Man cannot truly find himself, except through a sincere gift of self.
We learned from John Paul II that to love truly is not only to will the good of the beloved but also to be willing to give of oneself, to sacrifice oneself, to that end. There is no title or status change when a parent loses a child. Until recent history and place, parenthood was synonymous with loss. Indeed it still is. From birth when they are no longer protected in the womb, to the first time they fall, to the two-year-old insistence that only one parent may help with shoes, to the four-year urge for independence “I can do it myself” to the age when they really and truly can. Or, more painfully, the first illness, the first injury, the first hospital visit, and the first terrible day when you think of what could have happened, and thankfully did not.
A year and a half ago, we faced for the first time, the knowledge that a child of ours would have a birth defect. Following the birth of Peter, we faced our first NICU visit, first ER visit, first long hospital stay, first fear of losing our child, first surgeries, first inherited genetic mutation, and first understanding that this could have happened with any of our children and future children. But we also faced our first cleft smile, which is the biggest and brightest full-faced smile you can imagine, first easy going baby, first baby to self-soothe bringing some much needed nighttime relief. No cup of suffering came without the relief and joy of meeting this boy and knowing him and living with him in our family.
We were changed by these early experiences. Armed with the strength of the previous year, we learned of a diagnosis much worse than what we already knew. At 18 weeks pregnant, I could see the sonogram images were not as they should be. Our baby girl had anencephaly, a condition that develops in the early weeks of pregnancy, in which the child does not grow a brain. In my womb, she could continue to grow to full term, be born naturally, and then pass peacefully away. Guided by the Catholic Church’s teaching, we came to understand her life should not be cut short. Over the course of pregnancy Celeste Casey became part of the fabric of this family. “Celeste in mommy’s tummy” entered the canon of toddler speech. To their joy or bewilderment, the older children felt her kick. We experienced an even greater outpouring of love then we had already known.
There has been much grieving in this family this year. In the summer, the loss of a Grandma P, who lived a long-lived life surrounded by 3 children, 13 grandchildren, and many great-grandchildren. In the winter, the untimely death of our brother, Trevor, a man full of potential and love. And now it is spring, and now the death of Celeste who went from the peace and security of the womb straight to the arms of the Father to join her two other siblings lost through miscarriage. With the saints of God, she will pray for this family, she will care for us, as we ached to care for her.
Richard John Neuhaus wrote, “At the heart of darkness the hope of the world is dying on a cross, and the longest stride of the soul is to see in this a strange glory… The cross is not the eclipse of that glory but its shining forth, its epiphany.”
There is no title for a parent who has lost a child. The grief that comes with faithfulness is built into the definition of mother and father.
We will walk forward in the mystery of life with the joy and suffering that it brings, and will one day, in the hope of God, find meaning in it all.