It was a habit started years ago after my mother had a bad spell and ended up in the hospital. I like to start my day knowing how she and my dad are doing.
The other day Papa and I were talking about the movie, “Unbroken” we saw a couple years ago.
There’s a scene where the main character was forced to hold a heavy beam over his head in a Japanese POW camp for hours. If he let it fall, he would be shot and his torture over. Malnourished, mistreated and disheartened, he somehow found the strength to do it.
His courageous example lent courage to the others in that camp. His victory was in not giving up or giving in, though he bore the scars for the rest of his life.
These past months have been difficult ones for both of my parents. Mama’s fall, heart attack and multiple hospital stays have left her very different than she was last summer. Someone needs to be with her all the time.
That means my dad-who has no physical limitations-is as housebound as she.
Papa is absolutely committed to caring for Mama and he’s doing a great job.
But it’s hard on a heart to be confined when you are surrounded by so many chores that need doing and so much wide open space that begs you to get out in the sunshine.
He is enduring.
And I am thankful for his example.
So few of us will have an opportunity to do really grand things that make headlines. But most of us will have a chance to be faithful in hundreds of small things that make up meaningful lives.
Quiet, everyday commitment to not giving up when life is hard and rest seems so very far away is victory even when it doesn’t feel like it.
If you’ve never faced anything very frightening, it’s easy to think that those who do and march on through are somehow immune to fear.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
Courage is not the absence of fear but the mastery of it.
Yet you cannot master something you deny. You cannot resist that which you claim doesn’t exist.
Child loss is frightening.
So frightening that those not forced to walk this road usually choose to pretend (in practice if not in words) that it simply isn’t part of the world they live in.
It’s so frightening that most bereaved parents experience a period of time we would describe as “being numb” and “shock”.
It was probably six months until my heart truly understood the fact that Dominic was not coming back.
It was frightening on so many levels-I had to face the fact I was not in control, had to face the fact my life was never going to be what I had envisioned it to be, face the fact that my surviving children would be shaped by grief in ways neither I nor they could anticipate, face the fact that I would live out my years carrying this heavy burden, and face the fact that no matter how hard I wished things were different, they were never going to be different-my child was dead.
And when the numbness began to wear off and fear creep into my heart, I had to choose: Was I going to embrace and experience this awful, devastating fear or was I going to try to deny it, distract myself from it or try to dismiss it as inconsequential?
Facing fear requires facing my own weakness.
Facing fear means becoming vulnerable-admitting that I am hurting, admitting that I cannot do this on my own, admitting that maybe, just maybe, I can’t climb this mountain without help.
Choosing vulnerability was its own challenge.
What if others mocked me? What if no one helped me? What if I just wasn’t up to the task?
I decided that NOT facing fear was not an option. As long as it lurked in the shadows I would be its prisoner.
So I turned and looked it square in the eyes. And I found, with God’s enabling help, I could master that fear.
Two verses became my touchstone:
When struck by fear, I let go, depending securely upon You alone. In God—whose word I praise— in God I place my trust. I shall not let fear come in, for what can measly men do to me?
Psalm 56:3-4 VOICE
When I admitted my weakness, His strength was sufficient.
Choosing vulnerability and facing fear opens the door for God to show His power in and through me.
Child loss is still scary.
I’m still afraid.
But the Lord gives me strength to master the fear.
This weekend another family joined the ranks of the bereaved.
A beloved son left for heaven in a car accident.
The mama’s best friend messaged to ask what she could do to help this newly broken heart.
It made me dig deep in my memories for who did what in those first hours, first days and how it made a difference in our family’s ability to hold onto hope and to stumble forward in the heavy fog of grief, pain and sorrow that enveloped our hearts.
My friend was already committed to showing up and sitting silently and lovingly with this child’s mother. I didn’t have to remind her of the power of compassionate companionship.
She was going.
She was staying as long as it was helpful and necessary.
She was coming back as many times as needed.
And that is a gift!
