Hello, my sweet boy. Tonight, I’m going to dinner with friends from church. We’ll dine at a nice downtown restaurant—Chuck’s Fish. I can see our party, thirty-something women, the day’s stress lines smoothed away with fresh applications of make-up, our hair glossy and styled…or at least shaken out of the typical scraggly ponytail, and our dresses…too flirtatious for Sunday School, but too nice for Target. To the other diners and our servers, we’ll look like a gaggle of moms, out for a much-needed night away from the husband and the kids.
While they won’t be wrong per say as we are all indeed moms, they will be mistaken for the cause for the occasion. Today marks what would have been the due date for one of the women in our group. She was due with twins who as I understand were conceived after a long and difficult battle and whose very conceptions were nothing shy of miraculous.
I say “as I understand” because I don’t know this mom, but I’ve walked if not in her shoes then down a similar path. I’m ashamed to admit that when I found out that she already had a daughter, a fraction of me was relieved, not because her daughter in makes up for the absences in her life, but because I know that having already had Lillianne when we lost you helped me cope; Lillianne was a reason to pick myself up and to be courageous, to get out of bed and face the day.
After I came home from the hospital, I remember wanting to clean the house, to undecorate from Christmas before your funeral. I didn’t care that it was December twenty-ninth or that the twelve days of Christmas actually starts after Christmas or that you’re supposed to keep your decorations up until the Feast of the Epiphany. I just wanted to get Christmas out. I’d ordered photos of you to be printed, so we could put them up at your funeral, the only birthday party you’d ever have, and at the house after the funeral, so the people who came to visit could see how beautiful you were.
That night, all of the lights were on in the house. Where the corridor spills into the den, I stopped, kneeled down very carefully—having just had a C-section, I couldn’t pick Lillianne up, and hugged your then eighteen-month-old sister and said, “You have no idea how much I’m counting on you right now.” In short, Lillianne was essential to my healing and to my strength after you died.
I soon considered myself fortunate…as fortunate as a mother who has lost a baby can, that you weren’t my first. In the pregnancy after loss support group I joined on Facebook, I soon lost count of the number of grieving and despairing mothers who’d lost their first baby, and many shared stories not only of their sorrow but also of their frustration over the “support” friends and family gave them.
For many women who lose a baby, well-intended yet unwitting friends and family say so many wrong things:
- You’re young—you can always have another one.
- There is always adoption. (Often said to those who battle to have babies with or without a miscarriage, stillbirth, or loss after birth. While yes, adoption is an amazing gift to give to a child who needs a loving home and to one’s self, it has nothing to do with the pain and loss of infertility or other loss.)
- At least you weren’t that far along. (This is common with first trimester losses and is absurd. Early loss mothers often suffer their losses in silence. What is more, they, like the rest of us, never have a pregnancy afterward where they aren’t riddled with anxiety and fear.)
- Thank goodness you already have other children. (Said in cases where people have other children, which…yes, thank God for my other child; however, Lillianne isn’t Jude, and he isn’t her. My heart has a special place that belongs only to Jude, and none of my babies, none before and none after, can fill that space. This is often hard for moms who are blessed enough to have rainbow babies, babies after loss, to cope with. Many pregnancy after loss moms report a mix of anguish and joy when they meet their rainbow, the realization that even though they have a beautiful, living, healthy baby to love and to celebrate, that baby will never be the baby or babies that they lost.)
- Everything happens for a reason. (This can also be “It’s God’s plan.”)
In truth, I felt incredibly uncomfortable with the last reason because unlike some people, I do believe that our lives are purposeful. I love that we can sometimes and often find a greater purpose or sense in our chaotic world, a world where order is literally created from chaos down to the molecular level. We live in a divinely designed world, but grief and loss are painful and are terrible. It can be hard for many to wrap their heads around that those unpleasant things are also by design.
That said, while I believe that life is purposeful and that God indeed has a plan, and while I also believe that we can derive meaning and beauty from most anything, even the ugliest of things, I’ve come to realize that it’s never okay to remind someone who is aching with grief and sadness that “everything happens for a reason”. They will come to that when and if they are ready. Telling a grieving mother that her baby died for a reason or because God was trying to get her attention is like telling her that she got what was coming to her. It just creates pain and cognitive dissonance.
The other thing that people cannot understand is how a mother or father feels when they lose a baby or babies…at any age or stage. Most people are horrified, and they can’t imagine, especially if they are already parents. For most parents, losing one of their babies is a gut-wrenching fear, something they know that happens but that they believe will never happen to them, much like when we get into a car, we believe that we won’t be the one to get into the fender bender. That kind of ego is good. It gives us the confidence to brave the world on a daily basis, to put our children out there, to send them to school, to give them keys to a car at age sixteen. We know that school shootings happen and that foolhardy teens with no sense of danger get into fatal, high-speed car crashes every day, but we assume that won’t be our child. Most of us are lucky.
