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, is appalling
It was a Saturday. June 28, 2003. They day my first son was born. And died.
I had carried this baby for almost seven months, the final two knowing that he had zero chance of survival once born. Never would I see him smile. Never would I hear his voice. Never would I see him laugh and play. I knew my pregnancy and a short time after birth were all the time I would have with my child on this side of Heaven. I marveled at how deeply I could love someone I would never really know. I hoped two months of grieving and preparing for his imminent death would somehow lessen the blow once his final hour was upon me. But I was mistaken.
He lived for three hours. It was a whirlwind. He was welcomed with great joy and held by my friends and family members. He was wept over, celebrated, and dedicated to God in a beautiful ceremony. When it was all over, I kissed my newborn son and left him in the arms of a nurse. I walked numbly to the car, sat down, and lost myself in grief.
The next day I was allowed time alone with his body as my husband (in the most brilliantly-perceptive move of our marriage) had called the funeral director after leaving the hospital and told him to schedule some time for me because I hadn’t had enough time alone with my son.
That afternoon I sat alone with his little body. Weeping, I whispered to him everything I wanted to say but knew he’d never truly hear. I memorized every detail of his perfectly formed body. Then I kissed him one last time, and left.
The final good-bye was another crushing blow to my spirit. Not the first or the last during a time in my life when my whole world was shattering. The pieces fell around me like a gentle snowfall. And like a little bewildered girl I tried grasping at the shards for meaning. All the while suffocating.
We buried him a few days later on sweltering day. It was just my husband, my toddler daughter, the pastor, and a kind gentleman from the cemetery. I watched my innocent daughter giggling and skipping around the headstones without a care in the world. I wanted desperately to not have a care in the world and wondered if I’d ever again be able to laugh freely.
This hand is bitterness
We want to taste it and
Let the hatred numb our sorrows
The wise hand opens slowly
To lilies of the valley and
The hospital social worker called to ask if I would be willing to speak to other moms who experienced neonatal death. I really didn’t want to. I hesitantly agreed because I knew how helpful it had been during my pregnancy to speak to a mom who had lost a baby with my same diagnosis. Still, I worried a little that I wouldn’t know what to say to moms who they connected me with. I had no eloquent advice. I was sure I’d say the wrong thing. Plus I was empty. What could I possibly give?
The social worker asked me to call a mom whose baby had died of a rare seizure disorder shortly after birth. Early in our conversation we realized we’d met before as our toddlers had been in the same infant dedication group at the large church we attended. We also discovered our infants were buried beside each other at the cemetery. Two fresh little graves. We laughed together over absurd comments we had endured and wept over hard choices and commiserated over how baby caskets looked like white coolers. She told me she hadn’t laughed like that since her nightmare started. And neither had I.
What became clear is how words fall short but understanding runs deep. And that unspoken understanding is balm to the soul of a hurting mama. There is inherent trust. You can be real. You can be raw. And you can start to heal.
Since then, every so often God puts me in the path of a mom who has lost a baby. Some were elderly women who had lost babies 50 years prior but had never ever spoken of their pain. Back then women were told to get on with life and pretend it never happened. Some were young moms carrying a child they knew would die and were facing hard choices. And some had babies who defied the doctors and miraculously lived. And while I still get a little stressed out about this expectation to have just the right words, I know that we mamas need each other.
The most recent was a mom I met through crisis care of children. When I signed up to host kids I set parameters for the ages and number of children I would host. I was adamant that I would only take one child at a time and in my mind I would be hosting cute little girls.
But one morning an email went out to host families requesting care for four-year-old twins. The mom was visiting from out of town and having late term pregnancy complications. The twins were with her in the hospital room so placement needed to start that day. Even though it was two kids, I emailed back that I would take them. I had no idea what possessed me to agree to twins. I panicked a little, realizing I hadn’t asked if they were boys or girls. I thought, “Oh man, I hope I didn’t just sign up for four year old twin boys.”
They were boys.
