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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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

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

The perfect thing to say

I watched this tonight. It’s six minutes long. Go ahead. Watch it. I’ll be waiting right here when you get back.

Powerful, right? And as I sit here on Easter Sunday, not a moment went by today that I didn’t miss my son as I appreciated with profound gratitude my remaining children. I thanked God for the precious memories we made today and wept over the memories I will never get with my oldest.

I am committed to grief education. Scott Pelley has learned the lessons from these Sandy Hook parents well. This is why I share the video. I never want another bereaved parent to hear the words, “So are things all better now?” ten weeks after losing their child. (True story. And I don’t share it out of bitterness, but out of compulsion to educate those on what not to say to a bereaved parent.)

“One of the things that I learned from them — maybe the most profound thing that I learned — is that even after the passage of years, every single one of them was adamant that they had not moved on,” Pelley says. “They had moved forward in many ways in their lives, but they all felt that they would never recover or begin to recover from the loss of their child.”

I absolutely agree that we don’t “move on,” rather, we “move forward.” However, I disagree that you will never recover. Of course, you don’t “recover” your child, so in that sense, no, you don’t recover. But you do heal in the sense that you learn to live again and find joy in what remains. To shun healing is to make God out to be a liar, and God does not lie. He says, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” (Psalm 147:3)

“The perfect thing to say is, ‘Tell me about your child,’” Pelley explains. Avoiding mention of a deceased child when speaking to a bereaved parent is often the worst response, Pelley has learned, because the child’s life isn’t acknowledged. Asking about a lost child may bring a parent to tears, but the question is an important gesture.

As we come to the end of this Resurrection day, I am overwhelmed with gratefulness. Because of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, I can look forward to eternity in heaven. I will be in the presence of God in a sinless, perfect world. I will gaze into my son’s eyes, hold him in my arms, and hear his voice. I will no longer know what grief feels like or the pain of separation. Death will be no more, and life will be pure joy. Nothing but joy. All because of Jesus. God’s great love for us should cause us to ask Him also, “Tell me about your Son.”

“How Deep The Father’s Love For Us”
(Words and Music by Stuart Townend)
How deep the Father’s love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure
How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One,
Bring many sons to glory
Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers
It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished
I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection
Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

Blessings,

Angie signature

A little grief education for the uneducated

If you’re on social media, then you’ve most likely seen the flurry of posts regarding Whoopie Goldberg. Rumor has it that she commented in response to President Trump’s recognition of Carryn Owens (the widow of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens who was killed during a raid in Yemen) during his address to the joint session of Congress last week.

The rumor is that Ms. Goldberg stated, “She was just looking for attention. These military widows love their 15 minutes in the spotlight” and “If it were me I wouldn’t be able to leave the house. How can someone who is truly greiving [sic] go out there and be on TV. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

While these comments have now been claimed as fake news (Ms. Goldberg herself tweeting this), I cannot refrain from addressing them. It is an opportunity for education, to educate those who remain uneducated regarding grief. Like a dog with a bone, I will gnaw at wrong responses to grief that our society at large still holds.

How many of us bereaved have heard those words “She’s just looking for attention.” or “If it were me I wouldn’t be able to…” ?

These statements are most offensive.

But why? you ask. I’m glad you asked. Here’s why:

First, it assumes intent. It asserts that the bereaved have ulterior motives. As if grief weren’t enough. Attention isn’t the priority when experiencing grief. Grieving is the priority. Assuming someone’s motives is not only dangerous, it is presumptuous. (And most often wrong.) Rather than accuse the bereaved of seeking attention, try giving them grace instead.

Second, there is no formula for losing a loved one. How one reacts when faced with loss is as individual as fingerprints. To utter the words, “If it were me….” speaks a tone of judgement and displays a breathtaking lack of compassion, understanding, and ignorance. One can imagine all they want how they would act or respond to a loss, but until they experience it, it is just that – an imagination. Rarely does reality match up with what we imagined.

These phrases are exactly what I strive to eliminate from the bereavement world. As I did with my grief blog, I will continue to make every effort I can to educate those outside the grief community. Because words like these are not helpful. Do you see someone grieving? Do you want to help them? You don’t have to be a member of “The Club No One Wants to Be A Part Of” to help someone in grief. Be the grace giver. #GiveGrace

Blessings,

Angie signature

 

Dear Matt,

We talk about you every day. Your brothers and sisters enlighten me as to all the things you taught them, things I wasn’t aware of, things that make me smile and say, “Yeah, that sounds like Matt.” You are in a thousand memories, and I am so grateful. Just this morning as your brother was making a glass of chocolate milk, your sister laughingly said, “Remember when we believed that brown cows gave chocolate milk and white cows gave white milk?” Yeah, that was from you, Matt. You could convince your siblings of almost anything! (And the milk thing? We’re pretty sure that came from *Gale. She convinced you of a lot, too. Best of all? Her love for you. Remember the “Guess What?” game, Matt?)

It’s hard, I know, for some people to believe that we talk about you every single day. For some slightly shake their heads, thinking that we are somehow “stuck” in grief, that this daily talk of you implies we are not doing well. Oh, how I wish they understood that it is quite the contrary.

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Speaking of our loss is exactly what fosters healing. Our loved ones may die, and we bury their bodies in the ground, but love does not die. Love is what remains. Should we bury our love? Should we not speak of that which we love, of those whom we love? No, we should not make our loss or our loved one the center focus of our life, but healing does not happen by doing what many generations ago did: buried their grief, never speaking of their pain or of their loved one again. That wasn’t healing; that was denial. They did not find healing by repressing their grief.

Matt, you are missed so very much. It doesn’t mean we are “stuck.” It doesn’t mean we cry every day. It doesn’t mean we don’t laugh. It means we live life here without you, yet remember daily the hole in our hearts. Your amputated presence throbs more some days than others, but we rub the memories of you on like salve. With joy, we remember you because that is what love does: love lives on. I love you, son.

Love, Mom

 

*Gale is my God-loving, dear sister-in-Christ, best friend, and farmer woman whom I have known for 25 years. When Matt was little, he always fell for her “Guess What?” game where she asked him, “Matthew, guess what?” Inevitably, he’d always respond with “What?” to which she would reply, “I love you!” Even on his 16th birthday, she messaged him “Guess what?” To which he replied, “Yeah, Yeah. I know.” Melts my heart. She is also, sadly, a member of “The Club No One Wants to be a Part of.”