Tag Archives: death

5MM: Beware of Millstones

Having been inspired by a friend of mine’s new family blog where she sets a timer every day to sit at the keyboard and make some notes about her life, I have decided that would also be a good idea for me. I have a ton of ideas for posts sitting in my draft folder because I am “too busy” to put aside time to develop them well. Though I believe it is important to put time into my writing, I simply don’t have much of it right now, so I will attempt to not let the good be the enemy of the perfect. I may not be able to write every day, but I will try to at least get to it a few times a week. The clock is ticking… so here goes!

As someone who gets paid to teach the faith to young people, yesterday’s Gospel sent chills down my spine: Anyone who leads a little one to sin would be better off sleeping with the fishes. It’s one of those moments that doesn’t dovetail nicely with the idea of a hippie Jesus who just goes around telling people to be nice. And to add to this Bizarro Jesus thing, he starts talking about cutting off our feet and plucking out our eyes? What the heck?

I think it’s pretty simple. Jesus takes sin really seriously. After all, that’s the whole reason he came down from heaven to suffer continuously for 33 years, culminating in the most humiliating, agonizing death in human history: he wanted to save us from sin!

The fact that this is lost on us as 21st Century Catholics is due to the fact that we have lost a sense of sin. This is a great tragedy in the modern world. We shook off guilt decades ago thinking it would liberate us, but it has done the opposite. Sin always enslaves. Reconciliation always liberates. Jesus came to be our Savior, and when we deny that we are sinners, we exclude ourselves from his services.

See, when Jesus talks harshly about sin, it’s not to condemn us, but to free us. He’s like a family having an intervention with an alcoholic: listen, bud. You have a big problem. I love you too much to let you drink yourself to death. If he needs to be candid and blunt, it’s because we need it told to us like it is. Not so we can sit around wallowing in shame, but so we can move from shame, to forgiveness, to joy, to mission.

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All’s Well That Ends Well

We celebrate two things this week. The first, as you saw from the last post, is Brad’s new job.  He will be working at Sacred Heart Parish in Robbinsdale, as a youth and young adult minister. It’s perfect for him in many respects, and he follows a good friend of ours in that position, which makes the transition even smoother.  We are excited to see what’s in store.

Looking at the other places we both applied, it is easy now to see that God was holding out for this.  Whether we thought so at the time or not, each rejection letter or email we got was a door that needed to close in order for this one to open.  From this side of the trial it is also easy to see how God took a great fear of mine (financial instability) and used it to prove Himself my provider.  Further, through this new job of Brad’s, God has given us a blessing we would not have sought out if we had not been laid off.  And, in these times when many are still searching for work, He has given us authentic compassion and a heart of prayer for the un- and under-employed.

These things were not always visible to us while in the trial, but part of the joy of this gift is being able to see that what we suffered in the past 6 months was for our good.  All’s well that ends well.  That brings us to the other thing we celebrate this week: Gianna’s first anniversary in Heaven.  There are many parallels.

We celebrate not the fact that she suffered and died, of course.  For, in many respects all is not ended yet for us.  We are still in the midst of the trial of life without her.  In celebrating her anniversary, we are recognizing that she has reached her reward.  Just as we look back on 6 months of uncertainty with relief and joy because our employment trial is now over, so does she look now at her own short life and see the meaning behind every needle poke and every tear.  And I think that she sees us all still in this Valley of Tears and with her prayers is seeking to remind us that if we persevere until the end, our outcome too will be glorious.  She and Peter remind us that in comparison with eternity, our lives here on earth are as short as theirs were.  And the result of living it well is worth the cost, even a thousand times over.

One final thought. Many, in hearing our good news this week, have commented on the goodness of God.  Amen!! He is! But the saying reminded me that I should react the same way when I receive bad news, too.  Is God any better today than He was when we got the news that our job had been cut? Was He any better the day Gianna was born than the day she died? No.  God is the same yesterday, today and forever.  He does all things well, and we will come to see even the hardest things this light if we give Him a chance to show us.  Even if we have to wait until Heaven.

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Looks Can Be Deceiving

There isn’t much you can say about a person who lived only three months, as our youngest two children did.  We will never know if our little ones were funny, or shy, or adventurous.  We have no idea if they would have inherited Brad’s sports genes or mine, my artistic eye or Brad’s not-s0-great eyes.  There is one thing that anyone who knew them can attest to, however.  They were stinkin’ cute.  Objectively.

This was one of the strange paradoxes we lived with in the case of both babies.  With Peter it was shocking, as he looked like a totally normal child up until the moment we saw him all wired up in the PICU.  Who could have known, with their naked eye, that this little cutie was fussy not due to a long car ride, or reflux, or colic, but because the cells in his liver did not make enough energy to keep it functioning.  As we sat in the waiting room of the ER at Children’s, there was nothing of our son’s outer appearance that would lead us to believe that he would be dead in five days. 

