What Does it Mean to Grieve Like a ‘Good Catholic?’
When we Catholics grieve, we must do it in union with Christ Crucified and Risen.
“The right to weep must not be denied. Even Jesus was deeply moved and profoundly troubled by the bereavement of a family he loved. We can, instead, draw from the simple and powerful witness of many families who have known how to grasp, in the difficult passage of death, also the safe passage offered by the Lord, crucified and risen, with his irrevocable promise of the resurrection of the dead. The work of God's love is stronger than the work of death. We must seek to be 'accomplices' to that love, with our faith. … Death was defeated by Jesus on the cross.” —Pope Francis
Through my kitchen window, I can see St. Clement's Graveyard a little ways off in the distance, over the sweet prairie grasses and just beyond our seven-foot-high emerald green corn stalks. The graves there tell fascinating stories – many of them dismal and heartbreaking, but some of them, rather hopeful. When my friend (now my neighbor) first took us to visit St. Clement's Graveyard about 10 years ago, I distinctly remember her taking me to see a number of century-old, crumbling headstones that were of babies who died after birth, mostly because they could not survive during the frigid North Dakota winters, or they had some birth defect that could not be worked with at the time. She also made a point of showing me the gravestones of mothers who died during childbirth. There were even a couple of gravestones that had the name of both the mother and the baby that died, as they died together during a birth that took a foreboding turn.
Some days, I look out of my kitchen window towards the graveyard, and I thank God for our home in the country – for the messy snowmen our children have made, for our apple trees in bloom, or for the handy garage we are now putting up. But some days, I have a hard time thanking God when I see the graveyard – especially on days when the house is quiet, the sky is overcast, and I have plenty of time to think. I know that just a smidgen to the right of my view through the window frame, there is a double-headed granite gravestone that often picks up a shine from the rays of the sun, as well as a grave marked by a golden cross my husband made by hand.
Then I might feel my wedding ring, which has 10 stones on it, one for each child my husband and I had dreamed of having, with all due respect to God's will. And then, “it” all begins to come back. “It” charges back into my memory just like it happened just a few weeks ago – and soon, the dismal curtain of death sweeps over my mind, and I begin to remember how I apparently had one early miscarriage in the spring of 2012, followed by a traumatic, life-threatening miscarriage at nearly four months along.
Then I think of how soon after my second miscarriage, I became pregnant with twins, after praying to conceive twins. I was so uncomfortable as I carried my twins that often I was unable to sit, walk or stand. All throughout the pregnancy, instinctively, I knew something was wrong, although everything had looked normal at my prenatal appointments. After a grueling labor which wound up in an emergency C-section on Sept. 16, we found that my twins were conjoined, sharing one body and having two perfectly formed heads. They died in my husband's arms after he baptized them, soon after they were born. About twenty minutes after they died, my husband says he felt their souls go up to Heaven.
I remember my husband's brother, a priest, coming into my hospital room after they had died, and praying the first Joyful Mystery of the Rosary with my husband and me. My husband begged me to hold our babies while I could, before they would be taken away. I didn't want to hold them, but I forced myself to kiss their frigid cheeks and feel the softness of their skin. Their faces looked just like the faces of my other children; they had darling button noses, blue eyes, and sported such a sweet little Dutch baby look.
As I held them, stiffened by shock, I knew my life would never be the same; I would never be the same. I had encountered a dark, dispirited side of life and lost myself in its tunnel, and part of me would never see the light of innocent joy again.
In honor of my twins' funeral, I wrote a poem which was essentially a meditation on the verse of Sacred Scripture, “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the Name of the Lord.” As I wrote the poem in my hospital bed, I comprehended, perhaps for the first time, what it really means to be a writer. I saw that to write for God means to intermingle one's talent with the elements of the human condition – to bring words to create a magnificent sense of reality so that the Master of the Universe may be glorified and people may put the enigmatic puzzle pieces of life together, in peace. It meant to allow God to write within me, even when my heart so shattered I could barely hold a pen.
The few months after my twins died, I thought I was “good” at grieving. I accepted that they were in Heaven, and distraught as I was, I remained joyful to have little saints to call my own. A month after they died I went to Confession and sought absolution for resenting God, and the priest told me, “I know it is very, very hard. But try to be grateful for what happened. Try to thank him that He gave you the opportunity that so few mothers have – the grace to be like Our Lady of Sorrows.” I allowed his advice to transform me, and I offered my stricken soul up to a higher purpose.
But as the months passed, I began to notice “it” just wouldn't go away, no matter how “good” of a grieving Catholic I tried to be. And, several years later, I find myself still struggling from time to time. Each pregnancy I have after their death is a muddled mix of terror, profound gratitude, and wonder. Unborn lives – so awe-inspiring and mysterious, so pressing into our minds the mystical presence of God the Creator – and yet so vulnerable, so able to be snatched away from us at the most inopportune moments of our earthly journey.
I try to accept that my miscarried babies and my twins are with the Blessed Mother, and pay my respect to the sovereignty of God. I try to believe that great things will come from their deaths. Most days I can do these things, but some days I can't, and I have learned that this is just fine. One time, after receiving Holy Communion I had a picture in my mind of my twins dancing in the prairies of Heaven, with pink dresses on, not connected to one another, not in pain. I know where they are and I know God knew what he was doing when they died.
Still, when it's all said and done, I do wonder – have I grieved like a “good Catholic?” I get envious when I see mothers with lots of children, or with healthy twins. I often wonder, “why me?” I definitely don't have the answer as to how to grieve well, but I have learned a few things. I tend to turn to books for answers to everything life throws at me, but I admit, when it came to these four deaths, there was no turning to books. Ultimately, there was no turning to anything but the clemency of Jesus Christ, and the humility of his Sacred Heart.
When we Catholics grieve, we must do it in union with Christ Crucified and Risen. We should never try to suffer without clinging to Jesus, both in his agony and in his glory. We must put up our white flags of surrender. We need to admit that there are a plethora of mysteries on earth that we will never grasp until we are enjoying the Beatific Vision. And when we grieve, I believe we must not try to do it “well,” or compare our own grief to that of others. There is no formula for grieving; no equation that gets the answer right every time. We must just simply be – simply be in the presence of Our Father and confide in him what is most wounded within us; what resides in the crevices of our wounded hearts. We must accept that it is God who decides who lives and who dies. This is his thing – not ours. And because it is his decision, we must trust that his providence will dig us out of the mounds of grief and bring us to a place of serenity once again.
As St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote:
Well, your child may have departed from you, but he has gone to Christ the Lord. For you his eyes have been shut, but they are opened to the eternal light: he is gone from your table, but is now added to the table of angels. The plant was uprooted from here, but planted in paradise. From the earthly kingdom he was transferred to the heavenly kingdom. You see what was exchanged for what. Are you sad because you no longer see the beauty of the face of your child? But this happens, because you do not see the real beauty of the soul with which he rejoices in the heavenly feast. How beautiful indeed is the eye that sees God! How sweet indeed is the mouth that is adorned with divine melodies!