Mother’s Day and the Loss of a Child
It is Mother’s Day. Even if the holiday was, as some claim, invented to increase the revenue of greeting card companies, it’s nice to have motherhood recognized. For my part, I am grateful to be a mother. I’m especially grateful that my children are, as of this moment, both still alive.
Recently, I witnessed the deaths of two young adults. I had the honor of sitting with their mothers, sharing in a portion of their grief. At such moments, I don’t have any comfort to offer, though I did try to open space for the women to talk. Occasionally, I asked questions such as, “Can you tell me what happened?” or “What was she like?” At other times, I wracked my brain for something to say, and finding nothing, was silent. Sometimes silence is best.
While we talked, I laid my hands on the daughter’s feet. Now and then I stroked hair from the son’s forehead. Those were reflexes, perhaps, something done to soothe myself, as if I could love those children enough to keep them alive. But if love would do such a thing, they wouldn’t have needed me.
This Mother’s Day will be hard for those women. Ever since God cursed Eve, mothers have suffered. In sorrow we have borne children, for they will all experience heartache, and what hurts them will hurt us. But few of us experience the wrenching despair of Eve, whose younger son was murdered by his brother.
In the Beginning Was Pain
In the beginning, so it is told, Eve did eat of the tree of knowledge and, finding it good, gave some of its fruit to her mate, Adam. As a punishment, God cast them both from the garden where they had been living and where food was plentiful and life was easy. He sent them into a wilderness where they had to toil hard, tilling the ground to produce food. Here, Eve would bear her children in calamity.
You may have heard that God cursed Eve with physical pain during childbirth, as in this NRSV translation: “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing, in pain you shall bring forth children” (Gen 3:16). This punishment is sometimes considered to be an explanation for why having a baby hurts so much,  but not everyone agrees Genesis 3:16 is talking about the pain of the body. Some commentators point out that the Hebrew word often translated as “pain” can also mean toil, calamity, or sorrow.  Additionally, they suggest that it isn’t the “pangs” that God will increase, but the number of children women will bear.
Thus Riane Eisler, in her book, The Chalice and the Blade, can write, “Not only [Eve’s] sorrow, but her conception – the number of children she must bear – would be greatly multiplied.” 
So Eve suffered in sorrow, calamity, and toil. She endured pangs of the heart.
Cain Murders His Brother
You know how the story goes. First she gave birth to Cain, then Abel. The boys grew into men, and Cain ploughed the fields, and Abel raised sheep. Both men brought offerings to God, but God refused Cain’s and accepted Abel’s. We don’t know why. All we know is that, when Cain got indignant, God rebuked him saying, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Gen 4:6-7).
Cain did not do well. He did not master sin’s desire.
To his brother, he said, “Let us go out to the field.” Then he “rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him” (Gen 4:8). When God asked Cain where Abel was, the young man denied any knowledge of his brother’s whereabouts, speaking that famous line, “[A]m I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9). But God heard Abel’s blood calling to him, and he cursed Cain, telling him that from then on, he would be a fugitive and a wanderer.
“My punishment is greater than I can bear!” Cain cried out, afraid that whoever saw him would slay him.
I am surprised at the young man’s self-centered nature. He had just committed the world’s first murder, and of his own brother, yet he showed no remorse. Even so, God appeased Cain. He placed a mark on him so that he would not die at another’s hand.
“Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the Land of Nod, east of Eden” (Gen 4:16).
Suddenly, two of Eve’s children were gone. How could any mother bear such a thing?
Grieving for 130 Years
Perhaps it took over a hundred years for Eve to get over the loss. Not that the biblical authors talk about it one way or another. As soon Cain goes off, we switch to his point of view. He gets married, has children of his own, and builds a city around them. His descendants will all die in the flood, but for now he is doing fine.
How are his parents doing? We don’t see them until 130 years later when Eve gives birth to Seth. She says, “God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, because Cain killed him”(Gen 4:25).
Has she finally recovered enough to welcome Abel’s replacement into her heart? But if so, what was that grieving like?
