Are You in Need of Spring?

I love the spring.

I have lived all my life in the Midwest. Summer, fall, winter, spring. Summer, fall, winter, spring. Seasons are distinct. I am grateful for the contrast between them.

Winter is cold, snowy, sometimes muddy, and often grey. Generally by the end of winter, my body, mind and spirit are longing for the first signs of spring.

There is a patch of landscaping twenty feet outside my front door that is packed full of perennials. As the temperatures rise and as the sun begins to consistently show itself, my eyes are drawn to that patch of landscape when I walk past it. I scan the dirt, looking for spikes of green to poke up through the ground. I have confidence that it will come. The new life will eventually emerge, I am certain. It always does.

But as I look for sign of new life, I do not know when it will appear…I just know that it will. It eventually does…after every winter. So I keep looking. And the first time I spot the tiniest spike of green, I am grateful. It’s like the weight of the winter begins to fade at the sight of spring as I take in the hope of what’s to come.

I have experienced many winters in my life. Literal winters. Figurative ones. Times where all I can see is the cold, the muddy, the mess, and the grey. Experiences that have felt lonely, dark, filled with sadness and crushed hope.

I have friends and family who are currently feeling the impact of winter. They have experienced death. They have experienced loss. Disease has stolen from them. Broken promises have left their hearts shattered. They’re experiencing uncertainty. They are weary of the grey. Their energy is gone. They are tired but they can’t rest.  

They are in desperate need of spring.

It’s okay to hope for spring. It’s okay to look for it’s signs. In the dead of winter, we may feel as if the grey will never end. That the bitter cold will linger and linger and linger. But of this I am certain…the winter will not last forever. It never has.

Recently, God has been reminding me that he doesn’t waste a thing.

Not one tear.

Not one hurt.

Not one winter in my life.

And with that knowledge, I am looking for the signs of spring. I am looking for new life. I am looking for the sun to shine. I am trusting that the God who makes the green things grow, does not desire to leave us abandoned in the greyness of winter. I am trusting that the God who makes beautiful things out of dust and pulls us up out of the ashes, is more than able to do it over and over again in all of our lives.  

 

‘I give you all the credit, God – you got me out of that mess, you didn’t let my foes gloat. God, my God, I yelled for help and you put me together. God, you pulled me out of the grave, gave me another chance at life when I was down-and-out. God, my God, I yelled for help and you put me together. you did it; you changed wild lament into whirling dance; You ripped off my black mourning band and decked me with wildflowers. I’m about to burst with song; I can’t keep quiet about you. God, my God, I can’t thank you enough.’ Psalm 30:1-3, 11-12 (MSG)

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Empty Chairs at the Holidays

My all-time favorite musical is Les Miserables. And while Hamilton has entered the race for the top, Les Mis continues to be in the lead. Repeatedly, I am moved to tears as I watch the story of pain and redemption and longing and fulfillment unfold in this incredibly beautiful narrative.

At one critical moment in the musical, the French Revolution leader, Marius visits the café where just days before, he sat with his closest friends passionately discussing what mattered most to them. But on this day, Marius’ heart is burdened and broken. He stands now in the empty café with physical and emotional wounds, tearfully singing to and about his friends who had died just days earlier. Alone and overcome with grief, Marius sings these words:

There’s a grief that can’t be spoken.

There’s a pain goes on and on.

Empty chairs at empty tables

Now my friends are dead and gone.

 

Here they talked of revolution.

Here it was they lit the flame.

Here they sang about tomorrow and tomorrow never came.

 

Phantom faces at the window.

Phantom shadows on the floor.

Empty chairs at empty tables where my friends will meet no more.

                                                            -Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, Eddie Redmayne

 

Empty chairs….

The empty chairs at the place where Marius would gather with his community reminded him of what he had lost. His heart ached for another opportunity to sit and dream and connect with his people.

Conversations with friends and clients remind me that many of us have our own empty chairs. Holiday gatherings tend to shine a spotlight on them. For my family, there are the literal chairs where most of us can envision my aunt, my grandfather and my father sitting.

My aunt would stroll in with her veggie pizza, homemade potato salad, and cream cheese-filled pumpkin rolls. She’d talk about her excitement for Christmas decorations and Christmas movies. I can imagine the spot she’d most often choose to be. She’d sit there and tell stories about her most recent surgery, about the drama at work, or about her plan of attack for Black Friday shopping. There was often laughter coming from the area where she’d be stationed for the day.

My grandpa would show up with his store bought can of cranberry jelly. It was his favorite turkey topping and everyone knew this. He’d sit at the kitchen table most of the day. He wouldn’t say a whole lot and would eventually doze off. Inevitably, we’d eventually see him jump, awakened by his own sleep-snort-snore. He had a habit of getting up and heading home without really announcing that he was leaving. At some point, it all became a little endearing.

My dad would be carving the turkey when everyone arrived. He and my mom made it a joint effort most years. He’d always pull out summer sausage and jerky from the deer he had shot that season. Looking back now, I think he felt great pride in being able to offer it to our family. He’d sit in the living room where most of the family would gather. There was a specific green chair that most often was claimed as his. He loved listening to the conversations around him and throwing in jokes every now and then. Some of the jokes made us laugh and others made us wonder what he was even talking about. At some point, the football games would be turned on and he’d be right there cheering.

 Most of us have our own empty chairs. Maybe they are newly abandoned or maybe they have been empty for decades. Faces and memories flash through our minds as we prepare for the celebrations. Sometimes we just don’t know what to do with the emotions that accompany it all. And so we may be tempted to stuff it down, ignore it completely, or absolutely pretend.

 Please know that you have permission to feel. Find a safe way to do so. Let someone in. Allow others to share in the memories with you. Give them permission to feel just as you are giving it to yourself. Ask others to pray for you. Let them in. Allow them to carry the burden with you.

 Create space to remember. Before rushing from one engagement to the next to the next, sit and be still. Think about what it was like to have them there. Think about what they contributed to the celebration. Think about how they added laughter. Think about how they served in the seen and unseen ways.

Think about the others that will be gathered with you who have loved and lost as well. Know that the clumsy and awkward grief journey you are on, likely feels clumsy and awkward for them as well. Know that you’re on the journey together even though at times it may not feel so.

 Give yourself grace for the waves that may come crashing in. Remember that grief is like the ocean…and sometimes the waves are shallow and sometimes they feel intense. It’s normal even though it may feel a bit uncomfortable when it hits. Speak kindly to yourself…avoid wondering what is wrong with you or what others must be thinking. Grief should not be allowed to fuel shame.

Know that the empty chairs do not feel less empty when we pretend they do not exist. In fact, for most, this only makes the chairs feel more empty. It’s okay to acknowledge what was once there.

 Stop. Pause. Remember.

 May you be blessed as you do.

 

 

When I Chose to Stop Giving God the Silent Treatment: A lesson I learned after losing my daughter

Several years ago, I had a fight with God. There were turned backs, words, tears, crossed arms and clenched fists. It was raw and not what I wanted to do. In the end, the fight changed me. Vulnerably, I am choosing to share a part of my story. I do not pretend to know the journey you are on, and while it likely looks different than mine, maybe you’ll connect on some level.

 Twelve years ago, I gave birth to a beautiful daughter, Zoe Dawn Smith. She was my first. Through years of infertility, we had dreamed, hoped, and prayed for that day. She had brown wavy hair like mine and deep blue eyes like her daddy. Her skin was soft and 100% kissable. She had 10 fingers, 10 toes, thin lips, a cute button nose and squishy ears. She squeezed my fingers and we looked into each other’s eyes like you only do with those that completely know you. She’d regularly reach her tiny arms out in front of her in a manner that looked like she was trying to fly. When she’d do that, daddy and I would refer to her as “Super Zoe”.

