Faith, death and pills - a father's story
Trigger warning: This story discusses infant loss.
When Nic Mackay and Dawn Mlotshwa’s first child was born, she was barely on the cusp of life. She had reached just 23 weeks and five days of gestation. She weighed a tiny 588 grams.
“That’s almost four months early – doctors and hospitals don’t tend to resuscitate before 24 weeks,” Mackay tells Eternity.
“Everyone told us it would be a hard decision to make. It should have been. It wasn’t.” – Nic Mackay
Even before their daughter was born prematurely, the couple had to decide whether they even wanted to try to give her a chance at life. They were well aware of the risks and challenges she might face by being born so much earlier than her due date.
“The obvious Christian answer is ‘absolutely, you always resuscitate,’ but it’s not quite that simple when you really look at the potential consequences,” he says.
As Mackay relates in his compelling autobiography, Faith, Death and Pills, if anyone was justified in choosing to end the life of their baby, then surely it was them. He writes: “The statistics were scary. Really scary. And yet, as I read the information detailing the prospects for a preterm baby, I didn’t see fear. I saw hope. I didn’t see the burden of possible disability. I saw, perhaps for the first time, just how precious life is.”
“Ninety-five out of every 100 babies born at 23 weeks either die or have some form of ongoing disability … but five don’t! Why couldn’t my daughter be one of those five? How could I not give her the chance to at least try? Even if she did emerge with some ongoing issues, would that make me love her any less? Who was I to put the personal challenge that would come from parenting a child with disabilities ahead of the blessing she could be to others because of who she was, not what she could or couldn’t do?
“Everyone told us it would be a hard decision to make.
“It should have been.
“In fact, it was perfectly clear for both me and Dawn. We chose to resuscitate. We chose to give our daughter every chance to live.”
Nic and Dawn named their bundle of joy Zinhle – Zulu for “beautiful one,” in honour of her mother’s South African heritage. Zizi, as she became known, was a fighter, but her lungs were too immature to allow her to breathe independently of a ventilator.
After three roller-coaster months in the intensive care unit – and poor responses to three rounds of steroids to help Zizi’s lungs develop – the couple faced another life-and-death decision. This time, they chose death.
“What I never expected was that he would somehow manage to do both.” – Nic Mackay
But it was a most remarkable death, one that showed equally God’s power and his sovereignty.
“We turned off the life support and she continued breathing for far longer than any of us were told that she would,” Mackay relates. “Then she stopped breathing and died – and then came back to life again! And then we took her home. And then a couple of hours later, she died – this time permanently.
“Where I’d got to towards the end of her life was that – and this is one of the really key lessons that I have continued to take with me – in the case of my daughter, either God would exercise his power and he would divinely intervene and heal my child through all of the medicine and science, or he would exercise his sovereignty and he would take her back to him.
“What I never expected was that he would somehow manage to do both, which is what I believe he did do when he miraculously brought her back to life that first time. Yet, [God] then still ultimately took her to be with him a couple of hours later.
“That was a real defining moment for me.”
One of the wonderful and unexpected ways God spoke to Mackay amid the storm of Zizi’s short life was through a children’s Bible that he would read to his daughter, calming her with his voice. There was a particular story that he felt God was sending him about Jesus healing a blind beggar in John 9:1-3:
Jesus and his disciples saw a blind beggar. He had been blind since he was born. The disciples asked Jesus, “Teacher, did this man sin? Or did his parents? Is that why he is blind?”
“No one sinned,” said Jesus. “This happened so that God’s work could be shown in his life.”
“So that verse says it was not his sin nor his parents’ sin that caused him to be that way, but rather this happened in order to show that the power and the truth of God could be revealed,” Mackay reflects.
“That was a really significant one for me, both in reminding myself that there was nothing that we had done in order to put our daughter in this situation – which can easily consume you as a parent, and lead you kind of down a rabbit hole of guilt …
“Ultimately, her death would bring glory to God, and that that was something that we could hang on to, whether it was revealed or whether we noticed it or not … And even through the process of this book, I hope in some way it brings glory to God. That’s certainly my desire.”
“… The way that we treat others is the way that we treat God.” – Nic Mackay
A successful social entrepreneur, Mackay helped to start Australia’s largest youth-run organisation, the Oaktree Foundation, which has helped mobilise billions in government aid to fight global poverty. He also helped to pioneer global citizenship and social action education as National Program Director of the High Resolves Initiatives, reaching m0re than 60,000 high school students across Australia.
He has written Faith, Death and Pills in three sections – with the first detailing his reluctant conversion to Christianity and his persistent doubts and questioning.
“I came to a place of understanding that the two greatest commandments of loving God and loving others are actually one and the same thing. There’s a reason that Jesus says that the second is like the first, because the way that we treat others is the way that we treat God,” he explains.
“Part of my journey has been getting to a point where I could understand my inherent passion for justice has been something that I felt like God had put inside me. As I then came into relationship with Christ, I saw that that passion could be part of the way that I lived out my faith and part of the practical difference that I made in the lives of others.”
