Anger

While the jury is still out on what exactly constitutes human nature if one exists at all, I do believe we are united by common instinctual urges and ways of understanding the world. Humans are social creatures that need to forge meaningful connections with each other. This need is so fundamental that neurological research reveals how early experiences of abuse and neglect can permanently rewire the brain, making it difficult to impossible for people to empathize and form relationships with others as they grow into adults.

Similarly, it seems that many of us whose formative relationships have not been maimed by such trauma have a finely-tuned internal radar when it comes to detecting injustice in the world. I assume this is why humans from diverse cultures and belief systems tend to subscribe to the just world hypothesis. This is also why anger is often the visceral response that boils within us when people who exploit, oppress, and harm others manage to sail through life without experiencing their just desserts. As selfish and flawed as we humans may be, most of us do not want to live in a world where bad things happen to good people and terrible people go unpunished.

It seems to me that this is why tragedy can be such a frustrating experience. When something unfair happens to people who did nothing to deserve it, it is human nature to feel anger, followed by a desire to channel that anger by blaming someone or something. There certainly are tragic occasions when blame and anger have a clear and appropriate target, such as when a drunk driver kills three young children and their grandfather on an idle Sunday afternoon, or when decades of structural inequality and government neglect culminate in an electrical fire that kills a room full of babies in an Iraqi hospital.

But the maddening reality is that there are innumerable instances of tragedy where there is no guilty culprit to hold responsible. Yet this does not mitigate the flames of anger that must inevitably spark, ignite, and burn: Injustice is injustice, after all, even if there is no cause beyond Mother Nature’s capricious imperfections and the fact that life is brutally unfair to many, many people.

In tragic cases of pregnancy and infant loss, we are confronted with the injustice of an unlived life. In such instances, our desires to validate our anger often lead us to hold individual mothers responsible when their babies die. Likewise, if we can convince ourselves that loss only happens to mothers who somehow caused it and inexplicably deserve it, then we can also convince ourselves that such calamities could never befall our families and threaten our own children:

If only they had eaten more kale and drank less coffee.

If only they had prayed more and trusted in God.

If only they had been younger and healthier when they conceived.

If only they had been more careful and paid closer attention to their children.

Too often, this results in loss mamas turning their anger inward, resulting in torturous feelings of guilt and self-blame. This was certainly the case for me during my earliest weeks of grieving, even though I knew in my heart that I did everything I could to bring Leah into the world safely. Oddly enough, during this time I also took a peculiar sense of pride in the fact that I did not direct my anger at external sources. Even though the foundations of my life were crumbling beneath my feet, at least I was still rational enough to understand that no one could be blamed for my daughter’s death.

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Image credit via memegenerator.net

I could not blame my midwife, who had provided me with excellent care all throughout my complication-free pregnancy, and whom I was scheduled to meet for a checkup appointment the morning of Leah’s birthday. I could not blame the OBGYN who happened to be on duty when I went to the hospital, as she wasted no time in gently insisting that I have an emergency cesarean section within the hour. Similarly, I could not blame the blissful mother who was waiting in the outpatient lounge with her healthy newborn when I returned to the hospital several days later to pick up my dead baby’s photos. I also could not blame the people who continue to post on my social media feeds about the unending joy they derive from the children in their lives.

Rationally I understood these things, yet I was still angry. I was angry at everybody and nobody, about everything and nothing. While I still spend most of my days emotionally deflated from the sheer devastation of losing my daughter, my dormant anger still boils to the surface every now and again, demanding to be released.

It creeps up every time I see a benign photo of a happy, intact family who will never know the pain of child loss, or when people with healthy children express ambivalence about parenthood. Really? Parenting sucks because your child woke you up at 6am on your day off? How utterly terrible for you.

It calls my name when glowing pregnant women talk about how stressed they are that the nursery may not be completed in time for their baby’s arrival. Heaven forbid your healthy child may have to sleep on an old crib sheet ensemble that doesn’t match their room’s new colour scheme. What a horrendous way to come into the world.

It also beckons me close when others ask about my ability to be happy for these women, as if they are gauging whether I am a good enough person to suspend my overwhelming grief and feel joy for someone who will likely end up with everything that I have lost. Would this blissful new mother suspend her joy to carry the crushing pain of my loss with her each day? Not likely, and I wouldn’t expect her to. So why should I sift through the pieces of my shattered heart in search of any remnants of joy for her sake, when she already has all the happiness in the world?

I feel its smouldering heat rise up the back of my throat when anyone gives glory to God after seemingly receiving the blessings they asked for, and especially when anyone claims that their prayers for miraculous healing were answered. I’m so glad that God deemed you and your family worthy of a miraculous intervention while thousands of other families are torn asunder from child loss each year. I didn’t even need God to perform a full-blown miracle; all I asked was that He bring my perfectly healthy daughter into the world safely. Apparently He couldn’t be bothered, but please tell me more about what God is doing to personally ensure your family’s comfort, health, and happiness.

Ultimately the anger boils over into agonizing fits of rage and despair each time I sit back and reflect on the full magnitude of what I have lost. I carried my baby for 40 weeks and 3 days. I went through all the emotional and physical turmoil of a full term pregnancy. I did everything “right”: I ate well, took my vitamins, exercised, stayed within my ideal weight range, did not drink, did not smoke, kept track of my baby’s movements, and went to all my prenatal appointments. But my daughter is dead. Now I have a c-section scar and volatile postpartum hormones to contend with, but no living baby to show for my struggles. I will never feel at ease in another pregnancy, because doing all the “right” things and having a complication-free pregnancy wasn’t enough. I will never get to simply enjoy holidays and family occasions unmitigated by grief, because Leah’s absence will always be felt. My family will always be incomplete. I was SO CLOSE to having the family that I longed for. I don’t need piles of money, a prestigious career, or a fancy home. All I wanted was my daughter, but I couldn’t keep her. I couldn’t keep her even though she was so, so wanted and so, so loved. 

