Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Where everybody knows your name

So, if you’ve been keeping up, you’ll know that our family lost a beautiful, perfect, planned, wanted, beloved baby on July 4. Since then, lots of things have been helping me make it through each day while other things ping a deep, visceral response that is less thane helpful. And a lot of days, I find the coping things are art of one kind or another.

I’ve always been a woman who likes to sing, dance, whistle, read, write, and draw. I’m more successful at some than others. And I do get some funny looks at church, when I’m walking down the hall whistling as I head to my office, but if you listen closely, you’ll often realize it’s a hymn. I’m a nerd like that.

One that was in my head in the days following Brennan’s birth and death was the Cheers theme song. Don’t ask me why. But I think it’s because I wanted exactly the opposite. Here are the lyrics:

     Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got.
     Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
     Wouldn't you like to get away?
     Sometimes you want to go

     Where everybody knows your name,
     and they're always glad you came.
     You wanna be where you can see,
     our troubles are all the same
     You wanna be where everybody knows
     Your name.

I definitely wanted to get away, but I wanted to go where nobody knew my name. I’m a pretty public person, I don’t mind being vulnerable and open about things, and folks who know me in real life will tell you I’m a huge extrovert. So, finding a place to get away means going somewhere where nobody knows me – nobody expects anything of me, nobody thinks it’s weird or unprofessional if I’m weepy, nobody does the sympathetic head tilt and asks how I am.  

The Saturday after the birth was my first full day home. And I was really thinking about being at my church the following morning. Physically, I was fine, so why shouldn’t I be there? And it dawned on me – because everybody knows my name. I needed somewhere I could be anonymous and alone to work through the first bit of grief. I had nothing to give, as a pastor, since I was needing so much. When I talked to my lead pastor to let him know I wouldn’t be there, he was surprised I was even considering it.  

But where else would I be on a Sunday morning but in church? So, while I knew I couldn’t face my own wonderful, loving congregation, I decided I needed to be with my brothers and sisters in Christ somewhere else. So I looked up the service time for the United Methodist Church closest to my house and made the plan to go. Andy didn’t want to go, which is fine with me. We all cope differently. He honored God by taking James to play in the park that morning. 

So I got up that morning, looking grief-ful and tried to put myself together for my first real public outing. Ugh. It was not fun. Part of the nice thing of being a pastor, most of the time at my church, is that I never really worry about what to wear because I wear a robe in worship. And part of the other yuck of it was that my body was still all rounded from pregnancy but I couldn’t bear to wear maternity clothes. 

I drove to the church, avoided parking in a visitor spot, and tried to go directly to the worship space without drawing any attention. Silly me. Part of the beauty of our connectional church, especially for an extrovert like me, is that lots of people really do know my name. I didn’t realize that at this church, the entryway was also the gathering space prior to worship. So there were so many people. And the pastor, a sweet colleague of mine, saw me almost immediately. Yikes! I really didn’t mean to shove my grief in his face on his first Sunday in his new church. So, I gave him the briefest of hugs and practically ran into the worship space, claiming a spot on the very back row. 

But I wasn’t fast enough. Their lay leader came by to give me a hug. Another lay person, who leads their church’s mission team for my church’s Sunday morning feeding ministry, came by and wordlessly dropped a box of tissues off in the seat next to me. Then, as worship started, I saw the pastor’s wife go by, being directed to her special spot by one of the ushers. I smiled despite my circumstances; worship was exceptionally full, probably as a “see the new guy” kind of Sunday. 

Then the pastor’s wife saw me. And I know their story, which includes the loss of a child. Not like our story, because every story is distinctive and unique, but close enough for us to resonate. She came back to the very back row where I was sitting, where I was desperately trying to draw an invisible screen of anonymity around myself, and asked to sit with me. I said, “But you’re an important person, you should sit up front.” She shrugged and sat with me. She worshiped with me. She didn’t say anything after she sat down, besides the responses and singing the hymns. She didn’t judge the tears streaming down my face. She was the best friend to me in that moment that I could have asked for. Like Job’s friends, before they mess up, she just came and sat with me in my pain.

It’s an uncomfortable place to sit. I admire the people who can do it because, honest to God, I want to flee this place myself most of the time. But this is my life, so I can’t run from it. And I realized later, that even though I really thought I wanted to be alone, there was a reason I felt the need to worship that day. I needed the connection with God and community to be reaffirmed because grief can feel awfully lonely. So praise be to God for the grace I found that day. I pray you find the grace you need this day and every day.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Running the Course

Grief is a weird thing. I’m so glad I captured Brennan’s birth story in my previous post. Every birth story is as particular and unique as it is universal. And we don’t tell our stories often enough. Especially the ones that are painful. I realized, following Brennan’s birth and death, that I had joined another unique social group. Before the birth of my first son, women did not tell me their birth stories or give me advice, but my expanding waistline bridged that gap and I was able to hear many good and helpful (among the cruel and unhelpful) things. Similarly, this time I was opened to hear stories from those who have walked a road like this one before. It hurts me deeply that there is so much pain out there, but I have also been able to find strength and hope that life continues, often in beautiful and grace-filled ways.

