January 5, 2020. The World Health Organization reports there is a “pneumonia of unknown cause” in Wuhan, China. Most people are blind to what is coming. COVID-19 is not yet a household word.
My husband and I are also blind to what is coming. For us, January 5 marks one year, one month, and one day that Samuel, our infant son, died of SIDS at the age of two months on December 4, 2018. And while this looms large for us, most people are blind to this fact too.
The date of Samuel’s death has become the default metric for tracking our personal lives and societal events: the births and deaths, yes, but also the things that can’t be so distinctly organized into the one or the other.
Being created human is itself a liminal existence. A now. A not yet. The womb gives us our first container to embody our humanity. Our families, as first society, incubate our capacities to live out what it means to be human. And social institutions, as Joseph Campbell explains in The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Tradition, are a kind of “second womb,” providing the social and spiritual structures within which we continue the process of human development. Healthy human formation necessarily involves the development of rituals and habits.
Being created human is itself a liminal existence. A now. A not yet.
In God’s Sabbath with Creation: Vocations Fulfilled, the Glory Unveiled, James Skillen connects these rituals to the imago Dei: “The discernment of the creation’s revelatory character emerges in the course of human experiences and is expressed through multiple similes, metaphors, and figures of speech as well as in art, architecture and liturgies of worship and life.” These metaphoric sacraments situate us within the rhythms of those communities and ultimately connect us to the unfolding of the human story in relation to Creator God.
In the human life cycle, we move from our mother’s womb, to the womb of society, to the womb of our Creator, in whom we hope for eternal communion. But how do we situate ourselves within the experience of loss, personal and communal, when it feels like that loss slouches toward nothing? What do we do when the social architecture—that second womb—that incubates our shared practices of grief is stripped of the metaphorical and spiritual symbols that nourish our individual and collective identities? What happens when we are severed from the incubator?
In the human life cycle, we move from our mother’s womb, to the womb of society, to the womb of our Creator, in whom we hope for eternal communion. But how do we situate ourselves within the experience of loss, personal and communal, when it feels like that loss slouches toward nothing?
In our culture, even among Christians, many of us have lost a collective lexicon of rituals that help us relate to ourselves, to each other, and to God. These shared sacred practices are relevant during seasons of transition from one life stage to another, perhaps especially in grief. In the months after Samuel’s loss, we read about the sacred mourning practices of different spiritual and cultural communities. We searched for how others made meaning, connected with God and each other, and restored themselves to the rhythms of life that continued around them in the midst of loss.
What follows is an offering for those who mourn. It is a timeline, a gallery of grief and hope in dialectic. Here are remnants of letters, notes, poems, laments, and sacred texts that we turned to surrounding the loss of our son. Samuel’s death was the lens through which we saw the series of ambiguous communal losses—pandemic, racial violence, unraveling political community—that we are all now experiencing.
July 30, 2018. Letter to Samuel at Twenty-Four Weeks’ Gestation —Joshua
I worry I cannot be the father you need. This world you are about to enter into is so damn hard and complicated. My uncle told me that all ceremonies are for the promotion and redemption of life. That’s why we need them, to help us get through this damn world. My uncle also said he was taught that in life all people must answer four questions:
- Who am I?
- Where did I come from?
- Where am I going?
- What am I here to do?
No matter where you end up in life or how complicated this world gets, you will have four simple questions to answer. That’s your job. In the meantime, know that my job is to promote and redeem your life. When we pray, my uncle told me, we should just ask for two things. Health and help. This is what I want for you. I’ve never understood that so viscerally, so intuitively, until now.
October 3, 2018. Samuel’s Birth —Chelsea
My body was birthing our son too early. His life source, his nourishment, his oxygen—all provided through the placenta—all severed from his being. The medical term is placental abruption. The spiritual term felt like separation from God.
“Complete separation.” Those were the last words I heard before I lost consciousness and underwent an emergency Cesarean at thirty-three weeks. All because this mysterious organ, that my child and I co-created, was failing us both. The placenta is a physical and spiritually symbolic microcosm of the interconnectedness of all of human life. The placenta is unique in that it is the sole organ made of the tissue of two persons—mother and child—in mutual interdependence. Kristin Marguerite Collier explains that some cells from the child navigate across the placenta to the mother, and vice versa. Even after the child is born into the world, part of the child’s very cellular essence remains with the mother, supporting her body through the postpartum period and for years to come.
