Tonight we received unbearable news. Another child taken from his parent’ arms too soon. Another child leaving his family and those who loved him behind, hearts shattered and lives forever changed. Another child sent ahead to heaven for the safest keeping.
And then the who sets in – a family we know so well. People we love. A family we spent seven years with who loved our family, who were there with us – for us – when our Justin went home.
A young mother who years ago befriended my son and sat in metal chairs in the front room of the church to receive a lesson in discipleship taught by God through me. A girl who got inside my heart that summer with her authenticity, infectious laughter and always… Always optimistic smile. One of my girls… Heartbroken, arms aching, mind numb without reason trying to make sense out of the trauma of a child carried in her body nine months, born of her womb who just this morning got out of bed and went with his family to celebrate his birthday. Tonight he is gone. His earthly temple an empty shell.
Lord, have mercy. Lord, bring peace. Lord, comfort them tonight. Hug our babies tight… Oh God! I cannot bear this Lord. Our hearts are broken. We suffer long as we wait for you. Do not tarry, come Lord Jesus!
I wrote these words only weeks ago. My heart broken for those I loved who were suffering. And through them in the week that would follow they declared the glory of God in their suffering. God delivered miracle after miracle. He offered peace, comfort, revelation and laughter in the midst of great pain.
The day we visited the family at the funeral home each one that I hugged and tried to comfort said, “You are the first person I thought of when this happened.”
It may very well be true that in the company of misery the truth of hope may be discovered. God comforted me and brought me through my season of grief for exactly such a time as this. To whom much is given, much is also required – those who have grieved a deep loss and overcome have the greatest capacity to offer comfort to others who suffer grief. And today, they are comforted. They remember the same God who brought me through the Valley of the Shadow of Death will bring them through it as well.
“And your sun shall no longer go down, Nor shall your moon withdraw itself; For the Lord will be your everlasting light, And the days of your mourning shall come be ended.” ~ Isaiah 60:20 (NKJV)
As I stated in Session Two: What I Learned in the Valley, grieving an anticipated or expected loss may take up to a year while a traumatic or sudden, unexpected loss can take years. I remember those difficult and unbearable days when I did not know what to do with the anger I felt. A low-boiling rage that rolled just beneath the surface at all times. It found no one to blame, nor did it feel rational. It felt like ANGER.
I remember the day we came home from church a couple of weeks after Justin’s death. Scott went upstairs and soon I heard the crashing and roaring sounds of Justin’s Game Cube dancing on the air. I felt the overwhelming indignation of violation land quick on my heart. I asked him to come down to lunch and quietly, but very effectively commanded him not to touch anything that belonged to my son until I gave him permission.
Reasonable… Not at all. But, in that moment, it was all I knew how to do. Protect and preserve what I had left of that young man’s life. I eventually relented permission for Justin’s video games and the Game Cube made good use until it was updated by a Wii last Christmas. It now sits in a box in my office closet. Perhaps it will wait for grandchildren or perhaps it will only serve as a reminder to me that my son was indeed here those 17 years when time begs me to believe I had only dreamed that I had him in my life.
And then, as we prepared to move and the packing began the time had come to address the piles of laundry that had lay dormant near the washing machine for nearly a year. One night as my girls were at church with my husband, I ventured in and began the sorting process. One thing after another of Justin’s came from the pile. I sat in the floor next to the washing machine and buried my face in those stale, dirty clothes and wept uncontrollable bitter tears. The pain in my heart overflowed. I cautioned my family not to leave me there. Alone. Ever. Again.
Then I found my “life support” in the form of a group called H. O. P. E. which stands for Helping Other Parents Endure. I sat in the group for nearly a year before taking a turn to lead and then moving forward to host a support environment in my home church. I exhausted myself with stories and tears and sharing the burdens that other parents carried. I found my way back into the Scriptures again and life began to rise around me.
Eventually, God brought me to a place where I knew the agony of grief had left me. I still had to work through the acceptance and hope stage of grief, but my sorrow had ended and joy began to spring up in my life again.
