Grab Your Pitchforks: Why We Attack Grieving Parents

A child falls into a gorilla enclosure. Another is dragged away by an alligator as his father fights to hold on.

These are horrific, nightmarish scenes, and they make every parent’s heart seize up in horror. We don’t want to lose our children, and we really don’t want to think that our own babies could be snatched up and brutally battered, killed and even eaten by wild animals. That is terrifying.

We want to go to a zoo or to a Disney resort and find that nature has been pacified, made safe for us to walk our children right into it without fear. We have civilized nature — sanitized and contained it, removed all danger.

In social media comment threads, you’ll see parents ranting about how these children were the victims not of natural animal aggression, but of poor parenting.

You know that terrible Close Call feeling you get, when you think you’ve lost your child at the mall and you are looking and looking and you just cannot find them? When your brain starts to calculate the idea that they could really be gone — taken away by a stranger to live in fear and pain, confused and far from you. It’s a terrible feeling and you begin to feel desperate — and then suddenly a kindly security guard says, “I found him near the tv display” and your chest opens and you breathe in and everything is fine again? For those few moments, you had this terrible fear and dread that overtook your whole body and soul. When a child does not return safely, those moments simply keep going. It doesn’t really get better. It just feels like that — just abject dread and horror and shame and fear — endlessly on for a very long time, until you get used to the idea of the unthinkable.

When we lose our children to sudden accidents and terrible shocks, the devil torments us in our grief, sending voices to berate us for failing to protect our children. This is his opportunity to push us to despair.

The parents of this sweet child dragged away in Orlando are living their worst nightmare, and now online they are subjected to hateful, nasty comments about their failings and weaknesses from strangers who have no idea who they are. They don’t know whether they are capable and loving parents or not, and yet they attack.

2259567628_c36ba2b5a3_b

I have a theory about that.

When our son died of SIDS in 2005, people would ask me questions: was he on his back? what temperature was the room set to? did he have a pacifier? They were running down the checklist of SIDS-preventing behaviors, trying to work out what I had done wrong to cause my sweet child to die like that. They weren’t strangers in digital forums; they were my friends and neighbors, standing in my living room.

Faced with their own powerlessness in the face of death, faced with the terrible realization that their own children might die at any moment, they were trying to reassure themselves. If they could find my mistake, then they could be sure not to make it: they could ensure their invulnerability by simply identifying and avoiding my errors.

Only that’s not possible. We are all vulnerable.

Human bodies are fragile and subject to death. Human parents are not capable of protecting human children. Yes, you can put up all the safety gates and have lots of talks about good choices, you can hover about like a helicopter and try to make your arms into protective fences. But the truth is that you’re not all that powerful. You can improve the odds, but you cannot defeat death. Not theirs, and not yours.

Our culture is increasingly uncomfortable with death. We struggle to hold on to youth and vigor, stalling death as much as possible. When death finally comes, we send it to the hospital, to the funeral home — gone are the days when a beloved family member’s death bed is in the center of the living room, visited by loved ones and filling the rhythm of the home with those last heart beats. We don’t prepare the bodies of our dead loved ones ourselves, washing and dressing them with care. Instead we send them away, and have their blood replaced with formaldehyde and their faces painted by strangers. We celebrate their lives instead of mourning their deaths, hoping even as we scatter ashes that seem only symbolically connected to their cold, dead bodies, that by not acknowledging that death has come, by not looking him in the eye, we will somehow remain invisible and invulnerable to him ourselves. Maybe he won’t see us.

That’s not going to work.

We’re not going to find a corner where death won’t find us. We can cure all of the diseases, we can safety-proof our homes and our zoos and our lakefront hotels, we can research every accident and find the way to prevent it, but in the end, we will remain the flawed, weak, mortal people we have always been.

Pride declares that we will make ourselves safe. Humility knows that death will come, and that it is only Jesus Christ who defeats death — and even then, He doesn’t escape it. He enters into death. The very instrument of His victory is death as He tramples down death by death. He doesn’t sidestep death but walks right into it, consenting to death and then, having entered into the darkness of Hades, He breaks open its gates and destroys its hold over us.

Death cannot hold us. We will die, but we cannot be trapped in Hades, and our life in the Kingdom cannot be extinguished by death; the life that Christ gives will endure our physical death and then continue forth in glory.

