AS A YOUNG Catholic wife, when I opened my heart to the Lord’s plan for our family life and the children God had in store for us, I immediately began to imagine the life that lay ahead. I imagined the announcements of pregnancies and the reactions of others.
I imagined my belly swollen with life as I grabbed the hands of active toddlers in parks and playgrounds. I imagined a table full of little ones, heads bowed as we prayed grace before meals.
I thought about all those little bodies bathed and dressed in printed pajamas, snuggled peacefully in bed for the night. I practiced responses to the shocked faces in the grocery store, and I prepared for the challenges those grocery trips would present.
As the Lord began to reveal his plan for our family, I prayed through each pregnancy, grateful for the opportunity to bear another little soul for God’s glory. I offered myself and this growing little one to him without reserve. Never once did I regret my decision to leave the plan for our family in the Lord’s hands through the wisdom of the Catholic Church.
As I became the mother to five little boys in 10 years, that plan played itself out pretty much the way I had imagined. My journey as the mother of a growing Catholic family had brought with it all the joys and challenges I had imagined, as well as many, many others. I grew in my faith more than I would have ever guessed. My marriage had been blessed, and my heart was overwhelmed at God’s generosity over and over again.
When my husband, sons and I found ourselves expecting our sixth son 12 years into our marriage, I was full of joy. I was overwhelmed at God’s surprising and sweet plan for our family. He had written the script for this life I got to live every day, and it was a life that I loved.
In my dreams of our family life, the one thing I had never expected was sorrow. In all my prayers to offer little souls to God, one thing I had never considered was that God might ask me to give one back before I was ready.
Challenged by Loss
Grief, heartache, such intense sorrow—those were not in the plan, at least as I had envisioned it. But three short months after we welcomed our sixth son into our family, he was called home to heaven as he slept.
Within weeks after Bryce’s death, we were surprised to find ourselves expectant with another little life. And then, that little one was also called back into God’s arms before we ever got the chance to meet him, due to a late miscarriage. Suddenly, my motherhood was defined not by the expectant joy I had always known, but by loss, sorrow and grief.
I had walked a long and rigorous faith journey before coming to this point in my life, and I considered my relationship with the Lord a strong and intimate one.
But the faith journey that followed our losses was one that challenged me to my core. I had offered the Lord my childbearing years as a gift. I had trusted the wisdom of my Church in accepting babies as a blessing from the Lord. And I had never been disappointed in that wisdom.
But now I was stunned by the reality that God had written a much different story than I had expected. I was shocked, confused and even angry at this seemingly unfair twist in our life’s story.
Relying on Faith
In the very early days after our infant son died, I was deeply consoled by the accumulated wisdom of the Church, by our healing rites and the pastoral care of loving priests and my Catholic community. I was not disappointed in my faith. It upheld me when I was not sure I could stand. It gave me the strength to do things I thought I could not do. And there was deep consolation in the thought of being chosen to add a little saint to the Church Triumphant.
But it was difficult to accept the reality that God had chosen me to return my little ones to him long before I was ready. Yet, through the precious gift of faith, I held on to the knowledge that when I decided so early in my married life to entrust my family to God, he had designed the family that gave us all the very best chance to reach our goal, which is to spend eternity in heaven with God.
In that plan, I was to know some of life’s greatest joys, but I was also to know some of life’s greatest sorrows. The journey to learn to live again in faith and hope after such devastating losses was long and painful.
I had to learn to accept that, even without understanding all the “whys” of this plan, I could still walk in grace, knowing that if I let the Heavenly Father lead the way, he would lead in love. He would lead in mercy. This was still God’s story to write.
I had come this far. I needed to persevere now to the end, because the one part of the story my faith had assured me of was the happy ending, the eternal bliss of heaven.
As the days after my losses stretched into weeks and months, life began to resume its normal pace. The challenge for me became to learn how to balance the life I was called to live, to carry this heavy cross of sorrow in the midst of a life full of joy. There were still tummies to be tickled and stories to be told, trips to be taken and laughter to be shared.
I soon learned that the most courageous thing a grieving heart must do is learn to be joyful again.
