The Greatest Showman: The Power and Peril of Story

I went to see The Greatest Showman the other day with my daughter.  It was an amazing film-I was drawn into the story and my heart longed to see where it was going and how it would end.

greatest showman movie wide

I highly recommend it for two hours of uplifting entertainment.

But I’ve been thinking about it since.

So I did a little digging into P.T. Barnum’s REAL life story.

As you might imagine, several liberties were taken with actual history in order to create what I saw on the screen.  That’s really just fine.  I knew what I was getting into when I plunked my money down for the ticket.  I had no illusion that I was walking into a history lecture- I understood I was there to be entertained.

When I compared the actual Barnum life story to the tidy, beautiful, uplifting and wonderfully scored musical I had seen in the theater, I found gaping holes.

And most of the holes involved the hard and ugly parts of his story-the parts people don’t like to talk about, much less live through.

While leaving them out or glossing them over with a moment or two of wistful glances for the movie is exactly what I expect from Hollywood, it can condition hearts to expect the same kind of thing in real life.

But real life stories don’t skip over the hard parts.

Real people have to live through the ugly and the painful and the devastating and the doubt and the sorrow.  We don’t get to hop right to the happy ending (if there even IS a happy ending) nor do we get to whitewash the dark truths that inform our experience.

And because we prefer tidy (and happy) endings, bright and sunny days, encouraging and uplifting stories, when we are face to face with a challenging and difficult reality, we often turn away.

If we don’t hear it, it doesn’t matter. 

If we don’t look, it didn’t happen. 

If we wait long enough in our safe cocoon, someone else will deal with it.

Sometimes those of us in the middle of hard stories try to ignore it.  But busyness and distraction do not make bad times better.  Maybe for a moment, but not in the long run.

We’ve got to learn to experience it all, tell it all, be honest about how dark the path, how difficult the journey.

And those who are on the sunny side of the street need to learn to lean into friendship, cross over and offer compassionate companionship to those who are struggling.

Because sooner or later, it will be all of us.

we will all struggle and fall brene brown

Gratitude and Grieving: The Truth Will Set You Free

How much energy do we spend dancing around the truth?  How many times do we gather with family or friends and cast our eyes downward so we can ignore the elephant in the room?  How many shackles would fall away if just one person stood up and said what everyone else was thinking but was afraid to whisper aloud?

As family gathers around the table for Thanksgiving, we all have those subjects no one will touch.  And often they are the very ones that need to be laid bare, talked about and shared.  They are what keep hearts apart even while bodies sit closer than any other time of year.

courage is turning toward hard truth not away

Now I’m no advocate of random outbursts intended to shock and raise a ruckus but I am a firm believer in speaking truth in love.

It’s hard.

In fact, next to carrying this burden of missing, it is the hardest thing I do.

And I am often unsuccessful.

I screw up my courage, practice my speech, lay out the strategy and then crumble, last minute, under dozens of potentially awful outcomes.

What if they get mad?  What if they think I’m crazy, or selfish, or wrong?

Or I DO share and it falls flat because the words I thought would communicate love are misunderstood or misdirected or misapplied.

So instead of helping, I hurt.

But the alternative is this:  we all remain imprisoned behind a wall where freedom is clearly visible on the other side.  We can smell it, almost taste it but not quite touch it.

truth and courage are not always comfortable brene brown

And that is not how I want to live. 

I want to claim the freedom that truth offers.

So this Thanksgiving I will try again:  truth in love. 

Lots and lots of love with truth sprinkled in.  Maybe the sugar in the pie will help. 

I’ll never know if I don’t give it a shot. 

laughter and truth telling

 

 

Gratitude and Grieving: Appreciating What I Have, Acknowledging What I Miss

Gratitude does not undo grief.  

There, I said it.

Gratitude is important.  It is (in my opinion) a necessary ingredient for a healthy and hope-filled and useful life.  It is the key to any real happiness a heart might find on this broken road.

But it cannot fill up the empty place where Dominic used to be.  

Grief does not preclude gratitude.  

Although some broken hearts swear it does.  They have convinced themselves that if they cannot have the one thing they really want, then nothing else matters. 

That’s a lie as well.

Grief is hard.  I am grieved because I no longer have the earthly companionship of one of my children.  But I refuse to dishonor Dominic’s memory and the life he lived by holding onto grief so hard that I squeeze out the love and life that is still available.

I am grateful AND grief-filled. 

I appreciate what I have: 

  • Three amazing children here and one in heaven.
  • A husband who loves me and works hard to provide for me.
  • Family and friends who care about me and love me well.
  • Food.
  • Shelter.
  • A home where animals (wild and otherwise!) bring me great comfort and pleasure.
  • Strength and relatively good health.

I acknowledge what I have lost: 

  • The earthly companionship of my son.
  • The family I once had-we are no longer an unbroken circle.
  • Secure confidence in the future.
  • Sense of who I am.
  • Unbridled joy.

