This weekend our church held a one-day women's retreat. The title and theme of the retreat was Seeing Gratitude, inspired by Ann Voskamp's book, One Thousand Gifts. I had the honor of sharing a part of my story, about how God used Ann's book and the practice of gratitude to prepare me for and help me survive Eve's death. Here is what I shared.
When I learned the theme of this retreat, I was very eager to talk about how to be grateful during hard times, when it feels like life is crumbling around you and there's nothing that you can do to stop it. But now that it comes down to it, I am so afraid to tackle this subject, because it is so challenging. It goes against everything that we might normally expect from life and from God. But it is also so important.
As some of you know, I am not a stranger to suffering. I grew up in a dysfunctional home. Not very long ago, my life was nearly destroyed by an eating disorder. But the worst hit four and a half months ago, when my husband and I lost our first child, Eve. I was 31 weeks pregnant when I realized that I had not felt her moving all day. A short while later, at the hospital, our doctor told us that she had died. Two days later she was born, dead. The cause of her death could never be determined.
The past four months have been incredibly difficult. This has been the most horrifying thing that I have ever had to walk through. If I had ever thought that something like this could happen to me, I would have thought that I would not survive. Instead, I am not only surviving, but I have been surprised by many blessings hat can only have come from God. Incredibly and impossibly, these are blessings that I would not have experienced if my daughter had not died.
About a month before Eve died and was born, I began reading One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. Intrigued by her experiment of keeping a gratitude journal, I began my own. Like Ann, I wanted to live a richer life and have a deeper experience of God, and wondered if gratitude might be the way to cultivate those. On my gratitude list, I counted 289 gifts, and then Eve died. When my husband and I returned home, dizzy with fear of what this new life in which our daughter was dead would hold, one of the first things I saw was the open notebook containing my gratitude list, resting on the table where I had left it.
At first, the sight of it made me feel physically sick. I wondered – what does anything of this gratitude stuff mean now? Where is God? How can I be grateful for anything? But days passed and the grief pressed in, and soon I began to feel a sense of urgency to record the details of Eve's death and birth, to make safe the very few memories I had of our life with her. And so I picked up the gratitude list again, and began to write. I listed out the beautiful and ugly, the pain and the sweetness that come when you must give birth to a child you know you will never get to take home, to watch grow. I kept writing even after I had recorded everything I could remember of Eve. I kept on writing, for the next three months, until I had met my goal of counting 1,000 gifts. In the end, I counted 1,203 gifts in total, 914 of which came after Eve's death.
I am not telling you this to show myself off. The temptation to be bitter has been huge. Whatever success I have had in this gratitude experiment is to God's credit, not mine. But I want to share my story in the hopes that it might encourage you, when you go through hardship, that gratitude can coexist with suffering – that gratitude can open the door to so much good, no matter the circumstances.
Since Eve died, I have learned that gratitude is a choice. Jerry Sittser writes in his book A Grace Disguised,
“The experience of loss itself does not have to be the defining moment of our lives. Instead, the defining moment can be our response to the loss. It is not what happens to us that matters as much as what happens in us.... We do not always have the freedom to choose the roles we must play in life, but we can choose how we are going to play the roles we have been given. Choice is therefore the key."
After Eve died, I felt overwhelmed by panic. My baby had died – died within my own body, without warning or cause. Nothing felt safe. Everyone that I loved and everything that I knew seemed threatened. It took weeks until I felt okay with my husband just to go back to work, without me. And even though I have been able, by God's grace, to let go of this fear for the most part, the fact remains that often there is very little that I have control over in this life. The only thing that I truly can control is my response to the twists and turns of life.
Gratitude is one of those choices. Gratitude is not an emotion or a warm fuzzy feeling – although sometimes those can be effects of practicing gratitude. But when life is a nightmare and you feel like you can barely take a breath, gratitude is a choice. It is not an easy choice. There is a reason why gratitude and thanksgiving are sometimes referred to as “a sacrifice of praise.” But gratitude is still a choice.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 reminds us of this when it says, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Something else that I have learned more fully since losing Eve is that God is in the business of redemption. I believe that God redeems our trials and suffering, that He can bring something good out of something terrible. James 1:2-3 says. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” In Romans 5:3-4, Paul says, “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
These are not easy verses to hear. Frankly, I don't want to suffer. But the fact is that we live in a broken world. And some point or another, we will all suffer. We will all hurt. We will all grieve.
I don't want my daughter to be dead. I would give just about anything to have her alive and well in my arms right now. I hate that she is dead.
But I am glad in knowing that, if she has to be dead, good will come from her death. It is strange to say, but I have already experienced many blessings that I probably would not have experienced if she had not died. I have never before lived through a time of such pain or such growth. I have had my heart broken open, and not only do I feel incredible pain and grief, but now every bit of joy and happiness I feel is magnified. Her death has made me better able to appreciate the beauty of life.
Because she died, opening me up to so much pain, I have become much more empathetic towards other people's pain, which is a gift.
Because she died, I was forced to reexamine what I believed about death and Heaven and salvation, and as a result am no longer afraid of dying myself and can trust God's promises more fully.
Because she died, I have met many other women whose children are also dead, and they have become incredibly important to me.
Because she died, my priorities have been reorganized, and many empty desires have been killed off.
Because she died, even though life is harder, I have been made better than I was before.
But the most incredible, impossible gift I have received as a result of my daughter's death is God. In the book of Job, after God reveals Himself to Job, Job responds,
“I admit I once lived by rumors of you; now I have it all firsthand—from my own eyes and ears! I'm sorry—forgive me. I'll never do that again, I promise! I'll never again live on crusts of hearsay, crumbs of rumor."
This is exactly how I feel – before, I thought I had a pretty good knowledge of God, but since Eve died, I have had a much more intimate experience of Him. It was not easy – at first, I was not even sure I wanted anything to do with this God who I had asked for a healthy pregnancy and child, who seemed to answer my prayers with death. I tried to push Him away, but found that when it came down to it, I couldn't. God pursued me through my rage and my pain, and gave me a new way to connect with Him – as a fellow bereaved parent. Because He not only lost His son, but willingly gave Him over to torture and death, I found myself able to trust Him again, and more fully than before.
Henri Nouwen writes,
“Suffering invites us to place our hurts in larger hands. In Christ we see God suffering – for us. And calling us to share in God's suffering love for a hurting world. The small and even overpowering pains of our lives are intimately connected with the greater pains of Christ. Our daily sorrows are anchored in a greater sorrow and therefore a larger hope.”
God is in the business of redemption, of bringing something from nothing. This is what happened on the cross – out of the greatest pain came the world's greatest hope. I believe that the same is true for our own suffering – out of our tears comes unexpected gifts and growth. We can be grateful for the God who pursues us with abandon, who will stop at nothing to bring us safely home to Himself and make us more whole and healed than we could ever imagine. This is the beginning of gratitude when life is falling apart.