A Pastor and the loss of his child.

The following sermon was given during Lent of 2016 by The Rev. Nathaniel S. Anderson - Pastor of Church of the Epiphany-Christ the King in Wilbraham. Pastor Nathaniel and his wife Carolyn Starz are the proud parents of Inga, born February 2017 and James, stillborn at 34 weeks in November 2015.

As a part of your seminary training, Lutherans and Episcopalians (and pretty much every stripe of Christian) spend one summer as a hospital chaplain. Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE as it is called, is a bit of baptism by fire - you’re thrown into patient rooms with nothing but a prayer book and a name tag. As the low chaplains on the totem pole, your first unit of CPE usually means being on call once a week during the overnight hours. You sleep in the hospital, usually with one eye open, as you wait for the pager to wake you from some very poor sleep. I spent roughly a dozen nights on call and I saw everything from sudden deaths and traumas to an urgent call from a nurse in the Emergency Department who was convinced a patient was possessed by the devil. Literally 5 minutes into my first ever night on call, I walked through the doors in my collar, and was immediately asked, “Father, would you please perform an exorcism?” My classmates still laugh about that one. Despite quickly becoming experienced at handling intense situations, I was still anxious just about every night I was on call. Each and every night I prayed the same prayer, “Please God, don’t let a baby die tonight. There’s no way I can handle that. I won’t know what to say.” I never expected that one day I would be standing over Carolyn’s bed after we lost our son James, facing a just-jostled-from-sleep chaplain intern confronting that very situation.

Everyone knows there are certain things you just don’t say when a baby dies. Especially as the chaplain. Silence is preferable to easy answers or saying ‘something.’ I’m pretty sure every chaplaincy department drills that into you on the first day. And yet early that morning, the chaplain that met us apparently didn’t get the memo.

“Well,” she said, “Though we can’t say how, we know that this is a part of God’s plan.”

Normally, when a chaplain utters such a simplistic and insensitive platitude, those on the receiving end rip them apart. And yet, seeing her discomfort, the deer in the headlights look in her eyes, her complete inability to do or say anything else, Carolyn and I could only feel sorry for her. This chaplain was completely overwhelmed and didn’t know what to do. And I’m almost certain if I had been in her shoes during my first year of seminary, I wouldn’t have done any better. Ideally, I would have just kept quiet. But I don’t know.

When I first came back from my leave of absence, I said that it would be a while before I could talk about what happened with James. And quite frankly, I’d rather not talk about something so raw and painful. But with this morning’s Epistle from 1 Corinthians, I feel compelled to address this. Because, unfortunately, these words from St. Paul are so often misunderstood and used to perpetuate incorrect and unfaithful interpretations of how we deal with tragedy. This reading brings to mind several unhelpful and grossly incorrect sentiments. These include:

“God is testing you.”
“You must have done something wrong and are being punished.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
And, “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle.”

Most pastors have a very specific theological term to describe these type of sayings:

Bullshit.

“God is testing you”

First, I’d like to address the notion that God tests or punishes us. Jesus himself dismisses these claims out of hand in our Gospel reading. Jesus recounts a couple of recent tragedies - Jews that were killed by Pontius Pilate, as well a freak accident - the tower of Siloam falling and killing eighteen innocent people. The common thinking at the time was that such events were not accidents or simply the actions of an evil man, but rather were retribution for some affront against God. Jesus asks the crowd, “Do you think that they were worse offenders than [anyone else]?” Jesus decisively answers his own question, “No, I tell you.” Jesus is clear - such tragedies are not punishment for sin, but rather death is an inevitable reality of our existence. In addition, we need only look at Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, our reading from two weeks ago and a central theme to our Lenten observance, to address this notion that “God is testing you.” Jesus is brought into the wilderness and tempted, not by God, but by Satan. And when the Devil encourages Jesus to test God, Jesus replies decisively that we are not to put God to the test. While events and issues in our lives may test our faith, that is in no way the same as God himself doing the testing.

