My 4-year-old niece was just diagnosed with cancer, and I am devastated by this news. I find it hard to pray. I feel angry, and I don’t understand why God would allow this to happen. People say God has a plan and he is looking out for us, but how are we to understand a good and loving God when such tragic things can happen to innocent children?
Dear grieving aunt/uncle,
Thank you for having the courage and honesty to reach out with your question and your concern. As an uncle myself, I cannot even begin to imagine the pain and suffering this tragic situation is causing you and your entire family. My heart and prayers go out to you and your beautiful niece at this most difficult time.
My first thought upon reading and meditating on your questions is of Mary at the foot of the cross. Like you, our Mother of Sorrows watched helplessly as her Son died a slow and painful death. St. John Paul II reminds us that her fiat (“let it be”) at this moment can be thought to be an even greater act of faith than her initial fiat when she said to the archangel Gabriel, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Having a deep faith in God and a certain hope that his promises to us will be fulfilled is especially challenging at moments of intense suffering.
When we pray the Hail, Holy Queen prayer (for example, at the end of our Rosary meditations), we say “to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.” We openly recognize that our pilgrimage on Earth is a “vale of tears.” Why? Because sin entered the world, and with sin, death (see Romans 5:12). Death, at least as we now experience it, entered the world because of the disharmony and disruption caused by sin — original and actual. As Wisdom 1:13–14 teaches: “God did not invent death, and when living creatures die, it gives him no pleasure. He created everything so that it might continue to exist, and everything he created is wholesome and good. … No, death does not rule this world.”
This is the key verse to remember: “Death does not rule.” We see this most clearly in the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In the Resurrection, Jesus overcame sin, Satan, and death. We share in his victory when through baptism we die with him and rise reborn as new creations, sons and daughters in the Son (see Romans 6:3–5).
Every human person is eternal. Your niece may die (we, of course, pray and hope for a miracle if that be God’s will), but as we know from our funeral liturgy, for Christians death is not the end but a transformation to a fuller life in Christ. As Scripture teaches: “If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him” (Romans 6:8).
So, you and your niece will live forever. Although you may be separated for a time, you and she (and all of us) are meant to live forever with Christ. Our time here is short when compared to eternity. As eternal beings, we were made for union with infinite love, freed from the limitation of time, sin, and death. This new and eternal life of heaven is our true and lasting home. Some, by the grace of God, enter it earlier than others, but we are all called to this perfected union.
Thus, we do have “a sure and certain hope” in the Resurrection. But despite our hope, the pain of separation, of suffering (our own, but especially of the precious “little ones” we love), and death still touches us profoundly. Our human nature rebels against death, pain, and suffering because we know, at some mysterious depth of our being, that it “ought not to be this way.”
But knowing this does not necessarily make our pain less. So how do we cope with this pain? First, as you have done, we must be honest with ourselves and with God. We should speak openly with God in prayer, even telling him of our anger, hurt, frustration, and pain. He knows us better than we know ourselves. (see Romans 8:27), so this honesty deepens our relationship with him.
Second, we can unite our own suffering with that of Jesus. By doing so, it becomes a source of grace for ourselves and others. St. Paul taught us this in his letter to the Colossians: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).
Third, we must understand that faith does not provide us with all the answers. When it comes to suffering, it is inevitable in a world full of sin. To love in a world full of sin, Jesus taught us, takes the form of the cross (see Matthew 16:24).
While our faith does not provide detailed answers to all mysteries, it does promise us the grace to persevere in all things. Pope Francis wrote quite eloquently about this matter in Lumen Fidei, paragraph 57, when he reminds us that God provides us with an “accompaniment” through our times of pain and suffering.
Nor does the light of faith make us forget the sufferings of this world. How many men and women of faith have found mediators of light in those who suffer! So it was with Saint Francis of Assisi and the leper, or with Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her poor. They understood the mystery at work in them. In drawing near to the suffering, they were certainly not able to eliminate all their pain or to explain every evil. Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light. In Christ, God himself wishes to share this path with us and to offer us his gaze so that we might see the light within it. Christ is the one who, having endured suffering, is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).
Fourth, and finally, know that you do not travel the road of suffering alone. Your family, friends, parish, and the whole Church walks with you. Most importantly the Lord accompanies you and your niece at all times and in all things. Although we struggle sometimes to accept it, it is always true. As St. Paul taught us in Romans 8:28, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” All things do in the long run work together for good because all things will be made whole in the kingdom, where there will be no tears, no sin, and no death but only joy, gladness, goodness, and life.