A Psalmist’s Guide to Grief

A Psalmist’s Guide to Grief by Anne Weil

I’ve been procrastinating this step for months. I’d like to say something like, “I’ve been so busy with other things that I just couldn’t get this together until now,” but the truth is, I’ve been avoiding this part of the book publishing process. Like a good INFJ, I know that if I never put my book out into the world, I won’t be disappointed or hurt if it “fails.”

My definition of failure is all wrong, though. If I only want commercial success, I may indeed fail. If I want to fulfill my mission and share my story, then the only failure is to never publish. So…..

I am ready to write book proposals, and I would love some beta readers. If you’re interested in being a test subject, I need to hear from you. First, sign up for the e-mail list. You can do that here:

https://mabbat.blog/join-the-mabbat-mailing-list/

I’ll draw 5 subscriber names at random to send the beta copy to. Then, I need to hear from you again after you read the book. I’ll send a few questions to gather feedback, and you can add any additional comments that you think will strengthen the book.

When you subscribe to the mailing list, you’ll receive a free copy of a Colossians creative Bible study workbook. If you’ve already signed up, you’re already in the drawing. (You may also be wondering why you bothered to sign up since you haven’t been getting anything from me. I promise I have material scheduled to go out the rest of the month, so thanks for your patience!) You’ll also recieve two e-mails a week from me – one with creative Bible study material, and one with prompts to practice your art skills. Of course, you can unsubscribe at any time.

I’d really love your feedback and support. Thanks for walking with me through this journey so far!

April 1 – Baruch

If my first child had been born on his due date, he would be ten years old today.  He would have dark hair and light eyes – blue like Steven’s, or hazel like mine.  He would be ten – full of boyish charm and sweat and dirt and ten – almost a teenager, almost a middle schooler (my favorite awkward age to teach), almost…  What kind of big brother would he have been?  I’m sure he would have been tall like my husband, with the same magical, mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

It seems wrong not to acknowledge his loss today, but I am at a loss to appropriately mark his passing.  There was no body to bury, no headstone to lay flowers on, no record of his life at all except for in my medical history, as the first of many “recurrent spontaneous abortions.”  My body is the only place he lived.  And died.  Am I a walking graveyard?  Somedays it feels that way.

Today, my body is weary of marking the passage of these lost children; my soul dark and void and chaotic in the face of their memory.

I named him Baruch, Hebrew for “blessing,” because I intended to wrestle like Jacob until God blessed me in spite of this horrific loss.  I wrestled through loss after loss after loss, and I have been blessed, though in none of the ways I intended in the early days after Baruch’s death.

I wonder what God’s name for my child is.  I wonder what his name for me is.  Is it a name I’ve grown into, the way a tiny child saddled with an enormous name or a chain of forefathers will?  Is it a name earned by what I’ve endured?  A name reflective of the magnitude of grace and love that allowed me to endure?  Some days I’m ready to trade in my earth-name for my God-given heaven-name.  I long to know as I am known, to see God’s face, to see the faces I’ve lost.

But I still have work to do here – to love as I am loved, to know God and to make him known, to carry the memories of children I never met, to endure and thrive and encourage as many people as I can to run with me across the finish line.  That is how I will mark the passing of my Baruch.  My blessing.

Sideswiped

I wrote this in September, but I wasn’t ready to share it I guess.  Today feels appropriate on Pregnancy and Infant Loss Memorial Day:

Eleven years.  Our first pregnancy loss was 11 years ago last week.  On Labor Day weekend 2007 (You see the wretched coincidence, too, right?  Believe it or not, it only just occurred to me.), I checked into the hospital for surgery, my husband protecting me when I was too small to speak up for myself, a pastor friend praying with us before the procedure – like last rites for a tiny soul we won’t meet this side of eternity – and then me looking up at my doctor’s masked face and hoping that it was all as unreal as it felt.