But we won’t escape that physical death, or the myriad of ‘little deaths’ that will come before it — all of the pain of losing those we love, of dying to ourselves. Those deaths will come and they will transform us.

Maybe it’s time to look death square in the face, picking up our crosses and following Christ to Golgotha, so that we might develop the humility necessary to stand beside our grieving friends with loving compassion. We are called to be co-sufferers. Let’s not make believe that we can escape death, but let’s walk into death together, in unity and love.

Elissa Bjeletich

About Elissa Bjeletich

Elissa Bjeletich hosts three popular Ancient Faith Radio podcasts: Raising Saints, Everyday Orthodox, and together with Kristina Wenger, Tending the Garden of Our Hearts. She is the co-author of Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home and author of Welcoming the Christ Child: Family Readings for the Nativity Lent, and In God’s Hands: A Mother’s Journey through Her Infant’s Critical Illness. She serves as the Sunday school director at Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church. Elissa lives near Austin, Texas, with her husband, Marko, and their five daughters. You'll find more information on her website: elissabjeletich.com

24 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing your message with so much love & wisdom. None of us knows the hour or the day when we are to be taken from this life. We can only pray that God be merciful to us.
    May your own sweet son’s memory be eternal.

    1. Yes I agree that is a great story ,& it’s all true. I Am in blame for the zoo for that child falling in. And I live in maine where a 4 year old was killed by a dog bite to the thoat. Yes it was a pit bull w/ a vicious past of already killing two dogs. The friend of the father knew that, but chose to not tie or pen it w/ 3 small children playing in the yard.parnets inside, while dog roamed. He came from New Hampshire when he should have been put down. Now A 4 year old id dead because they chose to put those children in danger.

  2. It’s down to the vicious callousness of humankind. I recall a quite recent story where a tourist in South Africa was torn from her car seat by a lioness as she had her window open. Died an horrific death and yet all the comments coming from the armchair commentators were that she got what she deserved as she was “dumb” enough to leave her window open. Nice eh. And the western world loves to prattle on about its human rights and sophistication. Far as I’m concerned people haven’t moved on from the days when they used to throw people to wild beasts for entertainment. Now that same entertainment is enjoyed from the comfort of the human race’s own home.

  3. Thank you for writing this, it needs to be said many times over! My sister was killed when she was seven and I was nine years old. I can only imagine the comments that my mother received, but I never heard them from our family, Praise God, they were stalwart Christians and stayed close to their small Methodist church community, continuing to attend all services and to give thanks to God for their lives, and ours, and to pray and believe God is Love. This deeply affected my life and I thank God for my Christian mother and grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., God has been so very very good to my life and continues to be good. I pray his blessings on all these precious families who have had to say good bye to their child in this life, yours included. And this picture is very hard to look at.

  4. Good response to what has been going on lately! As parents, we do this with other things as well. A family that is seen as an upstanding, Christian, and lovely may have a child lost to drugs or runs away. We all peer into their lives, trying to point a finger at what went wrong so that we can feel better about ourselves and our parenting. We must use plenty of grace and mercy and love when observing a terrible situation. We must remember to out our pride down and pick up Christ’s love.

  5. Dear Elissa,

    Thank you for writing this article. I’m Orthodox and a funeral director. I have worked with several families that have lost children. Yours thoughts regarding the importance of humility are right on. These are always tragic situations during which we need to remind ourselves of the power Christ has over death, but also the importance our kindness to others are.

    Your comments regarding looking after our own during death are very true. So much is removed these days. I have always encouraged families to participate more and especially in the case of children, to take more time and where possible be involved in the care of their child. It’s a very powerful experience and the greatest gift families can offer their dearly departed.

    Thank you for writing this.
    -Zane

  6. Everyday we wake up is a “gift” and that is why we call it the “present”. –Anonymous. Only Christ knows when our time is up. Parents should not have to bury their children, whether it is a small child or an adult child. Grief is grief, no matter what ethnicity, religion, or the color of your skin and everyone grieves differently. I have seen this all too often as an Emergency Room nurse for 40 years. Losing a child is a horrendous difficulty for the parents, whether is be from Trauma, SIDS, Cancer, Drugs, or any other reason. I can’t even imagine how these parents are coping, and going home without their child. I am crying for this family. May the Lord’s peace be with you at this most difficult and sad time.

