Torches In The Dark

There are so many life circumstances that plunge a heart into darkness.  

Child loss is certainly one of them, although not the only one.  

And when you’re in the dark, stumbling around, trying to avoid the sharp corners and looking, looking, looking for a tiny sliver of light to guide you out, it is terrifying.  

If you don’t have a pocket full of matches or a flashlight or a lantern, you are at the mercy of whoever cares enough to come back for you.

I am so thankful for the friends and family who never tire of my fearful cries when I find myself in dark places.  

They come running.  

They don’t leave me there.  

Sometimes all they have is a tiny candle themselves, a sliver of hope they are clinging to.  But they raise it high , share its glow with me and together we take a step forward toward the brighter light of day.

I will never, ever forget the ones who come to me with a torch.

They help my heart when I can’t help myself.  

They refuse to leave me in the dark.  

 

you never forget a person who came to you with a torch in the dark

Photo of man with lantern by Marko Blažević on Unsplash

Fix It Or Forget It: Why Unfinished Stories Make Others Uncomfortable

Attention spans are shorter than ever.

It’s easy to understand why.  We live in a world full of sound bytes, memes, tweets and T-shirt slogans.

But life can’t be reduced to such little snippets, even if we wish it could.

Not every biography has the perfect “beginning, middle, end” arch that makes for a good and satisfying story.

Some of us can’t tie up our experiences in tidy boxes, with colorful bows and a lovely tag line that inspires thousands.

gift box with bow

We are living unfinished, messy, hard stories that keep shifting, changing and require us to face mountain after mountain and valley after valley.

And we stumble. 

A lot.

I suppose it’s tiresome for our friends to have to slow down, turn around, bend down and help us get back up over and over and over.

Many of our compassionate companions turn into personal trainers at some point:  “You can do it!  Try harder! Push farther!  You’ve got to work at it!  Don’t give up!  Come on, don’t you want to get stronger, fitter, better????”

personal trainer

The hidden message?  If I wanted to badly enough, would try hard enough, work long enough or get the right help, I could “fix” this.  I could emerge from child loss whole, healed and healthy.

And when I don’t, they get frustrated, disgusted or just plain bored and leave me lonely on the trail.  They walk away and forget-because they CAN forget.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  If you think it’s hard to watch your friend struggle with a broken heart, a shattered life, doubts and regrets, it’s harder to live it.

 

You can walk away.  I can’t.  You can go home, close the door and think of something else.  I go home, close the door and am flooded with thoughts, emotions and overwhelming grief.

mixed stages of grief

 

If I could “fix it” don’t you think I would?

But I can’t.

I will continue to have a messy, untidy, unfinished life this side of Heaven.

And I will keep climbing, struggling and stumbling.

Will you stick around and walk with me?

Or will you walk away?

walking-up-a-hill

 

 

Child Loss: Helpful Tips for Interacting With Bereaved Families

I firmly believe that our friends and extended family want to reach out, want to help, want to walk alongside as we grieve the death of our child

 I am also convinced that many of them don’t because they don’t know how.  

It may seem unfair that in addition to experiencing our loss, we also have to educate others on how to help us as we experience it, but that’s just how it is.

The alternative is to feel frustrated and abandoned or worse.  

So here’s a list of helpful tips (and a great infographic!) for interacting with bereaved families:  

Express condolences and show you care. Don’t avoid me, please!  You cannot make me any sadder.  I need to hear from you.

friends hugging

Refer to my child by name.  Dominic is STILL my son.  He is still part of my story.  But because he’s no longer visible, his name often goes unspoken.  Please talk to me about him, use his name, tell me a story of how he impacted your life or a memory that makes you smile.  It makes me smile too.

