Ways to Create and Keep Memories With Your Baby ~ Before and After Goodbye

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Guest post by Andrea Soergel

                It is a naturally human thing to desire to be remembered.  In our quietest, deepest times of soul-searching, I think most of us would admit that we ponder what we have done that will leave a mark on this world.  What will be left for future generations to know that we existed?  That we were here, and we lived and loved and we meant something.  There are some things we can do to leave that lasting imprint.  First and foremost, if you’re a parent, you can raise children that are made to feel loved and secure.  We do our best to guide them and provide boundaries that will create adults who do THEIR part to have a positive impact.  If we don’t have any living children, we may do some kind of work that has lasting value, be it our actual job or volunteering.  We can all leave a positive impression on our world.

                So, what are we to do when our anticipated and much-loved child dies?  Where is their legacy?  Where is the chance for them to leave their touch on this life?  It lies with us.  The living, who loved them and nurtured them, whether it was only while in the womb, or for brief moments or days beyond.  We can carry their torch.  We can make sure their story doesn’t end with their physical exit from this earth.

                I was in this spot, and truthfully, feel that I will forever be in this spot, as long as the Lord allows me to be here.  Our son, Haven William, was diagnosed with anencephaly (a fatal neural tube defect) at twelve weeks into my pregnancy.  We were blessed with twenty weeks to enjoy with him, cherishing every little kick and hiccup.  He left us quietly at thirty-two weeks and was born still on February 13, 2004.  Our planning for honoring Haven began before his death and subsequent birth.  We have continued to keep him present in several different ways over the last twelve years.  I have also heard of a lot of really cool ways that other people are remembering and honoring their sweet babies, too. 

Before Birth:

                -Capturing your baby’s heartbeat.  One site (mybabysheartbeatbear.com) provides everything you need to record the heartbeat and place it inside a stuffed animal.  This is not the only place out there, of course, but you get the idea.  Doctor’s offices can often provide print outs of the heartbeat as well.  Some people even choose to then have this turned into a tattoo.  Of course, you can always just have the recording to treasure without doing anything fancy with it.

                -Paint your belly.  This one is fun for siblings to be involved with.  There isn’t a lot of prep work or cost involved~just get some paint, bare your belly, and go to town.  Of course, pictures to document are a necessity.  It is also a good chance to talk to your other children about what is happening with their baby brother or sister in a more light-hearted setting.  I also want to emphasize that, while this may be super fun for kids, you can have just as much fun doing this with you and your spouse or partner.

                -Make a belly cast.  This one obviously involves more prep work and cost, but can be a really meaningful remembrance to have.  Some people choose to have the casts painted and then display them in their home.  They are just as lovely unpainted and stand as a testament to the little life you carried.  The popularity of belly casts is growing and you can even buy kits at places like walmart.com and target.com, as well as many other places.

                -Maternity Photos.  This one is self-explanatory, but there are so many lovely ideas out there.  You can choose a place that is particularly meaningful or fun for you and your family and have photos done there or virtually anywhere.  I have seen beautiful portraits done in studios, as well as in the outdoors or their home.  Maternity photos are always meaningful, but even more so for a baby whose life is expected to be brief.  You can use a professional photographer or even just grab a friend and ask them to help out by snapping a few pictures.  You will be glad you did!

                -Celebrating the kicks.  Full disclosure here-this one is my favorite and it doesn’t require much explanation.  We loved having our other children and family feel Haven kicking away.  We enjoyed it immensely and it is something I will never forget.  One suggestion that I wish we had done was to record some of those sweet moments.

The birth day:

                -Photographs and more photographs.  Some people choose to have professional photographers there for the birth of their child and some prefer just to have family or to take the pictures themselves.  You can’t have this day to do over again, so make it what you want it to be.  Whatever direction you choose to go, you will never regret having a LOT of pictures.  Don’t forget the shots of different family members with baby, too.  My dad passed away two years after our son was born and I treasure the photos of him with Haven.

                -Footprints, Handprints, and molds.  You can purchase inexpensive mold kits in many different places.  Usually the hospital staff is very kind about helping you with the molds and prints.  Once you have them you can do different things with them.  We have Haven’s footprints framed on our wall and we also have a stamp that was made from one of his tiny, perfect feet.

*I have to take the opportunity to plug Sufficient Grace Ministries in this area.  The care they give to families and their babies is top-notch and they provide photographers as well as mold kits and supplies for hand and footprints. If you are in the state of Ohio, they will provide trained support doulas and remembrance photographers to walk with you and help capture precious memories of your time with your baby. They can also help perinatal hospice families with birth planning and offer online and teleconference consultations for families and birth professionals worldwide.

Beyond:

                This is the part that can be so daunting.  It can be easy to come up with ideas to honor our babies when we are right in the midst of the situation.  It is always present in our minds and hearts.  But, as time passes, it can take a little more effort to think of ways to keep our baby’s story going.  Of course, it is always right there in OUR hearts and minds.  It doesn’t go away.  There are some creative ways for your precious child’s memory to endure, even beyond the walls of your home.

                -Love letters in the sand.  I cannot take credit for coming up with this idea, but it has really been huge for us.  When our friends or family travel, they write Haven’s name in the sand, take a picture, and send it to us.  Sounds pretty simple, and it is, but I really can’t tell you how much it means to us.  When we first started doing this, about eight years ago, I wrote a post on Facebook asking anyone who was going on vacation that summer if they would write Haven’s name for us.  It has taken off in a way we never would have expected!  We don’t have to ask anymore and people have sent us pictures from all over the world.  At the time of this writing we have Haven’s name on four of the seven continents.  We hope to get all seven eventually! (Sidenote:  Know anyone in Antarctica??)  This is so easy and I think you will find that your friends and family are more than happy to do this for you.

