The Sacred Dance of Grief

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The sun was burning my neck, but I didn’t care. I sat hunched over, with my head down on a hard steel chair. It was frieken hot, 90* at least. My legs were slick with sweat and my thick, black, crushed velvet dress clung to my body, suffocating me like a boa constrictor enjoying its last meal. I’d just given birth and I did my best to squeeze into a dress that would make me look as “normal” as before, regardless of the baby weight I’d put on. Thank God the dress was sleeveless, but now the scorching sun was cooking me alive. I felt like I could barely breathe. This wasn’t anything new, as I’ve felt like this for days now.  Most of the time, I tried to control my sobbing because I knew that my tears made other people feel bad. They didn’t know what to say to me. And why should they? Nothing sucks more than seeing someone you love hurt so much. I didn’t know what they were supposed to say to me and honestly, I didn’t want to hear it.  Usually someone would ask, “Have you eaten” or say “just give it time.” I knew their words were meant to bring comfort but I found it very annoying and quite frankly, it pissed me off. Didn’t these people know that 90% of the time I was in a constant state of nausea and the other 10% I had a huge knot in the pit of my stomach? I’ve never felt worse in my life and it seemed like this feeling would last forever. And by the way, NO! I don’t want to eat!  I just wanted to sit and wallow in my sadness. I was depressed. Not hungry. I was nothing but depressed. I felt like Humpty Dumpty all broken into a billion tiny pieces, impossible to be put back together again. It was ironic that the only thing I could relate to was a nursery rhyme that I would never tell.

“Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.” Psalm 88:16-18 NIV

I felt the sweat trickle down my back simultaneously with the tears on my cheek. I tried not to blink because I knew that once I did, I would be hysterical with grief. I didn’t want to do that right now; not here in front of all these people.

I needed a distraction. This would be my only chance of maintaining some composure. My eyes scanned all of the pastel flowers that were letting off a scent that could only be smelled in a funeral home. That smell makes my stomach wretch to this this very day. Finally, I found my distraction; I fixed my gaze on the bee hovering over my baby’s coffin. It was attracted to the pink and white daisies that lay on top of it. A pink pastel banner that said ‘granddaughter’ lay across it.  My parents bought that for her. As I watched it flutter in the wind, I thought that it  would probably be one of the only things that my parents would ever be able to buy her as a gift. They were being robbed of a granddaughter just as I was robbed of being a mother. This sucked.

“The Lord is close to the broken-hearted; he rescues those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:18 NIV

My gaze shifted to the scattered people surrounding me; people from all different parts of my life. There were some friends from high school gathered off to the side, clutching each other’s hands.  Jim’s soccer buddies stood in the back, shoulder to shoulder just like they did on the field. My parent’s best friends, Rick, Connie, Alan, Maria, Bill and Sherry stood in a group a few feet behind us. Sherry was clutching Bill’s arm for support. She looked so tiny standing next to Bill, but I knew that she had the strength of a thousand men. This day would be especially painful for them because they had lost their first baby boy named Casey. Sherry’s tear-streaked face told me she knew exactly how I was feeling. My brother, Duane, sister, Kim and both grandmothers sat in the front row alongside Jim’s sister, Bebe, mom, Vicki, and dad, Karl. Jim sat to my left and my mom sat to my right, where her arm rested on my back for the entire service. Her other hand clutched my dad’s, who sat next to her. I was surrounded by a ton of people who loved me and yet I still felt so sad and alone.

How was this possible?

I looked back at the flowers, searching for my little bee. I could not find it. I looked at Machaela’s coffin. I had been successful up until this point of not focusing on it. Once I did, thoughts flooded my brain. Jim and I had just picked it out a few days before. Instead of picking out a baby stroller, we got to pick out a coffin.

There are parts about this day that I will never forget.

Exhaustion consumed me; physically and emotionally.  Every part of my body ached, inside and out. It burned my lungs to breath and it stung my eyes to blink. My arms were weak and bruised from the countless needle pokes and pulling and pushing. My head throbbed from the constant flow of tears and lack of sleep. My belly was empty and hollow while my breasts were full, aching and overflowing with the precious milk that my baby would never have.  I couldn’t be more pissed.

It’s amazing how vivid certain things are about this day and other things are completely removed from my memory. It’s almost like I was watching from above with a thick sheet of fog separating me from reality. I needed rescuing.

The drive to the memorial park to make the final arrangements was worse than the day she died. It meant this was for real. There was no more hoping that God changed his mind and would miraculously heal her, or perhaps the hope that the doctors were wrong all along. This was all very real now.  We were about to make our “official” first parenting decision for our daughter, and it was in a graveyard.

The place had a beautiful majestic white house with a fountain placed directly in front of it. Water would burst from the top spewing tons of bubbles and attracting ducks and birds alike. When I was about 9, this beautiful white house captivated me. Directly across the street from the cemetery was a store that sold beauty pageant dresses.  My mom would diligently browse the racks, intermittently asking my opinion on the dresses. My face would be smashed up against the store window, mesmerized with the beauty of the white house. I would ask my mom about this mysterious place I was so drawn to, and she explained it was a place to bury dead people. I felt a sense of disappointment about her answer but I was still so drawn to it.  Surely this place had to be something more than that. I secretly wanted to visit, but thought it might be too morbid to ask. My mom would try to distract me, as I’m sure my fascination with a cemetery probably freaked her out.

This memory filled my thoughts as Jim maneuvered the car from one city to the next as we drove towards the majestic white house.  Everything within my soul wanted to reach over and grab the steering wheel and drive somewhere else, denying the new reality of which we were given. I HATED THIS! How dare Jim drive me to a funeral home…I was so angry at him for bringing me there. I was angry at anyone who had already had a child, thought of having a child or felt pity for me. I was angry at anybody who breathed air. How dare they?

I was fully aware of every bump we hit due to the sheering physical pain within. For, each green light we hit the weight of my birthing complications reminded me how jacked up this was, the broken heart in my chest made it harder to pull in air, the burning lungs, stinging eyes, and sinking faith reminded me I wasn’t dreaming a nightmare, I was living it. My heart beat faster in pure dread and fear. This was seriously for real, people!   I wasn’t supposed to be planning a funeral for my Machaela. I should be planning birthday parties and playdates. Yet, here I was, living someone else’s life and planning an infant’s funeral. MY infant’s funeral. WTF?

A kind lady greeted us at the door. She had been expecting us. She took us into a small “planning” room that smelled musty and old to me. She sat behind a worn old brown desk and had a stack of papers in front of her. I had no idea what she began saying to us. Her words ran together like Charlie Brown’s mother; Womp, womp, womp.  There would be no birthday parties, no playing this little piggy on her tiny toes, no painting the tiny toes. These thoughts consumed me; repeating over and over like an old record player. What was I going to do with all of the tiny Velcro hair bows I had bought before we knew something was wrong? And what about the tiny socks complete with cute little butterflies on the side?

The sound of the kind lady standing and her chair screeching across the floor interrupted my thoughts.  She was asking if was strong enough to climb a flight of stairs. I feebly smiled and shook my head no; the delivery left my body feeling like I’d been hit by a truck.  Jim grabbed my hand and a few more tissues off the desk and we followed the lady down a dark hallway. She flipped a light switch and led us into a tiny elevator. Up we went; one click, two clicks. We walked into a cold dark room. Lining the walls were all different types of caskets from modest pine boxes to intricate pieces of art.

She cleared her throat and said, “You can follow me thru here…”

We walked down another dark hallway and then we stopped in front of what seemed to be a closet door. She unlocked it and flipped the light on once again. It startled me to see the small room filled with tiny coffins. They were all stacked up on one another, not beautifully displayed like you see downstairs.  My eyes scanned the room, taking it all in. I was breathless, surprised that caskets came in all different sizes from 24-48 inches long, silk linings to cardboard linings, and the colors, who knew you could pick the color?  My throat started to constrict which reminded me that children of all ages die, including my angel.

My heart hurt so much that I could barely breathe. We looked at a few coffins. The kind Lady pointed out what she thought might be appropriate. She rattled something about the costs and why people choose the ones they do. All of this was irrelevant to me. While I was staring at the coffins, my only thought was that my baby was going to be so cold in that box buried deep in the ground. My heart sped up so quick that I felt like I’d been running a marathon, the huge knot in my throat was beginning to restrict my airways. I can’t breathe. I am being smothered. I Can’t breathe. Why am I being smothered?  How many times do I have to die before this nightmare would be over? Tell me, nice, kind Lady, “What about when it rains? Are these tiny boxes waterproof? Screw you. I want her to be warm. Can you promise she will be warm? How much for a warm casket?”   Please, Lord! Let her be warm! Tears, uncontrollable tears. I knew logically that this didn’t make sense. I’m still grasping for air, drowning in my own grief.

Pull it together.

Thru foggy eyes I saw a tiny little casket that was tucked in the corner all by itself. It looked delicate enough to hold an angel, after all, that would be what was placed in it. It was the smallest casket in the room and it was a pure, bright white. It had a handle on each side and the bottom was narrower than the top. Sounds sadistic to say  that it was almost identical to the cradle my mom had put me in; the same one I had planned on placing Machaela in.

Why? Oh, why? Pull it together.

I ran my hand over the top and was surprised that it was soft. A thin layer of silk ran over the padded wood top. I opened the lid and there was a beautiful soft silk-lined bed complete with a tiny silk pillow and a matching blankie. I loved that it had a blankie for her. Who am I kidding? I hated that it had a blankie for her. I hated that I was buying her blankie to match her coffin.

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Saying good bye is never easy.

The familiar burning sensation returned and my eyes filled with tears.  I pointed at it and nodded yes. I couldn’t find the words to say, “That’s the one! That’s the perfect casket to put her in!” Then we turned and walked out.

The next step was finding the “final resting place.” She suggested we look at an area named Compassion. It was the cemetery’s section for babies and children. We walked the grounds and I wondered exactly what for. Was there really a ‘right’ grave?

This was just another realization that I was one step closer to actually having to say good bye to her forever. Each step we took across that cemetery felt like a marathon of grief and confusion and anger. My soul was lost. I wondered if I’d ever be a mom again; have the chance to hold a thriving newborn, breath in their scent; nurture them and teach them all of the things I dreamed about.  Why would God play such a cruel joke on me?  Ha, ha, ha, ha! So, you think you’re going to be a mommy! Guess what? You’re not.  The jokes on you.  What have I done to deserve this punishment?  It angered me that this is what I had to look forward to at my first run of being a parent.  Looking at all the headstones of babies, I thought of all the suffering parents who had already gone through this. Did these mommies and daddies ever smile again? Would I ever smile again?

Walking, filled with anger and grief, The Kind Lady pointed to an empty area and I nodded my head yes. She briefed us on what to expect the day of her funeral.  Jim tightened his grip on me and I leaned into him as we walked back towards the car.His trembling fingers were tightly cinched around my waist. God, please be with us now. He was trying to be strong for me, but I knew how much his heart was hurting. I felt his pain.I also felt his tears trickle off of his cheeks and onto mine, mixing together, dancing the sacred dance of grief.

I was actually sitting here, at her funeral and able to somewhat contain myself. The pastor was talking, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I think he was praying. Everyone had their heads bowed. I tried to listen, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want….” Then he says, “…even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death….” That is all folks. I did not need to be reminded that I was walking in the valley of the shadow of death. I did not need to hear anything else this man had to say.
I put my imaginary ear plugs back in and looked for my buzzing bee, but I couldn’t find it. I fixed my eyes back on the tiny coffin, searing every detail into my brain. I pictured her lying in there, just like I had seen her the day before at the viewing. It must be stifling hot in that box. It’s funny that a few days before I was worried about her being cold and now I was worried about her being hot. I had covered her with the silk blanket at her viewing and now I feel guilty about that. I imagined sweat running off her head, finding it hard to breathe in that scary dark contraption. Can’t breathe. Throat is closed. I need to run. I need air. Can’t breathe. Then reality kicked in. She wasn’t sweating in there, nor was she breathing. She was dead. I CAN breathe, she can’t. Remember to breathe. It didn’t matter how hot it got in that tiny, suffocating box. She was dead.
I thought about the little pink ruffled sock I had put inside the casket. When I purchased them, I imagined she’d have her first pictures wearing these with a matching pink ruffled dress. But, nope. There wouldn’t be any first pictures. The only pictures I had of her were when she was already dead. Yet, another sadistic moment. Never did I imagine I’d be putting the frilly sock into her coffin. She was so tiny that they didn’t fit her. I kept one sock for myself so I could remember exactly what I gave her. My mom and Kim each gave me a gift for her to place inside. My little 5 year old niece, Kaitlyn, drew a picture of an angel for Machaela. I put it in the coffin under Machaela’s feet. I placed a sterling silver baby rattle alongside her and a tiny teddy bear next to her head. That was all that would fit into the tiny coffin. The only presents I’d ever give her.

Machaelas sock
People began moving around me. The service must be over. I tried to stand up but I couldn’t. My legs were so weak I felt like they were going to buckle. I sat back down and started to cry. I just couldn’t hold it in anymore. Jim draped his arms around my shoulders, crying consumed him too. Again, his tears mixed with mine, dancing the familiar dance.
My mom stood next to me with her arm around my shoulders. What do I do now that it’s over? What exactly was funeral etiquette anyway? Do I just leave the cemetery and resume life like this never happened? I don’t want to go back to the house and eat cold cuts and crackers. I don’t want to eat at all. The nausea in my stomach has become somewhat of a comfort. It’s a constant reminder that I’m not normal anymore.

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I looked up from the coffin and saw the saddest thing ever. My dad stood off to the side speaking with the pastor. His hands were tucked in his pockets as tears trickled down his cheeks. I’ve only seen my dad cry one time in my whole life; he never wore his “heart on his sleeve”. He was always very stoic, strong and able. When something broke, he fixed it. When we needed to figure out car insurance issues, we called dad. He taught me how to drive a 4×4 truck before I was tall enough to see over the steering wheel. I knew how to tow a boat, launch a jet ski, drive with a clutch and out run a park ranger on my quad all before I was 12. This was an accomplishment because I wasn’t even tall enough to reach the clutch. But, where there’s a will, there is a way. He’d prop pillows behind my back, put them under my butt and give me command of a thousand pound vehicle that had the potential to easily reach speeds of 80 mph. In my eyes, there wasn’t anything that he couldn’t do. My dad had served for the US Army and spent time in Vietnam. He was the same age then that I was now. He watched his friends die in horrible ways. He came home with a Purple Heart, Bronze Star with a “V” device, an Infantryman’s Badge and emotional scars. He’d been to war and seen all of the evil on the planet. How does one recover from that?
But on this day my dad was crying. I heard him say to the pastor, “You know, when your kids are little you do everything in your power to protect them and keep them safe. When they’re hurt you put a band aid on them. This is the first time, as a parent, that I can’t do anything about my daughter’s pain…”
I had an epiphany. Hearing my dad speak those words caused me to realize that he knew exactly how I was feeling. My dad has been in my shoes. He hadn’t seen his two oldest children in nearly twenty five years. He had no idea where they were. Around the same time his kids vanished, his father passed away. I was just a few weeks old. The pain and torment he must’ve lived through had to have been tortuous, and that would be putting it mildly. For once, I saw my dad as a human with feelings, with a boat load of experience in sadness. It broke my heart to think that his children were living and he didn’t have them. It’s one thing if they’re dead. That’s permanent. But we could change things if they were still alive.
My dad was right. For the first time he couldn’t heal my wound. He knew from his own personal torment that nothing could fix this. This wasn’t a flat tire or a skinned knee. This was a shot through the heart and my heart was in need of God’s surgical repair. I couldn’t imagine a day when I wouldn’t feel this sadness. I never knew a person’s heart could ache the way mine did.
Parents always want to protect their young. I gave my parents “a run for their money” at the Colorado River. My parents have a home there; it was our home away from home. We spent the majority of the holidays there and most of my cherished childhood memories happened there.
When I was ten, I climbed to the top of the bridge that was in camp and jumped off. Free falling, arms stretched out and legs tucked under. I screamed at the top of my lungs. I loved it! I loved the feeling of my heart skipping a beat the second my feet left the bridge. I loved the sudden halt when my body made contact with the water, the weightlessness as my body submersed itself and the float back to the top with the bubbles surrounding me. I had zero fear, and as far as I was concerned, the higher I was, the better the rush.
The bridge was high and the water was shallow. I thought if I put my life jacket on upside down and wore it like a diaper, it would break my fall. It worked! I jumped about thirty times before an adult caught me and told my dad. My parents flipped out on me! “What was I thinking? Did I wanna break my neck?” They were doing what parents do. They were protecting me. When I came home in 9th grade in tears because people were making fun of my height, my mom hugged me and told me to say, “Are you jealous or complaining?” She was comforting me and giving me some ammunition to use against the stupid kids.
But today, there didn’t seem to be any words that could comfort me. There wasn’t anything on this planet that could bring me to a smile simply because I felt like I failed to protect my Machaela.
My mom and Kim began collecting the cards from the flower arrangements. Vicki and Bebe were picking up the flowers to load them in the car. A few people were taking pictures. I thought it was kind of morbid. Do people really take pictures at funerals? Really? Who takes photos of a little dead baby’s coffin? I had very little funeral experience, but this still seemed creepy to me. I didn’t object, mostly because I couldn’t muster enough energy.
I would be grateful for these pictures later.