Actively listen and be supportive.  It’s hard to listen to someone tell you how much they are hurting and not offer advice or think of ways to “fix” them.  I can tell you from experience that what I need most on my darkest days is for someone to say, “It IS dark.  I’m so sorry.”  Silence is OK too.  Not every quiet moment needs to be filled with chatter.

listening is a postive act

Understand that each family and family member will grieve in different ways.  You may have observed child loss before but what you saw in one family may not translate to the next.  There are no hard and fast rules for this awful journey.  The age of the child, family background and structure, manner of death-all these impact grief.  In addition, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers all bring their personalities, stage of life, beliefs and experiences to the journey.  There were five of us left behind when Dominic ran ahead.  We were each devastated but expressed it in very different ways.  Nearly five years later, those gaps have widened, not narrowed.

Fathers grieve too.  Sometimes support focuses almost exclusively on the mother.  In part because of a common notion that mothers are somehow emotionally closer to their children than dads.  In part because many men are less demonstrative and may do a good job hiding grief.  Whatever the reason, don’t assume one parent is dealing “better” with the loss than another (mother or father) just because he (or she) is not crying openly.  No one escapes this awful blow unscathed.

bereaved fathers

Don’t overlook siblings.  Surviving siblings are sometimes referred to as “forgotten grievers”.  If they are very young, people may think they are relatively unaffected by the death of a brother or sister. If they are grown and out of the home, people may figure that the siblings’ own, very full and very busy, lives keep them preoccupied.  While some of that may be true-to an extent-most surviving siblings are deeply impacted by the death of a brother or sister, regardless of age.  Not only have they lost a member of the family and changed birth order, they have also lost the family they knew, the parents they knew and a co-keeper of memories and secrets.  Bereaved parents are often overwhelmed with grief for their living children as well as the child that is missing. One of the best gifts anyone gave me was reaching out to my surviving children.  It helped my heart to know that they had friends who were supporting and loving them well.

kids cartoon

Be yourself.  People often feel awkward and stiff when approaching a bereaved parent or family member.  That’s perfectly understandable.  The bereaved seem so fragile (are so fragile!) that folks are afraid the wrong word or touch might shatter them into a thousand pieces.  But what your friend or family needs right now is the you they’ve always known and loved.  If you are a hugger, hug!  If you are a storyteller, tell stories (appropriate ones, ones of the missing child).  If you are a cook and cleaner, then cook and clean.  Our family was blessed by our friends doing exactly what they had always done-come alongside in their own special way.  So much had changed in our world that familiar touchstones, familiar routines and familiar faces were a real comfort.

Keep in mind words matter.  Now is not the time to try to satisfy your curiosity about exactly “what happened”.  Loud joking is rarely welcome.  Many bereaved families find it hard to laugh in the first days, weeks, months because it feels like betrayal.  Don’t offer platitudes intended to help them “look on the bright side” or consider that “it could be worse”.  There is nothing worse than burying your child.  Nothing.  Listen and take direction from the person you are comforting.  Follow his or her lead.  And if something less than helpful slips out, own it and apologize.

pencil-drawing-bereaved-mother

It’s never too late to reach out.  NEVER.  Sometimes people stay away at first for lots of reasons.  Or they show up for the memorial service and then fade into the background.  After a bit, even if they want to reach out, they may feel embarrassed by the long absence.  Don’t be.  So many people stop calling, visiting and texting within the first weeks that your outstretched hand of friendship will be a welcome beacon of hope.  If you need to, apologize for your absence.  Be honest.  Admit you were scared or whatever.

Then show up. 

Stick around.

You don’t have to be perfect.  

Just be present.  

bereaved families infographic

Child Loss: Marking the Milestones

When your child is born you take notes.

You plan to mark this day as a special milestone for the rest of your life.

You absolutely, positively NEVER think you will have to mark another one:  the day he or she leaves this life and leaves you behind.

But some parents have to mark both.  The dash in the middle is shorter than we anticipated, and our child’s life ends before ours.

grieving mother at grave

So how do you do it?  How in the world do you observe the polar opposite of a birthday?

