Unexpected Learning From Student’s Experiences of Loss

This past summer I lost a friend at church and a family friend to terminal illness and through these experiences, I’ve grown more aware how often death and dying emerges at my stage in the life course. Apparently I wasn’t alone in this either. I happened to be in conversation with the university chaplain one day a couple of months ago, and he remarked that while he had a total of 40 cases in which students lost a parent or significant family member last year, he has had 50 cases in the first two months of this semester alone. The reasons for this still elude me, but suffice it to say something that is a fairly rare occurrence is recurring with somewhat more frequency lately here in central Texas.

Recently a former student of mine informed that she too had experienced the loss of her mother. Lisa [not her real name] was in my class 3 semesters ago, she was relatively quiet but clearly focused, and she performed well in her writing assignments and tests. However her absences grew more and more frequent, until one day she sent an email to her teachers saying that her mother was gravely ill. Judging from some of her writing and her communications, this student came from a vulnerable minority community somewhere in the southwest US. Later I would learn that she was of Navajo descent and lived on a reservation where her mother served as a healthcare worker.

I remember from that semester the internal conflict she voiced between wanting to please her mother by completing her education and pursue an advanced medical degree, and staying by her side while her health continually declined. The stress got to be unbearable, and she sought counsel from the chaplain’s office who then requested faculty and administrators to provide her a supportive leave of absence. I had heard nothing from her until late in the summer when she submitted additional materials that were incompletes in the previous semester. Lisa was determined to gain credit for the course she took with me. This young woman delivered well in her make-up exam and final writing assignments and passed the course. Whether her mother was doing better or worse at that point I thought was not appropriate to ask so all remained quiet.

Another semester had passed and I was relieved to hear from Lisa that she was back at Baylor in the spring of 2012. Knowing little of what had transpired in the past months I kept an optimistic outlook that she must be here with her mother’s blessing. And then I received news from her this past fall that her mother had passed. Lisa left the university once more to look after her mother, and she confided that she was one of her mother’s caregiver from her family, and I would gather that she was likely managing a fair amount of the details surrounding her funeral. There’s no doubt that Lisa’s mother’s passing affected her deeply and it became a source of inspiration for her to finish college and go on to advanced education.

As is my penchant for social science research, reflecting on Lisa’s message drove me to spend a couple of hours looking through the literature on the effects of the loss of a parent. I consulted Mark Regnerus and a couple of other colleagues who are much more familiar with this area of sociology than me. Turns out few were familiar with this topic in the research-sense. Mark drew me to his recent publication, a response to critics, using analyses from his much-controversial study, the National Family Structures Study. In the article based on the sample of over 3000 young adults, he included two family structures, one for those who had lost a parent while growing up and whose surviving parent remarried (if you access the full article see the Tables and look for column 12, 117 respondents) and another column for those who lost a parent and the surviving parent did not remarry (column 13, 28 respondents). I was most interested in the latter since such individuals were growing up in a single-parent household which is often linked with worse outcomes for kids. As it turns out, these few individuals who grew up in these challenging circumstances report higher overall happiness, lower clinical depression, lower impulsivity higher income (Tables 1 and 2) and less often in therapy compared to respondents who grew up in intact biological families – and this was the case even after accounting for the respondent’s age, gender, racial background, mother’s education, and household income while growing up. This was intriguing, what might explain this?

In personal correspondence, Mark attributed this to resilience in these respondents’ lives when they were younger. Indeed that is probably one factor for sure. Loss of a parent at any time is a character-shaping experience, but all the more so during one’s early formative years. Important too are the circumstances surrounding the passing of a parent. Was it due to accident, homicide, suicide, or untreatable illness? As it turns out previous research in this area known as child bereavement suggests that these differences do not statistically distinguish bereaved children in their mental health capacities. In another recent study researchers found that bereaved children were more likely to exhibit delinquent behaviors during their growing up years. Psychologically this makes sense: a child in such circumstances is acting out their felt sense of loss and injustice perhaps. If there is no good in the world, why strive to be good yourself?

