Nearly two years ago, tragedy struck when Julie Hall’s 14-month-old son died before her eyes. She now understands what C.S. Lewis meant when he said sorrow is not a state but a process. Gently, slowly, and with great pains—and joys—Julie began a cathartic journey of discovery. “I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable.” -Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Tell us about Jonah.
Jonah came into the world a unique soul. He was about ten days late, and we were so anxious and excited to meet him. When he was born, my husband Jordan and I knew something wasn’t quite right. We noticed his jaw seemed small, his eyes were slanted, and his ears hadn’t fully developed. The nurse cleaned him up and told us he also had a cleft palette. All of this was so unexpected and scary. We had no idea if he would be okay. I remember feeling instant worry for him. Is he going survive? Is he all right? When the nurse bundled him up and brought him to us, Jordan looked at him and said, “He has perfect lips. His lips are right out of a magazine.” I was so grateful for Jordan when he said that. We found ourselves in an unexpected moment, holding a new baby with numerous physical problems, but Jordan was able to see the perfection in him.
The next day, Jonah was diagnosed with Treacher Collins Syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the development of facial structures. Jonah’s ears, palate, jaw, and cheekbones all stopped developing at some point in the womb. We were relieved to know that he would have normal intelligence and development, but it was heartbreaking to think that he would face a lifetime of painful surgeries. I worried about his future. I wondered if I was strong and brave enough to be his mother. I remember standing in the shower in the hospital and weeping and worrying. Then I had this overwhelming feeling that I couldn’t waste my time with feeling sorry for myself. I felt an immediate impression that he was a gift and that I needed to love the moments I had with him. From that moment on, that’s stayed with me. I felt peace. God was speaking to me. He was helping me to find joy in this sweet little boy. I wish I would have understood that day in the hospital how easy it would be to love Jonah. He was so alert and observant. He couldn’t hear for the first four months of his life, so he watched. He watched people closely and seemed to look right into your soul. He was also so curious. He crawled and walked and climbed through every inch of our house. He learned sign language, charmed everyone he met, always shared his blanket and had the sweetest giggle. I feel like I was prepared in a few ways to lose Jonah. I felt really compelled, especially in the last few months, to write down memories and milestones. I’ve never been a very diligent journal writer but I wrote down the important things. My journal of Jonah’s life is a great treasure to me now. I also felt promptings to spend as much time with him as possible. Jordan and I considered going out of town for our anniversary when Jonah was 13 months old. We thought we might leave him with my mom and take a few days to go camping, but we both decided we wanted to spend the time together as a family. We loved him so much, we just didn’t want to leave him.
What happened the day Jonah died?
It started like any other ordinary day. Jordan got Jonah out of bed and made him breakfast. Then Jonah and I went over to our friend Katie’s house to help can spaghetti sauce. We were hanging out in the kitchen and Jonah was playing with Katie’s kids. Katie had to take her daughter to dance class and asked if she could leave her other kids with me and Jonah, and I said of course, that’s fine. We went out to the back porch to play. I was holding Katie’s six-month-old and Jonah was playing with Katie’s little boy David, and eating fruit snacks. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the moment I gave him a fruit snack. I immediately saw that something was wrong. He was choking. I felt that panic and fear and the desperate need to act, but I had this baby in my arms and I was the only adult there. Inside, I thought, “Help me, help me know what to do!” I put the baby down on the patio—there was a blanket there, which I don’t remember being there before. I scooped Jonah up and tried the Heimlich, but the fruit snack wouldn’t come out. I grabbed the phone while I held Jonah and dialed 9-1-1 while running to the front of the house. I laid him down on the driveway as I talked to the 9-1-1 operator. The operator kept asking if I was with Jonah and I yelled, “Yes, I’m with him, tell me what to do, tell me what to do!” I saw a trickle of blood coming out of his nose and he was really pale. I was so scared, so terrified. I tried mouth-to-mouth but it didn’t help because the snack was still stuck in his throat. I remember feeling safer when I saw Katie’s neighbors come out to help me and put their arms around me. And then the ambulance showed up, and I watched this strong firefighter grab Jonah and try to get the fruit snack out. It was like an out-of-body experience watching all of this.