Wanting to believe that I was above such irrational feelings of bitterness, my anger used to make me feel quite petty and ashamed. However, this is no longer the case. Anger is a natural and fundamentally human response to injustice, and there is no other term that can adequately encapsulate what has happened to me and my daughter. It is not fair that any mama should go through the tumultuous journey of pregnancy and fall in love with her baby, only for her child’s life to end before it ever really began.

In short, I know that I have every right to feel angry about what happened to Leah. The problem is that I have no legitimate place to channel this anger. The frustrating reality is that there is nothing and no one to blame for my daughter’s death beyond the brutal fact that life can be devastatingly unfair. Of course my anger will boil to the surface when people who don’t share my pain say and do things that inflame my loss wound, perhaps by reminding me of what I’ve lost, or taking for granted that which I would be so grateful for. Other people may not be the true source of my anger or personally responsible for it, but this does not make the anger any less valid.

Now excuse me while I hurl some heavy objects against the wall, won’t you?

Three Months

Dear Leah,

It is September 21, 2016. Today you would be three months old. Sometimes it feels like an eternity has passed since the fleeting moments we spent together in our grey hospital room, looking into each other’s eyes and saying our “hellos” and “goodbyes” all at once. Other times it feels like it was only yesterday. One thing has not changed, though: My arms and heart still ache for you every moment of every day.

If you were here, I imagine it would be readily apparent by now that I have very little knowledge and even less practical life experience when it comes to taking care of babies. I don’t really know how you would be spending the bulk of these crisp, late summer days or what sorts of milestones I would be anxiously anticipating. I imagine you would still be sleeping a lot, and that I would diligently come to your bassinet every hour or so to assure myself that you are still breathing. I expect our lives would feel like a perpetual carousel of feedings, diaper changes, crying fits, and naps, but I know that any frustrations on my part would dissipate each time I hold you close and see you smile.

Sometimes it’s difficult not to slip into an imaginary alternate universe where our lives are indeed unfolding this way. I long for this other life, one where I am not commended for being “brave” or “strong” or “inspirational,” and you are not the baby who “touched so many lives” during her brief existence. I don’t want us to be any of these things—I just want you. All I want is to be “just another mom” who is too frazzled to hold a coherent conversation and who elicits judgemental glares from strangers in the grocery store when her child won’t stop crying. More than anything I want you to be “just another baby” who will eventually grow into a demanding toddler that throws temper tantrums and leaves an unending trail of toys and cracker crumbs on the floor for me to clean. I want this mundane, messy, and thoroughly unremarkable life for both of us more than I can possibly say.

As the weeks continue to creep by and I continue to move forward simply because there is nowhere else to go, there is another thing that has not changed: I still see you everywhere. During the months that I carried you I saw you in every baby and young girl who crossed my path. I would smile to myself when I watched them, wondering if you would also grow into a bumbling toddler who dances with carefree abandon when a catchy pop song plays in the mall, or if you would perhaps be a shy girl who hides behind her parents and hesitates to introduce herself to strangers. I still see you when I cross paths with these children, but instead of imagining whether you will share their interests and dispositions, I blink back tears as I think about what will never be.

It pains me to no end that your life will always be a list of unanswered questions and a slew of unrealized potentials. Every day I wonder about the person you would be growing into before my eyes if we had been able to walk through this life together. I often have to remind myself that, no matter what, it was inevitable that you would break my heart. Had we shared the life that I hoped for, you would have broken it piece by piece as you grew slightly more self-sufficient and individuated yourself from me each day. The ache would have been subtle and perhaps unnoticeable most days, but it would have always been there. However, instead of this dull ache I have been inundated with a lifetime’s worth of pain all at once. It is the crushing, unnatural heartbreak that comes from an instantaneous and total separation between a mother and child.

I long for you every day, my darling girl. I cry for you every morning and pray for you every night. You will always be the person who taught me about the ferocious, soul-crushing reservoir of love that resides within me. You are also the one who made me acutely aware of the delicate and finite nature of this life. Because of you I no longer shrink away from whatever may or may not await me when I eventually breathe my last breath; if that is where you are, that is also where I want to be.

Still, I resent that you will never simply be the daughter I got to bring home from the hospital and raise into adulthood. You will never be the baby who throws food at me from your highchair or cries for my warm embrace in the middle of the night. You will never be the mischievous toddler who pulls the dog’s tail and sits on my lap to hear a bedtime story. You will never be the prepubescent girl who tells me how embarrassing I am when I try to joke with you and your friends, or the young woman who gets trapped in my barnacle hug when you pack up to move away from home.

It has been three months of a lifetime in which I will continue to miss you. While my days remain cold and bleak, I take comfort in knowing that each one brings me closer to you, wherever you happen to be.

