It is probably not a coincidence that tomorrow is my day to post — it is my deceased daughter Therese’s 11th birthday.
Therese Joy was born and died on what was a snowy Michigan night. Some of the builders were there to meet her. Others were praying for our family from afar. Each year, as November 25th approaches, I grieve for my daughter. Some years I cry a lot, other years I do not cry at all, but only experience a very palpable sadness. Sometimes the grief begins as soon as the weather changes. Other years, I feel almost nothing until a few days before her birthday. But every year the sadness is there. I assumed this was just the way things would always be. I am a mother who has lost a child, and so the grief would always be there. But this year is different. This year, I feel only joy and gratitude, and I’d like to explain why –
Last October, my daughter Claire (then age 3), suffered a compound fracture of her collar bone. About a month after the injury, and just after Therese’s 10th birthday, I was driving with Claire to a follow up appointment at the orthopedic doctor. As I drove, I suddenly felt Therese’s presence with me. I don’t want to sound insane, as these sorts of things normally don’t happen to me. Since her death my daughter has always just felt dead to me — like nothing is there. I’m not one for personal mystical experiences. I don’t know another way to explain it, but her presence just felt like her in the form of a warm, beautiful light. I felt completely at peace. And then she spoke to me.
Therese very clearly and simply said, “Please stop being sad about me. Be joyful about my life.” I don’t remember the rest other than to say I had visions of all the relationships and people in my life that existed because of Therese’s death. People were flashing through my mind. And then suddenly Therese was gone. I was alone in the car with Claire. And Claire was simply looking out the window, humming and paying no attention to me or anything in the car. It was all very surreal.
Shortly after this vision, I spent a great deal of time thinking about the many, many, many people in my life who I have connections to because of Therese’s death. For starters, none of my kids would exist if she had survived ~ that’s an easy one. But, I’ve also been blessed with some amazing relationships with other mothers because of Therese’s death. And then there are some of my dearest friends, people who, through Therese’s death, have shown their love for me in remarkable ways. One friend gave me a set of healing cards with scripture verses, one handwritten card for each day, for over a month!!! after Therese died. Another friend, though not yet a mother herself, always understood my sorrow and cried tears of love for me and my baby. Another woman always thinks of me and remembers to send a sympathy card or note on Therese’s birthday. An amazing Priest, Fr. Brian, both calls my home and says Mass for my family on the 25th of November every year. And of course the beautiful bond I have with our dear Katrina. When I start looking at relationships, there are almost too many blessings to count.
And I’ll never forget one acquaintance, a woman named K. She had suffered from an abortion years prior to Therese’s life. K wrote me the most beautiful note during my pregnancy with Therese. Therese and our love for her, had helped K to heal. As a gift, she knitted my baby a beautiful white sweater, booties, and a blanket. Each of my children wear this on their baptism day. And, to this day, K’s letter is the most beautiful note I have ever received.
These are just some examples of the people and memories that came into my mind when I really stopped to ponder Therese’s message. The joy, the gift, the sweetness of her short life were without measure. My mind and heart were ready to stop being sad. I prayed for the grace to just be thankful. I prayed for the grace to think of Therese and her life in a new way. And that was a very hard step for me. In the past, I had resisted doing this because I felt in some way that I owed it to Therese to be sad. And perhaps I should explain that a little.
Immediately after her death (and even during my pregnancy), the grief and sadness were really overwhelming. There were days when my body hurt to breath, and I dreaded getting out of bed. But as time passed, and I worked through the many stages of grief, I somewhere made a choice to hold onto some sadness. I had two excuses for doing so. First, I knew that the death of a child had changed me in ways that couldn’t be undone. Being sad just seemed to be one of those ways. Second, and perhaps more motivating, I remained sad about Therese because it was my way of showing Therese and the world that I really loved her. That as her mother, I would never forget her. I had suffered for her, and missed her more than anyone. And I believe that’s why little Therese had to pay me a visit. She had to ask me to stop, and set me free.
This November I didn’t mourn Therese. In fact, I almost forgot it was her birthday until I looked at the calendar on Friday and noticed that this Monday was the 25th! So we made plans to visit the cemetery on Sunday and I purchased some balloons and flowers for her grave. Upon seeing the flowers, my sweet Claire (now age 4) came up to me and asked whether Therese was in heaven or buried in the ground. Claire and I had a beautiful conversation about our bodies and souls and heaven and being a friend of Jesus. Claire told me she wanted to be a saint someday (and a doctor too!), and asked if I would pray with her right there to ask Jesus if she could become a saint. With tears of joy in my eyes I listened to her pray. And then, in my heart, I thanked God for the gift of Therese.
This year, on her birthday, there is no sadness. My heart is full of gratitude. My life is full of incredible people. Thank you little Therese. Your life was a great gift. You are having another great birthday in heaven, and I’m overjoyed to be truly celebrating that for the very first time.