The Loudness of Grief
My four-year-old son pushed gently on my still-protruding belly. “Why are you still kind of puffy there mama?” I took a deep breath to steady my spirit and respond as calmly as I could: “Because it takes a little while, sweetie, for my body to go back to normal after having a baby inside.”
It had been barely a month since we’d lost our baby boy at 17 weeks pregnant. I had a postpartum body, a pile of medical bills, and a shattered heart to show for it. My inquisitive son accepted my answer and we continued on with our bedtime routine. Jammies. Potty. Brushing teeth. Snuggles and hugs and kisses goodnight. I tucked him in, closed the bedroom door, and went downstairs to face another evening of internal anguish and grief.
If you have known acute loss you know that it Occupies. It occupies your thoughts, your body, and for a long season it is with you nearly every waking moment. Eventually it gets a little more quiet, maybe even finds its way into a fairly contained corner in your mind. But without a moment’s notice it can rear up and bring your painful reality to the forefront once again.
I face daily reminders and pangs of heartache that our baby boy will never be joining our family: The empty bedroom I walk by every day in our home that we thought would be miraculously filled with another longed-for child. Each week that passes and puts me closer to when the baby’s due date would have been. The shock of scrolling through old pictures on my phone and seeing the ultrasound images I’d forgotten were there.
And here we are now stepping into the holidays. Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years. The most wonderful time of the year? Maybe. Sometimes. On a good day. But I think for many of us, underneath the parties and gifts and decorations, the arrival of it all can trigger old grief and heighten the current pain we may be facing right now. Whether it is relationship struggles, hopes dashed, needs unmet, or going through a difficult loss, I would say this is without a doubt a season where the reality of our pain often feels louder and more intrusive to our days.
Our son was due to be born on December 20 this year, and before that dream came crashing down I’d imagined us all snuggled up around the tree on Christmas morning as a cozy, exhausted, blissful new family of four. Instead, the closer that date gets the heavier my heart feels. As we approach a holiday that celebrates the birth of a glorious Son, I face a painful reminder of the death of our own much-desired baby boy.
As I stumble through this acute season of grief, I have been trying to lift my head and acknowledge others who are also suffering. I have experienced many years of other painful losses that are not part of my story here today, which means I have the unfortunate reality of knowing how kind and relieving it feels to have someone say something about your loss. How much it needs to be remembered. Regularly. Because loss can be so incredibly isolating and the feeling doesn’t disappear in a tidy timeframe of weeks or a few months.
I’m sure I’ve missed the boat a hundred times over, but when I think of it I send a note here and there to friends and acquaintances I know who are holding heartache. To a mom who’s son is undergoing chemo treatments and trying to hold on to hope. To those who have lost husbands, parents, and nephews in tragic circumstances recently or in years past. To a dear friend who is tired to the bone from trying to contain and care for her sweet little boy who is deeply struggling emotionally.
I imagine that many of you also know someone facing personal difficulties. Who is suffering around you this season? I invite you to say something. Text something. Snail mail a note. Anything to acknowledge the maddening level of pain that is within and that feels invisible and lonely until someone takes a moment out of their day to say I See You. A few seconds to be brave and overcome the fear and awkwardness that our culture holds around grief, and tell someone you are thinking of them and know they are holding heartache and struggle.
And I say this next part with much kindness: Please speak, but please don’t offer platitudes. Silver lining phrases like “Everything happens for a reason,” or “God will bring something good out of this” are simply not helpful. In the wake of loss we who face it know there are still many things to be grateful for. We know there is goodness and life outside of this pain. But today and for a long time forward – at least for me personally when I am in the midst of loss – my heart is in pieces. My body is tender and my spirit is scarred. Please honor that. Please honor our pain and let it exist.
Instead of platitudes, we need simple acknowledgment. Words like “I am so mindful of you and the grief you are experiencing after you lost your (baby, nephew, brother) this year. I imagine it might be hard to be here with us today as we are celebrating the holidays. Can I give you a hug?” Acknowledgment brings someone who is hurting the capacity to rest, to feel seen, and to be more present in the room or wherever they may find themselves when they receive your note or hear your words. It doesn’t take the pain away, and doesn’t need to, but it does need to be said.
Recently while driving in the car, my son asked my husband and I out of the blue from the backseat: “Are you both still sad about baby brother?” This was my four year old’s way of acknowledging. Of asking How Are You Doing In the Wake of Losing Your Son. My husband and I did a quick sideways glance at each other and then responded as best we could: Yes, honey, yes we are still sad and we always will be to some degree. We are very happy that we are a family together – you, mama and daddy – and we will also always hold some sadness that baby brother did not get to be a part of our family.
In other words: Yes my tummy is still puffy, sweetie, and it’s going to take a little while for my body to go back to normal.