Unexpected, unforeseen, without warning, that day altered my life forever. At age 36, my daughter and only child died. Some people predicted I would not survive. I wasn’t sure myself. I would not have thought it possible. And yet, somehow, from somewhere inside me, arose a strength I had no idea I possessed, and I rose from the ashes like a phoenix. How? What’s my secret? How can a mother not only survive, but thrive, after the unimaginable happens? Four things are absolutely crucial.
In spite of what happened, I expect good. I lean into Romans 8:28 until it’s absorbed into my soul like healing ointment absorbed into a wound. I expect God to turn tragedy into triumph. No matter how horrible I feel. No matter how bleak everything appears. I expect good from the goodness of God’s heart.
Hold onto Hope
Some days, less than a smidgen of hope is all I have to hold on to, yet, I cling to it like a drowning person to a life raft. I clench my hands around hope like a climber hanging by a thread on the side of a mountain. I hope for good. I hope for a future that’s not as dismal as my fears project. Jeremiah 29:11 promises that my future will be good, and I hold God to his Word. I mix faith with words and speak of good, not evil. I project hope into the future.
I choose to be confident in the goodness and faithfulness of God. What happened wasn’t God’s fault. It wasn’t because God failed. If I want to blame someone or something, I turn my anger on the devil. He’s the one who brings disease, destruction, and death, not God. God is the one who comforts me, strengthens me, helps me--daily, hourly, even minute-by-minute. He keeps me putting one foot in front of the other. He is faithful and trustworthy to be my light in the darkness, my peace in the storm, and my comfort in deep sorrow.
I am thankful for how God has proven faithful amid this great loss. I’m thankful for all the daily miracles of his grace and blessings. I’m thankful for his tenderness and compassion, for giving me songs in the night, for the tears He sheds side-by-side with me, and for glimpses of the substantial reality of heaven and its glory. As I begin to give thanks, my eyes are opened to see that his blessings are more numerous than the sands on the seashore. But, I can walk blindly by his blessings without noticing, if I’m not cultivating a thankful heart.
The ability to rise from the ashes of devastating loss is not innately in me. I didn’t pull strength or hope out of a hat. I seriously would not have survived apart from God’s grace and through cooperating with God in these four significant ways--expecting good, holding on to hope, trusting, and being thankful. Otherwise, I would absolutely crumble under the weight of sorrow. But, God is greater than tragedy, greater than loss, greater than sorrow. His greatness lives within me and causes me to triumph.
Today is Bereaved Mother's Day. I was not aware there was such a thing until now. Although it might seem rather self-serving for me to mention it (as if I'm fishing for attention), that's not it at all. It's about awareness. Do you have any idea how many of us bereaved mothers there are? How many women have had a miscarriage, stillbirth, infant loss, child loss, teen loss, or adult child loss?
Please don't be turned off by my mention of it, as if it's something, either too morbid or too fearful to think about. Most of us walk around in complete oblivion--I used to!--until it happened. Just among my Facebook friends alone, there are a lot of us. For one of my friends I'm thinking of, it happened decades ago. For another friend, it was just a few months ago. No matter when it was, our loss became a definitive before and after point. It changed our lives. It changed us. Although the initial raw, ragged wound heals, we never get over it. A mother's heart scabs over, but never truly heals. We go on with our lives, but it's never the same.
So, why am I telling you this? Why bother you with it? Why ruin your Sunday with this kind of talk? It's because YOU CAN HELP. I bet you know a woman who's had a miscarriage. They say it happens in 1 of 4 pregnancies. And, you know at least one mother who's lost an adult child (me), but I bet you know more than just one bereaved mother. Think about who you know.
What can you do for a bereaved mother? Let's begin with not allowing it to be a taboo subject. Bereavement, loss, grief, death...these words should not be like 4-letter words we can't say in polite society. Sure, it might feel awkward. You might not know what to say. You might even say the wrong thing. Oh, I could tell you how I opened my mouth and inserted my foot years ago. I didn't know any better. She forgave me because she knew I didn't understand, but she knew I was TRYING. And, that's really enough. It's okay to accidentally say the wrong thing to a bereaved mom, because at least it shows you care enough to say something. Besides, it's not as if anyone can say something so brilliant and so inspired, it heals all our hurt. Likewise, no one can say anything more hurtful than what has already happened to us.
