Mother’s Sorrow

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“How long was she conscious?” I asked as the tears filled my eyes and spilled onto my cheeks.

“Are you asking did your baby suffer?” responded my perceptive obstetrician.

I thought of all the questions pounding on my heart: Was the last emotion she knew the panic of suffocation? As her body became bruised and beaten by frantic attempts at CPR, was she aware of it? Did she feel tubes pierce her sides, punching between bones and flesh? Did she wonder where I was and why I was not there to hold her? Did she ask why she was alone, why she was forsaken?

As I nodded my head, my obstetrician gently said, “No, I do not believe that she suffered.” Relief flooded through me.

–              –              –

I’ve never felt particularly close to Saint Mary. In fact, of all the Saints, I tend to be most detached from Mary. There are probably several reasons for this. First, as someone who was raised Protestant, I am wary of any honor that borders on idolatry and there is no other Saint whose veneration often teeters so close to the brink of worship. Second, pride has always wormed its way into my life by disguising itself as a tendency to dislike whatever everybody else likes (think insisting on dresses and leggings when everyone else switched to jeans during elementary school and being disgusted by Titanic when every other girl in my middle school class was swooning over Leonardo DiCaprio). Unfortunately for me, if there is one Saint who everyone loves to love, its Mary which means that I instinctively want to avoid her just because everyone else loves her. Third, I believe that the way that Mary is depicted in art makes it challenging for me to identify with her. For example, it is hard to connect with a woman who looks completely clean, put together, unswollen and calm after giving birth (without pain medication) in a place where they kept animals. Suffice it to say, I gave birth in a clean, animal-free environment with about a dozen doctors and nurses standing by and a nicely placed epidural in my back, yet I don’t have a single picture of me looking clean, put together, unswollen or calm after my children were born. Exhausted but not calm.

However, I recently realized that there was a more fundamental reason that I did not connect with Saint Mary: to really identify with Mary I would have to be willing to be drenched with her sorrows and they are sorrows that my humanness wants to avoid at all costs. Nonetheless, this week I overcame this aversion when I discovered the Catholic practice of meditating on Mary’s Seven Sorrows.  As I pondered the last four Sorrows, I felt that I had been introduced to the amazing Mother of Jesus for the first time. Here was a woman who knew my own pain intimately. In fact, her own pain greatly exceeded my own because, unlike my daughter, her Son absolutely suffered.

Good Friday is an ideal time for all Christians to reflect on the last four of St. Mary’s Sorrows in particular, because it was her Son’s death that caused her so much pain. Consequently, I share my own reflections on these sorrows below.

The Fourth Sorrow is when Mary met Jesus carrying His cross through the streets of Jerusalem to Golgotha. Even as a mother who has begged God to change His mind and restore life to my lifeless child, I can only begin to imagine the desperation and confusion Mary must have felt as she watched her Son carrying the horrible instrument of His own death on His back. How unbelievably awful it must have been to realize that crowds of people hated her Son enough to kill Him. She must have burned with longing to do something, anything, to help Him. She must have been filled with a desire to tear the crown of thorns from His head, to dress His wounds and to clean the lacerations on His back. She must have begged God for His help and intervention, for the protection of her Child. The Stabat Mater describes the scene thus: “Bruised, derided, cursed, defiled, she beheld her tender Child, all with bloody scourges rent. Can the human heart refrain, from partaking in her pain, in that Mother’s pain untold?”

The Fifth Sorrow is when Mary watched as Jesus was crucified and died. Her heart must have shattered as they pierced his hands with crude nails, punching between bones and flesh. I could not see my daughter as she died. In fact,I struggling with my own physical responses to surgery, I did not even know that she was dying. However, my husband watched as the doctors tried to save her and, having talked with him, I can only imagine Mary’s agony as she gazed upon her child’s body, so bruised and beaten. How she must have longed to run to Him, to hold Him as he cried out to His father, “Why have you forsaken me?” She must have wished that she could use her physical touch to show Him that He was not forsaken and to comfort Him. What horror did she know as she gazed up at her son’s face, that was contorted by the pain and terror of His last, gasping breath, unable to do anything at all except to bear witness to His sacrifice? What questions did she ask her God who silently allowed her world and the One in whom she placed her faith to be destroyed?

The Sixth Sorrow is when Jesus’s body was taken down from the cross and laid in His mother’s arms. Now, finally, I truly know her heart break for I have shared it with her. I know how anxious she was to wrap her arms around her Son’s broken, bruised body, to bathe His face with her tears, to cover Him with her kisses. I know the way she explored her Child, touched His wounds and tenderly kissed them, trying in vain to make them better. I know how good His weight felt in her arms and how she thought that she would never be able to let go. I know the cruelty of time which slowly marched forward, stealing the warmth, color, and softness from the limbs and the face of her precious Child. And I know the resignation of the moment when she realized that it was time to let go of her Son’s body because the physical changes convinced her that He was no longer there and that it was truly finished.

The Seventh and final Sorrow is when Jesus was buried. There are no words to describe the torment of a parent who is forced to bury their child. Even if Mary was experiencing shock and numbness, she no doubt felt the horror of her loss. While she must have trusted that God would raise her Son as He had promised, as she gazed at the stone rolled across the tomb, she must have also felt the excruciating absence of her Son. Did she, like me, feel that her heart was weeping blood? Did she wish she could catch all of her precious tears in a bottle and save them as tangible reminders of her Son that could sustain her until the day when she met Him again? Did she feel that she was dragging mountains behind her as she turned and walked away from the place where her Child’s body lay? Did she wake during that first night, thinking she heard her Son calling for her or shaking her shoulder, only to discover that she was all alone in the darkness? And how horrible those first moments must have been for her when she woke on Saturday morning and realized anew that her Son was gone and that she had to rise and live another day of torment without her Child!

This Sorrow, this suffocating Mother’s Sorrow, all the result of my sin, of your sin, of the sins of our world.

 

 

 

Discernment

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I had high aspirations for this Lent. I planned to do a bread and water fast for one meal each day in order to physically demonstrate my love for God, remind me to petition Him regularly for a healthy baby in the future, and assist me in overcoming my habit of turning to food for comfort and boredom. I figured that God would help me to get through the fast since my reasons for fasting seemed valid, even though I had come up with the plan with little prayer and it was more something that I wanted to do than something that I felt called to do.

In light of my confidence, I was surprised to find myself getting increasingly dizzy and confused as my second day of fasting progressed. I thought I might be dehydrated so I made myself some tea and then continued with my day. An hour later, I returned to the kitchen and found the teapot removed but the stove burner still burning and realized that, however good my intentions might be, God would not want me to put my family’s safety at risk to complete my fast. Eventually, I settled on a much safer way for me to participate in Lent this year.

Still, I was bothered that I had not been able to complete what I had set out to do. As I reflected on my two days of fasting, I realized that, while my intentions had been good, I had come up with them on my own rather than prayerfully seeking God’s desires for my Lent. Then, I had relied on God to sustain me through plans that I had devised without His input. As I read an Anxiety Novena that night, I was convicted by the following sentence: “You are not sick people who ask the doctor to cure you, but rather sick people who tell the doctor how to.”  That is exactly what I was doing! I basically told God that I wanted to draw closer to Him, to have a healthy baby, and to overcome my dependency on food and then told Him that the way I expected Him to achieve those things for me was by sustaining me through my Lenten fast. Instead, I should have been asking Him how He wanted me to grow during Lent and what sacrifices He desired me to make.

I want to be clear that what I learned really had nothing to do with fasting at all and I certainly believe that fasting has an important role to play in our lives. Instead, what I learned had everything to do with our need to seek God’s will for our lives even in the mundane acts that we are called to fulfill each day. Evidently, this Lent God was more concerned about refining my dependency on Him than on eliminating my dependency on food and, while I would love to be thin and healthy again, my spiritual health really is far more important.

