Where is God when a mother dies in childbirth?

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Unsplash

You know that instant alarm you feel when a loved one’s normal voice on the phone is not normal? I knew something was wrong by the way my daughter said, “Mom?”

A mother’s mind races in a thousand directions at that tone. What happened? What happened was indeed tragic, horrible, unbelievable: Her friend May had died in childbirth.

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In a hospital. In the United States. In 2019. May had gone in with her husband to have a baby, a routine event even if it feels like the most amazing thing ever to the expectant couple. But something went wrong. Only the father and the baby went home.

She is a baby girl, a tiny, perfect, beautiful brand-new baby, whose birthday is always going to be the day her mother died. Tragic, horrible, unbelievable.

I am wondering, questioning, silently: Where was God in that labor room? Why her? Why a young first-time mother?

And I am wondering, questioning, silently: Where was God in that labor room? Why her? Why a young first-time mother? Why not take an old bird like me? Can I go back in time and volunteer to switch places?

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I know that is not how God works. Not that I know how God does work. Not that anything I think I know about how God works or does not work is necessarily true.

A lump of disbelief, a railing at injustice and a stunned sadness sit in the hearts of those who knew this bright and vibrant woman. We do not know what to do. We can try to channel our desolation into researching the facts: According to the Centers for Disease Control, each year about 700 women in the United States die from pregnancy or delivery complications. The U.S. maternal death rate is higher than any other developed country. This risk of death is three to four times higher for African-American women than for white women. Here we find plenty of outrage, both for the numbers and the racial discrepancy. May is now counted in this ill-fated group of 700: As with any mortality statistic, however, one is too many if you know her. If she is yours.

We know about death—we have experienced its very real, cavernous loss—and yet we are caught unawares by it.

We can sandwich our sorrow into educated action that might tackle the causes of maternal death or into advocacy for safer conditions for childbirth, for better access to prenatal care, for wider support for pregnant women and single parents, for something, anything, good to come of tragedy. We can contribute to the GoFundMe account for the young family or drop off nutritious meals or offer our time to help get stuff done or pray, pray, pray, even as we know that whatever we do will not change the past. Whatever we give will not be enough.

We can focus on the kindness of community, by the way folks far and wide have come together to support this family of two. We can be touched by the way disaster can bring out the best in people and for the way we are momentarily mindful of the fortune we enjoy and of the need to tell our loved ones that we love them. These are small comforts. But they are not nothing.

May was hugely loved, by her family and friends and co-workers and acquaintances. She is just as hugely mourned. She died on what was supposed to be one of the happiest days of her life. I say one of the happiest because a mother counts the days of each of her children’s births as among the happiest. I push down a wave of guilt for the extravagant, unearned blessings of my four daughters and my decades of bursting-with-love motherhood. May should be here to have more babies. She should be here to nurse and swaddle her daughter, to change diapers and lose sleep and fret and worry and marvel and sing tender songs in the middle of the night and feel overwhelmed by it all and delight in every first thing her little girl does in life. She should be here. We all think it: It is not fair.

I like to think of God mingling among us, sad with us, holding us up, loving us, even if we do not comprehend or agree with God’s will.

It never is.

It is also not easy. It is not easy to hug a new father who is awash in the deepest grief and the loneliest joy of his life. It is not easy to fish around for the good and right words to say, even as we perceive there aren’t any. It is not easy to see a husband without a wife, an infant without a mother. None of it is easy.

But it is rich, this life we are given, rich in complexity and sorrow and gladness and challenge and change. It is rich in unexpected turns and unbidden burdens and sudden, astonishing grace. We do not anticipate young mothers dying at a moment devoted to birth, and yet we know it happens. We know about death—we have experienced its very real, cavernous loss—and yet we are caught unawares by it. We count on life—we take for granted another morning, another cup of coffee, another chance to make love—and yet these terrible things that happen slap us awake with the reminder of the ephemeral nature of us on this earth. We can all disappear just like that.

I imagine May living on in her child, in the way her daughter might one day tuck her hair behind her ear or laugh at a ridiculous dad-joke. May is gone, but her D.N.A. remains. Her gift to posterity remains. Her powerful love remains. I like to think her spirit remains. I like to think of the fierce unseen presence of a mother watching over her daughter. I like to think of God mingling among us, sad with us, holding us up, loving us, even if we do not comprehend or agree with God’s will. I do not know if anything I am thinking is true. I am thinking it anyway.

