Life is good these days. It really is. Good days, bad days, and every day in between. Time is a gift. And we are truly treasuring each moment.
I’ve actually been surprised by how much Jack is blossoming. He is turning into such an amazing young man. The way he thinks, how he communicates, his perspective on life… it’s enough to make a mommy incredibly proud. A few weeks ago in the car, he said, “Mom, do you know that the day you die is actually the best day of your life? Because that means we get to go to heaven and that’s the best place in the whole universe! Normally, you’d think that the day you died would be the worst day of your life, but because we love Jesus, it’s all different. Isn’t that so cool?”
I mean, he’s always been special. Always. Both him and Benjamin. Just really uniquely special kids. But there’s just something about him that’s changing. Perhaps it’s his desire to be more independent. To do things for himself. To prove to us – and to himself – that he can do things all on his own. This is new for us. Jack has always been independent, but he never minded leaving several loose ends. It didn’t go noticed as much, though, since Ben always tied them up for him. He’d clean up his messes, do the one thing that was standing between them and the next activity, that kinda thing. And when Ben died, Megan seemed to take over. This kid has been living a very charmed life! I know his saint-of-a-teacher has been working diligently to encourage more follow-through in our devastatingly charming and intelligent firstborn. We’ve been working at it, too. But I don’t know. All of a sudden, it’s just clicking. His thing is, “I just love doing things that are helpful for my family.” Do you see what I’m talking about?
He gets melancholy sometimes, though. About the absence of his best friend. The other day, he was looking through several Shutterfly photobooks with his sisters and he said, “You know, I wish I had a fairy godmother. I’d only have one wish: to bring my brother back. I just wish it wasn’t his turn.” Oh, buddy. Me too. More than anything. We talk about Ben often. And it’s not always sad. He’ll often end our little stories with, “Such good memories. You know, Mom?” Sometimes he includes Ben in our family count, other times, he doesn’t. I never correct him. There are no right answers.
You should see the beautiful relationship he has with Kate, though. Geez. It’s as if she’s uncovered a side of him that hadn’t been previously visible. At seventeen-months old, she mimics everything he does and he just eats it all up. “I just love that kid,” he tells us, like a proud father. So protective, so loving. It’s the same way that Ben was with Megan. It’s as if each brother chose a sister from the start. Now, if we can just transfer some of that love to his three-year-old sister, too, we’d be all set! HA!
This past month, we began the transition of giving Jack his own bedroom. It was time. Megan naturally transitioned to Ben’s bed after he died and no one really minded. We needed the crib for Kate eventually anyway, so we just let it happen. Both kids needed each other. We were desperate for some bit of normalcy and comfort anyway. But with Jack nearing his seventh birthday, we knew it was time for him to cut out his own space. As the oldest, the only boy. He was hesitant. Actually, he told us no; he only wanted to change rooms if he could room with Kate. Um, nope, that wouldn’t work for us. So we took our time to figure out a theme for his new space (sports) and then let him have as much control in the process as possible.
It has been emotional, as you can imagine. We’re talking about the boy who didn’t even want to change the direction of his bed after his brother died. We’re not necessarily big fans of change. None of us. Especially when our circumstances are so extremely different than how we had always imagined things to be. And so we’ve kept all the same pictures and drawings on the wall, with only a few additions.
Changing rooms – new flooring, new paint, new wall decorations – provided us the opportunity for a fresh start. It felt like a natural transition to be able to take down the murals that we haven’t touched. It felt healthy, even. And giving Jack the authority to tell us what he’d like in his room (a basketball net and a teepee were his two requests,) made all the difference. It’s not possible that he could ever forget Ben. But it feels healthy to be able to move to a place of purpose again. We have a vision. And we need our family to move forward. Plus, we needed a space for this new baby arriving in June! We’re not entirely done with their new spaces yet, but they’ve been in their separate rooms for a couple weeks now and they are all doing amazingly well. Even Megan takes a lot of pride in sneaking in moments after her little sister falls asleep and doesn’t even flinch when/if she fusses through the night!
Waiting for their big brother to get home from school.
We’re good. Really good. But that doesn’t mean life hasn’t been the least bit challenging.
I look at Ben’s sweet pictures hanging around my house. The photobooks that my kids look through almost weekly. The “See My Memories” tab on Facebook. Most times, the pictures make me smile. Just to see those eyes sparkle back at me, those dimples, that wholesome personality. To remember and feel just how blessed we were with the addition of that sweet goofy boy in our family. And yet, other times, those same triggers cut me like a sharp knife to my gut. The tears fall before I can even attempt to stop them. Bitter, aching tears.
