In Pursuit of the Spirit: Remembering the Saints

orange_fall_trees_smOctober has never been my favorite month. It always opens with such promise and warmth, and then ends with a blustery quickness that is downright abrasive. To be fair, I do love part of October. Early October always feels like a time of opportunity and endless possibilities. The leaves are beginning to change, there is often a warmth that continues to linger, the routine of a new school year feels settled and normal and the onset of winter a distant reality. I love the beginning of October. But every year early October seems to come and go in the blink of an eye, and I am far too quickly deposited on the doorstep of late October.

Ten years ago Adam and I lost twin boys in late October. In the years since we’ve learned that so many others have stories of infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, and loss, each as heartbreaking and hard as our own. For us, it was something in-between: not quite a miscarriage, and not quite a stillbirth. I was nineteen weeks pregnant when my water broke. The twins were born alive, but they were so premature that there was never a question of them surviving. There is no comparing losses, no clear spectrum of pain on which to judge the seriousness of one’s own experience, but I have always thought it was a heartbreaking gift that our boys were born alive: that we got to meet them and hold them while they were breathing, that there was something tangible and good and life-giving in the midst of so much loss and pain and death.

I remember the days and months after their birth and death as a blur of grief and sleep and an emptiness that taught me the true meaning of bereft. In the years since, my grief has been cyclical: arriving, staying, and then departing only to circle back and arrive again. At first it came often and stayed for long, unwelcome lengths of time; and then, as time passed, it came less and less frequently. Now the grief hits hard about once a year (in late October), and the rest of the time its presence feels more like a ripple on the surface of water: noticeable, but not disruptive.

I’ve had enough pastoral care training, and spent enough time as a hospice chaplain, to know that grief never really leaves you; it changes and it ebbs, but it’s never completely gone. And, honestly, I’m grateful for that fact. I would never want to forget our boys, and knowing that grief will never let me is something of a twisted comfort. Nevertheless, every year I am surprised by the end of October—its suddenness and its intensity. Every year, when the warm early days of October begin to fade and I remember what’s coming, I think it won’t be so bad this year—surely enough time has passed that it will be sad but not devastating. But every year I am wrong. Every year the end of October springs up like a terrifying monster in a haunted house and leaves me shaken and down for the count. I’d like to think that with a few more years I’ll learn, but I suspect that it is grief’s nature to be surprising as well as devastating. So for now I take comfort in having four years behind me. I take comfort in the fact that most of the time my grief is just a pang or a passing “what if” rather than a knock-down-drag-out sucker punch. For now, I take comfort in the fact that I have a hilarious almost-three-year-old that would likely never have existed had our twins survived. And for now, I take comfort in the fact that October ends with All Saints Day, and November always arrives.

Blog-HeadShot-300x300Sarah Walker Cleaveland is a spiritual director, preacher, teacher, retreat leader, and writer. After graduating from Hobart & William Smith Colleges with a degree in religious studies, she spent two years working in Christian Education at a Presbyterian Church and a Presbyterian Retreat Center. She earned her M.Div. at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA, married her husband Adam, then earned a Masters of Theology from Princeton Seminary. Adam serves as Associate Pastor at Winnetka Presbyterian Church in a suburb north of Chicago. Sarah is currently chasing their two and a half year old son Caleb and developing her spiritual direction practice.

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  1. Howell Easterling says

    NextSunday Friend,

    I’m not sure I’ve heard such articulate and inspiring words before in such a situation as your’s, moving from and through excruciating pain and grief to the reality and appreciation of hope. Call to mind a few favorite words from Great is Thy Faithfulness hymn: ‘Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow. Morning by morning new mercies I see (even in late October!).

    I thank you and pray God’s blessings upon you and your almost three year old and your husband etc etc etc.