(This is the second entry about my family’s experience with the loss of our child, Oliver, through miscarriage. Oliver was twelve weeks along when he died and my wife carried him another six weeks before he was born; I share that journey in the first story. This one was harder to write than the first and harder for us to share because it’s a more intimate part of the journey. That intimacy brings with it a bit of vulnerability. That vulnerability prompted my wife and I to spend time talking about sharing this and how we both felt about letting the world into such a tender moment for our family. In the end, we agreed it was better to share our story and let it bring hope to others instead of keeping it private. Every story of miscarriage is unique and this is merely ours. It is my attempt to describe our journey and in no way written to prescribe how another should walk through theirs. Ultimately, I hope God is glorified through our deeds and these words.)
For you created…
Those are the first three words of the thirteenth verse of the one hundred and thirty-ninth Psalm, and up to the moment I spoke them, I would have told you I was fine. Losing Oliver had been a whirlwind and I was certainly saddened, but I hadn’t cried. And I’m no macho, tough guy who thinks real men don’t cry, but for whatever reason, tears hadn’t been part of the process until I was kneeling by Oliver’s grave with my family and I began to read that Psalm.
I’d been up late the night before getting ready for this moment. Jackson, Andrew, and I picked through the landscape departments at two different stores before selecting the little perennial we wanted to plant. Then I started to think through the memorial service because I believed it to be part of my role. Our kids were genuinely excited about having a new brother or sister so I wanted to help them process their questions and disappointment. My wife was hurting deeply and I wanted to soothe her pain, even if it stung for a moment. I needed to organize my thoughts, to reflect on our questions, and to find sure footing for the next step our family needed to take. I read through a few passages in the Bible, but fatigue climbed all over me the way Toby and Andrew do every morning and I had to go to bed. But before I left my desk, God used a simple, three-word phrase to frame my thoughts, “It is right.”
5:00 AM came quickly. Jeni was sleeping deeply and the rest of the house was silent as I showered and got back to my desk. Our goal was to be at the gravesite by the sun’s dawning at 7:15 AM and there were plenty of preparations to make, so my time with this element was brief. I prayed through verses of scripture, reflected on our emotions and questions, and scribbled thoughts into my notebook, hurrying to finish before anyone woke.
“It is right. . .”
But what is right? What was I do to with that three-word prompt? The Lord began gently filling in the blanks. Our pregnancy announcement video is significant because it reveals our family’s enthusiasm. It highlights our boys’ eager anticipation of their new baby. It also represents love lost. Oliver’s passing led to grief and for a moment, to guilt. That guilt was focused on our video. Why hadn’t we waited to tell everybody? Why did we have to make such a big deal about it? If we would have just waited until we got through the first trimester. . . But God took me right to Psalm 139 and reminded me that video wasn’t celebrating a pregnancy; it was celebrating our son. And it was right to celebrate! In that moment, when I read those words, “For you created,” I felt only comfort. There were no tears.
The rest came in a frequently interrupted blur. A dear family member brought a breakfast casserole the night before that needed to be reheated for after our memorial so I went to the kitchen and preheated the oven. Then back to my desk for a couple of minutes until the oven beeped. I returned to the kitchen and put breakfast in the oven and hurried back to my office. A few minutes of reading and writing before kids started waking up. My neck started to get tight. I took a deep breath and reminded myself to stay calm. Jeni peeked her head in to let me know she was awake. It was time to get Oliver’s body ready for burial. I followed Jeni to our room.
The tiny footprint we made the night before was so significant we wanted a handprint as well, so Jeni deftly painted his ladybug-size hand and placed it next to the baby-blue footprint. I washed his hand and then held him as I laid out the blanket Jeni’s mom lovingly knit for this moment. Jeni sat to my right, watching me work and I could see tears slowly cascading from her eyes. My hands felt clumsy and huge as I struggled to be gentle with his frail body.
She pulled her eyes off my work for a brief moment and said to me, “I’m so thankful for you.” Her words were life. My mind knew this process was part of my role, but her soft encouragement spoke to my heart and carried me, as I cared for him. This was the toughest moment we’d faced together and I felt a sense of honor as I served her. I imagine my feelings were similar to the ones a soldier might experience while folding an American flag for a grieving widow.
All that remained was to wrap everything in a burial shroud. Weeks earlier we purchased some muslin fabric for exactly this purpose, but I failed to consider how we would secure it. The night before Oliver was born, God reminded me he is big enough to care about the tiniest detail and gently led me to the solution.
I had the recent privilege of standing by a friend when he made his forever vow to his bride. This friend leads a ministry that puts specific verbs to the love Jesus commands of his followers when he said, “love your neighbor as yourself.” CYNY chose the verb “clothe” and they’ve been clothing people as they would hope to be clothed ever since. One facet of the ministry provides dress clothes for recently released prisoners who are attempting to reenter the workforce. They sell CYNY tie bars and 100% of the profits go toward that purpose. My friend gave me one of these bars for the wedding and I found it the night before Oliver arrived. The moment I rediscovered it and looked at the CYNY logo I thought, clothe your neighbor as yourself, in death. This whole process was an attempt to honor Oliver and I felt it doubly honorable, both to Oliver and my friend’s passion, to use the clip to secure the burial shroud. So I did.
