Finding Redemption At A Baby Funeral

basket

I spent the afternoon at a baby funeral. It isn’t the first, and it won’t be the last.

I walk with families every week who are saying goodbye to their baby or child, and I’m personally no stranger to loss, having lost three of my own children. What I get to learn in the moments when we’re stripped of the masks we wear to get through the day, when a soul is laid open and bare before me…whether at the bedside of a laboring mother or in the heart-wrenching testimony of God’s grace and redemption from the heart of a father at the funeral of his only child…is immeasurable. Immeasurable beauty has been woven deep into the human spirit. We are created by God with an infinite capacity to hope and to survive. And, as we stand amidst the ruins of the dreams we once held for our lives, God whispers a promise to redeem all, to restore all, to rebuild all.

I met baby Grayson’s mother and father on Valentine’s Day. She labored for about 36 hours. I was with them for about 20 or so. He spoke with a tough and endearing Boston accent. He felt all the feelings a father feels as he watches the woman he loves in physical and emotional pain he cannot fix. Helpless, angry, protective, sorrowful. He felt all the years of his own childhood and adulthood riddled with broken plans and dreams…a longing for redemption that seemingly would come wrapped in the life of his son. His one and only son. And, yet even that would be taken from him. He made her laugh in impossible circumstances. Their smiles told a deeper story…the story of a love that had survived trials, an overcoming, abiding love. She was a picture of strength and grace in the midst of the storm. In those hours when I am welcomed into the most sacred of spaces with a family, pieces of their story become a part of my own and I become a tiny part of theirs. Encounters you don’t get in the everydayness of life. We walk past a person and barely notice. But, time stops when a baby dies. Time stops at the end of our earthly lives, for a moment. And, we reflect on that was…all that we hoped for…all that could’ve been…all that will be.

Part of my job is to be a safe space in the place where heaven reaches down to kiss earth and time swirls with the past, present, and future. The other part is to help create within that space a time of celebration of the life we are about to welcome earthside, to capture the memories and the story, to help the parents get back a tiny piece of what feels stolen in that moment when we hear that a tiny heart stopped beating. I was honored to companion these beautiful parents and grandparents as they waited to meet baby Grayson…to capture the joy they felt when they met him, to help them get footprints and handprints that forever testify as tangible evidence that this very loved little boy lived here.

And today, I was greeted with hugs and gratefulness from Grayson’s family. As his grandparents read the words shared in our Walking With You for Grieving Grandparents book, they found sentiments that resonate in their own hearts. For a grandparent carries not only the grief they feel at the loss of their grandchild, but the pain of watching their child endure an agony they cannot fix. As Grayson’s brave mommy read a poem from the Dreams of You book about all that parents wanted for their sweet baby, I was overwhelmed with the beauty and strength shining from her momma-heart. Grayson’s daddy then gave his testimony…a powerful story of redemption and God’s grace. You’ve heard it said that there is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still (Corrie Ten Boom). Not even the pits we dig for ourselves. He told a story of a life filled with regret and struggle…alcoholism passed down from father to son. Hitting rock bottom again and again…struggling to rid himself of the illness that gripped him. Even losing his love for a time. When God brought them back together through his precious stepdaughter, and through the years as he found sobriety, God gave him a son. And although all of his plans to redeem what had been broken in his relationship with his father would not come through years of a relationship watching his son grow up on Earth, there is still redemption. There is still beauty. There is still hope. Because for the time they had him, they loved him well. Because in the moments of great adversity…love and strength and grace prevailed. Because they filled the moments they were given with great beauty and songs and kisses and special gifts meant for their boy. Because they loved him his whole life. And, because he lives on. Because love lives on. And, because the impact of his life echoes throughout their lives and into eternity. We have the opportunity to live our lives to the fullest, because he lived and he lives. And, in the midst of their great grief, they embodied the gift of hope and promise of a future filled with love.

The Broken Stuff

It’s been awhile since I’ve waxed poetic in the wee hours. High time for some heart ramblings. They usually flow so easily, begging for release. Tonight, they are tumbling around in this head and heart of mine, in a nonsensical dance.

The past few weeks, I’ve felt like I’m living in The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. If you haven’t read it, do so. It is one of the most accurate pictures of spiritual warfare I’ve experienced. The same taunting themes dangled in front of me again and again, a parade of mockery and discouragement. I find that speaking truth aloud steals the power from lies. Fleeing the one tempting you toward destruction quiets the noise…for a bit, anyway. Until the next wave.

“Take every thought captive into the obedience of Christ.” I cling to the reminder, run to the truth like a desperate, starving escaped prisoner, finally free.

On Monday, we started our first in a series of weekly bible studies we will be doing on the book Anchored by Erin Cushman. (If you’re local, please join us in person Mondays at 6:30pm EST at SGM…and if you’re anywhere in the world, the study will be streamed live and recorded. Week One video displayed here. You can join the discussion and find other support in our Walking With You Facebook Group.)

