When Children Die, Where is God?

This week, I was called to see a beautiful 2 month old baby boy I will call “Joseph” who was brought by his grandmother, mother and father to one of my city’s children’s hospitals from a small town hours away.

Joseph was born with a rare genetic condition called Trisomy 13 and needed medical care for a problem. As a nurse who has been active in medical issues involving people with disabilities since having my daughter Karen who had Down Syndrome, I was asked to help the parents oversee Joseph’s care.

Baby Joseph was doing well until an unexpected problem developed and despite heroic efforts to save him, he died early Friday morning. It was so heartbreaking for his family and the rest of us but their love for Joseph was inspiring and they said they were blessed to have had him.

So instead of my usual blog, I would like to reprint an article I was asked to write for Voices magazine in 2012 in honor of baby Joseph and his wonderful family.

When Children Die, Where is God?

On October 18, 2012, we lost our 6-year-old grandson Noah after a long and often brutal battle with a rare autoimmune disease called familial HLH (Hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis). Less than two months later, on December 14, 2012, twenty children around our Noah’s age — along with other victims — were viciously gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School by a disturbed young gunman. While the Sandy Hook tragedy affected the whole country and Noah’s death affected a smaller group of family and friends, I kept hearing the same question: Where is God or does He even exist?

The answer is that God is where He always has been when we grieve and suffer: with us and even carrying us through the roughest times, as the famous “Footprints in the Sand” poem depicts.  But what does that really mean?

Almost forty four years ago, I witnessed my first death of a child as a student nurse. Thirty years ago, my baby daughter Karen who had Down Syndrome died from complications of pneumonia. Three years ago, my oldest daughter Marie died by suicide. And now, there are Noah and the Sandy Hook victims. Personally and professionally as a nurse, I have also been with countless parents and others who have lost loved ones. I would like to share what I discovered as my personal “survival guide” for coping with grief as a Catholic woman. It consists of three decisions I made years ago.

I Choose to Live

All death is hard because it involves loss, but the death of a child seems especially cruel no matter whether the death resulted from violence, accident, or illness. No parent expects to outlive their child. When the supposed “natural order” of life and death is breached, it shakes all of us to the core even when the child is not our own. Especially in today’s secular world, even people of faith can feel lost and helpless.

When a child dies, shock, denial, and even alcohol and drugs can cushion the crushing grief for a while but eventually reality sets in. It is hard to even consider facing years and years of living without that precious person. Life is totally disrupted and even the routine of being at a hospital or bedside feels like a loss. In my case when I lost my daughters, I had to remind myself that my husband, children, and others needed me, but at times even that thought seemed totally overwhelming rather than motivating.

Recently Cesar Millan, the famous “dog whisperer” talked about his suicide attempt after a number of losses and how he learned to cope with bereavement from his experience with dogs. When dogs grieve, he recommends three things: exercise, discipline, and affection. He said he found this also helped him.

Looking back, I found that these three techniques had helped me. Exercise decreased my anxiety and pain. Discipline meant appreciating even the most mundane routines of life or work and embracing the distraction. Hugging my loved ones and friends gave me a renewed sense of connection with the world and even with God.

However, I know that life will still contain many challenges. For example, while Noah’s 2 1/2-year-old brother Eli is free of HLH, we recently discovered that Noah’s unborn baby brother Liam, who is due in April, does have the disease and will also need a bone marrow transplant. We pray that he will achieve the cure that eluded Noah but we face the future with our confidence in God intact. I will never be a cockeyed optimist but I do know that storms can be weathered and that we can be better rather than bitter as a result. (2017: Liam is now a happy, healthy 4 year old,)

I Choose to Be Happy

This is perhaps the hardest decision that I or any other bereaved parent has made but it is crucial. Years ago I was with a young mother who tragically lost her 2-year-old son. We spoke almost daily for a long time. Finally, she told me that she couldn’t see ever getting past her grief. I asked her if she had laughed yet. Embarrassed, she said she was watching a TV comedy show the night before and realized that she thought she heard a sound resembling a laugh come out of her. I told her that any laughter was the beginning of healing. I reassured her that she would laugh again and have moments of pleasure more and more in the future and that she should celebrate those moments rather than feel guilty. Life may never be “normal” in the old sense but life still had the potential to be good, perhaps even great.

