Karen and Kevin Beaton have lived through the loss of two of their six children.
Independent tragic circumstances claimed the lives of their five-year-old daughter, Christine, in 1982 and their adult son, Colin, in 2018 at the age of 31.
“In my mind, these things have come in our life,” said Kevin. “It’s kind of two times for us. First, with Christine and with Colin.”
“Our faith is bringing us through it, because you don’t go through it without faith,” he continued. “You’re just surviving it, I think, you know, if you can.”
The couple from Eastern Canada recounted how they were raising a young family in New Brunswick in the 1980s.
Kevin worked for a photo copier company and Karen was at home with their two-year-old son.
The Beatons were themselves young — both 28 years-old at the time — and vibrantly alive in their faith.
They were involved with Teen Encounter. “We were working with some kids,” said Kevin. “We’d have a night, once a week, at our house.”
One day after school, their five-year-old daughter, Christine, was playing with her six- and seven-year-old sisters.
“She crossed in front of a parked car,” said Karen. “As she was crossing the parked car, a young woman down the street was coming and didn’t see Christine and hit her.”
As Christine was transported to the hospital. Karen was driven there by a neighbor, while someone else watched their three other children.
“I just kept praying ‘Hail Mary, full of grace.’ That’s all I could do, over and over again,” said Karen. “Every time I prayed ‘Hail Mary, full of grace,’ I just felt a pillar of strength on both sides of me.”
Kevin met Karen at the hospital only to discover that Christine’s injuries were grave. She was going to be airlifted to another hospital.
“Before we went back to our kids, we stopped at the house of the young girl who [had] hit Christine,” said Karen. This young woman used to babysit the Beaton’s children. Karen and Kevin spoke to her parents.
“We just wanted to come here and reassure her,” recalled Karen of what she and Kevin imparted to the girl’s parents. “We’re praying and we’re just putting this all in God’s hands.”
The Beatons were able to express a similar sentiment to the young woman on the day of Christine’s funeral. Karen recounted what she and Kevin communicated to the young woman while holding her hand, “We said ‘Christine’s safe now. We know where she is. She’s with Jesus, and we want you to be OK, too.'”
“I could see a transformation in her eyes,” said Karen of the relief she beheld. “She needed that.”
Carried by the almighty
Karen and Kevin view the circumstances surrounding Christine’s death as a tangible experience of the supernatural power of God. Their actions and dispositions transcended their own human ability and were the most palpable encounter they’ve ever had of the Holy Spirit.
The Beatons recognized that 40 years ago when Christine died, and they maintain it still.
“It wasn’t me,” said Kevin, of the degree to which he felt upheld in his grief. “I kept saying to the priest … ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me.’ I said, ‘I’m not acting normal.'”
“It wasn’t normal,” said Kevin.
“We tried to approach things in faith. Maybe we were better at the hard parts … because that’s when you cling to God.”
— Kevin Beaton
The father of six was keenly aware that he and Karen were buoyed, in a particular way, by the power of God. “We were protected,” he said.
“We tried to approach things in faith,” said Kevin. “Maybe we were better at the hard parts … because that’s when you cling to God.”
The Beatons noted that they didn’t emotionally “crash” afterward, either, though Karen herself wondered how long this unique strength would last.
She explained how the days surrounding the tragedy were marked with special graces such as “knowing, trusting and perceiving” God’s guidance. Karen said that this was palpable through the opportunities she was given to share with others.
“The presence of God was so strong that I could sense that he wanted us to share his reality of death in him and his resurrection,” said Karen.
She acknowledged that even the ability to see this was itself a grace. “At that time my heart was really strong, my faith was strong,” said Karen. “I just wanted to be able to evangelize through this.”
Even so, Karen was adamant that she “would never want to experience it again. … I would always say that,” said Karen.
However, three decades later, the Beatons would drink deeply from this cup of suffering again.
Colin was the Beaton’s youngest child.
Having been born in 1987, nearly five years after Christine passed away, the two siblings never met.
Colin was tall and slim. He had fiery red hair and an artistic nature with interests in writing, journaling, playing guitar and drawing. He was also the father of a two-year-old son, Maxwell.
