Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen, Nobody Knows but Jesus: A Meditation on a Grief Observed

052115As a follow-up to the recent post on comforting the sorrowful, I was led to consider the grief of my parents and the difficulties they faced in raising a daughter with serious mental illness.

My father died eight years ago, and except for essential papers related to his estate, I simply boxed up most of his papers and stored them in the attic of my rectory for future attention. At long last I am sorting through those boxes. Among his effects were also many papers of my mother’s, who died about two years before he passed away.

I discovered many things that moved me. As I read through the various papers, I was reminded that many of us never really know the pain and grief that others bear. In particular, I was struck by the poignant file that was simply labeled, “Mary Anne.” (A photo of my father and sister is at right.)

My sister Mary Anne was tragically afflicted with mental illness from her earliest days. My parents knew there was trouble early on when she did not speak a word until she was well past two, and even then only at home. She had a pathological shyness that led her to shut down in the presence of others outside the home. The counselor at her elementary school spoke of Mary Anne as “disturbed” and insisted on psychiatric care for her by the time she was six.

Discretion and brevity limit what I intend to share here, but Mary Anne was deeply troubled. By age 13, she had to be hospitalized and spent the remainder of her life in 15 different mental hospitals and 6 different group homes. She was often able to visit with us and even stay over on weekend passes. She had stretches during which she was stable, but soon “the voices” would return, as would the dreams that afflicted her. Her psychotic episodes often led to running away, outbursts of violence, and attempts at suicide.

Through all of this, my parents fought very hard for her, and to be sure she got the care she needed. This often led them to various courts and generated much correspondence with insurance companies, state mental health officials, and private hospitals where she was confined. Indeed, during her lifetime my parents made many sacrifices for Mary Anne, both financial and personal, to ensure her care. At one point in the early 1970s, aware that Mary Anne felt isolated in the house with three brothers and desperately wanted a sister, my parents even went so far as to seek to adopt a baby girl.  They filed paperwork and came very close, but the plan ultimately fell through. The baby sister we never had …

Maryanne died in a fire in the winter of 1991 at the age of 30. She likely had a hand in that fire; she had set fires before when the “voices” told her to. I could see the pain on her face as her body lay in the casket and I wept when I saw her. The funeral director explained that there was little he could do since her skin had been singed in the fire. She had clearly been crying when she died—a grief observed.

My father wrote this on the frontispiece of her file:

Mary Anne Pope was our first child.
She led a tortured existence during a short life
and fought hard against great odds.
We remember her for her courage
.

And as I read my own parents’ touching recollections of Mary Anne, I could not help but moved, too, by their own pain. Such a heavy grief punctuates each page. I give them great credit for the fact that they insulated the rest of us, their three sons, from the most of the dreadful details of poor Mary Anne’s struggle. They kept their pain largely to themselves and stayed available to us. It is true that there were episodes we had to know about, but as a young boy and teenager I saw in my parents only strength and stability when it came to this matter. I saw my father’s grief and pain for the first time as he wept, standing there at the funeral home looking at my sister—a grief observed.

After my sister’s death, my mother’s grief grew steadily worse, causing her struggle with alcohol to worsen as well; she became increasingly incapacitated. Her life ended tragically and suddenly on a cold February day. My father had looked away for only a brief moment, going into the kitchen to make a sandwich, and mom wandered out into a snowstorm. Incapacitated by alcohol and disoriented, she died of hypothermia. We found her body only after three days of searching, when the snow melted a bit. She had died almost a mile away, near the edge of the woods—a grief observed.

My father never quite forgave himself for letting her slip away. The open front door, a first sign of trouble; the searching on a dark, frigid, and stormy night; the steady awareness, “She’s gone.” Those memories haunted him. In the months that followed, he often wondered how he could go on when half of him was gone. He, too, was gone within two years. His congestive heart failure worsened and he died in 2007, literally and figuratively of a broken heart—a grief observed.

All these thoughts sweep over me as I look through this file labeled simply, “Mary Anne.” I pray, dear reader, that I have not lingered too long for you on these personal matters. But the truth is, all of us carry grief, and perhaps this story will help you with your own, which I pray is not too heavy.

