I still wake up from time to time in the middle of the night carrying heavy anxiety. And I often can't pinpoint its origins. But grief is like that for me. It hits me in waves. Sometimes those waves can gently roll over me or even go unnoticed. Other times they can crash in on top of me and knock me off my feet.
September 1st marks the first year anniversary of my families deep loss of Sophia Kyla Dennis. She will always be my very first niece, the beautiful daughter of my sister Lindsey and brother-in-law Kevin. We were given 10 precious life filled hours with Sophie just one year ago today.
I'll never forget holding her in my arms and feeling her breathe. We weren't promised anything from what we knew of her terminal condition so every minute was a true gift. It was as if a divine peace filled the entire hospital room and nestled itself deep into all of our hearts upon seeing Sophie born alive and breathing. She was so precious to hold. She had safely arrived to her Mommy and Daddy's arms. She was able to meet so many family members even in the brevity of her life. She was even given a birthday cake as we sang her the birthday song and welcomed her into the short time she would have on this earth. But the next time I held her, she was lifeless. And I said goodbye to the niece I was so eager and ready to love. Stopping that flow of love has been so painful to us all.
I believe one of the most painful things in life is when love is withheld from us. I so desperately wanted to give love to my first niece. Just in the same way that I have done so to my three nephews. I wanted to take her on cool evening walks with the whole family as we chat, laugh, and watch the sunset. I wanted to see her come out to Colorado and experience the mountains for the very first time. I wanted to see her in a cute summer dress with a bow in her hair. I wanted to hear her parents talk about her first crush on a boy. But Sophie's death stole all that away from me and it still hurts.
Yet in this pain I have learned so much. Sophie's death has taught me what I had not yet learned about life. First of all, I have learned I must weep. When pain comes my way, it is not only appropriate but necessary to weep because that is how I know I have loved. When Jesus wept in front of Mary and the entire town, he did it because he also felt pain for Lazarus whom be loved dearly.
Secondly, I have learned that this is how I desire others to respond to my situation. Not that they need to provide words or perspective on my grief, but that they need to just be present with me in my sadness. This act alone is enough for me as I believe it was enough for Mary when she saw Jesus share in her pain. I have realized that hopeful words or spiritual advice in these fragile moments have the opposite effect of what is intended. These seeming words of encouragement often deepen the pain because it feels as though the person is resisting the opportunity to enter into it with me. Jesus did not tell Mary to stop crying or to wipe away her tears because of what he was about to do. He just wept with her. And that is silently beautiful.
Thirdly, I've learned that Jesus also weeps with me. He weeps over Sophie's death. He grieves her loss. My God shares in my suffering. And that is all I need of Him in my deep grief. I simply need him to be present with me, sharing in my sadness, and validating my pain.
Sophie's death has taught me much about sorrow, suffering, and death. But her life has taught me just as much, if not more. Uncle Luke has begun to learn how to celebrate life even in the shadow of death. When life turns tragic, faith can still remain somewhere in the rubble. Pain can draw me deeper into the presence of God because He is so acquainted with suffering himself. Tragedy and death do not have to distance me from God. It can draw me deeper into himself even as I lay before him all my questions, doubts, and accusations. (I still have so many of them which will continue to go unanswered.)
Sophie's life has also taught me that even a baby who lives for ten hours can have a voice that reaches the masses. Her story has been told around the world. Through Kevin and Lindsey's blog, hundreds of thousands of people have been deeply moved and inspired and broken and hurt and hopeful and prayerful.
Sophie taught me that life is beautiful, especially when we live it in community with others. So many friends, family, and acquaintances celebrated Sophie's life while she was growing in her mothers womb. We have never been alone in our pain. But we have also never been alone in our moments of joy...all because of the willingness of others to join in our story.
Finally, Sophie has taught me (and I'm a long work in process on this one) that even when death has spoken, hope can somehow rise from the ashes. If I am honest, most days I have felt more hopeless than hopeful. But it is hard to kill love inside a human being. It always wants to fight its way back to the surface. Even as I continue to feel cold, numb, and lifeless in my grief, love has not been vanquished. It may lie dormant or be hidden from my own self, but it is not gone. How could I ever stop loving my first niece? The fact is I will always love her. And as that love continues to fight its way to the surface, hope seems to come with it. But I'm only now beginning to learn that even when love is withheld, it can find a new way.
Today I continue my search for that new way.
To my first niece, I am here to wish you a Happy Birthday! I love you Sophie! I miss you so much! And as another wave of grief rolls over me today, I want to say, although with tears in my eyes and pain in my heart, I am thankful for the beautiful ten hour life we were able to celebrate with you!
Love, Uncle Luke