On the Death of My Niece
Written by: John O'Keefe
Last month my twenty-year-old niece passed away suddenly. I spent ten days with my sister and her family trying to help them through what will likely be the hardest thing they ever have to endure. Perhaps the greatest fear of any parent is that something will happen to their children. Those of us who are parents know our own vulnerability, and we know the suffering that such a loss would cause. My sister and her family are trying to find a way to a new normal, but it is a severe blow and the road will be long. Others who have been through this say that, over time, the acuteness of the suffering will diminish. However, there will always be a wound, and the wound will always ache.
Since the funeral, I have been thinking a lot about the randomness of suffering like this. It strikes where it will and it afflicts some more than others. There seem to be no rhyme or reason to it. Humans have attempted to explain this reality in various ways, and some of the explanations are more satisfying than others. Among the most unsatisfying are those that suggest that God directly wills a particular suffering as a punishment. God is not so petty as that.
In her book Holy the Firm, author Annie Dillard, captures this randomness with a story about a plane crash and the burning of a young girl’s face and neck. “You wake up,” she writes, “and a plane falls out of the sky.” The random event tears a hole is our security, reminding us how vulnerable we actually are. As the story continues, Dillard describes the emotion of those near the crash: “the emergency siren has sounded, causing everyone who didn’t see the plane go down to halt –Patty at her weaving, Jonathan slicing apples, Jan washing her baby’s face –to halt, in pity and terror, wondering which among us got hit, by what bad accident, and why.” We have genuine compassion for the victim, but we are also afraid because we know it could have been us. To reduce the fear we hasten to seal up the rupture in the world that the random event has created, but in the process we may leave the victims alone in their suffering.
In recent weeks I have come to see how fear works against compassion. Compassion requires that we open ourselves to the suffering around us, even if it reminds us of our own vulnerability. A wise friend of mine once said that severe suffering can bring us to what Ignatius called the third degree of humility, a state of deep identification with the suffering of Christ. “We are given that kind of grace,” she said, “only when we need it.” So, we must not live in fear that we won’t be able to cope or endure when it is our turn. No one knows which road they will have to walk and no parent wants to walk a road that includes the loss of a child, but I hear the voice of Christ saying to me loudly and clearly, “be not afraid.” As best as I am able, I will try to walk with my sister and brother-in-law in a spirit of compassionate love that has no room for fear.
Photo: “cemetery” by peterkreder from Flickr (Used under Creative Commons license)