All my love and a kiss,

Your Mama

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Where Was God? Part 3: Promises and Peace

As others have pointed out before me, our culture largely subsists on myths about the grieving process that seldom reflect the actual lived experiences of the bereaved. The notion that grief can ever be resolved remains contested, and this is especially the case in instances of child loss. Every loss mama who has shared her story with me in person or through the published word confirms what I already know to be true: There is no “getting over” the loss of a child. Sure, we can learn to incorporate the pain into our lives and move forward, but toward what? Another day haunted by our children’s absences? Perpetual reminders that our families will always be incomplete? We trudge ahead and attempt to forge a new normal, but the loss wound will never heal completely.

In an effort to quell a bereaved parent’s pain, it is almost inevitable that people will encourage them to change their frame of mind by focusing on the positive, resulting in a barrage of “At least” platitudes:

At least they didn’t suffer

At least you can have more children (even though this is not the case far more often than we would like to believe)

At least you got the time with them that you did

And for those who subscribe to Christian or other religious and spiritual beliefs which involve an afterlife:

At least you know you’ll see them again someday

I wish I could say that this last sentiment gives me some peace. As a Christian, it should. And on some days, it does. But there are other days when, to be perfectly frank, the notion of Heaven seems like a very convenient fiction that we humans have concocted so we don’t have to fully accept the magnitude of pain and uncertainty that death leaves in its wake. It’s also safe to say that the more I’ve learned about the history of Christian understandings of Heaven, the more difficult it is for me to unquestioningly accept the beliefs that are largely taken for granted in my faith community.

I will even go so far as to say that there is extra pressure for Christians (and perhaps religious people in general) to “make peace” with the death of a child in a timely way. After all, if we don’t, it essentially testifies to our lack of faith. Well-meaning believers may become frustrated and confused, wondering why the bereaved cannot simply move on with the confidence that they will see their child in Heaven after they die.

I don’t know why it is far easier for me to believe that I am created by a loving and just God and that Jesus Christ is God incarnate than it is for me to believe that I will get to spend eternity with both of them. Perhaps it is my perpetually over-analytical INFJ personality that cannot accept anything at face value and always insists that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

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Image credit via The INFJ den

In an effort to resolve my uncertainties about the existence of Heaven, there have been times in my faith journey when I’ve convinced myself that the beauty and love I’ve experienced in this lifetime are enough for me. If I can draw near to God, attempt to emulate His goodness, and do my all to restore justice and peace in the world, what happens on the other side of death should be of little consequence. In the tradition of Pascal’s Wager, it seems logical to value and approximate that which is Godly and righteous, regardless of what may or may not await me when my heart stops beating.

But when I sit back and really consider this notion, I also realize that it may be easier for privileged people like myself to feel this way. After all, even if I die tomorrow, I still have a fairly good idea of what it means to live a full life. I have been able to relish in many of the most profoundly beautiful experiences that make this life worth living, unmitigated by dehumanizing poverty, violence, or illness. But what about those who never get these opportunities? What about the millions of men, women, and children who were (and continue to be) denied such lives because of the economic institution of slavery? What about the irreparable damage that has been done to Canada’s First Nations peoples throughout my country’s history of genocide? And what about the innumerable lives that are cut short each year due to miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant loss?

What about Leah?

I am not going to say that Leah’s death has allowed me to establish an unwavering belief in evangelical understandings of Heaven, because it simply isn’t true. However, it has restored my hope in an afterlife, particularly for the sake of those who never get to experience the love and beauty that this life has to offer. Leah’s short life has forced me to draw nearer to God in my despair and brokenness, reminding me that the eternal nature of love means that this finite earthly existence isn’t enough (at least for me). And despite my lingering commitment to live in the tension of my faith and my doubts, God has shown up for me in unexpected ways.

So here’s the thing: There are three times in my life when I would say I’ve “heard from God.” I say this with a keen understanding that countless people have made dubious claims that they have also “heard from God.” Harold Camping heard from God. Pat Robertson has heard from God numerous times. A multitude of people from different Christian denominations and religious traditions have heard from God throughout history, many of whom testify to very different ideas of who God is. Nonetheless, I do recall three distinct experiences wherein I heard the still small voice that Christians so often refer to.

The first time seems negligible in the grand scheme of things, yet I cannot deny that it happened. I was working at the watch and jewelry repair job that I held while completing my master’s degree in Ottawa. I was struggling to re-assemble a watch after changing its battery, all the while a line of customers was waiting impatiently for me to finish. As much as I tried, I could not seem to re-attach one half of the watch band. I kept trying to push the minuscule band beam into the same tiny hole, but to no avail. And then I suddenly heard a voice in my mind say: “Try the other side.” It was so quiet and subtle that I was barely certain I heard it at all. Nonetheless, I removed the beam and tried inserting it through the hole on the other side of the watch. And lo and behold, it worked.

The second time occurred several years later when I was in the early stages of my post-evangelical faith journey. I had finally reached a point where I could no longer pretend to subscribe to fundamentalist beliefs in the Bible’s inerrancy, and it seemed there was no way I could move forward as a Christian in light of this revelation. I remember sitting in my Toronto basement apartment at the ripe age of 25, crying out to God and asking Him to do something—anything—to prove that He was there. And then I heard the voice say: “Just believe.” Those two words assured me that I don’t need to have all the answers—indeed, since then I have become increasingly leery of Christians who claim with unwavering certainty to have all the answers—and that it is enough for me to toil ahead with my questions, doubts, and my sincere faith of a mustard seed.

