The grief journey really began many months before that fateful day in August 2005. Justin’s life slowly unraveled like a cord where one string breaks free and unwinds its way from the core before another and then another until the entire cord hangs limp ad frayed. I lay on my bed and wept day after day hoping and praying that God would “Complete the good work He began in Justin at Salvation.” (See Philippians 1:6)
I nursed my broken mother’s heart while trying to keep my emotions from spinning out of control as one thing after another came to light and I felt helpless to stop the looming destruction that seemed to have its sights set on my son.
And then comes the call. You know the one. That call every parents hopes not to get. Your child has been in an accident, please come to the hospital right away.
And then I became the parent no one wants to be. You know the one. Did you hear about so-in-so? No, oh yes, her son was in an accident and he passed away. Tragic. I know… I can’t even imagine.
We’ve all said it.
We’ve all thought it.
We’ve all prayed it wouldn’t happen.
So did I, but that call came just the same.
We spent eight days in the hospital contending in prayer for the life of my son as well as coming to terms with the reality that loomed just beyond our grasp. Our church and family rallied around us at the hospital. Prayer requests went out around the world and people came from miles around to visit, to pray, to bring food and encourage us.
I remember the first moments when reality trudged into my heart. I saw my firstborn’s pale naked body in that hospital bed covered only by a sheet and hooked up to monitors that rang and buzzed, that emitted reports and kept time. I suddenly realized for the first time that my boy had grown up. No longer the little, adventurous boy who had scampered off to the neighbor’s house daily to play. Justin had grown tall, strong and he indeed had become a man. Momma and Daddy came back squeezed his hand, prayed, and cried as we watched him laying lifeless on those bright white sheets. They returned to the waiting room. Then a high school principal and the campus resource officer from the high school came by to make sure I was not alone.
After a while, I stood alone again with my son. While people in white coats and scrubs busied themselves moving rapidly and efficiently to meet my son’s needs. I asked the nurse who inquired if I was okay when I could speak to a doctor. She pulled me out to the nurse’s station and brought the ER Trauma Chief out to speak to me. I could barely breathe as I whispered to the nurse, “Would someone please go get my father?”
I don’t remember her words, but I remember the peace of God on my heart. Covering it like a shield. The strength of God that allowed me to ask questions and sign paperwork that said I would not hold the hospital liable if Justin died. I remember holding hands with these strangers in that room all by myself and praying God’s best for them and my son. I remember they were willing to pray.
Daddy walked in as they finished speaking, and they briefed us on what would come next. They said we could wait in the room with him as they prepped him for surgery and we did. A tall man who appeared as one of middle eastern descent came over to me as I stood at the foot of my son’s bed. He introduced himself as the anesthesiologist, and shook my hand. He explained what he was about to do and said, “We’ll take care of him for you.”
I felt the tears fall from my eyes as a barely audible thank you passed through my lips. Then He hugged me shoulder to shoulder and said, “We’re doing all we can, Momma. Your son is in God’s hands now.”
The medical team completed the surgical procedure that provided a brain pressure monitor, and worked as one man to wheel him out to surgery. My father and I began the long walk out to the waiting room. As we passed through the double set of large wooden doors my father asked, “What did the doctors say?”
I felt my world spin violently as my knees began to buckle just beyond the boundary of the intensive care unit. The panic and the fear that I had held back suddenly flooded to the surface as the gut wrenching sobs pelted at my chest. “They… said… he… could… O Daddy, I don’t know if I can do this…”
My father pulled me to my feet and held me at his side as we made slow steps down the cream-colored corridor. “They said… he could die.” The words brought a sense of reality I had not addressed yet. “I’m not ready to lose him.”
My father continued to steady me and lead me out to the waiting room. “Then don’t think that way right now, sugar. He’ll be fine.”
I know God changed my heart in those eight days. He did. The first day I was shouting victory from the roof tops, “God answered my prayers, Justin was alive when I got to the hospital.”
Just barely, but then there were the surgeries. We prayed for healing, protection and for God to give the doctors wisdom and guide their hands. “Thank you, Jesus. He survived the surgery and they stopped the internal bleeding. Thank you he still has one good kidney, and they were able to remove his spleen while he remained stable.”
I sat numb and stunned in that hospital waiting room watching the aisles and chairs fill with the bodies and faces of people we knew and loved. People who knew and loved Justin. We sat and waited together in various numbers and ways for several days before my prayers began to change. As Justin’s situation deteriorated and more complications arose. I realized that perhaps surviving the accident would be worse than dying from it.
My heartfelt prayers in those last days do not sound courageous to me at all. They sound weak. They sound like I gave up. Admitted defeat. Like I didn’t believe God could or would heal my son. “Lord, if my son will not be able to enjoy life, then have mercy on my son and give me peace to accept it. But, Lord, would you make it sure? I don’t want any doubts.”
I will never forget the moment when I knew for the first time that though my son’s body lay breathing and functioning by the work of machines and doctor’s orders, his soul and his spirit were gone to heaven. I sat by his bed staring at a monitor praying, “Lord, either he has come back to us or he is gone, but again, Lord… Either way would you make it sure?”
Justin’s nurse and the hospital chaplain entered the room a few minutes later and I knew the answer. Justin had indeed gone home to heaven. The angels and Jesus ushered him to the gates of glory and there he waits for his family to join him. I look forward to heaven and meeting my Lord every single day. I did so before my son went home. But, now… With one so close to my heart there, I say “Come Lord Jesus, Come.”
Those first days and weeks remain filled with the fog of shock and numbness. The inability to fathom the great loss we had experienced landed on the four people living in our home and our extended family in a monumental way. I felt isolated and alone. I visited the grave site nearly every day for months. I prayed every single day in those early weeks. “Lord, do not let my son’s grave become an idol that stands between you and me.”
As days turned to weeks and fall set in birthdays came and went while the larger than life humor and personality of my son loomed absent. He indeed had left us. I found his shoes, the ones we had bought him months earlier for his birthday, caked in mud on the front porch just beside the door. Can I tell you they stayed there until we moved? And they relocated to a resting place near a door on a porch at the new home.
Each time I would return home from the cemetery, church or a shopping trip… There sat those shoes like my heart waiting for him to finally come home again. I could not bear to part with them. I could not bear to move them. On the really bad days I thought to myself, Perhaps he’ll remember they’re here and come back for them.
I remember those days so well, like they only just happened. The emotions surrounding them have changed drastically from then to now, but I still remember them.
The memories do not all declare nostalgic, glory-filled God moments reflecting healing and grace. I remember standing in the living room of our home and shrieking at my husband, Justin’s stepdad, “My son died and yours didn’t. How could you possibly know how I felt.”
I remember feeling helpless to care for my daughters whose broken hearts at times seemed to be bleeding out. I remember.
Lessons from the Valley
I believe the first thing I learned in the valley remains that grief is a necessary part of life. Healthy grief helps us process change as well as redefine our lives after an unmet expectation, loss or traumatic event.
Lesson One: Give yourself permission to grieve. Allow your heart to experience the painful emotions of loss, disappointment, anger, sadness, and to ask questions. Some would say questioning why bad things or painful things happen is futile, but I have come to disagree. It is only futile if it is unproductive, but questioning is a reasoning skill and our hearts need to find reason when pain ensues.
When I read Job’s story in the book that bears his name, I find a man who says, “Will we not accept pain from God as well as blessing?”
I hear his heart of worship in brokenness. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb. The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away. I will bless the name of the Lord.”
And then I read more than 30 chapters of Job raising question after question to God and God responding to Him in His sovereignty and His love.
I remember the question that changed everything. I had been in an intense spiritual and legal battle with Justin’s father over the insurance settlements related to Justin’s death. My heart felt shredded and I had sat in the lawyer’s office waiting to sign the final pieces of legal business related to my son’s life. The last moment of closure had come and I felt angry.
Not really angry that Justin’s father had demanded money. Though I had been furious and frustrated over that for weeks. Not angry that Justin was dead, though that anger was coming to be sure. But, ANGRY. Angry at God because by the time I left the lawyer’s office, I had a five-figure check with a few nominal bills to pay and a lot of money left over. I pulled away from the lawyer’s office and made it to the first stop light before I pulled the check out of the envelope and allowed the tears to fall free.
“God, I don’t understand how Justin dying is a part of you blessing us.” I sobbed there as I waited for the light to change and then it happened. God’s voice echoed back to me the prayers I had offered in brokenness to God for my son. The blessing is not the money, but that Justin was made complete the day he came face to face with My Son.
Oh, Sovereign Lord… You always knew this day was coming. You knew. And You have done your best. I never had occasion to argue with God about Justin dying because God had assured me of His truth. My son is alive. He is in heaven and he is complete. Amen.
I’ve asked other questions, like Why did others receive healing and Justin receive glory? I’ve asked. And in the end, I’ve grown to trust God’s word that I prayed over my family for several years before that sorrow filled August. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and our children forever so that we may always live by the words of this law.” (see Deuteronomy 29:29)
Parts of this journey on earth are a mystery and always will be, and when I ask questions that God does not answer I simply have to trust that He knows, and He has made provision for whatever meets me in my life.
REMEMBER: Understanding the process of grief is really about the way we deal with ANY change that happens in our lives whether it is a sudden and tragic death or the loss of expectation that comes with a life-goal failure, broken relationship, or a devastating event that lies beyond our control. Grief is the way God designed us to process change.
NOTE: When you experience several losses in a season, this creates a situation where grief may be delayed or put off because of the circumstances surrounding the losses. If left unattended, grief becomes unhealthy and can leave the person who is grieving with spiritual, emotional, mental, relational and physical problems that would be resolved if they would allow themselves to grieve. In seasons of grief be willing to ask for help.
