Stop. Breathe. Cry. Sometimes, it’s worth more than a smile.

So this popped up in my facebook feed.

And I just thought, “No.”

When life gives you one reason to cry . . . cry.

When life gives you one hundred reasons to cry . . . cry and find someone who will cry with you.

When life crushes you, when the power and the depth of the anguish threatens to overwhelm you as it crashes over you wave after wave, fight back with tears. Tears and cries and even screams if necessary.

But not with a forced smile. Not with some fake attempt to “count your blessings” (as if six living children makes up the balance sheet for one who went to heaven far too soon).

Because the continual message that a smile equals strength and tears are a sign of weakness is false. And destructive.

It’s designed to make others feel better about your pain. But it doesn’t help you.

As a Christian, grieving the loss of a child, it surprised me how quickly the body of Christ lost its patience with grief. Less than two weeks after my son’s death, a Christian man told me it was time to stop grieving. That he was in a better place and that if I believed that, I should rejoice. Grief was a lack of faith.

Less than three months later, someone from church asked me how I was and when I said not so good, she wanted to know why. I stumbled over the words because I didn’t really know her and what was obvious and inescapable in my world wasn’t in hers. Nor should it be. And I never like putting people in the position of feeling like they need to apologize for an innocent enough question that bore no malice. So I just said I had been thinking about Tiggy a lot.

“That’s still bothering you?”

Said in such an incredulous tone. It stung. Three months after he died, I almost gave up on going to church. Because right there in that moment, I couldn’t see all the love and support and one comment almost overshadowed it all.

But I went home and cried.

It seems to me the Christian church should understand suffering. That strength is not in a smile, but in vulnerability. That joy is a promise we cling to, but it is a very different thing from happiness.

Because Christ Himself went to the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion and sweated tears of blood, pleading for this cup to be taken from Him. And when His disciples, His closest friends, could not stay awake, He didn’t count his blessings and put on a happy face. He didn’t talk about His miracles, His ministry, that He would rise again in three days or even that His kingdom was about to conquer death itself.

No. He said,”Can’t you even watch with me for an hour?”

Because I believe this is what we are all called to do for one another. Just sit. Listen. Show love. Show mercy. And let the tears flow.

Because weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning. (Psalm 30:5)

And blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matthew 5:4)

And God himself will turn their mourning into joy. (Jeremiah 31:13)

And while the world constantly presses in, telling the hurting and the grieving to “just smile through it,” I think it is good to remember that His Word tells us that is better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of feasting. (Ecclesiastes 7:2)

Because grief gives you a glimpse of the state of a fallen world. It reminds you that this is not our home. It draws your attention away from yourself and toward Him. And only then can He give you beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, a garment of praise instead of the spirit of despair. (Isaiah 61:3)

Updated to add:

My husband wrote a free e-book about our journey and finding hope in Christ. If you are interested, you can download a copy here: Where Joy and Sorrow Meet.

Kindergarten and moving forward through grief

Micah starts kindergarten in the fall.

Around here, that’s a Big Deal. I’m planning, browsing amazon, ordering . . .  stuff. Stuff that, to a five year old, looks an awful lot like toys. And we’ll even plan a little party for the first official day of school. (Did you know that in Germany, the home of kindergarten, they celebrate the first day of school, not the last? It’s a Big Deal there, too, with cones full of goodies, pictures and all sorts of excitement.)

It also represents a change. Little Micah is growing up. We don’t do preschool here. He plays while the others are doing their lessons. And yes, he has a binder and he has lapbooks for astronomy and history. Some days he chooses to color in them and sometimes he chooses to see how high he can build a block tower. I have a strong respect for the power and importance of play in a child’s life.

But now that Micah is Five Years Old, his world can open up a little more. He can have a box of sand in the house. He isn’t limited to the watercolors when he wants to paint. He can use real tools to explore and manipulate his world.

And the first thing I did was set up his calendar. I don’t know how many of you do calendar time in your home, but it is an engaging way to practice basic math, science and literacy skills daily. I sat down with Micah and went through several websites, looking at the different calendar centers and trying to remember all I did with mine the last time I set this up.

