Guest commentary by Jen Drinkall
“Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations” – Zig Ziglar
Yeah… I totally don’t believe that. Or, maybe I do. I guess I am really not sure what I believe some days. If you are looking for someone to say how he or she found a rainbow after the storm, stop reading now! Grief is a strange phenomenon and certainly cannot be tied up with a pretty ribbon. Grief is choppy seas and uncharted waters. Some days the sea is calm and peaceful and other days it is unruly and unforgiving. My daughter Ivy passed away at 5 months old; a raging hurricane hit our family and I am barely afloat to say the least.
To understand the true magnitude of what has happened to our family, to me, I need to start at the beginning. When I was 19 weeks pregnant with our fourth child (we have two daughters and I had a miscarriage), I went into preterm labor. I was on bed rest for the next 17 weeks; this was a very frightening experience in itself. I would lie on my back, hoping and praying that I could make it until the end of the pregnancy, so she could be born healthy. I went to a billion medical appointments and had a billion ultrasounds to ensure her safe passage into this world. Somehow I felt like if I did all the right things, I could keep her safe. On February 18, 2013, baby Ivy arrived full-term and absolutely perfect. Ivy was a beautiful redhead with blue eyes. She was quiet and easy going. I finally had my fairytale ending with my three sweet girls and an angel in heaven. Life was definitely sunshine and rainbows for those next few months.
But on July 16 my world was shattered. Our sweet Ivy passed away from SIDS. I really thought that was something you read about in baby books; I didn’t think it actually happened to real people – certainly not to me. Suddenly our world imploded like chili in the microwave.
The days following her death were a whirlwind of family, friends and community members visiting with condolences. All of the decisions I never thought I would have to make were made. I never thought I would have to bury my child before myself. Life is not supposed to work that way. We had to decide where to bury her. Would we cremate or not? So many decisions. So many forever-type of decisions made for a complete out-of-body experience. I barely remember the funeral and visitation. Unfortunately I do recall telling my husband to “pull it together” at one point during the visitation. I mean, really? Who says that to a bereaved parent? Who says that to a spouse? I certainly had lost myself, and it all happened so quickly.
It was like in an instant the “old Jen” had vanished. We had all of the love in the world surrounding us – family, friends, coworkers, God – and I still felt utterly alone. How could I even feel so much loneliness and feel unaccompanied standing next to my husband and children? Their world had collapsed as well, it was not just my experience. Our entire family had lost her – grandparents, Godparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. But somehow that is exactly how I felt: alone.
A week or so after the funeral we took our girls on vacation. Vacation!? Through some urging of close friends we went to a beach 1700 miles away from home with their family. It sounds like an unlikely thing for a grieving family to do, but my husband and I would strongly encourage this if you have gone through a traumatic event similar to ours. Your old normal is gone, and being away from the old helped us to be rid of the shock that was overwhelming us. But, you wouldn’t believe what happened next. My clients from work called needing assistance with the day-to-day things! Even if it were a normal vacation, wouldn’t you not call? Apparently they didn’t understand my family desperately needed time away I guess. But it continued to get worse when we got home. No one knew how to “deal” with us. We were officially lepers. Friends stopped asking us to go out. No one wanted ask us to volunteer for anything as they had in the past; they felt we clearly had been through enough and they didn’t want to inconvenience us.
I needed a purpose at that time, but found none. There were so many questions from our children, and there were just no good answers. I could feel the stares from the community. Friends didn’t know how to be around us anymore. Even family pretended like our daughter never existed, or so I felt. I truly believe that people meant well overall, but they were just as lost in these uncharted waters as we were. I felt like we were the elephant in the room and it was infuriating to me. If my life were an airplane, it had crashed on an island and I was given glue sticks to repair it. I was at a loss of how to navigate out of the sea I had been tossed into.
My husband and I decided as a memorial to our daughter to build a playground at the school that our children attend. We spent the next year planning a 5k race, dinner and silent auction as a fundraiser. We raised over 65,000 dollars and built an enormous beautiful playground at the elementary school in her name. The kids were so excited and the community banded together. It was a truly amazing experience. There was a very lovely dedication to honor our daughter. The local news was there. All of our friends and family came.
We were so supported; however, I still could not feel the outpouring of love. Maybe at that point I didn’t even want to feel it. I was mad and I felt jaded. I had spent so many weeks waiting and laying in bed waiting to meet this beautiful daughter of mine and she was stolen from me! I couldn’t see straight and I was consumed by my disappointment. It seemed like God had let me down. I was convinced that my friends and family had failed me somehow even though they were right there with me. I think it is common for people to be around in the beginning of loss. But those first few weeks of grieving are such a shock that people being there seem to matter less. It was the months that followed when I needed those people to randomly show up. I think it is normal for friends to say things like “if you need anything call.” But, I know for a fact that I would never pick up the phone to ask for help. They were just waiting for me to ask for help, but I couldn’t. I needed someone to take the lead and I was incapable of staying afloat.
My real struggle was that I felt in my heart that it was my fault. I was her mother and it was my one and only job to keep her safe, and I did not do it. The reality is that I was lost, and still am at times, trying to figure it all out and trying to find a reason.
What I have come to realize though is that nothing is an accident. I might not understand or like God’s plan for me, but someday I will be able to comprehend. I needed to train my mind to see the good in everything. Faith is not about everything turning out all right. Faith is about being all right with the way everything turns out. It is God’s plan, not mine.
People tend to ask: How did you “pull” through the hard times? I am not sure if I know how to respond to that. I couldn’t just lie on the floor forever, so at some point I had to get up. I can say that there are more days that I am happy than I am sad now. But it took some time and soul-searching to get there. Time has healed nothing, but time has given me the opportunity to learn how to live without Ivy. Family gatherings are still hard, because it feels more apparent on holidays that I am missing a child. That being said, I have learned to enjoy our children more at these events because those moments are precious and I am more aware that there are no guarantees. I think for many people, including myself, grief comes in waves. I think you have to learn to navigate the waves better as time passes. Sometimes I am not sure where God is in all of this. Is God there steering the boat? Is God pointing to the island? Is God the wind pushing my life raft out of the storm? Regardless, I know God is helping me find my way.
I am trying to find the joy and good here on earth, and some days that is all I can muster. I do believe that someday I will understand why God’s plan for our family has been so rocky. However, for now, I will continue to find the joy, and answer the kids’ questions the best that I can. I know I will find my own peace, on my own time – and that is what makes me feel God’s presence.
JEN DRINKALL is mother of three precious children and two angels. She works at at Drinkall Performance Horses in Milledgeville, Illinois, and attends Forreston Grove Church in Forreston, Illinois.
Editor’s note: As we approach Advent, the season of waiting for the Christ child, we lift up parents who bear the grief of infertility, pregnancy loss and infant loss. These topics are traumatic and often not discussed, even in the church – yet many women find their lives marked by similar grief. In sharing these stories of heartache and grief in a series of five blog posts this week, we hope that others also journeying that path will find comfort and that churches will respond to their calling to serve those who are hurting.