Adoption Fundraiser! (And how much adoption costs, and why)

IMG_2737Three little people who constantly ask me when we are going to adopt a baby!

When I announced our plans to adopt, I mentioned that I would revisit the subject of funds. Adoption costs a great deal of money—when we began gathering information, I was stunned to learn that domestic minority newborn adoption generally costs around $30,000—and that’s on the low end for adoptions. I thought we might have to give up right there, because we don’t have that kind of money sitting in the bank. But I learned that very few adoptive families go into the process with all the cash on hand; almost no one can afford to adopt without help. That help comes in the form of adoption loans, special grants, and fundraisers in which family and friends and community get to be a part of bringing a child home to his forever family. And that is one of the beautiful things about adoption, I think: not everyone is called to adopt a child personally, but anyone can be a part of this lovely story. And there’s no such thing as a small part; every gift is needed, and every gift helps.

If you’re wondering why in the world adoption is that expensive, I wondered that too. Adoption is an intricate process (as it should be, to protect children and birth families and adoptive families). The costs include a home study, background checks and clearances, and family profiles which are essentially a portfolio about your family (this is what the birth mother examines as she is choosing a family). Once we are matched with a birthmother, we will begin to pay the fees due to her adoption agency—which cover varying amounts of medical care and testing, housing and food, counseling and social work, hospital delivery costs, and legal fees. Finally, there are legal fees for the finalization of the adoption after we bring our baby home. It’s a lot of money, but it goes to make sure that everyone involved is safe, cared for, and supported.

Where are we in this process? We have spent about $6000 of our own savings so far on the home study; background checks and clearances; designing, printing and shipping profiles; and our adoption consultant’s services. We have raised about $6500 thus far on our fundraising page. To those who have already given there, thank you so much! We’re so grateful. We currently still have about $21,500 to go to meet our fundraising goal.

IMG_3027

And that brings me to this coming weekend (February 1st): a dear friend is putting on a fundraiser for us! She is hosting a winter ball for the second year in a row and has decided to donate all proceeds each year to the adoption of a local family—and we are that family this year. She is incorporating several creative fundraising options at the ball, including a silent auction featuring some fantastic items that other friends have donated. And it will be a fun evening with music, some dancing, hors d’oeuvres, a photo booth, and time with friends. If you live close enough to come, we would love to see you!

If you aren’t local, or can’t come but would still like to help, we’d love that too. You can donate directly to our adoption at AdoptTogether.org/theKinnards. Every gift helps! We’d be honored and grateful if you would partner with us to help bring a baby home to join our family.

Here is the link to the WinterBall event page, where you can learn more and RSVP.

sad endings and reasons for reading: the best books I read in 2013

your-favorite-books-header

Once, I read to dream: to imagine adventures I wanted to have and lives I wished I could have led, to envision the kind of person I wanted to become, to fill my mind with the kinds of words I wanted to claim as mine. Now, I read to know I am not alone.

I used to hate sad endings. I actively undermined them in my mind, inventing alternate happy endings and rehearsing them until I felt better. The inexorable logic of the tragedy I had just read would still haunt me, but I satisfied myself that my ending was better—was, in fact, the ending that should have been written. Estella should marry Pip. Leslie must not drown crossing the creek to Terabithia. Juliet must wake up in time. Those were the right endings.

And so they are—but the problem is that the universe is all wrong, and those endings reflect the real state of things in a world where people disappoint us, and children die, and time runs out. They don’t reflect the only truths of life. But they hold the mirror up to the ugly features that we don’t want to see when our own hearts are happy, and that we must contemplate when they are broken.

For a while, after the bottom fell out of my world, I could not read at all. There was too much space in reading; too much silence in which the horror of what had happened to me could start screaming in my ears. I drowned it out with TV shows, episode after episode, until one day I felt enough strength to pick up my dog-eared college copy of Hamlet. “Oh God,” he gasped, “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world.” And I felt a shock of gratitude: someone understands.

I kept reading, slowly. They weren’t all sad books; but they struck tones that resonated with the complexity of life, as I think all the best books do. I didn’t read all the books I planned to read last year, but the ones I read are dear to me. They were companions I could sit with in the darkest hours of my life. Of the full list, here are my eight favorites, in no particular order:

doomsday

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
This time-travel novel moved me profoundly. Willis’ depiction of the Black Death is unsparing. But from that gruesome accuracy she draws touching insights about courage in the face of suffering, compassion that looks past statistics to find real people, and the ache of unanswered prayers for relief and rescue. I have been reminded in the last year of how much pain our grandparents and great-grandparents and distant ancestors endured. Comfortable societies and modern medicine can make us lose sight of the fact that we are mortal, and the world is a hard place. But past generations could not so easily forget.

rat

The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope by C.W. Grafton
There’s nothing particularly deep or thought-provoking about this one. It’s just a witty mystery told in hilariously hard-boiled style by an ordinary lawyer who stumbles into amateur sleuthing. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

grace

A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser
I have tried a number of books on sorrow and suffering in the last few years; this is one of the few that I didn’t want to throw at the wall. It was recommended and given to me by a dear friend who has suffered her own deep losses, and reading it felt like an ongoing gift. Sittser describes what grief is really like; if you know, or want to know, I highly recommend reading this.

