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.

***

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

Everything will be lost. Eyes on Christ.

Maybe I’m just feeling dire, but I’m impatient with people asking how God could let this happen to our beloved Notre Dame, with people asking “What does it mean?” We know what it means. It means the same thing it means when anything dies: That this will happen to the whole world someday. Every relic, every painting, every window, every stone, every body, everything we love. Jesus Christ was immolated. Why should His Father spare a building?

Don’t learn the lesson that, through our will and our strength, we will rise again from this fire. Learn the lesson that death comes for everyone and only Jesus saves.

I wrote those words yesterday, while Notre Dame was still in flames. Today it seems that more than we thought can be saved. Some of the windows are gone, the roof was staved in by the tumbling spire, but the main structure and towers are almost miraculously intact. The Crown of Thorns and other relics were saved; the Blessed Sacrament was saved. No lives were lost.

But even as our panic and horror is quieted with a measure of relief, the loss leaves a mark. It’s normal and human to suffer under the blows of loss. Holy Week is the right time to let ourselves feel that loss without shying away from it, without comforting ourselves too much with reassurances that we can rebuild and repair — not only because 21st century artisans can’t hope to match the brilliance of the past, but because all things will pass. Every rebuilding is temporary. Every loss is practice for the inevitable loss we were born to face. It is good to face it, to feel it, to know what it is. To remember why it happens, and to remember what the remedy is. 

It’s not ironic or especially dreadful that such a thing should happen during Holy Week. On the contrary, it’s the best possible time for such a thing to happen, if it must happen (and it must). This is the week when the universe lost the best thing she ever had. If you will not look loss in the face now, then when?

Here is an essay I wrote just over two years ago. It focuses not on gargantuan, iconic cathedrals full of treasures and relics, but on little things — baby shoes, toddler art. The details are different, but it’s the same story. Loss writ small is loss all the same; and the answer to every loss is also the same. 

***

There was a pile of papers on the kitchen island, and I finally sorted through them.  Along with paid bills, cancelled checks, and warranties for products long since broken and thrown out,  there were reams and reams (yes, I realize a ream is 500 pages.  That’s what I meant) of drawings of birds, ballerinas, flowers, and clouds stuck together with stubby little rainbows.  I smiled at each one, and then, feeling like Satan incarnate, threw them away.

Sometimes when I sort, I save a few representative samples; sometimes I am ruthless. But of course saving everything is not an option.  Even if I had the space to somehow neatly and un-hoardishly preserve all the hilarious and charming pictures my kids draw, when would I have the time to enjoy them?  I have some fantasies about old age, but even the most unrealistically golden ones don’t include spending years of my life looking at thousands of pictures of rainbows rendered in blue pen.

And yet it cuts so deep to throw them away.  Same for sorting through baby clothes.  It’s not that the little purple onesie is so precious and unique in itself; and it’s not as if I actually want my child never to grow out of size 3-6 months.  It’s just the act of leaving things behind that hurts.  I get better at making it happen, but I don’t get better at not letting it hurt.

People are always saying, “Store it in the cloud!” Give it to the cloud rather than cluttering up my poor overworked hard drive:  my pictures, my music, all the words words words that I churn out.  It’s only the price of ink and the shoddiness of my printer that keeps me from printing out everything — every cute kid story that goes on Facebook, every draft of every half-baked idea that never makes it all the way home, every well-turned phrase of love or encouragement I send to my husband at work.  I want to save it all, and never let it go.

It’s not that I hope for fame that outlives me:  “look on my works, ye mighty, and despair” and so on.   It’s just that I want it all to last — somewhere, somewhere, all the things I love and have poured my life into.

It’s a terrible anxiety, the fear of losing things that are precious — terrible because it hurts so much, and terrible because of what it means about me and my disordered loves. When the fear of loss is bad, it drains the joy out of my treasures even as I’m holding them.  My little baby smiles at me with such a direct, melting simplicity:  two perfect teeth, tiny and fresh like little bits of shell, her mouth pops open, and she lunges like a jack-n-the-box, so unthinkingly in love with the world that she wants to eat it all.  On a bad day, her happiness gives me pain, because all I can think of is how it passes, how she passes, how I am passing away.

