A Force of Will

The Reshaping of Faith in a Year of Grief

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There is hope—even when there is no happy ending

When Mike Stavlund’s four-month-old son suddenly died, a flood of cards, flowers, meals, phone calls, and gifts let his family know that they were loved and cared for. Less welcome were the books, in particular the religious books. Often impossibly upbeat, saccharine sweet, and with all kinds of confident promises, they were too painful to read and too offensive to bear.

Instead Mike wrote this book, one week at a time during that first terrible year. A Force of Will explores the stark reality of loss, the alienation from all of life, the feeling of suffocation at the hands of the well-meaning people gathered around, and the sense of being abandoned by God.

If you’re experiencing difficulty, this heartfelt book will help you to confront with honesty what you are going through without making you feel guilty.

“This book is about life in all its splendor and in all its agony. Mike talks about pain without trying to theologize it away and reminds us that it’s okay for us to feel darkness—for even in our darkest moments we are not alone.”—Shane Claiborne, author, activist (thesimpleway.org)

“A gripping, unflinchingly honest, beautifully written model of how to live with grief in faith.”—Nicholas Wolterstorff, Noah Porter Emeritus Professor of Philosophical Theology, Yale University

“Stavlund’s unguarded account is one that you will neither put down unfinished nor soon forget.”—Phyllis Tickle, founding editor of the Religion Department at Publishers Weekly

“Stavlund speaks the unspeakable in a beautiful, eloquent, and moving narrative that is both deeply personal and theologically resonant.”—John D. Caputo, The Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion Emeritus, Syracuse University

Mike Stavlund leads Common Table church in the Washington, DC metro area. He is a speaker, an adjunct faculty member at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, and a regular writer for Emergent Village at Patheos.com and at TheHardestQuestion.org.


"This book is about life in all its splendor and in all its agony. Mike talks about pain without trying to theologize it away. His book rips your heart out--it's raw, honest, and rare--a book on grief that isn't fluffy and neat, because life isn't fluffy and neat. But Mike's book is true, and truth sets us free, even though it may leave us with some scars. Mike reminds us that we have a God familiar with pain, who is ready to meet us in ours. Even Jesus cried out, 'My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?' Mike Stavlund reminds us that it's okay for us to feel darkness--for even in our darkest moments we are not alone. And that is good news to all."

Shane Claiborne, author, activist, lover (thesimpleway.org)

"Mike Stavlund's A Force of Will gives voice to love, to love entwined with grief, to grief evoked by love, to love for a tiny imperfectly formed infant and grief upon his death. It is concrete, gripping, unflinchingly honest, theologically and psychologically probing, beautifully written--a tribute to tiny Will and a model of how to live with grief in faith."

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Noah Porter Emeritus Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University

"Mike Stavlund invites us into the story of his son's life with tenderness and fury, with beauty and violence, and it feels like a holy privilege to witness his grief. If you've had your heart broken beyond imagination, and you feel desperately alone in your mourning, you will find your kinsman in these pages."

Shauna Niequist, author of Bittersweet and Bread and Wine

"Stavlund's record of the birth, brief life, and abrupt death of his infant son is an unguarded account of a parental agony totally lacking in self-protection. As such, it can be a wrenching read in places, but it is also one that you will neither put down unfinished nor soon forget. It is a skillful, clear, beautifully rendered memoir."

Phyllis Tickle, founding editor of the Religion Department at Publishers Weekly

"Mourning is impossible; if it succeeds, you forget; if it does not succeed, you cannot move on. Mike Stavlund embraces this dilemma head-on by way of writing--spilling out the whole thing, speaking the unspeakable in a beautiful, eloquent and moving narrative that is both deeply personal and theologically resonant. A Force of Will proves once again, if we needed proof, that love and pain are inseparable and that there are bits of heaven sprinkled all over hell."

John D. Caputo, The Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion Emeritus, Syracuse University

"A Force of Will is not just a book--it is an invitation into a new way of life. Mike Stavlund opens his life and the transformative pain he has experienced as guide to all who have struggled and suffered--you do not walk alone. This book is honest, hard, compelling and propelling. It sends us into our own lives and the world as new people."

Doug Pagitt, pastor, author, and radio host

"A Force of Will cannot be evaluated, appreciated, or interacted with at arm's length. Mike Stavlund writes about the loss of his son with such an unprotected heart and superb craft that readers are compelled to experience his grief, if only for a moment. I found myself grappling with loss and God's goodness even though I knew Mike's loss was not my own. Mike's honesty gives readers permission to abandon theological expectations of how grief should be experienced and to accept it on its own horrible terms."

Larry Shallenberger, pastor and author

"Loss is common to all humanity. Still, no loss compares to the loss of a child. Mike and Stacy Stavlund have regrettably known that loss, but in an act of unfathomable grace they have shared with us their grief and pursuit of a faith that could endure. In so doing, they give those of us who may never know such loss a faith-filled example for bearing our own losses--whatever they may be--in ways that make us more fully human."

Melvin Bray, storyteller, educator, and Emmy Award-winning writer

"Our pain before God is not alien; it is inseparable from the journey of faith, a journey upon which Mike serves as our trusted guide. He invites us to confront the full spectrum of emotions to which grief calls us, to face them as we face God--not just with fear and trembling, but with courage and grace."