If we connect this study with Regnerus’ work perhaps there is some intervention that takes place that helps these bereaved children rise above their own desire to act out. This is another explanation that a different colleague suggested to me. Communities, family and friends are generally more sympathetic and perhaps more supportive when one comes from a household with a widow or widower. Perhaps they can well interpret the acting out behavior as a cry for help and they respond in kind.

In the most recent email I received from this former student, she shared that the loss of her mother and caring for her through the ups and downs of longterm illness was difficult, she now interprets her experience as one that will make her into an excellent physician. Moreover she attributes her resilience in the context of her personal faith in a God who now comforts her mother. Indeed I was reminded once again of Margarita Mooney’s book title “Faith Makes Us Live” in thinking about this student and perhaps the many young people who struggle to make sense of their loss and pain.

This Thanksgiving I am grateful for students like Lisa who have helped me understand their lives better. By sharing some of their stories, I’m reminded that teaching is indeed very relational, and it is very often teachers themselves who learn more than they anticipated.

When is Suffering Transformative? Sullivan’s “Living Faith: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty”

According to the women Susan Crawford Sullivan interviewed for Living Faith: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty, what do homelessness, drug addiction, jail time, unplanned pregnancy and domestic abuse all have in common? They are all part of God’s plan to teach poor, young, single mothers that they are sinners in need of repentance. If a narrative of a judgmental God coming down hard on women who suffered due to their lack of personal responsibility strikes you as a problematic narrative, Sullivan and I’m sure most of the readers of this blog would agree with you.

On November 9th, 2012, I convened an author-meets-critics panel at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in which we discussed Susan’s book, which has won two awards from major associations in the sociology of religion, and in my comments, I argued that her book is so important to understand when suffering can be transformative among the poor, a topic I also dealt with in my book, Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora.

I want to congratulate Susan for one of the many accomplishments of her work: she is able to suspend her own judgments—at least temporarily—about what has caused these women’s sufferings to at least give the many poor women in Boston she spoke with a chance to express their own narratives. Don’t worry, if you read the whole book, which I strongly encourage you to do, you will find how Sullivan critiques the cultural narrative of the prosperity Gospel— which says if you do good you will be rich, the converse of which says if you are poor you must be a bad person (sadly, what many Americans think whether they are religious or not). You will also hear her critique the womanist liberation theology that people from oppressed situations are never responsible for what they do; it is the environment, or men, or the church, (but most certainly not the devil), that made them do it.

I want to focus my comments on what is my favorite chapter of the book, Chapter 5, “God has a Plan: Making Meaning.” Chapter 5 is a revised draft of an earlier chapter on narratives of suffering that Sullivan shared with me after we first met. In fact, I first met Susan right after my author meets critics session at the SSSR in 2009 for my book Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora. At that time, Sullivan was struggling to make sense of these very similar narratives she encountered: women told her things like an unwanted pregnancy ended up being a blessing from God; that going to jail for dealing drugs had taught them how to beg for God’s grace and mercy; that being homeless for a short time was a way God taught them to be strong. Many of them blamed themselves for their circumstances; they felt guilt for their own personal failings that brought them to the brink of survival, living in shelters and eating off food stamps and often unable to do what mattered most to them—be good mothers.

Susan Crawford Sullivan

So Susan and I discussed this view of suffering as redemptive, suffering as sent or allowed by God. Was this view good for these women, as they seemed to think, or was it bad for these women as the sociologists inside of us wanted to say? Susan and I exchanged emails and ideas for a few months, and we both read some of Ken Pargament’s excellent work on adult resilience, which talks about the power of suffering to produce the inner transformations these women said they experienced.

I then assigned Susan’s earlier version of this chapter about suffering as redemptive along with sections of Marie Griffith’s ethnography of women submitting to their husbands—even husbands who are not kind to them—and along with Pargament’s work on resilience and suffering. I wanted to see how my students would react to these women’s narratives.