I remember one semester, perhaps the semester where I was expecting you, I was teaching a composition class at the University of South Alabama in the evening. One of my favorite things about evening classes is that I usually have more non-traditional students, students who have matured into adulthood enough to really value their educational experience, and by that I mean, to embrace what we’re doing in English composition (because it’s awesome).
That semester, I had a student. He was a tall, attractive young man in his mid-twenties who’d moved to Mobile from Florida. He wrote a paper about the frustrations of online dating. He was lonely but struggled to find a mate in the texting, Facebooking, hooking up culture of his Millennial peers. One evening as class wrapped up, he asked about feedback on his rough draft. In discussing the paper, he admitted he’d been in a long-term relationship prior to moving and that he’d almost become a father with his ex-girlfriend. He said that he and his girlfriend had become pregnant but didn’t realize it until they were fairly far along. They’d been happy once they realized they were expecting and quickly embraced the idea that they’d become parents together; however, somewhere between twenty and thirty weeks, they lost the baby.
He said he was sad, but he also said it was for the best. The relationship dissolved, so, how could it not be for the best? I expressed my sympathy, but at the same time, I agreed to myself that it must have been for the best. They were two unwed young people still trying to figure it out. Adding kids to that mix is like throwing a drowning man a cinderblock.
In hindsight, I wish I’d have been more sympathetic; I wish I’d realized that while he learned to live with his loss and to find a way to see the glass half full, there was a depth to his pain that scraped the bottom of the glass, a pain I couldn’t possibly have understood until I lost you
While that young man is probably married now with more children, but I’m sure he thinks about that baby, what they’d be like, how old they’d be…the same things I wonder about you.
Yesterday, I met a woman at my mother’s store who admitted she lost her son in his twenties. He was at work, and he and his best friend were simultaneously electrocuted. “He would be fifty-five now,” she said.
I have watched my best friend’s mother brush her hand across her son’s name on his headstone. He passed away twenty years ago when his sister, my best friend, and I were sixteen. I wept at your funeral when my best friend’s father collapsed into tears in a torrent of empathy and grief. I’ve seen a childhood friend’s mother post link after link and meme after meme to express a bottomless sorrow in the short year and a half after her youngest son passed away unexpectedly in his late twenties.
You, my Jude, will be five-years-old come December 26. In that time, I have started to climb the endless mountain of grief. I’m no longer in the pit of my despair.
I no longer feel threatened by the chasm of sorrow, the one that sucks a broken soul into it and takes their life in the way that the mother of the other man who was electrocuted grieved herself to death a few short months after her son died.
I no longer feel wounded, upset, hurt, and empty to see a pregnant woman or a woman with a new baby. That feeling faded after a couple of years. Now, I feel pure joy. I’m giddy for other people in their hope and in the blossoming of new life.
I’m no longer prone to lachrymose episodes at Target, in the car, on my pillow in the wee hours of the morning, in the shower, or any other place where the pain of reality capriciously strikes like a lightning bolt, where emptiness engulfs in a single gulp.
In fact, I no longer want people to pity me. I realize that sounds bizarre, but I like to be able to talk about you; however, I don’t need people to become moist and mournful when I mention you among my four children because I do have four children, and I am proud of all of you. I want to talk about all of you. It just so happens one of my babies is in heaven.
It is challenging to control the knee-jerk, “It’s okay,” in response to the sorrowful, “I’m so sorry,” that comes when I mention that I have an angel baby. It’s not okay. It will never be okay. It’s okay actually just means that I’m okay. While I’m only at about base camp one, I’m also not at the bottom of the mountain.
From my (almost) five-year vantage point, I can see down a ways, and because of those who have loved and lost and lived before me, I can see a ways up, too. For those who are trekking these sometimes lonely mountain trails with me, take comfort in knowing that you’re not alone. Even if you can’t see the people walking beside you, behind you, and ahead of you, they’re there. You’re with them at the store, in traffic, at the restaurant, at work. They just don’t know your story, and you don’t know theirs. It’s for this reason it’s not only important to be kind to others but also to yourself. I’ve found the more I share my story, the more and more people I see walking alongside me. I know the terrain gets rough here and there, and there will be times, especially on your birthday, little man, where I am weak, where I slip, stop, and weep. I’m able to pull myself back up, though, and keep walking because I’ve seen those ahead of me do it.
It’s in this way that our losses are beautiful. Like an invisible thread of angels, you, my son and those other children, connect us. Weaving illuminated strands in and out of one another, you are the tether that we hold onto, that flows through our hearts and souls, and that allows us to reach out, ahead, and backward to others who are in pain and to say, “Let me help you. I understand. It’s okay to hurt. Share your burden and come walk with me. We are all in this together.” And so on we go.
Thank you, my sweet boy, for being beautiful. I loved you before I met you. I loved you more when I met you, and just as with your sisters, my love for you grows with each passing day. Until we meet again, my little heart.