There aren’t any pictures in this post, and it’s not about Kenya at all. It is about learning, and about being made softer by hard things. It’s about understanding, and asking to be understood. It’s about longing for Jesus to come and make all things known and right.
A couple of days ago, I heard of an organization called Molly Bears. Started by a grieving mother to remember her daughter who died before birth, at 34 weeks of pregnancy, this group of mostly volunteers creates teddy bears personalized for and matching the weight of the babies that families who request the bears have lost. It’s pretty amazing, really. I mean look at these bears.
Now, if I had heard about this a year ago, I am not sure that I would have used the word “amazing” to describe my thoughts about the idea of a personalized, weighted teddy bear to remember a baby who died. I don’t know. I might have thought it a bit odd, creepy even, or somehow just not healthy. But oh … that was so last year. I am learning many things about myself, and about life, as I view it now through the eyes of someone that had to bury their baby boy, and one of the biggest of those is not to assume. Don’t assume I know how I would feel. Don’t assume I know how someone else feels. Don’t assume my way of grieving is the only way. Don’t assume I know the whole story, or even a chapter of it. In this case, with the teddy bears, it hit me when I saw a few family photos that showed parents and sometimes also a child or children – siblings – who are also grieving the loss of a preborn baby, or an infant. These families included their “Molly Bear” in the photo. And I got it. As the tears ran down my face, I got it. All too well.
I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be for us to take family photos until we took one after Findley was gone. I don’t think that it hit me in the same way after our first miscarriage, maybe in part because it had happened earlier in pregnancy, or maybe because we hadn’t told very many people about the pregnancy or the loss at that time, so the baby we were missing seemed like our own secret anyway… For whatever reasons, this time – maybe in part because we had held Findley; we had seen his tiny face, and stroked his tiny hands – we could not shake the horrible realization that our family photos will never be complete again, this side of heaven. Birthdays, holidays, other family events and reunions – all these feel like over and over again making it official that our family is not “all together.” It’s really hard to take family pictures now. It’s hard to say “now get one of all the kids,” while my throat clenches up over that word “all,” and my heart cracks apart again. My head knows that people don’t mean to point it out when they say things like “great to see you all,” but sometimes it truly feels like that’s what’s happening … “All except the two in heaven,” I say silently in my heart, and hope my face doesn’t betray me. And sometimes, that’s followed by the feeling that I betray my babies by staying silent.
I don’t have the answer, for how to avoid these awkward and sometimes very painful situations – there isn’t one; you can’t fix it. That’s just how life is now. Life includes sorely missing those people who should be here, which does not mean you aren’t grateful for the ones that *are* here. If anything, you’re more grateful than ever. So also, it doesn’t have to mean you don’t celebrate birthdays, or that you never take family pictures again. It might have to mean you skip some photo ops, or do them differently. Last month was our 15th wedding anniversary, and it was just too much to even think about trying to take a group picture of “all” of us. So we didn’t. We have a couple of just Ryan and me, and some different groupings of the rest of our children.
What I think I do have is a bigger heart than before. I think when your heart breaks, it gets larger as it works to heal. I have more grace for people whose words or actions I don’t understand. I have more capacity to let things be hard, weird, or awkward sometimes, because I know there’s just no other way for them to be. I don’t ask people how many kids they have, or even wonder to myself whether this pregnancy is their first, or tenth. I am consciously learning not to evaluate or compare, and to listen, care, and accept instead of thinking to myself “why aren’t they over it yet?” or conversely, “why aren’t they more upset?” Accepting people where they are has become a high priority for me – and I can only do it because of what I’ve learned about God. He accepts me where I am. He sees my grief, and is even acquainted with my weird ways of handling it, (Psalm 139:3). He keeps count of my tossings, puts my tears in His bottle, (Psalm 56:8); even my anxieties and fears are not surprising to Him. And when others forget, or unintentionally say and do things that hurt, God says “I will not forget you! See? I have engraved you into the palm of my hand.” (Isaiah 49:15-16).
So, if you ever happen to see us with a little 5oz teddy bear or two in our hands, or in our family photos, and you wonder what we might be trying to say, now you’ll know. We’re saying that life is a precious gift at every age, and we’re grateful for the weeks or months we had with Quinn and Findley, our babies already in heaven. At the same time, we wish they were here. You’ll know we deeply savor the life and treasure the family we have been given, even while we remember and grieve the one we hoped for. Sorrow and joy are not mutually exclusive, but I’m learning that it takes a big heart to make room for them both.