Chapter 36. Burden

Chapter 36. Burden


Grief is a weight. Building enough strength to carry it takes time. Arriving at the point where it can be carried effortlessly, takes even longer.

Being released from a state of grieving does not come by “getting on with things”. It doesn’t come through platitudes or words, no matter how well intentioned.

It doesn’t come from knowing the loved one is free from suffering.

And it doesn’t come from knowing this was God’s plan.

I don’t believe one is ever relieved of grieving. Instead, grief, pain, loss, sorrowall those emotions that we’d do anything to refuseare gradually absorbed into our being. Cautiously, carefully, day after day, we carry our grief, all the while building emotional muscles that are able to bear its burden.

But it doesn’t start that way.

Grief landed on my spirit like a chain-mail shroud, a rough and weighty burden thrown without ceremony over my being.

In the beginning, it was all I could do to drag myself under its weight, minute by minute by minute. Each measure was evidence that time was passing, but I had no inkling of the old adage, “Time heals all wounds”. There was no healing going on that I could feel.

Grief was so heavy I felt I was crawling under its weight. Emotions were frozen, tears had a life of their own. I had no ability and barely any desire to check them.

Sometimes, if I was distracted, I felt a small reprieve, but even in that, I learned to be cautious. Grief was constant, waiting to ambush me when least expected.

I was shopping at the mall one day, and walked into Zellers. My path took me beside the baby department. My eyes drifted to a display of infant sleepers, and grief roared in so powerfully it nearly drove me to my knees. Through tears I couldn’t quell, I found my way to the door and stumbled to my car in the parking lot. By now I had learned to wait for the blast of sorrow to abate. It’s not safe to drive when you’re crying.

Grief weighed down every spark of life I had once possessed. This state of being, overwhelming and ceaseless, was unprecedented. Did others feel such a depth of sorrow? They must. Why had I not been told? For a little while I felt betrayed, angry that no one had warned me. But then it came to me that perhaps they had. I simply could not relate.

The weight of that shroud was greater than gravity. I knew there was an expectation that I move forward, but how could I, dragging the shroud everywhere I went? The truth was, for a long time I couldn’t.

But then, occasionally, I did.

Gradually, like an athlete training for a race, my emotional muscles became accustomed to the weight, built up a slow, measured strength as I learned to function under its burden. In awkward fits and starts, the pain moved from external to internal as I absorbed it into my heart.

Tentatively I began to stand under the weight of sorrow. I braced myself against a wall, a shoulder, a faith, and peered at the world through red-rimmed eyes, processing what I saw with a mind that now knew what it couldn’t have known until it had happened.

Did things go back to normal? They did not. The normal of the past was no more.

Was I changed? Yes. Was it right that I was changed? Absolutely.

Like any child conceived and carried, Wendy impacted our world in a careening, life- altering explosion, and we would never be the same. How could we be? Why would we want to be?

I’d had the privilege of knowing this wee human being for nine months in my womb, and then for her lifetime of thirty-seven hours. It tore the fabric of my being when she was wrenched from arms ready to hold her, from breasts ready to nurse her. She was snatched from her father, her sister, all of our family who’d been ready along with us to embrace and love a precious new being.

Expectation and anticipation were destroyed in a way for which we could never have been prepared.

Yes, we should be changed.

‘Normal’ had been redefined.

Some thought I should go on as I had before. Prior to Wendy, I might have thought that too.

Now I knew without a doubt that this was both impossible and wrong.

Going on as before would devalue the tiny life God sent to this earth, a life as important as my own, as my husband’s, as my other children’s lives.

I did not go on as before. I went on as a mother who had birthed her second daughter, loved her, held her as she died, and buried her.

Death of a Baby

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Chapter 35. A Tricycle & A Funeral

Chapter 35. A Tricycle & A Funeral

The day of the funeral was sunny, warm enough that no coats were needed. Our immediate family gathered at our house so we could travel to the church together.

Looking back, I can’t help but remember with gratitude one of the most unusual, but thoughtful gifts of that day. Someone had purchased a pink tricycle for Andrea. I’m sorry that I don’t remember who it was. Andrea was thrilled with her big-girl bike and busied herself riding back and forth on our sidewalk. We didn’t want our daughter apart from us. We needed her as much as she needed us. It was a blessing that she could be fully engaged in her activity, but not in need of my attention. As she pedalled, dressed in her new white dress, shoes and socks, the sun seemed to reflect her life-glow. I watched and felt gratitude, both for her presence and the wisdom of the one who had given her this gift.

