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Dementia: A Philosopher's Lament

Dementia: A Philosopher's Lament

(Photo: Unsplash/Cristian Newman)

On December 19, 2017, we received the official diagnosis: Alzheimer's disease. While it was terrible news — a literal death sentence — we were not surprised: Dad had been on the decline for months, and truth be known, the doctor was merely confirming what we already knew.

Dementia in its various permutations impacts countless families and as it does, it raises a nest of extremely difficult questions about the nature of suffering and the goodness of God.

In his new book Walking Through Twilight philosopher Douglas Groothuis offers a unique perspective on this difficult topic. Written as equal parts memoir, lament, and philosophical reflection, the book chronicles Groothuis' own journey with his wife Becky as she slowly walks into the enveloping fog of dementia.

Becky was diagnosed in 2013 with Primary Progressive Aphasia (PPA), a form of dementia that begins its cruel attack in the frontal lobe as it progressively robs the patient of the ability to speak. The impact of the condition on an author and noted wordsmith like Becky Groothuis is especially tragic:

"Becky could write a perfectly structured, flawlessly decorated, and marvelously coherent sentence that went on for seventy-five words–all without pomp, without verbosity, with grace, with truth, and which never overtaxed the reader's patience or intelligence. Now she never touches a keyboard or picks up a pen; she must fight a bloody war to secure the simplest word. She is muted. Words no longer serve her. Words fail her. She has been yanked away from the banquet of language and put on a starvation diet." (134)

Walking Through Twilight is a collection of vignettes and poignant reflections on life, love, suffering, providence, and hope. The fact that Douglas Groothuis is an analytic philosopher is readily apparent as he carefully analyzes the meaning of a concept like lamentation (59-61). For example, while lament is important, Groothuis sagely observes that "biblical lament is not grumbling, which is selfish, impatient, and pointless." (61) (As a consummate grumbler, I took that bit of advice to heart.)

Groothuis' analytic skills are also on display in chapter four as he characterizes the state of Becky's illness as eerie, a state which he explains as simultaneously unexpected, unusual, opaque, and frightening (28).

Like a tree laden with fruit for harvest, Walking Through Twighlight is rich with provocative insights and reflections. For example, in the spirit of the penetrating wisdom of Ecclesiastes Groothuis bluntly asks:

"Is this all futility with a thin dusting of meaning, or is it meaning with a thin dusting of futility?" (80, emphasis in original)

The Christian professes the latter, but those who journey through the dark night of the soul cannot help but ask the former. With admirable honesty and bluntness, Groothuis leads the way.

The particular demands of communication with Becky as she loses her vocabulary reminds Groothuis of the need to focus on our social interactions with others: "How can we be present with another creature made in God's image when we are absent, somewhere else on our smartphone?" (99) Indeed, that lesson on true presence has a wide application: let us hope we learn it long before our loved ones are diagnosed with dementia.

Another common problem arises when would-be comforters end up saying something hurtful. Groothuis offers some eminently practical wisdom: "Silence may not heal, but it does reduce the pains inflicted by a loose tongue." (168) In other words, when in doubt, shut up and just be there.

As a professor, preacher, and public speaker, Groothuis must decide how much of his personal struggles he should reveal to an audience. On the one hand, he rightly observes that the willingness to share your personal grief and struggle brings power and authority (84). It's one thing to talk about suffering in the abstract, but quite another when it is your suffering of which you speak.

On the other hand, Groothuis also cautions that we need to be careful that we do not fall into the trap of "emotional promiscuity" or "oversharing" (85). That's a very important point: there is a fine line indeed between strategic vulnerability and lapsing into codependency with one's audience.

Incidentally, the same point applies to written works: here too it is important to find the balance of judicious emotional vulnerability and Groothuis gets it just right. The book begins with a moment of honest vulnerability chronicled in the aptly titled chapter 1: "Rage in a Psych Ward."

Groothuis is no emotional profligate, but he later gives us a genuine glimpse into the struggles of the caregiving spouse:

"divorce is often the escape for a spouse. Marriages afflicted by chronic illness often melt in the fires of despair, anger, and frustration. I have endured the feeling of 'I cannot take it anymore' countless times–sometimes several times a day." (140)

However, it isn't all the valley of despair: searing passages of anger, uncertainty, and exhaustion are nicely complemented with the tender intimacy of a husband and wife sharing an all-too-rare intimate moment of connection (159).

Through the difficult years, Groothuis recounts the support of many family and friends, but perhaps the most important of all is Sunny Groothuis, a vibrant Golden Labradoodle. Time and again, Sunny is there to offer comfort and hope in life's dark moments, though Groothuis does note with some puzzlement the dour perspective the biblical authors take toward the canine species (115).

Walking Through Darkness was published in November 2017 and Becky Groothuis passed away a few months later on July 6, 2018. But in this moving and reflective memoir, her impact will live on.

Douglas Groothuis. Walking Through Twilight: A Wife's Illness–A Philosopher's Lament(Downer's Grove, IL: IVP Books). 

Thanks to IVP Books for a review copy of Walking in Twilight. You can order the book at Amazon.com.

Dr. Randal Rauser is Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton, Alberta, where he has taught since 2003. He blogs at randalrauser.com and lectures widely on issues of theology, Christian worldview, and apologetics. Randal is the author of many books including his latest, What's So Confusing About Grace?

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