Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. It is the day that the Catholic Church recognizes and honors the baby and toddler boys who were killed by Herod after he learned from the Wise Men that a new King of the Jews had been born. (Read Matthew 2 for the story.)
For many parents who have lost a baby or child through miscarriage, stillborn birth, or another early death this feast day is, in a way, a feast day for all of us - binding together all parents throughout the ages who have lost a precious child far too soon. It's a club you don't want to be in.
I hope it doesn't seem crass then that I take this feast day to explain something to those who are fortunate enough to not be in that club.
For most grieving parents to hear the phrase, "God needed another angel" does not bring comfort. In fact, for most grieving parents it makes things hurt even more. It does not matter if you are talking about their child or children who have died in a horrible event, such as the Sandy Hook shootings or a tornado that blasted through a community. It doesn't matter if their child died yesterday or six months ago or ten years ago.
I realize that people say it because it is a sweet sentiment, they want to bring comfort, and they don't know what else to say. And as the parent of a dead child I can honestly say that I appreciate all those things. I understand that some people think we die, get our wings, and some bell rings somewhere and everything is a warm fuzzy. I'm not mocking when I write that: in times of great grief - and the death of a child always causes great grief - we want and need comfort and we grasp for beauty because everything else seems so ugly. I appreciate all the people who said such wrong, horrible things to me when my baby died because really they were just trying to bring comfort and they didn't know what else to say.
But if you don't know what to say, at least know this: Do not say "God needed another angel." Just say that you're sorry, or that you have no words for something so sad, so horrible. That's enough.
After the Sandy Hook shootings I asked people on Facebook to not use the expression. Quite frankly I was shocked that several people told me, "We feel sad, thinking about those children as angels makes us feel better, so I don't care if it makes you or any other grieving parent hurt worse." Of course they said it more politely and charitably but that was the bottom line. "Don't tell me what to say when I feel sad, even if what I say makes you feel much, much worse." I noticed that the people who wrote those things and gave the FB like to those comments are not in the club. I also noticed that the ones who stood with me are.
So let me explain why those words can hurt so much.
On the most basic level "God needed another angel" implies that it was God's will that the child died. It was God's actual, active will that sent a shooter into the school, church, grocery store, movie theater, shopping mall to kill innocent children. It was God's actual, active will - it was what He wanted and needed to happen - for my baby to die in my womb, for another's to suffocate on the umbilical cord, for another's to develop in such a way that he could not live outside of the womb, for another's to be killed in a house fire or by a drunk driver.
What kind of crappy god is that?! What kind of pathetic god needs to send down severe pain and anguish so he can populate heaven with more angels to worship him?! When people make that statement they denote god into someone horrible and evil, unintentionally chipping away at whatever hope the parents have. Please don't do that to us. Please don't chip away at our hope in an all good and all powerful God. It is already shaky because of what we're living through.
And related to that hope, at least for me, is some basic theology about Heaven and angels. First, it is traditional Christian teaching that God created all angels at one time, when He was busy about creating things. Since that time He has not created any new angels nor will He. That is important because it relates to this: We do not become angels when we die and go to Heaven, we become saints.
For now, just our souls go to Heaven. But when the world ends God will raise our corpses, our bodies and souls will again be united, and our bodies will be glorified. I don't know exactly what that will look like or how it'll all go down but I find great comfort in the fact that one day I will see my child in his body, looking like himself. I did not conceive an angel - I conceived a little boy. It is not an angel I want to meet and hold, it is a little boy - my little boy. Just like we say in the Creed each Sunday, "I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come." Please don't take this hope away from me by removing my son and replacing him with an angel.
I realize that there are grieving parents who do find comfort in those words, but I would caution you to not say anything until you have heard them speak of it first. But for the rest of us, I ask that you be compassionate and refrain from the "God needed another angel" line.
Holy Innocents, pray for us!