Healing, One Year Later

Last Sunday afternoon Jana ran in her first 5K. She’s been training with some other girls from school for two months. After she finished she proudly held up a sign that declared, “I run like a girl, try to keep up!”

As I watched her, I couldn’t help but reflect on her condition this time last year. She had a fractured skull and multiple facial fractures. She was surgically given a synthetic orbital socket since hers was crushed beyond repair. Her facial injuries bled internally, with the blood pooling on the lining of her brain. Her concussion was so severe that a week into it she was still too dizzy to stand up and could not move her feet in a coordinated way to walk. Small changes in the accident could have left her with permanent, disabling brain damage, or she could have died.

This week she looks like every other 4th grader, except for a small scar on her cheek. Even her TBI is 95% healed.

We have many reasons to be thankful.

Lessons from my Kids

Every mom who has lost a child knows the fear of those simple questions, “Do you have any kids?  How many?” We have different ways of answering, depending on the trustworthiness of the person we’re talking to, where we are in the timeline of grief, and even how we’re feeling that day.

I prefer not to tell strangers about Samuel’s death because of the awkwardness it produces. It’s even hard to talk about it with many friends who know exactly what happened. Mentioning his death lands into a conversation with a dull and heavy thud. We all stare at it, uncertain of what to do next. It takes energy to navigate the clumsy dialogue that follows. I often end up being the one to comfort the other person. “It’s OK,” I reassure, “I wouldn’t know what to say either.” It’s so backwards. I rarely have the emotional reserves to do this graciously, so I avoid it altogether.

I’ve realized that we, as a culture, are lacking when it comes to dealing with death. We don’t know how to talk about it, and are terrified at pain so deep it might not ever go away. We are a fix-it society. If we can’t cure it by taking a pill, seeing a therapist, or distracting ourselves, we get squirmy. Death, especially the death of a child, is a disturbing reminder that we have less control than we think over our lives.

Recently while talking with a new acquaintance, it came up that Jana had been injured in a serious car accident. She said, “How awful your daughter was hurt so badly, but thank goodness you were all OK in the end.” The now-familiar debate flashed through my head. We were not all OK. Should I nod my head and let it go? Or should I tell her what really happened?

Michael was standing next to me. At her comment, he put his hands over his face, and rammed his head into my side.

I knew my answer.

I will show my children that it is OK to talk about death.

Death is not shameful or embarrassing. Losing a child is not a mark of disgrace on a family.

Of course no one thinks Samuel’s death is shameful or disgraceful. But they act like they do. They look away, change the subject, avoid talking about it or avoid talking to us altogether. They do it because they they don’t know what to say, but it looks, it feels a lot like embarrassment.

I don’t want my kids to learn that.

I will honor Samuel. I will not let the reactions of other people keep me from talking about him, especially in front of his siblings. By mentioning him I will let my kids know that a parent’s love for their child never dies. Samuel’s life was short, and by the world’s standards it might have been insignificant, but he had incredible value and brought us joy and was cherished. We will never forget him.

I will model how to be compassionate and gentle. I will show my kids how to listen, how to remember, and how to love.

So I did.

I told the lady that Samuel died in the accident. It was uncomfortable, but she responded fairly well. She was kind and even gave me a quick hug. Then our discussion moved to the general awfulness of drivers on the road. Safer territory. Michael straightened up, content with the truth. He is grieving, but not ashamed.

I’ve watched my children and their friends deal with Samuel’s death. They do it with less anxiety than the adults. They are honest and not afraid to talk about sadness. They don’t try to have all the answers. They face whatever is in front of them at the moment.

A new girl came to Jana’s classroom. As they played together at recess, Jana talked about both of her brothers, and the accident that took Samuel’s life. That would scare away many adults, but not this 3rd grader. She expressed sympathy, and they went on to become friends. Her kindness without fear was refreshing.

If I visit school for lunch, some of the kids inevitably ask me about Samuel. It’s still on their minds, and they want to talk about it. The teachers stop this and remind the kids to focus on happy memories. They try to protect the kids from sadness, or maybe they think I need to be protected from reminders of our loss.

Perhaps this is how we start some of our hangups about grief and death. When we hush questions and conversations, we turn losses into unspeakable losses. Pretending that tragedy never happened teaches our children to avoid unavoidable things. If we avoid pain, it’s hard to be present in each other’s lives when we’re really hurting. It takes practice to be comfortable sharing space with someone whose pain cannot be fixed.

There are certainly times to be silent. I don’t need to announce Samuel’s death to everyone I meet. There are times to protect my own heart, times to hold my story secret and precious.

There are also times to be vulnerable and speak openly about death. I am learning this honesty from my children, and we’ll practice it together with courage and tenderness.

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? 

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.

