Season of Grief: How a Heart Marks the Days

It’s different for every heart.

But each of us who know child loss have a season of grief.

It’s so much more than “just” the day our child left for Heaven.

For me, it starts in November and runs through the end of May-fully half of

every.

single.

year.   

November 2013 was my 50th birthday and the kids arranged a surprise party for me at Dominic’s apartment.  My husband was home from California and we were all together for my birthday, Thanksgiving and the Iron Bowl.  So many memories, so many moments.

As the leaves begin to turn in Alabama, my heart begins the countdown.

Then that Christmas-it would be the last one where the table was full and all I have are a few fuzzy photos because we anticipated a spring season of graduations and a wedding.  Plenty of time for better pictures when we were dressed for the camera.

As we hang the lights and the nights get longer, my heart gets sadder.

January was back to routine.  Everyone busy.  James Michael and Julian would be graduating soon.  We had normal back and forth texts and messages, never knowing how precious these few recorded words would become.

As we move toward warmer weather, my heart grows cold.

February 14, 2014 was Julian’s birthday and for a couple of hours all the kids were home. We sat outside on an old trailer laughing and cutting up.  Someone suggested a photo.  Everyone demurred because we were in ragged work clothes and thought it was a waste of time.  Oh, how I wish I had that picture now!

But there’s no going back.

I saw Dominic in March a few times.  Since he lived just 25 miles away I would meet him to go to Sam’s Club and stock up on basic food stuffs.  He came out to our place to work on a friend’s car.  He and Julian met up and made a road trip for Spring Break.

It was the last time I’d see him alive.  My heart hates turning the calendar to April.

April.  What can I say about this awful, awful month? 

I will never be able to recapture any sense of hopeful anticipation as flowers bloom and leaves bud.  I don’t care when the last frost might be because try as I might, I can’t plant a garden.  When the first really beautiful day arrives, whether or not it corresponds to Dom’s death date, it only makes me fearful other young men will take their bikes out for a ride after a long, cold winter.  I wonder how many mamas wake to a knock or phone call. 

The smell of cut grass reminds me of the people that came to help us clean up before the funeral.  The sun streaming in the living room window conjures the mornings I woke and dared it to shine in the face of such tragedy.

My heart barely holds on.

And then May.  Mother’s Day-what kind of mother lets her son die?  Even though logic tells me otherwise, my heart still accuses.

Graduations, weddingsreminders that Dominic never got to finish his law degree, will never marry and that every single molecule of him is gone, gone, gone-no children, no likeness ever looking back at me again in this life. 

Finally, there’s his birthday-the one he missed by only a few short weeks.  Forever 23.  Never any older.  May 28th comes and goes.  Sometimes it’s on Memorial Day like the year he was born but often not.  So I gird my loins to face the date AND the day.

My heart hurts but breathes a sigh of relief.

This season is over.  But it will come again.

So I try, try, try to cram as much into the intervening months as possible.

The calendar is relentless.

 

What I’m Learning From Other Bereaved Parents

There’s a kind of relational magic that happens when people who have experienced the same or similar struggle get together.  

In an instant, their hearts are bound in mutual understanding as they look one to another and say, “Me too. I thought I was the only one.”

It was well into the second year after Dominic ran ahead to heaven that I found an online bereaved parent support group.  After bearing this burden alone for so many months, it took awhile before I could open my heart to strangers and share more than the outline of my story.

But, oh, when I did! What relief!  What beautiful support and affirmation that every. single. thing. that was happening to me and that I was feeling was normal!

me too sharing the path

I have learned so much from these precious people.  

Here’s a few of the nuggets of wisdom I carry like treasure in my heart:  

Everyone has a story.  No one comes to tragedy a blank slate.  They have a life that informs how or if they are able to cope with this new and terrible burden.  Not everyone has the same resources I do-emotional, spiritual or otherwise.  Don’t put expectations on someone based on my own background.  Be gracious-always.  

Everyone deserves to be heard.  Some folks really only have one or two things that they insist on saying over and over and over again.  That’s OK.  If they are saying them, it’s because they need to be heard.  Lots of folks do not have a safe space to speak their heart.  But it’s only in speaking aloud the things inside that we can begin to deal with them.

Everyone (or almost everyone) is worried that they aren’t doing this “right”.  Society brings so much pressure to bear on the grieving.  “Get better”, “Get over it”, “Move on”.  And when we can’t, we think there is something dreadfully wrong with us.  But there isn’t.  Grief is hard and takes time no matter what the source.  But it is harder and takes a lifetime when it’s your child.  Out of order death is devastating.  “Normal” is anything that keeps a body going and a mind engaged in reality without being destructive to oneself or others.

