Mothering in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

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After two stillbirths, Tracy wrote, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil. I’m there. I am in that valley. Every day for the rest of my life I will either be in it, stumbling up the side, lying at the bottom of it sobbing or looking down into it as I walk along the edge. And yet I feel a peace and comfort that is so much bigger than me.”

“Baby loss,” as it’s called by those who experience it, is more common than many realize: at least four million deaths per year on a global level. Stillbirth and neonatal loss rates are important indicators of women’s health on a global level, and all cultural contexts raise risks for depression, posttraumatic stress disorder and other long-term difficulties. Though parents grieve deeply, stillbirth and neonatal death are often minimized or even ignored by society.

Tracy wrote at Glow in the Woods, an on-line support community for reproductive loss. She utilizes superlative Christian religious vocabulary – evil, death – and locates herself in the scene of Psalm 23. Religion both gives words to her agony and brings peace and comfort. Like other tragedies, baby loss is often life-altering, reverberating into nearly every aspect of existence. It both calls upon and calls into question religious beliefs and practices.

Religion supports grief when it holds both despair and hope, upholding parents as they find new horizons for understanding and action. Communities of faith can come alongside grieving parents by abiding with them in their grief, holding death and life together and maintaining a dialogue with God, sometimes in place of the bereaved who may be unable to pray. As they recompose their lives – not moving on, but moving forward with their baby’s life and death in mind – bereaved parents may learn to sing a new song.

“The death of my daughter Micah ripped up my faith like paper shredder, a faith I was proud of and which I thought was strong enough and ‘mature’ enough to get through everything,”

We write as bereaved mothers, as scholars and as Christians. Janel, a religious-studies scholar, lost daughter Caritas, who died as a newborn because of a brain tumor. Jenell, an anthropologist, lost sons Ian, Simon and Gordon, whose deaths resulted from premature births. We wanted to explore broader dimensions of our personal experiences and conducted a qualitative study analyzing religious themes in written submissions on the Glow in the Woods website. Our sample included 253 entries from 148 parents who had experienced stillbirth or infant loss 142 women and six men. (Our study was published as “Bereavement and Religion Online: Stillbirth, Neonatal Loss, and Parental Religiosity,: in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 52, no. 4.) Women and men are not categorically different in grieving, but men were much less present in this online community and so also in our sample. While parents in our sample represented numerous religious traditions, here we focus on Christian women.

GRIEVING BOLDLY

In addition to deep and long-lasting sadness, many bereaved mothers also find existential and religious tumult over suffering, meaning and transcendence. Basic assumptions about safety, justice and benevolence are upended, and new questions of belonging in religious communities and traditions emerge.

Crises of faith in the wake of tragedy are both normal and potentially constructive. Loss reorients life, shattering previous assumptions. New and renewed insights and commitments can emerge in grief but only when what was lost is given its due.

Women in our study described their faith as “shaken,” “lost,” and “shattered.” “The death of my daughter Micah ripped up my faith like paper shredder, a faith I was proud of and which I thought was strong enough and ‘mature’ enough to get through everything,” wrote one mother two years after her newborn daughter died. Another, eleven months after a stillbirth, wrote, “I find that the ideas I had about life, about religion and spirituality, about things beyond or unseen, have all been scattered and broken open to reveal a deep sense of unknowing.”

Expectations went unmet – namely that God would protect the baby, that prayer would be effective or that one’s faith or good conduct would be rewarded. Mothers accused God of betrayal, negligence, refusal to assist, stealing babies and unjust punishment. Seven months after her baby’s premature birth and death, a mother wrote, “I am a faithful person, and I try to put my trust in God, but I feel so desperately that he let me down when my baby died.” Women felt betrayed, cursed, abandoned, or punished. Five months after a stillbirth, one felt “kicked in the gut” by God.

“I try to put my trust in God, but I feel so desperately that he let me down when my baby died.”

Bereaved mothers voiced anger and rage, sometimes in violent terms. “I wanted to punch God in the face for letting this happen, and in the beginning I actually felt and said I hated him,” wrote a mother nine months after the premature birth and death of her twins. “The last time I talked to God, I called him a bastard and demanded my baby back. I’m sure He can take it, but I’m still holding a grudge,” wrote another, five months after a stillbirth.

This fighting stance was, for many, part of a long-lasting struggle with religion and with God. Bereft of their beloved babies as well as of their assumptions about safety, control and justice, many expressed a lack of security and difficulty being thankful or hopeful. Many critiqued former belief systems which they had either taken for granted or embraced, disappointed by elements that seemed unhelpful or even hurtful toward grief. Some parents demanded answers, while others gave God the “silent treatment.” “He [God] stole our precious babies from us, we deserve some answers. If he really cares he better come down now and give us answers,” wrote one mother one month after the stillbirth of her son. Another, writing a year after her newborn’s death, related, “I am angry that I was robbed of my daughter . . . I really feel that God has some ‘splaining to do.” Offering comfort to another parent, one mother wrote, “I would offer to pray for you, but I am afraid I am still not on speaking terms with God myself.”