                -Book drive.  When the year arrived that our son would have started kindergarten we felt like doing something a little bigger.  I am a book lover and so it seemed a natural fit that we would do a book drive for our school library.  We have two older children and we sent out letters to their classmates’ families, as well as to our family and friends, asking them if they would consider donating a book to the school library in Haven’s name.  It was very successful and we added over seventy amazing books to our collection.  They had their own special shelf and each book has a label that says, “This book was given in memory of Haven W. Soergel by the loving donation of family and friends.”  We also had friends and family who donated books to our church library, as well.  I know that any public library would also welcome a donation and they are happy to have labels inside with your baby’s name.  In a similar vein, for one of Haven’s birthdays we requested donations of the book A Gift of Time be given to Sufficient Grace Ministries in his name.  SGM puts a label in the book, which they send out to grieving families all over the world.

                -Random acts of kindness.  I really love this idea.  The idea behind this one is to ask people to do a “random act of kindness” in honor of your baby and then report back to you what they did.  This is such a great example of using your pain and loss to put beauty out there in the world.  An example of what this looks like can be found on the Facebook page, “Acts of Kindness for Manny’s Birthday”.  Stacey and her husband lost their son, Manny on August 7th, 8/7.  Their idea is to try to get at least 87 acts of kindness done in Manny’s name on his birthday.  How cool is that?  This could obviously be tweaked in a lot of different ways to make it personal to your child.  It costs you nothing, brightens someone else’s day, and honors your baby’s memory.  It doesn’t get any better than that.

                -Christmas pictures and family pictures.  I love Christmas and I really get into writing a family Christmas letter and planning out our Christmas picture of the kids each year.  One of my favorite parts of the picture is figuring out how we will include Haven.  Sometimes we do it in obvious ways, for example, one year we had the bigger kids holding a picture of Haven.  Sometimes it is more subtle, and we actually have friends and family who look forward to see how we have incorporated our boy each year.  We have positioned the children in front of the tree so that one of Haven’s ornaments is in the picture.  We have a blue bear that represents him in other pictures.  Some families use their Comfort Bear in each family picture or other beloved item to represent their baby. One year our youngest son was wearing a Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Ribbon.  You can get so creative with how you include your little one.

                These ideas are just a little taste of the numerous ways you can memorialize your baby in your life and the lives of your family.  An added benefit of doing any of these activities is opening up the door for others to speak to you about your baby.  In the babyloss community we all know that so many people are afraid to talk to us about our children because they don’t want to upset us or “remind” us.  When our loved ones see us actively including our baby, it gives them permission to do the same.  And ultimately, don’t we all want the chance for our baby’s story to continue and have an impact?

For more ideas and information about creating memories during pregnancy when a baby’s life is expected to be brief, to find in-person or online support, to request resources, or for memorial ideas after birth and goodbye, please visit the links on the Sufficient Grace Ministries below:

SGM Perinatal Hospice Services

Making Memories Before Birth

Birth Planning

Memorial Planning

SGM Christmas Giveaway Extravaganza Day Two: Remembrance Jewelry

I am so excited about today’s giveaway.

My beautiful friend, Amanda Plunkett, from Owens Gift and ABP Keepsake Jewelry has donated two gorgeous gifts for you all!!

Amanda creates one of a kind custom keepsake jewelry from your child’s/loved one’s/Pet’s cremation ashes, placenta, umbilical, dried flowers, teeth, small peices of fabric. She has given us two amazing items!

1. One is a bird nest necklace with Pregnancy and Infant Loss colors to wear in memory of sweet babies in heaven.

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2. A gift certificate for $50 for you to purchase a piece of custom jewelry from ABP Keepsake Jewelry with any memento items from your loved one or cremains.
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3. Footprints on the Heart Necklace

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4. Footprints in the Sand Necklace

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To enter:
1. Leave a comment on this post sharing who you are missing in heaven this Christmas and which jewelry item you would like a chance at winning. (You can choose as many as you’d like to enter for!)

2. For additional entries Like the SGM Facebook Page and follow on Twitter and Instagram (@SuffGrace).

3. Share this post or our event page.

Please make sure you leave a comment for each separate entry in order for them to count.

All winners will be announced on Friday. Please check back to enter for giveaways throughout the week!

SGM Christmas Giveaway Extravaganza 2015 Day One: Ornaments

Welcome to the SGM Christmas Giveaway Extravaganza 2015! Today is Day One of our week of giveaways…ornaments. Our Christmas Tree should tell a story, the story of our family. And, that includes those we are remembering in heaven each year. We would love to help you add to your tree of stories and memories with an ornament in memory of your baby or loved one in heaven.

#1. Our first ornament is so special. The Dreams of You ornament is hand painted and was created exclusively for SGM by Deanna Shoemaker from Payton’s Precious Memories. This ornament will be personalized by the creator with your baby’s name. Information about ordering can be found on the Support SGM page.

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#2. While this Hallmark “Born in Our Hearts” Ornament was created for adoptive parents, I also think it applies beautifully to parents whose babies are born into their hearts…but now live in heaven.

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#3. Add a copy of your baby’s handprint or footprint to this special keepsake ornament.

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#4. This one is for anyone missing someone in heaven…does not have to be a baby or child. “The ones we’ve lost are found in our memories.”

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To enter:
1. Leave a comment on this post sharing who you are missing in heaven this Christmas and which ornament/ornaments you would like a chance at winning. (You can choose as many as you’d like to enter for!)

2. For additional entries Like the SGM Facebook Page and follow on Twitter and Instagram (@SuffGrace).

3. Share this post or our event page.

Please make sure you leave a comment for each separate entry in order for them to count.