Allow us to talk as much—or as little—as we want. Allow us to be real. Allow us to change, and allow us the time it takes to figure out our new life and the new us. Understand that we're never going to "get over it."
Please say our child’s name. If you knew our child, share memories when they come to mind. The most important thing is not to let the memory of our child die. We are still our child’s mother, forever, whether our child is here or in heaven. And that’s why there is a Bereaved Mother’s Day.
What if no one knows or remembers I was a mother—and a darn good mother, too! What if it fades into the shadows of the past? What if my daughter is forgotten? That’s really what’s at stake on Mother’s Day. I want my daughter, and the fact that I was her mother, to be remembered.
As the years pass, the importance of remembrance grows. Life marches on, and the sands of time will begin to bury her memory a little deeper year by year. Already, I meet people who never knew her, and I struggle to give her life context. For all my talk of Jeanette this and Jeanette that, and all the photographs I could show, she’s no more than a two-dimensional sketch to someone who never knew her. But, to me, she was so much more than I can possibly tell. How I wish you could have known her!
How can I describe her? How can I explain the ways she made the world a better place, and how her legacy lives on in those who knew her? Remembering me on Mother’s Day is to acknowledge my daughter’s life and her significance. I want her existence to be acknowledged. I want her contribution to this world to be remembered. And, my contribution as her mother.
Mother’s Day is one of the hardest days for a mother with a child in heaven, although every day has its challenges. Every day I get out of bed and keep moving forward is a feat of courage and fortitude. There's a saying. You don't know how strong you are until strong is the only choice you have. That's me. Every. Day. Mother's Day requires extra strength. Mothers with a child in heaven are a special kind of woman. Remember them on Mother's Day.
Remember my daughter. She lived. She died. Her time on this earth was limited, but what a blessing she was while she was here! And, I had the privilege of being her mother. Please don’t forget.
“Smile and the world smiles with you,” my sixth grade teacher wrote to me. I still have her note in a box of childhood memorabilia. “Don’t ever lose your smile,” she said.
Cheerfulness, positivity, optimism, humor are personality traits of mine evident even as a child. But, depression is also something in my family, and at various times in my life, I’ve battled it, too. I’m well acquainted with the darkness of pessimism, worry, and fear. As a teen and young adult, I was most definitely dogged by depressive tendencies and many phobias. I could have easily followed that path, but I determined to cultivate cheerfulness and optimism instead. Please don’t misunderstand. I am not inferring depression is merely a matter of choice. I understand the clinical side of it, and that’s something else altogether. I’m referring to a crossroad I came to for myself. The point being I’m not cheerful just because it’s my personality. Intentionality is also involved. I recognized that I could either have a positive or a negative outlook, and it was up to me to follow one path or the other.
I love to use smiley faces and smiling emoji. Recognizing that smileys are considered unprofessional, I abstain from using them when it’s inappropriate. I wish I could use smileys everywhere on practically everything. It’s the emblem of who I am. My email address begins with writingsmiles, and my closing signature is “Smiles, Sara,” just because that’s me.
People often describe a cheerful person as having a sunny disposition. I can still see myself at three or four years old, sitting on the backyard swing set, happy as a clam, singing out, “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam, to shine for him each day... A sunbeam, a sunbeam, I’ll be a sunbeam for him.” A website name containing sunshine or sunlight seems quite fitting for me, don’t you think?
Life is not all sunshine and smiling emoji and it would be ridiculous to make any such claim. The darkest time of my life was losing my daughter. No amount of smiley faces fixes that. There isn’t enough sunshine on the planet to make that cloud go away. But I persist. Through the rain of tears, through the storms of turbulent emotions, through the dark days, I choose to believe in sunshine. I choose to believe that life can still be good, that God’s not finished with me yet, that there’s a purpose in me still being here on this earth. I stick smiley faces on the very thing that makes me weep in defiance of its power over me. And, that’s how I survive. That’s my secret. That’s my strength. I believe in the goodness of God in the land of the living.
The years since she’s been gone are ticking by. The first year, I was barely alive, and I wondered how I’d survive. The second year, signs of life began to bud, like the early signs of spring, encouraging me that I could live again. As the third anniversary of her heaven-going approaches, I discover life has stabilized more than I ever expected.
