Ten years ago, on Memorial Day of 1999, I received the call every parent dreads.
It was from a detective in Steubenville, Ohio. He asked me if I knew where my son was. My son Aaron had just finished his sophomore year at Franciscan University and moved out of the dorms into a house nearby.
On Memorial Day the house was broken into, and Aaron and his roommate Brian were abducted, taken to the woods in nearby Pennsylvania, and shot by two young men who were on drugs. Our families and hundreds of people from all over the country gathered at the university for prayer and to search for Aaron and Brian for five terrible days.
On the first Friday of June, we found them under two wild white rose bushes.
The ensuing 10 years have been a journey of grief. It is so hard to describe the unbearable pain that we felt as a family, that I felt as a mother whose beloved son was sacrificed to such violent evil.
However, we Catholics know very well the sacrifice that one mother made for her son to save the world—Mary, our blessed mother. And while I do not presume to be Mary, I have tried to follow her example in my life since the death of Aaron.
It is the evil in the world that kills the innocent, not God.
Patience, prayer, love, and faith have been the hallmarks of my journey—which is not to say that I did not grieve. I most certainly did. I felt extreme sorrow, guilt, anger, loneliness, despair. I am a psychotherapist and I knew that these feelings were a necessary part of grief. Still I wondered if I would survive them. I did with the help of family, friends, support, therapy, and the one thing which helped the most: my faith in God.
There were several things I realized through my grief. The first was the fact that God did not murder Aaron. I did become angry at God for allowing this to happen. But then I realized it wasn’t God who took my Aaron, it was two young men who did it. It is the evil in the world that kills the innocent, not God.
God does not stop bullets; God permits us through our free will to hurt each other. And God does bring good out of evil, or perhaps it is better to say that through God’s grace we bring good out of evil. The words of St. Paul came to me over and over again: “All things work together for the good, for those who love God.”
It was hard to see how that would happen, but I knew it was true. God’s ultimate will, which prevails over all things, is different from our limited perspective of God’s will.
Second, faith is not a get-out-of-jail-free card—it does not guarantee that bad things won’t happen. We mistakenly think that if we do everything “right,” God will protect us and keep us and our loved ones from suffering. Suffering is part of human life.
If God would permit God’s only son to suffer, how can we imagine that we are above that? Our faith is there to strengthen and support us, to help us realize that there are many things we cannot control. Yet we can be sure of one thing: God is with us, carrying us when the road seems too long and weary.
Death is the doorway through which we pass to be with God, the source of all life.
Third, there are no answers to certain questions. Why was my son murdered? I don’t know and will never know until I am no longer in this life. Why my son? I don’t know, but is my son any more precious than anyone else’s son? When I die, all my questions will be answered. St. Paul tells us in Corinthians 13: “Now I can know only imperfectly; then I shall know just as fully as I am myself known.”
The fourth and most important thing to consider is this: When we say the Hail Mary, we say, “now and at the hour of our death.” This means that our faith is with us always—not simply in life but at the hour of our death. We are not abandoned in death.
I believe it is in death that God is most fully with us, and we know that because we are people of faith, we will have eternal life. We know that death is the doorway through which we pass to be with God, the source of all life.
Many people ask: Where was God when our loved ones were murdered? Jesus, our Lord, was right there when Aaron was killed. To believe anything else would be to limit our God.
These realizations of my faith were the important anchors in the extraordinary grief I suffered after Aaron’s death. God was with me during this long journey of grief that still continues today. God guided me across the dark ocean of despair.
Through God’s guiding light, I learned three important principles that helped me and supported my faith.
The first is acceptance. I think of the magnificent Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” This has been my guiding prayer, yet it took years for me to accept Aaron’s death. And even sometimes today, I just want him to come through the door and say, “Hi, Mom, I’m back.”
The second principle is forgiveness. This is a touchy subject. I recall that right after Aaron’s death I received books from complete strangers on forgiveness. I was appalled. While I knew they meant well, I resented their insistence on immediate forgiveness before I had a chance to even bury my son. Forgiveness takes some of us a long time—and I needed to work on my anger first before I could forgive.
The last principle is gratitude. How could I be grateful when someone murdered my son? The answer is that no matter what has been taken, there is always something left to be grateful for, even if it is only the dear memories I have of him.
Practicing these principles is not easy, but slow, steady perseverance has helped me move out of the deep ocean of grief and toward some kind of new life.
I see [Aaron] in the little things: the light, the flowers, the setting sun.
And what about that “new life”? What does it look like 10 years later? Is there such a thing as a good life after such violence? The answer for me is yes.
Today I have a life that includes joy, but that is not to say that I don’t think of Aaron every day. I do. I see him in the little things: the light, the flowers, the setting sun. I see him every time I go to Mass, with his sweet boyish grin, usually arriving late, but always there, giving me the sign of peace.
I have not moved on. Aaron is still with me, not in the flesh but in spirit. He is as real to me today as he was the day he was born. It is a hard thing, perhaps the hardest thing, to accept that my own son, my child, is not alive in the flesh—but I can still have a relationship with him.
Then again, that is our faith, is it not? Life does not end when the body is destroyed by violence—neither does love.
I think of the words from the Song of Solomon:
Set me like a seal on your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
For love is as strong as death,
a love no torrent can drown.
Our love is as strong as death. It never dies—it continues into life eternal, and my faith tells me that one day I will see Aaron again. That is a faith I can believe in.
This article appeared in the June 2009 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 74, No. 7, page 22).