There is an old spiritual that says, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus.” And it is a mighty good thing that he does know. Sometimes the grief is too heavy even to share, even to put into words. But Jesus knows all about our troubles. There is a beautiful line in the Book of Revelation that refers to those who have died in the Lord: He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Rev 21:4-5)

For my brave parents and courageous sister, who all died in the Lord but who died with grief, I pray that this text has already been fulfilled, and that they now enjoy that everything is new—a grief observed no longer.

Requiescant in pace


This second video I made on what would have been my parents 50th anniversary. I picked the song “Cold enough to snow,” since it spoke to my Father’s grief in losing mom on that snowy night.

59 Replies to “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen, Nobody Knows but Jesus: A Meditation on a Grief Observed”

  1. I think most people have a story and so many times we think that no one else could know how hard life can be. I sense a great beauty in the tragedies in your family, if that makes any sense. Sometimes the person in the greatest pain is the one who gives those around them the strength to grow into whom the Lord created them to be. Some day we will see it all laid out and know that it was perfectly planned. Thank you for sharing your story. You are a blessing to me.

  2. The idea, justified or not, that one has failed someone in some way when they die can weigh heavy on a grieving heart. It doesn’t matter if you know rationally you have no guilt. It is that you would have done anything, anything to help them, to save them, to keep them alive, and yet, they are gone. The knowledge that you were helpless in the face of their affliction and they died, whether it was from an illness like cancer, or from despair, or even from an illness like the one that plagued your sister, can be devastating and relentless. I imagine Mary Ann’s death was more than your mother could bear, and then the circumstances of your mother’s death tormented your father in the same way. Such is the price of great love. The willingness to lay down one’s own life for another, that desire to take the agony on oneself rather than they suffer, is the mark of the nobility of a soul. The inability to do so marks it’s greatest torture.
    From the photos you shared, your family looks like anyone else’s. I expect no one could ever have imagined that your mom, and dad, and Mary Ann, just by looking at them, bore such heavy crosses. But thank you for sharing something so intimate and tragic, because knowing these sorts of things expands compassion in my own heart.
    And, funny, isn’t it, how long it takes for us to be able to look through old papers, to begin to sift through things left behind by those we love? The grieving heart knows no timetable.
    I will pray for your beautiful family. God bless you.

    1. As a mother, I can attest that no matter what the child struggles with or suffers the parents participate in their suffering and feel responsible. I think it is a gift of participation in the cross because we are all responsible for the suffering in humanity by way our sins. Our only hope is in the love and mercy of Jesus. We cannot ‘fix’ others- try as we might to aid them, and we often contribute in the context of family life to one another’s troubles because we are sinners and often cannot overcome our sins alone or on our own timetables. In each of these instances we cling to grace and to the inestimable love of God for us and to the truth of His sovereign will in mercy towards us- these are our only refuge. And we know we participate in His grief, His Passion and His cross as we endure the miseries of this valley of tears.

      I think it is critical for our priests to teach us that suffering in this life because of sin, ours and those sins of those we love and the accumulated sins of all men for all of human history will be a significant contributor to our existence. It is like a holy commission we receive from the Lord as we mature in Him. With this commission, I the Catholic solider of the cross and expected to rise up and sip from His chalice and shoulder His cross in loving companionship as I also experience the profound grief of sorrow and sin. In this I become one with Jesus by the example of Simon of Cyrene and with Mary through the piercing of my heart by maternal sorrows.

      We must learn, form ourselves and one another, in the holy discipline of ‘habitare secum’. To find peace in the midst of suffering, especially emotional and mental affliction– and to learn to live with ourselves and one another in hope in the midst of these debilitating sufferings. Part of that is to stop acting like there is somehow a way to control so many things in our lives that would prevent or deter sorrow. Yes, of course we strive to overcome and undo sin so we don’t add the cache of human misery— but the reality is that the most powerful undoing of sin is by way of the Cross of Jesus Christ and if I am to be one with Him, as He Himself prayed, I must join Him immolated thereon.

      1. Jo, What was Mary Anne’s sin that she had to suffer so terribly? I too was born with mental illness, but my illness has continued for 68 years. I think back on how much I suffered as a child, and I ask where was Jesus to comfort me? All I could think of was that I must have done something terribly wrong as a small child. Otherwise, why did I not receive any help from Jesus. My parents tried, but they could do nothing. As an adult, I admit my sins, but I will always wonder what sins I committed to deserve such suffering as a child.

