What Grieving Parents Want Others to Know

People say, “I can’t imagine.

But then they do.

They think that missing a dead child is like missing your kid at college or on the mission field but harder and longer.

That’s not it at all.

It isn’t nostalgia for a time when things were different or better or you talked more: it’s a gut-wrenching, breath-robbing, knee-buckling, aching groan that lives inside you begging to be released.

There is no smooth transition up the ladder of grief recovery so that you emerge at the top, better for the experience and able to put it behind you.

We’ve all heard the much touted theory that grief proceeds in the following stages:

  • denial
  • anger
  • bargaining
  • depression
  • acceptance

And people (who haven’t experienced grief) tend to think it’s a straight line from one stage to another, gradually going from bottom to top and then on with life.

But it just isn’t true.

Reality is, these “stages” coexist and fluctuate back and forth from day to day and even hour to hour.

Grief remakes you from the inside out.

Losing a child has made me rethink everything I believe and everything I am.  It has changed and is changing my relationship with myself and with others in ways I couldn’t imagine and often don’t anticipate.

And it is hard, hard work.

Life around us doesn’t stop.  Grieving parents return to work, continue to nurture their surviving children, keep getting up in the morning and taking care of daily details.

We are doing all the things others do, but we are doing them with an added weight of sorrow and pain that makes each step feel like wading through quicksand.

We want you to know we are doing the best we can.

Life without my child is like having a leg amputated–I am forced to learn to manage without it, but everything will always be harder and different. And it will be this way for the rest of my life.

The one thing a grieving parent DOESN’T want you to know is how it feels to bury your child.

I don’t want anyone else to know what it means to leave part of your heart and a chunk of your life beneath the ground.

“But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as a comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.”

Nicholas Wolterstorff   LAMENT FOR A SON

 

Loving the Grieving Heart

If you love someone who has lost a child, perhaps these thoughts might help you understand a bit of their pain and how completely it changes the way we who have encounter the world.

Please be patient.  Please don’t try to “fix” us.  Please be present and compassionate.  And if you don’t know what to say, feel free to say nothing–a hug, a smile, an understanding look–they mean so very much.

A bereaved parent’s grief doesn’t fit an easy-to-understand narrative. And it flies in the face of the American “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality.

You can’t beat it–it’s not a football game-there is no winning team.

You can’t lose it–it’s not the extra 10 pounds you’ve been carrying since last Christmas.

You can’t get over it–it’s not a teenage love affair that will pale in comparison when the real thing comes along.

You can only survive it.  You can heal from it, but it will take a lifetime and require very special care.

I have a young friend whose first child was born with a life-threatening heart defect.  At just a few months of age, her little girl received a heart transplant.  Without it, she would have died.  With her new heart, this sweet baby will live-but her parents must observe careful protocols to protect that heart and she will never outgrow the scar from the surgery that saved her life.

Burying Dominic wounded my heart so deeply that while I know it will heal–it is beginning to, I think–it will bear the scars and require special handling as long as I walk this earth.

So when I thank you for an invitation, but choose not to go…I’m not rejecting you, I’m protecting my heart.  Please ask again–tomorrow might be a better day, and going somewhere or being with someone could be just what I need.

If you call and I don’t pick up…I might be crying, or about to, and I choose not to burden you with my grief.  Call in a day or two or next week–keep trying.

A text or email or card is so helpful.  I can read these when I’m ready and respond when it’s easier for me to think.

And please, please, please don’t look for the moment or day or year when I will be “back to my old self”.  My old self was buried with my son.  I am still “me”–but a different me than I would have chosen.

I know it makes you uncomfortable–it makes me uncomfortable too.

But because I trust in the finished work of Christ, I know that one day my heart will be completely healed.

I hurt but I have hope. This pain will be redeemed and my scars will be beautiful.

“For just as Christ’s sufferings are ours in abundance [as they overflow to His followers], so also our comfort [our reassurance, our encouragement, our consolation] is abundant through Christ [it is truly more than enough to endure what we must]”  2 Corinthians 1:5.

 

 

 

Practical Ways to Love Grieving Parents at Christmas

Bereaved parents feel increasing pressure as the days count down toward December 25th.

Everywhere we look families are celebrating togetherness and happy moments.  Our hearts rejoice for each home that has a full table and an unbroken circle.  But our own loss is magnified in comparison.

With Christmas less than two weeks away, I’m reblogging this post, with an addition or two.

