Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Partner in Grief

(Trigger Warning – Miscarriage)

Since the birth of Ethan, I am overjoyed with the snuggles of our little newborn. Delight fills me as I watch the older three love on their younger brother and laugh uproariously at the belches, gurgles and toots (a house with boy dominance … bowel sounds are their favorite). I love to watch him sleep in my arms, his little lips still moving as if still nursing, his soft coos and tender chubby legs. My joy is mixed though. I cannot help but look at him and long for Vivian too. Would Vivian have had curly hair? Blue or brown eyes? Would this little one be toddling around in his brothers’ old clothes or Caroline’s rompers? The loss of a child, even while still so incredibly young, is completely real and valid grief.  It has been nearly two years, but grief is like that, right? It comes and goes in waves, sometimes nearly drowning us and then other times, we seem to sail along rippling waters.
Whenever I am struggling, I have learned that I first need to look at my faith. In doing so, I realized that between birth, keeping three other kiddos alive and happy, and trying to school and entertain everyone amid the COVID constrictions, I had become silent in my relationship with God. It was time to do some relationship building. And it just so happened that Fr. Nathan Cromley of the St. John Institute was holding a week-long virtual Marian retreat starting that day. So, I popped in my earbuds during feedings and tuned in.
The first day of his retreat was dedicated to exploring the Seven Sorrows of Mary. As a cradle Catholic, I had heard of the Seven Sorrows and recalled the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart images; but, unfortunately, I never fully understood it nor took the time to investigate until now.  And, WOW! Of course, our God, in His great timing, placed this retreat before me as a way to heal and understand my own suffering and loss, as I pondered the motherhood of Mary and her great loss of her beloved son Jesus.
So, I set to drawing my own version of the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart. Her heart I envisioned as a bright, joyful red, enflamed with her great love and wrapped in pure white roses gilded with the graces of heaven. Seven swords piece her heart and separate seven drawings of the Sorrows inflicting these wounds. The scenes are meant to be interpreted from Mary’s eyes, as she witnesses the life and death of her only Son and greatest love, Jesus.

The first three Sorrows of Mary address events in Jesus’ early life: The Prophesy of Simeon, The Flight to Egypt, and Losing Jesus in the Temple.

The Prophesy of Simeon- This is when Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple for ritual purification. Simeon, the elderly prophet, greets them and recognizes Jesus as a gift from God offering thanks. However, he follows his words of promise with words of great despair to new parents. He tells them that their son, Jesus, would be a sign of contradiction, one destined for the fall and rise of many throughout Israel and that a sword too shall pierce Mary’s heart. (Luke 2:34-35)

Reflecting on this, I recalled my first trip to the obstetrician’s office before the certainty of Vivian’s passing. That was to be a time when I would hopefully hear the great promise of a heartbeat, see the images of our new child's body coursing with lifeblood on the monitors, a time of unspeakable joy, filled with hopes and aspirations already rooted in my heart. Instead, I looked at the dark screen with no beating sounds filling the room. I saw the solemn eyes of the ultrasound tech, revealing the loss of my child, and I was soberly escorted down the hall where I waited to meet with the doctor to confirm what I already knew. It may be the loss of an unborn child, the suffering or loss of a living child, spouse, parent or friend, Mary’s experience of grief is relatable. No one in the human condition is immune to this experience. It’s that initial sucker punch. The one you just can’t prepare to fully handle. That’s her first sorrow. The one that comes out of no where and takes your breathe away.

The Flight to Egypt- An angel appears to Joseph in a dream and warns him to “take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt” because King Herod wants to kill their child. (Matthew 2:13-21)

Imagine the despair and fear of St. Joseph and Mary, fleeing to a foreign land to escape the tyranny of Herod. When we look at our world today, can we not see parallels with the choices of so many parents who must flee their homelands in search of safety or even with victims of domestic abuse, fleeing the known for the hope of a safer new reality? I wonder at the courage of St. Joseph to lead his family through the desert into the unknown. I am awed at the devotion of Mary, who believed and honored her husband and his desire to protect them from yet unseen harm. She allowed St Joseph to be the patriarch God intended for His family, to lead them through the trenches of life.

In my grief, like so many others, I felt I needed to work through it alone. I needed space and that space, although at first comforting, became a void, a wall of isolation, an emptiness that I had to invite my husband to enter. I needed to be led through the darkness, with Jesus holding me and my husband and close friends guiding me back. Fear and sorrow can swallow us, should we choose to rest in them. Acknowledging the need to be led out and inviting our loved ones into our despair is not weak, it is healing. I remember sobbing as I sat on the floor beside our bed because I did not know what to say or do next. I just knew I was permanently different, and I wanted nothing more than to be with my Vivian. Yet, I was still here and had many others I loved who needed me. How was I to move forward? What did I have to give but sadness? The regular check-ins from friends, the tenderness of Anthony, wisdom of our priest, these were my St. Josephs.

