Let Advent be Dark

Grief. It’s been nearly 14 years since Emma died, long enough that I have to mentally do the math every time anyone asks me. It doesn’t feel completely true to say I’m still grieving the loss of my daughter, but there are definitely still times of grief. Times of sadness, times of confusion, times of anxiety. A few years ago, I had one therapist talk to me for five minutes and tell me that I still had some grieving to do, which was an idea that I rejected in the moment because I was sure I had reached acceptance. I’m realizing now that she may have known more than I gave her credit for.

In my EMDR session last week, my therapist illustrated grief for me with this diagram:

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That little double-ended arrow next to acceptance is the most empowering part of this image for me. Grief is a journey. You can reach acceptance and still have times of slipping back into the cycle of anger, sadness and anxiety. And that’s considered normal. This was freeing for me to know, because my EMDR session was on Emma. And it was rough. 

There’s a piece of her story that I have never shared publicly, a part that still holds a lot of questions for me and is linked to some self-blaming and shame. Most of the time that piece is safely tucked away beneath my consciousness, but in times of turmoil, when I slip back into the grief cycle, I sometimes get stuck in the anxiety stage (Anxiety is the stage that has sometimes been labelled bargaining. I find that the word anxiety resonates with me more, and still gets across the idea of our tendency to ask “what if”). I get pulled right back to the part of the story that I’ve never been able to completely accept. It is one small moment of one day where I made a choice, the consequences of which I worry may have negatively affected my daughter’s health. It’s a memory that will never have complete answers for me because there is no way to know exactly how this one event affected things, so to accept this part of the story means to accept the unknown. And instead of accepting it, I continue to ask, “What if? What if I had done something different on that day? Would the story have still ended up the same way?” 

In my session on Monday, my therapist uttered the most powerful statement I’ve ever heard in relation to that one piece. She said, “The truth is that even though you’ll never have the answers to that question, there is most likely nothing you could have done that would have saved your daughter’s life.” As soon as she said it, something clicked. By focusing on the one moment where I failed her, I have avoided grieving the deep harsh truth that there is no way I could have saved my daughter’s life. I held no such power. In almost every other moment of her life I gave her everything I possibly could. And it wasn’t enough, and that really sucks. 

I find myself now, bumping around in that grief cycle once again. But it’s different now as I try to name and acknowledge the grief of powerlessness. Grief is such a tricky thing. It’s not just sadness, but the need to be sad. It’s not just circumstantial, but comes and goes from your core. Grief means looking at the world around you and seeing how dark it actually is. Grieving Emma’s death yet again isn’t just grieving one event or one life or one loss. It connects to all sorts of other losses, and speaks to me in echoes of a broken world.

When I returned to EMDR this week, I was hesitant to delve into this. Christmas is coming. I want to focus on happy things, gift giving, plans for the break, work that I want to get done before the kids are off school. I thought that this was a bad time for my grief. But my therapist encouraged me to be intentional this week at facing the grief and feeling it. I can’t magically skip ahead to the acceptance stage, I have to be in the dark for awhile. She told me that it won’t be easy, but to face it now, when my body and mind are telling me they are ready, will result in a quicker, smoother process overall. I left the appointment with greater intention to do what needs to be done this week, rather than avoid it. And, as I reflected on this, I realized that the darkness of Advent is the perfect time to process grief. In Advent we get the chance to acknowledge the brokenness of both ourselves and the world around us. This is the time to “sit in the shit,” as my therapist says, so that we remember what hope is for. After all, resilience and health are built by descending into the pit of despair, disappointment, heartbreak and hopelessness and then climbing back out over and over again.

If that doesn’t sound like Advent as you know it, perhaps it is time to reclaim it. Some find their hope in the declaration that Jesus is coming! Christmas, for these people, is a time to reaffirm their faith in the hope of an external Savior who came once to save us and will come yet again. For these people, Advent is basically waiting, waiting for someone else to do something.

I personally think a hope in an external Savior is misplaced. What if true salvation cannot come from outside our world, but only from within? If this is the way we view salvation, then Christmas is a celebration not of the coming of God, but the realization that he was here all along. Emmanuel–God with us! What if every single one of us, no matter who we are, has the potential to be both a giver and receiver of salvation? Our ability to do either of those things will be increased by our willingness to spend time in the darkness of Advent. Because if we are the ones who are called to do something about the brokenness, we need to know it intimately.

I encourage you this Advent to take time to name the brokenness in yourself and in the world around you. Let’s acknowledge the darkness of this world, so that when Christmas comes we will each light the candle that we hold, see once again the saviors that live among us, and work together to build the steps of hope to bring us out of the darkness and into the light.

 

Individual vs. Collective Hope

Last Sunday I sat in Christian formation and felt the familiar rise of emotion. I have been enjoying this class each week as it encourages me to think, and it hasn’t failed yet to rile me up. As we discuss different stories and themes from the Bible, usually the Old Testament, I am struck by how many different ways there are to understand certain things and how rather than floating on a boat of apathy in a peaceful sea of uncertainty (which is where I thought I still was in this process of faith shift), I find I have replaced many of my former beliefs with rather strong ones that are often in opposition to the ones I once held. This group gives me a chance to examine those, and to find ways to share them out loud in hopefully respectfully kind ways, while also learning to listen to competing viewpoints with a critical ear (not just critical to their side, but just as much so to mine). Still working on that.

Most of the time I just listen, it often takes a few hours or days for me to fully process the conversation we had and decide how I feel about it. And this Sunday, the emotion that rose in me was stronger and very different than that which I have been feeling. It was grief. Strong, undeniable grief. The kind that causes your face to flush and your breathing to rise as you fight the urge to burst into tears in front of a group of people you hardly know.

The theme we were discussing was the Exodus. What this central story from the Old Testament meant to the Israelites and what it can mean for us. Hope. Hope was the word that was coming out of the story. Hope that no matter how low we drop, how horrible the circumstances that surround us, we will come back up again. We will be delivered.

I listened as one person after another shared what that meant to them personally. And because one person specifically brought up something that had happened to his daughter when she was just an infant, and was sharing how he coped with and still copes with the permanent effects this had on her, my gut wrenched with pain. This conversation had suddenly veered too close to home. The words he shared were very similar to words that I have shared in the process of grieving the loss of my 7 month old daughter. They were words of searching, searching for purpose in the tragedy, for hope for himself in the midst of his daughter’s pain.

But, oddly I found myself resonating much more with another man who shared something that was rather different in focus. Instead of looking for purpose in his own story, he instead focuses on presence. God was there and is there in the midst of it. And for him, that was enough. Someone else tried to explain the purpose of pain in the world, or the reason for it, but the explanation was not enough for me. I’ve heard it before and it no longer made the sense I used to think it did. And then another woman shared a hope that went beyond herself and to her family, the hope she held that they would survive and thrive even if she were to die from the cancer that she had just been diagnosed with.

There was so much emotion writhing in my gut. I spoke once, and it was only to share the less than cheery fact that in the story of the Exodus, the people that were brought out of Egypt, were not the same people that entered the land of Canaan. A whole generation died in the wilderness, waiting for the promise they were given. The hope of the Jews is not an individual hope. It is a collective one. WE will be saved. WE will rise again. WE will gain our promised land.

Why was it that that one part of the story is the only one I felt compelled to comment on? Why did some of the hope that was shared in that circle Sunday morning sound so hollow to me, while other versions of it resonated? Why did the whole conversation leave me feeling so unsettled? It was as if there was nothing answered for me, but rather a stirring of the waters that left everything murky and dark and confusing.

