To Grieve and Give

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Have you ever read an open status update or blog post that you feel is directed toward you?…Things not to say to someone going through a divorce….What you shouldn’t say to someone who just found out they have cancer….The most insensitive comments I have received since my dad died….and you find, in fact, that you have said at least one of those things. Your heart sinks and you feel rejected. Though you tried to genuinely offer a listening ear and share your experiences without being offensive or presumptuous, you are left feeling as if you never want to try to help again when your comments are criticized.  You truly hoped and prayed to provide comfort only to be told your acts are unacceptable because you didn’t say exactly the right thing, at the right time, in the right tone.

But I also know…when I am in pain, I think it’s my job to offer advice in a public, open context to those who want to console or help me…because how else will they know how to respond unless I tell them exactly what to do and not do? how will they know how not to hurt my feelings?….don’t ask about adoption when I’m suffering with infertility…don’t offer suggestions about an illness you have never experienced….don’t pretend like your cat being sick is the same as my daughter having spinal surgery…I want people to say something and not avoid me but I don’t want them to say something that will hurt me and I don’t want them to say anything that will make me doubt and I don’t want them telling me what I should and shouldn’t do. I can unintentionally set up a parameter of guidelines that can never be contained…a pile of standards that can never be met. I want comfort from someone who is genuine, knows everything about my situation, is always sensitive to my feelings and never allows awkward silence. And I want to place blame and hold grudges against anyone who can’t get it just right.

I’ve had to remind myself often as I have endured difficult times that the amount of wisdom a person has is not a measure of their heart….and sometimes suffering is a lesson in my own pride. Sometimes in order to actually receive comfort I have to be willing to give of myself, let my own perceived rights go. Some of the most loving people have left the most hurtful impressions on my mind when I was suffering, not because of thoughtlessness or ill intentions or even because what they said was necessarily wrong…but because of my own expectations and my own selfish view of the situation. When I was struggling with infertility a friend approached me with her own predicament….”I think I might be pregnant” was all I heard and I shut down. How could she be so insensitive? How could she be so ignorant? I’m sitting here knowing that I may never have any children of my own and she is complaining about the inconvenience of getting pregnant a year too early. I didn’t take her perspective. I didn’t offer any comfort. I ruined the rest of our day and our friendship because I was selfishly focused on my own pain. I failed to see that she had no one else to turn to. I failed to see that she was as confused and scared as I was. Pain creates tunnel vision, it creates rights in our mind that aren’t ours to be taken.

We are called to be humble, we are called to put others first, we are called to comfort and create peace among our brothers and sisters in Christ…with no exceptions. Suffering doesn’t offer us a free ticket to be selfish…a pass to correct in bitterness instead of love. People don’t generally intend to be insensitive but sometimes they are…it doesn’t give me license to be insensitive in return. By pointing fingers and giving unsolicited advice and guidance in how to best help me, I’m not creating an avenue for comfort, I am creating a wall of isolation….pushing others away with the rules I have created for them. And in our hearts we begin to say, “I will only accept your help if it comes to me exactly like I want it.” No one will ever experience the exact same pain in the exact same way…no one will ever know exactly what to say…no one can read my mind to know what I want, especially when my feelings are indistinguishable to myself. So if I don’t want to sit alone in my pain, then I have to get over my rights and my feelings and let someone try to help…even if they fail.

Suffering is a part of a sinful world. As long as there is sin in the world, there will always be suffering. And as long as we are on the earth we are called to serve others…in a constant, never-ceasing way. So the balance between these two things cannot exist in a one or the other scenario. They should always exist together in a constant tandem. We don’t stop serving and thinking of others when we are going through a difficult time. The world tells us, “you just lost a baby, you need to take time to focus on you. You just be selfish for a while. You deserve it.” But that is not the stance that the Bible takes. In turmoil, in grief, in pain, in suffering our lives are not about us and if we take the view that love and service must cease while we grieve or suffer than we would never find a chance to reach out…we will always be reaching in.

On either side of suffering…experiencing it first-hand or ministering to someone through it…it is about keeping a cautious mouth and a heart that is eager to serve. It is about counting others as more significant as yourself, no matter what you are going through. I am not saying that there isn’t time to stop and grieve and allow healing. If you need to take a break from some things or pull away for a while, there is nothing wrong with that. But when time goes by and your life is still marked only by grief, then service has stealthily slipped from your radar.

As I write this I think about a dear friend who lost a baby last month in the second trimester of her pregnancy. She gave birth to a tiny, lifeless son who she loved very much. From her own account, the staff at the hospital was very helpful to her. They took pictures, gave her gifts and made sure she had all she could to remember the little life that grew inside of her. She found out that not all women get this kind of care. Many are sent home with no mementos and no resources. She nearly immediately set to work making sure that other women got the kind of special attention that she did. She contacted friends and family to begin giving donations so that she could compile resources for these women who have lost a child like she did. She is currently contacting hospitals, businesses and partnering with other organization to ensure that this area does not go untouched and overlooked. In the midst of it all she continues to grieve. But in the midst of it all she continues to give. (Check out The Ezra Project on Facebook for ways that you can help out).

