Uncovering our Grief

It’s funny how we tuck away our grief. At the beginning, it’s all around us: cards on the mantels, flowers on the kitchen table, a little shrine in a special corner. Then, as time goes by, you tuck it away a little more. Maybe it’s for the sake of others not to make them feel uncomfortable; maybe it’s for us, so we don’t have to feel that sting daily. Eventually, we wrap it up in pretty boxes, place it high up on a shelf where we won’t have to see it and deal with it daily.

But then, a new happiness is coming our way- in our case, a new baby. Tonight, as I cleaned out what will be his nursery, I am reminded of what should have been hers. I stumble upon the boxes where we put all her precious little things. As I looked on the shelf, the little shrine we created for her, I struggled with an ache of longing. Knowing that even as we joyfully prepare for this new little blessing, that we should be figuring out where to put our third baby; Preparing to bunk up our boys so our little princess could have her own room with all her precious girly things.

And as I search for a place for all of her things, I search for somewhere to put all of the emotions: all the love, loss, the longing, all the hope, and joy. As we anticipate the birth of our third child, our second living son, I’ll wrap up my feelings and place them inside the shelf of my heart with all the memories of our angel baby, Sienna Grace.

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Sienna’s memory box

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A precious reminder of her tiny feet

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Fear: Learning to hope in the wake of fears that become realities.

“What do you think are some emotions one might fear in the period of disillusionment following a death?”I asked of my junior English class. We were learning about the stages of Disillusionment as a lead-in to talk about Gatsby and the loss of his dream in the book. 

Silence for a moment, then one courageous voice said a single word: “Paranoia.” 

I asked her to explain what she meant. 

“After a death, you become fearful of when it’s going to happen next or who it’s going to happen to. I’ll be driving on the freeway and get this irrational fear that an accident is going to happen.” 

I hadn’t necessarily wanted to share my personal experience just then, in second period. My students knew our story. Following the death of our newborn daughter, one of my dear teacher friends and a counselor at our school had graciously volunteered to explain what happened to my classes so I wouldn’t have to face the endless questions upon my return from maternity leave. 

Emoldened by the maturity and courage of my student, I shared: “Yes, I believe paranoia following the death (especially unexpected death) of a loved one is a completely normal part of the period of disillusionment. After the death of our daughter, I became paranoid that something would happen to our son. Most new parents experience this paranoia, but it usually reduces to a normal amount after awhile, but I found myself doing things I had done when Ben was a newborn like making sure he was breathing while he slept or becoming fearful about any strange mark that appeared on his body or illness.”

I hadn’t really said it aloud until then, but I realized that I’d really been living with fear following Sienna’s passing. Fear that something would happen to Ben, fear that despite what the doctors had said that there was something more that we could have done, fear at the thought of another pregnancy. I remembered with a knot in the pit of my stomach, the ill-fated call we received after our ultraound and how even before that I’d been fearful that something would go wrong. I thought of the pain of the moment we had to say goodbye to Sienna’s earthly body for the last time and how I’d just collapsed into Joey for strength. 

I’m a worrier by nature, so I often think of the worst case scenario, but I’be trained myself not to let these fears overwhelm me. I do what many parents out there do, I consider the odds and do the self-talk: “Okay, I know this COULD happen, but what’s the likelihood it will actually happen.” 

1 in 10,000 (16,000 by some figures). Those were the odds that Joey and I, or anyone for that matter, would have a baby with trisomy 13. I remember the horrible day the perinatologist did the in-depth ultrasound and found all the physical “abnormalities” our sweet baby girl had, but before she had been fully diagnosed with trisomy 13. Following the ultrasound, the genetic counselor met with us to review the odds. She talked about numbers and did that little genetic square thing I remembered from high school biology. She asked questions about our family history and found… Nothing. As far as the eye could see looking back over both of our family histories, there had never been a baby with any chromosomal abnormality. In my mind I thought, “if this is true, then there’s no way she’ll have one of these chromosomal abnormalities. This wouldn’t/couldn’t happen to us.”

 But several weeks later, when we received the devastating news that our kicking, living, 26 week old baby would certainly die (though only the timing was uncertain), all the doctors could tell us was that it was a “fluke- just a random combination of genes that went awry.” 

I read a devotional a few weeks ago about wrangling your unfounded fears. I read this 7 months after losing our daughter and one week after two friends had lost their children. But what about when your fears were founded? But What happens when your worst fears do come true? When it’s not just your overactive imagination. When your statistically improbable risk becomes a reality. When you receive that diagnosis, that devastating news, that phone call. 

2 Timothy 1:7 says that “God gave us not a spirit of fearfulness; but of power and love and discipline.” (ASV)  His power to endure even the unthinkable, His love through our community of family and friends who carry us, and the discipline of looking to His words and promises instead of to the pain and brokenness of this world.

