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.
During the most isolating months of the pandemic, I spent a good deal of time down at my dad’s place.
Together with my youngest son, we dug through and sorted out generations of stuff and memories.
I’ve surrounded myself in my own home with bits and pieces from these treasures that speak courage and history to my heart. They tell a tale of lives lived, love passed down and hard work, endurance and faith.
It helps to know where you come from.
Most folks want antiques that can fetch a high price or at least an envious look from those who wish they were so fortunate to have them.
I want the things that have passed through the hands and speak to the work of those I’ve loved-the worn down, worn out relics of lives well lived and hearts poured into the next generation.
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.
I think it was somewhere around two months from Dominic’s departure when my heart realized life was moving forward whether I granted permission or not.
Not only folks on the fringes and the “bigger world out there” but close by-in my own family, my own circle of intimate friends-people were making plans, having birthdays, going places and doing things.
I read A GRIEF OBSERVED in my 30’s as another in a long list of “Books You Should Read”. I gleaned a bit here or there that I thought might be of use later on.
But when Dominic ran ahead to heaven, it was the first book on grief I bought for myself and I read it like a starving man set down to a full table.
This passage, in particular, was helpful in understanding how my absolute trust in theFACTof ultimate redemption of my pain and sorrow did absolutely NOTHING to take away the pain and sorrow-it only made it bearable.
If a mother is mourning not for what she has lost but for what her dead child has lost, it is a comfort to believe that the child has not lost the end for which it was created. And it is a comfort to believe that she herself, in losing her chief or only natural happiness, has not lost a greater thing, that she may still hope to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” A comfort to the God-aimed, eternal spirit within her. But not to her motherhood. The specifically maternal happiness must be written off. Never, in any place or time, will she have her son on her knees, or bathe him, or tell him a story, or plan for his future, or see her grandchild.
Today marks eight years since we gathered with friends and family to say our final good-bye to Dominic.
It had been eleven long days since the deputy woke me up on April 12th. Days when I was both unbelieving and overwhelmed by the fact my son would never cross the threshold again.
I woke up that morning numb.
I’d cried every day but for some reason when faced with this final act I couldn’t muster tears.
We received folks for a couple of hours before the service began and during that time I reached behind my back and placed my fingers in Dominic’s cold right hand clinging to the few moments I had left with his earthly shell.
So, so many people I didn’t expect to come, came. So, so many hugs and whispered words and sad smiles marched past as we were forced to participate in a parent’s worst nightmare.
When the funeral director indicated it was “time” I didn’t want to let go. I turned, kissed his cheek and drank in the last glimpse of his face in this life.
It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Eight years have come and gone.
The first few were excruciating-I experienced every moment of every day through my pain. I spent hours upon hours thinking about and processing what had happened and what I’d lost.
Gradually, over time, and by doing the work grief requires, I have become stronger and life has grown around my loss. I’ve learned that joy and sadness can coexist. Color has returned to my grayscale world. Most of the shattered pieces of me have reassembled themselves into a kind of whole. My family has survived.
I’m so thankful for every person who helped that day when we laid Dominic to rest. I’m so thankful for every person who has helped since. I’m especially thankful to my family for not giving up on me or on one another.
But I’m still astonished that nearly a decade has passed and Dominic is not part of a single memory or photograph.
Grief anniversaries stop me in my tracks and require my full attention.
Today is sacred. It’s a line in the sand marking “before” and “after”.
That means learning to let go of past mistakes, missed opportunities, woulda/coulda/shoulda.
Because the truthis no one lives backwards.
It’s helpful to reflect on how past actions might have influenced present conditions but it is crippling to hold those thoughts and feelings so close that there’s no room for new ones.
Every one of the disciples ended up being less brave than they had sworn to be. Each carried a heart wound that could have stopped them from fruitful ministry after Jesus rose.
They might have allowed regret to bind them to the past but they didn’t.
Regret empties anticipation, flattens dreams and suffocated hope, because regret is a form of self-punishment. Whereas hindsight lets us learn from the past, regret beats us up with the past.
Alicia Britt Chole
There is no more fertile ground for regrets to flourish than surviving the death of a child (or anyone you love).
It’s even more tempting when the person leaves suddenly, unexpectedly and without any opportunity to at least say, “goodbye”. When Dominic was killed instantly in a motorcycle accident I woke to a world where there would never be a chance to say anything that hadn’t already been said.
It was devastating.
But it’s not helpful to rehearse what I might have said or done if I knew the last time I saw him would be The. Last. Time.
Instead I have to live forward, embrace lessons learned from my past without allowing them to destroy me.
The Lord’s mercies are “new every morning”.
I want to embrace them every sunrise emptied of yesterday’s regrets.
I can face today confident that the Lord who made me will mold me and use me even when I haven’t always (or even often) made the best choices.
*I am sharing thoughts on 40 DAYS OF DECREASE (a Lenten journal/devotional). If you choose to get and use the book yourself, I’ll be a day behind in sharing so as not to influence anyone else’s experience.*
I confess-until it was MY son who left for Heaven before me I had NO idea that grief was really just love.
But when the person you love more than the breath in your body leaves you, the love remains.
And you have to find something to do with it.
So you sigh and you moan and you find ways to keep that person relevant despite the days, weeks, months and years (!) of experiences that interpose themselves between the last time you were able to hug his neck and the date on the current calendar.
” If the people we love are stolen from us, the way to have them live on is to never stop loving them.” ~James O’Barr
I grieve because I love.
My tears are a gift to the son I miss. My sorrow honors his memory. My broken heart gives evidence to the ones walking with me that my love is fierce and timeless.
The human heart is a funny thing-always working hard to protect itself from grievous injury yet prone to exactly what it tries to prevent.
I honestly believe that one of the gifts of early grief is disbelief. Because if I could have understood at once what it meant that Dominic was really, truly GONE, I would have never lasted the first 24 hours.
Even now, going on eight years, my head plays games with my heart.