Life is different now. I’m different. Life is not as I would have chosen it to be. Many chapters in my life have ended and new chapters have opened, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I find much that is good.
Grief journeys take many twists and turns, uphill, downhill, and every which way. There are times when I am totally fine. I mean, almost as if nothing changed. Living my life with forward momentum and sunny skies. But, around the next bend, the sun disappears, and suddenly, I’m in a dark gray funk. Dark days are always triggered by something. Might be as simple as a melody or scent bringing up a memory that buries me in emotions. At the present time, though, it’s a mighty big trigger. It’s almost her birthday, and I am overwhelmed.
How can a mother forget the day of her child’s birth? The day she came into the world. The day we first laid eyes on her beautiful, dear face. I am so blessed by her coming. How empty and barren our lives would have been without her sweet presence! Though absent now, the blessing of her presence in our lives remains. I celebrate her birthday, so grateful she was here, if but for a while.
And yet, as the day of her birth approaches, I miss her more than ever. Those sunny days when things feel almost normal evaporate, and the grayness that settles over me is completely involuntary. I can’t stop it. I can’t prevent it. It just is.
And, yet, I’ve noticed something vitally important about grief journeys. The path may take me into dark tunnels sometimes, but the tunnel is not a dead end. The path always comes out on the other side, back into the sun, back to the light of day. I remind myself of that. Tunnels come. Some shorter and some longer than others. Some darker and some colder. But always, they lead back to daylight if I just keep walking.
Another discovery is that I’m never alone in the dark. Never. Darkness may prevent me from seeing my hand in front of my face, at times, but not seeing doesn’t mean there’s no one there. God. Friends. Family. No, I’m not alone. And, so, I keep walking, confident, hope-full. Just up ahead, there’s daylight.
December has always been the pinnacle of our year. Laughter and love, surprises and wonder, all things joyful, Jesus’s birth and nativity scenes, Christmas cookies, Christmas movies, Christmas plays and Christmas concerts, decorations, lights, and snowflakes, presents, gift wrap, bows, and ribbons…
But, it’s different now. Christmas feels odd, awry, askew, like a painting on the wall that hangs crooked and can’t be straightened. Except, it’s not the painting. The wall is askew. The house is askew. The whole world is askew, and that’s why the painting can’t be straightened.
It’s a peculiar thing to know holidays will never be the same again. I cling to traditions that have always made us happy, but which feel sort of hollow now. I fight to accept it and find new things to do, and then I feel guilty for letting old traditions go. Sometimes it feels like a lose-lose. But I keep fighting for normalcy, fighting to straighten the painting, straighten the walls, the house, the world. “I will enjoy Christmas,” I shout defiantly! But, first, give me a moment to grieve for holidays gone awry.
Some people give up celebrating holidays after the death of a loved one, and others continue holiday routines because they simply must. I’m somewhere in between. One thing I know, I will always maintain hope, faith, and trust in God, even in the midst of my grieving. That is my anthem and my mantra. I apply it to everything every day. I thrive on defying despair, and I never relinquish hope. If I can’t straighten the painting, I’ll paint a lighthouse on the slope. And, decorate it with Christmas lights.
Our first Thanksgiving without Jeanette we decided to do something completely different. Something we’d always wanted to do. Something that would be totally fun. We opted for a Thanksgiving Day ride on the Grand Canyon Railroad. It did not disappoint! Our package deal included the train ride, a fancy-schmancy tour bus instead of the shuttle to canyon overlooks, plus our hotel, and a delicious Thanksgiving buffet. It was a splurge, but worth every penny. It was then that we learned it is possible to find enjoyable alternatives for holidays.
Once more the Grand Canyon beckons us to spend Thanksgiving reveling in its magnificence. I could sit for hours in quiet stillness admiring its beauty, as I ponder the canyon in our life, the void, the emptiness of Jeanette’s absence. Perhaps I love visiting the Grand Canyon, now more than ever, because it reminds me that the void in our life is also more than just an empty hole.
Obviously, the Grand Canyon is more than just a hole in the ground. It wasn’t formed merely by a gently flowing river. Great upheavals, volcanoes, floods, erosion by wind and water carved it into the wondrous sight it is today. People stand on its precipices, hike its trails, raft its waters, and behold its majestic beauty, often without thought to the cataclysmic forces that shaped it.
