Childloss and Unbearable Grief

The Virgin Mary, who was told long before her son was an adult that the arrows of sorrow would pierce her own heart, is an inspiration to those who lose a child. She reminds us that we are not alone.

When I sat down with Ernest and Lacy (not their real names), I did not have much to say.  They had lost their daughter several days ago, and what can one say about the loss of a child that can make things better?  Their tears were still fresh; the Kleenex box was about half-full.

As a chaplain to senior adults in Decatur, I said what I usually say in these circumstances: “Tell me about your child.”

In between sobs and long periods of silence, Ernest and Lacy told me stories about their beloved daughter, age 63, who lost a battle with cancer.

Then Ernest and Lacy told me what I always hear from mourning parents: “A child is not supposed to go before her parents.”  This was especially heartbreaking; they both celebrated 90th birthdays just last year.

I have been serving senior adults in this capacity for nearly eight years.  I have seen almost every kind of hardship–everything from death to the grief that results from losing the ability to drive.  I sat with way too many people who lost a child or grandchild.

The fifteen minutes I spent with Ernest and Lacy, however, were among the hardest in all my ministry.  While I heard their stories, patiently sat with them in silence, and provided sacred space for them to sob, I could barely compose myself.  I almost had to excuse myself twice for fear that I, too, would not be able to control the onslaught of tears that accompanies such tragedy.

I almost burst into tears because I was realizing several things that day.  For one, it does not matter if a child is 6 or 63, she is still someone’s “little” girl or boy.

Second, there really is nothing like the loss of a son or daughter.  The emotions that come with that kind of loss are different than the grief that follows the death of a spouse or parent.  And, as a father, I could empathize with Ernest and Lacy all too closely.

There was a sermon I once read by late Episcopal priest, John Claypool, that addressed child loss.  Years ago, Claypool lost a eleven-year old daughter to leukemia.  It was a year-long battle before she passed away.

His first sermon upon returning to the pulpit was on Genesis 22, when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  The text is an awkward one since we cannot relate to Abraham’s unflinching willingness (and where is Isaac’s mother?) in offering his son without some kind of fight.

Claypool noted that his journey with his daughter was a lot like Abraham’s trek up that mountain.  The uncertainty and the mystery of giving up such a precious life was all too familiar.  When it was time to come down the mountain, however, Claypool’s story differed from Abraham’s.

Unlike Abraham, Claypool–like Ernest and Lacy–did not get to come down that mountain with his child.  It was unbearable grief that followed such an empty-handed journey.

If I were to visit Ernest and Lacy again, I would not do anything different.  I would not try to explain away the situation.  I would not try to use cheap cliches that merely make excuses for God or try to rectify a horrible situation.

All I can do is cry with those whose loss is too much for words to describe.  All I can do is sit in silence and make a sacred, safe space that permits a deluge of tears and a runny nose.

All I can do is recall a simple fact that preacher, William Sloan Coffin, realized when he lost his son in a car accident: the fact that when Ernest and Lucy’s daughter took her last breath, “God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

In modern society, eugenics lingers in the absence of ethical reflection

If there is one common theme that ties all of humanity together, from the earliest Neanderthals to modern (or post-modern) times, it is humanity’s desire to control its own destiny.   Consider that the earliest story of sin from Genesis consisted of two individuals, Adam and Eve, who ate from the tree of the “knowledge of good and evil.”

Knowledge and self-determination have always played a part in our human story, but not always for the best.  One of the darkest events that came about in American history (and world history, for that matter) was the study and implementation of eugenics.

Eugenics was the scientific process whereby humans sought to manipulate fertility and genetics in order to weed out “undesirable” traits or people.  The earliest studies in eugenics, for instance, assumed that if those who were impoverished or mentally challenged could get sterilized, then eventually, after so many generations, these two groups would die out and cease to exist.

In fact, several states in the Union—the first being Indiana—passed a series of sterility laws that forced the doctrine of eugenics upon certain people groups from “lower” classes.  In other places, politicians and scientists applied eugenics to immigration and population laws.

The consequences of this immoral practice reached its apex in Nazi Germany, when scientists sought to rid the nation of Jews, minorities, and the ill.  Holocaust ensued.

The basis for eugenics was simple: The goal was to advance evolution and manipulate “natural selection” by limiting the ability of the “weakest” in society to procreate.   With a tip of our hat to Darwin, we humans wanted to control who would reproduce and, in the meantime, help evolution find a more efficient way forward.

We moved from “natural” to “unnatural” selection.  It comes down to control.

Eugenics and the search for control are still around in many forms today, most clearly in bioengineering and abortion policy.  Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, was an outspoken advocate for eugenics; and the results from the Human Genome Project can insure that if you want a baby with blue eyes instead of brown in the near future, there may be a way for you to manipulate your fetus’ genes to produce a so-called “designer baby.”

What is most troubling is that eugenics has set the stage for genetic infiltration of a different type:  A pregnant woman can test the genetics of a fetus in order to see if there is a chance that the fetus has a disability.  If there is a high degree of probability that the baby will be born with a “defect,” then the mother can choose to get an abortion.

I have heard more than one story in which a doctor told a mother that her child will be born with a defect, only to find out that the child was born healthy.   Control has its limits, does it not?

The continuing practice of eugenics has been masked behind the political, philosophical movement that argues on behalf of humanity’s self-determination.   Having a right to self-determination, however, does not mean we can control every aspect of our biological future with little attention to ethical consequences.

Humanity’s constant power-struggle against God to control humanity’s future puts us on a very dangerous path indeed.

Our biggest failures, upsets, and frustrations result from situations in which we feel utterly powerless and out-of-control; but the Bible reminds us that we are not our own—we are God’s children, temples of the Holy Spirit, saints purchased at a price.   If left unchecked, the side-effects of eugenics in our current bio-marketplace will not bode well for God’s creation.