*If you would like to try the fasting rolls, you can find the recipe here: http://catholiccuisine.blog-spot.com/2011/03/fasting-bread-for-lent.html. Even if you are not fasting, making them is a great activity with kids because of the symbolism of the ingredients that is described at the end of the recipe. 

The Good Shepherd

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Today marks six months since our baby died and I am beginning to understand what people mean when they say that your body remembers anniversary dates, even if your mind isn’t aware of them. For the last week or so everything has felt just a little bit harder and I am tired so much more quickly. The tears come easily again, as do the surges of anger at the pregnant women I see at the library and at the new mom who complains about her baby’s lack of sleep.

Perhaps it is because of this that my mind isn’t working well this week, though I am sure it does not help that we were up with a sick four-year-old last night. Suffice it to say, I feel like I am back in survival mode which means that the only thing that runs through my mind is “God is making everything okay. God is taking care of it,” and the image of Jesus, the tender shepherd who gently cares for all of the needs of His sheep. However, there must be more going on in mind of my sick four-year-old because she stopped watching Beauty and the Beast long enough to say, “Mommy, Noemi is dead to us because she is not here, but she is alive to Jesus.”

The truth is, if the only two things that my family gets out of this six month anniversary are the knowledge that “God is taking care of it” and that “she is alive to Jesus,” then that is sufficient grace and evidence that we are deeply blessed. This week, I pray that each of you will also be blessed with the confident assurance that The Good Shepherd really is making everything okay.

Apple Seeds, Pirates and St. Bernards

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God is a master story-teller. The life-stories that He writes are frequently unpredictable, contain unexpected twists and turns, and leave His people breathlessly murmuring, “I never saw that coming!” Yet, like any good story-teller, God knows where each one of His stories is headed before He even begins writing it.

Have you ever felt the awed satisfaction of hearing a finely crafted story? Despite the hardships that the characters face and the conflicts that drive stories along, truly good tales leave their readers with a sense that every unexpected turns was necessary and even worthwhile in the end. In fact, the unexpected and undesired parts of the story become valuable parts of an incredible work of art. The lives of God’s people are full of such stories and reflecting on them can offer us a glimpse of the often overlooked Church that C.S. Lewis described as “spread throughout time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners” (The Screwtape Letters).

This week, I want you to delight in the masterful story-telling of our Father and to see a tiny sliver of the triumphant Church that He is creating. I would love to be able to offer you these stories over a crackling campfire, but, since this is not possible, please indulge me as I spin a few of the tales that have recently astounded me. The first takes us back almost 1,600 years ago to a prominent household in Europe…

  1. St. Patrick

The patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick was born in Britain. Although he was born into a Christian family, St. Patrick was not particularly interested in Christ during his early years. He certainly did not aspire to be a great religious leader! One day, when St. Patrick was only sixteen years old, he was kidnapped by pirates who took him to Ireland as a slave. Things must have seemed bleak to St. Patrick as he labored away tending animals that were not his own. He had been ruthlessly torn from his family and all of the dreams that he had for his future had been shattered. Yet, somehow, amid the agonies of slavery, God moved into the center of St. Patrick’s life. Eventually, St. Patrick escaped from slavery and began his studies in a monastery. St. Patrick could easily have spent the rest of his life living in relative comfort and ministering to friendly, god-fearing people. However, God had other plans for him. One night, St. Patrick had a vision in which he heard the voices of the people of Ireland calling for him to come back to them. Ready to do God’s will, St. Patrick returned to the land where he had been enslaved in order to teach the Irish people about the God he loved. The rest of the story is, as they say, history. As the Bishop of Ireland, St. Patrick helped to draw the Irish people away from pagan worship and introduced them to the one true God. Because of his work, his saint day is still celebrated, 1,500 years after his death. Yet, none of the stories that we know of St. Patrick would have happened if God hadn’t thrown a few unexpected twists into the life that he had originally envisioned for himself.

The second tale is much more recent. It begins not far from where I am writing this, in a little, colonial town called Leominster, Massachusetts…

  1. Johnny Appleseed

Most adults who were educated in the American school system would recognize that a picture of a wild-looking man wearing a cooking pan on his head was an image of Johnny Appleseed. Most would also remember hearing stories about Johnny Appleseed’s wilderness adventures and legends about his prolific apple orchards. However, many would be surprised to discover that Johnny Appleseed (born John Chapman) was a real man who grew-up in a small farmhouse with his eleven siblings. When Johnny Appleseed was in his early twenties, he decided to leave his home and to explore the frontier, though he had no idea what he would do when he reached the wilderness. At some point during his exploration, Johnny had a vision of angels who showed him a wonderful place that was surrounded by apple trees. The angels told Johnny that his mission was to travel around the United States and to plant apple trees wherever he went. Now, I might be wrong, but I imagine that Johnny Appleseed never expected that his life’s mission would involve scavenging apple seeds from cider mills and rowing two canoes full of apple seedlings across a newborn nation. Nonetheless, he committed himself to carry out his calling while continuing to live his life in a way that reflected his love for God. His generosity towards struggling families was more legendary than any of his animal adventures and many pioneers  remembered Johnny Appleseed reading to them from his Bible on evenings when he stayed in their homes. In short, because Johnny Appleseed was willing to carry-out his unlikely calling, he became a blessing to countless settlers and a bearer of God’s truth to those who welcomed him into their houses.

My next story is relatively modern, but requires us to journey back across the Atlantic Ocean to the city of Alencon, France, known for its beautiful lace…

  1. The father of St. Therese of Lisieux

Apparently, St. Louis Martin did not set out to be the father of a Saint. In fact, as a young man, he traveled to the Alps and attempted to join the monastery of the Augustinian Canons of the Great St. Bernard Hospice, where he hoped to embark on a life devoted to religious devotion and thrilling mountain rescues. However, St. Louis was turned away from the Hospice because he did not know Latin. His plans dashed, Louis began a business as a watchmaker and eventually met a woman named Zelie Martin who had also been denied a religious life. The two fell in-love and decided to marry but determined that they would not consummate their marriage and would instead use their relationship only to further their religious devotion. Shortly after their marriage, however, the priest who counseled them suggested that God had other plans for their marriage and that they should be open to all aspects of marriage. Taking his advice, the Martins went on to have five living daughters, all of whom pursued religious lives. God used their love for one another and their careful, faithful parenting to shape their youngest daughter, Therese, into one of the most well-known modern saints. In fact, because of the way that St. Louis and St. Zelie loved one another, raised their children, and lived their lives, they were canonized as saints in 2015.

The final tale begins in a dusty settlement in the north of the Fertile Crescent ten generations after the Great Flood…

  1. Abraham (the patriarch)

While nomadic living was common in the ancient world, the Bible tells us that Abraham’s family had settled in a particular place. For a while, Abraham and his wife lived with them, however, God eventually told Abraham: “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others” (Genesis 12:1-2). I would imagine that this was a big change of plans for Abraham who, until that time, probably was not expecting to become the famous father of a great nation. It also required huge sacrifices – Abraham had to leave his family, his way of life and many of the comforts that he was used to in order to follow God’s plan. Nonetheless, we are told that Abraham, “Obeyed when God called him to leave home and go to another land that God would give him as his inheritance. He went without knowing where he was going. And even when he reached the land God promised him, he lived there by faith – for he was like a foreigner, living in tents…” (Hebrews 11:8-9). It took God a long time to fulfill His promises to Abraham. In fact, it took so long that when He finally blessed Abraham with a son, his wife Sarah laughed in disbelief (Genesis 18:12-14)! Then, just when Abraham must have thought that he could finally see God working out His plan, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering. God waited until Abraham had raised the knife to kill his son before He intervened by providing him with a substitute offering (Genesis 22). Yet, even with all of the surprises in Abraham’s life, God was faithful to Abraham and eventually gave the Messiah through Abraham’s family line.