 At 17 weeks gestation, David and I learned that Zoe had a genetic condition called Trisomy 13. If you are unaware of this condition, know that “severe physical abnormalities and mental abnormalities” and “incompatible with life” were some of the words the doctor used to help us understand the diagnosis.

 For the 18 weeks that remained in my pregnancy following this news, I spent most of my days holding my breath…unable to process the weight of her diagnosis. At times, fear would violently pull me out of my avoidant breath-holding state. We’d attend OB appointments every week. Sometimes we’d receive positive feedback of organs developing and water decreasing from her brain. These moments were what allowed me to come up for air just long enough to go back to holding my breath again.

 In all honesty, through the remainder of my pregnancy, I was a shell…only sustained by God’s grace, faithful prayers of friends, and hope that at some point, I would have the chance to touch my daughter.

On September 13, 2005, I DID get to touch Zoe. Seeing her and touching her were as precious as I had imagined. Her physical presence awakened me and for a time, I breathed again.

 Three days following Zoe’s entrance into this world, I prayed over, sang over, and held my baby girl as she took her final breaths. David and I wept over her, cradled her, kissed her, changed her diaper and clothing and eventually called for the doctor to roll her and her bassinette to wherever it is they take the babies that have forever left their mark on their parent’s hearts in this devastating way.

And then, I went back to holding my breath.

 Life went on.

Nightmares and sleeplessness.

Unanticipated tearful breakdowns in public places.

Blank stares in the middle of conversations with friends.

And attempts to pick up the remaining pieces in an effort to move forward.

We’d go to work. David a pastor. Me a counselor. Somehow trying to pastor and somehow trying to counsel. Because life goes on and the work of grief and the work that pays the bills often have to happen at the same time. Emptied of ourselves, I humbly hope that people still grew under our care.

 The years following Zoe’s death were filled with ups and downs. Grief changed me. For quite a while, I felt significant numbness. At times, numbness seemed like my method of conserving the remaining energy left due to the toll loss had taken on me. My husband, friends and family were left with remnants of me.

I’ve been a Jesus girl for a lot of my life. Praying, reading scripture, singing and looking to His life as the example. But let me tell you…there was a definite coldness between me and God for quite some time following my daughter’s death. However, because I’m also a bit of a rule follower, I kept pushing through the “good Jesus girl” motions as best as I could. I eventually learned that reluctantly doing the “right things” with my arms crossed was not connecting me to my creator.

 For as long as I can remember, I have always trusted in God’s sovereignty, believing that He has authority over all things. At some point, along the way, I applied this by thinking “Who am I to question God!?”  I mean, if God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and ever-present, “Who am I to question Him?!”

 In my grief, my response to that self-shaming question was this…

Just keep pretending that you are “okay” with how everything is going down.

Do the good things.

Smile when possible.

Trust in His sovereignty and move on. 

 But here was one of the major problems. I wasn’t actually trusting in His sovereignty. I was just pretending to trust because that’s what I thought a “good Jesus girl” was supposed to do.

 It wasn’t until years after Zoe’s death that I realized what I had been doing. I was sometimes crossing my arms in anger afraid to question Him. And I was sometimes hanging my head in discouragement because I started to believe I was no longer a “good-enough-Jesus-girl” to figure out a way to feel okay after the pain. Truth is, I was a broken-hearted daughter who had some unanswered questions for her Father. I needed to uncross my arms and open up about my coldness. I realized that unless I stopped being controlled by the “who am I to question God” belief, I was going to remain stuck between the disconnected anger and the self-shaming discouragement.

 There were lots of conversations that followed, but I want to tell you about the one that stopped me in my tracks. The one that finally caused me to uncross my arms and lean in close enough to listen.

 It was her birthday…a day that usually involves deeper aches and more tears. This would have been her 5th. I was sitting in the chair in my bedroom. As I write these words and remember that day, I can feel my lips tightening like they do when there is something you really want to say but you don’t think you should and the only way to keep from saying it is to literally clench your jaw and press your lips together so that the sound doesn’t accidently slip out. Yep, that’s what it was like on that day.

Sitting in my chair…

Clenching my jaw…

But then, I opened my mouth and said it…OUT LOUD.

 (Arms crossed.) “God, how could you let this happen?”

Silence.

(Louder.) “God, HOW could you let this happen?”

 And then I heard Him. As clear as you hear these words in your head as you read this article…I heard Him…full of compassion…full of love…free of frustration…free of judgment.

I know what is best.

(Arms crossed tighter.) “God, HOW can Zoe dying be ‘what’s best’?!” 

I know what is best.

(Fists in the air.) “God, HOW can Zoe dying possibly be what’s best for me?! Don’t you see how hard this has been?!”

I know what is best for her. 

I Know What Is Best For Her.

Ugh. That’s when I paused. That’s when my arms fell down to my sides. That’s when I started to weep. That’s when I imagined Zoe safe in the arms of Jesus. That’s when I imagined Him caring for her in all of the ways that are best for her. That’s when I felt Him calming this mama’s heart. That’s when I actually began trusting Him again. That’s when I believed that He does know what He is doing and He does know what is best for her. That’s when I realized that the pain I experience in this life does not equal a God who doesn’t care. That’s when I realized that believing I have no right to question God only kept me distant from knowing His comfort. And while my heart still aches at times, I do have a solid peace that has led me back to trusting Him. As I have released other loved ones into the arms of Jesus, I am reminded of those words that He whispered to my heart that day and I can rest in trusting that He does know what is best for them.

My standoff with God could have continued. I felt like I had every right in the world to be mad. You might feel that way too. I didn’t realize giving Him my anger and my questions would actually allow me to connect deeper with His love for me. But it did.

When Your Mind and Your Body are Failing You

I know it’s hard and you may resist believing me, but there’s something really important I want to tell you…

I know your physical strength is waning. I know you don’t like needing help to lift and move things that, at one time, would have been a breeze. I know you feel weak and fragile. But please, know THIS is true…

I will remember playing ball in the driveway and wrestling in the living room. I will remember the piggy back rides and I will remember your strength that always protected me.  And with THESE memories, I will honor you.

I know you walk more slowly than you used to and you just can’t get your legs to go any faster. I know you are concerned that you are making us late for wherever it is we are going. But please, know THIS is true…

I will remember how we’d play chase and run through the fields together. I’ll remember when I was the one that couldn’t keep up with you. And with THESE memories, I will honor you.

I know that you struggle to tie your shoes. It’s hard to grip the laces and you grow tired during the process. I know it frustrates you that your fingers don’t work the way you want them to. But please, know THIS is true…

I will remember it was you that sat patiently with me as I learned to tie mine. And with THESE memories, I will honor you.

I know you can’t hear as well and you have to ask me to repeat myself several times. I know you feel embarrassed when you just can’t understand what others are saying to you. But know THIS is true…

I’ll remember when you would sit and listen to me tell you stories. I’ll remember how your ears were always open and ready to hear my heart. And with THESE memories, I will honor you.

I know that your vision is no longer what it used to be. I know you struggle to see the pages and ask me to read the words to you. But please, know THIS is true…

I will remember how we would cuddle up on the couch and you would read my favorite stories to me. I will remember how you taught me to see the details of my surroundings as we would drive the countryside together. And with THESE memories, I will honor you.

I know that you wish I didn’t have to feed you, wash your face, and comb your hair. I know that it’s uncomfortable to let me care for these basic needs. But please, know THIS is true…

I will remember the times that you took care of me. The times you fed me, bandaged me, and cared for me when I was sick. And with THESE memories, I will honor you.

