Four years ago, I found out that something I assumed would be a given–something I had grown up staking my heart on–may never come to be.
Until then, I had never really faced a struggle that was truly insurmountable. For the most part, whatever challenges came my way were resolved by extra studying, diligent research, a better-paying job, therapy, medication, or (in my more faithful moments) prayer.
But this new thing, this new, dark possibility, wouldn’t (and hasn’t) responded to any of my best efforts or prayers–faithfully offered or otherwise.
Grief enters our lives through all sorts of different doors–death, unemployment, sickness, physical infirmity, and so many others I can scarcely begin to count.
And to some, especially those who perhaps have never faced it, this particular grief may not seem like a big one. There are, as I once believed myself, worse things in life.
But then you find yourself here–unexpectedly, for no apparent reason, and against not only your wishes but pretty much every expectation you had for your adult life–and you quickly realize this is no minor thing. This, indeed, affects everything.
When I received the news, I quietly staked out everything I could find on the subject from an Orthodox perspective. (Emphasis on the “quietly” part, because I didn’t want anyone suspecting we were struggling with this. If no one found out, it wouldn’t have to be real.)
I soon realized, however, that there’s not a lot out there. And even less that actually speaks to the deep grief of this predicament in a way that could help me integrate what I was facing with my faith in a God who is supposedly good and life-giving.
Someone needs to write a book about this, I complained–partly to myself, partly to God. At the time, I was not an author. The Time Eternal podcast had not even been launched yet. I was not yet finished with my PhD. I hadn’t begun teaching at the Orthodox School of Theology. It never occurred to me that I should write about it. I wasn’t at all sure what the next few years of my life held in store, except I was starting to realize what they probably wouldn’t hold in store.
Someone needs to write about this, I continued.
I began giving God some unsolicited publishing advice. I was sick of books on this topic that failed to really get at the spiritual and existential meat of this grief. To do that, the author needed to have some qualifications.
First of all, the author should already have a platform and at least a book in print already–otherwise she’ll only be known for this topic, and that would be a pretty dismal thing to be known for.
And yes, the author should be a she. People expect this to come from a woman. But it should speak to men, too, because men have feelings too. And because marriages are what need support on this, not just men and women as isolated individuals.
She should maybe have some academic training. It needs to bridge discourses on theology and theological anthropology with the real-life trenches of experience. Plus academics struggle with this problem, too.
She should be familiar with the ethnic side of Orthodoxy. This topic is experienced a bit differently there than in more convert-heavy parishes.
Also, she should have been dealing with this problem for a longer time than I have–at least a few years. She’s really got to be in the trenches of this thing.
Thankfully I didn’t really meet my own criteria for the person who needed to write this book, because it was absolutely the last thing I wanted to write about.
So, grief and all, I got on with my life–finishing my PhD, starting Time Eternal, working, settling into Canada and my marriage. The years ticked by. I started teaching. I wrote a book on the spiritual sickness of despondency (which if I’m honest, was really just a way to grapple with this grief that I’m talking about).
And after that, I didn’t know what to write about.
Because I’d always assumed that by then, this thing–this grief–would be over. I thought by the time I wrote a book, life would have changed. Heck, I thought that by the time I finished my PhD, life would have changed. That I would have had to put whatever career ambitions I had on hold for… well, other things.
But it hadn’t changed, not in the way I longed for.
And one day, years later, I turned around and realized I met every one of the criteria I’d haphazardly outlined before God years earlier. (What, you were listening to that, God?)
No. I told him. Stop looking at me.
But the writer’s block continued. And if there’s one way to persuade this writer to do something, God only knows it’s with the promise of good writing material while I’m stuck in a prolonged dry spell.
OK, fine. If this is what I’m to write about, I’ll do it. I told Him. But it’s not going to be a memoir. Too personal, too painful. Also, probably too boring.
