I AM Defined [In Part] By Grief

I’m not at all fond of the saying, “Don’t let your grief define you”.

I understand that I shouldn’t let my grief CONSTRAIN me, shouldn’t let it circumscribe my life, making it smaller and smaller until all I think about, speak about or experience is sadness, sorrow and missing.

And I don’t.

But I cannot ignore that losing a child DOES define me.  It defines me in exactly the same way other momentous events-good and bad-shape, mold and make me into who I am.

Marriage, divorce, receiving Christ as Savior, growing up in a small town or big city-all those things matter to me and in my relationships with other people.

Becoming a mother changed everything. 

I was no longer free to think only of myself, consider only my wishes and schedule, eat, sleep and go places without making arrangements for this new little person.

Burying a child changed everything again. 

I was no longer free to believe that I would be spared great heartache in this life.  I couldn’t ignore the hard question of why does a good God let bad things happen?  My heart was shattered and though the pieces are coming back together again, it will never be the same heart it was before.

We routinely ask one another, “What kind of work do you do?”  

Why?

Because learning about a person’s work usually gives you insight into many aspects of a person’s life, character, preferences and inclinations.  

In the same way, you can’t really understand me unless you know that one of my children lives in Heaven.  

 

Am I ONLY a bereaved mother?

Absolutely not!

I am many other things besides- a wife, mother, follower of Jesus, shepherd, daughter, rural resident, bookworm, writer, lover of all things living.

But I AM a bereaved mother. 

And that colors my perceptions of the world just as surely as any of those other aspects of my identity.  

I can’t ignore it.  

To do so would be to dishonor my child.

I refuse to do that.

Attitude Adjustment

This week has been challenging on multiple fronts and the challenges kept coming at the most inopportune moments.  None of the things I faced was truly awful but each wave of stress swept over me exactly when I thought my head would be above water and I could breathe easy for just a bit.

I admit that by Friday morning my attitude was pretty awful.

And I was feeling rather justified and satisfied in my bad attitude-some people had let me down, some people had lashed out against me, my hips hurt, my feet hurt and my “to do” list had lengthened every day instead of getting shorter as I worked through the items.  I was not looking forward to next week which is going to be filled with daily interaction with strangers and increased responsibility for children I don’t know.

But a conversation with my daughter (O Wise One!) helped turn that around.  

She didn’t do it by shaming me or tossing Bible verses at me or refusing to acknowledge the very real challenges, stress and pain I faced.

She did it by turning my heart and mind to the children I would have the opportunity to reach next week in our community through VBS.

She did it by reminding me of the many children she and our family have known through the years that may not need to hear the ABCs of how to receive Christ (because they have heard that before) but may need the undivided attention of a trusted adult for just five minutes out of a long summer.  

let the little children come to me

She helped me remember I love children and I love seeing their faces light up in the glow of genuine affirmation and encouragement.

She reminded me who I really am.  

Sometimes we all need an attitude adjustment and her wise words helped adjust mine.

I have a shepherd’s heart.

It’s why I go to extraordinary lengths to save a member of my flock.  It’s why I will drop everything to come to the aid of a broken heart.  It’s why there is no such thing in our house as being “too busy” when someone reaches out and needs a hug.

But for a few days I forgot that.

I had forgotten my true identity in the frenzy of trying to live up to others’ expectations and in allowing others’ remarks or actions to dictate my own.

I forgot that the only One Who matters is the One Who made me.

When I remember that I am the beloved child of a loving Father Who has promised to meet every need I have through the riches of His bounty in Christ Jesus, I am free to be the person He created me to be.

And that’s who I want to be.

Nothing-you-do-can-change-Gods-love

 

What To Do With All These Feelings???

Feelings, feelings and more feelings!

I’m overwhelmed with them. All. The. Time.

brene-brown-on-empathy-image

Sadness.  Longing.  Regret.  Hopelessness.

But also happiness, excitement and joy.

They bounce around in my head and heart doing battle like caged animals.

What to do? How do I keep my life in some sort of forward motion when if I give in to each and every feeling I’d be going in circles and heading nowhere?

One thing I can’t do is ignore them.

I’ve tried.

Stuffing pain down deep where I think it’ll never escape doesn’t work.

hungry

It just sneaks through whatever crack I haven’t managed to seal tight and shows up at the most inopportune moments.  And the release is often explosive-hurting me and those around me.

