Practical Ways to Help a Grieving Family

{I’m not an expert on funeral/grief etiquette, but I have gone through personal loss. While grief is different for everyone, and there’s not a comprehensive, copy and paste list of suggestions that will apply perfectly to every situation, my aim is to offer a few general suggestions that will probably work in most cases. Thank you to my friends that have contributed their experiences to this post. If you have other suggestions from your experience, please comment below. Your insight matters.}

When someone you know and love experiences loss, it’s not always clear how to support them in their grief. In fact, they may not know how they need to be supported either. Grief and loss are deep waters that feel overwhelming. The waters are tricky to navigate. But it’s critical to put your hands to the helm because your love and support is needed now more than ever.

Commonly, people are afraid of doing the wrong thing or saying something stupid, so they end up doing nothing at all. Don’t be that person. Do something!

But first, let me hit pause briefly before I get into the practical advice. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is this: Your goal is not to take away their sadness. Your goal is to enter into it.

Proverbs 25:20 says, “Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on a wound, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.” Don’t try to cheer them up. It only adds to the pain. Instead, be compassionate. Literally, suffer with them.

And now…

Here are 3 practical ways to help a grieving family:

1. Be present.
This almost seems too obvious, but your presence is the most important piece of the entire equation. Grief is lonely and dark at times. Knowing that people are there with you in the pit makes it more bearable. Let me spell it out even more:

Go to the funeral.
I cannot emphasize this enough. Whether you are an acquaintance or a best friend, do whatever you can to show up at the viewing/funeral services. Find a sitter. Buy a plane ticket. Rearrange your schedule. You will never regret going. But you may regret not going. Funerals often make people uncomfortable because it’s hard to face death (especially depending on the cause of death). But step into their shoes for a moment and imagine how they feel. Don’t put your personal discomfort over the great pain of their loss. When you go, you don’t even have to say anything (although you certainly can say something). A hug or handshake or a simple “I’m so sorry for your loss” can be enough. Your. Presence. Matters.

I remember standing on the stage at Evelyn’s funeral, looking out into a room full of people that we know and love. Roughly 99% of those in attendance had never met our daughter. I don’t remember seeing specific faces. But I remember that people were there. A lot of people. Some drove 13 hours one way. Some spent ridiculous amounts of money on a plane ticket. Others came from just down the street. But they all showed up. And it mattered.

Send a gift/memorial.
Understandably, there are various reasons that people can’t attend a funeral, no matter how hard they try to make it work. If you can’t be there in person, there are other ways you can express a tangible gesture of sympathy in place of your physical presence. (You can also do these things in addition to attending the funeral services.)
– Send a card
– Send flowers
– Send money to the family directly or to a memorial (this is generally specified in the obituary). The amount does not matter. I promise.
– Think creatively about a memorial gift:

  • Buy a beautiful piece of personalized jewelry. (I love this site because you can request one-of-a-kind designs or search from existing pieces. Though I know this particular designer won’t be everyone’s taste, it may inspire another idea. You could also Google “Memorial Jewelry” and see what pops up.)
  • Buy a star (yes, a real star in the sky) in honor of their loved one.
  • Picture frames, decorations like a Willow Tree angel, etc.
  • A stuffed animal made from clothing of the loved one. (Google “Memory Bear” and you’ll get a lot of options.) You could also have pillows or a quilt made from their clothing.
  • Christmas ornaments. (We received several of these since Evelyn died two days before Christmas.)
  • A tree or bush that the family can plant on their property or another special location.

In all honesty, the gifts that we received in memory of Evelyn weren’t all my particular “taste”. But that’s not the point. It’s less about the gift and more about the heart behind it. People remembered her. And they expressed their remembrance. We kept every single one.

2. Say something.
Knowing what to say is quite possibly the hardest thing to discern. But take heart because you don’t need to speak nearly as much as you need to listen.

Keep Talking
Visit. Text. Call. Email. Let them talk about deep heart issues. About everyday life. About the person who died. Just keep talking. It hurts far more to think that the loved one is forgotten than to be reminded of them. One of my dear friends regularly asks me, “How’s your heart?” It’s a simple question that gives me the freedom to share whatever I need to share at the time.

Personally, I think about Evelyn all the time. And her memory constantly surfaces throughout the day. If I talked about her every time I thought about her, well… I fear that I’d be annoying. So when someone asks, when someone invites me to share, it allows me the opportunity to talk about what’s always on my mind anyway.

