Warning- This article could be uncomfortable for some people. I will speak frankly about one of the downsides of care-giving- that is, one member of the family getting a huge percentage of the time and attention for an extended period of time. I'm not going to diminish the message with a ton of disclaimers, so if this is not something you are ready to read, please skip it.
One thing that I've been dealing with quite a while is the regret and wondering that comes after a season of care giving. For 7+ years, our family revolved around mom. There is a very real toll that comes from this. Things have to give, things get neglected, things get postponed- and even worse, it is not just things, but people. In our family story, the kids were one of the casualties. I've written, but not yet posted, about things to never tell care-givers; one of those things is to please not gush on and on about how “good” it is for the kids. Please just don't. This will be covered in more depth at some point.
During the time of taking care of mom, I had our 5th child, so we did the whole pregnancy and new baby thing, which takes enough time away from the other kids, on top of typical care giving. We also had a long-term medical/developmental crisis with on of the children that required weekly therapy, which took half a day, for 16 months. Because of all of these things piled up, anything that wasn't blood or broken bones got left to the side. In these times, the important gets neglected for the sake of the urgent.
We recently got information about one of the children that I won't share for privacy reasons, but is a bit shaking. Conditions that needed attention years ago. Conditions that I was very aware of the potential for, but since we were able to compensate, they never seemed critical.
But now, NOW, when time has run out, and I find that the things were real, and that they may effect my child long-term.... oh the doubts, oh the regrets, oh the should have-would have-could have, how they do come flooding in.
The distress is real. And like any other human, I would prefer to deflect blame. There is a lot of guilt feelings and I'd love to spread it around a bit, if only so that my own burden of it is not so heavy.
Spreading the guilt doesn't actually help though. It causes tensions for sure, and nothing constructive ever comes of it. So right now I'm feeling a lot like the buck stops here.
So this is all that is rolling over me the past few days; this is what is welling up. I'm in a bit over my head, and rather overwhelmed.
But you see, about three weeks ago, I had an amazing conversation with a lovely author, Laura Brown. She actually helped me take my tent down and pack it while we chatted, so there's that cherry on top as well. She listened to me talk about my story, and shared that she had walked a very similar road. Something she said to me during that conversation has become my life raft as I navigate this new storm of guilt and regret;
“Every decision we made was the right one at the time.”
In this gig of life, not just care giving, but all of it- marriage, career, parenting... many times we face decisions in which every option available has negative consequences. One of them is still the right one though- because doing nothing is not an option at all. The idea that we can make a right decision by seeing which one is easy, or happy, or has good outcomes across the board, is not at all accurate. Sometimes no matter which choice we make, it is a hard one.
In my experience, these types of decisions often occur in crisis and there simply isn't time to grieve the fact that something is going to be left undone. The pain comes later. We can't use our rear view mirror and think, “if I had made the right choice, these bad things would not have happened.” Well, maybe they wouldn't have, but some other bad thing would have happened. At the time, there was no option in which everything turned out great for everyone.
There is collateral damage when it comes to caring. There is no way to sugarcoat
that- and it would not be fair or helpful to my readers if I tried. I won't even promise that this collateral damage will be removed- although wouldn't that be great? Since I did the right thing, everything eventually HAS to turn out fine? I know better than that. Yet, I do believe in the promise that at some point, this collateral damage will be redeemed. I'm not there yet. This is new and fresh, I'm still scrambling with the emotions. I will take another day to process and then I'll pick myself up and get to work on the practical. What can be salvaged? What can we still do? And I have this nagging feeling that to correct this situation, I'm going to be faced with another decision in which something else will get left behind.
But really, all we can do is make the best decision we can at the time, with the information and options we have. And then later, stand firm in the fact that every decision we made was the right one at the time.
This morning I woke up to facebook giving me this memory. Not exactly the happiest way to start the day.
I don't need to be reminded that we are nearly at the anniversary. Easter's approach has been incredibly difficult. Last year mom was obsessed with Easter, asking almost daily if it was Easter yet. She really wanted to make it to Easter (which because Easter was earlier last year, she did).
Anyway, a rough couple of weeks anyway, and then this from facebook.
School today was hectic, we have one more week before end of school (co-op group) graduation. After running all morning, I was teaching my afternoon class and a friend came to the window of my classroom and motioned for me to understand that she had to talk to me before I left. I assumed it was school business so I said I'd catch her at 3:00, after my class.
At 3:00 I asked Joy to clean up my classroom and pack my supplies so I could go find the lady who needed to talk to me. She was headed outside to let her boys run in the amazing weather we are having so I walked out with her. Once we got out there, instead of the topic being school related, she told me that she had dreamed about me.
We were sitting on the porch of a cabin in the mountains. It was so beautiful. I was in a hammock and you were sitting beside me on the porch and we were just watching the bird feeder. A hummingbird came up (hummingbirds are my special symbol for mom, this friend knows that) and was feeding, It turned to see you, and smiled (because, dream). Then it came over and sat on your shoulder for a bit, then it came over to me, then it flew away. When it left I thought, "Wow, it was really nice for your mom to come see us."
Such a beautiful moment, of course I cried and she hugged me, and then I told her about the FB memory that had popped up this morning and how close we were to the anniversary, and all about how difficult the Easter season is. So then she hugged me some more. No, mom is not a hummingbird; but the picture of her, healed and whole and busy, is so wonderful. And of course her mansion in heaven is a cabin in the mountains, of course it is.
So was her dream because it is spring and hummingbird time (we've seen our first few)? Was it just coincidence? Was it from God? I don't know. I don't need to know. What I do know is that a friend who never met mom dreamed of her- of us- and then took that step to tell me about it when it could have sounded so silly. There is always a risk when you consider sharing things like this. Will the person be offended? Will they be weirded out (why would you dream about me?!)? I'm so glad my friend followed her heart and told me about this, that she took that step and opened up. It was so special to me. The journey of grief can be a very lonely one- even when other people are grieving the same person, we all grieve differently. It can feel like we are the only one still here, still stuck. Little reminders like this, that others are carrying you in their hearts, are just so meaningful.
I want to be more open to taking the risk of sharing my heart when I think of others, even if it feel silly. I truly think that those little nudges to call someone, or send a card, or just tell them, "Hey, I think of you, you are special to me" are important and we can do a lot of good in this world if we listen to them.
We've gone through this personally in our family several times, and it is also a question that is not uncommon in the various parenting groups I work with. This question is so difficult and of course can be approached many different ways to suit the child you are thinking of, but here are some general guidelines.
Be real. Avoid euphemisms like “gone”, “passed away”, or “lost.” Sometimes the child may have no concept of what death even is, so don't use any comparison to sleep or rest. Explain factually that everything alive, dies. Bugs, plants, animals, people- all living cells/creatures/bodies eventually stop working and this is called death. They no longer grow, eat, or breath. Their heart stops beating, their brain can't work anymore. Long before high school biology, children have a sense of what is alive and what is not. A rock is not alive, but a plant is. A car may move, but is not alive. Work with what they have already figured out, and remember, discussions about death are not a once and done thing, but will occur over and over as they grow and revisit these ideas and memories of their loved one.
When explaining why people die, it can be difficult to use language that will not scare them. Old age is a bit easier, as they can understand the concept of worn out and can't work anymore. Illness and accident can be harder. If possible, try not to use the words “sick” or “hurt” since as children, they are likely to get sick and be hurt quite often. Instead, less frequently used words like “disease” or even “ill”, may be less scary, explaining that their body was simply too diseased and could not work anymore. Death from an accident or trauma can be quite disturbing, especially if the child tries to relate it to something they know about, like a squashed bug. You don't need to go into details, but affirm that yes, their body was too damaged to work anymore, so they died.
The difference between the body and the person (spirit or soul) is another tricky bit. Children want to know what happens to the body. Again, go back to other living things like plants or fallen leaves and that they turn back into the earth. Even large bodies like animals and people turn into earth, because the real person is finished with them. Be very matter of fact that bodies are buried in the ground and turn into earth/dirt. For cremation, you don't have to explain the process, but simply say that it some people choose to be buried and turn to dirt slowly and others choose cremation which turns them to dirt much more quickly. If the child persists, you can explain that intense heat is used.
As with many other questions that children ask, always ask them what they think or already know before answering. This is really helpful to clarify what they are actually asking. The old joke about giving a complete reproduction talk to answer, “where did I come from?” when the child actually meant what city they were born in, is funny, but often very true. The purpose is never to hide things from our children, but rather to answer what they are actually asking, and answer it commensurate to their level of understanding.
