An Invitation

When Dominic died,  I was unaware of any  resources available to bereaved parents other than books written on the subject.  Thankfully, through personal contacts and Google searches, I found out about groups, online communities, blogs and excellent articles that helped me understand I wasn’t alone, I wasn’t crazy and I could survive.

I am working on a series of posts that will highlight some of the most helpful things people did for me and our family in the early days of our grief journey.  I will also share the physical, emotional, spiritual and psychological challenges and experiences of bereavement.

If you are a bereaved parent or someone who loves a bereaved parent, please consider joining me on my public Facebook page:  Heartache and Hope:Life After Losing a Child and share your perspective.

Someone suggested not too long after Dominic died that I might start a group for bereaved parents in my area–there aren’t any close by in our rural Alabama county.

I was not even ready to talk openly about my own feelings, much less listen to and absorb the pain of other grieving parents.

A few months ago I was introduced to a wonderful ministry called While We Are Waiting (whilewearewaiting.org) and discovered the blessing of belonging to a community of people who (unfortunately) know how I feel and can relate to my experience as a bereaved parent.  I began to realize that Facebook can be a place to connect people that otherwise might feel isolated in their pain.

I’m still not ready to sit face-to-face with more than one or two people at a time for deep conversation about life and death and fear and hope.

But I have opened a FaceBook page–Heartache and Hope:Life After Losing a Child–and it is public-although I am moderating posts.  I want to facilitate a way for parents in my area or in their own area, to find one another and form communities of support.

For some of us, online will be best.  Others may choose to get together in physical spaces.  Whatever works and brings hope to grieving hearts is wonderful.

I am not going to “invite friends” to like this page-thankfully, I don’t have that many people on my friend list who have buried children.  But I am inviting those who read my blog, and who have themselves lost a child to “like” the Heartache and Hope page.  And please invite other bereaved parents too.

There is no agenda other than encouraging one another in Christ and reminding ourselves of the hope we have in Jesus:  death is defeated, the grave is not the end, and our children will one day be reunited with us in glory.

 

Listen very carefully, I tell you a mystery [a secret truth decreed by God and previously hidden, but now revealed]; we will not all sleep [in death], but we will all be [completely] changed [wondrously transformed],  in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at [the sound of] the last trumpet call. For a trumpet will sound, and the dead [who believed in Christ] will be raised imperishable, and we will be [completely] changed [wondrously transformed]. For this perishable [part of us] must put on the imperishable [nature], and this mortal [part of us that is capable of dying] must put on immortality [which is freedom from death]. And when this perishable puts on the imperishable, and this mortal puts on immortality, then the Scripture will be fulfilled that says, “Death is swallowed up in victory (vanquished forever). O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” 1 Corinthians 15:51-55 AMP

Dragging Grief into the Light

During the course of my lifetime I have seen many topics dragged from behind closed doors out onto the stage and under the public spotlight.

Frankly, some of them could have remained in darkness as far as I’m concerned.

But there is something still taboo in polite conversation–something hushed with awkward silence should it ever be spoken aloud in a crowded room–mention GRIEF and eyes drop to the floor or someone hastily throws an arm around you and says, “There, there–it’s going to be alright.”

I don’t blame them.

In my growing up years I don’t remember anyone speaking about death and grief for longer than the time it took to go to a funeral home visitation and stand by the grave as the casket was lowered in the ground.  People were designated by their loss:  He was a widower; she lost a child; her mother died when she was young.

But what came AFTER the loss–not a word.

We need to talk about it.  We need to educate ourselves about it.  Because, like my EMT son says, “No one gets out of here alive.”

You WILL experience grief in your lifetime.

I pray that the people you lose are full of years and ready to go–that you get to say “good-bye” and that all the important things have been said and done so that you aren’t left with extra emotional baggage in addition to the sorrow and missing.

But you never know.  Neither you nor I are in control.

And even in the one place where it would seem most natural to talk about life and death and grief and pain–our churches–it still makes those who are not experiencing it uncomfortable.

Yes, there are grief support groups.  And, yes, they are helpful in ways that only a group made up of people who understand by experience what you are going through can be.

