A President's Reflections

A parent’s grief

Posted on April 26, 2009

Later today we will have a memorial service for Xu Li, the Chinese graduate student we lost in a car accident over a week ago.  His parents arrived from Beijing with Li’s uncle late Friday night and yesteday viewed his body and began the sad process of deciding what belongings to bring home, meeting with a lawyer to see to estate and insurance questions, and preparing for today.

I had lunch with them yesterday and Pat and I took them to dinner last night.  Li’s parents, accomplished professionals, are both stoic and formal in the way of their culture, but their grief is ineffably etched on their faces.  Li’s father seems mostly in shock still.  His mother’s grief is right there, just below the surface, and her stoicism almost makes it harder to witness.  They are grateful for every small gesture of aid we have offered, but no matter we do for them, we know we can’t even begin to chip away at the diamond hard truth that their one child is now lost to them except in memory. 

At dinner, Li’s mom sat across from Pat and asked about our girls, what they hoped to be someday, and if we worried for their safety when they are away.  Li’s uncle started to describe his one son, the same age as Li, and broke down.  We didn’t even wait until we arrived home to call our girls — we needed to hear their voices, to find irrational reassurance that they were okay after being in the presence of the unthinkable that every parent suppresses.

Li’s parents asked me to outline the memorial service for them and I mentioned that we will give them Li’s degree, voted posthumously, and the hood he would have worn at his graduation.  At the latter thought Li’s mother bowed her head, folded her hands, and began to weep.  I am old enough to have experienced death and shared in the various forms of grief that attend it, but I have never been in the presence of such deep, abiding loss. 

I am a lapsed Catholic, but on my way home from lunch I was reminded of those Sunday readings from the New Testament and that the metaphor used to describe the enormity of God’s love for we humans is that “he gave up his son,” an ultimate sacrifice story presaged in the Old Testament account of Abraham and Isaac.   I had never  really thought about that notion (honestly, as a teenager in Mass I was often preoccupied with who the Bruins were playing that night), but yesterday I had this revelation that if the biblical tale is meant to communicate the single most powerful sacrifice one can make, including God, then the loss of one’s child is exceeded by no other image or metaphor.

For Li’s parents, no other suffering can exceed that they are going through right now.

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