Rick and I stayed close to each other. An unspoken collaboration stated that I would not leave him abandoned, and he would not leave me. We were one in this endeavour. Nothing else would do.

People came to the funeral.

It was a week day, a work day. But still, people came. Most were from our church. Some were friends; some were family.

My memories are sporadic.

My father and Uncle Mike carried the small, closed coffin to the front. Their faces reflected the gravity of the occasion. Their motions, unrehearsed, were awkward.

Andrea sat close beside us, wiggling, needing to be busy.

The pastor spoke.

Clay and Cathy spoke. Neither of them cried.

The choir sang.

Andrea, attracted to the coffin that was clearly the focus of attention, rose, and on little legs went to the front and laid her hand on it.

One relative felt this might disturb the service and reached out to hold her back. I was glad he didn’t manage. It was a sweet spontaneous moment. I wondered what Andrea understood from all the adult words being spoken.

Of the burial I have no recollection whatsoever. We took welcome advantage of the family plot and Wendy was buried at the head of her Great Grandfather’s grave. Weeks later we began occasional visits, taking Andrea to Wendy’s Remembering Place. When her little brother was born the following year, we took him as well. By the time Andrea began Kindergarten, her little sister in heaven was a firm part of our family tree. Wendy would not be forgotten.

 Death of a Baby

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Chapter 34. The Viewing

Chapter 34. The Viewing

The evening before Wendy would be buried, Meredith once again came to be with Andrea. Rick’s sister, Anne and her husband collected us from our home and drove us to the funeral home. There, the attendant showed us to the viewing room.

Wendy’s little coffin lay in quiet state at the side of a room, the walls decorated in deep orange and light brown, with dark green carpet and beige fabric. Tasteful, I guess, but to me, it felt artificial, like a set design. But then, that’s sort of what it was. What’s natural about a funeral home? Such scenes belong on television, not in real life.

A large spray of flowers, oversized in proportion to the small casket, and glaringly pink against the pure white, dominated the end of the open coffin that held our child’s remains.

Vague thoughts of dissatisfaction registered in my mind, but they didn’t seem to matter much in the scheme of things, and I let them go. Still, these images would remain firm in my memory for years to come; maybe they did matter a bit.

The attendant quietly enquired, “Did anyone suggest you bring a hat for the baby?” I looked at Wendy again, and saw, with a blunted sense of betrayal, a shaved section of scalp on the side of her head, exposing a raw stitched wound.

Now the letter that had arrived that morning made sense.

Dear Mr. And Mrs. Junior:

Recently, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has become involved in the circumstances surrounding the death of your infant daughter.

Our involvement is required by Law (the Fatality Inquires Act) in Alberta. This requires the investigation of unexpected or unexplained deaths and may include certain deaths that occur in hospitals and other institutions or deaths where the deceased may not have been seen by the family physician during the final 14 days in relation to the last illness.

We wish to ensure that you are not unduly distressed by this involvement. We hope to assist you wherever possible …”

The wound on Wendy’s head attested to the fact that an autopsy had been conducted. Why had I not noticed this when we’d dressed her? It was too late now.

“No. No one mentioned a hat,” I answered the attendant.

We took a few pictures, but were careful to angle them so the scarred side of her head wasn’t seen. I was relieved that whoever had set the coffin in place had considered the implications, and positioned it so the wound faced the wall.

Pictures. People take pictures of every occasion these days, even at viewings. The question was, what expression does one find at such a time as this, to place upon the emotion of the moment?

I turn the pages of our album, peering to see what message they portray.

Rick and I appear to be trying to look pleasant. My hand is on my stomach. Was I remembering Wendy’s movements in my womb, or did I want to throw up?

Other relatives are smiling, even chuckling. Some, the older ones, I note, look sombre.

In my memory, each response was appropriate simply because each of them was there.

People had come.

Rick and I sat in armchairs along the wall facing Wendy’s casket. From 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. we sat, and people came. They viewed; they hugged; they spoke condolences. I remember little. But I do know I was grateful that if we had to carry out this part of the ritual, people were gracious enough to attend.