The Insatiable Desire to Mother and to Be Mothered

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It exists in each of us.

The unquenchable, insatiable desire.

To mother our children.

Even when a child passes from this earth, we still long to mother our babies. That may look different for each person. It may be the planning of a yearly birthday party. It may be decorating a grave, spending time, sitting on the cool earth, breathing in the memories with the ache of a longing heart. It may be buying Christmas presents for the Angel Tree or Samaritan’s Purse. It may be the ornaments we hang in their memory. A mother recently shared the need to take her baby’s ashes with her on trips. Several other mothers shared her sentiment. Mothers may start an organization in their child’s memory. Join a crusade to make things better for the next mother. Donate, or raise money to further a cause in their child’s memory.

Reading their stories and knowing my own, I thought deeply about the aching arms. The unsatisfied longing a mother feels in her depths when her child is taken too soon.

A mother still needs to mother, in whatever way that looks like for her. Even when a baby isn’t here for her to care for physically.

Not even the bounds of heaven and earth can quench a mother’s love.

Something isn’t wrong with you, if you find yourself left without a baby in your arms, but still feel the need to mother someone…something…to do something tangible. It oozes from a mother’s heart. It’s a need, like breathing…existing.

This truth I’ve known for many years, but recently, I’ve been struck by another truth regarding the mystery of motherhood.

In the eight years since my own mother went home to heaven, a phenomenon has occurred in my own typically rebellious heart. At least rebellious toward my mother. I didn’t allow her to mother me very often. Occasionally, when it suited me. But, I was prideful. And, gave her few glimpses into my heart, rare concessions. I fooled myself, too. I didn’t need her. I didn’t need mothering.

At the PLIDA Conference in November, I recently had the opportunity to meet a woman who pioneered efforts to advocate for mothers walking through the loss of a baby in a time when it was not only unpopular, but in some cases unacceptable to do so. She was courageous. She helped pave the way for others to be brave enough to change the way bereaved parents were treated. She helped to give them a voice. To set them free. Because of her courage, women were allowed to honor the brief lives of their babies, to give them a proper hello and goodbye. She stood in a time when mothers were discouraged from or forbidden to hold their babies, to even see what they looked like. They were sedated, and the “unpleasant situation” was whisked away from the mother, who was told to move on. Years ago, funerals of tiny babies were held while the mothers were kept safely away in the hospital to recover. If a mother cried too long or didn’t seem to heal at a reasonable rate, she was institutionalized, deemed insane. Not only is this pioneer and the few others who existed back in the years when I lost my sweet babies a bit heroic to me for standing with grieving families when few were, but she is also a wonderful author.

Pat Schwiebert, author of When Hello Means Goodbye and Tear Soup, among others, was playing solitaire quietly on her tablet when I walked over the first time. I didn’t know the quiet unassuming woman was one I respected and admired for years, until I heard a conversation about her book as someone said the name “Pat.” I interrupted, and like a crazed groupie, asked for a hug.

I never used to be hugger. Funny thing…when the person who loved you first and longest on planet earth is gone…you might discover you’re ok with the occasional exchange of hugs. Because life is fleeting, and there’s less time for pride and walls that keep people at arm’s length, when you realize that.

I found myself flocking toward her table a few times, soaking in nuggets of her wisdom, drinking of the knowledge she shared like a woman in the dessert who found a rare stream of fresh water. It wasn’t long before I poured out my own emotions as if we were having a therapy session in the exhibit hall. She’s good, that Pat Schwiebert. With her quiet steadiness, covered in a shroud of peace. Gentle peace emanating from her. Like a mother.

I touched one of the silk scarves she had on her shelf. Beautiful, bright violet with butterflies.

“Wanda Wilmetta,” I whispered. The name of my grandmother. My sassy grandmother, who once had bright violet lipstick and a violet suede jacket with fringes.

She gave me the scarf, as a gift. And, I kept it wrapped around my neck, feeling the soft comfort. Feeling loved. Feeling ok in my own skin. Feeling empowered and special. Feeling worthy and seen and acknowledged.

Feeling mothered.

Last night, I was at my son’s basketball game. A couple mothers were sitting in the stands at the game with their mothers beside them. I am almost 40 years old and the other moms are not far from my age, give or take. I noticed the one (50′s ish) mother brushed her (mid thirties aged) daughter’s hair from her eyes. A simple, quick gesture.

And, I felt the stir in my heart. It doesn’t matter how old or young our children are, we still and will always long to mother them. We still see our sweet babes in their eyes. Whether they are wee ones…or whether teenagers…or almost 21…or almost 41…or almost 61.

And, whether we realize it or not when we still have our parents, whether we would shrug them away or wince at their need to mother us, we still need to be mothered…no matter how old we are. We still long to have someone love us the way only a mother can. With a desperate longing we may not even realize or acknowledge in ourselves.

Not only is the need to mother our children insatiable…the same is true of the need to be mothered.

Why Can’t You Just Get Past It?

“I don’t understand mothers who lose a child. Why can’t you just get past it?”

People have whispered these words about me in conversation, especially in the early days after losing our babies, measuring grief “performance” by how much I spoke of my children or how easily tears came, or whether or not I was out in public functioning at a “normal” capacity. She will be ok when she is “herself” again. Always happy to comply and perform, I learned quickly to put on a face for them. To not make anyone uncomfortable by speaking of those dead babies. I put their pictures away. I tried to look as “normal” as possible to everyone but a few who could handle my remembering, my speaking their names. A few who were willing to remember them with me. Without squirming in the chair.

For eight years, I was quiet. I’m an excellent performer. An astute pleaser of people. Never wanting to be an inconvenience, an annoyance.