And God must have been listening to that whining prayer, too, because that week, on the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, He provided (or reminded me of) a ram of sorts. Someone else’s story. A way to talk about these things without talking about myself.
And here I am, sharing this news nearly a year later, as we anticipate the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. It’s a #TimeEternal moment.
What can I say except that books, like grief, enter our lives through all sorts of different avenues, too. And this one was not the book I asked to write. It was certainly not the book I dreamt of creating when I was a little girl with authorial ambitions. It was not the one I thought would follow Time and Despondency.
Still, I think it’s a book I was supposed to write.
More than anything, though, it’s the book I wish I could have read four years ago, after coming home from the doctor’s office, trying–with my husband–to process something I never in a million years saw coming.
Please pray for me as it heads into publication!
Under the Laurel Tree: Grieving Infertility with Saints Joachim and Anna
Ancient Faith Publishing
Expected publication date: Fall 2019
Infertility is frequently cited as one of the hardest griefs a couple can face. Yet this painful issue is all too often neglected in both Church and society. Under the Laurel Tree traces one God-fearing couple’s journey through the shame of childlessness. Although their grief provoked spiritual and marital turmoil, this couple has been revered from the earliest centuries of Christian tradition as the parents of Mary, the Mother of God. By following the story of Saints Joachim and Anna, this book helps individuals and couples navigate the grief of infertility, amid shame, isolation, advice, bargaining, and despair. Joachim and Anna’s path through this grief ends not with the birth of Mary the Theotokos, but several steps before that: when they reconciled as a couple and gave thanks to God. This book is for all who are trying to fight the good fight of faith during infertility. In walking alongside Joachim and Anna, we encounter not only a lifegiving template for grief, but also the path back to ourselves, our partner, and our God-given vocation of Eucharistic thanksgiving.
Thank you for the bittersweet and beautiful post. I look forward to the book.
Another #TimeEternal moment when silent thanksgiving is the only appropriate comment…
Is this my HUSBAND?! <3 Hi Basil!
Infertility is a difficult topic because it has a way of sorting people into a hierarchy of pain.
“You’ve only been trying to conceive for 2 years? Psh, wait until you read 5! (Or 10, or 15, or 20.)”
“You’re sad because you’re struggling to conceive your third child? You have no right to claim pain, you already have two children!”
“You struggled to conceive for years, but then eventually had children? You can’t understand the pain of someone who has never had children!”
My wife and I fall into that last group. It took us 6 years to have our first child. We were utterly, completely convinced by the end that we would never have children. The pleading and bargaining with God was intense. We prayerfully pursued various infertility treatments. Then, finally, after 6 years we conceived our first daughter (with the help of infertility treatments).
We have had 4 children now, and know the joy of parenthood. We also know the grief of losing a child (our second lived for four days).
Having children reminds me of this quote by St Elizabeth the New Martyr: “If we look deep into the life of every human, we discover that it is full of miracles. You will say, ‘Of terror and death, as well.’ Yes, that also.” That, it seems, is the sum of our lives, whether fertile or infertile. It is the lot of humanity and existence.
God bless you, and I look forward to reading this book.
Thank you, Isaac, for sharing your thoughts! You’ve articulated things so well. You’re so right that infertility comes in a lot of different forms–primary, secondary, multiple miscarriages… And somehow we so often fail to recognize the unique suffering that pertains to each one–and the grief that we share in common.
That quote by St. Elizabeth is pure gold. Do you know where it is from, or where I could cite it?
I found that quote here: https://incommunion.org/2007/06/19/st-elizabeth/. It is at the very end of the article. It is from a letter she wrote to Tsar Nicholas while he was under house arrest. If it’s inauthentic, I’d be interested to know. 🙂
Look forward to reading this book, as I too went through this same experience and thoughts.
Thanks for connecting on this difficult topic, Nancy! God is with us.
