I have thought of a thousand ways to start this post over the last year. None of them worked.
Finally, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is just no good way to talk about anyone grieving the loss of a child. It is utter heartbreak, and words don’t do it justice.
How do you explain the soul-crushing pain, the mother who knows there is no hope, the father with tears in his eyes? How do you make someone understand the fact that from here on out, no family picture will be complete- someone always missing? How?
It’s especially hard to make anyone understand that grief in a culture where babies are not even valued as they should be, where people fight to have the right to let them go. How do you make someone understand the depth of longing we have for our babies, before they even enter this world?
You just can’t do it with words, sometimes.
I have lived this nightmare- both my own and that of others. A miscarriage of my own, but early on, so many don’t understand why it hurts. But it ripped off my blinders to the grief of that kind of loss. I TRULY did NOT understand the pain before I walked that road.
And it has taught me to tread lightly in the wake of others’ grief. It has also taught me the beauty of walking that dark road with someone. Because I needed other women who had been there to hold me up as I went through the loss, the making it public, the missing that baby every Christmas season when it should have had a birthday.
And so many women stood beside me. Phone calls and emails and blog comments to let me know they had stood where I stood, and survived and so would I. That my words were like an echo to them of their own exact thoughts.
And a few women said things without understanding- words that cut like a knife. They just couldn’t keep their opinions to themselves and cut my heart to ribbons with their thoughtlessness.
This has made me wary. Made me realize I too have likely hurt others out of my ignorance before I had felt this pain. Empty words and phrases that probably only made me feel better in a moment of someone else’s loss.
So I sit here, a year gone by, trying to carefully, thoughtfully gather the words and set the stage to talk about Ella.
And I find the words still won’t come. There’s no nice and neat way to wrap up and introduce a story about grief because it doesn’t stop.
But I do feel I owe it to her. Partially because Ella had a big brother, Finn, whose story was the same. But it happened before I had gone down my own road of loss, and I most certainly said some of those phrases I now know were empty and unhelpful.
So here goes.
My friends Elizabeth and Austin have two beautiful boys, Will, and Emmett.
I used to nanny Will. He’s six now.
When he was a baby, they got pregnant again, with Finn. I was excited for them! Another baby.
And at the 12 week check up, they got some horrible news. Finn was not going to make it. His lymphatic fluid was not draining properly. It would result in his death with very little chance of survival, and no surgery could fix this.
Elizabeth is a nurse in a pediatric private practice. With her growing belly, surrounded by babies, she faced the constant onslaught of questions about her pregnancy, and daily had to politely get through the conversations, knowing her pregnancy would end in grief. (Let me pause here to implore you never ask a woman about her pregnancy if she doesn’t bring it up herself- you never know what she is facing.)
One morning, I showed up to take care of Will, and I found Betty, Elizabeth’s mom, and JD, Elizabeth’s stepdad, there with them. They couldn’t find Finn’s heartbeat. The doctors confirmed- he was gone.
I offered to take some pictures of her belly for her. I will never forget furiously thinking to myself, “You will NOT cry and make this harder on her” as I took a picture of her swollen belly next to the Christmas tree- next to an ornament that said “Baby’s First Christmas.”
I still think about it every time I decorate a tree.
They left for the hospital, and I walked outside to the cool air, called Tom, and broke down crying. I had never been so close to the loss of a child. I had never seen it up close like this. It was worse than I had thought it would be.
They were told that they would probably never see this issue again. There were no genetic anomalies. It was a fluke.
At this point, a few months later, I got pregnant and had a miscarriage. I began to see that some of the things I had said to Elizabeth concerning her deep loss were probably useless and empty things.
The longer you carry and know your child, the deeper your attachment, and therefore, the deeper your pain if you lose your baby. And I lost my baby early. I cannot fathom loss at 5 months, at birth, or after. Somehow, she let me call her and cry to her about all I was feeling. She never compared, never made me feel like mine was not what it was- a lost child.
Not long after, I got pregnant with Josey, Will was turning two and about to start preschool, I was very nauseated, and we all decided it was a good time for me to exit nannying for them as I would be a stay at home mom in a few months anyway.
Then, they got pregnant again. They had Emmett, a healthy baby boy. He’s 3 now. The doctors seemed to be right- Finn’s condition had been a fluke.
Elizabeth and Austin got pregnant again. This time, they wanted to have a girl. They were excited and hopeful.
