My nine-year-old daughter surprised me this week. April is National Poetry Month, culminating on the 30th with “Poem in Your Pocket Day“. (To observe, you choose a poem and carry it around in your pocket.) She had been looking forward to the day all week. I assumed she would choose one of our light-hearted favorites— Kenn Nesbitt’s “I Bought a Maserati“, or Shel Silverstein’s “Polar Bear in Our Frigidaire“, or pretty much anything from A.A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young.
Instead, when the day came, she chose— and memorized!— part of a 200-year-old composition by William Wordsworth called “Lucy“. Here is the part she chose:
She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:
A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and oh,
The difference to me!
After she was born, my wife was pregnant six more times. We lost them all.
What you have to know about our family is, our daughter should have been an older sister many times over. After she was born, my wife was pregnant six more times. We lost them all. Boaz, Brooklynne, Benny Kenny, Bella, Hope, and Parker. Those are the names of all our angel babies.
No one knows who Wordsworth’s Lucy was, though plenty have speculated. Most surmise that she was some early romantic love of Wordsworth’s, if she was even real at all. For my part, the only way that all the pieces fit is if she was Wordsworth’s daughter.
There are three things I can tell you about losing a child.
- First, much of the world is indifferent, so we treasure those few who understand with us how important they are.
- Second, they are never forgotten; the idea that you will “go back to normal” or “let it go” is incorrect.
- Third, after all the heart-wrenching grief, the one response that emerges again and again is the need for beauty.
In the initial print run of When Bad Things Happen To Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner included a thought experiment. What if a child were born ill and died? There would be some momentary sadness. But what if heroic doctors can postpone death? The child reaches adulthood, marries, starts a family, but then still dies in the end… Now we have an actual tragedy.
Attitudes like this that trivialize early loss are quite common. Wordsworth’s poem captures it with the words, “She lived unknown, and few could know…” When we left the hospital after our first loss, it was an affront to find that the sun was still shining, commuters were still commuting, and the world in general was still going on its merry way, while our world was at a standstill.
In many ways, great loss is like a nightmare, but in other ways, it is like just waking up. Our eyes were suddenly open to a larger reality, to which we were previously, blissfully unaware. Seen in these new lights, much that was previously familiar took on new meaning. This included many scriptures. God’s eye, scripture assures us, is on the humblest and the least, the most forgotten. “The last shall be first.” “His eye is on the sparrow.” “A little child shall lead them.” “A stillborn child is better off than he.”
For several years, my wife and I were part of a support group called Empty Cradle, founded in the early 1980s by still-grieving parents after a decade of much recommended “moving on” hadn’t worked. I believe this reflects our innermost essence where we bear the image of God. Scripture speaks over and over again about how God doesn’t forget:
- My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. (John 10:29)
- For he has said, “Behold! I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)
- Can a mother forget the baby at her breast, and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands. (Isaiah 49:15-16)
Our lives include certain practices that allow us to continue including our angel babies as part of our family. A lot of people don’t get it, and some even think it is wrong or morbid or emotionally stunted. Significantly, though, our fellow bereaved parents always understand it at once. (Interestingly, Wordsworth wrote about it too, in a different poem called “We Are Seven“.)
Bottom line: a family has who it has. For us, a line from Lilo & Stitch captures it perfectly: “This is my family. I found it all on my own. It’s little, and broken, but still good. Yeah. Still good.”
Pushing through to beauty
God creates. He can’t help it. Look around our world, and you will be awestruck by the way that beauty is lavishly, extravagantly, wastefully on display. In her masterwork Hinds’ Feet on High Places, Hannah Hurdard portrays unseen wildflowers in silent array, always shouting a praise song of beautiful color to God, and unheard water droplets tumbling down a waterfall, harmonizing in the same song.
Like Rumplestiltskin spinning straw into gold, we spin our pain into beauty.
Whether in the paint fragments of a 5000-year-old potsherd or the star pattern of the holes in a $2.50 colander at Goodwill, humanity is and always has been like that as well. We have to glorify, we have to create, we have to seek beauty, even in a workaday kitchen utensil. No where is this more clear than in an Empty Cradle group. Quilt squares and Christmas ornaments and photo montages are all part of the way that we work through our grief together. Like Rumplestiltskin spinning straw into gold, we spin our pain into beauty. Romans 12:21
says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” and this I think is what it means.
Yesterday was April 30th. We carried beautiful poems in our pockets, about the beauty that was and is, even in the midst of darkness. This morning was May 1st, and we woke at 5 a.m. to pick flowers and make May baskets for our neighbors and friends.
We are like marked men. Having lives profoundly touched by darkness, we are now capable of only two choices: to lie back and let the darkness overtake us, or to never cease in being part of the light.
What are the ways that you choose beauty to fight back against the darkness in your own life?