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Jim and I finally stood up. The next thing I knew was there was an assembly line of people waiting to give each Jim and me, along with our immediate family members, a hug. I am not a big hugger. Anyone who knows me knows that I like my space and that’s just how I am. I am not from a family of huggers. We’d hug our grandparents upon arrival and when they were leaving and maybe one of us would spit out an awkward ‘I love you’ but that was it. It’s not that we do not love each other, because we do. We all knew we loved each other but we never felt the need to say it.
This part of the service was particularly awkward for me. I know the gesture is meant to show love and support, but what in the world am I supposed to say back to them when they whisper into my ear, “It’s going to be okay” as they hug me. It’s not okay! I don’t feel okay and doubted I ever would. The one thing that would make me feel okay, I knew I could never have.
The grounds crews arrived with their noisy bull dozers, and were lined up against the back gate. They were back to bury my baby. My throat suddenly swelled shut and snot started to run down my face. My Kleenex was crumbled in my hand and in shreds from the combination of tears and sweat. I didn’t even bother to try to wipe the snot off my chin. They really were here to bury my baby, the baby I was supposed to be carrying in the Snuggli I had bought. The thought of them smothering her in dirt made me want to vomit. Without a second look, I turned back and headed for the car.
Jim drove us in Vicki’s car that day. I’m not sure why and I didn’t really care why. Jim had just said we’d be taking her car and he never gave me an explanation. I stood next to the door and before I could even get in, I could feel the vibration of the men pounding the dirt with their bulldozer. It was pulsating through the souls of my feet, ricocheting off every fiber of my being. My heart sped up a little, and then it sank into the very feet that held this broken body up. It sounded like a magnified jackhammer and it was pounding to the beat of my pulse throbbing in my head. Couldn’t they have waited for us to leave?
I sat in the passenger seat and looked down at the curb. There was that word Compassion again, spray-painted with black paint. It even looked morbid. I found it ironic that the area we buried our precious baby in was named Compassion. Was that some kind of crazy joke? Who gives a name like Compassion to a graveyard for babies? Was a name like that supposed to make parents feel better? Was that supposed to be comforting? I’d like to meet that jokester and tell them what I think.

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Jim started the car. I could not believe that I was leaving my baby all alone in a cemetery with strangers burying her. I didn’t want to look back. I told myself not to. I didn’t want to see them toppling dirt onto my hopes and dreams. But I had to look. I had to know that she was being taken care of. My chest was caving in on me and I could barely see through my cloudy eyes. Men with shovels in their hands methodically took turns throwing dirt on top of her; one, right after the other, one scoop at a time. The loud noise of the bulldozer, scooping the last of the dirt and pounding until the ground was firm caused vibrations through the car and I started to sob. Lord, please have mercy on my soul.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, So that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”
2 Corinthians 1:3-4

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