Grief · spiritual growth

Feeling Twenty-Two

FullSizeRender(15)A baby girl was born twenty-two years ago: flawed, imperfect, and desperately wanted. Her little life ended before she was two, and because a Momma never forgets, on this, her birthday, I am feeling twenty-two.

It’s twenty-two years with her, but not. It’s twenty-two years of her here, then gone.

But that’s not all it is.

It’s twenty-two years of hope, through pain.

Intense grief never leaves, not completely. It just shifts. Over and over again, the pain of losing that little girl has readjusted itself around other highs and lows, or perhaps the extremes have adjusted themselves around her. When the dark memory of the day she died makes room for another fearful situation to reside in my being, the survival of losing her speaks into that new situation. 

For example, years ago, we owned a cabinet that failed to do its job. This cabinet was holding the china dishware we had received at our wedding. When the cabinet came down, the entire set of lovely white dishes, painted with tiny blue flowers, came crashing to the floor. In horror, I tired to capture the platters and cups, while my husband used one hand to hold the cabinet and the other to shield me from being injured from the falling plates.

Among the reasons this event is seared into my memory (other than the fact that my husband’s heroic act saved me from being flattened or disfigured) is because after the last dish fell, and I plowed my face into my husband’s chest, the first thought sent to rescue me from despair sounded something like this: “Jackie, you survived losing Molly, you will survive losing these dishes.”

For twenty-two years I’ve love this little girl, and for each of those years her life has served as a reminder of God’s faithfulness. I have come to believe there is no circumstance which can flatten or disfigure God’s presence in the life of those who desire Him. 

Can I let myself dream of a life where she didn’t die? Sure.

FullSizeRender(12) I can imagine a “grown-up” her: wearing a t-shirt from her college Alma mater, car keys dangling in her hand, she’s rushing out the door to see her sister and her niece.

I can picture a “young-woman” her: hiking to a waterfall with her cousin and her friends, she steals a kiss from a boy. I can envision an Instagram profile filled with duck-face selfies.

I can let myself dream of a “still-with-us” her: a story of secrets exchanged with siblings in a land with wedding pictures, game nights, and text messaging threads–and she is included.

Eventually, I wake up. She’s not here, and that’s not what happened. What happened was quick and unforgettable, like an intimate glance in a crowded room.

But this is where I have a choice. Is her birthday a reminder of the toddler that I lost, of the girl I never knew, and of the young woman who never was, or is it something more?

Each of us get to decide how to hold the memory of our own intimate unforgettable glances. Is the memory of a young life that was lost or of grief we survived merely painful? Or, is the memory of that intimate glance part of God’s plan for us to face and conquer oncoming and unknown trials? These intimate glances are severe and merciful reminders of resilience and healing, of promise on the days when we’re feeling twenty-two. 

I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you. -‭Psalm‬ ‭22‬:‭22‬

spiritual growth

Unexpected Visitors at Christmas

MV5BMTI1OTExNTU4NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzIwMzQyMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR5,0,214,317_AL_Mention Cousin Eddie to anyone who has seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and there will be immediate sympathy for the trials of having an uninvited and unexpected house guest at Christmastime. Along with other classic scenes, the iconic movie, which celebrates it’s 25th Anniversary this year, highlights some of the inconveniences Clark Griswold faces when Cousin Eddie and his family arrive unannounced at the Griswold home.

Even if we have never had an unplanned house guest at Christmastime, we can relate to the hardship we see unfold in the comedy. It’s hard not to chuckle when the redneck cousin arrives in his RV and parks it in front of the Griswold’s soon-to-be brightly lit home. While we don’t know the exact details of what is going to unfold, we know it will bring Clark to his knees in frustration. While I have never experienced anything remotely close to what the Griswold family faced, I have had a few visitors at Christmastime. Unfortunately, they weren’t laughable, and I had no guarantee they would be leaving when the mistletoe came down.

In the days of Christmas past, I was visited by “Grief” at Christmastime, and it was the hardest season in my life.

On the last day of January in 1995 our third born child, our daughter Molly, died suddenly and unexpectedly in her sleep. Our family woke one morning, and Molly did not. Our nineteen-month-old angel was gone in an instant, and needless to say, we were in disbelief. Once the mind-numbing shock lifted we were left devastated. It was a searing pain that still burns deep.

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Like the Walking Dead, we moved through the year until eventually the Christmas season arrived. My husband and I were both hurting, and I wanted nothing to do with traditional festivities.

When I glanced at the Christmas tree, sparkling lights would dance off the glass ornaments, and I would begin to feel something shift in my heart. With that shift there was pain.  I heard songs I had heard my entire life, but with the dagger of Grief piercing my heart they sounded different: whimsical words wounded like weaponry.

