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Grace through Suffering

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 30, 2012

Elie Gilges died in her parents arms on March 11, 2004. Elie had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor when she was eight months old, and her parents expected to lose her almost immediately. Hope was rekindled when they found surgeons who would operate, but Elie had a stroke during or after the operation which destroyed a large part of her brain. She survived with minimal brain function in the continuous care of her parents until her death at the age of ten. Elie was their first child.

It is difficult to imagine the suffering of parents who must live continuously in the helpless expectation of losing a child. Yet intense suffering often changes us for the better in ways we cannot initially fathom and, paradoxically, it often increases our faith. Elie’s mother Elizabeth was already a serious Roman Catholic before giving birth. Her husband Kent describes himself as a “lapsed agnostic” who now seems very close to embracing the Catholic faith. Kent is also a writer, and a good one. He has written a book about the transformation of their lives and his faith through little Elie.

Don’t read Kent Gilges’ A Grace Given if you don’t want to cry along with Kent and Elizabeth. With searing tenderness, Kent tells the story of Elie’s sufferings, Elizabeth’s courage, and his own doubts, fears and longings during these traumatic years:

…as father, as protector, I have been torn between wanting to do anything possible to help my child and wanting to hold back because of a fear of…of what? Of being wrong in my convictions about what was right? Of being unable to stand my ground against authority? Of fearing my own failure as a father? A failure to protect as I should, and so yielding up my responsibility to others? Or simply a failure of my own faith? A weakness of my faith and an unwillingness to trust completely. Sometimes I wonder if I have not written this book to understand my own faith, or lack of it. Perhaps that is at the heart of my search, the core of what Elie is trying to teach me. (136-7)

Kent and Elizabeth believe that there have been miracles in the wake of Elie’s death. Elizabeth told a friend who had been unable to conceive a child for seven years to pray to Elie for twins. A month later the friend was pregnant—with twins. But the most important miracle is the miracle of suffering received as grace, the knowledge that our worst fears are groundless, the conviction that life in any form is an incomparable gift. “This is a book about hope,” Kent writes in the opening paragraph. “And love. It is about sorrow, anguish, joy. It is about a dying child named Elie. Most of all, though, it is about hope.”

Though not yet his wife’s equal in faith, Kent Gilges has lived through suffering and death to gain a very Catholic understanding of life. To experience something of that journey—and perhaps somehow to help Kent and Elizabeth bear their cross—read A Grace Given.

[Note: This book was first published in 2008 by Cider Press Publishing; this review first appeared on April 10, 2008. In 2012, A Grace Given was released in a new edition from Scepter ( The new edition is aptly subtitled, “A Father's Love for a Dying Child”.]

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 02, 2012 9:27 AM ET USA

    It's good to strive to maintain an empathetic spirit at all times. In lamenting our own difficulties, and in sharing them with others, it is wise always to be cognizant of the possibility that the others to whom we speak might well have an undiclosed burden greater than ours. It's sobering to ponder the frequency that this occurs without our knowledge. When the reverse happens, may we have the generosity to make a difference despite our own sorrows, bearing witness to Christ's love for us.

  • Posted by: dt.dean9713 - Nov. 30, 2012 3:22 PM ET USA

    There is so much suffering in this world but so much of it is not suffering in Christ. There's so much wasted suffering. If suffering is laid at the foot of the cross, to suffer in Christ, then Christ would give to those suffering considerable Christian growth which would be used to build up the world through the growth of Christian understanding given to the sufferer, by Christ. Conincidentally, I noticed this just yesterday. Suffering builds, but without Christ, it is wasted suffering. So sad.