Philosophy Series: Can suffering ever make you stronger?

Philosophy Series: Nietzsche

When I heard that Jen’s beautiful son Finlay had died, it felt like the world had somehow gone wrong. Children aren’t meant to die. Certainly not out of the blue. It was like we had all somehow wandered into the twilight zone.

As the blur settled into reality, I’ve watched Jen through her grief; unsure if there was anything I could possibly do to help. I have however been certain of her strength and beautiful nature. There are few people I admire more in life – both on a professional and personal level.

I had wanted to ask her to guest post for some time: she’s super bright, funny, and always has a thoughtful opinion to give. But I also wanted to find the ‘right’ post.

Eventually it dawned on me, that it made sense to therefore work together on the next instalment of the Philosophy Series: Nietzsche.


The Philosophy Series: Nietzsche

No pain no gain. Even if you haven’t heard of Nietzsche you would’ve been exposed to his views. He’s the one who believed that hardship was a good thing. He argued that it makes you more able to deal with life.

Nietzsche was a German philosopher who wrote on a wide range of topics such as truth, morality, language, cultural theory, history etc. He had a huge influence on Western philosophy (and had a huge moustache!).

Nietzsche moustache

Nietzsche was renowned for declaring ‘God is dead’ and predicted the massive rise in Atheism that has indeed engulfed the West. He also claimed that alcohol was the same as religion. Both were inhibitors of life. Masking reality and encouraging a delusional outlook.

He believed that we shouldn’t be inhibited by the message of religion but should rather embrace all hardships. Christianity tells us that even when we suffer in this life, the next will not be like this. Heaven promises everything that the world does not. Nietzsche argued that Christianity encourages people to look to the afterlife in times of trouble rather than embracing the here and now. Whether this is true or not, Nietzsche maintained that one should not avoid negative feelings but rather one should embrace them.

He made the same point on alcohol in that it can dull your senses. The vast majority of us have been in that situation where a rubbish day has been vastly improved by a good glass of wine. Nietzsche however argued that we shouldn’t seek this kind of comfort and should just accept the day as bad. To try and avoid that feeling is to avoid a chance to improve the self.

But I wonder how much of this is really true?


To explore this one more, Jen writes:

While there are many elements of Nietzsche’s philosophy that ring true, I find myself at odds with aspects too. I suppose this will always be the case when applying his thoughts to personal circumstances.

For the most part his views on hardship and embracing negative feelings and bad days, albeit emotionally exhausting, have been true for me over the past couple of years. Although not always consciously.

1. Hardship is a good thing.

This depends on the hardship. Something deliberate, chosen with personal growth in mind be it learning a skill, training, facing a physical challenge for self improvement are all ‘good hardships’. But they can only tell us certain things about ourselves and perhaps confirm rather than confound expectations.

‘Bad hardship’ is different. Life changing, perspective changing events, namely the loss of my eldest son just weeks before his 9th birthday to a strain of meningitis, was and continues to be the ‘worst of hardships’ regardless of time passed.

Nothing, no matter how much good I try to find to build a coping mechanism for his loss, can make me think positively about his death.

Some solace comes from knowing through organ donation he saved the lives of others so I suppose, the bigger picture supports Nietzsche’s view that hardship for one can lead to good things for others.

2. Hardship makes you more able to deal with life.

You never deal completely with grief – especially the loss of a child. Having said that, I try not to sweat the small things as much as I used to. Rather life is still about getting through the day the best I can and doing the very best for Finlay’s wee brother Frasier who continues to get me out of bed in the morning.

Nietzsche’s view that you are more able to deal with life rings true for me.  I’m amazed I still function day to day and have done so since Finlay died. There is an inner strength – or resilience – that you become aware of.  In reality this was the realisation for me that I had no choice but to put one foot in front of the other. But it wasn’t just for my sake.

There remains an awareness too that Fin would not be happy with me moping. His love of life makes me to appreciate what I still have. It prompts me to think how I am grateful for the short time I had with Fin. Dealing with life can not come from yourself alone. My greatest strength is one from Fin’s legacy: thinking about what he would want but also family, friends and great colleagues who just know and understand.

3. Embracing hardship.

Almost immediately, and inevitably, I started to ask ‘Why?’. Why Finlay? Why was he misdiagnosed? Why us?

He had such a terrific sense of what was just in his life: always asking me for money to give to our homeless in town or pausing appeal adverts on telly to talk about the issue or ask to donate. This sense of care was most evident whenever his wee brother Frasier was upset as Fin offered him hugs and his treasured cuddly toys for comfort. It seemed natural that this was Finlay’s legacy as by not honouring his nature I would in some way be letting my son down.

