Not lost forever: On miscarriage, grief, and hope

In the movie Gladiator (2000), the victorious but homesick general Maximus carries with him tiny, crude statues of his beloved wife and son. They are a reminder of home, but he also prays to them and for them, tenderly cradling the figures in his hand as he endures the pain of separation.

The figures become even more precious to him when he discovers that his wife and son are dead — tortured and murdered as political revenge.

Some Romans believed that the spirits of the dead were literally embodied in the figures, making them so much more than keepsakes. After he dies, his friend buries the statuettes in the sand of the Colosseum. We see brief, otherworldly scenes of Maximus returning home, of the three of them rushing together again.

I thought of those little figures as I read ‘The Japanese Art of Grieving a Miscarriage’ in the New York Times. The author, Angela Elson, says:

According to Buddhist belief, a baby who is never born can’t go to heaven, having never had the opportunity to accumulate good karma. But Jizo, a sort of patron saint of foetal demise, can smuggle these half-baked souls to paradise in his pockets. He also delivers the toys and snacks we saw being left at his feet on Mount Koya. Jizo is the UPS guy of the afterlife.

Elson bought a Japanese Jizo figurine for herself when she had a miscarriage. She says:

A miscarriage at 10 weeks produces no body, so there would be no funeral. “What do we even do?” I asked the doctor. She wrote me a prescription for Percocet: “Go home and sleep.”

We went home. I didn’t sleep. I spent a week throwing myself around the house … I was itchy with sadness. I picked at my cuticles and tore out my hair. I had all this sorrow and no one to give it to, and Brady couldn’t take it off me because his hands were already full of his own mourning. We knew miscarriage was common. But why wasn’t there anything people did when it happened?

So they bought a Jizo. She carried him around for awhile, kissed him, spent time crocheting a hat and jacket for the figurine. “It was nice for us to have something to do, a project to finish in lieu of the baby I failed to complete,” she says.

Oh, Lord, how I understand.

When I lost our own very young baby a few years ago around this season, it was so terribly hard to have nothing to do. No birth, no ceremony, no body to wash, anoint, and clothe, no grave to dig. We could pray and cry and rest, but it was so hard. We want to have our hands on something. We want to know for sure that the world acknowledges: Yes, the child was here. Yes, the child was real.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my dear friend Kate had felted a beautiful little dog for me. Just a few weeks before the miscarriage, our puppy Shane got overexcited by the snow falling, and he went and ran in the road, and he was crushed by a speeding car that didn’t even slow down. My husband and son retrieved the dying dog and brought him to the vet, where they gently put him down, then burned his body and sealed the ashes in a carved box.

The felted dog that Kate made is perfect, a brilliant, lively bit of work. But before she could send it to me in remembrance, my baby died, too – and she knew how terrible it would be to acknowledge the loss of a pet, but not the loss of a child. And so Kate’s daughter made a felt baby for me, sweetly embroidered and cuddled in a little hand-sewn pouch. They sent them both along, the puppy and the baby, with sympathies and assurances of prayers.

It was so good to have. So good. Even when looking at it made me cry, it was so much better than the pain of looking for my lost baby and finding nothing.

After a year or so, I thought we might use my little felt baby as a Baby Jesus in our nativity scene. I took it out, but then hastily put the little one back again. It was still too raw; and besides, this baby wasn’t Jesus. This baby was someone else, with a name and a human soul, a mother and a father and siblings. Hell, for six weeks, the baby was even sort of the owner of a foolish puppy named Shane.

My little felt baby wasn’t just any generic baby figure, but a specific baby, my baby. So back into the pouch the little one went. Back to the work of simply quietly existing, eyes closed, so that I wasn’t empty-handed. This baby does this job very well.

I forget it is there, most times. I keep it on the windowsill in the kitchen, where it gathers dust along with other little keepsakes, statues, and trinkets people have given me. But I went to check in on it one day, and couldn’t find it, and the panic almost knocked me off my feet. (I had moved it to the other side of the windowsill last time I cleaned. Oops!)