 I know that God has plans to prosper us, not to harm us (Jeremiah 29:11) but I also know that God’s plans do not always align with ours. Losing my baby girl was not my plan, yet God brought joy, peace, and healing in our lives. He continues to use our pain, our story, our loss to help others deal with theirs and to help all of us appreciate our living children. This is not to say that we don’t still grieve the pain of our loss or fear loss in our lives, but God is redeeming our story daily and I am hopeful to see what the future holds. 

To anyone dealing with the pain of loss or fears that threaten to overwhelm, I leave you with one of my favorite promises from the bible: “for those who grieve in Zion- [God will] bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” (Isaiah 61:3)  

When the past comes rushing back 

  I almost lost it at the Red Robin today. Maybe it was the busy and stressful week at work, the sleepless nights that have befallen us at the hands of a sick toddler. Maybe the exhaustion coupled with the text that said “How are you? Honestly.” The pictures of two newborn blessings in their mamas’ arms or my friend’s gentle and intuitive response to my congratulatory phone call: “It must be so hard Shan. Bitter sweet I mean. So many emotions for you to deal with when these babies are born.” 

I’d buried the emotion for a few weeks, I guess, as the five month anniversary of her passing came and went and I continued along in the hustle bustle of life… work meetings, Valentine’s crafts, planning  our son’s third birthday party.

But it all came to a screeching halt today at the Red Robin, of all places. I slid into the booth, not thinking anything of the impromptu dinner with my boys. As I glanced around the restaurant, a table caught my eye. 

9 months ago, Joey and I say at that table on one of the worst days of our lives. We had just left the doctor’s office where we received confirmation that our baby girl was not going to live. Two silent and tension-filled ultrasounds, a meeting with a genetic counselor, and an amniocentesis had stolen our joy and replaced it with devastation, unanswered questions, and a dubious future. Our baby had been diagnosed with the most severe type of spina bifida, a double outlet right ventricle, a smaller left ventricle, and a hole in her heart. Incontinence, mental retardation, total paralysis, open-heart surgery, deformity, abnormality, and termination swarmed in my brain. They told us we had two days to decide before termination would be illegal. We told them that wasn’t an option we’d consider. I was 23 1/2 weeks pregnant with our first baby girl whom we believed to be perfectly healthy up to a week before that.

Following her diagnosis, we went to Red Robin before our second appointment that day. I looked across the table at my handsome husband of four years and both of us were silent. I tried to hold back the hot tears that kept spilling out of my eyes and down my cheeks. A little girl sat at the table across from us and kept smiling and waving at me. I’m sure her parents thought nothing of our pain. My swollen belly belied the devastation of our circumstance. 

And as I sat at that booth tonight, that flood of emotions all came rushing back… The devastation, the “why me?”, the disbelief. How could this possibly happen to us? We’ve had nothing but healthy babies in either of our families ever. 

It’s funny how grief sneaks up on you like that. One minute you’re enjoying a dinner out with your family, and the next minute you’re back in that dark place, that place of hopelessness and fear, of exhaustion and disbelief. 

I don’t know why God allowed these feelings to rise in my heart tonight, but I think he’s telling me my mission isn’t done. It’s hard, sometimes, to relive our story over and over. Sometimes when people ask how many kids we have or how I’m doing, I just want to put on a happy face and say we’re okay. Because the truth is, things are getting better, but they are still hard in so many ways. 

Along the course of our journey, there were so many times that I asked God if this cup could pass over us. After walking through the valley of the shadow of death, and emerging alive on the other end, much to my dismay, here’s what I know…

We are all fearfully and wonderfully made, formed in our mothers’ wombs and given a unique Purpose to achieve in our short time on this earth. I don’t fully know what my purpose is or will be, but I believe my purpose was intensified in the birth and immediate death of our daughter. I believe that God chose Sienna Grace for our family and formed her in my womb to achieve a unique purpose in her brief, but powerful life. While I do not know whether he allowed her to die or willed it to be, but I know that God works all things for good for those who love Him and that gives me HOPE. I know that all good and perfect things come from Him and she… She was perfect. 

Ring in the New Year by Remembering

 

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As the name was called, I looked around wondering who belonged to it. Out of the very corner of my eye, I watched an elderly man progress slowly up the aisle. As he reached the Christmas tree, he kissed the paper ornament, placed it gently on the tree, and paused for a brief moment to observe the glistening star amongst the noble branches: to remember. Then he turned, very slowly and with tears of loss in his eyes, he receded back down the aisle.

He, like each of us, was attending this Night of Remembrance to slow down and reflect on the passing of our loved ones and to share in a moment of remembering in the midst of the holiday chaos.

