What Our Lady of Sorrows Can Teach Suffering Parents
As soon as our first daughter was born, I felt a terrible weight I’d never known before. It burdened my heart when I wondered about Felicity’s safety every night as Ben and I tucked her in her crib, when I was away from her and left her in the care of a babysitter so that I could go to the grocery, and any time she ran outside away from the safety of my arms.
Becoming a parent means that one’s cross deepens in unexpected ways. We rejoice at the news of a new baby. We make plans with whimsical coordinating characters for the nursery. We find trinkets and treasures that remind us of the blessing of children. But we seldom consider that raising a child for heaven is no small feat. In fact, it is quite possibly the most challenging and certainly the greatest aspect of one’s vocation.
Sarah’s birth plunged me deeper into a place of fear. She was born with a rare craniofacial anomaly, one of the most complex genetic conditions that exist today, according to her geneticist. Ben and I quickly learned that Sarah would go through complicated, risky, intense surgeries involving facial reconstruction and the separation of her fingers and toes. This was a lifelong journey. I saw that immediately after I held her for the first time in the hospital, when Ben and I were just trying to get our bearings about what Apert syndrome was and how to navigate its mysteries.
It took many years for me to find a companion in the Blessed Mother under the title of Our Lady of Sorrows. Though I’d always loved her, prayed to her, and even consecrated myself to her each year, I hadn’t considered the ways in which meditating on the Seven Sorrows of Mary might actually console me in some of the darkest trials I’d face as a mom. Here’s what I’ve learned about how Our Lady of Sorrows can guide parents who are suffering.
The Prophecy of Simeon – Abandon Your Child to God’s Care
As soon as the Blessed Mother heard the prophetic words spoken by Simeon in the Temple during Jesus’ Presentation, her heart was pierced with a sword. The first sword was the haunting message in that prophecy that would never leave her. She knew her Son would suffer terrible agony, that He was destined to die.
Each of us carries a particular cross – not just our own, but that of our children, too. We aren’t given knowledge about each child’s future. We can’t predict future drug addiction or promiscuity or atheism when our babies smile and coo and toddle around. In fact, those things are so far from our minds. But as they grow up and encounter “real life,” they become tainted by shame, rejection, betrayal, and their own sin.
Our Lady of Sorrows teaches us that, like her, we can abandon our children to God’s loving Providence every day instead of trying to control the outcome of their choices or worrying. The root of such parental hovering is fear. Mary was not afraid of what Jesus, or she, would have to suffer.
The Flight into Egypt – Obedience to Your Vocation as a Parent
There is a seed of rebellion in each of us. It’s easier to do things our own way, even as a mom or dad, because we think we know best. And while we are certainly given the grace and authority over our children to discern how to raise them for eternity, we don’t always listen to God. Mary obeyed St. Joseph’s odd request to flee Egypt, without question or hesitation. Can we say the same of us when our children exhibit defiance, disobedience, hang around questionable friends, and become detached from prayer?
The Loss of the Child Jesus in the Temple – Trusting God When Your Child is Lost
Any mother or father can imagine the panic of losing a child in a crowd. Some of us have literally lost sight of our kids as they ran off at the grocery store or wandered into the neighbor’s yard without our knowledge. That panic, or fear, sets in before we can even muster a prayer.
What happens when our children get older and are not literally lost, but perhaps lost to the family? Maybe they become estranged. Maybe they choose a lifestyle contrary to their moral upbringing. They flounder in their faith. They do not attend Mass. They cohabitate. They contracept. They use recreational drugs or curse freely. How do we respond when our children are spiritual wayfarers?
We trust, as Mary did, that they will be found again. She didn’t give up searching for her Son until she found Him, and her example teaches us to relentlessly pray for and encourage our children to come home to God.
The Meeting of Mary and Jesus on the Way to the Cross – Fortitude to Face the Challenges of Parenthood
There is no guidebook that can prepare a parent for every possible scenario of challenges they will face. Nothing prepared Ben or me for Sarah’s skull being cut open at the age of six months in order to create space for her brain to grow. We did not anticipate the secondary diagnoses of intellectual disability, anxiety, or autism. We weren’t sure how to handle her education – inclusion or self-contained setting?
Every day, we face a plethora of questions and decisions as parents. There are usually no easy answers. Sometimes we want to give up, especially if we receive news no one wants to hear: perhaps devastating diagnoses or the development of a mental illness. But Mary teaches us to carry on with courage, to persevere in the face of seasons that seem interminable, to keep reaching back to God for help when we are desperate.
The Crucifixion and Death of Jesus – Fidelity to God Even When You Lose Your Child
The ultimate devastation happens when a parent outlives his or her child. I’ve known many parents who have lost children to miscarriage, stillbirth, or death in infancy; drunk driving accidents, overdoses, suicide. Is it possible to remain faithful to God when we are so angry at the loss of our children, when we can’t know if their souls were saved at the time of death?
Perhaps there is no greater loss, but Mary knows this loss. She walked the journey of Calvary alongside her Son and observed every torment and torture He endured. She felt it, too, as every parent does when their children suffer. Yet she didn’t waver in her faith. She likely felt broken, even annihilated from the inside out, as we often do, but she continued to turn to God with her tears. We can, too.
The Taking Down of the Body of Jesus from the Cross – Sacrificing Yourself for the Sake of Your Child’s Soul
As Mary held the limp body of her Son, with all of its torn flesh, exposed bone, and bruises, what must she have felt? When our children suffer, we do, too. Sometimes it’s physical suffering in the form of scrapes and bruises during toddlerhood, broken bones in elementary school, and sports-related injuries in middle school.
Sometimes it’s childhood cancer. Cerebral palsy. Multiple sclerosis. Down syndrome. Autism. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Heroin addiction. Schizophrenia. Depression.
The struggles we cannot bear to imagine may become reality. We feel helpless and hopeless at times. What can we do? Mary reminds us that we can offer up our own interior brokenness and our fear for our children to God as prayer for their salvation. We can do little things each day, or fast and pray if the situation warrants something greater. But we have authority to claim our children for God.
The Burial of Jesus – Hope When Your Child is Gone
I’ve been close to losing hope many times since becoming a mother. It’s painful to watch my children suffer their different crosses. I once heard that every child is born with a job to do, a burden to carry, and a gift to share. We all want our children to be talented, smart, athletic, physically attractive, friendly, courteous.
But what happens when they’re not? Sarah’s IQ is around 70. Felicity struggles with severe anxiety. Joey has a dairy allergy. In such cases, it’s important to grieve the dream of what you’d hope for your children, of the life you imagined. Instead of wishing that our children would be happy and successful, we can remember from Our Lady’s example of watching and waiting at the empty tomb that God has so much more in store for us as parents and for our struggling children. If we turn to her, especially in desperate times, we will carry the torch of hope inside our hearts as we wait, too.