“God won’t give you anything you can’t handle”

Next, and somewhat related, the middle part of 1 Corinthians 10:13 may bring to mind this trite expression. Paul writes, “And he will not let you be tested beyond your strength.” It’s important to note that this tangental section of 1st Corinthians comes about when Paul is discussing one of the many controversies in the church at Corinth. Specifically, is it ok to eat meat that was previously sacrificed to idols. Paul is describing the temptation to eat food that is not kosher. This is far from a struggle with crushing adversity. It also must be said that Paul had nothing close to our modern understanding of mental health — no one was overdosing.  And when you consider all that Paul did not experience — how privileged he was as a Roman citizen, how he wrote these words before enduring his most arduous trials, we must consider the obvious possibility that Paul was just wrong. Never let anyone tell you that “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle.” Because it isn’t God who causes us to suffer, and there are indeed situations, circumstances and illnesses that are far beyond what any one person can reasonably be expected to handle. If you feel overwhelmed and without hope, ask for help. Seek treatment. Look for support. This is not evidence of a weak faith but rather a courageous step toward healing and wholeness.

“Everything happens for a reason /
It’s all part of God’s plan”

And of course, this unhelpful sentiment uttered by that chaplain. Such a view implies that God wanted our son James to die. That God wants children to go hungry, and cancer to kill and addiction to ravage. All to fulfill some greater purpose. Brothers and sisters, I do not believe in that God. Instead, I believe in a God who takes all that is evil and wrong in our world and transforms it into something good. I believe in a God that took something as horrible as the death of Jesus on the cross and transformed it into the means of our salvation. I believe in a God who promises that the dead will be raised, that war will cease, that the hungry will be fed and the poor lifted up. The Easter promise is one of redemption — of God transforming our world and our lives. The work of our Lord Jesus, who, as our Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says, “Will change the world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends.”

Those who have been there

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t hold up the beginning part of verse 13. “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” This has been one of the most striking realizations following James’ death. As horrible as the experience has been, we are not alone. I have found great support in the nearly dozen women within our very parish who have suffered a stillborn loss. And many others who have struggled with miscarriage. Beyond this specific type of loss, I’m amazed when I look around this church and see so many who have lost a spouse or a parent or a child. Amidst the fog of our grief, I wonder, “How do you keep going? How have you found that ‘new normal’ in your life?” I have heard from so many of you who know exactly what we’re going through, or who have experienced something equally as devastating, and heard that, “It gets better. It takes a long time, but it gets better.” And I find great hope in that. That though death and loss and suffering are an inescapable part of our human experience, that somehow, and by the grace of God, we move forward.

The chaplain who met with us in the hospital didn’t know what to say — and she didn’t need to say anything. Sometimes there is nothing you can or should say. The death of our son continues to be a struggle for us. When I preach words about the hope and promise of God, at times I believe them stronger than ever — and at other times I’m preaching to myself and need to hear these words as much as anyone of you in the pews. But in many ways, I’ve come to the realization of my ultimate and overwhelming dependence on the Gospel. How I really need to believe this stuff. Really need to place my hope in these promises. Before this, life was easy, I had never suffered any major setback, it was easy to be happy and carefree. I can no longer say that. Like so many of you I have suffered and cried out to God in despair. My faith has been tested. And yet I know that it is not God who tests me, but rather God who stands by me and supports me. God who hears my questions and my anger and my praise. God who promises that at the last day, our beloved James, and all of us, will know God’s ultimate redemption. Amen.

Looking Back

by Carol McMurrich

In 2013, I wrote three blog posts on the 10 year anniversary of Charlotte's birth, at three different times of day. They document my searing memory of that day, of the events that marked the beginning of the rest of my life. There is some of my present day woven into the prose, but mostly it's the visions and realities that both feed and haunt me to this day. I wanted to share this because we all have incredible details to our story, and often nobody to witness those details. Writing has helped me incredibly to weave the truth of that day, with both its difficulty and beauty, into my life right now. 

