I’ve been staring at this picture a lot recently. It’s one of my favorite pictures of Elliot. But, let’s be honest; they’re ALL my favorite. When pictures of your child are finite, and when there will be no more, they are sacred. Dustin texted me this picture the day after Elliot was born while I was receiving my blood transfusion. It was the first time I saw him in his cool shades. I love how my little boy is snuggled up to his daddy’s hand and how his expression looks like he’s smiling. He looks so calm, so peaceful. I notice the way his index finger is curled over his thumb on his right hand. So perfect; just a baby being a baby. I cherish it, like I cherish every image of my son.
The emotions rolled into an experience like looking at this picture are hard to describe, but maybe you are feeling them too. It is hard to look at pictures of Elliot, knowing I will NEVER compare his growing form to his newborn pictures. There will only ever be newborn pictures. My soul recoils in anguish at this thought, so I cry. But then I see his perfect little features, his precious cheeks, his smooth skin, his fuzzy hair, his chicken legs…and I smile. I laugh. I tell him over and over that he is so stinkin’ cute Mommy can hardly stand it! These reactions happen in me simultaneously. Just looking at a picture brings a whirlwind of emotions.
Prior to Elliot’s death, I’ve been apt to downplay negative emotions with a big BUT. I think this comes from a good place within myself and many Christians, when we want to remember the bigger picture of God’s love and His ultimate plan for our redemption in eternity. We don’t want to get so caught up in any earthly trial that we focus only on temporary suffering. Phrases like, “This is a really hard time, BUT God is good” or “I’m really struggling, BUT with God’s help I’ll get through it” are designed to refocus our perspectives. That’s not a bad thing.
However, I’ve noticed that the Big But often has an undesirable side effect: the minimizing of suffering. Nothing soothes a suffering heart quite like being validated; nothing adds a layer of hurt quite like being minimized. I know I am not the only mom of a deceased baby who has received phrases meant to comfort, but actually accomplish just the opposite. Phrases like, “It’s so sad you lost this baby, BUT you can have another one” (which is not true for me and many bereaved moms), or “I know you miss your son, BUT at least you have your girls.” An English teacher like me tends to focus on semantics. The conjunction “but” in phrases like those has the effect of minimizing the first half of the sentence and maximizing the second. Hearing these phrases feels like being told to look on the bright side. But that’s the thing about my child dying: there is NO bright side.
In many other circumstances, it has been helpful to attempt to find a silver lining. Any other problem I’ve encountered in my life, be it health issues or financial instability or relational conflict or a job I hate or severe depression, has had at least the possibility of improvement. With an awful job, though it can make one feel stuck and hopeless, there is at least a chance for a different job at some point in time. I have been in a pit of depression before and have felt very alone there. Yet even in that dark place, there has been the slightest glimmer of hope that it will not last forever.
Not so with the death of a child. The moment the doctor uttered those reality-altering words on June 3, “He’s gone,” I knew. I knew the horrifying reality those words represented. My very first thought was, “My son can never, never, never be alive again!” Other bereaved parents understand how that moment changes you at the core. The death of my child has no bright side, no possibility of change, no “but.” At least not in this life. Without the hope of resurrection and eternity with Jesus, there would really be no point in anything. Yet for the rest of this life, the fact of Elliot’s death can never improve.
But (it’s still a conjunction that serves a purpose), there is more. This world of conflicting emotions has led me to think not in terms of either/or, but both/and. I’m not happy or sad. I’m happy AND sad. I’m not depressed or hopeful. I’m depressed AND hopeful. For me, phrases now sound more like: “I’m devastated my son died, AND I am so thankful I have my girls.” Having two beautiful daughters does not assuage the pain of Elliot’s death. Elliot’s death does not diminish the joy of having my daughters. Pain and joy exist simultaneously.
My husband and I have started calling missing Elliot our “background noise.” Our ache for Elliot is always, always, always present. Sometimes we get rightfully caught up in the fun of family and life, and we laugh until our sides hurt. In those times, the background noise is within our awareness, but not in the forefront. Other times, when there is some time to reflect and remember, or when a trigger appears in daily life, the background noise is loud and needs to be acknowledged.
Just today we took the girls to the museum with some friends. On the way to the museum, we drove past the cemetery and along the route that leads to St. Joseph’s hospital. This increased the volume of my background noise as memories of the hospital flooded my brain. Later, when the girls were playing in one of the crazy kid areas, I saw a precious baby boy, probably around seven months old, giggling and smiling at his daddy. He reminded me so much of how I picture Elliot would look and act now, and suddenly the background noise became the only thing in my awareness. I had to excuse myself to the bathroom and cry. And then, I enjoyed the rest of the morning with my bright-eyed little girls.
Early on after Elliot’s death, several veteran bereaved parents lovingly warned me that I would never “get over it”, and that only a “new normal” would help me put one foot in front of the other for the duration of my earthly life. I am realizing that this new normal is what I’m experiencing: the AND of every moment. I’m playing with the girls, AND I miss Elliot. I’m eating chocolate, AND I miss Elliot. I’m singing, AND I miss Elliot. I miss Elliot, AND I think about adoption. I miss Elliot, AND I’d like to plan a mission trip to Juarez. I miss Elliot, AND I want to honor his life by loving others well.
I keep singing lines from “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” that remind me of these thoughts.
See from his head, his hands, his feet
Sorrow AND love flow mingled down
Did e’er such love AND sorrow meet?
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
It’s not that there was a lot of sorrow, BUT love erased it. It’s not that there was abundant love, BUT sorrow killed it.
Sorrow and love. Joy and pain. Hope and despair.
I can’t exclude any aspect of these conflicting emotions with a big BUT. Perhaps accepting my background noise is one of the ways to continue moving forward. Actually, it’s the only way I can picture moving forward at all: with love and longing for Elliot present continually. Though remembering him always brings pain, as looking at pictures does, it also brings hope and love and light and joy.
And one day in the future, when all is set right, I will finally be able to say, “I have missed you, my baby boy. BUT…we are together again.”