If asked to describe in one word my feelings toward parenting our surviving children it would have to be…
From the moment you welcome your sweet, heavenly bundle of joy into the world you begin the lifelong process of parenting. You love them, care for their physical needs, bandage their wounds and fiercely guard and protect them from the evils of the world. In our own home, we have taken extra measures to preserve our children’s innocence for as long as possible. We homeschool, don’t have cable, and spend a lot of time enjoying nature and one another.
My children have always been aware that suffering and evil exist on some level. We have prayed as a family for an end to abortion, for sick babies, for families that I encountered in Guatemala who literally live in garbage dumps. We’ve talked about wars and martyrs in our homeschooling. They know that life-threatening diseases exist and accidents occur. From the time they were small, I have told them all about their uncle Chris, my brother, who died in a car accident before they were born at the age of fifteen.
As with any family, life has not always been smooth sailing. We’ve parented through miscarriages, difficult pregnancies, premature babies, transatlantic moves, minor illnesses, and broken bones. They have faced the death of a stepgrandfather. Although these were certainly difficult seasons, the trajectory of our family life was not drastically altered. Our children felt safe and secure and we have always been able to pick up and carry on as before despite the bump in the road. We have always instinctively known how to help our children and keep them safe.
But when Evie died, all of that sheltering and instinctive parenting went out the window.
My sweet and innocent little girls saw their beloved sister die before their eyes with no warning or explanation. My son’s world came crashing down as he came face to face with his own mortality. They discovered that horrible things don’t just happen to other people…they happen to us. All of that talk about safety precautions like wearing your seat belt, bike helmets, and healthy eating means nothing when you see your sister drop dead at a piano recital.
Your world is no longer safe and life just doesn’t make sense.
The pain of losing a child is indescribable and the pain of watching your children grieve as you stand by helplessly is excruciating. There’s nothing I can say or do to take away their pain. I can’t bring back Eden’s best friend and mentor, Micaiah’s little sister and Cecilia’s second mommy.
Parenting through such catastrophic loss is like groping in the dark, grasping at straws, navigating dark waters. Grief is the strongest, and most confusing emotion that exists and the grief of a child is anything but direct and obvious. It manifests itself in fear, sadness, and anger in unexpected ways.
The girls are often afraid to sleep in their beds at night. They fear their own death or the death of someone else they love. We have to be very careful about exposing them to any type of tragedy in the world lest they worry about leaving the house. They are often contemplating the hidden dangers lurking around every corner. The circumstances surrounding Evie’s death have added an additional element of fear and uncertainty. Every time they have any kind of ache or pain they inquire about it and sometimes phantom symptoms show up. All the kids worry about Gabriel’s safety. He’s their sunshine and joy on the dark days and they are keenly aware that joy can turn to sorrow in an instant.
Sometimes grief looks like anger in many different forms. They wonder why God would have even created us knowing we would bring sin and evil into the world. They bicker and fight at times and isolate themselves from the rest of the family. Little ones misbehave to get attention. Doors are slammed and angry words are spoken. Disappointment abounds when feelings are hurt and words misunderstood.
Often anger turns to pervasive sadness. We must hold them while they cry. Oh how I wish it were due to a scraped knee or disappointing friendship! The other day Cecilia was becoming frustrated with me over some schoolwork she wanted to do. She ran off. When I found her, she cried, “I wish Evie was here.” In that moment, she recognized that I was just not doing things the way Evie would have done them. I held her in my arms as she cried and cried and another sword pierced my heart. There are certainly tears but sometimes I recognize it as the lonely look in Eden’s eyes when a five year-old sister is just not the ideal playmate at the moment. When they look at old pictures and videos I know they are missing her. Their artwork is also an expression of the sorrow they feel inside. Cecilia draws many, many pictures of the three sisters…two red-heads and a blondie. Sometimes the blondie is in the sky as an angel. Sometimes her pictures are simply Jesus on the cross in black ink.
With five people grieving very differently, a baby, building a house, and the ocean of emotions, family life can be utterly exhausting. Most days I feel like a firefighter trying to extinguish the flames burning here, there, and everywhere. I don’t always know how to help and protect my kids and I’m so broken myself that sometimes just getting up and putting one foot in front of the other seems nearly impossible.
I worry about my family. How will we survive? What will family life look like in the years ahead? Will we ever thrive again? What are the long-term repercussions of this terrible tragedy? Am I doing the right thing? How can I be a good mom when my mind is clouded with grief?
Extraordinary suffering strips you of your faculties, your pride, and your false sense of control. It renders you naked and exposed and drags you to a crossroads. It’s the Red Sea, the walls of Jericho, and the climb to Calvary. On this side of it we can’t see the outcome or the reward that awaits. We could easily become immobilized by the pain, curl up into a ball of anxiety and fear and simply give up.
But God is big enough to part the sea, tear down the walls, and climb the mountain… beaten and bloody with a cross on His back. He doesn’t really need our help. He simply asks us to love Him and trust that He’s making a way through the darkness. In order to help my children, I myself must become a little child. I must put my hand in His and let Him lead me. And as a child, I must love unconditionally with no limitations or expectations. Our children need the security of that unconditional love. In the words of a fellow bereaved mother, we need to “love them back to life.” They need to see us grieve and know that it’s ok to embrace the pain but they also need to see us survive because we trust that Jesus has our future in His hands.
I admit that trust doesn’t always come easily. There are moments that I don’t even want to get out of the boat and confront what lies before me. At other times, I might be willing to step out into the water but like St. Peter I take my eyes off of Jesus for a moment and the waves begin to consume me. I survey the raging storm and feel helpless and alone in a deep, dark, never-ending sea of needs that I cannot meet and brokenness that I cannot fix.
Each time I feel overwhelmed and afraid, I try to put my thoughts to rest and pray. My prayer is a simple one and sometimes the only one I can utter. Coincidentally, (or maybe not so coincidentally) it is an appropriate prayer for this year of Divine Mercy.
“Jesus, I trust in You.”
“When I see that the burden is beyond my strength, I do not consider or analyze it or probe into it, but I run like a child to the Heart of Jesus and say only one word to Him: “You can do all things.” And then I keep silent, because I know that Jesus Himself will intervene in the matter, and as for me, instead of tormenting myself, I use that time to love Him.”
From the Diary of St. Faustina