Beautiful Ugly


During even the darkest days of grief, I had within me a drive to keep moving.  Forward, onward, inward… I shied away from very little.  Church hurt, but I kept going – sat in the front and let the tears flow unhindered.  Shopping hurt, but I kept going – walking to the boy aisles to quietly suffer.  It hurt to share my story with strangers, but I sought out opportunities.  There was very little that didn’t hurt actually, but somehow hurting held a glimmer of hope, a shimmer of aliveness.  If I wasn’t hurting, I would be ‘nothing’… because I certainly wasn’t capable of anything else. Hurting seemed just a little better than nothing (on most days anyway).

I knew the day would come when our family of four would take our first family photograph without Graham.  It was a horrible prospect.  Of course, I could have held off indefinitely – I could have simply chosen to never book a professional session ever again.  I could have at least waited longer… But it was almost because I knew it would hurt, that I wanted it.  I wanted to hurt, to move through yet another horrible ‘first’.  Another ‘normal’ that was suddenly anything but.  Hurting was the closest thing I had to living and I was desperately trying to hang on.


We scheduled a time in early winter.  I wanted bleakness.  I wanted ugly. I quietly hoped that beauty might somehow show up, but I knew it wouldn’t be possible without the barren truth of pain and emptiness.


To be honest, I don’t have much to say about the day.  I remember the kindness of the photographer and the greyness of the sky.  I remember my daughters’ laughter.  I remember the heaviness in my eyes, the first time wearing makeup since his funeral.  The air was heavy with damp coolness.  Autumn’s colors fading away into foreboding winter.


Near the end, our sweet photographer folded up the bulky baby clothes quilt and stuffed it into the small egg basket that only a year before had been filled with a giggly Graham.  A few balloons waved in the wind and his green crinkle monster was reverently placed in the center of it all.  As she snapped a few memorial pictures, I leaned back into my husband’s arms.  My goofy girls suddenly started jumping and dancing from behind the camera’s eye, “Say cheese! Big smile!” they hollered.


“Are you making the monster laugh?” the photographer coaxed, and my girls became even more animated.  The three of them pretended together… they found a little life amongst the wreckage.

The tears finally came and the hurt plowed me over.  The injustice.  The wrongness.  The ugly.

When we got home that evening, I crawled into bed and stayed there for almost two days straight.  Evan cared for our living children and sheltered me while I gave way to consuming nothing.


When the pictures arrived I looked at them but couldn’t see them.  I mostly let them be, toying with plans for a Christmas card, maybe a thank you around his anniversary.  Today I was inspired to try again.

Today I see a lot of things in these photographs.  Mostly I see the beauty.



Photography by Seven Acre Photo




We stopped at an indoor play place the other day. While my girls goofed around, climbing and exploring, I slowly noticed a small boy kept appearing at their heels.  He was who Graham should have been – 2 years old and alive.  He was wearing a red basketball jersey shirt and had a shock of soft blond hair… He was brave and affectionate and at first I thought I was imagining it, but he really, truly was playing with my girls.  They interacted effortlessly and easily, no actual words were spoken, just communicative giggles and intentional eye contact.

I smiled intently and waited for the moments when he turned his head away from me and Graham could come alive in front of me. As the tears quietly rolled down my cheeks I watched as Charlotte gently escorted him to the top of the slide.  How Eleanor blocked him on the way down and sweetly reached out to touch his face.  How he giggled and watched them with sweet curiosity.  Then suddenly the three of them were all together – in one poignant frame – a squirmy pile of little children and the slow motion moment when he smiled up at one and then back towards the other.

My three children don’t exist like this.  These children I was watching in flesh and blood in front of me – they weren’t real.

Graham and Charlotte and Eleanor ARE real of course… They exist as a six-year-old Charlotte, a four-year-old Eleanor and the memory of 11 month old Graham.

I don’t have a 2-year-old son (although I’m painfully aware that I ‘should’)  Charlotte and Eleanor don’t have a 2-year-old brother… He’s still my son – their brother… But the ‘real’ part of him is gone.  The part that grows up.  The part that has a smell.  The part that can look into your eyes and laugh.

To see my daughters with a ‘real’ little boy – – it was so beautiful! It took my breath away! I wanted to draw the three of them into myself and just breathe or sob… maybe laugh. I could have reached out and touched them. I could have! Really touched each one of them!  Something that doesn’t exist, sort of did for a moment.

As the scene played out before me and made its way into the caverns of my heart, I didn’t actually confuse this boy with my son.  I didn’t forget the truth – I remembered it!  The aliveness of this 2-year-old revealed the deadness of my 11 month old.  This boy’s presence cast light on Graham’s absence.

Oh God! We – all of us – have lost so much! Too much.