Dropping the Mask

Despite my commitment to authenticity, I do have a plastic smile I can pull out of my pocket and slap across my face.

Sometimes I just don’t want to have to have to answer the question, “How are you?” with more than a nod and a wave.

I tell myself that it demonstrates maturity and self-control.

And I actually think that’s OK. I don’t always need to spill my guts to every unsuspecting stranger I meet.

But if I allow it to become a habit or use it as camouflage to keep my distance from my fellow man, it is unhelpful.  It gives the false impression that life is mostly smooth sailing, when that’s just not true so much of the time.

And it builds a wall between me and others.

Because if the people I meet think that I have it all together all the time, they are going to be much less likely to admit that they don’t.  And let’s be real, none of us have it all together.

We all have at least one place in our lives that hurts and that needs healing.

Everyone has scars.

Losing a child is teaching me many things.  One of the things I am learning is that I am not self-sufficient.  I am not capable of meeting my own needs or bearing my burdens alone.  I need companionship in this journey.

When I walk around with my mask on, I isolate myself from the very people that might help me heal.

It is humbling and sometimes frightening, to let others SEE my brokenness.

I might be inviting judgment and condemnation.  But I am also welcoming love and companionship.  I am opening my heart to the gift of friendship.

When I refuse to pretend, I give permission for others to take off their masks too.

Being real creates space for authentic healing.

It unlocks doors to sharing truth.

Jesus came as God in the flesh so that He could experience our trials, our temptations, our joys and our sorrows. He came to KNOW.

But He also came to make the Father KNOWN.

And He has left His followers to continue making the Father known in the world.

If I want to minister to the painful places in the lives of others, I have to let them see the painful places in my own. I have to drop the mask and reveal my face.  When I do, I invite them to let me help carry their load and to let them help me carry mine.

Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.

Galatians 6:2

 

 

Loving Well: Being a Friend

I’ve thought a great deal about friendship since losing Dominic.  I’ve been blessed by those who have chosen to walk with me and dismayed by some who have walked away.

It takes great courage to sit in silence with those who suffer. We must fight the urge to ward off their pain with chatter. Quiet companionship requires that we allow our hearts to suffer too.

For fifty years I was on the “other side”-the one where I looked on, sad and sometimes horror-stricken, at the pain and sorrow friends or family had to bear.

I wanted to help.

I wanted to say the “right thing”.  I wanted to express how very much my heart hurt for them and that I badly wished I could carry some of their load.

Sometimes I think I did a pretty good job of reaching out and touching the wound and offering a little bit of comfort.  But other times, I would say nothing because I didn’t know what to say.

Now I am the one bent under the burden of grief-my heart and body and soul laboring to carry the weight of burying a child.  And there are those who are brave and reach out to me and offer words or hugs or prayers and their efforts give me strength and comfort.

Walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, these gestures are lights in the darkness, hope for my heavy heart and encouragement for a weary body.

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

It’s tempting to avoid someone when their world is dark.

It’s uncomfortable to choose to enter their pain.  But Jesus has called us to walk beside the suffering, to encourage the disheartened and to lift up the ones who stumble.

There are no magic words to erase heartache.

Only presence.

And isn’t that why Jesus came?

We are most like our Savior when we are willing to leave our place of comfort and venture into the threatening world of another’s pain and suffering.

“Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross”

(Philippians 2:5-8)

Loving Well: Relational Acts of Kindness

Focusing on “Loving Well” has reminded me again of the dear friends and sisters who consistently, compassionately and sacrificially love me just when I need it most. They came last week for a visit and spoke courage to my heart once again.

Loving well takes time and effort and is costly.  But I think we represent Jesus best when we love extravagantly.

“You can always give without loving, but you can never love without giving.”

– Amy Carmichael

I have two very special friends.

After Dominic died and the meals and visits and cards had dwindled and the silence and heartbreak had become oh-so-overwhelming, they came out to spend the day with me.

The whole day.

With me.

With this crying, couldn’t hold it together, didn’t know what to say mama who had buried her son just weeks ago.

They brought lunch.  And let me talk–or not. They didn’t try to fix me, didn’t offer platitudes or Bible verses to smooth things over when conversation lagged.  They hugged me and listened.

And they have been doing this every few weeks since.

It costs them a whole day and it’s 60 miles each way–but they keep coming and keep lifting me up so that grief and sorrow don’t drown me.

Social networks buzz with posts and tweets and Instagrams of “random acts of kindness”. That’s a good thing.

