Alchemy in sorrow

Statue of a fisherman's wife and child, Katwijk, the Netherlands, March 2007

Statue of a fisherman’s wife and child, Katwijk, the Netherlands, March 2007

“Sorrow fully accepted brings its own gifts. For there is alchemy in sorrow. It can be transmitted into wisdom, which, if it does not bring joy, can yet bring happiness.”
Pearl S. Buck

I believe that true optimism must include comprehension of the role sorrow plays in all our lives.  A positive outlook is not a form of denial; rather, it’s a conviction that even our deepest grief has meaning; that our trials and tragedies bring understanding and transformation more than superficial knowledge ever could.

In the years since Matt was born, Jeff and I have dealt with sorrow upon sorrow as the medical and developmental challenges continued one after another, and practical daily support was often scarce.  It has changed us forever, in more ways that we can describe or even know.  But I truly believe that our lives have been made richer for all Matt has taught us, that we could never have discovered without him.  It’s no coincidence that the author of the quote above walked a similar path years ago, and left us a priceless literary legacy as a result.

For as long as I can remember, I have heard Jesus referred to as “the man of sorrows.”  I didn’t understand how profound and ultimately beautiful a concept that was, until I experienced recurring sorrow for years on end.  The terms “God with us” and “man of sorrows” are now linked in my mind, as I contemplate the full implications of a God who, in granting humans freedom of choice, allows us to undergo suffering — an omnipotent God who chooses to walk beside us and share in that sorrow, rather than render us powerless to choose our own destiny.

There could be no deep joy if we did not know sadness, just as a person who has never gone hungry is unable to appreciate food as fully as those who have been without it.  It’s a kind of paradox; a mystery we can’t fathom.  Yet its truth has sustained people through circumstances far worse than the ones we now face.  If you are in a time of suffering or grief, I pray you can hold on to the belief that your sorrow may yet be transformed into happiness deeper than you could have imagined.


  1. merry

    Julia, good morning. I’ve been through my share of “sorrows” raising four children. There is peace and joy in the morning…Once a parent, always a parent, and your heart breaks watching the sorrows of our children.
    You and your family is in my prayers. blessings…

    • Thank you Merry! I’ve often felt that the anxiety, worry, and pain one can feel for a child is like no other, just as the joy they bring is also unique. The journey is well worth all the effort but it’s definitely a life-changing experience. Thanks so much for your prayers! We need and appreciate them!

  2. Thanks, Julia, for those heartfelt thoughts. I agree. Without the sorrow, we would never know the joy. Have a blessed day.

    • Thank you Marjorie. Life would not be as rich and multi-dimensional if there were not the full range of experiences that go with being human. It’s a tough road at times but even on the worst days I know that just being alive is a gift to be treasured. Thanks for your visits here, and your comments!

  3. Sherrie Cannon

    God knew you and Jeff would be wonderful parents for Matt.

    • Thank you Sherrie, that is very kind of you. As with all parents, we learn as we go along and we all make mistakes, but we do our best and in the end, that is usually good enough. Have you read Jewel by Bret Lott? It’s really good and very close to home in many ways.

  4. Julia, one of the many reasons I enjoy visiting is because you can take what seems like a complex idea and articulate it in beautiful words that have meaning for everyone. I remember these words from somewhere, maybe when a child asked a parent, “why do people have to die?” The parent answered, “Death gives importance to life”. I thought it so simple and truthful. Which, when it comes to matters of the heart, is so often this case. Dealing with the bad stuff gives you a perspective and tempers the human ego.

    • Thanks so much for your kind words! I really appreciate hearing about how people react to what I write, especially if it’s good. It really is true that we tend to fritter away anything that we think is endless, and one of the gifts that comes with getting older is an increased appreciation for the time we have left (however long or short that may be). Your comment made me think of the movie Ground Hog Day, and how his life just became meaningless because it went on and on no matter what he did. At first he was thrilled but then he ended up feeling crazy. I really enjoyed that movie. Even though it was a comedy I thought it had some serious undertones.

      • “They say are love won’t pay the rent…” I love that movie too! 😀

        • I couldn’t think what song that was that kept coming on, but now you brought it back! After awhile just the sound of it was hilarious.

  5. Mike Bertoglio

    Great post Julia. Great exposition of Christian message. Today the pastor said bring your disappointment, your defeat or despair to the cross- where it can be redeemed. Not much else to say.
    Will have to look for the Pearl Buck book also. Sounds good.
    Someone also said,” All sunshine makes a desert.”

    • Thanks Mike, I appreciate your sharing what your pastor said; I will remember that. When things are very difficult or sad Jeff and I remember what the nuns used to tell Frank in Angela’s Ashes – “offer it up.” It was funny the way McCourt would mimic them (we listened to him reading the unabridged version and he really brought it to life) but it also conveyed a great truth that has stuck with me. I haven’t read that Pearl S. Buck book yet (about her daughter) but I really do want to read it. It’s always interesting to me, to learn of famous people who had a child with disabilities, because there is an automatic connection with them as parents on some level that can’t be articulated. From Charles deGaulle to Rose Kennedy to George Will to Sarah Palin to whomever else I hear about, it gives me something in common with them.

  6. Sheila

    Julia, as I read your words, not only today but everyday you are remarkable, incredible, and truly an inspiration. I so want to read the book that you have mentioned, The Child Who Never Grew. I’ve missed being able to comment, but at least was able to read your blog while we were in Bristol. I always keep you close in thoughts and prayers, Sheila

    • Thanks Sheila, I have been thinking of you too; even when you are not able to comment, you are present here! Thanks so much for your kind words about the blog. I really appreciate your encouragement. Jeff went to see Grady yesterday (flew out and back the same day) and I’m so happy he was able to see him. I’ll try to post some photos when I get them from Megan.

  7. Mike Bertoglio

    I have not read Angela’s ashes either as it sounded so depressing. Everyone dies? On your link I read the free introduction to the book by Pearl Buck. She has an interesting comment about endurance that, “it is not enough and can be a bitter root.” There is a famous scripture quote about it- endurance- , but she puts a different spin on it.

    • Yes, I agree that endurance alone is not enough. It is a great way to get through the really hard times – just grit your teeth, put one foot in front of another and carry on – but I find that it is an exceptionally bitter experience if one does not temper it with reflection on all that is still good and right in the world. Years ago a man at church used to begin every prayer with the words, “Lord, we thank you today that things are as well with us as they are.” That has really stuck with me. There is never a time when we cannot say that, because no matter what else is going on, there are always things that are unobtrusively going right, and this gets obscured by the crises.

    • P.S. about Angela’s Ashes – if you listen to McCourt’s voice reading it, the humor really comes out and makes the depressing parts more bearable. I loved it. There are lines from it that I quote to this day. He’s a natural mimic and he really has all those neighbors and relatives and priests and nuns coming to life with their funny sayings.

  8. Mike Bertoglio

    Did not know George Will has a special needs child. I can’t imagine what parents must go through in these situations. Both my kids have been healthy and suffered few physical ailments. However one has had some marital ups and downs and that has been a heartache.

    • Mike, I first learned about Jon, George Will’s eldest child, when I read this lovely piece back in 1993. This was about the time when we were first coming to terms with the many developmental aspects of Matt’s very rare (12 cases worldwide) genetic condition, which was not diagnosed until 1996. I have always admired George Will’s writing, and this piece is one of my all time favorites. However, as you point out, being a parent is fraught with heartache no matter how gifted or healthy or “normal” one’s child may be. I often say that motherhood is the most emotionally dangerous job in the world, but I think fathers are walking through the same minefield; what hurts our children hurts us too.


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