Responding to the loss of a child

Bringing a spiritual perspective to daily life

Sunday night, the Academy Awards recognized a spate of movies that dealt with the death of children. This topic, not often covered in Hollywood, presents powerful drama about an unthinkable topic. A number of the movies were up for the Academy's highest awards, including Best Picture.

In a recent Los Angeles Times article, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley observes that each of the movies takes a secular approach to dealing with the passing of a child (Feb. 8).

As she suggests, this approach, devoid of God, relies rather on responses such as anger or revenge. Referring to a film that deals with the hardships of an Irish immigrant family, she writes, " 'In America' quietly tries out the biological solution, the 'Seabiscuit' solution (distraction) and the 'Mystic River' solution (anger and resistance) and finds each one wanting. The only solution is acceptance."

Ms. Smiley goes on to compare today's movies, where the death of a child acts as a catalyst for drama, with 19th-century novels, where families faced with the death of a child learned important lessons regarding how to go forward in their lives. At the very least, broaching the topic of a child's death calls for sensitive treatment, not for reducing that loss to a dramatic device.

Losing a child might very well plunge someone into a mix of emotions about the existence of God and the prospect for a joyful life. But aren't these the times when we sort out what we hold to be true and shape our reaction and our lives in accord with those findings? The most unsettling aspect of these films is the kinds of base reactions they engender.

If one were to follow Jimmy's reasoning in "Mystic River," one might conclude that, in cases of a child's death at the hands of another, vigilante justice is understandable, despite the fact that he got the wrong guy. On the other hand, one might bury oneself in a Pollyanna approach to life as Charles Howard was erroneously portrayed as doing in "Seabiscuit." Neither of these options should seem satisfying for one wishing to learn the necessary lessons and redeem the situation.

Quite to the contrary, in real life situations, wonderful examples of forgiveness and redemption have emerged from parents who have found spiritual solutions for dealing with the passing of a child. Rather than allowing their anger or sense of injustice to fester until it escalated into self-loathing or violence against another, some of these parents have lifted their thought to understand God as benevolent and just - a God of mercy and grace.

Jesus' life proved the existence of such a God through his many healings of children as well as through his own conduct, even while being unjustly condemned and crucified. He was so humble and merciful that even while nailed to the cross, he could pray, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). When Love, God, rather than biological responses, assumes the helm as one navigates through the confusion, the blessings will be far reaching.

A poignant contemporary example is that of the young American Fulbright Scholar, Amy Biehl, who was murdered by four young black men in Cape Town, South Africa, during antiapartheid demonstrations. Instead of following the route outlined by last year's movies, her parents, Peter and Linda Biehl, chose to forgive and to give Love the space to govern their lives.

To that end, they started a foundation to further their daughter's aims of creating a multiracial society. The foundation now has 30 programs in South Africa. All of its profits go to support violence prevention. All four of her murderers have been granted amnesty, with the blessing of her parents. Two now work for the foundation. So you see, forgiveness and redemption go hand in hand.

Losing a loved one, especially a child, should never be reduced to a dramatic device that serves to demean that life. Smiley's article raises poignant questions about whether one can find solace in a benevolent God. Christ Jesus showed that children are safe when placed in the hands of a God who is Love and that there anyone can surmount such challenges and send out a ripple effect that benefits others.

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