One of the most shocking realizations, after losing a child, is the jarring reality of feeling uncomfortable in your own skin. Nothing seems to make sense, or even feel familiar. As if it isn’t enough to lose what is most sacred and precious to us, we lose ourselves in the process. Activities or thoughts that once brought us joy don’t seem to matter anymore. Nothing is the same. Our relationships with those around us change. Things taste different, smell different, feel differently…or don’t feel at all, as a blanket of numbness settles over us, turning the world gray for a time. At first, there is shock and pain, and waves of grief. Then, the world turns gray.
At Sufficient Grace Ministries, so many mothers ask us, will I ever feel normal again? It was the only time I called a support group leader during my own grief walk, the desperate moment I needed to hear words spoken from a mother who had walked through this wilderness, reassuring that…
“Yes, life was different. I was different. But, someday, I would feel normal again…a new normal.”
A new normal…what is that? And, how long until I get there? And, will I be lost forever? Will I lose me too? And, do I even care?
Those are the natural wonderings through season of grief I like to call “stumbling through the wilderness awhile”.
Finding your way on a path no one would ever ask for, discovering someone you’ve never known is now wearing your skin…well, it takes some time, and grace, and grit. There is a temptation to just slip away, to live in the depths of the pit of despair, ignoring the light…because sometimes, only the darkness feels real…normal. For a time, it seems as if we have to cling to the sorrow for comfort, as if letting go of it for a moment means we’ve forgotten. Or without it, we may feel nothing at all. That revelation is frightening, especially when you don’t know who you are anymore.
There seem to be seasons in our grief walk, when at first, we want to be surrounded by people who understand our loss, people who are walking with us in this wilderness. We long to hear something that resonates, something that makes sense to our new, broken selves. We may emerge from that season longing for a purpose…some beauty to be born from our pain. We may even pour ourselves into seeking a purpose…pouring out all our grief…and all our desperation to birth something beautiful and lasting…to mother something tangible this side of heaven. That season may or may not remain, becoming part of our new life. Sometimes, it is a passing season. And, that’s ok.
We are often hesitant when the next season ebbs and flows into our lives, as the sea of grief does so well. The next season that I’ve experienced and watched many mothers ponder through, is the desire to live life in the land of the living again…in our new skin. To explore who we are now. And, maybe even to walk away from the heaviness of being surrounded by loss each day. It is a difficult tearing away, as we’ve found some peace and hope and comfort in this unlikely camaraderie…walking with others who limp in the brokenness. We love these women like family…and we are used to the heavy cloak of sorrow. What will life look like if we step away from the haven? Are we forgetting our babies? Forsaking our dear friends? Moving on? Letting go? As if we are somehow betraying our babies, ourselves, our bereaved sisters to just want to learn to live again.
No. While we will heal and joy will be restored in our lives, we are forever changed. Our very personality may even change. And, we will never get over losing our children. Not that we wallow in grief forever. Not that we will not be fully healed and complete. We will, but we will have a missing place in our hearts until we reach heaven’s welcoming gates. A place where a much loved, dearly cherished, longed for and dreamed about life once lived. Now that life lives on in heaven…the place that we are homesick for, at times. Our children will forever be part of the tapestry of our lives…they are part of who we are. Please understand that. We can no more deny them than we could our children who walk this earth with us.
So, we tentatively tiptoe back into a life reshaped, redefined, forever changed. It is frightening, and quite honestly at times, exhilarating…learning to live and love and breathe and notice the world around us again through changed eyes…as if seeing for the first time. And even filled with precious gifts…or it can be, if we’re brave enough to lean into the reshaping, to even one day…when the time is right…embrace the new pieces of us that emerge and form together into something of great beauty. Something tattered and worn with the battering of great loss and grief, polished around the rough places by disillusionment with everything we thought we could once rely on as truth.
Seventeen years after the loss of my identical twin daughters, Faith and Grace, and nearly 16 years after the loss of my newborn son, Thomas, I feel myself embracing a new reality again. As I walk with more and more families through loss, supporting them as a birth and bereavement doula, walking beside them in the grief wilderness…I feel a new awakening in recent years. A rebellion of sorts…a rebellion of the molds we think we need to squeeze ourselves into as mothers…as women. A rebellion against the idea that grief and healing needs to look a certain way. A grace rebellion, of sorts…as I see the incredible need for grace for ourselves…for others stumbling along with us…and even for those broken souls who do not understand us at all. In the course of these years, I’ve come to surrender some of my ideas of what life should like…first gasping for air in this tumultuous sea, then learning to swim, leaving the water for awhile to sit on the beach, then returning with first tentative steps to throw a life raft to a new swimmer…then re-entering grief’s sea, willingly to swim alongside another floundering soul. Sometimes even dancing for awhile on top of the water…held by the One who covers with grace. Fiercely, rebelliously choosing to be there. Fully, beautifully, with all the graceful abandon laid on my mother-heart, embracing the beautiful destiny of being the mother of not only my children on earth, but those who walk in heaven.
That picture may look different for everyone. But, this…this has been my journey to embracing life in this new skin. I believe it takes time to walk there awhile in a wilderness, but know this…there is a way…a time…a season when you will be free to hope again, to laugh without guilt, to feel something that isn’t so gray as the world finds color again. When it happens, don’t be afraid. Take some time to learn to dance there, to embrace your inner “grace rebel” and just be beautiful, amazing you. If I’m truly honest, I like this me better now than the me I thought I lost.
Photo credit Rachel Sharpe Photography
Kelly Gerken is the president and founder of Sufficient Grace Ministries, an organization providing perinatal hospice services, bereavement support and Dreams of You memory-making materials to families facing the loss of a baby through miscarriage, stillbirth, infant death and the death of a young child. Kelly has walked through the loss of three of her five children, and now reaches out to walk with other grieving families as an SGM perinatal loss support doula and SGM Remembrance Photographer. She is a creator and facilitator of training for birth professionals on compassionate care for bereaved parents facing perinatal loss. Her memoir, Sufficient Grace, was published in 2014. You can read more about Kelly’s journey of grace, hope and healing and the outreaches of SGM, order resources or find her book here: www.sufficientgraceministries.org.