A little over a week ago a family a few degrees of separation from ours lost their mother and their youngest unborn sister. I’m sure many of you have seen stories of Sarah Harkins floating around the internet — just this morning the Washington Post did a beautiful write up on her life. I didn’t know Sarah, but I did know her brother, and we had probably a dozen friends in common. She and her husband graduated from my alma mater the year before I transferred there, but Franciscan is a tight knit alumni network and you can never completely escape the ‘Ville.
Although we didn’t know one another, her death has rocked me to the core. For the first few days after the news broke I was incredibly anxious and on edge, looking around me in disbelief at my perfect life, waiting at any moment for the phone call or the accident that would change everything.
I don’t know if this makes sense, but the death of this woman, this lovely friend-of-friends, seemed to momentarily knock the spiritual wind out of me, so to speak. I could not see how a good and loving God could have allowed such a tragedy.
Yes, but Ebola. But Israel and Syria and Ukraine and Boko Haram and Maylasia Airlines and homelessness and poverty and SIDS.
Yes, I know. So much suffering. So much evil.
But this was personal. It wasn’t something far away, happening to someone I’d never met. I mean no, we’d never met. But I felt a connection to this dead woman that I could not shake.
Every time I came across another tribute to her life, I clicked. Every time another fundraising opportunity popped up, I felt compelled to give and to share on social media. And in every one of the pictures of her sweet, innocent children accompanying the story of her tragic end, I saw a future of fathomless grief for a family not very different from our own.
I wept against Dave’s shoulder, railing against a God who would take a pregnant mother and young wife from her family. I scrolled through her blog backwards, reading post after post from a woman whose faith was clearly lightyears ahead of my own, and whose love for life radiated off the page.
I couldn’t understand.
I still can’t. The Harkins family didn’t just lose a mother. Her husband lost his best friend, his lover, his partner, and his greatest earthly consolation. Her children lost their caregiver, their teacher, and their primary catechist. The void her death leaves is massive.
In all of my clicking and scrolling during last week, I came across something beautiful written by a friend of hers, something that switched on a light in my brain in a kind of ‘aha’ way.
I cannot understand this kind of suffering, she said (or something close to it, forgive my paraphrasing) and so I’m praying to Sarah, asking for her intercession for us all as we try to cope with her loss. What a simple solution. And what a preposterous idea. (Non Catholic readers, stick with me here. You’re about to get a crash course in the Communion of Saints.) And yet it was the first thing I’d seen in connection with her loss that made any kind of sense.
Of course we should be begging for her intercession. I thought, who better knows the specific needs of the family she left behind? I realized that the anger I’d been feeling towards God was misdirected. He doesn’t cause our suffering in this vale of tears. But only His mercy can make any sense of it. Sarah’s seemingly senseless and random death was simply the end of her earthly narrative; but her influence on the still-unfolding story of salvation history just hit the big time.
So I started praying to Sarah Harkins, right then and there. And I believe with every fiber of my being that she can hear our prayers, and that she is presenting them before the throne of God, and that she has a powerful interest in interceding for tired, overwhelmed mothers trying to reach and teach their little people and love their husbands well.
I’ve talked to a couple other friends in the last day or so and they have enthusiastically informed me that they, too, have been asking Sarah’s intercession in these particular areas. These were casual acquaintances of hers, and women who’d never heard of her before reading her obituary, and yet each one of them confessed to feeling a powerful and particular connection to her.
This doesn’t explain her passing. It doesn’t make sense of the loss of a 32-year-old woman in the prime of her life and the middle of her vocation, striving to raise a happy, healthy, holy family with her husband.
Death is ultimately the most unnatural thing that will ever happen to us. We were not designed to die. We were not created for dirt and ashes. The fractured reality rent by sin has condemned each of us to suffer its fate, though we have a Savior who opened the way into the next life by the shedding of His blood. Still, I think I can speak for the majority of human beings (now there’s a statement) when I say that few look forward to the end of their mortal toil.
The dread of death, the fear of the unknown, both are evidence to me that it wasn’t meant to be like this. We are longing for a return to something that none of us remembers, and yet, we each of us will suffer death. Why then, should it be so surprising and so disturbing when it comes?
Sarah’s death has called me back to life in a real way. The sudden here-now-there of her story has jolted me from a sort of creeping pragmatic agnosticism, giving God cursory nods and an hour on Sunday but little more beyond that.
But that isn’t His plan for me. That isn’t His plan for anyone, to live as if He is in one place and we are in another, and eventually the twain shall meet but only after 80+ years of satisfactory time on earth.
He wants more.
Sarah knew that. As her fingers fashioned the beads of the clay rosaries she crafted, she must have pondered the mysteries each one represented.
This morning I went to send an email to another girl named Sarah on my phone. I began to type “Sarah H” into the address bar, and Sarah Harkin’s name popped up on my screen.
Stunned, I scrolled through a series of 4 emails we’d traded back and forth. More than 2 months ago she had commented on a post here on this blog, and I’d responded to her. I couldn’t believe it, and I certainly didn’t remember it. I want to share a small portion of something she said. It was real, and it wasn’t sugar coated, and I pray her family won’t mind my sharing it here: “After 4 kids spaced close together and homeschooling thrown in the mix, I am hardly the poster child for mommy bliss. It is hard. Hard is not fun. But that’s ok. There are times when it is fun – but God forbid the rest of the world sees the hard times on your face!”
It is hard. But that’s ok.
Thank you, Sarah. I hope you’ll continue to pray for those of us in the trenches from your heavenly vantage point. I pray for the courage to live the kind of life you did.