And, then….God, the One much bigger than all the people I know, spoke to my heart, breathing truth in the broken places, blowing off the layers of dust, the words laying dormant, surprisingly still desperate to be written or spoken aloud…and He gave me a voice. It’s the same voice He gave me in my mother’s womb. The one with words that demand to be expressed, and flow through my fingers like liquid therapy. It’s the voice that sings worship songs while babies are ushered to heaven from their mother’s arms. My voice crackled and wavered, trembling as I remembered how to speak. Mustering courage I cannot explain. Because He is bigger than anyone else…bigger than what they may think…bigger than displeasing someone….bigger than being understood or misunderstood…bigger than our comfort levels.

And, He said…speak. Tell this story.

I have never in the seventeen years since burying my children heard those whispered words from others spoken directly to me. Until recent months. Family members questioned an article I had written for a well known magazine for bereaved mothers (Still Standing), because if you talk about missing your babies or your mother or your husband, or anyone who has died (although society may place a bit more value on the loss if that person breathed breath and lived life on planet earth for a designated number of years. I’m not sure how much time must pass before a life is worthy or grieving, remembering, mentioning, recognizing, or missing. I’ve never really been good at rules like that. You’ll have to consult the experts who deem themselves worthy to decide such things.), if you speak of the missing…something must be wrong with you. The more that I speak outwardly about babies in heaven, and supporting families who grieve. The more I write or talk about the experience of returning again and again into raw grief to walk with another family, the more others feel it necessary to form an opinion, to judge my performance. (Which in all instances, I would think is an indicator that I’ve experienced a great deal of full circle, “healing” to be in a healthy enough place to enter in to support someone else. You know…as opposed to wallowing in grief.)

But, it is interesting. The more I talk about the reality of grief and missing, the more people step away, uncomfortable. Or, like the acquaintance who recently asked me on Facebook why I couldn’t get past it (losing babies) and what my children think of me for not getting past it. Not that my children are anyone’s concern other than my own, as you know…their mother…but what they think is that they have two sisters and a brother in heaven. Two sisters and a brother who lived, who’re worth mentioning. They don’t dwell on it, and in fact, we don’t speak of them often in our home. But, we do occasionally. Because, they’re worth mentioning. And, my children know that every life matters. My children know that Jesus cares about the brokenhearted, and if we can do something to help someone else walking through loss, we ought to. My children know how much time and sacrifice is poured into walking with another family. They know that their mother would do almost anything to help carry that burden alongside another broken heart. My children stuff bears and set up tables and the older one stays with me when I’m working at the office late at night, to help walk me safely to my car. They and their friends paint walls, carry trash, dig weeds, and stuff endless Comfort Bears. College students, boys who grew up in my kitchen, and girls who sewed bears at SGM…bravely stand in front of their peers to speak about baby loss…and the work Sufficient Grace Ministries does. Not only are my children just fine with their mother’s line of work…and her insistence on mentioning that there are people walking through grief and babies worth remembering….I would go so far as to say that they wholeheartedly support it.

Like my thirteen year old said, when the woman’s questioning prompted me to ask him his thoughts: He said very definitively, “No! Why would I think that?! We lost kids in our family. Nothing weird about helping other people who lose kids.”

So, here’s the thing. We as a society are not very good at respecting and understanding bereavement, or loss of any kind. We get uncomfortable when someone speaks of missing someone they love. We are uncomfortable by many emotions. And, often confuse a person’s mentioning of a memory as not “adequately healing or getting past it”. Those words kind of make me want to vomit, if you’re wondering. It is part of the way that we support others at SGM, being real about the missing. Giving a voice to it. Making it ok to speak it aloud. The missing never goes away. You don’t get past that. It doesn’t mean you aren’t functioning just fine as a healthy member of society. It doesn’t mean you’re wallowing in grief. It doesn’t mean you spend your days crippled by emotion and will never laugh again. And, it certainly doesn’t mean you aren’t leaning on and trusting in God to carry you. For the love of Pete…if you weren’t, you may not get out of bed at all. Life on planet earth is tough.

I laugh and cry more than anyone I know. It took me so many years to speak their names. To stop worrying about if it made someone uncomfortable or caused them to question my sanity or whether I was “moving on” well enough. I used to hate that I cried easily, felt deeply. I hated it because other people didn’t understand it. My strong mother, other women in my family…and most people. Most people think showing emotion is weak, or an indicator of some unhealthy part of you that needs fixing….a cry for help…or, my least favorite, an invitation for advice. I don’t need a reminder to be grateful for what I’ve been given…the preciousness of the people I love is not lost on me. I am one of the healthiest people emotionally that I know…and I cry and laugh every single day. Part of being healthy for me, is being ok with that. There is nothing wrong with having a heart brave enough to feel. Do you have any idea the courage it takes to keep a heart soft in this cruel, broken world, to resist the urge to cover feelings with layers of walls, to resist the safety numbness offers?

I speak about the missing, not because I spend every moment crippled and overcome by it. Not because I am wallowing in death and unable to function in the land of the living. There is nothing meant to invite anyone to fix or be concerned about. I speak of the missing, so that others quietly carrying this weight know they aren’t alone, and that it’s ok to miss someone. It’s ok to remember them. Mentioning a memory is not wallowing in grief. I will remember and mention my babies, my mother, my grandparents, my dear friend Dinah, and anyone else who goes on to glory ahead of me until we’re reunited in heaven. Because they’re worth mentioning. They’re worth missing. They’re worth remembering. They’re worth honoring. Their lives matter. And, I gave up being afraid to speak of what makes someone else uncomfortable, because it’s more valuable to be free to offer comfort and hope in the speaking…than to concern myself with the comfort level of someone else who is choosing to judge what they do not know…and who themselves may likely being carrying unexpressed pain. Just because emotion scares someone else, doesn’t mean I have to be afraid to speak…and neither do the mothers I know, missing their children, everyday….as they drive to carpool, make peanut butter sandwiches, watch school programs, and sit down at the dinner table, living life fully…but always with one (or more) missing.

