They’d crossed over to that continent where grieving parents lived. It looked the same as the rest of the world, but wasn’t. Colors bled pale. Music was just notes. Books no longer transported or comforted, not fully. Never again. Food was nutrition, little more. Breaths were sighs. And they knew something the rest didn’t. They knew how lucky the rest of the world was.
― Louise Penny
It was absolutely this way for more than the first three years.
I remember the first summer after Dominic ran ahead to Heaven.
The days stretched interminably before me. I woke with a sigh and not a few tears as I realized I had to wait out another cycle of the sun before sleep (if it came!) would grant respite from the memories, the feelings, the ache in my heart.
Sometimes it was nearly unbearable.
But then I had a moment when I realized no day lasts forever. No matter how hard, no matter how long it seemed, it would end.
Even the worst day of my life only lasted twenty-four hours.
I had survived THAT day. I could survive any day.
I don’t know just when I figured it out, but somewhere in this Valley it dawned on me-NO day lasts forever.
Many feel like they do.
The day I got the news stretched impossibly long in front of me as calls were made and people came to be wtih us.
A year ago I was in the same city under very different circumstances.
My first grandson had been born at just over 28 weeks because his mama developed HELLP syndrome and was in mortal danger. Both he and she were in the hospital while we held our collective breath, begging for them to be OK.
We were filled with quiet but uneasy joy knowing as we do how death can come to steal it away.
This Sunday, family and friends gathered to watch this little guy grab his first birthday cake with gusto and smear his mama and daddy with blue icing.
You’d never know he got such a tentative start in life just by looking at him.
Grateful is too small a word for how we feel.
Last week was a roller coaster.
My first grandchild-a boy-was born prematurely on Saturday after several days of heart stopping, breath robbing drama as his mama went back and forth to the hospital three times in as many days.
My son, his father, is deployed overseas and paddling as fast as he can to get home.
The chair I sit in to write faces east and I can see the sky lighten every early morning through my big picture window.
I love greeting a new day, watching the world wake up, hearing the birds twitter around my home scooping up random bits of grain and cat food left behind by the outside animals.
And for a period of about two weeks, twice a year, I love something else-the rising sun is positioned in the perfect spot to cast it’s first golden glow above the trees squarely in my face as I sit here pecking away at the keyboard.
I could move out of the glaring light and continue my work.
But I don’t.
Instead I pause and turn my face toward the sun, soaking up every bit of warmth and light and feeling the energy flow from it to me for as long as it lasts.
And then it moves on.
Doing the work sun does for the whole earth-providing warmth and light for every living thing.
Grief can feel like one long dark night. It can wrap itself so tightly around a heart that no light penetrates the heavy cloak of sadness.
Then one day, one moment, one tiny heartbeat, the sun of gladness or laughter or sweet memory or act of kindness will be positioned just so and make it through.
Don’t move out of the glaring light of hope.
Turn your face and heart toward the gift and bask in its warmth. Let the energy of an extended hand, a thoughtful word, a precious bit of joy energize you.
It will move on and sadness will once again be your close companion.
But if you let it, the hope planted by the light will grow.
It will strengthen you for the journey.
It will sing courage over your heart and remind you in those darkest moments that night doesn’t last forever.
Not always, or even often, because it makes me feel better.
Rather, like poetry, music distills deep emotions into few words that resonate in my soul.
This isn’t a new song and I have heard it many times. But just the other day someone posted it in a group where we were praying desperately for a baby with profound health issues. Barring a touch from the Father’s hand, there was little hope.
The precious little warrior went home to rest, healed and whole, in the arms of Jesus.
So I listened again. And I realized how unbearably true the lyrics are.
Two months is too little
They let him go
They had no sudden healing
To think that providence would
Take a child from his mother while she prays
Who told us we’d be rescued?
What has changed and why should we be saved from nightmares?
We’re asking why this happens
To us who have died to live?
Natalie Grant, This is What it Means to be Held
Appalling, unfair, why did this happen?
Oh, how those questions still rattle around in my heart and mind on some days. When Dominic first left for Heaven they were my constant companion.
“Who told us we’d be rescued?”
Certainly not Jesus.
He said we’d have trouble in this world. He never sugar coated how hard life could be.
But He left us with the promise that He would be with us no matter what. We would never be alone in the flood or the fire or the deep, deep pit of child loss.