Everyone can be nicer than they think they can.  Here’s the deal:  I THINK a lot of things.  I don’t have to SAY (or write!) them.  I’ll be honest, sometimes my first response to what someone shares is not very nice.  But when I take a breath and consider what might help a heart instead of hurt one, I can usually find a way to speak truth but also courage.  Snark is never helpful.  If I can’t say anything nice, then I just scroll on by.

Everyone has something to give.  I’ve learned that even the most broken, the most unlovely, the least well-spoken persons have something to offer.  It may take a little dusting off to find the beauty underneath, but my heart is stretched when I take time and put forth effort to truly listen to what’s being said instead of just ignoring it because of how it’s said.

Everyone deserves grace.  Because I am the recipient of grace, it is mine to give-without fear of running out-to every other heart I meet.  Sometimes I forget this.  I want to apply a different measure to others than I want applied to me.  But grace is the oil that greases human relationships.  Freely given and freely received, it provides a safe space for hearts to experience healing.

Everyone is standing on level ground when we gather at the foot of the cross.  There’s no hierarchy in God’s kingdom.  We are all servants.  I am responsible to my Master for walking in love and doing the good works He has prepared beforehand for me to do.  My works are not your works and your works are not my works.  I need to keep my eyes on Jesus, not on others always trying to see if I(or they!) “measure up”.  The standard is our Shepherd and only grace and mercy can help me strive for that goal.

Everyone needs courage.  When Jesus gave His charge to the disciples He told them it was “better for you that I go”What??? How could that be better?  But it WAS.  Because when Jesus returned to the Father, He sent the Holy Spirit as the personal, indwelt connection to Himself.  He knew they would need courage to make it through. The Spirit calls courage to our hearts.  And we are given the privilege of calling courage to one another.  The bravest among us quivers sometimes.  You’d be surprised how often one word is the difference between letting go and holding on.

There are dozens more things I could share.

I have met some of the kindest, wisest and most grace-filled people this side of child loss.

They have been the purest example of the Body of Christ I’ve ever known.  

I am thankful for what they are teaching me.

heart hands and sunset

“Why Am I Robbed, And Who is Benefited?” Mark Twain on Child Loss

I only recently came across this quote by Mark Twain.   

It’s from a letter he wrote to a close friend after his favorite daughter, Susy, aged 24, died of meningitis while her parents were abroad. 

It is heartbreaking and utterly perfect.  

You have seen our whole voyage.  You have seen us go to sea, a cloud of sail-and the flag at the peak; and you see us now, chartless, adrift-derelicts; battered, water-logged, our sails a ruck of rags, our pride gone.  For it is gone.  And there is nothing in its place.

The vanity of life was all we had, and there is no more vanity left in us.  We are even ashamed of that we had; ashamed that we trusted the promises of life and builded high-to come to this!

I did know that Susy was part of us; I did not know that she could go away; I did not now that she could go away, and take our lives with her, yet leave our dull bodies behind.

And I did not know what she was.  To me she was but treasure in the bank; the amount known, the need to look at it daily, handle it, weigh it, count it, realize it, not necessary; and now that I would do it, it is to late; they tell me it is not there, has vanished away in a night, the bank is broken, my fortune is gone, I am a pauper.

How am I to comprehend this?  How am I to have it?  Why am I robbed, and who is benefited?mark

He and his wife never returned to the home where she died.

there is no at least in child loss

 

What Does it Mean to “Support” Someone?

Thank God for ADA requirements!

It wasn’t that many years ago when automatic doors were hard to find in places where they most certainly would have been helpful.

I remember approaching doors, arms full of bags and each hand grasping a child, hoping, hoping, hoping some nice person would be there to open it for me.

Many times there was.

Sometimes all I got was a glare and a sidestep from an empty-armed, able-bodied person.

I would manage to push the door open with my elbow but inside I was seething.

“Really?  Really!!  What makes you think getting out of the way is the same as opening the door?” 

(Thank goodness my thoughts are not displayed on an overhead sign! 🙂 )

In this Valley, I’ve discovered there is an emotional counterpart to the woman or fellow who refuses to actively help an overwhelmed mama.

There are those who see the burden I’m carrying and simply step aside.

I guess their rationale is that by not adding to the weight of my load, they somehow make it lighter. 

But it doesn’t work that way.  

As a matter of fact, knowing that my pain is seen but ignored is so much harder than thinking I’m just invisible.

Support means:

1. bear all or part of the weight of; hold up. 

2.  give assistance to; enable to function or act.

Support is going to cost you something.  It’s going to require action, time, energy, effort, commitment and resources. 

when the world whispers give up

I know it’s hard. 

Life is hard.  

But active, compassionate companionship is what knits hearts together no matter what struggle they are facing.  