These things are not mutually exclusive.  

Dark and light add contrast.  You need both to see the whole picture.

walked a mile robert browning

If you are struggling and believing either of the lies-that gratitude undoes grief OR that grief precludes gratitude-may I ask you to try something?

Make a list of BOTH.  

Give your heart permission to appreciate what you have AND acknowledge what you’ve lost.  

I truly believe that is the healing path.  

Holidays and Grief: Thanksgiving Plan

Thanksgiving is hard on my heart.

My birthday is usually close to, and sometimes on, Thanksgiving.  So we often celebrate them together.  What makes that especially painful for me since Dominic ran ahead to heaven is that the last birthday before he left was a surprise party at his apartment.

It was wonderful and loud and fun and filled with laughter and love. 

So all those good but achingly hard memories are wrapped up with the turkey and dressing.  

Thanksgiving has also been our family’s favorite holiday for opening our home to people.  No gift-giving expectations and abundant food made adding another chair to the table easy and fun.  Internationals, singles, widowers, and other families often joined us cramming the house as full as our stomachs.

So now when the gathering is intimate and one chair left unfilled, it echoes loudly to my heart that things are oh, so different!  

empty chair

The first year after Dominic ran ahead, we went out of town.  Our eldest son had married that summer and we visited him and his wife in West Virginia.  A power outage that lasted through Thanksgiving Day evening was a welcome, if slightly annoying, diversion from the heaviness of the first real holiday without Dominic.  Traveling used up some of what would have been long, empty days.  So, for us, it was the best thing to do that year.

The second year we kind of muddled through with a facsimile of years past.  it was a struggle and not at all comfortable for my heart.  I don’t really know what I was thinking or not thinking that year-the second year found me more anxious, less able to deal with my sadness and overwhelmed by unexpected grief waves that swept me under before I knew it.

The third year some very special friends invited us to join them for Thanksgiving.  They fixed all the food and we crowded together in their daughter’s apartment, packed in but jolly and very well loved.  Getting there involved an unpleasant and emotional discussion with extended family.  But the day was redeemed and it was exactly what I needed last year.

This year-well-I’m not entirely sure just yet. 

There are a number of factors keeping us from making definitive plans. My mother is still unwell and not able to travel.  One son will most likely be absent.  Some friends may need a place to land and a table around which to gather.

So my plan is to have a plan by early next week.  

I’ve done a few things so far:  purchased pretty paper plates, baked some goodies and put them in the freezer, got my Thanksgiving cards out (remember-I’m sending them instead of Christmas cards this year!), washed the big windows in the kitchen and living room, and begun putting out feelers to the lonely and abandoned in our circle to see if they are interested in coming for a meal.

The meal is the easy part.  Because in the end, as long as it ends with pie and chocolate, who really cares what you eat beforehand? 🙂

The hard part is the conversations. 

brene brown vulnerablity sounds like truth

The way I have to remind even those closest to me that this year will be just. as. hard. as every other year since Dominic left us.  The way I have to breathe deep and swallow words so I don’t burst out crying at the mention of who’s coming and who’s not-because Dominic will never come again.  The way I have to be very, very careful to balance all the emotional needs of family members and try to respect various requests for what’s important to their hearts.

I remind myself that I am not the focus of every event or holiday.  I am not the only one carrying emotional or physical burdens that require accommodation.  I am not given a pass to act ugly or pitch a fit or crawl in a hole and hide just because I buried a child.  

So I try to think ahead, ask ahead, make my needs known ahead and then I participate as fully as I can-with a smile and an open heart to the ones that still gather.

I refuse to turn every holiday into a battle and every meal into uncomfortable silence where people are afraid to say anything for fear of hurting my feelings.  

I honor Dominic by honoring those I have left. 

My heart may be broken, but it is also blessed.

I won’t let one overshadow the other.  

thanksgiving psalm 30_4

 

 

An Open Letter to the Mom Who Was Almost Me

I hesitated to post this but plunged ahead for two reasons:

  • I want my friends to know that I welcome the opportunity to pray for them and their children-my heart longs to join in petition for the life of another mother’s child.
  • But it still hurts to hear too much detail about some things-you have no idea how well my imagination can fill in the gaps in stories of twisted metal and almost death.

So here it is.  I hope you receive it as it’s intended. ❤

heart baloon girl

Dear Mom Whose Son Survived the Accident,

I want you to know that I am beyond thankful that you will be spared my pain.  I prayed for your son as you requested-begged God to spare him.

They say misery love company but I say misery loves comfort.

I do not want one more parent to know the heartache of child loss.

Given the chance, I would not hesitate a moment to answer the Miss America question:  “If you could do one thing in the world to make it a better place, what would it be?” 

“I would make sure no parent ever had to bury a child.”

Not from disease.

Not from starvation.

Not from war or natural disaster or accidents.

No more out of order deaths!