I remember the morning I got the news and as the sun was coming up, a truck pulled down our lane. It was Robbie-our “adopted” son. As soon as my oldest son (who was in WV at the time) got the call, he called Robbie. Because he knew I would be able to bear Robbie’s presence and accept Robbie’s help. I cannot describe the relief I felt when he came to the door-another shoulder to help carry this burden until we could gather all our family together to lift it in unison.
And after him came a couple we had known since the kids were little.
Both rushed to our doorstep to offer companionship, practical aid, listening ears and simple reassurance that though this was NOT a dream-oh, how I wanted it to be a dream!–I was not going to walk this Valley alone. They stayed until my husband, son and parents had made it here. I will never, ever, ever forget that gift of unconditional love and time offered just when I needed it most.
Others came. Some did practical things, brought necessary items, helped me begin to think through next steps. But many just sat with me and my children as we waited for my husband to fly in and my parents to drive up.
I cannot overstate how important SIMPLY BEING THERE was!
Thinking back on that time, I dug up some other very practical “first few days” things friends and family can do:
Bring disposable plates, cutlery and plenty of paper goods (toilet paper, kleenex, napkins) along with extra trash bags.
Place a notebook and pens near the spot folks might drop off meals or other things and ask that they write their names and what they brought inside. My daughter did this for me and while I was often unable to acknowledge it at the time (or unaware of the blessing) I had a record that is dear to me still.
Set up an online meal planning/scheduling group. Make sure to note allergies or special food needs because while it’s wonderful to have food provided, it’s not helpful if the family can’t eat it because of dietary restrictions.
If there are unwashed clothes belonging to the childDO NOTwash them in an attempt to help out. It may sound awful to anyone who has not buried a child, but nearly every mom I know wanted something with her child’s scent still on it. I have a few things of Dom’s that are in a sealed plastic bag. Every so often I open it and inhale what’s left of his fragrance. Smell is such a powerful memory stimulant.
Begin to collect photographs from online sources, friends and family so that there will be many to choose from if the family wants to make a video for services.
Bring disposable Lysol wipes or something similar for quick clean ups in bathrooms and the kitchen. Discreetly tidy up whenever possible or necessary.
Do NOT move papers, piles of mail, etc. without the family’s permission. It may seem like a good idea at the time to make things neat for visitors, but it will be a nightmare later! My brain is nearly empty of details for most of the first month after Dominic left us. I depended on routine and familiar spots to remember where important items might be for the first year. If something had been moved, I could not locate it, no matter how hard I tried. If somethingHAS to be moved, place it in a box-clearly labeled-and attach a prominent note on the refrigerator or someplace like that indicating where it is.
Just sit and listen. Or just sit in silence.Whatever is most helpful to the bereaved parents and their family. Loving presence kept me anchored to this world when all I wanted to do was float away somewhere the pain couldn’t find me.
Compassionate companionship makes the difference between a heart holding onto hope or letting go and falling into the abyss.
Trigger warning: I discuss my loss in terms of falling. If you have lost a loved one to that kind of accident, you might want to skip this post. ❤
I really don’t know how to explain it to anyone who has not had to repeatedly face their greatest fear.
It takes exactly as much courage.
Every. Single. Time.
I have had a dozen major surgeries in my life. I am always just as anxious when they start the countdown to anesthesia. Doesn’t matter what they push in my IV line-that moment when I realize I am relinquishing all control to the hands of others frightens me.
I feel like I am falling over the edge of a cliff-nothing to hold onto, no way to stop what’s coming, no way to clamber back up and change my mind or change what’s about to happen.
It’s the same every spring since Dominic ran ahead to heaven.
From the middle of March to the middle of April my body responds to cues my mind barely registers. Sights, smells, change in the length of the day, the direction of the prevailing wind-a hundred tiny stimuli make my nerves fire in chorus declaring, “It’s almost THAT day!”
There is another underlying dissonance that begs the question, “Why didn’t you see it coming?” Or, at least, “Why didn’t you spend a little more time with him on those last two visits home?”
Dominic was busy that spring-an internship with a local judge, papers and responsibilities as a journal editor along with the demanding reading load of second year Law School meant he didn’t make the 30 miles home all that often.
But there were a couple days he came our way in the month before he died.
