I last wrote to you a few months ago when we were deep into dark winter months. It was just after New Year’s Day, and, if you recall, it seemed like we just couldn’t catch a break. There was one student death. Then another. Then a teacher and another student. I wrote about how Killingly was one of the kindest, most generous places I had ever encountered, and I told you how inspiring it was to witness you caring for each other–holding each other in the face of such sadness.
One of the funerals during that awful month was held at my church. They weren’t members of our congregation. The family just needed a place to grieve. And a place to name who their child was to them and the world. I called one of our church ladies and asked her if she’d mind doing a reception after the service. She didn’t miss a beat. “I’ll take care of it,” she replied. “You take care of the family.” And take are of it, she did.
Actually, you took care of it–this community took care of it. The afternoon of that funeral, person after person stopped by Westfield to drop off food. Businesses, restaurants, families–some connected to our congregation, the majority not–understood that when a child dies in our community it’s not just one family’s responsibility to take action, nor is it one church’s. We understand that it’s all of ours–that each of us is called to care and to hold, to love and to lift up.
And here’s the thing: no one had to remind anyone to do that. In Killingly, caring for each other isn’t the exception to the rule. It is the rule.
For the last month or two, we’ve been working to figure out how to live with loss. It’s no secret that loss is part of life, but for so many of our kids the kind of loss they encountered during those hard, cold, dark weeks was unimaginable. But the weather started to warm and the trees started to bud. And the days are getting longer and people are happier. There’s something about the return of the sun in the Spring that does that up here.
And yet, even in the midst of this annual reminder of new life, we come face to face with loss again. And I find myself writing to you again, two times too many.
Last night, one of my congregants messaged me. She had been at a middle school softball game between Killingly and Woodstock Recreational teams, when one of Killingly’s players, a student at Killingly Intermediate School, died on the field. I don’t know her. I don’t know her family. I don’t know the details of what happened last night. I don’t know how the coaches or other team members responded.
There’s a lot that I don’t know; that we don’t know.
I imagine that’s a common theme in Killingly homes these days: I don’t know. When kids ask, “why my friend?”; or teachers wonder, “why my student?”; or parents lament, “why my child?” it seems like the answer to each of those is the same: I don’t know. And that’s hard because you something? Parent’s are supposed to know the answers. Teachers are supposed to know the answers.
Pastors are supposed to know the answers.
And still, the fact remains that there are some things we just don’t know.
But the truth is that there are some things we do know.
We know that we are in this together, that if ever there was a community that has, over just a few months, witnessed to the love they have for each other, it is Killingly.
We know how to cry. And how to sing. And how to feed. And how to eat. We know how to sit beside those suffering and hold their pain. We know how to open our hearts to those longing for their child back. We know how play games with their siblings. And whisper of how this isn’t the end. And tell stories of the one we’ve lost, of the joy and light and hope they brought into the world.
We know how to love. And the truth is, Killingly, you love well. You’re good at it. God knows, you’ve had practice. So when you’re unsure of what to say or don’t know what to do next, I hope that you will follow your heart because deep inside, you do. You know.
But in case you need a little help, here’s what I’ve got:
(1) Don’t say “God took her home.” Or “God needed another angel.” Or “God decided it was time.” We say those things to try to answer that pesky question of why. But here’s something I believe to my core (sorry to get a little Jesus-y, I am a pastor!): God doesn’t choose for us to die. God didn’t want Morgan to die. God doesn’t want any of us to die. In fact, in our scriptures Jesus tells us that he came that we might have abundant life. And the last time I checked, the opposite of abundant life is death. All of that to say, phrases like “God took them home” or “God needed another angel” or “God decided it was time” are our human attempts at describing the indescribable. And they always fall short. God doesn’t need another angel. We’re just devastated to have lost one we’ve loved so much and are desperate to find any reason for why they’re gone. We search for answers because without them, we have to live with an unknown why. And that’s hard.
So what should you say? Start with “I’m sorry” or “I’m here” or “I love you.”
(2) Parents: Your child will say, “It’s not fair.” And they’re right. And you know they’re right. You don’t have to make it fair. You don’t have to explain it or make sense of it or understand it yourself. Also, you have permission to cry–even cry in front of your children. It’s sad. Maybe cry, then find a way to help? And get your kids involved in helping, too. I’m not a parent, but I suspect that for a lot of children, there might be fear associated with this situation. My favorite Theologian, Mister Rodgers, was fond of recalling, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” So, go help.
(3) This is one I mentioned in my last letter, but it bears repeating: God doesn’t make shitty things happen. But God can make really beautiful things come out of really shitty situations. I’m not saying bad things happen so God can make beautiful things. That’s not it at all. Just that the brokenness of this world–the suffering, the loss, the uncertainty, the sadness isn’t the end of the story. Just this January, you, dear Killingly, bore witness to that. You showed up in the most beautiful and unexpected ways. You were generous and gracious. You were loving and kind. And we grew closer because of it. Now God didn’t make those weeks so shitty. But God certainly showed us beauty in the midst of them.
And you know, sometimes that beauty takes years to blossom. For those with tears in their eyes, it might be nearly impossible to see. So for those of you with blurry vision, let me show you where I can already see that beauty budding: I see it in the countless messages I received when word of Morgan’s passing first came out. I see it in the ways people who don’t even know her family want to know if we’re doing something. I see it in the ways you have supported each other in online communities like Facebook. I see it in you.
I’ve said it before: It’s never easy. It won’t ever be easy. But caring for one another, loving one another, holding one another is our only choice–the only one that works. So let’s do that. Let’s care and love and hold.
You are loved, Killingly. You are loved by God, by each other, by me. And, despite what we don’t know, we’ll make it through this tragedy the same way we always have: side by side.
I’m sorry. I’m here. I love you.