Why you can’t do grief alone

I’ve been re-reading Ann Voskamp’s book on Advent, “The Greatest Gift.” The entry for December 12th drew from the book of Ruth with the story of Naomi and Ruth. Naomi’s story gives a glimpse of real life, life with death and disappointment. Naomi’s husband has died, as well as both of her sons. She has been through famine and a subsequent move, and is preparing for yet another move. Her life hasn’t been easy. I know some of you can relate. However, Naomi does have her two daughters-in-law. But, seemingly strange, she tells them both to return to their mothers’ homes. Her words to them reveal much, I think, about her state of mind.

11 But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!” (Ruth 1)

Even if she thought there was still hope, Ruth is still hopeless. What happens when hope is gone, you wonder? Ruth’s words leave no ambiguity. Bitterness slides in when hope evaporates. With all her heart, she believes God is against her. Do you feel like Ruth, Friend? Listen as Ruth continues:

20 “Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (Ruth 1)

Wow. That’s strong stuff, right? Naomi doesn’t pull any punches, and it’s clear who she thinks is to blame. Bitterness doesn’t hold back, and neither does Naomi. Bitterness blames, but God’s favor (and character) are not dependent on our circumstances. Circumstances do not dictate God’s character. I believe that’s where Naomi got it wrong. While she’s correct that the LORD has afflicted her or allowed these things to happen, her response to these tragedies, albeit honest, is wrong. She, like many of us, missed the obvious truth: God is sovereign. He reigns. He alone has supreme power and authority. Pastor and theologian J. Vernon McGee put it this way: “This is God’s universe, and God does things his way. You may have a better way, but you don’t have a universe.” 

Grief has a way of clashing with sovereignty. We want our way. We want things done sensibly, understandably, neatly. But heartache, catastrophes, and sorrow are never these. Seeds of bitterness, watered by hopelessness and despair, grow quickly if one disregards the soil of sovereignty. Many who have lost a loved one can tell you how how swiftly the temptation towards bitterness sweeps in, how the temptations to choose bitter over better keep rolling in like waves upon the shore, day after day, month after month, year after year.

Friends, left to ourselves to deal with our grief all too easily creates ripe conditions for bitterness to take root. Naomi wanted to be left alone with her bitterness. She wanted to nurse the wound, reject healing. Like bitterness does, it wants to complain. Naomi doesn’t lament; she complains. She complains about God rather than lament to Him. Complaint blames God. It demeans Him and separates us from Him. Lament draws us to Him with honest cries and a yearning for Him. Lament draws closer despite not understanding.

Thankfully, Ruth refuses to leave. Ruth stays and Naomi is ultimately blessed through her. Naomi couldn’t do it alone. She had Ruth and the women around her to remind her of the truth. They reminded her that God had not left her, that He was, indeed, the restorer of her life and her sustainer.

13 So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife, and he went in to her. And the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. 14 Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed is the Lord who has not left you without a redeemer today, and may his name become famous in Israel. 15 May he also be to you a restorer of life and a sustainer of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.” (Ruth 4)

Grief will do its best to isolate and embitter. Allow those around you to carry hope for you until you can again. Don’t push away the hand of healing, but embrace the One who died for you. Accept that though He wounds, He also heals. Ruth stayed with Naomi, and there are “Ruth’s” who will stay with you. Compassionate Friends is one Ruth. If you’ve suffered child loss, CF is there to make sure you “need not walk alone.” GriefShare is another Ruth. For loss of any kind, GS is available to provide hope and healing through a Christ-centered perspective and video seminars.

Grief was not the end of Naomi’s story, and it is not the end of yours. Naomi’s God, your God, proved Himself faithful. As He sustained Naomi, trust that He will sustain you. You are not alone. This holiday season may you be reminded, most of all, that Emmanuel, “God with us,” is with you. Yes, in even the grief.

Blessings,

Angie

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A Heart Full and Empty

 

matt airfield3-2
Matt getting lessons on flying at the RC air field with the plane he won through a contest at our local library. 

This is my 7th Thanksgiving without my son. He would be 22 years old, and I find myself wondering (as always) what he would look like, how he would sound, and where he would be working. I wonder where he would be living, and if he’d be bringing a girlfriend home for Thanksgiving dinner. I wonder what kind of car (or truck) he’d be driving, and how tall he would be. I wonder if he’d play with his younger brothers after dinner and tease (torment) his sisters. My heart aches with longing, and most days I don’t allow myself to “wonder,” but these significant days, like holidays, birthdays, etc., I need to wonder. I need to grieve. I need express what is in my heart.