But on a scale of 1 to 10, those are easy.

We pick a stranger, discern a way to help (maybe paying for a meal or a coffee) and then both walk away feeling warm and fuzzy. No relationship, no comm

Relational Acts of Kindness are much harder.

We can’t just do our thing and leave.  Our hearts and resources are going to get tangled up with theirs.

It might get expensive.

That’s what my friends did.  They leaned into relationship with me even though it was messy, and hard, and costly.

So my challenge to you is this:  who do you know that could use a relational act of kindness?  A neighbor?  A distant relative? Someone who sits alone in a pew?

There is no greater kindness than coming alongside someone at just the moment they feel their strength is gone.

I know that without these friends I would not be able to bear my grief nearly so well.  I pray that God will bless them abundantly as they have been a blessing to me.

“Help carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will obey the law of Christ.”  

~Galatians 6:2 GNT

 

Loving Well: Just Say His Name

I know you are afraid.

You think that speaking his name or sharing a memory or sending me a photo will add to my sorrow.

I understand.

But even when it costs me a split second of sharp pain, it is truly a gift to know that Dominic lives on in the hearts and minds of others.  It gives me courage to speak too.  It creates space where I can honor my son.

It helps keep him alive.

“I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” ~Banksy

I know you’re busy.  I know your life is full and bustling with so many people and activities demanding attention that you don’t have any to spare.

It is easy to forget.

He wasn’t your child. The date of his homegoing isn’t etched into the marrow of your bones, it isn’t scribed on the inside of your eyelids.

Every time the calendar screams “12” I make one more chalkmark on my heart counting the days since I saw him last.

But please remember.  Please don’t let the day slip by and not acknowledge that it is as important a milestone to me and my family as his birthday.

I know you’re scared.

Death is scary.  Even for us who trust Jesus.  And the death of a child just trashes the notion that we are in control, that we can fully protect the ones we love from all harm.

But you are frightened of what you cannot comprehend.

I am living the reality of your greatest fear.

Be brave.  Step out and welcome me in.

Give space for the longing to hear my son’s name, to know my son matters, to relive some of the happy moments and funny times and even some of the hard days.

I can sit by myself and remember him.

But sharing him with you breathes life into the recollection and speaks hope to my heart.

It fuels the fire that helps me see that even when I’m not here to carry him into the land of those still living, someone else will do it for me.

Love is stronger than death even though it can’t stop death from happening, but no matter how hard death tries it can’t separate people from love. It can’t take away our memories either. In the end, life is stronger than death.

—Anonymous

 

 

 

 

Love: The Reason I Grieve

If the people we love are stolen from us, the way to have them live on is to never stop loving them.
—James O’Barr

I grieve because I love.

My tears are a gift to the son I miss.  My sorrow honors his memory.  My broken heart gives evidence to the ones walking with me that my love is fierce and timeless.

This love isn’t the romantic, gushy, flowers-and-chocolate love celebrated on Valentine’s Day–but the deep, abiding, sacrificial love that brands a mother’s soul.

The love that began in the first moments of knowing I would welcome a new child into our home.  The love that stayed away from certain foods and suffered through colds without medicine because there was LIFE inside of me–my body was no longer mine alone.

The love that poured forth nourishment from breasts and lived the first months at the mercy of his appetite.

The love that did without sleep–because what is a little rest compared to being solace for my crying child?

I would give anything for my children.  Even my own life.

But in the end, I didn’t have that choice.

Watching the young mother with her infant, the older mama and her child at play in a park, the joy and pride of the even older woman as her son or daughter graduates high school, college or gets married–how could anyone think a mother’s grief could be small?

How can all the love and all the hopes and all the dreams of a mama’s heart be squeezed into days or weeks or months of tears and sorrow?

If my son had lived, the rest of my life would not have been long enough to pour out the love I have for him.

It is not nearly long enough for me to show my surviving children how very much I cherish them.

So my grief will be large and lifelong–as big and unbounded as my love.  

It cannot be anything less.

Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.

—Earl Grollman

 

 

 

 

 

Loving Well: Transitioning From “Good-bye” to Grief

A funeral or memorial service seems like a final chapter.  We close the coffin, close the doors and everyone goes home.

But for bereaved parents and their surviving children, it’s not an end, it is a beginning.

Much like a wedding or birth serves as the threshold to a new way of life, a new commitment, a new understanding of who you are, burying a child does the same.