Remember With Them
There are a handful of people in my life who send me a text on the 3rd and 23rd of each month. Evelyn was born on Dec 3rd and died on Dec 23rd. Those dates have new meaning and deep emotion attached to them. When others let me know that they remember her too, it comforts my heart. My mom sent roses on the 3rd of each month – one rose for every month older that Evelyn would have been. I cried every time. But I put the roses in a vase and set them in a prominent place in the house. Because it touched my heart that someone else remembered her.

If there are certain dates that might have significance to the grieving family, let them know that you are thinking of them when those times approach. Write it on your calendar. Put a reminder in your phone. Remembering matters.

3. Just do something.
Perhaps the least helpful thing you can say to a grieving family is “Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.” It’s merely a passive way of offering help, even though it certainly comes from a place of good intentions. When a person is in crisis, they will most likely not come to you asking for help. Instead, try asking these proactive questions. (Keep in mind, these depend on your level of relationship with the person.)

  • Offer to watch their kids.
    “May I watch your kids one night this week? I’m free on Tuesday and Friday. Are those days good for you? If not, what other night would work?”
  • Bring them meals. (If you can’t prepare a home cooked meal, consider sending a gift card to a restaurant. A place that does delivery or carry out may be a great option.)
    “I’d love to bring you a meal. Is Monday a good time?”
    “May I set up a Meal Schedule for your family? When is a good time to start?”
  • Offer to clean their house.
    “Suzy and I would like to help with household duties. We can come over any evening this week. Would that be helpful to you right now?”

It Takes a Village
In the same way that “it takes a village” to raise a family, it also takes a village to grieve the death of a loved one. If you happen to be a part of someone’s proverbial village, take your role to heart and be there to support them in their loss – days, weeks, months and years beyond. After all, one day each of us will be standing in their shoes as we face the death of someone we love. Let’s be there for each other.

 

Mulligan, Please?

Sometimes I wish I could take a mulligan as a parent.

There are days that just plain stink. And this particular aroma doesn’t come from the pungent diapers waiting to be taken outside to the trash can. It comes from within the depths of my heart. Manufactured by my very own sin.

A few weeks back I was failing at every turn. Over-reacting about trivial things. Frustrated. Lacking grace. Impatient. Grouchy. All in all, a real peach to be around. Not a great candidate for “Mom Of The Year”. I was counting down the hours until bedtime so that I could take off my parenting hat for a much-needed reprieve.

As we neared the end of Caleb’s bedtime routine, we were cuddling on his floor in the dark (It’s weird, I know…especially since there’s a plush rocking chair within arms reach). We prayed through our normal list of people. We sang our usual song. Then Caleb rolled over to face me, his squishy toddler face just inches away, and he said, “Mommy,  you’re a good mommy.” He rotated 180 degrees to face Preston’s silhouette and said tenderly, “Daddy, you’re a good daddy.”

I wiped up my heart, which had immediately melted into a puddle on the floor, and began to soak in the grace of God, which he had extended to me, in that moment, through my oldest child. The gospel was shining brightly in Caleb’s dark room.

On a day that I felt quite unlovable, God loved me still. In the midst of my failures and short-comings, he pulled me close and reminded me of what is true:

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

It’s when I was at my worst that Jesus hung on the cross for me. And even now, on my yucky days, he continues to lavish me with this great and unfathomable love.

How amazing. God’s grace is always greater than my sin. It covers me completely.

But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more…” (Romans 5:21)

Instead of condemnation for my failures that day, he lovingly convicted me by his Spirit and gave me grace to keep going, to take my mulligan.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
(Lamentations 3:22-23)

And that’s how it goes. Just when I think things can’t get any worse on some days, Jesus overwhelms me with his grace. Sometimes he speaks through donkeys. But in my life, it’s generally through a two-year-old boy named Caleb.

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My stick-loving, dinosaur-holding, intertube-wearing, leftover-smoothie-on-his-forehead, grace-giving boy.

 

The Days Are Long, But the Years Are Short (And Eternity is Forever)

The days are long, but the years are short.

If you’re a parent of little ones (or medium ones or big ones), this proverbial nugget has likely resonated in your soul a time or two (or perhaps a hundred times or a thousand bajillion times).

Time can drag on. When the days are full of poop and meltdowns and play dates and a myriad of activities, sleepless nights and discipline, they can feel long.

Yet simultaneously, time is so fleeting. You blink and your toddler is starting preschool. Or your son is getting married. Or your kids are having kids of their own.

For me, it’s strange how the presence of grief has altered my perspective of time.