I don’t remember the first Thanksgiving after Matt died. But I do remember not finding anything for which to be thankful. When grief is fresh it paints your world black. There is no light, no world outside of your loss. There is just surviving, even if there’s no desire to. You simply go through the motions of living. All I wanted was for my child who had died to be “un-died.” I just wanted him there. I still want him here.

Some of you won’t remember Thanksgiving 2017. Some of you will ditch Thanksgiving and break with tradition. Some of you will stay in bed the entire day. Some of you will put on the “mask” of the bereaved and show up with a smile that hides the ache. And some of you will celebrate with your family while your heart silently longs; each beat of your heart echoing a quiet “whoosh-whoosh” of their name.

It’s okay. However you spend Thanksgiving this year, it’s okay. I’m giving you permission to spend your Thanksgiving doing what feels right for you this year. (As long as you’re not hurting yourself or others.) Just keep leaning into the One whose heart breaks with yours. Give yourself grace because He does. God knows where you’re at; He knows the jumble of emotions you’re experiencing, for He made you to feel. He just wants you to come to Him. Bring whatever it is you’re feeling, and give it to Him. Yes, even if it’s anger, disappointment, or bitterness. Throw it at Him. He will catch it. God isn’t asking you to do this Thanksgiving thing alone. He’s asking you to do it with Him, for He sits with you. He sees the empty chair. And He invites you to dump it all on His lap. Let Him provide the strength for today.

Seven Thanksgivings without my son is hard to fathom. Every one of those Thanksgivings has been different. Every one of them has been difficult. But every one of them has been filled with God’s presence, provision, and power. My heart overflows with gratitude for what remains and for what God promises will come. My heart aches, but it is also full. I am grateful. I am grieving. I am thankful.

A gentle Thanksgiving to you, my friends.

Angie signature

All things

Cleaning out my desk the other day, I came across an old clothes-shopping list for my kids. Quite frankly, it jolted me with a fresh wave of grief. My heart twinged as I stared at the list.

Matt

matt and jonathan reading2
Matt reading to his youngest brother.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seeing my son’s name in writing sort of threw me, you see. There are so many things we take for granted: like writing our child’s name. How frequently we write their names…until they are gone.

More and more, I grieve for my other children. Siblings are often the “forgotten grievers.” I ache for their loss. I weep for the times they will never have with their big brother, the memories they will never make with him. I cherish the moments I witness of Matt’s siblings interacting with one another, for I know we are not promised tomorrow, and these seasons are short-lived. But these moments bring a pang of bitter-sweetness to my heart, for I long for Matt to be here among them, to hear his quiet, sarcastic voice intermingle with theirs.

Yet I seek solace and comfort from another small item. Not a list, but a bracelet. A bracelet that declares “With God all things are possible.”

Gold Silver Matt bracelet (3)

Many parents say, “I couldn’t live without my child.” Some of us, however, don’t get a choice. We do live without our child. Every day. I’ve now lived six years without my son. My children have lived six years without their big brother. Matt’s siblings carry a loss daily, but they, too, carry this truth:

All things. All things, even living with child loss, are possible.

All things, even living with sibling loss, are possible.

While many bereaved siblings are the “forgotten grievers” by our society at large, they are not forgotten by God, nor us, the bereaved parents. We remember. We see you. We acknowledge you. Gentle hugs today to all bereaved siblings.

Blessings,

Angie signature

Signs in the bereavement world

Sadness creeps in during days of July sunlight, and in the midst of happy occasions and also in the quiet reverence of Sunday morning drives to church. As my thoughts sought to land in the place of “going there” with “what ifs” and “If onlys” this past week, the LORD gently, but soundly, said, “Uh, uh. Eyes on me. Not on what you’ve lost or the “What ifs” and “If onlys.” Keep your eyes on Me.

The moments of sadness threaten to overwhelm, but I am being held.

As most of you know, the cardinal is, and has been from the beginning of this grief journey, special to us. It began when we were planning our son’s funeral. While searching for the “perfect” program for our son’s service, we couldn’t find any. You’d think with three albums of programs to choose from, it wouldn’t be difficult to find a suitable one. But there aren’t really funeral programs for teenagers. Finally, however, just as we flipped to the last page of the last album, there was a program with a cardinal on it. We knew instantly that that was the program we wanted. It was “perfect.” Matt was an avid bird watcher. He would sit daily at the dining room table watching the birds at the feeder and knew each variety that visited.

