The Absence

For the past few weeks I’ve been trying to start a series of posts that delves into my experiences as a loss mama with a living child. In one respect, finding the time to write has been challenging when I can barely cobble together the time to eat and shower each day. But with so many thoughts, emotions, and questions running through my mind at any given time, it has been equally challenging to know exactly where to begin.

Then, in the midst of another beautifully chaotic morning filled with crying, cooing, and cluster feedings, I took this photo:

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I had placed Callum down on the bed for a moment while taking a sip of my morning coffee (which also serves as my “breakfast” these days more often than I would care to admit). My husband came into the bedroom and started playfully prodding at our boy with his usual cheery candor. My heart swelled as I saw them smiling at each other, and I quickly reached for my phone to capture the tender moment unfolding before me.

Hours later, I found myself laughing joyfully at the photo, overcome with love for my little family. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, my entire train of thought changed. I was suddenly inundated with the image of a dark-haired toddler girl, giggling away with her daddy and brother in the upper-left corner of the photo. In the blink of an eye, my laughter turned to tears.

I had long expected that Leah’s absence would be felt during notable family occasions such as birthdays, Halloween nights, and Christmas mornings. But more often than not, I am finding that it also confronts me unexpectedly in the otherwise unremarkable bustle of day-to-day life.

Indeed, it seems that I am continuously haunted by the other life that I would be leading if Leah was here, whether she had been one of the lucky babies to survive and thrive after her fetomaternal hemorrhage, or if I had somehow gone into labour closer to my due date, before any complications began at all.

These reflections often take me down two distinct trajectories. Since it is unlikely (although not impossible) that Leah and Callum would have come to exist at the same time in the same universe, I most often envision myself as the mother of a fifteen-month-old girl in a completed family of three. Not knowing the trauma of child loss, each day I share photos and videos of Leah on social media with carefree abandon, unaware that such images may be painfully triggering for others who are less fortunate than I. I am also still blissfully ignorant enough to believe that God’s personal protection guaranteed Leah’s safe arrival into the world, despite the fact that thousands of other children are lost needlessly to miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant death each year. All in all, there is an innocence and insularity to this other life, wherein I happily pass from one day to the next with my growing daughter in tow.

In the other imagined trajectory, the one that makes my heart ache with indescribable longing, most of these factors remain—except that, somehow, Callum and Leah are both here with me. Of course, this cosmic arrangement would have required an unplanned pregnancy at five months postpartum, which would have undoubtedly brought with it a host of mental, physical, and financial stresses. But since it is not completely beyond the realm of possibility, I occasionally allow myself to indulge in this glorious alternate universe, wherein I am able to hold, kiss, and care for both of the children who shared my body for nine months.

I often feel compelled to talk myself down from these imaginings, which is what I did today. In these moments I rationalize that there is no way Callum would be here if Leah was alive, so what good is it to pine for what could never be? But at the same time, I know that nothing can change the fact that I am now a mother of two and part of a family of four. Unlikely as it is that my son and daughter would have ever appeared in a photo together, Leah’s absence must always be felt in a family that will always be incomplete.

Faith

Some time ago, I was scrolling aimlessly through my social media newsfeed when I came across this post. Being the sucker for punishment that I am, I proceeded to read the article despite gleaning from the click bait title that nothing good would come of it. Long story short, it ended up being one of many posts floating around cyberspace documenting the incredible survival of a “miracle baby” who managed to beat the odds of a grim medical prognosis made during pregnancy.

Obviously, this in and of itself is not problematic. As a mother who knows the despair of watching her newborn baby die in her arms, the last thing I want is for other families to join the tragic child loss club. Instead, it was this excerpt in particular that left me reeling:

The family never gave up on their miracle baby for a second. Maybe it was their unwavering hope that helped [him] develop into a strong, healthy boy.”

There it was—the omnipresent mantra powered by the prosperity gospel paradigm which shaped my Christian faith while growing up: Believe enough, pray enough, hope enough, and God will deliver positive results. Of course, this paradigm is itself a product of the broader New Thought movement that defines our culture in many ways: Choose to have positive thoughts, and positive outcomes will ultimately follow.

It goes without saying why these glib sentiments pour salt in the loss wounds of bereaved parents. I personally know several loss mamas who learned at their second trimester anatomy scans that their babies had a fatal genetic condition, but chose to carry their pregnancies to term anyway, hoping and praying every day that their children would survive. In all these cases, their babies died before or shortly after birth. So does this mean they simply didn’t have enough hope to heal their babies’ bodies?

I also know a number of women who lost their children to sudden complications at the end of an otherwise textbook pregnancy. Like me, some of these mothers had to make the heart wrenching decision to remove their babies’ life supports after learning that they wouldn’t survive—sometimes hours, sometimes days, and sometimes weeks after giving birth. Does this mean we didn’t have enough faith and positivity to overcome our children’s dire conditions?

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with clinging to positivity during periods of struggle and uncertainty. But many people don’t realize how hurtful it is for those who have suffered the worst types of hardship to hear our more fortunate peers attribute their positive outcomes to hope and faith. After all, I never took Leah’s safety for granted during my pregnancy, and I prayed every day that God would protect her. Likewise, when I received her devastating prognosis mere hours after her birth, I prayed for a miracle, promising God that I would love her and care for her for the rest of my life, no matter what condition she was in. As it is, hearing other people say that their hope, faith, and prayers are responsible for landing them a new job, healing a loved one of an illness or injury, or keeping their children healthy and safe feels like a callous slap in the face.

