Making Room for Grief at the Christmas Table

Our family didn’t do Santa.

We started to with our first child, but when she asked, “How does Santa know everything and how does he live forever?” at two years old, we ditched him.

I realized that even her young mind had picked out the inconsistencies between Jolly Old Saint Nick and what we were teaching her about God and the human condition.

The path to joy is filled with pain.  The way to heaven is traveled through a world where children die and cruelty is common.  Not every good little boy or girl finds their wishes fulfilled on Christmas morning.

This is precisely the place where the grieving find Christmas difficult.

Even Christ followers tend to section off the celebration of Jesus’ birth from the agony and necessity of His death.  We welcome the Baby but disregard the crucified Savior.  We like to pretend that “all is calm, all is bright”.

The pressure to maintain the facade of jollity overwhelms my heart and makes me weary down to my bones.

Joy and sorrow both dwell in my soul and I cannot reveal one and hide the other.  I may laugh and cry in the same moment.

It is all too easy for others to welcome the laughter and to shut out the grief–to insist that those who gather pretend everyone gets what they want for Christmas.

No one can bring my son back to me.  No one can giftwrap a restored family and place it under the tree. 

But you can give me and other mourners space for our pain at the Christmas table.

You can honor those we miss by noting their absence–you can acknowledge that eternity is truly wonderful, but today is so very hard.

That is a gift we would treasure.

 

Countdown to Christmas

Here in the last days before Christmas, the darkest days of the year, my grieving heart longs for light.

In some ways the busy-ness of the holiday season pushes the pain of missing my son to the background–a mind can only entertain so many ideas at one time.

But the activity and constant barrage of demands and conversations exhausts me and makes me more vulnerable to the moments when grief rolls full force over my soul like an ocean wave.

I am more sensitive to the chasm between me and those who have not buried a child.  

More sensitive to the fact that the world continues to spin, parties are planned, songs are sung and Dominic isn’t here for any of it.

I want to find a way to mark his absence, to include him in conversation, to make sure he isn’t forgotten.

I am so very thankful for the family that surrounds me at Christmas, and want them to know how much I cherish the moments we are together and how fiercely I love them.

But my heart is divided.  

Part of me is “here” and part of me is “there”.  I walk in two worlds–on earth and in heaven.  I savor the sweet joy of the “now” but ache for the even sweeter joy of the “forever”.

So I sing all four verses of the Christmas hymns–not just the ones that speak of Jesus’ birth, but the verses that tell of His return.

I celebrate His coming, but I long for His coming again.

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When the new heaven and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace, their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

~It Came Upon A Midnight Clear

 

 

My Three Sons

My three sons–I still have three you know.

Two that travel the earth with me and one that dwells with Jesus.

My soul expanded with each birth–like pants stretched to make room for inches gained and there is no going back.

My heart will always bear the stretchmarks of my love.

LORD, I cannot thank You for allowing my son to be taken–I can thank You for Who You are and for not leaving me alone in my grief.

I won’t overlook the beauty in a sunrise, the gift of laughter or the welcome warmth of loving hugs.

I won’t allow bitterness to strip my life of kindness and compassion.  I will try to embrace the pain and let it work Your purpose in my heart.

When I can’t fight the battle myself, I will rest in the arms of the One Who fights for me.

 God is a safe place to hide,
    ready to help when we need him.
We stand fearless at the cliff-edge of doom,
    courageous in seastorm and earthquake,
Before the rush and roar of oceans,
    the tremors that shift mountains.

Jacob-wrestling God fights for us,
    God-of-Angel-Armies protects us.

Psalm 46:1-3 MSG

 

 

Navigating Grief for Those Who Have Lost a Child

With GPS apps on our phones and in our cars, getting lost in the physical world is becoming ever more rare.

But grief is disorienting and every day I must relearn which way is true north.

It has never bothered me to ask directions.  I’ll pull off in a heartbeat–ask a stranger–stop a mailman–look for a fire station (they have to know all the addresses of their district).  I’m not shy and I’m not proud.

But as a bereaved mother,  I’ve struggled to find a map, or guide or landmarks that can help me navigate this wilderness called grief.

Twenty months down this path, here are some practical ways I’ve discovered to help me get through this unmarked world.

It is hard to concentrate so I have learned to break tasks up into smaller units.  I might only clean the bathroom sink and then move on to something else, coming back later to do the tub or mirrors.

I have trouble remembering EVERYTHING so important things like my phone and keys ALWAYS go in the same place.  My purse has designated pockets for specific items and I hold onto my keys when I get out of my truck so I don’t lock them inside.

Going to the store can be very challenging with all the noise, distractions and people (and the memories of his favorite foods).  Even if I’m only shopping for a few groceries, I make a list.

Keeping track of things like phone calls, gifts or thank you notes is also difficult. I use an inexpensive spiral notebook that lives on the kitchen table to write down numbers, notes or anything I need to remember.  I staple receipts to a page so that I won’t lose them.

I use a pocket calendar to note appointments, family schedules or important dates.  I don’t agree to or change anything until I have it in front of me.

I have learned to ask people to repeat things that I’m not sure I understand. Sometimes it seems as if folks around me are speaking a foreign language because my brain simply won’t process the words.

I don’t apologize for my tears or for my need to give myself space and time to make a decision when asked to do something. 

Grieving requires so much emotional, physical and mental energy that there is little left for everyday tasks.  But life goes on even if I want it to stop.