exact

The Exact Place by Margie Haack
This memoir is touching, beautifully evocative, often funny, sometimes heart-rending, and deeply wise. The interlaced stories are rooted in Haack’s childhood landscape and family, lovingly but also objectively rendered. I loved the writing; sadly, the book suffers from very poor copy-editing which enraged this former English teacher because the writing deserved much better. I persevered in spite of it; if you don’t have a habit of reading books with red pen in hand, you probably won’t be bothered by it! I hope this book is more carefully edited and reissued, because it deserves a wide readership.

ham2Hamlet by William Shakespeare
I had read Hamlet at least three or four times before, and it might as well have been in the air and water in my childhood home; my English-professor dad taught it every year and probably quoted from it even more than from Pride and Prejudice. Though I don’t have it memorized, its cadences are almost as familiar to me as breath. But last year, for the first time, I felt that I was reading Hamlet from the inside: instead of looking on askance at his raging, I looked in his eyes and ached with his words, and I knew exactly what he meant.

telling

Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale by Frederick Buechner
This is another re-read, and another book that meant much more to me the second time around, about 10 years after I first read it. I finished re-reading it shortly before my world collapsed, but it stayed with me in that darkness, a thin echo—leaving a trail of hope that there was some conception of Christianity that could still make sense even in a shattered life.

wuthering_heights

Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Bronte
I somehow avoided Wuthering Heights until last year; I didn’t expect to like it. I am much more a Jane Austen kind of girl; I like my heroines collected and thoughtful, not rain-soaked and desperate. To my surprise, I loved this novel. I found it eerie and haunting and sad, but also satisfying and hopeful. I’m sorry I put it off so long.

5152UH1CRcL

For children: The Milly-Molly-Mandy Storybook by Joyce Lankester Brisley
This is cheating a bit, because we aren’t quite finished with it. But I’m afraid I won’t remember its loveliness by the time I get around to a best-of-2014 list. This was my favorite discovery in children’s books last year. I had never heard of the Milly-Molly-Mandy books, but they are sweet and simple and very pleasantly English, and my three little listeners adore them. Not much happens in the stories, and I thought my audience might be bored, but they listen raptly. The stories seem to be pitched just exactly right. There are no grand feats or adventures—just the quiet ones of everyday life in a small village in another era: running a footrace with friends, making sandwiches, going fishing, re-thatching a roof. And fortunately for me, the chapters are just the right length to read aloud while little people are eating their lunches!

an expected direction, sooner

I’ll begin with the story.

IMG_1291

One of my favorite things about my husband is that he loves to read, and he lets books change him. He reads in random spare minutes when I would never think to crack a book (while grilling pork tenderloins, for example, or as he waits for our daughter to finish splashing around in the bath). He reads faster than anyone else I know, and his currently-reading pile puts this English major and former teacher to shame. Five years ago he read a book that left a permanent mark on our vision for our lives. He ranked it as the best book he read that year—which, considering the shelf space filled by a year’s worth of his reading, is saying something. We have been talking about it ever since.

IMG_1306

The book was Russell Moore’s Adopted for Life (published by my husband’s employer), and it radically shifted our view of adoption from an action I thought was vaguely “cool” to a life change we wanted to make. The book lays out a detailed theology of adoption, but what I remember most is Moore’s insistence that adoption is not a second-rate way to build a family, that the children thus brought into the family are no less “yours” than your biological offspring, and that it is not a last option reserved for those who face infertility or have finished bearing biological children. It is just a different way to expand your family; it can be beautiful and profoundly meaningful; and it is deeply needed.

IMG_1309

I always wanted to have a large family—my dream was six kids. This was probably partly fueled by my experience growing up as the only child at home. I loved my parents and I had a great childhood. But I longed for someone to talk to drowsily between bunkbeds at night, for someone to commiserate with about unreasonable rules, for someone who knew all about me without having to be told. I watched my friends who grew up with siblings, observing the mysterious understanding and the common culture and memories that formed the shared canvas of their lives. I resolved, as much as it lay in my power, to provide that kind of communal foundation for my children.

IMG_1353

I had sometimes thought that adoption might be a part of that process. After we read Moore’s book, I knew that we wanted to grow our family both through birth and through adoption. But there seemed to be good reasons to wait on adoption—the financial costs are staggering, for one thing, and I wondered how much time remained for me to have biological children. Little did I guess how fast that clock was ticking. After two miscarriages and a long wait to rebuild my health, my pregnancy with Simon seemed to go beautifully. I felt that this might well be my last pregnancy, though—my body was tired, I was more uncomfortable than ever before, and my children had already endured a combined 9 months of a tired and sick Mama—with as yet no baby sibling to make it all worthwhile. And then there really was no baby to bring home—just a tiny silent brother they met once before they had to lay roses on his coffin.

IMG_1420

For our children’s sakes as well as ours, we want to have new life in our home again—to have a baby on whom to lavish the love we have been storing up for the past two years. And there are babies who need that love. So we find ourselves ready to adopt: not because it will be affordable or easy (it will be neither) but out of love. Whether there will be another biological child in our family someday, I don’t know. There are many medical questions still to be answered, and even if those answers were positive, there is still the towering fact that for me, any future pregnancy would be not a hope-filled wait, but a black hole of terror. The time may come when we’re willing to risk that terror, or it may not—either way, that time is not now. But while we aren’t ready for a pregnancy, we are very, very ready to love a new child. And there are children who need families, and we are waiting to be chosen to adopt one.