A dear friend and beautiful mother spoke these words recently in the above-mentioned Facebook discussion on mothers “getting past it”. Leigh Ann’s words are an excellent answer to anyone wondering what it’s like for a mother and family, missing children, and they were and are a great blessing, honor and encouragement to me:

“I so admire Kelly and the work she does on behalf of other grieving families. I have wanted and contacted Kelly to physically help at her ministry and then when it comes right down to it I can not. You see I am not as brave as her. God gives her grace to step into other’s lives and minister to them in their darkest hour. Her work through her grief ministry puts her in situations that can only trigger feelings of sadness at losing not only 1 child but 3 beautiful children, but yet she has the strength to do it. We all grieve so differently…and I am so thankful the Lord lays it on Kelly’s heart as well as other brave parents who come along side her. I only wished in December of 1996 that our family been on the receiving end of such a wonderful ministry.

What would you say to your 6 year old daughter when she asks how her baby brother will go to Heaven, when he was to little to ask Jesus in his heart himself? Or the 11 year old brother who asks if he didn’t pray correctly because his brother died? Or the 9 year old brother who tells you not to cry because Jess is in a better place? Or to the husband who comes home from work defeated because no one seems to realize how hard it is on Dad’s to lose a child? What do you say to yourself when you wake up sobbing even years later because of a dream you had about your son and the suffering he went through, and you don’t want to share those feelings with someone else because it has been 17 years ago and my goodness….probably for fear that someone may think your crazy and you should be over it. Please let me explain, my older children have been wonderful and the Lord blessed us with another beautiful daughter after Jess passed away, whom, by the way, never took Jess’s place but brought much joy and healing back into our family, but there is not a family event, birthdays, Christmas, weddings, and just plain ordinary days that I don’t feel like something is missing. I don’t pout about it or even speak it out loud at the time, but it is an awareness that he is not with me physically.

I am thankful to know that I will be reunited with him in Heaven some day. So you see, although some of us, like Kelly, are in the day to day trenches helping others, some of us are silently in the background praying, and yet others help out her Ministry with finances, time and donations. But rest assured, we never get past it….my prayer for you is for further understanding in this area and to be gentle with those who you felt responded harshly…maybe now you could be one of those who could be strong enough to come along beside and support a truly wonderful ministry in a way the Lord would lead you to do so?….I hope my rambling helps you to understand our feelings a bit better….love and prayers….”

For more information about Sufficient Grace Ministries and the services they offer to bereaved parents visit: www.sufficientgraceministries.org

The Cloak of Shame

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I knew the moment they left my body, two tiny baby girls who would never breathe a breath on planet earth…I looked at him and knew we would never be the same.

It was among of the first words I spoke to my friend, Ginny. After.

“I need you to know, I’m not the same.”

I will never be who I was. That day, a part of me died right along with them. And, in the death, there was also a birth. Not just theirs…but mine.

There are many things we don’t know while still living under the veil of innocence. I didn’t know a woman whose babies died in her womb would labor before giving birth. I didn’t know about standing beside a tiny grave at the tender age of twenty-one. I didn’t know about living this life in the same skin, as a very changed me and loving the boy beside me, both of us all broken. I didn’t know about the silence. Silence so thick you can’t breathe.

I learned.

The moment the nurse answered my whimper of aching arms with a cold vase placed abruptly on my lap, wheeling me passed the nursery full of crying babies, I learned. I felt the first weight of it draped across my young shoulders. The cloak of shame, whispering, “Don’t you dare be an inconvenience. Cover this. No one wants to see your broken.”
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I suppose if we dig even deeper, passed what makes sense with our minds, to the places in our psyche we rarely graze for fear of what lies beneath our layers, we would find an even more harsh accusation. Where does the shame come from anyway? Is not the loss and the pain of grief enough? Why does shame drape over us, heavy and dark? Is the healing and the breathing not enough without finding the strength to emerge from the heavy, dark garment of shame?

Buried beneath, the ugliest of questions. The wounded often carry the most shame. And, why…why is that?

“You’ve already been enough of an inconvenience. Pain in the place of joy for your family. Your body failed. You brought broken babies into this world. And, you are now broken. No one wants to see any of it. The least you can do, is cover it up, keep it to yourself.”

“If you speak of your broken places, someone may think…

…you are weak, a victim, looking for pity, wallowing in grief.”

When none of that is true, why do we believe it? Why are we held captive by it, gripped and covered and silenced by it? And, why, when we are finally ready to stop wearing the cloak of shame that never fit right, anyway, do others react in such strong ways, sometimes with opposition, or ridicule, misunderstanding, or lack of compassion?

Can we muster the courage, brave rising from the deep…can we find enough to lift the cloak of shame, to peer out from the layers that have become a familiar covering, a place to hide….falsely offering shelter? It took years for me to find my way out. To find the brave, enough to just speak the names of my children aloud. And, even more years, not to run back to hide under that tattered garment, apologetically, when faced with scorn or averted eyes.
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Shame whispers, “You’re a disappointment. A blemish.”

To be truly honest, I’m still finding my way out, still tuning my ear to listen to the “Voice of truth that says, ‘Do not be afraid’“, in place of the crippling lies shame whispers in the dark. Part of healing is to shed the weight of a cloak that isn’t meant to fit. There is nothing shameful about speaking their names. Or living beautifully broken. Or walking with a limp. No shame.

