Newtown children — more than angels
Like many of you, I was up early Saturday morning as I continued watching the news coverage of the Newtown tragedy. Much of the coverage was repetitive from the day before. It was still early to expect much new information, yet there were a couple of new interviews in the morning’s coverage.
In a brief clip, a woman interviewed quoted a priest as saying, “We now have 20 new angels watching over us.”
To many, this comment sounds like a pleasant sentiment offering solace to those hurting people wondering why this tragedy happened. No doubt the priest made this statement and this woman repeated it as a means of coping with their own emotional pain and offering hope to their hurting community.
When something tragic happens like this, we reach for answers to help make sense of an event which makes no sense. We naturally are drawn to begin a healing process even when the wound is fresh.
As a result, we can rush too quickly to resolution in an unconscious attempt to bypass the emotional pain and experience relief. No one wants to hurt. This kind of pain feels unbearable.
That is one reason why well-meaning people often make inaccurate observations that short-circuit the grief process and that have become pat phrases during tragic times like that which took place at Newtown.
One of the truths we have learned about a healthy approach to grief is that it must be felt and at its deepest level. The ability to grieve is God’s creation, a way for us to process the loss, disappointment, frustration, anger, and inconsistency of this event.
Each person needs the opportunity to grieve to the fullest. It is only when we are allowed to truly grieve that we can experience complete healing and avoid potential life-long side effects of unresolved grief.
Each of us needs to be allowed to experience appropriate, innate, God-given biological responses we associate with grief no matter how extreme and uncomfortable they seem to those around us.
That is why our presence is significantly more important at times like this than our words. More often than not, people don’t know what to say, yet they feel they have to say something. So they resort to what was told to them or for something which they hope will help people feel better.
But that’s just it. Hurting people don’t need to feel better at a time like this. As cruel as it may sound, people really do need to be allowed their pain no matter how uncomfortable the rest of us might be.
The only way through grief is to experience it. Truly, simply being a shoulder to cry on is often the best help we can be.
That is why statements like the one about angels don’t go very far in the long run. They might seem to offer comfort in the moment, but in the end can do more harm than good. The underlying message is, “There is a silver lining to this tragedy, so let’s look at the good in this event and not the bad.” The bad though, as tough as it is, needs to be embraced.
Statements like this, too, are notorious for putting God in a bad light. Believing that God is all-powerful and has the ability to control or avert these circumstances, many people blame God for allowing them. Let’s set the record straight.
First of all, God loves these little children. Jesus, as he walked the earth, was quoted as saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God ...” (Luke 18:16, RSV).
He was also quoted as saying, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Matthew 10:15, RSV).
From what we know of God’s nature, God’s love for children and desire for their welfare is unquestionable.
Secondly, from what we discern from scripture, God does not need more angels. Tragedies like the one in Newtown as well as deaths we might consider more ordinary or common do not serve as a feeder source for God’s angelic host.
It is clear in scripture, in this life and the next, that we are different than angels and hold different places and roles in God’s divine plan (Psalm 8:5, Matthew 18:10, Hebrews 2:16; 12:22-23).
Even in references where we (humanity) are likened unto angels (Matthew 12:25; 22:30, Luke 20:36) it is clear humans in earthly or heavenly form are different from angels.
We can rest confident that God’s love for us as human beings goes well beyond that of the angels. And that truth is part and parcel why we struggle with tragedies like that at Newtown, Connecticut. Yet we must be allowed to struggle. It is part of the process of grief and the path to healing.
Mark S. Riley
[Mark S. Riley is a veteran pastor and current chaplain with a local hospice. He resides with his family in Fayetteville.]