And hearts that are bound by shared struggle and love are the strongest of all.  

friends uplift the soul little girl

 

 

One Reason Why Grief Requires So Much Energy…

I’ve been doing this for a bit over four years now.

I’m pretty good at it in many ways-I’ve developed standard answers to common questions, figured out ways to keep my mouth shut when no answer I can think of is appropriate (literally biting my tongue), learned how to squelch tears and swallow sobs in public spaces, and (usually) how to avoid major triggers.

But navigating this territory is still exhausting.  

Because every. single. day. I have to make choices and make changes so I’m not overwhelmed and incapacitated by grief.  

And that takes a lot of energy.  Energy that’s not available for other things.  

Yet the world marches on and my responsibilities remain.  

It’s no wonder I flop in bed exhausted every night.  

I wrote this a couple years ago and it explains it well:  

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.

Read the rest here:  It’s Complicated

Barefoot Over Broken Ground

I first shared this in 2014 not quite a month after Dominic ran ahead to heaven.

His leaving has made me much more aware that what we read as “stories” where we can turn to the last page and know the ending, others lived in real time, with no ability to fast forward to the ending.

It’s easy to be impatient with a heart barely holding onto hope and try to goad someone into “looking on the bright side” or hammer them with Scripture because “we know how this ends”.

But when you are walking barefoot over a path of sharp stones, you really can’t focus too much on the fact that it might not be as long as you think.

All you know is it hurts like hell right now.

When I read the Gospels it is tempting to mock those who refused to see that Jesus was bringing in a kingdom that would be so much better than the earthly one they expected from Messiah.

But they were living a day-to-day reality of hopelessness under Roman rule that made them ache for relief.

When life this side of heaven is more than you can bear, there is great tension in your soul to beg God for relief in this earthly life and to be a bit impatient with the idea of “all things working for good” in some distant future.

It doesn’t mean you don’t believe it, but it does mean that you carry a weight of sorrow.

So be patient with broken hearts and with those walking a broken path.

You might think declaring “Victory in Jesus” is helpful.

But it’s not. 

Instead, hold a hand, call courage, choose to walk alongside.  

In the end it’s endurance that’s the real victory and that is only possible when a heart can hold on.

endurance is patience concentrated

 

If You Can’t Say Anything Nice….

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.”

Parents weren’t interested in policing every errant word out of the under 18 crowd’s mouth back in the day.

It was a simple (and effective!) rule:  If what you want to say does not meet the criteria of T.H.I.N. K. (true, helpful, inspiring, necessary, kind) then

just.

don’t.

say.

it.

THINK ACRONYM

I wish grown-ups would follow the same advice. 

Especially when it comes to offering up “helpful hints” to broken hearts.

In that instance it is rarely a case of another person aiming to be ugly or to hurt someone, but words are not neutral and they do hurt when tossed out carelessly by people who really just don’t understand another person’s pain.

So, for those who are tempted to fill empty spaces with empty words, may I help you apply the T.H.I.N.K acronym to the kinds of situations more likely to face us as adults?

T-Is it true?  You may think that giving out a Bible verse would automatically mean you were safe on this count.  Yes.  God’s Word is truth.  But how we use it and whether or not we understand the context can make a particular application of God’s Word UNTRUE.  And even if we get the context right, hammering a heart with a Bible verse may not be helpful.  You are not the Holy Spirit.  Let Him breathe truth gently into a wounded heart.

H-Is it helpful? This is tricky because sometimes what is helpful for one person is unhelpful for another.  I try to use this as my litmus test:  When have I ever been distraught and helped by someone pointing out the obvious? Or laying out a plan of action (when they don’t have access to the full picture)? Or reminding me that “all things work together for good” when right now all things really stink?  If there is any doubt about whether or not what I say will be helpful, I swallow my words.

I-Is it inspirational?  The word, “inspire” has roots in the the idea of breathing into someone or something.  Will my comment put wind in a person’s sails?  Will it breathe courage into his or her heart?  Will it lift them up and help them hold onto hope?  Is it the equivalent of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or am I instead sucking what little breath they have left out of their body?

N-Is it necessary?  This single criteria helps me hold my tongue so many times.  I might think of lots of things but is is necessary for me to speak them?  Am I warning someone of impending danger or am I just trying to make myself sound wise or insisting on making a point?  To be honest, very few things I have to say are necessary. Most of the time a hand on the shoulder, a hug, a smile, a friendly nod are the only thing someone really needs.

K-Is it kind?  The word kind comes from the same root as “kin”-which means family.  Is what I’m going to say something I’d want someone to say to me or my close family?  Am I treating (with my words) this person they way I want to be treated?  The Golden Rule, rules.

I can’t claim to always follow my own good advice.

But when I do, I find that I am building people up, not tearing them down.

There’s enough tearing down in the world.

I want to speak light and life.

a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle