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.

The Wilderness of Grief

I was fifty when Dominic died. I had lived long enough to experience first-hand, and through others, the impact of loss on life and love.

Studying for my psychology degree exposed me to the stages of grief and the typical, observed behavior and emotions that a person experiences when faced with the death of a loved one. So even in the midst of hearing the most terrible news of my life, I thought I knew a little about what to expect.

But there are secrets that no one tells you.

Feelings that lie in wait to ambush you.  Overwhelming changes alter the way you see, hear, experience the world and think.

Grief turns the landscape of your life into a wilderness that is suddenly unfamiliar and often threatening.  The landmarks you depended on for navigation from one day to the next are swept away in a flood and you stand, bewildered in the midst of this strange place wondering how you got here and what you must do to escape.

There is no escape.

I can’t take a shortcut through this altered world.  I can’t close my eyes, click my heels and say, “There’s no place like home” to be transported back to BEFORE THE ACCIDENT. 

It feels like I live in a place where many speak a foreign language of petty grievances, first world problems and longing for bigger, better things.  I struggle to remain connected but find that I just can’t relate anymore.

Talking on the phone for more than ten minutes makes me feel trapped and anxious even when I wish I could listen to the voice on the other end forever.

I used to be able to make myself at home in any group and start conversations with strangers in a grocery line.  Now I feel isolated and insulated and it is hard to reach out.

I take quiet delight in the moments when I see or hear my surviving children laugh, when there is a small shaft of light in the shadows that define our days.

I try to forge new paths in this scary place so that my feet won’t stumble and my heart won’t fail.  I can only lean harder on the One Who made me and trust that following Him will lead me home.

“The Lord God is my strength: and he will make my feet like the feet of harts: and he the conqueror will lead me upon my high places singing psalms.”

Habakkuk 3:19

No Redshirts Here

If you are a Star Trek fan, you get the reference.  In most episodes involving fear of mortal danger, the landing team included several main characters and one or two “redshirts”.  Those were the expendable crewmen (or women)–the ones you knew would take the fatal hit and fade into the story background.  There might be a moment when Captain Kirk or Spock or Dr. McCoy were threatened, but in your heart you just knew that they would be safe because, after all, there’s next week’s episode.

In some ways, this mentality crept into my life.  The people I love are too important, too central to my life to die.  Sure, eventually, we all leave this earth. But not today, not without warning.

And not in the middle of the story.

I resisted the truth that “life is but a vapor”.  I acknowledged it in my head but ignored it in my heart.

I’m here to tell you–life is a vapor…it can be gone as quickly as the morning mist and there is no getting it back.

I console myself that Dominic knew I loved him.  Because I told him so–in person, on the phone and in messages.  I couldn’t save him from death, but am spared at least that one regret.  

If you knew that today would be the last day you would be with someone, what would you do differently?  What would you say? What would you choose not to say?

We never know.  Even anticipated deaths are often unexpected.  Age and illness seem like creeping things until the moment they strike the final blow.

There are no red shirts in real life.  No telltale symbol to clue us in to who will be here tomorrow and who will enter eternity today. Babies aren’t born with expiration dates.

Choose to honor the ones that are important to you.

Leave in love.  Part in peace.

Thankful But Broken

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday.

My birthday sometimes falls on the day itself, and I have often been able to celebrate with extended family and friends-a full table of food and a full house of fellowship.

I love the colors of fall, the scents of cinnamon and pumpkin, the freedom from gift-giving pressures that lets me focus on the people in my life.

A few years ago, Ann Voskamp’s book, One Thousand Gifts, was published sparking a renewed interest in the Christian community to focus on thankfulness as a way to open our hearts to the goodness and faithfulness of God and to open our hands and lives to serve others from our bounty.

An invitation to trust and not be afraid.

Across social media, people began to post , “Today I am thankful for___________.” Instagram.  Facebook.  Twitter.  Good stuff, and good reminders.

And I am thankful.

Really.

I am thankful that my family has managed to survive the loss of Dominic without going crazy  or becoming bitter or running away. We continue to support, love and care for one another.

I am thankful for the few, special friends who have made it a priority to visit me, love me and give me a safe space to vent my grief.

I am thankful that I have food to eat, a place to live and clothes to wear.

I am thankful for my Bible, the one I got while carrying Dominic beneath my heart-the one filled with notes, prayers and underlined passages-because it reminds me that God is still God even when I can’t feel Him.

But I am broken.

Truly.

Losing a child, not being able to save the life your love created, not being there when he breathed his last, not holding his hand as he entered eternity-that is humbling.

My November and Thanksgiving will be quieter than in years past.

No daily posts.  No long lists.

I will lean in and listen hard for the whispered promises that one day heartache will end.

I will open my heart and hand to a hurting world.

I will trust and not be afraid.

Walking The Balance Beam

One reason grief is so exhausting is that every step I take is on a balance beam of faith and hope.

I must navigate every necessary task without falling off.

According to one sports writer, “The balance beam is often regarded as the most difficult event in women’s gymnastics at any level of competition. At only four inches wide and four feet off the ground, there’s barely enough space for a person’s foot to fit on the beam let alone enough room to flip and dance.”

But an average competitive routine lasts only 30 to 90 seconds.

I will have to walk this narrow way the rest of my life.

Despair lies in wait on my left.  One misstep and I’m lost.  Down on the ground, hurting and hopeless.  Doubt, guilt, anger and grief threaten to drag me into a pit so deep there’s no way out.

Delusion calls from the right.

Singing a lullaby to my wounded heart-he’s not really gone.  “Can’t you feel him in the wind?  See him in the clouds?” It would be so easy to just step off the rational and faithful path and embrace some fluffy facsimile of biblical truth.

The solid beam is my faith and hope in Jesus Christ.

That what He said is true.

That what He promises will come to pass.

That even though I cannot see proof of life after death, it exists and Dominic is experiencing it.

That, like David said when his baby died, “He cannot come to me, but I can go to him.”

It takes every fiber of my being to focus my will and to direct my attention to the Truth.

Many nights I fall asleep reciting Scripture.  Many mornings I wake before the sun and remind myself that even in the dark, God reigns.

So when you see me and I look tired-I am.

But I wait in hope for the LORD…

   We wait in hope for the LORD;  He is our help and our shield.
 In Him our hearts rejoice,
    for we trust in His holy name.
 May your unfailing love be with us, LORD,
    even as we put our hope in you.

Psalm 33:20-22 NIV

Broken Hearts Still Beat

When Dominic was born by c-section, they placed the epidural too high and I was unable to feel my chest rise and fall as I continued to breathe.  It was a frightening experience.  But I WANTED to keep breathing-because I wanted to touch this new life coming into the world and into our family.

When the sheriff came to tell us that Dominic had been killed, I was sure that I wasn’t breathing and my heart stopped beating. I wanted to escape the pain that filled my heart, my soul, my bones.

I think most bereaved mothers will tell you they have absolutely NO IDEA how their bodies continue to live and carry this heavy burden.  We do it for those still here and because having felt the pain of being left behind, our mama hearts want to spare the ones we love as long as we can. But rest assured, it is a daily struggle to decide that we will go on.

I’m not breathing.
They assure me that I am.
My heartbeat thumps the truth for all to hear.
A welcome wail ushers his life into the spotlight of this wide world.
I’m not breathing.
They assure me that I am.
My lungs draw air against my will and my better judgment.
An anguished cry marks the end of his earthly life.
I am breathing.
My body refusing to keep pace with my broken heart.

november 7, 2014

Oaks of Righteousness

We love to see majestic oaks and drink in the beauty of the curving branches and sit beneath the shade of their spreading canopy.  It takes decades for these mighty trees to grow large enough to command attention.  Harsh weather forms the branches into lovely shapes pleasing to the eye.

They stand as a testimony to endurance and strength.

Thirteen years before Dominic’s accident and death, God gave me this scripture when naming our farm-Isaiah 61:1-3:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
    and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.

At the time, I focused on the glorious picture of finished oaks of righteousness.

In these months after our son’s death, I have begun to understand that the path to displaying the splendor of the faithfulness and father-heart of God is one of mourning, ashes and despair.  Unless I am willing to die to my idea of what life should be and what God should do, I can’t be transformed into the fruit-bearing vessel of grace He intends me to be.

It isn’t easy.  I’m still working to embrace this every day-I continue to rail against the fact that this is my life-but grace is seeping into the broken places.

I trust that God will continue to sustain me by His unfailing love and that one day I will be able to stand as a testimony to faithful endurance and the power of His strength.