Our loss of Jeanette was a gigantic cataclysm to us. It left a giant hole in our heart and life as tangible and real as the Grand Canyon. But, wait! Emerging from the catastrophe, we find a refinement and grace, a kind of beauty and tempered strength, that wasn’t there before.
“God gives us beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, a garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness, that we might become mighty oaks.” (Isaiah 61:3) It’s not the ashes or the mourning, but joy and praise in the midst of the ashes that produce a mighty oak or a magnificent canyon.
"This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?”
(Romans 8:15 The Message)
I had never read this verse from The Message Bible before, but when I came across it in a Bible study this week, it took my breath away.
I immediately thought of Bilbo Baggins and how he reacted to Gandalf's invitation to go on an adventure. “Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things, make you late for dinner. No, thank you!" But, the next thing you know, he's running out of his hobbit hole shouting, "I'm going on an adventure."
That’s me! Adventures are not always pleasant, and I surely do enjoy my comfy chair by the fire. And yet, at the same time, something in me craves adventure, and I enjoy asking Abba Father, "What's next, Papa?"
And that's why, even though some days I keenly miss Jeanette and feel the emptiness of her absence, yet I am forward-looking with anticipation and expectation. "What's next, Papa?"
I’ve learned one of the easiest ways to get stuck in grief is to focus on the emptiness of my daughter being gone. As real as that emptiness feels, it’s not a place I should park, settle down, and get comfortable. I must have an expectation that life is still good, and there is still a future for me. God provides that hope-filled anticipation. He calls me on to the next thing. Like Bilbo, I can’t resist running from my comfortable hobbit hole with a shout, “I’m going on an adventure!”
For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. They are plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. (Jeremiah 29:11)
I lift my hands that were once frail, and I stand up straight on legs that were once weak. I proceed to walk on fresh, new paths with renewed life and strength and hope.
(Personal rendering of Hebrews 12:12-13)
Nature brings healing to soul and spirit and all that ails me. I’m happy we’re camping again. It’s a marvelous time for quiet meditation, soaking in God's goodness and nourishing my spirit. I feel reborn.
I’d forgotten how rejuvenating going camping can be for my soul. My husband and I went out on our first excursion in our new camper this past weekend. We stayed up late stargazing, in absolute awe of the Milky Way stretched across the canopy of the star-filled heavens. Up again before dawn, we watched the stars fade as the predawn sky lightened and the first blushing rays of sunlight set the eastern sky aglow. A deep contentment and lightness of heart, such as I haven’t experienced in a long time, settled over me.
Now I truly understand what others who have written about their grief journey have expressed. It’s such an odd thing. I wonder how I can possible be okay? And, yet, I am okay. How can that be? On one hand, there’s the sadness and unfillable void of missing our daughter. Yet, on the other hand, I'm finding new streams of joy.
It doesn’t mean I love her any less. It doesn’t mean I miss her any less. But, I am filled with an infinitely satisfying sense of knowing that God is good. Life is good, and my life has purpose and meaning. The best is yet to be.
The landscape of my life is completely different since my daughter’s heaven-going. I’m in a place in life I never dreamed I’d ever be, charting strange and new territory. My grief journey has given the GPS of my life a work out, constantly recalculating, as I adjust course and try new and different directions than ever before.
Not everyone understands my journey. I’m learning to be okay with that. For a people-pleaser like me, it’s difficult, though. That’s why I try to teach people a grief journey is much more complex than maneuvering through emotional peaks and valleys. It’s also a journey in search of a new sense of self, of family, of safety, and security; replacing, remaking, rebuilding what's gone because she's gone. I don’t quite know what I’m looking for in my journey, only that I’ll know it when I see it. I hope. My grief journey is trial and error, sometimes. Whether understood by others or not, I move onward. I’m making progress in finding my way, even when it's two steps forward and one step back, at times. My journey is sometimes a maze to be navigated, but I’m discovering meandering paths are not always the wrong path.
Life is an adventure. Always. Even before this. Everyone has times of recalculating their lives, whether it’s a grief journey or something else. The important thing to understand is that adventure is not a bad thing. Recalculating life is not a bad thing. One day I will say I would not have traveled this road if it hadn’t been for my grief journey. And, it will not be a bad thing.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
What do you see in this picture of a broken mug? I barely need to add a word about it, because it speaks for itself.
