Saturday, October 22, 2005

Not the Most Popular Subject

I spent one day this week at a small seminar. I say it was small because the host staff outnumbered the paying students two to one! Just a half dozen of us paid to take part. Perhaps it was because it was a relatively small town, but I think it likely had more to do with the subject matter. The seminar dealt with the death of children. Nobody wants to even think about that possibility.

It's not natural for parents to bury their children. Even a 90 year-old mother shouldn't still be around for her sons' funerals. It's somehow wrong. Yet it happens every day. How does one survive such a loss? How can I comfort someone who is going through the grief of losing a child?

At the seminar were five people who had gone through the heartache of burying a child. Two were a husband and wife whose 16 year old daughter had been killed in a car accident just over a year ago. She was swerving the car back and forth to please her 10 year old sister. It was just the way their Daddy had done on occasion for a little fun with the girls. Only Daddy didn't lose control. Little sister survived and ran for help, but it was too late to save Jessica. The mourning was intense for the family, as you might imagine. In fact, it affected the parents so completely that their church asked them to leave the fellowship because they didn't know how to deal with them!

One woman had lost a 10 year old son back in 1999. He was a youth motocross rider. Pretty good too. He was also a gregarious, fun boy. The woman and her husband loved motorcycles and took the boy and his older brother on the regional motocross circuit. It was a way of life for the family. Then one day at home while practicing, the boy crashed and died a short time later. The boy's memory has been honored in many ways -- two baseball fields are named after him, a sports Mental Attitude Award, and an annual motocross race. But Mom and Dad still have an empty spot in their hearts and in their lives.

Another woman lost an infant girl to a brain tumor about 18 years ago. Being her first child, she had to deal with the question, "Am I still a mother?" Even after that many years, it was evident that the grieving process was ongoing.

Those four people made up a parent's panel to share their experiences and expertise with those attending the seminar in order to teach us students how to help folks in this situation. I realize that I mentioned earlier that there were five people there who had buried a child. The fifth was me.

It was odd, since I took the seminar to gain insights as a caregiver, to sit and relive the events of more than 15 years ago in my own life. I was there as a paid learner, but I felt like I was sitting up front with the parents' panel. I have struggled with the same feelings. I have had to figure out how to answer the question, "How many kids do you have?" without forcing the questioner to hear the whole sad story. I too, sat and wondered what would have happened if my wife and I had done things differently.

My first son was born back in 1991. It had been a very troubled pregnancy. My wife woke up one night in her 16th week with a wet bed. Although the first doctor assured her that her water hadn't broken, a month later a specialist confirmed that indeed that was the case. For some reason known only to the Almighty, my wife did not go into labor immediately afterward as 99+ percent of women do. Instead she was put on bedrest for the remainder of the pregnancy. Many of the next weeks were spent in a hospital bed. Other weeks were spent in a recliner, hoping that the bag of waters would repair itself. If it didn't, the baby's lungs would not develop enough to breathe with or without a ventilator. It didn't.

When my son was finally born in my wife's 32nd week, he was swept off to the Newborn Intensive Care Unit. The first few hours went well and we started to get our hopes up. Then late in the afternoon, the NICU called us to prepare us for what was to come. His oxygen levels were going down. It didn't look good.

We spent a lot of time holding him. Tubes and wires were wrapped up in the baby's blankets. Monitors were beeping assorted warnings. The jet ventilator kept making a horrible racket. Finally, just before one in the morning, the end came as I was holding him.

The four on the parents' panel did a good job of expressing many of the feelings I went through, but some of it just cannot be explained. There is no way to verbalize the grief, the guilt and the overwhelming loss my wife and I felt. Even though our situations produced similar emotions, each case was somehow different. The parents of the 16 year old have a clothing ministry dedicated to the memory of their daughter. The mother of the 10 year old motocross rider has a shelf of trophies, pictures and assorted memorablia from her son. Even the mother of the infant girl has certain treasures from her daughter's fight with that tumor.

My wife and I have a picture. One picture. It hangs on the wall to my right as I sit here typing. It's not a cheerful picture for most people. There is white tape across his face, holding the ventilator tube in place. Monitor patches are on his chest and side. One of his legs is pointed in an awkward position. It had been stuck that way inside my wife's body since there was no womb full of fluid to float around in. I have a copy of that picture for my wallet, although very few people have ever wanted to see it. It's scary. Not scary-looking, but it's a reminder that life is so very fragile, and even a normal process like pregnancy and birth is not guaranteed to be trouble-free.

Sometimes I am grateful that I have little to remind me of my son. I don't have to wince every time another of my kids gets on a motorcycle like the one woman from the panel does. I don't have to watch my child's friends grow up without him. But at the same time, I have so little of him to remember. Such a tiny baby with such a tiny lifespan. No shelf full of mementos. No other people to tell me stories about what my child was like with other people. A blessing and a curse all at the same time.

The death of a child is something none of us wants to ever face. Yesterday I visited a first time mother in the hospital. Her baby had become sick before she was even one day old. They rushed the baby to the NICU, not knowing what was wrong. As I entered the mother's hospital room, the doctor was there saying that everything looked good for now. Mom seemed calm while I stayed and visited, but I know she spent much of the rest of the day worried and in tears. The thought of a possible loss like that is overwhelming.

I encourage you, if you know of someone who has lost a child, don't shy away from talking to that person. Don't be afraid to ask about the child. Use the child's name. It's music to a parent's ears to hear someone else speak the name of their dead child. We don't want that life to be forgotten. I know it can be uncomfortable, and you probably don't know what to say. Sometimes words aren't even necessary. Remember Job's friends? They sat with a grieving Job for a week without speaking a word. Their compassion was shown in their presence. It wasn't until they opened their mouths that they promptly inserted their feet inside!

There are many of us. And we all continue to grieve in one form or another. We don't "get over it" in a year. That's a stupid and harmful myth. One of my favorite memories of my Dad's dad is from the day after my son died. This tough old bird stood there with tears streaming down his face telling me about the 5 month old daughter he had lost some 50 years earlier. The empty spot doesn't fade away quickly. But God does fill it up with His mercy and His grace. We don't always get a good answer to the "WHY?" question, but in His love we learn to trust Him to make good out of the unthinkable.

God was very merciful to my wife and I. We prayed that we still wanted a baby. Two days short of 10 months later we had another son -- not to replace the first, but it did cushion the pain a bit. But more than fifteen years after the fact there is still a feeling of loss and grief. I've seen how God has used that horrible experience to mold both my wife and myself into Christ's image. We have been used to help other parents through their own grief. But it still doesn't make sense. And I cannot wait to see my son again when my own time here is over.


Mel said...

Thank you for this post. Just Sunday, I spent time talking to a mom in the nursery--she held her 5 month old baby girl and we talked about her 5-year old son that died last April. My heart goes out to people who've lost children.

Melanie said...

I just came her from a link you had in today's post.

We have had miscarriages - children we never even got to hold or take a picture of. I have a son I placed for adoption that I never got to hold - and it never occurred to me to get a picture of him. These are all children I carry around in my heart.

I agree with everything you wrote here. Miscarriages are so difficult for people to know what to say. But I tell you - when they stick their head in the sand and don't even try to do or say anything, the pain is amplified. That is what we experienced the first miscarriage. That is what I experienced with my adoption. My second miscarriage, it took just the "right" person to find out - and we were showered with food and tears from people who just didn't know what to say - but they wanted us to know that they cared. Knowing that made it so much easier.