The paramedics arrived within minutes, but even that immediacy was too slow. Gregory, a former student of mine, had fallen from a skateboard at high speed, a tumble that left him on life support. He died a year ago today, during the dark hours of Palm Sunday, two months before his high school graduation.
At a crowded Mass that March morning, I spent the hour meditating on Christ's crucifixion. I tried, in the spirit of Ignatian contemplation, to place myself in the scene. To sit with Jesus in Gethsemane, to hear his fitful breathing, his utterings of agony, the footprints of the approaching guards. I ran my hand over my frayed strip of palm, hoping to merge the grief of Greg’s family into the narrative of the Passion. But imagining Jesus scourged and mocked was like imagining the battles of the Civil War. It was academic, emptied of spiritual return.
A few days later, I came to the same church for Greg’s funeral, sliding into the pew with the same searching spirit that I possessed the previous Sunday. I searched for the framework – perhaps a Gospel event, perhaps a line from a theological master – that would reconcile the scene before me. But when I saw Greg’s family, my own deliberations began to dissolve. Greg’s family held one another as if supported by angels, and I stared, transfixed at the beauty of their perseverance, their total oneness against the forces of dissipation.
Each second of my gaze drew me out of analysis and into adoration. There had been a shift, and I felt transformed with a new perspective: The scene at the church, I realized, was probably very much like the day Jesus died. His own friends and family would cry. His own friends and family would protest the unfairness. His own friends and family would search for answers – and come up dreadfully empty.
As I thought more about this, my eyes circled back to Greg’s mother. In her mix of sadness and strength, I saw not only her, but Mary. But I didn’t see Mary, Queen of Heaven. I saw Mary, the Grieving Mother. The Mary of trembling hands and exhausted eyes. The Mary holding it together but fighting collapse. The Mary who, in the final hours of her son’s life, must have endured the same question with which it began: “How can this be?”
The worst thing imaginable, the loss of a child, was borne by the mother of God: this simple truth, long known to our Tradition, came to me during Greg’s funeral as entirely new, as a revelation of incalculable importance. On that day, with that question, I began to contemplate, to truly take seriously, the Marian dimension of loss, the Marian dimension of hopelessness. Since that time, I have been meditating on its significance, spending the year mostly roaming through questions. What does it mean for Greg’s family, for countless others facing similar tragedy; what does it mean that the story of our salvation includes this kind of pain, the pain of losing a son? What are the implications of picturing Mary sobbing, falling into the arms of family and friends?
What is the meaning of our own grieving if we consider that even the mother of God may have felt, at times, as if God did not exist?
Thinking of those who have lost a child, I have been terrified that there is a darkness that God cannot reach, that there are misfortunes that leave people feeling permanently alone. In my search for answers, I have wanted, perhaps, to bypass a full acknowledgment of how ruthless fate can be. But Mary’s example tells me not to evade, not to intellectualize that which can only be, in our weakness and brokenness, lived. Mary’s strength encourages me to steer confusion into faith, to pray that desolation becomes discipleship, and trust that for Greg’s family and so many others the words of Christ ring true: Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.