My friend, Jackie, knows the pain of watching a loved one suffer. Yet, the story of the suffering she’s witnessed doesn’t end in pain and the emptiness of death — love has given her the strength she needed to journey through suffering to something new.
Jackie’s younger brother, Christian, was 3 when he was diagnosed with a degenerative disease called Hunter syndrome, which slowly eliminated his ability to communicate, eat, or move — ultimately leading to respiratory and heart failure at the age of 22.
Jackie was 10 when her family took Christian to Lourdes, a pilgrimage site in France where Mary appeared and where many experience miraculous healing to this day. They prayed that the miraculous water would cure Christian. When it came time for Christian to approach the baths, Jackie stayed behind and watched as her brother returned unchanged.
“The seed of doubt for the faith was deeply planted in me at a very young age,” Jackie said. “I still had an affection for the faith, but I was very bitter towards it, and the bitterness slowly grew.”
Jackie’s disillusionment of the faith grew as Christian’s disease progressed. By the time she was a junior in high school, she was in a dark place — morally, psychologically, and spiritually. She said she became her father’s worst nightmare.
In a last effort to revive her morally-conflicted daughter, Jackie’s mother decided to send her on a trip to Europe to attend World Youth Day with their parish. On their pilgrimage, the group made a stop at Lourdes — the last place Jackie wanted to be.
During that second visit to Lourdes, Jackie watched as a young boy acquired his ability to walk. She could not fathom why God would heal this boy, but leave her brother to his disease. Jackie felt angry and overwhelmed and needed time alone to process everything.
The next day she stepped away from the group and went over to the grotto to pray to Mary by herself. She didn’t have a relationship with Mary — she didn’t even understand how she could have a relationship with Mary — but in her hurting and confused state, Jackie prayed to her. “If you are truly a mother, then why did you abandon my brother?” she asked. “Why did you abandon my family? Why does he have to suffer like this?”
Immediately after this prayer, Jackie was flooded with memories of Christian. He could never pass a statue of Mary without stopping to acknowledge her. In fact, the last time they had been in Lourdes together, she remembered Christian stretching his arms out as they passed a statue of Mary, reaching to her as he sang his favorite song, “Mary had a little lamb.” Jackie was blown away, because she had never made this connection — she explained: “In my heart, I heard ‘your brother is among my most beloved sons.’”
Suddenly, Jackie realized Mary had not abandoned her family, least of all Christian: “I realized that she had never left him. He knew her. He knew she was there. That was the first time the scales of bitterness fell from my eyes and I experienced her as a mother.”
As Jackie watched her brother suffer tremendously, she came to see that life was about more than just the next moment of instant gratification. His simple witness changed the way she saw things. “I would put him up against everything that the world told me would make me happy, and he would contradict it,” she said. In a world full of meaningless distractions, Christian reminded her to fix her eyes on the true goal set before us — unity with God in heaven. “He was like a compass,” she said. “I would be easily seduced by the world, but he didn’t allow me to drown in it.”
Christian’s life forced Jackie to ask difficult questions. She continued to wrestle with faith, but the way her brother suffered revealed to her that God was present within her family’s struggle. It reminded her of Jesus’ suffering on the cross and his resurrection: through suffering, there is a love that has conquered death itself.
“There is literally no person in my life who better modeled the way of the cross than my brother,” she explained. “And it’s become the model of my life. I want to be willing to suffer, especially when it’s unfair, because I know the fruits of that are real and lasting.”
When Christian died, Jackie had to confront the reality of death, which she tried to avoid most of her life. Christian’s experience showed Jackie that when we live a life modeled after Christ, the reality of death prompts the soul to make life-giving choices.
“I am afraid of death because, someday, that will be me in that hospital bed,” she said. “We spend our whole lives trying to forget the fact that we’re all going to die, and Christian was that reminder that embracing death is the only way to fully live.”
On August 20, 2018, at the age of 22, Christian completed his mission in this world. Christian’s quality of life may have been poor by worldly standards, but his very existence is surely a cause for resounding splendor in heaven.
We often think that compassion means easing or preventing someone’s suffering, but the word compassion literally means “to suffer with.” Christian taught Jackie that authentic love means embracing one’s suffering, as Christ embraced His cross.
Be not afraid to embrace suffering. Be not afraid to love without counting the cost. Christ invites us into a deeper union with Him: be not afraid.