It is scary to speak aloud what you hope will never happen to you. It’s unbelievably frightening to admit that we really have no control over whether, or when, we or the ones we love might leave this world.
But I am not going to keep silent.
Not because I want pity or special treatment, but because I want that parent who just buried his or her child to know that you. are. not. alone.
A few years ago I spent the weekend with a small group of bereaved moms.
For our last session together, I solicited anonymous questions from the group that I promised to try to answer and discuss further.
There were lots of good ones but one of the most poignant was this:
Is it OK to put some friendships on hold because the interaction is no longer encouraging to me? I leave lunches together sad because their lives are going fine and I’m in such pain.
A Grieving Mom
My heart went out to this mama for so many reasons!
First, even in her grief she was concerned about doing the right thing, about being a good friend and about rightly interpreting the situation. She knew her friend wasn’t actively harming her. In fact, the friend was most likely trying hard to come alongside and encourage her heart.
But it still hurt.
And so she wanted to know if she was obligated to “grin and bear it” or if she could graciously and authentically set a boundary that meant a little (or a lot!) of distance between this friend and herself-hopefully for only a season.
This is one of the hard truths and difficult conundrums that inform the lives of many grievers. It certainly was part of mine for a long time.
I craved compassionate companionship from concerned friends and family while, at the exact same moment, longed for solitude and seclusion from “ordinary” life.
How in the world could the world just go on? How in Heaven’s name did the entire universe not take note of my great and irreplaceable loss?
For months (probably, honestly, for a couple of years!) there was always a subscript to every conversation and face-to-face interaction that read like Subtitles for a foreign film. And some folks lives were just too beautiful, too happy, too much like the one I wished I still had to endure the emotional burden that gap produced for my wounded heart.
So I had to limit my interaction with them (for their sake AND mine).
I unfollowed (NOT unfriended!) people on social media. They were none the wiser that the hap-hap-happy posts they splashed everywhere weren’t appearing in my newsfeed and I wasn’t constantly confronted by my own envy and sorrow.
I sent cards for occasions instead of showing up at certain celebrations. I chose them thoughtfully and wrote meaningful and sincere messages. I didn’t have a single person react badly that their wish was on paper instead of in person.
I withdrew from some of the groups where this kind of “humble bragging” was encouraged and promoted. It was a long, long time before I went to a women’s event that wasn’t focused on child loss.
No one really noticed.
And for those few relationships that were so close I couldn’t graciously or subtly move away, I told my friend that while I valued them, wanted very much to stay in touch and support them and didn’t want everything to be aboutME, I needed to let them know certain topics might make me uncomfortable or sad.
So we tried to get together around activities that lent themselves to “in the moment” conversation. We didn’t linger long over lunch or on the phone. We walked in a park or went to a movie.
In time, as I did the work grief requires and as I grew stronger and better able to carry this burden called “child loss”, I was able to ease some of the boundaries I had put in place to protect my heart.
I never, ever want child loss (or any other hard life event or trauma) to become an excuse for my bad or unkind behavior.
But grief is work and requires so much time, energy and effort!
If I hadn’t made space and given myself the necessary grace to do that work I would not have found the measure of healing I now enjoy.
So, yes, dear heart-it’s OK to set boundaries.
It’s OK to pull back from some relationships to foster healing.
And it’s OK to reach out and let people back in, too, when your heart feels more whole again.
When I was asked a few years ago to speak to a group of hospice care workers, I titled the presentation “Lifting the Veil on Grief”.
One of the topics I covered was how experiencing the death of a loved one-especially out-of-order or untimely death- can cause even the staunchest believer to doubt.
And the first thing I said was, “Doubt in the face of overwhelming sorrow and hard circumstances is absolutely normal. But doubt is NOT disbelief.”
So often friends, family, clergy, social workers and others want to steer hearts away from doubt because they are afraid that entertaining questions or expressing disappointment in God will always lead to someone losing faith.