The third time occurred weeks ago while my grief for Leah was still at its freshest and most raw. In the midst of my misery I had called out to God numerous times between unrelenting sobs and endless streams of tears, demanding answers: “Why couldn’t you keep her safe? Why did you bring her into my life, only to take her away? How can I ever trust you again?” I was pleading with God to give me a reason for Leah’s death, even though I knew in my heart that there was none. And unsurprisingly, God did not answer these questions. Instead, one evening when I simply allowed the tears to wash over me in silence, I heard the voice say: “This is the pain I feel for every child I’ve been separated from.

So you see, this is why I remain confident that there is no purpose or plan behind Leah’s death, just as I don’t believe it is meant to inflict punishment or teach an inexplicable lesson. Knowing the pain of being separated from Leah was never part of God’s plan for me, just as death and separation were never part of His original plan for any of His children. I also do not believe that God expects me to prove my faith by making peace with my loss. I don’t necessarily believe that I’m meant to be at peace in a fallen world where death, injustice, and pain maim countless lives every single day.

The thing with receiving all the “blessings” we seek in this life is that it encourages complacency. It makes it easy for the privileged to turn a blind eye to the suffering that is unfolding all around them and praise God for their comfortable lives, even as the earth groans beneath their feet and creation cries out for liberation. In this sense, the loss wound that Leah has left in my life keeps me connected to others who know this unspeakable pain, and it also reminds me that many people have known far worse suffering than I have.

I will never go so far as to say that the pain of Leah’s death is a gift in revealing these things to me, but I can recognize how it has provided a gentle prod to keep searching for meaning beyond this finite earthly life. I still cannot say that I am certain about what will happen to me after I die, but I don’t think I need to be. After all, Christians continue to hold diverse beliefs about what Heaven is like and who gets to go there. For now, my faith in God’s love for me and for Leah, as well as in His promise of restorative justice for the poor and oppressed, is enough.

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Guest Post: Zach’s Story

I am honoured to share the following guest post by fellow loss mama Anne-Marie.

All had gone well during my pregnancy with Zach, my much wanted second baby boy. At least that was the case until January 21, 2015, two days before his due date. Suddenly I found myself in the hospital after sensing that his movements had decreased, and I ended up delivering him by emergency caesarean section soon after. That day I discovered that he had suffered a very rare foetal-maternal haemorrhage, where the membrane in his umbilical cord ceased to separate his blood supply from my own. Why this happened remains unknown; our obstetrician had never seen it occur in his 25 years of practice.

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Over the next week our family spent as much time with Zach as we could. We were able to care for him by changing nappies, taking his temperature, and wiping his mouth. Every milestone was celebrated, like when he opened his eyes and appeared responsive to our voices, or when he stretched his limbs and gripped our fingers. During this time we also received amazing support from our families who brought food, did the washing, and helped care for Zach’s big brother each day.

The medical team stabilised Zach so he was able to have an MRI scan on January 29. At this point he was mainly breathing on his own but was still hooked up to the ventilator. The next day we met with the Paediatric Consultant who delivered the most devastating news we could have received: The extensive damage to nearly all parts of Zach’s brain, including his brain stem, made it very unlikely that he would survive.

That evening Zach was removed from his ventilator and made comfortable. For the next four nights he slept with us in the NICU family room. During this time he was like any other newborn requiring feedings, nappy changes, and lots of sleep. He was fed expressed breast milk through a tube and often woke up crying from hunger.

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On the evening of February 2 we had a family picnic outside while Zach slept in his pushchair, and later on we gave him his first bath. As the night progressed he started to feel very cold and his breathing became increasingly laboured as he slept between my husband and me. The next morning Zach died peacefully in our arms.

Leaving the hospital without our baby boy was the most surreal and devastating feeling imaginable. Our hearts ached and our dreams for his future were suddenly lost forever. So many questions were left unanswered: Why did this happen? Why us? What did we do to deserve this when we wanted him so much?

I never wrote about my grief journey following Zach’s death. Sometimes I wish I had. I would often “write” what was on my mind in my head, and at times I’d share these thoughts with friends (new and old) who have been there for me. I have learned many things over the past year, including how difficult it is to be a friend to a bereaved person. People fear they will upset the person in mourning if they say “the wrong thing” or mention the deceased’s name. I have experienced both sides of this. I wish I had always known what I know now, and I would have been a better friend in the past. I now know that saying nothing is far more hurtful than saying the wrong thing (except “everything happens for a reason”—never say that to a bereaved person).

Talking about Zach cannot make me sadder than I already am. It actually makes my heart smile even though you may see tears. And what seems like ancient history to a non-bereaved person remains all too real for the bereaved. We lost Zach over a year ago and my grief is still part of my daily life. It is not always as raw as it was, but it does not take much to trigger it. Some days a bereaved person may seek comfort with loved ones and other days they may seek solitude. I know I have stopped being social at times and I have not always had the energy to respond honestly to the question “How are you?” It’s a different life from my previous one, but this is what I have had to do to survive.

I want to wholeheartedly thank my friends who have not given up on me, who have checked in regularly just to let me know they are still thinking of me and Zach. For those who have not lost a child, it is hard to understand what a bereaved parent is going through. It’s easy to separate yourself from them and think, “Thank God that isn’t me.” But the truth is that we can all imagine what it would be like to be without a loved one, and if we allow ourselves to carry a piece of the bereaved parent’s grief, we can also imagine the unspeakable pain of losing a much loved child.

To honour Zach’s life, we have made some stickers to be inserted into books and given to children in need for Christmas. My Aunt recently told me that the two books she donated to her local Parish were given to a young mother whose son was also born in January 2015. While I’m happy these books were donated in Zach’s memory to a baby who needs them, I so wish our own little boy was here with his older brother reading to him.

