taking the words of Jesus seriously

Our first pregnancy in 2004 ended in a miscarriage right after Easter. Through my wife Kristine’s five subsequent pregnancies—another miscarriage in 2004, healthy girls born in 2005 and 2008, a third miscarriage in 2010, and a healthy girl born in 2011—I wrote letters to my children to reflect on these experiences. These letters extended my lifelong habit of journaling about both formative and mundane events in my life.

Writing the first letter changed my experience of the miscarriage. Shortly after attended a wedding for a college friend, my former roommate wrote me an e-mail saying, “Kristine told my wife about your miscarriage. I’m sorry.” My reply was, “Thank you for your sympathy, but I think the loss has really been Kristine’s.” After all, she was the one who bore the physical trauma. As I wrote that first letter, I acknowledged the hopes and fears of parenthood that I had held for our child. Over time, as I continued to write letters to our children, I claimed their deaths as my own loss. I also claimed my identity as a grieving father, and Kristine’s identity as the mother of my children.

Writing about my confusion and grief enabled me to mourn the awfulness of your death. Not as an angry shout at the futility of life in a world that burned me one too many times. Nor as blind acceptance of actions from a distant God whom I’ve no right to question. But to acknowledge the loss of a life I was growing to love, the end of a journey that hardly had a chance to begin, the absence of a relationship I was looking forward to entering.

That lament created space for me to honor the value you brought to my life, verbalize the pain of your loss, and express the confusion of trying to come to terms with a side of life I didn’t expect to encounter. Talking about how I cried for you, for what you would bring to my life, was infinitely more valuable than finding a cure for the pain of your death.

I think I felt like I paid my dues with the first miscarriage. I hadn’t realized miscarriages were so common, but I was ready to get on with life and have children so that the dreams I’d claimed could grow. The second miscarriage forced me to face the possibility of never having children. It also stretched out over three uncertain weeks. We were camping in Maine when Kristine started spotting. We spent the next three weeks going to weekly ultrasounds, seeing a heartbeat that was slower than it should be, and coming back a week later to see what had changed. We could do nothing except wait.

One symbol I grappled with during that time was that of the open hand. It had been foundational when Kristine and I began dating, and again when we decided to get married. I understood that you must love your spouse unconditionally; recognizing that at times this love allows them to hurt you. I knew conceptually that you must love your living children with the same open hand, but I had never considered the open hand as something that I needed to practice while our child was still in the womb.

Now I had to decide whether I would protect myself from being hurt because this child would probably die, or if I would be willing to voice my love and my hope for my child even if I would never meet that child. I also had to decide whether I would extend an open hand to Kristine, whom I resented at times for responding to this miscarriage differently than I did. Writing the second letter helped me acknowledge the hope for this child’s life that was hidden deep beneath my cynicism about the impending miscarriage. I modified Albert Brumley’s hymn If We Never Meet Again to voice a hope that overcame my cynicism.

Now you’ve come to the end of life’s journey. It turns out we’ll never meet any more, ‘till we gather in heaven’s bright city, far away on that beautiful shore. … Since we’ll never get to meet this side of heaven, I will meet you on that beautiful shore.

Farewell, Child, until we meet face-to-face for the first time. Go with my love. Dad

If the first miscarriage was about shock, and the second was about a shattered worldview, the third was about despair. When we decided to try and get pregnant again after Charis was born, I began to hope for new life in ways that I hadn’t while we were expecting Elise and Charis. I felt like the hope I’d allowed myself to feel was thrown back into my face when our child died. There was a very big part of me that wanted to give up completely, not just on the hope of new life from another child, but on the work Kristine and I had done to learn to grieve together-rather than alone-and to bring the miscarriages into our lives. It hurt too much. I wanted to let the dreams die.

I rarely write music (I am much more comfortable playing music that others write), but there have been key times where I have responded to turmoil in my life through music. The third miscarriage was one of those times. I arranged the tune that emerged over three texts from Celtic Daily Prayer to form a song called The Caim Prayer. The song has two themes: The first is the cry that God would “lift me out of the valley of despair” that I had entered when our child died. The second is a request for God’s leading “along a path I had never seen before” so that our dreams would not die.

Kristine and I also compiled a two CD set of songs – some individual favorites, and others that we had listened to together. Expressing our pain, despair, and confusion to each other through these songs helped us to grieve both alone and together.

For our 10th wedding anniversary, we commissioned Indianapolis artist Kyle Ragsdale to make a painting of our family. Kristine asked him to include a crocus for each of our unborn children. It was a great idea from Kristine, and Kyle did an amazing job of turning her idea into a visual image (see above at beginning of post). In many ways, that painting represents what we are trying to do with the miscarriages. We want them to be part of our lives … not as a dark blot that covers the center, but as something that is woven into their creative fabric. Much of that hope is articulated in a letter that I wrote to all my children.

All six of you walked an uncertain road with me as you have borne my burdens through the words of these letters. You will walk that road with me into the future. My unborn children, each of your presence in our lives continues to shape how your mom and I engage our world. You have challenged us to grant you dignity, and encouraged us to not let your deaths be the last word. Elise, Charis, and Clare, you are calling us into the joy of making new life grow. You will learn with us what it means to remember your three siblings, to live with open hands, and to see and speak peace into humanity’s wounds. So we will walk together, until the day when we all meet for the first time.

Dr. Shawn Collinsis the author of Letters to My Unborn Children: Meditations on the Silent Grief of Miscarriage (Quill House, 2012).  A global nomad (he lived in Kenya for half his life) and vocational eclectic (he has graduate degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Anthropology), Shawn regularly writes and presents on a variety of systems engineering, organizational behavior, and theology topics.  In 2012, Shawn founded Tembea Pamoja, LLC, named after a kiswahili term meaning walk together.  It symbolizes the commitment he and Kristine made to integrate the miscarriages into their lives.  It also symbolizes the hope that Letters to My Unborn Children will encourage others who grieve.  Shawn and Kristine live in Indianapolis with their three living children.

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