IMG_1450

I have had two main anxieties about sharing this news. The first is that people might hear it and conclude, “Great! She’s going to be all better. They will get a baby and that baby will replace Simon and everything will be wonderful again.” But adoption is not an attempt to replace Simon, nor is it a magical panacea for our grief. No child is replaceable; the child we adopt will be another one of our children, loved exactly like the others are, like Simon was and is. Adopting a child is no more an attempt to replace a dead child than having another baby would be an attempt to replace a living one. And the grief for a lost child goes on for the rest of your life, while you raise other children and go out to dinner with your spouse and pursue your career and scrub bathroom floors and shovel snow and read the paper. We hope that adopting a baby will bring a fresh source of joy to our family after much pain, but we don’t expect it to end all sorrow in our lives—which would be an insupportable expectation to place on any child, however she arrived in a family!

IMG_1489

My second anxiety is that people will hear this news and think, “Oh no—this is way too soon. They need to get their lives back together before they do that.” I hope the story I’ve told makes it clear that this is not a new direction for us; it’s a direction we planned to take for years now, but are simply taking sooner than we had expected. And again, one does not finish with the grief for a lost child, as a person might walk through a room and close the door behind him as he enters the next. The loss of Simon will be with us forever; if we wait to be “over it,” we will never do anything. At the same time, we have gone to great lengths to ensure that we are indeed ready to take this step now. The adoption process builds in seemingly endless safeguards; although I have read many articles about the alarming abuses that sometimes take place under the heading of “adoption,” our experience makes it hard for me to imagine how those horrors happened. We have been fingerprinted and background checked. We’ve had multiple, extensive interviews with our social worker, a counselor, our adoption consultant, and a pastoral consultant. We have presented letters of recommendation and submitted reams of paperwork and attended classes and read books and watched videos. The finished home study has been in our hands for two months while we have mailed off packages of further paperwork to adoption agencies. The process has been grueling but ultimately, I’m glad it’s that way—because that protects babies, and families, and that is essential in adoption, where (as in many areas of life) much can go wrong.

IMG_1517

Speaking of the dangers: there is no such thing as a risk-free adoption, just as there is no such thing as a risk-free pregnancy or, really, a risk-free life. But there are levels of vulnerability. We are choosing to wait for a less risky situation, to lessen the likelihood of us becoming attached to a baby that is then kept or reclaimed by the birth family. It’s hard to hold out for this, when I get emails about other situations, but we believe it’s wisest for us to minimize the risk of further loss as much as possible, for the sake of our whole family.

IMG_1680

So this is where we find ourselves: in a nebulous waiting period that could last days or months. We are working with an adoption consultant who has access to information about available situations with multiple agencies. We have always been open to either gender and any ethnicity, and incidentally, both those choices could help decrease our wait time. When we hear about a situation that interests us, we ask for our family’s profile to be presented to the birthmother—and then wait a few days to learn whether we have been chosen or not. I mother the children I have with me, and check my email obsessively. I try not to hope too much. We talk often with our three older children about adopting a baby, and every time we watch their eyes light up. I am terrified to pray for a good and quick outcome, because so much pain has come in answer to my prayers these last years. I hold my breath, and wait.

IMG_1748

If you are a person who prays, though—please pray for this! And if you are interested in helping in other ways, here is a link to our fundraising page. Because, wow, adoption is expensive. Nobody could afford it on their own! I will write more about that side of things soon. And if I have to write about it in a big hurry because we’ve been matched with a baby, I will be nothing but thrilled.

IMG_1794

meanwhile

IMG_1008

Life is lived in the meanwhile: that is the only way I can think to describe it. We are brokenhearted, all of us. Just last night our B, five and a half years old, burst into tears at dinner. When we asked him why, he whispered, “I just really love babies and I really, really miss Simon.” No one, least of all a five-year-old, should have to carry that—but we all do, and in the midst of it dinner has to be eaten and the dishwasher loaded and dirty clothes carried downstairs. We laugh at our daughter’s antics and wonder how to parent the challenges of each of our three living children. We read books aloud to them at bedtime, our arms around their small shoulders. We spent the summer cheering on our T-ball players and swimming at the pool and introducing the kids to Star Wars (that was all Daddy’s doing, let me tell you—and they are now obsessed). And through it all there was one missing, and a grave to visit. That makes everything fundamentally wrong and broken, but this is our life now—full of good things and forever felt through a wound, whether or not anyone else sees that.

IMG_1023

It’s hard to know how to begin writing about ordinary days again, because our ordinary will never be the same. Everything is entangled now, the laughter with the tears, and I imagine that’s how I’ll write about it. I still have more to say about grief, and I probably always will; it’s part of me now. And I still want to take pictures of my children’s smiling faces, even as their downcast lashes and little noses and neat chins strangle my heart with the resemblance to their baby brother who is not here. And I want to remember them in their presence as I remember him in his absence.

IMG_1130

All this to say: I am not better and I never will be. This is not something from which one recovers, any more than a war veteran recovers use of her amputated leg. But I run in the cold dark mornings, hands half-numb holding my phone; I organize fall clothes for the kids; I read library books aloud at lunchtime, run my first-grader to and from school, teach the kindergartener and preschooler at home, clean bathrooms when they get too grimy to bear, work slowly through the stack of books on my desk, and plan for Halloween costumes that are quickly becoming an urgent priority.

IMG_1038

Fresh out of things to watch on Amazon, I recently started The Good Wife. This is not an endorsement, as I don’t know your personal taste and we’re only partway through season one anyway. But in one of the first episodes, a line of dialogue took my breath away. A woman in tragic and public circumstances asks the main character, Alicia (who has personally experienced similar agonies), whether it will get any easier. Without pause, Alicia says, “No. But you get better at it.”

IMG_0839

I hit pause on my iPad and stared open-mouthed at the screen, stunned by the human truth contained in a television show. That is precisely what I am finding: it doesn’t get easier, but I get better at it. I get better at arranging my day, at allowing myself time to weep when I need to, at drawing boundaries to protect myself where I can, at giving myself grace, at enjoying the moments with the children I get to hold. I don’t get better, but I get better at this—this life that I did not choose, but which is the only one I get to live.

IMG_1072

And I get to live this life with small people who didn’t choose this either. We can’t change the fact that they suffer from the loss, too, but we try to weave some happy memories in among the hard ones. Summer fades to fall, and I look back at pictures, and plan for the days to come. My seven-year-old engineer draws cities with skyscrapers and trains. My five-year-old sweetheart tries to read everything in sight, with some confusion because we haven’t reached long vowels yet. My three-year-old fashionista dresses herself in outlandish outfits. The days go on and we go on. That doesn’t mean we move on—just that we live the days together as they come.

IMG_0964

IMG_0912

IMG_0743

IMG_1191

what to say when there is nothing to say

“…most of our kind,
sated, if only by the monotony
of unrelieved unhappiness,
turn away from the drama, disillusioned,
uncompassionate.

O you mothers and loved ones—then, ah, then
comes your hour, the hour for true devotion.
Then your hour comes, you friends and brothers!
Loyal hearts can change the face of sorrow,
softly encircle it with love’s most gentle
unearthly radiance.”

 – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from “Sorrow and Joy” in Letters and Papers from Prison

IMG_0199

I realize that for some, the effect of reading my last post could be a feeling of paralysis—as if any attempt at conversation and caring will only cause the hurting person more hurt. That is not my intent. When I wrote that post I knew that I wanted to follow up with another, offering suggestions on how I think you can best convey your compassion to the grieving and suffering. It’s a bit awkward to write this, fearing that I will seem to dictate the words my friends use to speak to me. But that, too, is not my intent. I know the feeling of desperately casting about for the right thing to say to people who were staring at me blankly from a cloud of pain. And, God forgive me, I am sure I said the wrong thing most every time. Now, to my sorrow, I know better. I also know what words have touched me like cool water on an angry burn—words that have made me weep with thankfulness; words I would feel privileged to someday bring to others in their own dark days.

So I offer what I have learned, in the hope that these thoughts may help some other aching souls to feel the touch of those who love them. If anything positive comes from what I share, it doesn’t make the loss of my son worth it—but it’s a small good thing nevertheless. It is only a pebble dropped into the edges of the ocean, but it makes some rings across the water.

I have 7 suggestions, which I have been turning over in my mind for months. I make these suggestions with some caution and more confidence. I would never claim to speak for every bereaved or broken person. Not everyone processes things the way I do. However, in the past couple of years I have heard and read quite a bit from people who have experienced catastrophic losses. And what I have gathered from them confirms what I think and feel myself. So I believe that my suggestions are broadly true for many of the people whose pain will cross your path.

IMG_1204

1. Say something

In cases of tragic or devastating loss, there is nothing actually helpful to say. You can’t help, in the deepest sense, because you can’t change what happened. But that does not mean there is nothing to say. Saying something is almost always better than saying nothing. If you are physically present with the sufferer, and your own tears are flowing down your face, they can speak for you. But in any other circumstance, your bereaved friend will not know you are weeping with him unless you tell him so. Sometimes all you need to say is, “I am so sorry. I am crying with you.” But those small words are utterly, infinitely better than silence.

If you are thinking of your hurting friend, text or email or write her a letter; tell her you remember her loss and you care. Invite your friend to join you for a fun activity (and give her an out in case she doesn’t feel up for it). If you are going to be in the neighborhood, check to see if she feels like a short visit. She might not, but I think she will be grateful that you cared enough to ask.

People have sometimes said very hurtful things to me. I suppose that a few of those occasions could have been improved by mere silence. But in most cases, I can at least reflect that the person must care about me, or they would not have attempted to say anything at all. Silence, however, is more difficult to rationalize. Please let the hurting person know that you care; if you don’t tell him so, he has no compelling reason to believe you do. Saying something is better than saying nothing.

IMG_0089

2. Sympathy, not sermons

The most touching things that have been said to me have always been expressions of sympathy. When you enter into conversation with a person who has suffered a huge loss, you need to limit your expectations. Don’t expect to help, comfort, or encourage. Simply aim to show the person that you care. This is not something that you can fix; there are no words that will work a magical change in the sufferer’s mind and heart. Healing takes a very, very long time and will probably never be complete in this life. And in any case, it is not your job. The best gifts you can give your friend are your presence, your tears, and your words of sympathy and compassion: “I’m so sorry.” “I am imagining what this must feel like for you and I don’t fully understand, but I think it must be horrible.” “I hate that this is happening to you.” “I wish that I could change this but I know I can’t. I just want to be here with you.” Words like these are small and simple, but they speak more volumes about your care than you could probably guess.