Mary as My Guide
But joy came, and again I gave in to the Lord’s plan, and let him write the story. I took great inspiration from the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus. She too had been called to live a life of both great joy and the greatest of sorrows. I marveled that many of the mysteries we as Catholics meditate on as the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary are also included among the Seven Sorrows of Mary.
The Blessed Mother, in her perfect faith, showed perfect courage—courage to accept the joy in the sorrow, courage to see the beauty of the eternal reality when the earthly reality seemed so harsh. I continued to walk the journey of faith and to learn to accept this new and difficult dimension of God’s plan for my life with Mary as my guide and model.
A Rose and Its Thorns
One warm spring afternoon almost a year after I had welcomed my sixth son into the world, and nearly nine months after his unexpected death, I found myself working in my rose garden. I worked steadily, tearing away a year’s worth of overgrowth to reveal the hint of gorgeous color still encased
in green buds, uncovering the hope of new life that spring brings.
I draped the tendrils up hidden lattices and guided their climbing. I pulled away the ugliness of winter weeds and drew attention to the beauty that had been planted there. I had already been working for quite some time when I realized I was not wearing gloves.
Something had compelled me to dig in to those bushes without the protection my garden gloves offered, and to feel every prick and scratch those thorns could mete out. I knew that there was something in that relationship between the rose and its thorns, the beauty and the pain, that resembled my life of joy and sorrow. Something in me needed to feel the sting of the thorns as I uncovered the sweet promise of those buds and to process this whole relationship.
I turned the questions over in my head while I dug my arms in, pulling them out quickly with each little stab. I worked the whole weekend, embracing sorrow like a longtime friend who had stood by my side from afar in my darkest hours. I gave up the faulty notion that one day all grief will be gone. I will heal. But sorrow is a permanent resident in my heart.
A New Perspective
That day in the garden, as I prayed for the grace to accept the plan the Lord had written for my life, I began to see this story with new eyes. I began to see it as the story of two sisters. Yes, like my roses and their thorns, sorrow and joy inhabit my soul as sisters.
There is room for both, though at times it may seem a little crowded. Each sister needs tending, to be guided, to be pruned back and supported well in order to grow to her full potential, to produce the loveliest blooms.
As time has passed, I have learned to let these sisters work out their relationship with acceptance and resignation. As different as they are from one another, for the most part, they share the space in my soul in relative peace. I would not have written this second sister into the script, but my Heavenly Father has determined that in my life’s story, joy shall have a sister and her name shall be sorrow.
The pricks of my roses’ thorns in the garden that spring afternoon gave tangible reality to my experience of grief in faith. I find a way to move forward each day.
Embracing Joy and Sorrow
Joy blooms in my family, in birthdays and holidays and everyday celebrations of the sweetness of life raising children. The joy of married life perfumes my soul.
Just as often, there is the prick of grief, the scraping pain of sorrow. And then its sting, the burn that lingers while I wipe back tears. These are humbling moments. They come when I don’t expect it. They cause me to lose track of the conversation I was having or suddenly walk away from something purposeful I was doing. They leave me raw and unsteady in the midst of an ordinary activity.
Sorrow’s pricks humble me because they make me realize how much grief has changed me. I am not always sure I like this child called sorrow.
An Ongoing Story
While I was quite sure in my early imaginings that it was joy who was to be the main character in my story, the Heavenly Father, in a wisdom I cannot claim to understand, determined that instead my story will be a story of sisters, sisters welcomed in faith into my soul, a story of pain and beauty, roses and thorns. And while the story’s ending is yet to be told, my faith assures that it has already been written by the cross of Christ and his glorious resurrection.
And so, as I move forward, I keep looking to the Lord to guide these soul sisters, to tend them well and to make room for them to share my attention in peace and faithful companionship, the way they did in the heart of his own mother.
I remember those early days, when I put my future and the future of my family into the Lord’s hands. There is much to this story I had not imagined, as there is in each person’s story of faith. But, in turning the story of our lives over to him, we discover unexpected gifts.
As I allow the Lord to continue to write the story of joy and sorrow that he has chosen for me—the story of my soul sisters—I discover that he has never left these sisters on their own, never left them untended. They are always guided by their mother—a compassionate and gentle character whom God calls Grace.