In my denomination, we have a bad habit of thinking that a person has to have an MDiv to talk to God. I caught this attitude myself, until I went to seminary. Sometimes I wonder if I went to seminary because I wanted to know more about God, and I believed getting ordained was the best way to go about that.
I remember feeling out of my depth when a raccoon broke into our house and killed two of our weeks-old kittens while we slept. We awoke to a hideous yowling and screeching, and my daughters were the first on the scene. They flipped on the light just in time to see a large raccoon making off with one of our babies in its mouth. First they were stunned. Then they were terrified, and angry and very very sad.
“Why did God let that raccoon kill our kittens?” they cried.
I’m not sure what I said—I wish I had said something like, “God didn’t want your kittens to die, and God is sad too, God is right here with us in our tears and our heartbreak…” but I’m not sure I managed even that. I was in over my head, and I knew it. I held them tight, and then I watched them until long after they fell asleep, curled up together in one bed. I called my pastor the very next morning.
“Oh Catherine, something terrible has happened. A raccoon broke into our house and killed our baby kittens. And the girls are just devastated—they want to know why God let it happen—why God didn’t stop that evil raccoon, why God doesn’t punish the raccoon for killing. I think I told them something like, ‘God doesn’t work that way’ but I didn’t get very far. Can you help me? Tell me what to say to them, please!”
Catherine did way better than that. She asked, “Is this your kids’ first experience with death?”
“Yes.” I said.
“I’ll come right over. This is important.”
I couldn’t believe it. “Coming right over” to our house is no mean feat—we live 40 minutes from church. Not only that but I knew Catherine would have to reschedule several meetings, or magically find another block of sermon writing time in order to respond to our pastoral emergency. We loved Winkin, Blinkin and Nod, sure…but they were just kittens.
Catherine knew better—she knew that this was a turning point in my daughters’ lives. She knew they would remember this day forever. And she knew that how our faith community responded to them—in their pain, in their questions, in their raging at the unfairness of it all—would make all the difference.
She made it out to our place in a little over an hour. She hugged my girls and let them cry; she let them tell the story. She let them be sad and angry and tired and frightened. She understood that this event shook their world. If poor sweet innocent kittens who barely got a chance to live—who never did anything but look fuzzy and darling, mewing tiny mews and stumbling around, toppling and tumbling over one another and their worn out mom—if sweet kittens could be here one moment and gone the next, well then really bad things could happen to anyone—really bad things might happen to their mommy or daddy, to their sister or cousins. Each girl knew, really bad things might even happen to me.
Catherine didn’t minimize their distress or try to patch things over. She helped them dig a grave and helped them hold a sweet and simple service for the dead. She let them tell stories of their time with the kittens, stories of being there for the birth as each little furry life made its entrance into the world, stories of what they loved best, stories that were funny or sweet, stories of how they loved the kittens more each day.
Our pastor took her time, and didn’t rush them. She told them it would take a long time for the sadness and the anger to subside. She told them that it was okay to be sad for as long as they wanted. And she told them they could tell it all to God—even the way they were angry or disappointed in God. She told them God would be with them no matter what they were feeling or thinking; God’s love was big enough for it all.
Finally, Catherine gave them one more hug each, got in her truck, and headed back to church.
The next day she called me to check in. She coached me—let me know what to expect when a pet dies and what to look and listen for over the next weeks and months. She warned me (for example) there was a possibility that the girls might dig the kittens back up—sometimes children do—just to check and make sure because it seems so hard to believe the ones you love are really and truly dead. (I was very glad to be forewarned and even gladder that this never came to pass). Finally, she told me that Jeff and I were doing a good job in the storm. She reminded me that I didn’t need fancy words; all I needed was a loving, listening heart.
Just as Catherine predicted, it was a turning point in our girls’ lives—a time they remember vividly, and with sadness to this day. It was a turning point for us all, I think. We all learned about the pain of death that day, and about how to be with each other and with God in the midst of grief.
And for me, it was another kind of turning point. After the kittens’ deaths, I finally understood that I wasn’t going to figure out how to pray in seminary, and that, interesting though they were, Christology and Hebrew Scriptures and Epistemology weren’t going to teach me how to be present to others in times of trial and grieving. That day I finally got it: all the book learning in the world didn’t mean much compared to the little bit I had experienced of God’s love and grace and healing power.
I didn’t need to wait until I got my diploma. What I needed to do was figure out how to share that experience of love and grace and healing—not by talking about it—but by living it. All these years later I am still working on it, still trying to figure out how to carry that loving healing transforming power with me out into this beautiful and broken world.