5:30-8:30 AM, May 13, 2003

There is a space that happens between last night and today. It is the space between hope and loss, between optimism and despair. Somewhere in the middle of the night lurk those dark hours, quietly patting around the house, water leaking. She was dying. I had no idea.
When I woke up this morning it was already five thirty. I don't know if I've ever slept all the way through the fours before, this being when I was told that she died and my world collapsed. By five thirty I was already calling my dad. "It's not good news," I told him. "The baby died. We don't know why." I was sitting in a room that I remember as small and white, although I now know that my memory is not accurate. Perhaps that memory was just the world closing in on me, squeezing me into a space that was smaller and smaller, until I could no longer breathe myself.
Right now it is eight thirty. At this time I was moved to a birthing room. My labor had all but stopped from the shock. There was talk of induction, of maybe even an epidural. I had told my family not to come. I was hugely pregnant, freckled, suntanned, healthy. I was in a birthing bed, surrounded by pretty furniture and a big window that opened to a courtyard. Outside, the lilacs were blooming, and a heavy rain fell. My baby was dead. I had no idea what to do.

-----------------

8:30-12:30 

It is now past noon. In my mind, the rain pours down and the sky is steel gray, though I cannot see it through my window. As I type today the sunlight is warm on my legs, but I can still feel that cold rain. A social worker has come to see us. Gently, she has told us we can call our families to come to meet our baby. She tells us that people often take comfort in spending time with their babies after they are born, and take photographs. We think this woman is lovely and kind, but her ideas don't appeal to us. We want no witnesses to this tragedy, this failure. We require no documentation.

Yet only an hour or two later, after the epidural is in, and I have dozed through tears and held Greg for some time, I realize I want my family here. I want my mother's arms around me. I need to see the earnest blue eyes of my father, even as they weep for me. I bring the social worker back and tell her I want to call my family. Her eyes are warm. "They are already here," she tells me. She goes back out, to the solarium family room which has been cleared of all other waiting families so that my family can have a private space to grieve. I learn that as my sister entered the ward, she heard a baby cry and collapsed onto the floor in grief. The social worker warns me of my sister's emotion, but when Stephanie comes, she offers nothing but love and support. She knows to channel her grief out, not in.

We are hugged and loved, but only for a short time. Our stamina is low. We needed only a moment, and then they are gone. My mother cries after she leaves, wondering how this blossoming, beautiful, healthy looking daughter could be handed such a sentence. They return to our home, and begin to pack and make phone calls.

Moments ago, on this real day, ten years later, I sat with Maeve in the rocking chair. She slept in my arms, and I hesitated before lying her gently in her crib, Charlotte's crib. I thought about how ten years ago, this room became a museum. Ten years ago this moment my mother and sisters combed through every inch of the house and picked out every thing that tied us to parenthood and put it into a blue tupperware bin which they then deposited into the nursery. Fortunately, somebody had told them not to touch the nursery.

In a book, upstairs, pasted in a memory book as if it were a document to treasure, is the phone bill, which itemizes each long distance call that went out from our home that May 13th. Each person from afar that needed to be notified of the sad news. Most of the calls are one to two minutes long. There are three pages of calls. I kept the bill. It is part of her story.

Right now, those calls are happening. I am in shock, wide eyed and confused in a hospital bed. My body is laboring, but I can't feel it. At home, my sisters and my mother are on the phone, telling everyone the same thing: The baby is dead. It hasn't been born yet. We don't know what happened.