But much of life is spent rubbing elbows with folks unlike ourselves, with parents who know the fear of losing a child but not the awful reality.  And just a little bit of openness, a little bit of education and a little bit of understanding would make such a difference.

So for the next few days I am going to be posting about the grief process itself.  About what grieving parents experience and how friends, family, co-workers and churches can support them.

If you are a grieving parent, I hope these posts will serve as a launchpad for you to have conversations with your own friends and extended family.  If you aren’t a bereaved parent, please commit just the few minutes it takes and consider how you might support someone in your circle of influence who has lost a child.

We don’t want pity.

We aren’t looking for special accomodations that single us out and mark us as “needy”.  But we long for understanding and compassion and the opportunity to tell our stories.

 

 

Fragile

If you’ve ever had major surgery you know that the outside looks whole way before the inside is healed.

That’s how it is with grief–those of us who have lost a child appear to be strong–we have to be, because life doesn’t stop.

Not even for burying a child.

No matter how tightly I strap on my armor, grief sends arrows through the tiniest unprotected chink and pierces my heart.

There is no defense against the sound, the smell, the wayward memory that sends me back in time to when Dominic was alive and with me.  And once there, to drag myself forward to today—where he is neither—is torture. 

Sometimes the process can be a matter of seconds, the only evidence a blank stare or a single tear.  Other times the memories and the forceful return to the here and now unleashes a flood from my eyes and ends my usefulness for that day.

Either way, it’s exhausting. 

I think that might be one of the most surprising aspects of grief for me.  When it strikes hard (as it still does sometimes) it robs me of energy and the desire to do anything.

I am a “get-it-done” kind of person.  But there’s no way to get grief “done”.  It works itself out in its own time and in its own way.

I can position my mind and my heart to heal by focusing on the promises of God in Scripture.  But I cannot hurry along the healing.

And healing, when it comes, will always be incomplete this side of heaven.

Please don’t mistake the fact that I can stand straight and look strong as proof that I am recovered. 

I am often frightened and sometimes I want to hide.

But vulnerable and wounded, I remain until God calls me home.

“In His feathers He shall deliver you and under His wings you shall have refuge; His truth shall surround you as a supply of armor.”

Psalm 91:4

grief and sleep

Boy, do I envy my cats’ ability to fall asleep any place, any time.

I’ve lived with chronic physical pain for over a decade and there are nights when it is hard to go to sleep-when it is impossible to ignore the pain.  But I have never thought of myself as having trouble sleeping.

Until now.

When grieving a child, you are oh, so very tired.  Yet often sleep eludes you.

“He who learns must suffer.  And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

Aeschylus

Lying in bed, in the dark, my mind kicks in to hyper-drive.  With no external stimulation to provide distraction, images come unbidden and unwelcome to taunt me.  I work hard to guide the train of thought to a less tortuous route.

So I thought I would share some ways that help me make it through the long nights:

  • Only lie down when you are tired enough to expect that you can fall asleep.  I am physically active each day so that at least my body is ready for rest.
  • Don’t drink caffeinated beverages after 12 noon and don’t eat heavy foods past mid-afternoon.
  • Be selective about what you listen to, watch or read in the hours leading up to bedtime.  I try to feed my mind images and information that will help me focus on more positive themes when I close my eyes.
  • Keep a pad and pencil next to the bed to jot down last minute reminders of things you might need to remember tomorrow.  I try to think ahead and have a rough plan of action for the next day so that my mind can rest.
  • Make sure you are physically comfortable–room temperature and bed clothes appropriate to the season, pajamas in soft fabrics, well-hydrated, take analgesics as needed for physical pain, etc.
  • Make whatever concessions are needed to hold anxiety at bay.  I have a nightlight in my bathroom that casts a soft glow into my bedroom.  I keep my cell phone and home phone next to me because once you get “that call” you feel like you must be instantly accessible to loved ones.  My cat sleeps with me–purring is a great comforter.
  • When I turn out the light and turn over, I purposely focus my mind’s attention and heart’s affection on trusting God to help me drift off to sleep.

“I can lie down and go to sleep, and I will wake up again, because the Lord ·gives me strength [sustains/upholds me].”

