Grieving My Imaginary Child

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On, May 19, 2017, I wrote these words in my journal:

“For a brief moment of quiet, when the only sound was the cars driving through puddles as they passed our street, I remembered my barrenness and cried. There’s something strange about grieving something like this. There’s no burial. No ceremony. No moment of closure. People keep saying words like, “We’ll keep believing for a miracle.” But I don’t want to keep believing for a miracle. I want to lament then move on. I want to not cry anymore. And for that brief moment, as I felt a tear stream down my face, a thought occurred to me: Am I depressed? Will this profound, dark feeling ever completely go away?”

(Before I proceed, I want to say that the words that follow do not come from a desire to compare the severity of the pain I’ve experienced with anyone else’s or to belittle what others have gone through. Pain is pain. It’s not a competition.)

In the months that followed my final “failed” pregnancy test, I had to navigate a lot of awkwardness. I didn’t have a miscarriage. It’s not that a miscarriage is any less painful—walking with friends who had miscarriages taught me that—but it’s different. In a miscarriage, there is a specific event that people can recognize as the starting point of grief and a tangible someone to grieve. So people know when to start giving comfort and why.

But with infertility, things are more vague. Something didn’t happen; something simply didn’t happen. And what’s more, grief makes little sense when the object is not a tangible someone but an idea. But though this grief may not seem to make sense, it’s still very real. In fact, the lack of concreteness and tangibility makes it much more difficult to recognize and label, thus making it more difficult to face.

Though much time has passed and a lot of healing has happened—including many intense conversations with God, some counseling sessions, coffee with friends who have been down the same road, writing pages and pages in my journal, and a myriad of other things—I still feel this grief from time to time.

There are the times when I’m scrolling through social media and see it: “We’re having a baby!” Don’t get me wrong…I’m sort of like Pinkie Pie from My Little Pony. I love celebrating with people—high pitched squealing and all. So when people in my life have wonderful news, I genuinely get excited. I lose nothing by celebrating with others. But for every, “Yay! You’re having a baby!” I’m also confronted with the reality that I am not. Celebration and grief are not mutually exclusive. This is the tension I live in.

There are the times when I stroll through Target. I’ve gotten pretty good at staying away and averting my eyes from baby and children’s stores. But at Target, the baby stuff is right there in the midst of everything. It’s across from the men’s section (where I find myself when I’m shopping with my husband) and right in front of the books (I LOVE books!). No matter what it is that brings me into Target on a given day, it’s inevitable that there will be a moment when, from a distance, a tiny, little outfit catches my eye. Maybe a little, pink dress with ribbons. Or a tiny ensemble, complete with a bow tie and suspenders. I’m a sucker for cute things, itty bitty outfits included. But after the initial swooning, it hits me. Grief.

And then there are the moments when I remember the baby Winnie the Pooh sitting in my closet. I bought it years ago when my husband and I started our journey of trying to have a baby. I was on a work trip to Disney World. I know that sounds like a dream, but I was chaperoning seven high school girls with seven very different personalities, so yeah, tt was not bliss. Anyway, If you’ve never been to a Disney theme park, then you should know that the end of every ride spits you out into a gift shop based on the theme of whatever ride you were just on. It’s genius. Me and the girls had a special bonding moment when we were on the Winnie the Pooh ride and it broke. Workers actually came and got us and let us walk around a bit before leading us out to—you guessed it—the gift shop. That’s when I saw the little Pooh Bear wrapped in a detachable, baby blanket. The moment I saw it, I knew I wanted my baby to have it, so I bought it and held it in my arms as I walked all over the park.

That was the only gift I bought for my baby. I still have it in a box of dead dreams along with my favorite jeans that no longer fit. I think about it from time to time. I think of it every once in a while when I’m reaching up to grab items at the top of my closet. Or whenever one of my friends gets pregnant, I think about passing it along to them. What a special gift it would make, I say to myself. But something inside of me just can’t let it go. Maybe I never will.

I know that the child of my imagination isn’t real, but the love I had for them is. I prayed real prayers for them so many times. I prayed for them to be healthy. I prayed that my husband and I would be a good father and mother to them. I prayed that they would love God and follow Him with their whole heart. I prayed for their future. I prayed for the person they would one day marry. I prayed for God to use them to change the world. And the more I prayed for them, the more my love for them grew. Oh, sweet baby, how I wish you were real!

So the pain of never getting a chance to hear their heart beat, to hold them in my arms and touch all their little fingers and toes, to hear them laugh, to read them a bedtime story and tuck them in at night, to talk with them about their first love and college and big dreams—this pain is very real.

Real love. Real pain. Real grief.

All for an imaginary child.

“You have kept count of my tossing;

put my tears in your bottle.

Are they not in your book?”

Psalm 56:8

Questions for Contemplation & Conversation

With a topic like this, there are no easy answers, no easy fixes. But I write about these things because I want to break down the walls of awkwardness that keep so many people hidden and unseen. It’s my hope that together we can provide places where conversations infused with empathy, compassion, and dignity can thrive.

1. Is there someone or something you are grieving? Why is grief so important? What are tangible ways you can grieve well?

2. Does the Church have a place for women (and men) who are married but don’t have children? What are things the Church can do to help people navigate this kind of grief with dignity?

