Monday, January 18, 2016

When children suffer.

In this blog of mine, I have reflected much about suffering and going through physical trials in life, but always from the vista of an adult.  Before my illness and subsequent therapy and transplant and the slow recovery, I had only an imagined concept of serious suffering brought on by illness, and could only empathize up to a certain point.  The gift of my cancer experience brought me into the realm of the patient, right into the depth of his condition, and allowed me a privileged access into the journey of a life-threatening illness.

Many have come up to me from time to time to express their gratitude for writing about the journey in a no-holds barred way, and to provide strength and hope for those whose lives had entered into a similar darkness.  While I am very happy to be able to give this darkness some light, I do feel rather handicapped in giving much relief to children who suffer in a debilitating way.  Adults (though not all of them) may be more equipped to handle suffering with a strength that comes from understanding the virtues of longsuffering and sacrifice.  Bringing people to see a higher purpose for their trials in life beyond themselves is always going to be a great challenge for any minister.  My aim and purpose in reaching out to those with such conditions is never primarily to ask for a direct and instant alleviation to their suffering, but always that the person begins to have a broader horizon of hope before them opening up.  And this horizon has to have the possibility of accepting the reality that life is not made worse by the presence of illness and darkness, but that these are seen now to be the hitherto unseen and unappreciated doorways through which God makes his presence, love and yes, even joy, known and real. 

This challenge is great for an adult and many are not ready to live in this large way.  And if adults find this to be a stumbling block towards an integral growth in faith, how more challenging is it to have children embrace suffering with a positive outlook, without their coming away from their brush with serious illness leaving them having a notion of God that dishes out suffering to innocent children?  Of course this would be a stilted notion of God, but doesn’t God bear a great amount of ‘risk’ when he allows little children to suffer this way? 

Children don’t easily have the experience in life to intuit that there is a virtue in bearing any form of crosses in life.  The natural instinct of parents is to make their childhood as stress-free and anxiety-free as possible, and this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Everyone wants the best for their children, but not every parent has the faith to believe that what is ‘best’ can also include what is hard to fathom as well.  In one’s formative years, going through a prolonged period of pain and suffering or having encountered vulnerability at a tender age that sets one apart from one’s peers and schoolmates can often shake one’s confidence later on in life.  At the same time, when I minister to such children, I do not want to be the one who brings false hope and ersatz happiness during a visit, just to have them re-enter into darkness and sadness after I leave the home or hospital. 

The real problem is not that children suffer, but that we (either as adults or ministers who tend to them) often think that we need to give them clear and direct answers.  These are the places of life that I often call ‘life’s border situations’, and answers to such questions never satisfy nor are ever enough.  What these situations give us are opportunities to demonstrate Christian compassion, either to the children or to their parents, to show them that through us, God sits with them in their darkness and pain. 

On Calvary, Jesus did just that.  No trite answers were given to, nor demanded by him from the Father.  Jesus hung there with a humanity filled with sin so that we would not have to despair despite our sinfulness.  We often resist being there with people at the level of their pain and confusion chiefly because we are very uncomfortable with merely giving presence to pain.  We are more ‘useful’ when we can give salve instead. 

I remember reading about a visit of Pope Francis’ to the Philippines early last year, where a young 12-year-old girl, weeping, asked the Pope why God allowed terrible things to happen to children.  The Pope said something rather profound when he replied that the nucleus of her question almost doesn’t have a reply.  He went on to say that it is only when we too can cry with her about the same things that we come close to answering the question.  Compassion is a great healer of wounds, and these situations of misfortune and unexplained suffering enable our hearts to soften and take on a Christ-like character. 

When I think of this, I become a lot more sensitive to the ways that I tell parents of suffering children that I will pray for them and their child.  I sit a little longer with them at the hospital bed, and when possible, hold their hands or heads a little more tenderly.  Words not only become cumbersome, but perhaps ineffective and get in the way. 

It brings to mind something that I read about and reflected on in a blog post a few months ago, where I wrote about a man who had intentions of bringing hope to those in a children’s section of a hospital.  He decided to go dressed as a clown, but realized that clowns can also frighten some children.  They had, after all, gone through so much that had caused them fear in their illness. 

So he decided to make his rounds bringing popcorn to them.  But he didn’t always give them the popcorn to eat.  When the children were in tears, he would take a popped corn, and mop up their tears and then, right away, toss this into his mouth. 

This may sound bizarre but I found this to be a demonstration of what compassion should do.  It may not stop the tears, it may not give answers, but it shows that someone is willing to absorb at least a little of the confusion, the wounds and the contusions of life.  Christ did this for us on Calvary.  He didn’t give answers from heaven.  His compassion and mercy gives reasons for us to do the same in ways big and small.


  1. Dear Fr Luke

    How're you? Thank you for this beautifully written reflection. To me, it seems that you somehow knew what I needed. This reflection about a child's sufferings is timely. A friend's son is ill and the family is so worried. I'll send your link to them. It won't change things but it will begin to shift their perspective of suffering.. That I believe!!

    God bless you Fr.

  2. “When the children were in tears, he would take a popped corn, and mop up their tears and then, right away, toss this into his mouth.”

    Strangely enough I find this imagery endearing and tugs at one’s heart strings. It reminded me of the time when my young niece was badly scalded when a big bowl of piping hot soup accidentally slipped from her mother’s hand and splashed onto her back. There was this dumb stricken look of disbelief on her face before it folded up in tears. The pain was excruciating. The drive to the A & E was a nightmare. Even after she was attended to, the copious tears did not stop for a long time .It was an agonising time for me who stood by helplessly, not knowing how to assuage her I really wanted to be at one with her at that moment. How I wish I had read about this clown with the pop corns and perhaps mop up her tears?

    In times of suffering and pain, especially for the child, it is very true that words however soft and placating are “intrusive” and sometimes only add to the cacophony of noises that the ensuing confusion caused. The playful and incongruous action of using pop corns to dry tears speaks the language of the child and so is understood. Like you said, it can help to “absorb” the pain and bridges the gap between adult and child, making true compassion real and felt.

    God bless u, Fr