Friday, October 25, 2013

No two are alike

This was originally written five years ago. At that time, I was asked by a collaborative online grief support site to write about the intersection of loss and faith. It's a long story as to how and why I was asked, but I was and I did. I have written a lot of things over the years but this one has always stood out for me as one of the most honest things I've ever written. It has become a sort of testimony for me in the larger sense of the word. It is my story and it is my truth. 

I have updated it to reflect this 10 year anniversary, which has felt strangely significant. I don't know why a number should matter so much but it seems to. So, thank you to the friends and strangers reading this who will allow me this 10 year mark to be a bit sentimental. I'll try to tone it down for the 11th. 

And just in case this story makes you concerned that I am spending my day tucked in bed with the covers over my head, I'd refer you to my post of the other day. I am completely okay. I'm just using this mile marker as an opportunity to share some things I haven't before. Sort of a release before I move on to the next phase of the journey. 

So, I'm okay, friends. But I'm not ruling out a nap.

No Two Are Alike

It was January and it was snowing. Great big fat flakes were floating down and, even more exciting, they were sticking to the ground. It was enough to make two young boys nearly hysterical.

I helped them piece together whatever suitable outdoor clothing we could find and sent them out the door in ill-fitting snow boots from last year and adult sized stocking caps that kept falling down over their eyes. They whooped and hollered and started scraping together snowballs from the wafer-thin blanket of snow that had accumulated on the grass.

I retreated upstairs to my bedroom, my sanctuary, and leaned on the windowsill watching them from above. It had been less than three months since I had birthed, held, loved and said good-bye to my other two - the two that now existed only in my dreams. Silent tears slipped down my cheeks as I struggled yet again with my inability to find joy in a scene that was nothing less than joy-filled. Two glorious, living, breathing, sturdy boys. Mine. But my thoughts were consumed by the two that were missing.

During those long three days in the hospital prior to Joseph and Molly’s birth, and then death, I felt held. I prayed only for God’s presence and He was there.

He was there in the nurses who ministered to us with such tenderness and mercy. He was there in the family members who waited with us in silent support even when we refused to see anyone. He was there in our friend, an ordained minister, who abandoned all of the duties of her own life to come to us in our time of need. He was there in the remarkable peace that surrounded us during the hours we held our babies, loving them, memorizing them, struggling to figure out how to let them go. I felt sustained by the prayers and rituals of our faith that were offered up on our behalf. Tears were everywhere, but so was grace.

I thought that presence that had been so easy to recognize in the hospital would follow me home. It didn’t.

I thought the peace I had felt when my babies were here would continue in their absence. Again, no. Life moved on so quickly, it had to.  Boys at the ages of five and eight don’t understand periods of mourning, or a mother who can’t find the energy to help them with their homework or to volunteer in their classroom. Guilt heaped on top of grief and I found myself drowning. 

Through it all I tried to pray. I tried to cling to all that I had always known to be true in the hopes that it would bring some kind of comfort. I tried. But most of the time my prayers didn’t get any further than, God, please help me...

Help me what? Help me heal? Help me still be a mother to the children who are here with me? Help me stop torturing myself with all of the things I believe I should have done differently? Help me stop doubting my babies’ value, and my right to grieve their absence? Yes, all of that. That, and so much more. 

I gave into many demons during those days. I agonized myself with all that I had done wrong, and shut myself off from everyone who cared. But the one voice I never gave credence to was the one that tried to claim this was God’s will. The devil didn’t win that one. I had reconciled long before this tragedy that I was a part of a larger story; a story of a broken world and a broken relationship with God. Accidents, illness, disease, all evidence of a creation gone wrong. As a Christian, I believe the Incarnation and the Resurrection restored our relationship to God, but Creation is still in need of repair. The Kingdom has not yet come. The world is still broken and we see that brokenness in a thousand different ways every day.

Leaning on my windowsill that snowy afternoon, I felt myself slipping into doubt, into despair. Over and over I thought of the cry of that anguished father in the Gospel of Mark: Lord, I believe; please help my unbelief. And in that moment I felt something. It wasn’t peace. It didn’t erase the sorrow in my heart. It was more like awareness, a window opening to a place that I hadn’t seen before.

In that space, for just a moment, I heard His voice.

I’m here. They mattered. They matter to me. They were my beloved. You are my beloved. They are with me and they are perfect. You will be okay, I promise. I am here... I am always here.