I previously shared that I visited Justin’s grave nearly every day in the beginning. After a few months I would make a weekly visit and then it spread out to stopping by once or twice a month. Eventually I began to only visit on his birthday, holidays and the anniversary of his death. Occasionally if I attended a funeral or visitation at the funeral home, I would drop in and “check on” my boy. Life drew me further and further away from the place where his earthly body rests.
I remember a particularly powerful teaching a friend of mine offered at a Freedom Class when we first began to attend Gateway Church. Former Associate Pastor Angie Wyatt taught on the Kingdom of God and she said that when Jesus spoke of the Kingdom while on earth He said, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand…” (See Matthew 10:7)
She then said, “Hold out your hand.” She demonstrated the object lesson by extending her arm out and holding her hand an arm’s length from her side. “How far away is that? The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
I immediately heard God say, “We’re here.”
I knew in an instant what He needed me to know. Though heaven seems a billion years away – they are right here. My Jesus, My Father and My Justin are just a veil away. They are swirling around me in the atmosphere and though I cannot see them, feel them, or touch them… They are still very near to me. Forever in my heart until God’s call takes me home and I know in full what I now only know in part.
Here a few things I did to get through my grieving season:
1. Stay close to God in prayer and, if you are able, through His Word. I found that I relied on what He had planted in my heart before the loss until I came to a place of seeking Him afresh about eighteen months after Justin’s passing.
NOTE: If you are not in a grieving season. Hear this: I spent three years leading up to my son’s death deeply immersed through in-depth Bible study. I had written God’s word on my heart over and over again, prayed Scriptures over his life and held fast to His promises as I understood them before I ever came to the place I needed them. Please do not wait until the crisis to draw near to God. It may not be possible for you to immediately receive His life giving word when your deepest needs are exposed.
2. Count your blessings. Even in loss, you will find the hand of God if you look for it. Humanity and this fallen existence that the adversary of God has occasion to orchestrate for us will knock us down, take those we love who die too soon through accidents, illness, or acts of violence, and leave us questioning and reeling. We will feel cheated and robbed of opportunity, love and relationships.
Still, that enemy – Satan – can only win if we let him. He does come to kill, steal and destroy, but Jesus came to give us life and that life is to the full even in the devastating circumstances of death and loss. (See John 10:10)
In those days of surrender and sorrow, I remember thanking God for little things all along the way. What can you thank God for right now in the midst of your despair?
Here are a few of the ways I thanked God through the trauma and loss of my oldest child:
“Thank you, God, that he was revived at the scene and alive for eight days in order that we could come to terms with losing him.”
“Thank you, God, that he was taken to the hospital by helicopter rather than ambulance.”
“Thank you, God, that he was alive when I got to the hospital.”
“Thank you, God, that he survived the surgery.”
“Thank you, God, for the life that he lived and for being present with us in his passing.”
“Thank you, God, for 17 years with him.”
“Thank you, God, for having mercy on him and giving me peace to accept it.”
“Thank you, God, for family and friends who rallied around us, loved us and took care of us in those dark days.”
“Thank you, God, for the assurance of heaven and salvation for us and for Justin.”
“Thank you, God, that he did not suffer long and he is not suffering now.”
3. Find a way to continue to express your relationship with your loved one. When someone we love dies the person is no longer with us, but we are still their child, parent, grandparent, sibling, aunt or uncle, cousin or friend. Though we grieve as those with hope of a glorious reconciliation and future. The loss of relationship and opportunity must be acknowledged.
I did this in several ways. The first is that I wrote and journaled about my feelings as Justin’s mom. I wrote Justin letters and asked questions. I wrote out my prayers to God. I said all the things I wanted to say in those letters and prayers. Each time I went to his grave I surrendered those things to God and asked Him to make sure my son knew his momma loved him. Later, my family and I adopted children to provide gifts for around the holidays, and I always provided gifts for others on his birthday. The first year it was my girls and Scott, the second my parents and by the third year, God provided a lavish gift through Randy Alcorn of his book “Heaven” for members of the support group I facilitated. The shipment of books arrived the day after my son’s 20th birthday, and I delivered them to the group later that week.
