Tuesday, September 19, 2017

She's in the Cemetery

As a pediatric speech-language pathologist, I primarily work with children in a school setting. Last year all of the students on my caseload knew I was pregnant because my belly got very large and they frequently asked about the baby. 

While still in the hospital after Isabella died, I called my contracting company, told them what happened, and asked to be placed back at the same school. I knew I would need the support of my coworkers who had celebrated and then mourned with me. One of my first thoughts after she died and I decided to go back to the school was, "what in the world am I going to tell the children?"

The first day the students returned for the school year, I had the following conversation with one of the boys on my caseload.

He asked, "Is your baby at home?" 

I responded, "No, she's in the cemetery."

"Is that like the military?"

"No, but the words rhyme. She died and is now in the cemetery."

That night I related the conversation to my husband. He looked somewhat appalled by my lack of tact and asked, "why didn't you tell him Isabella was in heaven?"

In the moment the boy had asked me, I had forgotten. I had forgotten that, although her body is in the cemetery, she is in heaven. At that moment, Isabella was just dead. She was not at home, but gone and buried. 

Photo taken the day Isabella's headstone was installed

In the midst of grief and the turbulent emotions following the death of our child, I can lose sight of the truth. Yes, her body is buried, but my daughter resides with the Lord.

The child that King David and Bathsheba conceived while Bathsheba was still married to Uriah, also died in infancy. Below is the account is found in 2 Samuel 12:15-23. 
And the Lord afflicted the child that Uriah's wife bore to David, and he became sick. 16 David therefore sought God on behalf of the child. And David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground. 17 And the elders of his house stood beside him, to raise him from the ground, but he would not, nor did he eat food with them. 18 On the seventh day the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they said, “Behold, while the child was yet alive, we spoke to him, and he did not listen to us. How then can we say to him the child is dead? He may do himself some harm.” 19 But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, David understood that the child was dead. And David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” They said, “He is dead.” 20 Then David arose from the earth and washed and anointed himself and changed his clothes. And he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. He then went to his own house. And when he asked, they set food before him, and he ate. 21 Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive; but when the child died, you arose and ate food.” 22 He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ 23 But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”

David's response of, "I shall go to him, but he will not return to me," has encouraged me tremendously over the last three months. Isabella will never return to me. I can visit her grave in the cemetery, but I cannot bring her back. No amount of prayers, tears, dreams, nor anguish will bring her back. But one day, I will go to her. She is with Christ in heaven and I will see her again.

After I told my husband about my response of "she is in the cemetery," we practiced better responses. The first twelve days after I returned to work, I had the opportunity at least once a day to respond to comments. No one else was told, "She is in the cemetery" when inquiring about my daughter. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Whose loss is worse?

In the days and weeks after Isabella died, my husband and I played a "game" where we would try and come up with situations which would have been better or worse. 

For example, "it would have been harder if she had died unexpectedly at home." Or, "it would have been easier if we had known during pregnancy that she likely would have died." Or, "it would have been harder if she was six years old, but at least then we would have known her better." 

This "game," for lack of a better word, was an attempt to help make sense of our unexpected loss. Our hearts were breaking and we yearned to find something that would help explain the unexplainable and make us feel better. Yet, we never felt better.

Yes, had she died at age six, we would have known her better. But it would not have hurt any less, or likely any more, to bury our child at age six. We would have had more memories, but we still would have had unrealized dreams.

One of the books we read said (to paraphrase), "on a scale of 1 to 10, burying a child is always a 10." Was burying our newborn daughter a 10? Yes. Would burying six-year-old daughter be a 10? Yes. Would burying a 46 or 62-year-old daughter be a 10? Yes. 

Parents should never bury their children. At some point I realized that we would never have enough time with our daughter. Thirty-eight weeks of pregnancy plus 29.5 hours outside of me was not enough time. Even had we buried Isabella when she was 62 and we were in our 90s, we still would not have enough time with her. Regardless of when a child dies, parents always have more dreams for them. 

