By Tish Harrison Warren

Holding Space: A Public Lament

“How do we keep what happens to us? How do we fit it into life without turning it into an anecdote?”

— Six Degrees of Separation

I want to tell you about the last six months.

Around the summer of 2016, I was caught off guard by how happy I was. It was some ordinary hour in the day, pulling into my driveway or putting groceries in the fridge. And I felt quietly gleeful. It took me by surprise.

After a decade away, I was back in Austin, my hometown. I loved it and I loved living near family again. My marriage, which had seen dark days, had somehow found a nice hum. I had a book coming out, which was getting good early reviews. I had been with InterVarsity for eight years and adored my colleagues and the grad students I met with. My church was small and homey and felt like family. My children were well and often delightful.

It wasn’t quite Eden. There were still days when I snapped at the kids or struggled to pay bills. There were still weeks of free-floating melancholy that persist in spite of a perfectly fine life. Still, things were very good.

And then, nearly everything changed.

In the fall, we were contacted about a job opening 1,400 miles away. My father’s health was declining, and I was hesitant to leave Texas. But through many tears, fights, talks with friends, and a “clearness committee,” my husband and I reluctantly decided to go. In early January, we had a goodbye dinner with my family, full of laughter (and some tears), and off we went, headed across the country to Pittsburgh.

We arrived in Pittsburgh in mid-January. One week later, I got a call from my sister unusually early in the morning. In the wee hours, my father had felt short of breath, gone to the emergency room, and died suddenly. I had a plane ticket to go home for his birthday the next week. Now I was using that ticket to fly home for his funeral. My dad, a hero to many and a towering and sure figure in my life, was gone. It felt impossible. It still does.

The day after I flew back from his funeral, it snowed all day. Early that morning, I took a pregnancy test, which came back positive. I was amazed. We’d struggled for years with fertility and here I was, grieving my dad and happily bewildered by a surprise pregnancy. I cried all day, in joy, in grief, in complexity. The world was silent and white and I held a secret, a miracle.

But three weeks later, I began to bleed and didn’t stop. We had lost the baby.

The next week, I began massively hemorrhaging and had to be rushed to the hospital. After minor but life-saving surgery, I lay in bed for a week, sore, sad, and desperately homesick.

At the end of May, to our happy astonishment, we found out we were pregnant again. One week later, I went to the ER bleeding, certain I was losing my baby again. But I wasn’t. I was diagnosed with a condition that can cause hemorrhaging, but most often ends in a healthy birth. Our baby had a heartbeat. For weeks, we returned for sonograms and monitoring and watched our baby grow and twirl and, once, wave. We loved and named her.

Meanwhile, the bleeding continued and worsened. The pregnancy was deemed “fragile” and I was put on restricted activity. I stopped working and canceled speaking gigs. I wasn’t allowed to pick up my four year old or go on a walk. What followed was a foggy six weeks of bed rest and blood and ER visits and prayer. And yet, we held a sparkling hope when sonogram after sonogram showed a beautiful baby with a strong heartbeat.

We begged God to keep our baby well. As my belly grew, we grew in hope. I was getting better.

And then, just into my second trimester, a sonogram showed that our baby had died.

In six months, I had lost my home, my father, a terrifying amount of blood, and two babies. I am grieving. I know mine is not the worst sorrow or loss in the world. It’s not even the worst trial of my friends this year. Still, here I am. In a difficult season of pain and loss.

Grief, I’ve found, is like sand after a trip to the beach. It’s textured and sticky and gets in your hair, your teeth, in between your toes. I return from the beach back to my “normal” life in my purportedly sand-free home. Two days later, I open my sock drawer astounded to find a thin dusting of sand at the bottom. I unzip my bag and grit gets under my fingernails. I pick up a book the next week and discover its creases hide enough hard grains of the stuff to make a little pile on my desk.

Grief, for me, gets everywhere. It settles even in the cracks of my day. Any topic, no matter how obscure, can suddenly remind me of what I’ve lost. I hear a news story and wonder what my dad would say. Or I visit a new place and want to tell him about it. I open a drawer and see a note my daughter had written him. His voicemails are still on my phone, undeleted.

I see a reminder in my purse for an OB appointment I forgot to cancel. Maternity clothes a friend passed down sit in a box in the corner; the rocking chair where I nursed our other babies still sits ready for use again. Our four-year-old leans against my belly, whispering “I miss you” to the sister she lost.

I wake up homesick, missing the live oak trees in our old Austin neighborhood, missing the light in my old living room, missing friends, wanting to run back home.

Grief turns up. It sticks in the crevices.

So why am I telling you this?

As a writer and a clergy person, this liminal space of grief feels a bit complex and fraught.

Since grief gets everywhere, I feel like I can’t write or teach on anything now without talking about the past six months, without honoring these losses somehow, without trying to tell you the story of me.

And yet, I don’t want to publish or speak or preach about it yet because this isn’t something I’m looking back on; this is where I am today.

