Thursday, September 22, 2016

Grieving with your Friends

Editor's Note: Today we bring you another touching piece from Debbie Valley. Follower her on Twitter on @debval2008.

My friends Ellen and Chris only wanted two kids…and then they sat in on a lecture by Kimberly Hahn.  After that talk Matt and Riley got brothers Sam and Joseph and then sister Tessa was added to the family.  After Tessa came Isabella.  Isabella died one week before her scheduled birth at 37 weeks.  Chris called me in the morning while I was working on a quilt for her.  I had to check my caller-id to make sure the call really happened.  Telling my kids was heartbreaking because all the kids consider each other siblings.  My oldest was excited because he was going to share a birthday with her.  I didn’t know what to do so I finished the quilt.
Trying to give them space I didn’t call for a couple of days.  There is no manual for how to approach your best friends at a time like this.  There is something profoundly different with the death of a child vs a spouse or parent.  Ellen opened the door and the only thing I could say was, “I don’t know what to say.”  We hugged and cried.  I brought the quilt to give her.  I don’t know why I did that but felt that it belonged to Isabella and I could never give it to anyone else.  After some small talk Ellen smiled at me and asked me if I wanted to go to the funeral home and meet her.  Without hesitation I said yes.  When they had readied Isabella for viewing Ellen couldn’t hide her motherly pride of showing me her beautiful and perfect little girl.  The sorrow was lifted long enough for me to quip that she looked like all the kids.  We have an ongoing joke about when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
Ellen and Chris made the decision to have a funeral Mass for Isabella.  It was one of the greatest witnesses of Grace I think I have ever seen.  Everyone at the church was so uncomfortable during the planning process but Chris and Ellen put everyone at ease.  On the day of the funeral the church was packed.  They had more people singing in the choir loft than on Christmas.  I brought my camera.  I had just purchased it and for some reason God called me to take pictures.  It seems like such a strange thing to do at a funeral, and it was.  When Mass started I took a few picture of the procession and then had to stop.  Her tiny casket was carried in covered by the quilt.  The backside fabric of the quilt was tiny, delicate roses for Our Lady.  That’s the side that was up.  I lost it.  At some point I was able to take pictures again.  
After the Mass it was astonishing how many couples came up to Chris and Ellen and told them their story of loss.  How many of them wished they had a funeral for their baby.  They felt that through Isabella’s funeral they found a new sense of peace, a faith-filled goodbye for their own child.  While these parents may have found peace, Chris and Ellen realized that they weren’t as alone as they thought they were.  
A couple of days later we all caravanned 2 ½ hours north to the cemetery where she would be buried next to her cousin.  I took my camera again.  When the prayers and tears were done I was the last leave.  As hard as it was for me to leave Isabella there, I couldn’t imagine the amount of strength it took for her parents.  We went to a reception at Chris’ sister’s house where I continued to take pictures.  
When we got back home I loaded all the pictures on my computer.  I decided to make a memory book and give it to them as a gift.  Again, strange, I know.  As I put the pages together pages the pictures would bring to mind a prayer or a saint so I inserted them under the pictures.  When I was done I gave them the book.  And then I realized why God called me to see this experience through the camera lense.  In their grief, Chris and Ellen didn’t remember anything that was in the book.  Ellen didn’t remember smiling at Our Blessed Mother while Ave Maria was sung after communion.  She didn’t remember Tessa tossing the rose petals into the sky and them landing on Isabella’s casket.  She didn’t remember the sadness in Sam’s eyes.  She didn’t remember her children laughing and playing after the burial or her husband finally relaxing for a moment in his sister’s backyard.  
For 37 weeks we all got to celebrate the life of this beautiful little girl.  She will never know anything but pure love.  We all take comfort in that.  8 years after her death there are still moments that hurt.  I burst out crying every time the opening hymn from the funeral is played at Mass (yes, people look at me strangely).  When I see Tessa and her little sister Anna running around I will occasional feel the empty space between them where Isabella would be.  A mutual friend of Ellen and mine had a little girl 6 weeks after Isabella’s death.  She received her first communion and all I could think about was Isabella.  While she has it much better than any of us, she is missed.  
I’m not Isabella’s mom, aunt, cousin, or sister.  I’m just a friend ‘along for the ride.’  God brought us together as His family.  And I’m so grateful.  I’ve had a hard time reconciling my sense of loss with the fact that Isabella wasn’t mine.  I was to get her on loan for snuggles and to teacher her horrible things and then give her back to her parents.  My grief is not the grief of a parent burying a child but it is grief.  For all of us out their walking this journey as the supportive friend, it’s also ok to grieve not only for and with the parents but also for the death of a child that was going to be a beautiful gift in your own life.  
And if you are ever the friend and God tells you to finish a quilt or take pictures, listen to Him, He has a beautiful plan.

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