Telling the Story of Grief (from the series: Single and Married in the LDS Church)

Griefby Julie Lefgren

Lately, I have had several conversations with my fellow single friends over the loss we feel from not marrying young or having the children we planned for. As I mourn with them, the sadness and pain I have felt over my own loss have been resurrected. The chamber of my heart that holds this part of my life was carved long ago; in fact it is now a permanent part of my soul. In the most inner part of this chamber is the dead hope that I will have my own children in this lifetime.

In my late 30s, when it first occurred to me that my biology may not hold out long enough to produce a family, I put the question to my OBGYN. “What is the probability of having my own children?” I knew I was healthy – and still hoped to find a good Mormon man to marry. “If I eat healthfully, exercise, drink clean water, and keep up the outdoor activities – can I preserve the health of my eggs?” Her kind, but honest answer, was “No”.

It was then that seeds of grief were planted and began to sprout. I had tried. Really. Since my youth I actively searched for my husband and the family we would make. My college friends can tell you about a few promising relationships that ended in tears. After years of YSA singles wards, hundreds of family home evening activities, a long stretch of attending mid-singles wards and even submitting myself to the painful experience known as the mid-singles dance, I began to surmise that I would never be the young bride I had dreamed or even a mother. During this time I also considered what it would be to choose single motherhood and ultimately decided I did not have the energy or resources to do so. And so, I started to look down the tunnel of childlessness.

Over the past decade, this grief has slowly grown into a large tree, rooted inside me as an integral part of my emotional landscape. Unlike the sudden sting that the death of a loved one brings, mine is spread over time. When a parent deals with a tragedy like the death of a child, everyone comes together; there is a funeral and expected mourning. But my grief has no name, no grave, no hymns, nor community that gathered to bear this with me. Slowly, and by myself, I bury my unborn children. The loss has overwhelmed me at times and has been largely misunderstood, even by me who has carried it.

For LDS singles, our loss is often amplified by the church’s hyper-family focus. Mormons dislike messy, grey spaces. The traditional nuclear family is a clean neat package presented as the solution to so many difficulties. We are well versed on how “to family”, but are not so as good at knowing how “to single.” My friends and I expend a lot of emotional energy trying to “order” the messiness of our single adult life. For over twenty years I have been instructed and counseled in seven-minute church talks or simplistic step-by-step programs. I’ve been assured that God loves me enough to provide for me in the next life all that I was denied, or missed, in this one. And, not to worry, “there are many ways to mother.” Underlying all the attempts to tidy up my single problem is the consistent message that no matter how fulfilling my single life is, it is less valued than a marriage with children. For too long, I willingly interpreted my singleness as evidence of a deep flaw in my personhood. For years I repressed the frustration that built on the belief that I only needed try more, pray more, accept more, more, more. Eventually, I realized that my obedience and efforts would actually result in childlessness. I became angry – and then I began to resolve. I would no longer bend my pain to platitudes, I would not look forward into the next life for my value, and I would not believe that I was lacking. Alternative forms of mothering were good, but not a sufficient substitute for my children. I would allow myself to grieve this. I would allow myself to be at peace with the facts: I do not have a good man as a husband, I do not have children of my own, and the motherhood experience cannot be replaced by serving others.

My grief and I look through the glass darkly and watch (from the outside) a world where others have children of their own. I wonder what it would be to grow and carry another human inside my body; I try to imagine the sensation of that first kick or movement from the inside. How would it sound to have the little voice call: “Mommy” or be the first to be sought in time of need? I long for those brief moments when I could extol wisdom and regularly teach a child how to be a decent human.

My mother cursed me that I would have a child exactly like myself – and now I wish earnestly that this curse had come true. I would love to see my own image in my child’s eyes and wrestle with my own defiance looking back. What is it to know my children’s faces and mannerisms as we discovered together the wonders of our world? I want to understand a child so intuitively that words are not needed to explain her actions. I once had plans to show my children the mysteries found on mountain trails, the wonder of ocean sands, and the thrill of conquering a double black diamond ski hill.

I’m sure, behind my back, my children would talk about me with their siblings, scheming to take down my authority or planning how to best please me. And, in the end, they would have given me grandchildren – I would have the honored title: “Grandma”. But what was once a tangible option has faded into wishes and dreams, and when I look at my branch on the family tree, I see an end to a life that will eventually be forgotten.

In spite of my pain, I regularly fill my life with children. There are 21 nieces and nephews who call me aunt and I love them fiercely. They give me joy and reason to be. And while there are some moments that I am reminded they are not mine, I prefer to not wallow in the byproduct of grief – self-pity. I try instead to be grateful for those who share their lives (and families) with me. I appreciate so many who include me and see me as a valuable asset to their lives and the lives of their children. Their solidarity in moments of my fractured grief – or even sharpness and anger – is a gift. They forgive me when, without explanation, I leave a family gathering or turn down invites to baby showers. I’m grateful for the humanity that I know and experience.

There are neither reasons nor explanations that make sense of it all. While my pain is a part of me I will not let it define who I am. Through the pain of my grief, I have also come to better understand the much-needed trait of compassion. I know what it means to mourn and to comfort those that stand in need of comfort. In this place I choose to continue to discover my value, my purpose and my God.

 

Julie  Lefgren holds a masters degree in Chinese Language and for the past decade taught Mandarin Chinese at BYU along with a “Women in Asia” course.  Her research and work in feminist studies also keeps her engaged and interested in the current Mormon Feminist movement.   During the summer months she directs a Chinese Camp for local immersion students, and in the winter, she skis as many days in the winter as possible.  In her Utah ward , she is Personal Progress and Young Women’s Camp Director.

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29 Responses

  1. Deborah says:

    Thank you for sharing this exquisite reflection.

  2. KLC says:

    ” I had tried. Really. ”

    There is a universe of emotion in those four words. We all joke about the fringe dwelling social misfits who are found in singles wards. But my personal experience was that active, older LDS singles are some of the most committed, honest, sincere and earnestly striving members to be found in the church. How could it not be? If you are still single and in your 30s or more and still active in a church that values and teaches marriage and family how could you not be committed and valiant? It would be so much easier to just disappear into the embrace of non-mormon culture.

    I was an older single man sitting in priesthood session of general conference 30 years ago when President Benson railed on men like me, ending with an exhoration to us to “rise up and be men.” All I wanted to say to him was, “President, I have tried. Really.” But those are weak arguments in a religious culture that always answers that declaration with an implied assumption that if you had *really* tried you’d be married.

  3. Libby says:

    Julie, thank you for reminding us of the holes in our doctrine. As a church, we need a better vision than “You’ll have everything in the next life.”

    • Suzette says:

      Amen, Libby. We do need more (ways to cope and live and fit in) that “the next life”.
      And we need others to make room for us IN THE CHURCH NOW instead of boxing us into “the next life”.

  4. Lily says:

    Excellent! Amen.

  5. Maggie says:

    This hit me right in the feels. So much this.

  6. Linda says:

    So well said and articulated! Though I am no longer single (but was single well into my 40’s) and my path to motherhood has been anything but conventional, i now know it’s the plan God had for me. I have felt and lived every emotion you describe here very deeply and for a very long time. My life now is different but I am still so highly tuned in to those experiences as a single person (which was really a joyful time for me in so very many ways, both the grief, frustrations and joys have made me who I am) to make sure i take the time to be with my single sisters and walk with them, mourn with them and rejoice just as they do with me. Love you Julie!

  7. Aimee says:

    I am so moved by the courageous and heartbreaking words you have shared here. Such a raw and honest window into a grief I wish we could ritually acknowledge. Thank you for this. I will carry your words with me.

  8. spunky says:

    I spent much of my single life, and marrying at 30, my married life longing for biololgical children, or any child to call me “mother.” Although I am married with two daughters, your words reflect my feelings on infertility and the loss one feels in not living a typically presumed Mormon female experience. Thank you so much for this articulation.

  9. EmilyCC says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Julie. This idea of grief, “But my grief has no name, no grave, no hymns, nor community that gathered to bear this with me. Slowly, and by myself, I bury my unborn children. The loss has overwhelmed me at times and has been largely misunderstood, even by me who has carried it,” is so tangible. I wish we, as a community, could find a way to mourn with those who endure such grief.

  10. Emily U says:

    This is a gorgeously written lament. Your grief as a tree that has grown to inhabit your emotions is such a powerful image, and the words about lacking a funeral, or a way to really mark the loss, will stay with me.

  11. Caroline says:

    This made me tear up. Thank you for your raw honesty and courage in sharing this.

  12. Violadiva says:

    What a poignant piece, and so generous of you to share it with us. Thank you for making this your safe and vulnerable place.
    It’s touching, and utterly heartbreaking.

  13. Julie says:

    I spent five years grieving my lost life, my unborn children. Occasionally the grief still bubbles up, but allowing myself to grieve–even though no one knew or acknowledged my grief–was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my single life. It allowed me to start accepting my life as valuable now, instead of living my life as a holding pattern until I died. Thank you so much for writing this.

  14. Sabra says:

    I agree with everything that’s been said. This must have been hard to write and I’m really glad that you did. I felt some satisfaction reading it because you were able to articulate things I’ve thought and felt but didn’t know how to verbally express to others or even myself.

  15. Heather says:

    Julie this is exquisite. Thank you for this. It’s the most honest and painful and beautiful thing I’ve read in ages.

  16. So well written. I feel like I’m in a sacred space.

  17. Jenni says:

    I have been searching my soul, and the deep recesses of my brain, to come up with something so eloquently and expressively written.
    I was exhausted of being put into the ‘singles’ box and searched for love and acceptance outside the church. Even found a husband, my heart yearns for these children you speak of; but the likelihood is grim after years of endometriosis that evolved into a Stage IV, severe prognosis.
    I have grieved over this loss so many times I lost count. Your words have me bawling as I sit on the ferry on my way into work, as I begin the grieving process again.
    Every year, as Mother’s day approaches, this wound is re-opened and aggravated. I yearn to be as far away from mothers and children in the weeks leading up to this holiday. My own mother told me years ago, that the only reason she doesn’t visit me, is because I have no children and she doesn’t know how to love someone that is ‘single’. Instead of empathy, I have been faced with cruel judgement and being excluded from family holidays and functions, because ‘I get too upset’.
    Thank you for putting I towards what I could not, Julie!
    It is comforting to know that I am not alone in the deep grief that I feel.

  18. Julie Lefgren says:

    Jenni – God Bless. I wrote and re-wrote this essay for 2 years and numerous drafts that I could not re-visit. As I finally came to this one the difficulty has been overwhelming and emotionally exhausting. My hope is to acknowledge and articulate for so many the tangible, but ill-defined grief we feel. Please feel free to share with others for whatever reasons you see fit. You are not alone.

    • Jenni says:

      I love you! And I will share!
      Know that you are inspiring others to speak up and are giving voice to something that is a burden, almost too painful to carry alone.

  19. EFH says:

    I have always seen women as mothers regardless of their child birth status. Mothers are leaders in their families, communities and in their professions. It is a quality of compassion and care of others and the earth. But this essay has made me realize that there are also grieving mothers too – grieving for what they have not been able to have and/or what they have lost. A lot to think about. Thanks for the post. Love to all of you who are grieving.

    • Sabra says:

      The idea of equating all women with the word mother feels wrong to me. It reminds me of getting flowers on Mother’s day at church because I was a “future mother”. I didn’t like being regarded as a future somebody because I may give birth to a child and therefore become someone worthy of receiving positive attention publicly once a year. They are 2 very different concepts and I am more than my capacity to physically conceive, carry and give birth to a biological child. What bothers me the most on Mother’s day and in general is how “mother” is defined as a role rather than as a relationship with others that includes nurturing and guidance. Defining mothering or motherhood in this way seems far more accurate and inclusive to me because siblings, guardians, fathers, teachers, extended family and mentors all participate in nurturing, guiding and protecting others (sometimes children and sometimes adults). I have been actively engaged in mothering for many years and never given birth to a single baby. However, I have changed more diapers, wiped away countless tears, moderated so many discussions and taught many people how to develop themselves and receive no attention or appreciation on Mother’s day unless it’s directed at my potential to become a biological mother one day.

  20. Nicole says:

    I rarely comment on posts, but I just have to here. Thank you. Thank you so much! As a single, active and hopeful 38 year old woman, this more than rings true for me. I read this with tears streaming down my face and a few ‘Hallelujah’ fist pumps when I realized that someone else truly knows what I’m going through right now. Thank you for being brave enough to say our deepest feelings and fears out loud. And thank you for showing me that what I’m feeling isn’t crazy and that I’m not alone!

  21. Rachel says:

    This was so beautiful and tender and meaningful. Thank you for writing and sharing with us, and allowing us to carry with you some of your very understandable and real grief. xo

  22. Melinda Buchanan-Emery says:

    i felt every word. thank you julie for exposing yourself so completely so that others can put words to their own experience. i miss you and love you, friend! xoxo, melinda

  23. Rebecca says:

    Julie, thank you for sharing what so many of us feel. We singles don’t tend to talk about this at length very often, even with each other—perhaps because we’re all at different places, and at times the loss can feel so raw and personal. It can be isolating. So thank you for the validation that comes from knowing we’re not so alone after all.

  24. Liz says:

    This is haunting and beautiful, Julie. The image of a woman burying her unborn, invisible children is one I won’t ever forget. I hope we can do something better to mourn with those who mourn an invisible loss.

  25. Liz says:

    Wonderfully written. But into words what so many of us feel. I work in the medical field, Labor and Delivery and daily I see others receive what I have always desired. I am always happy for them and their joy (a strength I know comes from God) but there is always a moment in every encounter where I feel a touch of pain. It is hard to talk about this with others who have never experienced it. No one really accepts that single’s could feel this way. At times it is almost like they don’t think we should…because if we wanted to stop the pain then we would ‘try harder’.

    Thank you again for writing this.

  1. November 23, 2016

    […] “Telling the Story of Grief” by Julie Lefgren […]

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