Shaken

It’s common to struggle with anxiety after a child dies. Melanie DeSimone does a great job of talking about it in Why Anxiety Is A Part Of Child Loss. It makes sense if you think about it. The unimaginable, the “it won’t happen to me” happens to you. Many, many pieces of life have to be reevaluated with this new awareness. The world feels unpredictable, maybe even cruel. The result is anxiety.

I am fighting a monumental battle against fears right now. I am fighting, I am not winning. I have the normal (don’t misunderstand that to mean easy) child-loss anxiety, plus worsening PTSD. They feed off each other and intensify. I’m trying to hang on for the next few weeks until I can get help (it’s been impossible to find a PTSD-experienced therapist who has any current openings).  

My fears are focused on two things. The first is a fear about the general safety of my children. Terrible thoughts come to me with the tiniest trigger. The second is much stronger, and that is a fear of accidents while driving. I am hyper focused in the car, aware of dangers that don’t even exist, and not able to turn it off. I practice breathing, grounding myself, trying to distract myself with music or my children. These things help, but the problem has gotten out-of-control. I’m actually doing a decent job of not dwelling on these fears throughout the day. This is not a lingering storm of anxiety. It’s lightning flashes. The thoughts flash through my mind like lightning bolts, leaving me stressed, shaken, or worse. 

Every time a truck approaches me on a two lane road, I wonder if it’s the truck that’s going to kill us. 

I think the same thing when I make a turn and notice whatever vehicle is now behind me. Is that the car that is going to kill the rest of my children?

Last month I left Jana at the pool with a friend. As I drove away, I couldn’t stop imagining her body being found in the pool, floating face down. I reminded myself that she is a good swimmer, and the lifeguards are excellent, but the thought left me shaken and teary until she came home. We haven’t gone back to the pool all summer.

When the kids run across the street to the neighbors house, I cringe and listen with my shoulders tight for screeching breaks. I can’t relax until a minute has passed and they’ve had time to get safely across the cul-de-sac.

Michael and I drove by a pond on the side of the road. For the next few minutes an unbidden movie played in my mind, and I didn’t even realize I was doing it. Our car had crashed into the pond and sunk. I helped Michael out of his seat belt, shaking as I tried to calm him down (which was an exact replay of what happened in our actual accident). Water leaked into the car and we made plans to smash through the sunroof. I told him to take a deep breath, assured him it wasn’t that deep and we were going to make it out, and protected him with my body as I broke the roof. I felt the shattering glass cut my back, the water and slimy tangle of roots pour over us… 

I noticed what I was doing, tried to shake it off and pay attention to the road. Deep breaths. Feel my fingers on the steering wheel, the seat at my back. I was not going to panic because of invented trauma in my head.

These thoughts intrude all day long. This is in addition to a full PTSD outburst if another car is irresponsible, distracted, or anywhere close behind me. Last week I turned around (while at a stop sign) and yelled (silently…I gestured and mouthed words) at the driver behind me, texting on her phone. I didn’t wait to see if she responded. The only reason I didn’t descend into complete meltdown was because the kids were in the car with me.

Instead, I turned around and kept driving, the tears coming. “Mommy, what happened?” It scares them every time I lose control. I cried harder. I noticed the song on the radio, 

“When did I forget that you’ve always been the king of the world? I try to take life back right out of the hands of the king of the world.”

For the last two weeks, I end up in a rage or in tears at least once every time I drive, so I’m driving as little as possible now. I’m not sure if this is wisdom, or if I’m giving in to the PTSD and making things worse. I feel ashamed either way. We finished Jana’s commitments last week, and are staying home the rest of the summer. We are going to eat everything in the pantry so I don’t have to go to the grocery store. The kids might get bored, but at least I won’t have to apologize to them for losing my temper and yelling at other cars.

The thought of not driving anywhere this week brings tears of relief.  

PTSD-ish-ness

I came to a realization yesterday. It’s both good and bad news.

It started when I was almost in another accident. The car behind me slammed on their brakes, screeched towards me, and stopped with only inches to spare. She would have hit me if I hadn’t left lots of space between myself and the car in front of me, allowing me to move forward and out of her way. The danger here wasn’t my life, just whiplash and my back bumper. But I had a meltdown. I couldn’t breathe, and I sobbed. Sobbed. Not from grief, from terror. I kept driving, sobbing, and missed my turn. I drove half an hour before I noticed I was still driving and wondered where I was, wondered how had I driven so far. That’s not good.

So, the bad news. That reaction clarified that I’ve slid into PTSD territory. I might not be diagnosable (I don’t have the objectivity to diagnose myself, teasing out what is trauma and what is grief), but I’m hanging out around there. If nothing else, I have PTSDishness. It’s been there in some form since the accident, but it’s gotten much worse in the last 2 months. I recognized that I was overreacting, but couldn’t name it.