  7. Certainly you have hit the proverbial “nail” on the head in your letter. It seems, unfortunately, to be human nature to find some distinction between the victim’s parent(s) and those whose only involvement is offering commentary. It represents yet another stab at hearts already ripped and torn and it adds a whole other dimension to the tragedy. Sadly, genuine compassion is a rarity in today’s world.

  8. Human beings have always been afraid of death. Everything we do is in the attemts of distancing ourselves from death. Since the start of our time, the minute we became aware of death, we have worked hard to deny it, run from it and not acknowledge it. It is what born our notion of religion and what drives our sciences. To be human means to be afraid of death. Ernest Becker’s ” Denial of Death” is a good read.

  9. Thank you so much for writing this! I am so sorry for the loss of your precious son. Eternal memory! + It is so true that we as a culture have grown increasingly uncomfortable with death. When we lost a baby…I knew I had to take part in digging the dirt of that grave in the cemetery…simply because this was our child. I needed to be part of every physical step of our child leaving this world. I am heartsick thinking about the grief these poor parents must be experiencing. They need love, not judgment. God forbid, any one of us could be them. Thank you again. God bless!

  10. Amen ! Paul, my precious son died in 1996, Memorial weekend. His death was the 22nd or 23rd attributed to air bags and person’s under 100 pounds. I still recall comments, like:
    “Wasn’t he your only child? ” I wanted to ask, “Why? Is there any number of children one might have that would prevent you from grieving for & missing your flesh and blood? ”
    “You need to talk with an attorney. . .” I wondered what price would make your pain and loss better? I can’t comprehend this logic?
    But the most common questions about Paul’s death where clearly designed to help the person asking to find peace from the thought that they too could lose a child. Blame assignment was so important to otheryoung parents in circle of friends and acquaintances. There were times when I wanted a spinner , like the one we used to play “Twister” with, in my bag.
    People who had once been a regular part of my social circle, drew back when the “firsts” came along.
    We blow bubbles for my Eco conscious Paul. I keep them about, going to the beach going for a walk. It’s comforting to see them floating about, and there is usually some small kiddo to give the bottle to. I find this sharing of joy and wonder more satisfying than the thoughts of Paul’s organ recipients, honestly. Paul lives in my being a better person for having shared his short but wondrous journey through life. Namaste Kelly M

  11. Thank you for this perspective.

    I lost my daughter, shortly after birth, to a congenital birth defect. There were many questions about my diet, my personal habits, etc which were very personal and inappropriate. To add to the fire, she was diagnosed with her defect during pregnancy. Many people felt it necessary to share their views on abortion with us, when we hadn’t asked for their opinion regarding what was a very personal decision. We came away feeling that this too had must to do with the concept of “control” when it came to death.

    I am so appreciative of your words, and will be sharing them with my circle of “loss moms”.

  12. You are right- we humans avoid and fear the reality of death and dying. So much so that we are insensitive and hurtful to each other. When it happens mourning is inevitable and necessary- and I hope we become more open to that as followers of Christ. It is a tremendous tearing… Even if we know we will be together living again. Our lives are forever altered. We must help each other embrace the hope and promises he gives us as we mourn with those who mourn. Life can be more than rough… Let us go to him holding onto each other in love and faith and see to it that none of us fall behind overcome by grief.

  13. Lord have mercy on all those mourning the loss of a child, and may your son’s memory be eternal. I have also been struck lately by the emphasis on “celebrating life” after a person’s death instead of mourning the death. What do we miss when we try to bypass the grief?

  14. An article that puts us square in the face of reality….a good reminder that every day, hour, minute…..is a gift. Thank you for sharing.

  15. Eternal memory. It was not your fault that your child died. Not. Your. Fault. I know tragedy could happen at any time and so I repeat. Not. Your. Fault. Because you can never hear it too many times. God loves you.

  16. So true…my husband is in a hospital bed right now, dealing with some mystery illness that over 40 doctors have been unable to diagnose for 3 years. I get so frustrated with the process and the uncertainty of it all. I need to come to grips with fear of loosing him and trusting that the mana I need will come each day and I don’t need to freak out about it all. And yes, people don’t know how to rationalize or deal with those of us in that moment of stress and grief. I have a bad foot and while getting ready to go to the hospital today, the door to my car slammed shut on it. …that right there is how people deal with grief. They see your hurt foot and then stomp on it thinking they are helping. Thank you for this post. May the Lord have mercy on us all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *