- Michael Hubbard and his mom, Nancy Reyer. (Photo: David Benthal)
I have experienced labor eight times. Four times for the kids I am grateful to have with me now and four times for the babies I lost to miscarriage. The live births were well worth the effort. The miscarriages were a terrible loss for which the sense of grief lasted longer than those babies’ all too short lives.
Losing babies in miscarriage was difficult, especially the longer I carried them. Three of them were in the first eight weeks. One baby died at 14 weeks, just after I had seen her heart beating on the ultrasound.
It’s work birthing babies. Sure the conception part is pretty fun, most of the time. But I threw up daily for at least half of the nine months it took for the babies to develop within my womb. My emotions were wacky. My husband used to say that pregnancy makes PMS look like a picnic. He doesn’t do picnics, especially at the beach. He hates the taste of sand in his sandwich.
Laboring with my four babies who were born alive was a mixture of excitement, and intense pain. The first time around was a little strange. Though I was determined to have a natural birth, a surprise break in my water caused the doctor to schedule as cesarean section. I felt the first pangs of labor just minutes before I was being wheeled into the operating room. The birth of my son David was a mixture of intense joy and confusion. The nurses whisked my husband and my son quickly out of the room as I laid on the operating room table bleeding. My husband overheard one of the nurses commenting that they had to stop that bleeding or they would lose me. I can only imagine the contradictory emotions that my husband felt at that moment; joy at the birth of his son and grief at the possibility of losing his wife.
Joy and grief go hand in hand, especially when it comes to new life. Anytime we grow or move ahead there is a letting go; a grieving that must happen for new life to emerge. Jesus warned his disciples about this at the last supper. They just weren’t getting it. He was trying to explain to them that he was going to die and yet he promised that new life would come from this death. He used the example of labor and birth to illustrate this truth.
“Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child is grieving because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” (John 16:20-22)
It was an interesting analogy that Jesus used, especially because men at that time didn’t have much to do with the labor and birth process. And yet Jesus used this specific example of labor and birth to speak to his disciples, and indeed to each of us, to remind us that grief is a part of life. In fact, He makes the point that grief is a necessary part of the process of new birth.
Grief and the joy of new life seem to be two very contradictory experiences that should not go together. However, I have spoken with many parents of children with special needs. One thing we all share in common is this juxtaposition of grief and joy in regards to our children. We are grateful for the gift of these children, while still grieving for the future that we thought they were supposed to have. As our lives unfold and our children grow, new expectations are met and different goals are set, giving us a sense of joy. Still, grief waxes and wanes.
For me, grief hits at the most inopportune times. Last week, a wave a grief came over me as I was making my morning coffee. I tried to distract myself and talk myself out of it. I had coffee, the sun was out and I had a lot to do that day. Nevertheless, I found myself sobbing in the early morning before dawn. Like sudden pangs of labor, I was caught off guard by this surge of emotions that seemed to well up from deep within. I took more time to pray that morning. I went for a walk and I made time to rest my body. I didn’t understand the grief, but I knew I would eventually feel joy again.
Rather than wallow in the grief, I reached out to my friend Nancy, whose son Michael sustained life-altering injuries that caused severe burns all over his body and traumatic brain injury. This past week was three years since Michael’s accident. I went to visit them at the hospital.
Nancy and I had only met after the accident, but there is a bond of understanding between us that truly is rooted in this experience of grief. When I’m having a rough time, I look at Nancy and her devotion to Michael. I see her dedication to providing him with the best life she can offer. I also see her and understand her pain.
When I visited them, I couldn’t help but think about Jesus and his comparison of labor and delivery to this experience of grief and joy. As I watched Nancy encouraging Michael to speak and follow simple commands, I thought of how it’s like labor and delivery all over again. Nancy is very open about her grief over this tragedy. Likewise as deep as her grief, her joy runs deeper still. She rejoices with each little breakthrough her son makes and the bond between them is a miracle to behold.
Each of us labors in grief many times throughout our lives. Sometimes the fruit of our labor is as tangible as the birth of a newborn baby. Sometimes it’s a promise on the horizon that better days lay ahead. Either way, grief and joy go hand in hand as we labor in love.
Eileen Benthal is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a B.A. in Theology from Franciscan University. She and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Their youngest, Johanna, is a teenager with special needs. Eileen can be reached at FreeIndeedFreelance.com.