I’ve heard grief described as: “being stuck in a moment in time.” I think that’s a somewhat accurate picture, if a bit simplistic. I would add that it’s more like your heart is ripped from your chest and scattered over many, many past moments in time, staked there whether you like it or not, and somehow required to go on beating in the present.
But that’s a mouthful.
There is a past life for the bereaved: a life in which the dear person we’ve lost existed with us in this world. For us moms who’ve lost babies of any gestation or children of any age, the time of our past life was painfully, achingly too short. The memories of our babies just burn like fire because they were so sweet, so special, and so limited. I’m coming close to the year mark when all the unforeseen complications with Elliot’s pregnancy arose, and when an unpredictable course of events would lead to my son’s death. March 20. March 27. March 31. April 9. April 16. May 14. May 26.
All these dates carry significant memories which are particular to my journey with Elliot. Is part of me “stuck” in these moments in time? You betcha.
Because in those moments, my son was alive. How can I ever fully leave them?
I’m sure I will relive many of the highs and lows as the next few months unfold. The season of spring will never be the same for me. It used to be my favorite. Now? Spring will bring the ache of backwards longing. Those budding trees and singing birds will pull my heart back, backwards to the time when Elliot lived.
Spring will always remind me of the first day of spring break last year, when the hospital staff at Skyridge confirmed my water had broken. I was just 21 weeks pregnant then.
Spring will remind me of two weeks laying in my bed at home, the girls coloring and watching shows on either side of me. It will remind me of the cold spring morning when I awoke to blood and water pouring from me, one day before I was supposed to be admitted to the hospital. I was so scared I’d already lost him. Dustin drove me to St. Joe’s and they showed me Elliot on the ultrasound in the triage room. I remember my high-risk OB looking so relieved that the bleeding had stopped.
Spring will remind me of the seven weeks of hospital bed rest with my son in my belly. Elliot and I were surrounded by competent hospital staff, just down the hall from one of the premier NICUs in the state. For the first time in the pregnancy, I really felt at peace. I felt an overwhelming assurance that things were going to be okay, and an unshakable confidence that we’d bring Elliot home.
As days turned into weeks and Elliot stayed put longer than any doctor had predicted, my faith seemed so justified. I sat in rooms 4310 and 4312 at St. Joe’s Hospital, watching winter wind down from my fourth-floor window, full of anticipation for the life to come with my little boy. I gazed over the downtown Denver skyline as April showers and even snow rolled in over the mountains. I watched that one crazy hail storm that damaged my favorite nurse’s house. Elliot and I spied on people at the park below our window as the leaves burst forth from dormant trees. May sunshine brought more pedestrians and Elliot and I concocted stories about passers-by below. Day after day rolled by with my baby boy growing healthy and strong in my belly. Dustin and the girls and I made silly, fun memories, complete with an Easter egg hunt in the hospital courtyard, Mother’s Day in Labor & Delivery, playing games, reading stories, going on wheelchair rides, and eating lots of grilled cheese sandwiches in the hospital cafeteria.
We were stressed out, but we were so, so happy. Our family of five was together in those days. The girls listened to his heartbeat, watched him on the ultrasound screen, kissed my belly. Spring days full of love and excitement.
And then he was out, in an incubator in the NICU. I always wanted to have a baby in May. I love May. Spring will always remind me of the first time I saw him, of the relief and gratitude I felt that he’d lived through delivery. It will remind me of the hours spent by the side of his incubator. The rhythmic whooshing of the water sloshing in his chest tube machine made me drowsy while I sang to him, my hands cradling him in his warm moist space. For those five days, I walked in from a hallway of almost-summer sunshine, and into the dim quiet of the NICU.
That one beautiful, painful, miraculous, heart-shattering spring. The spring of Elliot.
How can I ever leave that spring?
And yet, as a book specifically about grief in infant loss recently reminded me, backwards longing can never be reality. I still want Elliot to be here, so of course I’m going to look back. For the rest of my life the clouds of longing will roll in from time to time. As I look backward, I will imagine a different life in which he didn’t die on June 3. An alternate reality in which our family is still a family of five, and my little girls have a little brother who they’re crazy about and also drives them crazy. That’s how it would be. That’s how it should be.
So I look back in longing, part of me always facing backwards. But if I stay there too long, or too deeply, or too defiantly, the longing threatens to swallow all of my present and my future. It’s such an overwhelming battle. Some days I do not win. Some days I relive my brief time with Elliot and try to convince myself he’s not really gone. I watch two 30-second videos of him alive over and over and over again, as if I could inhabit those moments and live there with him.
But when the videos are finally done, when the room which would’ve been his is as empty as it was before, I’m hit with the reality: he is gone. He is never coming back to this world.
And so, on days when perhaps God gives me His strength or the grip of grief releases me a bit, I turn from backward to upside-down.
This analogy came from another book I’ve been reading, written by a father about his grief journey after his 7-year-old son died. The author delves into the only place the backwards longing can go when the reality hits that your child can never come back. Then, the only way to move forward is with the hope of being reunited with the child again in the future. The father writes:
“Hope tells me with certainty that we will be reunited. Hope tells me with certainty that I shall see him again. Hope is symbolized in Christian iconography by an anchor. And what does an anchor do? It keeps the ship on course when wind and waves rage against it. But the anchor of hope is sunk in heaven, not on earth. Is this why the saints seem so eccentric to us? Their anchor is sunk in heaven, and their force of gravity is upside down. Their gait, while completely natural to them, looks like dancing on the ceiling to us.” A Grief Unveiled, p. 67.
That stubborn anchor: hope. The author of Hebrews calls it, “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain.”
I like the imagery of the anchor being sunk in heaven, pulling me upside down. Is this perhaps why the world looks so strange to me? Half the time I’m pulled backwards by my longing, the rest of the time I’m pulled upside down by my hope. Nothing really looks normal anymore.
In a way, though, I feel like I see life more clearly since Elliot’s death. When I emerge from my backward longing, when I’m hanging from the ceiling in my upside-down hope, then I’m faced with what to do with the present. It still has to be lived. How, then, to live it?
My backwards longing causes me to want to make the most of every day I have with my family. Elliot was so loved, so loving, and so precious. The best way I know to honor him is to share that kind of undeserved, innocent love with others. My time with him was so brief, so I honor him by making the most of the time I have with loved ones, and not wasting a day on petty concerns.
My upside-down hope causes me to fight against despair. Oh, God knows I am often filled with despair! But if it’s all true, Bible-Heaven-Jesus-Eternity, then I truly can keep going. I have to. There is no cause for quitting. There is a finish to this race, and the prize at the end will be worth it. This crazy anchor keeps me coming back to that, even when the sheer horror of the death of my child makes me want to crawl under a rock and never come out.
Spring is coming. All the memories, all the reminders, all the triggers: they’re coming, too. New life is about to pop up everywhere and, honestly, it will probably tick me off. Leaves and flowers and butterflies and green grass and singing birds…when my own precious little bird is gone. It feels so, so wrong.
But spring has one other symbol that my upside-down hope points me to: resurrection. The new life spring is about to bring will be born from the dormant and the dead.
I don’t know what else to daydream about, how else to run this race, except to think of my own little boy’s emergence from dormancy to renewed, eternal life. I do. I daydream about it. I picture heaven now and it looks like this:
I walk up to Jesus, and he is holding a baby. It’s Elliot! He’s alive! He’s perfect! His body is eternal! Jesus puts Elliot in my arms and then wraps us both in a hug. That’s heaven for me. That’s my anchor.
And I’m not crazy to hope for that. Seems like the Bible has something to say about it.
“But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.
So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”
1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-44, 53
I don’t know what a perishable body putting on an imperishable body looks like, but it’s got to be beautiful. Sometimes, when I’m standing at Elliot’s grave, I look down at where he’s buried and remember this passage, and think, Elliot’s sweet spirit is at home with Jesus. His sweet body is a seed. Simply a seed planted, waiting for the spring of eternity and Jesus to wake him up. His beautiful body will live again, forever and forever and forever.
Spring pulls me backwards. Spring flips me upside-down. I want to go back and be in the time when Elliot was alive. I want to rush forward and be in the time when I’ll be with him again. Seriously, I am dizzy!
Yet, I cannot make the backward longing or the upside-down hope my current reality. For now, I am here, in this time, this place, this space. That passage in 1 Corinthians ends with a “therefore,” a since-this-is-true-this-is-what-you-should-do kind of statement:
“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
1 Corinthians 15:58
Okay. (Deep breath. This is me processing.) Okay. Since all our bodies, these seeds we call bodies, will die, and since Christ will give those covered by His grace bodies for eternal life in our eternal home, that means…none of this is in vain. The good we do, the faith we have, the tears we cry, the effort we put forth–none of it is in vain.
Really? Sometimes life feels really arbitrary and dumb and vain. Anyone else ever feel that? Or is it just me?
But here’s the anchor again, pulling me to remember those words, and to fight to believe them. If there’s not hope for forever, then there’s not hope for anything. So I’ll try my hardest to live in hope. I will try. As the seasons come and seasons go, and life presses on, I will try to remember: none of this is in vain. There is more.
And if you see a look on my face like I’ve just spun around in circles and I look really dizzy and disoriented, now you’ll know why. It’s simple.