The First Day of School

I limped through the first day of school, but I made it.

I watched my kids walk into the building with their friends. Samuel would have run up the sidewalk, partially hidden by a too-big backpack… No, stop. I don’t want to go there today.

I cried, but not as much as I expected. Half-way through the tears I numbed over. 

Then I realized I forgot to take the obligatory back-to-school photo, and the tears started again. I have mixed feelings about documenting our family milestones with photos these days. I want to celebrate important events for my living children, but each picture has a sad, empty spot in it. Two kids, smiling with backpacks, missing the third. Oh, Samuel. 

I feel guilty for forgetting the picture. I feel guilty for my conflicted feelings about taking pictures. I feel guilty for taking one without Samuel in it.

Nothing is easy anymore.

Another School Year

School starts soon. I took last years papers down from the bulletin board to make room for the influx of new information coming next week. I took down Samuel’s kindergarten schedule.

There won’t be a 1st grade schedule to replace it.

I hold it, stare at it, wipe the tears from my face so they don’t drip on it. It’s his first and his last school schedule. I don’t want to mess it up with wet spots.

It’s not fair he’s been robbed of so much life.

My other kids are watching music videos on youtube in the kitchen. It happens all the time, some music in the background of my life that seems at odds with my experience.

And on that day when my strength is fading, the end draws near and my time has come. Still my soul will sing your praise unending, 10,000 years and then forevermore.

I want to be moved by the music, but I am not. I don’t grieve as one who has no hope, but I am certainly grieving as one who isn’t sure. I want to be settled, to feel comfort and know that Samuel is singing and dancing for Jesus. He would love that. He’s so cute he’d draw a crowd, even in heaven.

Meanwhile, back on earth, we’re organizing backpacks, writing names in composition notebooks, and digging out lunch boxes. The kids and I have decided which teacher Samuel would have had this year. I can’t decide if discussions like that help me, or if they add to my sorrow by giving me made-up scenarios to grieve. In reality, he was never going to have a 1st grade teacher. I just didn’t know.

Back-to-school is as hard as any holiday. Like a birthday, it’s a milestone of forward progress and expectations. This year it is happiness for my living children undercut by the pain of watching time go by without Samuel.

Social media turns into a danger zone, with photo after photo of the anticipated day. I can’t do it. Each picture taunts me, highlighting the gap between normal childhood and our agony. This is our first year to start school without Samuel, and it seems someone should realize how hard it is and say something to us.

We go to school to drop off our supplies, meet the new teachers, and help the kids find their desks. In the hallway I see Samuel’s kindergarten teacher from last year. She has suffered too. She’s taught two of my kids. She knew and loved Samuel before he was her student. We talk for a few minutes, both feeling disbelief that he isn’t here. I am thankful at least one person knows this is a painful time.

Shattered

In the kitchen I reach for a glass from a high shelf. I glance at the cat who is staring at the counter. He twitches, betraying his intent to jump up onto forbidden territory. I am distracted and my fingers lose grip on the glass. It falls to the floor, shattering into a thousand pieces. The alarmed cat escapes as fast as he can.

The floor is covered with sharp, tiny fragments. It will be difficult getting out of the kitchen without cutting my unprotected feet. Tears fill my eyes at my carelessness. My self-esteem is as fragile as the glass these days, and it doesn’t take much for it to crumble into pieces too. As I stand there it occurs to me that this is what it’s like to grieve a child. 

Life shatters. My family and heart have shattered. I stare at the pieces. I don’t have the energy to clean it all up, to put it back together. I don’t think it will fit back together anyway. There are important parts missing. And it’s so, so broken.

Pieces of glass get everywhere. There are shards under the rug, behind the cat bowl, under the dishwasher. Some have flown all the way to the dining room. Little slivers slice deep into your feet if you step on them unaware. Razor edges cut your fingers even if you handle them gently, just trying to pick them up. 

This is grief.

Life, family, self, faith, relationships, peace, meaning, motivation, safely…all shattered.

I’m always cutting myself on slivers unexpectedly. They hide, blending in, until I put my fingers on them and suddenly I’m in pain and bleeding. 

Junk mail addressed to Samuel. Offering some deal he will never be old enough to need.

Reaching under the sofa and finding his sock.

A friend posting photos of her kids, smiling and happy. 

A red crayon.  

A baby.