Psalm 3:5 EXB

  • If you wake up in the middle of the night, try reciting Scripture or humming hymns and try to lull yourself back to sleep. I will sometimes do mental work like planning a project or trying to recall a childhood memory–anything that might make me tired.
  • If  you can’t go back to sleep in 30 minutes or so, get up and get on with the new day–even if it is only hours old.  There’s no use lying in bed and tossing and turning. While I may be exhausted for that day, I’m almost certain to be able to sleep better the next night.

Sleep is important.

If you find that you are unable to get more than a few hours sleep for longer than two weeks–talk to your doctor.  There is NO SHAME in asking for help. And there are many products available that are non-habit forming and suitable for short-term use.

It is impossible to do the work grief requires if you are worn out from lack of sleep in addition to carrying the pain of losing your child.

“We sleep, but the loom of life never stops, and the pattern which was weaving when the sun went down is weaving when it comes up in the morning.”

Henry Ward Beecher

If we can help ourselves get the rest we need, we are better able to face the challenge of each new day.

 

Bereaved Parents and The Question of Photographs

 

Pictures are everywhere today–much different than when I was a child and you had to go down to the local studio to get a decent family photo. Poloroids were fun and fast, but the number of shots you could take was limited to the film in the packet.

And how many rolls of 110 or 35 mm are still rattling around somewhere in drawers or boxes, undeveloped and forgotten?

But now our phones make us instant and eager chroniclers of the everyday.

And social media gives us the opportunity to splatter our work across the Internet–all over the country and around the world.

One of the challenges facing bereaved parents is what to do about photographs–both the ones that exist and the ones yet to be taken.

I remember everything about the first formal family photograph after Dominic died.

It was two months to the day since we buried him, and his older brother was getting married.  A day we had planned for and looked forward to for a long time.  It marked a new beginning, a new life, but the spectre of death veiled my eyes and whispered in my ears.

Standing there, smiling and holding back the tears, my heart cried,”One of us is missing!” and I wanted to shout, “Don’t take the photo.  Don’t memorialize the absence of my son.”

I swallowed the words and have an album full of evidence that he wasn’t there.

Our family usually sends New Year’s cards instead of Christmas cards but I haven’t sent one in two years because they always included a family picture.  I don’t know how to send them if Dominic isn’t in the frame.

And what to do with all the pictures that already exist?

We had a video montage at his funeral and I have it tucked safely away. There are hundreds of snapshots, digital photos on computers and phones, all the images on his Facebook page and the pages of friends…

C.S. Lewis notes in A Grief Observed:

“Today I had to meet a man I haven’t seen for ten years.  And all that time I had thought I was remembering him well–how he looked and spoke and the sort of things he said.  The first five minutes of the real man shattered the image completely.  Not that he had changed.  On the contrary…I had known all these things once and recognized them the moment I met them again.  But they had all faded out of my mental picture of him, and when they were all replaced by his actual presence the total effect was quite astonishingly different from the image I had carried about with me for those ten years.  How can I hope that this will not happen to my memory of H.[his wife]?  That it is not happening already?”

And that’s the thing–the pictures aren’t my son.  

They were a moment in time, and bring a smile of remembrance, but they are only a shallow representation of the vibrant life that was Dominic.  As the months progress and his siblings and friends age, the pictures document that he is further and further out of step with our current reality.  

We are leaving him behind.

I decided early on that our walls would not become a shrine to the one child missing.  So I have incorporated photos of Dominic with those of his siblings and other family members. I do have more pictures on display than I used to–they are all I have left of my son.

It’s easy to honor his memory–but I want to honor him.  Who he was, what he represents and who he remains as part of who I am.

I don’t know how to combat the slow fade of the experience of my living, breathing son in all his complexity to the two-dimensional representation hanging on my wall.

I wish I did.

