We just got home from a lovely Christmas dinner with some friends from church and I cried all the way home. The overall night was so pleasant and charming, and to the outside world, nothing was wrong. All was well. But my heart was breaking and by the end of the meal, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Throughout the night, there were many jokes about having young children and the many stresses that brings. At the end of the evening, the couples were sharing their year’s biggest lessons, whether from marriage or having new children. This makes sense to have a “year in review” of sorts, as we’re coming to the new year. It’s a good time to reflect on what God has taught us this past year. But as many of the couples have had new babies this past year, it felt like everything asked about or talked about was having children. My husband and I haven’t been able to conceive for several years, so by the end of the dinner, I was shutting down. The whole night I’d been cheerful and happy, and while I can usually take a handful of remarks about kids, this was becoming too much. As we were asked the awkward question of a very generalized, “What have you two learned this year?”, my husband answered with good insights while I sat there with tears welling in my eyes. I was desperately praying that God would reach down and not allow them to spill over in front of everyone, which I knew would make everyone uncomfortable and sad. It was no one’s fault. This was just life – right?
As other couples noticed the time and had to get back for the babysitter, I took the opportunity to also grab my coat, plaster on a smile and say my thanks for a lovely evening – and get the heck out of there. Hubby was gentle on the way home and asked if I was okay and I didn’t even know what to say. I wept all the way home. Just silent tears, streaming down my makeup’d face, at the fresh pain of this salt in my wound. Here’s the thing: I understand that there will always be new babies to celebrate over and these little faces bring my heart such joy. And they also bring such a sharp grief, it can sometimes take my breath away. I can absolutely feel the happiness of another woman’s new child at the exact same time that I feel my heart break just a little more. It IS possible to feel these two, seemingly opposite emotions at the exact same time, and both be fully genuine. I think we expect ourselves to feel one or the other, but never both at the same time. Or that feeling that joy should somehow pardon the grief, which doesn’t always happen. The longer I live, the more I realize how very multifaceted we really are and that our emotions don’t always fit neatly into one box or another. Sometimes it’s messy in here. Sometimes we’re complicated and our emotions will be in two places at the same time. And that’s okay. It doesn’t diminish the validity of my heart feeling joy for another, simply because I feel the sting of pain for myself.
Here’s where I’m having a little more trouble, and here is where I’m putting out a call to anyone who has ever met someone who was hurting. Have some compassion – and then have a little more. Be loving, and then extend that love just a little further. And be brave. Be bold enough to get your hands dirty, to sit down in the muck and mire with the person in their grief. Instead of trying to fix it and make it better, just listen and BE. You don’t need to have the answers. God already does. But you do need to be His ambassador of gentleness and compassion when another person is hurting. This is what we are called to. I found it painful to be sitting there at a friend’s table listening to others groan about the trials of childrearing, going on and on about how they would be happy to give someone else their kids, while my husband and I are praying and trying every single month for that privilege. This is the confusing part, because on the one hand, I know that these couples genuinely love their children, but they also get stressed out and overwhelmed with them. That’s okay and it’s so normal. It’s also okay that we’re not all in the same life stage right now and I truly want to hear about other people’s worlds and what they’re learning. But then there’s the other side of this, where I feel like sometimes a little bit of tact and carefulness is lacking. If someone at that table tonight had just lost a child, would everyone have felt so comfortable to be laughing about their frustrations with their kids? Or would they have been just a little more tactful with their words? Maybe they would have paused for a moment more, to reflect on the fact that kids are NOT a given and they are NOT an expectation. Stressful and wearying as they may be, they are a precious gift from the Lord.
I doubt the jokes would have gone on as long, because in this scenario, people would have been more careful about the couple who had lost this imaginary child. But here’s the thing – every single month, it feels like a loss to me. No, I don’t have a funeral or a memorial service for this kind of grief. I don’t bury a box with my beloved child. This version of grief is so much more invisible than that and 99% of the time, no one ever sees it. This isn’t a scarred face or a wheelchaired body that advertises it’s pain and suffering. This is the silent, lonely, sometimes shameful version of grief. This is the kind where you wonder if you sinned long ago and never remembered to square it with God. Or if this is a kind of punishment because of how you treated someone once upon a time. This is where you wonder if it’s all YOUR fault. This is where my husband wonders if it’s all HIS fault. This is the timed, not-always-sexy-sex that you make sure to have every other day, just in case. This is where you overanalyze every single twinge and tweak of your body, wondering, “was that a clue?”. And when that month is over and you feel those cramps begin and the flow comes, you feel that little hope die all over again for another lost chance. No carrying on the family name, no little ones in oversized T-shirts to read stories to before bed. No baking Christmas cookies with the tiny faces that look like yours, while they make a mess of the powdered sugar and sprinkles. This is the hard part, because this what no one sees.
So when I put out a call for compassion, this is why. I don’t enjoy going on about my grief and I don’t much enjoy exposing my pain when it’s one of the most intimate, personal sides of myself and my husband. But I also understand that this is so often overlooked and misunderstood. Not intentionally and not because people don’t care; more often, it’s because people simply don’t know what to say or do. But if we’re meant to express love the way Jesus did, let’s consider what he did while he lived here among us. For just a short 33 years, Jesus walked as a man on this earth, probably stubbing his toe and hitting his thumb with a hammer as he learned carpentry from his father Joseph. We know he experienced heartbreak from his own family not understanding him and from his own people rejecting him. We know that he wept and he cried so hard over his love for us, that he bled. We know he experienced pain and grief. Yet as far as we can tell, Jesus never had cancer. He never buried his own child. He didn’t lose his wife. There were some very specific forms of grief that Jesus didn’t walk through himself – and yet, I imagine that he had such deep compassion on those who did suffer those things. There are many verses speaking to Jesus’ compassion – for the blind man that he healed, for the daughter that had died and he raised back from the dead. He was a tender man with a deep love and even without experiencing every single form of grief himself, he understood what pain felt like. He was there with people in it and he loved them and had compassion on them while they suffered.
There are silent sufferers out there, friends. There are people, like my husband and myself, who are in some silent grief that you may not be able to see. It may not be obvious to the outside world like a cast on a broken leg, but I can assure you, it needs just as much tender care. We are called to “love one another” as our very greatest calling. This doesn’t just mean when it suits us or when it’s convenient for us. This doesn’t only mean to be loving when we understand where the other person is coming from. This is the kind of love that needs to get messy and not be afraid. This is the kind where you sit with a friend and say nothing at all in the midst of that uncomfortable, awkward space where grief settles. Just let it be. Just sit down and shake hands with it and let it be for a minute. Don’t rush to the answer, don’t try to slap on a quick-fix churchy answer of what sounds right. There will be time enough for all those conversations. They’re good conversations to have, but they’re not the only kind necessary when someone is hurting. We could all use a little more compassion in this world and during the Holiday season, grief is often made sharper because people are missing loved ones or struggling with pain we don’t see. Grief is more pointed now because the joy of this season is so highlighted and paints everything in swirling colors and ribbons. That joy is valid and wonderful, but for some, it makes their heartbreak feel all the more lonely. Give a little more of yourself to someone hurting this season and make sure they know you’re there all the way. This will truly be a gift and a heartfelt investment in the people you’re called to love.
** Be kinder than necessary. Everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle. **