The sculptor, Louis-Ernest Barrias, imagined their grief in his work, “The First Funeral.” In the statue, Adam and Eve together carry their dead son, though the boy’s weight is born mostly by Adam. One can see the strain of it on him. Abel, an adult man and heavy in death, lies supported, for the moment, on Adam’s knee. Eve bends over the boy, her body curved toward him as if she could once again enclose him in her womb. Tenderly, she kisses the side of his head. While she does this, Adam gazes at his child with a mixture of sorrow and anger, a holding-in and a holding-back. Although palpable, Adam’s emotion is shuttered behind the hardness of masculinity.
Even so, the couple is together. As one, they hang onto their son. Soon they must relinquish him to the ground, but at this moment he is still theirs. They are still a couple, bound by a common experience and by love. Will their grief bring them closer together or tear them apart?
Disowning Our Children
It is hard enough to make sense of a child’s death, for such a thing is nonsensical. It upsets the expected order of things, makes a mockery of happiness. Where is comfort or consolation at such a time? If one might offer them, they would be false. More than one parent has told me that their child was not supposed to die before them. Such a statement is a cliché, but at the moment that a child is disappearing into death, it is an honest one.
But what if, like Cain, our child does something that goes against everything we thought we had taught him, and in that doing, is taken from us, not by death, but by an unalterable separation? God sent Cain from his parents’ side. He would never see them again. Like criminals shipped from England to Australia, Cain ended up in a world where his parents couldn’t go.
Sometimes, parents choose to disown their children when they do something so wrong. No matter how close they live, those parents refuse to talk to them. I’ve met parents who disowned their children for wrongs as simple as pursuing a career the parents disapproved of or marrying a person they didn’t like or believing in a different god or choosing to change their gender. Some parents never forgive their children for insults that seem minor to me, such as forgetting to call, telling lies, or insulting them. In anger and pride, parents and children both do foolish things.
But Adam and Eve had no chance to decide whether to disown Cain or not. Before they could come to terms with what their son had done, God had exiled him. Like a modern-day jury and judge, God tried and sentenced Cain with no input from his parents.
One grief laid on top of another. How did Eve stand it?
What Did We Do Wrong?
When a child does something as horrible as taking the life of another person, especially his own brother, it takes time to process what happened, to even believe it occurred. We wonder who this person is who has done this thing. Where did he come from? What happened to the child we knew? How did he turn out this way? What did we do wrong?
At the age of thirty-eight, Robert Frost’s son, Carol, shot himself with a rifle and died. He’d had depression for a long time, but Frost knew this could not be the whole reason for his death. Not everyone with depression commits suicide. So Frost blamed himself, at least in part. “I took the wrong way with him,” he said. “I tried many ways and every single one of them was wrong.” 
This was suicide, not murder, but the sentiment is the same. When, at fifteen, my son robbed a friend of his, I asked similar questions. Who was this child I’d raised? How could he do such a thing? What had I done that made this possible?
I thought of the times I’d tried to get him help, but the help came too late, or was too little, or the helpers wouldn’t listen. Over the years, I tried one approach to parenting, then another. I tried to ease my son’s temper and calm his fears. I hoped to teach him to love others, to respect truth, to live with integrity. I didn’t get it right, at least not all the way.
Holding Out Hope
I didn’t get it all wrong, either, for I wasn’t the only influence in his life. His act wasn’t all my doing. Yet what if I could have found the “right way” to raise him? Would it have made a difference?
Today, my son’s values remain different from my own in some ways that sadden me, though more often than not, I appreciate his kindness, generosity, loyalty, tenderness, and passion for justice. What if I had disowned him when he was young, if I hadn’t held out hope of transformation, if I hadn’t loved him the way he was?
After all, change is possible. Not just for him, but for myself, for everyone. In ten years, we will all be different people. Maybe that new person will be better than who were are now. Yet we cannot expect such change. People will do as they will, become who they choose. If we restrict our love to those who do as we wish them to, then at some point, we will love no one.
So what did Eve do? Did she continue to love this young man who had betrayed her in such a terrible way? Did she learn to make sense of his action, to understand his fears? Could she hold out hope that one day he might return to them, apologize, be the child she longed for? Or did she give up on him, close off her heart, let him go?
I like to think that during those 130 years, Adam and Eve grew closer to one another. Maybe for a time, as some midrashim suggest, they lived apart, wandering aimlessly, shouting at God, praying, begging for relief. Their loss was inconceivable, yet what they could never have imagined had happened, and not to someone else. It happened to them.
