I was pregnant with my second child at the same time Judge was pregnant with McKayla, her third. My water broke nine weeks early, and I had my son prematurely. When I was in the hospital, I learned about McKayla’s passing – Judge and I attend the same church, and had brought our kids to the same playgroup. I felt like my heart was ripping open. At the same time I was worrying about my three pound son in the NICU, Judge and her husband and two young children were trying to make sense of the loss of their daughter so near the end of Judge’s pregnancy.
“When I was told that McKayla had passed, my first thoughts were how the Blessed Mother accepted Simeon's words and they pierced her heart,” says Judge, who later lost two additional children, Charlotte and Thomas, to miscarriage. “This is the feeling that I had at that moment.”
For Judge and her family, especially her seven-year-old son and five-year-old daughter, their grieving process still goes on – something that well-meaning people often don’t understand. “They want me to get over it and move on, but it still hurts,” she says.
“My living children grieve deeply for their siblings. My Claire especially grieves for her sisters. We’ve made picture frames for them, and she’s drawn family photos with them in the sky and all of us here on earth.”
Here, I’m reminded of Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year
“And I felt like my heart had been so thoroughly and irreparably broken that there could be no real joy again, that at best there might eventually be a little contentment. Everyone wanted me to get help and rejoin life, pick up the pieces and move on, and I tried to, I wanted to, but I just had to lie in the mud with my arms wrapped around myself, eyes closed, grieving, until I didn’t have to anymore.”
The deep-scream-throated, paralyzing grieving that Lamott refers to does eventually pass, but in its wake leaves people who are irrevocably changed. Judge says that from their siblings’ deaths, her children have a true understanding of Heaven, the afterlife, as a real place where their sisters and brother await them. “We have a relationship with all the saints because of McKayla, Charlotte, and Thomas,” Judge says. “They know their siblings are living with them now.”
This is such an awe-inspiring thing to consider: that Heaven becomes so tangible, touchable when you lose someone to the other world. Judge calls her three Heaven-homed children her intercessors, and has developed a very intimate relationship with them. “They behold God’s face, but they also have to honor me as their mother,” she says. “I feel a special closeness to them because a part of me is in Heaven. They hear me and see me as I am: as imperfect. And they’re trying their hardest to help me get to Heaven.”
Judge says that McKayla, Charlotte, and Thomas are part of her mission on earth, namely helping other families who’ve lost children through their grief – and to find some kind of meaning in their loss. “I have to remind people of the hope of Heaven,” she says. “I have to remind couples that their baby is alive in Heaven, and is doing everything possible to help them get there. This life is passing away, but Heaven is eternal. I know that I’ll be with them for eternity. Our family will one day be united again.”
While looking for support online, Judge met Illinois-based Nathan and RyAnne Carr, who after the death of their first child, Caleb, in 2011 started Immaculate Hope Ministries. Judge’s goal is to bring the Carrs very soon to run a pregnancy and infant loss retreat at our church in southern New Jersey to minister to any couple who has experienced pregnancy or early infant loss.
“Three years. I really cannot fathom that I've lived three whole years without our son,” RyAnne wrote in her blog
on the Ministries of Hope website. “Sometimes it still feels like a bad dream. I wonder often how I'll carry this grief and what it will look like at ten years, 20 years, 50 years? Does it ever go away? Not sure, but part of me hopes it doesn't. Grief is love. The sadness, sorrow, rage, anger, agony, and despair I felt when Caleb died were all born out of intense love. To grieve him is to love him, and that is something I will do every day of my life.”
And yet, this quote from Rumi: “Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.” And how one side of grief is love – perhaps one doesn’t exist without the other. Judge says people who lost children can be extremely angry and “consumed by grief.” This can lead to marriage conflict, as people grieve differently. And then there’s another task, healing the marriage and the family, keeping it as whole as it can be.
I return again to Lamott, and a quote from her book Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life
“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
The healing that occurs – that simile of it being like a broken leg that never completely heals, the limp most apparent when it rains. How powerful it is. How tender. And how crushing.
Recently, I’ve been looking at Victorian death photos, where the dead father, mother, child, infant is posed with their living family members – sometimes it’s hard to tell which is the deceased, because of how lifelike they are; they’re fully dressed, their eyes are open looking toward the camera or toward Heaven. Sometimes the mother is holding her white-shawled baby against her chest, this last time before lowering her child into the earth. Oh, what those women felt, and in a similar way, Mary held her own lifeless son after he was crucified. What does grief feel like? Every grief is different.
While driving to the hospital after my water broke, I didn’t feel my son move, and I remember thinking, “So this is how it is; he’s died.” And, how the world moved in my veins. Everything shifted. This excerpt from a poem by Jandy Nelson in The Sky Is Everywhere
is just one summation of grief, because the experience of grief is so personal:
grief is a house where no one can protect you
where the younger sister
will grow older than the older one
where the doors
no longer let you in
The younger sister eventually will be older than the elder; grief is a house that blows away and also crushes; grief at first is our same life that can no longer support us.
Judge and her family are helplessly physically divided: some in Heaven and some on earth. And yet, despite the pain that she lives daily, she has selflessly made it her job on earth to help other grieving couples.
“I explain it as simply as this: How did Jesus come to us? He came to us through Mary,” she says. “What would the best way and surest way to get to Him? The way that He came to us through His Blessed Mother. She takes everything we give her and perfects it. I can give the example of a child who wants to give their father a penny. It may be an old penny and not very pretty. The Blessed Mother takes that penny shines it up and gives it to her Son. This is how I live my life.”
And what if someone you know is grieving? How should you be with them? This one piece of advice resonates: In Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life
, Henri J.M. Nouwen says that the best kind of friend for the grieving person is the one who has “chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. […] who can face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
_____ We’re pleased to be giving away a copy of Nicole Rollender’s new book of poems, Louder than Everything You Love, (featuring her 2012 Janet B. McCabe award winning poem "Necessary Work" from Issue 25, Unraveling the Dark) to one of our readers.
Post a comment below and we’ll pick a name and notify the winner on Wednesday, May 4. Congratulations to Katie O'Connell, who will receive a copy of Nicole Rollender's Louder than Everything You Love.
Nicole Rollender’s work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, The Journal, THRUSH Poetry Journal, West Branch, Word Riot and others. Her first full-length collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, will be published by ELJ Publications later this year. She’s the author of the poetry chapbooks Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications, 2007), Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio, 2015), Bone of My Bone, a winner in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest, and Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press, 2016). She has received poetry prizes from CALYX Journal, Ruminate Magazine and Princemere Journal. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, and at www.nicolerollender.com
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Elaina Judge often thinks about her stillborn daughter, McKayla, who would have turned three on February 22, today, the same day I’m writing about grief. “When I first lost McKayla, I wrote her letters like she was away at camp,” Judge says. “I did this for the first year. I now talk to her almost constantly asking for help, and pray that she’ll come to me in a dream so I can see what she’s doing in Heaven. It hasn't happened yet, but I do have a deep understanding of how happy she is.”