December 28, 2012

Holy Innocents - why it's best not to tell a grieving parent "God needed another angel"

Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents.  It is the day that the Catholic Church recognizes and honors the baby and toddler boys who were killed by Herod after he learned from the Wise Men that a new King of the Jews had been born. (Read Matthew 2 for the story.)

For many parents who have lost a baby or child through miscarriage, stillborn birth, or another early death this feast day is, in a way, a feast day for all of us - binding together all parents throughout the ages who have lost a precious child far too soon.  It's a club you don't want to be in.

I hope it doesn't seem crass then that I take this feast day to explain something to those who are fortunate enough to not be in that club. 

For most grieving parents to hear the phrase, "God needed another angel" does not bring comfort.  In fact, for most grieving parents it makes things hurt even more.  It does not matter if you are talking about their child or children who have died in a horrible event, such as the Sandy Hook shootings or a tornado that blasted through a community.  It doesn't matter if their child died yesterday or six months ago or ten years ago. 

I realize that people say it because it is a sweet sentiment, they want to bring comfort, and they don't know what else to say.  And as the parent of a dead child I can honestly say that I appreciate all those things.  I understand that some people think we die, get our wings, and some bell rings somewhere and everything is a warm fuzzy.  I'm not mocking when I write that: in times of great grief - and the death of a child always causes great grief - we want and need comfort and we grasp for beauty because everything else seems so ugly.  I appreciate all the people who said such wrong, horrible things to me when my baby died because really they were just trying to bring comfort and they didn't know what else to say. 

But if you don't know what to say, at least know this: Do not say "God needed another angel."  Just say that you're sorry, or that you have no words for something so sad, so horrible.  That's enough.

After the Sandy Hook shootings I asked people on Facebook to not use the expression.  Quite frankly I was shocked that several people told me, "We feel sad, thinking about those children as angels makes us feel better, so I don't care if it makes you or any other grieving parent hurt worse."  Of course they said it more politely and charitably but that was the bottom line.  "Don't tell me what to say when I feel sad, even if what I say makes you feel much, much worse."  I noticed that the people who wrote those things and gave the FB like to those comments are not in the club.  I also noticed that the ones who stood with me are.

So let me explain why those words can hurt so much.

On the most basic level "God needed another angel" implies that it was God's will that the child died.  It was God's actual, active will that sent a shooter into the school, church, grocery store, movie theater, shopping mall to kill innocent children.  It was God's actual, active will - it was what He wanted and needed to happen - for my baby to die in my womb, for another's to suffocate on the umbilical cord, for another's to develop in such a way that he could not live outside of the womb, for another's to be killed in a house fire or by a drunk driver.

What kind of crappy god is that?!  What kind of pathetic god needs to send down severe pain and anguish so he can populate heaven with more angels to worship him?!  When people make that statement they denote god into someone horrible and evil, unintentionally chipping away at whatever hope the parents have.  Please don't do that to us.  Please don't chip away at our hope in an all good and all powerful God.  It is already shaky because of what we're living through.

And related to that hope, at least for me, is some basic theology about Heaven and angels.  First, it is traditional Christian teaching that God created all angels at one time, when He was busy about creating things.  Since that time He has not created any new angels nor will He.  That is important because it relates to this: We do not become angels when we die and go to Heaven, we become saints. 

For now, just our souls go to Heaven.  But when the world ends God will raise our corpses, our bodies and souls will again be united, and our bodies will be glorified.  I don't know exactly what that will look like or how it'll all go down but I find great comfort in the fact that one day I will see my child in his body, looking like himself.  I did not conceive an angel - I conceived a little boy.  It is not an angel I want to meet and hold, it is a little boy - my little boy.  Just like we say in the Creed each Sunday, "I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come."  Please don't take this hope away from me by removing my son and replacing him with an angel.

I realize that there are grieving parents who do find comfort in those words, but I would caution you to not say anything until you have heard them speak of it first.  But for the rest of us, I ask that you be compassionate and refrain from the "God needed another angel" line.

Holy Innocents, pray for us!


  1. I heartily agree. I have two babies waiting for me in Heaven. I do not like to hear any version of "it was God's will/God has a plan/God will use it for good". Even though I believe that God works all things for good, it always comes across to me like I'm not allowed to grieve or feel pain because how dare I question God. I also tell anyone who will listen never to say "At least...." At least you can have/already have more children, etc. "At least" turns grief into a competition. The bad thing that happened wasn't that bad; if X had happened, then you'd have something to be upset about, but you shouldn't be upset about the not-so-bad thing that happened.

    1. Very good points, Jen. Especially with the "at least". I also hate when people say, "God JUST needed another angel." The JUST is so belittling -even though I know that's not how it's intended.

      Lord have mercy, I am sure I've said many wrong things, especially before I lost my own child.

  2. Beautiful written, as always Bonnie. I love your honesty on such tough subjects.

    Fortunately, I am not "in the club" but I completely understand and agree with you. The reasoning could be expanded to anyone who dies-even someone's parent who dies at 105 years old. They don't become angels and they didn't die because God needed them in heaven. I've found that "I'm sorry and I'm praying for you" is always the best thing to say.

  3. Only slightly less creepy than the "God wanted another angel" line in regards to dead children is the "Dead relative X wanted to hold a baby in heaven". As if in heaven we remain frozen at the age we left earth. Can you imagine the ghoulishness of remaining an infant for all eternity, there because dead relative X wanted to hold you?

    I don't know. I haven't been asked to bear the cross of a dead child like many of you have, and so the best guess I have is that the thought of that burden is so horrifying that people's logical mind actually shuts down, and that is what drives such statements.

  4. agreed. despise the angel line as well.

    but i guess in my mind I can reason the "its god's will" statement in my case only of my stillborn daughter (not in the CT case or any horrific instance) only becuase otherwise I start blaming myself that there was something I could have done to prevent her from dying.I could have induced. The dr and I discussed it on her 40th week mark but I decided to wait until the next day to I used to blame myself for not doing it right then. Thinking its Gods will makes it easier for me to bear. But yeah--I guess I could have prevented it and maybe it wasn't god's will-- I don't know. My husband on the other hand does not believe it was God's will at all. He doesn't blame me. He blames the drs...

    anyway,this is our favorite feast day.

    1. Well, God's original plan didn't involve death at all, right? I think that's correct. So in a sense it's never a part of the plan.

      But, I actually do something similar to you for my son, Peter, in thinking that his death was a part of the (revised) plan. But I don't see Him making it happen, I see it happening like this:

      While God was knitting my son in the quiet, secret place He told him that He would like to use his little brother to do a miracle. There could be several ways it could play out, but would Peter be willing to sacrifice something so it could play out in a certain way? And then I imagine God telling Peter that instead of being born he could just come to Heaven, which would lead me - his Momma - on a path to choose homebirth.

      Because Peter would have been born in a hospital and if his birth would have been anything like his sister's (over 20 hours of labor and a big baby) I think it would have ended in a c-section. And so I think my next baby, Bennet 10lb 11oz, would have also been a c-section. And James, born so soon after Bennet and another large baby, would have also been a c-section. A c-section = no stillborn = no miracle.

      I imagine Peter hearing this and saying Yes, he would do it.

      Of course it is quite likely that I'm very wrong about the whole thing, but it does bring me some comfort.

  5. I LOVE your version of the story Bonnie. I think Peter is smiling abd thinking..."man i got an awesome Mama!" Peter Mark and all the Holy Innocents, Pray for us!

  6. Thank you for this post, Bonnie! I entirely agree! It always helps me to imagine my babies happy and safe in heaven, taken care of by Our Lady. I do not like people claiming that God needed another soul, He doesn't. I have also heard (in the case of miscarriage) that it wasn't a good time and it was for the best. That REALLY hurts.

    Anyway, I'll be passing this on because it says exactly what I would like to say :)

  7. While I have not lost a child, I agree from a theological standpoint that the reasoning of "God's will" or "needing another angel" is flawed and, I imagine, hurtful. I am sure I have not always had the most perfect response to parents in these situations, but I try hard to read about and understand, the best I am able, the grief that parents go through so that I have a better idea what to do and say.

    I love your story of Peter and James.

  8. I don't have children, but the "angel" line has always been like nails on a chalkboard to me. It's so theologically WRONG (and often said by people who should know better).
    I think it all plays into this subtle angel-worship culture prevalent today. People who would never worship an Almighty God have no problems with praying to angels. Very strange.
    Anyway, saying, "I'm so sorry. I'll be praying for you" is never the wrong thing to say. Or even, "I can't begin to know what you're going through. I'm praying for you."
    This struck a nerve with me as a friend of mine lost her grandchild at 3 months old, and someone posted on her Facebook page, "I guess Jesus needed another angel." I really wanted to reach through the computer and SLAP her, in spite of her intentions, which I know were good. But still...
    I posted a link to this entry on my FB page in hopes that someone who needed to see it, will. Thanks and God bless!

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Bonnie, I'm also not in that club - thank you, Lord. But when someone I know goes through this, I usually say something along the lines of, "I'm so sorry. I'm asking your sweet saint to pray for your family at this time." Thoughts? Be honest!