Since we knew that it was a possibility that Gianna might inherit the same Mitochondrial disorder that took her brother, we were much more intently focused on her from her conception.  We knew much earlier that we could not go by looks, so testing was done shortly after birth and then at two months.  This lead to a very different, but equally odd, experience of appearance.  She was absolutely beautiful (objectively, of course!), and again, did not look sick.  There were times when I enjoyed this immensely.  During our first two admissions to the hospital, I routinely took her up to the cafeteria with me, or to the family lounge and even once to Mass.  No one could tell she was the patient.  While we were home, I got complements about her from strangers who had no idea that a risky liver transplant was the only hope of her living to four months old.  I enjoyed the break, the opportunity to pretend for a moment that we were a normal family who worried about nothing more than getting a little more sleep.  I also think her cuteness scored her some extra points with the hospital staff.  Not that these dedicated professionals would ever mistreat an ugly baby, but several did comment that she was much cuter than the average critically ill child, especially on the floor we were on.  I took motherly pride in the way they doted over her cute outfits or lingered in our room to hold her.

Gianna’s cuteness also made for some painfully ironic (and often awkward) moments.  During her first hospitalization, when we were slowly trying to come to terms with her likely prognosis, a nurse’s aide came into our room to find me weeping.  Supposing that I was a hormonally unstable, overwhelmed new mother, she said, “new babies are really hard, aren’t they?”  A perfectly compassionate thing to say! “No, she’s dying”, was all I could get out. 

Two days before her death, on her way to the OR to get a pic line placed for easier blood draws, a doctor we didn’t know got on the elevator with us.  “Well, now there’s a healthy one!” he said.  The nurse and I looked at each other uncomfortably as she replied, “No, she’s pretty sick”.  Other times, it was not the awkward one-liners that got to me, but the flip side of what I mentioned before.  I could only pretend so long that Gianna was fine, because she wasn’t.  Once, before our bad news was actually confirmed, I was grocery shopping with both kids, and could barely make it to the car before beginning to cry.  The juxataposition between what appeared to be true and what actually was weighed on me in a deep, surreal way.

This line of thinking was brought up to me at a recent benefit banquet I attended for Prenatal Partners for Life*.  The priest who gave the closing comments remarked that we all were born with a terminal illness: Original sin.  The sick, he said, serve us all well as a reminder of this fact.  His reflection made me think.  In the spiritual order of things, many of us are my Peter and Gianna.  We look fine on the outside, but on the inside we are dying.  Sometimes, the comfort that comes with financial stability, good health, talent and long life can be dangerous to our salvation since they can lull us into a false sense of self confidence.  Why would we have thought to ask our doctor to run a liver function test on our two month old son? All signs pointed to him being perfectly healthy.  In the same way, many people never think to accuse themselves of sin because they seem to have everything under control.  It just doesn’t occur to them.  And as we learned in Peter’s case, undiagnosed illnesses can still kill you even if you don’t look sick.  So it can be in the spiritual life, but for eternity.

With Gianna, we knew not to trust appearances.  We looked inside, and found that something was indeed wrong.  For Gianna, knowing early that she was sick did not end up saving her life.  This is also true spiritually of those who recognize their own sin but choose to cling to it instead of bringing it to Jesus for forgiveness and healing.  Although it sounds like a bizarre category of people, they do exist.  They are those who despair at their own weakness, or who set out to fix it themselves. 

 Gianna’s doctors did their best to try and save her, and we did too.  We gave her all kinds of nasty meds, drew blood from veins that did not want to give it, and did not give up on her last option (transplant) until it was painfully evident that she could not survive the operation.  We availed her of all modern medicine had to offer, and modern medicine failed us.  Gratefully, this is where my analogy breaks down.  When we bring our sinfulness to Jesus, He never fails us.  So many people offered to get tested to be liver donors for Gia, because they were willing to sacrifice even part of their own bodies to save her.  That is precisely what Jesus did for us.  Our hearts were so badly hardened and diseased by sin that we were wasting away.  We needed a heart transplant, and that is what He gave us: His own heart.  Of course, that transplant cost Him His life. 

So next time we pass an elderly lady with oxygen, or a paralyzed man in a wheelchair, or a child with Down’s Syndrome, let’s thank God for the gift of those lives.  More than that, let’s honor those beautiful souls by taking stock of our own.  When we entrust our spiritual maladies to the Divine Physician, He never fails to cure us.

