People often lament that while there is a word for those who have lost parents (orphan) and those who have lost a spouse (widow/widower), there is no word in English for those who have lost a child.
People often say this is because the death of a child violates the natural order. That parents should not have to bury their children. That life should unfold in neat, tidy, predictable progression from one generation to the next.
I mentioned this to my husband last week. His response blew apart the whole argument.
Being a parent, he said, always used to mean that you lost a child. When mortality rates were high and health care was lacking, the simple fact of bearing and birthing a baby meant that death was at your doorstep. Centuries ago – and still today across the world – the odds were that every relative in your family and every parent in your community had experienced the death of a child: during pregnancy, in childbirth, during infancy or childhood. This was simply the way life and death walked together.
Parenthood meant loss. No new words were needed.
Today we think this should not be so. We think science should save the sick. We think life’s former bounds should be extended in both directions: to let the littlest survive and to grant the oldest length of days. We protest that losing a child is unnatural and unbearable.
We forget that loss was once inherent to what it meant to bear new life.
This is the eulogy we gave at our daughters’ funeral. We are far from the first parents to suffer and speak this loss. We will be far from the last. Loss always lingers, whether great or small, within all our stories of parenthood: loss of control, loss of expectations, loss of ease or comfort, and even loss of life itself.
But we gain so much from our children. We gain so much more than we could ever give.
. . .
Nothing but love. From the beginning of our daughters’ lives, they knew nothing but love. When we learned we were expecting again, we welcomed the news with love. Our parents, our siblings, our friends and family – all of you welcomed that news with love.
And you welcomed that news with a great sense of humor, too. Last March, when the Kelly family was planning a vacation to celebrate Kathleen’s birthday, Kath called Laura and asked point-blank, “Are you going to be pregnant in Hawaii?” And Laura assured her that no, she wouldn’t be. But as my brother-in-law Sean said, when we were recalling that same conversation while we were in Hawaii in December – and Laura was very much pregnant – “hey, her husband is Italian! She can’t promise anything!”
But even when we got the surprise of our lives – that we were expecting identical twins? From the ultrasound tech who “discovered” his first set of twins on that day, too, and then had to listen to us freak out about it – in non-G-rated fashion – for the next hour? Well, it took some time to recover from that shock, but we were still filled with love.
When we told our kids that mama was actually growing two babies instead of just one, their responses were perfect. Joseph ignored us, Thomas laughed out loud, and Sam declared, “That is gonna be HARD!” Our sentiments exactly.
But from there the love just grew. Our kids were so excited, our families and friends were so excited. It was nothing but love.
And because of that love – the love that surrounded us in prayer from the beginning, the circle of support that got bigger with every step of the journey – when we started to learn that our fears were coming true and the babies had developed the worst complications with twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, we were carried and held and supported by love in ways we never knew existed.
All of you in this room were praying for our babies. Family and friends across the country were praying for our babies. Perfect strangers around the world were praying for our babies.
Since they were twins, from the very beginning our daughters were never alone. During every ultrasound Maggie made sure to kick Abby in the head to remind us of this. And because of your love, we were never alone either.
We have never felt so held by a community before. We never really understood what prayer meant until all of you were carrying us through. And even though our prayers weren’t answered with the outcome we wanted, we have no doubt that all these prayers were heard and answered.
Every step of the way, we felt that God was with us through all of you. And our girls gave us this gift. They brought us to this place. They taught us what community is and how prayer works in ways that we didn’t know before. They taught us what love means.
Love means night after night of dinners showing up at our doorstep. Love means healing prayer in the corner of church and anointing both of us after Mass. Love means stacks of cards in our mailbox every afternoon. Love means buying baby clothes and sewing blankets for babies who may never use them.
Love means blessing your mom’s belly with holy water the night before she goes to the hospital. Love means watching our kids through all those doctor’s appointments. Love means traveling across the country to be here with us this weekend. Love means praying for us and asking others to pray for us, even after today.
Many of you have heard the story of how we said goodbye to our daughters and they gave us the greatest gift in return – that we experienced the deepest joy we have ever known and felt the power of God’s love and got a glimpse of heaven in an incredible way that we still don’t feel like we can adequately put into words.
But part of the story that we haven’t yet shared is that while we were in that NICU room holding Abby, we did not have any anger. We didn’t have any regrets. We didn’t have any questions for God. We didn’t have anything but pure joy. In that moment when we should have had more questions than ever before, there were none. They simply didn’t exist. They were gone. There was only joy and only love.
The power of Maggie and Abby’s story did not start when they were dying. Or when we learned they were sick. Or when we absolutely lost our minds in that ultrasound room when we discovered we were having twins. Their story started way back at the beginning, when we were ready to welcome them with love.
So their story does not end now, either. While Laura was pregnant, we were preparing for all the ways our lives would be forever changed because of twins. And in the weeks since Maggie and Abby have died, we are still discovering how we will be changed by their lives and their deaths.
We still don’t know what all of this means or where it will lead us. But we hope and pray that we will not be the only ones changed – that all of you who held us and our daughters in prayer, who carried our family through the darkest days we have ever known – that each of you will be changed, too.
We know this is our watershed moment, our transition from Before to After. We hope that it will be for you, too – in whatever ways, big or small, that our daughters have touched your lives. We are standing before you promising that our lives are going to be different because of them.
The night we came home from the hospital, as we were putting the boys to bed, Thomas asked, “Do Maggie and Abby keep growing in heaven?” We told him that they don’t – that their bodies are perfect now and don’t need to grow anymore in the way babies do on earth. But we also realized that this is our task now: we are called to grow. All of us are called to be forever changed because of the experience of knowing and loving Maggie and Abby.
Because there was only ever love.