We finally decided on a basic design and I got started modifying and printing and finally dropping it all off at the print shop to be laminated. And as I sat trimming pieces and arranging them on the poster board, I was struck with a strange sort of grief.

I didn’t do any of this for Tiggy. But I didn’t do it for Nisa or Elianna, either. For a very long time, I was just getting through the day. And it’s not that we didn’t do anything. Other than spelling, they’re all on track with where they should be. I just wasn’t in a place where I could take on a project that took daily maintenance. Even the thought of something like that was overwhelming.

The children noticed, too.

Calendar time

“Mom, why didn’t you do anything like this for us?”

“Sweetie, when I would have put this together for you was right after Tiggy died.”

“Oh, yeah.”

I paused. There didn’t seem to be anything else, to say, really. It’s hard, sometimes, to wonder just what toll my grief has taken on their lives. But then again, they were allowed to grieve, too. And they didn’t have to return to school as if nothing had happened and sit through lessons while their mind was occupied with deeper issues. And other than in spelling, I can’t really say they’re behind.

“But you can do it now.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Especially when we start recording the weather and I set up the graphs and the clock, there will be plenty here for you as well. The teacher who taught me how to do this was a fourth grade teacher. It isn’t just for kindergarteners.”

And they seemed satisfied. Especially since the finished product was “way better than anything in the stores.” At least according to them.

If you are interested in a closer look at the different parts of our calendar time, here they are with links or associated printables you would need to complete them (as I post them):

The Weather Station

The date

 

A lullaby for the soul

Sitting in the rocking chair, holding little Asa. I trace the outline of his sleeping face, stroke his cheek and unwind from the day. A pang of sorrow for the pregnancy so recently lost and overwhelming thankfulness for the warmth of his cheek against my chest.

It is good to have a few moments to reflect. To cherish what is and miss what isn’t so it doesn’t get buried too deep.

Micah walks in and I’m annoyed. I don’t want to be disturbed from this moment. From this moment of bittersweet melancholy mixed with joy that seems to make up motherhood whenever I slow down enough to notice. And he’s supposed to be in bed.

“What do you need, sweetheart,” I try not to sound too annoyed.

“Me made up a song. Me want you to sing it.”

I just want to tell him to go back to bed. I don’t know what game this is that he’s playing with his bedtime, now, but I’m not in the mood. Still, there’s that twinkle in his eye like a child on Christmas morning so I try my best to set aside my irritation.

“How can I sing a song you made up in your head? I don’t even know the words?”

“Ok, me sing it.”

And he begins singing his lullaby in his sweet little voice to the tune of Jesus Loves Me.

Rock your baby back and forth,
If him falls then pick him up,
Nurse him nurse him ’til him full,
Love him love him, and kiss him cheek.

I smile. “I like that song,” I tell him. “That’s a very special lullaby and a very special gift.”

And I love how his eyes get that same twinkle every time he hears me sing his lullaby to little Asa. His gift to my soul.

I had a miscarriage

A week before Christmas, we got quite the surprise. We found out we were pregnant again. It wasn’t planned. I was pretty sure little Asaroo was our last. But every life is a gift and I cherished the thought of the little surprise growing within me.

We talked about our little surprise, our little secret. And the kids just thought we were teasing them about their Christmas presents. But Christmas is a busy time of year and I really didn’t have time to think about it that much. A little tinge of nausea would remind me. I would smile and would it would pass.

For one whole week, I harbored a special little secret. And then it was gone.

When the bleeding first started, I was only a little concerned. It was just a little spotting, really. The second day there was nothing. I was actually told I was having a miscarriage in the ER with my first child in London based on the amount of blood and she’s 17 now. I know that a little blood doesn’t always mean the worst.

But as I waited for my appointment with the nurse, the spotting turned to bleeding, turned to heavy bleeding with clotting. And in the middle of the night, I started to wonder at exactly what point I should go to the ER. I was past the recommendations of the nurse, but it was the middle of the night. I didn’t want to wake the children up and scare them.

