Friday April 22nd is international Earth Day but I’m only vaguely aware of this. There is no space in me now for the wider world because my whole being is focused on the patch of earth in front of me - the grave that receives the white coffin of a two year old girl. This is our Earth Day and, though it may seem small in the context of the whole world, it is also bigger and more important than all the earth. This patch of earth, this grave has previously received her brother who died 11 years ago aged three months and their sister who died only two months ago at the age of four. How can two parents bear such sorrow?
My two young nieces were talking in the back of the car last week, talking about heaven. Laura, the younger, said “If I died and went to heaven I’d have no family.” And Katie said straight away, “But Laura, Jesus is your brother and God is your Father and Mary is your mother.” They are aged 5 and 7 and they always have the knack of putting me in touch with some truth about life.
It’s easy for a child to speak these words because, thanks be to God, she doesn’t yet know the pain of grief. But today we are brought face to face with this reality in the life of this little girl - she is at home with the Holy Family, safe in the arms of Jesus and Mary, with God in heaven. And she is with her brother and sister. But that’s not where we want her to be and that is the grief of her parents that she is no longer here, that she is the third child lost to them. It's too much and it leaves us with a lot of questions.
At the funeral two months ago I thought I had seen the worst of all sorrow, never dreaming we would be here today to witness an even greater sorrow. The worst of sorrows that the whole family is going through. A sorrow that will never leave even though they will learn to live with it in some way.
Visiting the family in Crumlin hospital over the past week I found myself repeatedly asking God to take my life and spare the child. It was not to be, but everything in me wanted to spare her parents this unbearable cross. They have a very special place in my heart, I can say I feel a great love for them and I would do anything to take away the pain.
My prayer was not rational and I never stopped to consider the effect my death might have on those who love me. This was the prayer of my gut and every bit of my gut meant it.
All God seemed to be saying is what Jesus said to Mary in John 11:40, “have I not told you, if only you believe you will see the glory of God?” I hoped against hope that the child would recover. Her grandmother said, “we have to hope!” Every little movement of the child made us hope. But if the glory of God is to be seen, it will not be in the recovery of the child.
The time came for the life support to be switched off. An impossible moment.
The question is asked in a parent's prayer:
“How can it be that my beloved child is gone? The child I cared for with such concern in every way, the one I held close to my heart and promised to care of for a lifetime, is not here for me to care for anymore.”
I have seen great love in action in the home of this couple - their love for each other, their great and tender love for their children.
And what Jesus says in the gospel is what they have done as parents, “Whoever welcomes a child like this welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the, one who sent me.”
In giving birth to your child you did a very godly thing and you welcomed Jesus into your lives in a very special way; in loving her all of you the family, did a godly and holy thing. And what she did was to show you the face of God, though you might not have realized it.
This beautiful girl, incredibly beautiful even in death! This beautiful child with her big blue eyes - eyes that were very deep, like she knew something more. She was beautiful and happy, loved music, moving to the music, going to play school.
But she also looked puzzled, bewildered around the death of her sister and how she missed her and couldn’t understand what had happened to Sophie or why.
One thing I saw in Heidi that really inspired me was how connected she was to her parents in their grief, how she somehow wanted to console them and take away their tears. She climbed up onto her mother’s lap, put her two arms around her neck and then rubbed her back to comfort her. A child with maturity way beyond her years, with the caring instinct of an adult, instinct of a mother, a rare sensitivity . Not only did she show the face of God but she also showed the tender mercy of God.
I was talking to a friend of mine trying to make sense of Heidi’s death and he said that she is spared the sufferings of life and because she is a pure soul then she will be able to help more from heaven. That doesn’t solve the pain of separation but maybe there’s some consolation in knowing that she can help; that somehow through the windows of heaven there is a connection.
I’m not in any position to give you advice because your loss is just too far beyond anything I have ever witnessed or experienced but I came across a website on the internet yesterday and it tells the story of a couple who lost three of their children to cancer - the third died in February just 10 days before Sophie. Erin Mading the mother of these children says this,
“Grief can make you feel like you're going crazy. Never give up hope. You don’t know how strong you are. Everyone has this strength inside of them”
“You will make it through...slowly the intense, unbearable pain will start to diminish....and you will be able to breathe again! You can make it through...one moment, one second, one minute and one day at a time!! You are never alone.” (Erin Mading)
Finally, I want to say thanks to the hundreds of people who have been praying since Heidi got sick. There is a great community in Shankill and it is our responsibility to support the family through all of this. Support means that we give them the help that they actually need and also that we give them the space and privacy that they need. It requires sensitivity to get it right. But we can with the help of God.
"Lead, Kindly Light, amidst the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
Upon this patch of earth, this grave, the sun shines and roses fall; white doves and pink balloons rise upwards to the sky. And songs are sung that show her running in fields of gold and God watching from a distance.