    2. Thank you Bee bee for articulating so very well what is resting in my heart. Msgr, thank you for allowing us into your heart of grief. God bless you and your family.

      1. I’m sorry Tracy, for whatever has caused such a grief. I will whisper a prayer to our Jesus for you.

  3. By sharing your story you help me – and I’m sure thousands of others – to appreciate that our history is indeed in God’s hands, and that He makes it sacred. I also remember the day when my own father was murdered when I was 13. On the coffin it appeared that he had been wounded in the forehead – a final shot of grace like we say in Spanish (el toque de gracia). However, despite the sorrow and pain I still remember listening to a far away uncle who gave me a word of consolation: “God has already thought of something greater – of a greater good – that will take place in your life…God will not leave you with that suffering.” This uncle never put a foot in a church and yet his words sounded like they came from Jesus himself because He has power over death, over our suffering, our troubles, our sins…. In the Catholic Church I have been catechised about the great meaning of suffering, and as I grow older I begin to understand that if my father had never been murdered that perhaps I would have never met Jesus. What your parents experienced after the death of your sister make me ponder about my father’s last moments, last seconds as well….. did he get a chance to turn to God? did he get a chance to turn to Him?

    This I will never be able to answer with total confidence – I think. But your quote from the book of Revelation reminds me of a song we do In the neocatechumenal community I belong to, taken from Isaiah 25…. that says “Oh Lord, You are my God, I will exult you….He will destroy death forever. The Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces.” And this is very true. God really wipes away our tears and gives us joy. This passage like your sacred story gives me and many others a lot of confidence in the mercy of God. Happy Pentecost! 🙂

    1. Please pray for your father. It’s not too late. Everything is simultaneously present to God. Your prayers now can benefit your father’s last moments. These thoughts come from the Association of Marian Helpers magazine if I understood correctly.

  4. Very touching. You made an old man sob, because I remember those days in my life when much grief were observed. Come to think of it, they had to happen so that we become strong for those we minister and still to minister. Yes, evils happen in our lives and be allowed by GOD, that greater goodness come out of them. This is our answer to those who ask why evil happen. With the way you propagate your faith to us, I see a man full of wisdom in the wiles of the world and strong in the knowledge of GOD. GOD Bless you and you are always in my prayer. Pray for me, too, please. YHWH EL SHADDAI!!!

  5. The grapes have been crushed. Thank you for sharing their wine.

  6. May the Good Lord Jesus Christ keep in His warm embrace each member of Msgr. Charles Pope’s family, wherever they may be. That in all things, God may be Glorified!

  7. Thank you for sharing this. What you’ve described is tragic, heroic, and real. What stands out a sense of stability. Your parents were able to be truly grounded. Many families in circumstances of illness withdraw into a miasma of uncalled-for shame and useless grief. If you like, write about their faith.

  8. The pain and suffering you experienced in your family led you to be the great and holy priest that you are today, Monsignor. Those whose minds are tortured can never be fathomed and their affliction is great to themselves and the family who feel powerless to help ease their torment. Your mother and sister participated in Jesus’ mental agony in the Garden. He gave them heavy crosses but those same crosses were used to convert, save or bring someone closer to God and those people will thank your mother and sister personally someday. Perhaps that person is you too. Your mother and sister are now reaping the rewards of peace of mind, heart and soul now. God bless them and you.

  9. I would like to make a comment on this post as it relates to your previous one.

    People with mental health issues often become self absorbed due to dealing with aspects of daily living that to many seem trivial. Also, they often become overwhelmed with the inability to cope and need to be hospitalized and enter group homes and the like.

    A demarcation should be made between those who are self obsessed due to self love (yesterdays post) and those who are unable to think beyond their own person due to mental problems. To some it may seem like a difficult line to separate.

    For one who has been hospitalized and confined in group homes for the mentally ill I find it difficult at times to differentiate between the two. In my particular situation much of the confusion was exacerbated by a parent who didn’t comprehend what I was going through and put a lot of blame on me for my inability to cope.