In the quiet of that blessed assurance I looked out the window and saw my boys working together to try and gather every ounce of snow they could find to build a miniature snowman. From the depths of my soul, I smiled.

It’s been ten years now and I still hold onto that moment of clarity.

It is the voice that tells me it is okay that I am still here, still writing about them, still remembering them, and still missing them. It is also the voice that tells me it is okay that I am happy again, that joy returned. It is the voice of love in all its forms. The love that weeps over those we miss, and the love that rejoices in the blessings of today.

I believe in love.  I believe that God is the source of that love. I believe we are called to love and that in doing so we assist God in repairing the world. And I believe that my babies, my son and daughter, are wrapped forever in eternal love - both mine and God’s.

I believe.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Beautiful and terrible things

Ah, if only you knew the peace there is in an accepted sorrow.
~Jeanne De la Motte-Guyon

The first time I read this quote, it annoyed me.

It felt just a little too much like being patted on the head and gently chucked under the chin while being told to, "Buck up, little camper!"

But then I couldn't get it out of my head. It just stayed there, whispering to me through the years, as though it really did know something that I didn't.

Now when I read those words, I hear an entirely different voice. I no longer hear the condescending, chiding tone telling me to "get over it" that I once heard. Instead, it is the sound of a gentle friend, patting my knee, offering a glimpse of hope while at the same time still honoring a very real and present pain.

For me, these are the words you think to yourself- while wishing them for someone else- but never saying them out loud. Because if it is too soon, then they will be just what they were for me- annoying. Or worse yet, hurtful.

These are the words you come to when you have reached the other side.

Occasionally, I write about stuff that's a little deeper than my usual fare. I'm always appreciative of my friends and readers who seem to be able to tolerate the whiplash that must come from reading this little blog. Entirely lighthearted stuff mixed in with the heavy can make one a little seasick sometimes, but I'm finding it's hard for me to do otherwise because that's really what life is. It's messy.

This post generated more traffic than anything I have ever written which surprised me as much as anyone. I don't write here with the purpose of developing a large readership. I really just write for me and for the handful of people in my life who seem to enjoy hearing what I have to say (probably because I've always communicated better in writing than in actual speech-go figure). Which is why it was startling to see the number of "hits" on that post go steadily up and up and up, knowing that most of those people reading my words had to be strangers to me. It's an odd feeling.

But what this tells me is that we all secretly crave a certain measure of vulnerability in our lives. I think all of us, at one time or another, have wanted nothing more than the assurance that our feelings and experiences are not completely outside the range of "normal". We all want to know that we are not crazy! 

So, to the extent that I might have been able to offer that assurance of normalcy to other people in the world, strangers or not, I am glad.

The only complication I have in writing about some of my experiences is I fear it can make people think they need to offer me something. That I am seeking condolences or support or sympathy. I felt that after writing "Stay" and it was a little uncomfortable for me because I didn't really intend that to be about myself. It was more of an encouragement for others facing more recent losses and the friends who might be struggling to support them.

This post is ending up even more rambling than usual (which is difficult to do) so let me try to arrive at a point here. This is a poignant week for me. These are days of remembering our babies who both arrived and left too soon, whether I want them to be or not. Even when I try to make it otherwise, my body and my heart force me to remember. I can't explain it, so all I can do is embrace it. I live these days with a heightened awareness of both their presence in my life and their absence. And I know that at the end of this month it will fade again and the memories I carry of them will settle back into a quiet, unobtrusive place in my mind.

That's all true. But what is also true is that I am okay. I don't share these things to garner attention or words of sympathy. I write because I am compelled to and because it seems like every once in awhile something I say actually helps someone else.

And perhaps, a small part of me shares these things in an act of rebellion against a culture that would rather we all keep our more difficult emotions to ourselves. With the exception of ranting about politics or the manufactured social divide of the day, I think we all know we aren't really allowed to be too open about ourselves, right? We are supposed to be fine and busy and just great when people ask how we are.

So, once again, this is me...being a rebel.

But, the truth is- really, truly, for real- I am okay.

There really is peace to be found in an accepted sorrow.

But you gotta travel a long path to get there.

In your own time. In your own way.

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid.
~Frederick Buechner

Monday, October 21, 2013

Boxes and Labels

I have a friend who way-back-when worked as an organization development consultant (or something like that) for one of our big tech companies up here. I'm sure she was good at it because she is super smart. I'm also sure she was good at it because they ended up promoting her to the European division after which she and her family moved to Paris for several years where she did leadership training all over Europe and the Middle East. She is also one of the funniest, most magnetic people I know.

Anyway, about a million years ago, she and I were chatting and I was telling her about my tendency to start strong with things and then lose interest somewhere down the line and wish I'd never started the thing in the first place. I can't remember exactly what tiresome project/plan/organization I was referring to, but I must have been growing weary of something I'd agreed to.

She listened intently, nodding along very seriously. Then, in her bright, ever-optimistic way, she smiled widely and slapped me on the leg and said, "Well, that all makes perfect sense! You are an Initiator not a Sustainer!"

I stared at her silently for probably a full five seconds as I let this revelation settle in and then I burst out laughing. Hysterically.

I congratulated her for finding a way to put a pretty label on the reality that I am a lazy slacker with grand intentions who eventually wants everyone else to do all the work.

We laughed and laughed together with her assuring me that Initiators were every bit as valuable in the world as Sustainers, and me shaking my head and saying, "Uh huh. I'm sure that's how those dependable, reliable Sustainers look at it. Thanks a lot, Initiators. Don't worry about us as you flutter off to your next project, we'll keep this thing rolling..."

And even though that conversation was at least a million years ago, and was always something I remembered with great humor, I also never forgot it.

I catch myself evaluating different decisions I make, projects I start, committees I'm considering and thinking, "So, this something you can sustain? Is it necessary to be able to sustain it? Do you want to?" Which are all really very good questions to ask of anything we are considering giving our time and energy to.

It also makes me look at my kids and quietly evaluate their tendencies. I have one that definitely exhibits a preference for Initiating things over Sustaining, one that shows all the signs of being a stalwart Sustainer, and one that is a little hard to tell. None of it changes how I relate to them or what I expect of them, but it's an interesting distinction to ponder.

Let me be clear, I don't really believe in boxing people into labels. I'm also certain my friend doesn't either and if I ever reminded her of this conversation she would probably say, "I said what?!?" And then we would laugh hysterically about it all over again. But I do think there is something to this. I do think there are people who are better at generating ideas and energy and enthusiasm, and there are people who are better at buckling down and keeping the day to day operations of things rolling along.

This blog is a good example of my struggles with Initiation vs. Sustaining. It's true I have Sustained the blog but I also have done a terrible job of sticking with the original intention behind its Initiation.

But here's the thing:

I completed high school, college and graduate school.

I've been happily married for 21 years.

I have one friend whom I've known since infancy and two others since preschool. We are still very connected to one another and have been long before the advent of Facebook.

I just returned from a reunion with some of my college girlfriends (for those keeping count, that would have been 20+ years ago). We do these reunions every other year and they only get more and more fun. We pick up right where we left off every time.

I talk to my sister and my cousin (who is like a sister to me) almost daily.

My house is reasonably tidy (but please don't stop by unannounced).

I have been in my Director of Children's Ministry position for two years now and I have no interest in stepping away anytime soon.

If I do agree to see a project through, I really will (it might just happen in the 11th hour).

Last time I checked, I never stopped being a mom for the past 18+ years.

So...what's my point?

Maybe I'm a Selective Sustainer? (I just created my own new group functioning term, I hope my friend is impressed). Maybe I am more than capable of sustaining the things and relationships that really matter but anything else has to be weighed against the energy I'm already pouring out. Maybe I recognize there is only so much of me to go around so I keep a handful of things in the "Sustain Permanently" column and everything else goes in the "Sustain Until I No Longer I Have the Energy" column. Actually, I'm pretty sure there is a third column titled, "Avert Your Eyes, Keep Your Head Down and Do Not Agree to One More Thing". That third column is a biggie.

So, that's what I'm going with. I am both an Initiator AND a Selective Sustainer. I will not be contained by labels and boxes. I am going to be like a human Venn Diagram with a foot in each circle. I am the embodiment of "and/or"and a living oxymoron.

I'm such a rebel.

Just don't ask me how the Great Bedroom Switcharoo Project is coming along...

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


A year ago, I wrote about what October means to me. 

Here we are again, but this year I am moving through this month with focused determination not to let it throw me off my game. Not because I am unwilling to allow myself to feel the things that this change in season brings up for me, but because I feel that now, ten years later, I should be able to achieve a better balance.

I can be there (in my thoughts) and here (in my actions) all at the same time.

At least that's the theory.

