Juxtaposed

Living and dead.

Loud and silent.

Together yet parted, present but absent.

Beauty of the moment contrasted with darkness that refuses to obey the light.

How to be present in the “now” with a heart that longs for the “then”?

I never expected to have to reach across time and space and heaven to touch my child.

I hate this divided life!

Imagining the worst thing possible can’t hold a candle to knowing it by experience.

I want my living children to know how fiercely they are loved!  

A lioness could not keep me from protecting them if it were possible.  

But it’s not possible.

My heart holds knowledge I would gladly give up.  

 

 

 

(Almost) All Together

Our family has never been the “go somewhere for the holidays” sort.  We tend to stick close to home, to what’s familiar, to routine and regular bedtimes.

But lately life has thrown us a number of curveballs. And we are learning to swing at them instead of just letting them lob past us.

So just after Christmas, the four of us that were together in Alabama took a drive down to Florida to spend time with our oldest son and his wife in their new home.

We spent New Year’s Eve on a windy dog beach enjoying waves and walks and friendly strangers whose mutts came over to sniff ours.

Seafood  and people watching at a nearby restaurant sitting outside in the breezy cool topped off a lovely day.

I’m learning to live with Dominic’s absence.

I’m (almost) used to photographs of my three surviving children documenting adventures that don’t include his smiling face and raucous antics.  I’m trying to recapture the joy of his life and not dwell as much on the fact and circumstances of his death.

I can look forward a little further on a calendar.  I can plan a bit more.  My heart finds some satisfaction again in hosting friends and family for special occasions or no occasion at all.

In a word, I’m “better”.  

Not healed-never healed (past tense)-until heaven.

But oh, so thankful for the days I have to spend with the family I have left.

I don’t know if Dominic can see us from where he is, but if he can’t, we’ll have lots to tell him when we get there.  

One day closer.  

 

 

Repost: Surviving Christmas

February, 1992 I came home from the hospital with our fourth baby and woke up the next morning to a house full of children ages infant to six.

I thought that would be the most stressful and challenging season of my life.

I was wrong.

Read the rest here:  Surviving Christmas

Surviving Siblings and Christmas

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How do I honor the child for whom memories are all I have and love well the children with whom I am still making memories?

That’s a question I ask myself often.

And it is especially difficult to answer for celebrations and holidays, special events and birthdays.

I’ve probably had it a bit easier than many bereaved parents.  

My children were all adults when Dominic left us for Heaven.

We have strong relationships and a track record of talking things through.  So I can ask them about what is helpful to them and tell them what is hard for me.  We all acknowledge that we are finding our way in the dark and that changing circumstances make it important to keep the lines of communication open.

We are experiencing our third set of holidays this year and have yet to establish a pattern or routine that works every time.

But here are some things we are learning together-some things my children are teaching me about surviving siblings and Christmas:

  • Parents shouldn’t try to hide their grief.  This one is hard.  As moms and dads we want so badly to create a safe world for our children-even our adult children!  Yet we know by painful experience that it is impossible.  When I try to hide my grief (which I cannot do successfully) I’m adding stress to an already stress-filled situation.  That grief is going to escape somewhere-if not in tears, then in raised voices, impatient looks and short tempers.  Children (even very young children) know that you are sad.  Let them know by your example that it’s OK to be sad.  Share your heart (in age-appropriate ways) and by doing so, give them permission to grieve as well.
  • Don’t force your child to grieve the same way you do.  Some children find it easier to be open about emotions than others.  The outward emotional expression of grief is different in each person.  For some it looks like what we expect: tears, sadness, sorrow. For others it may look like anger or denial or an unwavering commitment to “keep everything the same”.  Some children become very anxious about the safety of other family members. Some may remain stoic-don’t force emotional responses. Do some reading/research on grief in children and be prepared for the different ways a child may express their pain.
  • Ask you child(ren) how they feel about certain events/traditions/remembrance ideas. Even young children may have strong opinions about what feels good and what feels awful.  It’s tough to find a balance among competing needs but at least knowing how different family members are experiencing the holiday gives parents an idea of how it might be accomplished.  Sometimes surviving siblings can help parents find a creative solution to the quandary of how to honor the missing child and how to bless surviving children.
  • Don’t require that your child(ren) participate in every event or gathering. This is especially helpful for older children-but parents should be sensitive to the young ones as well.  Give your child(ren) permission to say, “no” if they don’t want to be part of a particular event. Some parents want to do balloon releases or light candles at a special service for their missing child. What’s healing for the parent may not be healing for a surviving sibling. That’s OK.  Do the same for family gatherings.  Don’t force a sibling to contribute a “favorite memory” or “story” during a family memorial time.
  • Grant space and remain flexible.  Things that sound like a good idea while still far off on the calendar can feel overwhelming as the day approaches.  Sometimes no matter how much I WANT to do something, I. just. can’t.  It’s the same for surviving siblings.  Be gracious and allow for changing feelings/circumstances.  They may truly wish they could commit or participate but realize that when the day is here, they just don’t have the emotional energy to do it.
  • On the other hand, be alert if a child withdraws completely.  Withdrawal may be a silent scream for help.  The pain may have become too great to process but the child doesn’t know how to ask for help.  You are the parent.  You can’t “fix” your child.  But you can take him or her by the hand and lead them to someone who can discern the best way to give them the skills to cope with the loss of their sibling.
  • Affirm your living child(ren).  Let them know that you love them in ways that are most meaningful to them.  Every person has a unique “love language”-a preferred way to be loved.  Learning what speaks to your child(ren)’s heart helps to ensure that they don’t feel forgotten or overlooked even as you grieve the child that is missing from your family circle.
  • Express appreciation for your child(ren)’s continued support for your own grief. My kids are a vital part of my grief support system-just as I am for them.  We all love Dominic and our hearts all hurt and miss him.  I am thankful every minute of every day that they listen to me, let me cry and love me through hard moments.
  • Understand that sometimes your surviving child(ren) might need to leave the missing sibling behind or set him or her aside for an event or celebration.  It’s hard to remain in the shadow of “the one gone before”.  They may not want that special day to be referenced as “so many days/months/years since we lost ______”.  Of course our mama or daddy hearts can’t help but think of it that way!  BUT-this is THEIR day, THEIR moment.  Let them have it.  It takes nothing away from your love for the missing child to affirm and lavish love on the child you can still hold.
  • Remember, that just like for you-each year may be different.  What works one time may not work this time.  Extend, and be willing to receive, grace  

I am trying hard to love and honor and support the children still with me and also make room for Dominic, who lives in our hearts.

It’s a delicate balancing act on a spiderweb of intersecting strings-I’m still learning and it’s hard.  

But love is ALWAYS worth the cost.

ann voskamp love will always cost you grief

 

 

How Many Children Do You Have?

A friend shared this poem recently.  I had never read it before but it spoke to my heart.
Whenever someone asks, “How many children do you have?”
I always give the true answer, ” I have four children.”
Because I do.
we-are-seven-1
We Are Seven

By William Wordsworth

———A simple Child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?

I met a little cottage Girl:
She was eight years old, she said;
Her hair was thick with many a curl
That clustered round her head.

She had a rustic, woodland air,
And she was wildly clad:
Her eyes were fair, and very fair;
—Her beauty made me glad.

“Sisters and brothers, little Maid,
How many may you be?”
“How many? Seven in all,” she said,
And wondering looked at me.

“And where are they? I pray you tell.”
She answered, “Seven are we;
And two of us at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea.

“Two of us in the church-yard lie,
My sister and my brother;
And, in the church-yard cottage, I
Dwell near them with my mother.”

“You say that two at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea,
Yet ye are seven! I pray you tell,
Sweet Maid, how this may be.”

Then did the little Maid reply,
“Seven boys and girls are we;
Two of us in the church-yard lie,
Beneath the church-yard tree.”

“You run about, my little Maid,
Your limbs they are alive;
If two are in the church-yard laid,
Then ye are only five.”

“Their graves are green, they may be seen,”
The little Maid replied,
“Twelve steps or more from my mother’s door,
And they are side by side.

“My stockings there I often knit,
My kerchief there I hem;
And there upon the ground I sit,
And sing a song to them.

“And often after sun-set, Sir,
When it is light and fair,
I take my little porringer,
And eat my supper there.

“The first that died was sister Jane;
In bed she moaning lay,
Till God released her of her pain;
And then she went away.

“So in the church-yard she was laid;
And, when the grass was dry,
Together round her grave we played,
My brother John and I.

“And when the ground was white with snow,
And I could run and slide,
My brother John was forced to go,
And he lies by her side.”

“How many are you, then,” said I,
“If they two are in heaven?”
Quick was the little Maid’s reply,
“O Master! we are seven.”

“But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!”
’Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, “Nay, we are seven!”

Source: The Longman Anthology of Poetry (Pearson, 2006)

 

wisdom-is-often-nearer-when-we-stoop-than-when-we-soar

Falling Leaves

We think leaves fall when we turn the calendar page to Autumn months.

Piles of red, gold and orange land beneath trees that grow increasingly barren until one day they are truly naked.

But leaves begin to fall as early as July-hardly noticed because they drift down lonely, one by one.  

single-leaf

No one is looking for them then.  

And green grass grows tall to hide them.

We think people live to the fullness of years.  They begin in spring and pass through all the seasons before the cold winter claims them.

old-lady

But some survive only one season, or twonever enjoying the fruitful harvest of the latter years the younger years of hard work are meant to produce.

Unlike early falling leaves, early deaths are perceived and acknowledged.

Shocking and unexpected, people gather round to discuss the tragedy, the sorrow and the lost future of one who dies young.

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But then they go away-caught up in the seasons of their own lives.  

And the green grass grows tall to hide the ones who left too soon.

No one is looking for them anymore.  

old homeplace

 

 

Confluence

Like most parents who have buried a child, a line is drawn through my life.

April 12, 2014 changed everything.

Whenever I hear a date or a memory drifts across my mind, I think, “that was so many days, months or years BEFORE or AFTER Dominic left us”.  I can plot events on a calendar like I’m making a history timeline.

Put this one here and that one there. It seems so simple and straightforward 

But daily life is much more complex.  

I live in a world where “before” and “after” run together in a mighty torrent.  And I can’t control the way they mix and churn.

river-rapids

These past few days I’ve been pet sitting for my eldest son, James Michael,  and my daughter-in-law while both are out of town for work training.

They just moved from North Carolina to Florida and are still unpacking.

packing-boxes

So while I’m here I’ve been helping to put things away and clear the boxes.  I decided that working in the office was a good place to start-I figured I couldn’t do much damage by putting books on shelves and pens in cups.

None of these things belonged to Dominic.

But as I opened the boxes I was flooded with memories.  

I found a scrapbook my daughter made for JM’s high school graduation-filled with photos of my three boys-years upon years of adventures, goofy faces, travel and achievement.

Another box held my son’s old Bible with a couple of church bulletins tucked inside.  I was tossed back to the time when we all sat in the same pew, strong voices blending in worship, hands together in service-when I could not have imagined we would be one less-I only dreamed then of adding to the family, not taking away.

There was the graduation program from Auburn School of Veterinary Medicine.

james-michael-grad-auburn

Just weeks after burying Dominic we were celebrating the culmination of four years’ hard work.  It was supposed to be a rip-roaring party, but it was a quiet dinner instead.  

And then onto the mementos marking James Michael’s transitions since then:  from single to married; from sheriff’s deputy to Air Force captain; from West Virginia to North Carolina to Florida.

All important events that were missing Dominic.

Celebrations and achievements that were a bit smaller because we are fewer.

Even as nostalgia swept over me, excitement also filled my heart because James Michael and his wife were beginning a new chapter.

I was happy to be helpful.  

Encouraged that I could be of use in this season where many times I feel useless.

And I thought about rivers-rivers of time, of memories, of experience and of dreams.

Confluence:   a coming or flowing together, meeting, or gathering at one point, especially of two rivers of equal strength.

This is where I find myself right now-swimming, drifting, sometimes drowning in the rivers

of “what was”

and “what is yet to be”

as they join in the “right now”.

 

 

 

The Forgotten Ones: Grieving Siblings

I am always afraid that Dominic will be forgotten.  

I’m afraid that as time passes, things change and lives move forward, his place in hearts will be squeezed smaller and smaller until only a speck remains.

Not in my heart, of course.

Or in the hearts of those closest to him, but in general-he will become less relevant.

But he is not the only one who can be forgotten.  I am just as fearful that my living children will be forgotten.

Not in the same way-they are HERE.

They are participating in life and making new memories, new connections and strengthening old ones.

I’m afraid their grief will be overlooked, unacknowledged-swept under the giant rug of life and busyness that seems to cover everything unpleasant or undervalued.

If the course of a bereaved parent’s grief is marked by initial outpouring of concern, comfort and care followed by the falling away of friends, family and faithful companionship then that of a bereaved sibling is doubly so.

Surviving children often try to lessen a grieving parent’s burden by acting as if “everything is OK”.

But it’s not-it is definitely NOT.

missing them from your side

Their world has been irrevocably altered.  They have come face-to-face with mortality, with deep pain, with an understanding that bad things happen-happen to people they love-without warning and without remedy.

They are forced to rethink their family, their faith and their future without a life-long friend and companion.

Part of their history is gone.

If surviving children are young, it can be so, so easy to mistake the natural enthusiasm and excitement of youth for complete healing.  They are often busy with events, education, work and life and the grief they still feel may go unnoticed-even by themselves.

But they need safe, consistent and compassionate care while they navigate grief and the enduring impacts of sibling loss.  School counselors, grief counselors or mature and emotionally stable adult friends can be very helpful during this process.

It’s important to be alert to danger signals.  Behavioral impacts may present in many ways:

  • Anxiety (situational, tests, generalized)
  • Risk taking
  • Isolation
  • Inability to enjoy previously enjoyable activities
  • Withdrawal from family or friends
  • Depression
  • Self-harming behavior
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Poor grades (may have given up or may not be able to concentrate)
  • Extreme concern for other family members and their safety

If you observe any of these changes, get help.  A grieving parent is rarely able to be the sole source of intensive counsel for a bereaved child-someone outside the grief circle may be a better choice.

Adult children-even those married and with kids of their own-are also changed forever by saying “good-bye” to a brother or sister.  Addiction, depression and physical health issues can surface in the wake of loss.  

It’s not always easy to connect the dots back to grief since life is full of stress and strain and they may need help.

My children have been blessed to have friends and loved ones who give them a safe place to go when grief overwhelms them or when other stressors on top of grief make life really hard.

If you know a bereaved sibling:

  • Reach out.
  • Be an encourager.
  • Don’t assume that because time has gone by, they are all better.
  • They may not want to talk about it and that’s OK.  But if they do, listen.  Without platitudes, without judgement-just be a safe place.
  • And if you notice something that’s just not “quite right” try to get them the help they may need to make it through this hard place.

Bereaved families are often doing the best they can, but they can’t do it alone.  

When you bless my earthly children, you bless me.  When you give them space to grieve, you give me space to breathe. When you encourage them, you encourage my heart too.

Don’t forget them.  

Please.  

 

 

 

It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over

I hear you, mama.  That baby toddling away from the security of your arms-you miss those close snuggles and slobbery kisses.  But he’s not really LEAVING, he’s just growing.

cartoon baby

I know, I know.

First day of school blues.

Where did the time go?  How can you drop that little girl off at the front door and trust that her teacher will take care of her as well as mom?  She’s getting older, but she isn’t outside your influence.

cartoon male graduate

Oh my goodness!! Already graduating high school?  Moving out and going to college!  No more daily chats face-to-face across the kitchen table.  No more late night confession sessions.

