November 2, 2017
I wrote these words almost three months ago, not sure if I would ever share them. Honestly, I was self-conscious, afraid of what others would think. Younger Christians who I’ve mentored. Older Christians who’ve mentored me. NonChristians. Family. Peers. Would they judge me for all these doubts and questions? Would they see me differently?
I decided I wouldn’t publish these words until I could honestly say I had discovered a shred of hope that I could also share. I didn’t know how I would come upon such a thing, but in the last three months, I have. Hope has come in the form of friends who’ve walked a similar path. I have connected with other Christian parents who’ve lost children and had the same doubts, anger, and questions. I have been participating in an online Bible study with other moms who’ve lost babies. I have an incredible Christian counselor who has validated that the “Dark Night of the Soul” is a real thing, and that a more authentic faith can be built from these ashes.
I read these words I wrote three months ago and still feel them strongly. But through these recent relationships, I’ve come to a place where I can feel disappointed and angry with God, and at the same time call out to Him for help.
C.S. Lewis said that the death of his wife revealed to him that his faith was a “house of cards.” Perhaps mine was, too. Any faith that remains after this will be much different, perhaps more real, than what I had before.
**Please be aware before reading that this story gives the details of the moments of Elliot’s death.**
I Am Job’s Wife
August 8, 2017
I think I, like most Christians, have lived under the possibly arrogant assumption that nothing could truly shake my faith. Most certainly, nothing could ever cause me to lose my faith. I have walked with God too long, been too close to Jesus to ever truly doubt his love, power, or his very existence.
In the past two months, I have doubted all those things, certainties I never believed I could question. I have been, after all, a follower of Jesus Christ since I was fifteen years old. Christian college. Mission work. Teaching at a Christian school. All the “right” things, of course. What could cause such a crisis of faith for me?
Some people would assume these doubts of mine are caused by losing my five-day-old infant son, Elliot. Perhaps those people would think I am asking God, “Why? Why my baby? Why did you let him die?” And it’s true. I ask those unanswerable questions every day.
But the reason for my doubts goes deeper than Elliot’s death. The reason for my doubt is because of my great faith.
I think I am like a lot of Western Christians in the fact that, while I believe God can still perform miracles, I have never really witnessed one. Yes, I have heard about cancer patients whose cancer inexplicably went away, stories of miracles from overseas. I’ve seen lives changed and believed with all my heart that God’s intervention in those lives was miraculous. But I, with my own eyes, have never seen a nature-defying miracle.
So it took me a while to believe what I thought I was hearing from God was true. I had a dream of a baby in an incubator, a living baby who I named Promise. After two miscarriages that broke my mama’s heart, I wanted to believe God could be promising me something that could help me heal. I didn’t know what that might be, or if, in fact, it was just a dream.
When I got pregnant a month after the dream, I hoped God had a promise to fulfill for me. But who am I to demand anything of God? I didn’t set my hope fully on this promise; I didn’t want to be presumptuous. I didn’t claim to know what God was going to do. I remember thinking that if I miscarried, I would have to reevaluate that dream and figure it wasn’t from God or meant something else; God couldn’t lie. If I misunderstood something, the fault would have to be with me, not with God.
As the pregnancy progressed, those months became difficult, scary, and unpredictable. I know of pregnancies in which the parents find out their sweet baby has birth defects or a condition that is “incompatible with life”. I cannot imagine the trial of carrying a precious child knowing that baby would die shortly after birth. But my story is that I had a perfectly healthy baby growing inside, while enduring a perfectly flawed pregnancy. Elliot could have lived, if not for the issues in my pregnancy. This haunts me.
Everything that could go wrong in my pregnancy did go wrong. The details of just how wrong are chronicled elsewhere, but suffice it to say we thought on at least a half dozen occasions we’d lost Elliot. Yet, every time the doctor put that cold gel and ultrasound wand on my belly, there was our boy, growing and feeling fine.