I feel better temporarily, less existentially bereft, if I take a video, to capture the tricks and charms which are uniquely, adorably hers, which will never be repeated by any other baby, which must be remembered, must be saved — mustn’t they?  But saved for how long?  Technology is outmoded.  Today’s cutting edge video capture will be tomorrow’s wax cylinders.  Today’s acid-free photo paper will last only in the same way as “worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.”

So much has been lost, irretrievably. Does it matter? My kids want to know what their first words were. I remember a few. Some I wrote down, but lost the book. Moved away, left it behind to be discarded by some overworked landlord or U-Haul maintenance man. Does it matter? I still love them now; I listen to what they are saying now. Does that mean that what I’ve lost doesn’t matter?

Remember how poor Ivan Karamazov saw all the pain in the world — the brutality against children, most of all, was what he could not abide.  He did not want to be able to abide it.  He understood that, in the light of the Resurrection, all would be made new — that Christ would return and reconcile all things to Himself, and the pain of innocents would be subsumed into a peace and justice that passeth understanding.

Ivan did not want this to happen.  He could not bear for it to happen.  He did not want outrageous injustices to be all right:  He wanted them not to happen in the first place. This is how I feel.  I don’t want it to be okay that they are lost.

Still, I know that if I try to save, save, save, then in most cases, what I’m really doing is burying them.  I’m not doing anything useful, not respecting their value by agonizing over preservation, any more than the workers in that final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark were doing a good deed by packing away that precious crate among tens of thousands of nameless, dusty crates in a warehouse that stretches on for dreary, nameless acres.

So I try.  I do a little saving, just enough to make me feel human, and then I inwardly send the rest up “into the cloud,” hand it over to Jesus, who has infinite capacity to keep every drooly smile, every first word — if that’s what He wants to do. 

I don’t really, in my heart, want Heaven to be a retirement village where all the saints have endless hours to pour over memories of the good old days back on earth!  So I uproot and uproot these things from my heart, and I tell myself I’m cultivating virtue. 

But this disease of affection, this pathology that makes me love the world, and ache as I love — what is it?  And am I sure I want to be healed of it?

That’s the problem, right there. Lose it all or save it all: either way, it’s wasted. Either way, it’s lost. That’s what we mean by the Fall: loss. Everywhere. Everything. Our very mode of being is defined by loss.

Well, it’s Lent. And I am not Ivan, because I have tasted God’s love. I am not a government flunky, senselessly sealing up treasures, because I’m the one giving orders here. I’m not a dragon sitting on my stinking hoard, flying out in a jealous frenzy when some trinket goes missing.

I am fallen, but I have been saved, am being saved, and I will be saved. Nothing is lost, not even me. But now is the time to look loss in the face. What will come back to me? That is in Jesus’ hands — Jesus who was, himself, lost, and who himself “knew the way out of the grave.”

Eyes on Christ. Weep if you will, but eyes on Christ. I must not look to save. I must look to be saved. 

***

Image of Notre Dame by Edgardo W. Olivera via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Say it again

She was once brilliant (quantum-physics-as-a-hobby brilliant) and startlingly witty, with no time for nonsense. But now she has Alzheimer’s, and all she has is time and nonsense. Now she says things like, “I can use that for a sunapat. Sunapat with a T. I don’t know, I’m falling out of a tree.” Her nonsense often has a desperate, frustrated air, as if she knows people don’t understand her and she needs to try even harder to get her message across.

But I did hear her, when she could speak. I did hear her, when I did not even realize I was listening.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Photo via MaxPixel (public domain)

Something to report of love

It’s the end of vacation, when all the things we meant to do over the summer cascade into guilt and regret. “Tree house” and “ocean” and “art museum” come off the list; “haircut” and “school shopping” go on. We should have done more! When I was little, I remember doing more.

