Tag Archives: Baby loss

Baby boy (would be nine years old)

Nine years old today, if only

Today is the ninth birthday of our sweet baby boy. We spent it at the cemetery. We knelt. The effort that should have been spent daubing antiseptic on a scraped knee, instead we spent darkening the letters of his headstone so they would be more legible. We put out lots of toys and little ceramic figurines and flowers. It looked nice afterward. We took a picture.

After nine years, a part of me has come to love it there. It is a peaceful and beautiful place. No one tells you to hurry. No one asks you what’s wrong. No one asks you why you look sad. No one is going to get their day ruined if you answer. No one tells you how you should feel or where you should be in your grieving process by now or what would make them more comfortable with your loss. When you have an angel baby, after as many years and as many losses as it has been for us now, there is value in peace. There is value in not having to pretend for a little while. Pretending, holding it together, smiling politely… these things have become so second nature for us now we often don’t even notice them. Until we get to the cemetery and remember that day.

That day we had to do the unthinkable. The day no parent should ever have to face. The day we woke up and had to put one foot out of the bed, and then the other, and every fiber of our being resisting every simple act because of the knowledge that the only place they were leading to that day was the cemetery, where we would have to say our last goodbyes to our sweet, precious, irreplaceable, beautiful baby.

Today, after nine years, it was nice to go back to that place and feel just a little bit of belonging to him. We wondered what he would be interested in now. Would he enjoy theater like his sister? Would he be a boy scout like his dad? Would he love getting his hands dirty in the garden like his mom? We dreamed those things. We sang our favorite hymns. We sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow“.

I know some members of our “club” have been beaten up with pious-sounding platitudes by “religious” friends and relatives uncomfortable with the way our grieving is being done. I sometimes think of all of you when we are at the cemetery, but for us, in those times, our Christian faith is never far away. There is such an immediate, visceral connection now to the pain of sacrifice and loss, an understanding of what it actually cost Christ to so graciously and freely pronounce the words, “Your sins are forgiven.”

We wanted to stay longer. The time we are allowed there always seems as if it is used up so quickly. We love the sun, the flowers, the quiet, the tears, the sense of weird belonging. We love so many things about our life. Our sweet angel baby is one of them, and today is his day.

Happy birthday, sweet baby. Mommy and Daddy love you. We miss you. We never stop thinking about you. You would be nine years old today.

Sadness and Bing Bong from "Inside Out"

Hangin’ with Sadness, or, the theology of Mr. Bing Bong

A few weeks back, I got an amazing gift. Let me explain.

In 2005, on our honeymoon in Hawaii, my wife and I decided we would try to return every five years. Our lives are lives of service, and consequently contain a lot of chaos, but like Jesus slipping away from the crowds, our marriage’s survival requires some time of stillness and quiet apart from all that.

For our fifth anniversary, we actually did make it back, but this year, our tenth, things just piled up on us: there was too much going on at work, our vacation time was all used up on visiting family, we couldn’t find the money. And then, out of nowhere, my boss sent me an e-mail: he needed me to go and teach at a training event. It was being held in Maui.

Now bear in mind, eight years ago, our lives were touched by tragedy when our son was stillborn at full term (the first of six perinatal losses). Except our honeymoon, every vacation my wife and I have ever taken together has been “after”. I don’t even remember how normal people vacation. For them (I hear), it’s riding zip lines and flying over lava. For us, it’s finally having time alone with the one other person who is capable to understand. It’s finally, for once, not having to pretend.

On our way to Maui, the in-flight movie was Inside Out, about a girl named Riley and her emotions. At one point, the main character, Joy, becomes trapped in long-term memory with Sadness, and they meet Riley’s childhood friend,  Mr. Bing Bong, who is dejected about being left behind as Riley grows up. While Joy uselessly tries to “snap him out of it” by bouncing around and being goofy, Sadness just sits beside him and takes his hand, acknowledging what’s happening and savoring bittersweet memories. At first, Joy is horrified and scolds, “Sadness, don’t make him feel worse!” But suddenly she realizes something: it’s working. After Mr. Bing Bong stands up, ready to keep going, Joy pulls Sadness aside and marvels, “How did you do that??” Sadness, she realizes, is capable of something that Joy can never comprehend.

As bereaved parents, we have had many people try to “snap us out of it” or get us to “move on”. Those became people we simply had to endure. The ones who were a blessing to us, rather, were the ones who understood the biblical advice to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”

The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.You may have heard the popular quote, “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.” We generally like to mix the last two. While in Maui, we developed one inviolable tradition: standing at the ocean every night watching the sun go down. One day we lost track of time, and had to leap up in the middle of dinner and sprint down to the beach. (We made it with about 2 minutes to spare.)

