Grief is Forever

It has been ages since I’ve written in this blog.  Months.

Part of me feels bad because I want to document this process of grief that started…well, the grief started long before Luna, but my documentation started with Luna.  But what I’ve discovered is that grief is forever.

The way that my grief makes itself known is different now than it used to be, but it’s still there.  It’s a little monster that sits in my chest and waits until small tiny little nothings appear (like the perfect bite of pinto beans and cornbread or a Wonder Woman sweater that’s not my size) before it attacks and causes fresh pain all over again.

It will be six years in December since Jake died of his heart attack and I still pause before cleaning out his bathroom because I remember how I felt the first time I cleaned it after he died.  We found him on that floor.  He died in that room.  And the feeling I get is not disgust or sadness, it’s fear that I’m erasing evidence of his presence in that room.  Fear that I’m removing him from the space.  I still make my family call his room HIS room.  Not the spare room.  Not the blue room.  Jake’s room.  Uncle Bubba’s room.  Because he existed. He filled that space and to call it anything else ignores that…..doesn’t it?  (Forget the fact that my son, Bo, is like a mini-Jake in his interests and habits and personality.  Case and point:  he is currently working on a book of mythical creatures, now that he has finished his instruction manual for building a dragon robot.  I totally blame Jake for that one.)

Four years ago this month, we found out about Luna’s Turners Syndrome and started the whole medical rigmarole of appointments and ultrasounds and echocardiograms two and three times a week.  There are certain smells and sounds that I associate with that time in my life – medical tape, the rubber tubing of a stethoscope, the sound of velcro like a blood pressure cuff, the ppppbbbbbt sound of squirting gel out of a bottle.  It’s silly but every time someone squirts stuff out of a plastic bottle (ketchup, mustard, hair gel), it reminds me of the ultrasound where we found out Luna’s heart was no longer beating.

That means it has been almost four years without Jen.  I see so much of Jen in her sons that I miss her almost constantly. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t wish I could call her and talk to her.  Even to this day, I still forget sometimes that I can’t call her up.  Someone gave me some sad news this morning and my first reaction was to pick up my phone and call a dead woman!  The saddest part of this for me is that I find myself holding in a lot because she isn’t around to talk to.  That woman was so easy to talk to that I could vent about her TO her!  I have a collection of stories that I’m saving for her one day.  Maybe I should write them down.

And my dad.  Oh, Daddy.  I don’t even know where to start with my daddy.  I’m still not sure how I’m functioning without having hugged that man in almost three years.  I’m not ready to get in to that.

BUT, my point is that grief doesn’t ever go away.  It doesn’t stop.  Once you’ve experienced it, grief will always be a part of you.  Those of you grieving now?  Don’t wait for it to go away.  Don’t expect to “get over it.”  Don’t think there is something wrong if it still hurts after all this time.

It changes you forever. FOR.EV.ER. (How many of you said that like the kid from the movie Sandlot?)

But don’t let it change you for the worst.

Yes, I am sad more often now than I was.  But my happy is more happy than it’s ever been.  My joy is amplified to degrees that it never could have if I wasn’t given the opportunity to see and appreciate what God has given me.

I miss Jake and Luna and Jen and Dad.  I have these great big gaping holes in my life that cannot be filled up with anything or anyone else.  But I also have these amazing people in my life that love me and need me. My family.  My friends.  My students.  My coworkers.

Thank you God, for teaching me to love with more of my heart.  Thank you, God for showing me how to minister to my family, friends and students in ways I never could before.  Thank you, God for giving me the opportunity to help those who hurt.  Thank you, God, for making me more like you.  Continue to work in me, Lord.

Thank you, my loved ones, for loving me back.

Isn’t that what makes us grieve in the first place?  Our love?  What I mean is that I wouldn’t be sad about any of them if I didn’t love them in the first place.  I wouldn’t miss them if I didn’t love them.  I wouldn’t be upset if I wasn’t blessed by having them in my life in the first place.

Grief is forever.  But so is God.  And God is love.