My mom and I also visited several flower shops before the funeral. She was looking for the “perfect” arrangement to contribute, but wasn’t exactly sure what it was that she was looking for. She just knew that when she saw it, she would know it was the one. And she was right, for as we stepped into the entryway of the third shop, our eyes fell upon a resin cardinal on a display shelf at eye-level. We both stopped, looked at one another, and nodded in agreement. It was “it.”

During the visitation, as well, someone mentioned the cardinal, unaware of its significance to us. It was a confirmation to us of God’s presence and comfort, His intimate knowledge of our needs during that time. We noticed, too, even from the first week in this journey of child loss, the cardinal showing up at every single mealtime, no matter at what time meals ended up being. In fact, the cardinal showed up at supper time every single day for a year. Coincidence? Nope. It’s what my grief mom friends and I call a “God Nod.” Or, as many say, a “sign,” a sign that our loved one is near, that they are still present. Personally, I prefer to use the word “God Nod.” These signs are, I believe, God pulling back the curtain, so to speak, of that thin veil between earth and heaven, reassuring us that our precious loved ones are alive and well and ever so close.

Many of my grief mom friends have shared stories of their God Nods. These God Nods evidence in all shapes and sizes. For some, it’s rainbows, double rainbows, dragonflies, petunias, ladybugs, pennies, hearts, etc. For us, it’s the cardinal. Countless times over the past almost six years I’ve witnessed a little God Nod in the appearance of a cardinal.

Most recently, I was a bit sad at one point during a party we were attending, so I walked off by myself for a moment because I was missing Matt, missing having him there with the whole family, and as I walked around the corner of the house, a cardinal flew straight over my head as if to say, “Remember, I’m right here, just beyond the veil.” Only one other time (this summer, in fact) has a cardinal ever flown directly over me.

This past Sunday while driving to church, again, I was sad. I had begun to “go there” with my thoughts, wondering the “What ifs” and “If onlys” when I suddenly had to step on my brakes as a cardinal flew directly in front of my front right bumper. I would have struck it if I hadn’t hit the brakes. And it was like God said, “Uh, huh. Eyes on me. Not on what you’ve lost or the “what ifs” and “if onlys.” Keep your eyes on me.

It was a powerful moment, a moment I won’t soon forget. These God Nods are precious. They are moments of great grace. They are intimate whispers from a God who loves deeply, sees all, and comforts tenderly.

I can’t deny the days of the “crapiversary” are pressing in, threatening to pull me under. I feel as if I am treading water, gulping mouthfuls of sorrow and growing weary of fighting the waves of grief. I want to just sink into the depths of loss, but I know that He will uphold me. I know that the LORD is near, and I trust that He will strengthen me and hold me. I know that He speaks through simple, seemingly insignificant “God Nods,” nods that remind me of His love and care. He grants these small signs that make me aware of His presence, His presence so close that I can almost feel His breath upon my neck.

Oh, God, I need you. I need you to remind me that I am Yours and You are mine. I need to know I am loved by You. I need You and You alone, for You are my God.

Grieving with hope,

Angie signature

The space between feelings

I’ve been quiet, I know. Those of you who have children know the adage that if your toddler is quiet, then you know they’re into something they shouldn’t be. Similarly, I write and post regularly, and if I’m not, then something is up. The “up” is a myriad of things: birthdays, graduations, holiday celebrations, the summer calendar, etc. Life in general is busy. But busy, while challenging, doesn’t typically keep me away from the keyboard.

What keeps me away from the keyboard is the processing of emotions. I’ve felt, in fact, a bit like a toddler lately: happy, with a cheerful disposition one minute, but contrary and disposed to throwing a tantrum the next. Bearing down like a fast-moving locomotive, the impending “crapiversary” date barrels along the grief track. I admit I’ve been burying my head like an ostrich, pretending July 29th doesn’t exist, keeping myself busy, hoping that doing so will somehow “bypass” the date. Like riding a Tilt-A-Whirl at the fair, I’ve been filling my days with non-stop activity, hoping the dizziness of the grief ride will somehow make the 29th spin by. Only child loss grief isn’t an amusing carnival ride.

Over the 4th of July holiday weekend, I finally stopped the busyness. I stood still with the pile of perplexing toddler-like emotions and realized what feeling I had failed to identify. I was sad. I am sad that we are, again, marking another year without our son. It still sucks. It will always suck. And I am sad. I miss my boy. My husband misses his son. My children miss their brother.

