(Revised and updated January 2021)
Some days this seems so far away, as if it were never my own life. Other days, I feel the scar tissue reminding me. But all days, I just want to help others who suffer the same way I did, those fifteen years ago.
Sometimes we have to write about our own hardships so we can help others later down the road. My friend Jenny, who counsels women in Nashville, asked me to write about this experience as a way to support and encourage her clients. After ten years, I’m finally writing publicly about my experience with mighty hope that it will help other women in their own grief and suffering.
It was a frigid, early January day in 2006 and the ER waiting room at Naperville’s Edward Hospital was packed — every chair, floor space, and wall space was covered in sick, sniffling, coughing, miserable people. When I walked through the revolving doors I knew I had a long wait ahead of me. Fantastic.
I slowly trudged to the registration desk, every step triggering sharp pain through my abdomen. I’d just been to the local walk-in clinic, certain I was suffering a miscarriage. The kind, compassionate nurses at the clinic let me know they didn’t have the capabilities to help me there. They gave me some paperwork and told me to get myself to the ER right away. I drove away in tears, scared and sobbing. I fumbled with my flip phone to call my (then) husband, who left his office to meet me at the hospital. Someone valeted my car for me.
I approached the registration desk and handed the receptionist my papers from the clinic. She took one look at them and yelled to a nearby nurse, “Hurry up! Get her in a room right now!” The nurse grabbed me and rushed me into a curtained room while all the sick, sniffling, coughing, miserable people watched on from the waiting room.
In the room the nurse closed the curtain, threw a robe at me, and ordered me to get changed as she scribbled madly on her clipboard. I waited for her to finish and leave so I could change my clothes, but instead she turned and yelled at me, “Hurry up and change! YOU ARE BLEEDING!”
I was? I didn’t see any blood.
The rest of the day was a series of events I still can’t believe were real. My husband called my family. All three of my sisters came and sat with me. My parents were en route to their vacation home several hours away, and when they got the call, they turned right around. By then I’d spent the day in an ER hospital bed, trying to understand what was happening inside my body. Several hours, IVs, internal ultrasounds, and one uncooperative catheter later, I was wheeled away to the OR for surgery.
I’d had an ectopic pregnancy. My fallopian tube had ruptured and filled my insides with blood. I’d lost my baby. I’d felt the excruciating pain for about a week by then, but as the girl who generally pushes through pain and not knowing I was pregnant, I didn’t think it was anything other than digestive discomfort from the recent holiday season indulgence, and I’d made myself go to the gym every day, doing sit-up after sit-up to atone for my seasonal sins.
I hadn’t done myself any favors by ignoring the pain, and when the surgeon updated my family while I was in recovery, she cupped her hands to demonstrate the amount of blood that had accumulated inside me and let them know how lucky I was; another day and I would have been gone, she said.
And now my reproductive organs were an open topic of conversation. Lovely.
I spent two more days in the hospital before going home for a month of doctor-ordered bedrest. This was not the January I had planned. It wasn’t even the weekend I had planned, but life teaches us to write our plans in pencil; right, 2020?
It was a month filled with pain, sleeplessness, and flaring hormones as my body learned to become un-pregnant. It was also a month filled with so much love: visits and care from friends and family; letters, cards, and emails from well-meaners and well-wishers; gifts of food, conversations, and rides to doctors’ appointments. In suffering, grief and love create a grand paradox.
There is nothing easy about caring for someone in grief.
It’s all parts awkward, and as much as we try to find the right words, the right actions, the right solutions to the circumstances, none of these exist. But love! Love is a balm to the heart. Here are the ways my people loved me through my own pain and grief.
Cheetos and People magazine.
I’ll be real from the get-go. When I was bedridden, doped up on pain meds, and unable to even walk to the bathroom by myself, I was a bit limited in my physical and mental abilities. My world included the immediate space around me just as far as my hands could reach without effort as I sat against the piles of pillows on my bed. I couldn’t lift anything, so I pretty much maxed out with the world’s two great comforts: Cheetos and rag mags. And HGTV and the Food Network; I’d never been more grateful for the invention of the remote control. (This all happened in the Dark Ages of 2006 before smart phones, iPads, and Netflix existed. I don’t think we even had DVR yet.) People mag and afternoon tv required light thinking and low energy, which was my exact capacity as I lie in my bed, a bodyscape of staples scattered across my abdomen like a tattoo of Frankenstein’s monster.
