” These words resonate with me. Nature may be soothing, offering hints of joy, yet it is also dangerous and destructive. It is not safe; it is not docile. Perhaps in our grief we see this clearly at last. We may feel that our eyes, and our smiles, as Dickinson wrote, are imitations of a light now bereft of life-giving oil. 

A constraining one-size-fits-all theology, or a strictly observed model of grief, imposes more harm than relief, denying the “complex and often bewildering phenomenon” of sorrow.

“Something told me it was over,” Etta sings. “Something deep down in my soul said, ‘Cry.’” Much of the lyric is about a lost love, but that line speaks to me even now. Something told me.

When my daughter was a child, we played a game called I love you more . . .  Usually I started with something simple: “I love you more than chocolate!” She would chime in, “I love you more than Power Rangers!” (High praise indeed.) And off we would go, one more than after another, until sooner or later Jess returned to one of our favorites: 

“I love you more than a poke in the eye!”

Jess died around eight o’clock on a Friday evening, January 16, 2015. I was working at the time and felt an odd pressure on my right eye, solid and unmistakable. The next morning, Saturday, I woke with my lid completely covered in mucus. I thought I had an unexpected case of pink eye. That afternoon my sight returned to normal.

Jess’s mother was unable to reach me on Friday or Saturday. Finally, on Sunday, January 18, while cooking dinner, I learned that Jess had overdosed on heroin, a victim of the same addiction that led Etta James to write “I’d Rather Go Blind.” I was struck dumb, unable to process a reality I knew was true. Later that same year, I came across one of the most famous laments in German literature, again by Rückert. It perfectly expresses my bewilderment in those first few days.

The maid brings news of their 
sister’s death to our throng 
of boys; they cry out as one:
“She is not dead, it is not true.”

They stare at her pale lips, her 
cheeks white, dark hair; and
whisper among themselves:
“She is not dead, it is not true.”

Father weeps, his heart a
wound; their mother keens;
still they resist the truth:
“She is not dead, it is not true.”

They were there in the hour
when she was laid to rest,
lowered to the cold ground:
“She is not dead, it is not true.”

She remains, she is here,
more beautiful each year, 
more precious each hour:
She is not dead, it is not true.

“She is not dead,” I moan to myself. “Oh dear Lord, it’s true, I’d rather be blind.” Rückert knew this pain. His boys cry out, they whisper, they resist and ultimately face their sister’s death, all the while repeating: She is not dead, it is not true.  The final stanza’s refrain of assurance is almost a sacrament. The religious parallel was no accident.

This song is a “kyrielle by Rückert,” observes Michael Neumann, professor emeritus of German literature at Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt, referring to a French verse form characterized by refrains in the fourth line of each quatrain. Kyrielle is from the Old French kiriele, a derivative of the word Kýrie: part of many Christian liturgies, in which “Lord, have mercy” is repeated in the fourth line. 

After a loss, we often rely on certain words that offer solace in times of overwhelming sorrow. These take on meaning through repetition and may include a line from a hymn, a passage of scripture or poetry, a fondly remembered phrase spoken by our dead loved one, or private supplications. They form our liturgies of grief.

David McNeish, a minister with the Church of Scotland, says that this type of personal liturgy can be productive and helpful. He suggests that a constraining one-size-fits-all theology, or a strictly observed model of grief, imposes more harm than relief, denying the “complex and often bewildering phenomenon” of sorrow. Instead, McNeish recommends practical care that focuses on personal context, open listening, and alternative liturgy.

My private liturgy takes a different form. Unlike Rückert’s boys, I knew Jess was dead, I knew it was true. Had I the poet’s gift, my kyrielle might end each stanza with a different sacramental refrain:

She remains, she is here, 
more beautiful each year, 
more precious each hour: 
I love you more . . . 

I would trade places with my daughter in a heartbeat. If one of us had to die, I think, surely it should have been me. But faced with the reality of this overwhelming grief, I pause over a separate bargain. If one of us must face a world without the other, I would spare Jess this harm. 

I’m reminded of a surprising phone call from Jess a few years before she died. A friend’s father had just passed. “He was only fifty-five,” she said through tearful gasps. “What if it was you? I couldn’t stand it. You’re my favorite.” Now I know, now I see: grief, too, is an act of love. Yes, Jess, if one  of us must suffer, let it be me. I’d rather go blind than to see you in such pain.


  1. Portions of this essay are adapted from the book Songs on the Death of Children: Selected Poems from Kindertotenlieder. (translated and annotated by David Bannon). ↩︎

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