Every autumn I am reminded of a precious lesson I was once given, a glimpse of truth about the Light that shines through us to illuminate what is beyond sadness and loss. Thanks to this gift, I see things differently, imagining the open places grief carves in us as apertures for the Light of God, or certain wavelengths of that Light. But I am getting ahead of the story.
That year, October was especially lovely; for me, achingly lovely. The hills around my home in northeast Iowa were ablaze with storybook hues of red, gold, brown, and orange. The air was sharp and clear, scented like homemade cider. It should have been the first birthday season of my first child, a little boy named Lars. Instead, it was the ninth month since his sudden death, and it still seemed agonizingly painful to live without him.
My son had been a chubby, bright-eyed baby who was welcomed with love by his father and me. We had recently achieved our dream of living in the country and had found jobs in the nearby town where my husband graduated from college. We were excited when we learned I was pregnant, and our efforts to do everything right took us to local midwives and a friendly physician, who together helped us prepare for the birth. I was in my 30s and pregnancy was not altogether easy, but we took it in stride. I stopped working early to rest and prepare. Then Lars arrived, born quickly and easily. He immediately transformed our lives, turning us from self-absorbed young adults into happy parents, even if tired and a little uncertain.
We celebrated with family and friends, and Lars quickly became an important person at our small Quaker meeting and in our larger community of well-wishers. How we laughed and marveled at this new person, watching in awe and satisfaction as he grew and changed so quickly. At three months he responded to silly faces and gurgled happily as he kicked a colorful plastic chain pinned to his sock. We had a wonderful Christmas together. Lars seemed to like all the attention he received during the holidays, and his eyes brightened at gifts like a new rattle with bright Christmas colors that played "Jingle Bells."
It was just after New Year’s and time for my first day back at work. Lars was alert and happy that morning as I read to him, nursed him, and got us both dressed. As I buckled him into his car-seat, he was smiling so broadly that I took a few moments to snap the last pictures left on a roll of film. Away we drove to the babysitter’s house, where Lars would stay on weekday afternoons.
Four hours later, I was wrapping up work. It was nearly time to leave to get my son, feed him, and head home, over the snowy hills, when the phone rang. It was the babysitter’s husband. He was upset. Lars was having trouble breathing, he said. An ambulance was already taking him to the hospital. As I tried to understand, I had no idea how quickly life could change from happiness to tragedy. My perfect little boy was boundingly healthy, I told myself, and my life was not a soap opera. "Everything is fine; everything will be fine," I repeated over and over. But it was not fine. Very likely, Lars was already gone as I walked out into the snow and drove the few blocks to the emergency room.
The possibility of his death did not at first occur to me. My husband and I sat helplessly in the waiting room, alarm and terror growing as doctors and nurses soberly bustled in and out, working unsuccessfully to rouse our son. When death was pronounced, I at first insisted it was a mistake, a nightmare. But it was real; in a few short hours, everything had changed. The morning’s sparkling winter scene was now a frozen, stark landscape, outside, and inside of me.
The strongest memories I have from that time are of the pain—and the anger. My body suffered from the physical changes of abruptly ending motherhood. My arms throbbed with emptiness. I was too anguished to sleep. Most of all, my chest hurt, the place where I imagined my heart to be. The ache there was so strong that it seemed as if I suffered a gaping, bleeding wound. Months later, my shoulders still stooped around the hole in my heart, a physical emblem of my loss.
I also remember the strong support of friends and family. After Lars’s death, my husband and I were surrounded by love that shone as steadily as the ring of candles friends held as they stood in quiet vigil, encircling our little home the night after Lars died. Their care continued through the weeks and months afterwards. But that didn’t stop the bitter emotions I felt after the funeral, which distanced me from their kindness. I didn’t want to be angry, but it was not something I could control. My mind hurt from tightly clutching resentment for those whose children still lived. Most of all, though, I was angry at God. "Sudden infant death syndrome" was listed on the death certificate, but it seemed so inexplicable and unjust. We were good parents; we tried to do everything right; Lars had been healthy. Why, then, had this happened to Lars? Why me? Why us?
I realize now that my laments were the litany of those who suffer their first serious grief, who have not yet learned that tragedy does not play favorites. My brain worked overtime, asking from morning until late at night: What did we do wrong? What did I do wrong? Why this punishment? How, I thought, could I have failed so miserably to provide for my son’s health and safety? His death represented not only grief, but failure.