I lingered in the dreamlike space between image and word, as I regained consciousness. “Samuel,” I uttered.
“He is alive, he is okay,” My husband Josh murmured. His voice and his body hold me at once, word and flesh. Alive. Okay. God had heard.
1 Samuel 1:20: So in the course of time Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, “Because I asked the Lord for him.”
November 2, 2018. Samuel, an Idea of God —Joshua
Samuel is almost a month old. I had him for the whole day. It felt manageable. No, empowering. Samuel. Hebrew Scripture tells us your name means “God has heard.” Someday, I’ll introduce you to your secret namesakes, Beckett and Shepard. They are going to blow your mind. Samuel, a creature that, as Mary Oliver says, is “the beautiful crying forth of [an] idea of God.”
Being a father makes me reflect on my childhood. I think I understand something about my parents that I couldn’t until now. I grew up during the final rusting over of Bethlehem Steel. The Bethlehem slouch. An industry, a community, that produced the raw material for so much of the infrastructure of modern American civilization. The Moravians founded Bethlehem on the three pillars of God, community, and industry. What happens when one of those falters?
Bethlehem. House of Bread. Bread of Life. What else could the body of Christ be but bread? Bread that nurtured civilization. Now, the Moravians and Bethlehem Steel host cold and empty industrial buildings along the banks of the Lehigh River and Monocacy Creek. But Bread is still warm, yeasty, crusty. Waiting to have its aroma inhaled, its flesh eaten. Waiting to turn itself into nothingness to nourish others.
I try to soothe my baby’s cries. I speak the name of God. I pen lines of a bad poem in my journal. I speak the name of God. Author of life. I put beans in the slow cooker. Cornbread in the oven. I say Your name. Nourisher of my soul.
Do what you must for Samuel. Lord make me bread for my son, for his life. For him all things. Ends and beginnings.
December 21, 2018. The Dying of the Light —Chelsea
Samuel passed away in his sleep on December 4. It was quiet. God was quiet. The no-answers kind of quiet. Did God still hear?
I think about the words of a song by Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck about the death of a loved one. Samuel, a month after I first met your dad, I went to hear bluegrass in a cavern in Tennessee with a man I barely knew. That was the first time I heard this song. They wrote it during the months after the birth of their son. They decided to collaborate on a project so they could keep their family together in the first years of their baby’s life. I made your dad listen to it on repeat the whole ten-hour ride home. “Not track 2,” he would say. And then he would play it for me. The words resonated in me before your conception, birth and death. Did my soul know?
I feel you hanging on my frame
I smell your body, I spell your name. . . .
Remember my long brown hair
And the way I loved you everywhere.
(“Ride to You,” Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck)
The loss of Samuel brought the season of quiet. The season of Advent was already upon us. The season of the dying of the light coupled with hopeful anticipation of its return. We, too, were waiting for our baby to come, yet we knew he would not. We did not work. We read and wept and prayed. We fought. We went to a Winter Solstice concert at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Reliving a yearly ritual from Josh’s childhood. Joseph Campbell, in Thou Art That says, “The cathedral is the temple represented as that opening through which transcendence breaks . . . God . . . pours into the field of time.” We lit a candle for Samuel there. We held hands in the dark as Paul Winters brought in the promise of the coming of the light. All the time knowing we were lying. In God’s sanctuary.
1 Samuel 1:26: I prayed for this child, and God gave me what I asked for. And now I have dedicated him to God. He’s dedicated to God for life.
1 Samuel 2:21: The boy Samuel stayed at the sanctuary and grew up with God.
April 9, 2019. To Nurture a Soul —Joshua
Chelsea is pregnant again. She is due two days after Samuel’s due date. I am still mourning Samuel. I don’t know how to hold both these things together. The worst feeling is whatever you feel when your baby dies. My own spiritual heritage is complex, raised by my mother in the Episcopal Church, by my father in a spiritual community practicing Lakota ceremony. In The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux, Joseph Epes Brown documents the Lakota ritual of mourners tending their own grief in the first year of a loved one’s passing through a practice called keeping of the soul. Black Elk’s account tells us the origin story of this rite: a family had a beloved child who passed away in infancy. The bereaved father sought out the keeper of the sacred pipe, the spiritual center of the community, for guidance. The holy man gave the grieving father instructions on how to nurture his child’s soul every day for a year, and then how to release it. Black Elk gives us a glimpse of why participation in the process of the ritual itself is the key: “You should remember that the habits you establish during this period will be with you always. The keeping of a soul also helps us remember death and Wakan Tanka [Great Spirit], who is above all dying.”
