The “Club” No One Wants to Talk About
5 Ways to Help Those Facing Tragedy and Grief
When life doesn’t turn out like you planned

The “Club” No One Wants to Talk About

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Last year I met a woman whose husband was dying of cancer. Hospice had been called in. Her husband only had months left.

She told me how hard it was to watch someone die. I nodded in agreement.

It is hard.

She said that her husband’s pain was so bad, she didn’t want him to suffer anymore. She didn’t want him to die either, but she didn’t want him to live like this.

I nodded again.

“My husband had cancer too.”

Then I tell her the whole thing: How we really didn’t know if Sam would live or die. What it’s like to be a caregiver for someone with a serious illness. After going through cancer, we adopted a child with a genetic disease who would not live past his third birthday.

We talk about how hard it is to watch someone suffer, to grieve while the person is still alive.

“I can’t believe you’ve been through some of the same things I have,” she says.

Though we have never met before, there is an unspoken understanding: We are both part of the “club” that no one wants to join.

I never knew about the club before we went through Sam’s illness, but after he was diagnosed, people who were survivors would approach us and say, “I went through cancer too.”

It was like a secret handshake.  It opened the door to deeper conversations.

That’s the thing about these clubs. Once you’re “in,”  you always know your people.

They are the ones nodding yes when the rest of the world looks at you confused. They are the ones holding your hand when everyone else goes on with their lives.

When we talked to them about chemotherapy, they nodded and told us how horrible it was. When we discussed our fear behind doctor’s appointments, they said things like, “I still feel afraid when I go in for my cancer checkup.”

I learned that this club wasn’t just for those going through cancer. It was for everyone going through something hard or life-changing—the things that label us and define us and ultimately make us who we are.

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When my son was diagnosed with Leigh’s Disease, I discovered we were part of a new club, “The Sick Kids Club.” I met other parents who worried about their child’s health, whose calendars were full of doctor appointments and who haggled with insurance companies over medical bills.

We lamented being part of this club. But we also knew that we had each other. We were not alone. God gave us someone else on this journey so we would not be afraid. Someone who understood my pain.

When my son died, we joined the “Parents Who Lost a Child Club.” We met other grieving parents who struggled with depression and guilt, who stumbled through each birthday and holiday, who learned how to find a new normal through their grief.

Though we wish we weren’t part of the club, we knew the connections sustained us through the worst of times.

These people become our cheerleaders, our advocates, our shoulders to cry on.

Because even though joining the club was the worst thing that happened to us, it was also the most life-changing.

Our shared pain opened doors to new relationships.

Our suffering gave us empathy. Made us less judgmental. More understanding.

Through our club we realized: This group is an unexpected gift in our time of need.

Some of my readers are here because you are part of the club too.  Though I can’t make it better, I want to tell you this:

I’m sorry you are in the club. I wish you didn’t have to be here. I wish I wasn’t in the club either. But if we’re going to go through this, then I’m glad for one thing–that we’re doing this together.

We are not alone. We can do hard things. Let’s turn our grief to good. Let’s help each other. Let’s make this our common goal: We will not let anybody walk this road alone.

I don’t lament being part of the club anymore. These are my people—the ones who know how hard and crazy this beautiful life can be.

We walk this road together. We live these holy moments.

 

 

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Five Ways to Help Those Facing Tragedy and Grief

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I turn on the TV and tragedy is splashed all across the newsfeed.

After the sobering report of a child being dragged into the water by an alligator, the newscaster says, “Our prayers go out to them.”

But to those parents who’ve lost a child, who watched as their child disappeared into murky waters, do we know how to respond?

Do our prayers really go out to the ones who’ve witnessed the worst event of their life?

To the families who’ve lost a son or daughter this weekend, do we try to understand the ache of their parents’ broken hearts?

We can choose to weep with those who weep or we can turn off the news with detached silence and go on with our lives.

Because in the midst of horrendous tragedy, it’s easy to stand back paralyzed by what to do. It’s easy to nod our heads in agreement when they say, “Our prayers go out to you” and forget to utter a word.

I’m fallen and failed and have forgotten to offer prayers in tragedy too. Then I remember:

When my lips are silent, how can I expect that God will respond?

We make our choice with our silence or with our compassion.

This is true of any tragedy, whether it’s a mass murder a thousand miles away or a child who dies in our own community.

Loss is loss.

And love is love is love.

We speak love through our prayers. We speak love through our response to the hurting.

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As part of the “grief club,” I glimpse the struggles of the grief-stricken in our own community. My tragedy connects me with others who’ve lost a child, spouse, mother, or father.

Tragedy is the woman whose husband left her.

Tragedy is the spouse who died from Alzheimers.

Tragedy is the child who was hit by a car.

Tragedy is the man who loses his fight to cancer.

Tragedy is the woman who’s lost baby after baby.