Lately the long days feel especially long as we adjust to our growing family and figure out how it all fits in with my ever-present, ever-evolving grief. I miss Evelyn all the time, without end. Adding another precious child into our lives has certainly increased our joy, but it hasn’t diminished the ache of our loss. Heaven can feel so far away as the pang of Evelyn’s memory hangs heavy in my soul while I wait.

I was reading in 1 Peter this morning (while everyone in the house was miraculously sleeping at the same time), and if scripture could speak audibly, then that’s what it did…

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

It seems almost unnecessary to expound on such a rich passage. It stands on its own with so much power. But here are my reflections anyway.

“Though for a little while…”

I’ll tell you what – the particular trial of losing Evelyn doesn’t feel like it’s only lasting for a little while. It has touched every aspect of my life and there are constant reminders throughout my days. Some of them hide in the corners of my daily routine, waiting to jump out when I least expect it. Others just hover in front of me all the time. It often feels like there will be no end.

My perspective of time must be altered.

Because God promises that there is an end. And everything that I’m feeling right now – the pain, the sadness, the long suffering, the waiting – it will seem like it only lasted a little while when compared to the eternal reality of heaven.

So on the really long days, I can trust by faith that it’s only a drop in the bucket when measured against eternity. This isn’t meant to diminish the trial. Not at all. Rather, I think it’s meant to give courage and hope to push through the trial while holding onto God’s loving hand as he leads me to a perfect forever.

“In all this you greatly rejoice…”

There are so many reasons to be sad. But there are an infinite number of reasons to rejoice. Can I get an amen? The rejoicing doesn’t eliminate the sadness. Not by any means. But it provides fuel to keep living, to fight against despair.

I rejoice because Jesus hasn’t wasted Evelyn’s life. He continues to use her brief appearance on this earth to inspire others toward hope and courage in the midst of their own difficulties.

I rejoice because when I surrender it all to Jesus, he miraculously takes the worst parts of my story and touches them with his grace so that they become the impetus for the best parts of my story.

I rejoice because Jesus has loved me with an everlasting love, and he has sought me out to rescue me from my sin and my trials, so that I can be filled with an inexpressible joy as I wait for my own climactic entrance into heaven.

“Though you have not seen him, you love him…”

Speaking of heaven, I can’t wait to see my daughter again. I can’t wait to see what she looks like as a healthy girl. I can’t wait to hug her and kiss her. I can’t wait to hear her voice. I think we’ll play and laugh a lot. My little Evelyn is a big reason that I long for heaven. I love her with a mother’s love that knows no end even though she’s physically not with me now.

But as much as I love my daughter (and all of my children, for that matter), the one love that dominates my soul is Jesus. I love him so much. He’s the one that gave me this living hope, this inheritance, this faith, this salvation. I can’t wait to see him face to face. I think I’ll hug him because I’m certain he loves hugs. And I wonder if I’ll weep into his shoulder? Not sad tears. Because there’s no sadness in heaven. But visceral tears of deep relief – the ones that come when you’re so overwhelmed that they involuntarily pour from your eyes with no ability to stop them. The tears that feel like your eyes are sighing. It will be amazing when my faith becomes sight.

I don’t know who will read this. Other than my mom, of course. (Hi Mom!) But I’m assured that every set of eyes that scans these words is facing some kind of trial. Or trials. They are as vast and various as the people experiencing them. It’s my prayer that God will shield you. I pray that he will fill you with the inexpressible joy that is ours in Christ (which, by the way, is a complete mystery to me that a heart can inhabit joy and grief at the same time). I pray that he will strengthen your faith as you embrace the living hope that exists because Jesus rolled the stone away.

In conclusion, here’s an extremely low-quality video of pastor Francis Chan emphasizing the magnitude of eternity compared to our few short years on earth.

May it give us a proper perspective of time, so that we can keep our eyes fixed on Jesus as we navigate the joy and pain of this life. The trials won’t last forever, my friends. But heaven will. So take heart.

 

 

Facing My Giants

The story of David and Goliath is a highly requested saga at bedtime in Caleb’s room. My fearless toddler lives vicariously through young David every time – rescuing his daddy’s sheep from bears and lions, courageously approaching the Philistine army with nothing more than a sling and stone, until the climactic “BOOM!” down goes Goliath. It gets him every time.

We try to emphasize that God gave the victory to David. When we trust in Him, “no weapon forged against you will stand” (Isaiah 54:17).

Turns out each time I explain these things to my toddler, it’s really my own heart that needs to remember where my victory lies, and that God is big enough to knock down any giant in my life.

Because let’s be honest. Giants are big. And scary. And hairy. And powerful. They can instill fear, doubt, despair and hopelessness through their fiercely deceptive intimidation, leaving us crippled and ineffective and unproductive.