Do you see what I mean about God being a master story-teller? The life-stories He writes are absolutely beautiful, reflect His glory, and are utterly unexpected! It makes me wonder, what kind of twists and turns does God have planned for our lives and are we ready to embrace them as part of the great story that He is writing for His Church?

References

http://www.louisandzeliemartin.org

Moses, Will. Johnny Appleseed The Story of a Legend. Philomel Books, NY, 2001.

Welborn, Amy. Loyola Kids Book of Saints. Loyola Press, Chicago, 2001.

Wust, Louis & Marjorie. Louis Martin: An Ideal Father. Daughters of St. Paul, 1957.

Sacrifice

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There is one story in the Bible that has terrified me more than any other. It’s not found in Revelation, though that book contains plenty of frightening stuff. It’s not a story about any the first Christians, even though their lives certainly make me wonder about the cost of following Christ. Instead, it is a little story that is tucked in the middle of Genesis – the book that first introduces us to a God who is simultaneously good and terrifying. It is a story about a God who asks us to give Him everything we hold dear and to hold nothing back. It is a tale about a God who says to His servant Abraham “take your son, your only son – yes, Isaac, whom you love so much – and go to the land of Moriah. Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering…”

Have you ever spent some time really pondering this story? Out of context, it sounds like something out of Greek mythology. Without looking at the bigger picture, it makes God seem like a terrible, selfish, violent God – certainly not a God who loves His people because who would ask someone they love to sacrifice their only son?

I first started to wonder about this story during college. I was taking a class on the Old Testament and was spending my Saturday morning catching up on homework and reading through the book of Genesis.  I remember wondering what God was thinking when He asked Abraham to sacrifice His only son. I also remember wondering what Abraham must have thought. Up until this time, God had been pretty good to Abraham. He had promised him an incredible inheritance and descendants who outnumbered the stars. The Bible even tells us that Abraham was God’s friend. Then, suddenly God came to Abraham and commanded him to offer his son as a burnt offering. Abraham’s head must have been reeling.

There’s something else about this story that has always puzzled me, though, and that is why his wife Sarah let Abraham take her son up Mount Moriah to be sacrificed. When I first reflected on this story during college, I remember thinking that Abraham must not have told Sarah his plans because, if he had, she never would have let him do what God had asked of him. As time went on, I became even more confident that Sarah did not know Abraham’s plans because I saw more and more how, if I had been Sarah, I would have kicked and screamed and done anything I could to keep Abraham from ascending that mountain. In my own life, I was asked to sacrifice some of the people I loved and I was increasingly wary of a God who asks His people to willingly sacrifice loved ones. I was hesitant to pray “Thy will be done” because life had taught me that His will was often very painful. I also avoided reading Genesis 22 because it reminded me of two things. First, that God might ask me to sacrifice again. Second, that I didn’t have Abraham’s willingness to make any more sacrifices in my life.

Consequently, I was perturbed when our nightly Bible study involved the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac one night during my 34th week of pregnancy. I even dared to voice my own inadequate faith and told my husband, “I could never kill one of my children for God.” We went to sleep soon after that and, while I was sleeping, my water broke. I never went into labor but I was admitted to the hospital the next day due to an infection that had spread to my unborn baby. By the following morning, my baby had been born and died.

A month later, when we received my daughter’s autopsy results, we discovered that if the doctors had been able to resuscitate her, her damaged lungs would have required us to make the heart rending decision to stop medical interventions and to allow her to die. It felt as if God was saying, “I heard you when you said that you could not sacrifice your child for Me, so I did not ask you to make that sacrifice at the time. I spared you from that decision because I love you, even when your faith is weak.”However, while God was merciful enough to spare me from physically handing my child over to Him, He continued to push me to grow my faith by sacrificing her to Him spiritually and by embracing His decision to take her from me.

That is when God reminded me that more happened on Mount Moriah than Abraham building an altar and binding his son to it: God saved Abraham’s son and provided a substitute sacrifice Himself. Apparently, this wasn’t much of a surprise to Abraham since, the Bible tells us that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son because he “reasoned that if Isaac died, God was able to bring him back to life again.”(Hebrews 11:19) Nonetheless, it is not unreasonable to think that, for a few moments, Abraham might have thought that God  seemed like a terrible, capricious foreign god. But Abraham knew that there was more to the story. He knew that, unlike the pagan gods, his God was good. He knew that his God loved him. He knew that God was powerful enough to work good out of a seemingly hopeless situation. And he was right: God did exactly what Abraham expected and saved his son because He really was good and He really did love His friend Abraham.

Abraham knew all of this even though he did not have the privilege of knowing about Jesus’s life and resurrection. Knowing what I know about Jesus, shouldn’t I be even more willing than Abraham to believe that God can bring my daughter back to life? Abraham had to offer his child through blind faith, I have the gift of eye-witness accounts of a resurrected savior!

I am no longer afraid of the God who asked his friend to sacrifice his beloved son as a burnt offering, because I know that there is more to the story. Even when the things God asks us to do don’t make sense, even when He demands those things we hold most dear, even when we are tempted to ask with the rest of the world, “Where was God?” I know that there is more. I know that God is good, I know that He loves His people, and I know that He can work good out of seemingly hopeless situations.

I also know that when God’s children willingly offer Him the sacrifices He demands, He offers them an amazing gift: He reveals Himself to them and to those around them. Scholars have suggested that the story of Abraham and Isaac offers a foreshadowing of God’s sacrifice of His son Jesus. It is perhaps for this reason that the story of Abraham’s faith is particularly encouraging to Christians. Additionally, Abraham certainly knew his Friend’s heart more intimately as a result of this story. He had tasted the pain that God would feel as he looked down on the cross so he could understand his Friend in a new way. Surely Abraham also had a better understanding of the abundance of God’s merciful provision. Perhaps he even began to comprehend the idea that there could be a substitute who took on Himself the weight of human sins.

Our own sacrifices can teach us similar lessons about God’s unfathomable love, his deep mercy and His great sacrifice. Therefore, as we journey through Lent, a time of penance and sacrifice, I pray that we will reflect on all of the things that God has asked us to give up for His sake (the little things, the monumental things, and all things in between) and that God will reveal Himself to us so that we can become better friends to God.

 

Forgiveness

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I am amazed by forgiveness. When I witness a person forgiving someone who has hurt them, I see a picture of God’s mercy towards me and I am filled with a sense of wonder. My understanding of forgiveness has been shaped by two of my favorite stories, one from the life of one of God’s mighty women and one from the Bible.

The first is the story of Corrie ten Boom. Corrie’s family helped to hide several Jews during the Holocaust. When they were discovered, Corrie, her sister and her elderly father were arrested. Corrie was the only one who survived imprisonment and was eventually freed due to a “clerical error”. After the war, she traveled around the world to give presentations about how God was with her throughout her trials. After one of her talks, a man approached her and reached out to shake her hand. Corrie recognized him as a former S.S. guard who had been cruel to her and her surging anger toward him made it impossible to take his outstretched hand. However, Corrie prayed “Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness,” then she reached out and grabbed his hand. As she did, she was overwhelmed with love for the prison guard and realized that her ability to forgive did not come from herself but from God. ***

The second story is found in Genesis 37-50.  It details the life of Joseph, a young man whose experiences could be made into a TV show that would rival Borgia, Vikings and Medici. Briefly summarized, Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, spent years in jail, and eventually became an Egyptian ruler whose power was surpassed only by the Pharaoh. He used his political clout to store food for a coming drought and, in doing so, sustained Egypt and its neighboring countries throughout a lengthy famine. During the drought, Joseph’s family ran out of food and his brothers traveled to Egypt in search of grain. They were ultimately reunited with Joseph and when they apologized to Joseph for selling him into slavery, Joseph expressed his forgiveness and explained that he could forgive them because “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good.”