Work was a refuge, but it was difficult to concentrate and I spent many days wandering near our farm, trying to ward off engulfing despair. When I was beyond tears I would walk out into the fields to yell and throw things—rocks, a child’s dish set sent by an aunt, a stuffed bear given to a boy who would never cuddle with it. I understand the darkness better now, and know that although we who have fought depression feel alone, we are sadly in broad company. The voices of defeat we struggle against are varied, but the themes are similar. In my case, it was as if a loop of tape played over and over in my head, harshly whispering, "You will spend the rest of your life grappling with this hole in your heart, in your life. You will be sad and angry forever."
Even if I managed to forget my sorrow for an hour, during lunch with a friend, or writing for work, the tortured voices would regain control by evening. I contemplated suicide. Meanwhile, my husband desperately wanted life to get back to normal. Sometimes he raised the subject of trying to have another child. I could not imagine taking that step, which to me represented letting go of our son. Months went by. Members of our meeting and family helped us mark what would have been Lars’s first birthday. They offered readings and sang with us as we held hands in a circle near trees and wildflowers that they had helped plant in his memory. Still, their compassion could barely ease my sadness. I was too lost in the hole in my heart.
The day of my lesson started out much the same. When a friend from meeting asked if I would join her for a meditation group that evening, I hesitated. A few people gathered weekly in an old, rural church. I was drawn to the practice and to the moments of relief I sometimes found there in that simple place of quiet and worship. I didn’t have much hope that attending would bring any benefit, but I decided it would be soothing just to get out of the house and ride through the countryside on a beautiful Indian summer evening.
At the church I picked a pillow from a pile in the back and tried to find a comfortable position. A bell rang to signal the beginning of meditation. The group settled in. The room was graced with a light, cool breeze. My mind was preoccupied, but I tried to focus. I tried to silence the destructive voices reminding me of my wounded heart. My shoulders rolled forward protectively. I shifted uncomfortably on the pillow.
Then something changed. There was a vibration around me, almost a buzzing, as if from a late-summer bee caught between the windowpanes. The room became deeply quiet. I became aware that someone was standing behind me. I felt gentle, comforting hands on my shoulders, yet the pastor leading the meditation was still in the front of the room, and the others were all sitting in their places. I had heard no one else come in.
Somehow, even though I had not turned around, I could tell that the one behind me was smiling, in a perplexed, indulgent way, as you might when you lovingly reprimand a child’s misbehavior. My every sense was intent on this presence. I did not look behind, but stayed very still because I didn’t want to miss the quiet voice that was speaking to me. Tenderly, very tenderly, but also with a chastising tone, I heard my name spoken, and then the words, "You haven’t figured it out yet, have you?"
The soft, everyday words, as from a friend, were clear to me—and surprising: "Don’t be concerned about the hole in your heart. It’s the hole in your heart that the light shines through. That I shine through." A pause, and then more: "Your heart is supposed to have holes. When your heart is so full of holes that it would seem almost threadbare—when your heart can barely hang together because of all the holes—that is when I can shine through the brightest."
In that moment I glimpsed an image of my heart: it was a well-worn patchwork quilt, made of love. And then, before I could turn around, the Presence was gone. The atmosphere in the room changed. Someone coughed. I sat there, quietly amazed at what had happened. I pondered the meaning of the words I had heard so clearly, though nothing had been spoken out loud. Other memories of that night are indistinct; but I remember riding home, wonderingly filled with the conviction that I had just been visited by Jesus—even though previously I had not even been sure that I believed in him.
The experience did not change everything overnight. I still missed my son; I still hurt. But I started to heal. I gained strength to argue against the destructive voices of my depression. I found courage to think of having another child. Most of all, in those few moments, I became much more strongly convinced that there is a loving God, with compassion for us and for our struggles. That conviction and the peace it brings has been a great gift.
In the decade since, there have been a few times when I have tried to describe that night, the hands on my shoulders, the smile I couldn’t see, the message I received so clearly. I say that maybe I am still alive because of the gift of that visitation. Maybe my daughter is here because, for some reason, I was granted this understanding. As other griefs have come, my own and the tragedies of my larger human community, I have been thankful for the lesson that was given to me that evening: profound yet ordinary, maybe even obvious.
To me the lesson is that our pains are our share of the world’s suffering, and that it is ultimately okay. The holes in our hearts allow us to see more clearly, and provide spaces for a deeper empathy to enter the world. I can—we can—survive the holes in our hearts, and even allow them to bring illumination.