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