It’s my third Mother’s Day without my daughter. I don’t know if it ever gets easier. It’s just one of those days that’s going to be emotional no matter what. But, is there anything wrong with it being emotional?
Very early on in this grief journey I learned how grief comes in waves. Now, here’s another analogy about the waves of emotion. Simply this. What if, instead of running from the waves, I surf them?
I’m not a surfer, and I don’t pretend to know anything about actual surfing. But, we’ve all watched surfers smoothly riding the waves, looking all cool out there, and making it seem easy. It’s not easy, of course, but the point is they do it anyway. From my vantage point as an observer, I watch. There’s the surfer, paddling out into the ocean, eyes on the waves, watching for the big one, waiting for the exact moment to stand up and master it, letting it carry her forward, confident, assured, yet prepared to wipe out and try again, if that's the way it goes.
Mother’s Day is a mighty big wave. I see it out there on the horizon and it’s building. By the time it gets here, it’s going to be a doozy, and here I am paddling on my little surf board in an ocean of emotions. This year, I’m determined not to run from it. I can’t ignore Mother’s Day. I can’t pretend it’s just another Sunday like any other. Instead, I’m going to stand up, find my balance, and let it carry me forward. I will surf those emotions, not drown in them.
What I’m trying to say is simply that being a mother was one of the best blessings of my life. And, I’m still a mother, even if my daughter has gone home. All the love and memories are still with me, worth celebrating, worth cherishing, worth embracing, and that includes all the emotions it comes with. Mother’s Day is not a day to steel myself, seal off my heart, and hibernate. It’s a good day to do some surfing.
They say grief never goes away, but it changes with the passing of time. That's accurate. How could I ever stop feeling the loss or stop missing Jeanette? Not possible! So, yes, I will always grieve. But in due course, I've picked up some survival skills, and I've learned how to better manage the waves of emotion as they come. I know they will pass, and I will still be standing.
The best way to honor her life is by living mine to best of my ability. Rebuild what was shattered that day. Find new purpose. Live again.
For my determined purpose is that I may know Christ, that I may progressively become more deeply and intimately acquainted with Him, recognizing and understanding the wonders of his power, his goodness, his grace, and his love more strongly and more clearly than ever before; that I may come to know the power of His resurrection at work in my life, resurrecting hopes and dreams and courage; that I may be continually transformed into His likeness as I focus on his finished work in my life. With these aspirations, I put behind me the things of the past, and I reach for what lies ahead of me. And, I press on. --a personalized version of Philippians 3:10-14
Do you remember what it was like before and after 9/11? Or, pick any other sudden disaster or tragedy and compare before and after. That’s what it’s like after the sudden death of a loved one. Our sense of safety is lost. Insecurity emerges and takes root. Innocence is stripped away. We see our vulnerability in stark light and recognize how little control over things we actually have. We begin to wonder when, not if, the next horrible thing will happen. Fear takes up residence in our minds and stalks us, especially at night.
Fear is an element of grief no one talks much about, but they should, because fear leads to some of the darkest places in grieving. Combatting fear is why I strive so hard to maintain optimism and a positive attitude. I dig in my heels, determined not to fall in to the pit of fear. Sometimes my thoughts drag me there anyway. I crawl out of it with the help of God, friends who pray for me and encourage me, and speaking Scriptures and positive, not negative words. Fear may be a resident, but I can shut the door.
Sometimes emotions strike on their own accord. I’m going along, doing fine, feeling good, being strong, and then, wham! Blindsided! Ambushed! If I can weather the storm of emotions in private, no problem. But, often, the ambush is not when I’m home alone. Try as I might, the tears will not stay put. As soon as one escapes, it’s a losing battle. Then, comes the runny nose, but most of all, I hate the chin quiver. What am I, a two-year-old? Grief is undignified and awkward and pesky! I’d rather not give in to it, but there it is, and I can’t help it. Oh, that my super power was a cloak of invisibility!
Each new day the sun rises and sets, and days stretch into weeks and months. It’s been two years since That Day. (I’ve begun to use the term I’ve heard from others, and call it her angelversary.) As I peer into the misty future, I wonder what it will be like to cross this mile-marking day with each passing year. My continuous refrain is “Life goes on.”
Indeed, it does. Yet, I am not content to merely tick off the days on the calendar. At first, yes, that’s how I continued on. In survival mode, I curled up in my safe cocoon and weathered the stormy seas of early grief. Everyone grieves differently. Some people need the activity of resuming daily schedules and work routines. For me, it was better to hibernate. I’m so thankful for the luxury of solitude and quiet in that first year and into the second.
Although I still love quiet and solitude (that’s just me being me); there came a time this past year when I began stepping out from the shadows. I didn’t plan it or do anything to make it happen. Several things happened rather spontaneously, as if God was sending me opportunities to stretch. I resisted a little. Cautious. Checking the water, running back, trepidatiously returning to dip my toes in the water again.
Ultimately, a single incentive pressed me forward. We used to share a private joke back when WWJD was popular. If you recall, WWJD was an acronym for “What would Jesus do?” Not meaning to be irreverent, but it just came naturally to substitute Jeanette’s name, and it brought us more than a few smiles. That bit of silliness came back to my mind repeatedly this past year, but in the form of, “What would Jeanette want me to do?”
How should I live, and what should I be doing that would make Jeanette proud of me? What can I do that would bring her joy? We always think in terms of children carrying on their parent’s legacy, but it is no less a challenge in reverse. What can I do to carry forward Jeanette’s legacy? As I cross the threshold of her second angelversary, this is my inspiration.