So, one of the things I wanted to discuss today are the helpful vs. unhelpful things that you can do for someone who is grieving, keeping in mind that my list is not a universal list, but just a start.

  • send notes, texts, Facebook messages, and call.
    • Even if I don’t answer, which is usually the case for phone calls because I can’t keep it together for a conversation about this, it means a lot. It means that the death was real, that it’s important, and that I’m not alone in this. And the people who continue to touch base with me, even weeks later, make me feel better. Brennan may have died, but the impact of his life and death have not been forgotten yet.
  • hug.
    • I’m not usually open to lots of physical touch, but in grief, this is one of the best things. Better to show me you love me than to try to explain why this happened.
  • offer to help.
    • I haven’t been able to figure out what to tell people to do, it feels weird and un-American to ask for/accept help, but the offers are appreciated.
  • if you feel the need to say something, simple is better.
    • The best things people have said to me have been: “I love you.” and “I’m praying for you.”
  • try to explain why this happened.
    • Let me tell you this – there’s no good reason why this happened. Death may be a welcome friend at the end of a glorious and well-lived life, but the death of an infant or child is tragic. I can’t explain it and neither can you.
  • tell me I look good or, really, any comment on my physical appearance.
    • I may look good to you, but in my particular circumstance, I’m a little furious with my body in this moment. My body was a traitor, it sustained an injury without my knowledge with led to a fatal malfunction. And I’m mourning the loss of my baby, the loss of my pregnancy, and my body is a brutal, constant reminder that I am no longer pregnant. So, yes, I may be regaining a waistline, but I’ve lost so much more.
  • rush me to think about the future or project a future which may or may not be
    • Some people want to ask about or predict future children, as if another child will make me forget the one that I bore. Brennan was a special, unique, one-of-a-kind baby. While there may be more children for us, someday, our hearts are not ready to consider it. And nothing will diminish the loss we have experienced. 
The worst, well-meaning thing that was said to me came on the Monday following his Thursday birth. I stopped by the office with my husband, to pick up a few things, to look through my e-mail, to make sure things would be ok if I was out of the office for a while. And one of our sweet ladies came up to me and said, “I lost a baby, too. I was Catholic at the time and the priest said to me, ‘God needs little roses in his garden, too.’” I held it together for the moment, but the grief and the pain were raw! The honest response that I wanted to shout was NO! But, what I said, because I’m her pastor, was, “I understand that may have been helpful for you, but I just don’t agree. We can talk about it more another time if you like.” 

I don’t agree because I don’t think God is a monster. If I truly believed that God was a micromanaging sadist who literally caused some to die out of season, some to lack clean drinking water or food, some to be murdered, some to be raped – I would not be a Christian! To read more about my thoughts on things being all a part of God’s plan, everything happens for a reason, etc., see this blog post from last year, ironically around this same time of year. 

So I keep running this course, letting the grief run its own course in me. I keep busy. I play with my first son. I do dishes. I run errands. Most of the time, the grief is turned way down in the background. But every once in a while, it swells unexpected and I have to take a moment to either embrace it and work through another piece of it OR stifle it down and stuff it away, knowing I’ll have to unpack it later. 

Some things that have made the grief swell:
  • The first time I drove by the hospital where Brennan was born…and died.
  • Walking by the baby room at our church’s daycare program, where we had already put a deposit down for Brennan’s spot.
  • Touching my tummy.
  • Realizing there’s no reason not to eat unpasteurized cheese, drink alcohol, eat lots of fish, breathe paint fumes, etc.
  • Seeing Brennan’s name in the church worship guide and a white rose on the altar to recognize his death.
  • Realizing that’s one of the few places his name will ever appear.
  • Knowing his name will appear for our All Saints recognition…and there’s no good photo of him to share.
  • Wondering if Brennan will grow up in glory or if he will always be an infant held in God’s arms.
  • Erasing my due date and projected maternity leave from the church’s long-range calendar.
  • Reading a book that I should read with James to explain what has happened and knowing there’s no way I can read it to him.
  • Feeling like Andy and I literally lost of piece of ourselves.
The strangest thing that happened this past week was on Saturday, when I took James to go pick peaches at an orchard about an hour away. We got out of the city, got out of our usual routines, and did something entirely different. I realized I hadn’t yet taught James where some food really comes from, like that peaches come from trees, not just the grocery store. So we walked through the high grass, scattering the grasshoppers. We picked peaches that he could reach. He carried a little bucket. We shared a bowl of homemade peach ice cream afterwards. And I felt happy. Then I felt guilty. Now, I know I should not feel guilty for feeling happy, but it was just such a strange feeling. A little glimpse of something other than the sea of ok and not-so-ok I’ve been swimming in lately. The course continues.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Rock a Bye, Baby

This is the song that I’ve been singing to our son, James, for the past couple of months. Ever since I started to clean out the bedroom full of junk that would soon need to be a nursery for our baby due in mid-November. So, the glider that I’d bought at a yard sale was moved out of that room and into James’s room. And he loves it.