Nicole, often the hardest things I have faced about writing is that I thought the topics that constantly swirl through my head would be better for OTHER people to write about. I don’t want to be the one to write about grief, loss, betrayal, pain, disappointment, death, or heartache … and yet … we are given the lives we are given for our salvation and through that, the salvation of others. This was a beautiful post and it gave me goosebumps. I can’t wait to read your book. With love, Brandi
So true! I still DON’T want this to be the topic that I wrote a book about–ha ha. I was on a walk this morning thinking about yesterday’s post, all the loving responses I received, and what comes next for launching this book… And it was probably the most Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde internal monologue I’ve ever had about writing. One moment: Wow, God, I’m so grateful You brought me through this book, it is really an incredible experience and I’ve learned so much. Next moment: but WHY, God??? Why me? Why this struggle? I’d rather have diabetes or something if it meant I could have children. Next moment: No, but really, You work in mysterious ways–thank You.
… And on and on.
But I think all the wrestling is part of the story, and part of the salvation He works within us and our lives.
Loves of love and courage in your own writing, Brandi!
Thank you. I am also a writer facing my own (though different) grief that will not go away. Your words, “No… stop looking at me……. Too personal, too painful. … too boring. ” Brought me up short. They echo a voice I heard in my morning prayers. Timely.
Courage to you, my friend! Granted it has taken me years to get to the point where I could write this book, then write this post. Luckily God’s patient 🙂 Far more patient with me than I am with Him.
In my early thirties after having studied and worked for many years as a researcher, something happened that rocked my world. I experienced a missed miscarriage four months into my pregnancy (I did not even know that my baby had died in the womb). I went numb and I was in shock. I was 34 and had been recently married to Panagioti. It was still early in our marriage. I was living away from family and friends and no matter what I read I struggled to understand how my organised world could come crashing down; after all I was always the one to solve problems for a living. Furthermore all my friends were having babies at the time. However during this painful period, in which I attended a wonderful pregnancy loss support group and saw a wonderful counsellor, my husband told me he loved me very much and that even if we could not have children, that we should accept God’s Will; after all he said we found each other after so many years, which was a miracle in itself. I did have another miscarriage, but I was also blessed with our daughter Nektaria, who is now 14. Every day I feel truly blessed. Those early days of our marriage strengthened us and we are a stronger couple for it, however the pain of loss never truly goes away. We still ache for the babies we have lost. Thank you for writing this book and addressing this very sensitive issue.
Hi Marz – thank you for sharing your losses and joys! It is a blessing for myself and I’m sure others to know that we are not alone in this grief, and that there are meaningful spaces where our stories and memories can be recollected. For me too, coming off my twenties spent in heavy studying and researching, infertility was a shock because it wasn’t a problem I could think or intellectualize my way out of.
I am glad for your daughter Nektaria, but I also understand that as you say, in some ways this grief is always with you. I’m learning that one beautiful thing about that grief is that it reminds us just how much in the image of God we are made–that desire to give and bear life is such a central part of our being, that we grieve its loss even when we’ve been able to have other children, baptize godchildren, adopt, etc.
My daughter struggled awhile, then joyously conceived last fall…only to lose the baby less than four weeks before his due date a few months ago. He would have been our first grandchild. The parents, grandparents, aunts & uncles are all devastated. I still grieve the little boy I never got to hold.
St. Anna is my patron saint, chosen for her roles as mother and grandmother. I cry to her daughter, the Theotokos, who also lost her Son, and ask her to pray for us that we might be comforted.
Hi Anna (great name!!), I am so sorry to hear about the loss of your grandbaby. That is so, so hard. A friend of mine recently suffered a very late miscarriage/stillbirth and every time I think about it, my knees go weak. Love and prayers to you, your daughter, and your family.
God bless you for taking time to write this book — I look forward to reading it. I believe it will be a blessing to my life and to many others.
Best blog post of the year. I will be reading this book for sure. Just beautiful, from the heart, breathtakingly honest.
Thanks Selena! It means a lot coming from you. I look fwd to seeing what you think of it when it’s out! <3