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.
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.