“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
Our culture seeks to hide suffering behind closed doors. The elderly are left in nursing homes while the unborn are “humanely” disposed of in abortuaries. We pretend that suffering can be fixed with a small pill, a drink, one more car, another cheeseburger, or dull it with copious amounts of television, drugs, alcohol, or pornography. I see the attempts to hide suffering in the media. We are supposed to keep our children protected from the suffering of this harsh world. This is a lie parents tell themselves and it is an attempt to avoid reality. It is impossible to hide the Fallen nature of this world from our children.
We worship the God-man, who suffered a torturous death on a Cross. Our churches–at least they are supposed to–have a Crucifix front and center as a reminder of the central reality of Our Faith that is the Crucifixion and death of Our Lord. Our homes are also often adorned with this instrument of torture, as a minute-by-minute reminder of the price and sacrifice offered in love for each one of us. As Catholics, there is no hiding the reality of suffering. It’s front and center in our Faith.
Children already know dragons exist. The idea that we can hide pain and suffering from our children comes up against reality once our children come into contact and develop relationships with other children. They see quickly how difficult human relationships are in our Fallen state. Each child comes to learn that they will eventually be left out, mocked or made fun of, left to the mercy of another’s moods or whims, hurt, and that the people we love eventually let us down, move, or even die. It is impossible to hide these realities from children. They know. And, like us, they also know that it’s not supposed to be this way. They rail in angry frustration at the injustice of it all because they know instinctively that we are made for more.
We can’t protect our children from suffering. Last year my own daughter went through a death scare with my husband when he became extremely ill at a rapid rate. At five-years-old she confronted the reality of her own father’s mortality. Thankfully, he survived and is now in what appears to be remission, even though he will have Wegener’s Granulomatosis for the rest of his life and it could take off at any point. It’s something that is always in the back of our minds.
She knows the realities of suffering in her daily life. She knows the pain other people inflict on one another through the disagreements and occasional nastiness of her friends. She sees it when her father and I let her down when our own sinfulness hurts her. She cries the tears of pain when she learns that her best-friend is moving on her birthday and she cries in frustration when she isn’t treated as well as she should be by a friend or their family.
As her mother, I can’t pretend that suffering isn’t a reality for each one of us. I can’t sugar coat it, and often, I don’t even have the power to make it any better. In fact, this has been one of the greatest lessons of surrender that I have learned as a mother. Many of the moments when she is hurting all I can do is hold her close and cry with her. I am not called to protect her from the suffering. I am called to teach her how to embrace it and offer it up to Christ. I do so by standing steadfast alongside her as she cries in agony, even as my own heart bleeds inwardly, longing to relieve her pain.
It is in those moments that I catch a tiny glimpse of what Our Heavenly Mother endured at the foot of the Cross. She shows me how to stand strong in the midst of intense suffering. Our Mother shows me how to love my daughter through the pain and to embrace her Cross alongside her. I remind my daughter to offer it to Christ and to allow Him to help her through it. It isn’t easy. Our Fallen tendency is to flee from the Cross, but as Christians, we are called to embrace it. We are meant to walk together in communion. So often we make the same mistakes of the first Apostles, except St. John. We flee when we are called to endure.
As parents we have to learn to relinquish our own will when our child suffers. It is impossible for us to suffer for them. We can only suffer with them. Suffering is a part of the sanctification process for all of us. It teaches how to love. Suffering shows us what love costs and it is through this pain that we learn to love more deeply. We can’t truly love if it doesn’t lead us to sacrifice a part of ourselves on behalf of the other.
We can’t protect them from suffering, but we can lead them to the One who will help them to persevere, provide them peace, rest, joy, and love them as they are meant to be loved. Other people, even people who love us and who we love, will let us down and hurt us. It is only in Christ that we learn to receive the love we are made for and through Him we learn to love others as we ought to.
My daughter is going through one of those difficult times when she is suffering pain and disappointment and I can’t take it away. What I can do is love her through it and stand fast when the tears start flowing. I can show her my own vulnerability and the tears I shed on her behalf as her loving mother. In some small way, I pray we are both brought closer into the loving embrace of Our Heavenly Mother, whose great desire is to lead us to the Most Loving and Sacred Heart of Her Son, Jesus Christ.