Please understand. This is not meant to imply I don’t still cry or feel sad. Oh, yes, I miss her like crazy! But, I know her life goes on, in another place and another dimension, and more alive than she ever was here; even more alive than me! My life goes on too, in the here and now, so what should I do with each passing day? What would Jeanette want me to do?
s“There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet, no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”
--Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.11 (NIV)
“He makes everything beautiful in its time.” Did you notice this list includes positives and negatives? Weeping and laughing, tearing and mending, and so forth. Yet, everything is beautiful, or beautified, in its time. Even the worst things that happen can ultimately have a positive outcome and give place to something good. Remember that.
I’m allowed to say this without being guilty of offering up platitudes. The worst thing I could imagine happened to me the day my daughter died. In spite of it, like a tree cut down and new growth emerging around the stump, I discover, incredibly, that life goes on.
Life goes on, because “He has also set eternity in the human heart.” We are eternal, immortal beings. Our physical lives are confined in time, with a beginning and an end, but our soul and spirit are not chained by the cords of time. Thus, God has set eternity in our heart, and having an eternal perspective is good for the bumps and bruises of our storm-tossed lives. It reminds us that there’s more. All is not lost. It’s not over yet. Life goes on.
Winter is a season that reminds us of this truth,too. I have some plants in my flower bed that have shriveled and their leaves have turned brown. But, I know when spring comes, new growth will appear. God provided us with marvelous object lessons in the changing seasons, of winter giving way to spring, to demonstrate that life goes on. Beautifully. Even the not-so-good of life gives way to beauty.
“Life consists of two dates and a dash. Make the most of the dash.”
This week at around 3 AM, the daughter of a friend of mine gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. A few hours later, in the same hospital, the elderly husband of another friend breathed his last and final breath. Birth and death. Two dates separated by a dash.
We often say, “Life is short.” Indeed. The dash between birth and death is a short, swift race. All the more reason to value each day. Unwrap each day like a gift. Few of us live in full appreciation of our days. We race, we run, we try to keep up. We are driven by so many temporal things—demands—pressures—living our lives. But, are we? Are we truly living, or just running from one day to the next?
How do we make the most of the dash? It begins with knowing what’s truly important. We do know, deep down. We acknowledge the importance of family, friends, love, kindness, good deeds, etc. But, it’s kinda, sorta lip service sometimes. How different would we live if we really, truly put the important things first?
What would happen if we made the most of the dash? I think we’d notice more. Sunrise and sunset, shifting light and shadows of clouds passing through the sky, the particular shades of blue of the sky, a small yellow butterfly skittering over tiny flowering plants striving to grow in sandy soil. We’d appreciate the beauty of simple things.
We’d stop what we’re doing, put down the phone, and listen with full attention to what a person is saying, hearing with soul and spirit. We’d do for others, and it wouldn’t be out of a sense of duty or obligation, but truly from the heart. We’d live from our identity as beings created in the image of God, expressing the heart of God to those around us—our boss, coworkers, strangers, friends, family, all—whether they earned it or not, whether they deserved it or not. Simply because it’s what God does when he loves us.
If we made the most of the dash, wouldn’t we invest more in our talents and gifts? I think I’d stop wasting time and get busy writing as if it really mattered. Because it does really matter, doesn’t it? Maybe we’d stop devaluing our talents and our abilities and use what we’ve been given to brighten and better our world. Making of the most of the dash means living more unselfishly. Resist the tyranny of the urgent. Invest in the things that really count.
Maybe all of this sounds a bit over-the-top sentimental and idealistic, but please, think about it. Life is short, even if we live to be 100. We can grumble our way through it. We can put blinders on and live only for ourselves. We can race to the finish line competing for the most toys. Or, we can make the most of the dash by making the world a little brighter and better because we were here. It’s a choice we make every single day.
My daughter and I were the best of friends. People who didn’t know us often thought we were sisters, because of our cheerful camaraderie. She was an only child, and perhaps, growing up as an army family with my husband often away for extended periods, our bond as a mother and daughter grew uncommonly close. All the more reason why her passing cut so incredibly deep.
2013 was a rough year. Health problems emerged for which we never did find the cause, but she began having seizures. There were financial hardships. Then, she and her husband separated. As 2014 began, we looked forward to a more hope-filled and brighter year. We had just celebrated her 36th birthday. And then, suddenly, she was gone.
When tragedies happen, everyone wants to know why. Why did this happen? I don’t have all the answers, but I do know this. In John 16:33, Jesus said, “In this world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer. I have overcome the world.” Life is not always sunny and happy and wonderful. Sometimes, there’s pain. Jesus said himself troubles would come, BUT not to despair. He overcame, so we could be overcomers.
That’s the kind of promise I cling to in my heartbreak. I am thankful for the overcoming grace of God which sustains us, even in this.
I am thankful for God’s loving arms which I cling to in my tears. I’m thankful for my relationship with God, and for knowing, before this ever happened, that God is good and kind and loving. He cares, and He carries our grief.
I am thankful for many things. I’m thankful she doesn’t have seizures anymore, and she is completely whole and well. I’m thankful that the cares and heartaches of this world which were such a burden in the last year of her life, no longer plague her. I know she is joyful in the presence of God.
I’m thankful for all the wonderful years of her life we had together. Such good memories to cherish! I might have been childless, otherwise. She was our miracle. I’m thankful for God blessing us with her and for every year of her life.
I’m thankful for what a blessing she was to others. She was a gifted teacher and touched more lives than she even knew. People still come up to us and share anecdotes of ways she ministered to them or their child. I am thankful for her gifts and talents and the precious legacy she left to us.
I had sometimes thought about my daughter’s eventual grief when she would face losing her father and me. I would rather bear this grief for her than that she should have to bear it for us. I’m thankful she won’t have to grieve for us someday.
I’m thankful for this taste of grief, bitter as it is, because I’ve grown so much in ways I might not have otherwise. I never realized how many people are walking through a grief journey of their own. Before, I might have felt compassion, but now, I know what it’s like. It’s true that we are able to comfort others because of the comfort we have received. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
I’m thankful for the promise of heaven for those who trust and believe in Jesus. The movie, Heaven is For Real, came out a short time after her passing, and it blessed us so much. Other books and testimonies have also helped strengthen our vision and understanding of what heaven is like. These things have greatly encouraged and comforted us.