I know you are scared and you startle at the slightest noises. I know that you feel embarrassed when you don’t recognize your surroundings. But please, know THIS is true…

I will remember how you would calm me when I was the one who was frightened. How you would make me feel safe when I was the one who was scared. And with THESE memories, I will honor you.

I know that you cry more than you’d like and you worry that you are burdening those around you. But please, know THIS is true…

I will remember the many times you wiped away my tears and helped mend my broken heart. I will remember all of the burdens you carried for me. And with THESE memories, I will honor you.

I know there are times you struggle to say my name. I know that you wish you could find a way to make your mouth say what you are thinking. But please, know THIS is true…

I will remember the many times you said my name with the deepest joy and the biggest smile. I will remember how proudly you would speak of me every chance you’d get. And with THESE memories, I will honor you.

I know that you think you are less than you used to be. You believe that because your body and mind do not function the way they did when you were young, you are less valuable or less lovable.

But know THIS is true…

Your value and your worth go deeper than what your mind and what your body can do. Your value and your worth are steady and never-changing. God declared that long ago.

AND WITH THIS KNOWLEDGE, I WILL HONOR YOU.

 

 

**This piece was written in honor of my father, Jerry V. Saylor, who lived his last years on earth struggling through the physical and cognitive effects associated with Lewy Body Dementia. He lived and loved well from 6/14/1947 – 8/19/2016. I also write this in honor of the many others who struggle to believe that their value and worth are never-changing in spite of the reality that their mind and body are.

 

Stop Believing that Grief Doesn’t Change You

I have experienced deep loss. I have mourned alongside friends, family and clients who have also experienced deep loss.

Through the journey, I have heard these words repeatedly…

“I just feel like I am so different than I was before my loss.”

I have heard these words pour from the mouths of friends, and I have heard these words pour from my own mouth.

For those of you that have walked your own grief journey, you know that these words can often be laced with shame and the idea that we need to get back to the person we were before our world was shaken.

No one should be expected to rise up out of the ashes looking the same as they did before the fire.

And yet, we often place that expectation on ourselves.

When we struggle to accept that grief changes us, we can often go into emotional or physical hiding, believing that the changes are unacceptable to us and assuming they will be unacceptable to others. We may believe that our people will not love us with our bumps and bruises or that they will grow weary of our tears.

Buying into these beliefs typically lead to emotional numbing, hopelessness, deep depression, or prolonged isolation from others.

I remember many years ago, following the loss of my daughter, I began to hesitantly express to friends that I felt like a different person since her death. I was scared to tell them…maybe I assumed they’d agree and point out all of the flawed ways I had in fact changed.

Of course, they didn’t.

The reality is…my people are good. They are loving. They saw my heart. They saw my pain. And they knew that I was rising up out of the ashes. They actually didn’t expect me to be the same as before her death.

They told me that I was okay…

needing more alone time.

being less productive.

needing more sleep.

crying at random times.

excusing myself from overwhelming conversations and situations.

feeling things that they didn’t understand.

They helped give me permission to accept that grief was messy and that this was okay. They helped me believe that finding my “new normal” didn’t need to be a smooth process. They helped me trust that I didn’t need to hide the scars of my loss.

And the more I believed this, the more grace I extended to myself as I continued to walk the journey. The more I accepted the grace available along the journey, the more I could find the strength to keep leaning into the healing offered and the more I could trust that something good and acceptable could emerge from the ashes.

If you are the mourner and you have yet to take the risk of sharing with your people the ways loss is changing you, I encourage you to consider that your people might want to know you, bumps, bruises, scars and all.

When we let our people see us, we allow our people to love us.

When Celebrating Feels Unnatural: A Mother’s Day Reflection

My journey of motherhood is complicated. As time passes and I am granted more opportunities to enter into the stories of other women, I am beginning to recognize that the journey is complicated for most of us. Literally, for most of us.