Just over a week ago, I rocked James before putting him to bed and sang this song to him:
Rock a bye, baby, in the tree top
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall
And down will come baby, cradle and all 

It’s a horrible song, but it was the one that came to mind the first night I rocked him and he requested it every night after. And just over a week ago, I was the most contented, happy person as I sat and rocked my two sons – the one in my lap and the one in my womb. I sat in wonder as I contemplated the perfection of that moment, the peacefulness of the space, the life flourishing in and around me. It was amazing.

And then, last Tuesday, July 2, everything changed. Here is the disclaimer: this is a story of loss. I’m writing it for me. But I’m putting it here because another story of loss, which I came across on Facebook many months ago, helped me. So, if this can do any good in the world, I’ll put my words where they can be seen, no matter how painful it is.

That Tuesday was pretty typical – meetings in the morning and afternoon, sandwiching a quick lunch break of running errands – picking up the sonogram disk from the appointment on Saturday, buying presents for my sister’s baby shower, and grabbing a quick lunch in a drive through. I picked up James, touched base with my husband, Andy, and started a couple of side dishes for dinner when I got home. With a couple of pots on to boil and James firmly ensconced in front of the TV, I went to the bathroom. And I felt something start to come out that shouldn’t. In shock and amazement I saw and felt something like an exam glove filled with water. I heard the sizzle of things boiling over on the stove as I hurriedly tried to shove this thing – could it be my bag of waters?! – back up where it should go. Then I waddled back into the kitchen to rescue part of dinner, all the time feeling like something was wrong.

When Andy got home, he noticed the smoke in the house. I hadn’t even noticed it. I left dinner to him and went to lay down and call my midwife. They wanted me to come in immediately. I waddled back out to tell Andy and he put dinner down – unplugged, incomplete – grabbed James and off we went. It was surreal. When we got there, I went in, nervously sat on the exam table, since any movement seemed to make things want to fall down again, while Andy occupied James in the next room. The midwife took one look and said we were going to the hospital – yes, that was my bag of waters and it was not where it should be. That was when I started crying.

On the way to the hospital, we called a family friend who was amazing. She met us at the hospital, took James, went by our house to grab the diaper bag and everything else he may have needed for an extended stay, and took him home with her, where she had left in the midst of preparing dinner for her family. Then Andy and I walked into the hospital. It was an ordinary Tuesday afternoon. We were planning to go to Arkansas the next morning for a weekend filled with baby showers for me and my sister.

I knew things were bad because of the speed the team tackled me when I identified myself. I was stripped down bare, put into a gown, and put onto the bed. They started an IV, they inserted a catheter, they ordered a sonogram, they took a blood draw. All of this was strange for a person who is so healthy. Then they turned me upside down, talking around me about wanting to have gravity on our side. This is called the Trendelenburg position. It’s not comfortable, since it puts the weight of your body on parts of your body that were never meant to bear it – shoulders, neck, head. But if it was going to help my baby, by all means.

They did a pelvic exam and the midwife who had received me looked bleak. I remember someone saying that there were fetal parts in the vaginal vault. Good Lord, no! Why was my baby not up where he should be? So the sonogram came and we were all able to see the beautiful strong heartbeat, the movement of his arms and legs, and the fact that my cervix was completely dilated.

By this time, a doctor had arrived, and sat by my head to explain that this was called an incompetent cervix – one that opens of its own accord, with no pain, before it is time. I knew about this condition, I had treated my first pregnancy like a research project and was reviewing my notes through this second one. I had thought it was unkind to call a cervix incompetent, but I hadn’t thought twice about it. Now here I was. If there had even been a bit of the cervix left, they may have been able to sew it up and provide hope for a longer pregnancy and better outcome. But it was a full 10cm. Nothing left to pull together.

We called our parents. Andy’s parents drove through the night to us. My mom flew in in the morning. I sent Andy home around 9 so he could pick up James and put him to bed at home. And all the time I cried. Oh, my poor baby. I felt so sorry for all of us. The doctor had ordered a sleeping pill for me, if I chose to use it. I didn’t – as painful as this all was, I wanted to be in my right mind for it all and I never wanted to hurt my baby through using drugs – even just over the counter stuff.