Eleven years ago, I woke up from anesthesia and went home to recover from surgery, and eventually over the last eleven years, I’ve recovered emotionally and spiritually, too.  At least I think I have.  It’s hard to feel “recovered” when I feel like I do today.  I usually feel the weight of the magnitude of our ten loses on that first baby’s due date, which is April 1, so to feel the sudden heaviness of it now was an unwelcome surprise.  I can prepare for what I know I’ll feel each April.  I couldn’t be ready for this fresh hell.  I don’t know what else to label this depth of sadness and grief.

It felt important to write out and to share, even though it hurts, and even though I may short out my laptop if I cry on it any more.  I don’t really want to talk to anyone about this moment of pain, but I know I must express it, or it will fester and kill me slowly from the inside.  I’ve locked away the grief before, and that’s a miserable way to exist.  So I am letting it go.  I am letting myself feel the pain so that it can run its course and heal up again.  I am not letting myself wallow in it or letting it stop me from living; retreating for a day or two is fine, probably even healthy, but more than that and depression brain will take over.  I am at least in a place that’s healthy enough to recognize that what I’m feeling now will pass, and that I know living in a fleeting feeling for too long will put me in an unhealthy place.

I’ve been saying that we have dealt with the pain of loss and grief for ten years, but to realize that it’s now officially over a decade is… hard.  I’m a writer – I know there should be more words, better descriptors, something more than hard… But that’s all I’ve got.  Right this minute, it makes my brain go numb to think about.  It feels like every emotion associated with grief pops up at one time, so my brain shuts down.  That’s why it’s taken me almost a week to even mull it over long enough to write down the bones of this current pain.  Writing it out, now that I can, gives me a skeleton frame to flesh out as I purge the emotions.

I’m not naïve enough to think that I had finally conquered the grief, so it would just live in it’s little corner of my heart and never come out of its cage.  I know it can escape and jump into my consciousness at any moment.  I guess I just felt like I knew when to expect the regular intervals of escape attempts, so being sideswiped when I thought I had my crap together is… hard.  I honestly feel pretty broken.  What I don’t feel is defeated.  I know that feeling the hurt all over again isn’t a sign of weakness.  It doesn’t mean I’m losing ground.  It only means I’m human.

I’m a human who has experienced horrible loss and pain, just as many of you have.  It’s not more horrific than anyone else’s pain, but it is unique to my experience.  And my experience of learning how to heal the gaping wounds is what tells me I’m going to be fine in a few days.  It may hurt like hell, but I can use the tools I have assembled to cope with this fresh outbreak, and I can grow through it.  I can use this reminder that time won’t erase grief to feel deeper empathy for the people around me who are struggling through a new loss or mired in an old wound like me.

This moment is reminding me that my only hope is in Jesus.  He is very literally the only true hope I have that I will not only see my lost children in heaven, but that they are safe and loved and cared for in his arms.  The are whole and perfect and wonderful, and one day we will praise God together.  Their lives, however briefly they physically existed are important to God, and their story matters.

I can express all of this through the artistic skills God has given me, which turns this clump of words here into catharsis, healing, and a way to shine the little light I have on the path for anyone else who needs to find their way through grief and depression.  If that is you right now, reach out and grab a lamp; find a foothold, no matter how tiny, and climb up a little.  Ask God to send you more light, more air, and go seek it out.  Write out your pain to release it.  Draw whatever emotions are running under the surface so you can address them.  Bring them out into the light and tell them the truth: you are stronger than the pain because God is for you.PILM Graphic

On a Dime

I find myself unable to dwell in other people’s misery, even if it’s just a sad movie. Maybe I have had too much misery of my own, and now I am doing my best just to keep up with daily life. I find that I avoid any sad story that doesn’t directly touch my life. Friends are a different story; I celebrate and mourn and empathize with them. But I cannot make myself follow any of the sad/tragic FB pages, even if I am terribly interested in the outcome. I desperately want each and every one of those stories to have a happy ending, but I can’t invest any of my heart in them. I will pray over the situation when I see an update in a friend’s feed, but they haunt me if I linger too long.

