About a week ago, I encountered a moment of choice. Like all of us, I face choices every day. For instance, do I take the easy route or the hard route? Do the bare minimum, or go the extra mile? Turn and run from pain, or find the courage to embrace it?
It had been a fairly “good” day. The girls and I played in the morning, went to swim lessons, and I chatted on the phone with one of my best friends. It was warm and pleasant outside. I drank a kale smoothie to offset the sugary Starbucks beverage I’d had earlier, and worked out to offset the Easter candy. All in all, a good day.
As I finished my workout, I caught a glimpse of one of my favorite pictures of Elliot, one taken after he’d passed away and you can see every perfect detail of his face. It is haunting and sweet how much he looks like Valerie. Right below that picture, I studied one of him alive in his incubator. I see those pictures and many like them every day. But at that moment on that day, it hit me hard. Who knows why. But in that instant, the absolute reality of it all hit me: my son grew in my belly, was born as big as some full-term babies, lived and wiggled and pooped and ate…and then died.
It’s like all the heaviness of the reality of this truth came knocking at the doors of my heart. This far into the grief journey, I’m less often taken off guard by a wave of grief. But this took me off guard. I knew the wave would be a big one and would knock me over. Honestly, it had been a good day and I didn’t want to go there! I had a choice to make. I knew I could probably control it, get my mind on some project, and I would just sidestep that wave before it crashed into me. The wave was frightening.
And yet, that day, I realized that loving and honoring my son’s memory meant allowing the wave to hit.
Sometimes courage looks like putting on a smile when I feel depressed. Sometimes courage looks like talking about the weather with an acquaintance when all I’m thinking about is Elliot. Sometimes courage looks like sitting through church service or Bible study when the songs or sermons or verses hit trigger points with painful precision. Sometimes courage looks like reaching out to someone else who is hurting, asking God for strength in my weakness.
But that day, it took all the courage I could muster to cry.
I’m not sure what the definition of courage always looks like. I think usually it means doing a hard thing when there is an easier option. I often pick the easier option. I wouldn’t consider myself a “brave” person.
But love for my babies propels me to greater courage. Before losing them, I might’ve thought that courage in the wake of child loss might look like moving on quickly, or shrugging and quoting a cliche like, “Everything happens for a reason.”
For me, those things would be the easy way out. For me, those things would be a cover up.
I want to convey to those of you who think strength and courage look like not crying the possibility that we’ve got that backwards. It is true that we can’t live in a way where we express our emotions in all situations and with all people. Giving the appearance of happiness to the people around me, in most contexts, is usually just the right thing to do in order to be pleasant company.
But it gets very sticky when we create a world in which any negative emotions are forbidden because those emotions are seen as weak or selfish or self-pitying. Perhaps there’s a way to be a pleasant, happy person who also has the depth to cry real tears in front of others. To be someone whose heart can’t feel constantly happy in light of personal and world-wide tragedy. But “negative” emotions are hard. They can make the people around us uncomfortable, and they can be personally painful.
Even when I’m alone, as I was that day when I felt the wave of grief coming for me, I didn’t want to face it. I don’t blame parents of previous generations when I hear stories how after a baby or young child died, those parents never talked about it. There are times when it would be easier not to talk about my babies. Sometimes it feels like it would be easier just to forget! To imagine that was some nightmare that happened to another mommy! To put away all Elliot’s pictures and pretend he never existed! Yes, sometimes I think that would be easier!
But love is not easy. It is hard. It is hard in marriage. It is hard in adult relationships with family and friends. It is hard parenting preschoolers. And it is so hard being a parent to children who are not here. It takes a lot of effort just to let myself feel anything.
That day a week ago, I had a choice. I could stay numb, not think, not feel–and if the day’s circumstances had been different, that might have been the right choice. But that day, I needed to feel it. I needed to find the courage to mourn, because that is part of loving a child in heaven. I needed to allow that wave to wash over me and both crush and cleanse me. So I got out my memory box, pulled out Elliot’s little tuft of hair, put it to my lips and wept and wept and wept. I put my fingers inside the little mitts that had held his precious hands and I wept and wept and wept. I placed his little sunglasses on my skin, knowing they had graced his face, and I wept and wept and wept. IT HURT!
Maybe you don’t want to feel the thing in your life that hurts. Maybe it’s child loss, or the loss of a dream or a relationship. Feeling it is so heavy. I just want you to know that it’s not selfish or weak to let it out. It takes courage to do the heavy work of mourning.
After weeping for quite a while, there was a calm in my soul that was not there before. I was telling a friend the other day how my “time with God” used to look like doing Bible studies and journaling. Now it looks like a lot of crying, among other things. Doesn’t sound very holy: crying. Yet, I can’t explain it, in the broken weeping mess, sitting on my closet floor, I feel God more acutely than at church or at Bible study or listening to worship music or other such activities. Sometimes crying is the only way I can feel anything at all. It’s like a temporary antidote for the numbness grief often brings. Maybe that’s why David says, “The Lord is close to the broken-hearted.” Maybe when I find the courage to pour the brokenness out of my heart, God is there without any effort on my part. Perhaps that’s just who He is.
Many days I’m not courageous. I bottle emotions and deflect questions and eat too much sugar. I think there’s grace for those things. But the love for my babies and an ache for my God will keep drawing me back to the moments and times when I can find the courage to cry. These moments will come for the rest of my life, and that’s okay. Once the wave of grief has finished its pummeling work, and I find feeling coming back to my heart, I sit a while and daydream of the joyful day when tears will be wiped away.