“What do you think are some emotions one might fear in the period of disillusionment following a death?”I asked of my junior English class. We were learning about the stages of Disillusionment as a lead-in to talk about Gatsby and the loss of his dream in the book.
Silence for a moment, then one courageous voice said a single word: “Paranoia.”
I asked her to explain what she meant.
“After a death, you become fearful of when it’s going to happen next or who it’s going to happen to. I’ll be driving on the freeway and get this irrational fear that an accident is going to happen.”
I hadn’t necessarily wanted to share my personal experience just then, in second period. My students knew our story. Following the death of our newborn daughter, one of my dear teacher friends and a counselor at our school had graciously volunteered to explain what happened to my classes so I wouldn’t have to face the endless questions upon my return from maternity leave.
Emoldened by the maturity and courage of my student, I shared: “Yes, I believe paranoia following the death (especially unexpected death) of a loved one is a completely normal part of the period of disillusionment. After the death of our daughter, I became paranoid that something would happen to our son. Most new parents experience this paranoia, but it usually reduces to a normal amount after awhile, but I found myself doing things I had done when Ben was a newborn like making sure he was breathing while he slept or becoming fearful about any strange mark that appeared on his body or illness.”
I hadn’t really said it aloud until then, but I realized that I’d really been living with fear following Sienna’s passing. Fear that something would happen to Ben, fear that despite what the doctors had said that there was something more that we could have done, fear at the thought of another pregnancy. I remembered with a knot in the pit of my stomach, the ill-fated call we received after our ultraound and how even before that I’d been fearful that something would go wrong. I thought of the pain of the moment we had to say goodbye to Sienna’s earthly body for the last time and how I’d just collapsed into Joey for strength.
I’m a worrier by nature, so I often think of the worst case scenario, but I’be trained myself not to let these fears overwhelm me. I do what many parents out there do, I consider the odds and do the self-talk: “Okay, I know this COULD happen, but what’s the likelihood it will actually happen.”
1 in 10,000 (16,000 by some figures). Those were the odds that Joey and I, or anyone for that matter, would have a baby with trisomy 13. I remember the horrible day the perinatologist did the in-depth ultrasound and found all the physical “abnormalities” our sweet baby girl had, but before she had been fully diagnosed with trisomy 13. Following the ultrasound, the genetic counselor met with us to review the odds. She talked about numbers and did that little genetic square thing I remembered from high school biology. She asked questions about our family history and found… Nothing. As far as the eye could see looking back over both of our family histories, there had never been a baby with any chromosomal abnormality. In my mind I thought, “if this is true, then there’s no way she’ll have one of these chromosomal abnormalities. This wouldn’t/couldn’t happen to us.”
But several weeks later, when we received the devastating news that our kicking, living, 26 week old baby would certainly die (though only the timing was uncertain), all the doctors could tell us was that it was a “fluke- just a random combination of genes that went awry.”
I read a devotional a few weeks ago about wrangling your unfounded fears. I read this 7 months after losing our daughter and one week after two friends had lost their children. But what about when your fears were founded? But What happens when your worst fears do come true? When it’s not just your overactive imagination. When your statistically improbable risk becomes a reality. When you receive that diagnosis, that devastating news, that phone call.
2 Timothy 1:7 says that “God gave us not a spirit of fearfulness; but of power and love and discipline.” (ASV) His power to endure even the unthinkable, His love through our community of family and friends who carry us, and the discipline of looking to His words and promises instead of to the pain and brokenness of this world.
I know that God has plans to prosper us, not to harm us (Jeremiah 29:11) but I also know that God’s plans do not always align with ours. Losing my baby girl was not my plan, yet God brought joy, peace, and healing in our lives. He continues to use our pain, our story, our loss to help others deal with theirs and to help all of us appreciate our living children. This is not to say that we don’t still grieve the pain of our loss or fear loss in our lives, but God is redeeming our story daily and I am hopeful to see what the future holds.
To anyone dealing with the pain of loss or fears that threaten to overwhelm, I leave you with one of my favorite promises from the bible: “for those who grieve in Zion- [God will] bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” (Isaiah 61:3)