Recently I was challenged by someone close to me to examine the impact on my heart of spending so much time in community with those whose loss was fresher and more raw than my own.
They were being neither judgmental nor argumentative.
They were coming from a genuine place of concern, grace and love.
So I took the opportunity to take a step back and reevaluate whether or not I need to continue writing in this space, spend time reading and responding to posts in bereaved parents’ groups and ruminating on how grief has changed over time (now seven plus years!).
Last year I was asked by a precious fellow bereaved mama to write a guest post for a new and exciting ministry her family is launching in honor of their son, Rhett.
It was an interesting and challenging assignment to create a single entry that might give enough background to make my voice an authentic source of hope based on shared experience.
I spent over a week working it out but settled on what you have below: The essence of my story is I am a broken, fragile vessel whom God chooses to use to share His light, life and hope in a world full of searching hearts.
Child loss is MY cross. Yours may be something else.
But our great and faithful Lord can and will use us, if we let Him.
“But this beautiful treasure is contained in us—cracked pots made of earth and clay—so that the transcendent character of this power will be clearly seen as coming from God and not from us. 8 We are cracked and chipped from our afflictions on all sides, but we are not crushed by them. We are bewildered at times, but we do not give in to despair. 9 We are persecuted, but we have not been abandoned. We have been knocked down, but we are not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our bodies the reality of the brutal death and suffering of Jesus. As a result, His resurrection life rises and reveals its wondrous power in our bodies as well. “
~2 Corinthians 4:7-10 VOICE
As a young mother of four stairstep children I copied out these verses and taped them to my bathroom mirror for encouragement.
I’ll be the first to admit I’m sassy and sometimes salty.
Popping off a quick one-liner (sometimes at the expense of another) was a dinner table past time when our family included four teens.
But it’s one thing to have inside jokes with those I know well and quite another to blast a stranger or a social media only “friend” because they *dare* to post something that goes against my pet opinion or viewpoint.
One of the things I adore about the online bereaved parent community is how individuals overwhelmingly respond with grace, kindness, thoughtfulness and space for different experiences and opinions.
I wish the rest of the world operated the same way! Maybe we need to revive that old saying: If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
There may be some mamas that don’t drill this into their children but if there are, they don’t live south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Every time there was back and forth in the back seat or on the front porch and Mama overheard, we were told, “If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.”
Until I had children and then I was afraid of nearly EVERYTHING for them.
I didn’t want any harm to befall these tiny humans carrying my heart outside my body. I wanted to protect them, to cushion them, to wrap them in a bubble so that nothing bad ever happened to them.
As they grew, I learned to let go- alittle at a time. I learned you can’t prevent the scrapes and bruises and heartaches and disappointments of life. And I learned that a little “harm” made them stronger.
I understand the temptation to share cute little sayings like these in response to a bereaved parent’s Facebook post.
What runs through my mind, even eight years later when I read this isn’t, “Oh my! Why didn’t I think of that? Why didn’t I just turn that frown upside down and CHOOSE to be happy instead of sad.”
Instead it’s, “If I could, don’t you think I WOULD?”
If I could just make a mental adjustment and wash away the pain and missing of loss, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
Many times those who have been spared think that those who haven’t are holding grief too close, refusing to let it go. They may think we are using it as an attention getting prop. They rest certain that if it were them, THEY would rise above, get over or overcome grief.
You will never know how thankful I am that YOU. DON’T. REALLY. KNOW.
So when you’re tempted to subtly correct me and (out of the goodness of your heart) try to steer me toward a “cure” for my grief, think about it. Think about how hollow these words might sound in the ear of a mother or father who will never, ever hear or see or touch their child again. Think about how ridiculous it would be to suggest that all it takes to “be happy” is to “choose” correctly.
Think about which one of your children you could live without.
It would be lovely if life were neatly divided into seasons or sections.
But like so many things, there are no clean lines between now and what used to be.
Who I am today is shaped by who I was the day before.
I think that’s one of the things I enjoy most about fiction-authors are free to wander back and forth among character’s thoughts, past experiences and present reality.
It makes for a more complete story.
Each year about this time (in the waning days of my Season of Sorrow) I usually stop and take stock of how far I’ve come and how grief continues to shape my life.
There are many, many ways I’ve healed and am healing:
I no longer cry every day.
I feel true joy!
The pain of losing Dominic doesn’t dominate me although it plays like Background Music-not always demanding my attention.
I celebrate my family and my family’s milestones with genuine excitement and once again enjoy planning get togethers, birthdays and (most!) holidays.
