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

Wrestling With God

Jacob (the deceiver) becomes Israel (one who wrestles with God) after a face-to-face encounter with the Living God on his way back to meet the brother he tricked.  While his story is certainly a tribute to the triumph of grace, it isn’t pretty.

I think that we give too little attention to the middle of Bible heroes’ stories–we gloss over the struggles and temptations, the grief and pain and rush to the final chapter where “all’s well that ends well”.

But life isn’t lived like that.

It is experienced moment by moment, day by day and with no notion of what tomorrow may bring. Sometimes we find ourselves wrestling with God and begging Him to bless us.

Grieving my child’s death has forced me to really think about what I believe and in Whom I believe.  It has made me reconsider the power and purpose of prayer–is it to force God’s hand or to mold my heart?

I wonder what exactly Jesus meant when He said, “I go to prepare a place for you.”  There are fewer verses than you might suppose on what heaven looks like and what we may be doing when we get there (all popular “I’ve been to heaven and I’m back to tell the story” books aside).

I’m not the only one who wrestles.

I tell my story and speak my heart because I want to make space where those who are struggling, those who are grieving and those who are wrestling can speak the truth:

LIFE IS HARD.

God is not diminished by my desire to understand and make sense of my world–He doesn’t owe me an explanation–but He gives me the freedom to ask the questions.

Wrestling is not unbelief.  Wrestling is the hard work of true faith.

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way. James 1:2-4 MSG

 

In the midst of pain, I will choose to persevere and trust that one day my life will be a testimony to the triumph of grace 

Season of Joy: Blessing the Brokenhearted During the Holidays

Most parents feel a little stressed during the holidays.

We used to be able to enjoy Thanksgiving before our 24/7 supercharged and super-connected world thrust us into hyper-drive.  Now we zoom past the first day of school on a highway toward Christmas at breakneck speed.

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…

We want to enjoy the family that gathers, but their presence makes the empty chair more obvious.

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.

There 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.

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.

 

Handle With Care

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.

The Wilderness of Grief

I was fifty when Dominic died. I had lived long enough to experience first-hand, and through others, the impact of loss on life and love.

Studying for my psychology degree exposed me to the stages of grief and the typical, observed behavior and emotions that a person experiences when faced with the death of a loved one. So even in the midst of hearing the most terrible news of my life, I thought I knew a little about what to expect.

But there are secrets that no one tells you.

Feelings that lie in wait to ambush you.  Overwhelming changes alter the way you see, hear, experience the world and think.

Grief turns the landscape of your life into a wilderness that is suddenly unfamiliar and often threatening.  The landmarks you depended on for navigation from one day to the next are swept away in a flood and you stand, bewildered in the midst of this strange place wondering how you got here and what you must do to escape.

There is no escape.

I can’t take a shortcut through this altered world.  I can’t close my eyes, click my heels and say, “There’s no place like home” to be transported back to BEFORE THE ACCIDENT. 

It feels like I live in a place where many speak a foreign language of petty grievances, first world problems and longing for bigger, better things.  I struggle to remain connected but find that I just can’t relate anymore.

Talking on the phone for more than ten minutes makes me feel trapped and anxious even when I wish I could listen to the voice on the other end forever.

I used to be able to make myself at home in any group and start conversations with strangers in a grocery line.  Now I feel isolated and insulated and it is hard to reach out.

I take quiet delight in the moments when I see or hear my surviving children laugh, when there is a small shaft of light in the shadows that define our days.

I try to forge new paths in this scary place so that my feet won’t stumble and my heart won’t fail.  I can only lean harder on the One Who made me and trust that following Him will lead me home.

“The Lord God is my strength: and he will make my feet like the feet of harts: and he the conqueror will lead me upon my high places singing psalms.”

Habakkuk 3:19

No Redshirts Here

If you are a Star Trek fan, you get the reference.  In most episodes involving fear of mortal danger, the landing team included several main characters and one or two “redshirts”.  Those were the expendable crewmen (or women)–the ones you knew would take the fatal hit and fade into the story background.  There might be a moment when Captain Kirk or Spock or Dr. McCoy were threatened, but in your heart you just knew that they would be safe because, after all, there’s next week’s episode.

In some ways, this mentality crept into my life.  The people I love are too important, too central to my life to die.  Sure, eventually, we all leave this earth. But not today, not without warning.

And not in the middle of the story.

I resisted the truth that “life is but a vapor”.  I acknowledged it in my head but ignored it in my heart.

I’m here to tell you–life is a vapor…it can be gone as quickly as the morning mist and there is no getting it back.

I console myself that Dominic knew I loved him.  Because I told him so–in person, on the phone and in messages.  I couldn’t save him from death, but am spared at least that one regret.  

If you knew that today would be the last day you would be with someone, what would you do differently?  What would you say? What would you choose not to say?

We never know.  Even anticipated deaths are often unexpected.  Age and illness seem like creeping things until the moment they strike the final blow.

There are no red shirts in real life.  No telltale symbol to clue us in to who will be here tomorrow and who will enter eternity today. Babies aren’t born with expiration dates.

Choose to honor the ones that are important to you.

Leave in love.  Part in peace.

Time Change

Every spring and every fall we dutifully make the rounds to our clocks and digital devices, putting them first forward an hour and then back in an attempt to make the days “longer”.

As if time was in our hands.

The sun rises and sets according to the Creator’s schedule, we can neither speed the world’s turning, nor slow it down. We can only choose whether to be present in the moments He grants us.

The day Dominic died settled firmly any ideas I may have had about time, or control, or knowing what the future holds.  In one instant, a line was drawn across the years and they were divided into “before” and “after”.  I couldn’t turn back the clock and gain even a single hour of the days or weeks or months before his accident.

Don’t waste the precious and irretrievable hours you are given-we are all just one breath away from eternity.

Clocks don’t determine the length and quality of my days–love, laughter and gentleness do.  

None of us knows when our lives will end.

Because I have been forced to face the truth that time is in God’s hands–I choose to spend the time He gives me on things that matter, pouring into the lives of those around me and sharing what’s important with those I love.

“So teach us to number our days

that we may gain a heart of wisdom”

Psalm 90:12