God does not keep every bad thing from happening, but He is very much with us in our sorrow. He comforts, and strengthens, and helps us go on, even when--especially when—we think we cannot. And, that is worthy of thanksgiving.
This article first appeared as a guest blog for Julie Arduini: The Surrendered Scribe. During November, Julie offers people the opportunity to write about thankfulness. Julie is a Christian author whose motto caught my attention before I knew anything else about her. She encourages us "to surrender the good, the bad, and---maybe one day---the chocolate" as we encounter storms in our lives. One of her books, A Walk in the Valley, is an encouragement for women struggling with infertility. She also knows what it's like to nearly lose a child. Like many of us, her journey has not been easy, but we can find hope in surrendering our struggles to God rather than despair. She also writes Christian fiction. Her book, Entrusted, is one of my favorites.
Here is a link to her website http://juliearduini.com/
I call it the gauntlet—November, December, January, February—months packed with landmines of birthdays and holidays, culminating in the anniversary of That Day. As I stand at the threshold of the gauntlet, I’m working through my strategy for jumping hurdles, scaling walls, climbing ropes, and wriggling through the mud of this obstacle course until we get to the other side.
It’s our second year facing the gauntlet. Last year, we made plans to simply not be home on the holidays. It worked out beautifully. We had a wonderful, memory-making train ride and visit to the Grand Canyon last Thanksgiving, and for Christmas, we were in San Diego. Our first Thanksgiving and Christmas without her, though tinged with the sadness of her absence, were actually surprisingly refreshing because of the unique things we did.
But this year? We’ve already spent our travel budget, so we can’t do the big things we did last year, but I think we’ll be okay with staying home. We have to get used to it sometime. Might as well face it. Undoubtedly, we’ll have some moments of sadness and shed some tears, but I think our grief has stabilized enough that we can get through it. We’re looking at November birthdays and Thanksgiving with friends around us. How thankful we are for our friends! The November portion of the gauntlet run is looking tolerable. We can do it!
December, I’m a little concerned about. If you know me, you know I love the Christmas season! The decorations, the tree, the lights, the music, the traditions! This was Jeanette’s favorite season too, and our traditions revolve around all the things we loved. So, December will be bittersweet. Tears may come. But, I refuse to let grief steal the joy and wonder of things we’ve always loved so much! I shake my fist in the face of grief, and cry out, “You will not steal my Christmas!”
Come January and February we’ll face the two hardest days of all, her birthday, and then, three weeks later, the day of her heaven-going, or That Day, as I refer to it. Parents shouldn’t have to mark their child’s birthday and the anniversary of That Day on a calendar. It’s just not right! It shouldn’t be! And, yet it is.
I have discovered that this-thing-that-shouldn’t-be IS for a lot of people. I was never aware before of how many parents face a That Day anniversary every year. How do we do it? How do we get through it? For us, it’s our trust in God and the strength He gives, and it’s our great friends who stand by us and cry with us and remind us to have hope. For me, it’s also an inner defiance against the darkness of grief. Just as I shake my fist and deny grief to steal my Christmas, I won’t let it steal my hope in every day. I won’t let grief steal my belief that God is good, and life is good, and there are still people and a purpose to live for.
As I stand before the gauntlet of 2015, I accept that tears may come. Tears are simply love that leaks out of our eyes. As much as I defy grief to steal my joy, I embrace the bittersweetness of grief. That bittersweet taste is a reminder of the depth of love too precious to be forgotten, love that's worth the price of grief.
As you can see, there are two sides to grief. It can be a pit of darkness that sucks all the goodness from life. Or, grief can be a stairway to a strength we never knew we had. The choice of which path to take determines how we make it through the gauntlet.
“I find that for every truth that is difficult and tragic, there is one that is helpful and gives hope.”
My niece said that, and I think it’s rather profound. Although it may apply to other things, it resonates with me on a particular note. I’ve been struggling with how to write about the link between fear and hope, and now I know what to say.
“What if….” Fear makes it difficult to talk about the “what if’s, as if talking about it is some sort of jinx that might bring it to pass. But, there are some important things to know about “difficult and tragic truths,” and if we never talk about it, we’ll never be able to get to the truth that is “helpful and gives hope.”
One “difficult and tragic truth” is that we can send our kids off to school in the morning, or we go to see a movie, or we’re driving in our cars just like every other day, and then one day, it’s suddenly not like every other day, and our lives are changed forever. It’s scary, don’t you think? I, and many other people, know how life can change suddenly, out of the blue, with no warning. We hear stories of tragedies in the news all the time. We hope it never happens to us, but we’re afraid, because it could.
We don’t know what to do with that reality. We don’t know how to deal with it. And, we don’t have answers, which adds to the scariness of it. I know, because I’ve had to grapple with these issues on a personal level. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but my niece sure hit the nail on the head with her statement, especially the second part. “For every truth that is difficult and tragic, there is one that is helpful and gives hope.”
Here’s what I do know. The worst thing I can imagine happened the day my daughter died. I don’t like what happened!!! I’d give anything to turn back the clock and make it not happen if I could!!! But, since that’s not possible, I choose the next best thing. I choose hope.
The truth that is helpful and gives hope is that God loves and cares about us. He feels our sorrow. He comforts us in ways we never would have thought possible. He gives strength in our weariness. He lights our darkness. He’s with us in the midst of it, holding us close in his arms of love.