I believed that God gave me verses to hold on to during these scary times. One was Isaiah 41:10, which is also a line in the hymn “How Firm a Foundation.” I would sing it to myself through my tears as my body poured blood at 11 weeks or I writhed from contractions at 13 weeks or I lay on a hospital bed at 21 weeks, hearing the news my water had broken. Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed; for I am thy God and will still give thee aid. I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand, upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand. Over and over I sang it. Over and over I felt God’s comfort and that word: Promise.
Others confirmed what I hoped God was saying. A friend gave me a word from God that Elliot’s life would be preserved. Other friends would pray for me and feel overwhelming peace for Elliot. I remember a friend pointing out the examples of Abraham and David in the Bible, and that, in His Word, God’s promises never came without a struggle. I grew in faith that God not only did give me a promise for Elliot’s life, but that he wanted me to hold fast to that promise through any challenges we would face.
When I learned that my water had broken so early, that I would be hospitalized, and that Elliot would definitely be delivered early, the dream seemed even less like “just a dream.” I really was going to have a baby in an incubator, just like my dream. And, in my dream, despite my fears, my baby was alive. How could I not believe that this, too, would come to pass?
Oh, what a way to display God’s presence and love and intervention! I believed it was a mission field for me to go to the hospital, for me to proclaim to doctors and nurses and other patients that Elliot’s life was a testimony to God’s miraculous intervention. Any time I thought the Holy Spirit was prompting me, I would share the story of the journey Elliot and I had been on. I would share the details of my dream, how God had already saved Elliot numerous times, and how He comforted me with Scripture, prayers of others, encouraging words, and especially my promise. I felt so humbled and unworthy. So many other parents lost babies; why was I so blessed that God was going to keep mine alive? My faith grew and grew, not because I believed I was going to get what I wanted, but because I believed God was using our story to spread His fame. My hope, my trust, my absolute faith was in God and what we all believed He had said.
The evidence before me continued to seem to confirm that His hand was on Elliot. Doctors usually tell women whose waters break early that they will go into labor within 48 hours. My water had already been broken for three weeks when I went in to the hospital. I had already greatly beaten the odds. Then I continued to. I could tell the NICU doctor who spoke to my husband and me when we were admitted did not think it would be long before I’d have a baby. And, statistically speaking, it was reasonable of him to think so. Most women don’t last too long before going into labor or developing an infection. But Elliot stayed put and I stayed healthy for long past the gestation weeks anyone expected. My nurses were encouraged, my doctors were encouraged. Everyone talked about Elliot with expectancy in those later weeks; not with the hesitancy they had before. He was in a safe gestation. And, while I knew lung development was the primary unknown in his health because of my lack of amniotic fluid, to me this was just one more place for God to show up. God had shown up at every other point in this horrific pregnancy. How could I not trust that He who was knitting Elliot together in my womb could also knit his lungs?
As a couple of scares ensued at the hospital, God continued to bless Elliot and me with stable health. Then, the day of Elliot’s birth, after 50 days on hospital bed rest, I heard his little heart rate plummet from the 150’s to the 60’s. I knew only God could save him. It was a terrifying experience, but I went to sleep under that anesthesia confident that my baby boy would be alive when I awoke.
And he was! Beautiful, big, precious Elliot William Treibel. There he was, a picture on my husband’s phone, his perfect fingers wrapped around one of his daddy’s. The doctors had a hard time stabilizing his oxygen for the first few hours. Oh, it worried and scared me. But I sang Isaiah 41:10 and remembered God’s promise, clinging to it and believing He gave it to me to give me peace in these scary moments.
And, again, God’s miraculous hand of intervention seemed so evident on Elliot. He did stabilize! His heart rate and oxygen levels became very stable and healthy. The doctor who delivered him had a very serious talk with us that night, telling us that his lungs did seem to be underdeveloped and only time would tell if they were developed enough for him to live. Oh, that was a scary thing to hear. But I clung to God, to His exhortation not to fear and to His promise of life for the baby in the incubator. I again gave my heart fully to believing God for Elliot’s life.