For whatever reason, sadness wasn’t an emotion I easily identified. Anger, yes. Sadness, no. I suppose it’s because the ache is always there, the loss always present. Grief is a constant, though not as cutting or as fresh as it was in the beginning. I’m used to grief. But sadness is different. It’s hard to explain. However, for as much as there is sadness, there is grace. Grace for every day, grace for every moment.

You are my hiding place

Once I acknowledged the feeling of sadness, things shifted. Peace came, and I spent the rest of the holiday weekend with feelings of joy and sadness coexisting. Acknowledging the sadness allowed joy into the space, as it is in validation that feelings become manageable, for it is in bringing them to God that we are held in His arms and He bears our burdens. Some, indeed, bury their grief, but we are not designed to bury it. We were designed to lament, to pour out our hearts before the Lord, both in praise and in pain. When we bury feelings, we bury love, and to love is to live.

Instead of hiding my feelings, I want to hide myself in Him. Our God is a God of comfort. He is tender and compassionate. He is abounding in love and His grace is enough. He is bigger than our grief, His love greater and deeper than our loss. Yes, grief remains and there is sadness. But there is also a deeply settled joy, a sure and certain hope, and a peace that passes understanding. There is laughter and happy moments, and a vibrant love that lives on. I am secure because I am covered by the love of God, sheltered beneath His wings. He is my hiding place.

Blessings,

Angie signature

My soul weeps

July 1st. A new month. Many look forward to it with happy anticipation and joyful expectation of a fun-filled summer month. Independence Day celebrations and fireworks galore will fill the skies. Birthdays will be celebrated and the hot summer days beckon the human race to slow their pace, to soak in memories like rays of sunshine.

But for those, like me, whose child died in July, it is a slow, agonizing month. Like many bereaved parents, the countdown to the “crapiversary” date began the month before. Every day that passed stomped relentlessly forward. Like many bereaved parents, I just want to skip the entire month in which my child died. I want to skip July.

Of course, I realize this isn’t possible. And, once again, I’m left with no choice. The reality is my son is gone. There will be no 4th of July celebration with him, no listening to him bantering with his siblings, or overhearing relaxed conversations with the visiting relatives during vacation.

weeps with grief
And my heart aches. My soul weeps with grief. I woke this morning asking God for His strength and grace to make it through the day as I mentally ticked off the number of days until the 29th. This daily loss? It never goes away. Child loss isn’t something you ever get over because your child never comes back. For as long as I live there will be a headstone with my son’s name on it. It remains horrific to me.

And yet life goes on. At times, I still cannot fathom it. If not for the autonomic nervous system, my heart would not still be beating, I am sure. If not for the foundation of Truth upon which I stand, I would not have survived, I am surer still.

“From the end of the earth I call to You when my heart is faint; Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” Psalm 61:2

God’s word comes back to me in these moments, sustaining me, giving me hope and encouragement. His words give me strength and life. His promises carry me forward. His love overwhelms me. His grace pours out, and His presence comforts me. I am reminded that my son is ALIVE in heaven, that this life is just a “skip,” a hand breadth, a mist, a vapor. I remember that this world is not my home, that there is a place of perfection that awaits, a world without sin, where death will be no more. I call to mind that God is perfect and His ways are not my ways, that He is good and holy. I remember that if Jesus did nothing else for me in this life, He gave me salvation, and that is more than enough.

I begin to give thanks. I begin to see beauty and count the ways the LORD has been good to me. I thank God for His love and mercy, for His provision and power. I thank Him that when grief overwhelms, He is never overwhelmed. He is never surprised, yet delights in us and in His creation. He rejoices and He sorrows with us. I do not have an impotent God or wishful thinking. I have a sure and certain hope in a God who is sure and certain.

I choose this day to acknowledge my grief and loss, but I also choose this day to trust the LORD with it, to believe that He will do what He says in Isaiah 61:3 “…and provide for those who grieve in Zion– to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.”

Blessings,

Angie signature

How do I do this child loss thing?

I don’t know when the countdown began. I only know it has started. The heaviness in my chest moved in the other day, like an elephant foot planting itself on my heart, not caring where it landed, squeezing the breath out of me. Words have begun to fail me, and I do not want to write. I know what it is, and I still want to deny it. I want to deny grief, I want to deny the loss of my son. I want to run away, bury myself in busyness and ignore the coming days. I don’t want to make room for sorrow, for I have worked too damn hard at finding joy and carving a space for laughter and light. I fear drowning in grief again as July draws near. July 29th. The day my 16 year old, my firstborn, died. Oh, this still sucks, this grief.