The problem was– even though we were grieving our child who had died, we were still parents to three children who lived and they were ripe to learn about the baby born in manger. We had a bouncing baby boy, and two children ages six and four who needed to hear the tales of the Inn that was too full, of Shepherds in the fields, and of Wise Men bearing gifts. Whether or not we were sad, these precious little ones were still anticipating the arrival of Santa Clause. There were Christmas pageants to attend, presents to be wrapped, and cookies to be decorated. While I may have been fine with skipping Christmas, there were others who would have been dreadfully disappointed.

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Looking back, we see now that the problem was actually the blessing.

Experiencing Christmas with Grief was doing a work in our hearts. There is no way to lose a child and not feel complete devastation. One of the temptations to avoid feeling that overwhelming sense of loss is to avoid “feeling” anything. It becomes a trade that seems to make sense at the time: close off the part of your heart that feels good in order to protect the part of your heart that hurts.

Closing ourselves off from good is one of the worst lies the enemy tells us.  When I looked at the Christmas tree and felt the shift in my heart, the enemy wanted me to believe that if I diverted my eyes from the dancing lights, I wouldn’t be reminded of Molly’s playful ways and I wouldn’t hurt. When Christmas carols sounded like battle cries, the enemy would have taken pleasure in my covering my ears rather than hearing a salute to the Newborn King.

God was allowing me to feel these things, not as a punishment, but because He knew things I didn’t know. Experiencing Christmas without my child hurt worse than anything I had ever imagined, but God knew this pain was bringing a new kind of strength. And He knew this pain would not destroy me.

He also knew it would not last. God’s lens is more broad than we can imagine. He is not limited to only what has happened and what is happening, but He is privy to what will one day happen. He was not limited to only seeing the Christmas of 1995; He saw every other Christmas as well. He knew I would make it if I just would just persevere through it. And He knew that walking through grief, and feeling the grief was the only way out.

This year, much like an unwanted house guest, Regret has come calling.

Regret is the cousin of Grief. They are not directly related–but they are so similar they behave like they are from the same family. At times, the difference is subtle.  A person can experience deep Grief, and have little or no Regret, but it is difficult to have Regret and not have Grief.

Regret will sometimes spend time with Repentance. When Regret is with Repentance, he is not only bearable–he is welcome. When Regret leads to Repentance there is a gratitude for their arrival. Opening the door and seeing Regret and Repentance arriving together is a welcome sight. In these moments, we light a fire and bring out the good wine. These two together help to restore relationships and build hope in the family.

The problem is Regret will often overstay his welcome.

In these longer visits Regret pulls us backwards into “what might have been” and “what I should have done.”

  • Regret slyly offers a box wrapped in bright paper and tied up with a red bow.  When it is opened there are memories of Christmas’ past–but along with the memories there is a card that reads, “you took all of these things for granted…”
  • Regret calls the household to play a game of charades and then taunts its players with romantic notions of a perfect life.  If things had been done differently “All Would Be Well.”

Lingering Regret is often unrealistic and tells a multitude of lies, and living with Regret is hard on all members of the household. Even those who did not give permission for Regret to stay in their home suddenly have to deal with the mood swings and the depression Regret brings.

Sill Tree 2014

Like Cousin Eddie was drawn to Clark, Regret is trying to stay with me through this Holiday season. He’s smelly and unpleasant; he’s sleeping on my couch and leaving his dirty dishes in my sink.  He is judgmental and harsh, and I really want this guest to leave. But, Regret doesn’t want to go away. It seems Regret is hell-bent on spending Christmas in my heart.

I think of how differently Regret speaks to me when he visits with Repentance. Without Repentance, Regret is just an unpleasant feeling. With Repentance, Regret is forced to behave differently. The only way I am going to make it through this season is by inviting Repentance into each day. Regret pretends he likes to be accompanied by Repentance, but in reality he would much rather have the stage to himself. Without Repentance, he is the star. With Repentance nearby, conversations move from judgement to mercy. The set is changed and the story is no longer about Regret, but about Redemption through Christ. With Repentance nearby the lies of Regret lose their power.

The thing is, Repentance will always wait for an invitation.

Repentance simply will not come uninvited or empty handed. Upon being invited he will arrive swiftly, and he will bring lavish foods that will leave you full from your tummy to your toes.  And best of all, Repentance will bring along his brother, Restoration. When invited into your home, Repentance and Restoration make the drawn out visit from Regret easier to endure, because while Regret focuses on the past, Restoration is looking to the future.

Regret’s romantic tales of opportunities lost have less power over us when Restoration is part of the story.

Much like Christmas of 1995 when the problem became the blessing, 2014 is calling for a shift in perspective. I long for Regret to leave my household. He says, “No.” Because Regret refuses to leave, I rely on Repentance to see me through each day.  Repentance comes swiftly, bringing the blessing of Restoration. The problem becomes the blessing.