Why did that nightly ritual matter so much? I think because it was our special time to feel whatever we were feeling, without the usual processing required to filter down to what’s “acceptable”. The overwhelming beauty of the sky, aflame; the two of us, still standing side-by-side after all that life has done to knock us down; the many nights in the hospital wondering how much grieving I would have to do in the morning; the ebbing away of the day as it mirrors the passage of our lives; the power and unchangingness of the ocean; the connectedness to generations past and future, who have stood or will stand rapt in the same natural glory… in those moments I just felt connected to it all. Some nights brought tears, some simply brought wonder.

Out of all the lessons I have learned in surviving the past eight years, if one stands out, it is that my life does not have to make sense to anyone else but me. There was always one passage of scripture that used to puzzle me exceedingly, but after our first loss, I suddenly understood. “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’” That’s from Ecclesiastes. To me now, its point is: not everything has a point. Some of it is just stuff that happens. We live in a fallen world, and sometimes the best we can make of it is to simply walk alongside of each other, bearing one another’s burdens. In those times, we can simply take Sadness by the hand, let ourselves abide, and wash in the salt water for as long as we need to, until we are ready to keep going.

Other recommended posts:


How to make peace with God after loss

Where is God when bad things happen? (Part 2 in a series.)

This week I read an article about losing faith; the problem was tragedy. After loss, there are inevitable questions: “How does this make sense? What ‘lesson’ is to be learned? What god would do this?” As a person of faith with my share of heartbreak, I can very much relate to those sentiments. There was a time when the circumstances of my life seemed so arbitrary, so capricious, so vindictive that I imagined God as an abusive father. I called him “the angry drunken God.”

On the other hand, speaking as someone who did ultimately make peace with God: there is a way through all that. There is an opposite shore. Christ found his way to it despite the evil that befell him; so can you and I.

Telling God off

The first thing to know is: God isn’t afraid of you. Let him have it. Tell him what you really think. He can handle it. As that losing-faith article put it, “Where is this fair and just God(s) I hear about? I just can’t bring myself to believe.”

Thoughts like this are common to all honest believers— the fact that we have them doesn’t somehow make us “unacceptable to God”. For me, the light went on one day, in the midst of my deepest God-anger, when I was flipping through Psalms and my eye settled on the this:

We have heard it with our ears, O God;
    our ancestors have told us
what you did in their days,
    in days long ago

But now you have rejected and humbled us…
You gave us up to be devoured like sheep…
You sold your people for a pittance,
    gaining nothing from their sale…
I live in disgrace all day long.

That’s from Psalm 44; it goes on and on like that. If you’re angry at God, I really recommend shouting the whole thing aloud at him; it’s very cathartic. But the point is, it’s all a 1000 B.C. way of saying “Where is this fair and just God I hear about?” It’s the same stuff that we’re dealing with today. And he got into the Bible with that action! Bottom line: God isn’t going to smite us if we wanna get real.

Not like you’ve heard

Next, don’t confuse the trivial, bland, insipid things that people say about God for what God says about himself. A lot of so-called Christians are just out-and-out wrong about Christianity. The commonly expressed notions that “you get what you deserve” or “bad things won’t happen to good people”—or perhaps worst of all, that “God won’t give you more than you can handle”— may be based on good principles, but as hard-and-fast rules, they are patently unbiblical.

The very symbol of our faith— a cross— is an instrument of torture, reminding us that the worst thing happened to the best person. That wasn’t fair. The Bible is chock-a-block with stories about people “getting more than they could handle”: otherwise, what would they need God for? In fact, throughout scripture, Christ repeatedly makes promises along the lines that “in this world you will have trouble.”

It’s not just a New Testament idea. Going back to Ecclesiastes, Solomon says over and over that what happens in this world is meaningless. It’s a fallen world: it isn’t going to be fair, it isn’t going to be just, it isn’t always intended to “teach us something”— this place is messed up because of sin and bad stuff happens here. Sometimes it’s going to happen to us.

What use is God?

So, what is the use of God if he isn’t going to keep bad things from happening to us? First, worth remembering that if God is anything like the Bible describes, then his entity isn’t really tied to his usefulness. Many natural phenomena occur without deference to our opinions of them; it is the same with God.

That said, God does make himself “useful”. As with Jesus’ crucifixion, the bad things that happen are not the end of the story. Evil happens, but God isn’t finished. Over 8 years ago, we experienced the tragedy of a stillbirth (the first of six perinatal losses). In many ways, it felt like a nightmare we couldn’t wake up from, but even then, another part of us felt like our whole lives, we’d been comfortably asleep, and had only just woken up. A lot of people in this world are suffering. A lot of good can be done for those people, a lot of kindness can be shown to them, and after loss, we have now been put in a position to be part of that. Before, we didn’t even have eyes to see them.