Samuel’s ashes sit on a shelf. Next to him is his picture. He is wrapped in red cloth, as you wrap all things that are sacred. He is surrounded by the colors of the four directions. There is a star quilt, given to us by a friend who also lost their child. This is an altar where something sacred is revealed.
December 24, 2019. Word Became Flesh —Chelsea
1 Samuel 2:20: Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, saying, “May the Lord give you children by this woman to take the place of the one she prayed for and gave to the Lord.” Then they would go home.
I return, again and again to the body. My body has grown and born a healthy living child, Benjamin. My body that will never again, on this earth, hold Samuel. My body. Samuel’s body. The body of Christ. The placenta—the organ that made Samuel and me one—had failed him. Because Samuel lived in my womb and was nourished by our shared placenta, some of Samuel’s cells continue to live within me. I read Charlie Camosy’s interview with Kristin Marguerite Collier, doctor and mother and believer. She gives me language where, among other losses, my own words are gone.
The Word became flesh in Mary’s uterus. Therefore, the uterus is a sacred space because it held our Lord and Savior. . . . We can assume that some of Jesus’ cells transferred across the placenta in Mary’s womb. . . . What we could take from this is that even when Jesus physically left his mother, part of him remained in her and remains in her forever. . . . We know that mothers have always thought, in some way, their children, even after death, were still with them. Now we see, through the lens of fetomaternal microchimerism, that they still are.
1 Samuel 2:6–10 (The Message): God brings death and God brings life . . . he rekindles burned-out lives with fresh hope, Restoring dignity and respect to their lives—a place in the sun! For the very structures of earth are God’s; he has laid out his operations on a firm foundation.
March 12, 2020. A Bird’s Nest. Apparent —Joshua
Many things are happening very quickly. Yesterday was the first day that we had a caregiver for Benjamin while we were both at work. For a moment, it seemed like we might start having a little more freedom. But that afternoon the WHO announced a global pandemic. Chelsea learned that one of her coworkers may have been exposed to COVID-19. Chelsea’s doctor wants her to self-isolate in the house for two weeks. We can’t have anyone else here, and I will be providing all the child care for the next two weeks while trying to be an essential worker from home. None of this fits. None of this works. This is a mess. Although I convinced myself that things are better, the specter of Samuel’s death is still over us. I put on a brave face for Chelsea. As a mental-health professional, I know that I have not worked through my grief, but am merely pretending. It keeps overtaking me. It keeps overtaking Chelsea. I had put it away in deference to the pregnancy. It has been over a year, and every time Benjamin takes a nap, I cannot get settled. I am distracted. If I leave the house, I pray I do not come home to the worst feeling a second time. Now I have to go it alone for two weeks. Chelsea and I are about to get very intimate with complicated grief. As the world begins shutting down, we will have fewer places to hide. What are the rhythms to sustain me? I turn to the pages of this notebook.
How does the ordinary person come to the study of the transcendent? . . . Study poetry . . . [another] significant approach is ritual. (Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That)
I am a bird’s nest,
Come into the world piecemeal
Bit by bit detritus woven
Intricate and impossible
Far outpacing the sum of its parts
A mystery even to me:
How I should fit into a divine plan,
Order out of chaos,
An impossible heap—
And to host something nascent.
How was such nobility ever bestowed
Upon such common twigs, thread, grass?
And all too soon
Giving winged flight
Alight to the future
Soar to summer sun
Left to shrink and wither,
Brittle, a hoary winter cipher,
I am a bird’s nest
March 20, 2020. The Emptying Time —Chelsea
Josh says I should write. Write down this experience of isolation and trauma. This is not a time for filling. Filling of pages in a notebook. Filling of my days with the rituals that sustain my life, and my baby’s. Filling my baby with milk taken directly from my breast. This is a time of empty pages. Of breast pumps mechanically emptying me every three hours. The emptying of meaning. Empty time. Empty hope. The only things that fill me are memories too painful to recount. The last time my child, suddenly, was gone from me. My head seems to know this is different, temporary isolation. The emptying is temporary. Benjamin is alive. My soul cannot comprehend. My body cannot comprehend. My soul keeps time by the breath of my child and the suckle of his mouth, rooting for milk. Each heaving chest a sacrament. Each feeding a liturgy. Benjamin’s living flesh, made in my womb. A few rooms away.
