It’s hard loosing a child – especially one you never knew outside the womb. My memories of Caroline are limited to feeling her move inside my wife – getting kicked in the middle of the night when I was next to her, or putting my hand on her belly to feel her doing the somersaults, and then holding her lifeless body in my arms at the hospital.
People tell me all the time, “I’m sorry – I can’t imagine what it must be like to experience this.” And they’re honest words – many people really don’t understand. And, frankly, I hope and pray no one else ever does – but I know that in a fallen world where sin and death currently reign that others will (at least for now). It was 11 months ago today that Caroline was stillborn; 11 months ago today that we sat in the ER just after midnight and were told there was no heartbeat. It was 11 months ago today that our joy and excitement as we looked forward to her arrival was turned upside down and we experienced pain, suffering, and loss that so many before us have experienced and I’m afraid many after us will as well. It was 11 months ago that we joined the club – the club no one ever wishes or wants to join – the club that picks you – the club of parents who have lost a child. I looked forward to the births of each of my children, but there was something special about Caroline – I was most excited about her arrival – I talked about it all the time, it was like I couldn’t keep it in and I couldn’t wait for her to arrive. And then she was gone.
Many people don’t know what to say to me (or my wife or my children or…); and, honestly, I get it – there are no words you can say that will bring her back, that will take the pain away, or that will make me feel better – often, I’m not even sure would to say to me (or someone else like me), and I certainly don’t know what I want to hear.
One thing I can do, however, is try to give you a glimpse of what life is like since she died, in an effort to help others have some perspective on what the day-to-day and moment-by-moment struggles are for parents who loose a child. Unless you’ve walked this road, you probably can’t understand it. And I hope you never do. But that doesn’t mean you can’t empathize, listen, and love. I doubt my experiences are unique to me, and I doubt they are unique to those who have lost a child to stillbirth. I can imagine (and that’s the best I can do) that they probably apply to just about any parent who has lost a child, regardless of age or type of loss. And maybe that’s why I’m writing this – to help give a voice to grieving parents who are unable to share because the pain is just too raw, unwilling to take a risk for fear of offending or hurting someone’s feelings, or just uncomfortable opening up about their own pain, thinking it’s “too personal”.
Recently, my wife and I were having dinner with some friends and they asked how we were doing, and they also mentioned that even though they didn’t know us well when Caroline died, they felt like they wanted to come to her Celebration of Life service. They actually said, “I figured I’d be uncomfortable because I didn’t know you that well, but I wanted you to know that you were loved and cared for, and I would just have to get over my discomfort.” My response was simply, “Thank you for taking a risk. I can tell you that as uncomfortable as you were, it was much more uncomfortable where I was sitting.”
We are a selfish people, a self-centered people – that’s what sin has done to us. And we worry about our own feelings, and we see things from our own perspectives, we fear engagement and think we have to fix others, or we fear engagement because we might say or do the wrong thing. Yet the truth is we can’t. So to those who have friends or family that are experiencing loss, what I will encourage you to do is this: take a risk. Be willing to step outside your comfort zone, be willing to listen to the heart’s cry of someone who has lost a loved one, be willing to be present and just sit with them in the pain – be willing to be uncomfortable. Because I can tell you this – your level of discomfort is nothing compared to the level of discomfort that person is feeling. Don’t expect them to make you comfortable – because they can’t – be willing to experience a little bit of discomfort, knowing that when you leave their presence your discomfort will most likely end, while theirs will not.
Caroline died 11 months ago – yet it is still a daily reminder and struggle to keep my focus on what is good and true. Every night when I put my 2 year old to bed I fear, “Maybe she won’t wake up.” I struggle to pray over all my girls, “Lord, help her sleep through the night” without adding the phrase “and let her awake in the morning” – because the fear of loosing another one is all too real. When one of the girls sleeps in, I’m afraid to go into the room because I might find her lifeless body in the bed; when I leave I’m extra conscious to say, “I love you” to everyone, to give them a hug and a kiss, because as I step out the door I hear the words “This could be the last time I see them alive” go through my head.
