I was having breakfast with my friend Wendy on a recent Sunday morning when she told me this story. On her way out of church that morning, she saw an older woman sitting in the pew crying. It’s a large congregation, and Wendy didn’t know the woman, but something inside Wendy told her to stop.
She followed her heart and walked up to the woman to ask if she was okay and could she do anything for her. The woman wiped her face and told Wendy that her 2-month-old granddaughter had just died, and she had to go help her son and daughter-in-law through the grueling process of making funeral arrangements. She was waiting for the crowd to clear so nobody would see her face.
“Oh no, I’m so sorry this has happened. How did she die?” Wendy asked, sitting down next to the woman.
“She had a heart defect and got through one surgery and was doing well. She had gone home and gained weight, and we were hopeful that she was going to make it, and then she went downhill really fast,” answered the woman.
Wendy had been a NICU/special care nursery nurse, and had watched many families during this type of crisis, she told the woman. But then she shared something more personal. Wendy told the woman that she herself had lost four babies and that she understood the heartbreak.
Wendy gave the woman the name and location for the local pregnancy and infant loss support group she had attended. She also gave her home phone number and told the woman to have her daughter-in-law call Wendy anytime she needed someone to talk to, even if it was in the middle of the night.
And Wendy meant it. Wendy asked the baby’s name, the names of her son and daughter-in-law, as well as the name of their living son, the baby’s brother. She wrote them down and said she would pray for them. Then Wendy hugged her and said goodbye.
This story reminds me of the time I sat across from a woman in the café of my local Target store. She was visibly distraught over something, and I wanted to approach her and ask her if she needed help. I was waiting for her to make eye contact with me, to “invite” me to come over and talk, but she never did, so I stayed put. After ten minutes, she got up and left. My heart sank, for I hadn’t followed its urging that day. I will never forget that woman and will always wonder if I could have helped her in some way, if perhaps I was “put” there for a reason.
I was no stranger to the outreach of a caring human being. After my daughter Miranda was stillborn, I was deeply grieving and struggled with the decision to return to work. While I was at home on maternity leave, I received this unexpected letter from a co-worker:
July 7, 1995
I don’t believe we have met yet; however, we spoke for quite awhile a couple of months ago when you interviewed me for the company newsletter. I remember our phone conversation well and have been looking forward to meeting you ever since. I am writing today to express my deepest sympathies to you and your family in the loss of your daughter, Miranda. It was only this last Friday that I learned of the tragedy that has come to you.
We spoke at length the day you called, but particularly about children and the excitement felt when expecting a new one to the family. I felt that maternal bond that comes from mothers/expectant mothers talking. Today I am writing because of another bond felt-that of experiencing tragic loss. Two years ago on July 2nd, my father and 16-year-old brother (13 years my junior) died in a weather-related car accident. It was unexpected and it was unwelcome, as is your loss, and although I have felt great pain and emptiness at no longer having them with me, I can only imagine the emptiness of losing a child-and I know I can never fully understand. In our department is a mom who lost her four-month-old child to SIDS. I did not know her at the time of her loss and although the losses and experiences are different, we can take comfort in each other; listening perhaps a little more closely, a little more appreciatively, than others who have not experienced sudden and tragic death.
I have no great words of wisdom and I fear all too few to comfort. One thing I have read and do know in my heart to be true-All life has purpose. Miranda’s life within you had purpose, and I know she feels your love. I hope that we will meet, and I hope that we can talk and perhaps draw some small comfort from each other.
My thoughts and prayers are with you, your family, and especially with Miranda.
At the time of our phone interview, Lynne had two little girls and I was six months pregnant with Miranda, so our conversation had naturally turned to motherhood. I had hoped to meet her, but not under these circumstances. I later made the decision to return to work, in large part because of Lynne reaching out to me. We quickly became close friends, often spending our lunch hour together, sharing life stories and struggles with grief.
Lynne and I had worked at the headquarters for a large corporation, and of all the people I could have interviewed for that company newsletter, why had I been connected with her? Coincidence? I don’t think so. Lynne was “put” in my life at just the right moment through that interview. She followed her heart when she wrote me that letter. And I followed my heart when I decided to go back to work, making a beeline for her department (and a big hug!) just minutes after I returned that first day after maternity leave.
Of all the people who could have seen the crying woman in that crowded church, why was it Wendy who noticed? Coincidence? No, I don’t think so. Wendy was “put” in that woman’s path because she was the perfect person to console her. Wendy followed her heart when she stopped to offer help. And the woman followed her heart when she opened up and shared her pain with Wendy.
Have you ever heard the saying “People are God’s hands here on Earth?” We’re put in each other’s lives at just the right moment, in just the right place. Perhaps it’s the orchestration of angels. However you want to explain it, and whatever you want to call it, it’s all around you if you’ll pay attention. But sometimes it’s up to you to follow your heart and offer a kind word or a gentle touch. And sometimes it’s up to you to follow your heart and accept it. The next time you’re put in a situation like this, will you choose to follow your heart?
Portions of this article were excerpted from The Good Grief Club: A True Story About the Power of Friendship and French Toast.
Monica Novak is the author of The Good Grief Club, a memoir about her friendships with six other women that carried them through the ups and downs of grief following the loss of their babies in miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant death. She also serves as editor of Open to Hope’s Pregnancy and Infant Loss page at www.opentohopepregnancyloss.com . For more information about her book, and for pregnancy loss and infant death resources, please visit her website at www.thegoodgriefclub.com or e-mail her at [email protected].