    Yes, yesterday’s self love post gave me some difficulty which is illustrative on still being confused about self absorption and self love.

  10. What a good shepherd you are Father. You always lead us where we need to be…holding our hand as you take us deeper into our pain and then turning our face gently towards Jesus..His strength, His warmth, His love, His healing.

  11. I read a wonderful article in the Columban Mission magazine this week. A priest asked a nun that worked in a neo-natal unit about a newborn baby that had just died “What did that child ever have?” The nun replied “That child had the capacity to draw forth love from me.”

    That has to be our God-driven response to those in suffering – to pour out of love for them. From what you’ve shared, Msgr., I sense that your parents and your family did just that.

  12. In prayer and crying out to God, I want to show you what he showed me to comfort me. He showed me that my newly departed husband is not suffering in Heaven. Now I have known this but God helped me to understand it. That now, right this minute, right now, my husband is no longer who he was here (although he is the same person) but ALL the suffering, anything that caused him anguish is gone, all the sin is gone, all fear is gone, all pain is gone, all doubts are gone, all temptation is gone. He IS the “new” person that I always prayed for him to enjoy in Jesus, he NOW is that person, not someone in pain and suffering and temptation, but someone in the Holy presence of God and Holy himself! When I go to see him that is who I will meet, not someone else that I won’t recognize because it will most certainly be my husband but someone with all the Joy and Holiness that I so wanted for him and God has given him. Praise be to God!! We grieve here for a little while and it is true and real grieving and suffering and God helps us, day to day, but what God has for us and all who go before us is great Joy and Holiness.

  13. Not to you Monsignor, but to your parents: Thank-you Mr. & Mrs. Pope for cultivating the love that the Holy Spirit planted in your hearts. I can see from your family photos that Mary Ann was indeed loved. I also thank you for your gift to us, your son who became a priest. What great role models of love you were. May your reward in Heaven be great.

  14. Thank you for having the courage and generosity to share this, Monsignor Pope. I was deeply touched and, I hope, made a better man for seeing this.

  15. Father,

    thank you for sharing, my story is similar. God bless you.

    Rob.

  16. I have often thought of your previous post on Mary Ann after the Newtown murders. It is difficult to see one of your children suffer, whether mentally, physically, or socially. This post has laid bare the gut-wrenching grief that many suffer and as survivors, have to deal with. It is through the grace of God we are able to cope. Thank you, Msgr., for inspiration

  17. Very touching and heart wrenching! I could feel the tears welling in my eyes as I read. Your articles always touch my heart. Your writings are a gift from God to all of us! THANK You and God bless!

  18. Thank you, Father, for sharing. I have been blessed to read many of your posts and today, as I read your personal story, I cried and cried. I am so grateful that you shared your parents and your sister with us. Your family’s story is unique but I can identify with parts of it. Having lost my two severely handicapped daughters at the ages of 4 and 6, I can identify with your mother and the grief that lingers and grows, moves and changes, but never ends. There is the joy of caring for my two healthy children at home, while the emptyness and deep emotional pain continues, and somehow co-exists with the joy. It is a contradiction, and life seems to be a constant struggle to feel ‘okay’. People tell me that I’m strong, but I feel empty, I feel lost and I doubt God’s love and presence some days. Your mom’s struggle with alchohol does not surprise me, and I ask her to pray for me as I continue this journey because it will only be God’s grace that helps me to love and serve and glorify God, as I offer up all that have.

  19. Msgr Pope,

    May God continue to bless you as you share and help us all.

    Thank you

  20. Thank you for sharing this part of yourself with us. I sense you found some peace in doing so. May God bless and keep you, and may the souls of your departed loved ones rest safely in His loving embrace.

  21. Having lost a daughter I know the pain your parents lived with every day. I wake up with her on my mind and she is the last thought on my mind when I fall asleep. As parents we want to make everything right with our children and our expectation is that we will die before them. Your parents were courageous people who lived their lives the best they could. Your vocation is a testimony to their strength and God’s love.
    Thank you for sharing

  22. I share your grief as a father whose children still live but have strayed from the Church.

    A question concerning todays Gospel, if you would permit me. In the Gospel, Jesus uses the word “love” three times. The Gospel was written in an ancient Greek and I have been given to understand that in Greek there are up to three word usually translated into English as “love.” Which of the three does the word “love” refer?

