Yesterday, I celebrated my sweet Sarah’s 13th birthday, wracked with profound grief. Sarah transitioned to Heaven early in December after contracting viral myocarditis. It was such a shock to our family, friends and the community at large. People from around the world – literally – were praying with us as this sweet child battled an awful virus that attacked her heart. And those same people have supported us in our grief.
The initial shock is beginning to fade, and I find myself living in the reality of the grief. The loss. The gut-punch of never seeing her in this realm, yet feeling her presence on a soul-level.
To say that the past year or so of my life has been the worst season of my existence is a gross understatement. So, while I am on my healing journey, self-care has been a huge priority.
A month or so ago, my hairstylist/friend, recommended the book, “The Artist’s Way,” by Julia Cameron. The book is an exercise in tapping back into the creativity we all have, and using our art – in any form – as a building block to healing. A great way to self-care.
Ordering the book, I was struck with the thought, “I know I heard about this book before,” but I couldn’t remember why. An email reminder that I received the next day re-engaged my brain: I had signed up for a workshop at our local library, based on this book – and it was being facilitated by a friend of mine.
“I could give you some medication for him. It would alleviate some of the pain, but…”
I knew when I hugged him that it would be for the last time. Cradled in my oldest son’s arms, I bid farewell to our family’s dog.
He had a wonderful life. He lived better than some humans, as he never wanted for a meal or a warm place to lay his head.
Apparently, I slept through what my husband said was Jack’s very labored breathing. Our dear old dog made some very odd sounds, jarring my husband awake. And since I woke at my usual time, I let Jack outside while I filled his dish with his breakfast, not knowing what had transpired through the night.
This morning I had the privilege of watching my granddaughters before school started. It was a “late start day,” which used to cause me some angst in the mornings. I know it messes up the routine for many working parents, since an hour of childcare is needed at an awkward time, causing a disruption in the usual hurried morning.
But these days, since I don’t have to corral sleeping kids off to school in the morning, I enjoy helping out by having the girls over for breakfast – even if they ended up eating the pumpkin muffins their mom sent over for me.
We had a little silly time, a little talk time, and a few rounds of playing “Go Fish.” I laughed when one of the girls said, “You go first because you are the oldest,” which I thought sounded much better than, “Because you are old.” A little before nine, we headed outside. A neighbor was going to drop them off at school, so I walked them down the sidewalk adjacent to our yard, which is now sporting a beautiful blanket of colorful leaves – a season of change.
“Everything has seasons, and we have to be able to recognize when something’s time has passed and be able to move into the next season. Everything that is alive requires pruning as well, which is a great metaphor for endings.” – Henry Cloud
Just a moment ago, it was summer, and they were running around in the yard catching fireflies in jars or doing cartwheels or playing basketball. Now, they will be excited to come over and rake all the leaves into a huge pile and jump into it.
As they made their way into our neighbor’s car, I turned around and looked at the yard. Other than the leaves and my trusty dog, it was completely empty and quiet.
Though it seems like yesterday, it was almost ten years ago that our yard had a completely different look. It was a hot summer day, and it was early morning when my husband, kids and a few other relatives were moving around under the huge canopies set up for our oldest daughter’s wedding. My husband made a wedding trellis; tables and chairs were decorated; a dance floor was set up, and we were ready to welcome more than 100 family and friends to celebrate.
Sometimes when I look into the yard, I can’t believe how it had held so many people, and how beautiful it looked with tulle along the fence line and pots of flowers scattered throughout. So many people pitched in to help. So many people attended and shared a special day.
I thought of all the people that filled our yard that summer day.
For a moment, I let myself have a cry. In less than a decade, both sides of the family have lost dear loved ones: my dad, my grandfather, my great-aunt, my husband’s cousin; the groom’s grandmother, and, sadly, this year within ten months, we lost the groom’s parents. I was kind of taken aback, because I didn’t expect to look at my quiet yard and feel so moved. Just standing on the sidewalk, I looked over the fence and saw where everyone was sitting, smiling and talking.
Grief doesn’t really know a time frame. Some days you smile at memories, and sometimes you weep. There isn’t a right way to grieve, or a wrong way. You never know which way a memory will take you, so you just go through the moment.
Maybe today’s memory happened because the leaves on the grass reminded me of my dad and his vigilant effort to get them out of his yard. Maybe it happened because the quiet was a little too quiet once the girls left for school. Maybe it was because of hormones. Or maybe it is because midlife is like fall – a beautiful, colorful season of change – a time of enormous transformation, yet a time to reflect and perhaps even mourn.
Watching the next generation skip down the side walk heading to the neighbor’s and ultimately to school, the grief lifted momentarily. How could I not smile as they waved and yelled, “Bye, Mema!” They are so full of life and wonder and growth – like spring.
Back in the house, I allowed myself to mourn a bit more. I realized that like summer, life seems short. I took a few minutes to remember the loved ones my granddaughters are probably too young to remember. I thanked God for the people that are in my life, and those who no longer are – physically, anyway – because they will always be alive in my heart.
And I promised those we’ve lost that we will keep them alive in my granddaughters’ hearts, too. They loved those little girls, just as we do. So, we will make great memories and tell the girls stories about the ones we loved and lost – the ones who shared a special wedding day with us – the day that was the beginning of their little family, and a day I cried happy tears when I looked into the yard.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; …” Ecclesiastes 3: 1-22
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” – Fred Rogers
It’s hard to believe that yesterday at this time, sleet, rain and snow flurries were taking turns smacking against the windows. It was gray, cold and dreary – a typical November day in our area of the world. Twenty-four hours later, the sun is streaming through the windows of a pretty late-fall day, and as I had let the dog back in the house, I could hear the comforting bells chiming at the church a block away.
“This is the price you pay for having a great father. You get the wonder, the joy, the tender moments – and you get the tears at the end, too.” – Harlan Coben
I’ve come to the realization that Father’s Day will always be bittersweet. The first few years after my dad’s death were really difficult, and you can tell by the type of posts I wrote that I was really grieving.
Given the current climate of our country, and our world, anxiety seems pretty high these days. I know I am not alone. For me, I can toss in mid-life adjustments, family circumstances and an insanely busy schedule to the big bowl of life, and mixing it all together, I can attest that I am feeling a bit on-edge and hyper; simply put – anxious.
Add another ingredient of life into the mixing bowl – my dad passed away a little over two years ago. I still miss him. He was my “go-to” guy when I felt anxious. He didn’t always try to fix things; most of the time he just listened.
The father-daughter bond we shared was very strong, and even though I can’t physically see or hear him, I think of him daily, and I believe he communicates in his own special way.
For instance, a few hours before my dad passed away, we experienced an early evening, mid-summer storm. Strong winds, thunder, lightening – the works. A vibrant and a most beautiful rainbow appeared shortly after the storm… and a rainbow occurred monthly at the same time – the 23rd day of each month – for several months after his death. Anyone who has lost someone so dear marks the monthly anniversary until it becomes a yearly observation. (Oh, this was amazing, too – a rainbow appeared on the first Father’s Day we celebrated without him.)
I will be going about my day, thinking of Dad, and then, one of his favorite songs will be on the radio, or one of his favorite hymns will be listed in the church bulletin. During times of incredible stress, I have seen Dad in my dreams. He says nothing, but has the most peaceful smile and always gives me a hug.
It is all too vivid and the timing is way too perfect to be called a coincidence.
When fall rolls around, I think of him constantly. Anyone who knew my dad also knew he had an immaculate yard, and during the fall, he declared a full-on attack of leaves. Yes, this is the man who would stop mid-conversation to go outside and grab a leaf off the front lawn. And yes, this is the same man who “slid” off the roof and broke his leaf blower because, yes, he was on the roof, ridding it of leaves, so that they wouldn’t land in the yard.
During Dad’s eulogy, our pastor shared these stories to all who came to celebrate his life. There was so much laughter. Seriously, who gets on the roof and, essentially, rakes it? One year, my siblings and our spouses wanted to bring bags of leaves and dump them all over the yard as a prank, so that when Dad grabbed his morning paper, he would be greeted with 3-4 inches of leaves covering every blade of grass. We didn’t, because, well, we knew that could have caused a major health event. We didn’t want to bear that burden the rest of our lives!