A Wilderness Prayer

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During a dark, wilderness season of my life, trying to pray was a battle. But even though I struggled to verbalize prayers during this season, there was a brief moment when I was able to write one in my journal. There were numerous days when I desperately wanted to pray “better,” something with actual substance, so I would open my journal and recite my written prayer.

Throughout my life, I’ve prayed so many prayers that God didn’t answer the way I hoped He would. But this prayer is one that He answered infinitely more beautifully than I could have imagined. He always knows what is best. His way is always better than mine.

So if you find yourself in a wilderness and wanting to pray (or wanting to want to pray), but you just can’t, that’s okay. Know that God still sees you and hears the cry of your heart. His grace is sufficient when you have no words to say. And when your soul is desperately grasping for words and falling short, may these words from my journal help you get started:

Giver of Life, Redeemer of dreams, and Comforter of my soul,

Be near me.

Clothe me with dignity and strength, and help me to laugh at the time to come.

Give me eyes to see as you do.

And make me useful for Your Kingdom.

Amen.

Trying to Pray

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As I slowly pulled my tired body out of bed, I felt it again. Overwhelming sadness. It was the same sadness I had been feeling every day for months. I remember the exact moment this sadness became a part of my life: the moment after waiting several minutes to discover that the strip did NOT turn blue. After surgery, many months of infertility treatment, and “pouring out my soul before the Lord” (1 Samuel 1:15), I was not pregnant.

It was a hard enough blow to learn that, yes, I truly am incapable of bearing children. But it was excruciating to find out when I did: the Tuesday before Mother’s Day. It was like some sort of sick, cosmic joke. Any time I turned on the television, bought groceries, or did anything, “Happy Mother’s Day” everything scraped against my fresh wounds.

I think this would be a good time to explain that I’m a Christian and I believe in a God who hears our prayers and is able to work miracles. Many months prior to the strip not turning blue, my doctor told me I had a zero percent chance of getting pregnant. But I was about to have surgery, and that meant there would be hope. We had been down this road years before. Surgery, followed by hope, followed by disappointment. But this time, we had a plan to increase the probability of getting pregnant after surgery from a “zero percent chance” to a “slight chance.” And I laid my “slight chance” before God in a series of intense prayers drowned in a thousand tears. I was full of faith and, at the same time, willing to accept what God’s will may or may not hold. I begged Him to make my longings to bear a child go away and to not let me go down this road if motherhood wasn’t at the end of it. I prayed for wisdom and guidance. I prayed for Him to help me stay obedient to His will. And after weeks of praying like this—and the longing for motherhood ever persisting—I prayed for a miracle.

And I was disappointed.

For months, I lived with a label seared into my heart. “Barren.” My body was unable to carry and nurture life. I was not dead, but I no longer felt alive. My life had become a bare wilderness. Dry and lonely. I felt broken, purposeless, useless, and like a failure as a woman and wife.

I wish I could say that in those months, I fervently sought the face of God and clung to Him. I tried to, but I just couldn’t. On a good day, I would pick up my Bible, set it back down, and pray, “I can’t today, God. I’m sorry.” Some days I could actually open my Bible and read a paragraph before whispering, “God, this is all I can read today. Thank You for your grace. Please help me.” Most days, my Bible remained untouched and no words came, only deep wailing and tears. It’s not that I didn’t want God; the pain was too overwhelming. I could barely pray even when I went to church; I mostly just sat in my pew and cried.

In the midst of all of this, God was silent. It was through this season of silence and wilderness that I learned that when we’re unable to cling to God, He clings to us. And when He clings to us, that is enough. At times, He doesn’t use words because He knows some wounds are too deep for words. He knows exactly what we need: we need Him to be there. And He is.

After a long season of silence, I began to hear God’s still, small voice again. When I prayed, “I can’t today, God. I’m sorry,” He would respond, “That’s ok.” Two words. Months of silence were followed by barely anything. But when you’re desperate, “barely anything” is just the lifeline you need. And slowly, it became easier to pray my tiny prayers.

Then one day, I was done. I was done praying badly. I was done feeling the same overwhelming sadness again and again. I was done being in this wilderness. So in the early hours of morning—so early that even the sun was still in bed—I woke up, dragged my sleepy body to the living room, and opened my Bible. When I started reading, I felt nothing. But I forced myself to engage, circling words, underlining phrases. And when I finished, I prayed. I mean, really prayed with ugly tears. I was determined to pray until…until. And after asking all my “why” and “how long” questions, I said what had been brewing in my heart for so long:

“God, You really disappointed me.”

Those words had been pent up in my heart for so long that when they came out, they kept coming out again and again. Loudly. It was like a wrestling match; and if volume and tears were points, I was winning. “God, You really disappointed me! You disappointed my husband! I told You I didn’t want to go through all of this if it didn’t end in motherhood and YOU DISAPPOINTED ME!” And I kept going until I felt like I got it all out. Then after some moments of silence, God answered. Not with condemnation or guilt, but with these words: “Read the passage you read earlier again.”

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-7)

And after I read those words, God drowned my wilderness and flooded me with His comfort.

The Father of mercies and God of all comfort turned my barren wilderness into a river.