One month ago today, my husband and I sat in a dark ultrasound room with stupid, silly smiles on our faces as the technician confirmed that the little baby bouncing around in my belly was indeed a girl. A daughter that we had named after my mother and sister with the great hope that she would be possessed of the same grace and light as her namesakes. We had big plans for this little girl, our first and only after three wonderful boys. The anticipation of her was enough to crack our hearts wide open. She made all of the world’s colors seem a little bit brighter.
Three weeks later, during another routine ultrasound, we were given the heartbreaking news that our daughter was gone at 22 weeks gestation.
A mere two days after that, before slipping off into a deep, sedated sleep, I begged the doctors to avoid a hysterectomy at all costs when the routine procedure to remove my lifeless baby left me hemorrhaging dangerous amounts of blood.
The text messages, phone calls and emails came pouring in later that day and I was exceedingly grateful for each one. I was presented with different iterations of the same question: “How are you doing?” and I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. “I am so grateful to have my uterus, which is a very strange thing to say when three days ago I thought I was having a baby.”
The weather over the past week or so has been perfectly reflective of my mood. My husband tells me this phenomenon is called an Elizabethan Echo. I’m not sure if that’s accurate, but it certainly sounds lovely. Long, lagging spells of cloudiness interrupted by bursts of bright sunshine. Having never before experienced this kind of soul-crushing grief (coupled with extreme physical trauma), I have not the slightest idea how to navigate these stormy days ahead. I am assured by people who have been through a similar loss that the pain will eventually subside, but I don’t really understand how that’s possible. It feels like it has become a permanent part of my constitution. My guess is that you never grow out of grief; you probably just grow around it. Like shrubs growing around a stubborn rock that has been part of the forest floor for decades.
But what I do understand — with a clarity I wish I didn’t have — is how everything can change in an instant. How life can knock you down with a cruel and unexpected blow when you least expect it. Just when I had started to get comfortable with my cozy little existence — three beautiful boys with a girl on the way, great marriage, new house, rewarding career — the bottom fell out from under me. I became the one-in-one-thousand.
As a person of great faith, I find comfort in knowing that God had other plans for our girl; that there is a reason why this happened. As a person of great impatience, I of course want to know what that reason is right now. But Court rightfully reminds me that we may never know. And that it’s a mistake to assume that the reason has anything to do with me at all. His point — profound and poignant– is that perhaps God used me as a conduit so that someone else may learn a lesson. The condition that took our daughter’s life is exceedingly rare and, therefore, very under-researched. Perhaps someone else needed her to learn something important. I’m not sure if that idea is comforting or gut-wrenching. Depends on the day, I suppose. But at the very least I treat it as an academic exercise to keep my mind distracted from this unimaginable pain.
I am also forcing myself to get out of the house. Earlier this week I went to Wegmans to restock our severely depleted refrigerator and pantry. I was nervous to go. I thought everyone would stop and stare at the grieving mother. But the exact opposite happened. No one paid me any attention. People went about their business – sipping their lattes while bagging their produce — and I found myself getting irritated. Doesn’t anyone know what I’ve been through?! I wanted to yell. Doesn’t anyone care that my heart is broken?
And then, in aisle 7 as I was searching for the exact right peanut butter for my son Luke (which I never did find), it occurred to me that there were probably lots of broken hearts at Wegmans that day.
Here’s what I know about grief so far. It is a life force, as strong and unpredictable and vibrant as joy. It can be loud and overwhelming in its presentation, or quiet and subtle, but it is always there under the surface. And you have to acknowledge it. You have to allow it to articulate itself and move through you. Otherwise it will pool in the bottom of your heart and drown you.
But grief is also selfish. It wants to be the only show in town so it casts your world in darkness and makes it difficult to breathe. And if you overindulge it– if you allow it too much room– it will wrap itself around you like a weed and slowly suffocate you.
Dealing with grief is tricky business.
So I have been very intentional these past few weeks. I have allowed myself to cry in the shower, on the floor of our daughter’s unfinished nursery, driving down the street. I have allowed myself to think about her and to feel everything — including the incredibly-petty-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things-frustration of pregnancy weight gain without a viable pregnancy or a baby to show for it. But I have also chosen to be joyful. When something is funny, I laugh. If something tastes good, I eat more of it. I squeeze my boys a bit tighter and lounge on the couch with my husband a bit longer. I am certain that joy and grief can coexist. But first you may just have to go through the motions.
Telling our boys about their sister was hard. The two younger ones didn’t quite understand, but Max certainly did. He handled the news better than I thought he would (kids are so resilient), but still with great difficulty. After many tears and several hugs, I asked him if he had any questions.
“Mama?” he said, looking at me with his beautiful face, smattered with freckles. “Can I have a cookie?”
I couldn’t help but smile.
“Let’s all have a cookie,” I replied.
Joy and grief.