If you know someone who has lost a child, here are some ways you can bless them this holiday season.

 

Most parents feel a little stressed during the holidays.

For bereaved parents, the rush toward the “Season of Joy” is doubly frightening.

Constant reminders that this is the “most wonderful time of the year” make our broken hearts just that much more out of place. Who cares what you get for Christmas when the one thing your heart desires–your child, alive and whole–is unavailable…

It is so hard to find a way to trudge through the tinsel when what you really want to do is climb into bed and wake up when it’s all over.

Here are some practical ways family and friends can help grieving parents during the holidays:

  1. Don’t resist or criticize arrangements a bereaved parent makes to help him or her get through this season.If they are brave enough to broach the subject, receive their suggestions with grace and encourage them with love.  Do your best to accommodate the request.
  2. If the bereaved parent doesn’t approach you–consider thoughtfully, gracefully approaching him or her about what might make the holidays more bearable.But don’t expect a well-laid plan-I didn’t get a “how-to” book when I buried my child…this is new to me and very, very painful.  I am doing the best I can to keep my head above the waves and I cannot be expected to captain the boat through these turbulant waters.
  3. Don’t be surprised if a bereaved parent doesn’t want to exchange gifts (or at least, not receive gifts). No one can rewind time or restore my family circle to wholeness and I just can’t think of anything else that I want or need.
  4. Don’t assume that the bereaved parent should be relieved of all meal duties around the holiday.For some of us, doing the routine things like baking and cooking are healing.  For others, there just isn’t energy for anything other than the most fundamental daily tasks. ASK if they want to contribute.
  5. Don’t corner surviving children for a private update on their parent’s state of mind.My children are grieving too.  When you expect them to give an update on me you diminish their pain and put them in a difficult position.  If you want to know, ask me.
  6. If there are young children in the family, it might be helpful to offer to take them to some of the parties/gatherings/church services that their parent may not be up to attending. Ask, but don’t be upset if they say “no”–it might still be too traumatic for either the child or the parent to be separated from one another.
  7. Ask them to share about the one they miss.  One of my greatest fears as a grieving parent is that my child will be forgotten.  But we might not speak up because we don’t want to make others feel uncomfortable.

I know that life goes on, the calendar pages keep turning and I can’t stop time in its tracks.  I greet each day with as much faith and courage as I can muster. This season requires a little more-and I will need help to make it through.

Tell Me Your Story

One of my greatest fears is that Dominic will be forgotten.

If I ever speak it out loud, people are quick to assure me that he will always be remembered. But I know it isn’t true–unless others allow me to tell my story.

Not the Reader’s Digest condensed version–but the full length director’s cut–the one that takes time to tell and time to hear.

Because the farther away I get from the last living memory of him, the harder it is to think of him in the present tense.  And I know if that’s true for me, his mother, it must be doubly true for others.

We buy tickets to movies, purchase books and cruise the Internet gobbling up other people’s stories.  Yet we often make it difficult for those we know to tell us theirs.

We jockey for attention at gatherings, or worse, give all our attention to electronic devices.  We think we KNOW other people’s stories so we don’t want to bore ourselves with listening again.

The truth is, we know less than we think about the folks we rub shoulders with every day.

Invite others to tell their stories–not just the grieving, but the elderly, the quiet ones in the corner, or the neighbor you’ve only seen from across the way.

Take some cookies, put away your phone and just listen.

(And feel free to share in the comments section too–I’d love to know YOUR story…)

 

 

 

 

 

Welcoming the Stranger

Last night I did something brave (for me).  

I went to a Christmas musical production at a large church about 45 miles away from my home.  It was brave because since Dominic died I haven’t been able to go to a worship service that includes a band and worship singers without being frozen in my seat, tears running down my face.

Someone posted a video of a practice run for the song “Mary Did You Know” done Pentatonix style and it was beautiful.

Made my heart long to hear Christmas music again.

I thought sitting in a different church, with different people  might just be the bridge to help my wounded soul  reengage in worship music.

So I arrived early, walked in and sat down in a row facing an aisle, right in the middle of the sanctuary.

By myself.

Clearly alone.

And not one person greeted or spoke to me or even smiled–though I smiled at several as they passed.

Flashing up on the large screen at the front of the room was an invitation to “send us your photo” watching the musical,  followed by various ways to connect with the church online.  Cute snapshots of people from around the area and around the world cycled through.

But no one saw, or reached out, or spoke to the person right there in front of them.