One was to bring a friend’s car and do a bunch of work on it. That day was chilly and I popped out a few times to chit chat as they labored under the shed in the yard. I made lunch and visited with them then.
Still, I kind of felt like I shouldn’t hover over my grown son even though I really missed him and wanted badly to talk to him about something other than car parts.
The jacket he wore and dirtied that day with oil and grease and dirt and gravel grit is still hanging in what we use as a mud room.
Because they were coming back to do more repairs in a few weeks.
It is only now finally free of the last scent of him.
The next visit was on a day when I was busy, he was busy and we were all frustrated over equipment that wasn’t working properly. He brought me some medicine from the vet in town for a sick horse and spoke briefly about whether or not we’d cut some fallen limbs in a bit. Then he went to help his brother try to get the backhoe cranked. I was suffering from a severe flare in my ankle so was only able to hobble out to the spot the stupid thing had stopped for just a minute before needing to hobble back inside to put my foot up and allow it to rest.
He left early because I wasn’t up to cutting logs and neither he nor his brother could crank the infernal machine.
I remember that before he left, I made a point of turning him to face me and hugging him tight while telling him how very proud I was of him and everything he was doing and becoming. A little unusual because Dominic was the least huggable of all my children. He was no cuddler.
It was not a premonition-I was prompted by the knowledge he was going into finals and had been stressed lately.
But I am so glad I did it.
And then-poof!-time flies like time does and he and his brother were off on a Spring Break trip. They texted me faithfully to let me know they made it safely to their destination, safely to my parents’ home in Florida for a few days after that and then safely back home.
I never saw him alive again.
Spring is not my favorite season anymore.
While my heart can appreciate the promise of new life declared in every budding flower, every unfurling leaf, every newborn bird and calf and lamb, it is also aware that every living thing dies.
I’m on the edge and falling off.
I can’t stop it.
And it’s just as frightening this time as last time.
Bereavement has not made me a perfectly compassionate person. I still say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing and sometimes don’t do the right thing.
But it HAS made me more aware that what I do/don’t do/say/don’t say can either speak life or death to a struggling heart.
And I so want to speak life and courage to everyone I meet.
Before I lost Dominic, I know that I, like others who had never experienced the death of a child, undoubtedly said and did things that were hurtful instead of helpful.
I painfully remember sharing at a Thanksgiving women’s gathering and, meaning to encourage the ladies, said something like, “I think we are able to better face the big disappointments or trials in life, but find the daily drip, drip, drip of unfulfilled expectations to be a greater challenge.” A bereaved mom in attendance set me straight (in a very kind and gracious manner!).
That exchange has come often to my mind in these months after burying my son. I wish I could go back and have a do-over.
If you’ve followed the blog for long, you know I have Rheumatoid Arthritis. What you may not know is that it is not at all like the arthritis most people experience as they age. Instead of a gradual wearing out of joints due to use and, sometimes, injury, RA is the result of my body attacking itself.
I was 44 when diagnosed after both ankles suddenly swelled so that I could barely walk.
I’ve been living with it for over ten years.
It’s a chronic disease. It can be treated with greater or lesser success to modify and mediate symptoms, but it is always, always, always there. And it affects every aspect of my life-from getting dressed to driving a car.
I find that most folks just don’t understand that.
We are used to getting sick, going to the doctor and being prescribed a drug or treatment or even surgery and getting well (after some period of time).
But some things can’t be “fixed” and must simply be “managed” and endured.
Child loss is like that.
It cannot be fixed.
It cannot be healed.
It cannot be undone or ignored or sequestered so that it doesn’t impact daily life.
And that is hard for people to understand if they’ve never dealt with a chronic illness or other circumstance that defies remedy.
Every morning I walk down my stairs one step at a time like a toddler because my joints are too stiff to bend until I’ve been up for a few hours-that’s how I have to accommodate my arthritis.
Every morning I sit in my rocking chair and journal and talk to other bereaved parents before daybreak-that’s how I have to accommodate my grief.
Neither of these conditions is a choice.
Each of them happened TO me-not because of anything I did or did not do.