Does it really matter what happens to my felt baby? Not really. Certainly not spiritually, eternally speaking. We are not ancient Romans, superstitiously locating dead spirits in wooden figurines; and we are not Buddhists, clinging to a heartbreakingly vague hope of our children sneaking into blissed-out extinction.

As Catholics, we know that all the bodies of the dead will be resurrected and transformed when Jesus comes back. We have reason to hope that even those little, innocent ones who never had eyes to see the light of day or the waters of baptism will be welcomed into heaven as well, not smuggled in the pockets of a low-ranking god, but recognized and called by name back home by their Father who made them.

Still, we are human. It is not wrong to look for physical reminders of abstract truths. Doctors and nurses, be gentle with women who have lost a child, even one too small to bury. Husbands, be patient, even if you don’t understand the depth of grief. Priests, take the time to acknowledge what happened, and do not be cavalier when answering spiritual questions or inquiries. Friends of a grieving mother, make it clear that you know the child she lost was a real child, irreplaceable, unlike any other.

Even as Catholics, we are one and the same with the fictional Maximus, because it gives us strength and hope to be able to touch and hold something connected to our dead. God made us with five senses, with hearts that reach out and seek comfort from earthly things, because these senses and these hearts can help remind us of what is true: That our lost children aren’t truly lost. They were really here, and they haven’t vanished forever. God willing, we will see them again.

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Rebecca Jemison makes polymer clay baby loss memorials for free or donation. You can contact her at facebook.com/beccajemisoncreates.

This article was originally published in The Catholic Weekly in January of 2017
 
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

You are not dead. You are waiting.

One winter vacation when I was in college, I went with my mother to a charismatic healing Mass. You could say that I had been “struggling” with depression, but that’s not really the word. I lived there.  I was being swallowed whole by it, day after day, and I could not get out. Wherever people led me, I would go, whether they liked or loved me, hated me, or just found me useful. So I went with her to ask for healing, not with hope, but just because it couldn’t hurt.

The service was emotional—tacky, to be honest— and while the priest was fervid, the scattered congregation sounded sheepish and forced as they softly hooted and called “Amen!” into the chilly air of the church.

We lined up and the priest recited some words of healing—I forget them utterly—over each of us.  Then he gave every forehead a firm shove, to put us off balance in case the Holy Spirit wanted to overcome anyone.  A few people crumpled and passed out, snow melting quietly off their boots onto the tiled floor.  Most of us just staggered a bit under the pressure, recovered, stepped around the fallen, and went back to our seats.

Well, I thought, another dead encounter with dead people in a dead world.  I slid into my pew.  Nothing had changed because nothing could change.  I was dead, and everyone else was allowed to be alive.  Why?  Who knows?  Someone had been sent for help, but help would not come.  Help was not for me.

And then I heard these words in my head, “You made Me wait.  Now you can wait for a while.”  They were not my words.  The tone was warm, a little sad, with a small vein of humor.  I think I was being teased, chided for taking so long to send for help.  You like games, talitha?  All right, I will play.  Now, wait.

Then I went home. Nothing happened, that I could see.

Years later, I thought of that day as I read Tomie dePaola’s The Miracles of Jesus with my four-year-old daughter.  She listened attentively, but I could see that most of the wonders didn’t impress her much.  In these short narratives, some kind of grown-up problem is introduced—and then poof, God solves it, The End.

I think she saw Jesus acting more or less like all adults act:  making good things appear arbitrarily, making sick people feel better, occasionally being cranky and strange, and wishing people would say “thank you” more often.  It was cool, but it didn’t mean much to her. They were miracles, not the kind of thing that happen in real life.

Jairus’ daughter, however, really got her attention—probably because it was about a child, and also because it was a full story, with suspense, despair, and a happy ending, plus the hint of a full life to come.

Jesus hears the news that the girl was sick, but He isn’t teleported to her bed. He walks, one foot in front of the other, on His way to her.  And when He gets there, it’s too late. Her family is weeping; the girl, the poor little thing who wanted to be healed, is already dead.

My daughter got very quiet at this point.  We read on:

“But Jesus said, ‘Do not weep.  She is not dead.  She is asleep.’
And the people only laughed at him, knowing that she was dead.

She looked at me with big eyes.  They laughed at Jesus!

Jesus took her by the hand and said, ‘Child, arise.’
And her spirit returned and she got up at once.  Then Jesus told them to give her something to eat.”

At this point, my daughter hurled herself at me and gave me a big, squeezing hug. She got that part!  She knows about being sad, needing help, waiting far too long, being rescued, and then having something to eat, because all these ups and downs make you hungry.  And then life goes on, once you have been saved.  Here was a miracle she could appreciate—the kind that’s part of a story.

I got it, too, because I knew that story. I had been that girl. And I had heard that voice. It was a long time, and a lot of steps, before my slow rescue from the dead came up to the speed where it was recognizably healing, recognizably a wonder. But I never forgot the words I heard, telling me that help was on the way. That I wasn’t really dead; I was waiting.

If you have ever lived inside a black hole; if you have moved about the world enclosed in a dome of sound proof glass, with no voices but your own voice, which you hate above all other sounds in the world; if you have felt so bad for so long that you don’t even want life to get better, you just want it to be over—then you will understand that it was very, very good to hear this voice that simply said, “You are not dead. You are only sleeping. And I am on my way.”

I was not merely sitting in that cold pew, it told me. I was sitting and waiting.  Someone was with me; or at least, someone was on the way.  I was happy to wait.  I was happy!  This was new.

That was how I began to be healed, more than twenty years ago.  It was a long road of waiting, after I began to be healed.  It is a long road.  I’ve been in therapy for over three years, and now I’ve started spiritual direction. I don’t know what is next. The road keeps getting longer, to be honest, and every time I think I am finally healed, I see that I am not, not yet. But I can see Christ better and better as He approaches, step by step. My healing started when I asked Him, without hope, for healing.

That is what our breath is for: To call out for help. As long as we still have breath in us, we are not dead, we are only sleeping.  We are not alone; we are waiting for Christ to arrive.

Can you wait a little longer? You are not dead. You are waiting.

 

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Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Related reading: I thought good Catholics didn’t need therapy. Then I went.

Mindfulness, meet my bumper

Don’t shoot those helicopters down

Ten things about therapy

Passing through the moor

When you are sad, cry.

Don’t you realize comedy is a matter of life and death?

Faith, reason, depression, and help

A version of this essay originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2011.

 

 

 

Wounded by silence

Testimony from a friend:

“I was kidnapped, violently tortured, escaped, went to the hospital and the authorities found my perpetrator and prosecuted him. He was arrested and is still serving a life sentence in prison.

Why? Because I had physical bruises, because people could identify the crime. It’s sad but true.

So many other victims of rape and abuses that were silenced will tell me, ‘Your story is awful,’ but I tell them, no, the story of those victims who suffered in silence is far worse.”

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

The irresistible leper

If He was capable of healing with a touch, surely He could have performed some other kind of miracle that would have changed everyone’s mind about Mosaic Law, or He could have made the man incapable of spilling the secret, or He could have done a thousand other things to get out of the bind the man made for him when he spilled the beans. The way He chose to do it is impractical and confusing, and it doesn’t make sense to me.

So why did he do what he did?

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.
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Image: Detail of Byzantine mosaic (Public Domain)

I thought Good Catholics didn’t need therapy. Then I went.

Sometimes, I have to take my therapist’s words with a grain of salt or filter them through a Catholic lens. More often, I discover that my lifelong spiritual failings are actually emotional wounds. And as they heal, it becomes easier to follow Christ.

Read the rest of my essay for America magazine.