Sisu, sleeplessness, and the marriage supper

When my Grandma died last year, we experienced fully the forethought of grief, where you get to hang on to the tension and dread of a protracted, agonizing death. Sometimes it is like that. But sometimes death just happens, and all you can do is try to keep breathing when someone you love isn’t. The forethought of grief was not an option with my grandpa. The phone calls came quickly and suddenly this time: Falls. Heart murmurs. Bed sores. Hospice. Long naps. Soon. Maybe tomorrow? No, today.

And all of the sudden, Poppa is gone. This was expected because, of course, we’re mortals, and he’s an old man with heart defects and Alzheimer’s, ailed by who knows what host of other problems he couldn’t describe due to his memory problems. But it feels too fast, too soon, and too wrong. I suppose it never feels right to hear that news. Death is always a loss, always cutting against the grain of our eternity-bound hearts.

A robin flies into my window the next day, and the thump against my house drops it back dead on the porch. Seizing the opportunity to practice a hard teaching moment, I point out the front window and explain the bird’s death to my little daughter. She can’t understand it yet, can she? Still shy of her second birthday, she proudly tells her baby brother Thomas about this as soon as his nap ends: “Tho’as! Bird. Nap. S’eepy outside. No wake up. Dead. Icky. ‘ook, Tho’as.”

We need to walk past the bird to get in the van, to get to the mall for new black funeral shoes. Old shovel in hand, I swallow hard and can’t get the edge under the bird; I don’t really have the gumption to take control of the dead bird situation. When my scooping efforts fail, I let the bird slide off the porch into the flower bed. It lands between two overgrown boxwood, right next to a new bush Aaron planted. He’s so much like Poppa, with curious joy in watching new life spring forth from the earth. He can move the bird away later, and it won’t hurt us in the meantime. Still disconcerted by the sight of this poor robin in the bushes, I take the children around the back door anyway.

That night Aaron says he’s glad to hear the bird landed in the mulch. He needs to fertilize the new bush soon anyway. The best thing to do, he says, is just leave it. We go about our evening: My grandpa is dead, the bird is dead, and my children are miraculously full of even more life than usual after our trip to the mall. We sing cheerful songs before they sleep at night, because that dead bird monologue didn’t translate into actual understanding of my (and our) loss. Cheer and grief: what do I do with this dissonance?

The Lord liveth — though Poppa is dead.
Blessed be the Rock — since we are dust. 
Let the God of our salvation be exalted —
…while we lay someone low in the ground. 

The funeral, exactly a week before my sister’s wedding, finds me preparing to share a eulogy about Poppa’s humble beginnings, his love for the creation and the Creator, and his determined spirit. That sanctuary holds many special memories: My mom’s and aunt’s wedding pictures, my cousins’ baptisms, late Christmas Eve services, Grandma’s funeral last year. Poppa was there for all of these. We sing some of his favorite songs, like How Great Thou Art, and it’s hard to believe he’s not sitting in his row, belting it out alongside us. Since the minister’s homily covered most of my main points, I begin with a joke that my speech “got scooped.” Thankfully, a story as good as Poppa’s is worth telling twice. 

The tales of Poppa growing up as the child of unassimilated Finnish immigrants yet earning advanced degrees, serving in the Air Force, establishing elementary schools in Alaska and colleges in Michigan, traveling the world, and always, always gardening might seem disjointed, but their common thread is found in a little knowledge about his Finnish roots. My Poppa started elementary school speaking only Finnish and knowing just a few English words. I’m the opposite, because I just speak English, but the one Finnish word I know is sisu. It doesn’t fully translate to English, but it means grit, determination, valor, fortitude, sustained courage, and fighting with the will to win. Sisu is considered the true Spirit of Finland, and with this tenacity, Poppa’s life demonstrated that he kept the best of his Finnish heritage with a sisu drive for faithful effort in carefully chosen pursuits.