 

The Sun Shines through the Trees

I have a confession to make.  I haven’t been writing in my blog because I haven’t been feeling like I had anything important or wise to say in my grief.  In fact, my father’s death hit me like a ton of bricks, as the cliche goes and I haven’t felt quite the same since.

There was a day this past summer when I was riding in the car with my mom on the way to Lancaster when I noticed something was different.  I looked out the window at the beautiful scenery and I didn’t feel sad.

We were on our way to Green Dragon – a huge flea market – and were going to spend the day with many of my extended family members.  I brought all four kids, including the newbie that was just weeks old.

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Taking a break from the flea market shopping to take a picture with my children.  You can’t see it, but I’m wearing Finn too.

The last time I had gone to Green Dragon had been with BOTH of my parents, and I was already preparing for moments where my eyes would fill with tears and I’d have to hold it back.  Memories of laughing with my dad and eating with him and walking with him. Wishing he was still with us to buy big jugs of beet red pickled eggs and munch on sausages and pretzels.

But they didn’t come.

Well, the memories did, but the tears didn’t.  Not that I wasn’t sad that he wasn’t there to form NEW memories, but I wasn’t sad about the old memories.  I was actually happy about the old memories.  Happy to have them.  Joyful to share them with others.  Glad to remember him and those moments with  him.

My dad had been dead for over a year at that point and that was the first time I could feel like I was peeking over the mountain that is my grief. It’s almost like every time someone I loved died, the grief was piled higher and higher and it became more and more difficult to pull myself up to the summit so I could see the sun shining on the other side.

And for the past year, I think I’ve been stuck clinging to the edge of my grief by my very fingertips, getting more and more exhausted trying to hold on.

I’ve struggled with anxiety and insomnia.  I’ve worried and cried and worried some more about who was going to die next and what I would do if I lost someone else. What if the house catches on fire?  What if I drop this baby down the stairs?  What if that ache in my stomach is actually cancer?  As though being hyper-aware of every possible catastrophe would allow me to be better prepared.

I’ve struggled with depression.  I’ve carved a seat in the cushions of my couch that held me for days, wearing the same sweatpants and t-shirt the whole time. I’ve told myself that it doesn’t matter.  That I shouldn’t worry because as time goes on, more people are going to die. That’s just a fact of life.  People die.  I’ve chanted in my head a quote I heard when I was very young:  “From the moment we are born, we begin to die.”  As though being fatalistic would prevent me from having any hope and therefore keep me from feeling disappointed when someone died.

I was clutching my grief to my heart with all my strength.  Holding on so tightly that I couldn’t function in normal life.

But that day in Lancaster, I was lying on a picnic blanket staring up into the sky through the dark green leaves of a summer tree, listening to the tones of the voices of my family around me – not the words.  Just the tones. The bright tenor of my Uncle Joe and the warm altos of my aunts Chrissy, T and Mecky.  The sharp squeals of small children laughing and playing. The whispered sigh of a Nana holding a new baby while he sleeps.

And I realized my grief was beneath me.

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This is the exact view from that morning.  

It’s still there.  Ever present. Inescapable.  I am constantly standing on top of a mountain of grief.  But it’s not the first thing on my mind in the morning and the last thing on my mind at night.

Standing on the summit, I can see the sun.  The Son.

And feel hope.

Hope in knowing that life – no matter how hard or sad or complicated – is not about our brief time on this Earth.  And that hard times will keep coming, but I have hope that God will refine my heart through them.

That his purpose is greater than what I can see.  Maybe even greater than I will ever see.  Definitely greater than I am capable of seeing.

So, today, on the third anniversary of Luna’s stillborn delivery – the day we celebrate as her birthday, I ask you to have hope. To remember that God is calling us to lives of difficulty and trial.  But to lives that glorify Him.  To have hope that life is not actually about this time here.  Or about the death that ends this life here.

I went back and read some of the blog posts I wrote when I lost Luna and I wonder who the heck that woman was.  I want to meet her. Her words filled my heart with joy and my eyes with tears.  My grandmother quoted one of my blog posts recently, and I didn’t recognize those words as my own words.  Like I had lost a bit of myself in my struggle with grief.

