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There are few concepts in modern psychology that have endured in popular culture better than Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ model of the stages of grief, developed in her 1969 book On Death and Dying.
While she later clarified that her proposal was a nonlinear, non-predictable progression, her five stages have become part of the cultural consciousness. They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
I’ve been thinking about these stages as I am living through the experience of receiving a fatal prenatal diagnosis for our fourth son.
In my own journey, even as it is ongoing, I already see in myself and my prayerlife the stages proposed by the model.
As my family sat in the dark ultrasound room, my wife and I knew something wasn’t right. The technician wasn’t clicking and printing pictures and didn’t spend the usual time pointing out the various features of our 20-or-so-week-old baby. Instead, she curiously looked at the screen and clicked buttons that added different colors to what she was seeing.
She only told us that we would need to follow up with a doctor immediately after the ultrasound, nothing more.
But I looked at the screen, and I saw the words that started this whole life-changing process:
There isn’t any fluid.
We walked into the office of the OB/GYN on duty, who took the route of not saying much. “Things don’t look good,” was followed with a dismissive, “You’ll have to speak with your doctor more at a next appointment.”
That’s it. That’s all we were told.
With the words from the screen, though, I was able to Google our baby’s scenario before that appointment finally came the following week.
All searches pointed to one thing: renal agenesis.
When we saw the specialist, he confirmed what we had already suspected.
Prior to that appointment, God heard plenty from me about how wrong doctors can be, how the baby’s position may have been blocking the view of the kidneys, and on and on and on.
They were all excuses keeping the rushing tide of emotions at bay, a denial that could only hold so long.
The first time we went to Mass after getting the news, the simple act of sitting in the pew felt soul-crushingly difficult.
At one point the littlest of our brood started having a meltdown, and I promptly escorted him to the back of the church. I was glad to get up and walk away, to be honest, as just the sight of the crucifix was making my blood boil.
At the back of the church was a stained-glass window of the Sacred Heart, with Jesus looking directly into the eyes of anyone interested in looking up.
I screamed at him silently in prayer. How could he do this to us? How could he allow this to happen? We were working so hard to be faithful to him, and this is the thanks we get?
My anger was intense, and it enveloped me.
It didn’t feel good, but it felt just. It felt like he deserved everything I could throw at him.
The anger could only last so long, of course, because it is flat-out tiring.
After it passed, I moved into the realm of using my prayers to bargain with God.
While I felt a miracle was unlikely, it seemed that if I promised him something, he might be willing to step into time and space and do something incredible.
I looked for bargaining chips, things I could promise him. Of course, all of my ideas came with an if.
If God would step in and perform the miracle that would save my baby, I would start to do these things.
At some point, the prayers stopped.
Not only had it become difficult to pray, but even when I mustered the strength to do it, it felt pointless. It felt as though nothing was going to come of it. From my vantage point it had become clear a miracle was not in God’s plans, and there seemed to be no value in continuing to ask for it.
There seemed to be no value in anything.
After dwelling in that darkness, however, I have begun to see a great light.
God loves my family and loves our baby Luke more than we ever could. His will for us is not a punishment but rather a calling to grow into a deeper relationship with him.
We go through our lives believing in life after death, the saving power of baptism, the value of redemptive suffering, the communion of saints, the anticipation of the resurrection and so many other truths of our faith. We go on believing these things, but we do so without actually living as though we believe.
Our son Luke, though he is still just 32 weeks into his development, has pulled us straight to the foot of the cross. Though he still hasn’t been born, he has prompted countless friends, family and strangers to ask God for help, even if they haven’t spoken a word to God in years. Though he will only live for the time it takes to breathe his first and final breath, he has done more to help my wife and me grow in sanctity than we have done for each other in our nearly nine years of marriage.
And so I begin to see acceptance, the only response that seems appropriate.
I accept God’s will for my family, and specifically for the baby I love more than my words can express.
While I still ask God for a miracle, still ask that he lets this cup pass, I also feel in the depth of my soul the completion of that prayer: “not as I will, but as you will.”
Tommy Tigheis a Catholic hipster, husband and father. You can follow him on Twitter @theghissilent.