AGAIN God seemed to shout a resounding “yes” to us all! The doctors were encouraged and amazed at Elliot’s progress over the next few days. No one gave us any more serious talks about Elliot’s “condition.” The doctor who delivered him even smiled! The gratitude in my heart is impossible to describe. God was really doing it! Again and again, he was performing real-life miracles on behalf of MY son! Those five days of Elliot’s life outside the womb are possibly the most content, faith-filled days I’ve ever lived. Again, not because God was giving me what I wanted (though that was a bonus). It was because God actually spoke to me, spoke through others, spoke through His word, and was answering the prayers of hundreds of people. We were witnesses to His miracles.
Or so I thought.
Elliot had an up and down day on June 3. But even in the midst of the roller coaster, God seemed to be doing miraculous things. When Elliot’s chest tube stopped working and the collection of air in his chest cavity once again compressed his right lung, his oxygen remained perfectly stable. I asked the doctor why his oxygen didn’t drop through all that. “I have no idea,” the doctor replied. But I knew: God kept him stable. Truly, every moment of Elliot’s life proved God spoke and God did not lie about His promise.
So the events from 5:30-6:00 pm on June 3 were impossible for me to understand, believe, or accept. Two months later, I still have moments where I think I’ll wake up and this has all been one big, bad dream.
I returned from a brief nap, leaving Elliot in the capable hands of his nurse, who encouraged me to go rest. “You and Elliot both need some sleep.” She was confident Elliot was fine. The doctor was confident. I was confident.
As I walked back to the NICU, I remember being so excited to spend the evening with my little guy now that I was a little more refreshed, and that I was finally feeling a little more recovered from my c-section. I was at the sink washing my hands when a nurse walked briskly to me and said, “They have to replace Elliot’s chest tube again.” I nodded and she led me to a chair at the nurses’ station just outside his room. A medical team stood around him. This was a hard thing to watch, but I’d watched it twice before in the past five days, and whatever was the problem had been fixed. I talked to God. I prayed. I hated seeing my little guy struggle, but I did not for one second consider Elliot might die. I don’t really remember much as I was sitting there. I remember texting updates to my husband. I remember hearing the oscillating ventilator. I remember starting to cry and someone saying, “Will someone go reassure that mom?” And whoever it was did reassure me. Did they all believe still that Elliot would be fine?
The next thing I remember is the doctor coming out of Elliot’s room and motioning for me to come talk to him. I thought we’d discuss Elliot’s present difficulties and he’d give me an update or ask my permission to try some new intervention. So it didn’t quite register when he threw up his hands and only said, “It’s not working!”
Okay. I breathed deeply. So whatever medical interventions they were trying were not enough. This actually made sense to me in that insane moment. God apparently wanted to show His glory through Elliot’s little life, and what better way than showing this hospital staff a bonafide miracle?
I said, “Can I pray over him?” The doctor nodded vigorously. “Sure!”
I still wonder, what did he think? Did he think I was praying over Elliot as a blessing before he died? Did the doctor hope prayer could heal him? Did he just want my son and I to be together?
I posted on Facebook for everyone to pray because the doctor thought we were losing Elliot. I couldn’t wait to return with an update of the miracle of Elliot’s return from the brink of death. Because Elliot would. Not. Die. God could not possibly have given that promise and confirmed it in so many ways and through so many people, just to break His promise now.
I put my hands on my baby’s head and little feet. A nurse next to me applied more pressure on my hands. Did she think that would heal Elliot? Or that my prayers would be heard more? Or was that for my benefit? All I could cry through my tears was, “Jesus, overcome. Jesus, overcome. Jesus, overcome.”