I think often the greatest resource to sacrifice is time. I am personally terrible with this one. But love is time. Love shows up and serves. And we usually find it’s the simplest things that matter so much. Here’s how my people loved me with their time:
- My Aunt Connie and Uncle Denny drove for miles on the winter roads to be at the hospital during my surgery.
- My cousin Brad called me on my hospital room phone from Colorado (pre-smartphone days).
- My cousin Brita came to see me in the hospital.
- Our neighbors across the street, Frank and Janine, sensed something was wrong when our empty trash cans remained on the street for days, and they hauled them up to our garage for us.
- My neighbor Lindsay brought me the most delicious, homemade chicken soup.
- My neighbor Mandi sat with me for hours. She’d recently learned she was pregnant, but she didn’t want to tell me because she wanted to be sensitive to my circumstances. (I was honestly so happy for her when I found out. My own sorrow doesn’t withhold happiness for others when good things happen to them.)
- My friend Heather, a nurse in Michigan, wrote me the most empathetic, care-filled letter in which I could feel her grieve with me because of what she knew of my condition from her nursing classes.
- My husband’s cousin Andrew drove far out of his way on a trip to central Illinois to bring me flowers and a hand-written card.
- My older sister cleaned my whole house.
- My mom drove over an hour to my house and then back home every single day for weeks so I wouldn’t be alone while my husband was at work. She drove me to my weekly doctors’ appointments. She even drove in nasty, northern Illinois January weather to the university several miles away––where I’d enrolled in spring semester grad classes––to cancel my enrollment and collect my refund.
No *right* words.
Like I said earlier, there are none. So just show up. Put on a funny movie and eat those Cheetos together. Give smiles and hugs. Back rubs and foot rubs. I remember those best of all. My oldest nephew Miles was about seven months old at the time. My complexion had exploded as a result of my body’s hormonal rebellion and my face looked like a monster’s. I didn’t want anyone to see me. My sister knew baby Miles would cheer me up––and she was right. She carried him into my room and set him down on my bed next to me, where he just looked up at me and smiled. He didn’t see a monster; he saw someone he wanted to share his joy with. I couldn’t want anything more than that little face smiling up at me.
In sickness and in health.
Here’s the deal: although my then-husband couldn’t be bothered to keep up with his marriage vows a few years after this experience, I have no problem awarding him the Husband-of-the-Month trophy for the good care he gave me while I was on bedrest. He moved my dresser out of our bedroom, and in its place put the loveseat from our living room so my visitors would have a comfortable place to sit. For weeks he set his alarm for every three hours throughout the night to give me my pain meds, even though he knew I’d be awake all night anyway and could probably handle it on my own. He entertained guests when I was too weak to talk to anyone, and he went to work every day and fulfilled his responsibilities to his company, even though he was broken and grieving too. He took slow walks with me through our neighborhood, as I eventually began to walk again and rebuild my strength. And when the time came, he took me driving on back roads so I could get comfortable with driving again.
Grief is not a systematic process; nor is it cyclical. There’s no timeline and it resurfaces whenever it feels like it, triggered or not. We just never know. That’s why giving abundant grace is so important. In my case, I grieved my loss the most years later, after my husband abandoned me. I think it was the realization that the loss would never be redeemed, and it was like a death all over again, this time the death of hope. Some things we just never get over, even if we really want to. Some things we just can’t drink away. So be ok with that when someone else grieves. It’s the same grace you need, too, in your own troubles. Keep that in mind.
And please, kind friends, avoid all platitudes.
They are not helpful. Notice I didn’t say,
“So-and-so told me all about how good God is and about His perfect plan for my life.”
“So-and-so told me everything happens for a reason.”
“So-and-so gave me books to read about grief and mourning and bootstrapping and God’s sovereignty. They were really super helpful.”
Of course you mean well, but people drowning in grief do not have the clarity of mind or heart to look further than the present moment. Meet them there.
Show up. Serve. Grieve. Love.
Behold the grand paradox.