* For more info about Prenatal Partners for Life, an amazing organization helping parents of children with adverse prenatal diagnosis, infant death and disabled children, check out: www.prenatalpartnersforlife.org

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Small Talk Made Awkward

Recently, I was at a gathering where the guest of honor was the only person I really knew.  As I sat eating dinner with Isaac, a opportunity for small talk opened up with a young couple at my table.  They had a small child in a high chair and the wife was obviously very pregnant.  (Very pregnant ladies are great for small talk!)  After we had exhausted the requisite questions about their family, they asked, “so do you have other children besides him (Isaac)?”

How to talk about your dead child?  I remember distinctly asking this question a few days after Peter’s funeral to a friend of mine who is also the mother of a baby saint.  She had flown out from California to support me and shortly before she left town we met for coffee.  “What will I say to people when they ask how many kids I have?!” The thought was occurring to me for the first time as I processed with her.  “You’ll know, Libby,” she said, “you’ll figure out who to tell and who not to”.

She was right.  As I’ve muddled through the past two years, I’ve worked out a system for how to handle “the question”.  Not that I ever sat down and drew up procedures or anything, but I’ve figured out how I am most comfortable handling the question.  Here it is:

* People who I will likely never see again. For these people, like those at the party above, or clerks, people in waiting rooms, etc, I answer their question without lying.  For instance, if they say, “Do you have kids?” I will often answer, “I have a preschooler at home”, and proceed to talk about Isaac.  If they ask a more pointed question, such as the folks at the party did, I will answer honestly.  Morally, this is not necessary.  It is not a lie to withhold information from people who don’t need to know it.  And perhaps someday I will leave my saints out of the  answer.  For now, though, it feels almost like betrayal to not include them in such a direct question.

* People I will see often, or be in relationship with.  I don’t say, “Hi, I’m Libby and my babies died”, but I do talk about them even if the question is only indirectly asked.  I would rather them find out up front then tiptoe around it.

* Amount of disclosure.  I have no problem talking about my kids.  What mom doesn’t want to brag about her babies? I realize, though, that death is a touchy subject for people, and stumbling upon a story like mine over sheetcake and coffee is not what most people are expecting when they arrive at someone’s party.  When people seem freaked out, I quickly change the subject.  If they have questions, I answer them.

* I make sure people realize they were infants. I realized after a few tries, that when you say “we lost a baby” people think you had a miscarriage.  I understand that the loss of miscarriage is great, so it’s not a grief snobbery kind of thing.  It’s just not what happened to my family.  Plus, Isaac talks about his brother and sister sometimes, so I think it’s an important distinction that he actually held them and touched them and met them.  Again, not neccessary for the folks in the first category, but something I still feel is kind of important.

* I have accepted the awkwardness. Let’s face it.  Dead babies are awkward.  No one knows what to say or do when they come up.  It is part of our cross that we have the power to bring the most pleasant conversation to a screetching halt.  I just try to ease the burden of the subject on the other person, and be gentle with myself as well.

Like many parts of grieving, I don’t think there is any right or wrong to this question.  Are you a grieving parent? How do you handle this question?

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Another thought about waiting

In class this weekend, we took a brief detour from the realm of Ecclesiology back into Christian Anthropology, and the basic truth of who we are as people came up: we are body-and-soul.  That’s nothing new.  But our professor reminded us that it is a violence to the human person for the soul to be separate from the body.  This, of course, is why death freaks us out so much.  Even in Heaven, he said, will the Blessed not be totally as they are meant to be until they get their resurrected bodies.  (They are unbelievably fulfilled, of course, and joyful at seeing their Maker face to face.)

Anyway, someone asked about Purgatory, and how the suffering is experienced there since the Holy Souls there don’t have bodies.  He answered that the intellect knows that Heaven is coming (and how amazing it will be) and the will wants so badly to be united to the Beloved that the suffering of purgatory is waiting for that great day to come.  Purgatory is waiting.  

This reminded me of my last post.  If Purgatory is waiting, can’t it be fairly stated that waiting, done well, is Purgatory?  Think about it.  When we wait well, for what we know will be God’s amazing perfect will to unfold in our lives (how ever crappy that perfect will may seem at the time), God can burn away those same impurities in us here on earth that will have to go before we enter Heaven anyway.  Attachment to our own plans, things, ideas.  Inordinant desires for sin or just bad habits.  Dependence on self. Impatience, procrastination, distraction… name your vice, and waiting on things we can’t control has a way of demanding things of us that can burn away the bad and elevate the good. 

So, what are you waiting for? A job? A conversion of a loved one? For your wedding day? For that new baby? The weekend at the cabin? Let’s not waste it, and instead burn off some Purgatory here on earth.

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