The physical toll of grief

Mama, Papa, and Mercy Joan

Mama, Papa, and Mercy Joan

On February 25, 2011, I stood and spoke at Mercy’s funeral.  Her stiff body lay a few feet away, tucked under a multi-colored quilt sewn by my mother.  As I reexamine and reflect on the journey of grief this month, I begin here, in the searing pain of those early days.


Mercy Joan Mertes.  For most of you, today is your first physical encounter with Mercy, this is your hello to my girl…and my soul aches that for all of us, this is a farewell.  Standing here, I invite into the space of this mother’s lament and I wonder:  who was Mercy Joan?  What weight did she have in this world?  And how will I step beyond this moment?


Most of you have met Mercy through photos, e-mail updates, and, most importantly, through prayer.  We knew early on that Mercy would struggle.  An ultrasound warned that her condition was serious, her ultimate prognosis unknown.  And so we waited and we prayed, seeking healing, begging peace, and practicing patience.  Hundreds of friends and family, spread from California to New York to Nairobi, joined with us, loving Mercy and our family through each unfolding day.  Your prayers carried us.  My pregnancy, although overshadowed with uncertainty, was a time of great joy.  Mercy trekked through the hills of Bloomington with us as we marveled at the colors of fall.  She spent hours with Magnus and Ada on the playground, and even went to the ocean.  Thank you.  Thank you for loving my little girl.  I hope that Mercy drew you closer to the God that hears. 


From the first, Mercy Joan was a sister to Ada June and Magnus Emmanuel.  We joyously incorporated her into our family rituals.  Ada and I talked to her constantly.  She became a part of our bedtime routines, with Ada supplying her voice for prayer time.  Mercy even had her own song, the doxology, which we would close with every evening.  Magnus loved to blow on my growing tummy, and I can only imagine that Mercy laughed to hear her brother’s jolly buzz.  Mercy’s eyes were closed through much of her life, but when Ada arrived in her hospital room, she was eyes wide open for more than an hour as her sister sang to her, stroked her face, and taught her how to twirl.


Mercy was also the daughter of the best father I know.  Luke has loved her well through every moment of her life.  I am profoundly grateful that Luke is Mercy’s father as well as my steadfast, weeping companion on this path of grief.


Mercy Joan was my daughter.  She nestled inside me, filling both my heart and my womb.  We went on long, plodding runs together.  Together, we sat through (and passed!) a semester of graduate school.  We read stories to Ada and covered Magnus with tickles.  Each kick and jostle was mine to savor and cherish a secret assurance of the robust life that was within me.  Yet, I knew that the safety and protection of those nine months could not last.  That trembling and trusting day would come, the unveiling of Mercy to a world of wires and tubes, pain and uncertainty.  And oh, how I ached, how I longed to once more wrap her inside me and shelter her from the rasping ventilator and the beeping machines that were her companions. 


Although we knew that bringing Mercy home would end her life, I awaited her arrival with joy, longing to see my little girl’s face.  And the moment was indeed joyous.  A tiny hand stretched upwards to my face, a red mouth open and free from tubes.  As Mercy’s moments stretched to minutes and minutes to days, we were delighted by Mercy.  A walk by the pond, sitting near a bursting fire, nestling in for a night’s rest…and the embrace and caress of so many family members.  All of these memories are ours to cherish for a lifetime.


And in this blessed mess of memories, there is the soul-searing moment of clutching her warm, dead body and weeping over her stillness.  Where do I go from this place?  How will I move through the days, forward from the body of my Mercy Joan?  I have no easy equation, where sovereignty plus suffering equals peace.  My words are few.  Yet, as I mourn and moan, there are two cries that rise up with equal fierceness.  My first call is raw pain:  I hate that Mercy is gone.  I covet her weight in my arms and will mourn her every day of my life.  My second cry is to God.  He has not been far from me.  He cares for me with a mother’s strength and tenderly caresses me with a father’s comfort.  He holds my daughter and He holds my days. 


Oh Spirit, draw near.  Lord, have Mercy.  Christ, have Mercy.   


It felt important for me to speak at Mercy’s funeral.  The eulogy was like a graffiti tag:  Mercy was here.  The day of her funeral and burial emptied me.  Afterwards, friends and family gathered at my parent’s home.  They were there to support me, to offer comfort, but I could not endure another interaction. 


I remember hiding in the TV room.  I crowded between the children and took refuge in a few minutes of The Lion King.  However, even Simba soon began to grate.  I stumbled down the stairs into the basement.  A friend came, set a fire, and left. 


I don’t remember most of what people said to me that day, but I remember the fire that Daniel silently stacked.  I remember the English muffin, lightly toasted with just an echo of butter, that Emily offered the morning after Mercy died.  There were pyrex dishes that appeared, heavy with tomato sauce and sympathy.  Friends cleaned our house and vacuumed out the Explorer.  As words faltered, these gestures were solid and true. 


Early grief is intensely physical.  My thoughts and emotions were desperately recalibrating and my body was in flat-out denial.  Denial reeks of soggy cabbage.  My breasts were leaking milk, yearning to sustain a days-dead daughter, and I soothed the pain by layering cabbage inside my maternity bra.  As a side note, in the long accretion of female wisdom, it was discovered that cabbage leaves ease the pain of engorgement. 


Cabbage was just one more example of resonant, physical care.  Jill, a friend of my mother, faithfully delivered the purple heads, slipping comfort into the crisper drawer. 


Now, when I hear about the car crash or the divorce or the diagnosis, I put on my apron and bake a loaf of bread.  I arrive with a chai tea latte or an offer of childcare.  Especially when the sorrow is fresh, embodied care is immensely impactful.  Offer a hug, clean a toilet, send a bar of chocolate.  Words are important but incomplete.    


I am struck by a question I pose somewhere near the end:  Where do I go from this place?  How will I move through the days, forward from the body of my Mercy Joan? I have no easy equation, where sovereignty plus suffering equals peace.  My words are few.  How to move forward, indeed.  In my next blog post, I look at what happened when the funeral flowers faded and the sympathy cards stopped.