My sweet boy’s nine-month birthday is approaching at the end of this month. The ache of wishing he was in my arms just doesn’t wane with time. Time hasn’t given me some grand answer as to “why” this happened. Time doesn’t cause me to accept this reality more readily. Time has not healed this wound. But time does give the opportunity to reflect, and I’ve been reflecting of the ways Elliot has changed me. These are nine realizations, in honor of his nine months, that help me find life in the midst of loss. Elliot’s death itself is tragic and sad and wrong. Yet Elliot’s life–his beautiful, created, effervescent LIFE–is magnified by its brevity. His life continually shines a precious light on me in the midst of my dark night. These nine items remind me how very deeply one brief life can impact someone else.
1. I would not wish away my time with my child, even to spare myself pain. I don’t think there’s much I need to say to expound upon this. Maybe it even surprises me a little to write it and know it’s true. I would give almost anything to change the death of my child. I would give almost anything to be released from the continual pain I feel at not having him. ALMOST anything. The one thing I would never give back is the short time I did have with him. 200 days of my life. Scary days. Hard days. But days of such deep love. And that love has not ended. If anything, it has grown. Only one emotion is greater than the pain I feel over Elliot’s death: the love I have for him. He is worth it. He is worth even this pain. Love is worth the pain.
2. Today is all I have. This something I could’ve always said I “knew,” but Elliot’s death has made this real. His death was so sudden and shocking and traumatic, that I think for the first several months I could not comprehend it was real. But as trauma has given way to grief, I’ve been able to contemplate the reality that his mortal life did end. That seemingly obvious fact leads to a deeper contemplation of the reality that ALL life will end, and very often not on the timetable any of us wants. I do not know how many days I have with my husband, my children, my extended family, my friends. This might be the only day I have left, so how am I going to use it? Am I going to scream at the guy who cut me off in traffic, or shrug it off? Am I going to feel annoyed when my kids won’t leave me alone, or sit on the floor and play with them? Am I going to give away the $20 in my wallet, or keep it because I might need it tomorrow? I’m not saying I do any of this very well. Many days I still just survive and take lots of breaks and eat chocolate. But Elliot’s legacy to me is to remember to make every day count as best I can. To love, to forgive, to seek forgiveness. We really have so little time, any of us.
3. I don’t have to be okay. I know so many of us struggle to admit and embrace our own imperfection. We compare ourselves with others and then feel like constant failures: in our parenting, in our friendships, in our marriages, in our cooking, in our pinteresting. And we really never feel like we measure up in our spiritual lives. I’ve shared pretty candidly that in no way or shape could I pretend that I’ve had much “together” since Elliot died. Honestly, the emotional wreckage I’ve lived in for the past nine months has shown me how much I once tried to act like I had it all together. My brokenness after his death revealed to me all I was trying to cover up before. Losing him has so completely broken my defenses, that all my mess has just leaked out. And it really is okay. If Jesus came to bind up wounds, then I have to admit that I am wounded. If Jesus came to rebuild the ancient ruins, then I should embrace how ruined I am. If Jesus says “blessed are those who mourn,” then I should lay my mourning bare before him, reaching out for any blessing that can come.
4. There is no way to erase the pain, but there is soul chocolate. This thing called child loss hurts. IT HURTS!! And as soon as I have a minute or an hour or a day where it doesn’t quite hurt so badly, WHAM! Some trigger just slams me and I am in that NICU room and Elliot is dying all over again. The pain was so intense at the beginning, that I would’ve done most anything to erase it. I thought about going to the pot shop, but the thought was just too absurd to actually take seriously. I had my first drinks of alcohol in years, pretty much just thinking, “maybe I’ll feel a little less of this pain for a few minutes.” Of course it didn’t work. Sometimes when a friend sent me a a particular message of encouragement, it really helped, but only temporarily. When people would comment on a picture of Elliot or blog post, I felt better for a time, but that didn’t last. I’ve learned that the pain will always be there, waiting for me, no matter what distracts me from it for a while. Even as I’ve started finding some peace in Christ again, I know a trigger will probably be coming for me in the coming hours or days. But I’ve found I can use the moments of comfort for what they are and not expect them to “fix” anything. Maybe God gives us things like laughter and coffee and board games and hugs just to help us make it from one hard thing to another. I’ve started to learn to just enjoy an encouraging message from a friend or a moment of spiritual peace as kind of chocolate for my soul. It will keep me going. Then another trigger will hit and knock me over. And it may feel impossible to get up. But for nine months, God has been giving me the pieces of hope I need to get up just one more time.
5. Comparing pain is unnecessary (and probably unhelpful). It seems to be human nature to compare ourselves with others. I’ve had lots of encounters in which someone is telling me about a problem in his or her life, only to pause and say, “But it’s nothing compared to what you’re going through.” I’ve done it too. I know I have had times when I think of the suffering in the world–children in sex trafficking, families starving, Christians in persecution who’ve watched their children killed before their very eyes. And I’ll think, What I’m going through is so much “less” than what they are enduring. It’s like I’m trying to get perspective to convince myself that the trial of losing my child isn’t “that bad.” And yet does it help? Not at all! It does nothing to make losing Elliot any easier! I could also go the other way and feel almost superior in my suffering, thinking that an event like losing a job or even a home couldn’t compare to losing a child. But what good AT ALL does it do to compare? Those circumstances are incredibly hard! I’ve found that a lot of fellow-sufferers who’ve reached out to me and with whom I’ve had productive, deep conversations have often not been bereaved parents. They’ve just been people whose lives have been turned upside-down and now they look at life through a different lens. That’s the awareness that suffering can bring: to see the world differently, more compassionately, more contemplatively. We don’t need to compare. We just need to be there for one another.
6. Compassion honors my child, and draws me back to God. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” Paul says in Galatians. We never know what someone else might be going through. Never. As painful as it is to see a lady with a cute pregnant belly, or a little baby boy strapped in his car seat, it has many times made me wonder: Did I walk right by a bereaved mom when my belly was big with Sylvia or Valerie? Or maybe a woman struggling through infertility? Did I laugh loudly in the library or grocery store about Valerie’s birth story, when right next to me a mom cringed as she thought of her own baby, stillborn? Many times, my trauma has been triggered by the unaware pregnant lady, or friends swapping birth stories, or the little newborn baby boy crying in his car seat. No one could possibly know how my chest tightens and the room starts spinning and I feel like I am either going to scream or pass out. It’s no one’s fault. But it has made me think SO much more: what is she going through? What is he experiencing? What wounds, what traumas, what losses, what stories are walking by me everywhere I go? I won’t ever know. Maybe occasionally a stranger and I will swap stories. But since that won’t normally happen, I will hold the door for her, I will smile at her child, I will let him go in front of me at the store. In this season of spiritual drought, it’s been hard for me to do things like pray and study the Bible. But there is something about showing compassion to others that draws me back to God more than prayer or Bible study can. I guess that makes sense. Jesus spent a lot more time being with people and showing compassion than doing anything else. And really, it’s the best way I know to honor my Elliot. He was so gentle, so full of peace. What could reflect his life more than doing acts that are gentle and peaceful?
7. Lives of babies who have died should be remembered and celebrated. This fact remains whether a baby died due to miscarriage, abortion, stillbirth, or infant death. I think our society is getting much better at doing this. I’ve read books from twenty years ago, or heard stories of parents from previous generations where the babies’ names were never spoken, or the “loss” was treated as if it never happened. As if there was never a life. There are Facebook groups and infant loss organizations now, so I think those of us who want to remember and mourn our babies have spaces to do so. And yet every mom of a heaven baby I’ve talked to has had encounters that have left her feeling like she shouldn’t talk about her baby–like it’s awkward for others, like she should be “over it”, like it wasn’t as bad as losing an older child, like she should just have another baby so she can “move on.” But these are our children. They are irreplaceable. Most of us didn’t get to bring them home and create memories with them. All we’re left with is love and aching. Our babies matter so much to us. God created them and they matter. Remembrance is vital as we bereaved parents mourn. Mourning is the outward expression of grief, and is really the pathway to healing. Parents cannot mourn if there is no remembrance. A friend asked me recently what she could do to help me in this grief journey, and I said, “Just be a safe place for me to share about my babies when I want to.” I need to remember them. I need to mourn them. I need to celebrate them. And it is my deepest honor to remember and celebrate the other heaven babies whose stories touch my life.