Here are some ideas (shared with permission) that parents shared recently in an online discussion sparked by one mom’s very honest admission that she just didn’t have it in her to create another video montage from the same old photos to mark yet another year without the earthly companionship of her precious son:

Don’t do anything.  That is an option. We do not have to draw a red circle around THAT day on the calendar, gather folks as if  it’s a celebration.  As one mama said, “Yes, the day they left us does not need to be ‘remembered’.”  For some parents, going to work like it’s a regular day, engaging in whatever normal activities are required, ticking the hours off on the clock until night falls and the earth turns to the next day may be the very best choice.  Another mama wrote this:  “I have friends who celebrate a ‘heaven day’ for their son.  I can’t.  I just can’t.  If it were up to me, I would probably go camp somewhere all alone, and not move a muscle for the entire day.”

Do something big (or small).  Some parents choose this day to hold an annual “Celebration of Life”.  It might take the form of a balloon release, or lantern release at home, at a park or other outdoor venue or at the cemetery.  It might be lunch or dinner out at your child’s favorite restaurant or at home with your child’s favorite menu.  Invite friends and family to join you and ask that they bring a photograph or memory and share.  One mom said that such an event kind of happened organically and spontaneously when contacted by her son’s widow:  “We went to one of [his] favorite restaurants.  Told funny stories about him, talked about how missed he is, then went o his grave and put fresh flowers.”

balloon release

Serve others.  Did your child have a special interest in a particular charity or community organization?  Maybe you can spend this day volunteering or raising awareness/money for that group.  Often having something to do helps a heart from sinking into despair.  If the group allows, maybe put up a sign saying, “Volunteering today in honor of __________” and attach appropriate photos of your child.  Some parents whose child died from cancer or suicide or violence participate in walks or fundraisers that highlight those causes.

Encourage Random Acts of Kindness (RAK).  I plan to do this one in April.  It will be five years (!) and I can barely stand it.  But so many of the comments from Dominic’s friends after he left for Heaven went something like this one, “He was always doing something for someone else.  Fixing their car or showing up when they needed an encouraging word.”  He was known for his many acts of generosity and kindness and I feel like he lives on in the hearts of others because of that.  I had cards printed ( I intentionally let his “dates” off) which I will distribute well in advance of April 12th for friends and family to leave behind when they do a RAK in memory of Dom.  Vistaprint and other online publishing companies offer reasonable prices and will guide you through the process step-by-step.

random act of kindness

Escape.  Lots of us find being at home (alone or in the company of others) too hard to bear.  Many received word of their child’s death at home and as the day creeps closer, the memories crowd every corner of mental and physical space and are inescapable.  So sometimes parents plan a trip around this time.  Go somewhere your child would have loved to go or go somewhere he or she enjoyed visiting.  Take photos and post them in honor of your child if you want to.

Focus on family.  You may not want to be alone, but the thought of being with anyone outside your closest grief circle is overwhelming.  That’s OK.  Spend time with the people who, like you, are most affected by your child’s absence.  You don’t have to do anything special.  You can make room for them to speak or not speak about their grief as they choose.  Sometimes just having another warm body in the room is enough to ward of the chill of despondency.

grieving dad

Flip the script.  For those of us who believe that this life is not all there is, the day can be one of celebration.  Our children have escaped life full of sorrow and trouble and are safe forever in the arms of Jesus, where we will also be one day.  Waiting is hard, but waiting is not forever.

Simply allow yourself to feel the full force of missing and grief.  “As far as his death day, for me, that is a day when I allow myself to fully feel and express the pain of my loss.  It is a way to (temporarily) empty myself of all this pain, so I can breathe again to face another day.  I will sit in his sweatshirt, listen to reflective music, cry a lot, talk to him, pray to God, and just allow myself to feel all the pain and emotion that everyday responsibilities cause me to stuff away.”  If you can manage it, taking the day off work and giving yourself grace and space to grieve in ways that are denied so often may be the very best way to experience the day.

Here’s a list of ways some parents honor their child on this day:  

  • Giving away stuffed toys with a card or note explaining why.
  • Taking goodies to first responders and/or nurses who were served their family during an accident or illness.
  • Handing out Bibles or books in memory of their child.
  • Making memory baskets for parent whose child will be born straight into heaven.
  • Adding to a scholarship fund or other charitable fund in honor of their child.
  • Placing balloons, flowers or other special decorations on their child’s final resting place.
  • Lighting candles, releasing butterflies, balloons or lanterns.
  • Placing a memorial advertisement in a local paper.

Do or don’t do whatever helps you make it through those twenty-four hours that represent another year of sorrow, another year of missing.  

missing child from arms

There is NO wrong way to mark or not mark this day. 

It’s up to you and your heart.  

And absolutely does not require anyone else’s permission or approval.  

dont trade authenticity for approval

 

 

Sometimes I Just Want To Be Me!

Even in the very first hours after the news, my brain began instructing my heart, “Now, try to be brave.  Try not to disappoint people.  Try to say the right thing, do the right thing and be the example you should be.”

Whatever that meant.

As I made phone calls and received concerned friends and family members I was so aware that they would take a cue from me-how much can I say, how hard can I cry, should I hug or stand back, should I talk about him or be silent lest it make the tears fall harder?

And here-almost five years later-I still feel like I need to lead the way in conversations and social encounters.

Read the rest here:  Can I Just Be Me?

How To Be Fierce Without Being Fractious

It’s funny how child loss has, at the same time, made me more yielding and more steadfast.

I give in without a moment’s hesitation to other people’s choice in where to go for lunch, what to do for birthdays, how to arrange this or that at church.  My brain simply doesn’t have the capacity any more to argue over trifles.

But I will stand up to a lion for the sake of love or to protect a hurting heart.

wounded_heart-960x600

I can be a little reactionary when that happens-snapping and biting the heads off those who might have said or done something in ignorance and not intentionally.

So I’m learning to think a minute before I launch into a tirade and try to discern just what will be most helpful.

I want to challenge and educate folks, not send them running for cover every time they see me coming around a corner.

I want to be fierce without being fractious.

I ask myself, “How can I communicate truth in love?” and I try to follow these precepts:

Don’t attack the person.  Quite often people speak without thinking and speak about things they haven’t experienced.  They may just be parroting something they’ve heard and not even actually believe it themselves.

Ask questions.  Try to suss out WHY they said or did what they said or did.  Again, without thinking?  Or is there a motive behind it?  Fear is a frequent motivator for pushing hurting hearts away.  People are afraid of how much they might have to invest in a relationship or they are afraid that what happened to me can happen to them and they just don’t want the reminder.

Many People Thinking of Questions

Educate.  I often start by saying something like, “If you haven’t buried a child, you would have no way to know this but…” and follow up with whatever I think they might need to hear.  No one can argue with my experience.  I’ve never had a single person walk away angry when I share this way.  Some have come back and thanked me for the insight.

schoolhouse

Extend grace.  I know child loss but I don’t know everything or even a tenth of everything.  So while my friend may have stepped on MY toes by saying or doing something today, I’ve probably stepped on HERS another day.  I try to assume that the person in front of me is doing the best he or she can and not aiming to inflict pain on my heart.

grace tree

Choose to end fruitless discussions.  If I realize that the person I’m speaking to is defensive, resistant and unyielding, then I find an opportune moment to end the conversation.  We’ve all been there-someone itching for a fight decides that now is the moment to have one.  I’m not interested in debating anyone over my experience so I just don’t.

calvin-cartoon_debate

As long as I walk in this world there will be others with whom I disagree.  some who actively seek to wound and many who are just ignorant of situations they have never experienced. 

I don’t want to bludgeon them with words, forcing them to agree with me.  

I want to be a light that opens eyes, a gentle breeze that blows away the fog and helps them see clearly.  

a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle

Repost: I Get It-I Really DO Get It

I write a lot about what bereaved parents (me!) wish others knew or understood about child loss and this Valley we are walking.  And I am thankful for every person outside the child loss community who chooses to read and heed what I write.

But I want to take a minute to tell those of you who are not part of this awful “club” that I get it-I really do get itwhen you need to put distance between yourself and me or other people walking a broken road.

We all love to think that life is a never-ending ascent toward bigger, better and more enjoyable moments.

Our children are born and we think only of their future, not their future deaths.

Read the rest here:  I Get It-I Really DO Get It.