    1. Just this morning the priest explained that Jesus asked if Peter Loves (agape) Him; Peter responded, Yes Lord, I love (filos) You, the same the second round. The third round Jesus took Peter where he was and asked, Do you love (filos) me….

  23. Father,

    After reading this and seeing your videos – and as a faithful reader of your blog – I find myself feeling as if I have known your entire family for some time. This cut to the heart for me – emotionally. And like so many other of your writings, I find this inspiring and beautiful.

    May God continue to bless you.

  24. Thank you, Monsignor Pope, and all who posted here…….you have no idea how I needed to read these posts at

    this time……much balm to soothe a saddened and troubled soul………..God Bless you all.

  25. I am a 4th stage liver/bile duct cancer survivor written off for dead by two major cancer centers. I have been ministering on prayer teams at charismatic healing masses for decades The Father, Son and Holy Spirit is my heart and life. I highly recommend the following to all who live a grief observed. The book is written by a protestant theologian and his life is a living sacrifice and testimony

    Blessings in The Most Holy Trinity.

    Rejoicing in Lament
    Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ
    by: J. Todd Billings

    At the age of thirty-nine, Christian theologian Todd Billings was diagnosed with a rare form of incurable cancer. In the wake of that diagnosis, he began grappling with the hard theological questions we face in the midst of crisis: Why me? Why now? Where is God in all of this? This eloquently written book shares Billings’s journey, struggle, and reflections on providence, lament, and life in Christ in light of his illness, moving beyond pat answers toward hope in God’s promises. Theologically robust yet eminently practical, it engages the open questions, areas of mystery, and times of disorientation in the Christian life. Billings offers concrete examples through autobiography, cultural commentary, and stories from others, showing how our human stories of joy and grief can be incorporated into the larger biblical story of God’s saving work in Christ.

  26. Thank you Msgr. Charles Pope for this beautiful and moving article. My husband and I too have a physically and intellectually disabled son that we both love who is our second son among three boys. Yes the grief was so bad that if not for the Grace of Our Lord and His Blessed Mother we would not have known how to carry. Through our second disabled son God in His mercy blessed us with every grace. So anyone going through grief must look up to Our Lord and His Blessed Mother with trust and love as He and Mother Mary alone gives us the strength to carry on.

  27. Thanks for sharing this very personal reflection, Msgr. Every family experiences suffering, grief and tragedy and I think we have a tendency to look around and believe that no one else has had to deal with the kind of struggles that I am dealing with! Your post is, among other things, an important reminder that no matter how hard things might seem to us, there is always someone else out there who is dealing with something far worse or much greater than we are. Suffering teaches us humility, but it also teaches us how to love. The personal tragedy that you and your family have endured has unquestionably made you a better priest. And when people come to you now with their own serious family problems, you are able to talk to them as someone who has seen it for himself up close and first hand. As a priest, that means you have the ability to offer not only true compassion, but also the kind of wisdom that can only be gained from personal experience. I shall keep both of your parents and Mary Anne in my prayers.

  28. Thank you so much for sharing your story. At times, when we think we’ve healed, something comes up that vividly reminds us of the event. Like someone else mentioned, everyone has a story. I know it was horribly painful to relive that and I am glad that you have chosen to share it with us, your readers. You are a stronger priest and man for going through that and even better able to help others. God Bless You, and I hope that all is well with you and your parish. It’s been several years since I have visited there.

  29. Monsignor, our photo albums look like yours – the smiles, gatherings, holidays, closeness. Often I think of how happy my husband and I were when we began our life together. When we held our first child we were on top of the world and had big dreams. And then, with every year there have been severe trials: illness, disability, rebellious children, failures, tears, family tensions. It has been numbing. There has been grief. But we hold onto our faith. I try to remember all the good times, because there have been many!

    Monsignor, it looks like your parents did all that they could to provide a stable, good home for all of you in spite of the challenges. It looks like they celebrated you, Maryanne, and your brothers, as good parents do, even though their hearts were heavy. Your parents showed much grace and courage. God bless them!!!! I trust that they are at peace with Our Lord.

