Like Stars

Yesterday I was beyond discouraged. I had high, almost desperate expectations for something important, and it ended in disaster. I was angry and hurt, and certain I had an unfortunate magic touch that could destroy any relationship. My impulse was to run away in hopelessness and quit.

Later I stood in a long line to pick the kids up at school, hands stuffed in my pockets, staring at the floor. I always feel heavy in the school lobby, watching the kindergarteners trip over their shoes and backpacks as they are led down the hall. No matter how busy, Samuel’s absence echoes loudly, and the place feels empty. Two moms next to me chatted about the anxiety they felt dropping their little ones off at preschool every day. “It tears my heart out to drive away each morning, knowing I won’t see him for four hours! I want to see everything he does, hear every cute thing he says. It’s so hard!” 

Their loss is legitimate, but weighed down by failure, loneliness, and grief, I couldn’t muster any sympathy. I stared harder at the floor, willing myself to make it through. A friend walked up and touched my arm to get my attention. “Deep in thought? I think of you all the time. Can I give you a hug?”

And then I didn’t mind so much that I was crying in a room full of people. 

In the evening some friends stopped by. They sat on the rug, giving kisses to the dog. They acknowledged the approaching anniversary of Samuel’s death, and told us they loved us. They showed us a picture they had made of Samuel to hang near the children’s classrooms at church. 

Grief and trauma drain me, and I find myself unable to remember that people care. If I’m not reminded, the darkness in my head and heart take over. The picture for church is precious, but yesterday, it mostly mattered that they showed up. For a while the darkness gets lighter.

Even a small kindness is a gift. I am thankful and humbled by every one. Maybe they stand out brighter because the darkness of child loss is so dark, the way stars shine clear on the deepest nights. People say grief is a lonely road, and in many ways they are right. We have to process our own unique losses. But that shouldn’t be an excuse not to get involved. Friends can’t fix grief, but they are desperately needed. There is an enormous difference between lonely grieving and grieving while surrounded by kindness. 

To My Friends Who Hope

A few days ago, I came across a letter. It was written by a woman to her friend who had just buried a baby.

It was gentle and caring. She spoke of hope through the pain, and how the soul grows through loss. It was lovely.

It frustrated me.  

Because I’m not there yet.  

We all grieve differently. There are some who walk through the early days of child loss aware of the refining process happening under their pain. Maybe this young mother needed to be reminded of the truth in that frightening place, right after her loss. Or maybe she will, like me, hide the letter away for a later day.

I just miss my son. And that missing knocks me down and I can’t breathe. I press my hands to my chest because the emotional pain is so physical it threatens to rupture my heart. My hair won’t stop falling out and half of my toenails peeled, then flaked completely off. Yes, grief can actually do that.

When the loss belongs to someone else, it’s easier to hope. My friends feel my pain, they are horrified and hurt by Samuel’s death. They are frightened by how easily the future in his eyes was turned off. They are trying to make sense of it, wrestling with why’s, knocking persistently at the doors of heaven for me. As the days go on, they begin to discover peace. They see God at work. They are comforted and confident that a good God can do something, well, redeeming, with all of this.  

It’s good that my friends get to these places before me. I am deeply grateful. We’d be in trouble if we all carried the same weighty burden. But they are there before me. My eyes are still clouded by hurt. If they tell me too soon or too often, that my pain is a good process, I assume they don’t get it. It’s hard to listen to what they have to say. And eventually, I need to hear what they have to say.

To my friends, please keep working these things out with me. Keep hoping, keep praying, keep fighting for my heart. Search for the answers. Not the kind that make it all OK. Those look like answers but they are counterfeit. Find the real answers, the kind we have to content with in a broken world. The ones that don’t satisfy on the surface, but stretch our faith and make us dig deeper into life. I’m searching too, I’m just slower.  

But if I’m crying so hard I can’t even hear your voice, maybe you should wait before you share. The only words I can hear on the worst days are a hand on my shoulder, a hug, or the tears in your own eyes.

 

“…don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”  C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

 

The Duet

There is a faint line of hope in my heart today.

I’m afraid of it.  Hope means expectations.  Expectations mean disappointment.  Disappointment means anger and hurt.

But there it is.  It’s been there since last night, which is a long time for me.  Lately my glimmers of hope last for 10 minutes to an hour or two, but no more.  Then the discouragement settles back in, feeling heavier than it did before.

I’ve had a low tolerance for music since the accident.  But music is how I discover, how I pray and worship, and how I love.  Losing music starves my soul like not being able to swallow would starve my stomach.  I found some music I can listen to this week.  They are songs about pain.  Although the hope woven into them is very, very small, it is more hope than I feel.  But today I can imagine hope like that in my life.  That’s no small thing.  Listening to these songs is replacing some of the despair in my head with stillness.

So today my grief has tried a duet with hope.  Maybe God’s silence isn’t abandonment, but a pause.  A holy tear as God sits, listening, before he speaks to me.  Waiting for me to be quiet, so he can continue the song that he’s always sung over me.  Maybe God is still there and I’ll find him again.  That would be good.  I need something good.

Hope

Again today I sat in a room with the woman who killed my son.  We set a date for the jury trial later this summer.