Just before I finished, Jeni walked back into our bedroom. I secured the tie clip and served as one of Oliver’s pallbearer’s when I carried him into the room. Jeni was sitting on the bed, still softly crying, “Do you want to hold him?” Her nod said what her tongue could not and I placed everything on her lap and she gently secured it with her hands. I sat to her right, wrapped my arm around her waist, and said nothing. We shared the silence for a few moments before continuing to get ready. I placed Oliver’s bowl on top of our armoire and went to help the boys dress.
I picked out collared shirts for the guys and got them ready. Jeni came down the hall wearing the slightly disheveled look of a woman in mourning and their dressier clothes unintentionally made her feel shame. She was so sweet in her grief. A peacoat was her choice to cover her common clothes. I stole a few seconds to write the rest of my thoughts.
The boys were loading into the van and Jeni carried Lucy to do the same. I tore some paper and bookmarked my Bible before hurrying down the hall toward the door. Andrew carried the flower. Jackson had a rock he selected as a modest headstone. Jeni carried Oliver. The air was just cold enough to notice and I was reminded of early mornings at the Augusta National watching the dawn push the darkness off the course; It was an ideal springtime morning. I got in the driver’s seat and we drove for the gravesite.
We pulled up and while I was getting ready each of the boys asked for and were granted a few moments holding Oliver’s bowl. Once everyone had their turn and were seated beneath the oaktree I quickly dug the little hole, thankful God led us to a place void of roots. I leaned the shovel against the tree before Jeni, kneeling between Caedmon and Lucy, handed me Oliver’s heart-made casket. Toby told us this was how he wanted to help so his four-year-old hand joined mine as we laid his brother’s body in the Earth. He sat next to his sister. I sat on the other end of our little half-circle, opened my Bible, and began.
I reminded the boys of our video and how excited we all were about Oliver. I emphasized we were sitting there to remember their brother and our son. I found my first bookmark and tried to read Psalm 139, and then when there were no more preparations to make and no time to heed, God’s word released my grief. It was a good moment and I was thankful for my tears. As soon as they started to come I involuntarily tried to make them stop. I wish I knew how to stifle that reflex. But they came and I was glad the boys saw their daddy cry. With a little sniffling and a few restarts, I read these words.
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful,I know that full well.My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. – Psalm 139:13-16
“It is right, to celebrate,” I told them.
Then I talked about death being a reminder that we are not home. That we were made for a relationship with our creator and father in Heaven. These moments of pain are not permanent, but part of the eternal journey. Knowing the emotional challenge of the actual practice of burial, I felt led to share the following verse as a reminder of what our physical bodies, these tents as Paul calls them, actually are.
“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” – Genesis 3:19
“It is right, to remember,” I said.
I had the next verses marked but for whatever reason felt I should look at my family and paraphrase instead of looking down to read. Grief overwhelmed me again as I reminded all of us there is a time for mourning and that even Jesus wept. After regaining a bit of composure, shared the truth that those who mourn are blessed because they will be comforted.
“It is right to mourn,” I said.
Only a few short minutes had passed since our memorial began and already I’d reached the end of my notes. Lucy had lost focus and demanded attention of her own so Jeni now held a wriggling toddler. Toby’s attention span was spent as well and he needed to be reminded to sit still. I struggled with parental frustration, a little angry the little ones couldn’t maintain reverence for this moment. But you know what, little ones aren’t made for grief and mourning; those are reserved for us. Looking back, I still selfishly wish I could have more deeply immersed myself in the moment, but have the added perspective of joy knowing they don’t yet carry that burden of longing.
We’d been talking about this next truth since Oliver was named Annie. We imagined all the exploring and discovering their brother would be doing and how exciting it would be to get a personal tour of God’s redeemed creation when we joined Oliver in Heaven. But now, in this very temporal and physical moment, I wanted them to know those dreams are so much more than wishful thinking.
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor. So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Corinthians 15:35-44, 54-57
After sharing God’s assurance I shared a closing quote from The Power of the Powerless. Oliver De Vinck’s mother spoke them first to his brother, and the book’s author, Christopher and since his story helped inspire Oliver’s name I felt them powerfully appropriate to share with our Oliver’s brothers and sister. “When you go to Heaven, Oliver will run to you, embrace you, and the first thing he will say is ‘thank you.'”
I spoke God’s closing reminder, “It is right, to anticipate.”
It was time to cover Oliver’s body with the “dust” of the Earth so I asked if they wanted to drop a handful of soil in the hole and everyone participated. Then I carefully filled the hole, leaving room at the top to plant our flower. The sun’s light had filled the sky, warming the air just slightly and birds were singing their morning songs when Andrew helped me plant the flower we selected. The two of us used our hands to sweep the remaining dirt into the hole and around the flower. Jackson then placed his marking rock next to the flower. When all the words were spoken and physical work was done we offered a brief prayer to God and headed for home.
Toby’s favorite song and one of our family’s favorites is 10,000 reasons. It wasn’t on the radio, but the words were in my mind as we continued our day.
The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning,
It’s time to sing Your song again.
Whatever may pass, and whatever lies before me,
Let me be singing when the evening comes.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
O, my soul.
Worship His holy name.
Sing like never before,
O my soul,
I’ll worship Your holy name.