The death of children in Manchester and Lincoln in the Bardo

Last night a suicide bomber exploded a bomb in the foyer of the Manchester Arena as a crowd left a concert and killed (so far) 22 people, many of them children, and injured many more. I knew nothing of this until I switched on the radio at 6am this morning. My reaction was more numb than felt right. I tried to imagine the grief of the parents, but–luckily for me (and evolutionarily designed that way)–could feel little of it. I made my tea, went up to bed to read, and perhaps inevitably encountered words that said something about what had happened in Manchester.

I’ve been reading–and finished this morning–Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. It’s a story inspired by the death of Willie, Lincoln’s 11-year-old son and a very sweet child. Newspaper reports, probably untrue, said that Lincoln, almost broken by his grief, had gone to the Georgetown graveyard in the middle of the night after the funeral, taken Willie from his coffin, and held him.

Saunders describes this from the point of view of souls/people/shades who are dead but don’t know they are dead and who rollick (the right word) in the graveyard at night. They are in Bardo, a Buddhist state, a transitional realm akin to purgatory. The souls/people/shades are able to inhabit Lincoln and so know his thoughts. This was a bad time for Lincoln. It was early in the Civil War, deaths of the young were mounting. Lincoln was being strongly criticised for unleashing this torrent of death. He was uncertain that he’d done the right thing. His mind on that night was dominated by grief for Willie, but it was mixed with a wider grief.

I thought of the grieving parents of Manchester as I read these lines:

“His mind was freshly inclined towards sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone laboured under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but, rather, it’s like had been felt, would be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated, because, in this state, he could be of no help to anyone and, given that his position in the world situated him to be either of great help or great harm, it would not do to stay low, if he could help it.

All were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be.

It was the nature of things.

Though it seemed on the surface every person was different, this was not true.

At the core of each lay suffering; our eventual end, the many losses we must experience on the way to that end.

We must try to see one another in this way.

As suffering, limited beings–

Perennially out matched by circumstance, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces.”

Lincoln, like most people in his time believed strongly in God. The question thus inevitably arises of how God could allow such a terrible thing as the death of Willie or the death of children and others in Manchester.  Saunders attempts as answer, but his answer will not, I fear, provide any comfort to the Manchester parents.

“We may be sure,–therefore bereaved parents, and all the children of sorrow may be sure,–that their affliction has not come forth of the dust, nor has their trouble spring out of the ground.

It is the well-ordered procedure of their Father and their God. A mysterious dealing they may consider it, but it is still His dealing; and while they mourn He is saying to them, as the Lord Jesus once said to his Disciples when they were perplexed by his conduct, “What I do ye know not now, but ye shall know hereafter.”

After finishing the novel I read a review of it in the New Yorker, and the reviewer quotes a letter that Lincoln wrote to a grieving mother whose son was killed in the Civil War:

“You cannot now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once.”


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