With every cell in my body, I hate this place life has taken us.  When I think about her life, I know she has miserable consequences out of this too.  She has to live with the guilt of Samuel’s death and Jana’s injuries.  She will probably spend 6 months in jail.  Only 6 months, a tiny price for taking my beautiful Samuel’s life, but still…6 months in jail.  I’d be terrified if it was me.  She’ll be away from her family for all that time.  What a hard thing to process with your children.  “Mommy did something awful, and mommy has to go to jail.”  They will be scared too.  I spent 6 days away from my family last week and I missed them a lot.  Six months is a short time, but 6 months is a long time.  I don’t get the impression she has a great support system.  Instead I see her with her schmuck attorney, and with her family that sits slouched next to her but doesn’t reach out to touch her.

Somehow I talked with her this morning after we walked out of the courtroom.  I know how desperately I need people to speak hope and peace into my life right now, so I found myself speaking hope into hers.  And I surprised myself.  I took off the kintsugi necklace I wear for Samuel and gave it to her.  Kintsugi is a Japanese art that finds beauty in damaged things.  The artist takes something broken…china or jewelry or pottery…and repairs it with gold, so that the restored piece is more beautiful and valuable than it was before it was broken.   My life is not repaired with gold, it’s not repaired at all, but I wear it in hope.  Hope that I don’t feel.  And I gave it to her.

I don’t regret it, although now it seems like a dumb thing to do.  It doesn’t matter what she does with it, that’s on her.   But I already miss my necklace.  As soon as I got home I wrote the lady who made it, and she’s sending me another one right away.

A Story About Samuel and Christmas

Four years ago our Christmas was stripped of all the extras.  We were in a large desert city in northern China, far away from Western influences, almost in Mongolia.  There were no Christmas trees, no holiday lights, no church service with kids dressed like wise men and sheep.  We ate at a restaurant on Christmas Eve that had a techno version of “Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart” playing on a loop.  We still taunt each other with that song.  Otherwise there was nothing. 

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Our first five minutes

We arrived on Dec. 23rd, got off a plane and drove to a hotel.  As we walked into the lobby with our suitcases, a little boy was waiting for us.  He cried, but let me hold him.  He was sweet, probably not sure what to do with us, the funny-looking people whose English sounded like gibberish to him.  He quickly made friends with Jana and Michael, and they played games with the telephone in the hotel room.  He was wearing a hat and race car tennis shoes, and he wouldn’t let us take them off.  So of course, he slept in his shoes.  The next day, Christmas Eve, I held him on my lap in the back seat of a taxi, and drove to some government offices. After a multitude of fingerprints and signatures on papers we couldn’t even read, he was ours.  Our son.  Didi, little brother.  We had been praying for that moment so hard.  He was the gift we had been waiting for.  Our perfect Christmas gift in a city that didn’t know about Christmas.

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Brown smog on Christmas Day

I thought a lot about Christmas that year, looking out the hotel window onto that sprawling city.  Three million people, living their lives, with no thought about Jesus.  It occurred to me that even though it didn’t “feel” like Christmas, that year might have been closer to the heart of Christmas that my normal experience of holiday joy.  That huge city, all those people, needing God, and they didn’t even know it.  That’s why He came, right?  Not so we could bake cookies and give gifts, not even so we could have family time, light candles and sing about angels.  But because the world is lost and dark and we need Him.

As we got to know that little boy in those first few days, I reflected on the hardships he had already faced.  The first day of his life, wrapped in a blanket on the steps of an orphanage, his mother weeping with a broken heart as she walked away in the darkness.  The months in a crib among many cribs, without a mother or father.  Moving to a foster home.  More disruption as he left the foster family he had grown to love, and met us.  He was too little to understand the changes or why they were happening.  We named him Samuel, which means “God has heard.”  We wanted him to know that in spite of the tragedies he had been through, God was there.  God heard his cries when he was hungry, or scared, or lonely, even when no one else heard.  God loved him, and had never left him.  God was with him.

Four years later it’s Christmas again, but Samuel is gone.  I can’t wrap my mind around it, but it’s crushing me regardless.  And I don’t want to celebrate Christmas.  I’m left standing, broken and empty-handed, while everyone else’s life rushes past me in a blur.  The lights and laughing and gift-buying of the season are hollow and empty.  “Merry Christmas,” everyone says.  It isn’t merry.  I just want my baby back with me.  But as much as I hate it, I wonder if we might be close to the heart of Christmas again this year.  Samuel gets to spend Christmas IN the arms of Jesus.  That should make me happy, but it doesn’t, not really.  I confess my short-sightedness and lack of faith, and I’d rather have Samuel in MY arms.

But isn’t this why Jesus came?  Because our world is broken, and we desperately need a Savior.  He came for cities that have never heard, for orphans crying alone. He came for broken mothers, for mourning families, for uncertain friends.  We sin, we hurt others, we get hurt, we grieve, we are confused.  We try to make our own way, and we try to hold on to the earthly things we treasure, but it’s not enough.  God tells me that what I should treasure most is Him, and that somehow at the end of it all, He will be enough. When pain seems out of place at Christmas, maybe it’s because we’ve distorted the day.  We don’t rejoice at Christmas because everything is happy.  The joy of Christmas is because we find God, right in the middle of us, in the middle of our pain and sin.  He came to be a light in the darkness, and to bring victory over death.  Heaven is possible because Jesus came to us.  Hope and peace are possible because He came to us.

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”  Immanuel, God with us.  Christmas is God with us. 

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