Oh, the pain of those first few days after my daughter died! The early weeks and months afterwards, how unbearable it seemed! I’ve rarely admitted this, except to my closest friends, but I honestly didn’t know if I wanted to live. I didn’t want to say that out loud. I didn’t want to speak my darkest thoughts, because I didn’t know where they’d lead, and I didn’t want to validate them. It’s in my journal-writing, though. I speak of it now to say, even in my darkest moments, God was with me, and He brought me through it.
“The truth that is helpful and gives hope” is that there is hope! It’s true that life will never be the same. It’s true that I will always miss her, and there will be sadness attached to that. But, it’s also true that life is still worth living. Life is still good. These past few months, especially, I’ve struggled in my search for new purpose. The hope-filled good news is that there still is purpose.
As I’m writing this, I’m again amazed by how accurate my niece’s statement is, but I’m realizing something more. The two truths are not balanced on a scale. There’s not “a truth that is difficult and tragic” on one side of the scale, and “a truth that is helpful and gives hope” on the other side of scale, and they balance each other out. No, actually, “the truth that is helpful and gives hope” far, far, far outweighs the other.
Thanks, LaVonne, for your insight!
We’ve sailed down this river without Jeanette for a year and half. It seems like a long time and a short time, depending on how we set our sights. Along the way, we’ve adjusted our sails through a multitude of meandering turns, we’ve endured formidable rapids, and we’ve foundered in fog for seemingly endless days. At the moment, a smooth calm has settled in. For how long is unknown, but it’s a moment for reflection. As I scan the banks of this river I ask, where are we now?
We are adjusting. Like it or not, the course of the river runs through this sector. What else can we do, but adjust? We’ve had our share of temper tantrums and pity parties. We’ve cried our buckets of tears. And, oh yes, the tears and temper tantrums and pity parties will come and go. This isn’t life as we wanted it nor life as we expected it. But, we adjust. We’re getting used to her not being with us. Getting used to it? To say it like that makes it sound so simple, so easy. Hardly that! No! Easy, it ain’t! But, we are adjusting.
The course of the river has brought us to a new way of life. We search for new meaning and new purpose. We search for good. We find good, because we’re looking for it. We find good, because God is good. Our trust and faith and hope and confidence is in Him, even more unshakable and more firm than ever. Why? Because we know God didn’t do this, nor did God stand idly by and do nothing. Life is about choices. Sometimes we make wise choices, and sometimes we don’t. God isn’t to blame for that. Blame? Who says we have to place blame? We accept what is, glean from it, make the best of it, adjust our course, and go on.
One thing is sure, and it’s tried and true. God is with us on this journey. He’s been with us through the meandering turns, formidable rapids, and fog. He’s collected our tears, and held us through our tantrums and pity parties. He comforts and strengthens our hearts, and He directs our course as onward we sail.
Have you heard of the Decorah eagles? No, not a sports team. They are a pair of bald eagles viewed through a webcam above their nest near Decorah, Iowa, courtesy of Raptor Resource Project. Every year I join hundreds of thousands of online fans waiting for the first egg to be laid (typically, three eggs each year) and watching with anticipation for the first pip—the first crack in the shell as the baby eagle struggles its way into the world.
Whether fending off predators that attack in the dead of night or nestling their young protectively through snow storms and all sorts of Iowa weather, the eagle parents care for their young with ardent devotion. Feeding time is a hit with fans as the eagle parents patiently serve one small morsel at a time of tasty trout or squirrel to their young. We anxiously hope each baby is getting enough to eat, and we’re rewarded by seeing them grow up right before our eyes.
Fans delight in each stage of growth, especially when the eagles discover their wings. “Wingersizing,” it’s called, as the young eagles exercise their muscles. It seems to take forever before they can hover a few inches above the nest a few seconds at a time. Some of the most entertaining moments are when they begin leap-frogging from one side of the nest to the other. Although the nest is easily 6-feet across, all those antics and gymnastics are making it feel crowded. Mom and Dad eagle spend more and more time watching over their offspring from a nearby branch. Perhaps their perch outside the nest is partial incentive to reach the next step in development. One day all three juveniles are in the nest, and suddenly, there are only two. Typically, the oldest of the three will “branch” first, or hop-fly to a nearby branch. Fledge, or the first real flight, is a bittersweet moment among fans as “our babies” take wing. After the fledge, the eagle parents continue caring for their young, teaching them hunting and survival skill necessary for full independence.
Why am I talking about eagles? What does this story have to do with grief? Observing nature often brings fascinating insights into our own lives. I’m reminded of the stages of grief described in many books. In observing the eagles, I find examples of the processes of growth related to stages of grief I’ve experienced. In the early days of my grief, I felt about as helpless as the young hatchlings, but little by little I grew in strength.
For a while, the young eagles seem to spend more time perched in the nest just watching and looking at the world around them than doing anything else. And yet, the experts say, it’s an essential stage of observing and imprinting their surroundings. In the same way, a grieving person may also appear to “waste” time doing very little, or so it seems. This recovery stage is often misunderstood and under-appreciated as a necessary part of the healing process. It may look at lot like being stuck and spinning one's wheels. There may pressure (from oneself, as well as from friends) to “get back into life.” Permission to grieve, and being allowed time, is crucial.
But, how much time? Unlike the eagles, whose growth is a relatively predictable time table, grief is not so predictable. Stages of grief are neither linear nor arbitrary. For this reason, I can’t answer the question for anyone but myself of how much time it takes, and even figuring it out for me has been challenging. Nevertheless, the grieving process is similar enough that our sharing and relating to each other is beneficial for us all. So, what is the time table for grief?
Some say, time heals all wounds. Time is not an antidote for the pain of grief, but time does allow us to discover better coping strategies, new sets of life skills, and rebuild our lives around what happened. Just like the young eagles seem to take forever “wingersizing” before leaving the nest, gaining strength after loss takes time. It’s very important not to get discouraged by thinking “it’s taking too long.”