Anyway, as the part of the study we had to choose five words that would maybe describe us 10 years from now as a woman…after walking through loss. One of my words was brave. I shared during the study that I think my definition of the word brave has changed over the years as I’ve walked through grief and healing and life. I used to think brave meant…looking strong and tough, not being afraid. Now I find vulnerability and realness and often tears or the sharing of struggles to be brave…more courageous than hiding behind a façade. Doing something anyway when you’re most afraid and filled with doubt and fear.

After a long couple weeks filled with struggles on all fronts, I was preparing to go to lead an after school program where SGM talks with high school and middle school students about healthy ways to grieve and express emotions. I was feeling kind of broken today as I prepared to leave. Kind of emptied and unsure what was left to give. It’s often when I feel that way the most that the loaves and fishes flow from my not enough.

I had forgotten once again, in my weary, about God’s extraordinary math…the way He fills in the pouring out.

Today’s activity was to use the acknowledgment pages from my book, Sufficient Grace, to share about the ways that people influence our lives. And, how even the painful relationships or the broken things in our lives can shape us for good and can be part of the acknowledgment pages of our lives. Then, each student would take some time to write their own acknowledgment page. Who would they thank for making them who they are today?

It’s seriously a soul-searching thing that everyone should do at least once. I’ve mentioned before, it was the hardest thing for me to write in the entire book. It’s a powerful thing to do. Even to reflect on those who may have hurt us the most. Those who left some of the broken stuff we carry around in our hearts. Or the people who were there for us when no one else was, the people who believed we could and the ones who doubted our worth and abilities.

So, as I stood before them in my secret weariness, loaves and fishes came forth. They displayed the brave that few know. They with their broken stuff oozing real and beautiful. They who sometimes have been forgotten, cast aside, treated with ugliness, abuse, and neglect. They who wonder if anyone sees…if anyone hears. Finding hope in knowing that they matter. Finding hope by standing together. Finding hope by searching through the rubble of all the broken pieces for the beauty that shines forth beneath the destruction. The beauty God places in the depths of a human heart, beating hope with each defiant breath. Hope that fights to survive and shine light in the dark places. They with all the brave and beautiful broken left me with tears hanging in the corners of my eyes. Thankful once again that I didn’t miss this divine appointment. This work that matters throughout eternity. Because my God is the one who seeks to save that which was lost. My God is the King of finding beauty in the broken…of hope rising eternal…of survival…of light in the dark places…of the brave of vulnerability. And, He will hunt us down with His love.

As I see them, He whispers, “I see you.”

And, I am a puddle of humbled small thinking how I was just hours before wrestling with my need to know that the work I do is relevant or worthy or blah…blah…blah. Somehow whatever seemed so pressing disappears in the face of the raw beauty of realness and courage to speak about the hard things…the heart things. Most of the time we who teach are actually the ones learning. Suddenly all that was weighing on my heart before I walked in seemed so inconsequential in the presence of their brave, beautiful, broken offerings. The fact that they allow me to see a glimpse into those sacred places a gift of unspeakable value.

It’s easy to get distracted from the real work…the work that matters…the purpose God has laid out for us. Before we know it, our energy has been wasted on something that will never matter in the grand scheme of eternity. While fighting the good fight to resist the temptation to allow discouragement to take over and steal my focus from the sacred work there is an ongoing battle to remember to keep my eyes fixed on Jesus and serving others by pouring out His love. Not to look at results or measure the worth or relevance or the number of people who will stand with you or acknowledge your efforts….but to be truly hidden in Christ…so free from being swayed by the constant distractions or whispers of doubt because I’m just His and the “me” part just doesn’t matter. It is a constant battle to die to self.

The verse below was a good reminder. Do what matters. Do what will last. Do it for the right reasons. Don’t look at anyone else. Spend your time on the precious stones, the gold and silver…and forget the wood, hay, and straw. Leave that to someone else.

“For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is.”
I Corinthians 3:11-13

broken stuff

The Love that Lives On….Because Every Life Matters

DSC_0558

We do not write every story, and try to guard the privacy of the families we serve. Some are more open to sharing their journeys than others. And, that’s completely understandable. Their stories are sacred and personal. SGM has walked with about 25 families at various hospitals throughout Ohio in the last few months. It is an honor and a privilege to meet and care for each precious life…to come alongside every family. But, I want to share about a recent experience that touched our hearts deeply.

I met Ahna at a restaurant just that morning to iron out her perinatal hospice birth plan for their baby, due to be born in about a month. Gavreel had a life-limiting condition known as anencephaly. The connections that brought us together were no accident. And, I marveled after our meeting at the mystery of our God and the ways He works.

Some of you may know that SGM has been blessed to have Bethany Conkel on our team as an SGM Doula and Remembrance Photographer. Bethany also is the the founder of Purposeful Gift, a non-profit organization founded to help connect and advocate for families carrying a baby with a life-limiting diagnosis who are seeking the option of neonatal organ donation. She connects families with the resources, researchers, and available organ recovery surgical teams through organizations like IIAM and Life Connections. Some families may find comfort in having the option to donate their baby’s organs to help save another life.

