Transformed by Grief
Our family has a long-standing tradition of singing the Twelve Days of Christmas. Beginning on Christmas Day, we light white candles in the center of the table before dinner and sing Joy to the World, followed by a verse of the 12 Days of Christmas, one more for each day all the way until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. We even bought a set of 12 Days of Christmas ornaments and hang one a day on a small decorative tree to extend the joy and celebration of Jesus throughout the Christmas season.
In 2017, Christmas brought both anxiety and hope as we awaited the birth of our son John Paul Raphael, diagnosed with Trisomy 18, a life-limiting condition. We were faced with the greatest heartbreak a parent can ever know: our little boy was going to die. We weren’t sure when – it could be in my womb or minutes, hours, or days after his birth. I felt very close to Mary that year contemplating the death of my son. I have to think that the mother of Jesus also wondered what her son’s life would be like, especially after the prophet Simeon told her a sword would pierce her heart.
When Christmas arrived, we lit the candles and began to sing. A partridge then two turtle doves and some French hens… I was full of fear, hope, and surrender as the days marched on and I wrapped my arms around my giant belly, begging our little boy to be well. And then, as 11 pipers were piping, he was born!
He was alive and so perfectly imperfect; we were in love.
We rejoiced and baptized him and called our family to hurry to the hospital. We held him and kissed him and fed him, a whole clan of us filling the hospital room — our other 9 children and grandparents and nurses, even my daughter’s service dog. Joy and holiness hung in the air like dew as we loved and celebrated John Paul Raphael for 28 hours and 10 minutes before the grains of sand slipped from his hour glass and the Lord called him back home.
Our hearts were broken. Shattered. Our Christmas baby, born on the 11th day of Christmas and gone on the 12th. Our family tradition now felt like a death march. I desperately did not want to get to 12 Drummers Drumming ever again. I begged the Lord, “Can we please just stop at the Pipers Piping???” I was desperate, and in my agony clung to Jesus. How would we ever survive this? How was I expected to go on without my baby?
In my heartbreak, Jesus moved quickly.
He didn’t take away the pain, but offered me an invitation to draw close to his heart in my suffering. To understand and accept that His journey was joy and pain, and if we unite our lives to Him, ours will be too. To know deeply, especially at Christmas, that He is Emmanuel – God WITH us. With us in the love and in the sorrow. He endured it all for us and holds us as we too endure. His love is enough. He can be trusted to hold me and carry my love to my son.
The grief of child loss is a dark and terrible journey, but we do not walk it alone. I found, when I was ready, that there were treasures to be found in the wasteland of grief. There was strength to be gained when I was heartbroken and empty. Coming to the very end of myself, I could be found.
I learned, in time, to live with gratitude in the joy and the pain, trusting they are both God’s love story. The glory is that God used my brokenness and suffering to lead me to freedom.
I was desperate for God to save my son, but instead God saved me.
Through child loss, He freed me from the bondage of placing my trust in myself and taught me to trust only in Him. He freed me from trying to control the outcome of my life and taught me how profoundly loved I was, even when things didn’t go my way, even when I experienced profound, horrific disappointments.
He taught me that even the darkness of grief can lead to peace, purpose, and joy. He used the glorious, abundant love we had for our son in his short and shining life to fill me with truth:
We are each gloriously loved by God and our strength lies only in receiving this truth. We must learn to let ourselves be loved.
Four years have gone by since the 12 drummers drummed their farewell to John Paul Raphael. Grief is transforming me. I hold a silent strength that comes after your worst fears come true and you find yourself still here, still gloriously loved.
The pain of missing John Paul Raphael will never go away, but it is adorned now with sparkling jewels of freedom and hope. No matter what the 12 Days of Christmas bring this year or any other year, I proclaim the truth:
The LORD is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation (Psalm 118:4).
Elizabeth Leon is a Catholic writer, speaker, and musician from Ashburn, Virginia and the author of *Let Yourself Be Loved: Big Lessons from a Little Life. She has been a leader in ministry and faith formation for more than twenty-five years and desires to inspire others to find freedom and healing through Christ. Her gift is her willingness to be vulnerable and love with a heart wide-open despite the brokenness of divorce, death, and abuse. She and her husband Ralph are the parents of 10 children, 5 of hers, 4 of his, and their son, John Paul Raphael who died in 2018. In her book, Elizabeth cracks open the landscape of grief to reveal a love story. She invites readers deeply into her personal journey and invites them to consider their own uncertainty and suffering as a pathway to joy. She is a frequent speaker at women’s events in Northern Virginia and is pursuing her Masters in Social Work at George Mason University. You can find her online at www.elizabethleon.org or www.letyourselfbeloved.com.
*Elizabeth Leon and I talked about her book, Let Yourself Be Loved on the Depth Podcast in October 2021. I love what she shared: “The miracle you get is not always the miracle you prayed for.” If you want to hear our conversation, please click the link to Episode 104. I promise you her words will encourage you!
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