Editor’s note: The first two articles by Father John Bayer on miscarriage initially contained a typo in the email address for firstname.lastname@example.org. This third article contains the correct address.
By Father John Bayer, O. Cist.
Special to The Texas Catholic
This is my third column in a series on the premature death of children. In the first, I reflected on the beautiful witness offered by these little souls. In the second, I began to reflect on their parents and the heroic witness they offer. In this last one, I want to broach a very difficult topic — the feelings of guilt that sometimes plague parents as they wonder if they could have done something differently.
In my experience, one of the most difficult aspects of being a priest and teacher is the thought that my actions have had negative effects on others. Whether my failures are moral (e.g., my impatience with someone who deserves my time and compassion) or just accidental (e.g., my lack of omniscience and inability to thread the needle to say exactly what each person in a congregation or classroom needs to hear), it is difficult to accept that my weaknesses can lead others to suffer. As a priest, my life should be a blessing to others. It can be a great challenge to accept my failures. I know parents can experience something similar, especially when the ones they fear to have harmed are their children. We can easily get lost wondering how much we might be responsible whenever children suffer. I know I have heard parents wondering, sometimes many years later, about whether their child is suffering from a decision they once made.
Parents who suffer miscarriage, still-birth, or infant loss can ask themselves the same questions — and it can be very painful.
I would encourage parents to cast aside the temptation to think we are morally responsible for all our physical weaknesses, or for the accidents of our lives as human beings. As creatures, we are vulnerable in so many ways beyond our awareness and control: genetics, environment, and even diet and behavior – all this and more affects us in ways we should not pretend to be able to analyze exhaustively. There are so many factors to a healthy pregnancy. Trying to identify the specific cause of losing a baby can leave our minds perpetually spinning. But the truth is, we are not omniscient. We can only do our best and trust God. If you find your mind racing, know that you are not alone. When we suffer any tragedy, it is very common to seek an explanation. In ways that leave me marveling, we pilgrims want so urgently to understand the ‘why’ behind what has happened, that we are even ready to latch onto explanations that unreasonably put us at fault. Perhaps it is because ‘explanations’ that leave me at fault are explanations that promise me control, or the ability to make sure such a tragedy will never happen again.
Rather than unfairly blaming ourselves, let us learn from Job to wrestle with God. Remember the story. Job was innocent. He did nothing to deserve what he suffered. It might seem scandalous at first, but God really does sometimes let the innocent suffer for a benevolent reason that we hope one day to comprehend. In the meantime, we should encourage each other to be patient and humble, and that means we must accept – for now – to go without an answer. When Job’s friends visit him in his agony, they presumptuously try to block his righteous cries to God for an answer by ‘explaining’ to him the reason he is suffering – they accuse him of direct culpability. But they’re wrong. Job did not sin. God allowed his suffering for a different reason, and so it was actually blasphemous against God for them to badger Job as they did. Divine justice is greater than karma or any tit-for-tat scheme of action and reaction. At the end of the story, God defends His glory and the exaltation of His benevolent wisdom at the same time he defends Job’s holy desire to understand, through tears, the reason behind his suffering. To Eliphaz and his two friends, who have been accusing Job, God shouts, “My anger blazes against you and your two friends! You have not spoken rightly concerning me, as has my servant Job!” (Job 42:7).
When we are tempted to latch onto unreasonable accusations out of our holy desire to explain or understand, let us recognize what is happening. And then let us choose instead to grieve honestly, and even to shout our questions at God. There is a pious way of shouting. It is marked by humility and trust, but it is also marked by the passion that belongs to a heart that wants to know ‘why’ — that wants to share in God’s benevolent wisdom.
We should keep this in mind when we try to console grieving parents. We should communicate our sympathy, perhaps through a small gift in honor of the child, like an ornament or card on the date the child was lost, or the due date. Especially when emotions are so primal and immediate, we should be careful with our words. It can be hard for us not to speak, because when we see someone suffering, we often want, understandably, to “fix” it, but silent prayer is far better than clichés or anything like what Job’s friends said.
If you or parents you know are suffering the premature death of a child, know that there are ministries and resources, such as Mary’s Mantle (email@example.com) and those listed on the websites of the Catholic Pro-Life Community and Natural Womanhood.
Father John Bayer, O. Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving.