By Judy Wolf —
In the children’s hospital in Salt Lake City, there is a small meditation room where one can have a quiet “heart-to-heart” talk with God. Families are encouraged to release worries about their children’s health by writing a note to God and placing it in a Native American “burden basket.” Periodically, the notes are burned by the chaplain, a symbolic letting go of one’s burdens, turning them over to God.
In 2001, I became a devout member of the Burden Basket society when my oldest son, Joe, then 13, was hit by a car while crossing the street to accept a ride home from church. “God, whatever it takes, please save my child,” I wrote. I was not above begging, pleading, negotiating, or making outlandish promises to seal the deal.
My prayers went unanswered. Or, more precisely, I did not get the answer I desperately sought.
Joe’s body survived the accident, but he never recovered any meaningful function because of severe brain injury. He “lived” for 3 years, requiring total care 24 hours a day ultimately dying of pneumonia. We tried everything to restore his consciousness — surgeries, therapies, drugs, stimulation, and even some alternative approaches. Still, we had no miracle…just a very surreal, quiet, long goodbye with our beloved son.
In the years since his death, I have revisited the mystery of the Burden Basket many times. Why are miracles granted to some, and not others? When a child’s life is saved, families gush with gratitude and, at times, a prideful certainty that their prayers were the tipping point. Joe received hundreds of prayers from dozens of different faith communities. I don’t begrudge another’s miracle or their exuberance, but I would give anything, literally anything, to have Joe alive today.
After his death, I struggled to make sense of our prolonged and painful loss. I wrestled with, “God, why?” in prayer and meditation. I poured out my heart, uncensored. After my sobbing subsided, I learned to listen deeply.
As an interfaith minister, I sometimes companion newly bereaved parents. I journey with them as they struggle to reconcile their loss even as I continue to wrestle with mine. I’ve come to learn that we all find solace in different ways. Some rely on a faith with a formal plan for salvation and reunion. Others come to accept life on life’s terms, relying more on a philosophy than a theology. For still others, it remains an unanswerable mystery.
For me, the question of “why?” no longer haunts me. What if the death of a child is something that just happens, despite our best efforts? What if it’s not God deciding to save this one or that one? What if life, by design, is a risky proposition? No body is immune from illness, injury, disease, or death, no matter how loved, no matter how heavily prayed for, no matter how young or undeserving?
Life in a physical body is fragile, sacred and precious. It is also “real time”.
Joe’s short life was his gift to us. If I dwell on his death, I miss the much larger gift of his life and consequently my own. I didn’t die with Joe; I am still here. I hold his heart tenderly in my heart, the sweet memory of his life never far from my thoughts. Today is my precious gift. Today I choose to honor his life by living my own.
Judy Wolf is an ordained minister whoserves families suffering the critical illness, injury or death of a child, regardless of their faith affiliation, religious beliefs or spiritual orientation. Judy’s first book, Spiritual Life Rafts, Women’s Stories of Profound Loss, Courage and Healing, was published in 2008. You can preview the book at www.spiritualliferafts.com or through Amazon.com. All proceeds are donated to a nonprofit organization, Spirituality and Healing in Medicine, based in Salt Lake City.Tags: grief, hope