Finding Comfort in the Senselessness of Suffering

In my job, as I support the families of organ donors, I bear witness to the pain of indescribable human suffering every day –

the aftermath of accidents, where split-second decisions or moments of happenstance can so unjustly carry such devastating and deadly consequences; the turmoil of a spouse fathoming an unfathomable future that now has to be faced alone; the agony of a child robbed of their parent; the tragedy of a young life cut short by the ravages of addiction, or by momentary stupidity, or by a pain so deep that death seemed to be the only escape.

There is a sense of meaninglessness to every tragedy that we see. The worst of the worst, though, are the babies.

Perhaps it was my naiveté, but before I started this work, I never knew that babies could be organ donors. I guess I never imagined that it was possible that a heart so tiny could go on after death, beating and growing and living in the body of another tiny baby, or that such little kidneys could work and be transplanted together so that even they could save the life of an adult. But yes, babies can save lives. I know that now.

(TRIGGER WARNING FOR CHILD LOSS: Only watch this video, which highlights both the pain and the miracle of one child’s donation, with tissues in hand.) 

In my work, I have helped many loving parents, not so unlike my husband or myself, as they have faced the terrible loss of their beloved and much wanted children. Since the deaths of my own sons, who obviously were too little to be donors when they were born still, I have slowly worked my way back to supporting these families of babies again. After these seven long months of hard grief work, I now am finally at a point where I can reach out to these families. From the depths of my pain, I can now share just a snippet of my own story with them, so that these mothers and fathers know that I too share this with them and they can be reassured that they do not have to walk this hard journey alone.

However, in my work, I have also witnessed the deaths of children who have been lost to the unthinkably tragic injustices of neglect, abuse, and even murder. There is nothing, that I can think of, as terribly senseless as a death like this.

I will never forget the time, well before I lost Ezra and Leo, when I had to work with the abusive mother of one such baby girl.

Despite the terrifying accusations that I had heard whispered by the staff and had read written in the chart, I knew that I had to support this mother just as I would any other mother. Most of the time, she could keep up the facade of a loving and grieving mother, and in those moments, I could push all that I had been told about what she had done down deep enough within me that any judgments I felt towards her would not bubble up to the surface. But then, with a flash of anger, there were moments when this mother’s face would distort with rage, looking twisted and almost demonic, and I could not help but feel my own anger rise as I imagined the pain that she had inflicted upon this innocent little girl.

I was there in the room when this poor baby took her last breaths, her body broken and bruised by the hands of those who were supposed to love her most in this world. Even the doctors, who usually face death with a kind of cold and clinical stoicism built up over time to protect them from all of the pain they must see everyday, cried in that moment at the senselessness of this little girl’s suffering. After her death, both of her parents confessed to her murder, and the only justice is that her parents are now imprisoned as punishment for her pain.

I do not think that I could have helped this mother in the same way now. I do not know if I could keep my own judgments and prejudices at bay now as I could then. The injustice of it all feels too personal for me. While I would have given my life for my children, and so nearly did as I begged the doctors to save my boys while my own body was dying, this woman and her husband were granted the miracle of this baby girl’s life only to snuff it out one night in a murderous rage.

In moments like these – and with every tragic case like this that is splashed across the headlines of parents who neglect, hurt, and even kill the children that I would die to have – it is impossible not to curse the heavens and ask,

“Why?!”

After we lost Ezra and Leo, too many people have offered us empty platitudes by promising the goodness of God’s Mysterious Master Plan. Whether they say, “God just needed another angel,” or they hint, “God will give you a baby in His own divine timing,” or say any other of countless Christian condolences like these, I cannot help but doubt in the goodness of this God that would take my children for such illogical purposes yet would give other children to parents who would hurt them.

After the death of his wife, who ultimately lost her battle to cancer, the beloved author and theologian C.S. Lewis faced a similar struggle. Even this man, who was so famous for his faith as he wrote such timeless testaments as the Narnia series, endured doubt as he faced the senselessness of suffering.

As he writes in his journal, which was later published in his book entitled A Grief Observed

What chokes every prayer and every hope is the memory of all the prayers H. and I offered and all the false hopes we had… hopes encouraged, even forced upon us, by false diagnoses, by X-ray photographs, by strange remissions, by one temporary recovery that might have ranked as a miracle… Time after time, when He seemed most gracious, He was really preparing the next torture… Is it rational to believe in a bad God? A Cosmic Sadist, a spiteful imbecile.”