I can feel the baby growing in my belly. Twenty-four weeks in utero. She’s an active little thing and the kids have enjoyed talking to her and feeling her move. Such a wonderful precious gift that we feel incredibly grateful for. But then I picture my sweet Ben after finding out that Kate was a girl in utero, holding up two fingers on each hand, saying, “Mom! We’re going to have two boys and two girls!” And then it hits me that half of our kids will never know that boy on this side of heaven. And I’m a puddle of tears.
I still have moments where I can’t catch my breath. Where it feels like my heart is being crushed by the weight of the world. When I struggle to find meaning. When I cry out to God in anger. When I am so overwhelmed with grief that I can’t justify a reason significant enough to get up off the couch. When my mind fills with worry about all of the things that could go wrong. About all of the things that could happen to me, Andy, or the kids. I miss that blissful ignorance that we used to have. It’s just gone. It’s awful.
As painful as it is to be in that deep emotional pit, though, there are parts of me that feels satisfied being there. That deep dark place, filled with sorrow, horrible memories and flashbacks that would make anyone cringe. Because it’s a place where I come face-to-face with the depth of love for my son. Where I can truly feel the enormity of my grief. My fear. My pain. It’s a place where I allow myself to really feel our loss. Where I cry until my eyes are swollen and my cheeks hurt to wipe them dry. And sometimes, that’s not bad. Perhaps it’s even healthy.
But it’s only a place I visit. Temporarily. I have to come back.
On my cellphone, I keep an ongoing list in my notepad. And I refer to it when I need to remember how to pick myself up out of the pit. It’s entitled, “Things I’m Learning.”
I’m no grief counselor. I don’t know that other people would agree that these are things that could talk someone off the edge of a cliff. Especially those with more serious ongoing illnesses; some people may need a counselor’s help in addition to the Lord’s in order to bring them back to a place of healing. But recording and reciting these truths have been a great encouragement to me. I thought that by sharing them, they might be an encouragement to someone else as well.
- Sometimes, the people with the most joy have fought the hardest battles. Have you ever known this to be true? You are attracted to someone for their smile, their joy, their optimism and zest for life. And then you learn their story, the horror they’ve had to walk. You wonder how they could have ever mustered the strength to continue, much less thrive. (Proverbs 17:22) I know several people like this, including my husband. They refuse to see themselves as the victim. They seemed to have learned just what Andy Defresne did in Shawshank Redemption: “You either get busy livin’, or get busy dying.” People congratulate me on my desire to find joy. To seek peace. To move on. “I could never be that strong,” they tell me. You’re right. You couldn’t ever be that strong. But neither could I. If I have shown strength, it is only because I have admitted my weakness and claimed God’s strength as my own. (Isaiah 40:29,31 and 2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
- Just do one more thing. When I can feel myself spiraling down, I take a deep breath and tell myself to get off of the couch. Drink a glass of water. Write down some of the things that I’m grateful for. (Philippians 4:8) And then perhaps I will go brush my teeth. And then maybe I can sit and color with my girls. Just one more thing, and then another. Before I know it, I’m functional again. And I can look back and feel accomplished for having done a list of things when I didn’t think I could do anything at all.
- You can’t compare pain. It all hurts and it all sucks. Some of my friends have lost babies in the womb. Some have lost them at birth, or several hours later. Some of my friends have lost their kids as teenagers, as adults, or perhaps they lost their own parents. Sometimes, the loss was instantaneous. Other times, the pain was dragged out. How could anyone say who has suffered more? How could anyone brag that their pain is deeper? It’s just not possible. Losing my son was definitely the worst and most tragic circumstance Andy and I have ever gone through. But that doesn’t mean that we’ve got the corner of the market on tragedy. We’ve all experienced loss. And it just sucks.
- Widen your perspective. How are other people hurting today? They could probably use some encouragement, too. Perspective really is a valuable thing. When we’re able to consider the pain that others are enduring – that we’re not the only ones in the world to suffer a big loss or challenge – then it takes our minds off of our own pain. I’m always humbled to hear of how the Lord used a simple card in the mail or a text to bless a friend. Those small notes of encouragement that come at ‘just the right moment.’ If we are Christ-followers, we all belong to the same body of Christ. When one is hurting, we are all hurting. (1 Corinthians 12:12-31) Being able to extend love and empathy at just the right moments bring people together and remind us that we are not alone in our struggles. We are aligned with many other imperfect people who all have the same goal: to honor the Lord with the circumstances life has thrown at us.
