Robert Pirsig on Coming to Terms With the Death of His Son

Robert Pirsig wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a seminal book for me and hordes of other people in my generation. I reread it every 10 years, and each time it speaks to me in a new way.

In 2017, when I heard that Robert died, I remembered an essay of his — “Looking Ahead at the Past” (New York Times Book Review, March 4, 1984). It begins with the most heart-breaking sentence that a parent could ever write:

Chris, my son, is dead.

Chris was murdered in San Francisco on the evening of Nov, 17, 1979 as he left the San Francisco Zen Center. According to witnesses, Chris was robbed and then stabbed by two strangers near the corner of Haight and Octavia streets. He died shortly after the assault.

“I go on living, more from force of habit than anything else,” Robert wrote, recalling that the murder happened just two weeks before Chris’s 23rd birthday.

Robert packed Chris’s things into a truck and drove them to Minnesota to be stored at his grandfather’s house. On the way, Robert became obsessed with philosophical questions — just as he did during the earlier motorcycle trip with Chris that’s described in Zen.

Robert’s original obsession was: What is quality? But after his son died, the question changed: Where did Chris go?

He had bought an airline ticket that morning. He had a bank account, drawers full of clothes and shelves full of books. He was a real, live person, occupying time and space on this planet, and now suddenly where was he gone to? Did he go up the smoke stack at the crematorium? Was he in the little box of bones they handed back? Was he strumming a harp of gold on some overhead cloud? None of these answers made any sense.

Eventually Robert received an answer:

What had to be seen was that the Chris I missed so badly was not an object but a pattern and that, although the pattern included the flesh and blood of Chris, that was not all there was to it. The pattern was larger than Chris and myself and related to us in ways that neither of us understood completely and neither of us was in complete control of.

The experience of being a parent has helped me to understand this.

The people who care for a child on a daily basis find themselves engaged in predictable patterns of behavior. It starts with the daily realities of infant care —changing diapers, feeding, dressing, and the like.

As the child grows up, the patterns of caregiving behaviors change, of course. But at every stage of development the child is an object of attention and affection.

A child’s death tears a huge hole in the center of all that. And the people who loved the child become desperate to fill that hole. They long for someone who can become a new object of love. They long for someone who can once again become the center of their caregiving patterns.

Metaphorically speaking, we can describe that hole in center of the pattern as the “spirit” of the dead child. It is something invisible and real that remains behind and waits for a new body to enter.

Shortly after Chris’s death, Robert’s wife became pregnant. It was unexpected. Robert was in his 50s and felt strongly at first that he did not want to become a parent once again.

But one day he stopped and realized something about the pregnancy: “It was the larger pattern of Chris, making itself known at last.”

Robert and his wife decided to go ahead and have the child, whom they named Nell. In her they felt the spirit of Chris:

This time he’s a little girl named Nell, and our life is back in perspective again. The hole in the pattern is being mended. A thousand memories of Chris will always be at hand, of course, but not a destructive clinging to some material entity that can never be here again….

What is seen now so much more clearly is that, although the names keep changing and the bodies keep changing, the larger pattern that holds us all together goes on and on.

Robert reminds us of a perennial insight from the world’s spiritual traditions: In the midst of everything that changes, there’s a center.

I don’t know whether this perspective can comfort anyone else who’s lost a child. But I offer it for your consideration.