A few weeks after we buried Isabella, we met a couple through mutual friends who had also lost their daughter named Isabella, after a healthy pregnancy. They gave us a book by Jerry Sittser called, A Grace Disguised. He wrote this book a few years after losing his mother, his wife, and his daughter in a car crash. His reflections throughout the book have helped us process Isabella's death. The second chapter was titled, "Whose Loss is Worse?" The chapter helped us lay to rest the "it would have been better or worse" game.

Sittser wrote, "I question whether experiences of such severe loss can be quantified and compared. Loss is loss, whatever the circumstances. All losses are bad, only bad in different ways...What makes each loss so catastrophic is its devastating, cumulative, and irreversible nature. What value is there to quantifying and comparing losses?" (page 33).

I've had to remind myself over the last few months that "loss is loss." My loss is different than all other losses because no one else's experience of loss is the same. Even other parents who had to bury a newborn have a different story of loss.

Last week I started attending a Bible study for women who have lost children through miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant loss. I've had to remind myself that losses are different, but loss is loss. There are five of us in the study. Two women had miscarriages at about nine weeks, two others lost their babies at twenty-odd weeks, and I lost Isabella at thirty-eight weeks. I'm praying that God continues to open my heart to understanding loss. To be honest, I think that a miscarriage for me would be about a three to four on the scale, but I have never had a miscarriage, so I don't know. I do know that these women's hearts are aching for their baby. 

The last page of Sittser's chapter about comparing loss has the following paragraph.
Catastrophic loss of whatever kind is always bad, only bad in different ways. It is impossible to quantify and to compare. The very attempt we often make in quantifying losses only exacerbates the loss by driving us to two unhealthy extremes. On the one hand, those coming out on the losing end of the comparison are deprived of the validation they need to identify and experience the loss for the bad thing it is. They sometimes feel like the little boy who just scratched his finger but cried too hard to receive much sympathy. Their loss is dismissed as unworthy of attention and recognition. On the other hand, those coming out on the winning end convince themselves that no one has suffered as much as they have, that no one will ever understand them, and that no one can offer lasting help. They are the ultimate victims. So they indulge themselves with their pain and gain a strange kind of pleasure in their misery. Whose loss is worse? The question begs the point. Each experience of loss is unique, each painful in its own way, each as bad as everyone else's but also different.(Page 38, italics added)

I pray that God continues to change my heart to be open to others' experiences of loss as loss. I do not want to indulge myself with my "pain and gain a strange kind of pleasure" in my misery. I also pray I never experience the pain of a miscarriage and find out how much my heart would break through that loss. The journey of loss is excruciating and I trust God will use our loss to grow us and continue to refine us to become more like his son. This is our story and only God knows how it will unfold.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

No One Knows What to Say

Probably a quarter of the sympathy cards we received say something to the effect of, "there are no words." Anytime we are faced with someone who has had a catastrophic loss, we struggle to know what to say. The loss can be a child, a job, a marriage, an illness, a disappointment, or some other loss, and we do not have adequate words to offer someone. 

We may not have the "right words," but saying something has been a balm for me. That said, the number one most helpful comment for me: I'm so sorry

Having someone acknowledge the loss, helps. While visiting my niece, a family friend came by to meet my niece who is about five years younger than me. I have not seen her in at least fifteen years. I assumed she knew what happened, but she said in an excited, cheerful voice, "I'd love to hear how you guys are doing and what is new!" I lasted a couple more minutes before retreating. Although I assumed she knew, she gave no indication and I did not have the energy to either pretend things were okay or to give an honest update. Had she known, the best thing she could have done was say something. I understand that no one knows what to say, but not saying anything made it far more awkward for me. 

My husband and I have agreed that having someone acknowledge the loss, even if it is just a short comment, makes it easier to interact with that person. If I know you know what happened, part of me can relax and just be. Once her death is mentioned, I am able to go on and have conversations about the rest of life. This desire to have her impact acknowledged may not always be as important to me, but this recently after Isabella died, almost everything else seems trivial.

Sometimes people say nothing because they do not want to bring up the pain again. You won't. I never, ever forget that my daughter died. The pain will never go away. You mentioning something opens the door for me to talk about it if I want. Yes, I may cry. Tears are always near the surface these days and sometimes it feels good to let them out. But you are not somehow reminding me she died - I never forgot.