A friend of ours lost a baby early in her pregnancy several months ago, and I cried for her like I cried for me. She was in the all too familiar position of having to rescind such good news and replace it with devastation. On a dime. Overnight. That’s how instantly her life changed, as did mine the second we heard the first bad news being delivered. At some point in our loss history, I think the bad news ceased to be life changing in the drastic, on a dime, kind of way. Loss became our story – just part of the landscape.

Now that Engelberta is here, the landscape has changed, though the possibility of a new and even more devastating type of loss hides around every corner, every “Pray for (Insert Name Here)” FB page. I’m sure every parent panics a little bit when they hear of a tragedy striking another child because it just might happen to them, too. I’m sure they respond in the usual “hug your kids a little tighter” manner and move on. I force myself to move on. I have to fight too many demons to invest serious thought or prayer in anyone I don’t know. Maybe this makes me a bad person for deliberately ignoring a need for prayer. But I just can’t handle the thought that my life could again turn on a dime.

There are stories all around me of babies who need organ transplants, babies who will die of terrible diseases, children who have been severely injured and face years of rehab. I know that these stories are statistically unlikely to happen to most children, including my own, but we’ve been statistically challenged up to this point. One story particularly haunts me. Not long ago, a little girl in our town died of heat stroke after being forgotten in the car. Her mother forgot to drop her off at daycare, and the little girl was sound asleep in her car seat when mom arrived at work. Everything about this story was familiar to me: the couple struggled through years of infertility before they finally had a beautiful baby girl. They had a family-owned business with all of the extra work and crazy hours that go with that responsibility, and one day the mom was particularly overloaded and skipped a single step in her routine.

Oh, God, how this story breaks my heart. I am this mom; I survive a lot of days on ritual autopilot, so a single skipped step will end in some sort of disaster later in the day. Fortunately, my skipped steps usually involve some sort of coffee brewing calamity or lack of deodorant or a cell phone launching from the hood of the car. But this family’s tragedy feels too close, too familiar, for me to let go. I can’t imagine how this mother feels. I can’t imagine the guilt and shame and horror she must combat every moment. Merely imagining her pain swallows me up, and I am consumed with thoughts of “What if this happened to me?” What if Engelberta died? Could I ever recover from that after everything else we’ve been through?

I know we’d survive somewhat intact, but that would be a labor of grace and faith. I keep telling God that there’s no way I could live with a hole that big in my heart. I keep turning a blind eye to the losses I don’t know personally, and I keep praying that my life is through turning on dimes for at least a little while. It hurts enough to know that someone I love is experiencing that kind of pain. That said, if you read this and need to talk, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me or to anyone else who will listen and love you. Never, ever feel that just because someone has dealt with a lot that they shouldn’t be burdened with your problems. Most of the time someone who has been to hell and back is more than willing to help someone else through. For me, most days, the only thing that keeps me from breaking down is knowing that sharing my story has helped others in some small way. It’s the only thing that gives reason to the otherwise incomprehensible mess of the last several years.

And Now Your Life Begins…

When you have a new baby, you will hear more than once, “And NOW your life REALLY begins.” This is one of the most ridiculous new baby sayings of all time. What was I doing before my daughter was born? What if I’d never had a baby? What about the rest of my life that isn’t all about the baby? Does nothing I’ve done or continue to do count unless it’s about the baby? This one is a close second: “Don’t you feel fulfilled now that you’re a mother?” Yes and no. You really don’t want me to answer that question honestly if you were the one who asked that in conversation because my answer will not be the simple “Oh, yes!” you were looking for.

My life is just continuing, and now I have an added responsibility and joy. I have a dream that was fulfilled, and it is everything I imagined it to be so far. I am not any more fulfilled as a person and follower of Christ than I was before. You may not believe me, but if you are struggling through infertility or miscarriage and think that your life will drastically improve and you will feel whole if you only had a child, it won’t and you won’t. If you haven’t dealt with all of the pain and loss you’ve been handed, it will not magically disappear when your child comes home. You will only add more work to your emotional to-do list, and you’ll probably feel guilty for still experiencing grief in spite of your bundle of joy – especially when it won’t stop crying for no apparent reason. Then you’ll feel like a bad mom on top of everything else, and the one thing that was supposed to fulfill you is creating more pain.