I can remember the very first cold day I visited his grave. The wind was bitter cold and I felt as if the tears falling down my cheeks would freeze. I said, “Justin, it is very cold here today…” And, then for a fleeting moment, I had the silliest thought. I should have brought him a blanket. As soon as the thought passed, a picture followed. The picture had me on my hands and knees tucking a blanket in around the edges of his grave. Little did I know there is really such a thing as a grave blanket used to decorate the cemetery during the holiday seasons. But that is for another day.
I also remember walking Justin’s little section of the cemetery and “meeting the neighbors.” I would read each headstone and try to imagine the life it represented. I sat on the small garden bench made of brick, stone and marble featuring statues of the four gospel writers standing watch over their charges. “The Garden of the Gospels” offers me comfort and serenity when I visit. It’s large, Texas Pecan Trees offer shade and the soft, St. Augustine grass provides me a soft cushion upon which to sit. Squirrels give chase and remind me of times when Justin and I would stand in the laundry room and watch the squirrels harvest pecans from our backyard tree. And, when I see the squirrels there, they make me smile.
4. Educate yourself on grief recovery. I recommend everyone I know attend a grief recovery class that will help you learn to process your grief in healthy ways and know when to ask for help. Joining a support environment helped me immensely and I encourage you to surround yourself with like-minded people who are familiar with the type of loss you’ve suffered. They will not weary of hearing your story or seeing your tears. They will provide a safe place for you to work through the process of grief.
Again, there are grief support environments available through a variety of avenues. Most churches offer or will refer you to something close to your home. Funeral homes often have a list of resources for the newly bereaved. If violent crime is involved, the state and local law enforcement communities offer victim of violent crime support and even pay for professional counseling. Please be sensitive to the fact that your children will process grief differently than you. Get them help if needed. If you don’t have a support environment in your area, find a good grief counselor and work through the process with them. There are many programs and environments out there to help children and adults alike when dealing with any and every kind of loss.
NOTE: Sometimes the emotions of grief can be overwhelming. If you find you tend toward insomnia, depression, increased anxiety or other psychological/medical problems during your grieving season get help. Minor physical health concerns often snowball and become major if grief becomes unhealthy. Don’t avoid medications to help stabilize your emotions for a season, but instead seek medical and psychological care if you feel or others have indicated to you that you are stuck in an unhealthy place.
5. Forgive. Forgive anyone involved in the loss. Let yourself off the hook for not being able to stop it. Release any judgments against God for not interceding and keeping you from the pain. Forgive the person who died if needed. Forgive.
It will truly set you free. Again, this may be an area where you need to seek spiritual or psychological counsel from a pastor or LPC to help you walk this out. Until you are able to forgive, find a healthy activity that allows you to work through your anger and pain without hurting others. Some good ones are: Baking bread – punching dough can be very therapeutic; Taking an art class – pour out your emotions in paints and pencils; Take up woodworking or develop a hobby like gardening. Anything that helps you focus all the emotional energy you have toward something productive. But, most of all, learn to sense when your anger or emotional response is toxic or irrational and separate yourself from those who might be hurt by it for a short time. I mean hours and minutes unless a mentor or psychological professional feels that it would be beneficial for you to take a few days away. Work through the hard feelings while you are way and return when they have subsided. Learn to ask for help when you need it.
6. Don’t be afraid when life comes around again. There will come a time when a new normal begins to take shape. Allow this season to redefine normal and help you move or grieve forward. Moving forward does not mean you leave the person or thing lost behind. It simply means that you’ve found your way through the valley to a place of life, hope and joy again.
It’s okay to enjoy it. Give yourself permission to laugh, go to the movie or out with friends. Once you are at a place of acceptance, find ways to reach out and help others who are grieving and share your testimony of how God walked you through your season of pain and change.