Over the past year, God has been imprinting the message of these beloved stories on my heart. In 2016, I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that resulted from traumatic events that occurred when my first engagement to be married ended. As I wrestled with the intense fears that accompanied this diagnosis and impacted my daily life, my anger at the family that had caused my trauma resurfaced. While I was incredibly grateful that I did not marry the man I was previously engaged to, I found myself having difficulty forgiving him and his family for the ways that they had introduced terror into my life. I knew that I needed to forgive them, but I didn’t know how I could do it while I was continuing to suffer from the emotional ramifications of their actions.

Remembering what Corrie ten Boom did when she could not forgive, I asked God to give me the mercy that I needed to truly forgive this family. What I did not know was that, as I prayed, God was answering my prayers through a little baby that He was forming inside of me. Without taking a single breath, that little girl would deliver the forgiveness that I had been praying for.

Throughout my pregnancy, I battled my unforgiving heart. Then, suddenly my baby died and with her death I was thrust into a grief that was deeper than any pain I could have imagined. During the first few weeks after her death, the pain was so deep that I felt as if my chest had been cut open and my life was bleeding out of me. In those initial days, there were nights when I lay on me bed clutching my heart which literally felt like it was being ground in a garbage disposal. The physical and emotional pain was so deep that I often thought I would not survive it, that I would drown in it. In fact, I might have been lost in my grief of a thought hadn’t broken through my tears and shined hope into my darkest moments: I have survived grief before. While the grief of losing my fiancé was far less painful than that of losing my child, it was an experience of real loss and God had helped me to overcome it. I knew that He could do it again.

Through the loss of my first engagement, I had learned that the pain of grief comes in surges, like tidal waves, so when I felt like I was drowning in grief for my daughter, I knew that I would be okay if I just held on until the pain subsided. That earlier loss had taught me that grief would change me and that rather than fight that change, I should embrace it because the person who God was making me to be was even better than the person I was before my loss. I had also learned that God’s plan for me was good, even when it hurt, and that He has hidden blessings in the midst of my suffering. I had learned to embrace my grief rather than to fight it, to seek comfort from God and from those around me, and to choose abundant life in the midst of my trials. When my daughter died, I depended on these lessons that I had learned through the end of my engagement as if they were a life vest and, through this dependence, I began to see God’s amazing work in my life: the very events that has resulted in me developing PTSD also taught me critical lessons that I would cling to during the hardest trial of my life. God had turned one family’s attempts to harm and traumatize me into an incredible, life-sustaining gift.

This realization freed me to forgive the family that I was first engaged to marry into. In fact, I found myself echoing Joseph’s words in Genesis 50: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good.” Corrie ten Boom and Joseph could forgive because of what God had done in their lives and I discovered that I could, too because the truth is that God is at work redeeming everything that happens in our lives. Whether we are lucky enough to see what God is doing to bring good out of our pain or not, we can choose to believe that He will do it and that frees us to forgive.

***The information about Corrie ten Boom and her meeting with the S.S. guard is taken from her book The Hiding Place. If you haven’t read this book, I definitely recommend it! During college, I was blessed with the opportunity to tour the ten Boom house and to gaze into the hiding place where they hid their Jewish guests. The picture at the beginning of the post is of a wall that was cut away to reveal the ten Boom hiding place. It is amazing to see the ordinary people and places that God works through in extraordinary ways!

Parenting The One That Is Still Here

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Parents of bereaved siblings face the monumental task of parenting living children while living with their own grief. Such parenting can seem impossible to grieving parents. In fact, Katherine Donnelly wrote that “Parents who are bleeding emotionally are often unable to help the surviving children during the first months and even years.” However, parents’ ability to overcome their own pain and care for their living children is critical to the well-being of surviving siblings. Child grief specialists have noted that bereaved siblings are at an increased risk of developing pathology if their parents do not effectively recover from their loss. This negative impact of parental grief on living siblings can last long after their sibling dies and can even be passed on to future generations. For this reason, bereaved parents must find a way to navigate their loss so that they can care for their children.

Jennifer Hubbard, whose daughter was killed in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, reflected on the difficult task of raising her living son when she wrote “Some days my heart hurts so intensely my only desire is to pull the covers high…” However, she then reminded bereaved parents of the incredible gift and responsibility that they have been given: “God placed children in my life with the instruction, ‘Train a boy in the way he should go,’ and promises, ‘even when he is old, he will not swerve from it.’” Each of us has been given the opportunity to overcome our own pain and to care for our children in ways that help them to become the people that God created them to be. To do this, we need to be aware of the ways in which our behaviors can impact our children’s development.

Krell and Rabkin suggested that there are three types of bereaved siblings: haunted children, bound children, and resurrected children. I would like to propose that there are two additional types of surviving siblings. I propose the first, neglected children, based on my understanding of the impact of parental depression on child development. I propose the second, fortified children, because I believe that the loss of a sibling does not have to be damaging to children and can, in fact, be an opportunity to grow. Each of the five “sibling types” are heavily influenced by parenting styles and communication patterns within the family. Thus, by being aware of our parenting tendencies and being careful about the ways in which we approach our living children, we can have a significant impact on their development.

The first type of bereaved sibling is the haunted child. According to Krell and Rabkin, haunted children are raised in families where there is very little communication about the loss, where parents are secretive about what happened and about their emotions, and where children feel unable to discuss and process their loss with trusted adults. Children who are raised in this environment can have trouble working through their grief and, therefore, are at risk of several psychological problems including depression, anxiety, and relationship difficulties. At times, these problems can ultimately impact surviving siblings’ own parenting styles and family communication patterns, which can lead to issues that are passed down from generation to generation. If you are curious about the intergenerational transmission of pathology, I would suggest that you read “Ghosts in the Nursery” by Selma Fraiberg, Edna Adelson, and Vivian Shapiro. “Ghosts in the Nursery” is an old but classic article about the intergenerational transmission of violence within the family and can be found at http://mhfamilypsychology.com/docs/Ghosts%20in%20the%20nursery%20paper%20copy.pdf. While not directly related to sibling loss, “Ghosts in the Nursery” offers a fascinating look at how our mental health shapes our children and our children’s children.

The second type of bereaved sibling is the bound child. According to Krell and Rabkin, bound children cannot reach their full potential because their parents are unable to overcome their fear of losing another child and, consequently, become too protective. However, I would also like to suggest that sometimes parents of bereaved siblings over-parent because focusing on their living children spares them from having to focus on their own pain. Whatever reason a parent may have for being too protective of their children, bound children are at risk of developing anxiety themselves and miss out on many of great things in life. I must admit, I constantly fight against doing things that could make my living daughter become a bound child because my instinct tends to be something like: “I lost one kid already, let’s just wrap this remaining one in bubble-wrap, keep her in the house, and feed her a research supported, perfectly balanced, and well pasteurized liquid diet for the rest of her life.” Needless to say, I depend heavily upon my husband, family and the parents of my daughter’s playmates around me to determine what are “reasonable risks” for my family.

The third type of bereaved sibling is the resurrected child. As nice as the name “resurrected child” sounds, the life of resurrected children is anything but nice. The parents of resurrected children consciously or unconsciously view them as replacements for the baby that died or wish that they would be replacements for the baby. It is easy to see how parents could view siblings who are born after the death of an infant as replacements; however, it is a little harder to understand how parents can expect older siblings to replace infants. In this case, the wish for a replacement child is often communicated to surviving siblings more subtly through comments like, “the baby was so laid back” or “she was perfect” which the siblings interpret as being in contrast with themselves. In this way, parents may, without realizing it, challenge surviving siblings to compete with their dead siblings over traits that they have attributed to their lost child. This can breed resentment, stress and feelings of inferiority in surviving siblings.

