Happy Birthday, Stella: When Children Die

April 18th, 2013

Today marks Stella Joy Bruner-Methven’s fourth birthday. She died last year, on October 22nd, just days after she turned 3 1/2. Although today is Stella’s birthday, she does not turn four. An egregious tumor, incurable and virtually untreatable, took this birthday from her. And before it did that, it took away almost every faculty she had: from walking, to using her arms, from singing, to even using her own voice. But Stella no longer being here to celebrate her birthday angers me and thrusts me right back into grief, perhaps more than anything, because Stella loved birthdays the most. At two and three years old she didn’t really understand the concept of birthdays (beyond that they were awesome and they involved candles, cake, and her favorite song). When Stella was diagnosed with this fatal tumor, her parents stopped trying to explain to her that it was not her birthday when she frequently asked for birthday parties and big ice cream cakes at Dairy Queen.  Instead, they bought the cakes whenever she asked and threw more birthday parties in the 16 months she was sick than many kids will get in their lifetimes. At her public celebration of life, while lighting hundreds of candles in her favorite park, the closing song was “Happy Birthday.” Just after the last stanza, a huge gust of wind swept through and blew all the candles out. I’m not really one to believe in the paranormal, but everyone could feel that the wind was Stella as she blew out her birthday candles one more time from wherever she is now.

I have been profoundly affected by this beautiful little girl and her death. Yet through all the grieving, I step back sometimes and marvel with a complete inability to comprehend at the fact that Stella, on October 22nd, was one of more than an estimated 29,000 children under the age of five who die daily. That’s approximately 21 every minute. What has been the most overwhelming part of Stella’s death for me was not the fact that she was a child, but the fact that she was, simply put, Stella. That she had curly red hair, laughed in her sleep, was obsessed with birthdays, loved to bite people (just to see their reactions), and danced in the cutest way. Stella, too, was and is not an island. Her life was profoundly intertwined with the lives of her parents, brothers, aunties, cousins, and many friends. In many ways she lives on in each of them and her death also rippled through their lives—with pain, sorrow, confusion, lost dreams. Her younger brother, Sam, learned to walk just after she died, and ran from the couch—where she often lay sleeping—to the bed where she spent her last days, looking for her again and again. Even in a one-year-old child, Stella’s death left holes that will ripple throughout his life. To imagine the fullness of what each of those 29,000 children’s lives were; what their silly habits were, their favorite foods, what made them laugh and cry, who their siblings might be, their aunties and parents, is simply staggering.

It was unsurprising to me that, after the tragic and gruesome bombings in Boston on Monday, the name that circulated most widely was that of 8-year-old victim, Martin Richard. Just like Stella, he was a kid all his own. He loved to climb trees and ride his bike. He and his family were Catholic and he had taken his first communion last year.

In no way do I want to suggest that the death of children somehow outweighs that of adults. I do, however, want to suggest that there is a certain complete nonsense to the death of children that (though I make these claims not as a neuroscientist) I sometimes suspect our brains simply cannot handle. And yet, it is often in these very deaths, these nonsensical deaths… in their very insanity and trauma, which we often insist on wrestling and wrenching meaning, particularly religious meaning, out of.

And in doing so, I too often find us painting God in the most gruesome ways. Have you seen this poem traveling through the internet?

….For no heartache compares with

the death of one small child

Who does so much to make our world,

seem wonderful and mild

Perhaps God tires of calling

the aged to his fold,

So He picks a rosebud,

before he can grow old.

God knows how much we need them,

and so he takes but a few

To make the land of Heaven

more beautiful to view….

I can honestly say, even after having read this so many times, just to look it up again to paste here made me sick to my stomach. God does not need small children to make heaven beautiful. But so, so much greater than that: God is not selfish, egocentric and cruel. God does not give in order to take away.

The Christian tradition sees redemption through Jesus Christ as the key and hope for life and death. I am concerned, however, that the definition of redemption is easily distorted. Christian redemption primarily refers to a redeemed, everlasting life after death. Yet, too often I hear a definition of redemption that sounds as though redemption equals understanding the tragedy, particularly by seeing « greater good » come from it. God has promised us redemption after death. God has not necessarily promised greater good out of senseless tragedy. God has also not promised total understanding, at least on this side of life.

I don’t believe there is such perfect redemption, in the sense of  « greater good »  and perfect meaning, in death, and certainly not in the traumatic death of children, whether by cancer, bombs, malaria, or starvation. Frankly, I think such deaths are, and perhaps forever will be, utterly absurd. Even wrong. If there is meaning in them, it is perhaps that something in this world is deeply, woefully awry. We must grapple with this, yet ultimately understand that there are things we will never understand, for I suspect only in that acceptance can we truly move through to peace. We can maintain connectedness, practice compassion, and name beauty. We cannot insist on redemptive meaning and always finding that « greater good ».

Good absolutely can come from tragedy and trauma. Stella, and her death, have grown and changed me in huge ways, have taught me about compassion, laughter and the awesomeness of chocolate donut holes. But Stella didn’t have to die for me to become a better person, even for the thousands of people who knew her to live life more fully. This is not « greater good », this is just good. And I firmly believe that God didn’t allow this to happen in order that there be good. The tragedy so vastly outweighs anything I can imagine as « greater good », and I believe God is fully able to bring good out of good and firmly prefers that method of working.

Stella will not turn four today. And Martin will not turn 9. Still, I know that today, around the world there will be birthday candles, chocolate timbits and even some playful biting, in honor of a girl whose death may never make sense, but whose life, regardless, was utterly beautiful. I believe that God, in God’s infinite grace and redemption, holds her even now, perhaps not in some golden heaven where she flies around on wings (trust me, God probably knows better than to give that trouble-making imp her own wings!) but in peace and joy forever. We may never be able to make sense of Stella’s death, and the deaths of too many other young children, and yet, on this day and forever, we can sing: 

Happy Birthday to you, 

Happy Birthday to you,

Happy Birthday dear Stella,

Happy Birthday to you. 

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One thought on “Happy Birthday, Stella: When Children Die

  1. Caitlin, thank you for sharing your thoughts about Stella. I know that Stella was a very important and precious person to you, and I feel that through knowing you I know her, even if only in a small way. I do not know what it is like to lose a friend who is so young. I cannot imagine the heart wrenching pain involved in the lives of parents who have lost a child to tragedy. I am thankful, though, for the lessons you share here about redemption and Christ’s love. Your trust in God is inspiring, even amid the anger, frustration, and confusion. Thank you for reminding us of the importance of unshakeable faith even when the grace of God might seem barely visible.

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