Logan Mehl-Laituri, author, student at Duke Divinity School

"Mike Stavlund is a forceful writer, a passionate soul poured out on the page. His words will move you. His story will transport you. This memoir of a year of grief is a gift to us all who have experienced pain, are in the midst of it now, or will be soon enough. In the middle of my own season of grief, Mike's story brought me to tears, made me laugh, and took me to another place--into his story and his pain and out of my own, even just for a little while."

Steve Knight, Co-Founder and Co-CEO, SogoMedia.TV

"This book is a psalm: cries of hope and praise, bottomless wails of grief and lament, accusatory anger, disillusioned weakness, exhausted surrender, and always, always, wrestling with God. There's no tidy ending--just the force of will to move forward. Therefore, it is a work of hope."

Tony Jones, author, Theologian-in-Residence at Solomon's Porch

"As a Palliative Care physician, the journey towards death is one that I walk with many children and families. I've been to the place where all else has failed, where we are left only with our fragile hope and the gnawing fear that God will remain silent. Mike Stavlund meets us in this place and gives us a beautifully raw account of a father's struggle with the loss of his son. While this is understandably a book of grief, and anger, and doubt, it is primarily a book about the fullness of life, and of finding peace in the darkest of places. I read this book aloud, delighting in Mike's voice in every page and poem. And I wept aloud because, in some strange way, I too mourned the loss of this precious child. A Force of Will offers a message desperately needed by the Church--the journey may be painful and is not yet done, but we have a suffering God who walks this road with us, even through death."

Michael D. Barnett, MD, MS, Assistant Professor of Medicine & Pediatrics, University of Alabama at Birmingham

"This is the kind of brutal honesty we all need--especially those of us who have been hurt and are hurting deeply. Stavlund's honesty pushes us to ask aloud our uncomfortable questions about God and God's response to our suffering. Not only does Stavlund say God is present in our suffering, but in suffering our true theology emerges. We desperately need theologies that sustain us, not those whose 'answers' defeat us. I highly recommend this book!"

Thomas Jay Oord, Professor of Theology and Philosophy, Northwest Nazarene University

"How does one make meaning out of so much grief? In this book, Mike delves deep into the fiber of living painfully and courageously. Refusing sentimentality, A Force of Will is a narrative about the glorious rawness of love and the danger of being alive."

Eliacín Rosario-Cruz, Pastoral Leader, Church of the Apostles

"A Force of Will is a breath of fresh air for those who have ever grieved unspeakable losses within a community that was well-meaning but less than helpful, or among friends or family who offered simplistic answers. It reminds us that sometimes our presence among the grieving is all that needs to be 'said' . . . and love can be demonstrated through simple silence in someone's wordless pain. My prayer is that through Will's story, they also may have the courage to share their stories in safe and supportive places and find healing for the journey ahead."

Kymberlee Stanley, Licensed Clinical Social Worker

"Mike Stavlund's A Force of Will is a stunning cinematic journey through one of the most challenging legs of the human story: accepting loss and becoming aware of the deep beauty that was ever-present. This is beautiful storytelling about loss, beauty, God, life and death. A marathon reminder to us all that the truth of whatever matters is never resolved or concluded but continually, willfully discovered and rediscovered in humility, grief, acceptance, negotiation and a surrender to life in all its arduous turns, hills, slopes and valleys."

Anthony Smith (aka PostmodernNegro), activist, pastor, and writer

"Mike's wonderfully written book is a beautiful tribute to his son, William, providing an accurate and thoughtful discussion of the way loss and grief change your relationship with everything around you--your family, your friends, and your faith. As someone who has worked in the medical social work field for over ten years, I would recommend this book without reservation to families experiencing a loss and to members of the medical team who also struggle with similar questions when a patient dies."

Heather Langlois, LICSW, Children's National Heart Institute

"A searing, soul-rending work of beauty that had me weeping. Besides being impossibly well written given the conditions, this book feels pure (or perhaps it is raw gold); it forcefully surges directly from the heart with a clarity gained by fire. Grant magisterial attention to those whose hearts have been pierced: as Jesus' heart was speared and the sacraments of the Church flowed from his side, Stavlund's unbearable burden of Will's holy heart brings us to the unfathomable burden of God's being. If not to tend to our past wounds, we need this book because we all share Mother Mary's grievous fate: 'a sword shall pierce your own heart also.'"

Chris Haw, carpenter, theologian, author, and potter

"In A Force of Will, Mike Stavlund courageously invites us into his personal story of grief and loss. With ruthless honesty and perceptive self-awareness he explores the struggles and the 'why' questions asked by anyone who has lost a loved one--especially a child. For the grieving person who has been hurt by well-meaning but candy-coated platitudes, this book offers a knowing realism about death that is surprisingly hopeful. The best new book on grief and loss, told with a father's heart and a poet's ear."

Mark Scandrette, author of Soul Graffiti and Practicing the Way of Jesus

The Author

  1. Mike Stavlund

    Mike Stavlund

    Mike Stavlund (MDiv, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) leads Common Table church in the Washington, DC Metro area, which has been featured in such publications as US News and World Report, The Washington Post, and Voice of America. An adjunct...

    Continue reading about Mike Stavlund


"There are few books about grief written from the masculine perspective, so this one should prove valuable for fathers grieving over the loss of a young child."

The Christian Chronicle


A Force of Will