I sat down next to them. Not on purpose, but not by accident either, I suppose. Looking out onto the street, the trees loomed overhead, and the passersby bustled about—it was the perfect spot to people-watch. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the bucket seat, then the tiny baby feet wriggling and squirming. I blinked, a smile following soon after. My eyes filled with tears, but the smile did not fade.
My thoughts turned to a time when I would have glared at this happy couple with their newborn son. I would have gotten up without hesitation and stormed back to my car, driving away with tears flooding my face and curses streaming out of my mouth to the safety of my apartment—far away from chubby-cheeked babies and happy parents. I remember one day in particular when I practically sprinted to the exit of a coffee shop right as a new mom walked in the door with a baby boy around the same age as my son. Though 12 long years have passed, I can still feel the electric current of his death running through my body.
ACROSS THE TABLE
I will never forget the feeling of sitting across from her—her cheeks shone with tears, mirroring those falling silently down my face. She is just like me, I remember thinking. And I wondered, did her veins course with rage when she heard moms complaining about their children too? Did she avoid pregnant women everywhere she went? Did her mind wander constantly to thoughts of him? “Yes,” she cried. “All the time.”
When Tonya and I met that winter day 11 years ago, it wasn’t quite a year after my first child’s death, and only a few months since her youngest child had died. It was that afternoon with Tonya when I discovered I wasn’t alone. There was someone else who understood what had happened to me and could sit with me in my grief. Hope stirred within me.
LIFE TURNED UPSIDE DOWN
I was barely 25 years old, my husband 23, when our baby died. Owen. His name was Owen. He was our first child, and when he died, we were thrown into a world of grief that shook us to the core. My 36 week, completely normal pregnancy, filled with love, ended in shock and sorrow. I walked into the doctor’s office with a fragile hope that all was well, but a nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach told me something terrible had happened. I had no idea a baby could be stillborn after a so-called ‘normal’ and healthy pregnancy. I held fast onto the naivety that nothing bad could happen this close to his due date. But it did.
I spent the first year after Owen’s death, suffering under the weight of isolation. There weren’t many dinner party invitations. Stories about stillborn babies don’t fare well around happy dinner tables. I was caught in a trap of wanting him to be known, but feeling forbidden to bring up the subject. I felt untethered to the world around me.
But then I found them. Women who asked me his name, his hair color, his weight when he was born. Women whose eyes did not look down when I started to cry. They cried with me. They became my lifeline.
A NEW BEGINNING, BORN FROM DEATH
“Is that how you made it?” she asked, the tears in her eyes threatening to spill over. My cheeks were wet with my own tears. “Yes,” I choked back. “That’s how I survived.”
I was at a routine check-up for blood work when the nurse and I struck up a conversation. Making a remark about my small veins, she decided to use a smaller needle. The relief was evident in my voice as I thanked her for noticing. “Why are there such large needles?” I exclaimed. “When I was in the hospital having a C-section, they used such large needles! Why do they do that?”
My response elicited an uncertain reply from her as she tentatively asked after my baby. I quickly assured her that my baby was indeed doing well, explaining that it had been a medically necessary C-section. Relief punctured her words. “Oh, that is good. There’s nothing like having children. Such a blessing.”
I felt a slight pinch as she began drawing my blood and my eyes searched for any distraction from the uncomfortable minute it would take to fill the vial. I looked beyond her right shoulder at the silly images taped to the wall. It was then that I sensed a slight nudge in my spirit. Should I tell her about Owen, I wondered.
I tried to concentrate on the images and not the growing conviction in my gut. Why would she want or need to know about my son? I took a deep breath and plunged in.
“12 years ago I had a baby who didn’t make it at birth,” I began hesitantly. “So after that, I didn’t care how my babies came into this world… as long as they entered it breathing.”
She paused her work and looked me in the eyes,
“I am so sorry. There’s nothing like losing a child.” She took a breath. “I lost my 29-year-old daughter four months ago. It’s been the longest stretch of my life since she died.”
Tears immediately filled then escaped my eyes.
“I… I’m so sorry. There are no words. I am so sorry.” I took my free hand and placed it on her arm and squeezed gently.
“It has been so hard these past four months.” She looked away to get a bandage for my arm, and then looking back at my face said, “Oh I am so sorry. I didn’t mean to make you cry. Now I’m going to cry.”
“You don’t have anything to be sorry about. And you can cry all you want,” I said as she withdrew the needle—our physical connection now broken, but the bond of shared pain still filling the tiny room.
I left her with tears still streaming down my face, grateful that I had been able to give her the same gift that Tonya had given me all those years ago. We hugged as we said goodbye, exchanging names just at the last moment before parting.
THE CALL TO BRAVERY
Owen’s life, his memory, is more than just a tragedy to me. All of us who have lost a loved one ache for others to be able to sit with us in our grief, to comfort us with their presence across the table, to ask questions and to listen without judgment. These are not easy or comfortable or small things. They can be painful and hard.
In order to step out in bravery and move in closer to our grieving friends and family, we must take a deep breath and look to the example Jesus set for us in the Gospels. He cried over Lazarus’ body even though He knew He could soon bring him back to life (John 11). Jesus didn’t back away, or brush off grief and sadness. He wept. He was present. He drew near, and nearer still.
We are the Church. We have the high and beautiful calling of living as His hands and feet. Do you have someone in your life who is grieving? Do you know the struggles and hardships in the lives of those around you? How might you follow Jesus’ example and draw near? How can you enter into someone’s pain? To show someone they don’t have to be alone in their grief? Before Jesus left this earth, He reminded His followers, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
Over the years there have been many times when the mere mention of Owen’s name brings an uncomfortable stillness along with it. His small four-letter name can silence grown men and empty entire rooms.
Owen. His name is as beautiful as the most brilliant sunsets. Owen. I breathe his memory in deeply and let the love, sorrow, and grief wash over me. Owen. Whose hand I know I will hold in heaven, as now I cling to the hand of Jesus, the One who tethers me to hope.