Although initially we fundraised for charities related to his experience – The Ronald MacDonald homes, Yorkhill Children’s Hospital and Meningitis Now. We wanted to do something more immediate – more personal.

Finlay's Friends Logo

I read an article about a week after losing Finlay written by a remarkable woman who lost her son in his early twenties. But now volunteers as family support at the hospital where he died.

By focussing on our experience – bewilderment, disorientation and feeling exposed – while waiting for any news while in hospital with Finlay, embracing the hardship we faced, the way forward eventually seemed quite obvious.

It took some months to evolve, not least because I was reliving the whole process of the ambulance arriving when I found Fin unconscious, the hospital admittance, and our days spent there. But I realised that I felt stronger and better able to deal with information I was being given when I was fresher. I don’t mean rested – there was little sleep to be had – rather showered and presentable instead of in the pyjamas I had arrived in.

Notebook Alison Soye

I remember being desperate to write down what I was being told so I could pass on the information accurately to Finlay’s dad when he arrived with our younger son. I remember being frozen – in a t-shirt and flip flops – and being desperate to brush my teeth. The simple things.

Alison Soye Ilustration

When the cavalry arrived in Glasgow at the hospital (my mum and brother) with my phone charger, basic toiletries and some warmer clothes, I felt like I was ‘ professional’ again. That I was taken more seriously by medical staff and that I was more focussed again so better able to stay strong for both my boys.

Alison Soye Illustration

I know in reality it had no baring on how medical staff communicated with me; those at the children’s hospital and the transplant team were phenomenal, their care and kindness even extending to Finlay’s funeral. But being able to scrub up a little made a huge psychological difference to how I could manage things.

Superficial or not, I felt just a little more me and in control and therefore better able to think clearly and make decisions.

Setting up Finlay’s Friends to raise funds so we can provide Comfort Kits for families with children admitted to hospital in an emergency is our way of maintaining Finlay’s legacy. Of keeping him very present in our likes and of giving myself some purpose and direction so as to keep coping.

Finlay's Friends Comfort Kits Illustration

Rather than being set up for seemingly selfish reasons, if we can give any strength to families who find themselves where we did all at sea, then some small positive can come out of hardship and, perhaps, this is was Nietzsche meant.


P.S. You can check out our fundraising efforts for Finlay’s Friends over at JustGiving.

P.P.S Original Illustrations are by Alison Soye – more of her work will be featured here on Fridays!

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10 Comments

  1. May 1, 2017 / 1:30 pm

    What an absolutely awful thing to happen but something good in fundraising came out of it!

  2. May 1, 2017 / 2:00 pm

    Oh my goodness, my heart goes out to Finlay’s family. I think it is so brave, courageous and shows a huge amount of strength to not only continue after such a loss, but to also try and help others while dealing with such grief.

  3. May 1, 2017 / 8:12 pm

    It’s a difficult one, part of me wants to say that these things can make you stronger, however, they can also make you fall too.

  4. May 1, 2017 / 9:16 pm

    I would usually say yes without hesitation. But losing a son is something else… Well done for fundraising. I am thinking about Jen x

  5. May 1, 2017 / 9:27 pm

    Oh my gosh what a heartbreaking read. I think that it is wonderful that his family have created this fund to help other parents out in times of need, such a lovely gesture. x

  6. May 1, 2017 / 11:08 pm

    Noone should have to bury their child , it breaks my heart to know what Jen has been through. But the theory that hardship makes us stronger is completely true. I sense that Jen is such a strong woman and the fact that she lives in Finlay’s memory is beautiful x

  7. May 2, 2017 / 12:10 pm

    Tragic story. No parent should have to lose their child. I think that hardship makes you stronger and appreciate what you have and had but this is no relief when you are going through it

  8. May 2, 2017 / 8:03 pm

    A amazing post. We lived through the death of a close friend’s daughter. I am sure they can relate to a lot of this. I know this has been so hard, and the grief and loss still continues but they have done something truly wonderful in the memory of their child.

  9. May 3, 2017 / 7:48 am

    Ah, I can’t imagine. Simply can’t imagine. I have a 9 year old and this made me cry. No parent should ever have to deal with something like this. Beautifully written, Jen, and so wonderful that you can make a difference to other parents going through similar situations. Finlay would be proud of his mum x

  10. May 6, 2017 / 10:36 am

    This is such an incredibly moving post. I can’t begin to imagine the pain of losing a child. What an incredible woman to try to make something good come out of it. As a mum who has spent more than her fair share of time in hospital this year, I can well imagine how useful the kits she is providing are. Sending much love – I will be donating.

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