I’ve said more than once that I think the replacement baby mentality is a really bad idea, and I’m even more sure now that our baby is here. I look at her and love every curve of her face and every expression she makes, and I wonder at the same time what each of my angel babies look like. Each milestone she passes reminds me of what I missed every time we miscarried, and the grief is staggering if I peek over the abyss too long. Our daughter is a gift; her presence is a gift that has soothed the ache of longing to be a parent. She hasn’t erased anything that happened before her arrival, nor should we expect her to lest we force the weight of our losses onto her tiny shoulders. She is our miracle, but I already wonder how to explain that to her when she is old enough to understand without pressuring her to make up for nine angel babies.

I’ve done the work to be a whole person again, and in spite of that, the last month has been hard. Our first baby should have been five on April 1. The first few years, that day was really tough to handle. Each successive year was easier, and the distance of time allowed the open wound to scab over, to heal a bit more and sting a little less – until this year. Having our baby in my arms didn’t soften the blow; I think it may have made it more difficult. This year was incredibly painful, maybe because I’ve experienced a tiny bit of what we missed the last five years. Maybe more than anything else, the April Fool’s Day kick in the pants reminded me that my life is very definitely not just beginning, but my daughter’s is. She is brand new and baggage free, and it is my job to use my experience to teach her how to handle everything that life will throw at her, good and bad. So, my life will continue, her life has just begun, and I pray that we will both be fulfilled by being who God created us to be.

Period. End of Discussion.

This was the title of the post that was running around in my head last week. It was going to say that I hate the period after a miscarriage. As if the miscarriage wasn’t loss enough, you spend the month (actually, the rest of your life) after trying to cope and return to some sort of normalcy when you are hit with the ultimate normalcy of your next period. Maybe I’m weird (okay, there’s no maybe about that one…) or alone in this feeling, but the period after a loss can be harder to cope with than the moment of the loss itself; you can autopilot through a few weeks or even a month, and you can imagine that there was some sort or mistake in the lab work – or that it was all a nightmare that you’ll wake up from – until you start your period. (Squeamish folks/guys, skip to the next paragraph now.) Nothing feels more final or fatal than blood when you lose a pregnancy – it’s a constant, graphic reminder of your baby’s death. The return of a normal cycle just nails the coffin shut on your dead dream with the same bloody fatalism.

Here’s the rest of the story this month. Generally, I am only moody when I’m extremely stressed or my hormones are running amok, and my expression of moodiness is either to be angry at everything for no apparent reason or to cry at everything, also for no apparent reason. This was how I felt Monday last week, along with all of the general aches and pains associated with periods, so I consulted the calendar and discovered that I should be starting at any point. By Thursday, I was beyond cranky, so I decided to psych myself out with a pregnancy test – I could take it, see that it was negative and my imagination was running wild, and then feel free to start my period. God clearly has a sense of humor. That was the fastest changing, darkest line we’ve probably ever had on a home pregnancy test. I had just been waiting for my period to start so I could start taking the pill again so we could do the second opinion appointment so we could have a better idea of what steps to take next so we could… apparently watch God laugh at our attempts to plan.

I really considered not telling anyone, including my husband, until sometime next week. If it didn’t work out, I would only be a week late starting, which would probably not be all that unusual after an IVF cycle. As the opening paragraph indicated, I was already set to be a grump anyway, so who would notice if I was more of a grump? If it did work out, then I’d be far enough along to confidently yell “Surprise! We’re pregnant!” at random. You may be wondering why I considered not sharing this at all since I’ve been pretty open about everything we’ve dealt with. Honestly, I felt a little embarrassed. We spent the last two months dealing with IVF and another pregnancy loss – how could we have let yet another pregnancy happen? How could I possibly tell anyone without feeling like an idiot? I even hesitated to go to the doctor’s office on Friday. The staff would surely think we were nuts, and it’s hard to date a pregnancy that happens the cycle after a miscarriage, so… There were a million little nagging thoughts like that.

Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The nurse gave me several huge hugs, and the lab tech drew a souvenir pig on the test (I told her about inheriting my grandmother’s pig collection since they had pig stress balls to squeeze for blood draws last month…) which the nurse brought out and gave to me. My friends have been just as surprised as we were, but they have been amazing and supportive – as if I should expect anything less! You guys are awesome! My mom may win the best response award this time. She decided that we are having twins – one for me, and one for her. When I said Steven may not like that idea, she amended her decision to triplets – one for me, one for him, and one for her. I think there was a “Friends” episode like that: “There are three of them – surely they won’t miss one…”

The blood work Friday looked really good. The progesterone level was good, and the hcg level was 263, which might be the highest first test we’ve had. I know it’s the highest first level we’ve had in the last few years. If all is well, by Tuesday’s re-check, the hcg level should be at least over 600, and maybe even close to 1000. I’m hoping for 1000 tomorrow because that would be the best-possible-case scenario. It looks like we are right at five weeks, and this is where we always run into trouble. Right now, everything looks great, and I am hopeful that I have faced my last post-miscarriage period. Right now, I have no idea what God’s plan is, but I have no doubt he’s in control of every circumstance, regardless of the outcome. Period. End of discussion.

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To Tell or Not to Tell

Some of you may think we’re crazy to tell people as soon as we know we’re pregnant, and maybe you’re right.  Most couples wait until they have solid news to report: a heartbeat, the completion of a successful first trimester, and ultrasound picture…  We don’t wait because we never know if we’ll have anything other than a positive pregnancy test to report, and we don’t want to wait for you to start praying.  Less than 1% of the population experiences recurrent miscarriages (three or more), and we are the 1%. (Insert Occupy joke of your choice here…)

The average couple doesn’t have to face the thought that they probably won’t have a successful outcome, even if they’ve experienced a miscarriage.  We do – every time.  Given that we want the troops out in force praying for us, we always talk about it but come to the same conclusion to tell immediately.  Plus, we’re very bad at keeping secrets about ourselves, so if someone asked about my switch to half-caf or decaf, I wouldn’t think before responding that pregnant people shouldn’t have too much caffeine.  I probably risk sharing too much most of the time, but I’d rather over-share than find myself in the miserable place of a few years ago where I was too afraid to talk to anyone.

Besides the prayer support, I would rather people know that we have loved and lost than wonder why I’m being such a crank.  Not telling people about the pregnancy and possibly the subsequent miscarriage would feel a lot like losing a close family member and never telling anyone that they even existed.  I prefer having the emotional support and understanding when I feel like I’m losing my mind during the grieving process than leaving a wake of emotional outbursts behind for people to wonder about.  At least now if I burst out crying at a Lego commercial (it’s happened) you can chalk it up to grief rather than mental defect (I have plenty of those, too…).

The down side of telling everyone immediately is dealing with the aftermath if things don’t work out.  News travels pretty fast, but in our situation there are people who will find out about the pregnancy a month after we’ve already lost it.  It’s awkward to tell someone who’s congratulating you that there’s nothing left to congratulate.  I also tend to feel ridiculous for telling everyone we’re expecting only to tell them a week later that it’s over.  There’s no reason for me to be embarrassed about it, but that’s always my first reaction.  I always think that people will think we’re silly for sharing so soon.  That feeling evaporates almost as quickly as it appears because of the wonderful support and encouragement we get from our family and friends.

For us, telling before we have solid proof of a viable pregnancy is the best option, but it may not be for everyone.  If you find yourself in a similar situation, you’ll have to decide what you’ll be comfortable with.  I find it easier to share now than I did a few years ago, and the openness has helped me tremendously.  But there are plenty of folks who just aren’t comfortable with sharing personal details, and that’s perfectly fine.  Just make sure that you have a small network of friends you can trust and who will support you.  Do not attempt to deal with the grief alone; even superheroes need help on occasion – you are no exception.