Thursday, January 29, 2015

Living with grief: three and a half years

It's the 29th and exactly three and one half years since losing our 16yo. son in a car accident. I wonder if I will ever stop counting months and years. My heart continues to ache, though most days the ache is barely noticeable. But days like this? The ache wells up, pulses strong. I force my thoughts to think truth, take them captive to Christ. Today, I think I will throw eggs.

The past week has been a tug of war between thankfulness and grief. I never thought I'd be "that" parent, the one who causes awkward moments in conversation because of an answer to the innocent question, "How many children do you have?" For the most part, however, I've learned to gloss over the introductions, doing my best to alleviate and avoid their uncomfortableness. I say it fast, moving quickly so they don't have a chance to "poor me" me. I forget sometimes how shocking it is for others who don't know our story, and I feel compelled to "smooth" the rough spot. I never thought I'd be explaining how old my oldest child would be.

The struggle with grief continues, though it's course has changed dramatically since it began. The wild roller coaster ride with its steep plummets and sharp turns has evened out. As my grief mom friend Jackie says, "The highs aren't as high, and the lows aren't as low." For that, I am thankful. My biggest struggle lately, surprisingly, has not been bitterness, but jealousy. Yes. Jealousy. I wasn't really aware it was jealousy I was feeling until I read fellow Christian blogger, Kara Tippetts' post. (I'm sorry, I don't have a link to her complete post. I believe her blog address moved, changing some post links.) Kara wrote that she has been asked many times if she struggles with feeling angry about having terminal cancer, and her "answer is typically the same- Jason and I have fought to be broken instead of bitter and angry. ... No one has ever asked me if I'm jealous." (from Kara's FB post)

With each milestone that Matt's friends experience in their lives, I fight against jealousy. While I am truly, sincerely happy for them, I grieve because Matt's not here, because we don't get to experience these milestones with our son. For every wedding I've attended since losing Matt, I've had to brace myself or look away when I see the groom and his mother. I have to intentionally squelch any thoughts or imaginings of "I wonder" or "What if." For every graduation, for every date or girlfriend, for every moment a mom friend talks about her teenage son, jealousy raises it's ugly head. I never thought it would be this hard.

Yet, for every hard, there is grace. Abundant grace. All-sufficient grace. There is the hope of something that "far outweighs" every pain of this world. (2 Cor. 4:17) There is an anticipation for a day when there will never again be sorrow, sin, or jealousy. I know that when jealousy raises it's head, I need only to do one thing: Put my head upon His shoulders, the only One who understands and knows all. I lean hard on Him and find the grace I so desperately need.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

When you wake aching

It was one of those mornings. A morning where, before I had even opened my eyes, I knew grief had crept in under the covers and sidled up next to me during the night while I had slept. I woke heavy-hearted, the sky unlit by morning light, though the clock professed it was, indeed, daytime.

Strike one: a fitful night's sleep. Strike two: a gray, cloudy day. And strike three: my aching heart. I took a deep breath and got up. After three and a half years of grief, days like these are all too familiar. Thankfully, however, they are also now fewer and farther between and don't last nearly as long.

I've since learned how to fight back against the sorrow. I determined, though aching, to give thanks. I began to list things I was thankful for. I thanked God that He is unchanging. I thanked Him for His promises. I thanked Him that this world is not all there is. I thanked Him for the "God-nods" He's given me.

Indeed, as I finished getting ready for the day the song "Stronger" by Mandisa came on. A God-nod. I didn't feel strong, but God was reminding me that He saw my pain, and that He knew I felt anything but strong. The song finished, only to be followed by yet another grief favorite. I knew then that I would make it through the day o.k. It would be tough, but I had God's strength to get me through.

I made it through the day, stumbled a bit, but found my footing. Driving home, one last song hit me. It was Matt Redman's song, "Lord, You Never Let Go." Why I had to hear that particular song on the way home, I don't know. It's a painful song for us. Crying, I told my husband, "I wonder if I'll ever be able to listen to this song ever again without also thinking of my son's funeral." It sucks. It really sucks. Yet, there is truth. Comforting truth. God has never once let go of me. He knows. He will never let go.

Monday, January 19, 2015

A new chapter

I really can't explain how or why our new used van is the "page" that turned this grief journey to a new chapter. I only know that it feels as if I have inexplicably begun a new chapter in our lives. It seems so silly. After all, it's just a van. Yet it's more than that. It's a symbol of something new. It's a sign of closure on a very bad, horrendous, and indescribably painful time in our lives

Healing on the journey of grief takes an incredible amount of time, far more than those on the outside would expect, and far more than those experiencing it would like. It also takes an inordinate amount of energy. Healing doesn't just happen. It takes concentrated effort, physically, mentally, and spiritually. It is, by far, the hardest thing I have ever done.

Moving forward is indescribably difficult, but it is the only choice. The wound must heal, for there is no other option. It will either heal, or it won't. But healing. Healing is not some pretty, neat, quick process. It is ugly, chaotic, long, and excruciating. It's taken me more than 3 years to get to a place where I can finally answer honestly, "I'm good." to those who ask, "How are you?"