Every parent would go to his grave assured his son or daughter would continue to carry the family legacy.

But that’s not possible.  So I rejoiced extra hard when YOUR son had that awful accident, yet lived.

You get to visit him in the hospital, take him home with medicine and physical therapy.  I met my son in the funeral home and could only choose a casket for his final resting place.

You will have this holiday season tempered by the shadow of what might have happened, but rejoicing in a second chance to make new memories.

This will be my fourth set of holidays without my son-without his presence at the table, his face around the Christmas tree, his stocking limp and empty because there’s nothing left for me to give him.

You were impatient when I asked you to respect how difficult it is for me to hear the details of your son’s accident.  Even in my joy that you will be spared my fate, it hurts to hear how close you came.  You were offended and that really hurt my heart.

I didn’t contact you; you contacted me.

I didn’t ask you to pray for me, you asked me to pray for you.

And I did. 

And I will.

Because even if you are insensitive, ungrateful and inconsiderate, I will ask God to continue to protect your son-that’s what a broken heart does.

It begs for mercy.

Love, 

A Broken Hearted Mama ❤

look into your own heart and refuse to inflict that pain

 

 

Zero Points for Pretending: You Can’t Hide Your Heart

Oh, sometimes I think I’m clever enough to do it.

I edit my words, costume my body and fix my face so  I can act the part.  But truth is, I never manage to fool anyone who looks closer than my plastic smile.

I can’t hide my heart.

And I don’t know why I try-I don’t get points for pretending.

There’s no prize at the end of this long road for the one who makes it with fewest tears.

No one offers me any token for the months or years or decades I make it without breaking down or cracking up.

exhausted-over-trying-to-be-stronger-than-i-feel

But I damage my own soul by shoving the feelings deep.  I clog my arteries by swallowing every angry word.  Sorrow turns to despair which turns to hopelessness if I never let it out.

And like it or not, it leaks out somewhere.

So I’m learning to speak my truth, to name my feelings and express them in healthy ways: 

  • I journal.
  • I share in safe spaces like bereavement groups and my church small group.
  • I exercise-which helps to burn off “steam” or just that awful sense of discomfort when darker feelings overwhelm my heart.
  • I build rest into my day along with silence so my mind and heart get a break from constant self-restraint and editing needed during conversation.
  • I read helpful articles and books.
  • I write this blog.
  • And when I need to, I talk to someone who is making my journey more difficult and try to work it out.

All of this takes energy and effort when I have the least of either to spare.  But the alternative is too grim to consider.  

I don’t want to walk the rest of my years carrying more heartache than that of child loss-which is heavier than I could ever have imagined. 

I choose to shed the extra pounds of emotional baggage I can leave by the roadside.

I won’t hide my heart.  

feel deal heal

 

Feel and Deal to Heal

If I touch a hot stove my hand jerks away almost before my mind registers the searing pain.  It’s reflex.  Our bodies were designed to react to and protect us from things that cause pain.

Run away.  Don’t go back.  Set up barricades and warning signs so that others can be protected.

Most of the time, this reaction serves us well.

But sometimes those reflexes keep us from healing.

Anyone who’s had major surgery knows that when the nurses come in the next morning saying, “We’re going to get you out of bed today!”, the last thing you want to do is swing your legs over and stand up.  It HURTS!

We want to avoid what hurts, not embrace it.

So it’s no surprise that when we suffer deep emotional wounds, our first response is to try to run away or bury them or ignore them.  The last thing we want to do is face them.

But if I am to heal, I have to face them.  I have to take hold of each place where the dagger of grief and sorrow and regret and anger has pierced my heart and examine it closely.  I have to decide what to do with it, how to integrate it into my life after loss.

Grief is work!  That is one of the reasons grievers need solitude as well as companionship on this journey.  And that is why grief can’t be hurried along.  It takes a great deal of time to do the work grief requires.

If instead of facing our pain, we try to run away or distract ourselves or numb ourselves with alcohol, food or drugs, we only prolong the process.  Grief will not be ignored forever.

healing doesnt mean damage never existed

We must FEEL what we need to feel.

Then we must DEAL with those feelings-it might mean seeking a professional counselor or a trusted friend.  Online or in-person grief support groups are a wonderful resource. Journaling can help too.  But we have got to acknowledge and work through these feelings.

And then we can begin to HEAL  Hearts that have embraced and made some sense of grief can begin to beat again.  They can begin to love again and feel joy again.  They can learn to carry both sorrow and happiness-to remember and honor the missing child while also honoring and loving family and friends still here.

It’s not a “once and done” exercise.

I have repeated these steps over and over in the nearly three and a half years since Dominic ran ahead to heaven.  New feelings show up at the door of my heart and I have to choose to feel them, to search for what they mean and why they are here and then allow them to be woven into the fabric of who I am NOW-this side of child loss.

It takes courage and stamina and determination, but it is the only way forward.  

owning-our-story-and-loving-ourselves-through-the-process