As I talked it over with John Sunday evening, while the echo of the emotion still sounded in my shaky voice and the tears I hadn’t cried that morning wet my eyes with just a touch of sadness, I realized that I felt unsettled because there were no simple easy answers to the questions that pain and suffering stir up. The world does not appear to work in a purposefully ordered way. God does not appear to work in a purposefully ordered way. The only thing I could cling to was that an individual hope was not enough. Because too often an individual hope is proved false. What happens when 58 people’s lives are cut short by a senseless shooting in Las Vegas? Where is the hope for those people? What happens when someone continues to live in despair and pain even after crying out continually to God to save them? What does hope mean to them? What happens when a 7 month old baby girl dies for the inexplicable reason that her body was just not born as perfect as it should have been?

An individual hope focuses on ourselves. It looks for what happens to me. How can I find hope in the midst of the senseless violence? How can I go on after the death of my daughter? How many blessings do I have that others don’t? These aren’t entirely negative questions. It is normal for us to find the personal relevance within the questions. It is normal to look for purpose in the pain. I believe that we have to do that to a certain extent in order to survive.

But I also believe we are missing something much greater when we focus solely on an individual hope. In our US culture, an individualistic point of view is common and expected. Our faith has to do with the individual. Our salvation has to do with the individual. Our hope has to do with the individual. The majority of Christian faith that I have seen in the US tends to be rather hopeless rather than hopeful. We have given up on a world that does not appear to be getting any better and began to focus on a hope that only truly exists in the afterlife. Even there that hope is limited, limited only to those who somehow individually find their way to God. This is not the way that everyone has or does live. The Israelites hope was collective. I am not as well studied in this as my husband, but I believe that their identity as a nation was much more important than their individual identity. Why else would a story in which nearly everyone dies, still be a story of hope? Where a remnant remains, there is still hope. Hope that the nation, the community will survive.

This is a hope that is so much bigger than the individual. This is a hope that goes beyond one person. This is a hope that can look at senseless suffering and say, “Things look bleak. But I hope for a day when people live in a world where violence does not take lives. I hope for a world where all people are cared for. I hope for a world where peace is the rule of the day. I believe in the kingdom of God. I believe that it can and will exist.”

I find greater peace in this absolutely almost foolish hope than I do in the attempts to find purpose in the suffering. This hope for me goes beyond death, because I can hope that even if it doesn’t happen in my lifetime, it can still happen in someone’s. And the weird crazy thing about this type of collective hope is that when enough of us believe it can be true, then it actually begins to hold the possibly that it will be.

10 Years Later

10 years. Next week it will be 10 years since I sat down to write a blog post to say good-bye to my darling Emma. This morning as I went through the routine of getting kids ready to head to school I was so angry. Every little thing got on my nerves and I’m afraid my kids felt the brunt of my bad mood. After breaking up yet another fight between Will and Seth I started packing up lunches and Elise made the perfectly reasonable request to have her baked potato scraped out of the peel rather than packed with it. “Yes, HERE, go ahead,” I said as I roughly pushed her lunch to her. Elise, who is always really good at reading my emotions quietly began preparing her lunch. “You’re not mad at me, are you Mom?” she asked timidly. “No, Elise, it’s just hard with the boys and I just don’t feel like doing anything extra today. Your request was perfectly reasonable.” It wasn’t the last outburst from me in the course of the morning either. As I prepared to leave to take Elise to school I apologized to both her and Will (Seth was already gone) about my bad mood. Elise readily forgave me, saying “That’s ok, it’s mainly because of some people . . .” and she pointed at her brother. Breaking in before Will could voice his displeasure at this, I replied, “No, I shouldn’t blame others for my emotions and actions. I need to take responsibility for them.”