I think it can be tempting to think that we know, outside of the situation, what we would want to hear if we were in our friend’s shoes. I sometimes thought that in the past. But I have learned that it’s dangerous to make that assumption if we have not walked that road. I believe that most people who are facing a tragedy do not want you to attempt to provide any answer, because they are painfully aware that there are no answers sufficient to ease the agony. Even if all wounds will be salved in the next life, no Bible verse can now fill the void where my baby should be.

There may be a time when the hurting person will want to hear a sermon. Let him decide when that time has come. If he wants to talk about the theology of suffering, let him ask you. He might; my husband sought that before I did, and still finds it more helpful than I do. But let your friend choose the time, and the topic, and the person he wants to engage with that conversation. Until then, show your sympathy. You may not be talking about Jesus, but you are acting like him, which in a way is the best kind of sermon.

IMG_1222

3. Seek details, not evaluations

I beat this horse pretty sufficiently in my last post. I have explained that “How are you?” is a very difficult question to answer. But I would like to add some suggestions of how you can ask good, caring, detail-oriented questions.

Ask about your friend’s feelings so that you can understand them a bit better: “What has been especially hard for you this week?” “What have you been thinking about?” “I have been imagining that you might feel x; is that how you feel, or is it different?” “Did it only make you sad to go/do x, or did you also have some fun?”

Ask about specific life events and activities: how the kids’ activities are going, how she is sleeping and whether she’s remembering to eat, if she went on vacation and what she did, if she’s been reading anything good, what cute things her kids have said that week, what’s happening at work, or what TV show she’s enjoying. One of my friends asked recently if I was taking care of myself and painting my nails. That was a good and insightful question. The answer is that I felt up to it one day about a month ago, and now it’s chipped almost to oblivion because I’ve never felt like taking it off and repainting. It’s a small question about a small thing, but it was meaningful to me because she cared enough to think of what life might be like for me right now, and to turn that into a relevant and answerable question.

And don’t be afraid, if your friend wants to talk, of asking about the loss. Has he been to the grave? Is it hard to go there? Does he like going, or dread it? Does he have bad dreams? Are there any places or things he’s avoiding because they remind him too much of the loss? These are not easy questions to ask, and are appropriate at some times and not others, but in the right setting they are thoughtful and compassionate. The experience of loss can be isolating; your sensitive questions about the details may make your friend feel just a little less alone.

IMG_0200

4. Specific offers

Many, many people have kindly told me, “If there’s ever anything I can do, please let me know!” I appreciate that offer greatly, but the trouble is that I don’t know exactly what the offer means. I don’t know if you mean that you would like to make a meal, babysit, pick something up at the grocery store, weed my flowerbeds, fold laundry, clean my bathroom floors, or just come over and sit with me. I am nervous that a specific request I make might be outside the realm of what you were thinking of doing, so I am unlikely to ask.

The most helpful offers are specific. If your friend is like me, she will probably be more helped by an offer like this: “I have two hours free on Wednesday afternoon. Can I…[come babysit while you run an errand or take a nap/go to the grocery store for you/clean your bathrooms/make dinner/help with homework/mow the lawn/help you take the kids somewhere fun/fill in the blank with the options you would like to offer]?” Giving a list of a few specific ways you would be interested in helping will clarify your offer and enable your friend to tell you what would help the most.

IMG_1197

5. Sensitivity to timing

This is key: sometimes your friend will feel like talking and sometimes he won’t. Give him the opportunity to make that choice. If you’re thinking of an impromptu visit, text or call first to see if it’s a good time. If you’re starting a conversation, first ask if your friend wants to talk about it just then. One of my friends said, “You mentioned before that this has been a hard week. What has made it particularly hard?—And you don’t have to talk about it right now if you don’t want to.”

The grieving person is likely always close to tears. Sometimes she wants to share those tears and the feelings behind them, but sometimes she needs to keep operating on the surface of her life so that she can make dinner or make it to a doctor appointment. Sometimes she may be able to talk fairly collectedly about her experience, but other times she is hanging on by a fragile thread—though it may not be evident visibly—and she doesn’t have the emotional energy required to discuss it. You can’t be sure, so when you ask a question, offer her an exit she can take if she chooses.

IMG_0089

6. Solidarity, not sameness

When we were awaiting Simon’s almost certain death, a woman who had experienced multiple miscarriages told me that she knew what I was going through. I appreciated her desire to empathize with me, but the words left me feeling isolated, with the true character of my suffering denied. I had already experienced two miscarriages, which were devastating—but this loss felt incalculably different, and, in the context of my life, much worse. I would never deny the pain of any miscarriage, let alone many. But this woman truly did not know what it was like for me to feel my baby stir and kick inside me, knowing all the while that his tiny heart beat under a sentence of death. She did not know what it would be like for me to labor and deliver exactly as I had with my three living children—only to bring forth a beautiful, perfectly formed, silent child. By leveling my pain with hers, she invalidated my unique experience.

There are many kinds of catastrophic loss, and I don’t suggest we attempt to rank them or engage in one-upmanship with our pain. But we should recognize that every experience of loss is different. Even if I talk with another mother who has lost a child, even if that child was lost to stillbirth, I cannot know exactly how she feels, because I am not living her life. But our profound fellow-feeling for each other transcends the difference between our losses. That solidarity can flow from a very similar experience, a quite different one, or mere unflinching imagination of how such a loss would feel. There is a touch of healing in the fact that while no one knows exactly what I feel, some people comprehend a part of it. Tell me that our sufferings are the same and I will feel misunderstood and terribly alone. But stand shoulder-to-shoulder with me and say, “I feel part of this with you. I understand some of what you are enduring. I hurt with you and here is why,” and I will feel that a hand has grabbed mine in the dark.