-------------

12:30-6:30 pm

It is now six thirty. I have felt labor as my epidural wore down, and been told I should push the baby out.
How was I supposed to do that? I pictured myself pushing my baby off a cliff. When she was born, she would be dead. This would be real.
It will be the hardest thing you ever do, my midwife said. But you just have to do it. She was right. And I did.
Charlotte was born at 2:14. I pulled her right onto my belly and clung to her. She was the most amazing, beautiful, perfect little person I had ever seen. The heavens opened and the angels began singing and golden, streaming light poured down, just like with every birth, except for the voice in my head screaming NO, NO, NO.... as I simultaneously realized what I had been gifted, and what I had lost. I had had no idea about either prior to this moment. Suddenly it was truly real.
I learned in that moment the most intense, heart wrenching, magnificent lesson I've ever learned: which is that it is better to have loved than to have never loved at all. In that moment, even as I realized that she was already gone and I would never get to keep her, I felt incredible, huge gratitude to know the feeling of a mother's love. I held my own, sweet newborn tightly against my breast, ran my finger over her delicate nose and tiny lips, and traced the curve of her ear. I learned my baby girl by heart and felt the most beautiful, sweet, pure love I had ever felt. I knew instantly, even as the truth of what was about to happen-- her departure from me forever-- that I was going to feel forever grateful for having had her. I knew that her loss, and the huge impact that loss and grief would have on my life, would not ruin me.
It is now six thirty. We have not slept in thirty six hours. We are waiting for Greg's mother to come and meet our baby. She is on a plane from Virginia. His father is coming from Calgary, their second home, and will not arrive until after nine. We have already decided that we cannot wait for him to arrive. We are too tired. We will have to say goodbye to our baby girl before he gets there. I do not know why we decided this. It is my only true regret.
We pass our baby back and forth, kissing her, admiring her beauty. We are afraid of her body changing, although it has not yet. She is still warm from our bodies, but we are afraid. We want our memories to be sweet. 

Tick, tock. Tick, tock.

 

Questions to ponder...

This is a repost of a blog musing from 2008... something I think could rouse thoughts and opinions for anyone in this community. 

How it is possible to be up to your neck in self-pity and still have compassion for the relative heartbreak of anyone else?

Sometimes here I start to feel like a traitor, an imposter, a cruel, wretch of a person hiding in the skin of an empathetic, supportive, listening ear. Truth be told, I just can't think of anything worse than a dead baby. So when somebody is starting in on their own worst day, it can be so hard not to let the caustic, dripping words leak out of the corner my mouth, unintentionally.

A good friend was sharing with me, a month or so back, about a friend whose baby suffered an injury during the birth that required her arm to be amputated after the birth. "Can you imagine?" she said to me, "Your beautiful baby, losing an arm?" I could not imagine. I did try to imagine the awful pain for those parents, pictured my Liam or Aoife, seemingly perfect, off to the operating room to become un-perfect. Truly, truly, in my heart of hearts, I felt an enormous surge of pity for them, imagining the horror of the experience, the aftermath, the pain of having a child with one arm when everyone else's child has two. But still, as I was imagining this, and feeling their pain, I also thought these words, "Can you imagine giving birth and the baby ends up being dead?" Ummm... yeah. This is where I feel like a jerk. Because I do think those people drew a short straw, too. It's just that to me, it doesn't seem short relative to mine. If I could have Charlotte back, minus the left arm, I'd take her.

But I've worked, truly hard, to really understand that each person's worst day is truly their worst day. I believe this, truly. But it's THEIR worst day, not mine. And if their worst day happened to me, after having had MY worst day? It's possible it might roll off my back. Kate's post was in reference to birth trauma, and people mourning the loss of the birth they'd imagined. True, and valid. I can see myself in those shoes, had I been given those shoes to walk in. But here's what it's like for me. I was having lunch with an old friend the other day, and told her of Liam's flip between 8 and 10 cm, and the cesarean that ensued.

"I'm sorry," she said. I looked at her pretty hard. "Don't be," I said. Truly, I meant this, it almost seemed comical to me that she was pitying me for having had a cesarean. But this is true for so many people, that they really do need a condolance, because they've lost an opportunity they felt was theirs to have had. What I had was not a loss, but a gain: I had a breathing, living child. The way he came out literally (and there truly is no exaggeration or denial here) did not faze me. If anything, it was a dream come true. For that year before, I had spent so many hours daydreaming about how they might have saved Charlotte if only they had been there to save her. Now here they were, performing the heroic rescue I had imagined. The birth cry was all I needed. I did not care how I got there.

And then there are my childless friends, still working through love crises of their own, who have related the loss of a lover to the loss of a child. For this, I must really bite into a leather strap, because love does not equal love, and I just can't say anything more on this, except to try to remember that this is what they know.

So I'm working on this. I feel as if I've come 150% in this field, because I don't resent people anymore for grieving things that I myself would not grieve. But I do, without apologies, often feel that my worst day was, well, worse than their worst day.