I walked away from the cemetary overwhelmed by the finality of death–not in a theological sense–I believe firmly that my son lives with Jesus–but with the undeniable fact that he is no longer available to me on this earth.

And in the days afterward, I was struck by the inadequacy of a funeral or memorial service to make space for the deep and ongoing sense of loss and pain and sorrow.

There is a difference between mourning and grief.  Although before losing Dominic I never bothered to notice.

I think we confuse the two on a regular basis.  I know I did.

Mourning is defined as “the outward signs and rituals associated with sorrow for a person’s death.  It is usually limited in time by social conventions or community expectations”.   

Mourning is the more or less public (depending on the family’s choices) “Good-bye” to their loved one.  It’s a circumscribed set of things we do and time we spend welcoming others into the space where we remember, make final arrangements for a body and celebrate the life that has left us.

In most North American communities, we have dispensed with the tradition of draping pictures, windows and ourselves for six months to a year to mark the home and heart of someone who has suffered loss.

What used to be a longer span of time allowing for special accommodations due to grief has now been squeezed into about two weeks.

Our hyper-drive world insists that even parents who bury a child show up to work, begin to participate and act like they have it “together” in public much sooner than our frail human bodies and broken hearts can manage.

Grief is more than a feeling.  It invades your heart, your mind, your body and your soul

Grief is the deep and poignant distress caused by bereavement..

It cannot be circumscribed by time and refuses to limit itself according to the expectations of others or even myself.  It will last (though perhaps not with the same intensity) as long as I live.

Because unlike a funeral, missing my son will not come to an end until I am reunited with him in heaven.

And we need to talk about this.

We need to help ourselves and others understand that grief changes who we are.  It changes how we perceive the world.  It alters our sense of self and impacts our relationships with others.

I am not as fragile as I was just weeks or months after Dominic’s death.  I have learned to put on a smile and pass by his favorite food in the grocery store without crying.  I can remember funny things he said or did without simultaneously experiencing gut-wrenching pain that he is no longer here to do them.

But I am still grieving.  

I am still working out how this missing is weaving itself into the fabric of who I am.

And it is WORK.

Much of the work I have to do on my own–I have to think about and feel and embrace the changes that have been thrust upon me.  But for some of the work, I need the help of others.  I need to be able to speak aloud my thoughts and feelings and receive feedback so that I’m not stuck in unfruitful inner dialogue.

It requires energy and resources.

While I am doing this grief work, my physical, mental, emotional and spiritual energy is largely consumed by it.  I am unavailable more often.  I have a smaller capacity to absorb sudden change and unexpected events. I’m uncomfortable in crowds.  I tire more easily.

And it takes TIME.  

I have discovered that no matter how much I want to speed up this process, it will not be hurried along.  And it proceeds in a “two-steps-forward-one-step-back” fashion so even when I feel I am making progress, I discover I’m not as far along as I think I am or would like to be.

So how to love well at this stage in my grief journey?  When I’m transitioning from “good-bye” to grief?  When I’m trying to understand this new life I never expected to live?

  • Acknowledge my ongoing pain and struggle.
  • Encourage me by allowing me to share honestly.
  • Be patient.  I want to heal but I don’t have control over how long it will take.
  • Don’t shut me out or shut me down.  Grief is uncomfortable for both of us.
  • Remember my son.  I need to know that others miss him too.

Rejoice with those who rejoice [sharing others’ joy], and weep with those who weep [sharing others’ grief].

Romans 12:15 AMP

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Extravagant Love: Tales of Friendship and Encouragement After Losing a Child

When I asked other bereaved parents to share the things people did that blessed them in the wake of losing a child, I didn’t expect so many stories of extravagant love–of acts surpassing anything I could have thought of or imagined.

“After my daughter passed, which was minutes before Mother’s Day 2012, outside the hospital room, my son gave me a handmade Mother’s Day card that he somehow found time to make in all of the chaos. The card spoke of my daughter, me being her mother, and included a beautiful poem he had written that tugged so strongly at the heartstrings. Oh my heart!”

“A couple who had lost their son years earlier, drove two hours just to come and sit with us.  A dear friend took over my life for the next couple of weeks.”

“On my son’s first anniversary date of his passing, a friend of mine organized a candle light vigil outside our house that night. We didn’t know anything about it. When we walked outside our front door that night, there were people on our lawn with candles”.