“He was good for socializing,” said Karen. “He was good right up until junior high and then, when he got into high school … depression was setting in.”
Colin struggled to find the help he needed through professional support and medication. “He was terribly tormented,” said Kevin. “He said ‘I don’t feel anything when I take the meds. Nothing.'”
“He couldn’t feel joy,” added Karen. So, Colin weaned himself off his medication.
The Beatons recounted many years of stress, trauma and worry, which included times of breakdown and hospitalization for Colin. Kevin spoke of this as “a long-suffering.”
He recalled episodes when Colin was unwell and “distant from reality.” Such occasions Kevin described as times when Colin was “in crisis.”
“One of the things he would do is walk,” said Karen of Colin’s response to these times of crisis. “He just had to go walk. I don’t even think he knew where he was walking, but he just had to go.”
In June 2018, the entire Beaton family traveled to Cape Breton Island to spend time at a cottage with Kevin’s extended family. Colin went, too.
“He wasn’t in good shape when he came down with us,” said Kevin.
“I knew Colin wasn’t well,” said Karen. She remembered being worried about Colin because of the “mental state” he was in.
“He hadn’t been sleeping,” she said.
“I knew Colin was going to get up and walk around, because that’s the pattern,” said Karen. “And I just said ‘Lord, I am so tired. I am so exhausted. You have to look after him.'”
When the family awoke on July 1, they looked for Colin but couldn’t find him. “Something set in, it was very eerie,” said Karen. “We were all concerned. We all knew Colin’s history.”
The search for Colin went on for days and involved helicopters, search dogs, rescue workers and a diving team. Word of his disappearance was on news reports throughout the province.
Prayer sustained the couple during the search as did their faith. “Prayer, for sure,” said Karen. “We were praying all along. … Just knowing that the Lord was in control, even when things were all not-in-control,” she said.
At one point Karen insisted the family take a break from searching to pray collectively. “I said to them all, ‘God knows where Colin is,'” said Karen.
The next morning, after having been missing for six days, Colin was found. His family discovered his body in the ocean. Colin had drowned, possibly on the morning he had disappeared.
A different sort of grief
Though Karen is open to the possibility that Christine’s passing may have prepared them for the depth of grief involved in the loss of a child, both she and Kevin stressed that the circumstances of Colin’s tragic death were vastly different from that of Christine’s.
“We had a reality of ‘Death, where is your sting?'” said Karen, in reference to Christine’s death.
Even so, she and Kevin agreed that Christine’s sudden death as a young child evoked a different response. The couple explained that Christine’s age gave them a sense of security in her presence with Jesus.
“I could say ‘Christine is in heaven,'” said Karen. With Colin she’s aware that “he’s with the Lord” but perhaps “in a purgative state.”
|Grieving as a couple|
|Karen addressed how this level of grief can impact a marriage. She noted that it’s important to know that her “experiences may not be the same as Kevin’s.””And that’s all right,” she said. “What’s important is that we listen and be understanding and accepting of that experience and learn and know that the Lord is about uniting and not dividing.”
The Beatons are candid about the possible struggle spouses may have with both blame and guilt.
“I think I’ve been tempted to blame Karen for things, and maybe she’s been tempted to blame me for things,” said Kevin. “But by grace I think — for myself — I’ve been given an assurance that that’s not from the Lord. And it would be just counterproductive.”
While the couple underwent the sorrow of Christine and Colin’s deaths in a unique way as the children’s parents, Karen proposed that they partook of other things as well.
“As well as the losses, we also shared in the gains too,” she said. “The promise of eternal life.”
Kevin added that it is important to “lay hold of the promises of God, the truth of God.” They are not an illusion, he said.
“On the other side of death is the Beatific Vision — is the best that God can give us, period. Life, to the full,” said Kevin. “Lean on the good things that God’s given us, right from the cross.”
“One thing that I realized deeply is that the Church — and that includes myself — whoever dies, we recommend them to the mercy of God, and that is deep,” said Kevin. “It’s infinite.”
Kevin noted that he was not talking about “universalism” wherein everyone is automatically saved. “I’m talking about God’s love,” he said.