In rebellion of the shame, I seek boldness. Freedom.

In fact, I would venture even further to say, that you are courageous, not weak.

Victorious, not defeated.

Beautiful in your broken, not blemished beyond repair.

You are not the same, but you are even more precious, made of the kind of tilled fertilized soil that grows a tall, strong, deeply rooted plant.

You have value and worth…and so do the sweet babies who left a hole of missing in your heart.

Lift your head, and look out from beneath that clumsy garment stifling you. Pull it down from your face. Let your hair fall free. Feel it slide off your shoulders and fall to the ground. Leave it there. And, walk away…limp and all.
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You are more than an inconvenience. And, so are the babies you carried in your womb, and carry still in your heart.

He has sent Me (Jesus) to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound…

To comfort all who mourn,
To console those who mourn in Zion,
To give them beauty for ashes,
The oil of joy for mourning,
The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;

Isaiah 61:1b,2b-3a

Finding Christmas in the Broken

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A couple days ago, a pure white blanket of fresh fallen snow covered the earth, or at least my little corner of it. Today, rain has washed it all away, leaving behind a muddy mess. What a picture of facing Christmas after losing someone you love, or when your world for whatever reason, doesn’t match up with the picture perfect Christmas we envision. Facing Christmas after your world has been torn apart, and the beautiful innocence disappears like the pure fallen snow, washed away with a painful goodbye. You are left with the muddy mess.

The heaviness weighs down on your heart, stealing joy. You watch others rush around swept into the inertia of the swirling tornado of celebration and preparation. You may even join in as well. But, your heart weighs heavy with the burden of how. How to celebrate the holiday when all ideals are held in front of us…picture perfect families and gifts, decorated homes, a season of joy and laughter while deep in your soul the lonely ache howls deep, and a pained smile is hard to muster.

You may wonder about this Jesus. This Jesus we celebrate, the One who was born in a manger to the virgin and the carpenter. Where was He when the rains of death came and washed your innocence away? And, where is He now?

My own heart weighed with the daily heaviness of the pain others endure mixed with my own missing, wondered how. How do I speak of the beloved Christmas story…the coming of our Savior, in the midst of a mother’s broken?

How does the celebration of His coming mesh with the pain that keeps a weary heart from lifting her head?

Who is the Jesus? And, does He see? Does He know of her broken? Did He see her stand beside the tiny, cold grave? Does He see her now, navigating life without her own mother, and a trail of broken from the generations before?

People want to speak for Him everyday, to paint a picture of this Jesus. If we are known as Christians by our love, then we are often failing to allow our Jesus to be shown the way He is. He is the One that loves us so much, He will hunt us down in the deepest, darkest pit of despair.

Christmas isn’t found in the hustle and bustle, in the gifts, in the busy, in the lights, in the merry-making, or in the perfect picture of all the ideals we hold up as a standard. It isn’t in the perfect family or the perfect memory or the perfect red dress.

The broken aren’t meant to hide pain behind a strained smile, wondering what they are supposed to do with the pieces of life shattered and scattered about.

Christmas is for the broken.

If you want to know my Jesus. This is my Jesus. This is why He came. He came for you.:

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me,
Because the Lord has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;

To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,
And the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn,
To console those who mourn in Zion,
To give them beauty for ashes,
The oil of joy for mourning,
The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;
That they may be called trees of righteousness,
The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.”

And they shall rebuild the old ruins,
They shall raise up the former desolations,
And they shall repair the ruined cities,
The desolations of many generations.

From Isaiah 61

He sees your broken. He saw it before you were knit together in your mother’s womb. He saw it before He left Heaven’s glory to make a journey to the cross He bore to rescue you. He saw your ruins, your former desolations, the ruined cities, the desolations of many generations. He saw. And, He came. To comfort all who mourn, to make beauty from your ashes, to offer you one day the oil of joy in place of your mourning…and a garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness that cloaks you in this season of grief. He saw. He sees. And, He came. To heal your broken heart. To set you free.

He saw. He sees. He came.

 

 

WWY Holiday Survival Guide for Grieving Hearts

treeSo many are feeling the extra ache of missing as we walk through the holiday season. Thanksgiving, Christmas, another New Year. A year without those we love. Many are looking for a survival guide. How? How do we get through this first Christmas without our baby/child…this first Christmas…or the twenty-first? Much gets easier with the passing of time and the healing of wounds. One thing doesn’t leave…it’s the missing. And, it washes over us anew with each season.

What does happen, is that the missing becomes familiar, like a part of your family, your memories, your celebrations, your heart. The missing is almost part of you in time, welcomed even, because it means someone was here…someone precious and valuable and worth the remembering.

So…here are some “tips” but by no means are they an answer. There are no quick fixes to ease the longing brought about by the holiday season. Nothing I can say to make all the wrongs right. This group isn’t about trying. It’s simply about knowing that we aren’t walking alone. Knowing, there’s hope and grace for this journey along the way. And, beautiful gifts…even in the missing.

I miss my daughters, Faith and Grace and my son, Thomas. And, I miss my mother. Life and especially Christmas will never be the same without her…without them. But, I’m still grateful for the love in my heart, the dreams I still dream, the ornaments on my tree, and the memories I hold dear. Most of all the truth that because Jesus came, I will see them again.

1. Give yourself grace. Take care of you. If you can’t “do” Christmas like you’ve always done or do it at all, just do what you need to. Be you. Protect your fragile heart.

