There Must Be Sparrows in Heaven by Nancy Jo Sullivan


sullivan_nancyOn Saturday, September 26th Nancy Jo Sullivan will be the featured presenter at the Author’s Breakfast for the 2009 Convention of the National Council of Catholic Women. In January of 2008, Nancy Jo’s Down Syndrome daughter, Sarah, passed away at the age of 23.  Nancy Jo’s book about Sarah, What I’Ve Learned from My Daughter: Blessings from a Special Child, was featured as a NCCW book club selection. Nancy will speak at the Author’s Breakfast about Sarah, the book, and the unexpected moments of hope she experienced as she grieved Sarah’s death. Nancy Jo will also explore the question: Why does God allow suffering? Her talk will speak to the bereaved and to those who are facing other life-altering losses such as sickness, financial uncertainty, the empty nest and even aging. For additional information on this event, visit

On summer mornings, I have a routine I never break.  After going for a quick jog with my neighbor, I grab a cup of coffee and make my way through the glass doors that lead to our backyard deck.

It’s there, in a rod iron chair, cushioned with red striped pillows, that I get ready for my day.  Hemmed in by the natural beauty of my backyard, I often feel like I’m in the middle of a wooded preserve. Towering pine trees, as tall as two garages, shade a nearby garden filled with woodchips and hostas. Ivy vines climb alongside of the house, all the way up to the roof.  Three wandering rose bushes, one for each of my daughters, trail over a chain link fence.  But what I love most about most about my yard are the birds that perch on nearby branches, a chirping choir of finches, cardinals and hummingbirds.

Over these past summer weeks as I’ve settled into my regular morning retreat, I’ve tried to discipline myself to be still, to simply listen to the voice of God. Maybe this need to be quiet before the Lord has something to do with the recent death of Sarah, my Down’s syndrome daughter. At the age of twenty three, she passed away due to complications with her respiratory system. Since her death, now 17 months ago, I’ve been working through a whirlwind of emotions and trying to adjust to a myriad of changes that have come to my life.  Grief has taken a lot out of me.  During this season of mourning, as I’ve slowly transitioned into a new way of living, I have, admittedly, found it hard to pray.

But Last Tuesday morning, a beautiful prayer rose unexpectedly from a place deep within me.  That morning, as I sat on the deck, I began remembering a summer day two years earlier.  Sarah and I were planting flowers in the shade garden, the two of us wearing faded blue jeans and oversized shirts smudged with dirt.  As I dug holes with a small garden shovel, Sarah plopped brightly colored plants, one by one, into the earth.  Side by side, we worked as Sarah teased me about my passion for flowers.  “Mom…you and yyour gggarden….” she stuttered with a chuckle.  Underneath pink framed glasses, her joyful eyes twinkled in the summer sun.

The memory quickly faded as a soft breeze blew through the yard.

“I miss her…” I told God.

Then, I turned my glance toward the sliding doors of the deck and noticed a small sparrow lying still and lifeless, on the wood planks of the deck floor. “The poor thing…It’ must’ve flown into the glass doors…”  I told myself.

The sun filtered through the pine trees and a patch of morning light circled over the breathless bird. “She’s all alone….”  I said.  Soon words from the 10th chapter of Matthew came to mind: “Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin?  Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge.”  Matthew 10:28

“This sparrow is a lot like you….” an inner voice prompted.

“Me?”  I said softy.

I drew near to the tiny winged creature.  I began thinking about the months I had spent mourning the loss of my daughter.  Time and time again, I had bumped into a wall of unrelenting sorrow and fallen to the cold, hard ground of grief. In my sadness, I had often felt alone, isolated from God, unable to offer him prayers or praise. Like this sparrow, I’d felt dead inside, unable to sing even the smallest song of hope.

“I’ve never left you…” the inner voice continued.

In the distance, I could hear the songs of birds that were happily flitting through the pine trees.  “God knows what I’ve been through…”  I said.  Through all the days of incomprehensible pain, through all the lonely moments, through all the times of missing Sarah and wishing things could’ve turned out differently, God had kept a loving vigil over my life.

I closed my eyes. I whispered two simple words, a hushed prayer that felt like an offering of boundless praise:  Thank you…

Later that morning, as I carefully cradled the sparrow in a small garden, I layed it to rest underneath the rosebushes.

Covering the bird with leaves, I looked upward.  The mid-morning sun felt warm and comforting.

“There must be sparrows in heaven…”  I said with a grin.

I knew that Sarah was looking down on me, smiling.

Hope Is The Thing With Feathers

Hope is the thing with feathers-

That perches in the soul-

And sings the tune without the words-

And never stops at all-

And sweetest in the gale is heard-

And sore must be the storm-

That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm-

I’ve heard it in the chillest land-

And on the strangest sea-

Yet- never- in extremity,

It asked a crumb of me.

Emily Dickinson

All Rights reserved,  Copyright 2009, Nancy Jo Sullivan


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  1. We lost our daughter this past March 28th. She was profoundly disabled for all of her twenty years. Lots of illness, medical equipment, nurses in our home, hospital visits. But the loss I feel for my daughter is a black hole right now, threatening to suck everything into it’s space. When I read this post, about your daughter, that it’s been 17 months now, gave me hope that life will go on. (so different knowing something intellectually versus in one’s heart).

  2. What a heartbreakingly beautiful story! I am so very sorry for your loss Nancy, and you as well Deb.

    I love the sweet inner voice you heard and am so glad that you listened to it! God does keep a loving vigil over your life, over all of our lives. What would we ever do without Him?

    God bless you both with peace!

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