But I slowly feel it coming back.

I just have to look up to see the Son through the trees.

3 years, 1 year, 9 months, 1 month

It has been 3 years since we found my brother Jake dead.

It has been about 1 year since we buried Luna.

It has been 9 months since we gathered at Jen’s bedside and she breathed her last.

It has been one month since our Baby Joe was born.

It seems that the longer we live the more anniversaries and milestones we have to remember. It almost seems like every day has different memories and every day marks some meaningful event.

I have been mulling over this entry all weekend because I thought I would have something more meaningful to add to this. The truth is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It still feels like yesterday that Jake was slicing my throat with his hand and poking my side so I would jump a mile high. It still feels like Jen is a phone call away and a drive down the street. It still feels like nothing has changed and at the same time, it feels like nothing could ever be the same. Baby Joe will never get to fall asleep cuddled into his Aunt Jen. Maggie and Joe and their cousins Grace and Lolo will never get to play crazy imagination games with their Uncle Jakey. I will never have to whine about finding Jake’s hair all over my floors or complain to Jen about how she never lets me sleep because she wants to stay up late to talk. And Luna would be 9-months now!! What would she be doing? Standing? Pulling herself up? Getting ready to walk?

Some days I can convince myself that nothing has changed and then other days I feel like my loss is dragging me around behind it leaving me bruised and battered for weeks.

It’s strange the things that remind me of my siblings. We got this baby chair for Bo that vibrates and plays music when he was born. We used up the batteries when Bo was a few months old and hadn’t replaced them until a day ago. (Yes, that was four years and two babies ago.) So I hadn’t heard the chair’s music since before Jake died and when we turned that chair on for the first time with Baby Joe in it, my brain got confused. I totally expected to find Jakey in his room doing his ridiculous exercises or something.

And of course it’s Christmas season. So everything reminds me of Jen. Decorating the tree. Christmas shopping. Presents. The other day I saw PeeWee’s Big Adventure on TV. And whenever I dress my children to go out in the cold, at least one of them is wearing something she made.

And can I confess something? Sometimes, if I walk by a window or mirror at the right speed and angle, I think it’s her for a split second before I realize it’s my goofy reflection.

I guess what I am saying is that memories and reminders can be random. And those days where you are expected to remember the ones you’ve lost are no different from any other day except you are reminded more often in the day. And while I am confessing things, I admit that I sometimes like days where I get to think about them more than usual.

Why I love Autumn

Fall was not Jen’s favorite season. She loved the winter holidays and she loved the beauty of spring, but her real favorite was summer. Swimming. Going to the beach. Crabs. Sunshine. Warmth. Cookouts. She has always been a summer girl.

But in my brain, there is so much about fall that reminds me of my sister that it has become almost a symbol of her. This is cheesy, I know, but I am a sentimental pregnant woman. Bear with me.

As the air cools and I have to reach for a scarf in the morning, I realize that most of my scarves were knit by Jen. I wrap the soft warmth around me and it’s as close to a hug as I am going to get. I remember how she chose that pattern for me because it had something in it that made her think of me, whether it was the owls on Maggie’s hat or the Luna pattern of my shawl. Sometimes I think I can see her fingers furiously knitting away at some of those pieces.

Crisp autumn Saturdays mean football and I think about all the football games I went to so that I could cheer alongside Jen for her boys. She was so proud of those boys. Especially on the football field, she saw so much in them that she admired and encouraged. They are fearless and determined. They are smart and made decisions in seconds. She wanted them so much to see how those same qualities would serve them well in everyday life. How many Saturdays did I wrap myself in blankets to sit beside my sister and watch her beam with pride for her husband and sons? Not as many Saturdays as I wish I had, but enough to know that she was beyond happy.