  30. It was a miracle to come across this article by you. I have been in a state of grief over an ongoing family issue that came to another head tonight. I absolutely had nowhere to turn. T.V didn’t do it; I couldn’t have prayed if my life depended on it. I turned on the computer hoping that something, somewhere, would bring me some solace and clicked on New Advent where your article leapt out at me. It was like having a life line thrown to me in the deep ocean. I started feeling the calming presence of Jesus as I read through your story – what a blessing it is to me – and I know to countless others – that you chose to write about grief, a topic that so many people shy away from. Thank you, Msgr., and God bless you.

  31. This moved me profundly! What struck me as I looked at the pictures of your sister is how happy and serene she looks. Which led me to think she was given a cross to carry that she carried with the Lord, whether she believed that or not.

    I am not sure if you are aware that Padre Pio had a sister who was an addict and nothing and no amount of prayer helped her. He came to the conclusion that some people, who just cannot get better, are given these crosses. Where it may look like a life of sin it is a terrible cross to bear. You probably also know that St. Therese of Liseux’s father was institutionalized in a hospital for the mentally ill.. In a moment of clarity during a visit he expressed how grateful he was for this illness, this cross, he was given to carry for the salvation of others.

  32. Your family carried the cross of Christ, and did so valiantly. What an example of love. Thank you for sharing your poignant account of your sister. Your parents were selfless in their love and it is apparent in your story. I love your uplifting message at the end. You certainly have three “special” saints praying for you in heaven. Praying for you and all who endure pain and suffering (myself included).

  33. This is how saints or near-saints are made. A person forgets self-love to love and suffer with another. My father went through a similar but lesser crucible with two family members.

  34. I once told my father he was a hero, but he didn’t know what I was talking about.

  35. Father,

    Thank your for opening up about your family. I am touched by your story, and inspired by all of your writings. Keep shining. I pray for you for perseverance and grace.

  36. Thank you for the post father. I have a severly autistic teenage son who suffers from mental health issues. My husband andI feel so alone in our suffering. The only place we can turn is to God. Life is so hard some times, mainly because your heart rips open for your child. As my husband says- It( loving) is like a sledge hammer to your chest. If we had not faith we would surely dispair.My sons love and smile warm us so much. When he is in torment I cry inside while remaining strong for him. Sometimes I wonder if he may be a victim soul. When he does well life is better altough never “notmal”. We love him so much especially during his painful times of anxiety and loneliness. Your post meant so much to me. I shall keep your parents and sister in my prayers offering my struggles for them. People who know of our situation always tell me “God has a special place in Heaven for parents who endure so much.” I hope they are right, but my comfort is in hoping he has a higher place for people who suffer such tortures as my son and your sister. Gods love and blessing be upon you for sharing. Means so much.

  37. You are living proof of Gods love. Thank you for sharing. God bless you always!

  38. That brought tears to my eyes. But look at what Jesus did with all that tragedy. He brought Msgr. Charles Pope from tragedy to be able to teach and heal us. God Bless you.

    Love,
    Sara

  39. God bless you always, Father. I pray this is fulfilled, too, and for all these suffering – strengthening and renewal for all in Christ. Amen

  40. I am always encouraged by your writings and especially this story. We had two children with bipolar disorder and the struggle was never ending. One sorrowful episode after another. And then our daughters children had to suffer with her mental illness plus an alcoholic father. We can only pray that their children do better. We had been unable to keep any of them in the Church in spite of the fact that neither my husband or I would have survived even a day outside of the Church or without our faith. Its heartbreaking that we were unable to share the Catholic faith with them. Thank you for all that you write. You and your family are in my prayers tonight.

  41. These photos bring back many good memories of your parents. I’m glad I had the chance to meet them in both good moments and difficult ones. Thanks for sharing your family with us!

  42. Msgr, your posts have always been excellent to read through and have helped me in many of my doubts and anxieties. The way you put things across and reason out is very convincing to my troubled soul. But this post by far is the BEST ONE you have written. Thank you so much for sharing about your family. They will be in my prayers. God bless you and may God strengthen, inspire and guide you on your journey.

  43. A very touching story. We all have a story I guess but when you read some one elses it humbles you. My heart was touched and I will say this night’s Rosary for your family……God be with you.

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