Later, after all the kids were at school and Dietrich played happily upstairs, I turned up the music and started to wash dishes. And I reflected on my bad mood and wondered where it had come from. Sure, the boys were extra hard to deal with this morning since Will came downstairs in a bad mood and neither of them could seem to get along. But, as Becky Bailey says in her book Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline, “you are never upset for the reason you think you are.” When I started really taking the time to notice how I was feeling and to allow myself to feel it, I realized that I was feeling a sense of melancholy deep inside. I had noticed it yesterday as well. Perhaps my emotional reactions were just this melancholy trying to break out and be felt. It’s hard to allow yourself to truly feel sad when surrounded by 4 rambunctious children. But that is what I apparently needed to do.

emma_10-5_01So, today I’m creating some space to feel sad. I’ve reread that painful blog post from Feb 22, 2006. I might pull out Emma’s album and look at her pictures. I’ve shed a few tears. And I’m writing, which is therapeutic for me and allows me to just feel what I need to feel.

I want to encourage each of you as well, to take the time to feel. No matter what emotion you are currently experiencing, give yourself permission to actually feel it. In my parenting, one of my goals is to help my kids also learn how to recognize what they are feeling and to give them permission to feel it. This is hardest when it comes to anger. It is easier to say, “stop being angry!” But I know that isn’t realistic or healthy. We can’t stop ourselves from getting angry. We will do better if we take the time to recognize that anger and then make healthy choices instead of allowing our anger to control us.

IMG_3169The same is true for sadness. Although in the case of sadness, I think we sometimes do need to allow sadness to dictate our actions, as long as those actions are healthy for us and others. We need to grieve. We must. This is true for both men and women. In this 10th year since Emma’s death, John and I have had some conversations about the grieving process for both of us. I had both practical and emotional support from many women, especially those who had also walked through the pain of losing a child. But there were no men who came alongside John in the same way, offering him a chance to process, a safe place to cry, encouragement to go to support group or counseling. My support group was open to men, but there were hardly ever men there and John would not have felt comfortable going. Why is that? I don’t think it is any one person’s fault. I don’t think John thought much of it at the time, it is now as he looks back that he recognizes the difference in expectations. And he thinks it should be different. We both agree that our culture is failing men in this regard. So, no matter your gender, please give yourself permission to cry. Give yourself permission to really feel the emotions that are difficult. And then come alongside those who grieve and give them permission also.

Emma's 8th Heaven Birthday

At the beginning of this month, I was not sure how smoothly the month would end. I was feeling homesick, wishing for Emma’s photo album which got left in the States, and wishing I could visit her gravesite.
Last week I had the opportunity to share a testimony at the German/English bilingual Bible Study I attend, and this gave me a chance to process some of these emotions. Even though my testimony ended up being less about Emma, and more about depression and anxiety, I found that working on it was very therapeutic. And this month was full of other blessings which showed me how much God loves me and is so willing to provide for each of my needs, even emotional ones. There are always those who remember Emma’s birthdays and that means a lot to me. What surprised me about this month were how many people here are already willing to connect with me over those memories. I received notes, flowers, and visits from these ladies, and am filled to overflowing with gratefulness. I even have a kindred spirit here, someone whose daughter, also born in 2005, awaits them in heaven just like Emma. What a blessing that God put us together to hold each other up and support each other through our memories.
Below is the testimony I shared at the CBSI Bible Study if you are curious:

My husband and I attended a parenting seminar recently. One topic covered the importance of teaching our children a theology of suffering. As we have seen in our study of Acts, suffering is a normal part of the true Christian life. But we have a promise of comfort and of joy in the midst of our trials. Paul understood this well. In 2 Corinthians he wrote: “Praise be to the God…who comforts us in all our troubles” He continues to share why we are not overwhelmed by trials: “do not lose heart…For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” Our troubles are small when compared with the eternal life that God has given us. Even physical death can be seen as something small to the Christian, because it is just like changing our clothes. We leave behind our earthly body and are clothed in our heavenly one.