So I decided to wait and see if it got worse or better or if anything changed at all. And all the while there was no pain. No cramping. No aches of any kind. At first, I was thankful for that. And then it didn’t seem quite right that a life could pass from this world so quietly and with so little struggle.

In the morning, I was told what I already expected to hear. My hcg levels were actually where they were expected to be, but my progesterone was at 1.3. “Early miscarriage. Come back in two days.”

Now, she wasn’t as callous as that. She was actually quite a nice nurse. But that’s what my soul heard as I hung up the phone.

The waves of nausea started getting worse. What was just a tinge here and there before Christmas was beginning to take over the day. I got a package of snack sticks from the hog we recently had slaughtered because eating helped calm it. I felt more pregnant than I did before the miscarriage.

The return visit to the nurse wasn’t a whole lot of help. My numbers actually came up. “It can take awhile for your body to catch up with what is happening in your uterus. The morning sickness can last several days until the hormone levels start dropping.”

I knew that. In my head, anyway. The rest of me still felt pregnant. First the nausea and now I had to use the restroom. For the second time since arriving at the office.

Thirteen days after the first spot of blood, the bleeding finally stopped. But the nausea remained. No longer a reminder of life, however, it now seems like a cruel joke, dragging this on until I find out whether or not a D&C is needed or if the miscarriage completed on its own.

And as short as its little life was, my baby decided not to pass quite so quietly after all.

Time slips by

Sometimes, I wish time could stand still. Slow down just a little bit. I feel like it races by. Days turn into weeks. Weeks turn into months.

Mookie just had his fifth birthday. And it’s less than six weeks until his brother died.

And I know grammatically, that doesn’t make any sense. But it is how I feel in the stillness of the night when everyone is asleep and I’m left alone with the wind and the darkness and my own thoughts. Like it is something about to happen rather than something that happened almost five years ago.

I failed at my attempt to blog every day in August. I knew I would from the outset. August is not a good month for that. And after not writing for months, the likelihood of keeping it up in the best of months was not great. I didn’t expect to make it. But I did hope the challenge would bring me back to blogging . . . regularly. Ish.

But time slips by. September and October both just disappeared. I had plenty to write about. Thoughts and ideas and plans. But time just kept slipping by.

 

Milestones in life and in grief

“He’s so cute. How old is he?”

“18 months. About. I think.”

I hesitate, but suddenly I don’t know. It seems like he’s been 18 months forever. I make a joke.

“With my oldest, I knew to the day. After seven, I know he’s one. And when he’ll be two. But I have to work out the months.”

And we laugh and the conversation goes on. But somewhere in the recesses of my mind, it bothers me. He HAS been 18 months forever. Why does this month in particular seem so long?

In the morning, I take my seat on a bucket beside the cow to milk. Lately, I’ve been apathetic about the whole milking thing. I like the cows. I love the fresh milk. I love the fact that my daughter’s GI doctor used the word “pristine” to describe her recent lab results and is beginning to question whether the original diagnosis of ulcerative colitis is even accurate. And since there is an abundance of anecdotal evidence linking whole raw milk with the alleviation of gastrointestinal issues, you would think I would be more excited than ever about milking.

But I’m not. And it’s kind of weird. This is what we have worked for for so long. Through all the struggles getting started and all the frustration last year. I now have a trained milk cow. She knows what to do. I know what to do. Her calf knows what to do. And while I have never achieved that happy state of looking forward to these moments of relative peace and quiet while I’m alone in the barn, there is no stress involved in collecting our day’s milk.

So I rest my head against the side of the cow to reach her teats on the other side and it occurs to me that little Asa has been 18 months for an awfully long time. And for the first time since first having that thought, I start to do the math.

. . . in December he was 12 months . . . August is the 8th month . . . he should be 20 months . . .

And then it hits me. September 3, he’ll be 21 months. Tiggy was 21 months when he died.

