In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, a spate of essays and meditations have appeared on unthinkable loss, and specifically on what it's like to lose a child or children. Just a few generations ago, prior to the 1950s, before medical science greatly improved survival rates from birth and youthful illnesses, losing a son or daughter was a commonplace experience. One of the reasons families were so large was that parents simply did not expect all of their children to survive until adulthood. Parents simply had to stoically accept the nearly inevitable death of children. Life then was -- and still is for far too many people in the developing world -- mostly cruel, unjust, short, and almost inevitably tragic.
Surprisingly, America's deadliest school violence on record was not Sandy Hook or Columbine, but Bath, Michigan in 1927. As pointed out in this Christian Science Monitor article, a local farmer and school board member, for reasons that are still not fully understood, stashed dynamite into the town's school, killing 38 children and seven adults. Instead of weeks of 24-hour national and international media coverage of the event, there was no media frenzy. After about three days of newspaper coverage, the story essentially disappeared from the national consciousness. There was little public grieving or angst-ridden expressions about a national culture of violence, and no mental health counselors to assist survivors.
Instead of "letting it out," putting expression to their pain, parents of that era were expected to hold in their grief, repress, compartmentalize, accept with steely determination, or deny their feelings and recite religious mantras such as "God does not give us burdens we cannot bear." If mothers or fathers succumbed to melancholia, it was seen as weakness, not widely talked about nor fully understood.
Journalist Arnie Bernstein dug into archives and interviewed survivors for a book about the tragedy. "They didn't talk about it, period," Bernstein told the Monitor. "They were farmers, and they had to go back to work. Your cow couldn't take a day off for a tragedy...When I came in, it had been eight decades, and nobody had talked about it. It was just this scar on the land."
Today, however, with smaller families in the developed world and widespread faith in the miracles of modern medicine, we no longer assume that our lives will inevitably hold tragic elements. For a child to die before a parent does seems utterly unnatural. When it does occur, it's absolutely devastating. Novelist Ann Hood captured the despair well in her article, " The death of a child: A parent’s worst nightmare."
"Everything happens for a reason." BULL**** ... "God has a greater plan for Ronan." BULL****. "Ronan wants to go home, where he belongs, to Heaven" ... Who the **** came up with these sayings because the next person I hear say them to me is going to get punched in the face."
Ronan, just fours old, died on May 9, 2011. For months, Maya told NPR, she prayed she would simply die. "I went through a very long period of not caring about myself or anybody around me," she says. "But to come out of that, I almost feel like I've been reborn again. And you either let this pain kill you or you let it make you stronger. I mean, it's a choice."
Maya Thompson's blog attracted millions of readers, including singer Taylor Swift, who asked Maya to co-author a song about her son. NPR reports that Taylor Swift performed "Ronan," based on Maya Thompson's blog, at the Stand Up To Cancer benefit concert in September 2012. Maya set up a foundation in memory of her son that has so far raised more than half a million dollars for cancer research.
Among grieving parents, one of the most articulate is Linton Weeks, a national correspondent for NPR Digital News. He and his wife Jan Taylor Weeks created the Stone and Holt Weeks Foundation to honor their beloved sons who died in an auto accident in 2009. Here's Linton Weeks' NPR commentary, "When Someone You Know Loses A Child." And his earlier commentary, "Now We Are Alone: Living On Without Our Sons."
Some parents understandably lose their religion when God "allows" their child(ren) to die. How could a loving God let this happen? The searching, tortured questions as to "why" are deeper than any pat or formulaic answers that can be given.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd on Christmas Day published a column titled, "Why, God?" She mostly quotes from a meditation by Father Kevin O'Neil, a family friend who had ministered to her brother Michael as he died from pneumonia. Father O'Neil had no answers, "no absolute bag of proof" to the question of "Why?" And even if he had answers, he doubts that's what people are looking for as they confront tragic circumstances and loss.
"Suffering isolates us. Loving presence brings us back, makes us belong." he writes. "I don't expect comfort to come from afar. I really do believe that God enters the world through us. And even though I still have the “Why?” questions, they are not so much “Why, God?” questions. We are human and mortal. We will suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not."
The whole column is worth a read, as well as the thoughtful reactions from readers with diverse religious (and irreligious) perspectives.
The notion that shared suffering in community can lift people out of the depression of meaningless loss is a common theme in many religions. From a Christian perspective, God, too, lost or sacrificed His only son; He accompanies and grieves with parents at the cross. In the words of Mary Luti, Visiting Professor of Worship and Preaching at Andover Newton Theological School, the cross offers "a common lot. It is the gathering place for all the world's sorrows, all its wasted efforts, all its murdered children, its violence and catastrophe, its indifference, its evasive posturing and political cowardice, and all its stupefied silences. Sooner or later life deposits us all at the cross.
"When we arrive at its foot, we discover its gift—a durable hope that comes not from assurances that the sun will come up tomorrow, or from the truth that God grieves with us, or even from our faith in a risen Lord; but simply from having a place to go; a place to gather so that we will not be alone, so that we will not get lost, when the pain is unspeakable and the sorrow beyond all bearing."