Becoming better, not bitter, after deaths of children

| May 21, 2014 | 0 Comments
Bob Labat visits Holy Name of Jesus Cemetery in Wayzata May 12. Four of his children are buried there with the graves in the shape of a cross. Dianne Towalski/The Catholic Spirit

Bob Labat visits Holy Name of Jesus Cemetery in Wayzata May 12. Four of his children are buried there with the graves in the shape of a cross. Dianne Towalski/The Catholic Spirit

If you have experienced the death of a child during the last 10 years, chances are you have met Bob Labat.

Funerals, especially of children, can be downright heart-wrenching. An event most people would shy away from when they could.

Not Bob. He looks for them, scanning the obituaries in newspapers and then stopping to read when he sees that the deceased is a youth. He then writes down the name of the church so he can attend the funeral.

Doesn’t matter that he has never met the family. In almost all of the nearly 100 instances where he has come to the church before the start of the funeral, he is a stranger to the parents.

Most of the initial encounters with moms and dads last less than 30 seconds. But that’s often all it takes to bring them the kind of comfort Bob is able to give.

He knows their pain. He has felt this loss himself.

Four times.

Healing after heartbreak

The first came just 16 months after he married his wife, Dixie, on Aug. 9, 1960. Their daughter Frances Ann was born on the last day of 1961.

She never made it to the new year. The day she was born, Dec. 31, 1961, was also the day she died; the umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck.

Fast forward to Thanksgiving Day 1985. By that time, Bob and Dixie had brought four more children into the world, all boys — Paul, Tim, David and Patrick.

The oldest three had graduated from Wayzata High School in the western suburbs, and two of them were coming home for the holiday to join Bob, Dixie and Patrick, the youngest, who was a sophomore at the time. Those years were glorious, Bob recalled. “For 25 years, my life revolved around my boys.”

The bubble burst on that Thanksgiving morning as Bob and Dixie were getting ready for the meal with three of their four sons.

Only their oldest son, Paul, was not joining in the feast. Just out of college, he was in Detroit working for General Motors and had decided not to travel that day because he was coming back later that weekend for a friend’s wedding.

An avid duck hunter, he decided to spend the morning on a lake with a friend.

Paul never made it home. A wave created by a large vessel coming through the lake where they were hunting caused the boat to capsize. Although both men were wearing life jackets, Paul died of hypothermia.

“We talked the day before Thanksgiving. That was our last conversation. It was the first holiday he was not going to be home with the family,” said Bob, 77, who recently became the new president of the U.S. Serra Council, an organization of Catholic men and women working to promote vocations to the priesthood and religious life. “A good friend of ours from St. Bart’s [St. Bartholomew in Wayzata] and the chief of police from Wayzata came to our home early Thanksgiving morning. We were all prepared to sit down and eat. They told us our son had died, which was totally unexpected. We, frankly, have never had a Thanksgiving dinner at home since. It’s just been impossible to do so.”

But, what Bob vividly remembers are the words of Father Arnold Weber during Paul’s funeral Mass a few days later at St. Bartholomew, where they were parishioners at the time.

“Father Arnold stood there, and we were sitting in the front row,” said Bob, who with Dixie now belong to both Holy Name of Jesus in Wayzata and St. Therese in Deephaven. “And, he pointed his finger at us and he said, ‘Bob and Dixie, you now have a choice to make. And, the choice is all up to you. You can either be better or you can be bitter.’”

Despite the heartache of losing their oldest son, Bob and Dixie chose to turn to God and deepen their faith. They resolved to be better.

Less than a year later, the words of Father Weber would be needed again after their No. 2 son, Tim, died in a motorcycle accident.

There was more. Seventeen years later, in 2003, they got a call from David that their youngest son, Patrick, had been found dead inside his barn in Corcoran. They were not given a clear reason why Patrick died.

But, a bouquet of roses on the dining room table of Patrick’s home offered some spiritual comfort that day and beyond.

“It was Mother’s Day weekend, and when I went back to the house, I thought Dixie would be just a basket case, crying and everything else,” Bob said. “But, she really wasn’t. . . . She told me right then and there, ‘I know Patrick is with Paul and Tim because there were roses on the table.’ My wife has a very close devotion to St. Therese [of Lisieux, known as The Little Flower], and just feels that since those flowers were there, that was another sign that that’s the way it was supposed to be [for the three boys].”

Though their grief was compounded by the multiple losses, Bob said Paul’s death was by far the toughest.

“I was feeling like, two days before [Paul’s] funeral, what Job went through in the anguish,” Bob said. “I could not sleep, I could not do anything other than help get photos together of Paul. It was just unfathomable to me. Basically, my faith was really tested.”

Eventually, as Bob and Dixie worked to become better, which included professional counseling, life got better and their grief lessened after Tim’s death. They took consolation in the heavenly reunion between Tim and Paul that they believe continued the strong bond the two had on earth. The two boys shared the same room growing up, and at times were inseparable.

That fact is reflected in a discovery made shortly after Tim died. Bob and Dixie cleaned out the room he shared with Paul, and they found a pair of items that triggered shock, and then joy.

Two pocket Bibles containing the New Testament and the Psalms, one belonging to each of the two boys, each had one small bookmark at the exact same spot: 1 John 4:20, which proclaims how one can’t love God, who is unseen, if one doesn’t love his brother, who is seen.

Bob said discovering the two Bibles is “one of many signs” that indicates the two are together in heaven, along with Patrick and Frances Ann.

It’s this belief that fuels Bob’s desire to reach out to parents at funerals.

“I simply tell them who I am, and that I’m sorry for their loss,” Bob said.

Reciprocating support

Now, Bob is turning his attention to Serra, which he believes is connected to how well he has handled losing four children. He stresses the importance of the priesthood by simply bringing up the impact Father Weber had on him back in the 1980s.

He thinks priests and all who have chosen a religious vocation should get more support from those in the pews.

“Priests and religious really do a phenomenal job that we don’t appreciate anywhere near as much as we should,” he said. “I want to concentrate more on thanking priests and religious for their vocations.

“I’m excited about the opportunity to show some leadership, but mostly to motivate people to not take for granted what they have, be excited about it, offer more help, encourage more people to consider vocations, because it’s a gift.”

 

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