8. Life is for living. As I write these words, my two little girls are playing downstairs in swimsuits on a 20 degree day, pretending they are making sand castles on the beach. This morning we went to a play date full of children laughing and eating treats and making crafts. This weekend, the snow fell and it was so peaceful and beautiful. Moments of life and beauty are really hard on the grieving heart. It’s hard to explain why. It feels so wrong that life can so easily carry on in all its ups and downs with its ugliness and beauty all mingled together–that all of that can just continue after my child has died. I’ve been really angry at sunshine and singing birds and playful dogs over the past nine months. How dare they be so filled with life and beauty, as if my Elliot never existed? But he did exist. He does exist in the presence of Jesus. And he will exist again, resurrected to walk the New Earth. But he is not here now. A grieving mama’s heart really has a hard time wanting to join in with all the life flowering around, when such a beautiful flower like Elliot has bloomed and died to soon.
But the truth is we are all like that flower the blooms and then dies. The day you or I die, life will continue on for the rest of the world, except for those closest to us. Life, for everyone else, will be for living. Because that’s all we can really do that’s worthwhile with this brief life God has given us: live it. Not just survive, not just exist, but truly live, and live well. I am very slowly learning to do that, because living still feels wrong. It’s so hard. Did I mention I am VERY SLOWLY learning this?? There are definitely still days where just existing is the victory. But there are also days of living. Some days for me, living means sitting and watching my girls play (or mediating their fights). Some days it means taking a walk or exercising. Some days it means reading the Bible or praying. Some days it means coffee with a friend. And it’s strange. When I allow myself to step into little bits of life, I actually feel more connected to Elliot, as if I’m living this life for the both of us.Though there are days I want to give up, I realize my sweet little boy would not want that. I got a tattoo on Elliot’s six-month birthday of his little footprint on my foot. Every step I take, he takes with me. So may I live well and in a way that honors his precious memory. As he and Jesus watch me together, I want them both to be proud.
9. This is not the end. Losing my sweet son and the faltering of my faith has shown me that belief is much more a choice than a feeling. Without hope for eternity, none of this makes sense. I won’t lie: even with hope for eternity, the death of my child doesn’t make any sense. The comfort I receive from believing I will see Elliot again in heaven is like a drop in the ocean of pain. But without that drop, I would really drown. I mean, what would be the point in anything? That little bit of hope has grown over the months. I am starting to choose to defy hopelessness and grab onto the anchor for my soul. I play Gungor’s song “This Is Not the End” as loudly as I can, singing along and crying and shouting it, even when I don’t feel it and don’t believe it. If eternity with Jesus is not real, well, then Elliot’s death is more or less what awaits us all. We’re all just five days of existence then nothing. But if it is real, that changes everything. Elliot is now eternal because the grace of Jesus, and he will physically be resurrected and I will get to enjoy being with him FOREVER! Eternal life in Christ is just sitting there waiting for anyone who says, “I believe.” For those of you who don’t believe, I think I get that better now than I did before. Belief is not always a nice, squishy “feeling.” It can be hard work, like exercise or cleaning my children’s play room. It’s a decision followed by action. I choose to believe, many days, because I cannot cope with the idea that I will never see Elliot again. Maybe God is using my desperation to be reunited with my son as a way to drive the anchor of hope deeper. I hope because I must, not because I always feel it. And there’s a certain freedom that comes when feelings do not dictate my belief. Feelings are tossed wildly in the waves of my ocean of grief; the anchor of hope refuses to budge.
I chose a Bible passage to put on Elliot’s funeral program, and the same passage on his temporary grave marker that sat at his gravesite for the first seven months after his death. Honestly, I only put these verses on anything because, well, Bible verses should be on stuff like that, right? I chose this passage somewhat arbitrarily. It hung on my wall in the hospital during my 50-day stay with Elliot, and so it was something that reminded me of him.
I wonder now if it was a gift of Elliot and Jesus, to place this passage often in front of my face. When I despair, I read these words.
“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:17-19
I remember you, my little Elliot, and I celebrate your amazing impact on my life.