You Will Know Us By the Dirt Under Our Nails

My first son.


Everything begins and ends with him. He and Jesus are my alpha and omega, but only Jeremy is my magic baby awaiting me in Heaven.

I promise you: he is.

And when I find him, he will still be almost eight-months-old. He will still have red hair and the most gorgeous, luminous white skin you’ve ever seen. He will still have the gummiest of smiles, and arms for only me.

When you grieve, if you grieve—and I hope you don’t—you will understand. You will get religion in a heartbeat, unless you swear off the Gods for good and let yourself die inside. Which you might, because some people do, but I hope you aren’t one of them.

I think this was even the first argument I had with the man whom I later married: could someone whose child died not believe in Heaven?

“Religion can’t be your crutch!” this childess man of twenty-something years and no prior marriages said to me.

You know nothing.” Hot words from a seething girlfriend said through clenched tight teeth. Maybe he didn’t know anything then but he does now; he will shout “halleluiah, happy birthday” with the best of them, and if he’s humoring me I don’t care.

I want to dig him up and hold him.” My friend whose son just died wrote these words to me. “Crazy, isn’t it?”

“Good Lord, no,” I wrote her back. “You’d be crazy if you didn’t want to. You’d be crazy if throwing out his last crap-filled diaper was something you wanted to do. You’d be crazy if you laid aside his lovie the first week after his demise and said, ‘I guess I don’t need this anymore.’ The grieving mom’s job is to do whatever the hell she wants to do. And if that means getting dirt under your nails from clawing at the freshly turned earth on a Berkeley hillside, then by all means, get to it. I’ll loan you my nail brush and a shovel.”

A grieving parent has no limits. Grief is everything for a long, long time. Forever, even, for all I know, because frankly, I’ve just gotten to where I don’t allow myself to think about it. It’s been over 20 years, but even now, as I type, I don’t think, or feel. I worry a bit that when I go to bed that having written these words might force my brain to think, to love, and so maybe I’ll stay up just a bit later, type until sheer exhaustion weighs down my head and hands, so that then I can blissfully, ignorantly, blank-mindedly, sleep.

But if you are a thinker instead of a stuffer, I imagine your life will be pretty unbearable for somewhere close to always.

I’m sorry to burden you.”

That’s what my friend said to me somewhere in the middle of a 2am email when she couldn’t sleep and needed comfort from someone in this exclusive club of moms who have lost.

“You should apologize for that apology,” I may have said, or not, but certainly should have if I didn’t.

The Dead Child Club is gratefully small, and if you’re a member you’d better be prepared to welcome new members with open hearts and honest words, no matter the time of day or if Comcast is finally on the other line. When my son died I didn’t know anyone else who had lost an almost-one-year-old. Miscarriage, yes. Stillbirth, yes. Adult child, yes. 100% healthy, beautiful, learning-to-crawl bright-eyed baby boy? Nope. Is any one of these experiences easier or harder than another? Only God knows that, and it’s a question I think is better left unasked.

The first time I met someone who confessed to having lived through the same as me was about fifteen years after my loss. I was shocked. But I was also comforted: “There’s someone else! She gets it! She knows!” I wanted to shout from the rooftops, hug her tight, have her over for dinner. But our encounter was short—ironically she was performing an ultrasound during my 20-week prenatal checkup—and we never crossed paths again.

My friend’s son had a disease I can’t pronounce or spell, and that is so rare no one puts any money or thought into researching it, or raising public awareness through rubbery bracelets and walks for the cure. My son died of SIDS. It is much more common, but without a known cause. One fatal illness presents within the womb, the other during the quiet of sleep.

I mean, what the f*?%? We lay in our beds, eating ice cream, fat and happy and pregnant, and all the while certain death is building in our bodies, masquerading as pure joy.

Once bright-eyed beauties, grieving mothers are rendered greasy haired and malnourished. They are the real life living dead. Trust me on this. Although its been 20+ years, I’ve yet to convince my eyes to smile and I’m much less buoyant than I was all those years ago. I wonder who I would be today without this gaping hole, this miserable loss, but since it hurts too much to think about I usually don’t come up with much of an answer.

I ask you: How can these hollow-cored, hollow-eyed women believe in a God who could take their babies? Or, if believed in, how could they love him? Believe he loves them? Well, that’s a really good question. It’s right up there with questions about the Holocaust and genocide and war and rape. How could any of us believe in, or love, God in this kind of world?