The rest of it is fuzzy. At some point they said, “Do you want to do skin to skin?” Of course I did! Maybe that’s when he would be healed and start breathing. I think I saw a dramatization of something like that on a Facebook video once…
Suddenly there was a chair behind me and I was sitting down and Elliot was on me and we were wrapped in warm blankets. Someone was manually pumping oxygen for him. It’s all a blur. I don’t remember when they stopped pumping his oxygen. I do remember them asking me how long it would take for my husband to get to the hospital. That was actually the first moment it clicked in my head that they were saying my baby was dying. Why else would it be urgent for Dustin to get to the hospital?
At some moment, they said they were going to take out Elliot’s tubes. Oh how I wanted them to DO SOMETHING! I cried out, “Are you sure?!?!” I don’t know what they said. The feeling of helplessness and horror is impossible to put into words.
I remember at some point the doctor listening to Elliot’s heartbeat with a stethoscope and saying, “Very faint.”
And then, somewhere around 5:55 p.m., he put that stethoscope on Elliot’s precious little back and said, “He’s gone.”
I have this picture in my mind of a mirror. It’s a big mirror, perfectly crafted and polished. The mirror is my faith, and it was crafted by God throughout my whole life, but in the six months prior to this moment, it became more clear and beautiful than it had ever been.
The moment Elliot died, God took a hammer to that mirror, to my faith, and slammed it into the perfect glass with unspeakable force. There are not even shards of glass lying on the floor; the mirror has been smashed to dust.
You might be able to imagine what it’s like to have your child die in your arms. But unless it has happened to you, you cannot. Not really. I would’ve gladly died in his place or experienced even worse horrors and pain, if only I could’ve saved him. There’s no way to describe it.
And I immediately blamed God. I felt no “peace that passes understanding”, as I’ve heard other bereaved parents describe. I pray that will come.
The doctor didn’t know why Elliot died. All the interventions they’d been using for five days to keep him stable simply stopped working. Everyone was shocked. I couldn’t say much to the doctor because, in the end, it was not his job to protect Elliot; it was God’s.
I do not recognize this faith, the one full of doubts and anger. But God made the mirror. God annihilated the mirror. And only God can put it back together.
Since Elliot died, I have prayed little and read the Bible less. Sometimes I will read YouVersion’s verse of the day because I think Elliot would want me to. But the only other thing I’ve read is the first few chapters of Job. This had always been a hard book to understand, and moreso now. But there’s one part of it that makes more sense to me than it ever has.
I remember a pastor once commenting on Job’s unhelpful wife. Job had just lost all his livelihood, all his children, and now had nasty sores that tortured him. The advice of Job’s wife? “Curse God and die!” Unhelpful, right? Probably.
But I’ve also heard before that the unkind, unhelpful things people say often come from their own hurt. It dawned on me as I read this passage, HER CHILDREN DIED! All of them! Maybe “curse God and die” was how Job’s wife felt. Does that seem over the top? Too dramatic?
I have cursed God.
I have wanted to die.
I am Job’s wife.
I’m not saying it’s right; I’m just saying it is.
Maybe Job’s wife also felt abandoned and betrayed by the God she thought loved her. Maybe she even thought she heard one thing from God, and was delivered the exact opposite.
The frustrating reality is that if God is who I always believed Him to be, then He really can’t lie. He really can’t be cruel for no reason. He really can’t break a promise.
So that leaves it to me to take the fault. I heard wrong. I misrepresented God’s intention. I used his word to say something it wasn’t meant to say. And these possibilities are just as scary as thinking God could lie or betray.
If I didn’t hear Him in this, and I so FULLY believed I did, then how will I ever know how to hear His voice again?
My future vision of my relationship with God stretches out before me in a weird sort of legalism: go to service, sing the songs, give some money, say the right words, do good things. I guess I can do that. But how will my spirit ever soar again? I have no Elliot. I feel like Jesus is a stranger to me, and so I have no Jesus to counsel me through the loss of my baby. I have never felt more alone, more forsaken.
He made the mirror. He shattered the mirror.
If He’s real, if He’s love, if He’s good, He will have to put the mirror back together. He alone must mend what He has broken.
I hope Job’s wife found herself able to praise God again. I hope I will, too.