This is a web-exclusive article on the theme “The unexpected.” For more stories on this theme, see the December issue of The Mennonite.
I still remember the phone call I got from my wife while I was at work. “Come home now…. Something’s not right. I can’t feel the baby moving.”
Though we tried to convince ourselves that everything would be just fine on that hurried drive to the hospital, that day in August of 2012 we experienced the pain of a stillborn child. This journey through grief and loss showed us many different hidden elements we were unaware of until walking through this experience.
The first was that there are many well-intentioned people who missed the mark with their good intentions. We had a significant number of people say things that did not help our pain; in fact, they accidentally made it worse. Those often included religiously-minded things like, “Heaven must have needed an angel,” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”
Theologically, we struggled with comments born out of a faith that would see a puppet master-like God as manipulating our immediate pain for some future goal, or perhaps that our journey was part of a bigger test of our capacity for handling difficult spaces. Though we recognized these comments were born out of a desire to see us move beyond our immediate pain, we also wanted people to provide us with permission to dwell in our grief instead of providing us with ways to move through it quickly.
We also discovered something we had assumed for most of our lives but never tested out. We found that our community had far more capacity for caring for those who are grieving than we ever imagined.
We experienced this as our family gathered around us and allowed us to grieve, lament and share that pain. They joined our tears with tears of their own, and shifted their lives to make us their priority.
We learned how valuable it was to have friends from our childhood, college and graduate school years, who showed up in our home or sent flowers, candles, cards and their love. Their voices walked with us and were a reminder to be slow in our grief, and that they would be holding us in love and light when our world felt so dark.
We experienced it at Salford Mennonite Church, our local congregation and my employer at that time, who gave me space to temporarily step away from my job, helped prepare a funeral for our tiny baby, filled our freezer with food and even helped cover some travel costs as we spent time sharing our experience with friends on the other side of the country.
Perhaps most meaningful was connecting with folks we had never known were courageously carrying similar kinds of loss in their own journey. Older folks would remember how long it took for them to feel like they had the strength to move forward. Others would point out the reminders of loss in small gravestones, trees planted in honor of loss and memories still held by families who were missing someone from their midst. Couples reminded us that even though they experienced grief at the same time, their experiences and process paths had been significantly different than each other. They reminded us to be kind and gentle to each other, even when we could not comprehend why our grieving experiences were so different.
Our awareness of our community support was never more acute than when we connected with a local grief support group for families who had experienced a stillborn or infant death. In that space we heard stories from families who had never fully processed their grief because they didn’t have a faith community to walk with them, or their friends and family didn’t know how to speak to them after their experience. I remember one parent sharing that their baby’s ashes were sitting on their kitchen table because they didn’t know what steps might be next. We left that space appreciating that our capacity to walk with our grief was significantly less of a burden than those who felt as if they were walking alone.
Several years after this loss I find myself tempted to make a claim that God had a plan for my experience through this loss. Perhaps I could claim that the journey has transformed me into a better minister, with a capacity to walk with others who are experiencing similar kinds of grief. But it still hurts just a little too much to tell my story in that way.
Rather than feeling like God gave me this grief as a way to shape me into a better person, I believe God was present through the lives of the many people who allowed me to journey with this grief. My experience was not one meant to make me a better person, but one that allowed me to see the possibilities when we share God’s love with one another in the midst of our pain.
Ben Wideman is campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania.