I’ve never been pregnant. I watched my wife, a complete champion, bear three children with heroic efforts. Bearing a child means to carry the child through pregnancy to birth, when the child is born. Leading up to the birth, there are contractions. Contractions prepare the body to deliver the baby by shortening uterine muscles and dilating the cervix. As the uterus contracts and the cervix expands, the baby passes through the birth canal. But that description is deceptively simple. Like I said, it took heroic efforts.
And a midwife. By no means could I keep my wits through the process to support my wife to any great extent. I was able to boil water (stereotypes to the wind!), rub her back, cheer her on, and grab towels. But a midwife helped keep me together and coached my wife along. I’ll come back to this point.
My Dad died on October 17, 2018. It was about 30 months after a terminal liver cancer diagnosis. My Dad taught me many things; he was teaching us until the day he died. My brother, Tim, summed it well: He taught us to die slowly. By God’s grace, most of my Dad’s final 30 months were quite enjoyable. He had a good quality and quantity of life post-diagnosis. A doctor helped us to frame the situation: Dad refused to surrender to death easily and fought in such a way that he won many battles, though it was a losing war.
I am now learning to grieve. And my Dad isn’t here to teach me. I watched grief and experienced grief after the deaths of grandparents. But, like pregnancies, deaths and their grieving are unique. My Dad’s grief for his own parents was different from my own. C.S. Lewis noted after the death of his wife that he didn’t know grief felt so much like fear. The fear I have is that I won’t grieve – or that I won’t grieve well. I have had my tears, but what is grief supposed to look like? How will I know I’ve grieved?
Every pregnancy was different. My children were all carried differently. They sat in different positions and they liked different foods; they rested and played at different times, all within my wife’s body. I recall one time when my unborn daughter (though I didn’t know the child was a girl at the time) was awake but my wife was asleep. We played a little game of tag. I would tap my wife’s abdomen and wait for the response: a kick. I would wait just a bit and then tap again. Another brief pause and then another kick. There was a little life inside my wife, completely dependent on her to survive yet with a life and will of her own.
I’m taught and I teach that grief comes in waves. It’s true; I don’t deny it. Grief often comes in force and then recedes. But (so far) not for me. I wait for the waves, but they don’t come. There are only brief laps at the beach’s edge, laps that dissipate without foam, even, into the sand. I want more.
Back to the midwife. My wife learned to handle contractions in waves: accept them as they come, breathing and staying as relaxed as possible, and, finally, letting them go. I don’t know what a contraction feels like and I don’t know what grieving—this grieving, at least—is supposed to feel like. This unique grieving has taken the form of irritability, temptation, weariness, flashes of drive and energy.
I take these experiences as contractions. You can’t stop contractions and you can’t speed them up. They come and they go. Contractions prepare the body to birth a baby. They intensify and bring urges to push; the body wants to deliver the baby. In a similar way, I want to control my grief. I want to speed up the waves. I want to be delivered of my grief.
“Heather, on the next contraction, you are going to want to push. You are going to want to push very, very badly, but I need you not to push. If you push, you are going to blast that baby right out of you.” That was some of the most memorable support the midwife gave my wife. The contractions were working, but the body was not yet ready to be delivered of the baby.
I want to blast this grief right out of me. But I can’t. At least, it will be harmful if I do. I need to hold on and let the grief come; let these grieving moments do their work until the grief is fully delivered. I need to do this without breaking trust—without giving into the irritability, the temptation, the manic drive. C.S. Lewis didn’t know grief felt so much like fear; I didn’t know grief took so much faith.
Note from the Editor: the featured image is from the painting “Grief” by
Morteza Katouzian, 1983.