National Catholic Register


Give Death Its Due

BY Mark Shea

March 28-April 10, 2010 Issue | Posted 3/22/10 at 12:00 PM


A few hours ago, my daughter-in-law Tasha called me from her job at a clinic downtown. She was deeply shaken and in tears. A mother had come in to use some of the exercise equipment for her therapy and had brought along her 3-year-old son. While her back was turned (it only takes a moment), her child somehow managed to get his head and neck wedged into the machinery of a mechanical bed. The mechanism triggered.

Tasha told me the screams of the helpless mother could be heard all over the building as she struggled to free her little boy. The clinic staff rushed in from everywhere and managed to get him out, but it was too late. He was aspirating blood. A few minutes after Tasha called us, she called back with the horrible news: The boy was dead.

Tasha and the rest of the staff are in shock. She just left our house, numb. We stand around, feeling useless and helpless, saying stupid things like “Make yourself a nice bowl of chicken noodle soup.” When she’s gone, we feel like crying again. We think of that poor mother and her screams and busy ourselves quickly to push the thought out of our minds.

It’s tempting to try to make sense of such things — to want to do something. We rush to make some sort of judgment about something or other. Atheists latch on to such tragedy as another chance to rail at the nonexistence (and heartless brutality) of God. The superficially pious rush straight to “He’s with the angels now.” Practical people start analyzing the clinic environment to see how the technology can be improved so it never happens again. Litigious types start looking to assign blame and sue someone.

But it all seems to come from the same root: We can’t stand the notion of simply looking such horror in the eye. We all get busy — somehow — in order to bat away the blank horror of it in panic. Like Job, we ask “Why?” and the heavens are brass.

I don’t have any answers. There are certain things I cling to like lifelines. Christ Jesus crucified: “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” Our Lady of Sorrows crying over her son who was killed by the accumulated sin, idiocy and chaos of the whole world. Jesus himself crying and angry at the tomb of Lazarus. Angry? Yes. When Scripture tells us that Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled,” the Greek really means something more like “profoundly angry.” Jesus is angry at death — angry at this (literally) God-damned killer of friends, of children, of everybody we know and love. He hates death and did not make it.

I cling to the fact that Jesus is the enemy of death. He approaches the tomb of Lazarus feeling all the anger of the world over this ancient enemy. He doesn’t offer a treatise on the problem of evil. He offers a muscled arm punctuated by a clenched fist, and it’s poised to punch death in the face with smashmouth force.

I hang on to that as I feel the wind off the scythe that swung so close to my loved ones. Because, of course, just as that poor mother could not shield her son from every danger, neither can I completely protect my loved ones from death. Do what I will, something somewhere is going to succeed in killing everybody I love. It may come tomorrow or in 80 years, but come it shall.

And then you think: “Stop thinking about you! Somebody lost their precious little boy today. Pray for them, you morbid dolt!” So you try to pray, but no words come beyond the utterly banal. So on your way to do your evening errands, you start praying the Rosary. That’s a prayer that can say what you are trying to say better than your own words ever will. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death …

It’ll do till the storm is over. Deliver us from evil, Father.

Mark Shea, content editor of,

now blogs at