Some mothers lost their faith. Others lived with long-lasting ambiguity: one described herself as “occupying a sort of demilitarized zone between ‘Christian going through hard times’ and ‘No longer Christian.’” Some wished to maintain prior beliefs but were unable. “My faith is now in tatters. I want it back, but I just feel so angry and hateful instead,” wrote a mother one year after a stillbirth. Others remained in their tradition but were struggling and felt alienated. Many found that their faith communities treated anger, bewilderment, doubt and hopelessness as unacceptable, unseemly or as expressions of weak faith and thus found themselves at odds with their communities, their own emotions or both.

In contrast to many local faith communities today, the Christian tradition honors a cloud of witnesses who struggled in their faith and addressed God honestly, even angrily and argumentatively. In the psalms, Israel expresses outrage over being exploited, humiliated, betrayed and abandoned. Outrage is often directed toward God, as the psalmists blame God for their suffering, articulate a sense of bitter helplessness, and cry out for relief.

Psalms offer no easy resolution to trauma or tragedy. Instead, as Walter Brueggemann argues, they vividly express human experience so it may be embraced as the reality of people’s lives. In addition to authentically expressing joy and sorrow, the psalms also portray biblical faith as “uncompromisingly and unembarrassedly dialogic,” he says in The Psalms and the Life of Faith (Fortress Press, 1995). Everything may and must be said. Israel is “part owner” in prayers that are often as much protest as praise, Brueggemann writes. “These are the speeches of caged men and women getting familiar with their new place, feeling the wall for a break, hunting in the dark for hidden weapons, testing the nerve and patience of those who have perpetuated the wrong,” he writes.

Unfortunately, contemporary Christian communities in the West often devalue anger and disappointment with God. As Brueggemann notes, the biblical literature of lament has been all but abandoned in contemporary Christian liturgy. Christian communities would do well to recover lament, abiding with bereaved parents in their sadness, anger and bewilderment and encouraging them to grieve boldly. Bereaved mothers need affirmation that the life they lost was valuable and worthy of their anguish. Christian communities should give the grieving process its due, honoring the full range of emotions and experiences and encouraging bereaved parents to sing songs of lament for as long as those songs are authentic, often months and years.

RESISTING RATIONALIZATION

Theologian Nadine Pence, whose son died after his premature birth, describes three common religious sentiments directed at bereaved parents: 1. God has a plan for our lives, which transcends our understanding; 2. suffering is a means for training or testing; 3. suffering and death are meaningful sacrifices, like Christ’s. In Hope Deferred: Heart-Healing Reflections on Reproductive Loss, (The Pilgrim Press, 2005), she explains how these sentiments, intended to comfort, instead alienate and offend. “To be told that God knows best is to be told that God doesn’t want you to have children. To be told that God is doing this to test you is to say that God is a sadist who will use the death of anyone, even a child, to teach you a lesson. To say that it is a meaningful sacrifice is to say that there was something in this particular death that was necessary for God’s work to be done.”

Mothers in our study were alienated, sometimes even enraged, by religious platitudes. Trite words sounded selfish, smug, thoughtless or even demanding, expecting parents to rush or to minimize grief. Two years after loss, one woman wrote: “I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been given the lines: ‘Everything happens for a reason.’ ‘God only gives you what you can handle.’ ‘Someday you will find that there is a purpose to all of this.’ Each and every one of those lines translates into the same thing. ‘Thank god [sic] it is you and not me.” One month after learning of her son’s death in utero, another wrote: “I wish I could tell people who tell me that ‘maybe God let this happen to save [surviving twin’s] life’, or that ‘maybe this is for the better, because he might’ve had a heart defect or something’ that their words provide me no comfort and that they have no idea why this happened or how God works so they probably need to shut it.” Several responded with anger similar to that against God, filled with violence and vulgarity. “Dear Catholic friends and relatives,” a mother wrote two years after neonatal death of twins, “If any of you speak of God’s so-called ‘plan’ or say it was or wasn’t meant to be one more time, I’m going to shove some of my own ‘mysterious ways’ up your f-ing asses.”

Highly religious friends, relatives or acquaintances were especially targeted by offended parents. “When it comes to church people, they just don’t get it,” wrote one mother a year after stillbirth. ”Since my son died it is the ‘godly’ and ‘righteous’ who have said the dumbest, meanest, stupidest shit to me,” wrote another two years after loss. “I actually often find that the insensitive things people say almost always tend to be clouded in pseudo-spirituality,” she continued. Venting about an offending friend, another wrote, “My grief isn’t the property of your faith and if you can’t get that, please leave me alone. Forever.”

Instead of seeking theological rationale for their babies’ deaths, many focused on helpful religious practices, relationships with supportive individuals and groups and broader virtues that faith afforded them.

