When I was new to San Francisco I met a mom at church with a newborn boy a few weeks older than mine. Our firstborn boys were the same age as well and I was drawn to her immediately. She was patient and present postpartum, two things I wasn’t feeling much of lately – and we bonded quickly over infant sleep schedules, boy mom things, and our gratitude for God’s stability in the midst of life’s changes. 6 weeks later her baby died.
A rare brain tumor, most likely growing since utero, had taken her baby’s life the same night it was discovered. Any warning symptoms were also common newborn behaviors, so nothing had given an indication of what was to come. I was in the midst of crippling post-partum anxiety and depression, and having this new calm and peaceful friend had been a balm to my frayed nerves and chaotic hormones. Now it was the embodiment of all my fears. But even in my panic, I knew how horrible it would be to show an inability to cope with someone else’s trauma, so I planned to run the other way to avoid her having to deal with me.
“I’m going to cry all the way through it. She’ll see my fear and I’ll be the worst friend in the world!” I wailed to my husband the night before the memorial service.
“I’ll say all the wrong things and only make her feel worse,” I explained. “I can’t walk through this with her. There’s no way. I don’t even know how anyone gets through something like this.” I decided that if I couldn’t be her friend in the right way, I wouldn’t be one at all – a conclusion that feigned concern for her, when in actuality was only showing concern for myself.
“Oh yes you can,” said my husband. “And you will, because you both know Jesus.”
I rode to the service with her parents and said all the wrong things, I’m sure. And when the prelude music started and I begged God to keep me from wailing out loud, I knew I was feeling all the wrong things. But when I saw my friend in the front row all I could think about was how her hair was brushed and pulled nicely back into a clip. I thought about how she had to have fallen asleep at some point the night before and had woken up today and brushed her hair to come to the service to bury her son. She was weighed down by a million pounds of grief, but she was also here, raising her hands in worship.
I didn’t have any answers or comfort to give, and I considered myself more of a liability than a lifeline, but I stayed. I stayed and watched my friend with the dead son and the hair nicely pulled back, close her eyes and sing out to the Lord as the service continued.
Later, when I would visit her at home, and her toddler was still asking about his baby brother and what they would do with his tiny little clothes and toys, I didn’t know what to say. When she was drinking tea to dry up her breast milk, and I was still nursing my baby, I didn’t know what to say. But we fumbled through it together until time gave us more ease, and for her, if nothing else, just more distance from the physical memories.
As the absence of her baby was – never forgotten – but instead slowly filled with the presence of more life, so was our conversation peppered with more lightheartedness and the welcomed tally of days passed. I realized that what we now had between us instead of just her pain and my painful self-awareness, was trust. And what a beautiful thing for friends of faith to share.
The following December, on a cold night after sharing dinner at our house, she and her husband told us they were pregnant again, and I cried tears of joy, tears only possible because I had been near to both her pain and her faith.
And the following summer, she was the only person I wanted to call early one morning after a fitful night of losing my own pregnancy. She and her boys were at my front door before breakfast.
A year later, I hosted a baby shower in my home for her fourth child – a little girl – due to arrive any day. And when I opened my door for my friend that afternoon for what was probably the hundredth time, I was again struck by her patience and presence like I was years ago when we first met. She was tired, back aching and belly swollen with new life, but her hair was pulled back nicely, and she was ready to sit in my living room for what might have been a difficult exercise for her in this time of waiting and praying for a healthy baby.
As we ate food and played a few games, the sun sank lower over the city and cast a warm and melancholy glow over the room. We looked at photos of her three boys as newborns, the two of them that were anxiously waiting for the arrival of their sister at home with their dad, and the one waiting for her in heaven with their Father. It was a lot to hold – the gratitude for life and joy after death, and the ache of sadness over life lost, knowing her family won’t feel entirely complete until heaven. Light and dark, pain and beauty. Loss and hope. I felt so privileged to be sitting with her in that space, the golden hour between day and night.
What a one-dimensional life we will live without opening ourselves up to the unknown pain of others. As long as this world is home to death and sin, we will know loss. And as long as we know loss, our lives will be a bit like that baby shower – tenderly holding space for our grief and pain whilst also welcoming the warm glow of hope ushered in through faith. Our God is no stranger to loss, and in ours, He stays near and says to us, I know this road, and I will walk it with you.
I still don’t know much about grief or how to handle pain. But I know that we can keep brushing our hair, showing up, and raising our hands in worship.