This is who I am now, and I will need to make accomodations for that as long as I live.

 

 

 

When The Last Fingerprint Fades Away

Dominic was always working on his car.

During one weekend session, something went wrong and he came storming through the garage.

He slammed both hands hard on my extra pantry, crashing one mason jar full of tomatoes into the other, making a mess and leaving greasy hand prints on the white melamine doors.

I waited until he made his way into the house and upstairs then went to assess the damage-tomatoes dripping everywhere, glass on the floor and hand prints in several places.

I cleaned the tomatoes and glass and gave a swipe at the doors. But those marks of my son’s temper remained for months. I finally found a mixture that got most of it off so only faint reminders were left.

After Dominic was killed, I went to the garage and put my fingers one by one into what was still there of his hand print.

It made me feel closer to him, like there was a little of his life left that I could touch.

Today I was thinking-what will I do when the last fingerprint fades away?

What will I cling to that can make him real to me again?

I know he has only left this earthly tent and the real Dominic is with Jesus, but I’m still stuck in the physical world, longing for physical connection.

A mama’s arms are made for holding her children, not for holding their memories.

This is the greatest challenge I face in my grief–not blaming God or even dealing with the pain–it’s the need to touch my children and knowing now one is beyond my reach until I join him in heaven.

[King David said] “Could I bring the child back to life? I will some day go to where he is, but he can never come back to me.”  2 Samuel 12:23b GNT

What Grieving Parents Want Others to Know

People say, “I can’t imagine.

But then they do.

They think that missing a dead child is like missing your kid at college or on the mission field but harder and longer.

That’s not it at all.

It isn’t nostalgia for a time when things were different or better or you talked more: it’s a gut-wrenching, breath-robbing, knee-buckling, aching groan that lives inside you begging to be released.

There is no smooth transition up the ladder of grief recovery so that you emerge at the top, better for the experience and able to put it behind you.

We’ve all heard the much touted theory that grief proceeds in the following stages:

  • denial
  • anger
  • bargaining
  • depression
  • acceptance

And people (who haven’t experienced grief) tend to think it’s a straight line from one stage to another, gradually going from bottom to top and then on with life.

But it just isn’t true.

Reality is, these “stages” coexist and fluctuate back and forth from day to day and even hour to hour.

Grief remakes you from the inside out.

Losing a child has made me rethink everything I believe and everything I am.  It has changed and is changing my relationship with myself and with others in ways I couldn’t imagine and often don’t anticipate.

And it is hard, hard work.

Life around us doesn’t stop.  Grieving parents return to work, continue to nurture their surviving children, keep getting up in the morning and taking care of daily details.

We are doing all the things others do, but we are doing them with an added weight of sorrow and pain that makes each step feel like wading through quicksand.

We want you to know we are doing the best we can.

Life without my child is like having a leg amputated–I am forced to learn to manage without it, but everything will always be harder and different. And it will be this way for the rest of my life.

The one thing a grieving parent DOESN’T want you to know is how it feels to bury your child.

I don’t want anyone else to know what it means to leave part of your heart and a chunk of your life beneath the ground.

“But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as a comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.”

Nicholas Wolterstorff   LAMENT FOR A SON

 

Loving the Grieving Heart

If you love someone who has lost a child, perhaps these thoughts might help you understand a bit of their pain and how completely it changes the way we who have encounter the world.

Please be patient.  Please don’t try to “fix” us.  Please be present and compassionate.  And if you don’t know what to say, feel free to say nothing–a hug, a smile, an understanding look–they mean so very much.

A bereaved parent’s grief doesn’t fit an easy-to-understand narrative. And it flies in the face of the American “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality.

You can’t beat it–it’s not a football game-there is no winning team.

You can’t lose it–it’s not the extra 10 pounds you’ve been carrying since last Christmas.

You can’t get over it–it’s not a teenage love affair that will pale in comparison when the real thing comes along.

You can only survive it.  You can heal from it, but it will take a lifetime and require very special care.

I have a young friend whose first child was born with a life-threatening heart defect.  At just a few months of age, her little girl received a heart transplant.  Without it, she would have died.  With her new heart, this sweet baby will live-but her parents must observe careful protocols to protect that heart and she will never outgrow the scar from the surgery that saved her life.

Burying Dominic wounded my heart so deeply that while I know it will heal–it is beginning to, I think–it will bear the scars and require special handling as long as I walk this earth.

So when I thank you for an invitation, but choose not to go…I’m not rejecting you, I’m protecting my heart.  Please ask again–tomorrow might be a better day, and going somewhere or being with someone could be just what I need.

If you call and I don’t pick up…I might be crying, or about to, and I choose not to burden you with my grief.  Call in a day or two or next week–keep trying.

A text or email or card is so helpful.  I can read these when I’m ready and respond when it’s easier for me to think.

And please, please, please don’t look for the moment or day or year when I will be “back to my old self”.  My old self was buried with my son.  I am still “me”–but a different me than I would have chosen.

I know it makes you uncomfortable–it makes me uncomfortable too.

But because I trust in the finished work of Christ, I know that one day my heart will be completely healed.

I hurt but I have hope. This pain will be redeemed and my scars will be beautiful.

“For just as Christ’s sufferings are ours in abundance [as they overflow to His followers], so also our comfort [our reassurance, our encouragement, our consolation] is abundant through Christ [it is truly more than enough to endure what we must]”  2 Corinthians 1:5.