Austin contacted me to say he wanted to surprise Elizabeth with a gift of a photo session. He wanted to hire me to give her a maternity session and newborn session. I was excited to do it.
But then, at twelve weeks, the doctors gave them those crushing words that the same thing that happened to Finn was happening to their fourth child. And that this time it was happening more rapidly. And also, yes, they were having a girl.
The doctors must have been wrong after all. Not a fluke. Just a rare issue that little is known about, with no obvious markers to show it might happen again.
I don’t know how to describe to you how Austin and Elizabeth handled it. They were more open this time, telling the world what they were facing, asking for prayer.
They grieved, they cried, they asked for a miracle. They let it all in- the pain, the slim hope, the friends who wanted to love on them.
It became more obvious that Ella- named after her mother and grandmother- was not going to make it after all.
I called Elizabeth and told her of the gift Austin wanted to give her. He had never mentioned it, she told me. I told her I wanted it to be my gift to them- a maternity session while Ella lived inside her.
When I got to Betty and JD’s lakehouse that morning, I sat with Austin, took one look into his eyes, and promptly started to cry. I cannot look at a man fighting back tears and hold it together, no matter how unfair that is to them.
We talked about all they were going through. I told him how it doesn’t seem right that the same couple should have to endure this twice.
He told me how it hurts every bit as much this time around, but that there is more peace this time. More searching for God in the grief. Letting themselves grieve all along was better than waiting.
And how some friends were even coming to see that there was a kind of inexplicable peace they were showing even in the midst of the deep, deep pain. Why? How could they get up in the morning and face the day? It opened doors to discuss God and what it means to face the worst this world offers when you know that there is a promise of something better and more to come- a life after this world.
Or, as the bible calls it, a peace that surpasses understanding. It doesn’t soften your pain. The pain of loss is sharp and cruel- the very nature of living in this world is knowing you’ll encounter it eventually. We all understand and dread this. We prefer not to think of it until we have to, until the day it comes to our door.
But this peace is what trumps understanding. It makes no sense to a watching world. And honestly, it makes no sense to us either. How can we face another day? How can we be kind when we want to lash out? How can we put one foot in front of the other and do it without becoming bitter?
Do we feel anger? Yes.
Do we hurt? Yes.
Are we just feeling less pain? No.
But is there something different? Yes. Joy, even when we lack happiness in the moment. Peace given to us like a gift- the quiet reassurance that in the face of this pain, this is not the end after all.
We know this peace comes from God, but it’s mysterious because it’s so unnatural. Peace in death is usually only meant for the one we lose, not those left behind. It truly leaves you in awe when you see it.
A grieving family. A mother, holding her daughter and granddaughter. “Sorrow and love flow mingled down.” My camera and I stood witness to that truth playing out.
This time, I let the tears spring to my eyes.
I looked at these faces- faces of friends I have known for years, who understand grief and held onto a future promise, and I knew there just weren’t words to do it justice.
But that day, halfway through the session, Elizabeth gave me permission to share not just their pictures but even their story. She said if it could help someone else, she wanted it out there, where others could see it.
It’s been a year since Ella went home to heaven. For a year, I have sat on this. I wondered how to say it. How to describe the beauty they displayed in the face of loss and pain and heartbreak.
I finally realized there are just no words that can- you just have to say it in all your fumbling ways, guaranteed to fall short, and pray that it accomplishes what you hoped for anyway.
That someone out there will read this and feel understood in their grief.
That someone out there will have an answer to the otherworldly peace they see some Christians display in loss and have understanding for the first time.
That some Christians would understand that having peace doesn’t mean you can’t feel pain and anger and admit that this is more than you can take and that you need help- whether it’s the help of a friend, a church, or a professional.
That wherever you are, when you see someone dealing with loss, you tread lightly, not knowing what words will help and what words will hurt. But also, that you don’t distance yourself from those who are walking a dark road. Walk it with them. I promise it will hurt, but I also promise there is a beauty- a refining that happens- when you choose to grieve with someone through their loss.
And that if you have lost a child, you are not forgotten in your grief. Let someone in- let someone walk through the grief with you. This is too heavy to face alone.
And to sweet Elizabeth, Austin, Will, and Emmett- I hope these words soothe and comfort rather than make the pain worse. You aren’t forgotten in your pain; Finn and Ella will never be forgotten either because you allowed others to care for them and grieve them. We loved them, and we love you.