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As my due date with Leah’s brother draws nearer, I have been reflecting on how my understanding of faith has evolved since this time last year. To be sure, “faith” was already a complex concept for me during my pregnancy with Leah. As I inched my way through the first and second anxiety-ridden trimesters, I wanted to believe that God loved my daughter enough to protect her from harm, and I always thanked Him for answering my prayers whenever I received reassuring ultrasound or blood test results. But at the same time, I was aware of how frequently pregnancy and infant loss occurred. If God didn’t intervene to save these other babies, despite their mothers’ hopes and prayers, why should I believe that my daughter and I were guaranteed His personal protection?

When I confided in others about my fears of miscarriage and stillbirth, I was frequently told to “have faith.” And by the final weeks of my pregnancy, I finally did. After making it to the third trimester with no cause for concern in sight, I was simply bursting at the seams with faith. I had faith that God had been answering my daily prayers for Leah’s protection, and that He would continue to do so until she was finally out of my womb and safe in my arms. I had faith that my healthy female body, in all its corporeal wisdom, knew how to carry a pregnancy to term and birth a child into the world safely. I had faith that the people around me knew what they were talking about when they told me not to worry, because they were certain that everything would be okay.

It is painful to look back and reflect on how differently things might have turned out if perhaps I hadn’t had so much faith. If I knew then what I know now, I would have gone to the hospital immediately after Leah missed her post-dinner kick session. Instead, I dismissed the encroaching worry and decided to choose faith over fear—after all, God surely wouldn’t forsake us after bringing us this far, plus everyone says that babies start to slow down right before labour. As evening turned to night and her movements didn’t change, it became harder to ignore my anxiety’s alarm bells, yet I still told myself that things must be okay—after all, people constantly assured me throughout my pregnancy that my worst-case scenario fears were unwarranted, and until this point they had been correct.

Needless to say, my understanding of faith during my current pregnancy has been shaken up to the point of incoherence. I still pray for my son’s protection every day, because it is literally all I can do, but this does not come without a list of caveats. If this boy makes it into the world unscathed, it will be difficult to attribute his positive outcome to answered prayer when I prayed just as vigilantly for my daughter’s safety each and every day that I carried her. Simply put, I have a hard time believing that a benevolent and omnipotent God would decide to actively protect one of my precious babies, while allowing the other one to suffer and die.

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Leah’s brother at 28 weeks gestation

And yet it isn’t quite that simple. There are days when I am so desperate to believe that this boy will be born healthy—and so adamant that there must be order in the chaos—that I indulge in the same epistemological hoop-jumping that causes me to roll my eyes at other Christians: Maybe Leah was destined for Heaven this whole time, and God made me her mother because He knew I would love her fiercely during her brief life and after her death. Maybe she belongs with God and this boy is the child I’m supposed to raise on earth. Maybe God allowed this to happen because He knew I would be strong enough to use my suffering to help other mothers whose children have died.  

For me, faith now means accepting that I will never have the answers to these theological ruminations. As it is, I simply don’t want to believe that a benevolent God with the capacity to answer prayer would actively “bless” a privileged minority with comfortable lives and healthy families, while leaving many others to endure the worst kinds of suffering. As comforting as it is to believe that God is an omnipotent micromanager who is perpetually on-call to answer our prayers, it seems far more likely that the beautiful and devastating things that happen in our lives are all part and parcel of the broken world we live in—a world whose ongoing chaos just happens to benefit some people more than others. And yet, if God is real, it is not for me to define His nature or His role in the universe. The truth is that I simply don’t know.

But one thing I do know is that, while my grief for Leah has brought me to the darkest emotional places imaginable, it has not left me without faith. When I began writing this post, I had intended to discuss an article that I encountered about a month after Leah’s death. Like the post mentioned above, this viral story documented a family whose baby girl, Jocelyn, had been born alive and seemingly healthy after prenatal testing delivered a fatal medical prognosis. Christian media platforms and social media users naturally clung to this story like a barnacle, praising God for rewarding the family’s unwavering faith with His miraculous healing. I remember how this ignited visceral rage within me while my grief was still so fresh and raw—how dare these people give glory to God for healing this baby after He stood by and allowed my daughter to suffer and die.

As it turns out, while she had initially beaten the odds by making it into the world alive, baby Jocelyn died suddenly of continued complications at three months old—despite her family’s continued hope, faith, and prayers. When I read this update (which, unsurprisingly, did not spread across the Christian corners of the internet like wildfire), I broke down and cried. I cried for Jocelyn’s mother, who was walking the same devastating path as me and the other loss mamas I know. I also spent some time looking at photos of her beautiful baby girl, who was still so loved and cherished by her family. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, it hit me: If there is a God, and if there is a Heaven, Jocelyn is there with my own much-loved daughter right now, along with all the other children whose unjust deaths have left gaping wounds on their parents’ hearts.

Do I know this for sure? No, of course not.

Do I hope this is true? Yes, with every fiber of my being.

You see, my current understanding of faith is that it isn’t synonymous with certainty. For some Christians, this may not qualify as “true” faith at all. But for now it is the best that my shattered heart and broken spirit can muster. And, despite what other people may theologize, I believe it is enough.          

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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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

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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.