Wednesday, January 14, 2015

So Loved

It was one of those inspirational signs that got me thinking.

It referred to Jesus as God's unspeakable gift. While I didn't really get the word choice (Unspeakable? Wouldn't indescribable be better?), it set me to thinking about God's love.

Parents who have lost a child may find themselves questioning God or their own faith -- I know I did. I was angry at God for allowing Ethan to die, full of questions and rocked that my prayers and faith had not led to his recovery from addiction. I was so certain that it was just a matter of time, that God would put the right people in his life or open the door that would allow him to see what his life had become. It was not that I stopped believing in God -- the whole idea is incomprehensible to me -- it was that it felt like He didn't really care.

Yet eventually this terrible loss took me to different place. In this place I feel God's love in a way I don't think I ever comprehended it before.

We're not perfect and from the time Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, we could never be. Yet God wants us to be with Him. Sure, it would be easy to say that everyone got a free pass, but then what would be the point of life and what kind of souls would we possess if we'd never faced any challenges or had to make choices? So from the beginning, He had a plan. To show His love, He would forgive our imperfections. So that we could understand how hard that was, it had to involve a sacrifice. For a time He allowed lesser sacrifices, but He knew that a time was coming when the sacrifice had to be huge. It was.

He sacrificed His son, Jesus, for us. He sent him out of his eternal presence to earth to live as a mortal man, He allowed men to beat him and crucify him. In order for Jesus to die, He had to sever for a while that eternal connection.

I've lost a son. I know the pain of a child's death. Would I let my son die for a bunch of people who didn't even know or care about him? Soldiers' families do it every day. Would I let him die for people who might care? Law enforcement officers' parents do it all too often. Would I let him die for someone I loved? Maybe, if he were willing, but just imagining that choice brings tears to my eyes.

Would I have let him die if it had been within my power to stop it? No way in this world or the next.

God did all those things.

Had He even thought it, the crowds crying for Jesus' death would have dropped dead, the soldiers would have crumbled to ash, Jesus would have soared back to His side. He could have stopped it, but out of love for people who would one day realize the sacrifice and people who never would even acknowledge it, He didn't. Jesus died for our forgiveness. There is nothing within our power that could ever equal that sacrifice; all we have to do is believe and accept it.

There are people who lose a child and say, "How can a God who loves me do this?" I have been that person at times. But I've become the person who says, "How could God love me that much?"

With all the mistakes and baggage I've accumulated through my life, how could He love me enough to send Jesus? How could He love any of us enough to accept, even for a little while, this pain?

Sure, He knew how it was going to turn out. He knew Jesus would triumph over death and rise from the grave. Don't we know the same thing?

I know that Jesus' victory is Ethan's as well and that while Jesus was in the grave for three days, Ethan flew from his body into the arms of the God who loved him enough to make the sacrifice of His own son.

No, that doesn't heal my grief. I'm still floored by it sometimes. I still cry and my arms ache to hold my son, my ears strain for the sound of his voice.

But sometimes when I cry, like now, it's not because of my loss. It's because I finally understand how much God loves me and the rest of humanity.

Perhaps, after all, it was an unspeakable gift He gave.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger

There's a well known saying I've found to be true.

What doesn't kill us does make us stronger.

Most of us go through life with a mental list of the things we don't believe we could survive. The list is generally the things we fear most -- not the phobias that make us laugh nervously in a crowd, but the things we don't talk about, the things we see happen to other people and say a silent prayer of thanksgiving because they aren't happening to us.

That list might include cancer, debilitating injury or disease, living with addiction, and loss in myriad forms.

For a parent, that list would be topped by the death of your child.

It's the darkest place you can imagine going, the thing you shy away from facing. When it happens to a friend, you struggle with what to do and say and may even try to avoid it because your own fears drive you to deny that reality. Even when it happens to a stranger, you feel some internal tug.

That's the world where I used to live. It's a place where my absolute worst fear, despite my son's addiction and all of the darkness and pain that came along with it, was still something I could not imagine facing.

I'd faced addiction in people I loved before. I'd faced lumps and biopsies. I'd escaped domestic violence. I'd buried my dearest pet (and hardly eaten for a week). I didn't realize each of these survivals was preparing me, making me stronger.

Then Ethan died.

My worst nightmare came true. My reality shifted from what I had known to living what had been unimaginable. There was no path to follow, no plan for how to survive. It was the thing that I didn't believe there was a way to survive, not in a way that saw life go on with any degree of normalcy.

Yet, the next morning I got up again. One day at a time I accepted a new reality. Somehow despite all the pain and the sense of being lost in a dark place inside much of the time, days passed, then weeks, months, and finally a year.