Losing Jesus in the Temple- Joseph and Mary take Jesus with them to Jerusalem for Passover. On the way home, they search for him among their relatives and friends and find that he is missing. After three days, they find him in Jerusalem teaching in the temple. Upon finding him, Mary asks Jesus why he would do such a thing and Jesus reminds her of his primary mission from the Father (Luke 2:41-50)

The physical experience of loss is so human - the racing heart, panic, fear, sorrow. We experience lost relationships with loved ones due to moves, changes of jobs, illnesses, deaths, and sometimes, we lose relationships as a consequence to our own choices. As Fr. Nathan Cromley, in his retreat discussed, there are only two people mentioned in the bible who asked “Why?” in the face of suffering. Mary, in this instance, and Jesus on the Cross. Both seek God in sorrow and reveal that we should look to God in times of great sorrow.

With miscarriage, the physical loss was overwhelming to me. For nearly a week, I walked amongst the lively giggles of my three children, tried to act like I cared about the mundane conversations of daily schedules and happenings, and did the necessary grocery shopping and meal planning while carrying the lifeless body of my unborn child within me. I tried to act “normal,” because opening up about my inner state was just too much. I was a walking coffin with no funeral procession. I laid awake at night wondering when I would begin to miscarry. I feared that I would not find my child among the remains. How would I ever forgive myself? Forgive my body? In this great sorrow, I turned to prayer and begged God to hear my suffering, sooth my bleeding heart and calm my racing mind.

The remaining four sorrows relate to the end of Jesus’ life.

Mary Meeting Jesus as He Carries the Cross- Mary meets her Son on His way to Calvary, unjustly accused and carrying the instrument of His death.

When Mary looked into Jesus’ eyes what helpless sorrow she must have felt! She met Him in his despair as only a parent can do. Like most mothers, she would likely have given anything to take His place but, instead, Mary had to accept the fulfillment of His mission. She had to allow Him to suffer for others, and for her, so that she could lead others to Him later.

This sorrow reminds me of the community I found as I worked through our miscarriage. Private online discussion groups, friends who opened up about their own losses, and church members who previously shared witnesses of their own infertility, miscarriages and losses of children. These brave women looked at me directly in my eyes with their own suffering. They met me in my pain and offered strength to march forward. Then there was Anthony with his steadfast gaze, who continued to love me even in his own sorrow.

Standing at the Foot of the Cross on Calvary as Jesus Dies- Mary is present at the crucifixion of Jesus on the Cross. (John 19:17)

It is unimaginable to me to think of a more excruciating experience than witnessing my child’s execution, especially knowing that he is innocent. The hour that Jesus had spoken of earlier in His life (John 2) had finally come. Her Son had faithfully fulfilled God’s mission on this Earth. What an overwhelming and strange time for Mary! Joy for the life He led, sorrow for the future she no longer had with Him on earth, anger for His unjust death, a complete mix of emotion must have poured forth from her heart.

When I grieved the loss of Vivian, I mostly grieved the pain of the experiences and memories I would never create. I grieved my hopes, my dreams for this child. Like so many parents of loss and couples experiencing infertility, there is such a mix of pain, despair, and anger that we lay at the foot of the Cross.

Jesus is Taken Down From the Cross- This is the Mary who suffers as her Son’s lifeless body is taken down from the Cross.

Michelangelo masterfully sculpted the Pieta depicting this very moment, when Mary cradled her executed Son in her arms. Although the mother of our Lord, Mary was very much so a human. The horrific sorrow of holding her dead Son and searching His face for life, for hope, is a human experience. There are no words for this moment, only silence.

As my body began to shake, I could feel the cramping, more intense than what I thought it would be, similar to the earlier stages of labor. There was the pain, the bleeding, and then a lifeless yet perfectly formed little person resting in the palm of my hand. I could feel myself gasping for air, tears flooding my vision, and my hands trembling with grief. I sat on the floor holding our precious child, examining every aspect of our little one and I prayed that I would never forget anything about our baby.

Jesus is Buried- Jesus is wrapped in cloth, placed in a tomb with a rock sealing the grave and soldiers guarding it. (John19:39-42).

We can imagine that Mary, as Jesus’ mother, was likely present at the burial of her Son. When the rock sealed the grave and separated her from Him, was she filled with despair? Did she know she would definitely see Him again? As a woman of great faith, didn’t she still grieve? Or did her grief somehow change to hope?

I washed our child in Holy Water and performed my own attempt at Baptism right there in our bedroom. Then, I carefully swaddled our child in cloth that I tore from my tear-soaked pillowcase and wrapped our little one further in a Brown Scapular before resting her in a little wooden craft box and later burying her in the earth.

Burial rites and the promise of Christ are my hope. This separation between me and my child gives me that much more purpose on this earth and that much more hope in the promises of our Lord.

May we all seek the promise of Jesus through the life and sorrows of our Blessed Mother Mary.

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