But, about the mug. It belonged to my daughter. How much more cheerful can you get as a teacher than to have this mug brightening your classroom! Since she’s been gone, this bright yellow mug has been smiling at me from a shelf in the room where I sit and write. The other day, I accidentally overloaded the shelf above it, and the shelf came crashing down off the wall. The only thing broken in the fall was this mug. I picked up the pieces intending to throw it away. Of course. Why would I keep a broken mug? I put the broken pieces inside the mug, set it aside, and continued picking up the rest of the fallen items.
After getting everything picked up, I looked at the mug smiling at me from the shelf. No, I decided then and there. I’m not throwing that mug away. I’m going to glue the pieces back together and keep it, because I see the metaphor. Do you? Broken, but, still smiling. Need I say more?
"Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10)
Joy is a treasure found in the dark places of life, in the shadows, in the storms, in the night. Joy is the gem we find when we're reaching out for hope, and in finding hope, we discover joy.
Joy bubbles up spontaneously from the heart like a spring of refreshing water. It's much more than a fleeting sense of happiness. We can be happy about a lot of things, and many things may make us happy. But, joy is different. It's unrelated to any particular circumstance or situation, people or things. In fact, joy likes to slip in the back door when least likely.
Just about all my life I've quoted the verse or sung the song about the joy of the Lord is our strength. I had a familiar, passing knowledge of what it meant. Sort of. I mean, don't we all know what it means? Kind of? Yet, it's only been recently that I've truly experienced the joy this verse is based upon.
Joy is an oasis in the deserts of life. It is drawn from deep pools of hope and streams of faith. These pools and streams are filled and replenished only one way that I know of. By soaking in the presence of God, steeping ourselves in his love, and becoming more and more aware of how great his love is. We can allow the dark and troubled times to drive us away from God, or we can intentionally and purposefully draw much nearer than ever before. What treasure awaits those who will come and sit awhile with him and breathe him in.
Joy is the confident assurance that no matter what happens, all things will work together for good. It is the antidote to anxiety, fear, and worry. Joy is strong as steel.
The joy of the Lord--
a treasure in the darkness,
a wellspring of hope,
in the sweet serenity
of the presence of the Lord.
Decades of my personal life history are now landfill fodder. I’ve been keeping journals most of my life, and by “keeping” I mean both writing and saving them. I thought they could be useful for gleaning topics of interest to write about, or I thought maybe my daughter might like to have them someday. But, as I’ve been going through them, I quickly came to the conclusion, there is nothing to be gleaned. Seriously! Trust me on this one.
Do any of you remember the '70's show Hee Haw? There was a silly song they used to sing-- “Gloom, despair, and agony on me. Deep, dark depression, excessive misery. If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all. Gloom, despair, and agony on me.” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAAKPJEq1Ew )
Yeah, that about sums it up. My journals could easily be titled, Lamentations, Volume I, Volume II, Volume III... Oh my, oh my, what a load of crap to wade through. And to think I had illusions of keeping that self-inflicted diatribe for posterity. No! Just, no!
After seeing the disheartening trend of negative, self-focused, self-pitying whining, I’ve decided from this point on, I’m changing my tune. No more gloom, despair, and agony on me! I’m turning away from all that negativity. Not that I intend to gloss over the realities of life with puffy clouds, pretty flowers, and fluffy kittens. It’s not about being dishonest or disingenuous about my feelings. I’m talking about a choice of being all woe-is-me or speaking encouragement and hope into myself, my life, and the people and circumstances surrounding me.
As I read page after page of self-absorbed whining, one thing became pretty clear. If I focus on my flaws and faults, the more flaws and faults I’ll see, and I’ll never rise above those flaws and faults by examining and dissecting them under a microscope. The truth is we become what we focus on. We can rise above the negativity by changing perspectives, changing our focus, changing our words.
Whether spoken or written, words have a tremendous influence. My walk through my journals keenly displayed the result of negative words. Now having purged my gloom, despair, and agony journals, I’ve started a new one. It will be interesting to look back through my 2016 journal someday and see what a difference it made.
Death and life are in the power of words.