When we interred Dad’s ashes in a memorial garden at church, there was a hush of quiet as our immediate family gathered. It was a pretty fall day, and the earlier rain had subsided in the nick of time. Pastor was reading some Scripture, and said a prayer, and then there was a quiet murmur, which turned to some mild snickering… because in the spot where Dad’s remains would eternally rest, in that just-opened space in the memorial wall, what does our pastor find? A leaf. He wondered if we should remove it, or leave it there to drive dad crazy for all eternity.
See what I mean? I swear he sends us messages from beyond.
Well, I have really needed my dad these past few weeks. What I wouldn’t have given to just talk to him, which I still do. I guess what I really wanted was to hear his voice.
This past Sunday, after worship, my youngest daughter and I took a stroll through another garden at church. It was a nice walk, and we had just heard our pastor’s sermon about angels. The garden, still sporting some roses in the early fall, was peaceful and pretty, with a calming fountain and lots of stones with Scripture verses along the path. Halfway through our walk, one stone stood out to me because, of all things, there was a leaf laying on it. One, lone leaf, which, of course, caught my eye. Any time I see a random leaf, I can’t help to think of dear old dad.
Oh my gosh…I had to grab my phone and snap a photo, because I honestly could not believe my eyes! Straight from heaven – a message from dad!
Right under the leaf, the Scripture verse read: “Do not be anxious about anything.” Philippians 4:6.
Teary-eyed, and a little shaken, I looked up, and whispered, “Thanks, Dad.”
“Somewhere there’s someone who dreams of your smile, and finds in your presence that life is worth while. So when you are lonely, remember it’s true: Somebody, somewhere, is thinking of you.” – Unknown
Christmas is the season of hope and miracles. Festive lights and decorations are everywhere. There is absolutely no escaping it. No matter where you are, music is playing. Wishes for snow and gifts are plentiful. To-do lists and errands seem miles long. Hustle and bustle. And exhaustion – all in an effort to have everything “perfect.”
For weeks I have been asked: Are you ready for Christmas? Are you in the holiday spirit? Don’t you love this time of year?
No. No. And this year, no.
For the record, I am not a Grinch. Most years, I am as wound up as a five-year-old waiting for the big day. Though no longer a child, I do believe in Santa. On Christmas Eve, I search the sky, looking for the jolly ol’ elf. And I believe in Christmas magic and the hope of this season. The Babe in Bethlehem is my Salvation.
But I am not really into Christmas this year.
I have freely admitted this to many people, and save for a few, I am greeted with shock and horror. Some people look at me like I am crazy.
But I am normal. And I don’t need a therapist and I don’t need an anti-depressant.
I just need people to understand that, for me, this is a difficult holiday season. I am going to smile. And I am going to laugh. And I am going to cry. And those tears are healing. Those tears are okay.
Christmas will be different this year. That doesn’t make it bad – it doesn’t make it good. It makes it different. I never wanted it to be different.
I wanted it to be perfect.
At some point in our lives, how we celebrate Christmas changes. Children grow up, family members move, dads pass away. Maybe, for the first time in my life, I really have come to understand that there is no such thing as the perfect Christmas.
I overheard a conversation that resonated with me. Two women were discussing the emphasis on to-do lists, and shopping and baking, “all for one day.” The older woman hit the nail on the head – that the emphasis is on the wrong place.
“All you need to be ready for Christmas is to be surrounded by the ones you love.”
Yet, this year, there will be very dear ones missing from our celebrations – but because of my I love for them, they will be in attendance, for they are always close in my heart. Always.
Undoubtedly, Christmas will be different. Acknowledging that difference and that I won’t do all the same things this year relieves me of some of the pressures of “perfect.” I won’t have to pretend I am happy if I am having a sad moment. Different will make previous memories more precious, and new moments memorable.
Different will give me an ever greater appreciation of what I have been blessed with, which will go a long way towards healing my broken heart.
Different will also force me to look outside of myself and share with others – hard as that may be – even if all I can do is muster up a smile or be polite.
Maybe different will cause me to become different – but in a good and more thoughtful way. Maybe it will give me a greater compassion for the lonely, the hurting or for those experiencing loss.
Maybe, just maybe, different will one day feel perfect.
“It is the personal thoughtfulness, the warm human awareness, the reaching out of the self to one’s fellow man that makes giving worthy of the Christmas spirit.” – Isabel Currier
How are you helping yourself or a loved one this holiday season?