After talking about his life and the resurrection  – Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ is coming again, Alleluia – we scoop potato salad onto our plates in the fellowship hall before moving outside to stand in the blazing sun, scooping earth over ashes. Grandma and Poppa are set there together, dust over dust. By their quiet faithfulness to the gospel and each other, my grandparents were, in so many ways, like trees planted by streams of water, like great Oaks of righteousness. We sow in tears, grieving that this is so final and awful and wrong. We sow in faith, believing boldly that God will reap them as His glorious harvest following the raising of Christ, the firstfruit of all who sleep.

When we have laid them to rest, we return to a full house since so many aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings stay for the week until Naomi’s wedding. We do not rest ourselves. No one ever wants to go to bed, and this is not just the kids cajoling for 5 more minutes. We’re adults who know we are dangerously exhausted, but still we turn on the movies and make snacks to procrastinate on our necessary wedding projects until the wee hours every day. Is it because we want to try keeping today long enough for a little more joy? Or because we know sleep is a mini-death? Maybe it’s because we want more time with Poppa, which we cannot have, so we hang on to every moment with these people who gives us a little bit of him and his memory.

Grief is exhausting because you just want to keep it at bay; if you keep busy, keep fighting to embrace what you have, maybe the memories of your loss will stay away longer. And you stay up late so you aren’t trying to will yourself to sleep with fewer defenses against the pain. You want to be too tired to pay attention to how bad it feels. If you lay there with any energy left, you will remember. It’s easier, in the short term, to fall apart from exhaustion than to be alert to what you have lost.

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Bill Niemi and Thomas Hummel. Poppa kept saying, “You can tell he really likes me!”

The Apostle Paul says that in death and resurrection, what is sown does not come to life unless it dies, planted like a bare kernel. Everyone who watched Poppa’s remains go into the earth (we who are now folding bulletins and altering bridesmaid dresses and spray painting table decor) also watched this happen in Poppa’s garden every summer. Just like we joyfully tasted the firstfruits of his garden labors, in ripe red tomatoes and long green beans and crisp cucumbers, we see the joyful fruit of his life among us. To say nothing of blessings among my cousins and the wider community of family and friends, my sisters and I all celebrate our new boys: I have Thomas, Beth is roundly pregnant with Ellis, Naomi is marrying Matt.  We live in the tension of loss and exponential increase this week especially, somehow starting to make peace with what we have heard and spoken about the resurrection: What God raises up out of death is greater than what existed naturally in the first place.

So is it with the resurrection of the dead:
what is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.
It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory.
It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.
It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.

Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord,
knowing that in the Lord your labor is never in vain.
– 1 Corinthians 15:42-44, 58.

It makes a lot of sense that we spend our initial grief for Poppa in wedding coordinations, moving from funeral grief to marriage joy in that same church the next Saturday. We celebrate the seamless call of the gospel and the example of Poppa’s Finnish sisu, to abound and labor for good fruit by the finished work of Jesus. We persevere in preparations while Naomi and Matt open their hearts and arms to each other, in the shadow of Poppa’s life of diligence and devotion. We prepare to rejoice and feast in celebration of their new life together, echoing the eternal life Poppa revels in at the marriage supper of the lamb.

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wedding photos via  hello rose photography 

Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb! -Revelation 9:9

William Jacob Niemi, Jr., passed away on July 17, 2016, surrounded by family. 

Sharing Elsewhere: Risen Motherhood

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I’m really excited to be sharing some of the lessons I’ve learned through my miscarriages on the Risen Motherhood podcast this week! Hosts Emily Jensen and Laura Wifler discuss the way the gospel transforms a mom’s everyday life on this quick weekly show. Since neither of them have suffered miscarriage themselves, they asked if I would be willing to share a little bit from my journey as part of a back-to-back interview episode about miscarriage and the gospel. Most of what I shared won’t be completely new to friends or readers here, but I think you’ll enjoy hearing the complementary stories of God’s grace during the episode. This is a fabulous resource for women seeking hope and healing after losing a baby, and I’m grateful for the chance to be part of this beautiful ministry!

