My daughter skipped between graves etched with dates from the mid-1800s and we followed, my mom and I, trying to decipher weathered letters on bleached limestone. Some of those buried were old when they died, but many were young—so young there weren’t even dates or names, just “child” or “baby” underneath a woman’s name or next to another tombstone. The women, we assumed, died in childbirth.
In the 1850s, the infant mortality rate in the United States was 21.6% for white women and an eye-popping 34% for black women. The number of women who died in childbirth in the 1900s was 850 for every 100,000 live births—almost 1% or 1 in 100 women.
We murmured dates and names to each other as we walked slowly through the damp evening mist of Memorial Day weekend in Maine. So many headstones—some tipped, some sinking, some whitewashed away, blank and forgotten.
“You know,” my mom said, “if not for science and modern medicine, our names would probably have been on tombstones like this.” Both of us failed to deliver any of our children naturally after laboring for hours—days, even—and had caesarians for each of our three live and healthy children. “Puts things in perspective a little, eh?”
Our trip to Maine is the first of what we hope will be many getaways to U.S. National Parks. We’ve talked forever about taking a mother-daughter trip together. We imagined traveling to Eastern Europe, to see the place of our ancestors—those Czech and Polish women who survived the birthrate and mortality statistics—to explore the land of our heritage. Someday, we said, someday we’ll go.
But it’s been six months since my mom completed her treatment for stage four kidney cancer, the only approved drug with any chance for a cure—a 5% chance, if you want to know—and it didn’t work. It didn’t work, so now we’re in the business of buying time and hoping in things unseen.
Since her cancer first announced itself and I became aware that my mom might die—would likely die, will die, someday—I have carried grief in the pit of my stomach. It floats like algae on water and rises now and again into my chest and throat so my airways clog and I think I might drown in it, suffocate slowly from sadness. I anticipate the day far or near in the future when the finality of “someday” arrives and I have to face the rest of my own life without her, and now I am choking and gasping for air, for any wisp of hope. Stop! I gag, What good are you, anxiety? What good are you, grief?
In the moments when I can stand more solidly and see above the waves, I recognize and feel gratitude for the years my mom’s diagnosis buys when a decade or so ago a kidney cancer diagnosis meant just days or weeks or months. While I wouldn’t trade anything to go back to an earlier era and those ghastly statistics, modern medicine and science cannot spare us grief and the realities of loss.
All around me are the weary trying to keep the water from rising, the algae from getting into their windpipes so they don’t need to stop for air. Except no one is showing it. When my mom’s dad died eight years ago right before Christmas, my mom walked through the retail checkout lines without the spark of joy that is supposed to accompany Christmas. Grief flooded her and left her dazed, impatient, and tired. She told me how it made her wonder how many others were like her, how many others carried invisible loss around in their guts all day, and how she might be more careful and patient with people who just don’t seem happy.
The weary are trying so hard to appear okay. Somehow it is assumed that people should not be sad, or be sad only for a little while. Christians go even further to cover grief with painful clichés about God needing another angel in heaven, or tragedy being a part of his plan, or all things working together for our good, as if Jesus did not walk here and weep over the death of a friend himself. As if Jesus did not feel forsaken as he hung from a cross.
“Now, you women,” Jeremiah the prophet declares, “hear the word of the Lord; open your ears to the words of his mouth. Teach your daughters how to wail; teach one another a lament”.
In her new book Outlaw Christian: Finding Authentic Faith by Breaking the “Rules”, a book you must go now and read, Jacqueline A. Bussie asks, “Are we doing what Jeremiah asked us to do as people of faith? Has anyone ever taught you how to lament? Are we teaching one another? Do we even know how to lament ourselves?”
I have not been taught to lament. All we model to one another are ways to bottle up our anger and our hurt, to keep swallowing back the algae and brine until it hardens our insides and we become bitter, brittle, and cynical.
I am tired of watching us patch our broken hearts with spackle made of Christian clichés. Just try to keep that clay-filled thing pumping. Just try to push empathy and compassion through those arteries clogged with hardened grief.
Weep. Mourn. Wail. Let the floodwaters rise until there’s nowhere else for it to go except out, out into the world so all who love you may draw near and grieve with you. Weep, mourn, and wail, you weary and heavy burdened, and the Lord, the God of love and life and compassion, the God of gentleness and kindness and humility, will give you rest.