A Grieving Father’s Thoughts on Suffering

I originally composed the following letter in response to an inquiry from an old friend regarding the deaths of two of our children. I share it now — despite much anxiety about such public vulnerability — in hope that these words may comfort other grieving parents.

Thank you for your message and prayers. The past two years have been very difficult, if I may understate a little. Burying Mary Bernadette was the most painful and sorrowful experience of my life. At 19 weeks in utero, just as we learned her gender, we learned she had a terminal genetic disorder called Trisomy 18. We prayed every day for healing and/or live birth, but God answered our petitions in the most mysterious of ways: He took her to Himself and healed her without granting us the opportunity to hear her cry. Mary Bernadette was born still at 33 weeks on July 26, 2009. It was especially heartbreaking to see our sole living child, Brighid, aware of everything, having to bury her sister while she herself was almost three years old.

Mary Bernadette Victoria's casket; handmade by Trappist monks; lovingly donated by our friends.Then nine months later, we experienced a miscarriage at around six weeks in utero. While a little less devastating — because we only knew of little Innocent for two weeks — it nonetheless reopened our deepest wounds. Again, Brighid has been fully engaged: just last week she told us Innocent was a boy. We still don’t know if she had a dream about him, or what, but she speaks as if she saw him.

Mary Bernadette Victoria's grave and headstone.Regarding being less certain of things than we once were: it is the hope and hubris of youth, to impose our wills upon the world, to assert our ideas as certainties and to promote our ideals as truths. I have Faith — “the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen” — that God is Love, that Love itself is a mystery, and therefore God is the unending font of the mystery of Love. I mean to say, albeit in a wordy way, that I believe a healthy sense of mystery is not only permissible, but usually required for a mature, honest relationship with God. I’m not without my doubts, but neither was Saint Thomas, and though Jesus mildly corrected him, He did not reject Thomas for his doubt. Likewise, God did not abandon Job, even when he doubted and cried out at the injustice of being deprived of an objective good (his children).

Mary Bernadette Victoria's entry in the Book of Life at the Shrine of The Holy Innocents.I’ve been meditating on Job’s story quite a bit. One mystery I keep coming back to: God withheld any response from Job until Job demanded an answer. Granted, God’s response was a bit frightening, and definitely humbling, but also consoling (paraphrased): “I am God, the Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth. You are not being punished. I have my reasons, and they are beyond you. Humble yourself and trust me. I will restore you.” A very patient fatherly correction. Contrast that with God’s response to Job’s friends: “I am angry with you. You have not spoken rightly concerning Me, as has my servant Job. Let my servant Job pray for you; for his prayer I will accept, not to punish you severely.” Not only does He call their “prosperity gospel” a lie, He calls Job His servant, and holds Job up as the standard by which his friends should measure themselves.

Suffering, like Love, is a mystery I don’t pretend to understand. But we have found it to produce much Redemptive fruit in our lives and among our friends. Perhaps Job’s suffering and restoration was meant as much for Job’s redemption as it was for Job’s friends’ redemption. And perhaps God is working something similar in our lives, among our friends and family. I’m not certain at all, but the thought does give me Hope.

Mary Bernadette Victoria and Tiny Innocent, pray for us.

P.S. If you or someone you know is suffering the death of a child and/or infertility, I cannot overstate the consolation brought to us by:

The Apostolate of Hannah’s Tears “offers prayer support and comfort to the brokenhearted who suffer the pains of infertility at any stage of life, difficult pregnancy, miscarriage, stillbirth, the loss of a child and the adoption process.”

Naming the Child: Hope-Filled Reflections on Miscarriage, Stillbirth, and Infant Death, and its companion website.

The Shrine of The Holy Innocents: “Often children who have died before birth have no grave or headstone, and sometimes not even a name. At The Church of The Holy Innocents, we invite you to name your child(ren) and to have the opportunity to have your baby’s name inscribed in our ‘Book of Life.’ Here, a candle is always lit in their memory. All day long people stop to pray. On the first Monday of every month, Mass is celebrated in honor of these children and for the comfort of their families. We pray that you will find peace in knowing that your child(ren) will be remembered at the Shrine and honored by all who pray here.”

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