Andrew and Diante (names changed for privacy) burst through my door and charged straight into my arms like I was their favorite auntie. Their smiles lit up our home and we couldn’t stop smiling with them. As they settled in I sighed and laughed with my husband. Four-year-old twin boys. Mixed with my 10, 8, 5, and 1 year old. This would be interesting.
When I checked in with mom later that night I learned the nature of her pregnancy complications. She had to deliver soon as her health was declining. The baby had severe developmental anomalies and would not survive.
An invisible cord reached out, gripped my heart, and snapped me right back to my hospital room nine years prior. I re-lived that helpless desperate feeling. Knowing my baby would die. Knowing no doctor could save him. Knowing what she was about to go through.
Suddenly I was aware of why my spirit had said yes to a placement of twin boys. This placement, as it turned out, was not about the boys at all. It was about the mom. God had orchestrated this. There was no other way to explain it. She was from three hours away but suddenly experienced pregnancy complications in a city that happened to have an organization with families positioned to care. She had no one to watch her kids here or back home. So they wound up with me: A mom who also had lost a baby late in her pregnancy. A mom who had once been forced to decide when it was time to let go. A mom who understood.
I am not going to lie. I wrestled with God, asking him to let me off the hook. But I clearly felt him nudge me into her grief.
We talked every night for ten nights. I recounted the antics of her infectiously joyful and sweet boys. I rejoiced with her over the birth of her baby. I wept with her over the baby’s rapidly deteriorating condition. I explained medical terms she didn’t understand. I mourned with her the day she knew it was time to let go.
“I can’t do this, Tammie. I can’t do it.”
“Yes you can. You can do this. This is going to be the hardest thing you will ever do but you can do this.”
“Ok. Please pray with me”
My heart broke into a million pieces for this woman. I prayed over her. I asked my family and friends to pray over her. And I loved her boys.
She asked me to tell the boys, as she didn’t think she’d have the energy to answer their inevitable questions. They had no idea there was anything wrong and were expecting mom to bring home a baby any day. She entrusted me to walk her kids through learning no baby was coming home.
I had a quiet time with those sweet boys and explained that their baby brother was going to be with Jesus. I reassured them mommy would be ok but she will be sad for a while. I read them children’s books I happened to still have on hand about infant death. I showed them pictures of Jonathan. I fielded their dozens of questions. And I held them tight.
I never met that mom in person. She indicated she’d rather I stay with the boys than come visit her in the hospital as it brought her much comfort to know they were with me. She told me she no longer considered me a stranger and that I would always be family to her. And I never saw the boys again after they went home given their distance from here and lack of contact information. I think about them often. To this day they were our favorites. Am I allowed to have favorites? Who would have thought irresistibly sweet and cheerful twin boys and their mom could bring such joy and such sadness into our home.
But life is a big complicated mess of joy and sorrow, isn’t it?
Looking back over the time that’s passed since losing Jonathan I can see how God has taken those shattered pieces and made something beautiful. Even back then I knew he would. But I didn’t know how he would. And for the most part, the beauty lies in his people. I had friends and family walking every step with me. I know it was not easy for them. But from every physical to emotional need, I was held. And God has given me opportunities to walk alongside others knowing it not only blesses them, it blesses me.
“It is not good for man to be alone.” God spoke those words into his creation. He designed us to need community. We are created in his image and that includes his capacity to love, comfort, and heal. In fact it’s often through his people that he demonstrates his great compassion. I can’t get over God’s beautiful plan to give people each other to walk through life. I can’t believe how he cares so deeply about the details that he places us in each other’s paths right when we need each other. Even strangers.
And I urge you, don’t miss it. Don’t hide from pain and don’t leave your brothers and sisters to walk alone. You don’t have to have the answers and you don’t have to know the right words. Don’t be afraid to jump into the mess. I promise you will find joy and beauty in the ashes. And for those of you who are walking through fire, let others carry your burden with you. They will not do it perfectly and they might say the wrong things. Give them grace as they try to bear your burden alongside you. I promise the richness we find as we do this, as we hold each other, outshines any pain.
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 that when everything fell
We’d be held
~ Natalie Grant, “Held” lyrics. Awaken. Curb Records, 2005