Today, there seems to be more choice offered, and less expectation when it comes to carrying out traditional customs. I’m sure we could have said no to the viewing, but we weren’t in any shape to make choices. It was easier to allow those who knew what was expected tell us how things were generally done, and to go along with it. For Rick and me, this wasn’t a time to make a statementpolitical, social, religious or otherwise. We just wanted to honour our Wendy as best we could.

 Death of a Baby


Join me next week for Ch. 35. A Tricycle & A Funeral
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Chapter 33. A Poem of Understanding

Chapter 33. A Poem of Understanding

I’m not an outgoing person, and neither is Rick. Our social circle was small. Being part of a church family, though, meant there were many who not only knew of Wendy’s passing, but understood attendance at the viewing was important.

The idea that people would make this event a priority surprised me, until I pictured the alternative.

Can you imagine being the parents at a viewing, provided as part of the funeral home’s burial package for your baby girl, and almost no one attend?

Before we lost our Wendy, I would have told myself, “I don’t do funerals, much less viewings. It’s just not me.” It wouldn’t have crossed my mind that ‘doing a funeral’ wasn’t the family’s choice, either.

Years later I came across a poem by Julia Kasdorf, that spoke to the heart of the issue in practical terms.

‘What I Learned From My Mother’

by Julia Kasdorf

I learned from my mother how to love

the living, to have plenty of vases on hand

in case you have to rush to the hospital

with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants

still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars

large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole

grieving household, to cube home-canned pears

and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins

and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.

I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know

the deceased, to press the moist hands

of the living, to look in their eyes and offer

sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.

I learned that whatever we say means nothing,

what anyone will remember is that we came.

I learned to believe I had the power to ease

awful pains materially like an angel.

Like a doctor, I learned to create

from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once

you know how to do this, you can never refuse.

To every house you enter, you must offer

healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,

the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.


Reprinted from Sleeping Preacher, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992, by permission of the author.


Death of a Baby

Join me next week for Ch. 34. The Viewing
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Chapter 32. Preparing Our Baby

Chapter 32. Preparing Our Baby

On this day, the fourth since Wendy’s passing, Joan, my friend from church, accompanied me to the funeral home. In my hand was the Holt Renfrew bag carrying the only outfit I would ever purchase for our baby.

On my friend’s suggestion, I had told the funeral home I wanted to dress her myself. The attendant led us to a small room with a metal table large enough to accommodate an adult. There was our tiny baby, the one who had been alive and thriving in my womb just days earlier. This would be the first time I’d touch her since that day in the NICU Parent’s Room, where we held her cooled body, swaddled in a pink flannel blanket.

Now her body was white. There was no warmth. I paused to assess how I felt. Was I upset at seeing the corpse? No. For me, it was confirmation that our Wendy-baby was indeed gone, safely back with her Heavenly Father, pain-free and complete. She already knew the joy of heaven, something I could only imagine.

On this day, for this moment, I was okay.

In the hospital, during that hour after her passing, Wendy’s face had still been open. Her eyes were shut, but I could still see a connection to the life that had been hers just minutes before. Now her face seemed closed, a little bit of a frown, lips tight together, chin tucked in. It seemed fitting.

We took the Holt Renfrew purchases and laid them out. Joan helped as I began with the little white tights. Wendy’s body wasn’t stiff. It was rather like dressing a doll. I snugged her stockings up around her waist, careful not to let the elastic stretch over the surgical incision. I knew it wasn’t logical, but I indulged the sense that she should be comfortable. Next, we turned to the dress. Joan lifted Wendy’s shoulders and I slipped the soft cotton over her head. We worked together to tuck her arms into lacy puffed sleeves and then pulled the hem down under her little bottom. The thought crossed my mind that Wendy would never need diapers. It was the only sad thought I had while we were there. Everything else seemed quite matter of fact.

There was one more moment of note that stays strong in my memory.

The dress had buttons down the back. I lifted Wendy’s body to a sitting position so Joan could fasten them. As Wendy’s head leaned forward, some light red fluid ran out of her nose. I was taken aback, and, in true motherly fashion, fretted that her dress had been stained.

Joan found a tissue and we quickly wiped it up. Still, you could see the mark.

When we were done, we called the attendant. A kindly woman, she noticed the stain right away.

“I see the body purged,” she commented. The industry phrase felt crass, somehow, and fixed itself in my mind. “We’ll put a flower there when she’s in the coffin, to cover the stain. Would that be okay?”

Yes. That would be okay.

Death of a Baby


Join me next week for Ch. 33. A Poem of Understanding
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