These waves of grief seem to strike out of nowhere. Time doesn’t really weaken them. It just spaces them out more. Makes them more unpredictable. Makes them harder to talk about.

But next week, my little boy will be 21 months old. He’s a little bundle of energy, curiosity and joy. He brings so much joy . . . and fear. It sometimes makes it hard not to parent from that dark place that only sees 1,001 ways a child can die rather than the thrill of exploration and accomplishment. And I’m so thankful he’s a cuddler because right now, that’s all I really want to do, anyway.

On giving advice to the grieving

I’ve been given a lot of advice over the past few years. Most of it amounts to how I should be feeling, how I should be parenting and how I should be looking to Jesus since the death of my son.

Most of it is annoying. I am left with a vague desire to say something. Because, really, there ae just some things you shouldn’t say.

Like, I’m sorry you lost your dog. Really, I am. But it’s a dog.

I’m sure your great Aunt was a wonderful woman and I’d like to try her pie, too. In fact, we could sit down to a piece and you could tell me all about her . . . just don’t tell me you know just how I feel because you loved her and now she’s gone.

Don’t tell me it’s time to stop grieving. That started ONE WEEK after the funeral. Apparently, Christianity is a single emotion religion because if I really had faith, I’d know he was in a better place and I would rejoice. But then, the Bible says it is better to go to a house of mourning than a house of feasting and that sorrow is better than laughter. (Ecc 7:1-4).

“Keep your eyes on Jesus” is a great idea. But it is usally said in a manner that implies I’m not. As if, “Keeping my eyes on Jesus” would eliminate the pain. I’m not sure most people realized that, particularly in those early months, everything else had been stripped away. Jesus was all that was left. He was the only light in a very dark and terrifying world. That didn’t make me happy. It just made each day possible.

Interestingly, people who have lost a child don’t give a lot of advice. At least not directly about how to deal with the grief itself.  They don’t tell me that I’m doing it wrong, or that I should be “over it” or that if I “give it to God” somehow all this pain will be lifted from me.

Instead, they say things like, “The pain never goes away. It just doesn’t. It gets easier. It gets less overwhelming. But it never goes away.”

And they tell me about the time they stood screaming at some random object that had nothing to do with anything but for some reason, that was the point that brought all the anger to the surface and they just screamed.

And they tell me that in time, you learn who you can talk to and who you can’t. Most people mean well, but there comes a point when it is better to say you’re doing OK than to get into another discussion that will only upset you anyway.

And they talk about the “new normal.” It’s like a code word for waking up in this alternate universe where everything –EVERYTHING–has changed.

And they say call me. Email me. Write me. Even though they are complete strangers I know for only one, terrible reason. And when they say it, for some reason, I actually believe the invitation is genuine. And that they know exactly what that call, email, letter will look like and they ask for it anyway.

So do I prefer advice from strangers or from those closest to me? I don’t think it really matters. I think what matters is whether or not the person giving the advice has a personal and direct connection to the issue.

Because good advice comes out of the wisdom only experience can bring. Most people mean well. But very few people have any idea what it is like to lose a child. If someone close to you is wrestling with this grief, the best advice I can give is to just be there for them. Listen to them. Pray for them. It is a lonely road and they need all the support they can get.

 

 

Sleepless nights

Minutes tick by. Hours drag on. This anxiety in my chest settles in and makes me restless. I’m exhausted, but I can’t sleep. It’s a familiar feeling normally reserved for stormy nights when the wind howls through the trees.

Nebraska has enough of them, you’d think I’d eventually get over it. That this sense of impending doom would lighten as night after windy night nothing happens.

But it’s not even windy.

The night is calm.

I am not.

So I pace. I move things around the house without really accomplishing anything. I watch a show on hulu. Read the same facebook statuses over again. Play some games and distract myself for a little while.

I think maybe it is because I have been looking at little Asa and thinking of Tiggy. I look at him and remember when we first moved here. He had just learned to walk. He loved getting suited up to sit in his car and watch me do chores. Most of his first words were related to the animals we owned.

