Thinking about the unthinkable

This past Friday I attended a memorial Mass for my college roommate’s nine year old son, who lost his courageous battle with cancer earlier in the week. I suppose there is no more faith-shaking event than the loss of a child. I thought the priest did an exceptionally good job of speaking words of comfort to the mourners without trying to offer any theological explanation. I was especially touched by the idea that our children are on loan from God. I’ve probably heard that expression a hundred times; I’m guessing that the cynic in me rolled my eyes or let the words roll right off of me. But sitting in the presence of a family that had lost this precious gift, while thinking about my own dear children at home with their father, I nodded my head like a true believer.

The priest spoke of the child’s baptism. He explained that from that moment the child had belonged to Jesus. Now he had gone to join Jesus. This theme of returning to Christ was reiterated a number of times during the funeral. I’m not sure whether these words were of comfort to the mother, my former roommate. While the children have been raised staunchly within the Catholic church, I know almost nothing about her personal faith, even before it was challenged by this horrible loss. But I found myself wondering a lot during the ceremony about how the Jewish father (also a close friend of mine) and his parents might have been feeling. My instinct, as a Jew, was that it would have been excrutiating to have this particular rite of passage being conducted in a tradition other than your own, to hear words that couldn’t possibly be comforting. But really, what do I know? When your entire world has been ripped out from under you, does it matter one iota what the clergy says? Would sitting shiva, and hearing mourners kaddish really have made a difference to someone who has lost a child, particularly someone who seemed truly comfortable marrying and raising children in the Catholic church? 
Believe me, I know that how my friends manage this loss is absolutely none of my business. But, I left thinking a lot about my own hubris. I’ve always attributed much of the success of my interfaith marriage to the fact that Keith and I discussed religion so thoroughly before we wed, making sure we were in agreement about all the major decisions we would face. But of course, we never discussed how we would, God forbid, bury a child. And I was reminded that there are sure to be challenges, other challenges, that will arise that I have not yet anticipated, and could in no way plan for. No one truly knows how their relationship to religion and faith will evolve, and no one can be prepared for all that life throws us. I can only hope that my husband and I have a strong enough relationship to accommodate each other should our spiritual selves evolve in ways we might not have imagined eight years ago.
In honor of my friends’ son’s blessed memory, please consider a donation to St. Baldricks, a wonderful organization supporting childhood cancer research. And hug and kiss your kids a few extra times. We are so very blessed.
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posted August 22, 2010 at 6:40 pm

This is such sad news. It is so imaginable. Thank you for reminding me of just how blessed we really are.

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Molly@Postcards from a Peaceful Divorce

posted August 22, 2010 at 9:17 pm

My sister recently attended the funeral of the father of her son’s best friend and had a really hard time listening to the priest relate the loss all to Christ. She felt like the sermon had no personal consolation or words of wisdom to the surviving family.
I wonder if you even hear anything at a horrifying time like that or if you just go numb.
This is a nice and thought-provoking piece. Congrats to you and Keith for making it work for you.

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posted August 23, 2010 at 12:37 am

Last Thursday, in our little town community, a family lost their 12 yo, who didn’t wake up. He was very loved and well known in our community, as a wonderful full of life, always smiling boy with very severe cerebral palsy. I haven’t heard any detail yet, but am planning on attending any service in his memory, since I was part of the same special ed pta as this family, whom I had met at the time they joined our town and school district.
I am glad I read your post today, so that I can put in perspective. I am very disturbed by services that stress out beliefs I don’t have, in a way that bring so much more distress to the grieving families than comfort: I am still counting shloshim (the thirty day period of mourning a relative) for an elderly who lost her life to cancer beginning of August, and we have been so close with our Jewish community, from the day of her death, the service before the funeral, the burial, sitting shivah a whole week, and letting go gradually and with no words of “reason” why and so forth.
There may be reasons why medically speaking those children in their prime were prematurely removed from the love and attention of their parents. There might be spiritual reasons to their brief passage on earth, and what they have accomplished may have been much superior than what we can grasp. But the time of grieving is certainly not the time we can hear such “reasons”, and I often found that Christian rituals of funeral were terribly ignorant of the psychology of mourning, as it has much better been understood by other traditions including – but not only I am sure – Judaism or far-eastern traditions.
I have been studying some works by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross about death and mourning, and after that every time I have attended a funeral led by Christian believers, I have been left with very mixed feelings, certainly never including comfort and peace of mind.
Thank you for offering something earthy, concrete and meaningful to *do* to honor the memory of this young child, may the deeds in his memory be a blessing for all. And may his parents be consoled amongst all the mourners of the earth.

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Morah Mary

posted August 24, 2010 at 8:00 am

I’m sorry for your loss, Amy; and hope you and your friends eventually find comfort in your memories.
As a convert to Judaism, this is actually an issue that I’ve faced on a couple of occasions: my younger sister’s death as a young adult fourteen years ago, and my mother’s death a little over a year ago. As the oldest of a large family, I had played a key role in raising my sister – and we often joked that she was my “oldest child.”
What worked for me was the realization that my family-of-origin found comfort in the Catholic rituals AND that they didn’t work for me any more. In both cases, it was important to be with my family in the (in both cases, 7-day)pre-funeral gatherings – to share memories and tears and laughter. After the funeral, I came home and began a 3-day period of shiva – with MY friends and MY community surrounding and supporting me. Having done 7 days with my family before the funeral – 3 days of shiva was all I could really handle – and my Rabbis and communities (one Conservative and one Reconstructionist) were both supportive of that.
As I was listening to the Catholic ritual and prayers and “words of comfort,” I kept reminding myself that although they weren’t helpful for me – they were helpful for others in my family and that MY time was coming.
Perhaps the most important step at this point would be to explore with your husband (now that the unthinkable has occurred) what each of you might find most comforting individually… and where and how you can include what works for each of you.
A painful discussion – but then, as a parent, there’s no more painful situation to face.

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posted August 24, 2010 at 10:28 am

as I read Morah Mary’s post, I started to tear up… her words (and the heart behind them) were so filled with compassion and love! I thought of your friend’s husband – the father in mourning… maybe you (and other’s in the Jewish community) could reach out to him like Mary’s community has done for her. We never really know how much pain someone is in until we touch them. Blessings!

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posted August 24, 2010 at 11:50 am

Thank you Amy, for bringing this message amidst tears of sorrow.

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