This family had chosen organ donation. And, it was my first time supporting a perinatal hospice family as a doula through SGM who had chosen donation. I have been so deeply touched by the experience and by the incredible family we walked with over the past few days including those who came together to ensure that we were able to give them the most we could during their son’s brief and amazing life.

We didn’t expect to get the call late on the night of the same day as our birth plan meeting. But babies come on their own schedule! When I entered the room, mother was about to deliver as her loving family surrounded her bed, holding her hand, stroking her hair. We talked through the contractions and pushing. And he was born not long after my arrival. I communicated with the incredible team made up of Bethany and the organ recovery surgeons from Life Connections as they traveled in the wee hours of the night/morning over 3 hours to perform the surgery…to honor this child’s precious life…to give this family one of their wishes for their son’s legacy…and to help save the next baby’s life…because he lived. Because this child lived…someone else’s life may be impacted. Because every life impacts this earth…no matter how tiny. No matter how brief.

He was passed around and loved on, held for his whole life. Knowing nothing but love during the hour he lived. I stood in awe of the love that filled the room. The familiar glory of comfort and peace while standing in the place where heaven meets earth. We captured the memories and created mementos. When the recovery team arrived and went over details and procedures, I stood in awe again of my beautiful friend, Bethany and the way God is using her to make such a difference in so many lives through her organization. I love the way he has brought us all together to give families all that we can, connecting them with resources.

I wondered about the surgeons who would drop everything in their lives to drive hours in the middle of the night. That act alone gave me a window into their hearts. When I met them, I saw the care and passion in their eyes for what they do. I saw first hand how gentle and loving they were, how much respect they had for this precious boy. And, I walked away thinking….they share the passion we carry in our own hearts at SGM. They’re our kind of people. People who would leave their lives in the wee hours to give what they have to give to a family saying goodbye to their baby. Mutual respect all around. Which in itself is a miracle born from those few days…because so few people understand the willingness to allow your own world to stop as you step into someone else’s story for awhile…in order to walk with them. But, they do. And, they did.

In addition to partnering with Purposeful Gift for this family, we had the privilege of using the Cuddle Cot, donated to SGM by Owen’s Gift (founded by another wonderful family we were honored to serve). The Cuddle Cot helped them keep their son in the room with them during their entire hospital stay.

I can’t say how humbled and grateful I am to have known this tiny hero. And, to have known his beautiful, love-filled family. Not to mention how my heart melts to think of all who came together to honor their wishes. It is always a struggle when there aren’t adequate words to say what’s rattling around in my heart. But, when such stark, take-your-breath-away beauty rises from the broken, there is nothing like it this side of heaven. No word worthy to describe it. It changes you, becomes part of you, humbles you, astounds you, touches you so deeply…so profoundly…that you carry it with you always.

Sometimes the raw beauty in the midst of brokenness is astounding. The love that can fill a room…love for a little life. Love for one another. The impact a tiny life can have on the entire world…on one soul…on a thousand souls. Because every life really does matter. My heart cannot even describe or contain the overwhelming beauty of what happens in the sacred place where heaven meets earth. Or the humbling privilege that I’m allowed to walk there bearing witness to the treasure of such love wrapped in the tiniest miracles.

How blessed am I among women to walk in such sacred places.

For more information about support offered by Sufficient Grace Ministries for families facing a life-limiting diagnosis, please click here.

To request support materials, please visit our Dreams of You Shop for Parents.

When the World Keeps Turning

I drove through the drive-through eager for sustenance after many hours walking with a grieving family who lost their baby. The sun, feeling warm and too bright at the same time.

“Have a great day!” the friendly worker said with a wide grin.

I nodded numbly, still touched by the raw pain of grief bearing. A little shell-shocked by the stark reality that the world dares to keep turning, while someone else, somewhere is facing a shattered world, shattered dreams.

I flashed to the grandmother’s question:
“How do you do this everyday? How do you not break down and cry?”

I remembered 18 and 17 years ago, when my own world stopped, and the startling injustice of the world’s cheeky resolve to keep turning when mine had come to a screeching halt, lying in helpless pieces in front of me. Because you heal in many ways. You join the spinning pace of planet earth in its relentless rotation. Sometimes maybe even finding comfort in the certainty of it. But you never forget.

“I’m carried. And I do feel it later. I do break down later. But this is your time, and it’s my job to make sure you are supported in this time. I’m also a mom who has said goodbye to her babies. And I know how much this time with your baby means. I want to give you the most we can.”

As I cried over the fast food I shouldn’t have been eating in the car after leaving, feeling the pieces of their pain mixed with my own that always come with the grief bearing, I smiled as I thought of the grandfather’s response after my reassurance that I do have emotion too, and feel the pain with them. I just save it for later.

He said, “I saw her tear up a little bit ago.”

It is a sacred privilege beyond what I can express to care for babies with brief lives and to walk with their families in that most precious time. A lifetime in moments. It is as healing as it is wounding to the soul who walks there bathed in love and grace and peace beyond our human understanding.