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Grieving on Saint Patrick’s Day

Remembering my mother’s sorrow for her child loss.

For many, Saint Patrick’s Day is just a day to wear green and drink beer. There are Saint Patrick’s Day parades across the U.S., and where I live, the San Antonio River is dyed green. There is much more to this saint, however.

Surprisingly, Saint Patrick was neither born Irish nor canonized as a saint. He was born in the Roman empire, likely somewhere in Britain which was a part of the empire at the time of his birth in the 5th century. When he was a teenager, he was taken by Irish raiders and forced into slavery in Ireland.

Several years later, he escaped Ireland to return to Britain. He was converted to Christianity and had a dream which convinced him to evangelize the Irish. He eventually became a bishop and returned to Ireland. He was not popular initially due to the influence of the druids and pagan festivals. Because he knew the language and the culture, however, Saint Patrick was able to convert many to Christianity. He stood for the causes of women, slaves, and the poor, and had a great influence on Irish culture.

According to legend, Saint Patrick used the shamrock as a metaphor to explain the Holy Trinity to new Christians. The shamrock has one stem, but three leaves representing the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. His known written works are the Confessio, which described his own spiritual journey, and Letter to Coroticus, in which he criticized the British who abused Irish Christians.

There was not a formal process for canonization in the first millennium when Patrick died, but he is commonly referred to as a saint because of his Christian religious influence and work. March 17th was thought to be the day of his death, hence the day of celebration of his life. This day occurred during Lent, and legend has it that the Irish would take this day off from Lenten sacrifices for celebration, leading to the modern celebrations on this day.

Saint Patrick’s Day holds special meaning for me because it was my mother’s birthday. She was proud of the Irish heritage in her family. My mother was the last of eleven children in her family and was named for the nurse, Zona, that cared for my grandmother at her childbirth. My mother’s second child was born on her Saint Patrick’s Day birthday. Her name was Zee Ann, so she was my mother’s namesake and birthday twin.

Zee Ann was special because she was a wonderful playmate to her older sibling, my brother David, who was developmentally disabled from lack of oxygen at birth. She was also everyone’s sweetheart — a wonderful disposition, strawberry blond hair with curls, dimpled cheeks, and a dazzling smile.

Photo of Zee Ann by C. Wayne Evans, circa 1952

Zee Ann died in a car accident when she was three years old. This was the early 1950’s, before car seats and seat belts. She was thrown from the car.

I was born four years after Zee Ann died, so I never knew her. When I was young, I did not understand what it meant to lose a child. After I had children, I realized a love deeper than I ever thought possible and child loss was unimaginable. It was only after we lost our younger son, Will, to mental illness and suicide, that I knew fully the devastation and indescribable pain of losing a child.

When I was growing up, I would seek not just a birthday card, but a Saint Patrick’s Day birthday card to give my mother, and was so pleased when I found one. I remember one of her birthdays in particular when I proudly presented her with the special card. That year, all she could manage was a thin smile and her eyes were far away and full of sorrow. I was disappointed and somewhat resentful at the time that she could not enjoy her birthday because of grief for Zee Ann. As I grew older, I, too mourned the loss of this beautiful sister that I never knew.

I recognize now that grief, especially grief from losing a child, pops up in waves when it will and stays till it is done. We can learn to live with this kind of grief, but it is a journey that is never really over.

This year, a decade after my mother’s death and a half a century after my sister Zee Ann’s death, I will smile on Saint Patrick’s Day with my remembrances of them, and rejoice that they are now celebrating their birthdays together. Again.


For more information about ways to cope with life’s difficulties, check out my book, Breath for the Soul: Self-Care Steps to Wellness

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