I recently had the opportunity to spend some time exploring Berlin, Germany. In the heart of the city is a block that is known as the Topography of Terror. It is a place where the remaining building structures are permeated with guilt. While I was there, I paused to stand at the center of the block. When I looked down, I could see the cellar walls of the SS and Gestapo Headquarters, where unspeakable crimes and genocide were designed and where people were imprisoned under horrific conditions. Above the cellars, I saw the remains of the Berlin Wall which divided Europe into the free West and the oppressed East for nearly thirty years. Towering above all three of these horrific structures, was the colossal building that once served as the Luftwaffe Headquarters where the relentless bombardment of the London Blitz was planned. As I was reflecting on the horror of my surroundings, a man in a suit walked by and entered the former Luftwaffe Headquarters where he presumably began his work day in what is now the Ministry of Finance building. This man’s simple, mundane action triggered a perplexing question: How does life continue in the midst of profound guilt?
It is a question that I have asked myself many times over the past three months since my daughter died and it is a question that parents who have lost a child often ask themselves. Of course, our guilt is different from the collective national guilt of the German people. It is intensely personal, limited to a single event, and often due to things that were done (or left undone) accidentally. Nonetheless, while all parents grieve differently, I have yet to find a bereaved parent whose grief does not encompass some form of guilt and that guilt is intense and sometimes paralyzing. It is an agonizing, gut-wrenching shame that often results in self-loathing and can easily steal opportunities for growth, hope and joy.
I wrestled with intense guilt during the month between my daughter’s death and the release of her autopsy results. During that time, I prayed that she had some kind of physical malformation that made her incompatible with life. I could not imagine having to live my own life with the knowledge that something I did might have caused her death. I thought that this knowledge would cause my heart to break and I would be incapacitated by it. I literally thought that I would not be able to survive under the weight of my guilt and that I would either die from the pain or that my rational self would shut down for the rest of my life and I would live as a tormented shell until I was released from guilt by death.
I know that God heard my prayers, but He still allowed me to face the guilt that I so deeply feared. The autopsy results revealed that Noemi had died from pneumonia – a pneumonia that could possibly have been prevented if I had gone to the hospital as soon as I suspected that my water had broken. My baby was perfectly formed. She was ready to live and my failure to act might have ended her life. All I could hear were the words, “I killed my baby” reverberating through my head, over and over again. I wept, I shook, and I thought that I could not bear to live within my body because I hated myself so deeply. Then a voice from outside of me began to speak. It was the voice of my husband. He called me “my love” and reminded me that he loved me, that God loved me, that I was capable of being loved, and that I had to learn to love myself again.
Whether or not I had a valid reason to experience guilt is not something I will know on this earth, but feelings are often detached from reality, especially during grief, and my experience of guilt was real. Still, God has helped me to continue living and to forgive myself. He has lifted my unbearable burden of guilt. Through my feelings of shame, He has reminded me that I am fallible. I am not a perfect human or a perfect mom. I will make mistakes and sometimes, the mistakes I make can prove fatal. That is okay, though, because God is infallible and ultimately in charge of whether any of us lives or dies. He is working for our good and nothing I do can prevent the realization of His plan.
It is also okay because He loves me. He knows that I will mess things up. He knows that I made decisions that might have led to the death of my daughter, but He still loves me. In fact, He loves me more than I love my own children. His love for me is so deep that He sacrificed His own Son to bear the weight and consequences of all of my sins. He loves me so much that no matter what I do, or what mistakes I make, I will always be His beloved.
In the midst of my healing, I am reminded of a famous father whose child died as a direct result of his actions. King David, whom God labeled “a man after God’s own heart,” (Acts 13:22) did not have the luxury of saying that if he had done something differently his son might have lived. Instead, God’s prophet explicitly told him that “…because by (committing adultery and murder) you have shown utter contempt for the Lord, the son born to you will die.” (2 Samuel 12:14) If ever a parent had a reason to feel guilt after the loss of their child, King David did. David did not cover up his guilt: he acknowledged it, he pleaded with God, he fasted and he adorned himself with ashes and sackcloth (symbols of repentance). Then, to the amazement of his servants, he kept living. He emerged from his secluded penance by saying “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I go on fasting? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Samuel 12:22-23) Then he went to comfort his wife, resumed marital relations with her, and began the task of fathering the son who would carry on Jesus’ ancestral line.
The Bible does not tell us how long it took for King David to overcome his feelings of guilt or if he was ever able to overcome them completely. However, King David himself told us something about how he dealt with the guilt that he experienced over his son’s death in Psalm 51, a song which is widely acknowledged to refer to his act of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband. King David’s prayer “Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Oh, give me back my joy again; you have broken me – now let me rejoice,” (Psalm 51:7-8) shows us that David entrusted his guilt to God, acknowledged that God could overcome his wrongs, and recognized that God alone could restore his joy in the face of his sins and their consequences. I suspect that this is a good model for all parents who experience guilt over the death of their child, whether or not their guilt stems from actual or perceived wrongdoings and mistakes.
I hope that during this Advent season of repentance, we will allow ourselves to release our guilt as grieving parents. Whether it is justified or not, God can use our guilt to draw us deeper into relationship with Him. Through our regrets, He can help us to acknowledge our own fallibility and to accept His sovereign reign. He can show us a little bit more of His boundless love for us – a love that is so unmerited and such an incredible gift. God does not want us to be trapped in our guilt, instead, He wants it to propel us closer to Him as we entrust it to Him and seek His renewal of our joy.
“Confess your sins and you shall be forgiven,” this I have always done because you feel an instant release from the weight of carrying guilt. The first time I went to confess all the events that occurred leading up to and after my divorce I expected that relief, but what I felt instead was confusion by the Priest’s simple statement: “What wrong-doing have you committed?” In fact I had done nothing wrong. However knowing that God’s heart aches over such loss I found myself constantly questioning, “What did I do wrong? How could I have prevented it?” When in fact there was nothing; there are some circumstances that are completely out of our control. So then why did it happen? I have to trust that God knew what was happening and was helping to lead me through the choices I made, because I didn’t know what was happening -so I clung to Him, with all the strength and love that was left in me. It is still a struggle- I still have to remind myself daily that I did nothing wrong, what mistakes I made are forgiven, and I am not a burden because I am loved by friends and family. Perhaps you will see the parallels and know that I am praying for your healing as I continue to work through my own healing. Love you!