Part of the reason I share my story is to provide insight for people who haven’t lost a child into the hearts and lives of those who have.
But mainly it is to be a voice for and to encourage other parents walking this valley by letting them know they aren’t alone, their feelings and experiences are perfectly normal and that just as welcoming a child into your family is a life-altering event, saying good-bye to a child is a life-altering event.
We do not expect a mom to “get over” the changes having a baby brings to her everyday experience, and we should not expect a bereaved mom to “get over” the changes burying one brings either.
If we can keep the vision of how much mercy has been poured out on our own hearts and in our own lives, it is so much easier to pour it out on others. We don’t have to manufacture it-we only have to be a willing conduit of the mercy already overflowing from God’s heart to our own.
When the deputy delivered the news that Dominic was gone, my heart broke wide open, its contents spilled on the floor.
But I knew it would not remain empty for long.
It would be filled with something.
And I begged God to fill it so full of love, grace and mercy that bitterness, unforgiveness and anger would be squeezed out with no room to stay.
In the years since I started sharing in this space I’ve had many challenges in addition to the ongoing burden of missing Dominic.
Our family has gained members, lost members, my health has declined, my husband has retired and all my earthbound children have experienced lots of important and sometimes uncomfortable or unwelcome life changes.
For some reason the past two and a half years have been more difficult to navigate in certain ways since the first two years after Dominic’s death. In fact, the past six months have been particularly hard but I can’t put my finger on exactly why.
Maybe it’s fatigue-emotional, psychological, spiritual, relational-or maybe it’s what marathoners know as “the wall”. That place when you’re fully committed to running the race but suddenly wondering what the heck you’ve gotten yourself into.
I don’t run marathons (just look at me and you’ll know that!) but I do tend to push through pain and discouragement and what others consider unbeatable odds to reach whatever goal I’ve set for myself. I haven’t been able to employ the usual pep talks or psychological tricks or external cues to do that of late.
I’m spending too much time thinking about what I need to get done and not enough time doing it.
I’ve got tons of half-written blog posts in my draft folder and too few finished ones lined up to publish.
I remember feeling a bit like this when I graduated from college three months pregnant with my daughter. One giant task was accomplished but one, largely unknown, task was staring me in the face.
That summer is a blur.
I know I did some practical and predictable things to get ready for Fiona’s arrival but I’m not sure I really had much of a plan.
I’ve been walking the road of child loss for more than eight years now. I’m committed to sharing the journey with whomever it might help. I have a basic daily routine that at least includes finding old posts to re-share if not carving out time to create new ones.
The other hours of my day are spent talking or messaging with family and friends, moderating an online bereaved parent community, trying to keep my house relatively clean (no white gloves allowed!), walking two miles each morning, doing research, cooking meals and handling five or six (typically) other random and/or pressing issues along with caring for our menagerie of pets and livestock.
And while my life is good, I’m definitely experiencing dissonance between what I thought it would be like at 58 and what it actually IS.
I thought I’d be writing books or making quilts or teaching craft or cooking classes in my local church.
I absolutely, positively didn’t think my story would include child loss! I couldn’t have imagined that fused bones in my hands and wrists would keep me from doing so many of the things I love to do.
I’m not complaining (well, I’d complain to anyone who’d listen about Dominic not being here) but I am just being honest.
I know the saying, “Grieve the life you thought you’d have and then move on with the life you actually have and be grateful for it”.
Trust me, I have and I am.
I am so, so grateful for each day’s beauty, blessings and the grace and strength to appreciate them.
I am beyond grateful for a loving family, my precious grandsons, the gift of modern medicine and compassionate companionship of friends who help make my burdens easier to carry!
I do wake every morning thankful for the breath in my body and the promise that this body is not the only one I’ll ever have.
I look forward to the final and complete redemption of every pain, every tear, every sad and awful thing, and the restoration of all that has been stolen.
This life continues to be one I didn’t choose but one I choose to make as joy-filled and as productive as possible.