A Short Collection of Thoughts on Death
"The Lord has certainly inflicted a severe and bitter wound in the death of our infant son. But he is himself a Father, and knows best what is good for his children." - John Calvin, Letters
My venerable wife has laid out much better the experience of losing a child in utero. You don't often see fathers writing after these types of experiences. My only venture at a wasteful guess is because our experience reflects the difficult-to-define "community loss." What follows is a compilation of abstract and awfully disconnected thoughts on death and bereavement in our household.
Made Perfect in a Short Time
"A generation which wishes for a religion without tears must find it difficult to adjust its beliefs to the teaching of the New Testament and to the facts of life." - Inge
A few years back, on a trip to a quaint little bookstore, I stumbled across William Ralph Inge's Personal Religion and the Life of Devotion. I was on a bit of a mysticism kick and was stirred by the strange picture on the inside of the book — a girl, whom I could only presume was related to the author in some way, sitting solemnly.
Inge was a scholar in mysticism and neo-platonism. His applications to the personal life of devotion to God was stirring and delightful. However, the last chapter entitled "Bereavement" was unlike anything else I have ever read. It describes the illness, character, and impact of Inge's sickness-stricken 11-year-old daughter. I returned to the chapter with foreign feelings on my mind after our first loss. Inge's opening salvo providing a new and tremendous resonation,
"Bereavement is the deepest initiation into the mysteries of human life, an initiation more searching and profound than even happy love. Love remembered and consecrated by grief belongs, more clearly than the happy intercourse of friends, to the eternal world; it has proved itself stronger than death. Bereavement is the sharpest challenge to our trust in God; if faith can overcome this, there is no mountain which it cannot remove. And faith can overcome it."
Sick for 18 months, the bed-ridden girl was able to say to her brother, "God has spared me for a whole year to be with you all, and it has been the happiest year of my life" — Alaina and I had less time but no less joy. During the last week of Paula Inge's life, she discontinued her public evening prayers requesting, "If you do not mind, I should like best to be quite alone with God" — I have had many quiet and distressing moments since. The chapter of this holy family's life is a testimony of God's grace to me. It demonstrates bereavement and suffering to the glory of God in ways I could not prepare myself.
My time was significantly less (a week and not a year), and the joy significantly more concealed — since we told no one. Yet, I could not help but appreciate Inge's closing quote — a modified passage from the Wisdom of Solomon — and internalize it to our situation (yes, I presumed our child was a girl),
"She, being made perfect in a short time, fulfilled a long time, for her soul was dear to the Lord."
The First Time
In another practice of "Postmodern Obsession," I offer Donovan Woods' "The First Time" — for those unfamiliar, I often rip song lyrics out of their context to fit my application. Nothing could stop me from commandeering these lyrics,
"When you're up all night,
'Cause you want it so bad,
But you know deep down,
You're never gonna get it back."
I went to bed Saturday night hearing these words echo in my brain. This was no effort of my own — this lost child had become the pinnacle of my thought. I am afraid to go to bed tonight because of the truth in these words. Sleep has been restless. Silence deafening. What Woods meant to be a romantic split between two crossed lovers has become a refrain of private thoughts from me to my wife about our lost child,
"You're gonna learn to love another,
So will I...
We'll never get as high as the first time.
We're never gonna get as high as that first time."
I had already taken to joking about the new "pancake" Torrey. The children had answered amongst much laughter that we should name our next baby "pancake" — they did not know that we already had conceived (in both senses of the word) a baby. Now, I cannot fathom another "pancake." Or as Woods states, "You can try, All you like, You'll never get as high as the first time." It just seems wrong to take back the nickname and apply it to another. The joy for each child is an impossibly unique joy. In this joy we had begun to associate names and nicknames.
How can we call the next child Peter or Chelsea (mentioned in passing as our family rabidly watched the Women's Canadian Curling Championship)? How am I to jokingly refer to our next child as "pancake"? I don't know. But like Woods sings, I am "gonna learn to love" the next child as deeply as I have briefly loved this one.
Lamenting in a Red Chair
It was a Monday and I was busy changing a diaper. Our trip to the store had been a little long and the beer I had purchased was calling my name. For the past couple days, I had silently known that Alaina was late and I was preparing to ask her if she had taken a pregnancy test. Busy with Olivia's diaper, I missed Alaina setting a six pack and letter down on the kitchen counter.
I jokingly quipped "is this another baby announcement?" — it was. The letter spoke of the Torrey Family completing its "six-pack" alongside a six-pack of my favorite beer — Deschutes Red Chair. I was thrilled and drank in celebration. I eventually stumbled into bed excited and unable to sleep. I silently collected the bottles above the fridge — the beer became a quaint reminder of the joy. Then Saturday came.
It seems belligerently silly to ask but will I drink this beer again without crying? Or more so, why would I think that crying is a problem? It may seem foolish but drinking Red Chair will be my version of "So David arose from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes; and he came into the house of the Lord and worshiped. Then he came to his own house, and when he requested, they set food before him and he ate" (2 Sam 12:20).
After Saturday night came Sunday morning. We worshiped — I kept silent for most of the service. In the evening, we went shopping and I put a six-pack of Red Chair in the cart. Tears filled my eyes making eye contact with Alaina and placing it in the cart. We both knew — every year when this seasonal beer is released we will remember. As my excitement for the beer grows I will remember the short joy of expecting our child. The taste of the beer will fade. Will the sadness of the loss fade?
Not An Orphan
In talking with family we received this heartfelt message, "As sad as I am that I won't get to hold baby Torrey on this side of eternity, the idea of baby dancing with Jesus in heaven is pretty sweet." I confess I considered the image more silly than comforting at first. Perhaps this was the reaction of a heart trying to callous itself. I am not particularly sure.
I am confident that there are many ways to grieve. Some better or worse than others. I wonder if true Christian bereavement can be anything more than renewed reliance upon Christ. It is true that we are without our child — our child's future ripped from our fingers by sin. But Christ assumed human flesh, conquered death on our behalf — on this baby's behalf — and has granted us a glorious, eternal future with this child. As the Canons of Dort states,
"The children of believers are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy."
It is true that we are without our child. And it is also true that our child is without their biological parents. But the joy of my bereavement is the truth that this child is no orphan. Whether dancing or not I do not know. But this I do know, Christ's promise to me and my offspring rings louder than ever — "I will not leave you as orphans" (John 14:18).