The fourth type of bereaved sibling is the neglected child. Neglected children have parents who are so overwhelmed by their own grief that they withdraw from their living children and are unable to adequately care for them. Their parents’ grief is so lasting and intense that it crosses the line into depression. Depressed parents may be physically or emotionally unavailable to their living children and this can have a lasting impact on children. For example, children of depressed parents are more likely to have behavior problems, difficulty managing their emotions, anxiety, depression, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and learning challenges.

The fifth type of bereaved sibling is the fortified child. Fortified children have parents who can overcome their own responses to loss and who help their children to grow through the loss of their sibling. These children become emotionally stronger, more sensitive to the needs of others, and reflect the image of God through their grief. Parents of fortified children encourage open and honest communication about the baby’s death and about their own losses. They rely on God to keep their children safe and allow their children the freedom to become the people that God created them to be. They cherish and value the unique way that God designed their children and they cope with their own pain in a way that frees them to be responsive parents. Parents of fortified children put themselves second and their children first. This is difficult because their children need them to simultaneously take care of themselves and to remain healthy, which means that parents may need to receive emotional support elsewhere; however, they recognize that they cannot receive this emotional support from their children. Instead, these parents chose to help their children to heal, even when the way that their children heal causes them pain. For example, bereaved children often incorporate themes of death into their imaginative play. This is healthy for them because it helps them to understand their loss and to gain a sense of mastery over it. Parents of fortified children can find it painful and emotionally draining to be repeatedly engaged in games that involve the death of a baby or child; however, they recognize that their children’s play is important “work” and they are able to put their own feelings aside so that they can walk with their children through their pain. My husband and I encountered another example at Halloween when our daughter knocked on our neighbor’s door, smiled adorably and declared “Trick or Treat! My baby died. Can I take two?” While our first response was to tell our daughter not to talk about the baby’s death with strangers, we realized that doing so would alleviate our own discomfort, but would also impair her growing ability to talk about her loss. Instead, we helped her to think about how confusing it would be for someone to be greeted with “Trick or Treat! My baby died,” and how they might feel a little bit manipulated into giving her two candies because they felt badly for her. As a result of this conversation, our daughter has not horrified countless strangers, but has instead started many unexpected and meaningful conversations with other people who have come into our lives. In short, the parents of fortified children must learn to be pelican parents – parents who will pierce their own breasts with their beaks to feed their young.

I do not think that there is really any question about which type of sibling you want your children to be, but how can you be a pelican parent in the midst of your own earth shaking grief? Only by entrusting yourself to your own pelican parent: Jesus. You must feast your heart on reminders of His sacrifice for you, rely on Him for the strength to be the parent He has created you to be, and let Him heal your pain and provide you with sustaining grace. You will have to turn your pain over to Him and ask Him to give you the wisdom to know when you need to seek additional help for yourself. You will also have to trust that God will grow your children to be the people that He has created them to be, because the truth is that you will never be a perfect parent for them, but He will be. With the realization of your own Father’s love for you and with the knowledge that He is ultimately guiding your living children, you can embrace the challenge that is before you and train your children in the way they should go.

 

References

Canadian Pediatric Society. “Maternal Depression and Child Development,” Pediatric & Child Health, vol. 9, issue. 8, Oct. 2004.

Donnelly, K.F. Recovering From the Loss of a Sibling. Dodd, Mead & Company, NY, 1988.

Fraiberg, S., Adelson, E., & Shapiro, V. “Ghosts in the Nursery,” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, vol. 14, issue 3, p. 387-421, Summer 1975.

Hubbard, J. “The Presentation of the Lord.” Magnificat, NY, vol. 18, number 12, Feb. 2017.

Rosen, H. Unspoken Grief – Coping With Childhood Sibling Loss. Lexington Books, MA, 1987.

Helping Children to Heal Through Rituals FAQ

rituals

Whether your family has encountered death before, or not, the death of an infant offers many unique opportunities for celebrating a brief but beloved life. It also raises numerous questions about how to involve older siblings in the rituals that surround death so that they are healed and not hurt. For parents, these questions about how to involve your children in the traditions of death begin the moment the baby dies and continue long after the funeral is over. It is my hope that the information, suggestions, and personal experiences that I provide here may assist you as you determine the ways in which your living children should honor their baby brother or sister.

  1. Should my living children see the baby’s body?

This is a very personal decision that is based on the situation. While some children find it helpful to see and spend time with their little sibling’s body, many parents choose not to involve their children in this way. I would encourage parents who face this question to consider several things including the development of the living siblings, the siblings’ ability to communicate effectively, the physical condition of the baby and how the siblings will likely respond to it, the setting of the death or delivery, your emotional state as parents during the brief time you have with your baby’s body, and whether or not the death was expected so that you could prepare the siblings for what the baby would look like.

Our family decided not to have our daughter “meet” her sister. We determined that by the time our daughter would be able to arrive at the hospital and we would be emotionally composed enough to focus on our living daughter, our baby’s body would be very discolored and we did not want our daughter to carry that image of her sister in her memory. However, we took lots of pictures and had some pictures taken of the baby. We then made a black-and-white album with the pictures that are not visibly discolored and do not show our incredible sadness. We are planning to make another album with the remaining pictures that our daughter can chose to see when she is much older.

  1. How should I talk with my children about the baby’s death?

As much as we would like to shield our children from death, it is important to be open and honest with them about what happened to their little sibling. Your openness with your children can help them to communicate their thoughts and feelings with you, now and throughout their lives. This is very important because it fosters a close relationship with you. It also allows your children to process the loss of their sibling and to integrate that loss into their understanding of their personal histories. On the flip side, if children are not able to talk about their grief, then they can have difficulty accepting the reality of their loss and this can cause ongoing challenges. It can also impact their ability to communicate freely with you about future events in their lives. Sadly, a study of adults who lost siblings during their childhood years has found that 76% felt that they were not able to talk about their feelings when their sibling died. No one wants their children to suffer alone, so it is critical that a pattern of open communication is established soon after the baby’s death.

In order to establish easy communication with your children, you will need to be proactive about discussing the death with them. It is important that you use age appropriate and direct language because children can easily misunderstand some of the euphemisms and metaphors we use about death. For example, try to avoid saying that you “lost” the baby or that the baby is “gone.” As harsh as it may seem to you, your children will comprehend the death better if you use the words “dead,” “death” and “died” openly. It is also important to constantly wonder “How are they hearing this?” so that you can avoid some of the misunderstandings that children frequently have. For example, some children who were told that “God just needed another angel and took the baby to Heaven,” have reported that they began acting badly so that God would not take them to be an angel, too. Others have stated that they were afraid to leave their mother’s side because she might “lose” them, too.

Most importantly, as Christians, we need to make sure that the messages that our children are hearing about their sibling’s death help them to understand the realities of life, death, sin and Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation. We need to cling to the hope of that salvation and allow it to be conveyed to our children through our grief. One way to do this is to emphasize the idea that Jesus is more powerful than death by reading about Christ’s Passion and the stories of Jairus’ Daughter and Lazarus. You can also use picture books about death and the stories of the Saints to help your children to understand about Heaven and God’s eternal plan for His people. I have found that it is important to preview picture books before reading them to my daughter because some of them contain beliefs that we do not agree with. We have some favorite books that we mostly agreed with but I crossed-off and rewrote the passages that were not consistent with our beliefs. That way if other family members read the book to my daughter, I knew that she was hearing the words that I wanted her to hear.

