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

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn?

What blessing is there in mourning?  What comfort in distress?  What good can come from pain and brokenness?

Good questions.

Honest questions.

Questions I have asked God. 

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”~Jesus

The folks that followed Him up the hill were part of a nation that had waited centuries for deliverance from sin and persecution.  Jesus was surrounded by people powerless to change their circumstances. They were grieving, mourning, in distress.

So when He said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” He was offering real hope to the brokenhearted. He was issuing an invitation…

When we  reach the end of our own strength in grief, God invites us into a fellowship of suffering that includes Jesus Christ.

Burying a child is a humbling experience.  It is teaching me that I am powerless and oh, so dependent on the grace and mercy of God.

My heart was broken open wide to receive the truth that fierce love makes me vulnerable to deep pain.

And the pain cleared the clutter and noise of the everyday to focus my mind’s attention and my heart’s affection on the eternal.

My life is swept clean of distraction and foolish things and filled with new understanding of what is important and lasting.

My pain has not disappeared.

But it is making room for the God of all comfort to fill it with hope:

That what I am feeling right now is not forever and forever is going to be glorious…

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. Revelation 21:4 KJV

 

 

 

 

 

Handle With Care

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.

Heart of Flesh

We see the news, we hear the numbers, we count the dead.  We thank God that it wasn’t our friend, our husband, our child.

But it is someone’s child…every person is someone’s child.

I knew when Dominic died I wasn’t the only mama who had to open the door to a police officer with the news every parent fears. Mamas around the world bury their children.   Many because of hunger, or for lack of clean water or the most basic healthcare.

Last night many died because of violence.

In our hyper-connected world, it is so easy to become numb, to become hard.  I can shut down and shut out the things I don’t want to hear, don’t want to think about.

But it doesn’t make them go away.  

So I ask for grace to care.  To love.  To pray–not only for the victims of the violence, but for the families of the perpetrators as well.

No one is so far away from God that His love and mercy can’t reach them still.  

“LORD, take my heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh.  Make me tender-help me mourn.  Stir me to prayer and action.  Give me hands that reach for those who hurt and feet that rush in when others run away.  Fill my lips with words of life so that those who have lost hope will know that You are God.”

Grief Dance

Grief sways to a rhythm of its own.  Hard to follow, impossible to second guess.  I step on my toes trying to keep up and find 

that often I fall flat on my face.

When Dominic applied to the University of Alabama Law School, he had to submit a personal statement.  The idea was to give the selection committee insight into intangibles that might make a prospective student a good candidate for the program.

Dominic wrote about being a drummer.

He made the case that percussion is the heartbeat of music.  It marks the pace, leads the way.  If a drummer misses a beat, it can throw the whole band into confusion.

My life as a bereaved mother feels like music that can’t find its way.

There is melody and harmony and sometimes sweet singing–but I can’t discern a rhythm and I don’t know where it’s going. Discord clangs loudly in the background.

These years were supposed to be the ones where I swayed instinctively in well-worn paths to familiar tunes.

Not ones in which I had to learn a brand new step to a song I don’t even like.

But dance I must, so I do my best to move to this broken rhythm.

A Spoonful of Sugar

“Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down…’~Mary Poppins

It’s a wonderful thought–that even the bitterest medicine can be made tolerable by a tiny taste of sweetness.  But it’s not true.

Some things are too hard to swallow no matter how you try to disguise them.

Losing  a child is one of them.

I have been a student of the Bible for decades-I take Scripture seriously, believe it with my whole heart and trust that the truth it contains is necessary and sufficient for this life and the life to come.  But when Dominic died, I found I was forced to look again at verses I thought I understood.

There is no easy answer for why children die–no sweet saying that can wash away the pain and the sorrow and the regret of burying your son.

But I know this:  if my healing depends on me, I am lost.

If the God of heaven is not the God of all, then I have no hope.

If Jesus didn’t really come, and die and rise again, I have nothing to look forward to.

Ann Lamott recounts this tale in her book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith:

“There’s a lovely Hasidic story of a rabbi who always told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put Scripture on their hearts. One of them asked, “Why on our hearts, and not in them?” The rabbi answered, “Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your heart, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.”

I can’t paste a Bible verse on my broken heart like a Band-aid on a skinned knee–the wound is too great and the damage too extensive.

So I will wait for the holy words to fall inside.

We are Not Home Yet

“Are we there yet?” * “I’m tired.” * “I’m hungry!” * “I need to go to the bathroom!!” 

When I was young, my family took many cross-country trips from Alabama to Arizona and back again.

My dad would hand me the map and a small calculator (one of the first-with only a few buttons and no fancy functions!) and tell me to add up the miles to our next stopping place.  It required focused concentration and careful calculation, but I was rewarded with an accurate assessment of where we were and how much farther we had to go.  Then I could count the mile-markers and measure our progress.

I had a sense of where I was going and how much longer it would take to get there.

I don’t want to be the whiny kid in the backseat, but my grief journey has me crying daily, “Am I there yet?!”

I am confident of where I am going but there’s

no map,

no mile markers and

no real way to measure my progress.

I can’t calculate how long I have to wait to see my son again and I can’t foresee what twists and turns this road may take.  I grow tired and impatient and uncomfortable.

I know each day brings me closer to the moment when my family will be reunited and whole.  Sunrise to sunrise is twenty-four hours less that I have to wait until eternity swallows my pain and longing.  Every revolution of the earth moves me toward the finish line of victory over death.

God has not ordained that I know when this journey will end, so I concentrate my focus on truth and lean into the promises of Scripture:

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for

and assurance about what we do not see.

This is what the ancients were commended for.

Hebrews 11:1 NIV

Steven Curtis Chapman sings a song: We Are Not Home Yet.

It helps me remember that my life is a journey, not a destination.

My true home is heaven and there all things will be redeemed and restored.

Today

Simon Peter answered Him, ” Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that You are the Holy One of God.” – John 6:68

“What else can I do but keep praying to You even when I feel dark; to keep writing about You even when I feel numb; to keep speaking Your name even when I feel alone. Come, Lord Jesus come. Have mercy on me, a sinner. ” -Henri Nouwen

 

Soldier On

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

Jar of Clay

I’m not comfortable with helplessness.  It forces me to accept I’m fragile and made of clay.

It’s scary.

But it’s the truth.

I am helpless to change the fact that my son is dead.  I am helpless to lift the burden of grief that my husband and surviving children must bear.

I am helpless to mend my own broken heart.

The only thing I can do is purpose to persevere and cast myself on the grace and mercy of God—to trust in His goodness and believe that my being broken allows His light to shine through the cracks:

 The Scriptures say, “God commanded light to shine in the dark.” Now God is shining in our hearts to let you know that his glory is seen in Jesus Christ.

 We are like clay jars in which this treasure is stored. The real power comes from God and not from us.  We often suffer, but we are never crushed. Even when we don’t know what to do, we never give up.  In times of trouble, God is with us, and when we are knocked down, we get up again.

~2 Corinthians 4:6-9 CEV