On the radio, I heard the end of an essay by a man trying to connect with his elderly father, a father who had been harsh and distant for decades. I gathered that the one happy childhood memory the narrator had was of their annual, extravagant beach house vacation. The kids would run and play and whoop it up, while the dad would glower and retreat to the couch to watch TV. Still, he made it happen year after year.

Now, forty years later, the man finally asked his father if he had fun on those vacations — and if not, if he hated them as much as he seemed to, why did he make such a point of taking them every year?

It turns out that the old man, now almost eighty years old, was still smarting from the sting of his childhood, from the first day of school, when the teacher would assign that dreaded essay, “What I Did On My Summer Vacation.” The only true answer would have been: “We gathered peaches to pay the landlord” or “We shot rats in the turnip field so we wouldn’t starve come winter.”

So he and his brothers would make up something to write about, something that would prove that they had been having fun like the rest of the world. He resolved that his own kids wouldn’t have to resort to fantasy. They’d do something real on summer vacation, something wonderful. Something to report.

When my kids were all little, I used to accuse myself of not so much striving to make a happy childhood for them, as striving to create evidence that they had had a happy childhood. A baby book full of carefully edited anecdotes and cute dialogue; a photo album of high points and rare good days. Maybe, day to day, they had to cower away from me and my mood swings, and maybe they longed for me to just sit down, relax, and play with them, rather than frantically crafting towers of glorious expectations, and then collapsing in tears when it all caved in under the weight of real life. Maybe so. In the words of an old guide to confession: I am unable to judge the severity of my actions.

Either way, I had some hard evidence. I could point to the salt clay figurines, the stretchy loop potholders, the quirky animal sewing cards I had made just for them, using the back of a Crispix box and my own lifeblood, and I could say, “The proof is here. Only a loving mother would have done this. Remember how I let you make muffins with me, even though you drive me crazy? Let’s laminate this photo of you petting a goat at age 2, and let’s not laminate the memory of me crying over how much money we spent to get in. You liked that goat, you liked it very much. But you won’t remember, so I need to nail it down now, to present to the judge, I mean put in your baby book. And look, you were wearing a dress that I sewed myself.

Behold, the gulf between love and intentions. Oh, the longing to love, the longing to be loved, the longing to have been loved. Oh, the clumsy swipes we take at that shining, shifting goal of happiness.

We are all, maybe, hoping to pacify the demands of the past, striving to bridge the gulf, to reach back over all those summers and tell our own selves as children, “Yes, you were happy. Here’s the proof.” We’re telling that long-dead teacher, now moldering in the grave, “You wanted an essay? You wanted to know what I did? Here’s my child, and he had fun on his summer vacation. Here’s the evidence you demanded; it’s all there.”

Here are the things I remember about my childhood, along with the vacations and the treats, the parades and the birthday parties — and also along with the mood swings and strife, the tensions and shouting, tipped-over tables slammed doors. Here are the things I remember, from summer and from winter, from the long, empty, formless days of vacation and the long, empty, formless days inside the lonely, needy heart of a child looking for some definitive proof of love:

I remember my mother putting down her book (more precious than rubies) and looking me straight in the eye when I called her name. My father pausing for a minute before he answered me, staying silent a little too long, muscling past his first impulse to criticize or refute. My big sisters praising me for so skillfully walking down the stairs with only one foot on each step, instead of two, like babies do. I remember being on rented skates and being swooped up from behind, a rescue just as the floor loomed up to pound in my face. I remember someone holding a pajama zipper away from my belly, protecting my skin as they zipped it up. I remember being protected.

There’s the evidence, and I’m writing it down now. It is the end of summer. We have something to report.

***
A version of this essay originally ran under a different title at Aleteia in 2016.
Image: David Prasad via Flickr (Licensed)

 

 

For the Child Crying

Help me, I beg the Father, to take up the task of Advent. The memories that awaken are silent Anna, raging Pat, chirping Mikey, his poor hand on the rail, begging his father, “No, Daddy, no!”

Read the rest at the Register.