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This 28-Year-Old Shows Us How to Bear Suffering with Hope

Find light in the darkness by learning how Chiara Corbella Petrillo did it when she was diagnosed with cancer.
(Photo credit: Christian Gennari)

Suffering touches us all — it raises unavoidable questions about the purpose of pain and hardship. Because it’s so tempting to lose faith and succumb to despair, it helps to hear stories of ordinary people who have borne the weight of suffering with grace. 

So meet Chiara Corbella Petrillo, an Italian woman who died in 2012 when she was only 28 years old. Chiara suffered tremendously in her short life. Her first two children died in her arms less than an hour after their births, each from unrelated medical conditions. When pregnant for a third time, she received her own cancer diagnosis and underwent major surgeries. 

After giving birth to a healthy baby boy, she immediately began aggressive medical treatment to fight the cancer that battered and eventually overtook her body. Her death left her husband widowed, her baby without a mother, and those who loved her in disbelief. 

Chiara experienced excruciating physical pain — in addition to grief and emotional turmoil — with each medical trauma and loss she lived through. Still, all who knew her could not help but gravitate toward the joy she radiated. In Italian, her name means “light,” and even in her suffering, she emanated a brilliance that left friends and family members feeling more consoled and rejuvenated after being with her. 

This is a woman who had all the reasons in the world to despair, grow bitter, bemoan the unfairness of her situation, and abandon her faith. We can learn some lessons from her about bearing suffering well so our own lights continue to shine in darkness.

Loosen your grip

After their second child’s fatal diagnosis, coming soon after they buried their first child, Chiara and her husband, Enrico, said to one another, “We must not be possessive.” 

Isn’t that an interesting turn of phrase? Possessive of what? we might ask. Chiara and Enrico recognized a temptation to become possessive of what they felt like they deserved; possessive of their plans and hopes for the future; possessive of their love

When we suffer, we grieve what we lose — it might be a relationship or an opportunity or freedom, but essentially we lose control over our lives. We can learn from their example by relinquishing the control we seek to exert over our lives. Their attitude of dis-possession forced them to loosen how tightly they grasped onto their own plans and to notice the grace and gift in the present moment.

Laugh easily, and frequently

It is said that laughter poured out of Chaira’s hospital room in her final months, despite the agony she was living through. Rather than a denial of her suffering, laughter was a way to penetrate her suffering and remind herself (and others!) that she was still alive and, thus, there was good to be celebrated. 

In our own periods of darkness, laughing with ease may seem careless or crass, but Chiara’s life reveals that joyful laughter and true suffering can co-exist. And, when they do exist together, it is an invitation to build community with others who also suffer or who walk with us in our suffering. Laughter breeds hope, and hope serves as a beacon. 

Tap into your inner peace

When Chiara heard that her cancer was terminal, she accepted the fact that her prayers for physical healing were not to be answered as she imagined. Yet, she continued to ask God for strength to seek Him through her suffering, to remain faithful. She thought, spoke, and reacted to her suffering from a place of peace. 

It is said that Chiara received the news of her terminal diagnosis serenely in the hospital chapel. She thanked and bid farewell (with a joyful smile!) her nurses and the other patients she had befriended and supported in their own suffering. Then she left to live her last weeks of life at home. In her final days, when her body was deteriorating and the pain was crippling, Chiara tapped into an interior source of peace — formed by her faith in God’s promise that we do not suffer alone, and that life does not end in death — that rendered her luminous to all who came to say goodbye. 

Cultivating peace within ourselves builds a reservoir of strength during suffering. It puts us in touch with God’s presence, which we can rely on when everything else falls apart — even our own bodies. Whether it be a place of prayer, a conversation with a close friend, a favorite trail, or an uplifting playlist, find the place where peace grows within you, and visit it regularly.  

For Chiara, her short life involved so much death and hardship, yet her time on earth was full of life, joy, and peace. Yes, bitter suffering is part of her story, but so is the radiant light that refused to dim. The same is true for us because we believe death leads to life. That simple belief allows us to find joy in darkness and peace in anguish. 

Chiara is on the path toward sainthood because she’s worthy of being an example for us in our suffering and a ray of light in our days of darkness.

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