From other bereaved parents who helped me, I learned that you don’t have to hold onto the grief to hold onto the love you feel for your child. That beloved child would not want your life to be blighted by his or her death any more than you would want your children to be forever sad after your death. And, in our rich Catholic tradition, we honor Jesus’ mother Mary as Our Mother of Perpetual Help, not Our Mother of Perpetual Mourning.

I now look at working toward happiness and fostering a generally cheerful outlook as a tribute to my daughters and grandson. This doesn’t mean that I am immune from being blindsided by grief and longing when I accidentally hear certain songs, see another person their age, witness another death, etc. Like probably everyone else I still have what my husband kindly refers to as my “moments” when life seems like a long, hard slog. But I continuously strive to foster an attitude of gratitude for what — and especially who — I have left. I don’t want the children’s legacy to be one where their deaths destroyed a family.

There is no set timeline for grief and bereaved parents and other relatives need to be patient with themselves and those around them. I remember the old days in medicine when grieving relatives were immediately offered a tranquilizer. I knew even then that this often just delayed the process instead of helped. There is no “good” or “bad” way of grieving. Everyone has their unique journey although it is not a sign of weakness to ask for or offer professional help when necessary.

I was surprised by the depth of grief I felt for the Sandy Hook victims and their relatives. I found it excruciating to watch the relentless TV coverage of the tragedy but I also found it hard to turn away. However, in watching the story unfold, I was struck by the fact that although I have spoken with many other bereaved parents over the last three decades, I never met a parent who said they wished their beloved child had never been born rather than to have faced the grief the parent endured. Obviously, you can never lose when you truly love and I was so glad that the Sandy Hook parents were surrounded by loving, supportive people in their community and countless other caring people throughout the country who wanted to help.

Pain is an inescapable part of the grief journey, but we may hope that we all can eventually get to the point where it is the life, not the death, of our beloved child that is the most important to us.

I Choose Not to Reject God

I’ll never forget reading about a famous and outwardly successful man who said he gave up on the idea of God when his little sister died. This gentleman wound up with a series of failed marriages and despite his millions of dollars, is bitter and unhappy.

There is no question that faith is often challenged when tragedies like the death of a child happen. But rejecting God means rejecting the greatest source of love and healing that we so desperately need at our worst times.

I eventually realized that I never did and never will have total control over my or anyone else’s life and that this is tolerable because God has a Divine Plan. I’ll never forget the wonderful Visitation nuns who taught us that life is like a tapestry that is large, beautiful, and intricate. However, on this earth we see the tapestry only from the back. We see dark colors, chaos, and loose threads that seem to go nowhere. Nothing in the tapestry appears to make sense, much less beauty. It is only when we die that God turns the tapestry around and we can finally see the amazing result. God doesn’t cause tragedies but rather brings good out of the evil we see.

It was when my Karen was born that I discovered that God is communicating with us all the time. It was then that I started noticing what I call the “miracles of grace” that God seems to send at some of our most heart-searing times. Over the years there have been some great ones: The depressed friend intent on suicide who was saved at the last moment by a smile from Karen. The young person who came back to the Church when Marie died. The many people who have volunteered to become bone marrow donors in honor of Noah and to help others like his little brother Liam.

The big miracles of grace also taught me to look for and appreciate the smaller mercies that comforted me and let me know that God is there: The woman who told me that baby Karen had done more good in her short life than most 80 year-olds. Visits from Marie’s friends who told me wonderful stories about her that I never knew before. Great friends who seemed to call at exactly the right moment when Noah was so sick.

When I was a little girl, I was often irritated by my mother’s admonitions to “offer it up for the poor souls in Purgatory” when I was hurting either physically or emotionally. It took years for me to understand that offering up my pain for such souls or any other good intention for others often acted as a kind of pain reliever and, at the same time, made my pain meaningful in a good way. I also learned that even little acts of kindness performed in memory of a loved one were a great form of honor and gratitude for those lives that are still joined to us in God’s community of love.

Today, I would ask those of you who read this to consider offering up a frustrating situation or performing some small act of kindness in honor of Noah, Karen, Marie, and the Sandy Hook victims.