Patience. Be patient with yourself, or be patient with the one who is grieving. The time for leaving the nest—those comfort zones, security, and safety nets we’ve placed around ourselves during grief—will come. Gradually, in stages, the young eagles work up to their first flight. And, so will the grieving one. All in due time, we will soar with eagle’s wings, because life goes on.
Almost 18 months now since Jeanette’s heaven-going. Reconstructing my life since her passing has been the most intense challenge I’ve ever faced. It goes beyond grief or sadness or any mere emotion. My life could not have been more thoroughly disarranged than if a million puzzle pieces were thrown into the air, and now I’m tasked with picking them up piece by piece and putting them together. I’m overwhelmed.
I suppose it could be my imagination, but I get the feeling some people are wondering when I’m going to get on with my life. When am I going to pull myself together? Why is it taking so long? Or, maybe it’s not other people. Maybe it’s me. I get impatient with myself. I don’t need criticism. I am my own worst critic.
What do I need most? I need someone to clear a space in this pile of rubble and sit down with me. Help me sort through the pieces and find the ones that fit. There is One who does exactly that. He is the One who patiently endures my temper tantrums and pity parties. He holds me and dries my tears of sadness, frustration, or my mood de jour. He covers me and shelters me in my weakness and vulnerability. He speaks grace to me. He whispers, "Don't give up," as He hands me the next piece of the puzzle. “One by one. It's going to be beautiful. You'll see."
Woven into the fabric of my life is an experience of loss. Grief changed the pattern and, at least temporarily, darkened the colors. The weaving of my life will never be the same again, and that’s a fact. But, here’s the question. Is the fabric still usable? Or is it ruined?
Am I a woman who has experienced a life-altering experience? Or, have I taken on the role of that experience so intensely that I have become my loss? In other words, I can be a person who has experienced something, or I can become that experience. It can be something that happened, or it can define (and limit) who I am.
What difference does it make? Simply this, if I am a woman who has experienced loss, it becomes something woven into the fabric of my life. The pattern and colors may be altered, but over time, it is absorbed and becomes part of the grand design. But, if I become my loss, it’s as if the threads become knotted, the fabric twists until the loom breaks down.
Once again, I’m describing the difference between healthy and unhealthy grief. Experiencing loss can be a devastating, life-changing experience and grief is a valid emotion accompanying that loss. Make no mistake, grief is a natural, healthy response to loss. It would be unhealthy not to grieve. But, at a certain point, it can get all knotted up and stuck.
But, even getting stuck can be part of the pattern. Years from now, I may look back at the weaving of my life and say, “That’s where I got all knotted up, but here’s where I got back on track!” The key to either getting back on track or breaking the loom when it gets knotted is how I identify with loss. Am I a woman who has experienced loss or have I become the loss? The difference is something I’ve been pondering lately.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance (to the full, till it overflows). (John 10:10)
Some days I’m fine, but other days, not so good. Lately it’s been a not-so-good time. Just when I think I’m getting used to the way things are now and adjusting to life without Jeanette, Wham! Grief hits me all over again like a storm cloud unleashing its fury.
I miss Jeanette so much, and I’m highly conscious of her absence. Of course! As if I wouldn’t miss her? Something would be very amiss if I didn’t! Yet, I’ve learned there’s a tipping point on the scale between healthy and unhealthy sadness. When you were a kid, did you ever stand on the center of a teeter totter trying to balance the two sides and keep them level? That’s kind of how it feels to me as I try to keep from slipping into unhealthy grieving—a type of grief that leeches purpose and meaning from my life.
That’s when I realized the application of John 10:10 to grieving. Unhealthy grief comes to steal and kill and destroy me. But Jesus came to give me life and to help me enjoy a rich and full life, even now. I can live two ways. I can be death-conscious, always aware of my loss, or I can be life-conscious, continuously seeking purpose and fulfillment in spite of my loss. My life does indeed have purpose, and God is here with me to help me walk in it.
Returning to the metaphor of the teeter-totter, it’s hard to stand there holding the two sides balanced, and sometimes kids fall off. I remember falling. Picture this. Along comes Daddy, who sweeps the child into his arms, and holds her safely. Do you see? It’s my Daddy, God, who picks me up and holds me in his arms, and comforts me. The balance between healthy and unhealthy sadness is found resting in Him.
As inescapable as quicksand.
No. Worse than quicksand.
More like a tar pit.
Unable to move forward.
And sinking fast.
What happened to my life?
Hopes and plans and dreams
more and more distant.
I feel so helpless.
I see on the horizon what I could be.
I see paths I could take.
A good life that could be mine.
But, I’m in this tar pit,
too broken to do anything about it.
I suppose not too many people these days have read John Bunyan’s book, Pilgrim’s Progress, a Christian classic, and an allegory about a man’s journey through life. One of dangers he encounters is called The Slough of Despond. It’s basically a mud hole of despair and hopelessness. I recall his Slough of Despond as I slog through the mud of grief.
Getting stuck in grief is a common pitfall. It’s easy to let a normal, healthy process turn ugly and fester into something not healthy. It’s also easy to blind oneself to what’s happening and make excuses for staying in it. I know of what I speak. I’ve been there.
I’m grateful for supportive friends who understood the best way to help me out of it was to remind me of who I am in Christ. I might feel weak and helpless. I might even appear to be weak and helpless. They reminded me that I’m not. They reminded me that I am strong in the strength of the Lord. Eventually, I escaped the tar pit because I grasped hold of a vision of myself free of it. In faith, I held on to that vision tenaciously, even when I was as stuck as stuck could be and, at times, not even wanting out.
Some might call it a paradigm shift. I’d rather describe it using the scene from the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. Toward the end of the movie, after being shown what would have happened if he’d never been born, George Bailey runs back to the bridge and cries out, “I want to live again! Please let me live again.”