As I observed each person one by one make their progression up the aisle, I wondered at their memories. Old men with canes who walked up alone, young couples who placed an ornament together, a single woman holding three or four precious names in her hands. I don’t know their stories; All that lingers is a shared moment of solitary remembering.

That night it occurred to me that in the hurried pace of our lives, we’re forgetting to slow down and reminisce; to remember the loved ones who have gone before us, and to treasure those who still remain. In the midst of the holiday hustle-bustle, we find ourselves frantically scouring the shelves for those last minute gifts and focusing on the “business” of Christmas.

As we approach a night of celebrating, I’m reflecting back on one of the hardest years of my life which began as one of the most joyful. Last New Year’s Eve, as I celebrated with my loved ones enjoying a rare night out on the town, little did I know that a precious little gift was already forming in my womb. We wouldn’t find out until several weeks later, but we were overjoyed at the news of a baby girl- the first granddaughter for my parents, a precious baby sister to our boy, a niece to my eager sister-aunties.

But as the year unfolded, those tears of joy turned to anguish as our daughter was diagnosed, born, and died all in the span of four months. By the end of August, she was gone, and with her, what seemed like a year of such promise and new beginnings.

Having lost our daughter, it is tempting to feel a sense of bitterness toward this last page of the book of 2015- like an exciting novel that began with such promise, but ended so unbearably. My tears are still fresh and come at the most unexpected times. I still yearn and grieve for the child I barely knew on this earth, and yet knew so completely in the depths of my soul where a mother’s love is tucked away. The twinkling of holiday lights, nostalgic Christmas carols, and the sight of her unclaimed stocking hung from the mantel each left me with a sense of longing for what has passed this year; yet I find myself grateful for all the blessings 2015 has delivered.

Even in the midst of our darkest hour, we experienced a light that only Jesus Christ can bring. It came in the miracle of our baby’s birth and 55-minute life on this earth, one that defied all odds and medical predictions, an event which turned our eyes away from this life to the promise of the next.  The support of family and friends who circled around to shelter us from the cold of grief and light the path to healing.

As we ring in the New Year tonight, surrounded by our little family and close friends, we will give thanks for a year of love and loss, for blessings and miracles, for health and for the lives that were lost, began, and continue to impact us all. We will remember 2015 as a year of tragedies that exposed a yearning for the coming of a Savior, for a time with no more suffering, tears, or death. As we begin 2016, let it be with a spirit of living each day to fullness, treasuring those who are dear to us, comforting those who are suffering, and remembering…. all the miracles, tragedies, and everyday minutiae that make up this life. In doing so, we have a choice: we can remember with bitterness and resentfulness the pain that life brings, or we can see the beauty that is present even in the eye of the storm and allow our experiences to make us kinder, gentler, wiser, bolder, more grateful, patient, and aware that we never have quite as much time as we think.

Here’s to remembering.

Why is God breaking my heart? 

shannon-002Image courtesy of Liana Mc Cain at http://www.lianamccain.com

Why is God breaking my heart? Why did my baby girl have to die? These are questions I’ve been avoiding for about a month. But last week, I found myself asking why again.

It all started six weeks ago when I returned to work after a nine-week maternity and grievance leave following the birth and death of our 55-minutes-old daughter, Sienna Grace. As I prepared myself to go back to work, I had mixed emotions: I missed my friends, my kids, and teaching, but I was nervous. The questions began to circle around in my head: What kinds of questions would the kids ask? What if something unexpected triggered me and I cried in class? What if I couldn’t handle the focus on seemingly trivial issues in the light of such tremendous loss?
So, I prayed. I asked God to reveal my kingdom purpose at work- to reveal the places and people who needed me most and equip me to help them.
Be careful what you pray for, because you just might get it. Over that six weeks, God broke my heart through the stories of my students. Each week, He revealed to me a precious young girl dealing with a brokenness beyond what many of us can imagine in a lifetime: miscarriages, suicide attempts, debilitating nightmares from past abuse.
This past week was the proverbial straw that dropped me to my knees. This delicate, soft-spoken girl relayed, through tears the story of being abandoned by her mother as an infant She spoke of the deep sorrow and emptiness leading to depression and self-harm.

As I thought about this girl, and the three other students, and the hours-old baby buried alive in Compton, and the orphaned baby belonging to the perpetrators from last week’s shooting in San Bernardino, I asked why.

Why were these people- people who didn’t even want or couldn’t take care of them- given healthy babies while ours and the babies of so many other loving families were taken away?