[ If you’re not already a faithful Risen Motherhood listener, you can always listen in on their website (www.RisenMotherhood.com). I also suggest connecting with them on Facebook and subscribing with your favorite podcast streaming site (maybe iTunes?) or app so you don’t miss an episode! ]

On Miscarriages & Reading the Bible

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Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” – Matthew 22:29

My miscarriages revealed that I didn’t understand how the Bible really works. Even after 12 years of earnestly studying it, leading numerous devotional groups, writing Bible Study leaders’ training curriculum, and earning a college degree in Christian Studies! Me, of all people, not knowing how to read my Bible! The first thing that clued me in? You don’t get many responses from a Bible word search for verses about miscarriage. There’s a few small references, but on their own they were kind of confusing. For being the book that’s supposed to be the source of all life and sufficient for guiding you through any situation, I found this extremely disconcerting. Women were having miscarriages in Bible times, too, so if the Bible doesn’t talk about them… is it even relevant right now? Was it EVER relevant?

My Scripture-Reading Pedigree is reasonably impressive. I already knew you couldn’t just use one phrase of the Bible to “claim as a promise” without considering the context (knowing the culture or life story of the author and original audience). And I knew my feelings were not an interpretive tool, but I still felt lost to figure out how the Bible spoke to me after a miscarriage. 

Since I couldn’t find chapter-and-verse to give me a solid explanation, I sought out what other people were saying about miscarriages and the Bible. Maybe I was just missing it and someone else had already figured it out? I looked at all the blogs written and ordered whatever books I could find. Pickings were slim and unhelpful. (Thankfully, much has been said since about miscarriage from a Christian perspective and I do have a list of my favorite articles and books I recommend on the menu of this website.) Blogs and books are useful, but they are only a tool; they do not replace the living and active word of scripture. What I needed was not just “a book about miscarriage from a Christian perspective,” but a more cohesive understanding of how the Bible fit together to speak a better word to my sorrow than any online concordance could supply.

You don’t have to geek out on complicated words or reading dead theologians to figure this out. I liked those things long before I had any miscarriages, and they hadn’t brought this to light for me. Plenty of my college classes and personal reading had circled around this topic. For some reason, reading scripture as part of a “meta-narrative” (where all the parts serve to ultimately fit into an “ultimate story” of the gospel) had seemed dry and unwelcoming to me. This sounds crazy now, because nothing seems relevant or approachable about flipping back and forth between random passages of the Bible when you’re looking for help or hope. Reading the Bible with the full lens of the gospel (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration) proves it is rich with encouragement and sufficient for difficulty, even the hardships of our lives that it barely mentions by name.

CREATION
From the beginning of the Creation narrative we read that God created all people in perfection and gave the first command: “Be fruitful and multiply.” It doesn’t say “Be fruitful and miscarry!” We were originally created to have bodies and relationships that worked the right way, which would mean a baby wouldn’t die before it was even born. Other passages celebrate God’s special work in forming and developing every child in the womb of a woman.
See: Genesis 1-2, Psalm 139, Jeremiah 1, Ecclesiastes 11:5

FALL
The earth and the animal kingdom experience the curse of sin right away, in broken fellowship with God and woman’s increased pain in childbearing. This is not limited just to labor and delivery, but encompasses trouble in all facets of maternity: debilitating cycles or hormone shifts, infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, post-partum depression, birth injuries, and the ongoing difficulties of motherhood. Every woman, even one who is happily childless, battles some bit of this in some way.