IMG_9963

7. Safety

If you want to be a friend to the hurting, make your conversation a safe place. I have found few things more painful than finding that, in addition to grief, the bereaved must sometimes bear the misjudgment and criticism of others. It is a ludicrous burden to put on the bereaved: the expectation that the way they process their grief must fit tidy categories established by people who have not suffered this loss themselves. That is not the face of compassion. That is not Jesus weeping outside the cold grave of Lazarus even though he knew that he would raise him from the dead—weeping because even if you could know the endings that none of us knows, death and similar sorrows are still horrible beyond comprehension or comfort. Jesus didn’t scold the mourners for their likely lavish display of grief; he wept with them, with lamentations probably just as loud. I think that is the model we should follow: listen to the grief of our friends and join it, rather than finding fault with the words they use.

It is a great, breath-restoring gift to the hurting to be in the presence of a person who will hear whatever you feel like saying without narrowed eyes or attempts to correct you. I have some friends like that, and they help make it possible, somehow, to daily bear what is unbearable. They say things like, “It is totally understandable that you feel that way.” “You can say whatever you want; I’m not going to be shocked or offended.” “It is valid to feel however you feel.” “You have not done anything wrong.” These friends are not looking for a theological imprecision around every corner. They know the context of loss is not the time for close philosophical scrutiny; this is the time for grief, and learning how to go on living in the midst of it. Safety to say exactly what you feel without fear of criticism is one of the great benefits of counseling. But why should that safety be found only with a professional, and not also with a friend? Let’s make our friendships places where it is safe to share our hearts.

This list of suggestions is not exhaustive—but these are the thoughts that swim to the surface as I look back over the past seven months and the conversations they have held. For very insightful, related suggestions, I highly recommend Molly Piper’s series on how to help your grieving friend. I wish no one else need ever face tragedy, but I know we live in a broken world where that wish cannot be fulfilled. I hope these words may find their way to touch others who are stranded in the valley of the shadow of death.

IMG_0206

How is too hard

“There was a radical split between the self that did my work and the self that watched me from the shadows…I performed these duties because I had to. But I looked at life like a man having an out-of-body experience.” –Jerry Sittser, A Grief Disguised

IMG_9989

My silence here has been long—and so is the silence I feel on my soul when kindly-intentioned friends ask a shockingly difficult question: “How are you?”

Sometimes I stumble through an attempted explanation. Sometimes I say, “Okay,”—and then feel like a liar who has dishonored the memory of my dead son. Sometimes I say, “Not very well,” and then feel the stunned pause that tells me I have flouted all social convention—as well as denied the goodness that exudes from my three living children, and the mere fact that I get up every morning, which is an achievement in itself. Sometimes I just look at the person, hoping that an ambiguous smile will obviate the need to reply with words. After all, it is a question often asked, robotically, by people who have no real investment in the answer:  cashiers, clerks, repairmen who ring the front doorbell. But where we have an actual personal acquaintance, we generally expect a response—and we are socially and linguistically conditioned to give that response in the form of an adjective, a one-word evaluation of our entire lives.

IMG_9995

“Great,” we say. “Awesome.” “Fine.” I have long used the reluctant “Okay,” but even that feels like a betrayal, because I am not okay, and I never will be fully okay. I am broken, as others have been before me, and there are no adequate or acceptable words to convey that fact. If I say, “Horrible,” I launch the innocuous encounter into towering, un-navigable waves. But I have said the truth about one part of my life—although not about all of it.  Because my husband and my parents love me, and my children are darling—though wounded by this loss like we are—and I have some faithful friends, and my physical house is standing, and the roses and lavender are blooming along my deck, and I went for a run today. But my baby is dead, and my dreams for my family are shattered, and my faith is scrabbling for a foothold in the dark. And it is impossible to cover those many true things in one pithy soundbite.

IMG_0320

So I can’t tell you how I am. How is too hard to define. But I can tell you what I am doing.

I am getting up early, most mornings, and running in the cooler air, listening to podcasts and audiobooks so that the silence doesn’t smite me. I am simmering chili, and marinating chicken, and baking granola bars. I am scrubbing ground beef off porcelain plates, and folding clean underwear, and sweeping the crumb-strewn kitchen floor. I am sitting on the couch or a blanket in the yard, reading picture books aloud in the sunshine. I am taking three young children to the library, the grocery store, the park, and, almost every day, the pool. Consequently, I have the best tan I’ve had since becoming a mother seven years ago. I am reading my own books and listening to my own music—different books, and different music, so that they don’t remind me of things I used to feel and think and hope. I am taking pictures of my children, and texting my friends, and trying to find a new moisturizer that I like. I am picking up toys, and clearing the piles of paper off my desk, and staying up too late watching TV shows with my husband. I am living my life, and if you see me in the checkout line at Costco, I will probably look healthy and cheerful—at least as cheerful as a person can look while her small fry are whining and badgering each other and getting in the way of the cart. But that doesn’t mean I am fine.

