We go through a Litany of Loss, Remembrance, and of Hope. In unison, we all speak the words, "We remember them." It's always a memorable event. But this year was the best yet.
What I'm feeling the need to share about, and always remember for myself, are the two gentlemen who were brave enough to stand in front of a very full church and express their heartfelt stories. The first was a young dad whose speech was absolutely healing to me. It was full of words I needed to hear, and a perspective I needed to be mindful of. His name is Cliff Pugh, and he and his wife Amber have been kind enough to allow me to share his speech in its entirety for you:
Let me start by saying how honored I am to be speaking tonight. I cant express in words how much this means to me, and I would also like to begin by saying that I feel very out of place at the same time. I know that no matter how far along in the pregnancy or even after birth, that the pain is true and devastating. When I hear people tell of their experience and how tragic and heartbreaking it is, I tend to compare and make the loss of my child at six weeks insignificant. When there was no life to be found on the monitor, and no heartbeat, and all of our joy was sucked out of the very air we breathed, I had no choice but to reflect inwardly. And I found the only thing that heals is love - love for one another and love for our children. There is no reverse, only forward.
This unique position has forced me to look at everything in a different light, breaking through onto a new plane of thought. I have chosen to keep this whole speech in the first person as to not offend anyone. These are my own thoughts, which I believe to be inspired by God, and they have helped me heal and prepare for another tragedy if one may come. I only hope to be helpful and to stand in a place of the highest love for all the parents who have lost a child.
Christmas is about birth. The birth of Christ the Savior of the world but I'm afraid that when I wake up Christmas morning I will only be captured by the thought of loss, wishing I could open a gift for my child and share the greatness of birth with my family. And the whole day will be tainted with these feelings making it painful to watch the joy of others and even more painful to see my wife without her baby. And others deserve to have me rejoice with them. These thoughts however are a choice on my behalf. There is very little I have control over, my thoughts and feelings are the only things I believe to be in my control. So I have been inspired to look at my child's death, not as a tragedy and not as a blessing but to be something that I have no control over. Then I went a little bit further and thought to myself, "Well what really happened that day? What is the core of what happened?" and I found that all that happened is I didn't get what I wanted. And no amount of willpower or money or prayer or worry or tears or anger or self-destruction could bring back what I wanted.
I then went further still and thought, "But what did my child lose?" I got so caught up in me that I never stopped to think about my child and how they felt, and their hopes and dreams. I believe in Christ and heaven and angels and God the Father with everything that makes me Cliff. I could not come up with one thing they had lost, but what they gained. They got a first-class ticket into God's great kingdom. They will never be bullied in school, they will never go hungry, they will never struggle with sexuality. They will never have their feelings hurt, they will never get turned down by a girl or a guy, they will never worry or be afraid. They will never have to work a dead-end job and be in debt up to their eyeballs. They will never worry about retirement and regret past decisions. And the list goes on. They will get to spend every holiday with us and we can still talk to one another. And one day I will meet my child. My child got to skip over this very painful life. Most importantly, they will never experience the loss of a child. If I would want anything for my child, if I would pray day and night for my child about anything after they were born - it would be that in this life on earth that they never go through any of these things.
And you see, once they have been born, I cannot promise them that they won't go through these things but where they are now I know is a place far better then I could ever offer them. I try and think on this level when I am taken off guard with painful memories and it curbs the pain of not getting what I wanted. However, it does not take it all away. I still would want nothing more than to look into my child's eyes and have them smile at me, call me Dad, and be able to watch their first steps.
So this Christmas, let's be joyous and free in our thoughts, blessing others with our joy and not keeping it from them. Hugging children and holding babies, loving with all of our hearts and knowing that our greatest gifts are still to come.
Next up was an elderly gentleman, who needed assistance walking up several steps before standing at the microphone. He gave us some background about his loss before reciting the poem he'd written. The day was December 17th in 1932. Early that morning, his father ushered the kids (he was 7 years old, his sister was 5, and another sister was 2) to a colder part of their farmhouse to show them that their mother had a baby sometime in the night. A baby girl, who arrived early at seven months along, stillborn. He said he remembered that his Aunt was greatly upset that his parents were actually showing the baby to the children, but that he knew it was the right thing to do, as they would never again have the chance to see her.
A friend of the family worked at a cemetery and offered the couple a headstone that was made by mistake, which read only "Elizabeth." No last name, no date, so it was perfect. He explained that back in those days, people didn't talk about infant loss. In fact, pregnancies weren't even a topic of discussion; you only spoke about a baby once it was here. So his baby sister was buried in some remote country cemetery, and never really talked about again.
He described thinking about her often, throughout adulthood, through his service in World War II. It wasn't until he had a child of his own who was old enough to drive that he decided to go searching for where his baby sister was buried. They never did find her remote gravesite, and wondered if the stone was simply removed by cemetery workers as it read incomplete. But still, he thought about her. And he wanted to make her life, and her burial, right. So after all this time, he decided to have another stone made. One with her full name and the date - December 17, 1932. He had the stone placed right next to his parents, in the cemetery they were laid to rest. That was only right, he said. After all, she was his sister and she was their daughter.
I'm not exaggerating when I say that I was close to losing it at this point in the evening. My crying could have morphed into a full-blown bawl, but it was a quiet church and I didn't want to make a scene. I just could not stop the tears from flowing. This precious gentleman asked that we didn't clap after he recited his poem, because he wasn't contributing his story as a "performance, but as a prayer." I walked right up to him afterwards and thanked him for sharing, and told him that I wanted to give him a standing ovation, but honored his wishes instead.
Grief is not something we get over. It is something we learn to live with. Can I get an amen?
I think his story touched me so much because it offered me yet another perspective, not just viewing the topic of Grief from a parenting viewpoint, but as a sibling who has never forgotten. Obviously as my own children are getting older, their understanding about the loss of their brother is only increasing. Joel, my firstborn who is now seven years old, has had several occasions recently when he has burst into tears, seemingly out of nowhere, explaining he just misses Gabe. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit always calms my heart in these moments and reminds me that we should simply pray together. So Joel and I bow our heads and casually tell Jesus that we're just feeling sad, and could He please just tell Gabe that we miss him so. And we thank Him for taking such good care of him for us, because we know he's in the best place. And then the tears are gone and we go on with our day. And although seeing my son in tears breaks my heart every time, after we wipe our eyes I'm left feeling nothing but gratitude for an opportunity to turn to our Savior.
I am so very grateful to everyone who had anything to do with this year's Labor of Love Memorial Service. I feel like I can now take on the rest of this season, remembering my own angel, but keeping joy in my heart. What a gift! Thank you all.