After the committal service, one of our family members broke into tears as he expressed his own doubts in God after he had heard about what had happened to us. “I cannot think of two people who more deserve to be parents,” he said, before explaining that he could not imagine why this had happened or how it was possible that a loving God could do this to us.

Again, the big prevailing question seems to be, “Why?”

At the heart of this question, this desperate cry to the heavens, there is the thought that there must be some answer somewhere out there in the cosmos. There has to be some sense of meaning to the seemingly meaninglessness of our tragedy, and the tragedy endured by that little baby girl, and all the senseless suffering that we mortals must face in this life.

And yet, after all that we have been through, I suspect that there is no answer for why this happened that would ever feel adequate enough to justify the injustice of it all.

Instead, rather than beating my chest and cursing the heavens with blame against God, I have found peace in the strangest place – I have found comfort in the senselessness of suffering.

To explain, at the very basis of my personal theology, I cannot and do not believe that God kills babies. I do not believe that suffering and death and pain are part of some Mysterious Master Plan, inflicted upon us by God for some unknown purpose. I do not believe that God took my babies because God needed more angels, or that God caused this to happen in order to teach me some life lesson, or even that my life was spared for some grand purpose (as a coworker tried to theorize the other day). 

I do not doubt in God’s power or sovereignty. (I am Presbyterian, after all; think ‘predestination’ and all that). However, as I have faced each day with this impossible question that has challenged humanity for time immemorial – “why do bad things happen to good people?” – I have embraced the realization that it may seem meaningless for the simple fact that there really is no deeper divine meaning to uncode. 

God, for me, is like a Divine Parent (a loving one, that is – not out to neglect, or hurt, or destroy us). And like every parent, God has brought us into existence with an incredible sense of freedom. Any parent of a toddler or a teenager knows that as much as you can guide, and support, and love, and teach a child, they are not your little puppets to control, and they are ultimately are free to make their own choices. I believe that God gives this incredible parental freedom to the every piece of God’s great creation. From every animal to even the tiniest atom, every fiber of the universe is free.

Rather than go into every facet of this theological theory here, which for me changes and shifts as I continue to wrestle to process everything I have witnessed and endured, I will simply say that I take comfort that my life has been divinely guided but not divinely controlled. 

Bad things happen, not to teach us lessons, or as a part of some grand plan, or to deliver some kind of divine retribution.   Bad things happen simply because bad things can sometimes happen in a world that is guided and loved and empowered by God but still has been given a fabric of freedom. 

Many would find this unnerving. They would look at such senselessness and would declare this God impotent and powerless. Yet, I do not see it that way. 

For me, this God is like my mother, whose power in my family and over my life I have never doubted. My mother created me, but she does not control me. Nor could she prevent me from being hurt or experiencing the pain of this life, despite how much she may have wanted to do so. Instead, my mother has walked with me on every step of this journey. She has guided me through my pain. When I was screaming and out of my mind with grief in the hospital, my mother held my hand, and she whispered words of comfort to me in the throes of my agony. I know that she too would offer her life for me if it meant that I might be spared, but instead, she has simply held my pain with love and care. In the days and weeks after I lost my own sons, I thanked my mother for everything she has ever given me. I thanked her for the greatest gift that she has offered me throughout my life – 

“Mom,” I said, “I know that you would fight off wolves for me…”

My God is like this – a mother who has walked with me on every step of this journey, who has grieved with me and who wipes the tears from my eyes, and who even now holds Ezra and Leo safely in Her loving arms. God is a mother who will fight off wolves to save her children, but knows that she cannot protect me from all pain if I am to be free. That is the sad price of my independence. 

For others, this answer is not enough. The senselessness and injustice is just too great to be explained away so easily. And I understand. I know that this answer is too tidy and woefully inadequate to explain all of the mysteries of the cosmos. But for me, it is far more comforting to believe that bad things happen in the world because that is what inevitably happens in a world that is free, rather than struggling to accept why God would take my babies while giving other babies to parents who would hurt them. 

Ultimately, all I know is that my God, my Divine Mother, will be with me, and together we will fight off all the wolves of the world. 

One thought on “Finding Comfort in the Senselessness of Suffering

  1. This was a box of tissues post ! So thoughtful and thought provoking Jenna. Thank you for your faith, and for sharing it so all can learn. And thank you for the wonderful work you do, magnified by that amazing video.

    Liked by 1 person

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