But with Jesus, there is victory in every battle. Period.

The latest giant in my life has been breast milk. Scary, right?

It all started when we began our adoption journey earlier this year. And we recently brought our newest baby home. (Surprise! We’re waiting to share more details until later on down the road.) I wanted to try adoptive breastfeeding (it’s a thing – crazy, I know) so that our little babe could have the nourishment of breast milk and we could experience the bond of nursing.

We had a strong beginning, but soon after we started, I knew I needed to supplement the nursing sessions with the breast milk that I had stored in the freezer from December and January – milk that my body had produced for Evelyn.

After she died, I had the option to donate the frozen milk to a milk bank, but I chose to keep it by faith, knowing we would soon add another child to our family through adoption, and our little one could benefit from the liquid gold.

But when the time came to descend into the basement of my in-law’s house and uncover the milk from the abysmal corner of the deep freezer, I wasn’t so sure anymore if I wanted to use it. For nine months it was out of sight, out of mind. I had unintentionally avoided this particular aspect of my healing and grief. Now walking into the basement felt like I was re-opening an old wound that had been conveniently concealed up to that point.

To my relief, there was no time to pause and reflect on the surfacing grief feelings because I had to rush home to tend to my family. So I grabbed the milk as quickly as I could and stuffed it in the freezer once I got home. I shut the door so that once again it was out of sight, out of mind. Avoidance prevailed.

Then at 3:00 in the morning, our hungry infant awoke, in true infant fashion, so I went to the freezer to retrieve a few ounces of frozen milk. I thawed it, poured it into a bottle, and as I began to feed our sweet child, the suppressed emotions from earlier in the day erupted from my heart, and tears began to fall. As I wept there in the quiet of the night, staring at a sleepy, hungry baby, I  knew I was experiencing a sacred moment. I said out loud to my little one, “This is Evelyn’s milk. It’s her gift to you.” And the tears continued to cascade from my tired eyes until we both went back to sleep.

The next day I returned to the freezer to get more milk, but being the middle of the day, I was more alert to my surroundings, compared to the midnight feedings where I struggled to stay awake. I took the milk, and without giving it much thought, I read the label. It said 12/23 @ 7:00am. This was the first bottle that I had pumped after Evelyn’s death. It vividly took me back to the sterile hospital room where my husband and I sat side by side, exhausted in our bodies and spirits, as we held our lifeless baby in our arms. It’s a chapter of my life that I don’t like to revisit often. And in that moment, it was too much for my heart to bear, so I shoved the bottle back into the freezer and chose a different one.

But every time I went to get milk, that particular bottle was emphatically staring back at me. I was afraid to use it. I don’t know why exactly. I guess it felt sacred and using it seemed dishonoring. Or maybe it brought back too many painful memories. Probably all of the above.

Day after day I avoided that bottle, until I felt like the Lord was tenderly asking me to reach in and use it. He gently led me to my place of fear so that he could help me overcome.

Scripture tells us that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).

It wasn’t really the breast milk that I was afraid of, but rather everything that it stood for.

Death. Sickness. Disappointment. Sadness. Fear.

It was a tangible leftover from Evelyn’s life. It was something wholesome that my body miraculously produced specifically for her. It symbolized my connection to her. But it also symbolized her departure from me. And when there are so few tangible mementos to hold on to, each one feels precious. If I used the milk, it would be one less physical connection to Evelyn.

On the other hand, if I didn’t use it, then it would sit in the corner of a freezer for months and months (or perhaps years and years) until it became worthless. What good would it be then? Instead, I could use it presently as a source of nourishment for our growing infant.

I had approached a fork in the road. Would I let this breast milk keep me chained to the painful memories of the past, rendering it useless and leaving me in a state of fear and pain and avoidance? Or would I allow it to propel me forward, so as to create an opportunity for redemption? This thing that had reminded me of Evelyn’s death could now be used to promote life in our third child. What once brought sorrow could now fuel the joy that I feel when I hold my sweet baby.

In that moment, I decided that I would not let the breast milk (and everything it stood for) have power over me. I would not give in to fear and despair. Instead, as weird as it sounds, I would lift up the breast milk as an offering to the Lord. I would not hoard it, but rather I would surrender it to him. I would receive strength from the Lord so that he could help me keep moving forward. I would give him my pain so that he could bring healing.

So I thawed the milk. I fed it to my baby. And then it was gone.

