Five years ago I gave birth to a baby boy but the only cries in that delivery room were from those of us grieving his silence. He was stillborn in my sixth month due to a severe case of Amniotic Band Syndrome. Almost 3 kids later, his death, at times, can feel like a world away, yet every year as January 26th approaches I can cry as if I am waking up to attend his funeral again. This year is no different, and in some mysterious way, more difficult for me. Grief continues to prove it’s complexity; and while my soul reminds me it can’t be tamed, it reminds me afresh that it must be tended.
This year I am going there. I am looking through all the pictures we don’t show anyone. The body of a baby about whom the nurses said, “oh, it’s bad, you probably don’t want to see him.” The almost 12 inches of flesh I cradled in my hands because my pastor said to me in that moment “whatever you choose [to see him or not], know that God can heal.” He can heal my regret of burying him without seeing him, and he can heal the images of a broken body I never wanted to behold. Wise words that freed me to come closer to his broken body.
We beheld his body…slowly at first. He was covered and we began with his feet, which was just one foot actually. And it was darling, I have the sweetest footprint of it. Then his legs, which were shaped just like his Papa’s. Then, his body that wouldn’t quite close while being formed, but the wounds actually didn’t scare me. I looked at his right arm, whole. And then his left one which couldn’t grow because of another band wrapped tightly around it. Lastly, we moved the hospital-issue infant blanket to reveal his face. The face that had a band causing his mouth to remain open as if he entered heaven singing. It captured me. Then his head, which couldn’t close around another band. Surprisingly, I found it needed my tender touch, and not my wincing. I saw him whole, in all his brokenness; I was okay.
And I was completely in love.
For all of us who have beheld the lifeless body of one we loved. Or wondered at what that body would have looked like had we been able to or chosen to see: How can it be that so much ache and so much love can be bound up together so tightly? Why is it that when we delve into the deepest brokenness what we find is Love?
It reminds me of the Cross of Christ. A broken body, an aching heart, and Love: inextricably, eternally bound together.
And why is it I still run from my own brokenness before I turn around and sit in it with the Broken God Who Makes All Things Whole? Why do I still wince at myself, or another, rather then welcome our brokenness when I know I can find Love already there. What am I afraid of after so long…have I not Love?
The honest answer is no. Often, I have not Love. Or better yet, I forget how much Love has me. I wince and run because I forget that I was formed in Love, and in Love I am held together. I forget that when my Father looks at me, in all the places I might say “don’t look, it’s really bad, you probably don’t want to see this” (because I don’t want to see this), He doesn’t wince. He knows – and in Jesus Christ it’s a mind-body-soul kind of knowing – that brokenness and Love, they are not separate.
Inextricably, eternally bound.
The nurses looked at my son and they saw a deformed body, dead and lifeless, ready to be removed so we could “move on.” But love changes everything, doesn’t it? It changes the way we see. The way we engage.
In that moment, I could see. Jonan opened my eyes. He was not a limitation to be removed from my body by a vacuum rather than waiting his impending death, he was a life to be welcomed and listened to, and I am so glad we did. (Sincere thanks again to those who helped us welcome him in that season, we were scared of the choices we had and the potential complications for me. The pressure to remove him before his time was stronger than I ever anticipated. I am so thankful for those who helped us welcome him in all his – and our – brokenness. And grace, grace, grace to you who have chosen differently in those moments of pressure and fear).
In pursuit of a contemplative life, I am ever-so-slowly learning acceptance of life “as is” to a level I have never wanted. I don’t anticipate this changing throughout my life. After all, the call to accept rather than “push through” or reject is the only way to true transformation of the soul. But I fear the word accept actually does a disservice to us; it’s simply too limited. The word accept can conjure up more passivity that the contemplative life wants from us. I suggest a better word would be welcome. I haven’t passively allowed chronic illness to run my life, but I have had to welcome it and all the limitations it has brought me in the recent years. I pursue holistic healing and am experiencing its benefits, but even healing requires limiting myself in other ways, like what foods I can eat and how much rest I need. I am increasingly learning to accept this rather than simply push through it. I can welcome my limitations as a means to transformation and deeper joy.
So how does this relate to grief?
Grief has so many impetuses, doesn’t it? Unfortunately pushing through them has become so normative we often fail to even notice our souls’ grief, thus we don’t heal and receive from these griefs as we could. The grief of a change of season we didn’t expect, a move, a job loss, delay of dreams, financial setbacks, a relational strain with someone, the pain of words spoken – or left unspoken, abuse, betrayal, the list of possible griefs is endless. They can be really small or really, really big. But they are all griefs. They require sorrowing.
I see so much life-energy spent pushing away sadness. And for good reason, it feels bad to feel sad. While I don’t suggest is wallowing in the griefs, I do suggest is welcoming them.
While wallowing keeps us stuck and pushing through keeps us from inner peace, welcoming brings us into it in the deepest places of brokenness, and remember…brokenness and Love…they are bound together. Somehow in the mystery of that union, we begin to heal.
So if there is so much good in welcoming our sorrow, why do so few of us do, and do it well? I am reminded of what C. S. Lewis says about grief in A Grief Observed, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” Yes and yes and yes again. Physically it can feel like fear all bound up in one’s stomach or as if your chest might break open. The emotional terror of a grieving tsunami that might never end can prevent one from entering into it at all. The terrible isolation of grief can feel like too much to carry alone. Grieving can feel like fear for so many reasons.
This past fall a dear friend of mine lost her 4 month old son. Unimaginably: to SIDS. No explanation. No breath, no warmth, no screams but hers. I traveled hours alone to be at the funeral. Pregnant now and having lost a son I wasn’t sure I could do it, frankly. To walk in. See his body. Imagine her loss and pain. Still a nursling, and all that means for her now: mind, body, soul. Oh, what was I thinking to be present to this moment? My gut turns as I write this now. Nothing I could say or do could change anything. There is no prayer to bring him back or to awaken him out of that casket-too-small. I would have to walk in and just be there in the midst of awful, inconsolable pain.
I made a small sign of the cross on my head and walked into exactly what you might think it would be. I was scared. Grief felt like fear. But I went in with my arms deliberately at my side, unarmed, carrying nothing but my own broken heart.
Where we can welcome brokenness, we find Love.
That funeral was not about me, but it showed me something about grief and love and pain all over again. I am certain I would not have been able to enter that situation without facing my own, ongoing grief. Had I not welcomed my own aching heart a thousand times, how could I have welcomed hers? My soul would instinctively not know how. Sure, I could have read an article or two about what to say and what not to say, but my soul wouldn’t understand its language. Our souls simply cannot be tamed, they must be tended.
So if today you find yourself reading this and you long to tend your soul because taming it just isn’t work, may I suggest welcoming it just as it is? Welcome the awkward, the insecure, the angry, the ill-motivated, the sad, the touchy, the brash, the insensitive, the haughty, the fill-in-the-blank part of your being that, no matter how hard you try, simply cannot be controlled. Take a minute, and rather than pushing that broken part away, or shaming yourself for it, or trying to hide it from others, invite it in…it’s already there anyways. Be with your broken parts, then listen to them. Listen to where they come from, to why they can’t be silent. There is an invitation to Love somewhere in there. You can be as sure as the sun will rise again tomorrow, that where you find brokenness you can also find Love.
If this journey of transformation interests you, please join me. I will write more in depth about what “welcoming” looks like in daily life in my next post entitled (something like) Invitations to Transformation in our Daily Life.