There are a lot of folks out there who try to answer that question, and I think most of their answers are full of holes joined by high hopes that no one will think to look below the surface.

God has a plan.”

“Why would this be His plan?”

It will serve a purpose in your life.”

“Screw that.”

God doesn’t control these things; we all do our own stuff down here while God watches and eats popcorn.”

The list goes on. Some of it may hold water, but overall it’s all just a bunch of baloney. You either do or you don’t, and you either draw closer or further away. If you’re lucky, you draw closer. You feel in your bones the truth of God’s power, and love, and knowledge that all things will knit together through your misery, somehow, someway, should you just let it.

But really, you should probably never try to convince a member of the Dead Child Club that there is a loving God. Instead: Pray for them. Love them. Let them hit you with small angry fists and smear snot all over you. It’s the least that you can do.

13 thoughts on “You Will Know Us By the Dirt Under Our Nails

  1. Pingback: Loving Hard: In Memory of Gideon Bruce | jamie calloway-hanauer

  2. Just read a great piece by you on rageagainstheminivan. Your writing is beautiful, your story is heartbreaking. Your love is inspirational.

    But I hope you will understand that not believing in god and/or religion after a terrible loss doesn’t make you dead inside. It makes you human.


    • Hi Kyre,

      Thanks so much for the very kind words and the balanced way you presented this comment. Yes, I do understand, and I hope my choice of words didn’t cause offense. It is entirely human to question God for a multitude of reasons (or simply disbelieve without question), and the loss of a child is one of them. I have found peace in my faith (both before and after losing Jeremy), but I know that is not the case for everyone.

      Thanks again for taking the time to write to me here; it truly does mean a lot to me.


  3. Oh Jamie… I have walked with you in the lives of mothers and fathers who have had to bury their child far too soon… I have bristled with you as idiot Chaplains and Pastors who are clueless colleagues that think the “God must have needed another angel” crap is comforting! And I have shut down people who say, why isn’t she over it? It’s been long enough… As if they know what is appropriate for you! I remember my first wife’s miscarriage and the “comfort” BS of people saying, “oh you are young and will have another” when our hearts screamed out, “damn it, we wanted this child!” Walking with you in spirit and in prayer as you walk the valley of the shadows…


    • I’m so sorry to hear of your loss…. you describe so well what it feels like to hear hollow words of supposed comfort. I’m thankful you’re out there to walk with others, loving them through their sorrow.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh Jamie. Tears and snot everywhere reading this. And so, so much love to you, Stacey, and the other brave mothers in your sacred club. And thank you for posting the pictures: it made me smile to think that one day I will recognize Jeremy and Gideon in eternity.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Or even over a miscarriage. But something I learned is that my reaction, my grief, might turn out to be damaging to my other hyper-sensitive children growing up in the atmosphere of my ways of remembering and of not forgetting and of treasuring and — this is the hard one — not enacting my faith in eternity. Truth to tell, I am still working on what I think “eternity” means and I’m getting closer every day to being there. I know now from my research into how ears control brains that not only me but all the other members of my family are genetically programmed for hypersensitivity. Going through life with extraordinary awareness of one’s own feelings is very easily justifiable, especially if you move in intellectual circles that affirm all the quirks of “genius” and approve of intensely emotional styles of writing. But as a Christian it is harder to justify feelings that are self-involved if — and it’s a big if because, as you say, people do need to grieve in their own ways — they are negatively affecting others. I didn’t know enough about how those little children growing up with their own hypersensitivities were reacting and forming their ideas about life and death that I inadvertently was teaching them until it was too late. And, trust me on this, the abandonment of family by a disillusioned child is as painful as a death.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So very true! I’m so grateful that these things have worked out well in my family, and that my oldest is fully and totally supportive of me writing about my experience, which is the only way I process — I’m a stuffer, so it’s only through the written word these things come out. I’m also grateful that although I think about Jeremy daily, it is only two times a year that I am overwrought: his birthday and the day he died. On those days I’ve learned it’s best to keep busy and stay close to loved ones who understand if I seem a bit reserved or distracted.

      Parents must be allowed to grieve, of course, but the most important thing, as you allude to, is protecting the children who remain in our care from emotional (and other) harm. It’s a balancing act to be sure, and I didn’t get it right in the beginning, but years of prayer and reflection have led us all to a good place. I pray the same for you, and for all those who have lost a loved one of any relation.

      Liked by 1 person

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