The thing I ran from became my reality and changed who I am.

It's a oxymoron that losing Ethan made me stronger, but at the same time chipped away that tough veneer I showed the world, that professional objectivity I'd spent 25 years as a journalist perfecting. Now, instead of running from someone else's pain, I'm more likely to cry for and with them. I want to help them bear it because having gotten this far, I know I'm stronger and that one day, in their own time, they will be stronger, too.

I want people who have lost a child, regardless of the age or circumstance, to realize none of us are alone in what we are feeling. Whether it's a tragedy that rallies the community for a few weeks, or one that no one knows how to talk about, what we're left feeling is the same broken sense of being. We're still mothers and father and aunts and uncles and grandparents, it's just that our children aren't where we can touch them any more. They live every day in our hearts and through faith we will see them again someday.

Now when I hear of a child dying, my prayer is for those left behind and it's usually said with tears in my eyes because I know what they are going through. Knowing that the things I needed to hear were the words only other parents who had lost children could say, I try to reach out whenever I can. I try to pass on the love I felt when my friends who had lost children came to my house after Ethan's death, when strangers hugged me with tears in their eyes.

I still like to pretend I've had my share of pain and that life has been as dark for me as it will ever be, but I also realize there is no quota to be met. Bad things could still happen and all the fears that I still carry for my loved ones and myself could become real all too easily. There are still things I don't think I can survive, but sometimes there's a part of me that says it's more of a matter of not wanting to live through than it is inability to survive. And perhaps that's what it was all along.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Happier New Year

Happy New Year.

Last year those words rang as false to me as the words of a TV evangelist promising physical and spiritual wealth if only we mail in a check.

This year, I realize there is the possibility of happiness again.

The thought hit me while curled at the end of the love seat with a dog on my lap as I contemplated a Facebook news feed full of holiday greetings. I was suddenly mindful of the tender swath across my abdomen and thought that a year ago I would never have imagined being exactly who and where I was today.

A year ago the reality of Ethan's death was still something that stood by the bed to greet me each morning. Every day I had to embrace the new reality of my life, opening my heart for what still felt like it should be a death blow for me as well. Laughter, and even a smile, felt like a betrayal of my son. How could I share holiday greetings when my world was so torn apart? How could I go on living, making new memories, finding a different future than the one I'd always believed in?

Last year, Happy New Year felt like a lie I could not abide. Kinder new year was the most I hoped to find.

Yet against the odds, it seems happy found me anyway. Not with the tossing out of the calendar, but in the days and weeks that followed.

I discovered I was not an island, the only person who had ever felt my kind of loss, but instead just a mountain peak. As the tide of my grief subsided, I found I was part of a chain of mountains connected to others who felt the same pain. There were friends with whom I never expected to share this bond, and virtual strangers I met in cyberspace.

Our shared pain transcended circumstance and distance. We connected through blogs and text messages and late night Facebook messaging and phone calls. Sometimes the grief returned like a high tide and sometimes like a tsunami, but I learned to reach across the waves to the other mountains and hold on.

I learned that when others offered to talk it wasn't the platitudes that are often offered to the grieving. They called and sent cards and messages and I accepted that they were sincere and when I found myself teetering on an emotional ledge, I learned to pick up the phone.

I discovered there are other kinds of grief and loss that give me common ground with people who haven't lost a child, and I learned to accept hugs and comfort and friendship where I found it.

I struggled with good habits and bad, and found the long peaceful walks I'd enjoyed for so long were one thing I could not endure. But a needy dog with more issues than friends meant I couldn't quit, even when I had no desire to go. I lost two of my support networks -- my Zumba studio and my church -- but I kept dancing and worshipping and found that while I missed old routines, new ones weren't always bad.

I found that airing my grief helped me work through it and that taking time to focus on good things helped me recognize there were still reasons to smile. I found songs to make me cry and others that made me smile and sometimes one song that would do both. I opened myself to seeing Ethan everywhere, and after a while it gave me pleasure instead of pain.

I took care of myself, sometimes the hardest thing to do when life demanded so much. I struggled to balance my desire to withdraw from life with my need to keep living, and gradually the living and moving won out.

Now the waves of grief are more likely to lap around my feet than crash over my head, but the sound of the ocean never fades. I know the shore of loss is where I'll pass the remainder of my days, but I no longer feel I'll be drowned there.

Instead I feel hopeful that happy will continue to find me as long as I'm willing to see it. A new year full of change and possibility has begun. I never would have imagined myself here, yet here I am, embracing the life God has given me to lead, becoming another mountain to those still lost in the flood of grief.