A Complicated Grief: Persevering in faith in the midst of suffering
When my cell phone rings early one sunny fall morning, I reach for it groggily, see that the call is from my mother and know that whatever she is about to say will be heartbreaking. I am still in bed in my pajamas, and my mom tells me that Marian Elizabeth has been born. Everything else my mother says is drowned out by the roar in my brain that tells me that I must see my new niece. “Call me back on FaceTime,” I say interrupting her. A moment later, the video call comes through.
Marian Elizabeth, named for two women with difficult and miraculous pregnancies, is wearing a hat that is way too big for her tiny body, two months premature. My sister, Elizabeth, is holding her daughter both gingerly and with such strong love. And I just keep saying over and over again, “She’s so beautiful, I love you both so much. You are both so beautiful. I love you. I love you. She is beautiful,” even though I know my niece can’t fully comprehend it, while at the same time trying to understand it all myself. And then a few minutes later, somehow, I tear myself away from the phone, and I head off to work and I wait.
I am waiting for the next, inevitable call. The joy of seeing my niece alive is accompanied by the heaviness of knowing that what we had expected had, in fact, come to pass. Marian, facing a host of health problems, will only live for a few hours. This first time seeing my niece will also be my last. During those hours of her life, Marian is baptized in a tiny white garment that swims around her, while I pore over manuscripts at my desk until I get a message telling me that my niece has died.
We first learn about the complications with my sister’s pregnancy on Mother’s Day weekend. My sister is rushed to the doctor, and the doctors think she may be having a miscarriage. She is put on bed rest until she can go back to the doctor on Monday to find out if the baby still has a heartbeat. “All we can do is pray,” my family keeps saying, though I am not always sure if saying such things means that we’re resigned to our seeming helplessness or attempting one last-ditch effort for control. I know that prayer can change the way we look at a situation, but I don’t care about that at the moment; I just want my prayer to change the outcome.
I pray that her suffering, her child’s suffering, be transferred, in some material way, to me. I want this all to work like it does when I go hiking and my boyfriend offers to carry more of our supplies because then we can walk farther together.
Monday morning comes and we learn that the baby’s heartbeat has been found. And then we learn the rest. We learn, gradually, of the numerous, potentially lethal developmental and health problems that the baby faces or will face if she makes it into this world. The doctors still are not even sure the baby will reach full term. And if she does, the doctors are increasingly certain she will not live beyond a few hours. The situation seems like a cruel response to my prayer, a kind of bait and switch. My sister and her husband decide that they will love this kid for whatever time they’ve got. And again, we wait.
In early September, my sister is hugely pregnant, due to complications, even though the baby is still so small. Every time I look at her, I am reminded anew of what is and what likely will be soon. And life and death seem so close, and her whole house seems pregnant with both terrifying ambiguity and unlikely hope.
In the Letter of James we read (1:2):
Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. And let perseverance be perfect, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
This phrase—the testing of your faith—can be an odd one to parse, implying, it seems, that God sits on some gilded throne in a heavenly science lab taking notes on how we react to certain stimuli. I can’t believe that. Yet there is no doubt that suffering does test us. It forces us to figure out why we keep going, what we should rely on. And I have to believe that while God is not making clinical notes, God is taking note. Even when it feels as though we are alone, God sees us being changed by suffering. And even more than that, God accompanies us. God accompanies us through that pain, through the numbness, through the disbelief and the unbelief.
The natural question when we encounter suffering is: Why? But sometimes the more helpful one is: Where? Where am I being called by this suffering? Where can I find a supportive community? Where is God in all of this? Because, as James suggests, we have to persevere.
So often we tell ourselves that we should not complain about the minor inconveniences or even significant trials in our own lives when so much “real” suffering is going on in the world. It only seems right to persevere in our lives grateful for what we have, even if that means being grateful for calm and beautiful deaths. As a wise priest once said to me: “All suffering is real.” Every life is precious. The grief caused by the death of one child is not immediately alleviated because we know that elsewhere, in places of war or poverty, thousands of others have also died. And the suffering of those children has weight far beyond its use in putting our own seemingly more fortunate lives in perspective.
Yet when we hear or tell of others’ suffering we experience a little bit of it. We suffer with, as Christ did for us, entering into our imperfect world. St. Ignatius calls us, in the third week of the Spiritual Exercises, to consider Christ’s suffering from the Last Supper through the Garden of Gethsemane. And in doing so, he says that we should want, even ask “for grief with Christ in grief, anguish with Christ in anguish, tears and interior pain at such great pain which Christ suffered for me.” This isn’t easy.
Marian’s funeral is one of the most horrible and beautiful experiences of my life, at once tragic and grace-filled. I arrive at the small, familiar chapel with my parents, and Elizabeth and her husband arrive separately, a reminder that as much as my parents and siblings and I are still family, my sister now is a part of her own little family. She looks so somber and so strong and still young but wears a more weathered expression, like someone who has been at sea for a long time and is still getting used to land again. The casket is tiny, maybe 2 feet long, and white, and it has a heart embossed in the top, and it sits in the front of the chapel covered by the tiny baptismal garment that once enveloped Marian’s body. And as heartbreaking as it is to see the casket carried in by the man from the funeral parlor, it is more heartbreaking to see it as my sister and her husband carry it out together after the liturgy, walking while swaying with grief, and singing and crying. The casket looks so light, not like the heaviness we expect on that final journey out. But by far the most heartbreaking moment comes early in the Mass, as I watch my mother looking at my sister looking at that casket, both faces stricken with grief on behalf of their daughters.
Perhaps God does not bargain with our lives the way I had tried to. Perhaps my prayer should not have been to suffer instead of my sister but to suffer with, to truly exist compassionately, to have asked for “grief with her grief and anguish with her anguish.” We cannot always take away someone’s suffering, but we can walk beside them, help them carry their burdens and in that way be able to walk farther together.
And, if I cannot always, as James asks, see all of it as joy, perhaps I can at least find a way to see the moments of joy in the pain, the grace and kindness of the doctors who treated my sister, the priest who slept in the hospital waiting room in order to baptize the baby at a moment’s notice.
Painful suffering, monumental moments, can divide life into a before and an after. Yet we must persevere; we continue on, if differently. It takes time to process suffering. Hope and joy look different. In Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians we read:
We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair...always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.
How miraculous, how perfect, that in each of us we harbor both the living and dying Christ. In each of us, at all times, a million Good Fridays and Resurrections. And maybe those days in between, as well. We forget about those days sometimes, days during which the apostles must have been afraid and alone and the world seemed dark and no one knew what would happen next.
During times of suffering, no matter how many times we are told that a resurrection is coming, it is tough to believe that we will emerge from the darkness, that we will eventually find that tomb empty and hear our equivalent of “He is no longer here!” How hard it can be to believe that eventually we will find a new moment when hope and joy look different, yet again.
And so, instead of wondering why, we simply persevere, we try to find that joy, to let it transform us and to simply love our way through it all. Because even in our worst moments, this is what God does for us. God loves us back from the edge. God looks at us and says, “You are so beautiful, I love you so much. You are so beautiful. I love you. I love you. You are beautiful.” Even though God knows we cannot fully comprehend.