Katie pulled up and saw the ambulance and came running. She’s always been such a strength to me. She said, “We just need to pray. He will be okay.” At that moment, I appreciated her faith so much. I still do. But I knew it wouldn’t be okay. I felt it in my heart. The ride to the hospital was surreal. I could hear the sirens and I was asking God to give me strength for whatever was coming, to just give me strength. I felt like I knew what was going to happen, and that I couldn’t handle it. They were never able to restore Jonah’s heartbeat. By the time my parents and Jordan got to the hospital, I had already said goodbye to him. The shock of having a healthy child one minute and then losing them the next is more than your brain can process in a moment. I was in shock for a while. I remember leaving the hospital and thinking, we’re leaving our child here, and now we’re going to go home and stop at the Maverik and get a Coke, or something. That feels so bizarre. We pulled up to our home where we had so much love and all of Jonah’s things—his high chair was left out from breakfast, his little pajamas still smelled like syrup. I grabbed his blanket, and Jordan and I crawled into bed. We cried all night; I think that’s when it really hit us. The next morning our ward members, neighbors and family started coming over to tell us how much they loved us. I remember people bringing a lot of bread.
Was that good or did you want to be alone to mourn?
For me, I needed people. I needed people to recognize that I had experienced this great pain. I admired the people who came; it takes courage to come to someone’s door and say “I see that you’re in pain and I’m sorry.” Whether that’s done through bread or cookies or a hug or note, that was really good for me. I think it was harder for Jordan. Jordan is very private; he appreciated everyone coming by, but I could tell that it was wearing on him. If someone came to the door and he didn’t want to talk to them that was okay. We just took it one day at a time.
How have you learned to recognize those different needs in each other?
The Thursday after Jonah died, it was my birthday and I told Jordan I wanted to go to the temple. I thought that maybe I’d have some sort of revelation or I’d see Jonah or God would explain all of this, and it would just make sense to me and I could move on. But Jordan told me he wasn’t ready to go to the temple yet. I had kind of panicked, thinking what is this going to do to our marriage? I feared our marriage wouldn’t survive this tragedy. But then I realized that I just needed to let Jordan grieve in his own way and time. If I felt like I needed to go to the temple, then I should do that, but I didn’t need to make him go with me, and I didn’t need to worry that he was going to lose his faith. We would work through questions and doubts as they came, but I didn’t need to panic. For me, I get a lot of healing out of talking and writing about what happened. And for Jordan, he’s very internal; I think he processes things while he’s working in the garage.
What made you decide to start a blog?
A couple of weeks after the funeral, Jordan needed to go work in Montana; he’s a paleontologist. I went with him. We stayed in this tiny little town in a place that looked like the hotel from “The Shining.” It had really long creepy hallways. There I was in this creepy hotel in this tiny town without my baby and thinking, how did this happen? How am I here? At night, every time I closed my eyes I would see Jonah dying. I would visualize and feel all of the physical sensations of that moment. It was horrible. And so I prayed to Heavenly Father to take that image and those feelings away from me. I immediately had the impression that I needed to write everything down. So I spent that day writing in my journal while Jordan was at work. That night, I slept and didn’t have those images or bad feelings come back to me.
You titled your blog, “In the Quiet Heart Is Hidden.” Why?
Right after Jonah died, that song came to my mind, and that phrase in particular: “In the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that the eye can’t see” [from “Lord, I Would Follow Thee,” by Susan Evans McCloud]. There’s something about experiencing the loss of a child that gives you great empathy and compassion. When we had friends and neighbors visit us, they shared their own losses and heartaches. As I went to the cemetery, I looked around at the other headstones and realized all these other children were buried there, all these other mothers had also experienced this intense heartache of losing a child. Even walking around Walmart, I’d look at all the different people around me and wonder what their heartaches were. I realized that life is all about loving each other. I felt like I could see the pain of the people around me in this new way and sometimes that’s hard because I feel like I have this heart that’s more open to pain. I’ve realized that I have to look for joy and goodness and beauty and light, and remember that life is not just about enduring pain.
Tell us more about joy. How does it give meaning to the pain you feel?
This whole experience made me realize that I could experience joy and pain simultaneously. The Christmas after Jonah died, people kept saying, “Oh, I’m sure this Christmas must be incredibly hard for you,” but I’ve never had a Christmas that was so meaningful to me. None of the commercialism and gift-giving mattered. All that mattered was the message that “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” [John 3:16]. What could be better than that? I felt radiant joy because of that message. And when I heard the Christmas carols, I wept because of the message that was behind them. I still felt the pain but also felt so much joy in the promise of Christmas and the understanding of Christ’s Atonement. Sometimes I’ve found myself kneeling in the most random places, like on my bathroom floor in the middle of putting on my makeup, praying that God would take away the pain, and then having it taken away immediately, having relief. There’s great joy in that.
How has losing a child changed your relationship with God?
