My wife asked me to talk to her about something, anything, to get her mind outside of the hospital. She loves flowers, and it was just after the tulips had blossomed, but before the irises opened up so I talked about how the irises would be blooming soon. Now, every year the world feels a little smaller and a touch darker to me right before the irises bloom.
I had spent more than twenty-four hours encouraging her in the task of delivering the bodies of our twin boys who had miscarried at seventeen weeks. The doctors told us that the entire ordeal would take two days at the most, but it was three and a half days before we went home because my wife nearly lost her uterus. When we finally did get home, our body odor was so bad that we threw our clothes in the trash.
Handling grief is like being in an overgrown thicket that you can’t escape. In the thicket are little houses: a house of sadness, a house of anger, a house of hope, a house for each of the many emotions associated with grief. The experience of the grieving person involves spending time in each one of the “emotion-houses,” sometimes spending days in one of them, sometimes visiting multiple houses a day multiple times. Over time, the houses do not feel any less real, but an increasingly wide and walkable path is tread through the thicket from one to the other, and navigating life alongside the trauma becomes more and more doable.
One of the emotion-houses that my wife and I discovered through painful experience is actually more like a pit than a house. When traumatized grief is triggered, feelings of darkness rise up and close in like walls in a nightmarish cartoon. The memories are vividly re-lived, and the real world feels like a far-away dream.
Talking about irises in the hospital was paradoxically a form of denial in the midst of our trauma, and the beginning of our fight to stay grounded in the real world. Intense suffering had a way of unmooring our minds from the present moment, where we floated psychologically, in and around and through our traumatic memories. The ability to stay grounded was the ability to stay in the present moment, remaining connected to the real world rather than being sucked back into reliving the trauma.
But staying grounded is not a simple psychological trick or a fun new way to meditate; it’s a fight. Our pain and losses screamed at us that we didn’t matter and that there was nothing sacred about who we are and what we do. The experience of trauma played out as a gaping sense of God’s absence and the feeling that he had regarded as dung that which is sacred.
As Christians, this battle extended pointedly to our understanding of God’s love, and not just an intellectual understanding but an experiential understanding. We already ordinarily desire proof of God’s love, and in the loss of our twins, we craved all the more deeply proof that he values us.
In Greek mythology, Iris was a messenger goddess, whose name had a double meaning: “iris” in Greek means “rainbow,” and “eiris” translates as “messenger”. She delivered messages from the gods, traveling over the multicolored glory of rainbows.
Because Greek mythology is so widely taught in Western nations, it is easily misrepresented and embellished by well-meaning people seeking to add depth and gravitas to their ideas. Gardening enthusiasts, for instance, color their writing about irises by drawing connections with the goddess Iris, saying that irises were said to grow wherever she set foot.
The act of speculating about messages from the gods and in the story of irises being left where a goddess had walked confirm that there is a deep hunger in the human heart to find assurance that divinity is not far removed from our lives. We want divinity that proves attentive to us and leaves behind evidence of their care.
Jesus knew how deep-seated this desire for reassurance was when he told us to see how the flowers of the field grow. If God clothes the grass of the field better than Solomon in all his splendor, then we can know that he sees us, knows us, meets our needs, and isn’t turned away by the frailty of our faith, bruised, broken, and traumatized as it may be.
In the history of art, halos have been used across cultures for thousands of years to mark out gods, goddesses, and important people in Ancient Greece, Rome, India, China, and Egypt. In pre-Renaissance Christian art, haloes regularly and vividly adorn Jesus and the saints. They show that a saint was truly a saint, as opposed to a regular person; they mark someone as special, particularly someone who was considered special to God. And even though we might call them “hokey” (to use a very technical term), halos speak to the human desire for some kind of sign of being important to God, a mark of assurance that a particular person truly mattered.
We desire proof of God’s love, even visible proof like that of halos, but if we can embrace the self-evident, God-given glory of the flowers of the field, we will be reassured by the incredible work of God to make us simply live and move and have our being. Existence is, in a way, God's first calling on every human being. In creating us, God is calling us into being out of nothing, and that in itself is proof that he sees us and knows us and values us. Of course, God calls us to more than mere existence, but our existence is already glorious before we do anything.
Trauma speaks hellish lies about that glorious existence, and Christ’s cross thankfully speaks a better word and a final word over those lies. Jesus has the last word on suffering through the cross, but we dare not forget that he also has the first word in that he created us as “very good.” Shame and loss cannot define us whatsoever when God has the first and last word.
A few months after losing the twins, I drove along skipping through radio stations. I was looking for some song to stifle and distract me from my anger and sadness. Strong feelings, of course, are rarely relieved by stifling. I needed to acknowledge them and allow them to overwhelm me. In those moments, particular words delivered in a particular way have the power to break the work of suppression, and of all things in my case, it was a song by Beyoncé—her song “Halo”—that forced me to pull over and let my emotions take over me.
To say, “I can see your halo” is to make a statement of faith. It’s a manner of beholding something as true that may not appear to be true in a given moment. It allows us to see as glorious that which is right here in front of us. The ability to “see” halos is the ability to see the person in front of us as well and truly fearfully and wonderfully made.
I had to pull over in my car after hearing Beyoncé’s song because I was pained by thinking back to that room in the hospital: there were no halos, no adornments with splendor greater than the irises that showed my little ones mattered to God. There seemed to be no assurance that what I had in that room was anything more than dead flesh and broken dreams.
But then it also struck me that when I was actually in that room during those painful hours, I never had a desire for such assurance, I hadn’t felt the need for it. I think that’s because when they were right there in front of me, the twins’ bodies, though dead, were so clearly more than just flesh. Their bodies were beautiful, so incredibly formed. Their bodies had a glory in and of themselves, and that was clear proof that they mattered to God. There was no need for halos because their bodies, like the flowers of the field, were halos, proclaiming God’s glory and goodness and presence.
For you formed their inward parts;
you knitted them together in their mother’s womb.
I praise you, for they were fearfully and wonderfully made.
Your eyes saw their unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the very few days that were formed for them.
Cover image by Ramez E. Nassif.