Those children are now in God’s Hands. The world is still in ours and we can make it better.

“13 Reasons Why”and Why Not

Today, it is hard to keep up with the constant stream of information coming not only from TV and movies but also from the social network. But to understand and hopefully to protect and help our children and others in today’s culture, it is important to keep up with current media and trends as much as possible.

This is why, after reading articles like “13 Reminders About Netflix’s ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’” about a popular Netflix series featuring a high school girl named Hannah who gruesomely kills herself and leaves 13 tapes for the people she blames for her suicide, I decided to watch this often acclaimed  and controversial TV series myself.

After watching several episodes, I recognized some of the factors that made “Pretty in Pink” and “The Breakfast Club” so popular when my children were teenagers. The characters are attractive and bright high school students who wrestle with problems of self-esteem, setbacks, hormones and popularity.  In the end, most of the characters in those older movies were happier and/or wiser.

But the story arc and characters in “13 Reasons Why” are much darker. So far in the episodes I have watched, these teenagers are apathetic about school, seem to have no sense of humor and they dislike or barely tolerate their parents. Their overwhelming self-absorption with real or perceived offenses often leads them to be thoughtlessly cruel even to their friends. The adults in the series fare little better as they struggle with their own anger, sadness and guilt in trying to understand the tragedy.

The main character Hannah sounds almost triumphant in the tapes while chronicling the deficiencies in the people she holds responsible for her suicide. The people hearing the tapes are understandably devastated but revenge seems to be Hannah’s goal.

Even worse, the series’ depiction of Hannah’s descent to suicide, making the tapes and the reactions of her classmates tends to sensationalize suicide with little to no insight about prevention and treatment. The big lesson seems to be that bullying and sexual assault can be life-threatening to vulnerable teens.

Because this deliberately shocking series is so accessible to young people and teen suicides are rising,  many schools are now concerned about this series as are mental health experts  who recognize the phenomenon of suicide contagion.

In response to complaints and concerns from as far away as Canada and New Zealand, Netflix has now issued the following statement:

 There has been a tremendous amount of discussion about our series 13 Reasons Why. While many of our members find the show to be a valuable driver for starting important conversation with their families, we have also heard concern from those who feel the series should carry additional advisories. Currently the episodes that carry graphic content are identified as such and the series overall carries a TV-MA rating. Moving forward, we will add an additional viewer warning card before the first episode as an extra precaution for those about to start the series and have also strengthened the messaging and resource language in the existing cards for episodes that contain graphic subject matter, including the URL 13ReasonsWhy.info  — a global resource center that provides information about professional organizations that support help around the serious matters addressed in the show.

As a nurse who has worked professionally and personally with suicidal people as well as the mother of a daughter who died by suicide, I am glad Netflix is acknowledging at least some of the problems with the series. However, this series and the plight of our young people growing up in an increasingly secularized, materialistic and divided world that rejects God demands more.

We need to give our young people hope and support as they navigate the often rocky road to adulthood. And we also need to show them that the real heroes are those people whose dedication, moral virtues, hard work, selflessness and idealism inspire all of us to make a better world where no one will want to watch the so-called “entertainment” of a “13 Reasons Why”.

 

Just in Time for Christmas-Room at the Inn

In a wonderful, uplifting opinion article titled “Room at the Inn”  in the Wall Street Journal on December 19, William McGurn wrote about  the Good Counsel home in the Bronx , now part of a network of six such homes that offer help to homeless pregnant women.

It all started when Chris Bell, a husband and father himself, went to his parish priest in 1985 complaining that no one was doing anything for homeless pregnant women. The priest replied in effect “Hey, pal, what about you?

With the help of that priest, the first Good Counsel home started shortly thereafter. The home not only provides a safe, warm environment for the mother and baby (and even siblings) until birth but also “lets them stay a year afterward—to finish school, train for a job and learn how to care and provide for their babies.” Mr. Bell takes no government money.

The first Good Counsel home was started in a former convent in Hoboken, New Jersey that was part of the parish where singer Frank Sinatra was baptized. When a news article about the home and its financial struggles was published, Good Counsel home received a surprise check for $10,000 from Mr Sinatra himself.