Some of the other most helpful comments have been: 
"I'm so sorry about Isabella. When you have the energy, I would love to hear about her and see photos." 
"I will never forgot how much you loved her."
"I miss her too."
"I was looking forward to __watching her grow up, introducing her to my child, etc__."
"I saw ___ and thought about her."

Even when people say things that hurt, we are, almost always, able to see their heart behind it. People have told us, "She's your guardian angel." No, she is not. Angels are being created by God to carry out his will. Psalm 103:20 says, "
Praise the Lord, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word.” Angels are not people who died. Not only is there no biblical basis for my daughter being an angel, I do not want her to be my guardian angel. I would much rather have a celestial being created by God to carry out his work protect me than my infant daughter. But, people say this trying to bring comfort. 

The same is true when they say "she was too precious for earth." Not comforting for me, but I appreciate the gesture. 

As I was waiting with a hospital tech for my husband to bring around the car after we were discharged a couple days after Isabella died, the tech tried to find a point of connection, however random. She said, "You had a c-section, right? I had a c-section too. I thought I was going to die!" She launched into the story of her c-section. I asked how old her child is - ten. I said, "That sounds like it was tough." Were her comments helpful? No. But, she was trying. 

Every once in a while there are comments that truly are not helpful. Someone told me that in reincarnation, if someone's previous life was almost perfect, they sometimes come back as an infant for a very short amount of time before moving to Nirvana. Not useful, but I could see they were trying. Someone else said, "God needed her back." No, he did not need her back. He does not need anything from us. Yes, I can still see their hearts, but a simple, "I'm sorry to hear about your daughter," suffices.

Since her death when I've spoken with other people who have lost someone they love, here are some of the things I now do. I ask for the name of the loved one who died, a photo if there is time and I have the energy, and I tell them I am sorry.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Great is Thy Faithfulness

This morning at church we sang, "Great is Thy Faithfulness." Life always has challenges. It also has joy. Some days it is easy to see God's goodness and faithfulness. Other days, I need to more actively look for it. 

One of the verses in the song is "morning by morning new mercies I see." This rings true. Every day we see God's hand of mercy upon us. When we look back at Isabella's story, I see tremendous mercy toward us and new mercies are being revealed to us daily. 

When we talk about Isabella, we frequently talk about her "story." The story that God wrote for her is not the story we had planned, nor the story we would have written. Shortly after we checked into the hospital and the nurse determined our baby was not tolerating contractions, a team was quickly assembled. I vividly remember being on my hands and knees, attempting to hold an oxygen mask on while someone tried to take off my shirt over the IV, and I'm desperately praying that our daughter lives to be 90 years old. That was my story for her. That is not her story. 

Her story is a hard story, but a good story. It is a story of God's mercies toward us, in ways we never could have foreseen. The fact that Isabella was born alive is a tremendous grace. Our OB said that typically when there are issues with clots in the cord, the babies die in utero and are stillborn. We got to meet our daughter and had that hope that she would live to be in her 90s. We got to hold her as she died; she was in our arms as she was called to heaven. That is God's faithfulness and mercy in our lives.

There were seven women at our church with babies born between January and June. It was God's mercy that Isabella was the second from last baby born in that group and that the other family gave birth the same day Isabella died, so they did not have to watch us bury our child while worrying about theirs. God's mercy and grace to us and those around us.

God, in his mercy, allowed her to be born full term. It is hard enough for us to feel like we are parents when our child is gone. If we had lost our daughter when I was 16 weeks pregnant, or 26 weeks pregnant, I don't think we would have felt as much like parents. It also would have been a different mourning experience. God could have taken her earlier, but in his mercy, did not. 

One of my biggest prayers throughout my pregnancy was for a typically developing child. I am a Speech-Language Pathologist and only work with children who have a speech or language disorder. I love the children I work with and I desperately wanted to raise a child who is typically developing. God answered this prayer, although not in the way I pictured. My story for my daughter would have been her hitting every developmental milestone. Instead, she was typically developing the entire pregnancy and God, in his mercy, took her home when her body was compromised. Because of my training, I know what hypoxia in utero looks like 5, 10, 15 years out, and it is a challenging journey. God could have called us to walk that road, but, in his mercy, did not.