A thunderstorm. 

Noodles.  

Bleeding again.

When you break something on the floor, you tell everyone to stay away so they don’t step on the glass.  

In the same way people stay out of my life. It’s dangerous to walk too close, they might get cut. My grief is sharp. My thoughts and words and responses can be sharp these days too.

It seems strange, but I make myself a spot in the middle of the broken pieces and settle in. It was precious to me, all that was destroyed, and I don’t want to let it go. My child, of course, is irreplaceable. I feel the loss of everything he is, of the future he will never have, and the emptiness in my own life because of his absence. I also miss the old me, and the carefree way I could move through a day. I didn’t appreciate how easy it was to talk to others until it became awkward and hard. I no longer feel purpose and significance in life through my relationship with God. I’ve lost the joy of worship. My confidence is gone. My ability to laugh whole-heartedly is gone. I can’t pick up toys in the living room or fix afternoon snacks without feeling sad. Peace, patience, energy, fun, all gone.

Life will not return to the way it used to be. Some things are broken beyond repair, yet I hold on to them like they were part of a beloved heirloom and I’m not ready to throw them away.

This is bigger than me. The only solution is divine.

But the Divine seems in no hurry to soften the edges, repair or replace some of what I’ve lost, or at the very least, whisper peace into my broken heart. 

So I wait, surrounded by the remnants of things I treasured.

Moving carefully, trying to minimize more injury. 

Exhausted because of the mental energy it takes to tiptoe through brokenness.

Crying, missing my beautiful son.

Afraid of the memories that come, unwanted, of the moment it all smashed apart.

Wondering if I will sit here forever.

The Benefit of the Doubt

It’s easy for me to give others the benefit of the doubt.  

I can understand the motivation behind even the most shocking and irrational actions. I don’t excuse those things, and reasons rarely turn a wrong into a right. But I am able to look at someone’s story and explain why they did something awful. I am a life-long student of human behavior.

Sometimes I drive my husband crazy. To him, my desire to understand seems to justify wrong, just a little. He’s a black and white kind of guy. Some things are evil, and he doesn’t care why. 

Maybe this is why I have not struggled with anger against the driver who hit us and took Samuel’s life. I realize it was a mistake, even if it was a dreadful one. She was irresponsible, and her recklessness cost all of us terribly. She should be held liable for the outcome of her actions. And yet, Samuel’s death was still a mistake. If she had known that fiddling with the lid on her hot chocolate was going to take the life of a little boy, she would have stopped. She did not intend to harm us, so I have empathy for her. I expect she will stay bound emotionally to our family through guilt for the rest of her life. 

But God?

It’s hard for me to give God the benefit of the doubt.  

God doesn’t make mistakes. He doesn’t do stupid things because he’s afraid, or because he’s trying to meet unfulfilled needs. He’s never careless, and he doesn’t have accidents. Everything he does is perfect and right. 

That’s the part I don’t get. 

I’ve questioned almost everything in my life this past year. But one thing I know for sure is that God not only allowed Samuel’s death, he somehow led us to it. The accident was not haphazard. We were not in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Some friends invited us to join them at a waterpark the day after Thanksgiving. I was hesitant to accept the invitation because I wasn’t sure we would be good company for an entire day. My kids get whiny when they are tired, and two of them complain if they are splashed. We also have food allergy issues, so it’s a pain to eat out with us. I didn’t want a long day to end up stressing the friendship our families were building.

I did something unusual. I asked God for a sign. “If we should go, can they ask us again?” I can’t remember another time I’ve done that. It wasn’t an idea or a thought, it was a prayer. At the time it was insignificant, asking God for a circumstantial sign over a minor choice, made complicated by my insecurities.

Ten minutes later I heard from my friend. She really hoped we could come, and they were looking forward to spending the day with us.  

My sign. We said yes.

I prefer to spend Black Friday at home, away from the crowds.  But this year we got into the car, and headed out on a road we don’t normally drive. And while we were sitting at a red light, we were hit. And Samuel was gone.

One witness said the car that hit us had been swerving for a full mile before the crash. The witness backed off, because the situation was obviously unsafe. As they approached the red light, the witness realized a crash was imminent and pushed her OnStar button for help before it even happened. We were sitting in a long line of cars at the light, but the driver never saw us. She hit us going full speed. Her cruise control was set at 66mph.

