What do you say to a parent who has lost a child?
Any doctor will tell you this is the toughest question there is. How could one presume to say anything to someone who has suffered such a thing?
During my years as a neurosurgeon, I operated on hundreds of children with brain ailments ranging from benign tumors to the most virulent cancers. Many of the children I operated on survived. But not all of them did, and on the occasions when they didn't, the job of telling that child's parents fell to me. These days, ever since publishing "Proof of Heaven," the story of the near-death experience I underwent four years ago, most of my time is taken up not with operating on brains but with telling my story. I've spoken to thousands of people in the past several months, and the joy I get from sharing my essential message -- that each of us is immortal, that consciousness is not contained or limited by the brain, that death is not the end, and that love is the most powerful force in the universe -- is such that I simply never tire of telling it.
But one element in my new life has taken me by surprise. I now find myself regularly confronted with that question I so dreaded as a surgeon:
Why did my child die?
I've started to think of this as "The Easter Question." For though it is asked every day, in every part of the world, by people of countless different faiths speaking countless different languages, it is a question that for Christians comes into especially sharp focus on Easter. Easter, after all, is built around Christ's arising from the grave; and from the Christian perspective, through that event the power of suffering and death was defeated once and for all. And there is quite simply no greater suffering than that experienced by a parent who loses a child. I know this not only because of my experience as a surgeon, but because my own birth-parents lost their daughter: a sister who, as I narrate in "Proof of Heaven," I never knew on earth.
Why is there death? Why is there suffering? The Christian answer to these questions is that these things exist because the world has fallen away from its original divine perfection. But Jesus, through taking birth in this world, suffering the worst that it can give and rising again into glory, has defeated the evil of this world, and the suffering that goes along with it. "In the world ye shall have tribulation," says Jesus in the Gospel of John. "But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world."
More than ever since my near death experience, I consider myself a Christian -- though one who knows that God loves all of His children, including those whose faith is expressed in traditions different from my own (while I feel that God has no gender, due to convention I use the pronoun He when I refer to Him). Any pastor will tell you that the single concept that separates the wheat (that is, the real believers) from the chaff (those who are Christians only in name), is whether a person accepts that what Christian tradition says happened on Easter Morning really happened. The entire force of the Christian message can be pushed into that moment when the rock of the cave rolled aside and Jesus -- the same and yet not the same Jesus whom his mother had watched die on the cross just two days before -- stepped out once more into common daylight. That he had, in fact, overcome death.
Now, I can tell you that if someone had asked me, in the days before my NDE, what I thought of this story, I would have said that it was lovely. But it remained just that -- a story. To say that the physical body of a man who had been brutally tortured and killed could simply get up and return to the world a few days later is to contradict every fact we know about the universe. It wasn't simply an unscientific idea. It was a downright anti-scientific one.
But it is an idea that I now believe. Not in a lip-service way. Not in a dress-up-it's-Easter kind of way. I believe it with all my heart, and all my soul.
The universe we live in is one in which everything is connected. Not just in a manner of speaking, but actually. Every atom in your body, and every subatomic particle of which those atoms are made, is in profound and direct relationship with every other atom, and every other particle, in the universe: a universe that is composed not of hard, unyielding matter but of energy. This energy, in turn, is "made" of (or "manifested" by) something called consciousness. And consciousness itself is not "made" of anything, for it transcends all materiality. If we insist on envisioning consciousness as being "made" of anything, that substance must be the Divine itself.
We are, really and truly, made in God's image. But most of the time we are sadly unaware of this fact. We are unconscious both of our intimate kinship with God, and of His constant presence with us. On the level of our everyday consciousness, this is a world of separation -- one where people and objects move about, occasionally interacting with each other, but where essentially we are always alone.
But this cold dead world of separate objects is an illusion. It's not the world we actually live in. The world we really live in has many more dimensions than we can perceive. It's one in which consciousness, soul, and spirit are not only real, but more real than the physical, and where the limitations that bind us during our time on earth will fall away whenwe leave our physical bodies behind.
From this perspective -- and it is a perspective that I now live in contact with every day -- there is quite simply nothing that the loving God who rules this world cannot do. God -- the God who can do anything, and who cares for us more than He cares even for Himself -- is never far from us. Despite the incomprehensible vastness of the worlds He commands, both visible and invisible, He is right here with each of us right now, seeing what we see, suffering what we suffer... and hoping desperately that we will keep our hope and faith in Him. Because that hope and faith will be triumphant.
Why did this happen to my child? How could a loving God, if there truly is such a being, ever let it?
This Easter, in the wake of a year that saw so much horrific tragedy -- not just for parents, of course, but for all kinds of people -- I know that if I am asked this question, I will be more than willing to answer it. Not perfectly, God knows, but honestly. The universe we live in is vast beyond imagining, but it is ruled by a God who loves us in a manner that is equally beyond imagining. And he has not forgotten us. This April, more than ever, that, for me, is what Easter is all about.