The good news is I’m not going crazy. Now I understand why I dread leaving the house, and why I have library books that are weeks overdue and I still can’t bring myself to get in the car and drive to the library. It explains why I feel I’m among strangers even when I’m with friends. If I have PTSDishness, my angry outbursts while driving, my fears and anxieties all make a little more sense.

They feel excessive. They feel out-of-character and out-of-control.

They are.

But they are normal for PTSD.

At least now I know that when I get triggered while driving (lately that’s almost every time I get in the car), I should pull over and give myself time to calm down.

Unhappy Becoming

How is it that life can change so completely in a fraction of a second?

There was no warning that things were about to change, there were no screeching brakes. Just impact. And suddenly there were ambulances and helicopters, and we were frantic because all three kids needed help but there were only two of us, and we couldn’t even get them out of the car. And a week later we carried Jana out of the hospital because she could hardly walk. Her eye was swollen shut and she had surgery scars along with the injuries from the accident. We couldn’t hug her close because we were afraid to hurt her fractured skull, and besides, she was so mad she pushed us away. We comforted Michael, whose only visible injury was a scratch on his chin. Somehow that little scratch scarred into a thin red line, and he is proud of it. He doesn’t want it to go away. He can sense how deeply the accident has changed the identity of our family, and it helps him be a part of it. It says “see, I was in the accident too, I was there.” And I stood next to a casket that was way too small, staring at blue bunny tucked next to Samuel’s still face. His face looked funny, they didn’t do a good job with his funeral make up. I could see it in streaks on his cheek. I should have touched him, mother’s touch their children, but I couldn’t. And my world fell apart.

God was gone in an instant. The last thing I prayed was for God to heal Samuel, and I really, really believed he would. There was nothing the doctors could do? That won’t stop us, God has brought this child through so much, it can’t possibly end here. God is bigger than any doctor, we aren’t worried. But nothing happened. He never woke up. And God had nothing to say about it. In three months I can count the times I’ve prayed on one hand. I’ve started to pray a few times, and stopped myself. Why am I engaging God about this, when it doesn’t make any difference, when he clearly doesn’t care? I’ve yelled at God, doubted His goodness, and given him the silent treatment. I’ve pulled out my Bible to read it, and ended up more mad than when I started. The words are hollow, the reassurances are clearly meant for someone else. Or maybe they are empty for everyone, and I’ve been fooled for all these years.

I’m angry that I’m stretched so thin I can’t manage the little bumps that happen in every day. That I cry when I see mothers with wiggling kids at the store. That I get annoyed with my children for normal things, and that I can’t seem to put away laundry. That simple decisions overwhelm me and bring me to tears. That I can’t remember what shampoo we use. I wonder which awkwardness I’d rather face, to wear sunglasses in the store so I can hide my eyes, or cry in the shampoo aisle.

But mostly, it’s about God. Where is he, why has he left us? And I’m ashamed, because I would have told you last year that suffering is part of this sinful world, and it’s only pampered American Christians who think that God protects us from ever suffering (and of course, I was not pampered). But now that I’m in the middle of it, I doubt. And rage. And hate what I’ve become. A empty-armed mother who cries when I drop just two kids off at school every morning. Hyper-sensitive to every questionable driver on the road, sometimes screaming and cursing at them in my car. Angry at the people who have sacrificed and cared for us the most. How small of me, how selfish. I don’t know who I am anymore. I don’t know if the accident has exposed ugliness in my heart or helped create it, but it’s there.

And where, where is God? If God is there…no…if God cares, then He will be there again some day, right? Maybe? How long do I have to wait? I need Him now. Why would he disappear when we need him most? I’m told, kindly, by several people I respect, that in the end I have to choose to trust God in this. If answers don’t come, I still have a choice. Acceptance. Surrender. Trust. And I think they mean I have to trust God about the accident and Samuel. But I know in my heart it’s bigger than that. If I trust, it’s everything. If God was right and just and loving to take Samuel, then he is right and just and loving no matter what he does the next time. He can take Michael and Jana, he can take Jeremy. He can wound us, take anything we have. He can teach us any lesson. And I’m fearful, I see ways every day that God could take the rest of my family. What if that’s his plan, will I submit to that? What if he hides his face forever? Can I surrender everything, absolutely everything? This is dying all over again. I’m frightened and I can’t let go of what I have left.

I try to remember Samuel’s face smiling and warm, instead of his face motionless in the casket. I try to remember his name as he would write it proudly and crooked on his paper, instead of carved perfectly onto a stone. I try to remember the firetrucks he loved to draw with red crayon instead of the ones that responded to his dying. But the unyielding face in the casket and the unyielding name in the stone are most often with me. I sit in the wet grass in front of his grave and trace my finger over his name and weep at the coldness and hardness of it. Samuel, the name that means he belongs to God. Yanxiou, the name that shows he belongs to China. L., the name that proves he belongs to us. Oh my little boy, I miss you so much. I’m so sorry this happened, that we couldn’t protect you. How do I move on without you?