William McGurn notes that this Christmas, Good Counsel’s women known that there will not be many presents under the tree:

But there will be joy. Because Good Counsel is about life, and hope, and respect. As well as the promise that, with love and hard work, happy endings are still within reach even for those who have made some bad decisions.

And especially at Christmastime, Good Counsel wants that troubled young pregnant woman who thinks she’s all alone to know: There’s always room at this inn

It is often said that the pro-life movement is just an anti-woman political movement to deny  women the “choice” of abortion. Personally, I have found the pro-life movement to be one of the greatest volunteer movements ever, committed to people and principles.

CONCLUSION

Here in St. Louis, we have Our Lady’s  Inn that has long offered the same kind of help as Good Counsel.

Is there a similar kind of place in your area? If so, consider supporting it or volunteering. If you don’t know, check with your church, local Birthright  or Heartbeat International’s Worldwide Directory of Pregnancy Help.

Even a small donation would be a wonderful way to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas!

Caring for Difficult People

As nurses, we have the privilege to get to know and help all kinds of people we might never have had a chance to meet otherwise on a very personal basis. Sometimes we care for them during some of the most stressful times in their lives.

Doctors and nurses are supposed to treat everyone according to the highest medical and ethical standards without regard to race, gender, socioeconomic status, nationality, etc. but, like everyone else, we can find some individuals particularly difficult.

One incident that changed my perspective on caring for difficult people happened many years ago when I was a young nurse.

I used to pride myself on keeping my cool in any tense situation until the day I almost lost it with a difficult patient.

A young man with drug addiction was admitted to our floor and he incessantly and loudly demanded more pain medication from all his doctors and nurses. No one could reason with him.

Then one day, he came up to me and screamed in my face. I couldn’t calm him and, despite my best intentions, I could feel my anger rise and my face turn red.

Suddenly, an unexpected thought flashed through my mind: “This is the face of Jesus!” At that moment, I was looking directly into this young man’s eyes and I felt a wave of empathy.

Although I did not say a word, the young man’s face suddenly changed and he stepped back almost as if he had been struck. He stopped yelling and started talking. In the end, he actually apologized for his behavior and admitted that he needed help. He was never verbally abusive to any of us after that.

I was stunned by this remarkable change and it changed my perspective. As I tell younger nurses now, it is usually easy to care for pleasant people but it is the difficult ones that need us the most and who often can teach us how to really respect every life.

Perhaps there is a lesson here not just for nurses but for everyone in this current climate of anger and division in our society: When we respect and recognize the intrinsic value in every human being, we really do have a chance to achieve a more just and peaceful society.

A Surprise Wedding Present

As most of you know, my daughter Marie died by suicide in 2009. I believe in an all merciful God who loves my daughter even more than I ever could. I trust in Him and I know that my Marie is with Him.

However, I knew that our whole family and especially Marie’s little sister Joy would especially miss her when Joy was planning her wedding this year.

I don’t usually pray for something personal except for help with more wisdom, patience, etc. but  Joy and Marie were especially close and Joy had been Marie’s maid of honor in 2005. The two of them even lived together for the last few months of Marie’s life.

When Joy was younger, the three of us would often talk about Joy’s possible future wedding  and Marie would tease Joy about probably becoming a” bridezilla”. Marie promised that she would personally keep her little sister in line if that happened.

So I knew that there could be a shadow over Joy’s happiness at her wedding and I prayed for a sign that Marie was at peace.

However, I was totally stunned when, the week before Joy’s wedding, a package came from Kentucky with a carefully wrapped, thirty year old letter inside. The package was from  Marie’s older but then close friend Stephanie who had moved away in 1983.

Stephanie wrote that she just happened to find a letter Marie had written to her at age 7 and had to send it to me. The letter was even typewritten! Who knew that Marie could figure out a typewriter?

The letter contained a lot of spelling mistakes but it was hilarious to read Marie’s description of her life at age 7. Marie even wrote down each family member’s age which told us how old she was at the time. (See photo: Marie’s letter at age 7 to Stephanie)

Marie wrote about how her older brother was nice and mean sometimes. Marie also wrote about her little sister Joy and how she ate a “dede” bug. All I could do was smile.

