Henri’s Mother

Henri Nouwen’s parents visited him in September 1978 while he was teaching at Yale. The trip was cut short when his mother fell ill. She died, a month later in Holland of pancreatic cancer. He would go on to publish two books about his mother’s death, but only a few weeks after her passing he wrote his friend Jim Forest. A partial quote of his letter reminds us of the reality of grief, especially in it’s earliest and most raw experience.

I am still in a daze. Everything seems different to me and I am slowly rediscovering the world which she loved so much. She has been so much part of my life that I have to do some real relearning. I am spending a still week at a retreat center trying to let my mother’s death reform me and lead me to new fields. It is all very intimate and very deep, very sad and very joyful, very beautiful and very painful. … Nobody has ever been as close to me as she was and never did I lose anyone whom I loved so deeply. Somewhere life needs to be rediscovered.”

Love, Henri, p. 25-26.

It seems to me that humans spend a lot of time trying to describe grief and nothing gives it justice. Grief is primarily a feeling that includes physical pain but goes beyond into some kind of existential experience that escapes our description.

But I love Henri’s attempt to process by realizing that learning to live without his mother’s presence is learning to live in a new world. It’s not a new world in which she never existed, nor it is a world where she is still present and participating. It’s a world in which her influence and the memory of her presence redefines everything.

When we’ve lost someone we loved very much (whether through death or separation), our lives are never the same. For us, there are endless moments where we say things like …

John Robert would have laughed at that…

John Robert liked that movie…

What if John Robert could see…

There’s a very real sense in which the loss of John Robert left us ‘slowly rediscovering the world‘ he loved and in which he lived. When he died, so did a part of us. And life had to be rediscovered. Not without him, but with the consciousness of having had him as long as we did.

I don’t think Nouwen’s description of grief is perfect or even complete. I don’t think he meant it to be. But it does provoke a needful thought about grief. When Henri’s mother died, his world would never be the same. And that was a world yet to be discovered.


  1. My mother passed coming up on three years ago. Our family is close emotionally, but we have not been close geographically in a long time. It was not like I saw and talked to my mother every day. In one way, then, my daily routine was not affected. At the same time, I had a very distinct and constant feeling (still lingering) that there had been a shift in the universe; that something in the world was just not right. Maybe the globe had tilted on its axis or something. I can hear that same response in the Nouwen quote you share.

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