Journaling is the best method I’ve found to let my feelings out in a more controlled fashion.

I can say whatever I want to on paper without worrying it will harm another’s heart.  I can write things I would never be brave enough to speak aloud.  I can mark my page with anything I want to-it’s for my eyes only.

I find that letting go of the feelings I’ve been holding in for so long often results in great freedom and release even when my circumstances haven’t changed at all.

This pouring thoughts out on paper has relieved me. I feel better and full of confidence and resolution.

~Diet Eman, Things We Couldn’t Say

And writing them down, I am often better able to discern the reason behind the feelings, better able to think of what I might do to help myselfeven if no one else can help me. Seeing it in black and white I can find patterns and pinpoint unhealthy habits that are leading me down deadend alleys.

Successful journals break the deadlock of introspective obsession

~Alexandra Johnson, Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal

I might start a journal entry with a thought bouncing around in  my mind, or a quote or a Scripture verse.  I may ask a question-of myself or of God-write a memory or whisper a fear.

However it begins the page soon fills with things I wasn’t even aware were inside me.  And almost always ends in a better place than where it started.  

Not one outward circumstance altered.

Not one problem “solved”.

Not a single aspect of life “fixed”.

Journal writing is a voyage to the interior. ~Christina Baldwin

But my ability to understand my own heart and to respond to the unchanging circumstances around me has been enlarged and strengthened.

My journal is the safest space to explore the nooks and crannies of how grief is changing me from the inside out.

Writing is the only way I have to explain my own life to myself.

~ Pat Conroy, My Reading Life

i-write-because-i-dont-know

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Strong or Weak? How Labels Harm the Hurting

Labels and categories can be helpful.  When cruising the grocery aisles I’m thankful for the signs that point the way to “vegetables” or “baking needs”.

But labels can be harmful when applied to people.

label-jars-not-people

Thankfully public discussion rarely includes some of the ugly words  I heard growing up.

And that’s a good thing.

It means we are free to talk about the things that really matter without having to clear the hurdle of offense.

This trend has yet to take hold in wider circles when speaking about or speaking to bereaved parents and other hurting people.

From the outside looking in, we tend to classify struggling hearts as either “strong” or “weak”.  We apply standards based on our own experience and background to determine whether or not a particular soul is “handling it well” or “crumbling under the stress”.

The problem with labels for hurting people is that it puts extra pressure on them and lets those around them off the hook.

heard-stories-but-not-know-heart

You probably mean it as a compliment when you say, “You are so strong”.

But I know it’s not true-I’ve gotten very good at holding it together in public and at saying all the right things when I meet folks on the street.

I can look you in the eye, recite answers to the question of , “How are you doing?” by focusing on the current status of my surviving adult children. What you probably won’t notice among the well-rehearsed lines is I never share my heart-I never tell you how I FEEL.

If I opened that vault there’s no telling what might spill out.

You walk away confirmed in your opinion that I am doing well, that I no longer need any active encouragement or ongoing prayer.  I’m off the “ministry list” because I am past the point of crisis and doing just fine.

Or you may see me at a vulnerable moment and think, “She’s weak” or “She’s really struggling”.

I AM weak and I DO struggle.

If you are tired of hearing about the ongoing struggle, how tired do you imagine I am living it?

If you wish I would “get over it”-how much more do you think I wish it never happened?

You may give up because it’s too much trouble to keep reaching out.  You may tuck me in the basket of lost causes because you think I’m not committed to keep trying.

It’s easy to draw a line in the sand and decide that you will go thus far and no farther in extending help or encouragement or grace because you CAN walk away.

But I am not a lost cause.

Each day Jesus meets me in my weakness and brokenness and gives me the strength I need to carry on.

And He often does this through people-people who choose to walk alongside and not label me or my journey.  People who are committed to continue even when they are tired of helping carry the burden and sick of hearing my story.

Graceabundant grace-given and received is what makes life livable.

Love, not labels is what I need.  

It’s what everyone needs.

never-forget-the-ones-who-helped-me-through-grief

 

 

I Am What I Am

The cartoon character Popeye responded to critics with “I am what I am”.

popeye-yam-spin

And while this phrase can be used to excuse all sorts of bad behavior, there is a ring of truth to it.

Every one of us is the sum of our experiences.  Each of us is hemmed in by what we know and how we are made.

We are more than the things that happen to us.  

