Normally, when I select and review books for the Catechist Café, I turn to major publishers such as Paulist Press or Yale University Press. But today’s offering comes from a longtime friend—one of my “campus ministry gang” from the 1970’s when I served as a college chaplain. Say what you will about Facebook, but nothing beats it for meeting old folks with good memories. Thus it was that I reconnected on FB with Claudia Verruto Bernstein [Claudia Verruto back then] and learned of her 2012 work, “The Last Day I Had a Daddy.”] Having read the book this weekend I was immediately captivated by two qualities. First, this is a very brief but captivating story narrated in a child’s voice but with an adult’s hindsight; and second, there is a treasure of here of catechetical and mental health wisdom for any of us who care for children and shape their religious outlook.
Louis Verruto is remembered by his daughter as a very attentive and affectionate man. He operated a small shoe repair shop close enough to his home that the author, at the age of seven, was able to ride her bike to meet him at closing time and accompany him home. In the evenings he would contribute to her piggy bank and read her a story. One of his most important projects as the narrative begins is his work on his daughter’s First Communion shoes, in preparation for her big day just three weeks off. As we readers know where the story is headed, there is a nervous anticipation in this description of an idyllic domestic existence. The author quotes herself at the time, “I can’t imagine how this day could be any more perfect.” [p. 7]
Life stopped being perfect on a glorious fall afternoon. I can recall my own reactions in 2001 to learning from police at 4:30 AM that my 26-year-old stepson had been killed suddenly on his way to work by a drunk driver, but I was 53 years old at the time and my primary concern was my wife. Awful as it was, my own safety and sanity was not turned upside down. Consider, though, the multifaceted dimensions of crisis experienced by a child. We are privy to the author’s reactions in sharp detail, which give us immense insight in how to care for youngsters in such circumstances.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief—shock, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—are as applicable to children in many respects as to adults, and they play out in the author’s post-mortem reactions in ways that are uncanny, though students of Kubler-Ross remind us that “these stages occur neither with predictable regularity nor in any set order.” The author’s anger wells up with her First Communion, for example, where she had prayed earnestly for a miracle on her big day, that by some divine intervention she might see her father when she processed into church. “I was mad at the angels. I was mad at Sister Regina. There were no miracles because if there were, Daddy would have walked home with me, just like always. And I was mad at daddy! Why didn’t he come? Why?” [p. 34]
If anecdotal evidence means anything, I have encountered adult patients who told me they were still angry that as children they were not permitted to attend the funeral of a loved one in the family. Fifty years ago, this was the accepted wisdom of the times, and the author’s mother had her stay with relatives in another town during the five days around the funeral. When I interned for family psychotherapy in 1988 my supervisors were adamant that children should participate in family funerals. As I write this entry, my wife Margaret reminded me that in some cultures grieving widows or other adult relatives throwing themselves on the coffin was de rigour, a sight that might indeed unnerve a child. However, a child does not need to go to the graveside to have a meaningful involvement in what Catholicism considers a cathartic encounter with God.
How we talk about God and death to children in catechetical or instructional settings requires exquisite care. Language that suggests God is the administrative agent who terminates life prematurely for his own purposes can be easily misinterpreted, as happens here. [pp. 32-33] The author recalls “I remember what Sister Regina said at school: if you pray very hard, miracles can happen. Mommy said that the angels took daddy up to Heaven. Maybe if I prayed very hard, they would bring him back. A miracle, my miracle.” As well intentioned as we are, our guidance language is heard in absolutes: if God taketh away, God can giveth, too, for the right effort. Kubler-Ross came to recognize the bargaining stratagem in her own patients. Thousands of Catholic adults visit Lourdes every year with the same hope. Little mystery as to why the next stage in grieving is depression, which in children and adolescents can manifests itself in irritability and anger.
The author admits to a significant period of angry depression which only began to lift through the ministrations of her older brother, also named Louis, a young man whose wisdom far exceeded his age. Louis intuitively drew from the richness of the Catholic tradition of sacramentals, or holy signs. He explains to her that “[T]he heart is like a camera, Claudia. It takes pictures of who we love and our mind is like the photograph album the pictures are stored in. The pictures are called memories. And we have lots of them with Daddy.” [p. 46] The author herself may have subconsciously drawn from this sacramental stream in her multiple allusions to her First Communion shoes from her father, which I would wager she still owns today.
The loss of a parent in the prime of life is a difficult subject to address. Would I recommend this work to young people? I would say this. The author intended this work for young people, and probably for the people who care for them. We live in a world where children rehearse for school shootings. If we do not address death in our family and religious settings, how do we and they become skilled in ministering to young people in various states of grief and loss? Ministering in these circumstances calls for a measure of counterintuitive measures. Avoiding pain is not always a productive or healing strategy. I would note, too, that young people are sometimes the best helpers of each other. I would recommend to catechists, for example, that they consider a work such as this for group discussion, perhaps concurrently with parent groups.
Amazon is presently out of the book. You can contact the author at (1) The Last Day I Had a Daddy - Posts | Facebook
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