Jerry Sittser’s latest book may console thousands of others dealing with irreversible, catastrophic loss.
But the Whitworth religion professor would be the last person to say the book is God’s reason for the tragic car accident that killed his wife, mother and daughter in 1991.
He slams such thinking as “simplistic,” “kitschy” and “sentimental.”
“That is so odious to me. I don’t think you can ever take a tragedy, see something good come out of it and then say, ‘That’s why the tragedy occurred,”’ says Sittser, sitting in his Whitworth College office. “I can’t make that leap. I think I’m going to go to the grave not knowing why.”
Sittser’s new book, “A Grace Disguised: How The Soul Grows Through Loss,” was published earlier this year by HarperCollins’ Zondervan division. It’s being sold in both secular and Christian bookstores around the country.
The book follows the path Sittser forged into his grief after the accident, weaves through the territory of his psychological and theological struggles, and pauses to examine the losses of others. It concludes with Sittser’s own vision of faith and hope not only intact, but enriched and deepened.
“Irreversible catastrophic losses can become profoundly transformative events in our lives, depending on the choices we make and what I believe is the grace we receive from other people as well as from God,” he says.
Sittser reluctantly made the decision to write this book after his mentor, University of Chicago professor Martin Marty, urged him to consider his obligation to others who could benefit from his experience.
“There was something in me that felt so bothered that I would take something so horrible and then write about it,” Sittser says. “It’s so awful. It’s never quite settled.”
Despite frequent requests, Sittser has made a decision never to lecture again about this accident.
Sittser is a member of First Presbyterian Church and uses the term evangelical, among others, to describe his form of Christianity. Yet, he says, “A million people could be converted. I could become the next Billy Graham. I would dump it all to have my wife and my mother and my daughter back again.”
He plans to continue his work as a religion professor at Whitworth College. His next book, “A Cautious Patriotism: The American Churches in the Second World War,” is due out from the University of North Carolina Press in early 1997.
“My career and what I do is not based on this tragedy,” Sittser says.
In September 1991 Sittser was driving his family home from the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation near Plummer, Idaho. Another driver sped across the center line at 85 miles an hour and crashed head-on into Sittser’s Aerostar.
The road was so isolated that Sittser’s family spent more than an hour there before help arrived. He tended both the living - his sons John and David, and his daughter Catherine - and the dying - his wife, Lynda, his 4-year-old daughter Diana Jane, and his mother, Grace.
“I remember those first moments after the accident as if everything was happening in slow motion,” Sittser writes. “They are frozen into my memory with a terrible vividness….”
“I remember the feeling of panic that struck my soul as I watched Lynda, my mother and Diana Jane all die before my eyes. I remember the pandemonium that followed - people gawking, lights flashing from emergency vehicles, a helicopter whirring overhead, cars lining up, medical experts doing what they could to help. And I remember the realization sweeping over me that I would soon plunge into a darkness from which I might never again emerge as a sane, normal, believing man.”
Sittser soon made the decision to enter into, rather than escape, that darkness. In the 4-1/2 years since, he has mourned deeply and wrestled to make sense of the accident.
“One of my predominate emotions from beginning to end is just bewilderment,” says Sittser. “I don’t understand why those three people died. I just don’t get it.”
The book begins with this loss.
Says Whitworth history professor and friend Dale Soden: “What attracts people to the story immediately is the overwhelming nature of the tragedy. The issue of daughter, mother, wife strikes a universal chord. There’s a kind of angst there that everybody can imagine in some sense and never imagine in another sense.”
Sittser’s book examines how people reintegrate their lives after irreversible loss, whether through death, divorce or disability.
“Because of his theology, he quickly moves the reader to the issue of suffering in a larger sense,” Soden says.
The book describes the grace and intense joy that somehow co-exists with the searing pain and the depression that he and others he interviewed experienced after loss.
Sittser brought a theologian’s intellect to the issues of guilt and forgiveness. He rejects the question “why me?” in favor of “why not me?”
“My experience did not invent suffering,” he says. “I’m not the first one. I just joined the human race.”
Martin Marty, Sittser’s University of Chicago mentor and one of the leading scholars of American religion, says, “I think it’s a book people across a wide spectrum of faiths can read and say, ‘If I ever have to face these things, this will help me.’ It’s a book that generates empathy.”
Says Marty: “I thought he did a very good job of never being so cocksure of his faith that it would alienate those who are searching, who never quite find (faith) or are never quite sure of it.”
Sittser grapples with theological questions in the book. He asks why God could allow the accident to happen and concludes with a ringing affirmation of his tradition’s belief in the sovereignty of God.