Others saw the danger and stayed away. God could have warned us, but he did not. We were where God told us to be that morning.  

There was no mistake. Whatever it means, God took Samuel that day.

I’m having a hard time reconciling this. I accept God’s sovereignty on a grand scale in the world, but now that it has such painful implications for my family, it doesn’t make sense. I can’t blame Samuel’s death on evil or an accident. I can’t question why God allowed it to happen. Allowing something is passive, and this seems directed. I don’t have answers.

I have to believe. 

I struggle with who knows best. The old me would have found this ridiculous, entertaining the notion that I might have better ideas than God. Those were the days when faith was simple and complete. Now I wonder if God’s plan is good. Do I accept this plan that I can’t understand? I resist it, dismayed that my child is gone and that I’m inundated with anxiety and despair, battles I thought I’d won 20 years ago. I’m confused at the distance I feel from God. When everything falls apart God should be enough, so where is he? I would not choose this. Do I think I know better than God?

I’m not angry at the woman who caused the accident because she didn’t intend to harm us. 

What does God intend? 

Finally, here is the core of my struggle. Samuel’s death feels like harm no matter how I look at it. And God seems cruel.  

Boys and SticksOne of my favorite photos is of my two boys, squatting on a huge tree stump, with sticks in their hands. They are playing with ants. They poke them, fascinated at the control they feel and the chaos they create. There are a few casualties, of course. There are always casualties when boys play with sticks. Because it’s ants I don’t care much. If they were poking caterpillars I’d probably ask them to stop.

When I think of God, I think of that photo. My life feels like a game, and I wonder if God is poking at me with a stick. I wonder if I have even reached caterpillar status, or if I mean as little to him as an ant. 

It doesn’t help when people try to encourage me with the story of Job, his great loss, and his final confidence in God in spite of his suffering. I find no comfort in Job’s story. It seems Job suffered because God was showing off, or bragging. His life was totally devastated so God could prove a point. God restored him in the end, but nothing replaces the family he lost. Job was content with the answers he received from God. I must be more resistant than Job, because God’s responses don’t erase the questions in my heart. God emphasizes his control, his knowledge, his supremacy, and his greatness. He does not reassure Job with his goodness. It still seems cruel. 

I wait. I try to hang on, try to be patient until God chooses to reveal himself in my life again. Although honestly, half the time my “waiting” is really more like obstinately sitting in a corner, mad that I am not getting my way.

Will I believe, with every piece of my broken and stubborn heart, that God is good, wise, and always loving? Will I give my silent God the benefit of my doubt? 

Floating on Time

I used to move through life anticipating the future. 

Now I find myself drifting through my days looking backwards.

Looking forward is disheartening. Ahead I see obstacles to overcome, hard times waiting. I will soon have to grieve the start of a new school year without Samuel. On back-to-school night I won’t have a reason to go into the 1st grade classrooms, but I should. I’ll grieve the fall season without him, farm field trips, costumes and candy. The annual school sock hop. Thanksgiving, and the first anniversary of his death. Then Christmas, which…I don’t even know how to face that. It was hard last year, but we were in shock. Then a long, cold winter. How will we make it? The future feels insurmountable.  

So I look back. I count the days since Samuel was here with us. I can still look back to “this day last year” and remember what we were doing as a family of five. In a few months I won’t be able to do that anymore, as time is moving us towards the one-year mark. Each day takes us farther from him.

I have a strong sensation of floating on time. I don’t strive towards the future, and I’m learning that it doesn’t do any good to grasp onto the present or the past. Time is a slogging river that moves slowly across my life, and I am carried along. The things I am reluctant to face, they will come. And then they will go. When a day is particularly bad because I’m dealing with something stressful, I no longer look ahead, hoping for things to get better tomorrow. I just float on. Time will bear me past whatever crisis is in my path. I watch things dwindle into the distance behind me.  

The only thing that doesn’t disappear into the past is Samuel’s death.  I must grapple with the reality of his absence every day.

Life is moving, but I don’t direct it.

My days are aimless.

Floating.

Sneezes

Jeremy sneezes out the car window when we’re driving. He insists that this is normal, but I’ve never seen anyone else do it. His sneezes come without warning, and in the car they seem ridiculously loud and amusing. Maybe they amplify in the confined space, I don’t know. We’ll be driving along, and suddenly he thrusts his head out the window with an aggressive sneeze that would knock over a backyard full of small children. Every time I dissolve into a fit of giggles.  