But it’s not just for my kids – I fear my wife will get in a car accident or be diagnosed with some horrible disease and that she will die, too. Or that the phone will ring and I’ll hear the words, “________ has cancer” or “Something happened to ________ and they’re gone.” For Caroline death was quick and short; but for those of us who survive, death seems to linger around for far too long, and creep its ugly head up in so many unexpected places. You never forget what it was like, and you realize there is nothing you can do to keep it from visiting again.
Now I know these fears are irrational – that they are based in lies that someone else is going to die. I know that God “has not given us a spirit of fear” (2 Timothy 1:7). Yet it is a constant struggle every day and every moment to not give in to such fears.
Recently I was doing some hiking while visiting the mountains – an activity I love to do. As I walked I found myself thinking about Caroline, and the first thought I had was, “She’ll never get to experience this.” But before I could dwell on that thought – that negative thought – I was reminded that what she is experiencing is far greater than a walk in the mountains; her vision of reality far surpasses mine; her relationship with the Father is more tangible than I can experience right now. I’ve learned that when I think of her I can’t think of all that she’s missing – because really, she got the better end of this deal. What I struggle with is what I am missing…
I was told much about the “year of firsts” – something I experienced when my sister died over 16 years ago. And, yes, some of the “firsts” have been difficult. But what I’ve struggled with is what I consider “the lasts”. One night I was reading my 2 year old a story (Goodnight Moon), and I realized that she was probably the last child I would read it to – even though she wasn’t supposed to be. I was changing a diaper and found myself thinking, “I’m a lot closer to the end of changing diapers than I had expected – or even wanted to be. Soon, I’ll be changing her last diaper.” I realized that at some point in the future (sooner rather than later) I’ll be getting her up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom as we potty train – and I realized that there will be a last time I do that, and it wasn’t supposed to be that way. As I rocked her I looked forward and thought, “How many more “lasts” are there? There will be a “last” wedding – even though it wasn’t supposed to be only 3; there will be a “last” grandchild – even though there were supposed to be more; there will be a “last” time I teach someone to ride a bike – though there was supposed to be one more, and a “last” graduation. It’s the lasts – for me – that are the things I notice and cry over – because the “last” one is insufficient – there was always supposed to be one more.
Then there are the “lasts” I wish would just come – the last time I have to comfort a crying 9 year old at bed time who is “missing Caroline”, or the last time my 7 year old looks up at dinner and just bursts into teachers saying, “I miss Caroline.” The last time I have to tell someone new that, yes, I have four daughters, and one of them doesn’t live here with me anymore. The last time someone looks at me with “those eyes” – the eyes that make me feel like something is wrong with me, the eyes that look to me to comfort them because they don’t know what to say; the last time someone avoids me because they don’t want to be uncomfortable; the last time I cry when I hear a song on the radio; the last time I see a parent with a newborn baby and I want to just go up and grab that baby and hold them and say, “Treasure every stinking minute because they go by too fast and, sometimes you never get enough;” the last time I hear the story of someone who is experiencing pain and suffering over the loss of a loved one, the last time someone gets cheated or hurt or sick or afraid or…
Loosing a child is not something one “gets over” quickly – loosing a child is not something one “gets over” ever. Loss like this hurts for a reason – because it is not supposed to be this way. We were not created for this. We were created for so much more; life was created for so much more.
And there is a hope; a hope that says that while death is a really big deal, death is not final, nor is it permanent. That is the truth I find myself reminding me of over and over and over. “Oh death, where is your victory? Oh death, where is your sting? … But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor 15:55, 57)
What’s it like to loose a child? What’s it like to experience this type of loss? What does it feel like?
It’s a mess – there are days I can’t even describe how I’m feeling; sometimes there are days where I’m feeling happy and sad and depressed and excite all at the same time. And, from what I’ve learned by talking with others – this is normal.
Loosing a child is harder than I ever imagined; it’s a constant reminder that we live in a broken and fallen world, a world that is in desperate need of a Savior. It’s a challenge to see everything in a different way. There are so many more words I could write of the thoughts and feelings I have, but this is all I’m ready to share right now…. I pray they give some encouragement, some guidance, some sense of what it must be like to loose a child.