But what stands in the place of that empty bottle of breast milk is a growing sense of freedom from the past and a budding courage as I look ahead to the future. It doesn’t mean my sadness is gone. It doesn’t mean my grief has reached its completion, as if that were even possible… It simply means that the painful memories will not rule my life and keep me from healing and, dare I say, enjoying life once again.

There will be more giants in this journey of grief. Of that I am sure. But I am confident that God will see me through victoriously.

After all, if Jesus can defeat the greatest giant of all – death and sin- certainly he’s capable of giving us victory over every other circumstance, no matter how dark or sad or painful. He is faithful and so powerful and oh, so merciful.

And now, the denouement…

C.S. Lewis “Gets” Me

I recently finished reading A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis. It’s a series of journal entries that he wrote after his beloved wife died from cancer, chronicling his unedited journey of healing as he poured out his heart to God. Reading about someone else process through all of these complex emotions is helpful because it reminds you that you’re not alone on this long and unpredictable road.

It was cathartic for my soul to read Lewis’s raw emotions. My heart is constantly filled with a mess of feelings as I grieve, and I don’t always know how to express them using spoken language. Sometimes words come. But often it’s tears. Or inward groans. Lewis pinpointed my ambiguous emotions and translated them into something written.

I never thought I could relate on such a deep level with a British guy who smoked cigars for leisure and dialogued about philosophy and theology just for the fun of it. (Bleh.) But it turns out that grief connects you to the most unlikely people.

How Much Do I Trust God?
“You never know how much you really believe in anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound so long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?” 

Before Evelyn’s death, I knew my faith in Christ was real, but when I had to give her back to Jesus so soon, it caused me to come face to face the veracity and genuineness of my faith.

Does God really love me? Because right now life hurts badly.
Is God still good? Because this is really, really painful.
Do I believe that death is not the end, but that heaven is a real place where God’s fullness dwells and Christ is seated at his right hand? Because heaven can feel so far away at times.
Do I trust Jesus enough to take care of my daughter? Because I would much rather have her here.
Do I believe that the Lord brings beauty from ashes? Because that seems too difficult.
Do I trust that God can give me the comfort and grace to keep living joyfully until he calls me home too? Because some days are just hard.

I declare a resounding “yes” to all of this. But it’s not an easy “yes”.  Because trusting implies that we won’t have all of the answers, and yet we choose to stake our life on it anyway. In this case, stake my life on Jesus.

It reminds me of a passage in the gospel of John.

After Jesus was teaching, many of his disciples turned away because his teaching was hard. Jesus turned to the twelve and asked, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” And Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

That’s how it feels sometimes. Like, what’s the other alternative? Abandoning God with a heart full of confusion and resentment and anger? Just throwing in the towel because it got hard? Or continuing to trust that he loves me and that he has good, eternal purposes that I can’t perceive from my vantage point right now.

I’ll choose to trust him.

“God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t.”

When Suffering Becomes Real, Not Theoretical
“I had been warned – I had warned myself – not to reckon on worldly happiness. We were even promised sufferings. They were part of the programme. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accepted it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not in imagination.”

I’ve read books and seen countless stories on the news and internet about people who persevere through trials with unwavering faith and courage, having the resilience to let that trial produce good things instead of leaving them curled up in a corner forever (which can feel very tempting).

Those kind of people have always inspired me. I got warm fuzzy feelings when I read about them. I admired their fortitude and tenacity.

I wondered how I would respond in the face of adversity or suffering, whatever it may be someday.

Then it happened.

And it wasn’t so inspiring anymore. And it didn’t feel warm or fuzzy. And the process of saying “no” to despair and “yes” to redemption turns out to be messy and full of tears – not at all like the three minute news story with uplifting background music.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating, that the death of a child is even worse than I could have imagined. The bottom line is – suffering is hard.

Thankfully, Jesus said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”…For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12:9-11).

Grief is Frustrating
“I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action, had [my wife] for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on through the habit fitting an arrow to the string, then I remember and have to lay the bow down.”

For nine months I prepared my heart and our home for this sweet child, precious Evelyn Joy. I put the car seat in the car. I set up her bassinet in our room. I bought a book for Caleb about how to be a “big bruver”. We watched my belly grow and felt her wiggle and kick inside of me. We prayed and prayed for her, anticipating a lifetime full of memories and milestones.

But in God’s sovereign plan, he gave us only 20 days.

So all of this love and preparation that was stored up in my heart has nowhere to go now. It can’t be transferred to another child because every child is a special, irreplaceable gift. Each one occupies a space in their parents’ hearts with a unique vessel of love that flows specifically for them.

My love can’t simply disappear either. Love doesn’t work that way.

So what do I do with all of these feelings and desires and hopes and dreams that were meant for Evelyn? The object of that specific love is gone now.

Yes, there is the hope of heaven. Yes, I will see her again one day. But right now, it’s frustrating.

Perfection
“‘It was too perfect to last’, so I am tempted to say of our marriage. But it can be meant in two ways. It may be grimly pessimistic – as if God no sooner saw two of His creatures happy than He stopped it (‘None of that here!’). As if He were like the Hostess at the sherry-party who separates two guests the moment they show signs of having got into a real conversation. But it could also mean ‘This had reached its proper perfection. This had become what it had in it to be. Therefore of course it would not be prolonged.’ As if God said, ‘Good; you have mastered that exercise. I am very pleased with it. And now you are ready to go on to the next.’ When you have learned to do quadratics and enjoy doing them you will not be set them much longer. The teacher moves you on.”

Psalm 139:16 says, “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

Although I would have chosen a lifetime with Evelyn, God had ordained 20 days. It makes me sad because she’s not here. But it reminds me that her life was known and planned by God long ago. Her life reached its fulfillment, and now she lives in the perfect glory of heaven with Jesus himself.

It’s this time of separation and waiting that’s so, very hard.

Grief Changes You Permanently
“Getting over it so soon? But the words are ambiguous. To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off it is quite another. After that operation either the wounded stump heals or the man dies. If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop. Presently he’ll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has ‘got over it.’ But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different. His whole way of life will be changed. All sorts of pleasures and activities that he once took for granted will have to be simply written off. Duties too. At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.”

It’s impossible to experience deep loss and come out unscathed. It changes you. Period.

By God’s grace, he can bring healing and redemption. But it makes you a different person. Holidays and dates are different. Relationships are different. Words and phrases carry a different meaning. Locations are different. Perspective is different.

Every. thing. is different. I will never be the same again.

The different doesn’t have to be despairing. I pray that God will use it to make something beautiful. But the different is absolutely unavoidable.

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Did That Really Happen?
“And then it would come to seem unreal – something so foreign to the usual texture of my history that I could almost believe it had happened to someone else.”

It’s a terrible feeling when I look at pictures of my family of four, when I feel the scar along my abdomen, when I taste the salty tears running down my cheeks, and think “Did that really happen?” I don’t think it’s denial. Or maybe I’m in denial that it’s denial. But it is strange how an event that’s so life-changing and ever-present can, at times, feel like an illusion.

Unanswerable Questions
“When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’ Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All non-sense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask – half our great theological and metaphysical problems – are like that.”

I have some big questions. But they can’t be answered this side of heaven. And they may never be answered. So I must choose to trust the heart of God. Maybe someday when I get to heaven, the questions won’t even matter anymore. I’ll have to wait and see…

“Heaven will solve our problems, but not, I think, by showing us subtle reconciliations between all our apparently contradictory notions. The notions will all be knocked from under our feet. We shall see that there never was any problem.”

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I guess I haven’t experienced any monumental healing steps after reading this book. But it is nice to ingest someone else’s words and think to yourself, “Me too. I can relate to you on some level. I’m thankful that I’m not alone. Thank you for putting my feelings into words, Mr. Lewis.”

“I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history.”

The Melody of my Grief

In fragile grief moments, I find it best to be alone.

To weep. To think. To remember. To pray. To just “be”.

And when nothing else seems to release the emotional pressure building up inside my heart, the Lord sends a song. Music is the safety valve to my sadness. While I don’t understand the mystery that connects a sound wave to my soul, I know it’s real because I’ve experienced it.

Where words fail, music speaks. But take a profound word joined with a beautiful melody and it creates really extra powerful stuff.

One song in particular that has been a lifeline for me is an old hymn by a gentleman named Horatio Spafford, titled “When Peace Like A River”, though it’s more widely recognized as “It Is Well”. The abridged story behind the song goes like this:

He lost many of his investments in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
His wife’s health took a turn for the worse, so he thought a European cruise would be therapeutic for their family.
He arranged for his beloved Anna and their four children to travel to England to connect with their dear friend Dwight L. Moody, but a last minute business situation came up, so he sent them on ahead, planning to join them a little later.
Disaster struck again when the ship encountered a terrible storm, dragging all 307 passengers into the water. Anna was one of the 81 survivors. All four of their children drowned.
When Horatio heard news of the unthinkable tragedy, he immediately boarded a ship to reunite with Anna. As he was passing over the ocean at the site of the wreck, the words to this hymn flowed into his heart and mind.

When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
“It is well, it is well with my soul.”

