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.

 

Crowing in the Dark

Walking the path of a bereaved mother is hard and uncomfortable

Right now my world feels dark…sunrise seems far off and uncertain. But I know in my heart the night won’t last forever.

The roosters on my farm remind me that what I see is not all there is.

Ever ponder why God made roosters crow? Some of my scientific friends will give me the biology of it but, really, why?

I think it was to bring Him glory and announce His faithfulness.

Even when the light is imperceptible to human eyes, the rooster sees the promise of the coming day and cannot contain himself in his joy.

My roosters start their call to worship about 3:30 each morning. When weather permits and my bedroom window is open, I hear first one and then the other, declaring the beginning of a new day.

It looks like night to me.

But maybe they perceive the faintest glimmer of light cresting over the horizon.

Or maybe they just announce it because they trust the One Who brings the sunrise even when they can’t yet see the sun.

So I will follow their example and trust even in the darkness and declare the truth–the Son is coming and physical death is not the end of the story

Jesus promised:

I am the Door; anyone who enters through Me will be saved [and will live forever], and will go in and out [freely], and find pasture (spiritual security).10 The thief comes only in order to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance [to the full, till it overflows].” John 10:9-10 AMP

 

 

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.

Life Goes On

Today James Michael turns twenty eight! Since May of last year, he graduated from Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, got married, trained and served as a deputy sheriff in West Virginia, moved twice, and joined the Air Force.  Just typing this leaves me breathless.

But it’s true:  life goes on.

Our surviving children have done a bang-up job of pushing through and moving forward even with the burden of grief weighing them down.

I don’t know how they do it.  

I have managed a few minor projects but am still unable to think beyond today.

I struggle to carry grief and plan ahead.

When you realize that your world can change in an instant, it seems silly to mark things out on a calendar as if paper and ink controlled the universe.

So I celebrate the days as they come and cling to the promise that God has a plan and purpose for this pain.  I place my heart in the hands of the One Who made it and trust that He will make it whole again.

 I rest in the reassurance that death is not victorious and the grave is not eternal.

 But let me tell you something wonderful, a mystery I’ll probably never fully understand. We’re not all going to die—but we are all going to be changed. You hear a blast to end all blasts from a trumpet, and in the time that you look up and blink your eyes—it’s over. On signal from that trumpet from heaven, the dead will be up and out of their graves, beyond the reach of death, never to die again. At the same moment and in the same way, we’ll all be changed. In the resurrection scheme of things, this has to happen: everything perishable taken off the shelves and replaced by the imperishable, this mortal replaced by the immortal. Then the saying will come true:

Death swallowed by triumphant Life!
Who got the last word, oh, Death?
Oh, Death, who’s afraid of you now?

It was sin that made death so frightening and law-code guilt that gave sin its leverage, its destructive power. But now in a single victorious stroke of Life, all three—sin, guilt, death—are gone, the gift of our Master, Jesus Christ. Thank God! 

I Corinthians 15: 51-57 (MSG)

Grief Dance

Grief sways to a rhythm of its own.  Hard to follow, impossible to second guess.  I step on my toes trying to keep up and find 

that often I fall flat on my face.

When Dominic applied to the University of Alabama Law School, he had to submit a personal statement.  The idea was to give the selection committee insight into intangibles that might make a prospective student a good candidate for the program.

Dominic wrote about being a drummer.

He made the case that percussion is the heartbeat of music.  It marks the pace, leads the way.  If a drummer misses a beat, it can throw the whole band into confusion.

My life as a bereaved mother feels like music that can’t find its way.

There is melody and harmony and sometimes sweet singing–but I can’t discern a rhythm and I don’t know where it’s going. Discord clangs loudly in the background.

These years were supposed to be the ones where I swayed instinctively in well-worn paths to familiar tunes.

Not ones in which I had to learn a brand new step to a song I don’t even like.

But dance I must, so I do my best to move to this broken rhythm.

A Spoonful of Sugar

“Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down…’~Mary Poppins

It’s a wonderful thought–that even the bitterest medicine can be made tolerable by a tiny taste of sweetness.  But it’s not true.

Some things are too hard to swallow no matter how you try to disguise them.

Losing  a child is one of them.

I have been a student of the Bible for decades-I take Scripture seriously, believe it with my whole heart and trust that the truth it contains is necessary and sufficient for this life and the life to come.  But when Dominic died, I found I was forced to look again at verses I thought I understood.

There is no easy answer for why children die–no sweet saying that can wash away the pain and the sorrow and the regret of burying your son.

But I know this:  if my healing depends on me, I am lost.

If the God of heaven is not the God of all, then I have no hope.

If Jesus didn’t really come, and die and rise again, I have nothing to look forward to.

Ann Lamott recounts this tale in her book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith:

“There’s a lovely Hasidic story of a rabbi who always told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put Scripture on their hearts. One of them asked, “Why on our hearts, and not in them?” The rabbi answered, “Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your heart, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.”

I can’t paste a Bible verse on my broken heart like a Band-aid on a skinned knee–the wound is too great and the damage too extensive.

So I will wait for the holy words to fall inside.

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