The changing foliage reminds me of Jen for two reasons. First of all, I love that as the leaves on the trees die, they erupt in sheer beauty and color before they gracefully fall to the ground. People travel for miles to watch the leaves as they lose their green chlorophyll – a fact which ultimately means they are losing their ability to support themselves through photosynthesis and are dying. Like those leaves, Jen was definitely dazzlingly beautiful as she was dying. It seemed to me that the more scarred and ragged and tired her body got, the more beautiful and Christlike her heart became. Barely a week before she died, I watched Jen patiently – even sweetly – handle a newbie nurse I would have torn to shreds for her incompetence. A nurse Jen would have torn to shreds herself a few years earlier. And people came from miles around just to be around Jen these last few years because her beauty was so incredible.

But mostly the reds, yellows and oranges of fall remind me of Jen because of something she taught me. The leaves turn these brilliant colors because the green chlorophyll is lost revealing these other pigments underneath. These other pigments were always present, but the chlorophyll hid them. Only during this brief season do the trees let those intimate, personal colors shine through. I feel like Jen was constantly pushing me to let some of my brilliant fall colors shine through. She would encourage me to let people have a glimpse of the real Katie because she was convinced that once people knew that part of me, they would love me the way she did. She would always call me on it when I was trying too hard to behave a certain way. “I know you want people to think you’re tough as nails, but you do have a heart, Katie,” she would say.

Jen died almost seven months ago, but it know she is still pulling the best parts of me out into the open. She is more beautiful than ever and she is still fiercely proud of her boys. If there is yarn in heaven, I also know she’s working on that DNA pattern scarf she always promised me.

And every morning I step out and shiver in the fall air, I remember that fall morning she sat next to me as my infant daughter Luna was lowered into the ground, with her soft, graceful hand in mine. Thank you, Father, for allowing her to be there with me that morning and for every moment I got to spend with her. I look forward to an eternity with her in heaven.

Joy

My grandmother recently posed a question in a daily devotional she emails to some of her former students and some family members like me. She asked “Are you joyful?”

What a question.

In the past two and a half years, the two siblings I considered my closest friends (the ones I saw the most often, opened my heart to and knew the best) have died. One died suddenly of a heart attack and the other died after many years of hospital stays and treatment for leukemia. One died in my home and the other died with her family by her hospital bed. On top of that, in November, I lost a baby at 25 weeks of pregnancy and delivered our Luna stillborn the day after Thanksgiving.

But that wasn’t what passed through my brain when my Oa asked if I was joyful.

I was thinking about Easter. I guess I should clarify by saying that she sent this email out around Easter, which is probably why it came into my head. But here we were at Easter celebrating the day Christ conquered the grave, rose from the dead and saved sinners around the world. How could I be less than joyful?

My joy does not rest in my life here on Earth because all these things are temporary. Losing Jake and Jen taught me that firsthand. If I thought my existence ended here when I died, or that their existences ended when they died, then I would have no joy. If my life here on Earth was everything, then all this pain and loss I have experienced the past few years would be everything. But it’s not. My life basically BEGINS when I die. I will be with Jen and Jake in heaven worshipping God for eternity and glorifying Him in ways I can’t here.

So yes, I am joyful. I am joyful that my God and my Creator had enough mercy and grace to save a poor angry, selfish, impatient, needy woman like me. I am joyful that I get to move past the hurts and the pain of this life and spend eternity experiencing joy that I can’t even imagine. I am joyful that the same God who gave me everything I have chooses to bless me continuously every day. I am joyful that my God has chosen me to bear the burdens of loss that I bear because I know He has a purpose for them and for me. I am joyful because the life I have been given is a life that serves a purpose.

I am also joyful because my losses have taught me not to take things for granted. My God has blessed me so many times in the past thirty years that I cannot linger on the losses and hurts without also thinking of a million reasons to smile. The majority of my memories of Jen are of when she was alive and vibrant and strong – not thin and tired and struggling to breathe. Praise God. My soul aches when I think of the infant I could be holding right now, but it also soars when I think of the tiny soul God has already placed in my belly, due less than a year after Luna was delivered. Better than that, it soars when I think of all that Luna taught me and all the time I got to have with her regardless of her early death. I cannot mourn the five miscarriages my sister had without also thinking of the gorgeous miracle that is her daughter Lolo Fe and the incredible (and gorgeous) miracle that is Jes herself – a woman who never gave in to hopelessness and continued to be joyful no matter what God gave her. I cannot think of my brother’s funeral without remembering the few chuckles I shared with my parents and siblings during the ceremony. I cannot remember my sister’s memorial service without feeling incredibly proud of my brother Chris and nephew Alex.

