“Grief is the most solitary of all feelings. Grief isolates, and every ritual, every gesture, every embrace, is a hopeless effort to break through that isolation…
To face death is to stand alone.”
— Steven Erikson
There is an inherent loneliness to grief.
Grief is like a shadow, an impenetrable darkness that overcomes you, as you stare the full force of Death in the face.
The ancients called this desolate place the “Valley of the Shadow of Death.” On his pilgrimage through the underworld, Pilgrim, of the medieval vision entitled The Pilgrim’s Progress, encounters this dark valley, describing it as –
“A wilderness, a land of deserts and of pits, a land of drought and of the shadow of death, a land that no man passes through, and where no man dwells.”
At its core, as you first face this dark and desolate journey of Grief, there is an unsettling awareness that you are alone. It is an anguishing realization that no matter how many people lovingly and graciously offer to walk with you through the darkness, there is no one who can fully join you on your journey, no one who can lift the weight of this burden, no one who can ease the torment of this pain.
There is an old Christian spiritual that captures this feeling of utter isolation, fittingly called the “Lonesome Valley.” In the movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” this is the song that the gravediggers ominously sing as the main characters face their likely execution at the gallows. Its deep vibrato expresses the depth of this loneliness through music in a way that is nearly impossible to capture in words alone. When I close my eyes and truly feel this hymn, as it reaches down and touches the very depths of my grief, I find myself in the midst of this lonesome valley –
“You’ve got to walk through that lonesome valley.
You’ve got to walk it by yourself.
Nobody else can walk it for you.
You’ve got to walk it by yourself.”
Endlessly, I have journeyed through this valley over the past two years. And in that time, I have discovered that the pain of this isolation is especially intense for the unique grief of stillbirth and miscarriage.
In the cycle of life, Patrick and I should be experiencing our “best years.” Still so young, we are not yet at an age where Death is commonplace. Instead, we are at an age where we are supposedly invincible. There is an assumption that our youth guarantees a long life ahead of us, that Death will leave our lives untouched. We have lost our grandparents. Perhaps, one day, we will lose our parents. And as tragic as that is and will be, those losses are painfully expected.
But no one expects to die young. My own near death has violently shaken my sense of my own mortality. In the face of Death, I now feel helplessly fragile and vulnerable, when I once felt such confidence in my youthful invincibility.
And certainly, no one anticipates outliving and burying their children. The very thought is such anathema to the order of things. It goes against everything that is expected. It uproots the cycle of life so forcefully that it dashes every dream, every possibility, every plan.
It seems to be an almost universal phenomena that when you are dating for a long enough time, people start endlessly asking when you will get engaged. And when you are engaged, with that ring of promise finally around your finger, people excitedly ask when you will be married. And when the wedding day comes, others almost immediately pry, “When are you going to have kids?” And if you are blessed with one child, others almost immediately begin badgering you to have the next.
On our wedding day, we asked people to write one word or phrase on a rock and then drop it into the baptismal font as a prayer for our marriage. More than one rock read,
After all, that is the expected order of things.
Patrick and I are at an age and a life stage where pregnancy and birth announcements are ubiquitous. They are absolutely everywhere. I probably see at least one announcement from a friend or an acquaintance via Facebook at least weekly, if not sometimes daily. Obituaries and funeral announcements, meanwhile, are almost unheard of.
With each of our due dates, I had a close friend or family member pregnant at the very same time, their babies now permanent reminders of what our lives would have looked like if our own babies had lived. The oldest is not really a baby anymore, since he will be turning two in November. It is almost impossible to imagine our lives with a toddler now, but that is how long our journey through this dark valley has already taken. The youngest was born just this week – a beautiful little girl with fiery red hair, who will always make my heart ache with wonder as I question when I see her if my boys would have been little gingery redheads too.
As each friend passes me on their journey into parenthood, I feel a little more left behind. Those friendships invariably have to change.
I just cannot bear to hear about the joys and the struggles of their motherhood, when it is something that I so desperately desire. So my friends find that they have to edit what they say to me. They can no longer share all of themselves with me, because it is just too painful for me to hear.
And wrapped in the light of their joy, they just cannot relate to the depths of my darkness. I become careful not to share everything with them, afraid that I will make them feel guilty for their fortune or pitiful for my pain.
So a chasm forms between us. And I am left behind –
And yet, even from the depths, there are moments of hope, moments of reprieve, moments of communion and friendship.
One evening this week, I chose to face Death and Grief and declared that they would no longer rob me of my friendships. And despite the intensity of the pain, I reached out to the mother of that beautiful red-headed baby and sent her a short text that simply read,
It may seem simple, but those are two of the bravest words that I have ever sent out into the universe. They were a cry of hope, and life, and joy from the depths of the darkness and loneliness of the valley.
I sent that text at 6:36.
At 6:37, another friend – whose own baby girl was born shortly before my second due date – called me, because she had seen that birth announcement and sensed that I would need someone to talk to in that moment.
Her call felt like an answered prayer. My cries had been heard, and providentially, it felt like God had provided a friend in that exact moment to embrace me in my loneliness.
It was a powerful reminder that no matter how dark and how lonely even this darkest valley may be, I actually do not walk alone after all.
I suppose God may be the only one who can touch the depths of grief, who can lift the weight of this burden, who can ease the torment of this pain. With that one answered prayer, I could now understand in a new way why Psalm 23 is so popular in times of trial.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…
You are with me.”