2. Do something…or many things to honor the memory of your baby/child…to include your child in the celebration. Ornaments on the tree, donating to a favorite charity, buying presents through Operation Christmas Child or Angel Tree, ask others to join you in doing random acts of kindness. Decorate the cemetery or a special place in your home…or don’t. And, don’t feel guilty if none of those suggestions happen or fit your plan for where your heart is.

3. Survival mode is ok.

4. Laughing and joy is ok, too. If you do want routine and tradition and find comfort in it, there is nothing wrong with still celebrating. Don’t allow guilt to steal joy. And, cry when you need to.

5. Take a hot bath, read a good book, go slowly. Don’t plan too much or put too much pressure on yourself. Make sure you have some quiet time to refuel. Grief is hard work, And, it’s happening even when we don’t realize it, taking much of your energy. Eat healthy, exercise, and rest…plenty. (Some good reading can be found in Isaiah 61…if in the hurt, you need to be re-introduced to the One who came to save you. This is the Jesus I know.)

6. Some people take a little trip, escape for a bit together, and change it up. That’s helpful for some.

7. If you do a tree or don’t, that’s ok. Whatever you need to do to survive is just fine. There are no rules and should be no judgments.

8. If you choose to celebrate with extended family and friends, they may follow your lead. If you are comfortable talking about your baby, they may feel at ease, too. Often they don’t mention your child or say the wrong thing, because they are uncomfortable or unsure. That isn’t always the case. Plenty of people said the “wrong” thing or nothing at all to me. For many years. Be prepared for that.

9. No one is or should be allowed to judge your “performance” in grief. Don’t allow that to rule your thinking. They aren’t walking this. You are.

10. Spend some time with your safe people…people you can talk about the missing, your baby, or nothing at all. Spend time with those you love the most…just being. Time with your husband/partner. Time with your other children, if you have other children. Time with anyone else close to you, and understanding of your grief.

One other thing…this isn’t a hard and fast rule. There are no rules in grief. No handbook. No answers that fit all situations or hurts. So. Much. Grace. Is. Needed. But, it is good to remember that often…the anticipation of a day is much worse than the actual day. Not always, but often.

Sending so much love and prayers for all of you today and in the coming year, dear mamas, dads, and families.

When You Can’t Pray

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I stood beside her bed, watching her slip away. Cancer stole her hair, her health, her energy, but it couldn’t steal her stubborn spirit. My mother died like the beautiful gritty, graceful lady she was in life. But, the suffering she endured pummeled my faith, stole my breath, and quite literally brought me to my knees.

There are stories about that month she spent in hospice that I carry tucked away. One of them marks the lowest I have been during my life on planet earth. About once a year my youngest brother and I revisit the day, about a week after she was admitted, when he carried me out of the hospice center, exhausted, beside myself, not forming coherent words, crying, vomiting, collapsing. It was the closest I’ve ever been to losing my mind. Literally, over the edge, complete lack of control, loss of senses. It turns out, when you are deprived of sleep for so many days, your body reacts as if intoxicated. I felt it coming. I tried to prevent it. Desperate not to lose control, I felt sanity slipping from my grasp. I didn’t want my baby brother to see it. I have to protect him. I am strong. I have to be strong. Women of faith don’t fall apart. Because God is big. And, we must not have much faith, if we fall apart.

I remembered that lie, from years before, whispered by the slithering one as I ran to the church restroom to hide the tears just weeks after I stood beside the tiny grave with the pink lined casket, the one holding my only daughters. Christians don’t grieve without hope. My babies were in heaven. Didn’t I believe enough? Why was this smothering grief knocking me over? I am strong. I have to be strong. Women of faith don’t fall apart.

The same lie that accused when we heard the words incompatible with life in reference to our son, Thomas. Where is your God now? The voice questions, snarling. Stealing. Diminishing. Breaking. Twisting every truth I clung to desperately.

Don’t you have enough faith? What lesson didn’t you learn the first time that another child has to die? Why are you wrestling to find the answers…don’t good Christians blindly trust and accept…don’t those who are truly faithful never wrestle with doubt or fear? Don’t they know the answers?

I didn’t even try to answer that time. I just wept over my bible.

The months I carried Thomas sucker punched my faith more, blow after blow. I just kept reading. And, I learned that being faithful doesn’t mean not feeling doubt or fear. Faith is trusting God anyway…when you’re most afraid and filled with doubt and questions. Believing when you don’t see.

Those weeks in the hospice center, I sang to her. I read the Word to her. I prayed over her. I answered the questions of those around me. I was strong. Except for the day my baby brother had to carry me out. Otherwise, I was strong. I had to be strong. That’s what women of faith do, right?

I was a woman of faith. My God is big. Only, underneath, I was really more like the girl who had to be carried out by her baby brother as she fell to pieces in front of his eyes. After my mother died, when He finally took her home, I couldn’t pray. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t talk to the God who carried me.

I told my pastor, “I can’t pray right now. It’s really bothering me. Every time I try to pray, I can’t…all I can say is: ‘I’m sorry God, I can’t talk to you right now. It just hurts too much.’”

My pastor said, “That’s still prayer.”

I have thought of that truth often. And, many times, when grief is raw and you feel stripped naked, beaten to the core with the pain and disappointment of it all….how. How could our God, our big loving Father God…let this happen? Why didn’t He listen to our prayer? Was it because we aren’t worthy…aren’t enough…didn’t pray right…didn’t have enough faith? Why?

Grieving mothers ask those hard questions. I don’t have all the answers, although, God has been patient to teach me many things in the surrendering and trusting, over the years. But, the longer I walk this journey, and the more brokenness I see along the way, I’m convinced that for some things, there are no answers this side of heaven. I can say all the words…and they’re even true…those words…that God is good, that nothing separates us from His love, that He will never leave us nor forsake us…even in the darkest pits of despair. I can say them and I can promise that I’ve seen Him keep those promises in my own life. But, it won’t take away the pain a heart feels when that which is most sacred has been ripped from her, and her heart lays in pieces at her feet.

