A Meditation on the Meaning of a Brief Life
They were a very happy young couple. Both the wife and the husband were successful professionally. They had worked hard to achieve this success, postponing much of what young adults think of as fun in order to pursue their goals. They were in their early thirties when they met, fell in love and decided to get married. Their marriage was an occasion of great joy for themselves and for both of their families. The wedding brought together customs old and new, uniting two distinct cultural histories into one life-giving and flowing stream. They settled into their new home and began to build their own traditions.
They wanted a family and after a year or so were delighted to learn that they were expecting a baby. Both families rejoiced in this news and it seemed that their happiness broke any boundaries that they had known before. Inspired by their joy they seemed to soar through the days. A month or so later to their amazement and heightened pleasure, they learned that they were expecting twins. With the realization that they had started their family a little bit later than usual, they were overjoyed. When all of their friends warned them about sleepless nights, double barreled diapers and no time for themselves, it fazed them not one bit so ecstatic was their anticipation.
All went well for about five months and then complications arose. The young mother began to dilate prematurely and threatened to go into labor. The lives of these babies were barely on the edge of viability outside the womb. Modern medicine that is so amazing sprang into action. The expectant mother was taken to the hospital and placed under twenty-four hour observation. If necessary, she would spend the rest of her pregnancy in the hospital. Every day she got through in that setting without further complications was a day that made the lives of these twins more hopeful.
Two weeks later, however, the mother’s body was attacked by e coli bacteria while she was in the hospital. The medical team began to treat this infection with the massive drugs at their disposal, but it soon became clear that a caesarian-section would be required to save the babies from both the virus and the drugs. The c-section was performed. Only one of the twins made it through that transition. The boy, Julian Edward was the name they had chosen for him, lived but a moment. The girl, Chloe Emma was her name, was on the borderline, but she seemed to have that tiny edge that pushed her to the side of life. She is still living and the hopes and expectations are that after time in the neo-natal unit of this hospital, she will go home to her parents vital and healthy. The mother also finally passed the crisis point and she too will recover fully, but the emotional price that she and her husband were called on to pay was very high. It was a price that their extended families also had to pay. No one who ever loves another is immune to the pain to which that love makes us vulnerable. As this situation unfolded, I learned yet again something of the mystery of life as well as something of its terror.
If someone had told this young couple a year ago that they would be the parents of a precious and happy baby girl, they would have been thrilled. They would have seen that as the fulfillment of their dreams. Now, however, their joy has been compromised by grief. Joy at the birth and life of their daughter, grief at the death of their son, these conflicting emotions – feelings both bitter and sweet – engulfed them simultaneously. Questions about life’s strange twists raged in their minds as well as in the minds of those of us who love them. The necessity of absorbing pain over which one has no control was real, hopes that ran so high were dashed so cruelly and a haunting wonder surrounded them. They needed to mourn their lost boy, but what is the form that their proper grief can take? Can one ascribe purpose to a life that lived so very briefly? Is there any redemptive meaning that can be attributed to the death of a premature baby?
In generations past, comfort came through the suggestion that the will of God must in some way have been served by this tragedy. The religious assumptions of that age were clear. God had to be in control of this world. No tragedy would have occurred without purpose or if God had not somehow willed it. God must have a plan, we said, into which this little lad fitted. If life were ruled by nothing other than chance or blind fate, then the anxieties we would have to face in the task of living would simply be too difficult and too debilitating for us to manage emotionally. Those comforting convictions of an earlier time, however, have not endured. We have been forced to note time after time that history is replete with illustrations that reveal that God is apparently not in charge, for things do not always turn out well and good does not always prevail. Elie Wiesel came to that conclusion when he lived through and survived the Holocaust, being the only member of his family to do so. The poor of the city of New Orleans came to that conclusion when they had to endure the fury of Hurricane Katrina. The people of Haiti came to that conclusion when the tectonic plates beneath the island of Hispaniola shifted, creating an earthquake in which over 200,000 people perished. Trayvon Martin’s family had to come to that conclusion as he became yet another victim of an all too familiar pattern of a deep-seated and blind racism.
All of us face this same reality every time disease strikes; every time an innocent child dies or is killed; every time irrational anger on someone else’s part ends the life of another, whose only fault was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. No one can deny life’s dark and painful side. Nor can we today cover it over with the simple and pious rhetoric of the past. Our questions are rooted in life not in the religious convictions of the previous era.
How are we to observe or honor a life that only lives for a moment? Should grieving parents and grandparents note the reality of that life by giving that baby a name? Should a memorial or funeral service be planned to honor the tiny life that was there? Would that make life easier for the parents, the grandparents or even for the way they will all relate to the surviving daughter? Would those gestures be anything more than an act of sentimental and hopeful delusion?
This particular experience caused me to think about these questions and to come to these conclusions. I am convinced that all life, no matter how brief, is of value. I do not want to spend my time trying to explain why bad things happen to good people or by trying to assess guilt and attempting to find someone or something to blame for life’s tragedies. I have no interest in turning to yesterday’s religious certainty and seeking comfort by assigning this tragedy to the “enigmatic will of God.”
Instead I find that I yearn to engage this family in a new kind of discussion by asking them to think with me about a new set of questions. How was your life touched by this child who did not make it? Did anticipating this baby’s birth expand your consciousness and enhance your life? Did it increase in you a capacity to love and to know the joy of anticipation? Was there any role this now-deceased infant played in strengthening the love that holds a marriage together? Did this infant boy serve to deepen the bonds of affection that create the extended family? Is it possible that the survival of the infant girl was made possible by the death of the infant boy? Did he absorb the e coli bacteria and thus protect his twin sister from the fate that he experienced? Was the noblest of all human experiences operating here, the principle of sacrifice: one dies so that another might live? If any of these questions can be answered with a “yes” then I think we should call this boy by the name his parents had chosen for him, to remember him, to give thanks for him and to acknowledge that, while his time on this earth was short, it was not insignificant. This is also why I believe that we should mark the passing of this brief life with some kind of liturgical event in which he is remembered, his remaining effects placed into the ground or in some appropriate place with care, ceremony and sensitivity. He did live. He affected positively those who still live. He made a contribution to life that needs to be acknowledged and for which thanksgiving needs to be expressed.
Life at any level is a miracle. Only those who are able to love and to love self-consciously and deeply can feel the trauma of loss, of separation. So anyone who participates in life, if only for a moment, that one still lives, still contributes and still needs to be acknowledged. Every life no matter how he or she lives is still an expression of the Source of Life. Every life is, therefore, holy because the Source of Life is holy. It is that holiness that we acknowledge when we come together in grief and with heavy hearts to commit one, who lived only momentarily, to the Source of life, which he surely embodied. So, yes, let us treat this tiny life as we treat every life. Let us hear in worship the words, “dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.” Let us give thanks for the meaning that this life has brought and commend this life to the Source of Life. It is our self-consciousness that allows us to be grateful, to commune with and even to worship, that which makes us alive even if for but a moment.
~John Shelby Spong