Joy in the Midst of Suffering

Photo courtesy of Heartlove Photography, Jillian Mills

We are somehow conditioned to avoid suffering. It seems contrary to human understanding to embrace suffering, even to welcome it. It seems even more contrary to find joy in the midst of suffering and tragedy– we may even feel guilty about it. But the Church in Her wisdom doesn’t see suffering as something to be avoided. She even teaches us that suffering can be welcomed, can lead us closer to Christ. And in the midst of suffering, we can and should seek to find the joy in life.

I was 14 weeks pregnant with my son Peter when he was diagnosed with a fatal condition, a neural tube defect called anencephaly. We were to prepare for the death of our son at the same time we prepared for his birth. Devastation is the only word that describes what overcame us. Going from the joy of adding a new member to our family to knowing that he was going to die was something I never thought I would have to deal with, suffering I never expected to endure. But as the days led into weeks and the weeks became months, a peace and a joy entered our family. We, despite what was to come, were going to welcome our first son.

Our journey down this road of grief and joy fittingly began around the start of Lent 2012. My husband, Steve, and I had scheduled appointments with a perinatologist and genetic counselor to discuss the pregnancy because we are at an increased risk for hereditary chromosomal abnormalities. We have a daughter with partial trisomy 13, one of several possible outcomes from a condition known as a balanced translocation. We went in with a very positive attitude, truly just believing that the baby was healthy. But that afternoon we got the diagnosis that would forever change our lives.

I had no idea how I was going to make it though 6 months of pregnancy knowing that this wiggling, kicking life inside of me was going to die. It seemed so cruel, almost surreal. I had no idea where I would get the strength to do it, to continue on. I didn’t smile for days. Nothing seemed important except for my faith and my family. Everything seemed trivial. I’d been shopping for trees for the backyard in the weeks before diagnosis. Afterward, the thought of caring about a few trees seemed laughable. I would cry. Steve and I would stay up until 1 and 2 in the morning talking, I would cry some more, and we would wonder how this had happened and how we were going to make it through.

Then something happened: I laughed. I started to feel almost normal. My son grew. I looked forward to seeing him on the ultrasounds every month. We began to feel blessed to know Peter for whatever time we were given with him, to find the positives in the experience, and to find joy again. That’s not to say there weren’t times when I cried out to God in anger, that there weren’t days where I succumbed to self-pity and laid in bed crying for hours at a time. I screamed and cried at what was to come, and I wondered how I would be able to say goodbye to my son without breaking down. But those weren’t the feelings that dominated my days and weeks. Those feeling were the exception. I was so grateful for this new life in my womb, for my son.

For many months I was unsure what to expect when he was born. How would I feel? How would I cope knowing that the child in my arms was going to die? Most mothers anticipate birth with trepidation, but also great joy. I was without that joy for a very long time. Really, until I reached my due date, and even a few days beyond, I wasn’t emotionally ready for his arrival. As long as he was in my womb, he was safe and alive, and I didn’t have to say goodbye. I wasn’t anxious to meet him because I knew he wasn’t mine to keep.

Once labor started, though, I put the anxiety out of my mind as best I could.  After a long but not terribly difficult labor, Peter was born into the world feet first. As I saw his body slip from mine I couldn’t believe how tiny he was! He weighed 3 pounds 15 ounces, and measured just 15 inches long. He was placed across my chest, where I could gaze upon his sweet face, kiss his darling nose, and play with his tiny fingers. Peter was baptized right away, and it was then that I cried. I cried tears of relief; Peter was alive. I cried tears of joy; my precious boy was in my arms. I cried tears of sadness; he wasn’t breathing well. But the tears didn’t last long. Our beautiful son was here. We just breathed in his sweet smell, listened to his little squeaks, rubbed his cheeks. His little nose was chilly; I just kept kissing it. He had the sweetest little lips. Everyone took turns holding him and loving on him. Julie absolutely adored her little brother. She looked at him with such love. We all just lived in the moment, enjoying our time with him, making it count. We had to squeeze a lifetime of love into just a few short hours.

I think it is difficult for someone who hasn’t been there, and particularly someone without faith, to understand how we could see this whole experience as a blessing. And it certainly didn’t feel like a blessing back in February when Peter was diagnosed, nor did I ever imagine it would. How on earth could losing a child be a blessing?

Photo courtesy of Heartlove Photography, Jillian Mills

Because we don’t look at it that way anymore

Having him in our lives even for those short nine months was wonderful. Peter was a gift from God. I’ve seen women who lost their babies years ago talk about how their family is receiving blessings from that child’s existence still today. When Peter was diagnosed, I didn’t know how I would feel joy again. I didn’t understand the photos I was seeing of smiling families holding their infants who could die at any moment. But when Peter was born, love and happiness and joy were the dominating emotions in that room. We didn’t sit wondering when he was going to die or feeling sorry for him or for ourselves. We were meeting our first son, the son we’d grown to know and love.

We are so grateful for friends and family near and far who’ve prayed for us and showed us they care. It was so comforting to have people just send a quick email or message or card, just letting us know they were thinking about us and asking me how I was doing. We were surrounded by Christ’s grace and mercy, and I believe it was in big part because of the support of friends. I believe with all of my heart that it was God’s grace that helped us through this experience– and helps us today.

In the end, just 8 weeks after his death, I am truly grateful for the experience. I am so happy to have known him, met him, and loved him, and to have had him in our lives. We had the joy of creating a life. I got to carry my son inside me, feeling him wiggle and do gymnastics. I learned I am stronger than I knew.

In the weeks that followed Peter’s passing, our sense of strength has deepened and transformed the way we think about our lives and our relationships.  I long for heaven even more. I delivered a baby to the Lord! Peter never knew suffering. He was never in pain, never sad or lonely, never ill or grief stricken or bullied, never had to struggle to overcome a fear or deal with rejection. He is perfect. He can see and hear, and he can pray for us. It’s so incredible to think that I held a saint in my arms. That I hugged him and kissed him, and that he can pray directly to our Lord on my and my family’s behalf. THAT is the blessing. Just knowing him for whatever time we did was the blessing. Life brings tragedy, but with that tragedy comes joy, if we just allow ourselves to experience it.

Stephanie Shock grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland, and has been married to Steve for 11 years.  She has a degree in political science, and has been a stay at home mom since her oldest daughter was born in 2005. Baptized Catholic, Stephanie returned to the faith of her childhood in 2002. 

Copyright 2o12 Stephanie Shock

2 Comments
  1. Kari
    December 2, 2012 | Reply
  2. Jane Frances
    December 2, 2012 | Reply

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