In this time of thanksgiving, yes…it is a freeing, healing, soul-balming surrender to offer broken praise to heaven…and the sound is sweet to God’s ears. He loves the broken praise. And, somehow showers healing back to us in the midst of the offering. But, if you can’t muster it through the pain just yet….if it hurts beyond words forming on lips. If you are just too hurt to talk to him right now, tell Him that much. Yell, scream, cry, sit there in silence.

That’s still prayer.

He hears you, even when you can’t utter the words. He hears the words of your broken heart, catches the falling tears in a bottle, and thinks of you more than the grains of sand on the longest beach. Even if you can’t bear to talk to Him right now. Even if nothing He has allowed makes one ounce of human sense to your betrayed, broken heart. Even then, He holds you. He loves you. And, He fights for you.

And, that’s still prayer.

The truth is, I am weak. My faith is small. But, my God, He is strong. And, my God is big. Big enough for my broken. And, big enough for your broken, too.

Scandalous Grace

Some difficult questions have led me back to one of the most excruciating times in my life.

And, I am wrestling with the agonizing depth of those questions, wrestling just like I did all those years ago, around my kitchen table, searching for answers to the impossible. You know, the kind of life and death questions that will change the course of things and define everything else, every other moment for the rest of your life. Those kind of questions squeeze your chest tight and lay heavy in your depths. You can’t escape those kinds of questions, not even when you sleep.

I have stayed away from these questions, because they are difficult, riddled with personal conviction, and uncomfortable to address.

There isn’t anything black and white or easy about hearing that your child, the child in your womb, the one you would do anything to protect, the one you prayed for and longed for, dreamed dreams for…is most certainly going to die. Some people know right away what kind of choice they would make if they heard those words…”incompatible with life”. Or, they may tell you they would know the answer.

Maybe they would. Maybe they would be brave enough, see clearly through the fog enough not to wrestle in that moment.

I wasn’t. I wrestled.

I wrestled like most mothers, hearing frightening words about what can happen to a baby growing in a womb without amniotic fluid. I wrestled like no other time in my life, wondering what was right. What did God expect from me? What could my family endure? What would it be like to stand beside another grave? Was there any easier way, and was there anything I could do to spare my son pain, or my family?

I asked the hard questions. I wavered. I hesitated. I didn’t know if I had the faith for what lay ahead, carrying a baby doomed to die.

In my mother-mind, I had visions of a damaged and broken body, that could be harmed by growing without fluid. Doctors don’t know how scary those clinical words sound to a mother. It wasn’t so easy, choosing life this way. Not so cut and dry. It was a nitty-gritty, messy, dirty faith that carried me through those days. A faith full of fear and doubt…that just kept desperately believing even when I didn’t see. Real faith, the kind that separates the men from the boys, the kind that tells you who your God really is, that kind of faith is desperate like that, a clawing, grasping kind of clinging.

I carried my son. I have never regretted that choice, not for one moment. And, if a mother ever stands before me, filled with fear from a diagnosis, I will gladly tell her the story of my Thomas Patrick, and so many others. I will encourage her to carry that sweet life and fill the time with as many memories and as much love as possible, every moment she is given. I will walk with her, and give her whatever resources I can. And, I will pray and weep with her. And, if she is close by, I will even help her dress that sweet baby and take his or her pictures. I will hold that life in my hands and honor every life that crosses my path, and every grieving heart that stands before me.

But, I remember well the agony of that decision. And, because I understand that so many families do not even know they can carry a baby with a fatal diagnosis, some are not given that choice. I also understand there are so many medical conditions, and even times when a mother’s choices are limited….because of that…I would not stand in judgment over a parent who wanted her baby desperately, and was told delivering her baby early would be best, if she made a different choice. There are a myriad of circumstances a parent faces that we cannot even imagine. It isn’t so simple sometimes.

And, I don’t have all the answers.

What I do know is that our God’s love and grace are so beyond our comprehension. He loves us with a scandalous grace, a grace we don’t deserve. He goes where no one else will. My Jesus would look into the twisted pain of a grieving heart, regardless of circumstances, and offer comfort and peace the world could never give or understand. I do know that He has called me to be a vessel of that grace and comfort to every grieving parent who crosses my path and to honor the precious life of every baby I have the privilege of meeting. I do know that.

God doesn’t care about the level of brokenness. He doesn’t view some as more or less broken and sinful or deserving of grace than others. We are all the same broken mess in His eyes. I stand beside the hospital bed of mothers from all walks of life, mothers from all backgrounds and faiths, mothers with all kinds of broken. But, only one thing matters in that moment. Regardless of who we are before, or what we’ve done, in that moment, we are just two grieving mothers. And, nothing else matters, but comforting that pain with the comfort we have been given, as our Jesus stands in the midst, stroking the straggly hair of his broken girls, wiping the tears, holding us close.

But You are God, Ready to pardon, Gracious and merciful, Slow to anger, Abundant in kindness, And did not forsake them.

“Even when they made a molded calf for themselves, And said, ‘This is your god That brought you up out of Egypt,’ And worked great provocations, Yet in Your manifold mercies You did not forsake them in the wilderness. The pillar of the cloud did not depart from them by day, To lead them on the road; Nor the pillar of fire by night, To show them light, And the way they should go. ~ Nehemiah 9:17b-19

Our God never leaves us. Even when we “deserve” to be left, (and that includes all of us at one time or another). That’s the scandalous grace of the One who laid down His life, so that we could live.