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The sticker we inserted into the books that were donated in Zach’s memory

Zach will always be part of our family. We talk about him with his older brother all the time and we have filled our home with photographs of him. We have Zach’s ashes at home and have had a memorial bench seat installed in the Timaru Botanical Gardens. This is our special place where we go to remember him. He will be forever in our hearts.

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Where Was God? Part 2: Positivity and Purpose

I am going to go out on a limb and speculate that anyone who has said “everything happens for a reason” has never brought their baby girl home in an urn.

I am also going to hedge a guess that anyone who advises the bereaved to “focus on the positive” has never watched their firstborn child seize and convulse before dying in their arms.

There is no purpose in a newborn baby being afflicted with desultory and unpreventable suffering. There are no positives to be gleaned from an unlived life.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As mentioned previously, my faith in God throughout my childhood and young adult years was shaped by evangelical prosperity theology which, in a nutshell, stipulates that God has a divine plan for my life that is full of blessings. For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of this “gospel” is that many people who denounce its principles in theory actually subscribe to them in practice. It’s easy to express our disdain for the spectacle-laden sermons delivered by charismatic televangelists as they assure viewers that massive financial donations to their ministries will result in abundant wealth and endless rewards. However, it takes a more nuanced and enquiring Christian mind to critically reflect on the subtle ways that prosperity theology seeps into our daily prayers, beliefs, and words. I should know, because I’ve lived it. I also wrote an entire doctoral dissertation exploring how this theology informs evangelical purity culture.

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Image credit via tumblr

While doing my research, I read books like this one and this one to analyze how evangelical authors conceptualize and propagate premarital “sexual purity.” Unlike other writers who have critiqued this purity culture from a secular standpoint, I was interested in examining the theological perspectives that inform “purity” discourses from a Christian perspective. I argued that prosperity theology is intricately woven throughout each page of these texts, but it can essentially be broken down into the following formula:

  1. God has a special life plan for every individual Christian man and woman, and this plan only includes blessings that will benefit them and bring them closer to Him (So in the case of these texts, God wants every Christian woman to marry a Christian man and remain sexually pure until He brings a husband into her life).
  2. In order for these good things to happen, Christians must allow God to bless them by obeying His commandments, praying fervently, being patient, and believing without a shadow of a doubt that their blessings will come in accordance with God’s timing (So in the case of these texts, a Christian woman must be completely pure, dedicated to God, and trust that He will fulfill His promises, at which point He can bring a Christian husband into her life).

So therefore:

  1. If you have received the blessings you seek, you have obeyed, prayed, and believed enough.
  2. If you have not received the blessings you seek, you are not allowing God to fulfill the plan He has for you because you have unresolved sin, inadequate faith, or lack of belief.

One can see how the following formula may be easily applied to any number of “blessings” we seek in our day to day lives. Yet we also know from our lived realities that there are flaws in this formula. Reality reveals that “pure” Christian women do not always find husbands, faithful believers do not always receive miraculous healing, and committed Christians struggle with poverty and unemployment. But when these things happen, there is always this convenient theological detour waiting in the wings:

“This simply wasn’t part of God’s plan for you. God has something better in mind. God has closed a door, but He will open a window. He is presenting you with this trial so you will learn and grow in Him.”

In this way, prosperity theology reflects the innately human desire to believe that there is always order in the chaos. It is the religious equivalent of what social scientists call the just world hypothesis, the belief that the world is a predictable place where people are somehow deserving of the good things, as well as the terrible things, that happen to them. For Christians, this desire manifests in the belief that God is in control of everything: If good things happen, they are blessings from God. If bad things happen, they are trials that God is allowing to occur. We may not understand why God chooses to bless some Christians with full, comfortable lives and healthy, happy families while others are plagued by poverty, illness, and violence, but rest assured that it is always part of God’s plan.

Yet, as Kate Bowler notes in her book, Blessed, non-religious people and those from other religious traditions also cling hard and fast to this belief. Outside of Christianity, it manifests in the law of attraction, also called the New Thought movement, wherein it is argued that positive thoughts will yield positive outcomes, and vise versa. Just as prosperity theology stipulates that Christians can reap their desired life outcomes by believing, obeying, and proclaiming our victories in Jesus, so too does The Secret promise that we can obtain the possessions, opportunities, and relationships of our dreams if we believe that they are already ours and welcome them into our lives with positive thoughts. Whether we are allowing God or the universe to bring these good things into our lives, ultimately the onus is on us to do, think, believe, and say the right things to make it happen. Within this framework, those of us who are prospering must be doing something right to deserve our blessings, and those who have not reaped positive outcomes need to alter their thought, belief, and behavioural patterns in order to change their destinies.

And why wouldn’t we cling to such beliefs? Without them, we live in a world where each one of us is equally vulnerable to senseless tragedy, no matter how faithful or positive we are. Without them, those of us who get our desired “blessings” cannot justify why we are able to enjoy healthy, comfortable, and happy lives while our neighbours are suffering. Without them, it means that we could lose every good thing in our lives in the twinkling of an eye, and there would be no rhyme or reason for it. And this possibility is downright terrifying.

Case in point: As much as I have vocally denounced prosperity theology and the law of attraction throughout the years, my conceptions of God and life have never escaped their tenets. This all became exceedingly clear during my pregnancy with Leah. The fact that her presence in my life was unexpected made me ripe for new age philosophizing and prosperity theologizing. In an effort to find peace during my recurring bouts of anxiety, I would often turn to my latent beliefs in God’s divine plan for my life, supplemented with a healthy dose of positive mental mapping. My daily inner dialogue often looked something like this:

Anxiety: At any given moment, your baby could die from unpreventable circumstances that you have no control over.