April 26, 2020. The Labor of Grief —Joshua
The Department of Labor is reporting that unemployment is reaching rates not seen since the Great Depression. There is a sign on my uncle’s farm that someone hung twenty-five years ago or more: “Work is worship.” Labor is not just an act of providing for our needs. Labor is how we create the world. We labor through childbirth, through personal and communal exile, grief, and loss, to rebuild communities of shared purposes. We used to gather for shared purposes to cry, sing, laugh, and listen for God in the silence. Now we gather around a screen. The ever-present chyron ticks off 53,000 US COVID deaths. This too is an altar where something sacred is revealed. “God has heard,” but what did he hear? My uncle told me that God answers all our prayers, but sometimes the answer is no. As a parent I can relate. We ask if God heard when we experience loss: personally for children that slip through the veil, collectively when the institutions that sustain us crumble. We mourn during COVID-19 for the loss of our way of life. The death of family and friends. The death of an industry. The long slouch of a pandemic. These things commingle, fluid and messy. The slow, collective grieving for the death of my childhood’s landscape and culture. The slow, personal grieving for the death of Samuel. For both, I crave spiritual and cultural communities that invite ways of making meaning out of loss. An emptying.
This is a sacred mystery. Only when we empty ourselves are we filled again. We can do the emptying, but only God can do the filling. I ask God, “Fit me to your singular purpose of life. If you do not mend what is broken, within and without, give me eyes to see its wholeness. Its holiness. For the promotion and redemption of life.”
The Bethlehem Slouch
The Bethlehem slouch is that
No one ever left home
The Bethlehem slouch is
An industry’s barren fruit
The Bethlehem slouch is
A shuffle that never gets ahead
The Bethlehem slouch is
Winded from pork roll and perogies
The Bethlehem slouch is
Bellying up at Windish Hall
The Bethlehem slouch
Is surrendering community to commercial
The Bethlehem slouch
Cedes all and seeds nothing.
October 31, 2020. For Which One Do You Grieve —Chelsea and Joshua
The long summer is ending. It was too much to take in. Benjamin’s fever is breaking, and he is eating again today. Was it something benign, like teething, or something worse? He is a year old now, and we are told SIDS is no longer a concern. Still, fear lingers for all the dangers that may still come. He has so much life yet to live.
We remember a Buddhist parable about a grieving mother. A young woman had a child, whom she named Jiva—alive. In infancy, Jiva died. The bereaved mother’s daily ritual was to go to grounds where bodies were cremated and cry out for her daughter. One day, the Buddha passed through the region where the grieving mother lived. She listened to his parables and then left to weep for her daughter. The Buddha asked her why she was crying, and she told him her baby had died. He pointed to the ground beneath them, emphasizing the countless who had already returned to it in death. Buddha said,
Eighty-four thousand daughters
All with the name “Jiva”
Have burned in the funeral fire.
For which one do you grieve?
Mourning is a human expression, which germinates in our isolation, but is given full expression through relationship, and is made flesh, through shared sacred practices. The act of speaking Samuel’s name acknowledges “God has heard.” Grief is a paradox. The lives lost to racial violence—Floyd, Arbery, Taylor, and too many others. The unraveling of our civic institutions. The rising death toll. The rusting out of rituals that hold our lives together. For which one do you grieve?
How do we speak these things and then acknowledge God has heard? We live the season of perpetual Advent. When will we see the return of industry and normalcy? When will we see the end of separation, the end of racism? When will we find the peace that surpasses all understanding? We must labor on and develop the sacred habits to sustain us until that day, which may not come in our lifetime. We are learning how to pray virtually, work remotely, celebrate from a distance. The sacred ritual of voting is upon us now. Now and not yet is the time to raise up those who are cast down, to make this world anew. This is how we make our collective voice heard. What will the answer be? How will we celebrate, grieve, and accept that God has heard?
Book of Common Prayer, Good Friday
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.