We just lost our baby. At 22 weeks.
Grief is one of those primordial human emotions, along with shame, that was born in the darkness of sin. Like shame, grief has its positives and negatives. I truly and deeply feel the loss of our child; the pain and emptiness is pervasive and life-altering.
But I must ask myself, why am I grieving? Just as shame can only exist in reference to a true good–that is, the beauty and goodness of the human body–grief can only exist in reference to the beauty and goodness of human life.
I am grieving because death is not supposed to happen. It shouldn’t be this way. I am grieving because my son should be alive. I should be able to hold him and love him and give him all he needs to grow into a beautiful son of God. My grief reminds me of both the wonder of life as created by God and the loss of this precious life, my son. Sadly, the mere knowledge that life is good and beautiful cannot comfort me in my complete devastation.
Tradition says that the Book of Job is the oldest book in the Bible. It is no surprise, then, that it is a work about grief. Job asks but does not give a clear answer to the question of human suffering, particularly in light of all that we know about God. The problem of theodicy, the official term for attempting to explain why a good God permits evil, has enraptured theologians throughout the ages. For me, who until this week has lived a rather fortunate life without any major personal tragedies, the problem of theodicy has now become personal.
Psalm 77, which I prayed over the body of my dead son, asks:
Will the Lord spurn forever
and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love forever ceased?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?
I cried these words more than prayed them, as tears dripped on the screen of my phone. Why has the all-powerful God allowed this to happen? Is he all-powerful? If so, he must not be good. A good God does not will an innocent child to die. Is he good? If so, then he must not be all-powerful. An all-powerful God can make happen whatever it is that he wants. Did he really will my son to die? This is theodicy in a nutshell.
But Psalm 77 continues:
I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your wonders of old.
I will ponder all your work,
and meditate on your mighty deeds.
Your way, O God, is holy.
What god is great like our God?
You are the God who works wonders;
you have made known your might among the peoples.
You with your arm redeemed your people,
the children of Jacob and Joseph.
Our hope is born of remembrance. God has acted in history to redeem mankind. He saved the Israelites from slavery and bore them out of Egypt to the promised land. The Psalmist seems to be saying, “Do not doubt the God that did this for you and your people.” Like Job, the Psalmist does not provide a direct answer to the question of why God would allow my son’s death. Rather, it is a plea for me to trust in him. Even when we feel like spurning God and turning away from him, God’s historical act of redemption, brought to its fullness in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, shines in the darkness.
Do not forget the greatness and goodness of God, our faith teaches us. Sin and the effects of sin never make sense. They are, in a fundamental way, irrational. But when I meditate on the goodness and greatness of God, I can see a way forward from the darkness of grief.
Still, this is not enough. The truth of God’s goodness reveals the path, but I must walk it. Knowledge of God’s historical act raises my eyes toward his light, and I want to go to him, but my grief feels like cement around my feet. Faith in his promise can open up the way, but the content of faith would be meaningless without love. It is love that attracts and impels.
A few years ago, Pope Francis spoke about grief during his Wednesday audience. He said:
For parents, surviving their own children is particularly heartbreaking; it contradicts the fundamental nature of the very relationships that give meaning to the family. The loss of a son or daughter is like time stopping altogether: it opens a chasm that swallows both past and future. Death, which takes away a little child or young person, is a blow to the promises, to the gifts and the sacrifices of love joyfully brought to the life we gave birth to.
I am amazed that our Christian faith goes beyond mere remembering. It does more than just provide information about what to do and what has been accomplished. As Pope Francis has said, our God is a God who himself wept; he experienced, as man, the loss of a loved one. God “weeps with the tears of a father and mother.” Accordingly, Francis suggests that more should be done, as a Church, to grieve with parents through loss, saying,“It is necessary that Pastors and all Christians express in a more concrete way the meaning of the faith in regards to the family experience of grief. We should not deny them the right to weep.”
I am very privileged to live in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, where I believe this task has been faithfully accomplished. Here, they offer this wonderful rite that honors the life that was and to reinvigorate Christian hope in parents.
In faith, we are united to Jesus who himself suffered death, and in his Resurrection bears his family to new life. As Francis reminds us,
God’s work of love is stronger than the work of death. … Let us remember Jesus’ deed: ‘And Jesus gave him back to his mother’, so he will do with all our loved ones and with us when we meet again, when death will be definitively conquered in us. It was conquered by Jesus’ Cross. Jesus will give us all back to the family!
I am still in pain, but what joy there is to be loved by Jesus, united to him in his grief, through faith in his Resurrection.