Seven years ago, we became parents to Katherine, our first daughter. For six days, we embraced our doctor's "cautious optimism" and celebrated each hurdle she passed, even as my health and vision continued to suffer after her premature birth. But then we were grief-stricken as we had to say goodbye all too suddenly to our precious 19-ounce daughter.
It was the hardest thing I've ever had to face, but it would be incomplete to end there. I have to borrow Glennon Merton Doyle's word and admit it was the most brutiful time in my life, where I experienced the most brutal, raw feelings as well as getting to be present for some amazing, selfless acts of love.
So many comforted us by their words and actions. Friends and family gently surrounded us until we could begin to stand for ourselves, shouldering the burden whenever they could.
Here is just a brief glimpse of what we experienced:
- As I was leaving the hospital, one of the nurses who had regularly cared for me during my ten-day stay gave me a huge hug and choked out through her tears, "We'll see you in here again." She, too, had recently lost a child and knew that another baby wouldn't replace Katherine or remove our grief, but those words were received like a prophesy, offering a hope that someday we would find ourselves there again, not forgetting Katherine, but welcoming another child into the world. That somehow we would survive this.
- After I was finally discharged, we had people providing meals every day for over a month, many of whom were previously "just" coworkers
- Several people shared stories of their own losses, some decades old. This reminded me that I was not alone in grieving the tragic loss of a child, and I could see that they had found joy again. As hard as that season was, it meant much to witness their fortitude. And being entrusted with those stories of loss was a gift. Here was something that shaped who they were years ago, a story so close to their core that they didn't often reveal it, and I was being given a glimpse, often through shared tears, of a pivotal moment in their lives
- When Katherine's first birthday approached, my ob-gyn office remembered her by sending us a card with many handwritten messages
- My department regularly sent out packages via Fed-Ex. They congregated in our office, where the Fed-Ex driver would collect them at the close of every day. Some days, he would rush in and out in a hurry, others he might have time to linger for a few minutes. When we held the memorial service in Indiana, he drove to our church before it began to give us hugs and offer his condolences, even though he had a commitment so that he couldn't stay.
- Every day for weeks, several cards arrived in our mailbox. It was one of the most emotionally exhausting but healing times of the day. We'd read the condolences, often through tears. So many different friends or acquaintances sent messages, flowers, books, even some strangers wrote notes after hearing of our loss
- One family friend sent a necklace charm as well as the reminder that "You are still parents, even if your arms are empty."
- A couple friends quickly knit and crocheted preemie outfits as soon as they heard of our daughter's arrival. They delivered them to the hospital, ready for whenever Katherine would get to wear them. She never got the honor, but those items are so treasured by me.
- I had bumped into a dear family friend while in Iowa and mentioned my pregnancy. She is a quilter and began asking me about color preferences. When Katherine passed away, she must have worked feverishly to complete the quilt and mail it to us, now to offer us comfort. It's still my favorite quilt, and in my monthly giraffe pictures of the girls, you will notice it draped in the chair behind them.
- So much anticipation, joy, and love was showered upon us once people learned we were pregnant again.
- Never did people suggest we should be over our grief once a certain amount of time passed or censure us as we slowly started to find joy again. Instead, friends would share their own times of tears when something would bring us or our daughter to mind. Or they would laugh alongside us.
Collective grief was a gift. Yes, we felt the loss most keenly, but knowing that Katherine's death was sobering and difficult for others meant something. She had not been forgotten. And friends, by coming alongside us as we were, joined us in that grief and affirmed us. I'm sure most of the steps above seemed like such a small thing - a meal by one lab, a card from a former classmate. But collectively, these things helped to heal us.
I wonder what life would have been like, were Katherine still alive. But I know her brief life shaped us as parents. We are different for her having lived, and we are better for it.
This may seem a strange transition, but Stephen Colbert helped to articulate my thoughts as this date neared. I read a recent interview with him, and at the close he shared about the experience of losing his father and two of his brothers when we was ten:
“I was left alone a lot after Dad and the boys died.... And it was just me and Mom for a long time,” he said. “And by her example am I not bitter. By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no.” Maybe, he said, she had to be that for him. He has said this before—that even in those days of unremitting grief, she drew on her faith that the only way to not be swallowed by sorrow, to in fact recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity. What is this in the light of eternity? Imagine being a parent so filled with your own pain, and yet still being able to pass that on to your son.“It was a very healthy reciprocal acceptance of suffering,” he said. “Which does not mean being defeated by suffering. Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is just awareness.” He smiled in anticipation of the callback: “ ‘You gotta learn to love the bomb,’ ” he said. “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. So that's why. Maybe, I don't know. That might be why you don't see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It's that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”
As I reflect on the hard experiences of my life - my mom's illness, the loss of my brother and my first daughter - Colbert's closing phrase resonates with me: "I love the thing that I most wish had not happened."
I would love to restore sanity to my mother, life to my brother and daughter, but in the same breath, I'm grateful to have experienced such outpourings of love in my darkest seasons. And having lived through those experiences means that I have been given opportunity to cry with others as they enter brutiful seasons of their own.