But, in part, we are  Defined by Moments.

 

It’s Complicated

One of the things I’ve been forced to embrace in the wake of child loss is that there are very few questions, experiences or feelings that are simple anymore.

“How many children do you have?”

A common, get-to-know-you question lobbed across tables, down pews and in the check-out line at the grocery store.  But for many bereaved parents, it can be a complex question that gets a different answer depending on who is asking and where we are.

I decided from the beginning that I would say, “four” in answer to that query.

But that doesn’t always get me off the hook.  A follow-up of, “Oh, what do they do?” means that I have to make a decision:  do I go down the line, including Dominic in any kind of detail or do I gloss over the fact that one of my children now lives in heaven?

I try to gauge whether or not the person is deeply interested or just being polite. No sense making them feel uncomfortable if they are really only making chitchat.

All of these calculations flash through my mind in an instant but they are distracting and draining.

“Want to go to a movie?”

Maybe.  

First I have to look up the plot (something I never did before because I didn’t want to ruin it).  I can’t be stuck in a dark theater in the middle of a row full of people with no way out if larger-than-life there will be anything that sends me back to Dominic’s accident.

Same standards for television shows or books-but it’s easier to turn those off or set them down.

Sitting in church can be excruciating.  

A hymn or chorus, a Bible text, a random statement from the pulpit-any or all of those things can lead my thoughts down a path that takes me to a dark place where sorrow is overwhelming.

No matter how much I long to listen and participate, I find myself literally biting my tongue so that I don’t burst into loud sobs.

It doesn’t happen every Sunday, but I never know when it might.

Social media is an emotional minefield.  

first world problems

 

I confess that in the first days after Dominic left us, I had to limit the posts that showed up in my Facebook newsfeed.  It was too difficult to see complaints about children growing up or graduating and how hard it was to “let them go”. I could not take whiny status updates that included having to wait in line for the new iPhone.

It’s easier now that my grief isn’t so raw but there are days…

Making a meal, I reach for his favorite ingredient or leave something out because “Dominic doesn’t like it that way” and then I remember he won’t be here to eat it.

waves of grief

 

Music can transport me to a moment of joy or pain with a single note.

Sometimes I walk in a store and smell coffee-he loved coffee-and I have to turn around and leave.  Other times the fragrance draws my mind to sweet memories of shared Starbucks runs for a caffeine infusion.

 

If you ask me to do something next week or next month, I might say, “yes” and then find on that day I just. can’t. go.  

I used to be a woman who lived by her calendar and commitments, but now I’m someone who never knows what a day will bring.

Learning to live with this changed me is an ongoing process and exhausting at times.

So much energy is used up negotiating what used to be simple things that there’s not enough left for pursuing new interests or delving deeper into old ones.

I’m trying to reach equilibrium.  

I long for a time when simple things are simple again.

But I don’t think it will be today.

courage doesn't always roar

 

 

 

 

Identity Crisis

Yeah, so one more thing that grief has made  harder: empty nesting.

While my nest is not technically empty, I have long since finished raising and schooling my children.  I had the great privilege of staying home with my kids and teaching them all the way through high school.  And even in college and graduate school, mom was still editor-in-chief and head of the crisis management center of our home.

I spent a lifetime pouring myself into my family and now they are grown. Sure, they need me now and then, but they are well-established, functioning adults and quite capable without my help.

This is good–I always intended to work myself out of a job.

But losing Dominic, and the burden of grief I carry as a result, has made this transition from “hands-on” to “standing by” that much more difficult.

We all have pictures in our mind of where life is headed–where we imagine ourselves in five years, ten years or even further.  In part, those visions are what make hard days bearable, what keep us going when obstacles seem insurmountable, and what beckon us down the road when we can’t see exactly where it is leading.

I had those.

Now I can’t manage a plan or vision for a single day, much less a year or the rest of my life. I feel as if I am cast adrift in a sea of possiblities but none look inviting. It’s like I have one oar in the water and all I can do is paddle in a circle.

I’m not idle-I keep moving.  I have things to do, but I’m not sure they are things that make a difference.

And I have to admit, it’s a little frightening to think about the future given my recent past experience.

So I’m trying to learn to rest in the arms of the Father.  Trying to tune my heart to His. Trying to be patient with myself and with my own impatience.

For I know the thoughts that I think towards you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of affliction, to give you an end and patience.

Jeremiah 29:11 DRA