He’s a young man, pulling away, making big decisions without you, but he’ll be home for Christmas and summer vacation.

 

 

For all you mamas lamenting the passage of time and the upheavals it brings I have a word: It’s NOT over.

Your child is still within reach.  You can call or text or visit.  You can touch his face, hug her neck, hear his voice.

Life is changing but it is still LIFE.

Feeling a little nostalgic for what WAS is perfectly normal.  Most of us humans aren’t that fond of change.

But children are ours for a season, not forever.  

They are given to us as gifts, not possessions.

For some mamas, like me, it really IS over.

The son I brought home from the hospital, the boy I watched grow and mature into a young man, the confident college graduate I saw drive away to start law school-he is gone.

I can’t call or text or visit him.

I can’t forge a different kind of  relationship across the miles or make special arrangements for him to travel home for the holidays.

I can’t make new memories or take new photographs.  I can’t hug his neck or hear his voice.

So it’s OK to feel a little sad that things are changing.  It’s like moving furniture around in the room-you stub your toe in the dark because things aren’t where they used to be.  

But for me, it’s like the house has burned down.

I felt a pinch in my heart every now and then as my children grew and more and more of their lives were spent away from me.  But I also celebrated each milestone, made much (and still do) of each achievement.

I didn’t want them to be frozen in time, stuck on a shelf, kept “small”.

Enjoy the time you have with your babies, with your children, with your teens-embrace the growing independent persons they are becoming.  

As long as they are walking the earth with you, nothing is OVER,  it’s just the beginning of something new.   

caterpillar thought it was over

 

 

 

 

Helping My Children Walk Through Grief

Bereaved parents often have several tasks before them in the days and months and years following the death of a child.  And one of them is to help their surviving children navigate loss.

I have three earthbound children.  And they are grieving.

Their world changed in the same instant mine did.  Their hearts are broken too.

I found it hard to watch the pain I saw written on the faces of my kids.  Harder still to know that as much as I wanted to be the guide in this situation, I was as lost as they were. My mama instincts demanded that I “make it better” -but I was and am, powerless to do that.

So I settled on being honest.

I decided that I wouldn’t hide my sorrow or my struggle in an attempt to protect them.

Because, really, how could I protect a heart that had been introduced so forcefully to the truth that WE ARE NOT IN CONTROL?

How could I try to manage their sorrow when mine was overflowing?

I acknowledged the pain-the pain of losing Dominic;  the pain of not being able to say, “good-bye”; the pain of never knowing exactly what had happened; the pain of feeling like God had closed His eyes or looked the other way while Dominic ran off the road; and the pain of watching each other in pain with no way to soothe or stop it.

I didn’t draw boundaries around how they were supposed to behave.  

I asked that we not hurt one another in our sorrow-that we not cast blame, that we not lash out-but other than this request, I made room for tears, shouts, pounding of fists or whatever else we needed to do to let out some of the emotion bottled up inside.

I do not insist that they give Sunday School answers to tough questions.  I understand that they are struggling as much as I am. We are all dissecting our faith and our understanding of Who God is, what He is doing, and whether we can trust Him with our hearts again.

We talk-about Dominic and about their lives.  I try to listen.  Sometimes I’m not as good at that as I would hope to be.

I respect their need for space or their need for companionship.  I haven’t tried to be the sole source of support for any of them.

I’m not offended if they choose to express grief in ways that are different than my own.

I am well aware that it is likely they will carry this loss for more years than I will and that they must find their own way to bear that burden.

They haven’t only lost a brother, they’ve also lost the family in which they grew up, the parents they used to have and the sense of safety that pervades childhood.  

Their eyes are opened to the fact that bad things happen.

And sometimes bad things happen with no apparent reason and absolutely no forewarning.

We love one another.  We acknowledge the impact Dom’s life and his leaving has left on us. We don’t sweat the small stuff (most of the time).

And we focus on making sure each one of us makes it through.

Family means no one gets left behind or forgotten.

David Ogden Stiers