I can either throw my hands in the air and do nothing or I can get down on my knees, head bowed, back bent, and call on the One who has always held the world in His hands.

The power to fight against tragedy is found in the One who lights stars and dashes waves on rocks, the One who spins planets and lights the sun.

When we don’t know what to do, we start with what we can do.

When we feel helpless, we start with our own brokenness.

We pray from the well of our own deep sorrows.

We connect our grief with theirs.

We pray from our living room couches and our dining room tables. We pray from our office desks piled with to-do lists and our playrooms cluttered with toys.

To weep with those who weep, we must love them through their pain until it becomes our own.

We begin with Love.

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How We Can Respond to Those Facing Tragedy or Loss

  1. Pray. Let them know you’re praying. Pray with them. Persist in prayer. Grief stretches on for years. Don’t give up.
  1. Provide help. Offer food. Mow their grass. Clean their house. Pick up groceries. A thousand things pile up when you are hurting. Do one thing.
  1. If you know this person well, then just show up. Sit with them and let them vent, cry, shout, rant or be silent. Don’t offer advice. Listen deeply.
  1. Continue to talk with them about their loved one. Bring up their name frequently in conversation. It’s on their mind. They will be relieved that someone remembered.
  1. Remember anniversaries, birthdays and other special events associated with their loved one. If they plan an event to remember their loved one, show up for it. Send cards saying, “We have not forgotten.” Do something special in honor of their loved one. Give money to a charity, release balloons, leave flowers on the grave, or send them a note. Begin with love. 

How we find love after loss

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“I would like to be adopted someday,” she says to me as we walk through a cow pasture in rural Mexico.

The girl, who lives in a group home with 25 other foster kids, hopes to be adopted by the house parents who started the home, but Mexico’s laws make adoption difficult. She is eight and has lived at the home for 7.5 years.

Although she has found her new family here, there is a sense of what she and the other children have lost.

This was not the way life was supposed to be.

Children shouldn’t have to be taken out of their homes. But, due to abuse, neglect and sometimes, a parent’s difficult choice, the children are removed from their home. Some of them end up here at the “little ranch.”

I am drawn to places where life is messy, where the work of Christ is being done in small and beautiful ways everyday. I’ve been to several of these places in the last few years, including a rescue home in Thailand through Destiny Rescue, to schools in Nicaragua through Food for the Hungry and now to “Ranchito con Esperanza” a foster group home in Mexico, where my husband’s brother and his wife work.

Getting outside of my own pain and immersing myself in the pain of others helps me realize that when we share our hurts together, we heal together.

This isn’t a formula for getting rid of pain, but it might be the first step in realizing that we all hurt in different ways and that we can love each other through the brokenness of life.P5294520P5294589P5294521

The kids play in the one hundred degree heat, kicking around a soccer ball and playing on the swing set. Even though some of these kids have suffered deep hurts, they smile and laugh. They act like kids.

The hearts might be broken in hidden places, but it is amazing how love fills in the cracks, like sand between stones.

Maybe this is the biggest gift of all: that after the hurt, we can still find joy.

That after loss, we can find love in unexpected places.

It may not be in the way we imagined. But it is still good.

Every person who works at this place—every houseparent, teacher and staff person who fills in the broken places in each child’s life is fulfilling a call to take care of the orphan, the lonely, the poor. Each other.

This is what Love does.

P5304641P5304639P5294527For the week I am there, I soak in their smiles, their questions, the way they draw me into their games.

Their hurt reminds me that we all live through incredible pain, yet we find our way home again. We find a new place of joy. We learn that the Father’s love is enough to heal us.

When I look into their eyes, I see that the world is broken in ways that I cannot fix.
They cannot fix my pain and I cannot fix theirs. 

But together we can fight against the hurt and the brokenness in our world. We can bring light to darkness.

Though we don’t know how, we find our way back to Love.

We recognize the sacred in the everyday.

We are made in God’s image.

We are loved by him.

We are never alone.

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{Many thanks to Noah and Katie for letting us visit the ranch and to all the staff who serve and love the children of Little Ranch of Hope.}

When life doesn’t turn out like you planned

“When you were a girl, how many kids did you want?”

My daughter asks this question one night before bed.

“Four” I say.  “I always wanted four.”

“But you didn’t get four, you only got two,” she says.

“You don’t always get what you want in life,” I reply.

I don’t tell her about the years of infertility or the hard road to adoption or the cancer journey that delayed our dreams.  I don’t tell her that despite what Disney says, dreams don’t always come true.

Our lives take twists and turns we never expected.  But we find there is grace in the unplanned journey after all.

DSC04549IMG_3113DSC04560I have a list of friends whose lives did not turn out like they expected, whose spouses died young, who could not have children, who ended up divorced, sick, or working a dead end job.

They are learning to find God’s plan in the unexpected, to thrive even through life’s worst circumstances. 