Me: “God won’t let that happen! God loves me and He loves my baby. God gave me this baby; I didn’t ask for her. The pregnancy was unplanned, but He set up the perfect circumstances for it: It is the final year of my PhD and I will graduate before my due date; I even got an extra teaching appointment this year so I can put money aside to stay home and take care of her after she’s born. God anticipated my needs even before I asked for His provisions! Why would God allow all of this to happen if He didn’t have a plan in place for Leah’s life?”

Anxiety: Hundreds of thousands of babies die every year from miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant loss. Are you saying that God loves Leah more than those other babies?

Me: “No…but maybe those babies died from things their mothers did. Maybe their mothers smoke, drink alcohol, and do drugs. Maybe their mothers are older. Maybe their mothers live in war-torn, impoverished countries and are affected by violence, poverty, and malnutrition. Maybe their mothers don’t pray every day for their babies’ protection like I do.”

Anxiety: You’re kidding yourself. You have absolutely no control over this.

Me: “I have no control over this, but God does! I know He wants me to have this baby. I know He won’t let my baby suffer needlessly. Why would God give me this gift and knit Leah together in my womb if He didn’t want her to live? I am going to have this baby. My baby is going to live!”

I clung to these beliefs in God’s divine plan right until the very end. Even as I lay in a hospital bed, looking at Leah’s still image on the ultrasound screen while nurses prepped me for an emergency cesarean section, I managed to find positivity and purpose in what was happening:

Anxiety: Your baby is dying.

Me: “No! My baby is going to be fine. God made me aware of her reduced movements so that I would go to the hospital. My midwife said that if I had waited until the morning to come in, Leah would have been stillborn. Obviously I came in at the right time! Thank you God! Thank you so much! My baby is going to live!”

This happened again nearly 24 hours later, after Leah’s life supports were removed and a team of specialists had given me their grim prognosis. In the wee hours of the morning I sat in my dark hospital room, holding Leah while her body seized continuously in my arms:

Anxiety: Your baby is dying.

Me: “Maybe God still has a plan in all of this! Maybe God will perform a miracle and keep her alive. She has already lived for much longer than any of the doctors thought she would. Maybe God knows that I have the strength and love to be a good mother to her in any condition, and He will keep her alive. I have given it over to God and asked for a miracle. Why would He bring her this far only to let her die?”

My experiences reveal that, in the face of tragedy and uncertainty, many Christians like myself find peace in seeking purpose. We tell the bereaved and ourselves that God is somehow behind everything, closing doors and opening windows, making a way when there seems to be no way, and creating beauty out of desolation. Others may not seek purpose in tragedy, but instead advise the bereaved to look for the positive: Pick up your boot straps and look on the bright side! Change your frame of mind to see how the glass is half-full, and everything will get better!

Unfortunately, there is no purpose or positivity in Leah’s death, just as there are no supernatural “windows” that God is waiting to open up because He has something “better” in store. Can I grow and change as a person from this? Of course. Can I honour Leah’s life by striving to become a more empathetic, compassionate, and gracious person? Absolutely. Can I hope to be an extra-loving, extra-patient, and extra-thankful parent to any children I have in the future? Certainly. But that is not why Leah died. Leah’s death is not about me.

There is no purpose in a newborn baby being afflicted with desultory and unpreventable suffering. There are no positives to be gleaned from an unlived life.

The world we inhabit is filled to the brim with injustice, tragedy, oppression, suffering, and death. And this is precisely why I cling to my belief in a loving God who wanted nothing more than for my daughter to live an endlessly love-filled life with me. That was the plan He desired for both of us from the very beginning.

Unfortunately, that perfect plan is not compatible with the imperfect world I live in.   

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Where Was God? Part 1: Prosperity and Privilege

I feel compelled to begin this post series with a caveat. Religion can be a contentious issue at the best of times, and it can become something of a landmine when death and bereavement rear their ugly heads in our lives. For those of us who find personal meaning in a particular religious tradition or spiritual worldview, it makes sense that we will draw from these beliefs when navigating the burning questions, pains, and uncertainties that loss leaves in its wake. However, it is a different story for those who do not subscribe to such beliefs. In these cases, religious platitudes such as “They are in a better place” or “You’ll see them again someday” will only exacerbate the pain and isolation already felt by a bereaved person who believes that life ends once our final breaths escape our bodies.

As such, this post series is not meant to persuade readers that they are correct or incorrect in their beliefs about life, death, God, and spirituality. Rather, it is an outlet for me to explore the deeply agonizing thoughts and meta questions that I have wrestled with since Leah’s death. I do not have any more definitive answers about the existence or nature of a divine Creator than anyone else who has walked this path of love and loss before me. All I have is the spiritual and religious paradigms that I use to navigate the world each day, which are available to me in this particular temporal and spatial moment.

All right. Here we go.

For me, one of the occupational hazards of growing up evangelical Christian was believing that God is in control of every event that unfolds in this world, and that everything that happens in my own life is consequently part of His divine plan for me. Years of church sermons, Sunday School classes, and devotional readings had taught me that God created me with a wonderful purpose in mind, and that He wants to bless me with a healthy, safe, abundant life. In the meantime, all I had to do was believe sincerely, pray fervently, and obey God’s word as I waited for these promises to manifest each day.