The six year anniversary of the day Matt died is coming up, and I still have moments of utter disbelief. (See? I can’t even believe I’m saying years much less six.) I still wonder at times if this is some kind of horrific nightmare from which to wake up.

But it’s not.

It’s real life. My life.

This “crapiversary” (a term I’m borrowing from Anna Whiston-Donaldson from her blog An Inch of Gray) certainly isn’t like the first five. We’ve survived. Unbelievably. We’ve come such a long way since the beginning of the brutal induction into this “club” of child loss.

It truly testifies to God’s word. Every morning since the day my son died, God’s lovingkindnesses and compassions have not failed. They were new every morning, and His grace was, and is, sufficient for each and every day. Of course, there were days when it certainly didn’t feel as if it were enough, but it was. It was because I am alive, my family is alive, and our lives are a testimony to His abundant grace. We are well. Matt is still gone, but he is alive and lives in heaven. We still grieve, but we are good.

Lamentations

We still talk about Matt daily, remembering things about him which make us feel he is close, remembering all the things that made him uniquely Matt. I cherish the “God Nods,” those little, but big “signs” that reassure us he is not so far away, that God sees our hurting hearts and acknowledges them.

My heart twinges bittersweetly at the occasional glimpses of Matt I see: in the way his younger brother walks, when I read a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, or when I catch a glimpse of a dark-skinned 16 year old boy with glasses and a buzz haircut. I cherish the reminders, though they cause the ache in my heart to flare up.

Each crapiversary has been different, our family participating in whatever way felt “right” that year. The plan for this year? Uffda. It’s different, all right. My family is staying home while I attend The Compassionate Friends National Conference in Orlando, FL. The conference falls right over the crapiversary date. Besides being with my family, what better place to be for the anniversary of my son’s death than with thousands of other bereaved parents? It will be tough, but it will be good. I will be way out of my comfort zone (Because traveling is NOT my thing and volunteering to introduce workshop presenters puts me in FRONT of people when I’m far more comfortable behind the scenes!), but I know this is where I should be this year.

As July crouches close, I am reminded to stick ever closer to Christ. Last week, this post, in particular, hit me hard. The excerpt below is from Joni Eareckson Tada’s interview with World Magazine:

Does depression still ensnare you at times? Are you happy? I make myself be happy. I make myself sing because I have to. The alternative is too frightening. My girlfriends will tell you, in the morning when I wake up, I know they’ll be coming into my bedroom to give me a bed bath, do my toileting routines, pull up my pants, put me in the wheelchair, feed me breakfast, and push me out the front door. I lie there thinking (gagging noise), “Oh God, I cannot face this. I’m so tired of this routine. My hip is killing me. I’m so weary. I don’t know how I’m going to make it to lunchtime. I have no energy for this day. God, I can’t do quadriplegia. But I can do all things through You as You strengthen me. So God, I have no smile for these girlfriends of mine who are going to come in here with a happy face. Can I please borrow Your smile? I need it, desperately. I need You.”

I echo Joni’s words, only instead of her words “God, I can’t do quadriplegia,” I utter, “God, I can’t do this child loss thing. ” There are moments, days, where I, too, think this is just too much, I can’t take this any longer. I can’t do it. I’m so tired of it all, so tired of grief.

Additionally, Joni says:

Our weakness, God’s strength. I hate the prospect of having to face the day with paralysis. I choose the Holy Spirit’s help because I don’t want to go down that grim, dark path to depression any more. That’s the biblical way to wake up in the morning, the only way to wake up in the morning. No wonder the Apostle Paul said, “Boast in your afflictions.” Don’t be ashamed of them. Don’t think you have to hide them and gussy yourself up before God in the morning so that He’ll be happy with you and see that you’re really believing in Him. No, no, no. Admit you can’t do this thing called life. Then cast yourself at the mercy of God and let Him show up through your weakness because that’s what He promises—2 Corinthians 12:9.

Again, I relate to her words. I hate the prospect of having to face the day with child loss, yet another day without my precious son. But, like Joni, I recite God’s word and promises to myself. I can’t do this child loss thing by myself. I throw myself at His mercy, where I am promised His strength and am reminded that His compassions never fail, and His lovingkindnesses never stop. They are new every morning. Every morning. (Lam. 3:22-23) I don’t have to worry about July 29th, wondering how I (or my family) will make it through yet another anniversary. I am promised enough grace for each day, as much grace as that particular day will need.

He is a compassionate and faithful God…for every day, every circumstance, every need.

Blessings,

Angie signature