I was a tough kid, matured pretty early. I figured out the truth about Santa on my own at an early age and took it in stride. I didn’t shed a tear when my parents divorced because I knew it was the right decision for them. I made good grades, kept a level head, was realistic in my goals, and kept looking forward. Over and over, I kept hearing others marvel at how I was able to be so “normal” and “strong” in the midst of my chaotic childhood, how I could have healthy relationships when I lived amongst such dysfunctionand I was proud.

I knew my life wasn’t normal. I knew I was facing some pretty rough circumstances. But I was handling it, handing it well, and I liked knowing that. I took pride in my own strength and kept walking toward life with my head held high, convinced I was stronger than anything that would come my way. 

“I’m not finding a heartbeat.” 

I wasn’t standing proud in that dark room while my doctor desperately shoved the ultrasound wand around, searching for any signs of life. I felt my heart fall, felt my lungs collapse, felt my stomach twist, but I kept my head straight and stared at the ceiling. 

I was strong, after all. I’d gotten through so much before this. I knew the statistics, I knew it was early. I’d even somehow known before I’d come to the appointment. I’d be strong and be OK because that’s what I did, that’s who I was, that’s what I was proud to be. 

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I didn’t cry. Not until my husband went to the restroom. I was surprised the tears were comingafter all, I was strong. I knew this could happen, I never even saw the heartbeat to begin with, so why was I mourning?

I spent the weekend stoic around others and hysterical before God. I sobbed, wept, pleaded, and bargained for the life of that baby I didn’t know and never expected to grieve. I hadn’t planned the pregnancy. I’d felt something was off. I’d always known miscarriage could happen, so why was I so sad?

I wanted to be stronger. 

I wanted to be unaffected, realistic. I wanted to acknowledge the loss quickly and quietly and move on. I wanted to be that little girl who didn’t cry when life turned upside down, the girl everyone admired for her strength. I wanted to be anything but the tearful, moaning, snotty, disheveled, desperate woman who walked into the hospital and announced I was there for my D&C. I wanted to be far away, envied and not pitied, feeling whole and not so broken. 

More than anything, I wanted to be stronger. 

“No, there’s no cure. The damage is permanent.”

I sat across from the doctor who had just delivered such life-altering news as though she were telling me I’d missed the cutoff to be served breakfast. My health had been deteriorating for nearly a year and no one could seem to tell me why. I’d put on a very brave face through multiple MRIs, heart exams, neurological scans, blood draws, spinal taps, and various other tests totaling up to 41 doctor visits.

I’d become disabled, unable to drive, barely able to walk. The photography business I’d spent more than a decade building and loving had to be closed overnight. I couldn’t cook dinner, couldn’t pick my children up from school. I could barely make it through a shower. 

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Through all of the tests I’d kept everyone updated, cracked jokes, and looked forward with determination. I’d been strong, no one could deny me that. I kept trying, kept seeking an answer, an explanation, a cure. I refused to just accept the sudden loss of my health and independence and forged ahead, strong, until I found myself in the room where I finally got the answers I’d been working so hard toward. 

Suddenly, I wasn’t so strong anymore. I wanted to be positive. I wanted to have faith the size of a mustard seed.

I wanted to be so good at adapting, so seamless in the transition from ideal to reality that my reality seemed to be ideal.

I wanted to be the most empowering and inspiring face of this awful disease anyone had ever seen. I wanted to stand. I wanted to drive. I wanted to shower without passing out. 

More than anything I wanted to be stronger.

“I’m sorry, we tried everything we could.”

I was in the parking lot of the hospital, just minutes away from my mom’s bedside, and hadn’t made it in time. I hung up the phone and numbly, silently walked into the building. A few days later, I sat in the funeral home, numbly, silently making plans. I looked through old photos in bed, numbly, silently. I read the texts, messages, and notecards full of sympathy, expressions of sorrow and support for me, read them all numbly, silently. 

We hadn’t had a great relationship, my mom and I. I’d mourned her many, many times while she was still alive so I assumed the numbness meant I was just OK, I assumed I’d done all my mourning, so I remained silent.

I assumed I felt nothing because I was strong. 

Then it hit. It hit me hard. And it hurt, it hurt bad, and it still hurts. And I don’t want it to hurt because I made it through childhood without hurting, because I grieved a miscarriage without anyone realizing it, because I am strong and very few things are supposed to make me hurt.

I didn’t want someone I was mad at to be able to make me hurt. I didn’t want to spend so much time thinking about and crying over someone who could never make right what she’d so painfully done wrong. I didn’t want to mourn her. I didn’t want to grieve. I wanted to pick up, to carry on. I wanted to distance myself from her by not allowing my heart to soften at the loss of her. I wanted to be stronger. Oh, how badly I wanted to be stronger. 

I know I need to grieve. I know I need to mourn. I know that admitting my pain isn’t the worst thing and being human is more of a testimony than being stoic. But can we also all agree that pain sucks? No one wants to run toward pain, to allow it to overwhelm. I’ve held it off for so long now that I know my tipping point is near. The loss of my mother is still quite fresh, and I know someday soon it will prove to be too much, and all I’ve kept hidden will come pouring out. I don’t want to be inhuman, but I don’t want to hurt, either. I only want to be stronger. 

I’m afraid of what will happen when my strength finally falters, and I allow myself to grieve.

It will hurt, I imagine, and I’ll probably wish yet again that I were stronger. But really, truly, I wish that long ago I’d allowed myself to be real, allowed myself to acknowledge the pain. I wish I hadn’t glorified the strength. I wish I’d allowed myself, instead, to be weak.

Jennifer Vail

Jennifer is married to the very handsome man she's loved half her life, with whom she juggles 3 hilarious, quirky, sometimes-difficult-but-always-worth-the-work kids. She is passionate about people and 90's pop culture, can't go a week without TexMex, and maintains the controversial belief that Han shot first. She holds degrees in counseling and general ministries, writes at This Undeserved Life, and can often be found staying up too late but rarely found folding laundry.