I have learned that celebrating Mother’s Day can feel like an unnatural choice. To many, Mother’s Day does not automatically come with a simple dose of all the positive emotions one might assume. Recognizing Mother’s Day can easily bring to the surface emotions that we have worked unreasonably hard to hide. For some, loneliness, disappointment, grief, longing, bitterness, guilt, and shame are a part of this day. They are the pieces that make the celebration feel a bit unnatural.

Here is what I want you to know…You Are Not Alone. Not. Even. Close.

As I think about my own rocky journey, I remember the days that I sat in silence…in confusion…in loneliness. Years of infertility. Burying my 3-day-old daughter. Watching caseworkers remove our son following a failed adoption. For many years, there was absolutely no desire to celebrate.

Ten years ago, I was given the unexpected gift of a beautiful healthy son. Two years later, it happened again. Yes, TWO amazing sons! One who looks like his daddy and one who looks like me.

And with that, there is something else I want you to know…those two boys didn’t take away the pain of the journey and their arrival didn’t eliminate the path I had already traveled.

There are many truths I have learned through my own journey and one I’d like to gently tell you today…my pain has only lessened as a result of giving myself permission to deeply experience the fullness of the emotions that have accompanied my journey.

So, this is what it looks like today…I wear this awesome set of rings bearing the names of the four children that’ll always have my heart. We grill lunch and eat with my mom who is experiencing her first Mother’s Day without the man who made her a mother. My husband and sons plant flowers and build a garden in our yard. We eat ice cream at the grave of my daughter. I say a prayer for the son that I do not get to raise.

It’s complicated. And yet, I have found peace, beauty, AND joy in the ways we honor our complicated story.

I know your story is complicated too. I know this because I have heard the stories, countless stories. Maybe I haven’t heard your story but stories that may not be as far off as you’d imagine. Please know that your journey matters…the parts that are easy to celebrate AND the parts that make the celebrating less natural.

And please know that you are not alone. NOT. EVEN. CLOSE.

Our Need for COMFORT

Can we talk for a moment about comfort? You know, your need to be comforted, and my need to be comforted, and any human’s basic need for comfort. Recently, light bulbs have been turning on in my mind as I have listened to myself, clients, friends, and family communicate different struggles in life. Deaths. Disappointments. Physical pain. Broken dreams. Unfulfilled desires.

We ALL need comfort. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. OF. US.

As I have sat with different individuals, I have noticed a theme that while we all NEED comfort, many of us resist being comforted…myself included. We tell ourselves that needing comfort is for the weak, that it makes us bad or somehow inadequate. And so we secretly stifle our need to be comforted, paint on our strong, unaffected faces, and carry on. And then…we secretly seek to fulfill our need for comfort elsewhere…because even though we pretend to stifle the need, it doesn’t actually go away. So, we numb. We drink. We binge. We sleep. We scroll. We click. We attempt to find comfort….but it escapes us before we even find it.

Admitting our need for legitimate comfort takes courage. Allowing ourselves to receive the comfort offered takes humility and surrender…it is the act of letting others see and respond when we feel undone.

I love Jesus’ words when He speaks to the crowds through what has been labeled “The Sermon on the Mount”. In Matthew 5:4, Jesus specifically says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” BLESSED are those who mourn. He doesn’t say WEAK are those who mourn. He does not say INADEQUATE are those who mourn. And He does not say A BURDEN are those who mourn. He calls mourners blessed. How are they blessed….through receiving comfort.

Is it possible that until we recognize that our need for comforting is acceptable, we will continue to feel as if we are drowning in our shame? Is it possible that unless we recognize that our need for comforting is reasonable, we will keep running back to the things that leave us feeling empty? Is it possible that in not accepting our need for comforting, we actually push away a fulfilling relationship with God and with our closest people?

Some of us are great at comforting…that is beautiful. But let us also seek to be people who believe our personal need for comforting is not only acceptable but good.