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JR Cosgrove
4 months 1 week ago

Bad things must happen to some good people. Doubt is a necessary condition of faith. Otherwise we would just be automatons. A great achievements by humans is the lessening of these bad things happening. But as one bad thing gets eliminated another less bad thing will replace it as a top concern.

My grandmother died in child birth at 23 and her little boy also died. My father was her first child and 17 months old at the time. I pray every day to see her some time in the future.

Robin Smith
4 months 1 week ago

Going by how old you are, that must have been, what 1880-1885? But, your saying "too bad, so sad, but people gotta die" is the most honest thing about god any christian has said. Pretty much "Oh well, eff you."
All your prayers won't move god's will, huh? And y'all think you're going to get any new cult recruits with that attitude? Uh, nope.

JR Cosgrove
4 months 1 week ago

No long after that.
Christianity is not about this world so what happens here good or bad is not the primary objective. Faith requires doubt and a free will to believe. If we lived in a predictable world, there essentially is no free will and no value In believing, it would be automatic and as I said we would be automatons. In our world there will never be a slam dunk piece of evidence that God is there so prayers are not guarantees of what we ask for but certainly not a waste of time.

Ellen B
4 months 1 week ago

Too bad most of the deaths happening now are preventable, amiright? Not gods will. Mans will.

JR Cosgrove
4 months 1 week ago

Yes, a lot are preventable with better care and information.

Diane Schumacher
4 months 1 week ago

From doing genealogy work on my family tree, it seems that this used to be a common occurrence. I noticed that the father did not raise the children after the death. The fathers left and married someone else leaving the children to the mother's relatives to raise. What do you think of the father's abandonment of his own children? I have seen this with Irish-Americans and German-Americans.

robert furman
4 months 1 week ago

grat job bla

Ellen B
4 months 1 week ago

It's offensive & incorrect to refer to pregnancy as a "routine event". Many things medically can go wrong... for up to a year after giving birth. It's offensive that in this country with some of the best medical care on earth that more & more women are dying. It's offensive that the US now has the highest maternal mortality rate in the industrialized world. That's not god's will. That's politicians and the people who vote for them who won't fund insurance for all. Who are forcing low cost women's health providers - like the much maligned Planned Parenthood - out of business - without providing any form of replacement. Who are not expanding Medicare so that rural hospitals stay open. So that "God's will" business? It's a lie for most of the dying women. It's MAN'S will because most of those deaths could have been prevented.

Timothy Kunz
4 months 1 week ago

God’s will is clearly stated in Genesis. For her sin: “I will intensify the pangs of your childbearing; in pain shall you bring forth children. Yet your urge shall be for your husband and he shall be your master” (Gen 3: 16).
Evolution has been a cruel path to travel. Prior to 1850, the leading cause of a woman’s death was childbirth. Imagine the emotions on the writer of Genesis. He believes in a good God, but how can he explain a lovely daughter dead in agony before she reached 15. Maternal morbidity is 5 times as great for girls who get pregnant before their bodies fully mature and are large enough to give birth. We are hardly the first to agonize over this question.
But evolution is not the end of the story. An animal has evolved that can, if it chooses, change and direct evolution. This animal, Jesus has shown us, is the word of God spoken in the universe. We are the source of God’s love and mercy in the universe.
God’s word is re-spoken in us, if we chose to be his word.

sreenath reddy
4 months 1 week ago

We cant blame him for everything.He was the alpha and omega.He was the starting and ending.He knows everything.One shouldn't blame him for deaths and other problems. AppEven iOS

Ellen B
4 months 1 week ago

I don't blame god. I blame the politicians & people who vote for them whose policies are allowing the US to have the worst maternal mortality rates in the industrialized world - by a large & growing margin.

Annette Magjuka
4 months 1 week ago

Please follow up this poignant article with one disclosing the dangers pregnant woman face in Catholic hospitals, where the fetus is preferenced over the life of the mother. Be sure to include the clip of a Catholic priest saying, “Sometimes a mother just has to die with her baby.” I saw this on the Samantha Bee Show dealing with Catholic Hospitals and women’s health. Joe Cosgrove’s comments align well with those of that callous priest.

Brenda Becker
4 months 1 week ago

This is as good a job of treating this impossible question as could be done. We live in a broken world. Without a saviour who Himself was broken, I would have no faith at all.

James Cameron
4 months ago

Bad things can happen to good people. The good thing is that it is not to destroy the person but to test only the faith of the persons involved. Just continue trusting God because He is always in control. farmandranchfences.com

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