  1. What if my children see me crying?

If your children see you crying, then you are giving them a great gift! As hard as it may be to believe, showing them that it is okay to express their emotions, that you are being open and genuine with them, and that you loved their brother or sister enough to grieve is good for them. Of course, you need to be sensitive to their response to your tears and you may need to reassure them that you are “okay, just sad,” but since children learn from example, you want to be a model of healthy grieving and healthy grief requires the expression of emotions. That being said, while there is no time limit on grief, healthy grievers begin to experience more breaks in their sadness as time goes on. If you find that you are constantly sad or that your mood is not improving over time, you may be depressed and having depressed parents can cause problems for children. If you are concerned that you may be depressed, the best thing you can do for yourself and your children is to talk to a medical provider about how to cope with your feelings of sadness.

  1. Should we bring our children to the funeral/memorial Mass?

Perspectives on this have changed drastically over the past several generations, which may mean that, before the funeral, you need to have discussions about your decision with older relatives who might feel that it is inappropriate for children to attend funerals. However, our current understanding of child grief suggests that funerals can be a healing ceremony for children because they help children to understand death and to express their emotions in a socially supportive context. Some child grief specialists suggest that children over the age of four or five are capable of choosing whether or not they attend their sibling’s funeral, however, many parents choose to bring much younger siblings to their baby’s funeral.

In our case, we talked with our three-year-old daughter about what would happen at the funeral and let her decide whether or not she came. She knew that there would be an adult who she knew well who would take her to a different part of the church to play if she chose to leave. Once she knew that she could leave if she wanted to, our daughter decided to attend the funeral and she ended up staying with us for the entire time. In order to include her in the service, we asked that one of the hymns be “Jesus Loves Me,” we tried to explain what was happening to her, and we passed out flowers to put on the baby’s coffin. My extended family also made sure that she had plenty of food that she could eat during the reception and my cousins made sure that she received a lot of attention.

If, like us, you decide that your living children will attend the baby’s funeral, therapists who specialize in child grief suggest that you talk with your child about the details of what to expect. This should include specifics about the coffin, burial, prayers, number of people attending, and behavioral expectations. You should also let your children know that people will cry at the funeral and that this is okay.

  1. What can I do to help my children go back to their daycare, school or other activities?

It can be helpful to make sure that anyone who works with your children know about your baby’s death. You never know when your children might mention the death and it can help for teachers to have a heads-up. We left messages for all of our daughter’s teachers before she returned to her usual activities so that they knew what had happened and could be prepared to respond to anything our daughter might say. While I do not think that any of her teachers ended up talking with her about her sister’s death, they all made sure to welcome her back to class and they gave her some extra support and attention as she got back into her routine.

  1. Should my children keep things to remind them of the baby?

Children and their parents can sometimes have different needs when it comes to keeping memorials of their baby. Some parents find it helpful to have physical reminders of their baby, others do not. Children, however, generally process their grief best when they can keep a physical reminder of their little sibling. This can be something that they take from the baby’s room, an ultrasound picture, a piece of clothing the baby wore, something the children make to remember the baby, or even a special piece of jewelry that was given to them as a reminder of their baby. You might need to work with your children to help them to understand how special this reminder is and how they can take care of their memorial object. You might also need to talk with them about where to keep their object so that it will be helpful to them without being painful for other family members to see.

  1. Should my children come with me to visit the baby’s grave?

In the same way that most children can decide whether to attend the funeral, many children can choose whether they want to visit their little sibling’s grave. You might find that sometimes your children want to go with you and other times they do not – that’s okay. Remember, your baby is not there so it is alright to avoid visiting the grave and visits should only be made if they are beneficial for the visitor. Also, you should not be surprised if the amount of time that your children want to spend at the grave is shorter than the time you want to spend there. Consequently, if you do bring your children to the cemetery with you, might need to return by yourself later so that you can spend more time there alone. You want your children to associate remembering their sibling with pleasant memories, so you don’t want to force them to stay at the grave for longer than they want to.

Standing by the grave can be boring for young children. To help our daughter to actively remember her sister when we visit her grave, we try to bring flower arrangements that she has chosen or that she has made. While we are at the grave, we also pray. In addition to our own prayers, we have found that it is helpful to pray a short prayer that is intended for cemetery visits, like the following from http://www.acc-seattle.com/resources/visits.htm: “Praise be to God our Father, who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.  Blessed be God for ever. We gather today to pray for our baby whose body lies here in rest. Our baby is purified now of all faults. We pray that God may welcome our baby among all the saints of heaven. Amen.” I have found that having a pre-written prayer helps our living daughter to know how she can honor her baby sister in a setting that is unfamiliar to her. It also helps me to feel like we have spent some time really focusing on God and our baby so that, even if the visit is short, it is meaningful and precious.

  1. Are there special days that we can use to help our children remember their little sibling?

Absolutely! Many families have special traditions that they keep on the anniversary of their baby’s birth and death. These can range from having a cake to donating to a charity in the baby’s name. Some families have similar traditions on the Saint day of the Saint their baby was named after.

In addition to remembering their little sibling these more personal days, the Catholic Church also offers several opportunities to celebrate and remember the dead throughout the liturgical year. Remembering your baby at Christmas and Easter can be a wonderful way to show your children how precious and relevant Jesus’s gift of salvation is. In addition to these major holidays, we also like to celebrate the Saints Days of Saints who were bereaved siblings. Learning about the lives of these Saints provides children with a sense of hope and connection to others who have suffered a similar loss. As a parent, these days also offer a reminder to ask these Saints to pray for my daughter to overcome and grow through the loss of her sister. I am sure that there are many bereaved siblings who have become Saints that we have yet to discover, but so far, we have learned about the following Saints who lost siblings: St. Bernadette Soubirous (Saints Day April 16th), St. Catherine of Siena (Saints Day April 29th), St. Kateri Tekakwitha (Saints Day July 14th), St. Therese of Lisieux (Saints Day October 1st), St. John Paul II (Saints Day October 22nd), and St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (Saints Day November 13th).

Finally, the month of November is a special time in the Catholic Church that is set aside for remembering the dead. At the beginning of the month, All Souls Day and All Saints Day provide opportunities to pray for and to remember the dead. I have found that these are good days to visit the baby’s grave and to pray special prayers that are intended for these days. Throughout the month, churches hold memorial Masses for the dead. In addition to these memorial Masses, churches set up books for parishioners to record the names of loved ones who have died. During Masses during the month of November, the church remembers and prays for those written in this book. Explaining this ritual to your children and offering to have them accompany you as you write your baby’s name in the book can provide them with a physical act of remembrance that is affirmed by the church community.

 

REFERENCES

Catholic Online, “St. Frances Xavier Cabrini.” http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=278

Donnelly, Katherine Fair. Recovering From the Loss of a Sibling. Dodd, Mead & Company, NY, 1988.

Miller, Don, OFM. “Saint Kateri Tekakwitha.” https://www.franciscanmedia.org/saint-kateri-tekakwitha/

Rosen, Helen. Unspoken Grief-Coping with Childhood Sibling Loss. Lexington Books, MA, 1987.

St. Bernadette Soubirous, “My Name Is Bernadette.” http://www.ewtn.com/library/mary/bernlife.htm

Saint John Paul II National Shrine, “John Paul II.” http://www.jp2shrine.org/en/bio/index.html

The Forgotten Grievers

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When a baby dies, the community naturally rallies around the grieving parents. In the face of such overwhelming parental sorrow, it is easy to overlook the baby’s more quietly suffering siblings. For this reason, bereaved siblings have been called “the forgotten grievers.” As the parents and caregivers of these children, it is important that we do not forget them and their grief. Instead, we need to do everything we can to understand their unique experiences of loss. Our children face a vast range of emotions in the face of their sibling’s death. If we listen to their words, carefully observe their behaviors, and are sensitive to their needs, we can begin to understand their feelings and help guide them through this tumultuous time. In my experience, the following seven emotions are the most common feelings that surviving siblings encounter.

