“How did you get through this?!”
Mere moments earlier, after her adult son had been pronounced brain dead by the doctors, this grieving mother had run out of the hospital room and off of the Intensive Care Unit, her screams echoing loudly from the hallway. As the social worker and the chaplain both struggled to calm her as she was overcome by the throes of grief, she literally began tearing out her hair.
Now, only moments later, it was my job to speak with her and to ask her the hard question of whether her son would have wanted to be an organ donor.
“I am so sorry,” I started. “I understand just how hard this must be for you. I too have lost my sons.” I offered nothing more than that. This moment was about her and her son, after all, not me.
Through desperate tears, she asked for my guidance and, I could sense, for the reassurance that she too would make it through this pain and would somehow be okay –
“How did you get through this?”
Struck by her question, I wondered silently, Have I made it through this? I am not sure.
Little did she know that there are still so many days when I struggle to get out of bed or that there are countless moments where my own tears are still so close to the surface. There are so many times when I too still wonder, even months later, how I am going to make it.
In that moment, as I looked and saw the desperation of her tears, I could see so much of my own pain in her pain. Her earlier screams still ringing in my ears so closely echoed my own screams from my own hospital room. There is something so raw and primal about the screams of grief from a grieving mother. It is a sound which emanates from the very pit of your soul in a way that is nearly impossible to explain unless you too have accessed the depths of that hellish pain.
I answered her as honestly as I could, “Only with a lot of support.”
From that moment on, this grieving mother knew that I understood her in a way that others just couldn’t, now that she too had joined the ranks of mothers who had lost their children.
I then journeyed with her as her son saved three lives.
I stumbled across this image on a grief support page that I belong to that is dedicated to those who have experienced child loss. Quite honestly, I find its message untrue and unhelpful. I would never dare to propose that my fellow infertile friends do not know love because they have never carried a child. And despite the common quip that “there is nothing worse in the world than losing a child,” I know that there are so many other kinds of terrible suffering and pain tormenting this world that this sentiment has to be false – rape, war, torture, hunger, and disease all come to mind.
Comparing suffering and competing to see who has it worse, who suffers more, who has experienced the most pain is a fruitless task. Which is worse – losing a child or losing a spouse? It is as pointless as asking, which is worse – rape or war? Of course, both experiences are tragically painful.
Pain is pain. Grief is grief.
Yet, I also know what this meme actually means. What it really means to say, I think, is “you don’t know how it feels ’til it happens to you.”
The grief after the loss of a child is a pain so raw, so overwhelming, and so rare that it feels indescribable. It is impossible to capture all of the dreams and expectations that were lost when Ezra and Leo died. It felt like all of the hope and happiness was sucked out of the world, leaving an impenetrable darkness in its wake. It is a grief that is so deep and dark that it is impossible to explain to someone standing in the sun.
And others standing in the sunshine struggle to “get it,” to understand, to relate. They try to help, but they struggle to find the words. I know that they sometimes feel overcome by guilt, hugging their own children a little bit closer and pitying my pain as they try to push the fears of the unimaginable, the thought that even babies can die, from their mind.
This all can feel so isolating. You can feel so terribly alone when it seems like no one else understands how this feels.
It is such a rare gift when someone “gets it.” When I have met with other women who have endured a similar loss, it feels like I have finally found someone to join me and guide me through the darkness.
“How did you make it through this?” I ask those grieving mothers who have paved the way before me. “Please, show me the way back to the light.”
In the beginning, after my earlier miscarriages, my husband and I joined a support group for miscarriage, stillbirth, and child loss. At the same time, I started listening to a podcast, called Beat Infertility, that features women who share their own stories of infertility and loss. And I started seeing a therapist, who herself had been through her own infertility journey. Desperately, I threw out my arms into the darkness, searching for others to walk this hard journey with me. And now, after the loss of my sons, I need the support of these guides more than ever before.
How did I make it through this, if indeed I have actually made it through?
“Only with a lot of support.”
Now I find myself serving as a guide to others through the darkness, because I have been in this pit now for far too long. My therapist compared me to the goddess of the underworld, shepherding others through the River Styx. I am not sure if I particularly like the morbidity of this image – after all, in my job working with organ donors I am already frequently compared to a vulture! – but I will take it.
In my job, I have walked with several grieving mothers now. Recently, I stood beside a mother as she watched her son, who was so nearly my own age, struggle to take his final breaths. “I just want him to be at peace,” she begged, afraid that he was in pain and wanting him desperately to be with God. “I know,” I told her wholeheartedly.
I remembered a story from a doctor I had worked with in my hospice chaplaincy days, which I shared with her. This doctor had previously survived a heart attack, and he had a near-death experience. He remembered his soul lifting out of his body, and from above, he watched as his body seized and convulsed on the ground. He did not know why everyone around his body was so afraid, he had said, because he had felt nothing but light and peace.
“For my own sons, I have to believe that is true,” I told her, assuaging her fears and, at the same time, soothing my own. I stayed strong for her and for her family, until the moment he died. But the moment I made it to my car, I burst into overwhelming and unrelenting tears. “Please, God,” I prayed. “Please let that be true.”
Outside of my work, just this week I sat beside the hospital bed of another mother who too had lost her baby daughter to stillbirth. Her own church is between pastors, so others reached out to my husband and myself asking if we could minister to her since we know the pain of this loss so intimately.
“There is nothing you did to cause this,” I reassured her over and over again as I sat beside her, “This is not your fault.” Reaching out to her from my own darkness, I joined her in the depths and assured her that she did not have to walk this journey alone.
And finally, through this blog I have reached out to countless women. Our story has been shared around the world – in over 40 countries! – with those who have experienced infertility, or stillbirth, or have lost children both young and old. In some small way, I hope that this little pulpit on the Internet can shine some light out into the darkness for whomever may need it today…
This song, originally performed by Lady Gaga and now covered here by a brilliant all-female college acapella group called Three Miles Lost, is about the tragic experience of sexual assault. With a poignant pain, it repeats again and again,
“You don’t know how it feels ’til it happens to you.”
Though I hope I am not taking anything away from this song’s original message, this feeling of isolation, this loneliness of feeling like no one understands unless they too have experienced this particular pain is very familiar for those who have endured the grief of child loss.
I share this now as a grieving mother reaching out to other grieving mothers. Notice how these singers, with such angelically beautiful voices, are all singing these words of isolation – together.
As you listen to this now, please know that you too are not alone. I stand in solidarity with you, just as I ask you to please stand with me. We need each other, perhaps now more than ever.