Grief is a terrible thing. It aches, it gnaws, and it can distort both thought and reality. It doesn’t matter if the loss is expected or unexpected, quick or prolonged, the pain of grieving is not unlike a spiraling black hole, threatening to consume our soul.
Often in our anguish, the first instinct is to rage against God, demanding to know why, but never pausing to hear His answer. Next, we rage against anyone or anything else in the firing line, placing blame wherever it will stick. Finally, we rage against ourselves, playing the ‘if only’ card until there is no more fight within us, only our misery and retched despair.
In A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis describes grief as a series of “agonies” and “mad moments” that will run its course then “die away”, leaving us with “just this apathy, this dead flatness.” With its challenges, setbacks and emotional detours, grief is unique to each person, with no set timeline or itinerary for the journey.
From my own experience, emerging on the other side of grief intact both emotionally and spiritually, largely depends on my openness to receiving God’s Grace. Even in the midst of the greatest of sorrows, God is there to help us to heal, bringing us peace and meaning. We only need to open our hearts to see and receive it.
This year marks 17 years since we lost our son EJ, a day forever etched in our hearts. No matter how many years go by, we never stop thinking of our child and the incredible impact of his short life. Though hidden in the veil of my womb, his life was a catalyst for countless graces filled with meaning, that still remain with me to this day.
It was at a time before social media and instant text messaging, with the main avenues for communication still just the telephone and email. As a migrant living in a foreign land, my parents and siblings were an ocean away. Not having my family near, especially my mother and my sister, was incredibly isolating as I traversed the uncharted waters of carrying a critically ill baby.
Not knowing what else to do or how to help from so far way, my mother began sending emails every few days with the subject line “Jesus calling”. Using quotes from Sarah Young’s book Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence, each email was filled with a carefully woven dialogue from Scripture that allowed the Voice of Jesus to speak directly to me.
These messages were a source of strength and hope, and always signed off by my mother with, “You are valued, and you are loved, Mom.”
My face is shining upon you, beaming out Peace that transcends understanding. You are surrounded by a sea of problems, but you are face-to-Face with me, your Peace. As long as you focus on Me, you are safe. If you gaze too long at the myriad of problems around you, you will sink under the weight of your burdens. When you start to sink, simply call out, “Help me, Jesus!” and I will lift you up.
The closer you live to me, the safer you are. Circumstances around you are undulating, and there are treacherous looking waves in the distance. Fix your eyes on Me, the One who never changes. By the time these waves reach you, they will have shrunk to proportion of My design. I am always beside you, helping you face today’s waves. The future is a phantom, seeking to spook you. Laugh at the future! Stay close to Me.
Philippians 4:7; Matthew 14:30; Hebrews 12:2
In response to the “Jesus calling” emails, I began to pour out everything that I was going through in my replies - my fears, my sorrow, my struggle to trust God and not despair. As if speaking directly to Jesus, every line was a mix of prayer and confession that allowed my anguish and doubt to spill out, easing the tide within me. Unbeknown to me, my mother forwarded my emails to everyone she knew, and they in turn forwarded them all over the world. She asked every contact to join her in praying for us and for our baby.
The season of Advent that year became a different and more difficult time of waiting. Being well aware of my child’s poor odds, I lived every day in a perpetual state of agonized anticipation…for one more day, one more heartbeat, one more kick or other sign of continued life.
A few days before Christmas, I wrote to my mother with a special request. It was my wish that each member of our extended family would go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and light a candle in unity and prayer for our child. This wish made its way across the entire globe. Soon, my inbox was flooded with responses from Japan, the USA, South America, Mexico and other parts of the world. Multitudes of strangers were praying and sending me strength, peace and love.
Not only that, people were agreeing to light candles, be it believer, agnostic or atheist, and many in the face of great spiritual and emotional difficulty. Some bravely entered churches, even though it had been years since they had attended the Mass. A cousin, a non-Catholic unable to light a candle at her own church, lit one in her home and kept it burning in prayer. A friend of my mother’s expressed how reading my emails not only brought her to tears, it changed the way she viewed abortion. She could no longer support it.
Most unexpected of all, my sister-in-law, whose lifestyle had kept her away from the Church all her adult life, humbly shared how she had walked to the nearest Catholic church, quietly entered and sat down to pray. This was something she had never thought she would ever do again. Her love for her unborn nephew filled her heart with the courage to honor his life in this way. It was a great gift.
Though I was desperate for God to intervene and spare the life of my son, I had to let go and trust in His Will. My only hope during this time, was that I would be able to hold my child, no matter the outcome. Some years earlier, a dear friend had the devastating experience of going into early labor, then being whisked off to emergency surgery while her premature son was rushed to the pediatric ICU. Her baby died before she ever got to see or hold him. This became my greatest fear and my most fervent prayer. I longed to hold him in my arms.
When my son died in the womb just before the 37-week mark, I was sent home to wait for my body to labor naturally. I called my parents, and my dad answered the phone. Patiently, he listened to the news and allowed me to cry. I will always be grateful for his loving and compassionate tone, his voice filled with concern for the daughter he longed to embrace.
Next, we rang our priest, Fr. G., who dropped everything to be with us. He sat with us at the kitchen table, guided us in prayer, supported our older children with their questions, helped us to understand what we were feeling, and most of all, gave us permission to grieve.
Two days later, my body did what was expected, and I gave birth in a private hospital room with the help of a physically and emotionally numbing epidural. Not long after, Fr. G arrived along with my husband’s parents, siblings and their families. There, in that small room, we held our son, took quiet photos, and shared in his anointing.
Later, that same friend who never got the chance to hold her own son, came to see me. Everyone else had gone, with just EJ and me alone in the room. My friend experienced great healing that day as she held my baby for over an hour, sharing in my sorrow, loving and mourning my child as if he were her own.
With the support of Fr. G., a full funeral service was arranged for our baby. Before the service, my husband and our three children visited privately with EJ at the funeral home. Together we said the Rosary, then each placed a personal memento inside the small white casket. When my eldest daughter became overcome with emotion and could not bring herself to leave her gift, my husband held her close and together they gently placed a cherished family photo near her brother’s heart. As we left, our 14-year-old son said, “I’m really glad we did that. It was nice to say good-bye.”
As we approached the church steps, I closed my eyes and prayed to all our guardian angels to look after and entertain our two-year-old during the next hour, so that I would be able to get through the difficult task ahead. Remarkably, they listened. Our daughter was kept busy throughout the entire service. Everyone marveled at her tiny whispers and antics, walking along the alter, giggling softly, and looking like she was actually playing with someone else. When she eventually got a little too boisterous, I simply said, “Ok that’s enough.” Without a word or fuss, she came and sat down next to me and quietly ate the sandwich I’d packed for her.
Afterwards, several guests came to me, overflowing with emotion and tears, telling me how witnessing our family today, and our strong Faith, had filled their hearts with a desire to return to the Church. I was surprised and moved to hear this but could only nod and squeeze their hands in reply.
When most had left and only a few loved ones remained, we let off blue and white helium balloons in the garden behind the church hall, each with a tiny rose bud tied to its ribbon. There we stood quietly gazing at the sky, watching our balloons slowly rise above the trees before fading from sight.
Then, out of nowhere one solitary blue balloon turned and floated back down directly to me, the tiny rose bud coming to a gentle rest in my hand. None of the other balloons fell or lost their speed.
Just this one. Just for me.