(and that's me, 4 years out. Does it feel different? Yeah, I think now I've probably come about 300%, but I still sometimes feel like a jerk)

 

A Father to a Son

Ryan Tyree, dad of Dylan Marshall, born still on May 18, 2011, writes, "here's one from the days when the flames were all around me".

These words alone deserve a posting, how accurately they describe the oppressive heat of grief that threatens to suffocate a person in the early weeks and months.  They gain power, however, when paired with the poem below. Thanks, Ryan, for sharing. 


A Father to A Son

 

you should have been there with me

at the graduation proceedings

you couldn't be there with me

at my best man's wedding

you were not there with me

at church this morning

you won't be with me

in VT this summer

 

since you're in a box

a little fucking box

on a shelf

in the room

we prepared

for you

our firstborn

son

 

 

by Ryan Tyree

Two

by Lindsey Rothschild

Two. On September 5th, ‘drea held 2 acorns in her hand. It was my birthday. We were on a hike. We had a new house at 2 S. Hampshire. The 2 of us hiked up Mt. Tom. My body was rounding. We were happy. On September 22, we went to meet the 2. Wondering, girls or boys or one of each? 2 girls. 2 girls who would never have long hair and frolic across a field on a fall day. Our 2 girls. 2 daughters of 2 mothers.

2 weeks ago we lost our two baby girls, Baby A & Baby B. At 22 weeks

In memory of Flora and Bea Rothschild

More than ten years along...

Some thoughts from Carol... 

Several years ago, I was chatting after a fourth Wednesday support group meeting with a mother whose loss had occurred several months prior. It was a warm evening, with a sweet smelling spring breeze and a clear sky full of stars. The meeting had been full of heavy moments, but rather than producing a feeling of sadness upon leaving we felt lightened. Being surrounded by the familiarity of loss can be so comforting, when we're used to being the only person in the room who knows that this feels like. This wise, tender mom, who was herself still in the trenches, regarded me and asked, "Who supports you, Carol? Do you have people who are further down the road, like you are?" I looked at her with amazement, feeling honored and blessed that in her most tender moment, as raw as the days still were for her, she had the ability to wonder about me. I answered her honestly. "There is no one," I said, but I gain so much from all of you. And it's true. But I've come back to this again and again: what is it like to be so far away from my daughter's birth and death? Where does she live in my heart, and in my world, right now? These are questions I often ponder on my own, but every now and then I read something that helps to ground me in the place where I now stand. 

For the past few days, my mind has wandered continually to an article I read on Huffington Post entitled, "The Other Quiet Mom". The author, Nancy Davis Johnson, beautifully captures what grief has felt like over a decade down the road for me. Charlotte appears to me every day, with the sound of my own breath, with a familiar scent, with the sound of a child's laughter. She is all around me in the life I've built since she came and went. She is the foundation of the family I have built since she died. She was the child who made me a mother, yet I only mother other children in her wake: four beautiful souls I am so blessed to have. Yet, every day, there are moments where I am "the quiet mom". The moments where I have to calculate how to answer someone's question, where I have to consider whether or not to weigh my opinion. As my children grow older I feel connections to their world and disconnections, as I am still forever changed by Charlotte's passing. 

I am a "regular" mom now, no longer defined by my grief. There was a long period of time-- perhaps five, or six, or even seven years for which I truly believed that my grief would always define me. It doesn't anymore, but I still feel how it affects me. Grief isn't a living creature inside me anymore. Instead, it's just left footprints, and scars. I can feel how it has changed me as a person. I can remember its intensity, its ferocity, its anger. I can remember the nights where I wanted to throw open the front door and run away from this life, but I don't feel that desperation anymore. I can live in a settled place, understanding that while my life unfolded in a way I would never have chosen, I have only the future ahead. I am the "quiet" mom at times, but behind that veil, I feel blessed by the ways in which I've been forced to consider the exquisite value of my living children's lives. I may not always feel like the other moms across the table, because I am grateful for my child's very life in a way that thankfully most of them cannot understand.