I guess what I am trying to say is that my heart is joyful. My heart is JOYFUL. Regardless of what I have been through, my God is the same God He always was and always will be and when I handed my life over to him, I did it because I trust Him. And that makes me joyful.

I am joyful because my life is about Him and not about me. Well, at least it should be and when I remember that, I am joyful.

Running on my Treadmill

Someone asked me once why I prefer to use a treadmill over running outside. (Notice I didn’t say “run” on the treadmill.) Sure, when you run outside, you get to watch the changing landscape, and the treadmill keeps you locked in one spot. And outside, the distance you’ve traveled actually feels like a distance whereas the distance on a treadmill just feels like the passage of time.

But the reason I use a treadmill is because I can’t trust myself to keep pushing through the rough spots. On a treadmill, I have to make a firm decision to slow down because I have to push a button to do that and it beeps at me in an annoying, judgmental way. Without that treadmill determining how fast I’m “running” I would run as slow as I possibly could while still looking like I am running. I would avoid those hilly or difficult paths and go for the flattest, simplest, easiest runs possible.

Now, I know that the benefits of exercise would probably be felt sooner and that I would get to my goal fitness level/weight/condition sooner if I had the discipline to push myself without a treadmill telling me what to do. But I know myself, and I don’t have that ability right now. For me, I get in shape faster when I use a treadmill because it forces me to burn calories in ways I never would choose in the midst of my sweaty, exercise-induced exhaustion.

In many ways I feel like my life is this way. If it were left to me, I would never choose to push myself. I would never choose to go through the difficult events in my life. I would have kept Jake alive. I would have kept Luna and would be anxiously awaiting her arrival even now.

I certainly would not choose to give my sister leukemia either. I have watched my sister battle leukemia for over 11 years now and her strength and faith have grown me in immeasurable ways. These are things I never would have learned if it was up to me to choose the path of my life. I would have skipped that path if I approached it on my “run.” I would certain be skipping this most recent hospital stay which feels so different and so serious.

Good thing God is my treadmill. I made the choice to step on that treadmill and allow Him to make decisions for me. It’s much easier to say that you’ll choose to do the difficult thing before you get there. To push those buttons picking a challenging program before you have started. Before you are sweaty and exhausted. Before you start doubting your ability to finish.

There are definitely days when I am positive that I can’t finish and I want to push that button to slow down my treadmill. This weekend feels this way. My feet are dragging. Sweat is getting in my eyes and my heart feels like it is going to burst out of my chest. Maybe I am over-reaching with this metaphor?

The weekend started with some rough news regarding Jen. Anyone who knows Jen knows why the docs won’t give us a timeframe. She is stubborn to a fault and if we try to tell her how much time she has, she will do anything to prove us wrong. We visited her at JHOP on Friday night and she slept most of the time we were there. She has wasted away to a fraction of her physical self and when she opens her eyes, I see a pain there I haven’t seen before. But I did get to see a glimpse of the typical Jen when someone asked her if she needed a nurse and she scoffed, “psh….NO.”

And as a kind of morbid bookend to my weekend, Monday is Luna’s due date. I am not really sure how I am going to feel on that day, but I have certainly been on edge all week leading up to it. There is this surreal feeling as though I have forgotten something or left someone somewhere. Instead of preparing sub plans for my maternity leave, I am lesson planning for the rest of the year. Instead of waiting to feel contractions, I am waiting to hear news about my sister. Instead of feeling excited anticipation, I feel grumpy, antisocial and impatient. Instead of being excited about going to the hospital to deliver a baby, I am hoping I don’t get the call to go to the hospital to be with my sister.

