Monday, February 1, 2016

An Empty Box

Some terrible things happened last week. A sweet family found out their little girl had passed away on the day they were going to give birth. A first grader at Aspen’s school passed away unexpectedly after a postsurgical complication. A favorite teacher of mine from high school ended her battle with brain cancer… and people who’ve faced all these losses are left in the wake. 

It’s a lot. People are always dying. The first really shocking and unexpected death in my life was actually my 16-year-old cousin. Twelve years ago in January, she suddenly died of a brain aneurysm. It was horrible. I remember moments and faces and tears, and it makes me sick to my stomach to think about how my aunt, uncle, and cousin felt (and still feel). I was a new teacher at the time, and I remember the day I went back to work, just bursting into tears in front of my students. I ended up telling them everything that happened, and they were so sweet and kind to me. (See? Middle schoolers aren’t completely without compassion.) 

Then, seven years ago, I found out that my own baby had no heartbeat. I’d have to deliver his body, but he was gone. It was shocking and terrible and beautiful too, because God was in it, and if you’re reading this, you probably know that whole story anyway. 

At that time, there was a woman who had been through this type of loss as well, and she did something beautiful and kind for me. She invited me to her home and we ate lunch together. Then, she opened up a box of things that people had given her when she’d lost her little one. She told me that she decided to keep these trinkets and gifts for a season, and then to pass them on when she encountered someone who faced the same loss. It was a mixed tape. She added her son’s name and the date of his death, and she told me to add my baby’s name and his date of death and pass it on. I did. I also carried on this tradition of hers. It is beautiful and unifying for mothers. I was given all sorts of little things like Precious Moments figurines or memory stones, pictures drawn by children or little handwritten notes. In the past seven years, I’ve almost emptied my box. This week I pulled it out again before I was going to a funeral for little Violet. I used to be unable to close the box. Now, it’s almost empty. When I opened it, I was hit with a fresh wave of grief. It’s a beautiful and wonderful tradition that has connected me to other mothers, but all I could think was that each of the things I’ve given away over the past seven years represents another life lost, another mother with empty arms. Once you go through something like this, you are always being connected with others who face it. In the mental Rolodex of all your friends and family, you are listed as “Grief Expert.” She’s been there, done that. She’ll know what to say. I’d rather be there than not. I know how important it was to me to know a single person who’d faced something similar and survived. I never want another mom to walk through this alone. I also feel like it helps me not to waste my pain and remember that others are fighting hard battles all the time. It helps me feel like my baby’s life mattered, and like it still matters, even though I will never see him grow up or know who he would become. 

But it was so hard to see an almost-empty box. It’s not about the trinkets at all. I will continue this tradition with things that I pick up in the future. I’ll just buy a little something and add my baby’s name. It’s fine, and I’m happy to do that. It’s just that so many little lives have been lost, and I don’t understand it. In the initial wake of my loss, God’s presence was palpable. God did some amazing things and gave me these crazy dreams and promised me a little girl who just turned six last month. 

In the past seven years though, I’ve learned that He doesn’t always do that. So many times I’ve looked into the tear-filled eyes of a grieving mom with empty arms and prayed, “God, just give her a dream. You did that for me. It’s such a little thing for you.” To my knowledge, He’s never done it . I don’t understand. I don’t know why our babies are gone, and I don’t know why He wouldn’t immediately give these grieving moms that little gift. Why did He give it to me? Why not them? 

In the past seven years, I’ve also seen lots of babies and children healed. I’ve seen their bodies made whole again here on earth, and the prayers of people answered. I’m so, so happy these families haven’t had to walk through the terrible darkness of this loss, but I’ve thought, “Why not me? Why did He do that for them?” I often feel like the world is divided into two camps – Miracle Club and Death Club. Some people’s babies get miraculously healed, and some people get dead babies. I have genuinely no idea how that’s all sorted out, but I’ve seen lots of explanations over the years – answered prayers, great faith, righteousness… and I don’t know. Maybe it’s all of that or none of that, or maybe God is just way too complicated and big for us to comprehend. I’ve felt the sting of some of these explanations, and I’ve let the sting go. I’ll feel it again I’m sure, and I’ll let it go again. 

The long grief is so much harder than the initial grief. Initially, God’s presence is evident, and everyone is surrounding you. As time goes on, your circle shrinks. If you’ve faced loss at a relatively young age, you may even get to go through a season of feeling like some sort of pariah. No one knows what to say to you or how to relate, so they just sort of ignore you. It hurts, but not nearly as bad as your loss, so it doesn’t really matter. Things are in a different perspective.  You find your people, and they roll around in the depths with you. 

The people who don’t know how to go to the depths without “answers” or compulsively trying to fix you or make God “look good” (He doesn’t need this if you really believe He is good.) relate to you like Joy does in “Inside Out.” Quincy had this epiphany just yesterday, and I thought it was so good that I wanted to share. We have so many “Joy’s” in the church, frantically running around trying to put a positive spin on things to make us feel better, but sometimes we genuinely need a little “Sadness.” We need friends who can sit with us without any answers. The truth is, we just don’t know. 

Over the past seven years, every new death has transported me back in time, brought a fresh wave of grief and sadness and questions, and reminded me how very little I understand.  

I look at my own life and experience, and I feel 100% confident that God has called me into this ministry to grieving mothers… and then I think, “Geez God, couldn’t you have, like, made me a singer or something?”  This is definitely not the first job to fill up on the signup sheet! But it is a job that really, really matters. Then I’m tempted to think that this means my own loss has “worked out.” I can’t actually think that because that phrase makes me bonkers. What does that even mean? Would I ever say to a Holocaust survivor who brought comfort to others that I was glad it had “worked out” for them? Just no. “Working out” is for the gym, not a result that applies to one’s life after loss. Survival is applicable. Choosing to open my heart and share my story and walk alongside new grievers is a good choice, I think, but it is just never over. These waves will always come. They mellow out over time, but I am forever changed. It hasn’t worked out. It has continued. I think it always will. 

And when the “Joy’s” with all the good answers suddenly and unexpectedly fall into a dark place where answers are hollow, I’m the first person they’ll pull up in the mental Rolodex. Call “Sadness” who has no answers. She can sit with you, and you won’t be alone. I’ll be there, and I won’t answer your questions. I’ll trust God enough to let you wrestle with Him. He’s been gentle with me in my wrestling, and I needed it. I understand that you need it, too. I’ll bring my empty box.