For religious families, definitely talk about heaven, but avoid using- or even letting children overhear, inaccurate and unhelpful “comfort” about how God “needed them” or that he “took them.” This can be so disturbing for a child and left to wonder who else God might need or take, and can leave the child quite angry with God as well. We teach our children that God is big and all powerful, and then claim he “needed” someone, when clearly the child needed that person more. Stick with the fact that death is part of life, all life ends, and how wonderful it is that when this life ends, that person gets to go to God and never be ill or old or damaged again. Of course we are very sad, we miss them terribly, and just because they are in heaven doesn't make it all better. Encourage them to talk about heaven and what they think their loved one is doing there. This can be incredibly comforting for both the child, and for the entire family who is grieving. The honest grief of a child, and their special glimpses into heaven can be incredibly helpful for all who are grieving this loss.
For non-religious families, you may find comfort in your loved one returning to the earth, or some talk about their loved one turning back into star dust. Some believe in an after-life presence of sorts with the loved one looking after the child, and others do not. There are some really beautiful writings available on this topic for non-religious families.
A very valuable resource can be a local hospice agency. Even if your loved one was not a hospice patient, some agencies offer grief services to their community when funding allows. Even if the agency can't help directly, they will be a valuable resource to recommend area counselors or therapists who may be helpful. Some hospices offer camps (day or sleep away) for children who have had a direct loss, these can be very beneficial in many cases.
Taking care of yourself and your own grief while trying to walk through it with your children is hard. I've been there—and still there, to be honest. Make sure that you are getting the support you need, so that you are then emotionally healthy enough to guide your little ones. Hospitals and churches often provide grief support groups for free or very low fees. You do not have to be a member or be affiliated in order to attend the groups. You may attend one for a few sessions and decide it is not the right fit, and that is OK, but at least try one. If you are reading this to find resources for a friend, remember that one of the most important things you can do for your grieving friends is to facilitate them taking care of themselves. That may mean making phone calls to find counseling or groups, or it may mean providing childcare so they can attend.
As always, please reach out via Facebook if I can be of any additional assistance.
Today is mom's birthday. Our first without her.
Yesterday was incredibly rough. You see, last year her birthday fell on Sunday so the church had a big celebration for her.
Yesterday was the anniversary of that. Everywhere I looked was a reminder. Sitting in the sanctuary, looking at the empty spot where her recliner used to sit, remembering the dining room full of flowers and balloons, thinking about the flower crown that some of the church children made her.
I sat in service and just sort of leaked tears quietly.
After, a friend asked if I was ok, and as I was trying to answer, another friend saw that I wasn't and hugged me.
To be honest, probably the most tears at once since mom passed.
But how sweet to be held by arms who love me, who are not frightened by wracking sobs or snotty face.
How healing to be heard but not not placated.
Then as we stood there, one of the children, a special little fellow, with many needs and issues of his own, came over and innocently asked if I was sad. I told him that I was sad because I missed my mom. He assured me that he remembered who my mom was. Then he hugged me and very seriously told me that when his special friend (a worker at his school) died, he was very sad, but that sometimes, he can sit and remember how much he loved her, and that helps. The precious innocence of his statements are something I will treasure always.
Today is rough too, and to be honest, many more rough days to come between now and the first anniversary.
So many other thoughts that are still too raw to share. Those will come another day. or not, we'll see.
Today, it hurts, but I'll make it.
“If God is so powerful, why doesn't he ….?” I would venture to guess that each of us has either heard this, said this, or felt this, at some point in our life. The context is usually some sad or terrible circumstance that left the one asking feeling broken and hurt.
I would like to share a story of redemption. I do not pretend that my one story universally proves a point--although I do believe that God's redemptive power is indeed universally possible. When he doesn't remove the circumstance, he can redeem the pain.
My mother died. She lived with us for 7 years. Health up and down, but mostly down and declining. Usually the decline was slow, but she would occasionally have a big drop and then that would become the new normal until the next drop. The last six months she was quite ill, the last four months, on hospice.
5 weeks to the day after mom left, the mother of my dear friend and neighbor went to heaven as well. I was honored to be a part of those final days and hours.
I have a disturbing fluency in skills no one wants to know.
Rolling, turning, changing, adjusting pillows, crushing pills, filling syringes.
Taking minutes to dispense just a few drops, carefully, so as not to choke the throat of one who can no longer swallow.
Swabbing the dry mouth, relieving the cracked lips.
Setting the mood of the room, flowers, music, light levels, even scents.
Tone of voice, gentle touch, stroking the hair. Enough to let you know I'm here, but not enough to disturb or overwhelm.
The relationship with death. It is our enemy, but it is inevitable.
Can I come to a truce?
I cannot control the fact that it comes, but perhaps can control how it takes you?
I will not let you feel fear, or pain, or loneliness, although, we all know that the last step you must indeed take alone.
At least alone from my perspective. I pray not from yours.
Loved ones, angels, God himself? Surely someone is there to take your hand in the moment I must let go. Anything else would be too cruel.
But now what? When life has revolved around care for so long, what does one do with these accumulated proficiencies, this unwanted expertise?
I have my family, they need me, but a different part of me. This part, with its particular set of skills, feels useless now, vestigial.
But then comes a call, “I need help, I cannot.”
It is ok dear friend, because I can.
I step up and say, “wait, I know this one!”
I will hold her, touch her, love her like my own.
I perform the tasks so you are free to hold her hand.
And in this way, I find redemption.
My pain becomes a blessing.
My grief is assuaged.
I have a lifetime's worth of skill but only one mother to spend it on.
God in his wisdom, in his grace, mercifully gave me another.
Yesterday was a regular day around here; Dr. appointment, kids playing, chores, and school work. I'm trying desperately to wrap my brain around computery things and discovering that most how-to's and tutorials assume a level of prior knowledge that I do not have, so I spent hours studying/working and have very little show for it.
At some point I logged on to the breastfeeding support group that I help run and found that one of our mamas had experienced the unimaginable, the loss of her 10 month old baby. That kept me preoccupied for much of the rest of the day. Not actually doing anything, but thinking about it extensively, considered ways to reach out, and yes, crying for this dear mama.
Josie often climbs into our "remembering spot" and looks through photo albums of Mom, but yesterday it just caught me in the gut. I'm getting to that grief stage where it is not constant, but when it occurs it is very forceful. And so, I sat with her, held my child, and remembered.
So between the frustration of hitting brick walls in my studying, having a grief day in our home, and the loss of this baby being on the forefront of my mind, it was a rather topsy-turvy day, emotionally speaking. Last night after a grocery run and picking up the kids from VBS, I sat down again to quickly check in on FB before bed. There was the little red flag notice that I had a message and it said a friend had sent a photo. I opened it and saw the beautiful photo I've shared here.
Back story - after mom passed away, I was struggling with how to talk to the kids about the fact that her body was not going to be interred in a casket the way they may have seen in movies or shows. I spoke about this with a friend who I just think the world of. He has a way with words and a way of viewing things that I often haven't considered. He did help me out by talking through this and giving me some ideas. A few days later, he wrote to tell me that as they worked in their yard this spring, his family had planted a sunflower in honor of my mother. Yesterday it bloomed and he sent me this photo.
As I sat and cried, cried for this mama who is just crushed with grief, cried for myself and our family as we experience this very different kind of grief and trying to figure out our new normal, I also cried over this gift of love and friendship. This gift of their family remembering and honoring someone they've never met.
At the end of the day, we want to know that our loved one mattered, that their life meant something, that someone else in this world is holding space for them. We need to know that our loved one's life had meaning, and of course by extension, that our lives have meaning. Let me be clear, I believe in eternity and heaven, but for now, I'm a temporal being in a temporal world and the here and now is what really resonates with me.
We each need to know that we matter, that someone would miss us if we were gone. Struggling hearts often express, “no one would miss me if I weren't here, so what is there to live for?” And on some level we all wonder that. Will there even be a hole when I am gone? We recognize that we are but a speck in the vast universe, but we have this immense need to know that our speck matters. That the speck of those whom we loved, matters.
One of the greatest gifts you can give to a person who is grieving is the gift of remembering their loved one-and letting them know that you do. So every February, I think of Ellen and remember her loss. Every July, I reach out to Belinda as she grieves her husband. Every time I see a giraffe, I think of Ruth's mom.
Tim has passed this gift to me. That sunflower is going to complete its bloom, the seeds will feed birds and some will drop (or be collected) and re-grow next year. And thus, in a yard, 3,000 miles away, my mother's memory is nurtured. Her speck is enlarged. My heart is healed.