What a wonderful wedding present for Joy and all of us!  At the wedding, we all felt that Marie was there and celebrating with us.

As my late mother often used to say, “God is good!”

Here is the proof:

Joy and Chris wedding pic favorite

Joy and Chris May 21, 2016

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Today I give thanks  to God for all my family, friends and blessings.

We have had so many blessings this year, most especially the health of our grandson Liam who had a bone marrow transplant in 2013, almost a year after we lost his 6 year old brother Noah who also had the rare autoimmune disease called HLH. Liam’s regular checkups have just decreased to every 2 months and he is now predicted to have a normal lifespan!

I also give thanks for my wonderful husband Kevin and our wonderful now-grown children, one of whom is hosting Thanksgiving for the first time instead of me. Yea!

I hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving too!

 

Terror in Paris

My first inkling that Paris had been hit by terrorists in Paris was an alarm on my smartphone that signaled the breaking news. All throughout this weekend, my husband and I monitored the news on TV with growing horror.

The pictures of the carnage were devastating. Years ago, I worked in an ICU with trauma victims. That made me extremely sensitive to the bloody reality of violence and its’ effect on victims, families and society. I could never accept the idea of extreme violence as mere entertainment in movies, video games, etc.

My family’s thoughts and prayers today are especially with the people of France. We also pray that our leaders and society will totally commit to stopping terrorism everywhere.

Pope Speaks on Forgiveness, Excommunication and Abortion; Confusion Ensues

POPE SPEAKS ON FORGIVENESS, EXCOMMUNICATION AND ABORTION, CONFUSION ENSUES

By Nancy Valko, RN ALNC

September 2, 2015

A recent Reuters news article  “Pope to allow all priests to forgive abortion during Holy Year, stated that

In Church teaching, abortion is such a grave sin that those who procure or perform it incur an automatic excommunication. Usually only designated clergy and missionaries can formally forgive abortions.

That was news to many of us like Carol who wrote in a comment on the article:

Catholic priests have forgiven abortion for years! The Catholic church has always been concerned for the souls of women who have abortions! There are many Catholic programs for counseling and healing women who have had abortions. Check out Rachel’s Vineyard, one of many. This is just not news.

However, to many in the public and even some devout Catholics, the article seemed to show that Pope Francis and possibly the Catholic Church were softening on the issue of abortion.

THE TRUTH ABOUT FORGIVENESS, EXCOMMUNICATION AND ABORTION

As Cardinal Chaput of Philadelphia explains simply in an article “Chaput Praises Pope’s Abortion Stance“:

“For many years now, parish priests have been given permission to absolve the sin of abortion here in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia,” Chaput said in the statement. “But the practice has not been common in various other regions of the world.” (emphasis added)

Chaput added: “This action in no way diminishes the moral gravity of abortion. What it does do is make access to sacramental forgiveness easier for anyone who seeks it with a truly penitent heart.”

Questions and concerns about excommunication are addressed on pages 67-69 of Project Rachel Ministry: A Post-Abortion Resource Manual for Priests and Project Rachel Ministry Leaders. Here is an excerpt:

It is commonly thought that the Church excommunicates all Catholics who have procured a successful abortion. However, probably in a great many cases, mitigating or extenuating circumstances prevent the individual from incurring  the censure of excommunication. The tragedy of abortion triggers distinct and separate questions regarding the personal responsibility of one who has procured a successful abortion: has a sin been committed? If so, was the commission of that sin such that it also resulted in the incurring of a penalty?

“JANE’S” STORY

Years ago when I was in home health, I was assigned to “Jane” (not her real name),  an elderly woman  who was dying of  heart disease. The doctor said he was amazed that Jane had lived this long in an assisted living apartment. The home health agency told me that this woman was a very difficult patient who had fired every nurse who saw her. I was told that I was a last resort to try to help her. I could only hope that I would be equal to the challenge.
Sure enough, on my first appointment, Jane was very critical and negative. She seemed immune to positive comments and encouragement.  I recognized that Jane was very troubled and I tried to find out more about her. I discovered that Jane was a widow with few if any friends and a daughter in California who could only visit occasionally.  Jane raged daily against the limitations that her disease caused and the the medical establishment in general.
However, after several visits, Jane slowly softened and even showed a glimmer of a sense of humor. I liked her spirit.