My other prayer during pregnancy was that our daughter would come to know the Lord at an early age. My story for her would have been that she accepted Christ at age five or seven. God's story was that she would live with Christ and know God in ways I cannot even imagine, at age 29.5 hours. 

Isabella's story, as written by God, is one of mercy and faithfulness. Even though I was singing through tears this morning, I can praise him saying, "Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me." 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Grieving Differently

Before we were discharged from the hospital after Isabella died, we met with a bereavement doula (a category of doula I never knew existed before this). She told us that we would grieve differently. No two people mourn in the same way, even for the same loss. At the time we nodded our heads and tucked that piece of information away, along with so many other tidbits we heard but could not fully process.

We began experiencing this difference the day after the funeral. When we had pictured the days and week after she was born, a funeral never crossed our minds. As horrible as planning our daughter's funeral was, we had a list of things to do and an event to look towards. Each day leading up to the funeral had some sort of item that needed to be checked off - find a funeral home, meet with the funeral director, pick out a coffin, plan the service, decide on photos for the slideshow, review/modify the slideshow, pick up family members from the airport, etc.

Leading up to the funeral, I had a concrete event to look towards. An event no one ever wants, but I knew what was expected of me and what the general plan was from the Saturday she died until the next Saturday when she was buried. After the funeral, the future was a barren landscape that stretched before me, completely devoid of everything I expected the future to hold. The reality that our daughter was never, ever coming back to me, hit me and I had nothing to hold onto and no child in my arms. 

My husband was able to rest more after the funeral and his sorrow, while still heavy, had somewhat lessened. I constantly wanted to talk about her, discuss the birth, the almost thirty hours she was alive, and what it felt like. My husband was okay listening and talking about it, but did not bring it up as frequently as I did. 

Five days after Isabella's funeral, we left for a 16 night road trip. We decided to get away, process without getting sucked back into daily responsibilities, and spend time together somewhere we would not feel pressure to make decisions about the nursery and the future. The trend of grieving differently continued. Every day had difficult moments for both of us, but I felt like I was constantly missing my daughter and my husband could go for periods of time without thinking about her. 

Sometime on the trip, I began to understand that since our experiences of Isabella while she was alive were vastly different, so would our grief afterwards. I've talked to other mothers and they say similar things to this - from the moment I found out I was pregnant, I was constantly aware of my baby. Even before I could feel her moving, thoughts of my baby were rarely far from my mind. While occupied with other tasks, a part of me was always aware of her. Once she started moving, I knew her rhythms, when she was awake or asleep, knew that she hated loud movies but enjoyed Motown music, I sang to her, and talked to her. My husband only knew our daughter through me. Once she was bigger he could see her moving within me, feel her kick his back at night, and could get her to move, but he never carried her within him. His life continued as before I was pregnant and he would go long periods of time without thinking about her. 

In the same way I was constantly aware of our daughter while she was alive, I am constantly aware of her absence. Even when her death isn't in the forefront of my mind, part of me is always thinking about her. In the same way, my husband did not constantly think about her while she was alive, he does not constantly think about her now that she is gone. 

Some days I can accept that fact that we knew her differently and grieve differently. Other days, I hate it. I miss her, I want my daughter, I want this baby, I miss Isabella.I did not know her as well as I would have had she lived and been an older child when she died, but I knew her as well as I could. Which, carrying her every moment of the day for nine months, is pretty well. 

My husband mourns the loss of dreams, the lack of the future. He does not miss her in the same way because he did not know her in the same way. He wants a baby in the house. I want my baby, this baby in the house, not just a baby.

The days when we struggle in our different ways of grieving, we are learning to be open and honest, allowing the other person to talk. We pray that God would continue to draw us closer to each other and himself. We pray for understanding and peace. We both miss our daughter and mourn the future that we had pictured that died with her. Even in our pain, we can come before our sovereign Lord, confessing that it hurts and that we do not understand his ways. We know there will always be an Isabella-sized hole in both of our lives and we can lean on each other and the Lord when this hole feels like it will suck all joy forever from us. Though the grief is different, we both ache.