And let’s be honest, it is easy for people who lead relatively privileged lives, myself among them, to cling to this prosperity theology. Those who live in wealthy minority world nations have access to unprecedented knowledge, technology, and resources that allow many people to sail through life unscathed by dehumanizing poverty, debilitating illness, or the death of a loved one who did not get the opportunity to live a full life. When this privilege is combined with the unwavering belief that God operates as an omnipotent micro-manager who is eager to bless us if we believe, pray, and obey, it’s easy to see how the logic that informs prosperity theology becomes circular and self-perpetuating.

My experience indicates that this theology is problematic for several reasons. First, it implies that people are responsible for their own suffering. If God’s power to heal, protect, provide, and restore is available to everyone who believes, prays, and speaks with adequate authority and commitment, then those who do not receive the blessings they seek must be doing something wrong. The flip side of this paradigm implies that those who do receive the blessings they ask for must be doing something right, namely by being more committed, more faithful, and trusting in God’s promises without a shadow of a doubt.

Second, this theology leaves many people feeling dejected and betrayed by God when they have a first-hand experience with suffering. Suddenly they find themselves questioning God’s existence and may even turn away from their faith because He did not intervene in the face of senseless tragedy. But this also reveals the more insidious underbelly of prosperity theology: When death and injustice are happening all around us every single day, it shouldn’t take a first-hand experience with tragedy for us to question the idea that God is a perpetually proactive healer, protector, and provider. In this way, this paradigm invites us to put on blinders to the pain and suffering that occurs daily in the world, and to praise God for His miraculous interventions as long as everything is going okay in our own lives.

Here is the most poignant example I can think of to drive this point home: Some time ago I stumbled across a blog post written by an atheist. Long story short, the post shares a fellow atheist’s experience when a baby in their town received a life-saving heart transplant. People who knew the baby’s family began flooding social media with posts praising God for this miracle and thanking Him for answering their prayers. Struck by the irony of the situation, the poster pointed out these brutal truths: Did any of these people stop to think that the baby received this life-saving surgery because the heart was taken from another baby who died? While this family is incredibly fortunate that their baby received a new heart, how could anyone conceptualize this as divine miracle when another baby had to die in order for this baby to survive? How would the family of the deceased baby feel knowing that people were essentially calling their baby’s death a blessing and an answer to prayer?

While this blogger probably had less than gracious intentions in pointing this out, I have to say that their logic is spot-on. And yes, for those of you who may be wondering, I am a Christian. Just not the same Christian that I was twenty, ten, or even five years ago. Many people might say that my fluid and critical approach to faith means I am not a “true” Christian, and frankly that’s okay with me. During the past five or so years I have been confronted with more questions and doubts about my spiritual beliefs than ever before, but I have also never pursued God more adamantly at any point in my life. My journey has led me to find God in the wisdom offered by liberation theology, metaphorical theology, and especially Quaker testimonies as I attempt to sift through taken-for-granted doctrines and precepts that do not reflect the realities that unfold before my eyes each day.

You see, I know first-hand the epistemological hoops that Christians are willing to jump through so that we can cling to the comforting idea that, despite all the suffering and injustice happening in the world each day, God will “bless” us and perform miraculous interventions on our behalf if we believe, pray, and obey. It took me a good 25 years before I started to question how many of the “blessings” I enjoyed in my life were really divine gifts from God, or if they were actually privileges that I benefited from because I was born in a particular time and place. Simply put, the more I learned about the injustice and oppression that so many people experience across the globe, the more difficult it was for me to believe that my personal comfort bubble was being preserved by God’s divine love and protection.

This knowledge has long caused me to critically reflect on how I pray and how I speak, particularly when it comes to identifying the “blessings” in my life. Simply put, a blessing is a gift given directly to us from God out of His benevolent love. When we say we are “blessed” with certain things, such as able bodies, loving spouses, healthy families, fulfilling careers, beautiful homes, and miraculous healing in the face of illness or injury, we are essentially proclaiming that God has shown us divine favour in these areas of our lives. While such statements may reflect genuine faith and gratitude, they also reveal the myopic logic behind prosperity theology. For instance, does God really “bless” particular people with good health and miraculous healing while others are left to suffer, or is it more likely that certain people are the beneficiaries of the grand genetic lottery and superior resources that are available to those in particular geographic locations and economic classes? Similarly, does God really “bless” some of us with comfortable homes and financial security while others barely have enough to survive, or is it more likely that certain people benefit from a fundamentally inequitable global economy that severely disadvantages the majority of the world’s population?

You keep using that word, I don't think it means what you think it means - #blessed ... You keep using that hashtag But I do not think it means what you think it means

Image credit via MemeGenerator.net

Naturally all of these questions had been rattling around in my brain since the very beginning of my pregnancy with Leah. I wanted to believe that God would protect my baby girl and bring her safely into the world. Yet this was difficult for me to completely accept when I also knew that thousands upon thousands of babies die from miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant loss each year. What made me so special as to presume that God would personally keep both of us healthy when so many women, including Christian women, experience these tragic losses every day? Likewise, if my baby did make it into the world healthy and safe, who was I to proclaim that I was “blessed” with God’s divine favour when so many other families were torn asunder each day from the loss of a much-loved and much-wanted child?

Don’t get me wrong, I still prayed. I prayed multiple times a day, every single day that my pregnancy with Leah would be nourished, protected, and sustained. It is safe to say that I have never prayed so earnestly and fervently for anything in my life. What else could I do but offer my petitions to God and hope that He wanted Leah to live a long, love-filled life with me just as much as I did?

