Thanksgiving is a strange time for me. It begins a difficult season for many–especially for those given to melancholy and for those who grieve, because it heralds the season when we are commanded by the culture to be jolly; but for some of us who mourn there remains an empty chair at the table, and an aching place in our hearts. And time doesn’t heal any wounds. For some, grief only progresses through time, through our hearts until it passes its hurts into our very bones; we are crippled, but walk the best we can. We’ll muddle through your merry little Christmas, somehow. Please bear with us. And bear with me now.
Thanksgiving is an anniversary of one of my greatest griefs, and also the advent of one of my greatest comforts. I recall how securely the Father’s arms were wrapped around me as I suffered, yet I wince when I remember the indifference shown by some, and even an incident of utter cruelty.
So this will be a long, ruminative post, and if you are of the sort that has an attention span of three hundred words you are fairly warned. I am not in a hurry! It has been eleven years but still I want to move leisurely through my story. We who grieve must not be hastened. Sit Shiva with us. Say Kaddish on all the anniversaries. Look at the photos of our loved ones. Our greatest fear is that our memories of our loved ones will vanish–as they have done–from this earth, so please talk about them, and let us talk if we will. Those in the Happy-Clappy sects of Christianity might borrow something from these Jewish rituals of mourning; if nothing else, the patience it shows a mourner. Learn to bear with our sudden tears that seem to come from nowhere. Bear with me now.
It was eleven years ago and a few days before Thanksgiving when I went to a routine ultrasound, and learned that our son, eighteen weeks preborn, had died in my womb. — Is that his face– I said, as I saw an image, ghost-like and unmoving, on the screen. — Yes–the technician said, and she continued quietly to make her measurements as I turned my face away. I don’t think she was unmoved by my grief, but she didn’t know what to say. I ran from that radiology department as soon as I could, and in the privacy of my car, I opened up my Bible, and cried out to God — oh speak to me!– And though I do not believe in Scripture roulette, I was in such a desperate condition, and the Father is kind and compassionate to such a bowed head. And my hope was not disappointed, for immediately I read, (oh bear with me now):
“ For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8: 18-25)
Sometimes a moment is so holy it cannot be expressed save in the heightened and compressed speech of poetry; and indeed, I think the Spirit agrees with me that poetry is the best means of expressing these strong and spiritual moments because fully one-third of the Bible is the most glorious poetry ever conceived. And I can find no other way to express that exchange of life that happened in that car. I did try other kinds of words, but they failed, so bear with me now:
My son went home too soon–
and I echo creation’s laboring groans here–
mourn my boy’s liberation
from corruption to His likeness:
how he must have yearned,
and been impatient as I am
to be swallowed up by Life.
Oh the image of that face, so blurry
even as it changed to glory,
with his adoption as a son, and I
do not understand this though
I will patiently wait, though I wait long,
with all creation in bondage,
wait for the revealing of the sons of God.
For one sight of that Face
and the voice of His love, that is
‘so wonderful, so infinite, so abiding’
that now speaks to me so clearly!
Though I still mourn for my son,
Oh, he went home too soon!
In the strength of this food from God, I cooked and served Thanksgiving dinner for two dozen relatives and nobody even remembered that I sorrowed. But I was not embittered — I had looked on Him, and I was radiant. Perhaps that is why there was barely a mention of my ‘unpleasantness.’ His unfailing love continued to sustain me throughout the grueling days that followed as well.
Because immediately there was pressure on me to just be rid of my little problem. I had, for the medical community in those days, an unseemly determination to go into labor instead of enduring a D@C, which was the usual procedure for cases like mine. Now, remember this was eleven years ago, in San Francisco, and I hear that mothers of stillborns are given more dignity, that things have changed. But I was unusual in San Francisco in those days, and I was collateral damage in the abortion wars.
Because I wanted to give birth to my dead son. I wanted to hold him and mourn for him and grieve his death with dignity and invite the comfort of family and friends in a memorial. And I wanted to look in his face one last time to assure myself that he was really dead. His life, though short, was not insignificant. But for the medical community my insistence was inconvenient, expensive and a needless reminder that the battered bodies they routinely vacuum away would be valuable to some.
So I was given short shrift, and I went two more weeks with a corpse inside me because no medical personnel would have anything to do with me, until an inexperienced young visiting nurse was given the thankless job to attend me as I was induced after over two weeks of waiting for labor to start.