Let’s listen to one such narrative from an exuberant woman, Latoya, who eloquently describes her self-image as a sinner in need of forgiveness and inner transformation. On p. 152, Susan describes how Latoya said:

“I feel that I need God in my life, you know. Maybe by going to church and praying, and praying more to have Section 8 [government-subsidized vouchers for private housing], maybe I’ll get an apartment. Maybe, you know, God will forgive me for my sins. I just got out of jail and all, some things that I did I am not proud of, and I need to go back to church and ask God for forgiveness. I went to jail for selling drugs, and I am not proud of it… I want to get saved, you know, and just ask God for forgiveness. For hurting other people and my kids… I think if I give myself to God, and I turn my life over to God, that things will get better…. Being saved means take away all of your sins, that I would be clean again… I want to turn my life over to God, I want to change my way of life. I want to be a better person. Because I never want to go back to jail. I never want to hurt anybody anymore… Because my soul would be clean, and I know that God would have forgiven me for all my wrongdoings. And I know I would never do no wrong anymore.” (Living Faith, p. 152)

The vast majority of my students rejected the whole notion that suffering is redemptive. Rather, the vast majority of students in  my sociology of religion class vehemently argued that a good God does not punish people with bad things. “She thinks that if she is homeless she can pray for a subsidized apartment and get it? C’mon!” They thought Susan’s interviewees confirmed Marx’s ideas—people turn to religion to alleviate their pain, which then alienates them from the true cause of their problems—the material poverty that made them so vulnerable to begin with. I think many of us struggle to accept these narratives as they are: isn’t there something wrong with women thinking God allows them to suffer because he wants them to be responsible?

But  when my students had this overwhelmingly negative response to the idea of suffering as redemptive, I pleaded for someone in that class to offer an alternative understanding of these women. I was frustrated because not only are these women poor, on welfare, often separated from their children and maybe recently homeless, but now my students are saying they are delusional in their narratives of personal failings for causing their problems and wrong to expect prayer to be effective in solving their problems. Further, my students thought these women should be chided for being so dumb as to believe their own mistakes got them to where they are. They seemed to be shouting, “Will someone please go really save these women from themselves and their religion!”

Then one quiet voice emerged. A bright African-American woman raised her hand and said gently, “Well, maybe these women believe they are responsible for where they are  because if they didn’t believe they were responsible for their problems, how would they have hope that they could take control of their lives and have a better future? I mean, people who are already beaten down in this world don’t just want to go to a church that is going to tell them they are not in control of their lives. They do want someone to tell them that they can have a better life if they do things they can control, and that they can pray to God for help and he will hear them.”

I asked Susan two questions. First, she did an excellent job of providing both a faithful rendition of how these women understand their own lives along with an often poignant critique of the social and structural circumstances that got them there, and she describes both helpful and harmful effects of religious narratives and religious institutions in these women’s lives. So this raises a question: what is our job as sociologists? To critique what we see? Or to represent people’s narratives as they see it? Or both? (She replied that it is both.)

I asked because lately I’ve been reading Andrew Sayer’s book Why Things Matter to People in which he says that the type of work Susan has done is the best of what sociology can do: a) enter in people’s lives, homes, and understand their narratives, even if don’t agree; b) then, using our sociological toolkit, describe the context, circumstances that contributed to these social problems; and c) offer some possible solutions or better ways.  All of these of these things Susan does in Living Faith.

Too often, sociologists want to offer some possible solutions but we hardly stop to think about people’s own narratives; we so easily discard the narratives of people we interview if they don’t match own narratives. This is what Thomas Kuhn called normal science—we are just confirming what we already think. But this is not what Susan has done. These women’s narratives challenged Susan, and she struggled to understand them, and she struggled with how to write about these women while being faithful to their self-understanding and yet also offering alternative religious narratives and structural solutions.

My second question was more personal. I asked Susan, “How did you respond as a person to these narratives?” I asked because when I did interviews for my book Faith Makes Us Live, I had no idea how to respond to the deep trauma people told me about. I remember a beautiful young woman who I call in my book Stephanie telling me about how in Haiti a group of men had broken into her house, took turns raping her, and burned her car—all for refusing to mobilize her community development group to support a particular presidential candidate.