The fact that my prayers for Leah were not answered may incite speculation from Christians who subscribe to particular theologies. They may reason that I did not pray enough, did not pray correctly, did not believe enough, or did not have adequate faith to ensure my daughter’s safe arrival into the world. But such speculations overlook one very important point: This is not really about me. I am still here, still breathing, and still navigating the world in my healthy, functional body. I am not the one whose brief existence was plagued by physical pain and suffering. I am not the one who was robbed of an entire lifetime.

In the wake of Leah’s death, it is difficult to pinpoint what I believe God’s role was in all of this. But I am confident in what I don’t believe:

I don’t believe that God went through the trouble of shaping my beautiful girl in the womb, only to sit back and allow her to suffer because her flawed human of a mother did not say and do the right things to unleash supernatural healing upon her.

I don’t believe that other people, children and adults alike, who seemingly benefit from divine protection and miraculous healing are more loved and cherished by God than Leah is.

I don’t believe that God willingly allowed Leah’s death to happen, just as I don’t believe that He chose not to prevent it in order to inflict punishment or teach me or anyone else a particular lesson.

Maybe this all means that I am currently creating God in my own image to suit my purposes and rectify the things that I would rather not believe or accept. Regardless, there are two things that I have been and remain steadfastly confident in:

First, God is big enough to handle my questions and my doubts.

Second, when Leah breathed her last breath in my arms, God was there, crying right along with me.

Summer’s End

Even though it will be several weeks before the first day of autumn is officially upon us, for me the experiences and expectations that encapsulate summertime conclude when students and educators alike prepare to head back to school. While this transition is sometimes bittersweet, more often than not I find myself looking ahead with anticipation during this time, rather than dwelling on what I’m leaving behind. I’ve never minded trading summer barbecue fare for spice-laden soups, floral-print dresses for comfy sweaters, or blazing heat for cool, crisp breezes. Likewise, after several months of relative freedom in my academic pursuits, I often look forward to preparing weekly lessons and meeting new groups of students as another semester commences each September.

This year I feel quite differently about it all. I imagine it would still be this way if Leah was here with me. I know it would have been difficult to return to a fall work routine after savoring these first two months with her, even if I would only have to venture away from home to teach once a week. But now I suddenly fear leaving summer behind for entirely different reasons.

As an exercise in mindfulness, during the final weeks of my pregnancy I had adamantly resolved to restrict my anxious imaginings by only picturing immediate and positive outcomes. I purposefully decided not to fret about where I would go to pump breast milk on a busy university campus several times a day in the fall, or how I would manage to meet new writing deadlines while caring for a fussy newborn. I did not allow myself to worry about how my husband and I would juggle the logistics of childcare arrangements if we ended up teaching on the same days each week in the winter term, or whether we would find a daycare space at all during that time.

Instead, I forged a psychological contract of sorts between myself and my anxiety, acknowledging that I would eventually concern myself with these future uncertainties, but for now I would simply anticipate and enjoy my sweet girl’s first weeks in the world. I imagined strapping Leah into her carrier and taking her for afternoon walks with my dog each day. I pictured feeding her late at night in bed while my husband slept next to me. I thought about celebrating my 30th birthday at home with a bottle of wine and takeout sushi, welcoming the first of many years that we would spend together as a whole, completed family.

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One of many summer afternoon walks with Matthew and Kiwi

In many ways, I had envisioned summer 2016 as the “summer of Leah.” And this certainly has been the case, although the outcome has been strikingly different from what I had hoped for: This was the summer of Leah’s birth, but also of her death. Rather than spending my days and nights changing Leah’s diapers and holding her close, I have spent this time aching for her presence and grieving for the life she will never get to live. When I take my dog for his afternoon walks, I can actually feel Leah’s absence, and more often than not it causes tears to flow behind my dark sunglasses. When I go to sleep each night I begrudgingly wrap my aching arms around a childhood teddy bear, rather than the beautiful baby I long to hold.

As I awake in the mornings now and feel the cool breeze creeping in through my bedroom window, I am silently reminded that the summer of Leah, and the “official” period of time that I have been able to set aside for mourning her, is coming to a close. If Leah was here, I would be heading back to work in the coming weeks and preparing to balance these responsibilities with my new role as mother. Now that she is gone, I must still venture back into “the real world,” but learn to do so while carrying my grief, rather than the tiny girl who captured my heart less than a year ago.

Likewise, it is often said that the pain of grieving begins to alleviate with each passing day. But this brings little comfort to me when the passage of time also takes me further away from the fleeting hours that I got to spend holding and caring for Leah in the hospital. As each new morning eventually fades into night, I sense my memories of her sweet face, soft skin, and heartbreaking cries growing dimmer. While it may not be rational, I fear that my memory of her all-too-brief life may eventually fade into nonentity as these final summer days grow shorter, colder, and darker.

In this sense, the prospect that grief will remain my constant companion from here on is a strange comfort to me. I may not have allowed myself to vividly envision Leah’s life beyond these initial summer months, but I do anticipate new triggers to emerge with each temporal milestone that passes. Indeed, it is safe to say that I will actively seek out these little reminders of her wherever I can find them. As much as they will provoke feelings of pain and longing, they will also keep me connected to all the latent hopes and dreams that I carried for my daughter’s life during my pregnancy. In the most profound sense, they will keep me connected to her.

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The tree outside our second story window in full bloom several weeks before my due date