IMG_9966

Because I also sit down on the living room floor, in quiet moments when the kids are watching a movie in the other room, and weep. The yard is dark outside my kitchen window when I wash the crusty pots at night, and tears run down my face into the sudsy water. I go to that pool and park and grocery store and library, and everywhere I turn, I see beaming pregnant women and gurgling babies kicking their small clean toes and families with four children—and every time it strikes me like a knife slashing into an open wound. It is unfair; it is as if the rest of the world goes on merrily and we have been singled out for devastation. People greet me with excited smiles, or casually mention someone else’s baby, or exclaim about how happy they are that some ordinary, everyday prayer for a sore knee or a distracted child has been answered. And I swallow the boulder in my throat, and keep moving, and then shudder with tears in the car on the way to my next appointment.

IMG_0501

“…Though I experienced death, I also experienced life…not after the darkness, as we might suppose, but in the darkness. I did not go through pain and come out the other side; instead, I lived in it and found within that pain the grace to survive and eventually grow. I did not get over the loss of my loved ones; rather, I absorbed the loss into my life, like soil receives decaying matter, until it became a part of who I am. Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it.”–Jerry Sittser

IMG_0011

 I am doing what I need to do. I need to live, and curl my arms around my sun-warmed children, and read books that nurture my mind and my heart, and laugh at ludicrous movies, and teach my son how to ask another boy to play catch with him. And I also need to cry. I need to feel the tremendous, shattering loss that will never be repaired. I need to explore the depths of the wound or I will never walk on, bearing the scar.  Enormous loss, I am learning, tears one person into two. It divides the heart so that no emotion will ever again be whole and unmixed. I feel a flutter of joy when my daughter runs across the grass and into my arms. I am sure I will feel a stronger, steadier joy years from now when I watch her walk across a stage and take a diploma in her hand. But the joy swirls together now with a piercing sorrow that Simon is not in the crook of my arm watching her run to us, and will not be a lanky brown-headed young man watching her graduate.

IMG_0325

Likewise, the black burden of grief is not absolute; it can’t be. I have to haul myself out of bed when the alarm shocks me awake, because I need to exercise and my children need me to hug them and dress them and make them breakfast. I am desolate, but I love my children and I want to be the mother they need. I have to wipe away my tears, after a while, and get up off the living room floor so that I can make lunch and pack the pool bag. My heart is in anguish, but I want to feed us and I know I will be glad we went swimming. I have to struggle through the weeping and finish washing the dishes, so that I can sit down on the couch with my husband.  Sometimes it feels pointless to wash dishes, again, when my baby is dead—but I still like a clean kitchen, and I love my husband and I want to relax with him in the quiet house. While the agony of missing my son throbs in my mind and my body, while I carry it every moment like a lead weight inside my chest, I still taste the goodness in my life, and am glad of it. But nothing is pure anymore; the bitter and the sweet are entangled forever. I am two people now: one mourns and the other takes the steps that make up life, and sometimes they regard each other with an aching bewilderment. And when the question comes—“How are you?”—they look at each other helplessly, wondering who should answer.

IMG_0099

Having friends who care about my pain, and who weep with me, is a great gift to me in these days. And when they ask, “What has been hard this week?”, or “What are you missing about Simon today?”, or “What have you been doing with your kids lately?”, I feel a flood of relief. I am not expected to be okay, or fine, or great. I am not expected to deliver a succinct summary of my emotional state. My friend recognizes that how is too hard, so she asks me what—and that is a place where I can begin.

IMG_0569 

words, a month later

Yesterday marked five weeks since I walked shakily into my doctor’s office, knowing the worst had probably happened, and lay on a table in a darkened room weeping into the horrible silence I had dreaded to hear. The reassuring rush of our baby’s heartbeat that had flooded me with relief at all our many appointments for many months past–its absence echoed in that room. It still echoes in my heart.

I often wonder why it is so hard for me, the word-lover, to write these sorrows down. The day we learned our baby stirred and kicked under a sentence of death, all my resources failed me. The things that have always comforted me leave me numb–or worse, they terrify me. My violin is silent, smothered in its case; the piano gathers dust in the dining room. At the first strains of music in a room I feel an overwhelming urge to flee or be sick all over the floor. And while words swirl in my head all day long, the actual writing of them is a throbbing, aching pain. I need to write, but dragging out the words hurts horribly. I have to screw up my courage.

DSC_7523

Monday was the one-month anniversary of Simon’s birth. Because my husband had to travel that day and I could not bear the thought of spending a night alone so soon, I went along. It was a hectic day, fraught with the ordinary-life frustrations that apparently are not deterred by the fact that our life has forever departed from the ordinary. We had to sit in the very last row of the plane. The more the lady next to me slept, the farther she relaxed into my seat, and the more she snored. I spent the flight halfway on J’s lap, while he spent it wedged against the wall, trying to type. J’s bag got lost, requiring an urgent trip to the store upon landing and a return trip to the airport that night when it was found. For our return flight, we arrived at the airport early in hopes of catching an earlier flight. The agent informed us that the earlier flight had a layover, so we waited at the airport anyway to take our original flight–only to discover at the gate that it, too, had an extra stop. These sorts of strains overwhelm me at first: can we not even expect the slightest respite? Why must small insults be heaped on our incalculable injury? This–AND my baby is dead. And then I am just weeping because my baby is dead, and nothing else–no flight, no bag, no cramped quarters–can matter anymore.