That’s me! That’s my paradigm shift! And, with that, I crawled out of the tar pit of unhealthy grief.
Little by little, sometimes in the tiniest increments, my desperate, grasping hold loosens. No, I’m not letting go of you. How could a mother ever let go of her child? Not even death can sever the invisible, stronger-than-anything-known to-man umbilical cord connecting mother and child. No, I’ll never let go of you. But, there is another kind of letting go taking place, little by little.
Everything is different now. Everything. And, there’s no going back. No wishing, no magic wand, not anything to make it the way it used to be. Letting go means coming to terms with this reality; letting go of life as I knew it before.
Part of me still isn’t sure if it’s ok to enjoy good times. I miss sharing the good times with you. The truth is life does go on, and it’s not a terrible thing to continue living and enjoying life. I know that’s what you want for me. It’s just so strange, you not being here. Letting go means adjusting, adapting, accepting a new way of life. Letting go means choosing life; choosing to live life to its greatest and fullest potential; accepting that life still has potential.
I’ll never ever let go of you. But, I think you want me to let go of the past and reach for what’s ahead. I’m trying. Trying to let go. Trying to live again. Little by little, in tiny increments.
I'm sitting here with a pile of used tissues and a nearly empty tissue box, the remnants of my latest meltdown. It's been quite a while since I vented with such vehemence and anger as this morning. Yes, anger! I didn't realize until it erupted like hot lava from my very soul just how much anger and resentment was in me. Not anger at any person. In a way, it would be much easier if I had a face to go with my anger, but no. I’m angry at life, resenting what’s happened, and that there’s no way to turn back the clock to before.
I’m angry that I’m alive and she’s not. How did that happen? I’m angry that death has stolen the joy out of everything good. Even when I’m having a good time, it feels hollow. I’m angry that life is not how I imagined it to be, nor how it’s supposed to be, and there’s nothing I can do to change it. I’m angry that my future is a long strand of bleak and lonely days stretched out ahead of me.
That is the red hot lava of grief that came spewing out of me this morning and created this mound of used tissues before me. As I write metaphorically about lava, I’m reminded of lessons we can learn from nature’s metaphors. Take volcanoes, for example. Though terribly destructive in the short term, volcanoes can provide rich, fertile soil for agriculture and gems and minerals for mining in the long term. My grief, though overwhelming, ragged, and raw at times, is capable of producing significant things in my life.
Rising from the ashes is the potential for great things. My grief may try to tell me there’s no hope and I’ll never be truly happy again. But God, says, it ain’t over yet. Don’t despair. Don’t despise life as it is now. Keep putting one foot in front of the other and don't quit. There is a plan for turning devastation into good. Grasp on to hope and don't let go.
Convalesce: to recover health and strength; to make progress toward recovery; to begin to grow strong; especially, by resting.
All the books say, and everyone who’s walked this journey has told me, grief is not something you “get over.” You will learn to adjust and cope, but you’ll never wake up one morning and suddenly be over it. I know that, but…
I want to be over it! I want to move on! I want my life to be normal again! I just want my upside-down world to turn right-side-up again! I want it so bad, every day I fight to make everything right again. I fight to turn the world right-side-up again! But… I. CAN’T. FIX. IT.
Last year at this time, I fought the raw pain of grief and loss. It was fresh pain. I wondered sometimes how I’d ever live through it. This year, I thought it would be different, and it is. The pain is not so ragged. It’s more like a constant dull ache. But, I still can’t seem to get past it, and move on, and get on with my life. Shouldn't I be able to?
There’s that “should,” as in, I should be getting over it by now. I know all the books tell me not to think that. ALL the advice for grieving people says there’s no time limit and no “right” or “wrong” measure for grief. In fact, it’s been said, the deeper the love, the deeper the grief. One year to grieve over the loss of my only child is not nearly enough, by any standard! So, why do I think I should be over it? Am I, perhaps, being too hard on myself?
It's so obvious that sometimes I neglect to acknowledge, I am recovering from a major trauma in my life. In many ways I have made progress. I really have come a long way, even if I’m not where I think I should be. So, today I'm giving notice. I'm dropping out of the battle over shoulds. I should be... I should do... I should, should should... No more shoulds!
One of the hardest things to do while convalescing is to rest. That doesn't mean do nothing. It does mean cease striving! Stop fighting! Resting is difficult because it requires acceptance of things I don't want to accept. Life is different now. It takes time to learn to live with the differences. Resting is accepting change without stressing over shoulds. Resting is accepting where I am on the path of grief, and accepting that I'm doing the best I can.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
The bottom dropped out of my life the day Jeanette went to heaven. I cannot adequately describe the tailspin it threw me into. Everything that made sense about myself and my life torn away, ripped from my heart, in the space of an hour's time. How can anyone adequately express in words the devastation left in the wake of such loss?
It's not as if I planned a calendar year of wearing mourning clothes like they used to do in the old days; yet it's taken a little more than a year for me to resurface from the depths of grief. I'm beginning --just beginning-- to reemerge and find myself again. The struggle is like clawing my way up a cliff after having fallen off the edge. Keep that image in mind.
Who am I if I'm not Jeanette's mom? Yes, she was grown up, but with an only child, the umbilical cord is never really cut. Seriously, mothers! Isn't this the way it is with our children? Isn't this why we say they'll always be our babies long after they've grown and left home? What bond is stronger than between a mother and child? As an only child, my life revolved around her. She was the center of my universe. Without her, who am I? What is my life without her? It's as if my life exploded like a star going nova (figuratively) and is now beginning to coalesce into a new shape and form. Loss of identity. Loss of my center of gravity. Everything in my life thrown into chaos. Where do I find identity? Where do I find meaning and purpose? Thank God for being my anchor and my strong tower through it all! If not for Him, I would not have survived this cataclysm in my life!