Sometimes I feel guilty asking this question, if I’m honest with you, because Satan puts some other ugly questions in mind: “why were you blessed with one living child? Do you think you deserve more? What about all your friends who desperately want children and can’t have any? You can barely handle your own son, why do you think you should get another child?
The beautiful thing about our God is that I don’t have to be ashamed of my questions. He knows my heart and He can handle the weight of them. Last Sunday as Pastor Aaron preached on Luke 1:26-36, I was reminded of another mom who had questions. When the Angel Gabriel came to Mary and told her she would become pregnant, she asked, “How will this be since I am a virgin?” Mary had questions and even as she felt the presence of God around her, she wasn’t afraid to ask.

Though Mary didn’t really get the kind of descriptive answer she might have been looking for, she responded with obedience: “I am the Lord’s servant…May your word to me be fulfilled.”

The question of why our daughter had to die will probably not be fully answered in our lifetime on this earth. What I know, what I feel so deeply, is that God is saying to you and me what He said to Mary, Esther, Abraham and so many other women and men in the bible: I need you here at this time, in this place, in this circumstance so that you can fulfill your kingdom purpose and bring me Glory. Trust me, my child, that I have plans to prosper your life. I have uniquely created you for this purpose and only you can do this job I am calling you to.

If your heart is breaking or broken right now if you’re asking why God is allowing you to endure this terrible strife or carry this tremendous burden, can I ask you to join me in trusting God and submitting to His greater purpose? You can start, as I did, by praying: “God, I don’t like this, but if this is Your will, let it be done and may I see, in this lifetime, some heavenly glimpse of the purpose for this pain? May I feel some calming sense that You are in control and are working this all for good?

In this Christmas season, as we think about the babies we have lost, may we be reminded of another baby whose Father had to sacrifice Him. Jesus Christ, born in a humble manger, lived a blameless life and, along with His father, made the ultimate sacrifice so that we might have salvation.

Instead

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Do you ever feel like you’re living a life of “instead?” Like Plan A doesn’t ever seem to work out for you?

I did. I make these seemingly perfect plans and invite God to get on board with them, but they never seem to turn out exactly as I’d hoped.

Motherhood has been a world of instead. When we had our first baby- Benjamin- I had delusions of the grandeur that would accompany motherhood. I imagined myself with gorgeously coiffed hair and makeup cradling my perfect baby in my arm as I was rolled out in the wheelchair, just like in the movies. Instead, following an emergency c-section, I found myself WALKING out of the hospital with tears in my eyes and our baby boy in the NICU for ten days.

When we first became pregnant with our daughter, it seemed that the years of instead had faded away leaving room for the life of perfection I’d always imagined: a handsome and loving husband, a precocious toddler for an older brother, and a perfect little baby girl on the way.

I imagined everything princess and pink from the ballet slippers to the perfect little ensembles and matching bows I’d dress her in. I would name her my special baby name; the one I had chosen when I was studying abroad in Italy and made my sisters swear they’d never steal even if they had a little girl before me. Sienna would be the perfect completion to our perfect life.

Then came the dreaded voicemail. I had decided to be one of those fun moms and take Ben to ride the choo-choo at the mall one day after work. As I sat next to him, rumbling along the cobblestone road, I missed a call from my doctor’s office. I picked up the voicemail, hardly believing the dreaded words: “we need to speak with you regarding some concerns from your ultrasound.” It was like time stood still as my heart sank.

Endless doctor’s appointments led to one horrible instead after another. Instead of a normal spine, your baby’s will be open, instead of a functioning heart, your baby’s is abnormal, instead of a healthy baby, yours may be paralyzed or mentally incapacitated or both. Three weeks after that, we heard what we had feared most: “instead of a living baby, yours will be dead.”

Isaiah 61 was a scripture that a friend sent me during our pregnancy. It has beautiful references to comforting all those who mourn and binding up the brokenhearted; but it wasn’t until just recently, nearly two and a half months after our daughter went to be with the Lord, that I noticed the word “Instead.”

“A crown of beauty INSTEAD of ashes. The oil of joy INSTEAD of mourning. And a garment of praise INSTEAD of a spirit of despair.”

It had me thinking about all the Insteads in my life and how God works them all for good. Maybe God wasn’t offering me a lesser substitute, but leading me to a new stead- a new station or place in life with more beauty than all the plans I had made for myself.

Losing our precious Sienna Grace has undoubtedly brought us the greatest grief we have ever experienced; but it has also created an unexpected joy in the midst of our sorrow. I have felt the closeness that God promises in times of trial unlike any I’ve felt before. We have renewed our appreciation for our family, friends, and the amazing community which God has built around to support us. God has opened my eyes to the pain of infant loss in all forms and called on me to share our story with so many women who experience this deep grief. Out of the ashes of our loss and despair, God has drawn our eyes away from this world and focused them on the sweetness of our Heavenly Home where our sweet Sienna Grace awaits us.

“We were going to have a baby, but we had an angel INSTEAD”

Isaiah 61:1-3

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
    and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.
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