I look at Asa and think of Tiggy driving his toy car up the arm of the sofa, pausing to look at me and saying, “Mom-mee” in that special way of his. I stroked his cheek while I nursed the baby and didn’t know that would be the last time I would hear him call me by name.

I look at Asa and wonder what it means that he is the only one of our children who never met him.

And I think the feeling will pass. That the next day’s activities will be a distraction and the anxiety will soften. But as soon as the children are in bed, I find myself anxious and pacing. Starting things I don’t finish. Moving things with no purpose. Drifting through the evening, tired but reluctant to go to bed.

Then suddenly I realize. Monday — now today — is his birthday.

He’d be six this year.

On saving frostbitten potatoes. And hope after loss.

So I finally got to taking some pictures of my property. Nice pictures showing cute little calves.

The goslings our mama goose hatched out.

And the progress in the garden.

I had planned a post on the excitement of spring. The hope found in new life. And the feeling of finally seeing the rewards of years of working at this with little to show for it other than “experience.” And more things that don’t quite work.

But then we were hit with a late frost before I even got to decide which pictures to use for the post I never wrote. And for awhile, I felt like I was right back in that onion patch I planted the spring after Tiggy died.

What is the point of trying again and again and again when the only option is failure? It’s too much. It’s too hard. I don’t know how to do this.

But I also don’t know quite how to give up.

So I bought the rest of the heirloom tomatoes available at a local farm and filled out my selection with a variety of hybrids that looked interesting. I bought twice as many peppers as I had before. I took the rest of their onions even though my onion patch was unphased by the frost.

And then my garden had a little surprise for me. Four jalapenos and three tomatoes had survived. Under all the dead leaves was a lot of healthy green coming up in the potato patch. My garden wasn’t quite as dead as it looked.

I read that potato plants can frequently survive a freeze so long as there is healthy growth underneath, so I set to pruning back the dead leaves. And with the dead pruned away, there was room for life to stretch toward the sun.

And in the time it took me to prune all 280 square feet of potatoes, six of my “dead” tomato plants sent up new shoots.

Sometimes, the challenges of life knock us back. They kill our dreams, strangle our hopes and tear down our growth. But when our roots are healthy, life continues in the shadows, waiting for the chaff to be pruned away so it can again stretch toward the light.

Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen your heart, all ye that hope in the Lord.

~Psalm 31:24

An answer to prayer

I sit, holding Asa, watching him sleep. Mookie leans over to give him a kiss. I smile . . . then shudder.

For it occurs to me that this is how old Mookie was when his big brother died.

And I remember a moment a few days before that. I was sitting on the couch takinng off Mookie’s wallaby blanket in order to change his little diaper. The kids were running all over. Tiggy had a cold. The house was a mess. And I was overwhelmed.

I didn’t know how to get everything done, but mostly I was scared of getting pregnant again. I didn’t know how to take care of seven children. It didn’t make sense even then, but I remember praying for some help, some relief, some peace.

And on windy nights when I held a squirming Mookie too close through my tears I would think of that prayer and feel pangs of guilt. As if I had somehow asked for this because for one moment I was overcome by all the responsibilities before me. And it was hard to admit even to myself how much I wanted another child. And how difficult it was to go to the doctor and find out that the issues I was having didn’t really need treatment but would affect the likelihood of having another child. But I couldn’t really talk about that with anyone because who fights back tears over not being able to have a seventh child?

I knew my motives were mixed. I knew another child wouldn’t fill that hole Tiggy left. Nor would it take away an evening of feeling overwhelmed at the thought of a seventh. But feelings are what they are and mine longed for one more child to hold and to count and to raise.

And now here he is. Number seven. In my arms, asleep and showered with kisses by his big brother.

I lean over and whisper in his ear. “You are an answer to prayer, little Angel.” Because I want him to know that even as number seven, he wasn’t an accident. He wasn’t an after thought. He is our little “healer.” Our little reminder of “victory.” In Christ, over death and through new life.