My feelings aren’t hurt. I wasn’t looking for affirmation or comfort and I’ve already “found” Jesus–but they didn’t know that.

I could have been a struggling middle-aged woman who had come, desperate for hope, or a reason to keep living,  or for the Savior everyone seems to sing about this time of year.

And that made me think:  What are we doing?

Really?

Are we so busy being IN church that we have ceased to BE the church?

The music was wonderful, the staging flawless, the choir amazing.

But what frightened and seeking and lonely people really want is a personal connection not a perfect production.

At this time of year when the days grow short and the nights are long, so very many people’s hearts are yearning for a tiny ray of light, the smallest gesture of compassion, a glimmer of hope.

And some of them bravely step through the doors of our churches.

One smile can bridge the gap.  One word can invite them in.  One extended hand can give them something and someone to hold on to.  

For if you love those who love you, what reward can you have? Do not even the tax collectors do that? And if you greet only your brethren, what more than others are you doing? Do not even the heathen do that?

-Jesus

 

 

 

Relational Acts of Kindness

I have two very special friends.

After Dominic died and the meals and visits and cards had dwindled and the silence and heartbreak had become oh-so-overwhelming, they came out to spend the day with me.

The whole day.

With me.

With this crying, couldn’t hold it together, didn’t know what to say mama who had buried her son just weeks ago.

They brought lunch.  And let me talk–or not. They didn’t try to fix me, didn’t offer platitudes or Bible verses to smooth things over when conversation lagged.  They hugged me and listened.

And they have been doing this every few weeks since.

It costs them a whole day and it’s 60 miles each way–but they keep coming and keep lifting me up so that grief and sorrow don’t drown me.

This time of year social networks buzz with posts and tweets and Instagrams of “random acts of kindness”.  That’s a good thing.

But on a scale of 1 to 10, those are easy.

We pick a stranger, discern a way to help (maybe paying for a meal or a coffee) and then both walk away feeling warm and fuzzy. No relationship, no commitment.

Relational Acts of Kindness are much harder.

We can’t just do our thing and leave.  Our hearts and resources are going to get tangled up with theirs.

It might get expensive.

That’s what my friends did.  They leaned into relationship with me even though it was messy, and hard, and costly.

So my challenge to you is this:  who do you know that could use a relational act of kindness?  A neighbor?  A distant relative? Someone who sits alone in a pew?

There is no greater kindness than coming alongside someone at just the moment they feel their strength is gone.

I know that without these friends I would not be able to bear my grief nearly so well.  I pray that God will bless them abundantly as they have been a blessing to me.

“Help carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will obey the law of Christ.”  

~Galatians 6:2 GNT

 

 

Surviving Christmas

February, 1992 I came home from the hospital with our fourth baby and woke up the next morning to a house full of children ages infant to six.  I thought that would be the most stressful and challenging season of my life.

kids cartoon

I was wrong.

This season of grief has required more strength, more endurance and more faith than all the sleepless nights, harried days and craziness of homeschooling and nursing babies and changing diapers ever did.

But when I ventured outside the house with the children–two in the stroller and one on either side–it was apparent to all who saw me I had my hands full.

The hardship and daily struggle of living after burying a child is not nearly so easy for people to see.

No taletell outward sign of the heavy burden, the sleepless nights, the tiresome days spent carrying around the grief and sorrow and still trying to do the things that life requires.

And so there is much less help, much less encouragement, much less grace extended to ease the pain and struggle.

Bereaved parents are particularly challenged at this time of year, because in addition to regular responsibilities and commitments, we are expected to attend extra church services, holiday get togethers and generally be “merry and bright”.

But grief doesn’t take a holiday.  And we beat ourselves up because we want to maintain the Christmas spirit for our surviving children, other family members, and friends.

It is so very hard…

So I will observe traditions that bless my wounded heart and lay aside the ones that are too painful right now.  There may be a time (or maybe not) when I can take them up again. But it’s o.k. not to this year.

It is not a sin to do things differently or to do some things and not others.  

God knows that I am a frail and feeble creature and losing Dominic was a devastating blow.

At Christmas, we celebrate Jesus, His leaving the glory of Heaven to come-humble and naked-as a baby.

jesus-the-heart-of-christmas

Perhaps my grief and vulnerable heart are a more fitting tribute to Him than all the tinsel and bright lights and piled presents could ever be.

As a father has compassion for his children,
    so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.

He certainly knows what we are made of.

 He bears in mind that we are dust.

Psalm 103:13-14 GW