Lesson Two: Families do not grieve. I’ll never forget the aha moment that took place when I read this sentence. The writer went on to say in a nutshell: a family is a system in which people live and though people will grieve, a family will not. She meant people find their way through grief differently. Within a family you may find verbal or expressive mourners and silent or non-verbal processing in grief. Either process may be healthy or productive. Some will experience all the expressions of grief defined as stages, and some will only hit the ones that are necessary to move through their pain to a place of peace and acceptance.
Individuals will grieve they way they are bent by their natural tendencies and cultural background. They will process based on their personal strengths and learning modalities, and based on what our experience has taught us throughout our life about grief.
Sometimes correcting unhealthy grieving patterns is necessary, but the person who is grieving must realize and take responsibility for healthy grief in order for it to be effective. As a parent of a child who is grieving find support environments for your child that help them process grief at their level. Deal honestly with your own grief and allow them to learn to grieve in a healthy way both inside and outside of your home.
In short, be careful what you require of those around you in a grieving season. I have witnessed marriages come to a dramatic close and families disintegrate over this one issue. Be aware of where they are and listen for the signals that grief is unhealthy or that they are stuck. But, mostly be self-aware, don’t require others to grieve the same way you do and offer help when needed, but don’t assume a person is stuck or not grieving simply because they express it differently.
Lesson Three: Grief is a process that involves intermingled stages. For most people grief is a process that involves four to five stages. Elizabeth Kubler Ross identifies these stages as Denial/Shock, Anger, Bargaining (or I say, Negotiating), Depression, and Hope/Acceptance. Bargaining/Negotiating is typically identified with terminal illness or losses that do not result in death. But, I have found that the why and what if questions have applied across the board. Questioning or Negotiating for a better outcome even if it is only understanding can apply to this stage.
While grief is identified by these five stages, we should understand that they do not typically come in a specific time frame or order. Grief does not have a set “pattern” or order. Each person navigates the waters of grief differently. This means that one may not be able to check off the anger stage once you stop feeling angry the first time. The reason grief has no set pattern is because it works in cylces and waves.
Think of the wave cycle of an ocean. Normal everyday life brings in high tide and low tide. The waves come in and the waves go out. The shoreline effected, but life is not interrupted because of the tide. It creates an ebb and flow of life.
But, when something happens to disrupt this “normal” flow of life. When a storm or an earthquake occurs out among the wave, then the wave become more furious, more destructive.
Think of a tidal wave that stems from an earthquake or tsunami. The source of the wave is different. At first the waves come in fast, deep and furious. They overwhelm anything in their path and can bring destruction and devastation all along the way. Denial and Shock are much like the way we would respond to the warnings for storms like this. Head for higher ground, take cover and hide out until the initial brunt of the storm passes.
Eventually, the storm subsides and the waters recede. The rebuilding work begins. When we see the effects of the storm we feel angry, violated. We become furious about what we could not control or at the person or situation that has caused the pain.
That’s when it hits. Another strong current of waves comes through and knocks us down again until the tide goes back out and the water recesses. The more often the waves come and cycle through the more likely one maybe to ask, “What if… this?” or “Could we just do….that?” Trying to negotiate a better outcome. Perhaps in the process of realizing what has been lost or taken from us we begin to feel sad or overwhelmed. Even come to a place where we see no point in moving forward.
We may rest here in the sorrow-filled season of depression, despair and agonize over what has changed. But, then suddenly as it is when the season of winter gives way to spring, the sun begins to shine on us again. The warm breezes of spring beckon us and the summer of our lives to come again. Pretty soon the warmer weather draws out life to the water again. People come with music, umbrellas and laughter and our hearts open to what is waiting for us on the other side of loss. Hope. Acceptance. A redefined normal way of life again.
Lesson Four: Deep grief is the result of a deep love and relationship lost. That love and the significant relationship must be addressed for healing to take place.
Lesson Five: It takes as long as it takes. One of the hardest questions to answer is how long does grief last. The standard answer is typical grief related to an anticipated or expected loss can take up to a year, while a traumatic or sudden and unexpected loss can take years to process. Yes, that is plural… Years.
For me, the unnatural death of my child put me in shock and anger for about a year. After the first year passed, I began to feel sadness and the what if questions began to settle over me. Eventually I moved on to realize sudden bursts of joy and life again around the two and a half to three-year mark. And, on the third anniversary of my son’s passing, I received Isaiah 60:20 which says, “…and the days of your mourning shall come to an end.”
As I sit on the day before the seventh anniversary of Justin’s home going, I can say that I do still miss him at times. When a family event or something that he loved takes place I feel a little bittersweet tug in my heart. But, for me, the anguish of grieving has long since passed and new life is springing up all around me. In the last session, Session Three, I will share the things I did to help me through my grieving season.
Thank you for reading along and for being patient with my technical difficulties and the delay. Be blessed in knowing the Lord has not left you or forsaken you even when you cannot feel Him near.