I was bouncing our 15-month-old son up and down in the narthex of our parish to keep him from crying. We were standing in front of a huge stained glass window depicting a scene of Jesus surrounded by a group of young children. And I found myself focused on that window, silently screaming at Our Lord for the darkness he had allowed into our lives.
Just two days before, my wife, three children, and I walked out of what was supposed to be an exciting ultrasound appointment, with the most devastating news we had ever been handed: Our unborn son, the brand new baby brother of our three older boys, was going to die.
It’s a dizzying, confusing, out-of-body experience when you’re sitting in front of a doctor with your innocent children crowded around you as you are told, in cold medical terms, that your unborn son is facing a diagnosis incompatible with life. There are no words to adequately explain the destruction you feel in the depths of your soul when you are told that your son will most likely die within minutes of his birth.
The only thing I can think to say is that I wished I could have died, and I mean that both in terms of wishing and praying that I could have died in his place, and also simply in terms of overwhelmingly feeling that I just wanted to be dead because the pain felt like infinitely more than I possibly could handle.
And so I found myself, two excruciating days later, trying to comfort my blissfully unaware 15-month-old in the back of a Church I didn’t want to be at, barely able to contain my raging anger at the supposedly all-loving God who permitted this heartbreak.
After his birth, baptism, and death, I answered well-meaning friends and family who frequently referred to the joys of heaven our son was now experiencing, that I would rather have him here with me than in heaven with God. Two and a half years later, I still feel that sentiment every single day. I feel it in the depths of my soul: I don’t care how beautiful and perfect heaven is, I want my son.
My wife’s friend recently introduced us to a soon-to-be-saint that she thought we’d instantly feel connected to, as good Catholic friends quite often do, through a biography titled A Witness to Joy. Servant of God Chiara Corbella Petrillo experienced the death of her first two children, only to be stricken with cancer while pregnant with her third. She bravely sacrificed herself for the sake of her son, and died soon after his birth. She and her husband walked the valley of tears my wife and I knew so well, and walked it with an incredibly inspiring holiness that can only be described as saintly.
Within the pages of her biography, a quote from her husband Enrico has stuck in my soul ever since I came across it, speaking so directly to my desire to have my son here in my arms rather than in the arms of our Lord in heaven, as well as to my intense and fervent prayers for my son to be miraculously healed at the time my wife was carrying him for the remainder of her pregnancy:
“One may ask for a cure for his illnesses, but the one who demands a cure has lost his way. Here, it is Satan who is speaking to you of God. But truly he cannot speak of God; he can only try to hide from you that you are a child of God. The fact that Jesus Christ is in heaven tells you that you are a child of God. What Satan does not let you see is eternity, which comes after. He obscures your view, so that you see solely this world; he does not speak to you of God but of a half god. He has deceived you.”
I think about this all the time, this greatest lie of the devil, obscuring eternity from us so that we only think of what we can sense, see, and experience in the here and now. As I look back on the loss of our son, and indeed every moment of suffering in my life, I realize that my reaction of fighting the cross and praying for the pain to be removed is a direct result of my inability to see beyond this world.
In John 16:33, Jesus presents us with a similar point: “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” And yet, as I live my day-to-day life, the perception that this is all there is becomes engrained in me all the more. I allow myself to become so wrapped up in the business of life here on earth that the truth of eternal life, the truth of unimaginable happiness and joy with God, the truth of heaven itself becomes blurred. It’s as if I know that heaven exists, but I don’t live and accept God’s providence in a way that shows I know heaven exists.
As Enrico Petrillo points out, this is the devil’s greatest deception: This half god that he speaks of holds us back from abandoning ourselves to God’s providence, keeps us from praying in a way that recognizes the reality of a life beyond what we see, and leads us to beg for and expect relief from the crosses God permits in our lives because we can’t possibly begin to see how they prepare us for heaven.
For my wife and I, the death of our son shattered the devil’s lie. Despite starting our journey filled with anger, heartbreak, and doubting God’s love, we have come to a point in our journey where heaven feels closer and more real than ever. Our relationship with our sweet son isn’t at all what we dreamed for, but instead has become something infinitely more powerful for us. Through his life, his death, and his intercession, I truly believe we are more dedicated to holiness than ever before. We want nothing more than to live a life worthy of being reunited with him; to hold him, to kiss his sweet head, and be whole once again.
And once we break through the devil’s greatest lie, we can finally see that this is the most important undertaking imaginable.
Tommy Tighe is a Catholic husband and father of five boys. You can find out more about him at CatholicHipster.com.