  1. Sadness

One of the most frequently acknowledged emotions after a death is sadness. Just like adults, surviving children often feel sad when they are reminded of their baby sibling. Reminders may come in the form of other babies, activities that children had anticipated doing with their baby, or conversations about their baby. Sometimes, children can tell us that they are sad, but at other times, they are not be able to recognize or label their sadness. At these times, their behaviors can offer us clues that they are feeling sad. For example, they might be unusually quiet, withdrawn, agitated, or aggressive. They might also be tearful or have difficulty focusing. It can be helpful to ask them direct questions about their feelings such as, “I see that you are very quiet. Are you feeling sad? What are you sad about?” Helping our children to identify their emotions with words can provide them with a sense of control over their feelings while simultaneously acknowledging their pain and conveying our concern for them. Our sorrowful children can also benefit from a hug, kind words, and a simple comment like “I’m sad about the baby, too.” Often, having someone acknowledge their pain will help our children to start feeling better since, unlike adults and older children, young children tend to experience sudden bursts of intense sadness that are rapidly followed by feelings of happiness and energetic play. Roller-coaster emotions are normal for grieving children and, if your children do not experience some periods of positive emotions, it might be helpful to speak with a pediatrician about the possibility of grief counseling. It might also be a good idea to seek professional help if your children are saying or doing things that indicate a decrease in their self-esteem, loss of interest in preferred activities, or sadness that is not directly related to the loss.

In addition to being sorrowful about losing their brother or sister, bereaved siblings also experience sadness about the (generally temporary) loss of their previously attentive, happy parents. During the early phases of grief, it is common to feel overwhelmed and unable to be as present to your children as you usually are. You might feel detached, distracted, or extremely fatigued which can make interactions with your children challenging. For example, in the days after my own loss, I frequently stared, uncomprehending, at my frustrated daughter as she repeated the same simple words over-and-over again. Because of this change in your emotional availability, it is particularly important for you to have times when you deliberately set aside your grief and focus your attention on your surviving children. Similarly, as much as you might not want to, I encourage you to push yourself to share normal and fun activities with your children as soon as possible. During periods when physical activity must be limited, you can cuddle while reading, watch movies together, or playing board games. When you are physically feeling better, you can prioritize day trips, seasonal activities, visiting friends, traveling, and museum visits. These activities help to reintroduce fun into your family life and provide you with conversation topics that are not related to your loss.

  1. Anger

Another emotion that bereaved siblings often face is anger. Your children might be angry at the baby for dying, angry with you for not being yourself, angry at God, or even angry at themselves. Sometimes, this anger is a normal response to loss. However, sometimes, anger can be fueled by misunderstandings about the events that led to the baby’s death. For example, our oldest daughter believed that her sister had died because of the whooping cough vaccine I received shortly before her birth. She knew that her sister could not breath when she was born and that whooping cough makes it hard to breath, so she assumed that the two things were connected. Thus, she was angry with us and with the doctors for hurting the baby. Fortunately, because we frequently talked with her about how she was feeling, we discovered her misunderstanding and then helped to correct it.

Don’t be surprised if your children filter their anger into troublesome behaviors. If this happens, it is important that you maintain your usual rules and expectations for behavior while remaining sensitive to the emotions that are causing the challenging behaviors. Children find comfort in knowing that there are boundaries for their behaviors and that you are in control. While it might take every bit of energy you have, not allowing them to hurt themselves, break things, yell, or be disrespectful, is normal and healthy even when they are grieving. It can be helpful to reassure your children that it is okay to be angry and that they can talk with you and with God about their anger, but cannot make bad choices like hitting, yelling, or breaking things. You can also give your child ideas about what they can do instead (draw, run, pray, talk). Finally, if you are like me, you will probably respond to your children’s angry behaviors with your own anger. Like your children, you might find yourself behaving in ways that you should not. If this happens, I encourage you to talk with your children about your mistakes, tell them that you are sorry, and ask for their forgiveness. Apologizing to your children provides you with an opportunity to heal your relationships with them while simultaneously teaching them about grace, repentance and forgiveness.

  1. Fear and anxiety

In addition to the sadness and anger that many bereaved children experience, many siblings become more anxious and worried. Your children might be concerned about their own safety or about your health and well-being. This makes sense, because their baby’s death has made their world seem suddenly unpredictable to them. From your children’s perspectives, there are countless unexpected and confusing changes that happen when a baby dies: you went to the hospital to have the baby and came home without one, you used to be patient and are suddenly quick to lose your temper, your daily routines are disrupted and, your family might even move to a new house to escape painful memories. Each of these changes threatens your children’s sense of security and can be stressful to them. Additionally, your children might realize that, if the baby died, other loved ones could also die. This can exacerbate fears of death. If the baby’s death was unexpected, the idea that death could come without warning can be especially troubling to your young siblings. Being patient, honest, and sensitive to your children’s fears while offering accurate reassurance can do a great deal to alleviate their stress and to help your children to overcome their anxieties.  It can also be helpful to pray with your children about their fears and to remind them that God is big enough to take care of all of their worries. In our house, we like to sing the VeggieTales song “God is Bigger than the Boogie Man” to remind us that God will keep us safe.

Anxiety and fear can impact children’s behaviors in several ways. If your children are fearful about your safety, they might be reluctant to separate from you. Alternatively, your children might be fearful at night, have nightmares, or have trouble falling asleep. Children might also complain about experiencing physical pain or feeling sick. In fact, it is not unusual for siblings to experience physical symptoms related to the way that their sibling died. This was true for our oldest daughter who experienced two asthma attacks in the weeks following her sister’s death. Other signs that children are experiencing anxiety include having difficulty doing things that they usually do well, struggling with constipation, or having uncharacteristic toileting accidents.

  1. Guilt

In a survey of adult survivors of sibling loss, fifty percent reported feeling guilty about their sibling’s death. They noted that they experienced guilt about surviving, being healthy, feeling angry, experiencing happiness, and having fun. Some children even feel guilty because they enjoy the extra attention that they received because of the baby’s death. Additionally, many children think that they were “too rough” with their mothers or that they were “naughty” so God punished them by taking their baby away. Also, because young children often believe that the very act of thinking something can cause it to happen, they might believe that any anger they felt about the baby caused the baby to die. While it is hard for adults to understand how children can believe such things, it is important to remember that children have a limited understanding of how things work and many things seem “magical” to them. Additionally, Dr. Richard Gardiner has suggested that feeling responsible for their sibling’s death might help children to feel like they have some control in a world that suddenly feels out of control to them. In other words, it might be easier for children to feel guilty about their sibling’s death than it is to feel like they have no control over the chaotic world around them.

Young children may demonstrate their feelings of guilt in surprising ways. While some children will verbalize their feelings openly, others may not be able to do this. Instead, they might act out so that they will be punished in the way that they believe they should be. If you find that your children are seeking punishment, it might be worth asking them if they feel badly about something or feel like the baby’s death was their fault. It is also important to reassure your child of several things. First, reinforce that the loss and your sadness is not their fault. Second, remind them that God made them and that they are good (even when they do naughty things). Finally, tell them that you love them, that they are precious to you, and that you are glad that they are still with you on earth. With time and reassurance, punishment seeking behaviors and feelings of guilt should lessen. If they do not, you might want to consider seeking professional help for your children since excessive guilt can be a sign of depression.

  1. Love

While the emotions that we have discussed so far have been painful, children who have siblings that die also experience pleasant feelings about their baby and their loss. At first glance, positive emotions may seem out of place in grief, but we are not meant to “grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).” Instead, since we believe that our babies are in Heaven, we also believe that our children are still their big brothers and sisters. This means that the love that they felt for their little sibling during their mother’s pregnancy can continue and be a blessing in their lives. The other day, my oldest and I were talking about Heaven and she said that she was excited to meet Noemi there someday. I asked her what she would say to Noemi when she saw her and, without hesitation, she replied, “I love you!” At other times, she has asked me to pray with her that God would tell Noemi how much she loves her and that she is looking forward to holding her. These moments are precious reminders that, thanks to Jesus, the bond between two sisters cannot be destroyed by death.

