Last week, it seemed that daily we were updating the Prayers of the Faithful for our weekend Masses as each day brought news which called out for prayer. It was the last change that was, for me, the most heart wrenching. It was a call from a close friend, struggling through the tears to tell me that her teenage daughter had unexpectedly passed away. I had known the young woman since grade-school age. She was bright, beautiful, and beyond charming. I was devastated – and so I cannot begin to imagine what her parents and sister are experiencing.
I am not a parent; I have no children. I am a priest privileged to walk this sad journey with too many families. It is a journey that brings parents to a fork in the road. And the first instinct is to stay put. Parents who have lost a child through death are enveloped into a pit of blackness, in a world collapsing, and feel like there is no way to move forward. The grief of burying your child is beyond what can be put into words; such duties are the gift of a child for their parent.
Some parents who have experienced the loss of a child were generous and open, sharing their thoughts with me about their own journey; words of advice for other parents. It is their experience and insight that I will share with you.
First, they need to know there is Hope – even in the moments they feel “let me be done with this life, be with my child in heaven, and be able to live a full, unburdened life.” Even in the moments when grief arises unexpectedly or during the year of “firsts” – the first birthday without them, the first Thanksgiving and Christmas, the day their classmates graduate, and more. Someone described this as learning to live with a limb amputated. Life will never be the same, but that is not the same as never being able to live a full life. There is Hope that with God’s grace, parents learn to live a full life that honors their child.
Second, they need to know there is Grace. Grieving parents, like St. Paul, may pray that this burden, this weight be taken from them. Like St. Paul, they need to trust that God’s grace is sufficient – even when it does not feel like it. Pray for the grace of perseverance when the sleep won’t come, the immune system is compromised, the tears overwhelm you, food seems uninteresting, people don’t understand, and healing takes so much longer than you ever imagined. Pray for the grace to reach out to others who need you, those who will understand, and those who don’t understand. Take care of yourself, but pray for the grace to continue to live the fullness of life, even if only a small portion at a time.
Third, it is OK to have the passing thought, “Where is God in all this? He could have prevented this.” But rely on Trust. Make the choice not to blame God for the death of your child as you ask the “why” questions. Such loss was once described as standing on the edge of the universe and crying “Why” into the great void. There is no answer in this life. Trust there is one in the life to come. At the edge, the choices are to continue to cry into the void and be lost forever, or to turn away from the edge and learn to live. Trust that God will answer the “How” question of learning to live anew.
Fourth, remember you are surrounded by Love. Although your heart aches and longs for a final word, another moment, to fill the void – you are embraced by the love of family who would overturn heaven and earth for you. Embrace them and let them embrace you – even on the days you do not feel up to it. When you turn away from the edge of the universe, turning to the people God brings to your life, family, friends, parental support groups and more, in them you will discover God’s answer to the “How” question.
I asked a parishioner, who sadly has had this experience of loss, to review the article. There was great wisdom in part of her response: “The ache, void, etc. never leaves, but I always comfort myself in four words we pray every day, ‘Thy will be done.’ There is a reason He keeps us here in this life.” Amen.
This is but a part of the experience and wisdom of parents. I hope it is a comfort to my friends. In the meantime, I will pray, trust that the Lord will be with them, fill them with grace, and that they will know the love and peace of Christ in these trying times.