Again, some people trivialize this, like, “God needed you to be more compassionate; that’s why he killed your baby.” I just think that is the babbling of someone who’s never been through it, expressing their own need for an illusory feeling of safety. The person who says something like that is really just saying, “Meaningless evil terrifies me; here is the veneer of order that spares me from facing those fears.”

Whereas, the real core of the biblical message— the real “good news” that you hear so much about— is that we can live in a world like that and not have to be afraid. “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.” “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” This is what the Bible is about and has always been about. It is the story of a loving God, a world of rampant evil, and the untiring efforts of the one to be reconciled to the other. Those who say otherwise are simply missing the point.

Read the other postings of this series!
Part 1: Mass shooting, evil, and the end of the story
Part 3: “But isn’t it all God’s fault…?

Relearning to love after we lost our baby

Compassion for “them”: relearning to love the people we were before we lost our baby

When you read about a horrible disaster— a doomed airliner, a tsunami, anything that suddenly shatters peace and calm and well-being— when you read an article like that, sometimes there are “before” photos. The people in harm’s way are normal people, just doing what normal people do: having fun, laughing, taking selfies… They’re enjoying themselves, and sometimes the photos survive and get published after the fact. You look at the people in those photos, and you can see it in their eyes: there’s an innocence, a naïveté, an uncomplicated trust. They have no idea what’s about to happen to them.

We have photos like that all over our house. They aren’t disaster photos. They are photos of our wedding. Of our family trips when our two oldest kids were small. Of us at the coffee shop, that time we snuck in a date night and my wife surprised me with a little white stick whose digital read-out bore the single word “Pregnant”. That was a good night. We were happy. We took photos.

From that day on, we rechristened our family as “Party of Five”. We bought bunk beds and a mini-van, and a gigantic double-stroller that we called “The Land Behemoth”. After the ultrasound, we started buying boy clothes. One said, “Little Rookie”. Another, we bought in Napa; it said, “Vintage 2007”. And then there was the picture my wife didn’t want to take. I scheduled our church directory sitting about a week before our due date; she wanted to do it after he was born, but the dates wouldn’t work, so we did it beforehand anyway. We didn’t know that was the last photo there would ever be with our entire party of five. We didn’t know there was already a kink in his umbilical cord. We didn’t know we were about to lose a baby.

When something bad happens to your children, part of you has a biological need to blame yourself.

When you look at the people in those pre-disaster photos, sometimes you want to reach through that lens and warn them. How much more so when those people are you? When something bad happens to your children, part of you has a biological need to blame yourself, and for a while, we were so angry at “those people” in our photos. They were so stupid and ignorant. They should have done more. They should have known.

Our baby boy (Boaz, we named him) would have turned 8 this year, and in that time, learning to have grace for “those people” has been an important part of our healing. Many of the lessons we learned from scripture have helped with that journey:

  • Matthew 24:38 says, “…and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came.” In the same way, we had to realize, there was no way we could have known. We did the same things that everyone else does; it was not our fault that it worked out well for them and badly for us.
  • Ecclesiastes repeatedly talks about things that are meaningless. We had fixated on finding the meaning: what was God trying to tell us (or being honest, why was he punishing us)? We finally had to let that go, realizing our need to “find the meaning” was a need to keep control. Instead, letting go and rejoining life was the legacy we wanted our baby to have. As Ecclesiastes finally concludes, “There is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad.”
  • For me, the greatest lesson was from 1 Peter 4: “Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the painful trial that has come upon you to test you, as if something strange were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah, so that you may also rejoice with great joy when his glory is revealed.” The redemptiveness of Christ’s passion was never so clear to me as in the midst of our own grief. His suffering was not wasted, and through our own suffering, the scripture says, we gain a unique partnership in that redemption.

I do not believe that God causes suffering, and I do not agree with the many people who say, “God did this to teach you… whatever.” We live in a fallen world, and we have to live here, because we are fallen too. Bad things happen here. That is not God’s fault, because this isn’t the place he designed us for. But he is here at work in this place too, finding ways to bring redemption out of the heartbreak that inevitably accompanies our life under the sun. As I became fond of saying in the midst of our loss: “Out of soil the devil has sown for evil, God can make many good and green and living things to grow.”

This article originally appeared as a guest posting at Me Too Moments For Moms.

Pain into beauty

Spinning pain into beauty for National Poetry Month

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.

  1. First, much of the world is indifferent, so we treasure those few who understand with us how important they are.
  2. Second, they are never forgotten; the idea that you will “go back to normal” or “let it go” is incorrect.
  3. 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.”

Never forgotten

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?