So, I have been making to-do lists and dutifully checking things off each day. I have been showering regularly (any of you who have been following along know this is HUGE for me). I have been spending time reading things that keep me grounded in my faith. And I have been making a concerted effort to be present in the world, spending time with friends, being available to substitute teach when needed, and just generally leaving the house (again, HUGE).

Next week, I have an incredible girl's weekend to look forward to down in sunny California with some of my dearest college friends. It couldn't come at a better time and I am gearing myself up for extended bouts of laughter, conversation and minimal sleep.

It's easy to look at someone else's situation and determine that any emotional obstacle is really just as simple as "mind over matter." Other people's problems or griefs appear so darn fixable to those of us standing on the outside. Maybe not immediately though- usually, depending on where the loss falls on our internal scale of sorrow, we allow for a certain period of mourning. But my experience is that the timeframe for grief we on the outside allow and the reality of what goes on inside a grieving person are wildly different.

It's hard to say what prompted this post today other than I keep seeing loss around me. It just keeps coming and the older we get the more likely it is to hit close to home. And without over-generalizing things, knowing that everyone is different, I wanted to offer just a couple of thoughts to anyone who might not yet have experienced a profound loss and deep grief. Or, perhaps someone close to you is suffering and you are floundering to understand her experience and what she might need.

Here goes... my completely non-expert perspective:

-Grief is physical as much as it is emotional. It is an actual weight on your body. You literally feel that everything is heavier and that makes accomplishing the simplest tasks that much harder. Imagine trying to clean your house, pick up your kids from school, go to the grocery store...everything...with 10 lb. weights strapped around your ankles and wrapped around your neck. Life is heavy when you are grieving. And the weights don't come off all at once in one glorious "I'm all better!" moment. They slowly peel off, ounces at a time, and even when they are mostly gone they can find you again. Holidays, special dates, changing seasons, both happy and sad occasions can make everything heavy again.

When your grieving friend seems too tired to even go to the movies, she probably is.

-Grief looks a lot like depression but they aren't the same. This was one of the most helpful things our grief counselor told my husband. He wanted to see me bounce back and get back to my old self not because he didn't understand and share the reason for my sorrow, but because he was scared of who I had become. He didn't recognize this quiet, tired woman who never wanted to leave the house. He needed reassurance that this was okay and not a permanent condition. Once he could wrap his head around the idea that grief is long and heavy and not super pretty, but isn't the same as depression, he was able to support me where I was. Of course sometimes grief and depression can overlap and that is something to mindful of, but according to my counselor you'd be surprised how seldom they do. True depression is chemical, grief is a natural response to a broken heart.

-Profound grief is long. I hesitate to use words like "profound grief" and "deep grief" because it implies a scale or measure of grief. No such measure exists and the reality is that if you feel your loss deeply, regardless of what others have felt in similar situations, then you have to move through it in whatever way you need to. But my point is, if your loss has rocked you to your very soul then it is going to take a long time to find your footing again. So much longer than anyone wants to believe.

I'm sure there are people reading this right now who can't help but think that ten years is a long time to still be remembering two babies who died at birth. It's such a common loss, right? But common doesn't mean easy. And just because someone stops talking about something doesn't mean they don't still feel that loss. It might just mean that they don't feel safe enough to let anyone in on how much they are still affected by that part of their story.

We do a pretty good job in our culture of subtly (and not so subtly) letting people know, "Enough. Time's up. I gave you 'x' number of days, weeks, months and now it's time." And what we are really saying is it is time for you to stop talking about this because I can't hear about it anymore.

I hold myself as accountable for this as anyone. It's hard to continue to bear each other's burdens. And there are those people who seem to wallow in and relish some measure of despair. We have to watch for that and it's okay to distance yourself from someone who truly seems to just love company in their misery. But if you have a friend who has experienced something truly traumatic- the loss of a child, a spouse, a marriage, a sibling...the pain is not going to go away in six months, or even a year, or even two years... These are life altering losses. Be gentle. Be patient. Be that friend who is still there when the laughter starts to bubble up again and the weights have fallen off their shoulders.

I know I am so grateful for my friends who stayed.

Be the friend who stays, even if you don't know what you're doing. Even if your friend says she wants to be alone and doesn't want to talk (I was that person). Even if you think it's been too long and you think if she would "just do 'x y or z"..." Just wait...quietly, patiently.

Be the friend who stays.

Thank you to all of mine who did.

"Lend me your hope for awhile. A time will come when I will heal, and I will lend my renewed hope to others."
~Eloise Cole