Stephanie Hawkes became a mother when she gave birth to a little girl. She remembers 6 pounds, 7 ounces, 19 and three-fourths inches long and a head of red hair. But another devastating fact accompanied those: “She wasn’t breathing, and hadn’t been for some time, despite no indication of any problem,” said Hawkes.
At Brigham Young University Women’s Conference on Friday, Hawkes, a graphic designer and granddaughter of “Candy Bomber” Gail Halvorsen, explained her journey of grief after the death of her baby.
“We were blindsided,” said Hawkes. She was assigned to speak at the conference on “Finding Personal Strength through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.” She did so by sharing her grief with every woman in attendance. There were very few dry eyes.
Elder David A. Bednar, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, spoke of suffering at a BYU Devotional in 2001, and a quote from his remarks was featured in Hawkes' course summary.
“The Savior has suffered not just for our iniquities but also for the inequality, the unfairness, the pain, the anguish and the emotional distresses that so frequently beset us," Elder Bednar said. "There is no physical pain, no anguish of soul, no suffering of spirit, no infirmity or weakness that you or I ever experience during our mortal journey that the Savior did not experience first.”
Hawkes took an angle of counsel in her remarks. She wanted the women in attendance to be more empathic, caring and kind to those who are grieving, and to try to feel the problem instead of trying to fix the problem.
Hawkes advised the women to be sensitive to people’s needs, even though they may not be obvious. “You can’t always see heartache from the outside. Grief isn’t always apparent, but it is real, and it is unlike anything I have ever experienced before,” she said.
Grief and sorrow are necessary steps, Hawkes said, for healing.
“Sorrow is the emotion we feel when we have lost something important to us," she said. "It’s entirely valid, it’s entirely appropriate to feel sorrow.”
However appropriate Hawkes’ sorrow was, people around her still tried to rid her of sorrow. “In our society, sorrow is considered a negative emotion. It’s a bad thing. It’s a sign of weakness. And if you’re feeling sad, people will try to cheer you up.”
This process was hurtful and invalidating for Hawkes. She didn’t need cheering up. She didn’t need to hear “You’ll see her again,” “Don’t worry,” or “Don’t feel sad, she is in a better place.” She needed people to grieve with her.
“To negate my sorrows is to say that my dreams and the things that are important to me, don’t matter,” said Hawkes. “Allowing myself to feel sorrow opens my heart, brings me to the depths of humility and makes me receptive to the Spirit of God.”
Referencing Mosiah 18:9 found in the Book of Mormon, Hawkes pointed out that people should have empathy and “mourn with those who mourn,” not “cheer up those who mourn.”
Hawkes said she also experienced hurt as a result of some who questioned Hawkes’ faith because of her grief. Hawkes still had a knowledge of the Savior’s plan, even though she was grieving. She still knew she was never alone, even though she walked through the valley of despair. “Feeling sorrow doesn't make you any less faithful," she said.
In fact, Hawkes’ faith reached levels she had never seen before. She knew the Lord in a new, deeper way. "I saw the tears of God. I found a God who suffers. I found a God who doesn’t tell me why my baby died, who doesn't take away my suffering, but who shares it," she said.
She came to know that to truly know someone, you have to feel what they have felt and know what truly matters to them. Hawkes related how when Jesus showed himself after the resurrection, he invited people to feel his wounds, that they would know it was he. She said she also felt closer to God the Father, now personally knowing what it was like to suffer, to love deeply and to have a child die.
She explained that love and suffering are inseparable. "We suffer because we have loved,” Hawkes said. “There is divinity in suffering.”
She counseled her audience to not take away the precious suffering of those who grieve, but to meet them there. Hawkes said that since her daughter passed, she has a greater capacity for empathy. “I’ve realized that I don’t have to go through exactly what you have in order for me to feel for you, to ache for you.”
In the talk referenced above from 2001, Elder Bednar continued, “The Son of God perfectly knows and understands, for He felt and bore our burdens before we ever did. And because He paid the ultimate price and bore that burden, He has perfect empathy.”
Hawkes now has more Christlike empathy, and has felt his peace, even through her grief.
“Jesus Christ was a Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief,” said Hawkes, quoting Isaiah 53. “And Jesus Christ was the Prince of Peace. Sorrow and peace, they can coexist.”