At yesterday’s service, the Unitarian Universalist church I attend was honoring All Soul’s Day. We were encouraged to bring a photo or memento of our loved one to place on a table at the front of the church. The interim pastor is from Texas and has a lot of exposure to Día de Muertos, which she spoke about during the service, along with the Catholic tradition of All Soul’s Day, along with other traditions.
The day before, I sent our family photo to Walgreens to be printed. The five of us living stand, with the silhouettes of Nelle and Iris at our sides, added by an artist friend of mine. I left my big kids in the van with their hot chocolates from Starbucks, while I went into Walgreens to retrieve my photo.
The employee told me that he did not have an order from me. I checked my phone and realized that I had sent it to the wrong Walgreens: and that there was no way for me to possibly get over to that store in the amount of time. The photo department wasn’t open yet, but I asked the employee if I could send the photo order to the store right that moment, and could it be printed on the spot? The employee told me he would have to ask a manager, and he wandered slowly around the store for awhile before putting out a page over the loudspeaker.
As the moments crept by and no manager appeared, I became frantic. I wanted so desperately to include the photo, but even worse was the idea of having nothing. I began to think of what else I could take – maybe a greeting card of a tree or a bird could be an acceptable substitute.
I was about to walk away from the photo department when the manager walked up. I asked if he could print, and he said that he could. I had the order ready on my phone and needed only to hit “send.” Within a few minutes, my photo was in my hand. I thanked the manager profusely (and still made it to church on time!).
Upon arriving, I took the photo up to the table near the front of the church, and laid it amidst other photos and items that had been lovingly displayed. There were small slips of paper in which we could write the names of our loved ones, so I scrawled out “Our daughters, Nelle Claudia and Iris Madeline.”
Near the end of the service, after the pastor gave her remarks on All Soul’s Day, she invited people to come forward and say something about their loved ones. I had already gone through several kleenex by that point, but I went forward and stood at the microphone.
“I am honoring my babies. One of my daughters was stillborn, and the other daughter we lost not six months later. I felt them move. We had their nurseries planned. They had names. They were so loved, and so wanted. This is a family photo, with silhouettes representing them and showing how old they would be if they were alive today.”
I almost walked away from the microphone without saying their names, but at the last second I turned back and said “Nelle Claudia and Iris Madeline.”
I wished that I had said “This is a family photo, because they will always be a part of our family.” I wished that I had been more composed. The pastor had talked about this “timeline for grief” that society imposes, but it isn’t only that. I want people to hear my words, and not only focus on the woman at the front who is fighting to get the words out of her mouth through tears.
Several people came up to me after, and gave me hugs (it is definitely a hugging church) and thanked me for sharing, but two women came up to me in particular.
One was an elderly woman, in her 70s if I had to guess. She touched my arm and said, her eyes shining with tears, that she “has been there.” I knew that she meant that she had also lost a baby. I said back to her “Those of us who have been through it, we know what it’s like” and she nodded. I wondered about her story, knowing that for a long time pregnancy loss has not been something that was talked about.
Then I spent some time at the table, looking at the photos of other people. A woman stood next to me and said “You certainly have been through more than your fair share in life.” I replied that we all lose people at some point.
She began to ask me some questions about pregnancy. She wanted to know at what age a pregnant baby was viable, and I told her that 24 weeks is usually the earliest, but the baby could have serious medical complications. She wanted to know at point I had lost the two girls, and I told her that I had lost Nelle at 21 weeks and Iris at 16 weeks. She then asked how long is a pregnancy, and it was this question that made me sure that she had never been pregnant – because any woman who has ever had a baby knows how long pregnancy is, even decades later. I told her that a pregnancy is 40 weeks.
It felt a little like she was trying to qualify my pregnancy, like if it happened early enough, maybe it didn’t matter as much. Or maybe make it fit into her idea of what pregnancy loss is like. I don’t know that this is what she was actually trying to do, or if she was merely being curious. I told her that because of how far along I was, I had to go through Labor and Delivery, both times. That I was induced and delivered at the hospital. I could see the shock on her face. Many, many people never think about this: what happens when the baby dies, after a certain point? How does that baby leave the womb?
She began to fumble around a question that seemed to be asking if there had been a way to “save” the babies – the difference between 21 and 24 weeks – or perhaps she was trying to ask what had happened. I told her that we didn’t know what happened, and that I had gone into a routine appointment and my babies had no heartbeat.
We both looked down at the table and she asked if I had any other children. I picked up the family photo and told her that my two other sons were with me at church, in the common area, eating the after-service snacks. I pointed out the toddler in my arms. I made her aware that a baby born after loss is called a “rainbow baby,” because after a storm, there is a rainbow, so that little girl I was holding in picture was my rainbow.
“Her name is Autumn,” I told the woman, bringing her into some of the more personal details of my life. “Because the seasons always keep changing.”
The woman looked up at me, with a small smile. “That gave me chills,” she said, “You must have been so overjoyed when she was born.”
“Yes,” I replied. “I was.”
As we left, I looked up at the vibrant color of the red and orange trees that framed the church. The seasons keep changing, indeed.