“I really lay on the mercy of God,” said Kevin, “even beyond death.”
“Nobody goes to heaven, unless they’re the perfect image that God created them to be,” he said. “I believe we just get cleaned up in purgatory.” He noted that the ‘length’ of this purification process is unclear to us because “there’s no time.” “It is mysterious,” he said.
Karen, too, has found that the Catholic tenets of faith regarding the holy souls and purgatory have been a help in her grief.
She has confidence that her “love and prayers” transcend the grave and connect her with Colin. “They didn’t end in death,” she said. “They only became more real, really.”
“That connection makes it consoling,” said Karen. “There’s a reality out there, that’s real.”
She clarified that this reality is “not even ‘out there.’ … There’s a reality of being connected with the souls,” Karen said. “Definitely.”
Help in their sorrow
Following Christine’s death, the Beatons compiled a scrapbook commemorating Christine’s life. It was a means to process their grief, remember Christine and document experiences of the nearness of God. “I found this book very helpful,” said Karen. “This was very therapeutic.”
The scrapbook contained not only photos, but many significant reminders of the Lord’s presence in the Beaton’s personal Calvary. This included a Mother’s Day card made by Christine along with the following note Karen wrote in reference to May 6, 1982, the day of Christine’s accident. “This card … was given to me minutes before Christine was hit by the car,” Karen wrote.
Within the scrapbook Karen explained that, at Christine’s insistence, her teacher allowed the Mother’s Day card to be brought home early. “The card displays Christine’s faith as she drew an altar with flowers, crosses and chalices,” Karen wrote. “This was special timing on God’s part, for it gave me the focus that I needed to trust God and his sovereignty.”
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God still, and trust in me. There are many rooms in my Father’s house; if there were not, I should have told you. I am going now to prepare a place for you, and after I have gone and prepared you a place, I shall return to take you with me; so that where I am you may be too. You know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ Jesus said: ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one can come to the Father except through me.’
— Jn 14:1-6
The scrapbook contained sayings of Christine’s and artwork her siblings made for her, as well as expressions of condolence.
It also included a clipping from a missalette dated Friday, May 7, 1982. Karen’s written description noted that she and Kevin read that passage from the Gospel of John as they arrived at the hospital to discover that Christine was on life support. It said:
“When the time had come for him to pass from this world to the Father, Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God still, and trust in me. There are many rooms in my Father’s house; if there were not, I should have told you. I am going now to prepare a place for you, and after I have gone and prepared you a place, I shall return to take you with me; so that where I am you may be too. You know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ Jesus said: ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one can come to the Father except through me'” (Jn 14:1-6).
Karen spoke of how the family’s disposition in relation to Christine was also significant in helping them through their grief. “We would always acknowledge her birthday,” said Karen. “We always wanted the girls to talk about her.”
“She wasn’t just dead,” said Karen. “She was gone ahead of us.”
The scrapbook echoed this sentiment.
Near the end of the book is the cover of a folder on which Christine had drawn hearts. On it she also wrote her name as well as the words “Love” and “Jesus.”
“I treasure in my heart her beautiful heart,” wrote Karen alongside the picture. “I thank God for giving her to us, but even in her death he continues to give her to us. She is part of the communion of saints. Pray for us Christine.”
Though there is no similar physical scrapbook for Colin, Karen’s heart stored up many significant consolations following his death. She shared these readily as a testament to God’s faithfulness.
Karen recalled a dream of her son. “Colin was in front of me and I said, ‘Colin go with Jesus. I’ll be with you soon.'”
When she awoke, Karen was filled with happiness and peace. “I just said, ‘Lord, just as I’ve been bringing Colin to you, before his death, I just keep bringing him to you [now].'”
“It’s like life is going on still,” she said. “It’s eternal life.”
Another tremendous consolation was the finding of some of Colin’s belongings, including his wallet. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) had documented all the contents of the wallet, which included Colin’s bank card, driver’s license, some cash and a few photos.
“I just realized he was never mine here, he belonged to God. It was like a revelation.”
