We ought to be able to navigate this,” I kept thinking. I was pregnant with my second child. She was pregnant with her first. She was newly married and this baby was a surprise, a honeymoon baby. We were close friends so to be pregnant together was exciting. Our due dates were about a week apart. It was another thing we had in common, one more piece of the foundation to our friendship. Near the end of the first trimester, at a lakeside vacation we both ordered fried food for dinner one night to satisfy a craving. We joked about it the next morning as we traded stories about the overwhelming nausea that visited us both in the middle of the night.
About a week later Anna began to bleed a little. I had recently experienced a miscarriage and the circumstances felt familiar. I panicked for her a little. I prayed for God to ease my fears and Anna’s fears. I prayed for Anna’s baby and then my own baby. When her bleeding didn’t stop but the morning sickness did stop Anna told me she didn’t feel pregnant anymore and she made an appointment for an ultrasound. The doctor told her that the baby had stopped developing and that she should have a D&C. I prayed that God would show the doctor and the ultrasound to be wrong. I confess that I even prayed the He might give me the miscarriage and Anna the baby. It’s not that I didn’t want to be pregnant. I just wanted Anna to be spared the loss. It felt unfair that she should suffer a loss while I already had one healthy baby.
A few days later Anna had the D&C, something I had managed to avoid with my miscarriage a year earlier because it happened “naturally.” At first we talked about our experience with miscarriage, compared the “medical” route to the “natural” route, much as we compared pregnancy experiences. I tried to avoid saying things like “God’s plan” or “nature’s way,” but I squirmed at the lack of words that came to me instead. I tried to be encouraging to her when she was grieving, acknowledge her feelings and stand close when she asked that of me. I tried to not talk about being pregnant even though time and the growing baby I was carrying became a constant reminder, a blinking light reminding her of loss whenever she saw me. In the end it felt as though everything I said or tried to say or didn’t say was wrong, or hurtful, though I did not intend it to be.
“We ought to be able to navigate this” was all that came to me. I did not know what to say and what not to say. I found myself just pulling away, avoiding contact as she became more distant. I could see the grief on her face as the months wore on, just as she saw the joy in mine, as my due date grew closer. A wise mutual friend suggested that there had to be room in our friendship for her grief and my joy, but I’m not sure we were able to arrange our emotional furniture enough to discover that room.
I realize now that I had no real comparison for Anna’s experience. There is nothing I can compare, any loss or unfulfilled dream I can imagine that can equal the absence of motherhood. I cannot compare it to never having a car or a house or a career because we are not talking about a “thing” but rather about building and raising a human.
For someone who desires motherhood, the experience of having a child, whether biologically or by adoption, brings with it something that changes forever the fiber of us. Elizabeth Stone once said that to become a parent means to be forever wearing your heart on the outside of your body. There are very few joyful things in life that cause this degree of vulnerability. Another good friend who struggled with infertility told me around that time that her “personal need to mother children was right under breathing, eating, and shelter.” Because I was already a mother and never felt the need in that way, I could not understand that feeling. What she said next was so beautiful that I was floored. She said that what she needed in the struggle, what she was desperate for in fact was “walk beside me empathy.” When she said this to me I finally understood how to be a friend to Anna.
All this time with Anna I had been trying to either walk ahead, shouting directions on how she should move, how fast she should walk or just saying “come up here…THIS is where God is!” or I was lagging behind and making myself more deserving of grief than she, “Well, yes, but I’ve suffered too! Can’t you see how much grief I have had?” Now what I really wish I had done was stand next to her, walking as she walked, asking once in a while if she would like to stop and rest and just listening and hearing that it was hard. Walk beside me empathy. Christ on the road to Emmaus.
I have had hard experiences, too, in the field of fertility, but that is not what should come into play when I am walking with a friend who is suffering. We cannot simply move our emotional furniture around to make space for joy to live because grief brings with her some very heavy pieces. All the light in the room is eclipsed by the weight of the fabric on the windows, the need to protect oneself from the glaring daylight of reality, statistics and desperation. Hope feels too far away, joy is suffocating in the face of grief. The only air to breathe must come from a third party in the room—grace.
Anna is not the only friend with whom I have had this experience. There have been several friends of mine who have struggled with infertility and miscarriage. I can say that almost each time I was pregnant, including my miscarriages, I walked with a friend who was also pregnant. Four times I went on to deliver a healthy baby and they did not and three times they went on to deliver while I did not. I have also walked with friends who never got married, never were pregnant, never miscarried yet never stopped desiring motherhood even so.
I admit, sometimes I find myself skittish about how to move with other women because of this. It is easy to speak “hope,” easy to offer up bite-sized helpings based on scriptural references. God will grant you the desires of your heart, He does have plans for you, plans to prosper you, remember the persistent widow…blah blah blah…easily said. While all of these moments of hope may be genuine, I have to remember that they are not always best delivered by someone who has no need for that particular brand of hope in that particular moment.
What ends up being life-giving in this place of grief and joy, the intersection of loss and gift, is for me to operate with grace as the mediator, rather than hope. Grace, by design, is difficult to speak because it operates so beautifully without words. Grace is quiet and still. Grace does not require action. It requires waiting and breathing and listening. When hope enters the room it fills in the empty spaces like expandable foam, entering into the cracks, but grace is more of a risk. Grace is the air we breathe, invisible but vital. Sometimes sitting in the grace looks as though we’re doing nothing, and it can be unsettling because it looks less like “solving” the pain or “fixing” the loss—and that’s exactly right. It is grace that fuels the “walk beside me empathy.” Hope may be dashed to the rocks when spoken into the silence but grace is sweet and yet powerful, subtle when offered in the quiet places of pain. In the end, it is grace that makes room for us to be together, sit together, cry together.
Any honest PhD candidate will tell you that our work can be isolating. Even though a great deal of our work involves interaction (teaching, office hours, comparing notes with colleagues, attending lectures, and sometimes venting with other students about how we never have enough time), the majority of our work requires great stretches of time spent alone.
I’ve always loved the etymology of kindness, which comes from kin—those to whom we are bound by choice or genealogy. And yet I often find kindness is most difficult to practice with my family—those who have witnessed just how unkind I can be.
Last summer, the book project I was in the midst of was mapped out on a drafting table in my writing space: sheets of paper with lists and quotes, photographs and maps, excerpts from 19th century books on gold mining.
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