The loss of a loved one, Pope Benedict XVI has conceded, can make us “feel death as a radically hostile presence contrary to our natural vocation to life and happiness.”
While it can be a challenge for us to accept the reality of our own death or the death of other adults with whom we are close, it can be especially challenging to accept the death of a child.
It is a tragedy no parent ever wants to endure.
A story of strength
Msgr. Craig Harrison is pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Bakersfield, Calif. He was ordained a priest 25 years ago, and has worked closely with many families who have experienced the death of a child.
He is author of the 2006 book “Angel Girl” (Trafford Publishing, $14.95), the story of a girl who endured two years of cancer treatments while maintaining a strong faith in God.
Based on the true story of Lauren Small (1994-2005), an 11-year-old girl who battled bone cancer, it is intended to help a family or individual deal with the reality of death.
“The way Lauren dealt with suffering was inspiring,” said Msgr. Harrison. “She saw her sickness as a way to help people better understand and love God.
“Even though suffering is horrendous, there is a value to it.”
Lauren’s parents sent her across the country seeking treatments to cure her disease, ultimately to no avail. At one point during her sickness, Lauren had part of a leg amputated in an attempt to save her life.
She maintained an “authentic piety” through it all, recalled Msgr. Harrison, receiving the Holy Eucharist, and “knowing she was in the presence of God.”
“Observing her love of God and embracing her sickness for the benefit others makes you realize that all the little things we complain about mean nothing. Compared to what she suffered, so much of what bothers us seems petty,” he said.
Msgr. Harrison was with Lauren when she died. The girl was in too much pain to speak, so she squeezed his hand three times and expired. He was puzzled by the squeezing until Lauren’s family explained that was her way of saying, “I love you.”
One night before Lauren’s funeral, Msgr. Harrison woke up from his sleep, as if he’d been visited by Lauren in a dream. She “dictated” the tale of “Angel Girl,” a fictitious story about a dying girl who uses her illness as a means of bringing people closer to God. Despite the late hour, he “could not stop writing,” and wrote up the story as his homily for Lauren’s funeral Mass. It was so well received that, at the suggestion of parishioners, he turned it into a children’s story. It is used today in hospitals and bereavement groups. The book’s dedication includes the names of children for whom Msgr. Harrison has celebrated funeral Masses.
When Msgr. Harrison counsels parents who have suffered such a loss, he avoids comments such as “she’s in a better place” or “it’s God’s will.” Instead, he said, “I try to restore their relationship with God because they’re angry at him.”
If they stay angry, the priest said, they become cold, distant people.
He makes a point about asking about positive memories they have about the child, even getting them to laugh about touching memories they have. He concedes that the pain of their loss will never go away in this life, but encourages them to find positive outlets for it. The Small family, for example, is wealthy, so they donated $2 million to fund the Lauren Small Children’s Medical Center at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital. Another family in his parish who lost a 15-year-old son goes each month to feed the homeless, as it was an important cause to their son.
Msgr. Harrison said, “Not everyone can build a hospital wing, but you can feed the homeless or plant a garden to keep your lost child’s spirit alive in your heart.”
Human beings are always looking for someone to blame, Msgr. Harrison said, and parents often blame themselves when their child dies.
Msgr. Harrison said he responds with, “‘Did you love your daughter?’ That’s what’s important. I say, ‘I can tell by how much you’re hurting that you do.’”
Support groups can also be of help, as can professional counseling. Msgr. Harrison especially likes to convey to families that he personally remembers their lost children.
He sends remembrance cards to families on the birthdays or anniversaries of the deaths of their children, and annually celebrates a Mass for parents who have lost children. In his church, there is a memorial wall for children who have died.
Msgr. Harrison suffered the loss of his 40-year-old younger sister to an unexpected heart attack, which was “devastating” for him and his family.
As part of his recovery, he said, “I love it when people tell me about her, and about the ways she touched their lives.”
Faith is a tremendous aid in recovering from the loss of a child, he said. During Mass, at the moment of consecration, “the Communion of Saints comes together. My sister is very present to me at that moment, and I tell my families at that moment to think of their own deceased children.”
The road to hope
Msgr. Harrison also encourages parents to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, as some have been away for a long time.
|Courtesy of Msgr. Harrison
Nellie Martinez is a parishioner whom Msgr. Harrison assisted after she experienced the nightmare of having her 4-year-old daughter, Jessica, abducted and murdered in 1990. (A suspect for the crime is in prison for another murder, but a conclusive link to Jessica’s murder has yet to be established.)
“Father Craig came to my aid and got me into counseling right away,” said Martinez. “He and my counselors helped me through some very dark days. At the time, I couldn’t go to work and I couldn’t see myself going on.”
Msgr. Harrison also helped her find counseling for her 8-year-old son and took up a collection at church to support the family. He has stayed close to them through the years.
Martinez is part of a grief support group at the parish, and advises parents who have lost children to pray, seek counseling and know that there is “a light at the end of the tunnel.”
“You never forget about your loss, but you learn to deal with it. Today, years later, I can laugh, smile, go to work and go to church. I have hope,” she said, adding that the help of a priest like Msgr. Harrison is invaluable. “The last time I saw him he looked tired. He’s always on the go, helping people. I love him for that.”
Patrick Coffin, an apologist with Catholic Answers and host of its radio program Catholic Answers Live, lost one of his three daughters, Naomi, as an infant due to birth defects (read the moving account at www.cuf.org/laywitness/Online_view.asp?lwID=1551).
Coffin’s grief was “front-loaded” — he and his wife knew while Naomi was still in the womb that she may not survive, so much of their grieving occurred before their child was born.
“The anxiety, the fear and loneliness — the terrible feeling of being unable to protect your helpless child — all of that ‘nuke’-level emotion vanished moments after Naomi died in our arms. I don’t know why, but I’m grateful to God for it,” he told OSV. “I never, ever thought I’d be able to say the words ‘I’m at peace.’ But it’s true.”
While he misses Naomi, “the dread-drenched sorrow is gone forever.”
Coffin’s Catholic faith has been a chief source of his healing. He looked at the suffering Christ on the crucifix in a new way “when you yourself are feeling abandoned and completely without help.”
God permits suffering, he said, “but he has a grand plan for those with eyes to see, which could not have come to pass in all its comfort and glory but for that suffering.”
Coffin’s recommendations for those undergoing a tragedy like his include: First, “allow the suffering to cleanse you and detach you from your sins.” Second, read He Leadeth Me">“He Leadeth Me” by Father Walter Ciszek (Ignatius Press, $15.95) and Love Is Stronger Than Death">“Love Is Stronger Than Death” by Peter Kreeft (Ignatius Press, $11.95). Third, share your feelings with those close to you.
“Those chats can be a real grace,” he said.
Jim Graves writes from California.