As a writer — and simply as someone on social media — I have a bit of a mysterious (to me at least) and, at times, perplexing relationship with the amorphous “public.” If you have read my book, you know my favorite foods and the names of my close friends, you know about a particular fight I had with my husband one morning (that framed chapter six), and that I like NPR, Parks & Rec, and iced coffee (lately by the gallon). If you follow me on Twitter, you may know my political or theological convictions; we may have even argued or joked with each other. You know me and yet you don’t know me — or, at least, you don’t know what I don’t share. You don’t know my children or what I’m like when I’m very sad or the moments I am most uncool.

Over the past six months, I have not shared publicly what has been going on in much detail. I certainly have not yet explored the raw depths of what I am feeling in an essay or a sermon because I am still simply trying to survive, to get through the day, to get my family through the day.

Because I write and speak publicly, friends and family have said to me, “This is all fodder.” And it’s true, of course. This will all make it into prose eventually — primarily because it has all shaped me. I already have fifteen essays clanging around in me about grief, miscarriage, loss, theodicy, hope, culture, and God. Yet, I’m loath to spin my past six months into articles and essays too soon.

This summer, seeking silence, I took a two-month break from any kind of writing. And it was good, but it was clear to me and those around me that it was time to pick up the pen — or the keyboard — again. The tide went out and it’s time for it to return. But how?

Even in the age of social media and blogs, our lives are not abstractions. I don’t want to dissect my life and analyze it yet. I don’t want to turn my most raw and tender grief into cultural commentary. I don’t want the loss of my father or my son or daughter’s short life to be a side-note in a sermon on John or a hook for a piece on the church or pro-life ethics. I don’t want the loss of these real, beautiful people I love to be part of a “platform” or to get “hits” or to be another note in the din of social media discourse. I don’t want my life or the lives of those I’ve lost to be spun in the telling.

And yet, writing or speaking about anything else with this kind of private suffering in the background feels inauthentic somehow. It’s like I am chatting with my next-door neighbor about the election while my roof is on fire.

So here is where I am: I can’t yet write or preach or teach about this season yet. And I can’t write or preach or teach about anything else while ignoring where I am.

And yet, not writing or preaching or teaching for long isn’t an option, not only because I do this for a living, but also because it is part of me.

So I am simply telling you this story. This has happened. These are my last six months, told plainly, without a hook, without an angle — if that is ever even possible. 

But there’s another reason I am telling you this.

I am learning something in a new and deeper way: Grief does indeed get everywhere, but so does mercy. I am seeing that there is no place of suffering to which God might send us where beauty, grace, and blessing can’t reach. With each new sorrow, moments of beauty still turn up. They seep in. They find me. The hope of the resurrection persists. And so does the goodness of God in the small moments of my day. Even today, even here, even now, grace surprises and abounds. I feel lost and in the dark, but mercy finds me, again and again and again. Sometimes slowly. But nevertheless.

This mercy has often come through my church. There are a thousand ways that the church, global and local, fails, and it’s easy — especially for those of us who spend a lot of time online or on the news — to only hear of problems in the church. People have built careers on pointing out her deficiencies and sins.

What doesn’t make headlines is the quiet work that imperfect but good churches do, week in and week out.

When I found out I was pregnant, I was afraid the head pastor — my boss — would be mad or disappointed since I had started work less than a month before. Instead, he hugged me and said, “We will do whatever we can to support your family.” How many women in the secular world would love that response from their bosses when they found out they were pregnant? When we miscarried the second time, our Director of Ministry said to me, “We were planning on giving you maternity leave, so we will now give you miscarriage leave.” After six crushing months, they generously hung in there with us and gave us extra time off to cry, to pray, to rest, to heal.

People have prayed for us. People dropped off food and more food. Our doctor, a fellow church member, constantly poured over medical records and research, showed up at the ER, and prayed with me. Two college students dropped off a giant box of art supplies for my kids. My church has constantly showed hospitality and grace to a clergy family who were hired to come lead and, almost immediately, were weak, in need, and in crisis.

It doesn’t trend on twitter when a middle-age church member drops off a casserole or when people gathered around us to pray or when friends sat with us in a memorial service for our lost child. The most persistent and gracious goodness in the church will never be widely noticed, much less hashtagged. But nevertheless mercy has come to us through her.

There is much more to say, of course, about this hard season, much more I need to sort out in my own heart, more wrestling with God and silence and writing and prayer.

But in this crowded world of words and public comment, I simply want to hold space for this grief, for the loss of a father and two babies, a loss of my “ordinary” and my home and, for a time, the loss of joy.

And yet, even in loss, the Lord, his church, and his beauty remain. He gives and takes away. And gives and gives and gives.

 

About the Author

Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. After eight years with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries, she now serves as Co-Associate Rector at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She writes regularly for The Well, CT Women (formerly her.meneutics), and Christianity Today. Her work has also appeared in Comment Magazine, Christ and Pop Culture, Art House America, and elsewhere. She is author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (IVP). She and her husband Jonathan have two daughters.

 

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