And yet another friend of mine lost her husband to ALS only 20 months ago. In the midst of it all she fought to live amongst the pain, continuing to come to church, pouring into my life when we first moved here and repeatedly helping friends and opening her home when she truly only wanted to stay in bed and never get up again. At the time of her husband’s death and in the months to follow, grief was her life and it surrounded her and in that time she was taken care of and she cared for others. And now as time has worn on, she is reaching out even more. She has spear-headed the efforts of bringing a Griefshare program to our church so that she can help others who are dealing with the death of loved ones. She continues to grieve for the loss of her husband. But she also continues to give…and to an even greater capacity as time goes on.

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You Are Not Who You Think You Are

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Days had been spent hovering over my daughter’s damaged body. Her whimpers sent me stumbling across the room in the middle of the night. I spent long days curled up next to her. Her tiny body looked even smaller in a massive hospital bed.

Months had been spent planning doctors visits. My patience was thin with doctors who cancelled appointments without enough notice. I was on the edge about talking to nurses. I was disappointed that life might not look the way I had always imagined it to look for my daughter. And I feared the steps ahead of me.

Years had been spent with the knowledge that her body was broken. All the minutes passing without answers or without a planned course of action made me panic over the future. I pictured her as a playful 6-year-old trapped in the prison of a body that wouldn’t let her walk. I imagined her as a ostracized teenager, unable to ever be free of diapers or a catheter. I fought, I cried, I prayed.

But through it all I had always counted on one thing…I was the mother of a sick child. If all else seemed awry, I could bank my trust on one thing…my daughter needed me.  I had a purpose to my life and that purpose was to take care of my daughter and make sure that she could be well again someday.

So as we wheeled Mia down to a regular hospital room…away from ICU, away from her debilitating wires and medicines and masks…I struggled to find real joy. She was happy again and I knew she would be able to walk and dance and run and play like a child should and yet I mourned what I had lost. I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t the appointment scheduler, the medical advocate and the permanent fixture on the church prayer list. I felt like my identity had been stripped away with the slice of a scalpel. And even as my daughter strengthened and thrived, I felt like I had disappeared. And I know I’m not the only one who has experienced this…

A middle-aged man clings to life after a mysterious stroke sent him into a tailspin of declining health. He endures long hospital stays and life threatening procedures. All this, after over a decade of mysterious symptoms that continually went without explanations. He is broken and mystified and lost in the endless wandering on a never-ending path. Twelve years of being sick without a single explanation….a torential downpour of loss….unable to work….unable to drive….with pain being a constant reminder of what is attempting to label him as weak…all these things make it so easy to forget that he is not just a medical mystery. His speech is littered with medical jargon and he is well aware that the only topic he can seem to pull from his traumatized brain is his medical history. He has forgotten that he is not defined by symptoms or a diagnosis (or the lack there of). He can’t remember who he was before all this happened. He even fears what it would look like for him to be well again. Who will he be if this is how his life continues? Who will he be if one day it all just goes away? He is not just his illness….but who is he?

In the dark hours of the night a wife walks the floors of a 1970s bungalow, praying that this time will be as smooth as the others. As her husband is whisked away by the blurred faces of an ambulance crew she walks through the usual process in her mind…pack a bag, follow the ambulance, wait as her husband sleeps through meds, wait as the doctors come in and out, wait as the endless hours creep by, and then go home. It had become a solid, expected ritual. She pushes away the thoughts that this time might actually be different…he might not get better, she might come home alone. Since her husband got sick ten years ago, her life has been consumed by being his caregiver. He requires all her work, all her strength, all her thoughts, all her time.  Silently and shamefully she craves the freedom that his death would create and yet she fears the obscurity that it would bring. What would she do without him? Who would she be? Who is she now?…she doesn’t even know anymore. She can’t just be the wife of an ailing husband…then who is she?

A teenage girl stares blankly into the full-length mirror on the back of her bedroom door. Her eyes snag on every curve and lump and she wishes that she could become less…less and less until she becomes nothing. Walking away, she picks up a notebook and quietly scrawls her final calorie intake for the day…celery…0….and she feels that she has won, yet in the grand scheme of things she always feels like she is losing. She wants to be free from it but she doesn’t know who she is without it. She fears what lies ahead in a ritual-free future full of endless possibilities. She clings to the safety of what she knows and what it seems she will always be and has always been. If she isn’t just her eating disorder…then who is she?

We all have things that we feel define us…relationships, jobs, hobbies, talents, past experiences, conditions…and exposing those representational entities through loss can be devastating, especially when we have allowed them to consume us. It doesn’t have to be so dark on the other side, because deep down we are not just a mom…we are not just a caregiver….we are not our illnesses or even our hobbies and talents. At our core we are children of God, created for His glory on all the different avenues that he sends us down. We are heirs of the King of all creation with a promised inheritance of no less than all the treasure and gifts that heaven can offer (Ephesians 1:3). We are wrapped seamlessly in the identity of Christ (Galatians 3:27, Colossians 3:3)), the Savior and Messiah of all mankind, so that no matter what may fall away from our earthly existence we are still forever and always righteous, chosen, honored royalty with a future of boundless opportunity to serve the one who made us. Our lives change and with it the labels we have placed on ourselves, but if you are a Christian then one thing can always stay the same…you are not your illness, disorder or disease…you are not your job, title or task….you are not your talent, hobby or persute…you are “God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). You are sons of God (Galatians 3:26). You are children and heirs (Romans 8:17). You are a citizen of heaven (Philippians 3:20). You are a conqueror (Romans 8:37).You belong to Christ (Romans 1:5-7). And nothing can take any of that away.