My heart is heavy today. The older brother of a classmate of my twins died very suddenly yesterday. I learned about it on Facebook (what a world we live in!); details are still emerging, but apparently it had something to do with his heart, and although I’m not sure, what I’m gathering is that he was not known to have had a heart condition, so it makes the shock of someone so young and apparently vital dying all the more unsettling. He was 14 years old.
I do not know the family. I know the little girl in Daisy and Annabelle’s class by sight, and her mom and I exchange greetings when we pass each other on the way to or from school, but that’s the extent of it. So I can’t stake a claim of personal grief – and yet, hearing about anyone losing a child brings on grief, doesn’t it? It is unfathomable to me what this family must be experiencing right now. I asked Kevin if he knew the boy, because although they attended different high schools and were a grade apart, they would have attended elementary school together. Kevin didn’t know him, but when I told him what happened, he said, “Let’s be thankful that everyone in our family is alive and healthy.” He’s right, of course. And yet, to think that, to feel that, feels cheap in a way. As if to say, “I’m thankful that happened to someone else and not us.” To believe that somehow, fate has favored us above them.
Inevitably, sentiments of faith are being expressed on Facebook regarding this tragedy. The faithful believe that he’s with Jesus now, that he’s in a better place, that God needed him more than his family did.
The usefulness of faith is perhaps never more apparent than in times of grieving. Holding onto such beliefs offers comfort in a time of great turmoil and pain. If one really believes those things – that there is a better place after this earthly life, that a wise and merciful god is merely carrying out his divine plan – it can dull the pain of astounding loss. It can make it all seem as if there is a good reason behind it – a purpose. And the faithful are comforted also by the belief that they will one day meet their loved one again in the Great Beyond.
But faith has another side to it.
When my dad died almost fourteen years ago – I was still a believer then – I agonized for months about where my dad’s soul had ended up. He was agnostic, and to my knowledge, never “accepted Jesus Christ as his savior,” and so, based on what I was taught, his soul must have gone to hell. Images of torture and fire and eternal cries of agony tortured me. On the other hand, I had also been taught that God is compassionate and merciful, and so I argued with myself, “God loves everyone, he wouldn’t send someone to hell who was, underneath many flaws, a decent human being.” And so I tried to believe that Dad went to heaven. I went back and forth for a long, long time. It was probably one of the more painful aspects of losing my dad so suddenly – the not knowing where he ended up. Finally, I decided that of course he went to heaven. Because that’s what I needed to believe to get through the grief and go on. I would see him again one day after my earthly life was over, and that was all there was to it. Because I needed to believe that, I could adjust my beliefs accordingly. Faith seems to work that way.
I look back on that time now and feel something close to anger and disgust that I had to expend so much energy and time worrying and agonizing over the final resting place of my dad’s soul – all thanks to my faith, which had mostly been spoon fed to me.
We are all born and we all die, and between being born and dying, we all experience sorrow and loss and pain, as well as joy. That is the natural order of things – that is life. It seems that, were there any fairness at all though, no parent should ever have to bury a child. That seems atrociously unfair and unnatural. And yet, it happens all the time, all over the world. So we try to make sense of it the best we can, and we take comfort wherever we can.