A young couple had a teenaged daughter who was dying of a rare and incurable illness. Receiving the news of the diagnosis, the mother asked herself – “where is God?”. The father was simply numb. The daughter knew she needed a little time to get used to this news.
Time passed and the girl began to deteriorate. To begin with, her friends visited often, while she was still reasonably well and still looked like the girl they knew. At that time, the news of her eventual death seemed so unreal – she looked so well! As things began to change, the visits began to slow and some friends gradually fell away. Things were changing now – she looked poorly and less like herself. Downhearted, her remaining friends would often ask both themselves and each other – “where is God?”.
For the parents, things were changing also. The mother gave up her career to become a full-time carer for her ailing daughter, who now needed much more assistance. The woman’s former colleagues, realising how difficult things were becoming, would say to one another – “where is God?”.
At hospital appointments, the medical and nursing staff would watch this smiling child who knew her death was approaching rapidly and who, despite this, always smiled and tried to make those around her feel comfortable and at ease in her presence. Many of them, as she was leaving the hospital, would wonder – “where is God?”.
More time passed and the girl was now in the hospice, amongst many others who were just as ill as she. She had developed a reputation for her infectious joy and her unerring ability to bring a smile even to those who were struggling most deeply. Many of them almost expected their own deaths – after all, they were old and they had been ill for a long time and so it was in a sense ‘expected’; but this girl was so young and so pretty and some of them found themselves wondering – “where is God?”.
Finally, the day of her death arrived. Her mother and father at her side, she thanked them for everything and died smiling. All those standing near her bedside could not help but ask themselves – “where is God?”.
Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani?
The days beyond this were difficult for everyone. The house seems so empty, so silent. The priest had been good to the family, visiting often; and yet, despite his faith, he watched the family struggle and he could not help asking himself – “where is God?”.
It was the day of the funeral. The same priest was offering Mass and stood to deliver his homily. He had prepared it very carefully and very diplomatically – language is important where a child has died and a family and community are grieving deeply. In an instant, his words failed him completely and he was allowed an insight into how things would be in five years time; this gave him the answer to the question he had asked over and over – “where is God”.
The family, some time after the death of the daughter, realised that they could use their personal loss to help others – to raise funds for the research department investigating their daughter’s illness and also for the unit which had care for her and for so many others. Perhaps most importantly, they gave not only financially but personally – they were able to use their own suffering to deeply empathise with others in the same position, preparing them for what would come later, and helping them in the present moment. Their work would, years later, achieve more good they they might have imagined, and their compassion saved the lives of some other parents, whose grief had been so overwhelming that they were tempted to take their lives and would have done so.
For the girl’s father, he realised in time that life cannot simply ‘end’ – there had to be more. This led to a quest which resulted in his being given the gift of faith; and this, in turn, led to his speaking not only at hospitals, but also in churches – and what he would say there would deeply touch the faith of many and encourage them in their own moments of desolation and desperation. It also led to the strengthening of his marriage, which – because of so much stress over so long – was in difficulty. For this man, who had at first kept silence, he realised his need to open up and to talk. And this was precisely what was missing in his marriage, and so saved that marriage.
For the girl’s mother, she came to see that the good we do in life goes with us – and that it is this which matters. This same realisation, in an earlier form, is what had given her the strength to focus to beautifully on her daughter, putting her own needs aside in the process. And it was through watching this selflessness that some of her former colleagues found ways to make necessary changes in their own family lives, to look beyond themselves and their own desires, and to go out of themselves. This empathy also deepened their friendship with the woman, whom they would greatly support in her charity work.
As for the girl’s friends, they too were deeply changed. Their realised their own mortality, realised the depth of what their parents and teachers and priests had been telling them about life, death and everything else, and some made quite dramatic improvements to their lives. Some gave up behaviours which would have become very addictive in time, and others changed their ways and settled down in life. None of them ever forgot that girl.
In the hospital and in the hospice, people were changed also. Those who knew the girls met their own deaths with greater fortitude and trust in the merciful God; while others, closed to the mere possibility of God, began to at least wonder – and that wonder opened their hearts to the possibility of salvation. The staff approached their work with a deeper sense of joy, a genuine joy which had been the particular gift of the girl they had watched die smiling – and this joy, they would go on to share many times over.
For the priest, that instant of insight as he was about to speak at the funeral – a gift from Heaven, obtained at the prayer of the girl herself – opened his eyes, melted his heart and transformed his priestly ministry altogether.
Because now, whenever someone asked “where is God?” – he had an answer to give them; God is everywhere, in every heart, in every good intention, offering grace in every situation and in every moment, no matter how dark or desperate, bringing light and goodness out of that darkness even where it seems most impossible.
It is alright to ask “where is God” – Christ Himself asked this question upon the Cross and sometimes we, too, will have very good reasons to do so.
Perhaps what is of greater import is not the asking of the question – but the looking for the answer to it.