These friends teach me that the real key in life is learning to find contentment and joy in the midst of unfulfilled expectations.

But for every person whose life didn’t turn out, there is someone else whose life appears to be perfect, or at least “Facebook perfect.”  The news about their kids is always flattering.  Their family pictures are stunning. Their life, in short, is storybook.

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When we start comparing our lives with others, we will always fall short. We will find the one thing that didn’t turn out the way we planned.  Our failures feel magnified when we look at other people’s success.

When we put our focus on what we don’t have, we start listening to the negative voices in our heads that tell us we are somehow not good enough, not deserving enough, just not enough.

There is danger in thinking that we have to be good enough.  It suddenly makes our future something we control by trying to become a better person.  It discounts God’s role in our life circumstances and twists our heart into thinking that anything good that happens is because we made it happen.  But the Bible says,

In your heart you plan your life. But the Lord decides where your steps will take you. (Proverbs 16:9 NIRV)

When we live with that truth being the central point of our lives, we live with far less stress and far fewer comparisons. 

Because no one is good enough, kind enough, or smart enough to deserve His grace.  The real truth is I deserve wrath, not grace.  I deserve hell, not heaven. And yet, I get both grace and heaven.

I don’t have to be good enough. I only have to live holding my dreams and expectations loosely, believing what will come is better than what I want.

As I kiss my daughter to sleep, I cover her with blankets and then turn out the light.  I leave her with her dreams, to find her way in the dark just as I have.

The truth about marriage and romance

You came and stood outside my window and proposed that night in 1997.  It was just like the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, except I was in my pajamas and you were dressed to the nines.

You didn’t tell me you were coming, that ring burning a hole in your pocket. When I heard the knocking at my window in the midnight darkness, I was too scared to see what was outside my window. When I finally got brave enough to open it, you stood there waiting to sing a love song and ask for my hand in marriage in the frozen winter night.

That’s how the story begins, with me in my pajamas and a midnight song.

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The next day I had to get up before the sun and drive down country roads to teach eleventh graders. The girls in my class stared at me dreamily when I told them the how you proposed. They were all thinking of the day when it would be their turn to live the fairy tale.

I wish I had known what to tell those girls about real love:

There are a million ways to get down on one knee and ask a woman to marry you, but the hard task is learning to live that marriage day in and day out when the fairy tale gets kicked to the curb by the real world. 

When there’s throw up on the floor.

When the dishes are stacked mile-high on the counter.

When the medical bills fill up the mailbox.

When you stand at your son’s casket.

Because maybe what we need to show our children is real marriage isn’t a reality dating game.  We need to show couples how to love through the hardships, the piles of stained clothes, and the baby crying, instead of rose ceremonies and private jets that fly perfect couples around the world for their dates.

What we forget about Disney’s view of dating is that every fairy tale is fiction; every romance written by a romantic whose life didn’t resemble a fairy tale at all.

Someday My Prince Will Come has been the single girls’ mantra for years, but what happens when our prince turns out to be a regular guy who snores in the middle of the night?

DSC_0822Back in the 1990’s, our small town school band marched in a parade at Disney World.  We stood behind the closed gates of the Disney grounds waiting for our big entrance into the crowded streets. While waiting in the backstage area, we had been given one strict instruction: absolutely no photography allowed—including taking pictures of the characters, the workers, the props, or any of the “Disney magic.”

Disney prided themselves on creating a magical world, and everything from the cleanliness of the park, to the carefully crafted landscaping and sets, to the lights and views around the park helped shape this storybook image.  We weren’t allowed to take pictures of anything behind the scenes that ruined the “Disney spell.”  We couldn’t show what the characters really looked like without their costumes or how they behaved backstage.

Though I love Disney’s magic, I’ve realized that this fairy tale culture sometimes taints our real lives. We confuse their fairy tale image with real love: the princess never ages; the prince always has the right thing to say.  It is a life of ball gowns and castles, not budgets and bills.

Though our lives look nothing like a fairy tale, I’ve learned that real love can be just as good.

This daily give-and-take becomes more about who can outgive the other. Because real love isn’t just about getting the ring, it’s about giving every part of you in order that you can live more fully as one. 

It’s about serving when you’re tired.

It’s about letting go and forgiving.

In the end, it’s about remembering that day you said yes and then saying yes again everyday.

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Disney can show off their romance with big splashy love songs and fireworks, but at the end of the day, their actors take off their wigs and costumes and go home alone.

But you and I, we meet in the middle of our hectic, chaotic lives and your hand touches my arm and we live this thing called marriage.

That night you proposed at the window feels like a thousand years ago.  Your tux is long gone, but you still sing me love songs in the beauty of hard days and broken dreams.

The mistakes of yesterday covered over by mercy and grace. Our hands holding on to one another in morning darkness.

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