This same curse later meets mankind in the worst possible way: the death of an innocent son. It strikes me that when humans experience death, it’s Abel who gets killed, not Adam or Eve (who have no earthly parents). Knowing that we have to read the Bible in terms of the “big picture,” this points us clearly to the death of Jesus, the innocent Son of God. Knowing that the Bible speaks to all sadness, this also validates the particular grief of parents. Now, I know people who have held full-term babies that never drew breath, or who trace their child’s name in the cold, hard etchings on a gravestone. I certainly imagine (in brief, horrible moments) that losing one of my living children would be a new, more awful devastation than the miscarriages I had before, but miscarriage is still the death of a child in it’s very earliest stages. At the core of the gospel, the Fall shows us that death is, indeed, a really big deal. 
See: Genesis 3-4, Hebrews 11:4, Hebrews 12:18-24.

REDEMPTION
At the crucifixion, Jesus faces death, carrying the full weight of everything that is wrong and broken upon himself. Beyond our individual sin and the sin of the world, our sorrows and grief were laid upon Jesus as well. This is where some of the overly-simple talk about “Jesus dying for our sins” in childhood altar calls becomes less helpful for understanding the gospel in real life. At the resurrection, Jesus physically rises from the dead AND makes the pathway for the resurrection of all the dead, which is why Paul calls Jesus “the firstfruits of all who sleep.” As Christians, we know this means we will be restored to eternal life. It also promises us that all who “sleep” (are dead) will rise, including babies lost in miscarriage.
See: Isaiah 53, Matthew 26-28, Mark 14-16, Luke 22-24, John 13-21, 1 Corinthians 15, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

RESTORATION
Do you know where you actually find the word “miscarry” in the Bible? The Old Testament. Moses’ writings about how miscarriages and barrenness will not exist in the Promised Land are actually the most explicit places the Bible talks about it, and these passages are pointing beyond Israel to an ultimate fulfillment in heaven. Unfortunately most of the discussion about miscarriages and heaven twists this a little bit, focusing on finding hope in “seeing your babies in heaven someday.” A faith that is held up primarily by the desire to see your baby (which is, of course, entirely appropriate) does not follow the pattern revealed in scripture. Whether those babies we lost are in heaven or not, focusing on that point alone is small comfort compared the profound hope in the gospel: Christ promises that in the Resurrection, everything will be made new. It’s eternal life, perfection, without sorrow or tears or death. It’s a life where God fully satisfies every question, longing, and emptiness with his love. Christian hope in the wake of a miscarriage or other loss is not about having another child on earth or reuniting with a child in heaven. It’s about experiencing full, unending communion with God himself.
See: Exodus 23:26, Isaiah 25, Isaiah 40, Isaiah 61, Isaiah 65:20, Matthew 22:29-33, Revelation 21:4-8

 

“And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.
…All flesh is like grass…
The grass withers,
the flowers fade,
but the word of our God will stand forever.”
– Isaiah 40:5,7,8

under the shadow (mother’s day 2015)

This year’s avoidance of any Mother’s Day greeting card displays has been due mostly to having a little more to juggle while I’m at the store these days, and less to do with feeling like everything inside me was shriveling up every time I thought about children or the idea of being a mom. I definitely like it better this way.

annie at store

 

The past nine months of real-life mothering have been so dear. I wouldn’t wish the journey I had before this on my worst enemy, but I wouldn’t trade the lessons coming from that and my sweet girl for anything, either. It’s also a little pointless to think about what I would trade because I can’t go back and change anything, anyway. My initiation to motherhood was not at all what I expected, and this means so many of my attitudes and perspectives about life as a parent are different than they would have been otherwise. Sometimes that is still hard, and today I still come in to relationships with the shadow of past grief, carrying a lot more baggage on the topic of children and pregnancy than I would have liked. I have been profoundly blessed by the example of Mary, who was also decidedly shocked by the way she became a mom, too. I take comfort to know that she saw clearly how the purpose of her role as a mother was not primarily that she would have a baby, but that she would encounter the Messiah and the fulfillment of God’s promise, even when it happened in ways that confused her and seemed so different from how she might have planned it.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you; and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” – Luke 1:35.