He believes that, while God did not cause the accident, he was also deeply present there with a mysterious purpose. It’s a paradox Sittser is willing to accept.
He has a Christian historian’s view that his life fits into a much longer and larger story.
“I grew up with a biblical story,” Sittser says. “It gives you a sense of context, a sense of trajectory. It doesn’t mitigate pain.”
Sittser found solace in the story of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
“For three years now I have cried at every Communion service I have attended,” he writes. “I have not only brought my pain to God but also felt as never before the pain God suffered for me.”
Sittser also writes gratefully about the community that enveloped him and his children after the accident.
“We must enter the darkness of loss alone, but once there we will find others with whom we can share life together,” Sittser writes.
After the accident, Sittser received dozens of meals, hundreds of phone calls and thousands of cards and letters.
College friends Ron and Julie Pyle visited the hospital daily. Julie offered to be surrogate mother for his 3-year-old son John, providing daytime child care, and attending preschool functions and even some doctor’s appointments.
“I believe that John’s happy disposition and security is largely the result of the huge investment she has made in him,” Sittser writes.
Other friends, family members, Whitworth colleagues and members of First Presbyterian Church supported him as he mourned.
“If people want their souls to grow through loss, whatever the loss is, they must eventually decide to love even more deeply than they did before,” Sittser writes. “They must respond to the loss by embracing love with renewed energy and commitment.”
He is well-loved.
Marty affectionately calls him “a vortex of energy.” Whitworth students voted him Most Influential Professor of the Year for four out of the past five years.
Fellow religion professor F. Dale Bruner says, “It’s the depth of his character. We love the man like a brother. He’s just a wonderful guy.”
Today, Sittser finds the publication of this book quietly satisfying. But his life as a single father, soccer and Hoopfest coach and crockpot wizard will continue unaffected by this event.
He believes, with irony, that the accomplishment of which his wife Lynda would be proudest is the way her family has dealt with her death.
“I can say after 4-1/2 years now, my life is good. It’s wonderful,” Sittser says.
“But I still feel bad. I still cry. If I had the power, I would have those people back,” he says, snapping fingers that still bear his wedding ring, “like that.”
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WRITER TAKES A LOOK AT LOSS In “A Grace Disguised,” Jerry Sittser examines various aspects of loss from a Christian perspective. On recovery: Sittser did not find that the language of “recovery” and “stages of grief” fit his experience. “For one thing,” he writes, “I have still not moved beyond these stages, and I am not sure I ever will. … Not that I feel the urge to escape as intensely as I used to, but that is because my internal capacity to live with loss has grown. “I have more perspective now; I have more confidence in my ability to endure.” On deep sorrow: Sittser’s first year of grief was filled with a feeling of intense aliveness that acted as a counterpoint to “the screaming pain.” He writes, “It may be that the present contains the secret of the renewal of life we long for, as if, in looking under the surface of this vast sea of nothingness, we may find another world that is teeming with life.” On change: Sittser struggled with a loss of identity as a husband and a sudden change in his life plans. “I can no longer expect to grow old with my spouse, for that path is forever closed to me,” he writes. “If that remains my expectation, then I will be surely disappointed. “But perhaps I can expect something else that is equally good, only different.” On bitterness: It’s natural, Sittser writes, to feel hatred, bitterness and despair after catastrophic loss. But to become permanently trapped in these emotions becomes a second death, “the death of the spirit.” “The first kind of death happens to us; the second kind of death happens in us. It is a death we bring upon ourselves if we refuse to be transformed by the first death,” he writes. On forgiveness: Forgiveness should not mean forgetting, neither does it happen in an instant. It is a process, which must begin with anger and accusation, Sittser writes. But it is the antidote to bitterness. “Forgiveness,” Sittser writes, “not only relieves an offender from guilt; it also heals us from our sickness of soul.” On faith: Death, Sittser writes, is the ultimate enemy. Even if he could bring his family members back to life, they would have died eventually. He finds hope, however, in the story of Christ’s resurrection and triumph over sin and death. “If this world were the only one there is, then suffering has the final say and all of us are a sorry lot,” Sittser writes. “But generations of faithful Christians have gone before and come after and they have believed or will believe which I believe in the depths of my soul. Jesus is at the center of it all.” On grief: Sittser writes of the past years as sweet as well as bitter, filled with both sorrow and joy. “Never have I felt as much pain…,” he writes, “yet never have I experienced as much pleasure in simply being alive and living an ordinary life. Never have I felt so broken; yet never have I been so whole.” Jamie Tobias Neely
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