Left Behind: The Grief of a Young Sibling

{Note: We are not experts in this area. This is our story – our only experience to draw from. I believe that the death of a sibling is a unique and devastating event for each family. The cause of death affects grief. The birth order affects grief (was the child the firstborn, youngest, etc). The age of the child that died affects grief (was it a miscarriage, still birth, infant death, young child, etc). The age and personalities of the siblings that are left behind affects grief. There are so many factors that influence the grief journey for siblings. There’s no formula or method to navigate the journey. But these are some of the things that our family has found to be helpful in our particular situation up to this point. So I humbly share them with you. And I welcome your insights and experiences too.}

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The three of us were enjoying our nightly family cuddle time a few days ago, when Caleb quietly asked, “Mommy, may I snuggle on your chest like baby Evelyn?”

My heart swelled with love for my precious little boy. My firstborn. The very one who brought me into this beautifully chaotic and holy world of motherdom. I pulled him close to fulfill his tender request.  But even as he saturated my arms with his stout toddler frame, I felt an undeniable emptiness too. My daughter’s absence became acute in the darkness of his room, echoing loudly in the wake of his sweet question. Only three of us were there instead of four.

Helping Caleb grieve the death of his little sister has not been easy. We’ve tried to be somewhat proactive on our end, while also taking his cues to talk about her when she’s on his mind.

Since he’s only two years old, life is very concrete. He doesn’t talk about Evelyn all the time because she’s not here with us. For all he knows, it’s normal for a sibling to live in a special hospital and never come home. From time to time he asks about her when we’re driving in the car or playing at home. Our typical response is, “Baby Evelyn’s body stopped working. Now she lives in heaven with Jesus. She’s not sick anymore.” That’s basically it. It varies a little depending on the situation. But as he gets older and his mind begins to understand the complexities of sickness and death and heaven, we’ll share more.

But for now, these are some of the things we do for our toddler to keep it concrete and simple:

  1. Have a prepared response that the child can remember (like what I mentioned above).
  2. Read an age-appropriate children’s book about heaven that helps spark short discussions.
  3. I made a Shutterfly book especially for Caleb. It’s all about Evelyn and him. Pictures, words, memories, and a simple story line. It’ll be a precious keepsake for him as he grows older. But in this present moment, it’s a helpful tool to keep her memory alive and talk about her when she comes up.
  4. Watch a video of our family that was taken the day before she died. It’s a treasure to us. It captures some of the few moments that the four of us were together during her 20 days. Caleb loves to watch it over and over and over.
  5. We have pictures of Evelyn in our home. There’s one on the fridge. There are a few included in gallery displays on our walls. It’s not over-the-top. But it’s enough to show that she’s a part of our family and always will be.

I’ve heard of other families baking birthday cakes on the child’s birthday. Or letting balloons go on their birthday/death date. It seems that there are a lot of thoughtful ways to grieve and heal and hope and remember. I’m sure the conversations and tributes will change for us over time.

I’ve tried to be careful that I never force Caleb to talk about his sister. He has never shed a tear over her death. And that’s okay. Some day he probably will. As I see it now, God’s mercy abounds in Caleb’s life because when he thinks about Evelyn, it only brings him joy. He giggles and squirms when he sees her pictures and videos. He’s filled with uncontainable delight at the thought of his baby sister.

But as a general rule of thumb, if I can’t remember the last time we talked about her together (maybe it’s been a few weeks), I might bring it up gently – put the feelers out, if you will. For example, I’ll suggest reading his Caleb & Evelyn book before nap time. If he’s interested, great. If not, that’s okay too. We move on.

Above all, my prayer for Caleb (and our other children who will never meet Evelyn this side of heaven), is that her life and death will cause them to trust God more deeply. I pray that they will see God’s goodness and mercy through her life. I pray that they will see the peace and hope that Christ brings in the darkest of circumstances. I pray that when they’re sad, they will run into the arms of Jesus, our Friend and Savior and Shepherd, who will quietly weep with them and comfort them with his love. I pray that they feel confident taking their doubts and questions and uncertainties to our Heavenly Father, who can lead them in his perfect truth.

One day we will all reach the absolute fulfillment of this promise: “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy” (Psalm 126:5).

Until then, we will pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us as we help our children handle their grief in all of its stages and waves, and point them to the One who can truly bring them the comfort they need.

Let Mercy Triumph: Alligator Tragedy

I don’t generally – well, ever really – share my unsolicited opinions online about trending news stories. But this alligator tragedy has struck a chord in my heart. Caleb is two – the same age as the little boy who died. I cannot fathom the horror and helplessness of watching your child endure such a gruesome death. It’s unbearable to think about. The aftermath of guilt, heartache, and loss that the family will face is hard to imagine. When it comes to losing a child, there’s just nothing – absolutely nothing – that compares. We know this all too well, though our stories are different.

It seems that the first reaction in our culture tends to be judgment and criticism and finger pointing and arguing – void of much compassion or tenderness. They should have (insert opinion). They shouldn’t have (insert criticism). In fact, I’m just as guilty as the next guy for responding with that attitude in so many situations. Lord, please help me. There have been countless times that God has gently reminded me to slow down before making judgments. I often don’t know peoples’ stories. And usually when I learn about them, it changes my perspective and better shapes my responses. No longer is it a rushed judgment, but rather a thoughtful response colored with truth and grace.

This young family just witnessed their precious child get eaten by an alligator.

Now is probably not the most appropriate time to share opinions about the shoulda, woulda, couldas. Now is the time to share your heart.

There probably are things that could have been done differently. But perhaps we should pause to show mercy? A group of the right people should certainly get together very soon to reflect and discuss how to avoid situations like this in the future. But right now, it’s not about that. Right now, the priority is mercy.

I pray that people will simply have the sensitivity to “mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15). Be sad with this family. Pray for them. Shed tears with them. Send them a card or flowers or memorial gift. Do something that shares in their grief and honors their little boy’s life.

“Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

Prayer Sticks

 

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When Evelyn was alive, we prayed. Oh, how we prayed. It felt as if we prayed without ceasing, pleading with God to heal her because we know that he is able. And you know what? He did. He is faithful and full of mercy. The moment she set foot on eternity’s shore, she was whole and perfectly healed. Her first steps took her straight into the arms of Jesus. She bypassed the difficulties and pain of this world, and she entered into her forever heavenly home. I’m not sad for her. I’m just really sad for us because we’re left behind, waiting, until Jesus calls us home some day too.

An incredible amount of people were praying for our family during that dark time. Prayer meetings. Fasting. Individuals. Congregations. One of my favorite memories is from a friend that said her young daughter prayed for Evelyn every time she went to the bathroom. I loved that. Partly because it brought some comic relief to my heavy heart. But mostly because it was humbling to know that even the tiniest saints were covering our family in prayer.

God heard those prayers. We were strengthened. We were filled with hope. We were surrounded with peace. We were able to make painfully courageous decisions, only because the Lord himself was walking with us, showing us the way to go as we approached each new fork in the road.

And people continue to pray faithfully even now as we grieve and heal. We are so blessed by the sheer amount of people lifting us up to the Lord. Many of them we know, but many of them are strangers.

Since Evelyn’s death, we desire more than ever to be a source of prayer for other people because we were the recipients in such a powerful way when we so desperately needed it (and still do).

So we try, albeit imperfectly, to nurture an atmosphere of prayer in our family. Lately Caleb has been asking to pray for the crane that set trusses at our house a couple of weeks ago. Oh, and we also pray for Buzz Lightyear on a fairly regular basis. He does, after all, face copious amounts of peril in his space adventures, so somebody needs to be covering that brave little toy in prayer.

Ephesians 6:18-19 says, “With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit…”

I recently learned that the word for “at all times” is kairos, which refers to specific times, precise occasions, and particular events. General prayers are certainly okay too. But what a beautiful thing that we can present our specific, real, unedited requests to God. Things like trusses. Buzz Lightyear. A hurting heart. A loved one who needs healing. A relationship that needs mending. A bank account that needs money. A car that needs repaired.

And the amazing thing is that God hears our prayers. Psalm 18:6 says, “In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears.” Our prayers reach heaven. That’s amazing. And God cares. That’s even more amazing. Then he answers according to his perfect will. That’s just downright astounding.

So we started a tradition at mealtimes where we put a few sticks in a mason jar. Each stick has a picture of someone that we know who needs prayer. The first round we prayed for our pastors and the missionaries that we support. This second round we’re praying for some sweet children that we know who are facing serious sickness or injury. Caleb picks a stick and that’s who we pray for. (I cover the pictures in clear tape so that it’s more durable. Toddler hands are pretty sticky.)

It’s helpful because it’s concrete. He can see the person. He can hold the stick. His little two-year-old mind can better connect our prayers to the people we’re praying for as we lift them up to Jesus. (And let’s be honest. It’s helpful for me too because it’s a tangible reminder to slow down and be faithful in prayer.) For now, the sticks are just the scaffolding that will eventually be removed as the habit is built over time. That’s the goal anyway.

This morning Caleb said, “Mommy, let’s pray for all of our friends.” And he carefully set each of their pictures in front of him.

Then halfway through breakfast he realized that we forgot to pray for the crane…

What are some of the ways that you cultivate prayer in your family and life? I’d love to learn from you.

Shoes of Peace

I’m not a shoe person. But I like peace.

I recently finished The Armor of God Bible study with some ladies at my church, and as a finale we held a dinner event to wrap up what we had learned. Because it’s hard to say “no” to a dessert buffet.

I was asked to speak on a panel with five other ladies where each of us was assigned one piece of armor to share about (see all six pieces here) and how we had been impacted by the study.

Generally, I overthink things. Can I get an amen? But with this assignment, I couldn’t get the words out fast enough. Peace is something that has taken on a whole new meaning in my life over the last several months. It was easy to share how God has been filling, covering, wrapping, and shielding my heart with his peace.

Here’s what I shared…

“Two things that are essential to living a life of peace are thankfulness and trust in God. I’m going to share a little bit of my recent journey and how the Lord is helping me to live a life of peace.

Our daughter Evelyn was born on December 3, 2015. She suffered severe brain damage during my pregnancy and her little body struggled to keep her alive. After 20 wonderful and awful days, she died in our arms. Losing a child has proven to be even worse than I could have imagined. The agony in my soul is indescribable and the ache is constant. I miss her more than words can express.

In the Armor of God Bible study, Priscilla Shirer says this about peace:

“… true peace is best detected and measured against the backdrop of commotion and confusion – when instability abounds, yet you remain steadfast; when disappointment and confusion are near, yet you’re still capable of walking with Spirit-infused confidence, stability and steadiness.”

While Evelyn was alive, we felt helpless. We were faced with way more questions than answers. There was so much disappointment, so much dread, so much heartache. In the wake of her death, the tears still come freely and often. The sadness is heavy and unpredictable. And yet, even in this pit of grief, God’s peace has given us the ability to keep moving forward. And that’s what the shoes of peace do after all – they enable us to keep walking – not being beaten down by the past or unable to march on for fear of the future.

Philippians 4:6-7 says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

One thing that ushers peace into my life is thanksgiving.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-17 says, “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

It’s not that I’m supposed to be thankful for my circumstances, but rather I’m supposed to be thankful in my circumstances.

I’m not thankful that my daughter died. I’m disappointed and heartbroken. I desperately wish she was still here. I feel her absence all the time.

But I am thankful that Jesus is a compassionate savior who is with me in my suffering. He records my tears and weeps with me.
I’m thankful that through faith in Jesus, I have the hope of eternal life, and I know that I will see my daughter again one day and she won’t be sick anymore.
I’m thankful that God does not waste my suffering, but he brings beauty out of pain.
I’m thankful that this present trial will be like nothing compared to the weight of glory that God will reveal in eternity.
I’m thankful that death is not the end, but that the power of Jesus’ resurrection enables me to live with courage and joy as I wait for heaven.

That’s how I find peace through thanksgiving. It’s not easy. But it is possible.

Isaiah 26:3 says, “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal.”

I once heard someone say that on your darkest day, you need to think about everything you know to be true of God, and hold on tightly to it.

I know that God is good.
His love endures forever.
He is sovereign.
He is faithful.
He is the first and the last.
He is merciful.
He is compassionate.
He is just.
He has defeated death and sin forever.

This is how I find peace from trusting in God’s character and his promises.

Maybe you’re in a place where you’re afraid of something bad that could happen in your life and it consumes you with worry and dread and anxiety. Or maybe you’re in despair over something that has happened in your life and it cripples you with hopelessness. These things can steal our peace.

When we choose to put on the shoes of peace, with thankful and trusting hearts, God empowers us to live with courage and joy no matter what our circumstances bring. We can set our hearts on Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who will be with us every step of the way, until one day when he’ll welcome us into our heavenly home where we can be at peace forevermore.”