St. Zélie Martin and Overcoming Grief in Hope

This morning I went to a funeral Mass. It was the first funeral Mass I’ve gone to since Gabriel’s (the little one I miscarried last year). Sadly, it was a funeral for a baby – a little girl who had Trisomy 18 and was born still.

Her funeral Mass was absolutely beautiful, and imbued with the hope of the resurrection. In her mother’s eyes,I saw a grief I know all too well — the grief of losing a baby you loved and longed for.

I have long loved St. Therese of Lisieux, and been fascinated by her family. The focus of their whole family was heaven. In The Story of a Soul, Therese’s autobiography, the number of times she refers to her hope of heaven is striking. What is even more striking is the fact that, for Therese’s entire life, she and her family were almost constantly talking about heaven.

When I became a mother, I wondered at this. I could hope for heaven, my husband could…but how could we nurture this kind of longing for heaven in our children? How could we make heaven so real for them that it was part of our daily reality and conversations?

Then, we lost Gabriel.

Suddenly, our children were faced with the reality of death. I get very sick during pregnancy, due to hyperemesis gravidarum, so we told our older daughters we were expecting very early. From the beginning, they talked to the baby, kissed my stomach, and told baby they loved him or her. We couldn’t hide the loss of their baby sibling. Our toddler was confused, and our five year old was devastated.

At the funeral this morning, the memories came rushing back – the tiny white casket, visiting the funeral home and cemetery to make arrangements, planning a burial and a funeral instead of preparing for a birth and a baptism party. And, of course, the siblings – the little ones who are missing their baby sibling, yet instinctively looking to the hope of heaven which has been instilled in them from the cradle.

Hanging on our bedroom wall is a beautiful print that a friend gave to me after losing Gabriel, with the simple quote, “We shall find our little ones again up above.” The quote is from St. Zelie Martin, the mother of St. Therese.

In addition to raising five daughters who grew up to become nuns (one who is canonized and one – Leonie – on the road to canonization), St. Zelie and St. Louis also had several little ones they lost as infants or young children. It was not uncommon for children not to survive infancy or childhood at the time, but what was remarkable was how the Martin family viewed those losses.

The four children they lost were as much a part of the Martin family as their living children. (There have been some beautiful icons depicting the entire Martin family – with all nine of their children, released since their beatification.) This awareness was so instilled in their living children that her brothers and sisters in heaven were an instrumental part of St. Therese’s vocation story.

St. Therese’s siblings had died before her birth, but she had often been reminded of their role as family intercessors. When struggling to grow in holiness, St. Therese shares that she asked her older siblings in heaven to pray for her. She was confident that they pitied their younger sister in her earthly struggles.

I recently gave birth to a living child, our first baby after Gabriel. Throughout my pregnancy, labor, delivery, and post-partum, whenever my newest daughter was in danger or difficulty, I invoked the intercession of her big brother. At her first ultrasound (held in the same room where we found out that Gabriel had died) they could only find a yolk sac. No baby. No heartbeat. I was sure that my dates were correct, and she should have been visible at that point. We were instructed to have a repeat ultrasound a week later, and prepared ourselves for the news that we were losing another baby. I begged Gabriel to join us in praying for the survival  of his baby sibling. The following week, there was a tiny baby with a strong heartbeat. From the beginning, there were little reassurances that someone was praying for her.

It was no coincidence that this newest daughter of ours is named Zelie, after the saint whose example gave me hope in my own time of loss.

The secret of the Martin family’s focus on heaven wasn’t a book or a curriculum – it was their lived experience. Once you have lost a little one, and prayed for that child to safely enter heaven (a prayer of particular importance for parents of a miscarried child, who they were unable to baptize), the focus of the family changes. You know that the only hope of reunion is heaven, and with a renewed sense of purpose, you journey to heaven as a family. Your family life becomes divided, with one foot on Earth, and one in heaven.

This process doesn’t happen overnight. It isn’t linear. The grieving process is full of tears and prayers of frustration, disbelief, or even anger. The living children and future babies are seen as more fragile, and life doesn’t feel as safe and secure as it once did.

But there is hope. In time, the hope grows. With grace, this hope of the resurrection can shift the awareness of the family to a deeper appreciation of heaven. Heaven can no longer be dismissed as “someday” if it is the present reality of a member of the family.

Therein lies the secret of the Martin family. Therein lies the beauty of the Church’s teaching on the resurrection.

Our love doesn’t end in this life. The reality of heaven, of purgatory, and of the Communion of Saints is that we are all connected, bound together in the mystical body of Christ.

By

Michele Chronister is a wife, and mother to two little girls. She is received her BA and MA in theology from the University of Notre Dame (’09 and ’11). She is the author of Handbook for Adaptive Catechesis, the co-author of Faith Beginnings – Family Nurturing from Birth Through Preschool, and editor of the book Rosaries Aren't Just for Teething. She has contributed articles to Catholic Digest, Catechetical Leader, and is a regular columnist for Ignitum Today. She is also the co-chair of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability’s Council on Intellectual and Development Disabilities. When her oldest was a baby, she realized that their family life had taken on a sort of monastic rhythm – eat, pray, play, sleep. Prompted by this, she started the blog My Domestic Monastery (www.mydomesticmonastery.com), where she shares inspiration for families wanting to grow in holiness.

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