Just over a year ago, I lost my third child, Gabriel, to miscarriage. I have celebrated first birthdays before, and I’ve experienced how bittersweet a first birthday is. With the completion of the first year of life outside the womb, there is a sense of excitement (“My baby made it to one year old and is growing up!”) combined with a sweet sense of loss (“My baby is no longer a baby anymore!”)
What I have never experienced before is the completion of a first year without my child. I had been dreading his “first birthday,” knowing that it was also the one year anniversary of losing him. I still miss my Gabriel. Even though I knew him for so short a period of time, even though I only saw him alive once on an ultrasound, I still miss him so very much.
One of the few memories I have of him “living” is experiencing Holy Week with him. I remember attending each of the Triduum liturgies, feeling the beginnings of nausea, and knowing that it was because of my new child. I dreamed of many more Holy Weeks shared together, of holding him in my arms this year. I dreamed of pacing the back of church during the Easter Vigil, trying to coax him to sleep, just as I had done with my other babies.
So, quite unexpectedly, I found myself in tears while preparing for the Easter Vigil. A year later, I am about two months away from delivering Gabriel’s baby sister. As I was selecting a dress to wear to Mass that night, I wanted to wear anything but the yellow dress I had worn to the Vigil the year before. I wanted this year to be different. I wanted the child I now carry to live. I didn’t want a reminder of the child I had lost.
Guess which dress was the only one I was able to fit my very pregnant self in to?
Adding to my anxiety, my current in-utero baby was incredibly quiet during the first half of the Easter Vigil. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t coax her to kick. Sitting in the darkness, trying to focus on the readings, I felt panic sweeping over me. What if I were to lose this baby, too?
A few cups of cold water later, and my youngest daughter began to stir during the Gospel. With the Alleluias filling the church, I was singing my own private Alleluias and crying quiet tears of relief. My baby was alive.
Good Friday made perfect sense to me this year. I knew what it was to lose an only son. However, I had a hesitation about Easter. I was afraid that, in a church rejoicing, I would be left behind. I was afraid that I would be the only one left mourning.
I am certainly not alone in this experience of Easter. Yes, Jesus died on Good Friday. But before the dust had even settled, the stone was rolled back again, and he had risen. There was grief, but shortly thereafter, there was incredible joy.
In reality, for those of us who grieve, there is no quick solution. Days, weeks, months, years, even decades later, our hearts still ache for the one we have lost. And even now, in the midst of the Easter season, there are those whose grief is fresh. There are other mothers, preparing to say good-bye to a beloved child. There are spouses counting down the days until death will part them. There are families shaken by the sudden loss of a loved one. There are women who have miscarried many times, and whose homes are empty of the pitter-patter of little feet. There are parents whose child is in the NICU, his or her life hanging in the balance.
Grief does not stand still during the fifty days of Easter. Yet, even as grief remains, so, too, does hope.
There is a fragility about those days from Easter to Pentecost. The Apostles were still very much afraid. And even the Jesus who they were able to see was not quite the same. He could disappear at a moment’s notice, even in the midst of the breaking of the bread. He could beseech them not to cling to him, because he had not yet “returned to his father.” And to those who had lost their best friend, their only son, their teacher, the days of Easter were all too short. And at the conclusion of those days, there was another parting. Even knowing he was truly alive, even being reassured by the angels that he would return in the same way that they had seen him depart, there was still an aching confusion and sadness. Although Jesus was not lost forever, he had been taken again from their sight.
Yet, why had he been taken? What was it that he was busy doing?
On Holy Saturday, when his body lay in the tomb, Jesus descended to “hell,” to the place where the patriarchs and matriarchs of old lay waiting. He opened the gates of heaven to them, grasping Adam and Eve by the hands and leading them to life eternal. And after the Ascension? The glorified body of Christ permanently established a home for us, whose own bodies will be likewise glorified at the end of time.
The joy of Easter is the joy of “already but not yet.” Easter is not the happy ending to a story. On the contrary, Easter is only the beginning of the story. At the completion of fifty days, we celebrate Pentecost. Pentecost is not an end, but a beginning – the day that the Church was born, filled with the rushing wind and flame of the Holy Spirit.
Easter is, actually, intended to be for those who are mourning.
Those who know no grief cannot grasp the reality of Easter in the way that those who mourn can. Easter changed everything about life and death. Death ceased being an ending, and became a beginning. This does not dissipate grief, but it widens our understanding of grief. It gives us hope that grief is not the end of the story. Death, where is thy victory?
This does not remove the reality or the rawness of our grief. We still feel the sorrow of separation in this life. We still find ourselves crying over grave markers, bearing the names of our loved ones. We still find ourselves quietly crying at the side of family members who are terminally ill. Our arms still ache for babies never held, and children we will never hold again. We are every bit as bewildered as the disciples were after the resurrection.
We can take solace in that bewilderment, solace in the knowledge that even those who saw the resurrected Christ were still bewildered and afraid.
But those of us who mourn can also allow our lives – like the lives of the disciples – to completely shift in focus. We have had extended family members die, but when we lost Gabriel, the focus of our family shifted to heaven. Heaven, we now know, is the only hope we have of being reunited as a family. Heaven was our hope before, but now it is our hope in a very real way. One of our own has gone on before us, leaving us staring with aching wonder at the skies, just as the Apostles did.
Yet, we, like them, can rest assured that the story is only beginning. The grief does not need to go away, in order to live in hope.