I function at a higher level and am able to rejoin some groups and participate in some activities I just couldn’t manage in the early years.
I’ve made peace with the questions that won’t be answered this side of eternity.
I’ve incorporated traumatic loss into my understanding of Who God is and how He may work in world while accepting I don’t always like it.
I attend baby showers, weddings and even funerals without bringing all my lost dreams or personal sadness to the event.
I laugh-a lot. It feels good again to belly laugh at family memories or new jokes.
I can extend hospitality once more. That was a core component of my pre-loss life and personality and I missed it.
But there are many ways in which grief and loss continues to inform how I walk in the world:
I absolutely, positively cannot multitask! I have to break daily chores into single actions so I can focus and accomplish one thing at a time. I used to be able to cook, talk on the phone, bend over and motion to a child needing help with school all at once. Not anymore! Just recently I lost an important piece of mail most likely because I was looking at it while chatting to a family member. I put it down and cannot for the life of me remember where it is.
I become anxious when around too many people-especially if they are people I don’t know or the venue is one with which I’m unfamiliar. This even happens in the car driving in new places. I was never an anxious person before. In fact, I was typically the voice of calm in a group of friends panicking over some small detail that went awry. I try not to share my anxiety, but it’s there and it takes a huge amount of energy to corral it and keep it from escaping into wild demonstrations like running from a room. (I do a lot of counting/visualizing/breathing and self-soothing.)
I don’t like noise. To be fair, I never really did but now it’s exacerbated. Shopping can be a real trial when stores insist on blasting music in hopes it makes patrons feel like spending more money. I, for one, just want to get what’s on my list and get the heck out of Dodge! I love children but I can’t tolerate the incessant chatter little ones bring to a Sunday School classroom or a Vacation Bible School craft table. I used to be the first one to volunteer for those posts but I just. can’t. do. it. anymore.
I crave predictability. I know, I know, of all people I should understand control is an illusion. I do. But the tiny details of life-like planning meals, choosing clothes, cleaning routines and evening quiet times- are things I want to be able to count on. Routine is my friend. It helps my mind (such as it is) operate on reliable pathways. I’ve never been a big fan of random, but now it’s something I try to avoid at all costs.
I need solitude. I’m still processing some things. I imagine I’ll be doing that the rest of my life as different experiences from NOW interact with my loss. I cannot do that in the presence of others. I need to think, reflect, write, read and walk it out. That means I have to devote time and space to being alone. If circumstances prevent me from quiet solitude for too long my blood pressure climbs, my patience disappears and little things grow large.
I don’t sweat the small stuff (usually-see above!). If time, effort or money can remedy it then it’s just. not. a. problem. I’ve learned the hard way that life and love are the most important things in life. Everything else might be nice but it’s not essential. I’m not minimizing the stress and strain of broken pipes, wrecked cars or lost jobs. It’s just that eventually those are situations that can be fixed. And lest you think I’ve not experienced any of those, I have. My first thought whenever anything happens I once perceived as “the worst thing that could happen” is, “It’s absolutely, positively NOT the worst thing that can happen”.
I need to observe a careful rhythm of commitment and freedom on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. I always kept my big calendars each year and tossed them into a box of “if I ever need to know these things”. When I look back on how busy we were as a young family I’m astounded at the pace we kept, the places we went, the hours I was frantically working to fulfill all our obligations along with the things we just wanted to do. I’m sure some of this is a function of age-I’m no spring chicken any more-but I know in my bones it’s also a function of the ongoing toll grief takes on my body, mind and soul. I can only manage a few days of busyness in a row until I need a complete shut-down for at least twenty-four hours or more. I refuse to schedule any but the most difficult to get appointments in a week where I’ve already inked in other commitments.
Sleep, regular exercise and good food are necessary for me to face life with a good attitude. This is probably true of most folks but just a day or two of fast food, no outdoor walks or interrupted nights and I’m toast. I’m not a whole foods, organic everything kind of gal but I try to eat a variety of fresh and less-processed meals. When I’m home I have an almost two mile path through woods and up gentle inclines that builds muscle, exercises my lungs and body and gives me ample time to drink in the beauty of birds, wildflowers and leafy trees. If you’ve ever been to my home you know that the rest of the crowd can stay up as long as they want to but I’m headed upstairs between eight and nine. Of course I get up before the sun, so my total hours are roughly the same but there’s something about that pre-midnight sleep that restores me like no other.
I could probably list dozens more, less obvious, ways grief still shapes the me of today. But it no longer binds me like it did in the early days. I’m better able to work around the difficult bits and still make a meaningful life with the people I love.