Though Satan should buffet,
Though trials should come,
Lest this blest assurance control:
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And has shed his own blood for my soul.

My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought,
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross,
And I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.

And, Lord, haste the day
When my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll,
The trump shall resound
And the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.

These beautiful melodic words are salve to my hurting heart. They draw my attention to Jesus, the One for whom these lyrics were written. They remind me that whatever my circumstances hold, I can declare that my soul is well, because Jesus has ultimately and forever rescued me. So now, even in my deep sadness, I can have hope. And peace. And reassurance that one day all things will be made well.

It’s also sobering to think that some day my children will face trials of their own. It’s my earnest prayer that they will know the great love and peace and hope that Jesus gives in our suffering.

At nighttime when we sing before bed, Caleb’s most requested song has become “It Is Well”. It’s nearly impossible to keep my composure when I hear his squeaky, off-key, two-year-old voice sing these words back to God. And, oh, how I pray that he hides this song in his heart and one day truly understands and believes its significance. (This video was taken while singing in the dark before bedtime. Sorry not sorry. May need to turn the volume up just a bit.)

Parenting Win: Kid Quote Book

Every parent in the history of forever (hyperbolic-ally speaking) has said to write down the things that your kids say because you will forget. Science has proven that parents’ memories function worse after having children than they did before children. Actually, I just made that up. But the proof is in the pudding. Whatever that means.

So I figured, what the heck? I’ll buy a spiral bound journal on clearance and make it my officially unofficial Caleb quote book.

This might be one of the best parenting decisions that I have ever made.

Some of the entries are funny:
Mommy: I like your imagination. You have creative ideas.
Caleb: I’m going poop in my imagination.

Some of them make my heart melt into a puddle on the floor:
I tucked Caleb in and shut the door on my way out of his room. He cried for a few minutes (which is unusual) so I went back to check on him and he said, “I wanted to tell you that I love you.”

Some of them make me realize he’s “getting it”:
Mommy: Good morning buddy! What did you dream about last night?
Caleb: Jesus!
Mommy: What did he do?
Caleb: Save us!

I try not to give parenting advice unless I’m asked. But to all the parents out there, this is so worth it. Whether your child is a toddler or a teen. It’s such a treasure. So simple to do. It requires paper and a pencil. (Or an iPhone or tablet if that’s the way you roll.) Unless it’s not your thing, then that’s okay. There are lots of wonderful, meaningful ways to document special moments from your child’s growing years.

But this has definitely been a winner in our house.

What creative ways does your family document stuff to remember it years down the road?

The Most Painful Question

{ This is hard stuff to share. Vulnerable stuff. Complicated grief at its best. But it’s part of the process. And the process is messy. I don’t always know how my faith and grief fit together. But I do know that God’s grace is sufficient in my weakness and confusion. He is faithful to love me in the midst of the hard stuff. } 

My husband says that I could make friends with a brick wall. I love meeting people. Love hearing their stories. Love relating. Love creating heart connections. Crowds? No problem. Strangers? I embrace them (quite literally). Having meaningful conversations? Yes, please.

But lately I feel guarded. I feel a lot less like a social butterfly and much more like a wallflower in certain situations – hiding, avoiding, averting… Fearful and paranoid that an acquaintance or a stranger will ask me the most painful question of all.

How many children do you have?

I freeze. It stops me in my tracks, leaving me with a seemingly eternal split second to decide how to answer. I battle internally, never knowing what to say.

Do I answer honestly? Do I tell them that Caleb is my oldest but my second child, my precious daughter, fought bravely for 20 days until her struggling body ceased to work? Do I tell them how beautiful she was? Her deep blue eyes. Her squishy cheeks. Her wispy hair. Or that she fit perfectly in the crook of my arm and she loved to snuggle on my chest? Do I share about her injuries and the countless times we suctioned her secretions because she didn’t know how to swallow? Or talk about the tubes that permanently tethered her to a plastic bed because she couldn’t breathe on her own? Do I try to explain the gut-wrenching decisions we faced when considering her prognosis and quality of life? Do I need to justify our decision to a stranger?

Honesty is always the right choice.

Isn’t it?

I should see it as a beautiful opportunity to share about the hope and peace that we find through Christ.

But instead, I lie.

