Thursday, December 5, 2013

Hurting for the Holidays: Walking in the Land of the Living by Kelly Gerken

photo by Jennifer Upton
For the 2013 holiday season, I am hosting a blog series called Hurting for the Holidays.  Twenty-six amazing guest writers are sharing their hearts, hurts, and helps to help those of us who carry an internal ache to navigate this celebratory season.  Find all posts in the series here, and participate via social media through the hashtag #HurtingfortheHolidays.

It was November 3, 1996 when my life was forever changed. I was twenty-one years old when I stood beside the tiny grave, the first time. I've said many times that I didn't leave the house for two months after I lost my identical twin daughters, Faith and Grace to twin to twin transfusion syndrome.  But, this year, I remembered a piece of the story that I held somewhere quietly for seventeen years.

I didn't know how to live in a world where babies from my womb could be stolen from me, where life could end before it began, where my trusting prayers were answered with something I didn't ask for, a world that was turned upside down, a world without innocence and invincibility. I didn't want to see the eyes averting my gaze, to hear the stumbling conversations without mention of their names, didn't even know how to breathe this new suffocating air. Not one place felt right. Only a mother who has walked this path can know what it's like not to feel familiar in your own skin. To wonder if you will ever know normal again.

People arrived at the door delivering flowers, gifts, ornaments.

Christmas ornaments. Because, no one in our small town could conceive of the horror of losing not one, but two babies . . . and so close to Christmas. And, because so many of them were heartbroken right along with us.

I couldn't answer the door, couldn't face this world that dared to keep turning when my baby girls were dead in the ground. And, yes, I know they were not in that cold ground; they dance in heaven, perfect and unbroken. But, someone. Someone tell the aching, empty arms of my twenty-one year old self, who only seemed to comprehend the desperate absence of two baby girls . . . who belonged with their mother.

I was still learning to breathe, when the first Christmas of this new life in unfamiliar skin, approached. My mother took me to pick out a special ornament in memory of my sweet girls, to remember them. To hold something tangible, something that said they were here. I chose two identical ornaments, each depicting a little girl, sitting on a heavenly swing. Imagining how they would play happily in heaven eased my aching heart. The tradition of adding an ornament to our tree in memory of our babies, began that year. It was comforting, to hang them on our Christmas tree, amidst the handmade ornaments of our oldest son. A Christmas tree should tell a family's story, and having them there, part of our family's story, helped me breathe a little easier in this thick, stifling new air.

I wanted so desperately to find the fast forward button, to find the way out of this pit of pain, where laughter sounded foreign and was accompanied with guilt, where nothing felt natural or full or real. Life was hollow and everything I once knew was in pieces. I wanted to be where my babies were, and I wanted to be with my son here on earth...and I wanted to know where I had gone...the me that knew my own skin. I didn't leave the house, to get groceries or pay bills. I didn't go to family gatherings that year. I couldn't bear to hear the clichéd responses to my gaping, oozing, seeping, inconvenient wound invading everyone's nice holiday celebrations.

But, I loved Christmas. And, it seemed so cruel that the joy and wonder of my Savior's birth, the One who came to save me from certain and inevitable destruction, should be stolen too.

So, in the midst of my self-induced social hibernation, I bundled up warm, took the hand of my almost three year old son, and proclaimed that we were going to see Santa at the local park lighting ceremony. It was a moment of rebellion, a moment of resolve, a moment of survival and living in the land of the living . . . while the sea of grief still roared. It was a "NO, you are not allowed to steal everything" shout to death, grief, and pain.

I stopped at the edge of park, my boots crunching in the snow. My senses heightened to everything offered by life on planet earth as time froze. Every breath breathed in cold and crisp, and each puff of foggy air breathed out...felt to the core of my soul. Every sound of the chatter from the surrounding crowd blended together around me. I was just one mother holding a tiny hand for courage to walk in the midst of the land of the living, willing us to be invisible. So that, for just a moment, I could not be the mother who stood beside that tiny grave. The community band played Christmas carols, as we approached the line for Santa. I clung to the hand of my boy, breathing the cold air, hearing the crunch of my boots on the snow, feeling the depth of everything in the land of the living. No one could know the courage it took to even walk among them in that moment. But, that night, my son sat on Santa's lap and we breathed life.

Because, death doesn't win, in the end. Life does.

The ornament tradition continued, when we lost our son, Thomas to Potter's Syndrome in 1998. We also began donating presents each year, through Operation Christmas Child, filling three shoe boxes with gifts for two little girls and one boy. Over the years, I have found much healing in reaching out to offer comfort to others, the same comfort we received as God carried us in those dark, dark days. This week, we are offering some gifts to help comfort grieving hearts on the SGM blog, while we also share parts of our journey if you would like to join us. Please know that you are not walking this path alone, no matter how incredibly lonely this season -- which seems to magnify all that is missing, lost, or imperfect -- may feel.

A Savior came. He came for me, and He came for you. He came to breathe life in the midst of our death.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
    and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
    for the display of his splendor.
I love the simple traditions Kelly and her family created to remember those precious babies who are very much a part of their family even though they are no longer here on earth, and to honor the grief created by their absences.  Holiday remembrance traditions don't have to be complex -- a memorial ornament on the tree, a candle on the mantle, listening to a special song as you decorate for the holidays . . . .  How do you remember your loved ones who have left this world?  Or, how would you like to this holiday season?
* * *
Kelly Gerken is the president and founder of Sufficient Grace Ministries, an organization providing perinatal hospice services, bereavement support and Dreams of You memory-making materials to families facing the loss of a baby through miscarriage, stillbirth, infant death and the death of a young child. Kelly has walked through the loss of three of her five children, and now reaches out to walk with other grieving families as an SBD birth and bereavement doula. You can read more about Kelly's journey of grace, hope and healing and the outreaches of SGM here:


  1. Beautifully sad and awesome story Kelly. In this: "A Savior came. He came for me, and He came for you. He came to breathe life in the midst of our death" I can feel your hope. Mine too.

    1. Thank you, Margo. So grateful for the hope we have in Him. Love and grace to you...


"I am glad you are here with me."
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King