Yesterday we walked into a dusty office to choose a marker for our son’s grave. I should be 31 weeks pregnant this week; I should be decorating the nursery, assembling the bassinet and hanging the farm-animal mobile. I should be choosing new onesies and baby socks, not small, outrageously expensive granite rectangles. What do I want on my baby’s gravestone? Nothing–I don’t want it to exist at all. And everything–all my acres of love for him. But it exists in spite of me, and there is not room for even a fraction of all I want it to say.

DSC_7435

Every night I sleep with one of Simon’s gowns and one of his blankets clutched in my arms. The blanket belonged to our dear friend’s son and she brought it to the hospital, a gift from her son to Simon, who would have been his friend. It was the first blanket that was wrapped around him; if I hold it tightly, it still smells like my baby. I wish so many things as I lie in the dark. I wish I could go back to the one night I spent in the hospital with my son nestled in my arms. I wish I could see his face again and kiss his button nose, as I did every time I woke that night. I wish I could feel him turn inside my belly again, and laugh at the powerful kick he gave every time his daddy talked to him. I wish I could go farther back, before the day all these horrors began–if I could go back far enough, maybe it would all turn out differently this time.

The day I went to the hospital to deliver my dead son, some friends mentioned to me that I was doing a hard thing. They were right; and yet the word “hard” seems so inadequate, as all words do for such things as this. The death of a child requires you to do the impossible, to bear the unbearable, to survive the unsurvivable. It is not possible for a mother to walk into a delivery room, knowing she will walk out without her baby. And yet she does. And implausibly, incomprehensibly, days follow days. Somehow you wake up in the morning, though you don’t want to. Your heart goes on beating, stubbornly, though you sometimes wish it would stop. I don’t think the human mind and body were made to bear pain this staggering. It feels as though it must certainly kill you–and yet, unbelievably, it doesn’t.

Words cannot express all this, but they have to; they are all we have. Weak as they are, they remain one of the few gifts I can ever give my son. I want them to tell him that we remember, a month later, as we will a lifetime later.

our son

With great sorrow

we announce the birth and death of our son,

DSC_7825Simon Godfrey

born still at 6:14 pm on Saturday, April 6th, 2013

at 26.5 weeks of pregnancy,

weighing 1 lb, 12.5 oz;

measuring 14 inches long.

.

We buried him on Thursday, April 11th

after the funeral which was the last gift we could give him,

and the only event we were ever allowed to plan for him.

.

I have wrestled for the words to put to this,

to honor our son,

to hold our sorrow.

There are no words sufficient.

So I start where I am,

here.

Tomorrow, some tomorrow, I will write more.

Today, as all the days past, and all the many years to come,

I weep for my son.

snow at last

This winter has largely been a disappointment to my snow-loving children. They have rejoiced at every swirl of white flakes and mourned when it leaves only a dusting behind. They have bundled into snow pants and boots at the slightest opportunity, and taken their sleds down the miniature slope beside our house when there is barely enough snow to slip beneath them. They have done their level best to enjoy the smallest snowfall, but I’ve grown gradually sadder about what they are missing.

But two weeks ago B woke up one morning, looked out the window, and exclaimed, “Look, Mama! There’s ENOUGH snow!” It was only a few inches, but for this year, that counts as a winter wonderland. They bundled up and went out with Daddy to revel in it.
IMG_9386What do you do in the snow? We play baseball.

IMG_9387

Annnnnd….the pitch.

IMG_9389

We also play golf.

IMG_9393

Golf with some sort of foam baseball intended for swimming pool use. We have real golf balls, but apparently he was willing to improvise.

IMG_9394 IMG_9396

Shining eyes and rosy cheeks in the snow.

IMG_9397

The sherbet-colored creature in the background is busy clearing snow from the steps to her slide. This girl loves to clean–even, it appears, outside.

IMG_9399

Lining up his shot as best he can with his voluminous mittens.

IMG_9403Deeply serious about her work.

embrace the camera: daddy time

IMG_9298

At our house, Daddy is the hero of playtime. Mama can be fun and all, and is handy to have around when food might be called for, but Daddy really knows how to play. He invents games that Mama would never think of–classics with vivid titles like Camel Ride (best played with all three children stacked atop each other on Daddy’s back), Double Fuzzy Roll, and Tentacle Monster. Last night E requested a new version of the latter: Penguin Monster, which involves Daddy waddling like a penguin in the direction of three children who scamper shrieking around the house and re-enter the living room by the other door, where they scream with glee upon encountering the same waddling monster. Repeat, over and over.

This usually takes place in the evenings, when all my camera can capture is blurs of movement, but one weekend morning I chanced upon Daddy having some of that fun with his little girl. It began with stories; Miss Independent initially thought she might sit on the other end of the couch.

IMG_9270

But she came to see that curling up next to Daddy was a better option:

IMG_9274
IMG_9288

Shockingly, not everything went her way:

IMG_9291

And Daddy had to tease a smile out of her.

IMG_9294

Then he got a belly laugh.

IMG_9301

And then the real fun began. This was some variation on one of the Monster games; I can’t remember the rules. I think she’s wielding a zebra as a weapon.

IMG_9309

Coming around the corner to the hilarious discovery of Daddy lying in wait:

IMG_9314

Wrestles, hugs, and high-pitched laughter:

IMG_9316

Waiting for Daddy’s next move:

IMG_9319

There he comes!

IMG_9321

Hugs for Daddy.

IMG_9334He’s a keeper.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 89 other followers