Images of Death & Hope

Reflection for the third Sunday of Lent
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A man in Kyiv, Ukraine, mourns his mother, who was killed when an intercepted missile hit a residential building, March 17, 2022 (CNS photo/Thomas Peter, Reuters).

In the summer of 2021 I learned that I was pregnant. My husband and I were excited as we headed to my first doctor’s appointment. There, in the examination room, we stared at the ultrasound screen, searching for an embryo, almost-fetus, but instead saw an empty womb. The doctor expressed her condolences and took what felt like an eternal pause.  She continued the ultrasound, and we discovered the pregnancy in a fallopian tube. I had an ectopic pregnancy.  We heard the heartbeat, we saw the tiny figure, but from what seemed like a  distance I heard the words: “The pregnancy is not viable,” “this is a dangerous situation,” “we will need to operate today.” The doctor explained that the fallopian tube could rupture at any moment, putting me at risk of bleeding to death; she said that though the embryo had a heartbeat it would not survive. I thought about the faint heartbeat and the image of the tiny figure, but also felt terrible for my husband, who wore a look of worry, sadness, and shock. I felt terrible for the two of us. I felt sorrow for the little embryo who never had a chance. Last Sunday would have been my due date, and I found myself grieving the loss all over again. But I was also relieved that the date had passed, after having so long been stuck in my mind, just like the sound and images from the ultrasound.

This week also marked the two-year anniversary of the Covid-19 lockdowns in Los Angeles. Two years ago, I had a very different idea of what my life would be. My husband and I had been married only a year and we never imagined that come 2022 we’d have lived most of our marriage in a global pandemic, unable to do many things we had hoped for and bombarded by images of packed hospitals and of people on respirators struggling to breathe. 

Now there is also the deep sadness I feel for the people of Ukraine, and for Russians who’ve been led to believe Vladimir Putin’s propaganda. The images out of Kyiv, Kharkiv, and other cities have been devastating. A photo by Ukrainian Associated Press journalist Evgeniy Maloletka captured first responders and volunteers carrying an injured pregnant woman from a Mariupol maternity hospital damaged by Russian shelling; it was reported that when the woman realized she was losing her child she cried out to medics, “Kill me now!” Both she and her baby died. 

The way that we experience personal tragedies will inevitably affect the way we interpret a larger global crisis.

These images will live on, forever reminding us of the horrors inflicted on innocent civilians by Putin, just as images from the pandemic will remind us of the painful struggle for breath that Covid-19 patients endured, of the death toll, and of the politicization of our national response. And the way that we experience personal tragedies will inevitably affect the way we interpret a larger global crisis. I know that I will always associate the loss of my pregnancy with the pandemic, and my sorrow for that Ukrainian mother is connected with my own experience of being in a hospital, pregnant and vulnerable.

I know that my experience of trauma and depression is a communal one. During Lent I have wanted to focus on gratitude, but the world makes it so hard to do so. This Sunday’s readings speak of God’s divine presence, action, and mercy, and of course it would not be Lent if we didn’t hear a call to repentance. The gospel acclamation in our liturgy says, “Repent, says the Lord; the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Yet it’s hard to see the Kingdom of God when what we see are images of death and destruction. I’m reminded of the cross. When we contemplate death, pain, and the struggles of our time, we witness our vulnerability and our sinfulness. The sorrow that comes from seeing and remembering these images reminds us of our deepest desire for what is good and life-giving, and this is grace. God may not be to blame for the evil caused by humans or for the loss that comes from our simple human biological frailty, but God can use even the darkest of moments to remind us that we were made for love and life. The Gospel this Sunday gives us the parable of the fig tree:

There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’ (Luke 13: 6-7)

Beyond our desire for the pain and suffering and personal tragedies to end, we also wish not to be afflicted by the memory of them. This is why images are so triggering. The memory of them, the thought of what has happened, is painful. But when we stop running away from our traumas, and, like the gardener in the parable, ask for more time to cultivate the ground around the memory, we allow for the grace of God to act in our lives. God can take our tragedies and sinfulness and reveal to us the failures from which we are to learn, and tell us what we ought to change. Grace also helps us recognize the presence of God in the midst of disaster. As we continue to live through a pandemic and a war, I place my trust in the divine gardener. May the ground of our experiences be cultivated so that we don’t remain stuck in the trauma and depression brought on by the death and evil of these times. 

This is the third in a series of reflections for each Sunday in Lent. You can read the others here.

Claudia Avila Cosnahan is the Mission & Partnerships Director for Commonweal and an instructor and consultant for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Also by this author
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