She had has tears running down her cheeks when she told, “But I forgive them for what they did. They know in their heart that what they did to me is  wrong and they have to ask God to forgive them. But the nuns told me not to hold on to my anger; so I left the country because I wasn’t safe, but I forgive them.”  I said nothing—just like in most of my interviews when trauma came up, I was silent, and so terribly conflicted inside about what to do.

Only one time did I response as a fully human being to someone’s narrative of suffering. It was when a vibrant young leader named Karl asked me one day to drive him to college because his car had broken down. I had previously interviewed Karl—he was trained as a lawyer in Haiti and had worked in politics but finally sought exile after being shot during a campaign. He was in his 30s and had to start all over again—his degrees in law and political science from Haiti were in French and held no weight in the US. I had seen Karl energetically organizing political rallies; I had also seen him mobilizing prayer troops to go to the home of seriously ill people and singing to them praying for healing of cancer.

As we drove in the car, Karl looked at me and said with tears in his eyes, “You know, Margarita, I just don’t think I can do this anymore. I’ve had to give up everything, everything, to start my life over in the US and it is just so hard.  I have no job, I have no degree, every day is such a struggle. I feel like I’m never going to make it!” He looked so sad that I had a very emotional and very spontaneous outburst and I yelled at him while pounding the steering wheel, “No Karl! Not you! You cannot give up hope! I see how the youth look up to you. I see how you lead people to fight for better social and political conditions. I see you leading prayer groups. People follow you! God has a plan for your life, he is letting you go through these tough times but God will see you through this. You must have hope! You must promise me you won’t give up!” He thanked me profusely and promised me to keep fighting and leading his community.

Frankly, I was stunned at my own reaction. I had kept quiet in interviews for so long, but after months of interviews and observations, I had internalized this narrative of hope, of suffering as redemptive, and I basically gave Karl a mini-sermon that I had heard over and over again and initially wanted to reject as useless if not harmful. My sermon still expressed the sociologist in me. I had reacted so strongly precisely because I had come to see how this desperately poor and largely traumatized refugee community of Haitians really, really needed leaders like Karl with the good education, the strong faith and the enduring hope and the leadership skills to lead them out of their misery. The passionate human being in me could not let Karl give up.

So I asked Susan: how did you respond to these terribly sad and often disturbing narratives? Do we as sociologists have an obligation to engage with people’s suffering and their narratives that trouble us? If so, how? My quick answer to that is that yes, we do have obligations to enter into the lives of the people we study, even if their narratives and behaviors trouble us, but that does not mean we have to accept or endorse everything about their narratives in our personal interactions or our writing. Susan agreed, saying that when people spoke of trauma, she practiced empathic listening. At the end of interviews, she often offered to pray for people. She is going to donate part of the proceeds of her book to the shelters that help these women.

If you read this book, you will most certainly see that in many ways society and organized religion has failed these women. But you will hear their own heart-wrenching words about their experiences and failures, their hope in the midst of drug addiction, homeless, jail and abuse. You will come to sympathize and at least partially understand why they so long for an inner transformation, a meaningful relationship with God to provide them some guidance, some hope in otherwise dead-end circumstances.

God and Suffering: Remembering the Haitian Earthquake of January 2010

January 10, 2012, marks the 2nd anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Haiti. Having spent much time in Haiti and among Haitian migrants, the tragedy struck me in the heart. Tears rolled down my face when I heard the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince had been killed in the collapsed cathedral.

One of the major themes of my Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora was about Haitians’ resilient faith. In my initial reaction to the tragedy, I doubted my own confidence in Haiti’s ability to recover, my own hope for Haiti’s future.

Then I saw on the news that the Auxiliary Bishop of Port-au-Prince celebrated Mass outside the ruins. The songs they sang reminded me of the same church songs I sang in the Haitian choirs during my research and brought back my hope, my ability to imagine a better future for Haiti.

Just a few months later, in March 2010, I visited [Read more...]


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