  1. Gratitude

How often have you read the commands to Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)” and thought of your children? If you are like me, not often enough! While I have heard these as commands directed at myself, I have never really thought of them as commands that are meant for my daughter; however, it is just as important for my oldest to “give thanks in all circumstances” as it is for me. Thankfully, God did not wait around for me to get with the program and foster gratitude in my daughter. Instead, He has given her gratitude for her family, for our health, and even for her baby sister. In fact, she recently said, “Mommy, we are really lucky because not everyone gets to have a baby in Heaven.” The truth is, we are really lucky! God gave us a little life, a little person who reflects His image, and while we still haven’t met her, we know that someday we will. That is truly something to be grateful for!

  1. Hope

When children who have lost a sibling have been taught about Jesus’ salvation, when they know about Heaven, and when they believe in God’s plan for His people, they experience incredible hope. My oldest daughter is a happy, enthusiastic four-year-old, but she often says that she wishes that she was already in Heaven and I must remind her that God still has plans for us on earth. Sometimes it feels like she is on an extended layover on earth and is enjoying her time mulling around the terminal but will pick up and run to the departure gate as soon as the announcement is made that the plane to her final destination is boarding. Her sister’s death has caused her to think deeply about Heaven and, in her child’s faith, she knows that the place where Jesus is and where there are no boo-boos is a much better place than this world that she lives in. If I am honest, this restlessness for her true home is exactly what I want for her. As I am reminded in Jim Reeves’ song, “This world is not my home I’m just a passing through, my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue. The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.” I am so very glad that my oldest daughter knows not to get too comfortable here because there is so much more to come!

 

References

American Psychological Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). American Psychiatric Publishing, Washington, DC, 2013.

Donnelly, Katherine Fair. Recovering From the Loss of a Sibling. Dodd, Mead & Company, NY, 1988.

Merrell, Kenneth, W. Helping Students Overcome Depression and Anxiety – A Practical Guide. The Guilford Press, NY, 2008.

Rosen, Helen. Unspoken Grief – Coping with Childhood Sibling Loss. Lexington Books, Lexington, MA, 1987.

 

An Unexpected Blessing

lotus

When my daughter died, I gained multiple new identities in a single moment: grieving mother, grieving wife, and mother of a grieving child. I was extremely concerned about how I would be able to help my daughter to navigate her journey of grief. While I would have given anything to keep her from having to experience the pain of this loss, I knew that protecting her was not possible. Just like us, she had spent eight months preparing for her little sister’s birth and, like us, she had grown to love our baby. The cost of that love was grief. A quote from Helen Rosen perfectly explains the situation I faced: “At heart, we prefer to deny that there is any connection between death and our children. Nonetheless, the experience does not allow us to maintain this denial for very long.”  If you, or a caregiver you know, must carry the heavy responsibility of helping a young child through loss, I hope that my words will provide you with comfort and encouragement. We will never be able to spare them from pain, but we can help them to bear it and to grow through it.

It is easy to imagine the ways that children can be “damaged” by loss. This is especially true when we are forced to recognize how different our children’s experiences are from many of their peers. I can’t tell you how many times I have cringed as my daughter nonchalantly brought up the topic of death while playing with her confused playmates and their horrified mothers! However, I want to challenge you to see sibling death as a powerful tool that God can use to shape young souls. Although it might not feel like it, the caregivers of grieving children have an incredible opportunity to help their children to develop a stronger faith in God, build their character, and strengthen their values. When a baby dies, the realities of life and death, God’s sustaining graces, the importance of faith, and the splendor of Heaven all become amazingly relevant to their surviving siblings and this relevance is fertile ground for developing faith.

I have been blessed to witness some of the ways that God has worked through sibling loss. For example, a bereaved father who had lost his son in the Middle East was moved when my daughter comforted him by saying, “Do you know God? Then the good thing is that we will get to see our babies again!” At other times, my daughter has been so concerned about what will happen if one of her loved ones dies without knowing God that she faithfully prays for them before meals and strategizes about how she can help them “to know God.” I’ve read that other surviving siblings find that their grief helped them to become better listeners and to value life more deeply. They understand that life is a gift, not a given, and that it must not be wasted. In fact, a study that was done in the 1980s suggested that children who lost siblings during their childhood grew up to be more willing to pursue “worthwhile goals” and “moral actions.” What amazing things God can work in the lives of our children through their losses!

Sibling loss also provides parents with the opportunity to demonstrate their acceptance of God’s will and their hope for eternity. A woman who I recently met and who has become a prayer warrior and a leader in my church, recalls how she first witnessed faith when her sister died. She remembers watching her grieving father seek God’s comfort at church each evening and his example demonstrated to her an unconditional devotion. Studies suggest that one of the best ways for parents to pass on their faith is to share their own testimony with them. For children who lose a sibling, they walk with their parents during a major part of their parents’ faith journeys and they have the opportunity to witness faith that is unshaken when the world around them is falling apart. Such an awesome way to share faith!

Of course, the idea that grief shapes our children and their relationships with God presupposes that young children can grieve; however, until recently, this was not accepted as a given. This was partly because childhood grief can look very different from adult grief. For example, it can seem more like anger, sulking, or withdrawal. It can come in flashes and melt away again in a moment. It may be manifested in problematic behaviors or regressions in sleep and toilet training. Children’s limited ability to express their emotions makes it even more difficult for adults to identify grief children. However, a researcher by the name of Bowlby was able to identify grief responses in babies as young as six months of age! While psychologists vary widely on when they believe that children can comprehend death (some think children begin to comprehend death at the age of two-and-a-half, others think they don’t really understand until adolescence), it is generally recognized that young children grieve, even if they have not yet developed a realistic understanding of death. Schell & Loder-McGough suggested that the main aspect of grief is the response to separation, regardless of whether or not a person can comprehend the meaning behind that separation. For our children, the loss of their dreams about their sibling results in sorrow.

If we want to help our children to grow through their loss and to assist God in using their grief to strengthen their faith, we need to be very attentive to our children’s emotions, cognizant of situations that may help or hurt our children, and able to navigate our own pain while walking alongside our children. Over the next three weeks, the posts on this site will seek to provide you with encouragement as you carry the heavy load you have been given. On February 10th, the post will examine the range of normal emotions that children feel in response to bereavement, as well as warning signs that they may need additional support. The post on February 17th will focus on handling rituals of loss and remembrance in ways that are sensitive to your child’s needs and facilitate their growth and healing. The final post in this series will address some of the unique challenges of raising a survivor of sibling loss (I am tempted to title this one “Trick or Treat, my baby died, can I take two!” after one of the unexpected challenges we have faced).

In closing, I would like to offer you an image of what I am praying for our children. It is a quote that comes from the most unlikely of places – an exercise book! – but it provides a metaphor for the amazing things that God can do with even the darkest, dirtiest parts of our children’s lives: “The lotus flower has its roots in the mud and stretches up through the water to blossom into a beautiful flower, its petals facing the heavens above.” May God strengthen, and encourage you as He helps you to raise little lotus flowers that turn their faces toward Him!

 

REFERENCES

Complete Guide to Pilates, Yoga, Meditation & Stress Relief. Parragon Publishing, UK.                             2003.

Donnelly, Katherine Fair. Recovering From the Loss of a Sibling. Dodd, Mead & Company, NY.         1988.

Hopler, Whitney. “Twelve Ways to Help Your Kids Develop Faith That Lasts,”                                  Crosswalk.com. 2011. http://www.crosswalk.com/family/parenting/help-your-kids-            develop-faith-that-lasts.html.

Rosen, Helen. Unspoken Grief – Coping with Childhood Sibling Loss. Lexington Books,                          Lexington, MA. 1987.