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God Squad: Talking with those who mourn

Q: Just yesterday, my daughter’s friend gave birth to a baby who died immediately. The parents were medically prepared for this event because of a genetic problem that was present, but no one is ever prepared emotionally. Other than generic words of comfort, is there a good way to pay respect to little ones and their parents, especially from long distance? Should it be in writing or by phone? – V., Miller Place

A: My experience with mourners is that any expression of sympathy, however generic, is appreciated. I encourage you to call or write this mother a note of condolence. If writing to a stranger about such a tragedy seems inappropriately intimate to you, ask your daughter about charities her friend supports and make a donation in honor of her deceased child.

If the child died of a particular disease, funding research to prevent other children from suffering and dying from the same problem is a noble act and avoids feigned intimacy. If the parents are Catholic, a Mass card is an appropriate commemoration of an unanticipated passing. Flowers and food are always possibilities, although I’m not a big fan of living things or sweet things when all the world seems dead and sour.

Beyond your particular question about mourning the death of an infant, these are some of the hard-learned lessons I’ve taken into my soul from mourners who were either understanding or upset about my attempts to comfort them:

I have an unfortunate professional habit of trying to explain things that cannot be explained. When my dear friend Father Tom Hartman was well, we were often called upon to appear on television after some catastrophe and explain how a good God could have allowed such suffering. I told him that we were becoming what I called “catastrophologists.”

Such attempts at theodicy – justifying God in the face of evil – fall flat when brought into a house of mourning. The mourners don’t want to hear some facile sermon about how their misery is really part of God’s plan. What they want and desperately need is the simple and caring presence of friends, family and clergy in their time of brokenness. Silence is just fine. Explanations are almost always wrong.

Particularly galling are the death clichés. Don’t say to the bereaved parents, “Your daughter is in heaven with God.” This is true, but it’s usually not helpful. Mourners are not selfish, but at the beginning of their grief, they’re self-absorbed, and hearing some theological naif tell them that their little girl is with God – and not with them – makes their pain more intense.

They may even suspect that the life of their child in heaven is easier than it was here on earth, but they’re the ones stuck here and the ones who are totally bereft. They are the ones who need healing now. Remember that heaven is not meant to be a compensation for life tragically cut short. Heaven is an act of eternal and saving love, mercy and grace.

“Don’t worry; everything will be all right” may be the worst of the worst death clichés. Mourners know that everything will not be all right, if “all right” means that life before the death of their loved one will be completely restored. What is true is that perhaps, in time, with prayer, love and courage, mourners will come through their grief work and construct a new life with new possibilities for joy and love.

God doesn’t promise to protect us from evil, but to be with us in our journey through evil times into a truth that exists only at the far end of sorrow. This is why the best and only words of comfort I encourage are these four: “May God comfort you.” It’s not always the truth, but it can always become the truth.

The best nonreligious wisdom about death I’ve ever read is this from the great poet Mary Oliver:

“To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing that your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”