Maybe I would be a little more prepared to handle this if I hadn’t spent the last week going double-time and trying to keep up with everything while Patrick was out of commission with his back problems. Maybe I would be better prepared to handle this stuff with Luna if Jen was healthy and home with us.

But I am not pushing the button to slow down on this treadmill. God has chosen this “run” for me for a reason and He will be glorified through me; otherwise, all of these things would have happened for no reason. I chose a life that would shape me into the woman God wants me to be, and if this is what it takes to get there, then so be it. It is never easy to get our body to look the way we want it to, imagine how much harder it must be to shape a soul.

Father God, I trust you with my life. I hand it over to you completely and I know you will do what is best. Give me the strength to climb these hills and the determination to keep running. Be with Chris and Al and Will and comfort their aching hearts. Create in me a heart full of compassion for others who have experienced loss in their lifetime. Show me the way to use what you have allowed to happen to me to bring you glory and honor, for you are the only one worthy of our praise. Thank you for the time I had with Jake and the joy that Luna brought into my life and for the incredible relationship I have with Jen. I have learned so much from these people – these precious jewels – in my life and I continue to learn from them all. I pray I can be as selfless as Jake, as wise as Luna, as strong as Jen and as faithful as Chris when you need me to be. In all things, Lord, your will be done. In Jesus’ holy name, Amen.

A Return to Normalcy?

The phrase “a return to normalcy” was a slogan coined by some presidential candidate (Harding, maybe?) following World War I. The Great War. While this war was going on, the world thought it was the epitome of horrific wars – the war to end all wars. And the American people wanted nothing more than to feel normal again. And maybe they did feel like things were going back to normal. Until World War II.

In the past week, I have started to feel closer to that normal. Patrick and I had been staying in our first floor spare room (Jake’s room) so that I didn’t have to go up and down so many stairs and we returned to our bedroom Monday. After my washer broke and we bought a new one, I had a renewed drive to keep house and do laundry. I even made the executive decision to put real pants on at least one day this week instead of living in my sweats.

But I can’t help but feel like something else lurks on the horizon. It’s in our nature as women to worry and fret over little things, right? Maybe. But shouldn’t it be more my nature as a believer to hand it all over to God and trust Him with it?

I feel like I have successfully handed Luna over to God, but I am battling with the idea that I have to hand everything over to Him. It’s like I am saying to God, “I gave you Luna, now you have to leave the rest of my life alone.” Like he doesn’t have my permission to do what He wants with my life because he already made one difficult decision for me. What if I can’t have more children? What if something happens to Patrick? Or Bo or Maggie? What if, what if, what if?

It’s the same as the feeling we all have when we’re going through something to feel like people have to be extra nice to us as we grieve. So we feel double slighted when people make our grief about them or make it more difficult for us because of their lack of understanding. We are not entitled to anything – even consideration from people we call our friends. Even a break from life. Even mercy from God when we are in the midst of something difficult. Even a return to normalcy -EVER.

And if I am being honest, I don’t think I want normal. When things were normal, I took life for granted. When things were normal, I had no idea how blessed I was. When things were normal, I had no perspective on God’s plan for my life. When things were normal, I was self absorbed and focused on my plan for my life instead of God’s plan for my life.

I pray only that God would give me faith strong enough to entrust him with my WHOLE life. Faith enough to rejoice in all circumstances. Yes, ALL circumstances. And I am thankful that I could learn this lesson and thankful that I could teach this lesson to my children now instead of later. Thankful for this opportunity to share my heart with all of you.

As we prepare our hearts to celebrate the birth of our Savior, I can’t stop thinking about how Jesus chose to become human. He chose to be born into a life like mine. He chose a life of physical and emotional pain. A life full of earthly sorrow and loss. And why? So that one day I could choose an eternity in heaven with Him. An eternity free of physical and emotional pain. An eternity free of sorrow and loss. An ETERNITY with the child and brother I have already lost.

So whatever God ordains for my life is worth it. Not because I get that eternity in heaven, but because my God is faithful and merciful and just. He is worthy of my trust. Worthy of my FULL and TOTAL trust. Pray with me that we can all give ourselves over to Him completely especially now in this Advent season.