Thursday, July 29, 2010

"Losing" Adrienne

Adrienne Goates -- 1992

When a child dies, we often say, "We lost our youngest daughter Adrienne to SIDS."  She was seven weeks old, exactly forty-nine days, seven weeks of seven days, a perfect symbol of fulness and completeness in Jewish tradition, and she was perfect in every way.  She went to sleep one night, and when we arose in the morning as a family she had quietly passed away during the night while we all slept.

I don't think about the agony of it much anymore.  It was December 9, 1992.  I was scheduled on a business flight to Chicago that morning.  Patsy was tired that night and Adrienne had been fussing, so I offered to stay up with her and comfort her until she quieted down for the night.  I sent Patsy to bed, thinking I could sleep on the flight the next morning.  I never did that. 

At around 2:00 a.m., Adrienne finally settled down and I was able to go to sleep too.  When we awakened as a family the next morning, Emily was the first to make the horrible discovery.  I have heard screams in my life, but never one like that.

As I said, I don't remember to think about those events on a conscious level anymore.  Only when prompted by a reflection, a current event, or a person who asks about what it was like to "lose" a child do I reopen that subject.

But last week two things happened to bring it all back to the fore. 

I read an article in the Deseret News about a young couple who "lost" their daughter in a freak accident at sacrament meeting in Park City in 2008.  The writer described the tragedy in sensitive and comforting terms, and talked about how this mother had dealt with her grief by starting to blog about their "loss" in a blog page she dubbed "A Good Grief." 

The title intrigued me.  I checked it out.  Emotion welled up within me, as I recalled so many similar feelings about Adrienne's death.

Because I was the last one to be with Adrienne, the feelings of guilt were almost unbearable.  There had to be a cause.  That's the first thing a rational pragmatic male thinks.  What is the logical explanation for her death?  Why did this happen?  What did I do (or not do) that caused her death?  I know I'm a sinner and totally unworthy of the blessing of her life, so it must be my sins that caused this death.  And then "rational," "reasoned," and "logical" pieces of my existence were totally shattered in the ensuing moments and the flood of possibilities.

The details are not as important after all these years.  There was an autopsy.  The results were normal.  I was comforted, strangely somehow, in being vindicated, but still perplexed about the "Why" question.  Absolutely no logical explanation suggested itself. Reason was defied.  Rational thought escaped the medical professionals who examined her body in the post-mortem.

And that is how her death got classified as a "SIDS" death, or "sudden infant death syndrome." 

The medical explanation was there was no explanation.

She just died.  

I said there were two events this last week prompting my recollections to suddenly come bursting to the surface.  The second was a visit last night from a dear friend who had "lost" her husband at a relatively young age in a tragic car accident a year and a half ago. 

I wrote about her husband, Dan Howells, in a previous blog post a year ago when I was recalling those events of his passing and his funeral.

We talked after dinner for awhile, and for some reason I opened my heart and shared the feelings and experiences I dealt with in Adrienne's passing, perhaps prompted by what I had read in the accounts on the blog.  I loved that title, "A Good Grief."  As anyone who has grieved will tell you, that title is oxymoronic in the highest expression of the word. 

I was always open about her death, I dealt with her death.  I don't think I left any stone unturned.  I played the tape of her funeral every day for months afterward.  I felt stuck.  I had a hard time moving on. 

I learned about all the steps of grieving one cannot avoid.  I got great counsel from everyone to comfort me.  "You just have to move on," was a favorite.  But nobody could tell me "HOW?"  I learned that grieving involves anger, helplessness, loss of control, deadness of spirit, lack of will, gradual acceptance, a gnawing sense of futility in everything that comes after, and a host of other emotions, thoughts and feelings with which I had never been previously acquainted.

As I spoke to Amy last night, I found myself doing all the talking, something rare for me.  I'd much rather listen, because I learn more.  But I talked and she listened.  As I poured out my heart and soul to her, I became aware I was saying things I hadn't really ever voiced to anyone out loud.  I felt as though Dan wanted all those things said, for whatever reason, to Amy.  But I didn't understand that until later last night when I pondered why I had done something so foreign to my basic nature.

Through all my grieving steps, I told her, I never lost my faith in God, in my Savior Jesus Christ, nor in my hope for eternal life.  That faith was rock solid throughout the ordeal.  But the one piece I simply could never dismiss in my grieving was the physical separation from that little baby girl who was "snatched" so suddenly out of our arms as a family.

