Serena asked me to help bury her child.
This question occurred a couple of years after we met. I wonder now if Serena’s request, accompanied by her intense gaze, had been within her heart when she first worshiped at the rural church I then served.
Her stillborn child, named Eve, was carried to near the due date. After her birth, Serena and her husband Jake shoveled a hole in the dark forest behind their cabin and lowered their child into the earth. There wasn’t any ritual, or prayers. According to Serena, they trudged back to the cabin, returned to their daily chores and fractured future, and rarely mentioned Eve. Their second child Naomi was born a year of so later.
As Naomi approached kindergarten age, Serena and Jake decided to leave the cabin they’d built in the isolated woods of California’s Mendocino County. They wanted Naomi to attend school and have friends. They settled into the small town where I ministered at a church. They were among many individuals—the so-called back-to-landers—that escaped cities to eke out a life with their hands and gumption. Some grew marijuana. Some designed crafts to sell at county fairs. They cobbled together legal and illegal jobs, just getting by and staying off the grid. However, with a growing daughter, their priorities changed. Like all parents, Jake and Serena wanted the best for Naomi.
But there was the other child from the time in the forest. Eve had died before birth and yet lived on in their unsettled memories. Serena didn’t think of herself as the mother of one child, but of two. And so one day she arrived at my office—now maybe trusting me because I’d been her pastor for long enough, now maybe refusing to ignore the anguished memory only Jake knew—and asked if I’d say a few words about Eve. Serena didn’t need me to help physically bury her first child, but her mother’s longing knew something more should happen.
We planned a service. It would take place at their cramped rental home, and only included Serena, Jake, and Naomi. I don’t recall my words, but can vividly picture the relief expressed by those two parents. They wanted to honor Eve’s thriving memory. They wanted their second child to know their family’s full history. What we told Naomi was simple. Children can only understand so much, but Naomi knew she’d once had a sister. What Jake and Serena experienced was also simple, or perhaps not so simple. They didn’t want to forget. They didn’t want to keep secrets. They wanted to freely cry and inwardly tend to the sacred site in their hearts where Eve would always—always—live.
Serena and Jake taught me a lesson I continue to learn in my current work with the dying and bereaved at a hospice. Many of us bury sharp-edged secrets in our souls that may only become smooth when we humbly, honestly, and openly grieve.