— Karen Beaton
After retrieving the now-empty wallet from the RCMP station, Karen sat at home looking at it. Tucked in a corner, that the police hadn’t taken note of, was the Miraculous Medal she had given Colin years before.
“This is what I pulled out,” Karen said, holding the Marian medal. “Can you imagine? … God wanted me to find that, the police didn’t find that,” she said. “That was such a comfort. I gave that in faith to Colin. He received that medal in faith.”
“I asked him if he wanted it,” said Karen of the time when she had gifted the medal to Colin. “And he said ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘Well, make sure you wear it, or you put it in your wallet, somewhere where it will always be on you.'”
Karen also remembered being at a concert and, unexpectedly, being moved by a piece of music. When she learned the song title, “If Ever You Were Mine,” she came to a new degree of understanding.
“I just realized he was never mine here, he belonged to God,” said Karen, through tears. “It was like a revelation.”
“Even though I’m sad, it’s consoling,” she said regarding this realization.
In the first months after Colin’s death, Karen described how waves of shock would come, unanticipated, over her. “It was like, ‘I can’t believe he’s gone,'” she said.
Karen would have acute sadness during the times of day when she would typically have seen Colin. That, thankfully, has changed.
“There’s peace, acceptance,” said Karen. “I thank God for that.”
Role of community
The Beatons have enjoyed rich experiences of Christian community throughout their married life, which has spanned 49 years.
Regarding the role community played in them persevering through these times of great loss, Karen said, “we wouldn’t have been able to do it without them. We wouldn’t have been able to live.”
“The Lord was active through it,” said Kevin. He noted that fellow believers provided encouragement in faith and prayed intensely for them.
Kevin acknowledged that when people suffer loss and tragedy, they may also endure isolation and alienation because others do not know what to say or do around them. There can be fear regarding saying something that is foolish or hurtful to those who are grieving.
“Just love them,” said Kevin.
|Red Bird Ministries|
|Parents grieving the death of a child at any age deserve support. Sadly, after the funeral and when the condolence letters stop coming in, most parents feel alone in their anguish.Red Bird Ministries “exists to help parents address the profound healing that needs to happen while also honoring the memory of the child throughout their grief journey,” according to their website.
There are many avenues for parents to find support during their time of grief, such as through personalized comfort calls, connections to Catholic therapists and spiritual directors, an app, and local parish and diocesan chapters. Red Bird Ministries also offers family support by sending out cards on birthdays and anniversaries or for their Annual Mass of Remembrance for all children of loss.
For more information on how to sign up or create a local chapter near you, visit redbird.love.
For the 2021 OSV Institute Innovation Challenge, Red Bird Ministries made the TOP 12 out of 650 applications and won one of 3 prizes.
He suggested that “you don’t know what little gesture” will minister to those who are suffering. “Don’t be afraid to love them or to meet them,” said Kevin. “Don’t let this be a time to divide.”
In particular, the couple was accompanied and consoled greatly by those who had also tasted loss and tragedy — as well as those who understood the tangible implications of mental illness. “It was just so good to have that support,” said Karen.
If she were to encounter someone who had shared a similar experience to herself, Karen believes listening would be important.
“To listen to their pain, listen to their sorrow, listen to their concerns, their questions. Just trying to meet them where they’re at, in that whole process of loss and grief. It just opens the door for connection,” said Karen. “Offering hope, offering prayer, offering encouragement, compassion.”
To those who may feel like they are facing an abyss and grief could swallow them, Karen said she can only share her experience. “This is what I believe, this is what I’ve come to know,” she said. “This is my hope. This is my peace. This is my acceptance.”
For his part Kevin pointed to the example of the Blessed Mother.
“If you’re Catholic, look to Our Lady because she has gone through these things,” he said. “She’s gone through this trauma. She knows the loss.”
Additionally, Kevin spoke of Jesus. “If you’re going through suffering, look to the One who saved us through suffering.”
Kevin stated that this suffering is intimately interwoven with that of Mary “who embraced that with her son.”
He proposed that, in turning to the Mother of God, there is a sure source of strength and support. “You’ll get through it,” said Kevin. “And you’ll be victorious.”