Mackay’s book then chronicles Zinhle’s short time on earth and her death – and what God taught him through the process.
He believes his stumbling, doubt-filled journey to faith helped him in the season of suffering that God allowed him to go through.
“For me, that process of struggling and almost feeling compelled to ask hard and deep questions, was really helpful for me. In embracing my doubts as something that could fuel my faith and refine my faith, I was able to meet the season of great challenge around my daughter’s birth and, eventually, her death in a way that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to properly reconcile,” he reflects.
“I think perhaps it does a disservice when we are unwilling to explore those questions, to entertain doubts, to embrace the mystery and the uncertainty that comes with life. And even with God, when we are willing to say that we don’t have all the answers and we don’t know everything that God is and will do – I mean that in many ways is true freedom, right? To give up that sense of full knowledge, full control.”
In the third section of his book, Mackay describes how his attempts to be Superman in the aftermath of Zinhle’s death – not acknowledging his grief and sadness or allowing himself to cry – led to a period of deep and prolonged suffering. He discovered there is no single right way to deal with grief and achieve healing, but there are plenty of wrong ways.
“I think there’s an even bigger challenge for the men in the space because the cultural expectation is one of all strength, regardless of circumstances. And it’s a kind of false strength,” he says.
“Interestingly, Jesus models exactly the opposite, right? He is certainly the best example of what it means to be a man, and yet he was more than willing to shed tears over the death of one of his close friends, Lazarus, even though he knew he was going to bring him back. It’s remarkable what he shows us through his life and his time on earth.”
“Part of why I felt it was so important to speak about my own journey of mental health is to help others.” – Nic Mackay
While feeling and sharing grief is a challenge for all men, Christian or otherwise, Mackay believes it can be an even bigger challenge for Christian men because they are often told – and tell themselves – that the solution lies in spiritual tools such as prayer.
“I’m not speaking against that – I think prayer is perhaps the most powerful thing that we have as Christians. However, it doesn’t mean that your prayers will be answered at the time and in the way that you might want or feel like. And there are very different reasons for that. But part of why I felt it was so important to speak about my own journey of mental health is to help others – revealing the depth that I descended to, including suicidal thoughts, and the ways that I found my way out of that.”
Ironically, it wasn’t until the birth of Mackay’s son four years ago, feeling exhausted from lack of sleep and spent from overwork, that he began to experience anxiety as well as depression. A year down the track, he was persuaded to take antidepressants, which eased his suffering.
“That’s become a manageable thing for me, in part through the use of medication, which was a massive stigma for myself and for the Christian community,” explains Mackay.
“Part of the reason I thought it was so important to talk about this was because people don’t, for the most part.
“All of the research tells us that nearly half of us will experience issues of mental health in one way or another. Christians are not immune from that.
“If we don’t respond, if we don’t actually have these conversations and try and be there for each other and try and best understand the nature of God in sickness and in healing and, ultimately, in health, we are not only doing ourselves a disservice, but we’re perhaps preventing God from revealing himself to us in the way that he wants to.
“There was a lesson for myself and hopefully for others as well, that there can be power in stepping out and being willing to share.”
In an extremely powerful section of the book, Mackay makes the remarkable observation that there’s something almost comforting and attractive about depression, which can make you not want to give it up.
“It feels like the worst type of warm hug you’re going to have. We just kinda settle into it and it’s not really going anywhere, but it’s actually constraining you from standing up and moving on. It almost becomes like a sense of confidence, stability in the midst of everything that’s unstable in the world, and that’s why I found it so hard to get out of,” he reveals.
It was only when he went to see a Christian psychologist in South Africa that he realised he was finally ready to get well.
“It was so offensive to even hear myself say that. Am I saying that for the last five years I haven’t actually wanted to get well? I did, but something about the depression had stopped me from really, deeply wanting it to the point where I was seeking it and willing to step into it,” he says.
“I think you almost have to have that moment, that switch, before the real healing can begin.”
While he believes there is no shame in needing antidepressants to correct a physiological imbalance in the brain, he also believes it’s important to explore spiritual healing that may lead someone to a point where they no longer need the medicine – “but it also might not and both of those scenarios are okay.”
“I definitely think we need to do more because the aversion that I had to taking medication didn’t come from nowhere.
“There is something within the culture of the church that made me think that I would be failing [if I took antidepressants], so I think we do need to be having more of these conversations. If only to release people from that sense of self-condemnation that they have somehow failed, that they’re not spiritual enough or that their sin is too great to overcome this. To actually just allow them to entertain the prospect that God can and does work through medicine, just as he does in a whole bunch of other ways.
“Part of their journey to healing – at least, it was for me – to a deeper and greater relationship with God, may actually be in the most unexpected way.”
If the content in this article has affected you because of your own experience of loss, we encourage yout to seek support. For Australian readers, a range of support services are linked here.