I was alone in the hospital room when my son was born. I was standing and he slipped out and fell to the floor all forlorn, and he had broken out of the amniotic sac. How that image has haunted me over the years– I had so desired dignity to be a part of his birth. He was like a broken baby bird, fallen out of a nest. I felt desolate. I picked him up, oh so tiny he was, barely stretching out over the palm of my hand. His face was very like his brothers and sisters, his lips so finely shaped like his fathers: the same perfect long fingers and squared nails. Yet it was a face only a mother could love, the skin so thin it was discolored from the blood beneath. And I kissed the cystic hygroma, the fluid filled sac at the back of his neck that is common in babies with Trisomy-18. My husband came in and we grieved together until I began to be faint with loss of blood.
I had an emergency D@C later to correct hemorrhaging because placental material still remained in my uterus, and I will never forget the scornful look of a resident doctor who came in my hospital room the next day as I was mourning the child my husband and I had named Thomas. Because my child had died a week earlier than the 20 weeks preborn — though I had carried him two more weeks — his brief life did not merit a death certificate in my state, his birth was not even noted as such in my chart, only the scraping out of my uterus.
That heedless doctor broke through the sanctuary provided by a solitary teardrop on my door to mark the room of one who grieved the loss of a baby. She interrupted my mourning with a taunt, “So you had a D@C after all.” I just stared at her. I said nothing. She slunk out of the room. I hope my face haunts her the rest of her life. She was deluded that I was in some sort of contest with her, and her glee at her seeming triumph led her to intrude on the very private suffering of a grieving mother.
Indeed, I pity her greatly. What can be more horrifying than to be such a fool? Her ultimate end without repentance is more tragic than my own loss. My son is with His heavenly Father. Twelve years later, I have found redemptive value in my experience; my faith has been tried as gold, and I had a privileged glimpse of the Father’s sorrow as He sees the souls made in His image treated with utter contempt. I shared His grief.
When some don’t share our griefs, what do we do? I heard somebody say once concerning the ministry of encouragement, that “Love must reach its destination.” Sometimes that love doesn’t come for whatever the reason–sometimes the world unmasks its cruel agenda, and sometimes the family of God displays their issues, and that “pity like a newborn babe” meant for another’s woe is a stillborn comfort. Instead of the warm hug or cold cup of water the Father meant for your consolation, there is only a lukewarmness coming from those in the household of faith. These are testing moments for a saint: Will we seek to escape this added pain of rejection — with entertainment or food or alcohol or drugs or even antidepressants? There is a way to forgive another when it hurts so bad, when we look for comforters, and there are none. Because Jesus knew this sorrow too, He says in the Psalms, “I looked for sympathy, but there was none, for comforters, but I found none.” (Psalm 69:20)
Job found the place of comfort in his crisis. He cried out in the midst of his misery, “Oh that I might find Him!” Spurgeon writes here,
“Job’s desire to commune with God was intensified by the failure of all other sources of consolation. The patriarch turned away from his sorry friends, and looked up to the celestial throne, just as a traveller turns from his empty skin bottle, and betakes himself with all speed to the well. He bids farewell to earth-born hopes, and cries, “O that I knew where I might find my God!” Nothing teaches us so much the preciousness of the Creator, as when we learn the emptiness of all besides. Turning away with bitter scorn from earth’s hives, where we find no honey, but many sharp stings, we rejoice in him whose faithful word is sweeter than honey or the honeycomb. In every trouble we should first seek to realize God’s presence with us. Only let us enjoy his smile, and we can bear our daily cross with a willing heart for his dear sake.”
When we have enjoyed His smile, and our hearts overflow with a sense of His faithfulness, we can be the ones–even in our grief — to give the hug or bring the refreshments. We can be the ones to turn the other cheek, which is the real triumph in this very real spiritual battle in the heavenlies. Because God’s enemies are strutting to and fro. We can be like Job, who prayed for his friends who ridiculed him, or even better, be like Jesus, who prayed for the enemies who killed him.
Ah, Reader, if you have reached the end of my two thousand words, thank you for bearing with me! I have said my Kaddish. It was cathartic, as all such rituals are. Do not worry for this mourner, I have been amply comforted; I am a happy mother of children. I gave birth to a beautiful daughter exactly one year to the day later on the anniversary of Thomas’ stillbirth. Yes, it was a little confusing, the mix of tears and elation on that morning when joy came. And when I asked, and kept asking Him, what that was all about, the Lord told me some years later why she was born on that day of all days. , He graciously replied, “To give you a double portion.” And blessed be Him whose ways are not our ways, who makes everything beautiful in its time, who makes of our lives His own sweet poem.
And so the memory of the comfort of my lovely daughter makes a merry little ending to an especially long and very sad story.