This is the story of two men who knew great suffering. What happened to them is worthy of exploration.
The first man passionately loved his wife. She was warm and charming and intellectually gifted. When she became pregnant, their joy could barely be contained, and when she gave birth to a girl, they felt blessed beyond words. There was some complications for his wife after the birth, but because the doctor assured him that she would recover, he went on a long business trip.
When he returned, he learned that his wife of eighteen months had died. His grief was overwhelming, but at least he had his little daughter to find solace and happiness.
Five years later, a scarlet fever epidemic swept the city, and his daughter died. Again, he was plunged into almost unbearable sorrow.
After a short while, he was surprised to find himself in love again, and so he took an act of faith and married. His bride was only twenty when she gave birth to a girl. The marriage was good, and their common faith buoyed their relationship. Their daughter brought them great joy, but a second daughter died shorty after birth. Five years after their marriage, his wife was struck with tuberculosis, and she died at the age of twenty-five. Again he found himself a widower with a young child.
Despite his grief, he still had hope and married again the following year. His new wife gave birth to two daughters. The younger of the two died near her first birthday. Two years after, his third wife died. He would never marry again.
The second man saw his mother die when he was nine. When he was nineteen, he had a sister who died while giving birth and a brother who died as a very young child.
A few years later, he would fall in love for the first time. It was likely that they would marry. But an epidemic swept through the city, and his first true love died at the age of twenty-two. He was devastated and so distraught that many of his friends worried that he would never resume a normal life. However, after several weeks, he poured himself into his work and eventually overcame his loss.
At the age of thirty-one, he became engaged, but it was a tumultuous romance, and the engagement was on and off for several years. But eventually the couple worked out their differences and were married. Despite their reservations, the couple enjoyed each other’s company and considered their marriage a success. A year later their first son was born, followed by a second son three years after. But tragedy waited in the shadows, and their second son died of pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of three.
Both the man and his wife suffered greatly at the death of their son, but within the year she had given birth to another boy. Three years later, she would deliver a fourth son.
For nearly a decade the family enjoyed health and happiness. Life was good, and the years had assuaged much of their early grief. However, the joy was not to last. Small pox swept through the city. At the age of nine, their youngest son succumbed to the deadly disease.
Losing a second child hurled the couple into renewed sorrow. Their mutual pain severely damaged their relationship. But somehow they carried on.
And if fate had not been cruel enough, he was murdered three years later, and six years after that devastating blow, their youngest son died of heart failure at the age of eighteen.
As you may have guessed by now, these two men lived years ago, long before we developed the medical knowledge, the skills, and the technological advances that, with rare exceptions, spare couples the agony of losing a child or a spouse to a disease. Today there can be no greater tragedy for parents than to bury one of their children who has succumbed to a disease. It just isn’t supposed to happen.
But why is it that some people can rise above great tragedy, focus on the future, and accomplish great deeds, while others wallow in their grief and, in the process, destroy relationships and merely survive from one year to the next?
A strong faith is often the answer. It is logical to assume that people who believe in a loving God and the promise of Heaven will realize that their loved ones are in a better place and that they will be reunited with them in the future. Of the two men above, the first was a firm believer and knew that he would someday see his wives and children again. It motivated him to live a life of accomplishment. The second man never officially joined a Christian church, but he attended services often, and he read the Bible nearly every day. At times he struggled with doubt, but near the end of his life, after seeing stark evidence of man’s inhumanity to man, he said he had lost confidence in everything except God. He, too, left a legacy worthy of admiration.
Who were these men? The first was Salmon Chase. He was a United States senator from Ohio and eventually the governor of that state. He was Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury, and then a few years later became the sixth chief justice of the Supreme Court.
The second man was Abraham Lincoln. Obviously, there is no need to summarize his accomplishments.
It is unlikely that we will ever suffer the losses these men experienced. But we will know grief. What their lives teach us is that we are not destined to a life of failure after great sorrows. With God’s grace and his gift of free will, we can rise above our losses and make a positive difference in our lives and the lives of others.
(Historical information in this article was taken from Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin.)