Her face was pretty, and so young that I wondered at the age of the man beside her. A couple, new to the area, attending our church for the first time. When I introduced myself after the service, I saw that her face and her eyes did not match. Expressionless eyes, numb, windows to a soul that was absolutely shattered. She fumbled for a silver key chain frame that was attached to her purse. “This is my baby boy. He is gone.” The “older” man was her husband, his visage and bearing bore the ravages of the loss of his son and the burden of worrying for his wife.
As time went by I learned the story, and realized that both of them were still in their 20's. That she, a happy and hopeful girl, had been changed into a broken woman. A year and a half of uncertainty, a year and a half of mother-love and determination to sustain her medically fragile child, ended in crushing grief. That his demeanor was from the shell-shock he was trying to function through.
Grief, anxiety, depression, these loads rode heavy on this couple. Still reeling from their grief, came the pain of secondary infertility. Then pregnancy loss. Outwardly I hugged and comforted them; inside I screamed, “Lord, how much can someone bear? "
Fast forward and there are two other beautiful children now. He grows younger as the years go by, humor and wit in his eyes, a grin on his face, a spring in his step that befits a young man. And yet, a depth, a wisdom that comes only from having spent so very long in such a very dark place. She can laugh again; there is life again in her, adoration in her eyes as she holds her treasures close.
Still, there are days when the waves of anxiety come. I may get a text or a call. I tell her I love her and to hold her breath, to come up for air on the other side, this wave will pass.
There is no “fix” for this. No miracle that will turn her back to that young woman who assumed that life and family was neatly laid out, full of dreams, confident in the future. That girl died when her child did.
But I have been privileged to see over the past 7 years this broken woman turn into something else, something deeper, richer. A woman who can see pain, whose heart can break with others. I have seen her grief go full circle, and where I have held her in her brokenness, she has, in turn, held me in mine. She has a capacity for compassion that can only be born of being crushed.
She has not been “delivered” from the grief, from the emotional trauma; but has allowed (and is still learning to allow) that trauma to be the very place from which her redemption comes.
“God, I've given you this over and over.”
“God, why haven't you delivered me yet?”
“God what am I missing? Am I supposed to be learning something?”
“God, did I do something wrong? This still isn't fixed.”
What if the answer isn't ever going to be what we want or wish for, or even what we have been taught to expect?
What if the miracle is not rescue, but it is redemption?
We so enjoy a good rescue story. We thrill to a testimony where God changed a person and then returned all that was lost. We term that situation, “success.” We seek that, strive for it, and when it doesn't happen, wonder why God did not move. But striving for this version of healing tends to make us focus backwards, trying to get back to where we were, who we were, instead of forward to where we are going.
My friend lives with anxiety and depression. She suffered a significant loss that changed her.
A false understanding of redemption could lead us to believe that without a “full” reversal - no more anxiety or depression- that this woman is not a success story, that she has not been restored.
We are shaped, sometimes irreversibly , by what happens to us, but that does not make us unusable. Redemption is not reversal, but it is restoration.
You might say, “but my pain was self-inflicted, my damage is from sin, from bad choices.” To that I say that the redemption is there for you too. Scarred, misshapen, it does not matter. Forgiveness and restoration does not always reverse consequences or negate the law of reaping what is sown. Reaping and sowing is a universal principle, both natural and spiritual, but redemption is far more powerful. Redemption is the idea that all of this can be used for good.
There are amazing stories and testimonies that can happen, and sometimes do. They should be honored, but they should not be elevated as the expectation. Because not every baby is healed, not every straying spouse comes home, not every bankrupt family finds a check in the mailbox, not every addict is instantly delivered. We rejoice in those stories, absolutely. But I suggest that the healing of a shattered mother is also a miracle; that the divorcee who remains faithful to God though their world has been rocked is also cause for praising the Lord; that the family who continues on, day after day, in the midst of financial crisis is also worthy of noting; that the addict who gets up, and gets up, and gets up, is reason for celebration.
God may, sometimes, write our story as a reversal, but he always, always writes it as restoration and redemption. Let us live and prosper where we are, instead of feeling like we have not yet arrived. Embrace the redemption that God has for you, focus not on the scars that remain, but the healing that they represent.