I am thankful that my parents taught this theology of suffering to me. There are several things that happened in the lives of my grandparents and parents that could be considered tragic. I grew up hearing all these stories, but they were never told to me as sad stories, but rather as stories of victory. Suffering is a part of life, but because of God, we have victory over it. He protected and provided through all these things, and on top of that he gave us joy.

imageWhen I was a little girl the two things I wanted to be were a wife and mother. I got married at age 20 and had my first daughter 3 years later. John used to tease me that at the age of 23 I had achieved my life goals. My life was just how I wanted it to be, and things should have been perfect. But they weren’t. I cried all the time. I was filled with worry. I had a hard time motivating myself to get off the couch. I was dealing with postpartum depression. I ended up on anti-depressants for a couple months. Depression and anxiety plagued me with the following 3 deliveries and off an on between babies as well. Even though I pled with God not to take me through those dark days, he still did. But each time I found him there in the darkness. When I felt like I was spinning out of control, like I couldn’t hold on any longer, it was as if he said to me: “Go ahead and let go. I’ve got you.” I always started anti-depressants fairly quickly after delivery, so things were not bad for long, but the days I spent directly after birth were the hardest thing I ever have had to deal with. And yet, I am still thankful for them, because of what I have learned about God, about myself, and about others.

imageWhen Elise was 2 1/2 years old, her sister was born. Whereas Elise had been large and healthy and had developed at an exceptional rate, Emma Anne was small and weak and delayed in her development. She was born on July 14, 2005 and 7 months later on Feb 22, 2006 she was born into heaven. Emma had several heart abnormalities, some brain damage, unique physical issues, and breathing and eating difficulty. Her life was spent in and out of the hospital as the doctors tried to determine the underlying factors and how to treat her. I remember clearly the day I realized that I was the mother to a handicapped child. I fled the hospital room that Emma and I were staying in and found a bench in the hospital garden and sat and cried. I was sorry for Emma and I was sorry for myself. I realized this meant I was committed to caring for her needs through all her childhood and most likely into her adulthood as well. I cried for Emma, what she might not get to experience, and I cried for me, for what I might have to sacrifice in order to care for her. And then I dried my tears. I returned to our little hospital room and I never again spent time feeling sorry for myself or Emma. I found real joy in caring for Emma, and God protected my relationships with John and Elise even though I didn’t get to see them that often. Having a child with extreme physical difficulties can destroy a marriage, but I think it strengthened ours.

And of course losing a child is something that many marriages do not survive, but when Emma died we experienced firsthand the amazing protection of God. Not only did he provide for our financial needs during that time, which were great because of the hospital bills, but he also cared for us emotionally. Instead of falling into a dark depression, which I felt was a real possibility, I felt held up and supported by God, by family and by the church. I grieved, but I was able to grieve openly, to share with others the joy and comfort that God gave me during Emma’s life, after her death, and still does in my memories of her today.

imageSeveral years after Emma’s death John and I thought our family was complete. God had blessed us with two little boys, Will and Seth, and we were beginning to explore opportunities in missions. We officially joined TeachBeyond in December of 2011, and in January of 2012 we started support raising. By the fall of that year we felt very stressed with continued support raising and no real idea of when we’d be able to leave for Germany. And then we found out that I was pregnant again. During the first few weeks of that pregnancy I began struggling with fairly extreme anxiety. After a very serious panic attack, with side effects that lasted for almost a day afterwards, John and I realized I needed to get help. I was dealing with what is termed antepartum depression and anxiety. It is just like postpartum, it just happens before the baby is born. Anti-depressants were not a good option for me at that point because of the risks for the baby, so I started once a week counseling and taking natural supplements. Thankfully things improved, especially once I got past the first trimester. But I was worried about how hard it would be to transition to a new culture and country with my emotional instability, and I was worried about dealing with postpartum depression away from my friends and family.image God’s gift to me this year has been to provide a new support system, and to grant me an incredibly smooth transition to life in Germany and an almost entirely anxiety-free postpartum period. It means a lot to me that not only did God prove that he had the power to overcome, just as I always believed he had, but that he loves me so much that he chose to overcome. And of course, there’s Dietrich, my special German blessing.

