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Pondering life's wonders and complexities...

26 Months

April 17, 2018

When I was fourteen years old, I was approached by a neighbor about babysitting her almost-two-year old daughter. Over the next several months, our families became quite close and I babysit for little “Sarah”* regularly. I even attended her 2nd birthday party, a sugar-fueled occasion with cousins and other family members!

And then, one tragic day just two months later, little Sarah died after a brief respiratory illness, several trips to the doctor, and then a screaming phone call from her mother who had just called the paramedics. I remember running across the street with my mom to be with Sarah’s mother as she grappled to understand the fact that her baby had just stopped breathing. She was 26 months old.

I remained close to the family – in the best way I could as a grief-shaken fourteen year old – until the memories in that house were too much and they moved away. We stayed in touch, but they went on to have two more children and our lives slowly grew apart. But after thirty-five years, I can tell you that my relationship with their family during that time and the impact of little Sarah’s death left a deep and formative impression on me.

This month my own daughter turns 26 months old. I’ve been waiting for this “milestone” with a mixture of curiosity and dread. I have never before been a mother to a child – a daughter – who was exactly the age Sarah was when she died, and I have never grappled with just how enormously devastating it would be to lose a child at such a tender age. Losing a child of any age is devastating,  but I have a deep and personal connection to a “26 month old girl,” and therefore this month has me observing my daughter more keenly, loving her more tenderly, and remembering the time, 35 years ago, when a family I knew lost a beautiful girl.

My daughter has curly brown hair with reddish highlights, just like Sarah did. She’s happy, vibrant, and talkative, just like I remember Sarah being. Over the past 26 months, I have changed careers, become a stay-at-home mom and built my life around my beautiful daughter, who, incidentally, became ours through adoption after a – wait for it – 26 month wait. I cannot begin to fathom how I would move forward if she were taken from me at this point. And yet this is what happened to this dear family. I’m only now beginning to understand the depth of their loss.

But because there is a tapestry pattern of sorts to every life, it’s only in the last few years that I’ve realized that my vocation, my deep calling, as a Chaplain to work with people in grief and sadness and help accompany them through the abyss is very likely tied to my formative experience of witnessing the death of a two year old that I knew and loved. I sometimes hear people say, “Oh, how can you do this work? How can you be around death and sadness all the time?” And my answer has many parts. But one of those parts is the fact that I learned – I experienced – early on, that life is short and precious and that facing death is something that you can’t – and shouldn’t – do alone. My early experience also taught me to embrace and enjoy the good in life, because it’s the counterbalance to all the hard stuff. Pain and death are inevitable, but so are love and joy, if you let them be.

I have struggled with, and now manage, clinical depression in my life. As close as I am sometimes brought to the edge of darkness – by my own pain or the pain of others I am helping – I believe I am better equipped to handle it because I’ve learned how to manage the ebbs and flows of pain, both existential and emotional.

I also believe that all of these experiences are what make me great at what I currently do, which is legally joining people in marriage! A minister or officiant is more than a Host or Master of Ceremonies leading you through a wedding performance. Ideally, I am there to listen, calm, encourage and help couples recognize the sacredness and meaning of the vows that they’re about to take. Sure, I’m as ready to have a good time and celebrate as the next person, but I’m able to provide some dignity and gravitas to their incredibly important event!

I was reminded of the importance of this when I met with a couple two days ago to discuss their upcoming small wedding. It’s a second marriage for them both, and they each bring two teenagers/young adults to the blended family, and they had expressed interest in somehow including the kids in the ceremony. As I talked with them, I found myself saying, “This may be the perfect chance to tell them that they are the best thing that has ever happened in your life, and that your new spouse is the second best thing, and how you’re so happy and grateful to be bringing the best parts of your life together! Because this is the kind of stuff that we all think but that we seldom say! And I know that it would mean so much to them to hear you say that!” They agreed that it would be the perfect chance to express their love for their kids as well as their new partner.

* I have changed the name of this dear little one, out of respect for the family's privacy.