However well-intended, would-be comforters run the risk of exacerbating bereaved parents’ feelings of betrayal and of painting a picture of God that is more horrifying than comforting. After the 2004 tsunami, theologian David Hart wrote:

I do not believe we Christians are obliged – or even allowed – to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave (“Tsunami and Theodicy,” First Things website, 8 May 2008).

As for our need for comfort, Hart continued, “I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy.”

Instead of offering rationalizations, explanations or advice, Christian communities should bear with bereaved parents as co-sufferers, a posture reminiscent of a God who weeps. Jesus’ response to suffering in the gospel narratives was sadness and solidarity, not triumphalism. As Jürgen Moltmann writes, at the crucifixion God did not stand outside of the event, but rather experienced the suffering (The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology; Fortress Press, 1993).

Bereaved parents, through their communities, need to see and feel this suffering God. Christian hope means not that God needed or willed the worst of circumstances but rather than God can transform even these circumstances. Redemption means not that everything that happens is good but rather than God can make all things new.

SINGING A NEW SONG

The work of expressing grief and recomposing life in both everyday and existential terms, is a profound challenge. Parents work to pick up the pieces of their broken worlds, integrating loss into ongoing life and learning to embrace joy and hope alongside sadness.

Women in our study described both deep disorientation and forward-looking, constructive insight. Some described a reorientation of faith over time, a way of being spiritual and of relating with God that felt more stable, either with less anger and fewer doubts or more capable of carrying anger and doubt. Some developed deepened religious conviction or practice, while others reinterpreted or personalized rituals and teachings.

Religious reorientation often takes years, with no clear-cut point of arrival. “I have discovered that whatever nobility or richness or wonder exists, I cannot force it to exist in me. It is a gradual unfolding,” wrote a mother 11 months after the stillbirth of her daughter. Mothers lived “in limbo” or in “a liminal state” while they developed new religious beliefs and commitments. A number of parents identified profound spiritual experiences near the time of loss, giving way to long periods of darkness and bitterness. Eventually, they described ways of holding sacred beauty and despair in tandem through a very long period of religious and existential readjustment.

Women often found faith rich as a source of love, hope or beauty rather than as a tool to explain events. Instead of seeking theological rationale for their babies’ deaths, many focused on helpful religious practices, relationships with supportive individuals and groups and broader virtues that faith afforded them. Many found meaning less by interpreting the reason for the death and more by linking their baby’s lives to their own ongoing lives. One year after a stillbirth, a mother wrote, “Positive things can come to me, to my life, to the lives of people I have connected with after Caleb’s death, but that does not mean he died for a reason. I am not a better person because Caleb died. I am a better person because he lived.” Another wrote, “We do not believe in a God who would use children as reward or punishment, a lesson, or a test. For us there is no rhyme or reason to why children die, no higher purpose. For us the only part that is imbued with meaning is what we choose to do with our broken hearts, how we choose to live after, what we choose to articulate and remember.”

In light of all the psalms, Brueggemann gives the psalms of lament their due respect but points out that lament does not reflect the whole of human experience. Experiences of loss also invite us to learn to sing new songs, he writes in The Psalms and the Life of Faith. Such songs of recollection and representation do not erase or sidestep loss; rather, they affirm that despite loss, life can still be blessed. Songs of reintegration invoke what Paul Ricoeur calls a “second naiveté,” a simplicity of faith that is postcritical rather than precritical. “The ones who give thanks and sing genuinely new songs must be naïve or they would not bother to sing and to give thanks. But it is a praise in which the anguish and disorientation is not forgotten, removed, or absent,” Brueggemann writes.

A THEOLOGY OF REMAINING

Theologian Shelly Rambo describes how trauma holds death and life together: “Life takes on a fundamentally different definition, and the tentative and vulnerable quality of life in the aftermath means that it is always mixed with death.,” she writes in Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010). Rambo proposes a theology of “remaining” in response to tragedy, accounting for the remainder of death in life that trauma has caused. She calls our attention to Holy Saturday as a motif for a theology of remaining. On Holy Saturday, between Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Holy Spirt was a witness to what remained in the aftermath of death; the Holy Spirit was a witness to the emergence of life out of death.

For bereaved parents, processes of religious disorientation and reorientation are common and potentially constructive. Many reevaluate their religious assumptions and beliefs, developing new ways of being religious that honor and incorporate loss. As grievers shake their fists at the heavens, and learn how to find meaning and joy in new ways, their faith communities can serve them best by simply abiding; that is, respecting, sticking with and standing by.

 Janel Kragt Bakker is assistant professor of mission, evangelism and culture at Memphis Theological Seminary and is the author of Sister Churches: American Congregations and Their Partners Abroad (Oxford, 2013). Jenell Paris teaches anthropology at Messiah College and is the author of, most recently, The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex is Too Important to Define Who We Are (IVP, 2011).

Photo: Phil Roeder/Flickr, under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.