“One phone call by the Abbott to our church and everyone who needed to know, knew. We didn’t have to make the calls. And the youth pastor, children’s pastor, and each child’s best friend made it to our house within moments of our kids getting the news. Held them while they screamed. Stayed for hours.”

“I was most grateful to the hospice worker who offered to pack up the hospital room for us and deliver our belongings back to us at home.”

“My pastors wife said ‘lean into your grief, and onto the Lord’–these words carry me to this day, almost 7 years later.  My sister came over, and never left my side until after the funeral.”

“My daughter was in a car accident. The owner of the house where the accident was came out held her hand and prayed with her. I am so grateful to him for giving her peace at that moment.”

“A coworker came and she did not come empty-handed, she brought two things: a box of tissues and a bottle of wine. I was grateful for both. She sat and cried with me and I didn’t feel like I had to be brave or consider other people’s feelings if I was breaking down. She didn’t try to hug me or shush me when I would cry– she’d just cried with me, handed me tissues, and she would pour glasses of wine and we would talk and laugh and cry. There was another young lady who came looking for my youngest son who has just lost his only brother and he had locked himself away in his room she pulled us all together and taught us how to play a card game none of us knew how to play.  But it was such a good distraction and it pulled my son out of his self-imposed isolation.”

“To give you some background: it was the summer before my son’s freshman year and we lived in a tourist town on the coast. We were coming back from the bigger hospital he had been transported to. When we crossed the bridge to our hometown, we came up on a group of teenagers. Hundreds of kids and some adults had begun a candlelight walk on the sidewalk that runs pretty much the whole town of Emerald Isle, NC. People just kept coming. It was amazing. Even the tourists were moved by this impromptu event. The kids sent out the message through social media.”

“I have a long distance friend who has written a psalm a day. It’s been 3 months and she’s still sending them.”

“We also had a lady at the church quietly give us random care packages over the months. No words, just thought. It is very sweet.”

“My son was an avid reader and a friend of mine had bookmarks made with his picture and the footsteps poem on the back to distribute at the viewing. I will cherish that gift forever.”

“One of our son’s best friends somehow managed to have HUNDREDS of rubber bracelets made up that had his name and life verse embossed on them, and he gave them to people at the reception following the memorial. At the time, I thought, ‘That’s nice, but what are we going to do with them?’  I still see people wearing them, and when anyone asks me about mine, I tell his story and give it away.”

“At the cemetery after the graveside service I was having a very difficult time leaving. I knew I could not stand to watch the casket being lowered into the ground yet I could not bring myself to leave. A dear friend and a fellow pediatric cancer mother offered to stay at the cemetery until our son was buried. Long after everyone left she offered to stay until the end. As crazy as this sounds I knew my son would not be alone and I was able to leave knowing that someone was with him.”

“Our family has had a “secret angel” who every month on the 20th which is the day of our son’s passing has brought a red bag and left it on our porch. Inside the red bag has been something small for our family or something for the foundation that we started in our son’s name. It’s never been about the gift received but about someone remembering our son…every month for 5 years and 5 months we have received one of these bags. It has meant a lot to our family and truly has helped us to heal.”

“A hairdresser friend cut a lock of my daughter’s hair (with our permission). She placed some in heart shaped lockets along with meaningful small charms (think Origami Owl). We treasure these pieces.”

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. When we lost Dominic, there were many who blessed us in ways that I can only describe as offerings poured into our lives from the bountiful love of Christ:

It was important to me that we held the funeral in a church and not a funeral home. Even though it meant making accommodations in a busy Easter weekend service schedule, we were made to feel welcome–we had visitation for four hours on Easter Sunday evening.

Three churches participated in making food and hosting a meal after the burial.  The Body of Christ worked in unity to bless us.

Like many parents, I had never considered where I would bury my child. But local pastors graciously guided our family through procurring a burial plot just a mile from our house. Even though I firmly believe that Dominic is not there–just the empty shell that once housed his essence–it comforts me to know he’s not far from home.

Dominic’s friends from The University of Alabama School of Law quietly arranged for me to receive his diploma posthumously.  Dominic was honored during the ceremony and his name was called along with his classmates at graduation.  I will cherish their kindness as long as I live.

I believe that God honors these offerings.

I believe He smiles when His children love one another in sacrificial and extravagant ways.

I believe it is a fragrant aroma, wafting to heaven and drawing others near to the foot of the cross.

[Jesus said] “I am giving you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you too are to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you have love and unselfish concern for one another.”

John 13:34-35 AMP