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  • Reverend James Squire

No Name To Capture the Unspeakable: The 10th Anniversary of the Death of Paul Pratt

Paul Pratt, an EA student and rower, died in a tragic car accident ten years ago on May 16.

It sent shock waves of grief through the EA community and the rowing community in general.

His dad sends me reflections that he has about Paul. They remind me of the book title, Death Be Not Proud. I taught Paul in Ethics, a place where he could nourish his questioning mind. Paul still lives on in the Resurrection and memories of so many.

When I was called to the scene of the accident by an EA alumnus and the police to identify who died in that accident, we went together to Paul’s home to inform his father of Paul’s death. His mother was returning from New York State from picking up his brother, Doug, from college. When we informed Joe of his loss, I noticed these two little girls playing off to the right in another room. His twin sisters, age 18 now, are ready to enter the world of college. Where did that time go?

Rowers are very competitive as most athletes are, but the days after Paul’s death the cry rose up along the banks of the Schuykill River at a regatta as the EA boat passed by, “Pull for Paul! Pull for Paul!” His mother Kimberly, reminds me of the old hymn, Faith of our Fathers, which I will change to, Faith of our Mothers, which contains the refrain, “Faith of our Mothers, holy faith, and preach thee too as love knows how by kindly words and a virtuous life.” Paul and her faith live on as she teaches the underserved in a nearby community. Death can never be proud if you confront it with the humility of the Gospel. (The hymn is posted at the end of the blog.)

I received the following instant message from a friend. It contains a message that I have never thought about before. It read, “A person who loses a partner is called a widow. A child who loses a parent is called an orphan, but there is no word to describe a parent who loses a child, because the loss is like no other. So, will you put this as your status for just one hour? I know the ones that will. Think of someone you know or love who has lost a baby or child or a grandchild, and take a few minutes to remember and honor those loved ones.”

I appreciate the care and the gesture of a friend, but it is challenging to move into your day with such a profound thought as your wake-up call as we as a family have lost a child, Joanna Lynn Squire, died of leukemia at age four.

The death of your child is devastating which is an understatement. Some couples never get over it and divorce. It’s a loss that people can’t find the right words to console parents and siblings as symbolized by the fact that we don’t have a name for it. It is for many in the realm of the unspoken. Judith Viorst wrote a book called Necessary Losses and communicates that all of life is a series of gains and loss. It is a book that reflects a good deal of life where we gain by losing. She does not include the loss of a child because I believe that this loss is different. It is a club to which no one wants to belong. There is nothing to be gained that meets or exceeds the moment of this kind of tragedy.

It leaves us with awkward moments such as when a form to be filled out or a person who doesn’t know you, asks, “How many children do you have?” Do we really want to include the lost child in that moment with a number for a stranger or on a fill out the answers sheet of paper or form for some innocuous application? The loss is remembered in the strangest of circumstances. There cannot be an assignment of a title such as widow or orphan because it is so unnatural and so sacred. A parent should not outlive their child.

It can cause bitterness in some and empathy in others such as President Biden who has undergone the death of two children. Even for a President who we know handles the most difficult problems, he has already confronted the most challenging moments. It is why he is our Griever in Chief. People who have lost a child can talk about their loss with other people who have had that experience. It’s hard to discuss it with others. There is an irrational bond because unless it happens to you, you can’t realize the fullness of its pain and depth. Nothing is like it. There is nothing to compare in life circumstances.

Like a bad dream that you hope to wake up from and don’t want to go back to sleep for fear that the nightmare is waiting for you, the loss of a child doesn’t contain any salvific notion.

There is someone who “got it” a long time ago. It was Michaelangelo when he created the sculpture The Madonna Della or La Pieta in 1498-1499. The sculpture is famous throughout the world. It depicts Mary who is seen as a young woman with the likeness of a teenager holding her thirty- three- year -old son, in her arms. It pictures two things to ponder. The first is Jesus in the arms of his mother and the mystery of the Incarnation. Mary is larger than Jesus. She is young and Jesus is older. This is a moment to see that a child should not die before his mother. That is another important message that has stood the test of time.

People miss that just as they miss finding a word that describes the loss of a child. Perhaps it is because that loss is so unnatural and painful which we see in Mary that can’t be captured by a single word such as widow or orphan.

See the picture below of the Pieta. Perhaps it will help you to see and hear what St. Paul said, “A sigh too deep for words.” Listen to the hymn.

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