Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Sarah and the Saints

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.


  1. This story has shaken many mothers, myself included. Thanks for sharing this perspective.

  2. I can relate perfectly as I didn't know her but I feel connected to her somehow. I too grieved her loss as if I had known her and began praying to her shortly after her death! I feel like she will certaintly intercede to God to help me be a better wife and mother since she knows the daily struggles I face. Ever since her death I find myself being grateful for the screaming baby I am trying to put down for a nap because I am alive to raise him. This is a powerful and beautifully written post. Thank you so much for for writing it.

  3. Sarah's death shook me badly, too. This summer has been full of that Heavenly shaking. At the beginning of summer, we had two friends lose babies - full-term - at birth. A week later, two priest friends of ours were attacked in their own home, one brutally murdered and the other beaten terribly. Then my grandfather passed. And now Sarah.

    I'm not sure what Our Lord is telling me, other than, treasure this, Melanie. Stop fumbling your way toward bedtime in an exhausted heap of bad mood, and begin to treasure what I have so wonderfully and carefully picked to gift you and entrust you with. These moments will not last.

    And you know what? That scares the, literally, hell out of me. This and probably the intercession of those same souls whose lives so greatly impacted my own, if only through the suddenness of their deaths.

    Praying for you to overcome this anxiety...and that I will, as well!

  4. Beautiful. I will be asking her intercession also, as well as praying for her soul and for her poor family.

    Recently an acquaintance lost their 2 year old son. He was literally a week younger than our oldest. That loss really hit home for me. It was one of the worst times for me with the twins and life was just so hard; that little boy's death both put things in perspective and also shook up my awareness of our day-to-day life. Hard sometimes, yes, but so very easy to take our blessings for granted.

  5. Beautiful, Jenny.

  6. That was one of the most beautiful blog entries I have read. Very beautiful. I will be pondering this for awhile.

  7. Sarah was my friend and household sister at fus, this has been hard on all of us. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insight.

    1. I am so sorry for your loss, Laura. The love that she inspired in her friends and family makes me wish I'd had the chance to know her.

  8. Jenny, same. I also deal with anger and depression over events like this. I need to remember to pray to these mothers. The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God is a book about a mother who also inspires me.
    Hang in there. Knowing there are moms like you for me to relate to helps so much.

  9. I remember reading that comment. That post is still my favorite post of all time and I think I read the comments over and over again. I ache for her family and love your suggestion of praying for her intercession.

  10. Wow Jenny. Just wow. Thank you for this perspective.

  11. This is a beautiful tribute. I think this story resonates, because that could be any of us playing with our kids and then to have disaster strike. Her family is in my prayers!

  12. So good Jenny. I keep thinking about her again and again and it really is heart wrenching. I'm fairly certain she is in the presence of God doing wonderful things for her children already. But I have tears just thinking of her.

  13. Beautiful post. Two weeks ago, my sister gave birth to her oldest son at 38 weeks and he was stillborn. There haven't been words invented yet to describe the heartache we feel at the loss of our nephew, but to even consider having lost my sister as well?! Unthinkable. I love the idea of praying to her for her intercession regarding her family and regarding our own lives as mothers. I know that my nephew is in that great Communion of Saints and will be a guardian for my children and any future siblings he may have. Thank you for writing this.

  14. You so perfectly said what so many of us have been thinking. Her death has shaken me up, too, and it's so sad and scary. But I too believe in the communion of saints.

  15. Thank you for this hopeful perspective Jenny. Beautifully written.

  16. I knew Sarah and her family personally. I met her husband and three of her four kids. I met her in a Manna for Mother's Group at our church, St. Ignatius in Hickory, MD. When we met she was living at her inlaws in Bel Air, MD. I visited her there and she came to our house. She showed me a little on how she made her rosary blocks and I purchase three of them. I met her oldest son and she had her daughter about one month after I had my second son. Then when they moved to their first house, my family went to visit their's. She came back to Bel Air for a visit and she had her third child with her and no other members of the Manna for Mom's could meet for dinner but my husband and I were going out so I invited her to come with us. That was the last time I saw her. About three years ago. But I had been communicating with her on Facebook. I miss her a lot! Such a shock to hear this sad news! Before her death in Facebook she said she was finding out the sex on her fifth child and I guessed boy and was wrong. Then she asked for girl names.

    I feel so bad for her husband and kids and her family too. I pray for all of them during this tough time.

    I definitely will pray to Sarah to help me be a better wife and mother.

    Kathleen Hawk

  17. Thank you for this. I can't get her story out of my mind. But this is a healthy dose of catholic truth to help bring a bit of peace to all the sorrow and confusion. We certainly will never understand why all this happens, but that doesn't mean we can't find God's peace despite it. I hope she's praying for us all, and I know her prayers are surrounding her sweet family.

  18. Just beautiful, Jenny. At 66 ( one of your senior fans) am attending more funerals as the years pass. Don't know how those
    without a strong faith deal with their sorrow. Thank you for reminding of the gift of the Communion of Saints. God bless.

  19. Jenny, your words are very beautiful and full of truth. In the past week and half, we have been loaded with grief and confusion over our sister's loss. What you have written speaks to the heart of what is helping us to overcome these hurdles. Already we have heard of amazing stories that many have praying for Sarah's intercession. I truly believe she is heaven now, and that she is with our Lord and his Mother, in company with the Communion of Saints. It pains me to say this, but she is closer to me now than she was on earth. We are still growing as brother and sister.
    Thank you,

  20. I lost my cousin a couple years ago and my family is still struggling with his death. It dawned on me recently... why am I not asking him to pray for us?! Our loved ones really do know what we need most.

  21. Hi, Jenny. I'm a bit late with this comment, but I just found this post. I lost my dearest and best friend this Spring, somewhat suddenly, at the age of 38. She left behind a devoted husband and 3 young children. I have ached for them, which compounds my own grief. I was recently talking to someone about my pain for her family and she gave me some advice that was so simple, and yet so profound. It has eased my pain for them, though they remain firmly in my heart and prayers. Her words were so powerful I remember them verbatim: "Don't ever take on anyone else's grief because you haven't been given the Graces that they have been given." While I still pray for the comfort of their hearts, it has given me some peace to recall that God is pouring His Grace into their hearts.
    Also, I wholeheartedly agree with the main point of your post. Courtney is at the tippy top of my list of intercessors for all of my struggles. I even had a dream about her in which we were reunited... somewhere... and I asked her to pray for me. She smiled and said, "OF COURSE I've been praying for you!" She went on to tell me that she knew all of my crosses and had already been praying for me. That dream was such a gift. I honestly feel just as close to her in her death as I did in her life. So much so that when I go to Adoration, I ask her to sit with me and pray with me. Praise God for the Communion of Saints!!


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