Part of my duties was to measure her swollen abdomen and legs to determine if the diuretic (water pill) was working as intended to lessen the workload on her heart.
Then one day as I was measuring her abdomen, she commented that she looked 9 months pregnant and uncharacteristically started sobbing. She told me that she had had an abortion over 60 years ago before she was married and lost who she assumed was a son. Now she felt God was punishing her by making her look pregnant. Out of shame, Jane had told no one-not even her late husband-about the abortion.
She admitted that she was afraid of dying because she knew she would then have to go to hell because she had committed the “unforgivable sin” of abortion. I was stunned.
I reassured her that there was no such thing as an “unforgivable sin” and that God is all-merciful. I also told her about Project Rachel, how I could help her contact them, and that she deserved the peace of forgiveness from God and especially from herself.

Slowly, her outlook changed and even though she never called Project Rachel (she insisted that our talks and contacting a priest were enough), her spirits lifted. She died peacefully a few days later.
Postscript: I was later told by a priest that he was reluctant to preach about abortion because he realized that some in his parish probably had had an abortion and he didn’t want to cause them more pain and drive them away from church.
I told him Jane’s story and said that if he did not discuss abortion, he was depriving his parish of understanding the damage abortion causes, the help of groups like Project Rachel and the mercy of God’s forgiveness.

I know Jane would be pleased.

Pope: ‘By No Means Excommunicated,’ but Divorce and Remarriage Contradicts the Sacrament

In an 8/5/2015 article in the National Catholic Register titled “‘By No Means Excommunicated,’ but Divorce and Remarriage Contradicts the Sacrament”, statements by Pope Francis have set off a firestorm of controversy once again in Church circles. Some fear that Church teaching on marriage will be changed or watered down.

As the article states:

Echoing his predecessors on the need to care for divorced-and-remarried persons, Pope Francis said Christians should help these persons integrate into the community, rather than treating them as though they are excommunicated.

“The Church well knows that such a situation contradicts the Christian sacrament,” the Pope said in his Aug. 5 general audience in St. Peter’s Square. Nonetheless, he added, the Church should always approach such situations with a “mother’s heart; a heart, which, animated by the Holy Spirit, seeks always the good and the salvation of the person.”
“It is important that they experience the Church as a mother attentive to all, always disposed to listen in encounters,” he added.
The community is to welcome persons who have divorced and entered into new unions, the Pope said, so that “they may live and develop their adherence to Christ and the Church with prayer, listening to God’s word, frequenting the liturgy, the Christian education of their children, charity, service to the poor and a commitment to justice and peace.”

As someone who has experienced the trauma of divorce personally, I do believe that priests and the parish communities could be much more supportive to the parent and, especially, any children involved.
After my divorce, I met many Catholic divorced women who, whether or not they remarried, felt isolated from the rest of their parish and some even erroneously believed that they could not receive Communion even when they had not remarried. Sadly, every one of these women reported receiving little or no emotional or spiritual support from their parish priest even though some had reached out to their priest before the divorce. Many even left the Church, often for a more welcoming Christian church.
This is a situation that can be helped by sensitivity and deliberate outreach from priests and parish members. I assume that is what Pope Francis was talking about when he emphasized the need for a welcoming presence for people and their children dealing with divorce-even those who have remarried without an annulment.
I do support the annulment requirement based on Church teaching about the sacrament of marriage. Even though the annulment process can be painful at times, the questionnaires and personal interactions with the priests and people helping with the process can result in new insights, understanding and even a sense of closure and forgiveness.
I was granted an annulment from my first marriage years ago and long before I unexpectedly remarried 20 years after my divorce. I feel the annulment process was overall a positive experience and enabled me to marry my wonderful husband Kevin with no reservations. I certainly would not have remarried without the annulment.

I do recommend exploring an annulment after divorce, especially when a remarriage is being contemplated. An “Annulment FAQs” page can be found on the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Those Catholics who remarried without an annulment should not assume that they have no recourse. I strongly encourage them to contact a Church authority for guidance.