- Give yourself permission to grieve. To hurt. To remember. Cry, yell at God, admit your anger. But then take a moment to acknowledge the hope we have in Christ. Take heart: Heaven is real. And it is forever! It seems weird to have to tell yourself that it’s okay to feel the myriad of emotions your heart wants to experience. It’s natural. Especially when you’re pregnant! HA! Emotions are not bad. They were created by God. But we need to practice reigning them in, to learn to control them. It’s okay for me to be angry. As long as I don’t stay there. It’s okay to feel alone and isolated. As long as I am willing to acknowledge the hope I have in Christ. Heaven changes everything. This life is only temporary. We will be reunited with our loved ones again. And just as Jack and I marvel about, since there is no concept of time in heaven, it will be as if no time had passed at all when we arrive! I get chills just thinking about the reunion we will have someday!
- Anniversaries are just dates on a calendar. Grieve when you need to, regardless of what may have happened in the past. There are several dates that are significant through our journey with Ben’s diagnosis, treatment, and decline. Forever etched in my memory. And each of those come with their own set of horrific flashbacks. Just the mention of a single date has the potential of making me lose my focus and spiral downward. But do you know what I’ve found? The night before is the worst. It’s the anticipation. Worrying how I will feel to remember exactly where I was two years ago on that exact date. And the memories just come flooding. My stomach would churn and I would make myself sick with worry as I went to bed that night before. Once the day arrived, however, it was just like any other day. It’s just a date on a calendar. I have enough opportunities to grieve for my son when I need to rather than worrying about my grief journey following the events on a calendar.
- Extend yourself some grace. There are days when I feel like I’ve only barely existed. If I was a babysitter, I would have been fired for neglect. I parented my kids from the couch, yelled at them for meaningless things or because I was so emotional, and only got up to do the bare minimum. Grace admits that not all days are like this. Foregoing laundry, the dishes, or even cleaning the bathrooms is not going to affect us for eternity. It’s okay to just live in the moment sometimes. We need to give ourselves a break every now and then. I’m thankful for a husband that extends that grace to me on a daily basis; I don’t deserve it, but I sure appreciate it.
- Joy is not the absence of sadness. Instead, it is actually finding a way to live with the grief you now carry. And not letting it overtake you. Grief will be forever connected to us because of the great loss we endured. That’s a fact. Learning to live with that truth so we could move beyond it is the important part. It will never go away. Ask anyone who’s lost a child, no matter how long ago, and they will answer the same way: yes, it still hurts. Joy comes in acknowledging that truth so we can live. And not just ‘get through,’ but as the Bible says, “to life live to the fullest!” (John 10:10) Grief is not something to be shunned. It’s a natural – and even healthy – reaction to a great loss. It’s definitely part of our lives, and so we must accept it. I’ve likened it to losing a limb. We still have the function of our other apparatuses, but we must learn how to do things differently. You can’t simply avoid its absence.
- Even amidst the worst of tragedies, we have been given far more than we deserve. To live in the United States, to have the freedoms we enjoy, to have the flexibility to learn, work and worship wherever we desire. We are a blessed people. If you’re bored, look up the hashtag “FirstWorldProblems” on Instagram or Twitter. The complaints about our daily struggles look especially ridiculous when we take a moment to realize what other people go through just to make the best life they can for their family. We are a very blessed people. And humility comes in the realization that the majority of what we enjoy was not achieved by our own merit.
- Peace comes in the realization that even in the midst of suffering, God’s presence has never left you. So much comfort in knowing that even as I walked through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I never walked alone. In the midst of tragedy, the pit of darkness, in the moments where I’ve felt no hope, no comfort… God was there. All I had to do was open my eyes. My God had never left my side. Not even once. (Isaiah 41:10)
I’d imagine that this is just the beginning of my list as I continue to learn new things. The labyrinth of grief is so very intricate. But rather than overanalyze it, I’m trying to record what I’m learning so I can go on, but also remind myself how far I’ve come.
That’s where we are.
I know of so many other families right now who are walking difficult roads. Some of them look similar to the road we had to walk, others are very different. But pain is pain and it all sucks. I pray that God may use some of what He’s teaching us to encourage someone else. All of us are hurting. But something else I’ve realized is that we were never made to feel complete on this side of heaven. We’re human. Fallible. Imperfect. Incomplete. It is only after we arrive in Heaven with our God that we will be completely whole again.
Until then, we’re just another day closer.