Even though, make no mistake, I still grieve, and the mourning process continues, I'm putting off the sackcloth and ashes of the preceding year. I'm looking around and taking stock of where I am now. I'm at the brink of massive overhaul. If my life no longer revolves around Jeanette, what is my new center of gravity? Where do I go from here?
I've climbed my way back up to the top of the cliff, and I now sit on the edge of the precipice peering into the distance at foggy peaks and valleys. The glow of a dawning sun paints the heavens and world around me. I hear a song rising on the freshness of a new wind. I will find my new identity, new meaning, and new purpose by journeying onward. Life goes on.
I remember standing in my kitchen a month or two after my daughter passed away, weeping as I asked if she ever thought of me anymore, or if she had forgotten all about me. Could she look down from heaven and see me? Did she hear me when I talked to her? I believed in heaven, and I believed that’s where she was, but, in those early days of deep grief, I couldn’t sense anything but my grief. I felt cut off and separated from her, and that was a terrible feeling when we had been so close.
Without question, I had always accepted belief in heaven as a basic tenet of Christian faith. When various loved ones had passed away—typically long-lived, elderly people—it was easy to imagine them rejoicing in heaven, young and ageless, healthy and whole. Sad as I might be to part with them, I could be happy for them and their release from sickness and pain.
When my daughter passed away, however, it was different. Suddenly simple faith in the existence of heaven wasn’t enough. I needed reassurance! I needed to know heaven is real. Suddenly it was vital to know much more about heaven than just belief in its mere existence. What is heaven like? I needed to be able to picture my daughter in heaven and know what life is like for her now.
If she had simply moved away to some remote place here on earth, I could understand and know about her life by seeing pictures of the place, even if I’d never been there myself. I could talk to or read about other people who have been there, and I could get a good idea of her life in that remote place, even if we were cut off from modern communication. But, heaven? How could I know what life is like there? How could I imagine or picture her in a place that is so mysterious and unknown?
I had so many questions. Can she see me and hear me? Does she know what’s happening here? Does she know how deeply we grieve for her? These questions and more caused me to search for deeper answers about heaven than ever before. My quest has not been in vain.
Heaven indeed exists as a real place. I no longer think of it as something wispy, cloud-like, or ethereal, but a real place of substance. People in heaven are not ghost-like and ethereal, but also have substance, just different from our physical bodies here.
The Bible contains many types and shadows, and representations of spiritual things, and Earth is also a shadow, copied after heavenly things. C. S. Lewis called this life the Shadowlands, and I’ve come to a deeper understanding of what he meant by that. For example, just as trees, flowers, animals, etc. exist on earth, they are also in heaven, only far more varieties, more beautiful, more colorful, more alive, and of course, perfect. In heaven, there are more colors and hues than we can imagine, and music with richer tones and more notes on the scale than we’ve ever seen or heard on earth.
Heaven is a place of laughter and fun, and life is anything but boring. People continue to use, develop, and discover their gifts and talents in heaven. Artists paint, singers sing, inventors invent, teachers teach, and so on, filling heaven with amazing things not even imaginable on earth, even as it says in 1 Corinthians 2:9 that “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.”
Heaven is a place of absolute love and continuous joy and peace, because God’s light and love is in everything and everywhere. Most of all, heaven is the dwelling place of God. That’s why people who go to heaven must believe on Him and receive Him here on earth. It’s a joy to know Him, love Him, and worship Him heaven, and a joy of all joys to meet and talk with Jesus face to face.
How can I know or be sure of any of this? Admittedly, a measure of faith is required. But, for those who know God through belief in Jesus, and learn to know and recognize the voice of the Holy Spirit in their heart, we can ask and receive wisdom and knowledge into questions we ask or things we seek to know more about.
The release of the movie Heaven is for Real last year was particularly timely for me. After seeing the movie and reading the book, I was also privileged to hear Todd Burpo speak in person last fall. In my quest, I relied on recommendations from friends of books to read or websites to investigate, always keeping God front and center in my quest. Cautiously, I explored the subject of heaven and life after death, well aware that not all accounts or experiences are credible or Biblical. I accept many things easily on faith, but I tend to be highly skeptical about other things, particularly near death experiences and related visions. In my quest, I believe God has been faithful in responding to my desire to know more and has led me to reliable resources.
I’m sharing my quest for reassurance, because, as a grieving mother, I needed answers to my questions about heaven. I have been greatly comforted by learning more about heaven. Even now, as much as I miss her and always will miss her, my grief has been considerably lessened by knowing more about where she is. I am assured that she can and does see and hear me. That assurance alone helps me feel less cut off from her and more connected. I know she is cheering for us as part of the “great cloud of witnesses” mentioned in Hebrews 12:1. I’m sure she also intercedes for us with the greatest perspective anyone can have, sharing in praying God’s will for us “on earth as it is in heaven.” I share this so others can be comforted as well.
Here is a list of some of my resources. Other references come from a chapter here and there in a variety of books, so I haven’t listed every single one. I started to list Scripture references, but there were just too many.
Heaven, by Randy Alcorn
Heaven is For Real, by Todd Burpo
Heaven Changes Everything, by Todd Burpo
Waking Up In Heaven, by Crystal McVea
They say people shouldn’t make major decisions or changes in the first year, and now I understand why. The first year is a roller coaster! The first year is a crazy (and, I seriously do mean crazy!) conglomeration of emotions, intensity, disconnection, and dysfunction I can’t even describe! No matter how much I wanted to move on with my life and return to normal, I couldn’t. Normal? Normal was obliterated that day! Normal ceased to exist!
The struggle to adapt and adjust became normal. Upheaval became normal. Stumbling, falling, getting up, and stumbling again became normal. Guilt. Anger, Sadness and regret. Tears without measure, tears pouring from my soul, if not from my eyes. And, through it all, trying so hard to regain my balance and restart my life.