While I was pregnant with Annie, I wondered how mothering a child would differ from the sort of “mothering” that came out of my miscarriages. There is everyday stuff to sort through, yes, and more to juggle than before, but at the core I think these things have been mostly the same. The everyday acts of raising my daughter are hard work. They require sacrifice: of my time, my pride, my selfishness. I am diligent to read and pray and make decisions we deem best on every topic imaginable, like medical care during pregnancy and delivery, how to feed the baby, where she sleeps, what kind of structure we have to our days and nights, consoling her or letting her cry, vaccinations, education, spiritual formation, etc., and then continue carrying on relationships where other people have also thought long and hard in making those same choices for their kids and somehow come to the wrong conclusions. I know. But the demands I experienced before: sacrificing so much without a choice in the matter, battling so much insecurity and uncertainty about the future, and navigating awkwardness in some relationships because I was so tender? That was also incredibly difficult, and it happened without the obvious joy of a child to bring such delight! Parenting now is difficult because I feel the weight of responsibility so heavily. A child is a real person; the stakes are high. But I take great comfort to know that parenting Annie — and the new baby coming this fall! — is supposed to be overwhelming, and the strength needed for this task comes under the protective shadow of the Holy Spirit. The difficulties of life before and after the arrival of a baby are both satisfied by the same faithful promises of help and joy. Even with the reality of parenthood, the true satisfaction of life is not found in relation to a human child but a heavenly father.

Several people have asked me if motherhood has provided any “healing” from the losses and heartache of the last few years, and it has been interesting to think about. There is so much joy and delight in the very places I was so sorrowful, yes. Maybe even more happiness than I might have experienced otherwise? Who knows. It is not difficult in any way to look at my beautiful girl or my again-expanding midsection and wonder how this could be a blessing, like I had to do with the babies I lost before this. But “healing”? I don’t want to think of it in those terms. The answer to the true problems posed by those miscarriages, the wrestling with death and grief and what it meant to be a mother? Those questions are met with the same gifts I find for the troubles of today: The presence of the Holy Spirit now, and the coming full understanding in the resurrection, when the shadow of death is removed completely.

Many people are burdened with desire for many things — having a baby was not the lone thing I longed for — and the beauty of any wait is that it is not a waste when it clarifies the source of true fulfillment. I look back and say the grief-shadowed wait was beautiful not because it led to children, but because it led me closer to the everlasting shadow of God’s love and protection.

There he will remove the cloud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth. He will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears. – Isaiah 25:7

My soul will be satisfied… for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy. – Psalm 63:4-7

knitting and kneading: the forethought of grief.

“Any day now, any day…” The words we have been hearing every day for over a month are starting to sound like a broken record. Only it’s not a record that’s broken, it’s my grandma: a vibrant, beautiful, brave, eternal soul suffering a cancer that steals her strength, and will entirely devour her mortal flesh soon. Possibly even before I hit “publish” on this post.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
– The Peace of Wild Things, by Wendell Berry.

Wendell Berry says there is freedom from worry in considering the animals, who “do not tax their life with forethought of grief.” Aaron calls this poem a modern retelling of Matthew 6: Do not worry about your life, look at the birds of the air, consider the lilies, God will take care of you, and all that.  When fear for what our lives and our children’s lives may become grips us, it is wise to, basically, get some perspective, chillax, and stop thinking about what bad things might happen. My dog doesn’t do much worrying (except for the whereabouts of that blasted tennis ball lost in a snowbank outside the local elementary school), and he is a much happier creature than I. Sometimes it is good to learn from animals and quell anxiety. But I am not an animal, I am a person, and someone I have loved my whole life is dying in long-drawn agony. I have forethought of this grief because I am human, and because I am fallen. I suffer because I know there is pain now, and because there will be a empty spot for my Grandma in the rest of my entire life.