She was our youngest child, the 13th of 13, our "baker's dozen" child.  Everyone at the time of her death offered, "But you have all those other children to comfort you, so you won't miss her."  That seemed like such an empty platitude to me.  Didn't they know this little girl was her own little person?  "Losing" her was a loss impossible to replace with all the other twelve.  She was unique to herself, and all those other children combined still could not assuage the sense of that physical separation from her. 

There was still a big hole in my physical, mortal heart that couldn't be repaired.

Life in mortality is filled with temporary farewells and partings.  Merilee has been away working this summer in the Bay area.  Andrew was away on his mission, as were six other siblings in their turns and seasons.  Families of our children and grandchildren come and go today, as they have this summer.  With each visit they are welcomed, then we say our farewells until we see each other again.  Life is all about separation, reunion, greetings and farewells. 

Our faith should dictate to us -- the spiritual part of our natures -- that death is nothing more than a parting for a season.  We can accept that as spiritual reality.  The reality of Christ's resurrection locks faith and hope into place in the very fabric of our souls.  "He is not here, He is risen."  We know it, we testify of it, and when these events we call death occur our faith usually sees us through.

Ask anyone, I don't care from what church they come or what their faith tradition may dictate, even if they profess NO faith whatsoever, and most will confess they hope their love for each other in marriage will somehow transcend the grave.  All the love songs ever written and the movies ever made, and the collective wisdom of the poets and philosophers are laced with the core hope love does not die, that it lives on into eternity, however that is defined.

But all that aside, some struggle mightily when the winds of adversity and premature death strike at us with the finality of a funeral, a casket, and a burial.  The one so loved and cherished is physically separated from us as the dirt fills the hole and we somehow attempt to pick up the pieces of our lives and move on.

No matter how hard we try, I explained last night to Amy, that hole in our heart never is fully healed.  There is always an empty place we go to when events remind us.

The passage of time helps a lot.  Life eventually does pick up a full head of steam again and hope re-emerges eventually.  Some measure of control is restored.  Gradually anger and blame subside.  It's no longer God's fault as we try to come out of the fog.  God still loves us, His Spirit is still alive within us to give comfort and guidance, peace and assurance all will be well if we are faithful.

Of all the well-wishers who came, who showered us with love and affection, who sent cards and notes of comfort, there is one phone call that still gives me the greatest peace.  It was a dear friend from a former ward, a deeply spiritual woman who was a paragon and tower of unshakable conviction.  She and her husband had also lost an infant daughter.  She said simply, "Now you have your first celestial child who will show all the rest of you the way home." 

I was filled with an image in her words.  I referred from that day forward to Adrienne as "Our Lighthouse in the Storm."  Those were the words we chose for her headstone.

The day we buried her on cemetery hill in Woodland, there was a snowstorm raging outside the chapel.  The wind was whipping snowflakes against the windowpanes throughout the service.  The Spirit in the meeeting was palpable.  But we knew the short trip to the cemetery would be challenging. 

It was a wintry day just like the morning she had died.  When we stood over the open grave, however, and dedicated her final resting place, the storm dissipated suddenly and the sun was shining brilliantly through the clouds for just those few moments.  When we were finished, the storm regained its fury and the snow continued to fall.

Last night Dan was whispering to all our spirits around that table, I think, that no one who dies is ever really "lost," because death is only a door into the next room -- a door through which each will pass in time.

Time is measured only to men.  Whether early or late by our feeble calculations, death will visit each of us.  But in death there is no victory because of Christ's atonement.

Our physical pain of separation now is all swallowed up someday in reunion.  What we feel here and now is conquered there and then.

Here and now we walk by faith not knowing the answer to the "Why" question.  But Dan knows, so does Adrienne, and so does everyone else you know who has passed that portal of death and awakened to their next stage of existence. 

It's universal.  The plan is perfect.  Hope lives on in each of us despite the temporary farewells.


  1. Thanks for sharing this Dad. I heard it was a pretty incredible conversation from Di. I'm so glad we were able to come to the Les Goates Reunion last night. It was amazing and brought back so many wonderful memories. I sure love Grandma Great! The website is going to be a fabulous resource for all of us too. Love you, Em

  2. Thank you so much for that conversation. And thank you for sharing your wisdom and insights in this blog. What a great blessing! Much love and gratitude, Amy Howells