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“Kindertotenlieder” or “Songs on the deaths of children”.

Posted on 19 August 2020, 19:58

I love Stephen’s prayer about the Good Shepherd who leads us along our personal paths. The following story recounts how that Shepherd appeared to guide me as I drove over a mountain pass on a stormy night.

Many years ago, I was friendly with a music aficionado of the music of Gustav Mahler. And he got me to appreciate that composer too. My friend was a perfectionist. For instance he had a composition of Mahler (below) recorded on three vinyl LPs. One day there was a catastrophe. He dropped the cartridge on one of the sides and scratched it so that one could hear a clicking sound for a minute or two when playing that side. This was so terrible! The set had been ruined! He must buy a complete set!


In any case, my friend interested me in Mahler’s strange songs “Kindertotenlieder” and I recorded them on tape so that I could listen to them in my car.

The day came when, hundreds of kilometers from home, I was in my cark making my way through hilly country the winding road snaking this way and that, in the dark and through driving rain.

Kindertotenlieder” or “Songs on the deaths of children”. That somehow suited that wild dark night.  I slotted the cassette into the player.

Oh yes, Mahler’s wife, Alma – hadn’t she begged him not to proceed with composing those songs? Had she not had premonitions of dread that death of children would follow for her in real life? And hadn’t Maria, one of their children died soon after ... was it of scarlet fever?

The music began to play, but I attended to it for a few seconds only, for the headlights of the car caught the figure of a young lad, dripping in the driving rain, waving at me to stop. I was unable to do so immediately, since the car was travelling uphill and round a bend.  When I did stop he scrambled into the car beside me, and crying, telling me he had been trying to commit suicide by exposing his body to the cold. He had heard, he said, that hypothermia led to an easy death. I switched the music off immediately. “Songs on the deaths of children” was much too appropriate. What he was sobbing out, was echoing too closely my Gothic mood of moments before.

“I am so glad to have found you,” I exclaimed. “Get yourself dry with that towel, and put on some of those dry clothes!”  Which he did ... and then I thought that we had better get acquainted, and find out what was distressing him so. “So you decided not to kill yourself,” said I. “What changed your mind?”

“I just felt that life was too beautiful to leave” He replied. “And I came back to the road, and I began to pray for an understanding person to find me. And I don’t think more than two minutes had gone, before you were here!” So the synchronistic drama with the appropriate introductory music had brought clergyman (me) straight to the scene.

“Well here I am. Now tell me about yourself, or rather why were you wanting to kill yourself?”

“I am a Christian.”


“I just felt that I could never please God.”
“So much so that you wanted to kill yourself?”

We carried on talking and I probed a little, to find out how best I could help.

It appeared that his parents were fine people, and he was fond of them, but I got the impression that he considered their religious beliefs were law-centred, perfectionist, and likely to engender feelings of failure, no matter what.

I guess his God therefore was a loving God, yet one who could never be pleased. Maybe, maybe not, I don’t know. He said he felt like that about his parents.
Anyhow, he ran away from home. Repeatedly, he told me later. This time he had taken the family car and had driven for many hundreds of kilometers until he had run out of petrol and money, and then left the car abandoned by the roadside. He had been away from home for days.

His parents must be told, and their anxiety relieved, I thought. The police too, for they had been searching. So, we drove on to the next town where we phoned his parents, who lived many kilometers to the south. Then we found the policeman, and late at night as it was, he was very kind, and so was his wife who made the lad have a hot shower and prepared supper.

While this was happening the policeman and I talked. And there was evidence even here of synchronizing of events, in that both he and I and Thomas Ashman whom I was going to visit up north, had served as barmen to the same tiny pub called Berlins, away on the West Coast in the Buller. Not a significant thing in itself perhaps, but from the point of view of the drama it made a link what was going to happen when I visited Thomas and Olive his wife.

After his shower, the boy returned with his own clothes, and I got my spare clothes back. I rather wanted to stay and help comfort the lad, and indeed to continue our conversation that we had in the car about the amazing ways of “God”, “Fate?”

The boy’s personal crisis, and the sense of Meaning at work, made me reluctant to leave him. But it was late at night now, and the policeman and his wife were giving him all he needed. So, I continued my way. I didn’t seem him again, but received a kind letter from his parents.

Like the Styx episodes, this story, which I call The Two Lads, centres on the theme of Death, and as with the Styx story, this one has a sequel.

The next day I got to see Thomas and Olive, and stayed with them a few days. Then came Sunday. At that time, my host was superintendent of the adult Sunday school in a Baptist church. Coincidence had it that they were studying the Genesis story of father Abraham who would have sacrificed his own son on the mountain. It seemed like a commentary on the boy who nearly killed himself in the mountains on the altar of his parents’ beliefs.

But there was a parallel: contrary to custom, the superintendent of the Junior Sunday School joined us. His son had also just been found in hill country to the north, after having run away.  I wasn’t able to ascertain the reasons for running away. But it was an interesting touch that the first name of this boy, was the name of the street down south where the first boy lived.

Various themes interlock: “Songs on deaths of children” and then, two minutes after he had prayed to be found, I find the lad on the hills, in the middle of a storm. He had been contemplating suicide. About the same time, the Sunday school superintendent’s son had also run away from home, and was found on the hills

It did seem that the “Shepherd” had been leading me along a path.

In poetic terms you might be reminded of the 23rd psalm, “The Lord is my Shepherd”. The experiences along the way being presaged by the Kindertotenlied (Deaths of children songs) I had been playing in the car as I drove through the storm.”

St Stephen had uttered a beautiful version of psalm 23, emphasizing will, then I will follow, for you are my shepherd, and you do lead me beside green pastures.
You do lead me beside still waters.

You will always lead as you have, through death and through life, and I am here because it is your will. 

Teach me, O Father, more that I should follow Thee and not look either to the right or to the left, let me be one who would follow and walk in your footsteps.

Let me not be concerned with the fact that I do not know where thy steps lead, only that I may trust and love you.

For if I do this, I need have no doubt of the destination being according to your will.

For where else would your steps lead me, other than the path that you yourself travel on my behalf, that I may follow.

If I know this, then surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell with you.

Sometimes on this path I may feel the cold of the wind, and if I look to the left and see those that stand by my left hand, I may wish that I be with them.

Other times I may look at those on my right hand, and I may wish that I were with them.

But always Father, my foot is drawn and I must follow. Let me see that where my feet are drawn, this is not penance, but my path.

God bless you both.

Michael Cocks edits the journal, The Ground of Faith.
Afterlife Teaching From Stephen the Martyr by Michael Cocks is published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and other bookstores.

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