This past weekend, Derrick and I were privileged to attend David and Nancy Guthrie's retreat for couples who have lost a child. Their Respite Retreat was held outside of Nashville, Tennessee at the Hiding Place, which is a beautifully-kept lodge set in green hills along the Cumberland River. The focus of this retreat is to give each father and mother a chance to tell their story in the company of eleven understanding couples and to glean advice to deal with practical aspects of grieving.
Derrick and I landed Friday afternoon and were picked up at the curb by a couple from the Washington DC area. We drove together through deciduous trees, deep rock beds lining the road, and the greenest grassy hills. We were asked to talk about anything besides the child we had lost, so we chatted about work as we ate sandwiches for a late lunch. We eventually made our way through back country that reminded Derrick of the movie Deliverance. As we reached the end of a long aimless road, the trees opened up to a manicured lawn that wound over slight hills. We weren't sure what to expect, but the accommodations were even more welcoming than expected. David and Nancy met us at the door.
We found a room and had dinner soon after our arrival. Following dinner, all twelve couples found seats in the living room around the fireplace. The Guthries began by telling their story: They had a healthy son named Matt and found out they were pregnant again. They gave birth to a daughter named Hope and were told soon after birth that something was very wrong- the doctors diagnosed her with a fatal syndrome that took her life at six months. Although they tried medically to prevent another pregnancy, they learned they were pregnant again with a boy who had the same fatal syndrome and also lived for six months. They were able to recall for us how difficult that time was, and tears came to their eyes again as they remembered their precious children.
Besides the Guthries' story, five more couples told about losing their children on Friday night. A picture of each child was thoughtfully displayed in the living room. A few babies died shortly after birth, and one was a stillbirth. One four-year-old boy had cancer and passed away after trying various treatments. There were three older sons who died in vehicle-related accidents. A beautiful 19 year-old girl named Joy had spina bifida from birth. Her parents had lovingly cared for her as a parapalegic, only going on family vacations where her wheelchair could be pushed by her parents or her four siblings. She passed away after her one kidney shut down. The stories were all so sad. However, seeing parents whose hearts were also broken felt good- they understood our loss. We would all never have another day with our children. It feels so strange and wrong not to have your child under your care.
Another couple gave birth to a little girl named Naomi Ruth. They found in an ultrasound that Naomi had an enlarged heart. They had plenty of hope that surgeries would help her. For eight weeks, her loving parents lived at the Ronald McDonald house while Naomi went through surgeries and healing. Around week seven, they decided to spend more time holding her and invited loved ones to hold her, too. Her parents' hearts broke as sweet Naomi died at eight weeks; their prayers and hopes seemingly unanswered. Our families shared quite a bit in common: we both have two older boys, both our daughters lived eight weeks, and we both prayed for healing. Even with such difficult stories of loss, it was a rich time of sharing what God had taught each of us. C.S. Lewis has said that God shouts in our pain. We were able to share what He has been saying to us.
Derrick told me that he would rather talk the next day when we were more rested. So the next morning after breakfast, we were the second to tell our story. With many tears, we finally got through it. I realized that I have never told the story of Mia's life and death from beginning to end. It was healing to be heard by other couples who deeply understood and who listened attentively. We were amazed at some of the similarities we shared with the parents of the older children. It gave the others the opportunity to talk with us and to pray for us. It was a great way to vent our grief, just like it has been healing for me to write this blog.
After telling our stories, the Guthries talked to us about the differences between men's and women's ways of expressing grief. They talked about marriage and relating to each other during this time. Nancy told us that some of us wives might never have told her our husbands that we will ever be well again. Our husbands might be scared that we will never find hope or happiness again- that the joyful woman they married is now permanently sad. This felt like a turning point for me. Later, we were given time alone with our spouse to talk about specific things. I made sure to tell Derrick that I am doing my best to heal and to be healthy. I told him that I will not stay in this amount of sadness forever. It helped to hear the Guthries' analogy that our hurt was like a mortal wound, like a pierced heart. Our wound is festering and needs to be aired out before it can be healed. I told him that's what I'm doing now so that it doesn't continue to fester. One day I will get better.
We were asked during our time to tell each other three things we appreciated about each other during this process of grieving and three things we needed from each other. I was amazed that although I have felt miserable, Derrick said he admired that I continue to be kind and that I have gone to God for the comfort I need. I told him that I admire what a tender husband he has been and how he has led our family spiritually during this incredibly vulnerable time. He has pointed me to God's Word during critical times and has introduced me to encouraging music. He has prayed over me when I was at my worst. The main impression we had after our time together was that God has used this time to draw us both closer to Him, together. The Guthries' analogy of two wounded soldiers leaving the battlefield leaning into each other illustrates how we feel we have been relating to each other. We have been supporting each other and feeding each other with God's means of encouragement.
That night, Derrick and I were chosen to play as one of the three couples in the Newlywed Game in front of the rest of the couples. We were effective entertainment as we lost horribly to a veteran couple and to a newlywed couple! We were glad to be having fun despite so much potential heaviness of the weekend. David Guthrie has a great sense of humor, and Nancy made everyone feel important and like a new friend.
On Sunday morning after breakfast(during which about twenty wild turkeys congregated on the front lawn), Nancy led a time of prayer at the railing of the lodge. The railing overlooked a beautiful forest of glistening deciduous trees. It had been raining for a good part of the weekend but gave us a break at the time. We stood staring at God's beautiful creation- each shiny leaf moved individually in the breeze. The trees were impossibly thin and tall, swaying before us while reaching up to the sky. Beyond the trees, the Cumberland River shimmered below. The entire scene was vibrant before us. The beauty of this creation reminded me that just like nature that is mentioned in His Word, God's creation speaks of Him. I mentioned earlier that while we were praying, a hummingbird flew directly before my face and stayed for a few seconds. I felt like saying, "Of course God would do something like that for me." Maybe I dismissed things like this to be coincidences before, but now my eyes are open to the beautiful confirmations God sends me that He is tenderly caring for my soul.
After prayer time, we went inside to the living room and heard Nancy speak about five verses that brought she and David comfort after their children's deaths. These are:Matthew 26:38, John9:3, 2 Corinthians 12:9, Revelation 1:17-18, Matthew 11:28. Her talk reminded me of her book Hearing Jesus Speak Into Your Sorrow, a resource I recommend for finding God's view on suffering. Following that time of meditation and singing praise, we all headed to our rooms to clear out our things and bring our laundry down to the laundry room. We said goodbye to our new friends and thanked the Guthries for their tender care.
We left in a caravan to eat lunch at a hamburger restaurant in Nashville. From there, we went back to the airport to return to our boys. It felt so good to go home, even though we had a refreshing time with these people and with each other. The balance between grieving and caring for our boys has been a difficult one to reach. Usually, caring for our boys every moment of the day has meant that we have little time to deal with things(or to write!). On the other hand, I am so thankful that I can care for our boys. But I am so thankful that my parents were willing to care for our sons. This weekend together was so memorable and it was beneficial to our family's future.
Thank you to all of you who prayed for our time at Respite Retreat. We are grateful for your care for us!