“Something is wrong with me!” I yelled in the mirror in frustration, searching inwardly to find the despicable character flaws that caused me to be so lazy and undisciplined and lacking in dependability! No. It’s not evidence of flawed character. It’s evidence of grief! If anything could be called normal about the past year, it would be normal grieving.
I look back at the path of my grief as one looks down at the twists and turns on a mountain road from a higher vantage point. I’ve checked off all the firsts of the past year and survived the running of the gauntlet, the span from November to February when all the biggies happen--birthdays, holidays, and the anniversary of her heaven-going. I didn’t know what it would be like to pass all those milestones of firsts until I reached them. Having passed them, I realize the second time around is just as unknown and unfamiliar. I don’t know what it will be like to pass them for the second time. If looking back over the past year is one perspective on a mountain path, my view toward the next year is another perspective. Looking at the path ahead, it disappears in a mist of the unknown.
How does one find normal on an uphill, unknown, unfamiliar path?
By continuing to put one foot in front of the other just as I’ve been doing. By being gentle with myself and understanding that grief is not a character flaw.
I believe in the coming year I’ll begin to regain some of my footing and overcome some of the inconsistencies that have frustrated me so much. Even so, grief, as I’m discovering, never goes away. I’ll never come to a place where I “get over it.” As long as I live, the wound in my heart will be there, and it will always be tender. But, just as people learn to function after they've lost a limb, I’ll learn to function without her. I expect to get better at managing the dysfunctions of grieving.
Finding normal? All of this is normal.
dark as night,
thick as a tar pit.
Sinking into its depth until all I can see is
Broken-hearted I stumble
beneath it's weight
If my focus is the darkness,
darkness is all I'll see.
Darkness will overpower me
I change my view.
Step out from the shadow.
Look up and see the light
Love and hope shine brighter
than the deepest, darkest night.
the sweet scent
of God's presence.
and you will see
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me
will never walk in the dark but will live his life in the light.”
I tiptoe into the month of February, hoping to skirt around That Day. Avoid it, if possible. Sneak by as if it isn’t there. The biggest milestone of all looms in front of me, directly in my path. Surely you know the day I mean. That Day. February 9th, the day she stepped from this life into heaven. The day our lives turned upside down and grief, such as we had never known before, stepped in.
Bravely we’ve faced all the milestones of this past year. Positive, hope-filled, and optimistically, we’ve marched forward with our lives, learning to adapt, adjust, and accept what is. But, as I stand in the shadow of this milestone, I don’t feel brave at all. Instead, I want to build a wall between me and that milestone, so I don’t have to acknowledge it. Pretend That Day has no effect on me. Pretend it’s just another day on the calendar.
Except, I can’t pretend. In the shadow of the first year milestone, I weep. Weeping till there are no more tears to weep. Grieving deeper than I’ve grieved since the very first days one year ago. Spilling from my heart in a tidal wave of brokenness, the torrent of emotions I’ve been holding at bay bursts through the floodgates.
Instead of fleeing from my grief, this time I embrace it. Purging, purifying, deeply cleansing tears disinfect my wounded soul. And, in the aftermath of the flood, peace is restored. Strength renewed. Hope returns. Clouds part and the sun shines once more. I rise and see past the milestone of That Day. Once again I see that life, indeed, goes on.
I'm OK. Really, I am. It's neither pretense nor a lie to say I'm OK, because in every way that I'm conscious of, I feel fine.
Nearing the one-year milestone, we've come through many "firsts." The biggies were, of course, the holidays--Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Eve. Throughout all these milestones, I've been amazingly fine. No one could have been more surprised than I how easily we glided through these landmark days. I dreaded the holidays for months, and then when they arrived, I actually found myself enjoying them. Not without a few tears, mind you, but I wasn't sure if I'd enjoy them at all.
Today, we come to another milestone. Thirty-seven years ago today, in the middle of a snow storm, Dennis carefully and anxiously drove me to the hospital where after just a few hours of relatively easy labor, we welcomed our daughter into the world. We named her Jeanette-- "God's Gracious Gift." I remember it like yesterday.
Exactly three weeks from today, we'll reach another milestone, the first anniversary of her heaven-going. I try not to recall or dwell on the details of that day, even though I'll remember it forever.
I'm OK, because I choose to be. I set my mind on the positive, the hopeful, the good, and I focus on that. But... beneath the surface... grief continues to flow from my heart like an underground river, not as visible or as noticeable as in the early days, but ever present.
As I was lying awake a few nights ago, staring at the clock as the minutes ticked slowly by, it dawned on me how grief takes its toll. Whether I'm conscious of it or not, my body keeps track of the exact expenditure of energy required for me to be "OK." I started thinking about all the ways grief affects me that I'm not necessarily conscious of.
At some point during the holidays, I started feeling kind of rundown, like when a cold is coming on. Then, just days after the new year began, it hit me. Boom! Pneumonia! I've never had pneumonia before in my life, and it took me completely unaware! I don't think it's a coincidence that, in the weeks leading up to her birthday,my body has been fighting sickness. To say I'm OK is neither a lie nor pretense, and yet.., physically, mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually, grief takes its toll.
The grief journey is an adventure no one would choose for themselves, but once finding ourselves on this road, we press on. Sometimes it's a desert. Other times it's a dark and tangled jungle. We come to milestones and pay our toll, but all the while, I choose to view it as part of the great adventure called Life. God never promised life would be easy, but He did promise to always be with us, and yes, He IS!
I'm thankful for God's presence with us and all the many friends and family we have who journey with us. You all make it bearable. More than bearable! Life is a blessing with surprising, amazing moments of love and laughter and good times, even on the toll roads. With God, and family, and friends, I can truly say, we're OK, and that's the honest truth.
Sara Faith Nelson
Sharing the journey, because, I find there are so many others making the trek through life without a loved one