Emma's 7th Heaven Birthday

emma_brightsmileIt’s hard to believe that it has been 7 years since we said good-bye to our precious Emma Anne. Her birthdays still have the power to bring up emotions in me, but I’m not afraid to live through them. This year I actually had the wrong date in my head, so we celebrated a day later, but it was still a good day.

As usual, I took a day off from the computer to mark this special anniversary. I wish I could say I spent a lot of time in prayer and reflection, but as often happens we ended up having several interruptions to the day. But they were all good interruptions, things that showed me God’s care and love. I’ve been feeling quite isolated the last two weeks as we’ve fought the flu. Cemetery_February_2103closeupI’m limited to what I can get out and do even though I am better, because the boys are still sick. But on Friday I was able to get out to see my counselor for the first time here in Germany and to visit with another new friend as well. It was helpful to me to be able to share a few details of Emma’s life and her place in our family.

We obviously weren’t able to go to the cemetery as usual. But we went the day before we left the states and were able to get our usual pictures. On Saturday, Elise and I walked down to a cafe in town and bought some slices of fancy cheesecake and other cakes to celebrate Emma’s heaven birthday. We had a nice relaxing family day.

cemetery_Feb_2013

6 years.

What would it be like to have you here with us?  To hear your laughing voice as you egg Will and Elise on in their races.  To see your wavy brown hair dance in the wind.  To hear you read to Seth and do a puzzle with Will.  To see you snuggle up with Elise as she shared her favorite story with you.  To feel you close as you kissed my cheek.  To hear you hurry to greet your Daddy as he walked in the door.

I can only imagine what it would be like to add you to our crazy life.  What your place would be.  What you would look like, what you would say.  I don’t think about it often, and when I do, it hurts.  Because the reality is that you never even got to see a Spring.

Although, how can I compare Spring on earth with the perfect season of heaven.  I know, that no matter what you  missed here on earth, you have more than I can ever imagine in heaven.  I know that no matter how many days we live without you here, there will be more than I can number with you later.

I love you Emma.

Flowers for Emma.

July 14. This date usually looms in my head for at least a week if not more before it hits. But not this year. For some reason, perhaps the hectic activity surrounding our move and the arrival of our goats, the date snuck up on us. My good friend Laura wrote on my facebook wall that she was thinking of me today as I remembered Emma’s birthday and I suddenly realized what day it was. Funny that someone else thought of it before me this year. Is that good or bad? I’m not sure, but regardless I was glad someone brought it to mind, because if for some odd reason I had gone through the whole day without realizing that it was Emma’s birthday I would have been terribly disappointed once I realized it on the next day. Laura wasn’t the only one who remembered, another good friend Melinda texted me her encouragement and many others commented on my facebook post in remembrance of Emma.

With remembrance of course came emotions. Not bad ones, just strong ones. Longing, I guess it could be called. With the kids gathered around me, I shared with them the reminder that today was Emma’s birthday. Will piped up immediately. “Are we going to the grave?” Hmm, yes, I guess we could do that I thought. Funny that without trying too hard we have developed a tradition, one that even Will knows. I’m so happy that they want to go to commemorate Emma’s special days, and that they believe we should all be there. And I’m thankful that John agrees as well. So I sorted out the logistics and we had a plan.

During Elise’s gymnastics class, I took the boys with me grocery shopping. We picked out some bright purple and green flowers that seemed to fit the emotions I was feeling. We took them home and put them in water waiting for the evening when Daddy could go with us to the cemetery. Our visit was quick as we were running a bit later than I had anticipated. And we were on our way to a swim party, so the kids were all dressed in swim suits for our usual picture, but it doesn’t matter. Because now I can remember what we did that day every time I look at the picture, and it seems fitting that in some small way Emma was included in a family celebration.