I’ve always had a strong testimony, I’ve always believed in God, but prior to this experience I thought I would try to make the best choices and follow the commandments, and then God would keep me from experiencing pain, you know? I don’t think it registered that I was thinking that way until I had to shift it, until that paradigm didn’t work anymore. After Jonah died, the Young Women’s theme kept coming to my mind: “I’m a daughter of my Heavenly Father, who loves me and I love Him.” That became my new focus to understanding God. I believe that God is all-powerful, but I don’t believe that He will prevent difficult things from happening in our life; doing so would rob us of our mortal experience and agency.
What advice would you give to those who wonder what to say or how to act around someone who’s lost a loved one?
I think people have good hearts and want to say something comforting and meaningful, but a lot of times they try to make sense of it all for you. I remember people saying things like, “Well, Jonah obviously served his mission here on earth. He didn’t have anything else he needed to do and that’s why he’s gone.” That could be true, but that explanation didn’t make me feel at peace. In fact, it made me feel guilty for being so sad. This taught me that I don’t ever need to explain to someone else what they’re experiencing. Whether it be a divorce or losing a job or losing a child—every experience is so different, and I don’t need to make sense of suffering for other people. What I do need to do, what I think our moral obligation is as Christians, is to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort [Mosiah 18:9].
One of your blog posts is about you washing away a little handprint on your bathroom mirror and how that was a cathartic experience that helped you move forward. Can you describe that experience and how you’ve tried to move on after losing Jonah?
At first, because of that fear of forgetting, I wanted to cling to the physical reminders that Jonah was here with me. Until recently, the clothes he was wearing the morning he died were still in his hamper, and every once in a while I’d stop and smell them to try and find that smell of him again. For days and weeks I slept with his blanket because it smelled like him, but then eventually it smelled like me. All of those physical things are so fleeting, they just don’t stay. After the funeral, I asked my sister-in-law to help clean our house. After she left, I took a shower, and as I came out there was this little handprint on the mirror. I thought that was weird because she told me she had cleaned the mirror. No matter how it got there, that little handprint felt like a sign that God knew me and so I just couldn’t wash the mirror for several months, it was like a handprint over my heart. But one morning it just felt like I was ready, it was okay to clean the mirror. I felt like I moved from this external knowledge and reminder of Jonah to an internal reminder of Jonah and of God’s love for me. It’s baby steps—like going back to work, and letting go of little things like moving his coat off the rack in our living room. I still have all of his clothes and his bedroom and crib is still set up. I don’t know when I’ll change that, but every once in a while, I’ll have a day where I feel like I can put something away or give something away to a friend who could use it. Heavenly Father has helped us move forward, one baby step at a time. We recently got called into a bishopric at BYU—that’s been a good thing.
Being in our home ward, everyone was worried about us all the time and always asking how we were doing, shepherding us and caring for us. Serving in the BYU ward shifted our focus from everyone being concerned about us to us being concerned about those students. That’s helped shift our gaze so we’re not so entrenched in our own pain all the time. I’ve also been asked to volunteer on a board at Primary Children’s [hospital], which has also helped shift my gaze from inward to outward. It’s given me a lot of purpose and feeling like I’m being used as an instrument in some way.
Have there been any books or music or art that’s been especially meaningful to you?
A lot of people gave me books on grief, and I read quite a few of them. I avoided some books because I didn’t want to feel like I was grieving in the wrong way. I loved C.S Lewis’s “A Grief Observed.” It felt really raw and real. It was this beautiful combination of the reality of grief and the reality of the Atonement coming together. It helped me feel okay about being so sad. I loved “A Gift from the Sea,” by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, because it’s not technically about grief, it’s about making sense of life and what it’s like to be a mother and go through the stages of life. I also just read “A Woman of Independent Means” [by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey], which was really powerful because it puts grief in a larger context. I’m moving to the stage where grief is still a part of me, but it’s not my focus, and so I really loved that book for that reason.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
I’ve asked my Heavenly Father a lot what He would have me do with this experience. I’ve felt over and over this desire to testify that God is a God of love. That is one thing that has never wavered for me as I’ve questioned doctrine and why things happen and the justice of life. God loves us. We are His children. He is a God of miracles. I don’t necessarily believe that miracles happen the way we want them to, but God is a God of miracles. He works on our souls and heals us. He is healing me.
At A Glance
Location: Mapleton, UT Age: 32 Marital status: Married Occupation: Museum educator; part-time paleontologist; volunteer at Primary Children’s Medical Center Schools Attended: Brigham Young University, Southern Utah University Languages Spoken at Home: English Favorite Hymn: “Lord, I Would Follow Thee” On The Web: inthequietheartishidden.blogspot.com Interview by Kathryn Peterson. Photos used with permission.