what it means to outlive

On the morning of my 22nd birthday, I woke disoriented.

It was no youthful hangover. Not the tiring drag of gazing out onto another gloomy day of Indiana grey.

No. I felt strangely lost. Adrift and unmoored.

I had outlived him. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Grief was woven into the fabric of my adolescence after my older brother died when I was 10. The edge of his life held before me as a horizon.

Until it dropped off after age 21.

It felt as if I’d been wearing an old familiar coat for years. Heavy and smothering at first, then fitting perfectly.

Then that morning in March, it disappeared.

He’d gone to this same college. He’d tried to follow this same faith. He loved the same family.

And now the path where his footsteps walked beside mine disappeared.

The burden of plain living pressed onto my chest with a weight foreign to most 20-somethings I knew. In the swirl of college classes, parties, and bars, how could I explain this to anyone, the way my life felt floundering for direction, all because I had kept breathing while he had died?

It was the weight of outliving. The loss – years later, grief always returning in stumbling pitfalls – of someone who was supposed to keep pointing the way forward.

. . .

The baby kicking inside my skin, turning below my heart, is now older than Maggie and Abby ever lived.

This week of pregnancy loomed large from the second we found out we were expecting.

The moment when our daughters were born and died. Twenty-four weeks. Their whole life-time.

What would it feel like to reach this edge? To peer over into the abyss – no longer the easy milestone of “point of viability! cool!” – but the heart-sinking knowledge of what could be.

Now I know that viability is only another cold clinical word. Lumped into medical terminology that translates into no guarantees.

Now I know how a 24 week-old baby looks and feels in your shaking arms.

The feather weight and beating heart. The softest skin and thinnest bones. The tiny tongue searching for milk, the sliver of eyelashes against small cheeks.

Now the child within me unfolds the memory again, unfairly. For this baby did not ask to come after, does not yet know what awaits, innocent of what it might mean to live in the shadow of sisters only in name and spirit, not flesh and blood.

I do not want this child to be burdened by ghosts. I do not want any child who lives and breathes in this house to feel haunted by siblings who risk turning angelic by their absence.

Had our daughters lived, we would have fought and failed them as we will do with all these mysterious, maddening small people entrusted to us, elbowing one another as families do in that loving, aggravating way.

But I still know the lingering presence and power of those who are gone.

The silent ones who reshape and refine the jagged edges of my self and life, over and over.

. . .

What does it mean to outlive?

This new baby will be born into a world bright, fresh, startling and unknown, as every child has done.

This child will know a different version of me: a broken, softer, wiser, stronger recreation of the mother who was.

As I tiptoe through the 24th week – breath held and steps cautious, my only prayer a whisper of please let us get through this, please let us get somewhere safer – I realize that the one who has to learn what it means to outlive is not the baby within me.

It is me, again. 

This is me, outliving my children. This is me, trying to make natural what is unnatural. This is me, learning to live upside down in a world that wants order and control.

What does it mean to outlive?

To let go. To keep going.

To take what serves from someone else’s legacy. To turn away from easy idolatry and embrace messy humanity. To enter the communion of the living and the dead. To fold all of it into the becoming of one’s own self.

Perhaps outliving means living out: being unafraid to continue, to keep going, to run after every dream and possibility, to shout to the sky that I am still here and I will not give up.

To kick and reach and twist and turn, pressing against the new strange space in which I find myself, without knowing what comes next.

Trusting only that I am held.

10 thoughts on “what it means to outlive

  1. So heartbreakingly beautiful. Thank you for sharing. And your words make it clear that out of the deep grief you navigate and continue to live through, the children you raise now also may know the gift of a far deeper, greater love. Praying as always.

  2. This brought me to tears. So beautifully expressed. Thank you for sharing. I’m holding you and your family in prayer.

  3. my husband and I shed many tears in the first few months of our “surviving” daughters’ life. It felt like we couldn’t love again. And we couldn’t…not in the same way. So we once again felt the loss of our first daughter…even in the life of our subsequent children. I’m sorry if this sounds like a downer- but it really isn’t. &Yes…I think a trust in that new way of living, and a trust in His mercy and presence- that alone is the answer.

  4. Please please please don’t stop writing about grief completely. Your words are so honest and true. (Catching up on your blog is my chosen Good Friday quiet time .) I have not experienced the death of my own child (other than miscarriage), but I have sat vigil with a dear friend who did. And I have a chronically medically ill daughter who has been near death twice. Your writing has helped me to be a better friend, a better mother, and a better Catholic. Thank you for sharing your vulnerability with us.

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