This forethought of grief subconsciously works itself out in my domestic endeavors. I must finish the baby blanket for my new niece, Margaret Belle, so I steal a few moments to knit a row here and there. Watching the yarn turn into a blanket is soothing: A long string that would tangle without care can become something lovely, meaningful, and warm. We’ve had a steady stream of freshly-baked bread in the kitchen for weeks and have eaten more homemade pizza in the last month than we had in all of 2014. It is such a simple thing to watch yeast dough rise, sprinkle flour on my counter, feel the springy dough folding under my hands. When you know how this works it doesn’t require much thought, and maybe that’s why I like it right now. My grandma showed me how to do this the first time, and knowing that my family now eats bread because she taught me to bake seems like an everyday testimony to the Resurrection: Life is just a portion of eternity, and death is not really a permanent end. She is a soul and her life continues in eternity. And because she spent her earthly life loving and building up others, the beauty of her life does not end with her death, either.

The fact that my day is full of fore-thought-grief doesn’t change the simple routines that close it: Later than we both would like, Aaron comes home. The dog licks and wags his tail, and then lays under the table. Bread, fresh and hot, dips into soup. The baby passes back and forth between our laps. She keeps reaching for our plates, enjoying the mushed up carrot and bread we offer her. She is kissed, tickled, fed, wiped down from head to toe, diapered, and snugly wrapped for bed. We spent years praying for her before she arrived, and at bedtime we still pray, asking God to give her health, growth, strength, and siblings.

My name is Abigail Rebecca, and I sing my daughter, Anne Rebecca, to sleep:

Jesus, Tender Shepherd, hear me
Bless Thy little lamb tonight
Through the darkness, be Thou near me
Keep me safe ’til morning light. 

I listen to hear her breathing. She’s congested and sometimes she struggles a bit to inhale. So I hold my breath along with her and wonder if I should just sit on the big chair with her all night? She might sleep better if I hold her upright. Her well-being is more important than my comfort or desire to sleep well tonight.

A full day’s drive away, in another home I know well, my mother, Katrina Rebecca, leans over her mother, Rebecca Belle, performing duties much like mine. We are both tasked with keeping someone clean, comfortable, and freshly changed, while receiving only grunts and moans for direction. She also listens to labored breathing and wonders how to provide the best care. Maybe she sings lullabies, too. But where I pray that my daughter will be healthy and well when I pluck her out of the crib tomorrow, we all hope that maybe Grandma will reach the safety of the eternal light before morning. Is that wrong? How much of this can a person bear?

That question was heavy in the news lately, when a younger woman suffering (in the most appropriate use of that word) from cancer proudly took her own life, in a misplaced effort to take back the control cancer had stolen from her.  Every death is awful and ugly, but I certainly think this must be one of the kinds that tops them all. How much of this can a person bear? How great will the suffering be? How long, oh Lord?

The modern euthanasia movement proclaims they advocate for “death with dignity.” They are wrong. In the English language dignity means having a high sense of propriety, of self-respect, and appreciating the gravity of an occasion or situation. So dignity is not found in control or comfort, but in respect for what is given, and appreciating all that it can become when handled rightly. 
A strand of yarn knit into a blanket.
A scoop of flour kneaded into a loaf of bread.
A cancer diagnosis faced and fought until the end.
This means even in profound suffering, dignity is not about valuing personal comfort above what is right. Dignity does not eschew the pain and embarrassments fraught in the process of dying. Instead, it loudly proclaims that all life is a gift and that suffering, no matter how great, does not diminish an iota of it’s value and beauty.

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Becca Niemi holding Annie Hummel, five weeks. September 2014.

Cancer will soon take enough to kill this woman. It would not make her death more dignified to take even more from her before then. Instead, the most dignified thing to do is to sink in to this grief, both before and after she dies, and honor a life conducted well in health and in illness. Though grief does tax, the right kind of grief can only clarify and increase the blessing of knowing a beautiful woman who personified dignity, demonstrating in the most tangible way possible that weakness and dishonor in death serves to magnify the glory and power of the Resurrection.

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. …Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory in our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Corinthians 15. 


Rebecca Niemi died at home on January 27, 2015, during the writing of this blog post. Her obituary can be read here, and the audio of her January 31 funeral service is here.