Because it’s easier to lie. It spares my heart the agony of saying the worst words that have ever left the mouth of a parent: My daughter died. And there’s no euphemism that softens the blow. Believe me. I’ve tried to think of a “polite” way to say it. I have a child in heaven, while a true statement, feels too fluffy to me. I have one child at home and one in my heart doesn’t do it justice either. The bottom line is, there’s no gentle segue for such crushing news, and there’s definitely no way to repair the conversation after such news is shared. Moreover, I don’t want to become a sobbing mess at the playground while I’m pushing Caleb on the swing. Or have an emotional breakdown in the grocery store checkout line.

So I lie.

And every time I lie, I feel like I’ve dishonored Evelyn, treating her as if her life didn’t matter. I hate that. But my heart cannot withstand the pain of answering the question honestly and reliving my darkest reality with someone that I don’t even know.

A few weeks ago, I met a wonderful lady at a community event. We enjoyed pleasant conversation, and as she was telling me about her two children, she also shared about her stillborn child and her ten miscarriages. The world stopped. I wanted to wrap her in a hug and cry and say, I can relate. My daughter died. You’re not alone.

But instead, I told her how sorry I was for her heartache.

Maybe some day I’ll find the courage, the vulnerability, the strength to share honestly with anyone who asks.

But for now, I feel like all I can do is pray for God’s grace to sustain me as I fumble through an answer.

And maybe some day when Caleb asks me to draw a picture of our family on the driveway with sidewalk chalk, I’ll draw Evelyn too.

But in this present moment, it’s not always clear how her life and memory fit into some of my everyday moments. I don’t know how to translate my love and grief into chalk pictures and answering strangers’ questions.

It’s not easy. And I guess that’s okay. Grief never is.

God Invited Me to a Pool Party

Yesterday was one of those days.

The sermon at church resurfaced some hard questions that constantly, quietly linger in my soul. Why did Evelyn die? Why does God choose to physically heal some people this side of heaven but not others? Why God? Why? I wasn’t mad. I know he is good. I know he is loving. I still cling to the hope of heaven. But the tears and the sadness were palpable. I fled from church as quickly as I could, desperately avoiding conversations with people because it’s hard to mingle when my heart is aching and the forceful dam of tears is about to burst forth.

I was thankful to have some quiet, alone time while Caleb was napping and Preston was out helping a friend for the afternoon. I tried writing to process my emotions. But I wound up feeling annoyed at my inability to turn my feelings into words. Writers block. Emotional constipation. Call it what you will. It felt like a step backward. Not only was I sad. Now I was frustrated.

Then the power went out twice. And I smelled burning rubber in the laundry room. I tried calling Preston five times and never got a hold of him. The A/C wasn’t working. The fan wouldn’t turn on. The house smelled like a car repair shop gone bad. My emotions were compounding. Sadness, frustration and now irritation.

When Preston came home, he was level-headed and patient. I was moody and lacking grace. He mentioned how nice it would be to go swimming as a family since everything was so hot (including my mood). Maybe a cool dip would refresh us. We thought about asking a few of our friends with pools if we could come over, but our pride won, and we agreed that it was too awkward to invite ourselves over (even though our friends are AWESOME and they often give us open invitations to come over any time, even if they aren’t home).

So we went to the grocery store instead. Because it’s air conditioned.

When we got home, Preston was getting ready to fill up our plastic toddler pool with frigid hose water. Hooray. (sarcasm) But before he even had the chance, I received a group text from a dear friend, inviting us over to her house to swim with her family that evening.

Seriously.

You guys, this is grace. I was wholly unpleasant to be around the entire day, battling with my sadness and wallowing in my quickly downward-spiraling mood. But God loved me anyway. I didn’t even ask him to help me, but he willingly came to me and met me in my mess – freely, generously covering me with his grace.

We spent a long evening with our friends. My fearless two-year-old son jumped off the small diving board a few times. We enjoyed laughter and good conversation. We ate food that I didn’t have to cook. We stayed out too late and never once felt bad about it.

I came home feeling so lighthearted. So full of joy. So loved. I’m humbled at the intimate love of my Heavenly Father. He knows my needs. He looks past my sour moods and sees a hurting mama heart that’s badly in need of grace.

Do you know why I’m convinced today that God loves me? He invited me to a pool party. And he used my friends as the conduit for his invitation.

My soul echos these healing, filling, comforting, hopeful words from Psalm 103…

Praise the Lord, my soul;
    all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the Lord, my soul,
    and forget not all his benefits…
who redeems your life from the pit
    and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
    so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s…
The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
    slow to anger, abounding in love…
13 As a father has compassion on his children,
    so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
14 for he knows how we are formed,
    he remembers that we are dust…
17 But from everlasting to everlasting
    the Lord’s love is with those who fear him…
22 Praise the Lord, my soul.

In other news, our power is back on.

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.