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.

Just Passing Through

So [I] fix (resolutely focus, gaze intently–without wavering) [my] eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, BUT what is unseen is eternal.

2 Corinthians 4:18 NIV

All believers in Jesus are commanded to live as aliens in this world. But it is so easy to get comfortable here. So easy to think we were made for the here and now instead of an eternity with God in heaven.

Kenny Chesney sings a song;

Everybody wants to go to heaven
Have a mansion high above the clouds
Everybody wants to go to heaven
But nobody wants to go now.

And if we are honest, even most folks in church on Sunday would agree.  Heaven is a great place to look forward to, but not somewhere you plan to go this week.

Losing a child changes that.

Heaven becomes much more personal.  

This world much less hospitable.

My eyes aren’t attracted to shiny store displays or creative TV ads or flashy cars and clothes.  My eyes strain to catch a glimpse of the glory of God in the sunrise or the sunset, the breeze in the trees reminds me of His Spirit and stirs my heart to cry, “Come now Lord Jesus!”

I want to live the life I have left on this earth with a clear set of priorities that reflect my eternal perspective.  I don’t want to waste my days on things that don’t matter.

 “There are no ordinary people.  You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

C.S. Lewis

People are eternal.  Love is what matters.  So I will fix my eyes on what is unseen and I will turn my heart to forever.

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

Thankful But Broken

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday.

My birthday sometimes falls on the day itself, and I have often been able to celebrate with extended family and friends-a full table of food and a full house of fellowship.

I love the colors of fall, the scents of cinnamon and pumpkin, the freedom from gift-giving pressures that lets me focus on the people in my life.

A few years ago, Ann Voskamp’s book, One Thousand Gifts, was published sparking a renewed interest in the Christian community to focus on thankfulness as a way to open our hearts to the goodness and faithfulness of God and to open our hands and lives to serve others from our bounty.

An invitation to trust and not be afraid.

Across social media, people began to post , “Today I am thankful for___________.” Instagram.  Facebook.  Twitter.  Good stuff, and good reminders.

And I am thankful.

Really.

I am thankful that my family has managed to survive the loss of Dominic without going crazy  or becoming bitter or running away. We continue to support, love and care for one another.

I am thankful for the few, special friends who have made it a priority to visit me, love me and give me a safe space to vent my grief.

I am thankful that I have food to eat, a place to live and clothes to wear.

I am thankful for my Bible, the one I got while carrying Dominic beneath my heart-the one filled with notes, prayers and underlined passages-because it reminds me that God is still God even when I can’t feel Him.

But I am broken.

Truly.

Losing a child, not being able to save the life your love created, not being there when he breathed his last, not holding his hand as he entered eternity-that is humbling.

My November and Thanksgiving will be quieter than in years past.

No daily posts.  No long lists.

I will lean in and listen hard for the whispered promises that one day heartache will end.

I will open my heart and hand to a hurting world.

I will trust and not be afraid.

Walking The Balance Beam

One reason grief is so exhausting is that every step I take is on a balance beam of faith and hope.

I must navigate every necessary task without falling off.

According to one sports writer, “The balance beam is often regarded as the most difficult event in women’s gymnastics at any level of competition. At only four inches wide and four feet off the ground, there’s barely enough space for a person’s foot to fit on the beam let alone enough room to flip and dance.”

But an average competitive routine lasts only 30 to 90 seconds.

I will have to walk this narrow way the rest of my life.

Despair lies in wait on my left.  One misstep and I’m lost.  Down on the ground, hurting and hopeless.  Doubt, guilt, anger and grief threaten to drag me into a pit so deep there’s no way out.

Delusion calls from the right.

Singing a lullaby to my wounded heart-he’s not really gone.  “Can’t you feel him in the wind?  See him in the clouds?” It would be so easy to just step off the rational and faithful path and embrace some fluffy facsimile of biblical truth.

The solid beam is my faith and hope in Jesus Christ.

That what He said is true.

That what He promises will come to pass.

That even though I cannot see proof of life after death, it exists and Dominic is experiencing it.

That, like David said when his baby died, “He cannot come to me, but I can go to him.”

It takes every fiber of my being to focus my will and to direct my attention to the Truth.

Many nights I fall asleep reciting Scripture.  Many mornings I wake before the sun and remind myself that even in the dark, God reigns.

So when you see me and I look tired-I am.

But I wait in hope for the LORD…

   We wait in hope for the LORD;  He is our help and our shield.
 In Him our hearts rejoice,
    for we trust in His holy name.
 May your unfailing love be with us, LORD,
    even as we put our hope in you.

Psalm 33:20-22 NIV

The Power of Presence

For fifty years I was on the “other side”-the one where I looked on, sad and sometimes horror-stricken, at the pain and sorrow friends or family had to bear.

I wanted to help.

I wanted to say the “right thing”.  I wanted to express how very much my heart hurt for them and that I badly wished I could carry some of their load.

Sometimes I think I did a pretty good job of reaching out and touching the wound and offering a little bit of comfort.  But other times, I would say nothing because I didn’t know what to say.

Now I am the one bent under the burden of grief-my heart and body and soul laboring to carry the weight of burying a child.  And there are those who are brave and reach out to me and offer words or hugs or prayers and their efforts give me strength and comfort.

Walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, these gestures are lights in the darkness, hope for my heavy heart and encouragement for a weary body.

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

It’s tempting to avoid someone when their world is dark.

It’s uncomfortable to choose to enter their pain.  But Jesus has called us to walk beside the suffering, to encourage the disheartened and to lift up the ones who stumble.

There are no magic words to erase heartache.

Only presence.

And isn’t that why Jesus came?

We are most like our Savior when we are willing to leave our place of comfort and venture into the threatening world of another’s pain and suffering.

“Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross”

(Philippians 2:5-8)