Lessons From My Son's Short Life

Brian Holtz     2001-11-06

On Sep 14 2001 my wife and I held our 8-day-old son Blake in our arms as he died from a catastrophic and inexplicable infarction in his bowels. This has been a horrible experience for us, but we are drawing strength from each other, our 17-month-old daughter, our families and friends -- and from the principles and values by which we live. Blake's short life has taught me a few things, some of which I'd like to share.

1. I'm less superstitious than I feared I might be under circumstances like these. I can find in myself no fear that Blake's death is 1) punishment from some gods for my disbelief in them, or 2) karmic payback to balance all the good fortune I've had in my life. The latter fear is allayed by all the evidence of imbalance in the fortunes of so many other people. The former fear is canceled by the awareness that such gods would be morally inferior to me if killing my son were their punishment for me. I see Blake's death as neither evidence for vengeful gods nor counter-evidence against benevolent gods. The Problem of Evil was not a dispositive argument against theism before Blake died, and it isn't one now.

2. My grief for Blake is based primarily on the combination of my intense devotion to him and my sadness that his experience ended so early. If instead of dying he had merely been separated from me for the rest of his happy life (e.g. as an adoptee), my grief would be much less. And if instead of such permanent separation he were merely waiting for me in some afterlife paradise, then my grief would be close to nonexistent. This makes me quite skeptical about any grieving parent who would claim firm belief that his dead infant is in heaven. Truly believing this should make such a death yield not grief but joy, tinged perhaps only by the sort of wistfulness one might feel for not having conceived one more child after one's youngest. That wistfulness of course cannot compare to the stomach-knotting grief that even the most religious parents must feel after losing a baby as we lost Blake. I conclude that such parents really don't believe in heaven as palpably as, e.g., a mother believes in the continued existence of a child given up for adoption.

3. As tempting as it has always been to believe in an afterlife for myself, it is even more tempting to believe that Blake is in heaven right now. Unfortunately, there is no credible evidence for an afterlife, and too much evidence that belief in it derives more from emotional need than from critical thought. I believe Blake's experience now is like it was one year ago, and like how mine will someday be: painless non-existence. Blake lives on only in our hearts and in our memories, just as I hope to live on through my genes and my memes.

4. Losing Blake has increased my appreciation for that which I value, as well as my awareness of how important it is to have a coherent worldview built on strong values and rational principles. We understand that Blake's death was not a part of some god's mysterious plan, nor a meaningless event in a cruel universe. Rather, his short life was like any other: a life to celebrate and give meaning to and yield positive contribution from. We hope that Blake's life will ultimately have made the world a better place by inspiring those who know his story to create and share some of the extra love and vitality and wisdom that we believe the world would have gotten from him.

Forever Blake
Lifted early and high into the expecting air
You were born a feisty wrinkled old man
With an all-enduring smile and a sleep-defying gaze.
While your big sister shared your single sunny sky
In your mother's arms you snuggled warm
And the teddy bears above your crib
Waited to welcome their new eternal playmate.
As the coyotes cried and the mournful clouds
Veiled the stars you never saw
You died a sleeping baby in our arms
But in our hearts your rewound life will never end.