One time, after such a sneeze, Samuel sincerely asked from the back seat, “Daddy, why are you mad at the trees?”  

We all laughed. A content family, enjoying each other. I remember wishing the moment would last forever. 

Samuel was pleased with himself for adding to the occasion. In typical little-boy fashion he repeated his joke at every opportunity. Daddy would sneeze, I giggle uncontrollably, and Samuel proudly states that daddy is mad at the trees. Our family joke.

Now when Jeremy sneezes in the car, I smile, but there isn’t any laughter. We share a glance, then stare vacantly out the windows, trying again to absorb the loss of the little voice that is supposed to deliver the punch line.

Sunday morning we headed to church. Jeremy sneezed. I startled like it was a gunshot and almost jumped out of my skin. Jeremy felt terrible, but it wasn’t his fault. I tried to calm down my panic the rest of the way to church.

Apparently my trauma in the car is not limited to reacting to other drivers on the road.  

Those satisfied moments I wanted to last forever seem so long ago.  

God in the Good and Bad Times

I wonder if we set ourselves up to be disappointed with God.  

A friend’s son was in a car accident last weekend. His car rolled down a hill, and amazingly, he was not seriously hurt. The car was destroyed. They are shaken, and will be for a long time. It was terrible.  

I don’t begrudge their miracle. I am rejoicing with them, sincerely. Every life saved on the road is a good thing. And I like to think that God’s angels held his head as that car rolled, guarding him the whole way. 

Everyone is saying that God is good, because he didn’t get hurt.

We praise God for being good and protecting us when we get what we want. We thank him when the disease is cured and when the relationship is restored. An awful accident, the loss of a car, these things are put in perspective because the most important, the people we love, are safe.  

What about God when the worst happens? If God doesn’t protect a life, if God doesn’t rescue us in our situation in the way we think we desperately need, what then? Is God good then?  

My friend will be socially “allowed” to talk about her sons accident. We like to hear dramatic stories when they have good endings. Years from now they can bring it up with friends, at work, even to strangers. No one will shift uncomfortably or change the subject. They can tell the story again and again, how God spared his life in that frightening crash. They have an opportunity to share God’s faithfulness. That is a good thing.

But the accident involving my family makes people squirm, because my son died. Thinking about it is frightening in too many ways. It’s overwhelming to hear the details, and some people think I should be moving on by now.  

The way we react to these things as a culture takes away our examples of faith in hard times. If we are afraid to talk about the worst heartache, how can we learn from each other? On a personal level, I’ve never closely watched someone walk through a valley of profound suffering, wrestling with why’s and doubts, and seen them deepen in their faith. I’ve read books about such people, but I don’t have any examples in my life. The thing is, I know people who have gone through tragedy, and I’m sure some of them have a stronger faith and confidence in God’s goodness because of it. We keep these things private, especially when we’re in the middle of the messy parts. In some circles it’s criticized as less spiritual to struggle. We are left to learn about suffering from books, the occasional testimony, and a few honest, questioning Psalms.  

“God is good” doesn’t come easily after the world falls apart, the way it does when we see desirable things happen. Sometimes it takes battle to get there. We have to change the way we see life, the way we see ourselves, and even the way we see God. Suffering rips us out of life’s comfortable boxes, and we realize God doesn’t fit in the convenient spot we had for him either.  

I wonder what this would look like if we were open about suffering. What if we discussed doubts without shame, and exposed the struggles of our hearts? What would we learn if we could look at grief without cringing, without the urge to cover it over and quickly make it feel better? How would it stretch us to face raw fears, and then share the process with each other? Not just the “God is good” outcome, but the long, hard journey of getting there? And not just talk about it when it’s resolved and we know the ending, but vulnerability in those times when we still can’t see?  

I imagine we would have a better foundation to stand on when suffering hits. Our understanding of God’s trustworthiness would be bigger than circumstances, and our faith would be deeper than wishful thinking. Still in need of refining, for sure, but growing beyond theory through the things we have witnessed in each other. Shame wouldn’t build walls around our hearts and keep us separated. We would be less likely to feel disappointed with God, because we know, we’ve seen, God’s mysterious ways where there are no happy endings.  

It only takes a little light to see when our eyes are used to the dark.