For so long, grief is all I've known. However, as GriefShare says, it is an experience, not an identity. Yet it's hard to fathom how it can't be your identity because, as a parent, our children make up so much of our life. They are a part of us. It is a great struggle to reconcile the "before" of our life with our "after." (The "before," of course, is before your child/ren died, and the "after" is after the death of your child/ren.) It's unbelievably hard getting to a place where you truly believe that "earth has no sorrow that heaven can't heal."(David Crowder - Come As You Are)

I think one of the greatest battles in grief is the battle to believe God and, as a result, to choose better over bitter. This new chapter doesn't negate the loss, the sorrow, or the pain. Instead, it is the product of it. The compost of grief has, finally, begun to birth new life, new growth. I am convinced that healing only happens when we come as we are to God, leaning into our grief, yet relying on Him to do what He says He will do. He will bring beauty from ashes and bind up the brokenhearted. He will be our all in all when we simply come to Him, trusting Him to do the impossible. I still don't understand why He chose to write this chapter of child loss into the story of our family, but I do know that this chapter isn't the end of the story. A new chapter has begun.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Every little thing

There are things along the grief journey of child loss that may seem completely irrational and insignificant to those who haven't experienced the loss of a child. But to bereaved parents, we nod our heads in unison when we hear of these things. Things like why walking down the cereal aisle causes us to suddenly burst out in tears. Or why the sound of a helicopter makes us catch our breath. Things like why cardinals, dragon flies, rainbows, and hearts now mean so much more to us. These are things that only those who have suffered the loss of a loved one will understand.

It's why I know that when I tell my mom's grief group about our new used van they will get it. I hated the van that we purchased after Matt's accident. Don't get me wrong, I was, and am, extremely thankful for it. But I hated it. I hated it because every time I looked at it, it reminded me that the only reason we had it was because my 16yo. son, my firstborn, died in an accident driving our old van. And my grief moms know that every little thing in our lives after child loss remains somehow connected to before that loss. 

But Monday? Monday, we bought a new used van. A van that no longer reminds me of the accident. It is a relief. It is a symbol of a new chapter. Yet this new used van is bittersweet. So very bittersweet. Most people are just going to see our new van and think, "That's cool. I'm happy for you." (Thank you, btw. Really.) But I see our new used van, and I think of Jason Gray's lyrics to his song "Not Right Now." Three years ago, I would have said I'd never be o.k. again. Three years ago, I couldn't see anything new. All I saw was death, and everything reminded me of death.

But there must be new things, for death is not the end. By God's definition, life is "Life, death, life." Moving forward after child loss requires so much strength and takes so much energy for every step. For a long while, life becomes hard, and a relentless battle for joy ensues. But it gets easier. It does. It doesn't mean the hurt goes away. It doesn't mean terrible scars don't exist. It doesn't mean those ugly chapters of our lives get erased or torn out. But it does mean that some day it will be o.k. Some day, every little thing will make sense.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Falling forward

What's important today is not that the year is new, but that God's mercies are new, not just every year, but every morning of your life. --Paul David Tripp

We welcomed in yet another new year on Wednesday, our fourth one without Matt. We hosted it at our church and had a wonderful time. It was an evening spent with many precious friends. It was heart-warming to see so many familiar faces, as well as several new ones. Many times throughout the evening, I caught myself giving thanks for these people and for the gift of friendship.

I thought of the three previous New Year's and gave thanks that each one has been a bit easier to handle. We enjoyed playing our favorite board games and learning new ones. I scanned the room and saw a table full of people playing Blokus. It's moments like that that cause my heart to skip a beat.

Matt was pretty happy to get the game for his 15th birthday. Hosting New Year's Eve game night has been a family tradition for many years. It holds countless memories, memories that make my heart ache and smile at the same time. There is always an undercurrent of grief. With every memory there is always the temptation to wonder, "What if?" or "If only." I saw Matt's best friends at the party, saw how much they've matured and grown, and immediately I had to stop my thoughts, redirect. I firmly believe the "What ifs" and "If onlys" are non-productive and, in fact, harmful to healing. I believe they keep one "stuck" in grief. I refuse to go there.

Instead, I purpose to remember that Matt is alive in heaven and that this life is short, though it definitely doesn't feel that way much of the time. I determine to fill my mind with what is to come, a glorious reunion, an eternal residence of perfection in a place of perfection. Oh, how much better this kind of thinking is for me! I refuse, absolutely refuse, to be one of those who say, "It never gets better." I can't even begin to count how many times I've heard this from other bereaved parents. It is a lie. It is better. But better doesn't necessarily mean what most people, myself included, think it means.

Oftentimes, however, it means it actually gets worse before it gets better. (For us, the second year of grief was worse.) But it does improve. It doesn't mean there will never be grief. I believe it will always be there. As long as I'm living, I will miss my son. I think about him every day, just as I think about the rest of my children every day. I'm not sure why our society has this belief that better means we have somehow forgotten our children who are no longer with us. Again, that's not true. I loved what another bereaved father said to me recently about what he tells others when asked about his loss, especially in reference to the remark, "But you have other children..." To which he replies, "I also have five fingers. And if I lose one, it will hurt, and I will still miss the one that is gone."

Healing doesn't mean that everything looks the way it once did or that things go back to "normal." Do we really think an amputee forgets the loss of their limb? Or that they aren't reminded daily of their loss? But, what they do is learn to live as well as they can with that loss. Recovery from grief is possible, yet it doesn't deny or ignore the damage that has taken place. Recovery involves taking stock of what is. It most assuredly involves bad days, days where we stumble and fall and make little progress. But it also has days of falling forward. There are days in which forward progress is observed.

This "falling forward" is helped along by a push of thankfulness from behind. Our church gym was filled with about sixty people, many of them close friends. I could be bitter about Matt not being there with us, or I could give thanks for the abundance of amazing friends we have. I could be bitter because my family doesn't get to create and experience new memories with Matt, or I can give thanks for the memories and give thanks for the time at hand with the ones I do have. I want to fall forward this year with more thankfulness. I know grief will remain, but cultivated joy will be what makes the wheels of this grief journey move forward. And it's God's grace, for every moment of every day, that make joy possible. A new year has begun, and with it comes grace, peace, and joy. May you fall forward this year, dear friends.