 

Grieving With Hope

The church at Thessalonica was confused about some fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith.  They were frightened that they had missed Christ’s second coming and they were concerned about loved ones that had preceded them in death.  So Paul wrote this letter to remind them of truth and offer comfort in their emotional distress:

And regarding the question, friends, that has come up about what happens to those already dead and buried, we don’t want you in the dark any longer. First off, you must not carry on over them like people who have nothing to look forward to, as if the grave were the last word. Since Jesus died and broke loose from the grave, God will most certainly bring back to life those who died in Jesus.  I Thessalonians 4:13-14 MSG

This verse is quoted often to believers who have lost a loved one.  At first, gently, sweetly–as an invitation to remember that God is in control, that He has a plan, that the grave is not victorious and that burying the body is not the end.

And, in the early days and weeks after the funeral, it IS comforting–I chanted it to myself like a mantra and it drew my heart from the brink of despair.

But at some point, this verse begins to feel like a rebuke–the well-meaning friend says, “Don’t you know, that Jesus followers don’t grieve like those who have no hope!”

And I turn, dumbfounded, to the person saying this, and wonder, “Have you buried a child?”

Have you grieved the too-soon, unexpected, violent end of your hopes and dreams without a chance to say, “good-bye”?  Do you stand over the patch of dirt that now covers the buried body of your son and wonder how this happened?  How can this be your life?

Do you wake up every morning and have that fraction of a moment where all is right with the world before your mind joins your eyes and reminds you that he is still gone?

  • Yes, I firmly believe that my son is now with Jesus.
  • Yes, I stand convinced that there will be a day when all tears are wiped away and I will be reunited with him.
  • Yes, I feed the hope in my heart with truth from Scripture and remind myself daily that the grave is not the end.

But I am made of dust.

I am human.  I am full of the emotions that God placed in my heart.

He gave me the capacity to embrace and love the tiny life growing inside me before I could see it or feel it.  He made my child leap in my womb when I listened to praise music.  He positioned Dominic as the third-born child in our family and gave him unique gifts and abilities.

And now He knows that as long as I live, I will grieve the son that I lost.  I will sorrow anew when others his age reach milestones–get married, have children–because not only did I lose the Dominic that WAS, I have lost the Dominic THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN.

I do “grieve with hope”–I breathe in the life-affirming and spirit-filling promise that the reality I am living is not the only reality there is.  I lean into the Word of God and trust in, rely on and affirm the victory of Jesus Christ.

But I still GRIEVE.  I cannot force my heart to ignore the pain and sorrow that has been laid upon it.

So I continue to live each day, doing the work that God has left for me to do, but walking a little slower, a little more bowed down.

For those of us carrying this burden of grief, the greatest gift is grace and mercy and kindness–we are doing the best we can.

Encouragement (lending courage to) must include acknowledging our daily struggle and the lifelong commitment we have made to battle on.

Ask us, listen to the answers and then hold our hand or dry our tears.

But don’t expect us not to cry.

 

 

 

Weary, but Still Fighting

These thoughts first came to me a few months ago–and since then I felt like I had “progressed” in my grief journey and left anxiety behind.  But for a number of reasons, this past week found me crushed beneath the weight of sorrow and pain and I felt vulnerable and defeated.  

I had to redouble my efforts to resist the enemy and stand firm in the truth that Christ is victorious.

And I was reminded again that this will be a battle I fight as long as I live…

Grief doesn’t travel alone, it brings anxiety along for the ride.

I live by the mantra, “Don’t borrow trouble from tomorrow!” and I don’t struggle to fend off worry.

But this vague feeling of impending doom that follows grief is invasive and pervasive and relentless.  I can’t stop it, find its edges or outrun it.

If I could just pin it down, I’d toss it out…

I have never been in combat but I am daily doing battle.  The enemy of my soul wants me to give in and give up.  So I push back, dig in and soldier on.

I am worn out and worn down.  

This is the hardest work I have ever done.  No breaks, no vacations, no time-outs or pauses.  And no forward progress.

BUT I REFUSE TO GIVE UP GROUND.

My struggle is not against flesh and blood and my weapons are not physical.  The only hope I have is to remain rooted in the Word of God and to cling to this truth:

Therefore, put on the complete armor of God,

so that you will be able to [successfully] resist and stand your ground in the evil day [of danger],

and having done everything [that the crisis demands],

to stand firm [in our place, fully prepared, immovable, victorious].

Ephesians 6:13 AMP