This is what it means to be held
How it feels when the sacred is torn from your life
And you survive
This is what it is to be loved
And to know that the promise was
When everything fell we’d be held
Child loss shattered everything-my heart, my world and my understanding of how God works in it. The sacred was most certainly “torn from my life”.
My struggle with the God I thought I knew was as painful as the devastation of burying my son.
This hand is bitterness We want to taste it, let the hatred numb our sorrow The wise hands opens slowly to lilies of the valley and tomorrow
It’s so tempting to swallow bitterness when unending despair seems like the only alternative.
But it doesn’t numb the sorrow. Bitterness turns a heart so hard it can’t feel anything-not even love.
The wise hand does open slowly-oh, so slowly-to the beauty and promise of tomorrow.
This is what it means to be held How it feels when the sacred is torn from your life And you survive This is what it is to be loved And to know that the promise was When everything fell we’d be held
When we received the news that Dominic left us that early, still-dark morning, I looked over to a sculpture of upturned hands on my living room table and said, “I can’t open my hands to receive blessings if I don’t also leave them open for the bruisings.”
God is holding me still. He is blessing me still.
I will, undoubtedly, be bruised again in some way.
It’s the subject of everything from romantic comedies tohundreds of books.
“Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” and all that.
So it shouldn’t surprise those of us walking this Valley that our spouse may be grieving very differently than we do. But it often does. Because everything is amplified when it echoes off the high mountains on either side.
And just when we need it most-for ourselves and for extending to others-grace is often in short supply.
So differences become offenses and offenses stack like bricks to build a wall between us and the one person as intimately connected to our missing child as we are.
Instead of holding each other up, we sometimes tear each other down. Instead of leaning in, we pull away. Instead of talking, we tune out.
Instead of crying together, we cry alone.
Even when we open up and try to address these differences it often ends in disagreement or is met with silence.
I firmly believe that grief doesn’t really change the fundamentals in a relationship but it magnifies them. We all have cracks in our marriages. Two imperfect people do not make a perfect couple regardless of how lovely the photos might be.
Child loss makes the cracks more evident. What might be ignored otherwise, becomes unavoidable. Add gender differences to the load of grief and it’s no wonder many of us struggle.
So how can a marriage survive?
Here are a few pointers:
Admit that you and your spouse are different people. Your life experiences, gender and personality affect how each of you grieve. Different isn’t better or worse, it’s just different.
Purpose to assume the best and not the worst of your spouse. When he or she makes a comment or shoots you a “look” don’t immediately ascribe dark motives. It may be she’s having an especially bad day or he is tired or distracted.
Look for common ground. When you are both in a neutral environment and rested, ask your spouse what they need from you. Then listen without being defensive. It could be that seeing you cry upsets him so that’s why he tries to shut you down. She might long to hear him say their child’s name aloud. Even if nothing changes, sometimes being heard makes a difference.
Consider couples’ counseling. Having someone outside your immediate grief circle listen to and guide you through feelings, concerns and problems is almost always helpful. It might only take a few sessions to give you both the tools necessary to walk yourselves through the rough patches.
Talk TO your spouse instead of ABOUT him or her. This can be a hard one! I think we all need a safe friend or two who will let us vent. That’s healthy. But it’s not healthy to talk about our spouse to others in what amounts to a bid for support of our own opinions and prejudices. Gathering wood for the fire of offense is easy. Putting out the blaze (even if you want to) is hard.
Remember that when feelings fluctuate, commitment carries you through. Grief isn’t just one emotion, it’s a tangled ball of emotions. On a given day you might feel sad, disoriented, angry, anxious and despondent. All that emotional weight is added to whatever else you may be feeling about your spouse. Sometimes it’s just too much to bear and running away seems like the most logical answer. But it’s not. We can never run far enough or fast enough to get away.
There’s no magic to marriage before or after child loss.
It’s mostly work.
We can choose to do that work together in spite of our differences.
We can choose to grow stronger instead of growing apart.
My husband and I do not do this perfectly or even close to perfectly. But we are still trying. At different points in this long (almost) six years, we’ve been better or worse at all of it. So don’t think if you are struggling it means you can’t get hang on. Sometimes it’s by the tips of your fingernails, but if you refuse to let go, you can make it.