I left the TV on to keep me company. I had my phone, so I texted with Andy a bit. I fell asleep around 1am. His parents arrived and he came back to the hospital around 3am. I decided we might need a name sooner than we had expected, so I looked online for something. I didn’t want to use any of the names we had been considering – solid, family names – because I didn’t want those names to die with our son. So, I searched by meaning and came up with a list. Andy and I decided on Brennan – a man of sorrow, a tear drop. That is truly what my second son became. 

The next morning Andy left to take James to play school. We wanted to keep some things normal. My mom arrived a little after 8am. We cried. My mom grilled the doctors – if I could keep the baby inside me for 48 hours, I would be transferred to another facility that specialized in high-risk pregnancies and premature babies. The doctor said my baby was pre-viable. He explained, but I knew what that meant – he couldn’t survive on his own yet. But if we could make it a few more weeks, the outlook got better. I started to ask questions about quality of life for a baby born that early and we decided to cross that bridge if/when we got there.

So that day passed. I ate a little, I slept a bit, I cried more. I asked Andy to bring James to see me that night. I had told Andy earlier how glad I was we had him – so grateful for this vibrant, smart, wonderful little boy. So James visited me in my room, although in my upside-down position, I couldn’t see him well, couldn’t hold him, and he didn’t really want to come sit with me. I can understand – hospital beds are no fun. Then they left, my mom stayed with me, and another night came. I slept a little bit better than I had the first night. I don’t know why. I think part of me was coming to terms with what was happening. I think maybe I was beginning to get a grip on the inevitable. Especially when I started to wake up with cramps. I had a feeling this was not going to end with a transfer to the other hospital…

The next day was a lot like the one before. Early morning blood draw, almost edible food, kind nurses and doctors that looked at me with compassion and sadness. I knew I was a sad case for them. I couldn’t help but ask them about the other people in the labor and delivery unit – how many babies had been born? How were they doing? I wanted desperately to know that life continued in healthy and beautiful ways around me, even if I was trapped in this pit.

Sometime that morning I felt a bit of fluid. The doctor came to see, but couldn’t tell if my bag of waters and broken or not. Regardless, I felt in my bones that this was the day. A little before noon, I felt the bag of waters slip lower. I told my mom, she called the nurse, and again things flew into double-time around me. I was so calm for some reason – the inevitable had arrived. The doctor examined me and I was right – the bag of waters was coming down and out. Somehow Andy was there and came to stand by my head. Just before noon, I was pushing, without any cue or help from contractions. The worst part of this was knowing I was signing my baby’s death certificate. He slipped from me with the bag of waters intact and I could feel the fluttery movements of his legs against my thighs. He was born breach. I pushed again and felt a pain at the top of my pelvic bone. I reached down with my hand, pushed down, and his head emerged, still in the bag of waters. “When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall. And down will come baby, cradle and all…”

The first night in the hospital, we had asked the doctor what the baby would look like if he came this early. She had said he would be a fully formed baby, but with very little fat, about the size of a can of Coke. She said that it would be up to us what we wanted to do afterwards – if we wanted to see him, if we wanted to hold him, etc. Andy and I decided we would not want to see him. It would just hurt too much. And I already knew everything I could know about my baby boy from the life he had lived within me.

Even so, when that moment came, as the doctor caught my baby and the nurse reached forward with a blanket to wrap him up – my eyes instinctively sought him out. Andy covered my eyes with his hand. And I broke. I sobbed. In that moment, I should have heard the wonderful cries of a newborn, but instead there was only the sound of mourning. My mom decided at the last moment to see him and followed the nurse from the room.  

The doctor looked over my legs to ask if I would want to have the baby baptized. I know this is an essential tenet of salvation in some faiths, but I am confident that God loves all of us, knows us intimately, even before we are born. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…” (Jeremiah 1:5a). So I said no because I knew that God was there in the delivery room, weeping with me, and catching my son.

Our second son, Brennan, was born at 12:08pm on Thursday, July 4, 2013. I’m not sure how long his
little heart continued to beat after he slipped from my body, but I know it probably wasn’t long. The doctors said that a baby at 21 weeks would not feel pain yet, and for that I am grateful. If there is at least one thing I could do for my son, it would be to bear the pain for both of us. And although the bruises from the blood draws are fading and the raw skin of the catheter bandage is healing and I’ve already packed away all the maternity clothes, I know the pain has only just begun.

I feel like a bit of a ghost. Sometimes I’m surprised by the woman in the mirror – her face is pale, her eyes are puffy and pink, her belly is still softly rounded, and her breasts are full of milk for a baby who died.

But this is grief. I knew it before in a professional way. I had experienced it in different, more appropriate ways in the passing of my grandparents. But this is horrible. No parent should lose a child. That is not the way life should go.

I’m going to stop here for the time being. Writing this is good for me, as much as it hurts. And, like I said, if it helps someone else, it will be for something.