I pull into my friend’s driveway at the end of the road and feel like I am visiting a magical place. I am thinking of fairies and woodland creatures as I get out of the car taking in the shady property surrounded by pine trees and gardens with echinacea. I read about this house in Terry Jones-Brady’s book A Mosaic Heart: Reshaping the Shards of a Shattered Life. Terry writes about her two daughters’ deaths from cystic fibrosis and her first husband’s suicide five years later. She is outside waiting and asks me “How long has it been?” I pause surprised that it is June 8th, surprised that it is ten months since I held my baby girl in my arms.
Terry and I have been talking about how people compare grief. The first time I met Terry in the fall I muttered something about how my grief can’t be compared to hers. She looked me in the eyes, holding her blue mug of tea and said “Grief is grief. You can’t compare.” Right then in the wake of my new journey as a grieving mother, I saw my own conditioning. As a young child I was compared to other children and to my sister. We are taught to measure our achievements by looking at how others have done. We compare our paychecks, houses, cars, looks, health and relationships to those of our relatives, coworkers and Facebook friends and we feel inadequate in these measurements. We never know what goes on in someone else’s house or heart when the lights go out, when we aren’t there. Here in the club of parents whose children have died, how does it serve us to compare our grief? Who wins if one of us has more pain?
I think back to the many grant proposals I wrote and how we developed assessment tools to measure success. But can we measure or quantify grief? People try to do so. My mother tells me that my grief over burying my newborn, Mary Rose, is not as bad as Judy and Steve’s grief because their first daughter, Hannah Audrey, died at 18 months of brain cancer. Judy and Steve’s pain is not as deep as Miko’s grief. Her son, Josh, was in his early twenties when he died suddenly in a car accident. Miscarried children aren’t weighed on this scale most of the time. When I ask my mother how she came up with her statements she says that when you have more memories you miss the child more. According to this scale the longer a child lives, the deeper the grief.
I disagree. I think of my daughter’s life and I try to extrapolate a new memory, a part of her, something from our journey. I had contractions for the duration of her life. She was buried in her baptismal gown that had pink roses on it. No baptism. No milestones. No smiles. It was one life-changing moment. Sometimes I only remember the feeling of her weight in my arms wrapped in a blanket, my thoughts “I can’t believe it’s already over,” and my son bending happily to give his beloved, still sister one more kiss. When I hear parents speak of their children who have reposed, they smile, often with tears in their eyes, remembering outings, moments, words, hugs, dreams and kisses. My heart longs to know something of my daughter’s personality and quirks. I feel her presence with me all the time, but my body and heart want more.
A couple of weeks ago Terry emailed a few friends about a negative Facebook experience. A friend told her that Terry should get over her daughters’ deaths because Terry’s grief was not “one-tenth” of hers. This woman who was sexually abused by her father and brother, and later stayed with an abusive husband, took to cyber-bullying a friend whose entire family had died. Another friend who is a priest told Terry that losing a parish entailed more grief than losing a child. When Terry asked “Why?” the response was “Because God is in the parish.” Terry asks me “Isn’t God in a mother who bears her child?”
People tell me often that I shouldn’t cry because I have a living son. I am reminded again and again that some people’s first pregnancies end in death. Though I know that my son is a blessing, grief doesn’t work that way. I carried and buried a child. I have a right to stay in the space of grief, to work through it, to feel the pain of not having my daughter here in the flesh for the rest of my life. She surrounds me. She is in my heart. I love her, but it still hurts. I don’t know that this would hurt less if I had a half dozen children.
Even here discussing Mary Rose, and Terry’s beautiful daughters, Heather and Holly, let’s not compare. Mother Gavrilia, the Greek Orthodox nun, writes that comparison is violence. If we are all created in God’s image, than how is one of us better than another? How does one person’s grief hurt less? If we believe in soul contracts, fate, karma and God’s will, then the tragedies of our lives shape us and prepare us for furthering our work on the planet. I believe that I was chosen to be Mary Rose’s mother, that she chose me, that we chose each other. Terry’s path is different from mine, and so is her journey of grief.
I choose not to compare life to death. I want to think about life and Life. Not this side on Earth or that side of the veils, but of life and the deeper Life beyond this body in the multi-dimensionality and beauty of our Creator who sees the entire Universe in those loving eyes. I know that Mary Rose, Holly and Heather Live. They are now our ancestors, each child a beautiful and divine creation in her own right. How can we compare a newborn, a twelve-year old and a twenty-two year old daughter or how much their mothers miss them?
Terry made mosaics from the broken pieces of Christmas ornaments and dishes and glass after her children died. Some pieces broke on their own but she shattered others, arranging them to make beautiful art. The picture above, which is on the cover of Terry’s book, has several words. I see the words glad, tidings, heralds, Child’s, Earth, world, Joy, Peace. John Milton’s words But what is strength without a double share of wisdom appear unbroken, and the angel, whose left hand and wings are missing looks out at us, her chin held high.