7. Testify. Tell His Story. Tell Your Story. Give God the glory. Telling how God has redeemed your loss, your tears and your pain is all about His glory. It is also how we defeat the enemy. We testify about how Jesus redeems and the blood of the lamb provides a powerful solution… VICTORY.
Not only that, continue to tell others about your loved one. Tell others about the way they lived more so than how they died. Tell about what they did to make you laugh or the funny stories you would normally share if they were still here. One of the hardest questions I answer these days is “How many children do you have?”
The answer is five. If they inquire about them I will tell them our story – if not then I don’t share. I know that hearing I have suffered the loss of a child causes people to grieve for me, hurt for me. I don’t want them to hurt. I tell people of Justin, “I’ve sent him on to heaven for safe keeping.” Indeed.
As I bring this series to an end, I would like to offer you a handful of other examples of how grief affected me. At first I thought I was nuts, but grief education helped me to realize that these examples are simply our minds way of coping with a loss.
About a year after my son passed away I found myself following a kid through Wal-Mart. (Yes, this really happened.) His size and build were about the same as my son. He dressed in similar fashion and his hair was cut and colored about the same. From behind he looked just like my boy walking through the store.
I was there when my son’s lifeless body exhaled the last time. I placed my hand over his cold, pale hands in the casket just a couple of days before they buried him. I watched them close the covering and place him in the ground on August 27, 2005. I know he is dead. Better yet, I know the young man I am following is not my son.
I followed this young man through the entire store hoping to have him turn around and be my Justin. Of course, he was not and so I left heartbroken and trying to figure out why I would do something so odd. One word explains the behavior: Grief.
About a year and a half in I walked up the stairs and stopped at Justin’s picture near the top of the landing and ran my fingers over the glass tracing the lines of his face. Tears stung at my eyes as the emptiness loomed in my heart. “Is it possible that I dreamed you up. I can’t remember your laugh, or the way you felt in my arms. Is it possible that your 17 years were merely a figment of my imagination”? The answer is no, I didn’t imagine my son’s life. He died and time had made it harder for me to realize him. But, again the explanation for this odd rational remains: GRIEF.
And still, not too long after I stood at the top of the stairs wondering if I had lost my mind with my memories… I had another encounter that shook me at my core. I stepped into the bathroom to get ready for work. My home stood empty while Scott had gone to work and the girls to school. Suddenly, as I took out my curling iron I heard, “Momma!”
Justin’s voice reverberated off the walls and the ceiling. My heart leaped as it hoped for a fleeting moment that I had been dreaming all that time and indeed my son had come home. I ran through the house looking for the source of the voice. I wept and cried out to God, “Why?” No answer.
Did I hear my son’s voice or did I hear God telling me my son was okay? I don’t know. I imagine my brain tried to hold onto the memories of my son and what I heard remains an audible memory that can be explained as only one thing:
I later learned through grief recovery and support group that it is not unusual for the bereaved to think they see their loved one or hear their voice but it is just the mind’s way of processing the absence and loss of the one they have loved.
In closing, I would like to say I don’t remember exactly the moment life began to happen for me again. I don’t recall with great detail the day joy just bubbled up into my life without me having to hunt it down and tackle it. I do remember speaking on the phone with a fellow bereaved parent one afternoon about the two year mark and after sharing a wonderful report of the week’s news we laughed good and long. In that moment I said, “I don’t know when it happened but joy’s come back into my life again.”
With hope and acceptance come joy, and God’s promises are true. Psalm 30:5 says that sorrow and weeping last through the night but joy and laughter come with the morning.
I love how the Message paraphrase recounts this verse:
All you saints! Sing your hearts out to God!
Thank him to his face!
He gets angry once in a while, but across
a lifetime there is only love.
The nights of crying your eyes out
give way to days of laughter.
God’s promise in Isaiah 61 is that He will grant a garment of praise for a spirit of heaviness and the oil of joy or gladness for those who mourn. He goes on in Matthew 5 to say that those who mourn shall be comforted. It is God’s heart for you to love you through the dark seasons to a place of light and life again. Hold fast to Him, Beloved, He is for YOU!