So there they were, and they had to endure it, if only because their lungs continued to breathe and their hearts to beat. They might have been numb, they might have forgotten to eat for days at a time, but at some point, they would have found one another again. Surely, the loneliness would have been too much for them. After all, we can barely stand this social isolating we’re doing now because of the coronavirus.
So I imagine, when Adam and Eve stumbled upon one another again, they would have clung to each other, kissed desperately, told stories about their sons, fed each other bread and cheese. After a time, they would remember that life included laughter, that no matter how much they grieved, birds were still birds and locusts ate the crops some years, but not all of them.
Retelling Our Lives
Over time, we make of our memories what we need them to be. We shape the past to fit our understanding of the world. And if we hold onto the love we know, there might be sorrow, even calamity, but hope will remain, along with the acceptance that lives beyond hope. Maybe God is there, and maybe God isn’t, and if you can’t touch your children, you can at least tell their stories. It isn’t enough. It is never enough. But it is something.
I like to think Adam and Eve reached that point where the story is something. Maybe, had the biblical writers thought it mattered, that first couple would have shared with us a wisdom that would help our own hearts heal from disappointment and cruelty. I’m sure it’s more than time we need, though time helps. But having known addicts who held back time for fifteen years and more, stopping thoughts, questions, weeping, with a numbness that mimics death, I know that even after all that time, grief can be nearly as raw when we get sober as when we lose ourselves to the bottle or the needle or the game or the job or the pill.
But not quite. Never quite. And that’s what time does for us, no matter what we do for ourselves. So after 130 years, Adam and Eve would have found peace. After all that time, their hearts would have been ready for their new son.
May Hope Find Us
Which is perhaps what the biblical writers were telling us. Grief takes time. Don’t rush it. Let yourselves fall into it. Know that eventually, you will come out the other side. Not completely, perhaps, and you will not be the same as you were before. But you will be alive. On the other side, is life. A different life, but a blessed one.
I like to think Adam and Eve discovered that. One day, they woke up and knew they were still alive, that they still loved one another, and in that moment, that very special moment, they knew their love was all that mattered. Is that how Eve coped with those terrible losses? With love, a love betrayed and a love cherished?
Though we are broken, we still live, and we can still love. That’s the hope. Sometimes, we can’t hold that hope for ourselves, but one day we may discover, as I like to think Adam and Eve did, that hope will find us.
In faith and fondness,
- Has it always been painful and dangerous for women to give birth? Current research conducted by Anna Warrener, Helen Kurki, Jonathan Wells, Holly Dunsworth, and others, suggests that once upon a time, humans had as few problems giving birth as other simians. As Colin Barras explains in his BBC article, these scholars concluded that a better explanation for painful and dangerous childbirth among humans is the diet and lifestyle changes that occurred when we gave up hunting and gathering and chose to farm the land. [Barras, Colin, “The Real Reason Childbirth Is So Painful and Dangerous,” BBC, December 22, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20161221-the-real-reasons-why-childbirth-is-so-painful-and-dangerous, accessed 5/9/20.] So why did we switch to a farming culture? The issue is complicated, but some reasons include that farming can feed more people, seeds got bigger, but probably most important, it’s easier to raise children when you aren’t moving around like a nomad, so you can have more kids, and, maybe most significant, farming allowed for ownership. People like to own things. ]See, for example, Chatterjee, Rhitu, “Why Humans Took Up Farming: They Like to Own Stuff,” NPR, Mary 13, 2013, https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/05/13/183710778/why-humans-took-up-farming-they-like-to-own-stuff, accessed 5/9/20.]
- See, for example, van Ruiten, Jaques, “Eve’s Pain in Childbearing? Interpretations of Gen. 3:16 in Biblical and Early Jewish Texts,” Gerard P. Luttikhuizen, ed., Eve’s Children: The Biblical Stories Retold and Interpreted in Jewish and Christian Traditions, Boston: Brill, 2003, 3-26, -11.
- Eisler, Riane, The Chalice and the Blade, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987, 89.
- McCracken, Anne, and Mary Semel, eds., A Broken Heart Still Beats: After Your Child Dies, Center City, MN: Hazleden, 1998, 189.
Photo – The First Funeral (1878) by Louis-Ernest Barrias, By Unknown photographer – 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Vol. 24, pg. 508, Plate VII, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=88380008
Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved