Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, Book 2, Ch. 3. Elder Zosima to the “Women of Faith”:
“What are you weeping for?”
“I pity my little son, dear father, he was three years old, just three months short of three years old. I grieve for my little son, father, for my little son. He was the last little son left to us […] this last one I buried and I can’t forget him. As if he’s standing right in front of me and won’t go away. My soul is wasted over him. I look at his clothes, at his little shirt or his little boots, and start howling. I lay out all that he left behind, all his things, and look at them and howl. Then I say to Nikitushka, that’s my husband, let me go on a pilgrimage, master. He’s a coachman, we’re not poor, father, not poor, we run our own business, everything belongs to us, the horses and the carriages. But who needs all that now? […] And now I don’t even think about him [her husband]. It’s three months since I left home. I’ve forgotten, I’ve forgotten everything, and I don’t want to remember, what can I do with him now? […] I’m through with everybody. And I don’t even want to see my house now, and my things, I don’t want to see anything at all!”
“Listen, mother,” said the elder. “Once, long ago, a great saint saw a mother in church, weeping just as you are over her child, her only child, whom the Lord had also called to him. ‘Do you not know,’ the saint said to her, ‘how bold these infants are before the throne of God? No one is bolder in the Kingdom of Heaven: Lord, you granted us life, they say to God, and just as we beheld it, you took it back from us. And they beg and plead so boldly that the Lord immediately puts them in the ranks of the angels. And therefore,’ said the saint, ‘you too, woman, rejoice and do not weep. Your infant, too, now abides with the Lord in the host of his angels.’ That is what a saint said to a weeping woman in ancient times. He was a great saint and would not have told her a lie. Therefore you, too, mother, know that you infant, too, surely now stands before the throne of the Lord, rejoicing and being glad, and praying to God for you. Weep, then, but also rejoice.”
The woman listened to him, resting her cheek in her hand, her eyes cast down. She sighed deeply.
“The same way my Nikitushka was comforting me, word for word, like you, he’d say: ‘Foolish woman,’ he’d say, ‘why do you cry so? Our little son is surely with the Lord God now, singing with the angels. ‘He’d say it to me, and he’d be crying himself, I could see, he’d be crying just like me. ‘I know, Nikitushka,’ I’d say, ‘where else can he be if not with the Lord God, only he isn’t here, with us, Nikitushka, he isn’t sitting here with us like before!’ If only I could just have one more look at him, if I could see him one more time, I wouldn’t even go up to him, I wouldn’t speak, I’d hide in a corner, only to see him for one little minute, to hear him the way he used to play in the backyard and come in and shout in his little voice: ‘Mama, where are you?’ […] But he’s gone, dear father, he’s gone and I’ll never hear him again! His little belt is here, but he’s gone, and I’ll never see him, I’ll never hear him again…!”
She took her boy’s little gold-braided belt from her bosom and, at the sight of it, began shaking with sobs, covering her eyes with her hands, through which streamed the tears that suddenly gushed from her eyes.
“This,” said the elder, “is Rachel of old ‘weeping for her children, and she would not be comforted, because they are not. This is the lot that befalls you mothers, on earth. And do not be comforted, you should not be comforted, do not be comforted, but weep. Only each time you weep, do not fail to remember that your little son is one of God’s angels, that he looks down at you from there and sees you, and rejoices in your tears and points them out to the Lord God. And you will be filled with this great mother’s weeping for a long time, but in the end it will turn into quiet joy for you, and your bitter tears will become tears of quiet tenderness and the heart’s purification, which saves from sin. And I will remember your little child in my prayers for the repose of the dead. What was his name?”
“Alexei, dear father.”
“A lovely name! After Alexei, the man of God?”
“Of God, dear father, of God. Alexei, the man of God.”
“A great saint! I”ll remember, mother, I’ll remember, and I’ll remember your sorrow in my prayers, and I’ll remember your husband, too. Only it is a sin for you to desert him. Go to your husband and take care of him. Your little boy will look down and see that you’ve abandoned his father, an will weep for both of you: why, then, do you trouble his blessedness? He’s alive, surely he’s alive, for the soul lives forever, and though he’s not at home, he is invisibly near you. How then, can he come to his home if you say you now hate your home? To whom will he go if he does not find you, his father and mother, together? You see him now in your dreams and are tormented, but at home he will send you quiet dreams. Go to your husband, mother, go this very day.”
“I will go, my dear, according to your word, I will go. You’ve touched my heart. Nikitushka, my Nikitushka, you are waiting for me, my dear, waiting for me!” The woman began to murmur, but the elder had already turned to a very little old lady[…].”
Dostoyevsky saw me. I have written a few posts about our stillborn son, Isaac. It is amazing to me how Dostoyevsky captures the grief of a mother. I so many times think my feelings are unique, but not after reading this. Maybe modern people do not get as carried away as this woman, at least for as long as she did. I think I grieved more over him, as described above, after I became Orthodox. As I have written, one of the things that drew me to Orthodoxy was the icon of the little boy with his guardian angel, which caused me to weep for knowing where my son is.
Our modern culture tries to hide from death. You are supposed to move on with your life after someone dies. Grieving after a year is considered excessive. You certainly aren’t supposed to try to maintain a connection with the departed. I like how Elder Zosima supports her grief, but also redirects her to not forget others, and that by remembering the baby’s father, she is also giving security to her departed child. We don’t have to forget or disconnect from our departed loved ones, but neither should we forget our spouse or God, who also love them. It’s weird to me how loss can make us forget about the ones who remain.
I was very traumatized when I found out Isaac was dead, but when I got pregnant a couple months later, I was distracted from my grief. But there is a bond that remains even after a child dies. I think this is what drew me to Orthodoxy, where I could commune with my son in Christ. I believe he intercedes for our family even now. But it’s not as if death has no negative consequences. I think that a woman “losing it” after a child dies is partly because she is connected to him and wants to be where he is. Part of her experiences the separation from this world that death brings. She leaves with her child. We are not made for separation and loss. We are made for union with all things in Christ. After a death in the family, we have to learn how to reattach to our loved ones still in this realm, while keeping the departed loved one’s Memory Eternal.
And I do feel closer to Isaac at my house, surrounded by our icons. I get the feeling he wants me to be home.
(icon from Conciliar Press)