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Ugly Grief

We traveled as a family to New Orleans over the holidays. For the first time, Penny asked us, "Where's Grand Penny?"

She knows that Grand Penny, her namesake, her grandmother, is from New Orleans. So why didn't we see her when we were there? We tried to explain. "Grand Penny got really sick, and her body never got better."


"Pen," I said, "That's really hard to explain."

"Oh. Otay."

So when we were in New Orleans I was thinking about Grand Penny even more than usual, and I was also thinking about our Penny. She was born just over four years ago. On the one hand, experiencing Grand Penny's sickness and death prepared us well for Penny's birth. We had learned about grief. We had learned how to let each other experience emotions differently, according to our personalities, in our own time. We had learned not to judge.

And yet I know now that there was one big difference between our experience of grief in Grand Penny's death and then in Penny's birth. Our grief over Grand Penny's death was pure. I would even call it a holy grief, sadness over the things that are wrong in this world, sorrow for the separation caused by sickness and death. But our grief after Penny was born was ugly grief. It was grief that exposed things within me that I would have liked to ignore. It exposed the fact that I thought I deserved, that I thought I wanted, a certain type of child. It exposed my rejection of people who weren't like me. It exposed my sin, the ugliness within my soul.

We had to go through grief in both cases. Now, four years later, I hold on to the grief over Grand Penny's death. It has faded, of course, but the mourning is real and even good when I watch her grandchildren scamper around Audubon Park and feed the ducks and hug each other and I know that she would just adore them and yet has not yet met them. But the grief over Penny's birth is gone. It has been replaced with gratitude. And joy.

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