Being Present

Approaching Christmas Without You

For the Children's Memorial Garden being built in Rapid City, I was asked to write briefly about Lachlan in a "feature the children" series.  (To see more on that Memorial Garden click here)   Here's what I wrote: 

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“As Advent is here and Christmas approaches, the ever-present sting of your absence sharpens. My heart aches at missing the opportunity to see your eyes dance as you run to the arms of Santa to tell him your wish of presents. I feel the emptiness of what should be your space in our home. Yet, even in the sorrow and the sting, there is a bigger joy and hope. My soul dances at the thought of you running eagerly to the arms of Jesus…not for presents, but for His presence. Perfect Christmas joy, peace, laughter, and celebration in the place we will ultimately call home together. As we prepare to celebrate Christmas here scurrying to buy all the perfect presents, I am reminded that our bigger preparation is for the perfect and eternal gift of our ever-present Christ and the joy, hope, peace and love that is perfect in Him.

Christmas without him wasn't always a place of hope, peace and joy.  

Reading through what I had to say this year, highlights for me how much my grief has transformed with time. Hope, peace, and joy have re-emerged slowly over the years, so gradually that it almost goes unnoticed. Like the sun that slowly rises and the light that gradually returns.  The change is imperceptible moment to moment, but then all at once, you realize the day has come. Now, nearly 10 years later, my grief is softer than it once was.  The joy that I feel now wasn't always there, and the hope I describe used to feel light years away.  While I still miss Lachlan every day, and especially at Christmas, it's not like it was that first Christmas...or the several after that.  In that first Christmas without him the joy was nowhere to be found.  I felt some obligation to paint a happy face, to somehow try to find a way to have some Christmas cheer, to let my toddler have a "normal" Christmas even though it was the last thing I wanted to do.  I couldn't do it and I felt torn.  I hadn't yet learned to be happy and sad.  I didn't know those opposites could co-exist.  I had to take that heap of emotions and learn to let it be.  Learn to be ok with a different kind of Christmas, to do what I could, and not beat myself up over the things that I couldn't.  When we fight our painful experiences, we make it harder on ourselves! Like in labor, in those moments of excruciating pain, you can fight it with your whole body and mind; or you can let it be, breathe through it, hang on for the ride, and know that it won't always be like this. 

If this is your first Christmas without your child...let it be.  Let it be whatever it is.  Maybe some shared happiness, maybe mostly sad, maybe too hard to acknowledge, maybe it's going through the motions of a "normal" Christmas, maybe it's not doing any of it.  Maybe it's starting a new Christmas tradition and finding a way to acknowledge the empty space.  Maybe it's not planning anything and just getting through the day as it comes.  However it is this Christmas, it's ok to let it be. It won't always be like this.  It will soften and one day you'll look back and find the grief and the joy of the season have woven themselves together to create something new and beautiful. 

Self Compassion

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Compassion for myself was something that I had to learn in a new way after Lach died. It goes very much hand-in-hand with the “letting go” post earlier this month. At first, I had to learn compassion in regard to the emotion that I was experiencing. I didn’t have much tolerance for the difficulty I had in holding myself together, especially trying to do routine things out in public. Shopping for clothes was one of those things that, for whatever reason, stands out to me. It was unbearable to look for the 3T size without needing one in the 12 month size. I fought back tears… no one needs to see this wreck of a woman standing in the children’s clothing department. Hold yourself together! Go do something else! I always seemed to lose that battle and the tears won anyway.

Eventually, I think I just got tired of fighting myself. I decided to let go of the fight and allow myself to feel whatever it was I was feeling. I allowed the tears to flow whenever they came. I had to acknowledge that I was going through every mother’s hell and I had to meet myself with the same compassion and understanding that I would give to others on this path. I had to somehow trust that it wouldn’t always be like this, and I needed to give myself permission to work through those things rather try to stuff them away. Not everyone will understand. I might get a few extra looks, but that’s ok. If they knew my story, they would say that’s ok too. Shopping and church were going to bring tears and I learned to let it be… and brought along the tissues I was probably going to need.

Developing enough compassion for myself to allow the craziness in my thoughts while I was working on picking up the pieces was the other part of that. At Compassionate Friends meetings, a group for bereaved parents, many people talked about how crazy you feel after the death of a child. I was glad to know that I wasn’t alone in that, and that just because I felt crazy, didn’t mean I was sure to jump off the deep end.

Even now, I have thoughts that I have to treat with compassion and just let them be, without giving myself a hard time about them. When I get a phone call at work, especially when I’m scrubbed in and can’t answer it, my first thought is “I hope nobody died.” If my phone rings again, I find myself running through the scenario in my head. I know, it’s irrational to jump straight to that, but it’s happened to me before.

I’m a little weird about pictures, too. Talia just had some professional photos taken. I’m excited to capture that cuteness that makes all the 3-year-old tantrums worthwhile, but I also get some sort of satisfaction in knowing that I’ll have those recent and beautiful images if she dies. It’s not in the budget to purchase all of the images, so I wonder how long the photographer keeps the files and I wonder if she would give them to me if Talia died …I know, morbid, right?! Things like that are regular occurrences in my head. They are not the average thought processes, but I suppose burying a child is not an average life event. I don’t bother other people with that mess in my head, I just try to meet myself with compassion, and acknowledge and allow the thought and then let it go. It’s not socially acceptable to think that way, so it’s not something that gets discussed much, but I don’t think it’s necessarily unhealthy to have those thoughts either. To be honest, I think we’d all do well if we spent a little more time considering death. Recognizing the finality of my own life and the life of those I love helps me to live a little more fully and to appreciate the people in my life a little more deeply—my life and theirs is a gift that won’t last forever.

I once heard this quote that I really loved: “Emotions are like small children—you can’t let them drive the car, but you can’t stuff them in the trunk either.” In sudden grief, it’s like unleashing a mindful of unruly and unreasonable toddlers. They are bouncing around EVERYWHERE. Ignoring the situation won't help. Sometimes you have to stop what you are doing, acknowledge the chaos, and grapple with them one by one to put them back in their proper place. Compassion goes a long way in calming the disarray of thought and emotion. It gives you the time, the space, and the understanding necessary to allow the healing process to unfold.

Enjoy the Little Things

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After a significant loss, it becomes immediately crystal clear the things that are most important in life. It's the people! Living to love them in their imperfections, forgive them for mistakes, to enjoy their company and to make someone else's day a little bit better. 
For a long time it was almost painful to hear people talk about the mundane troubles in life. So many of the things that upset us are nothing when they are put into the bigger picture of life, love, death, and eternity. 
Over time, "life as usual" has returned to me in a lot of ways. I find myself frustrated when kids aren't behaving or when I've cleaned up the 3rd mess and it's only 7:30 am. I worry about when I'm going to find time to get the laundry done, or running late for something on the schedule. I get lost in following my facebook feed or the latest pinterest find, or reading the news. I don't always give people the undivided attention that I want to. I can't help but wonder how many moments like the one pictured that I have missed because my mind was elsewhere. I would give almost anything to re-live that scene. 
There are moments, especially in hearing the tragedies and suffering of others, that I am again reminded of what's really important. My intention, then, is to continue to strive to be mindful and present in the moment, living it to the best of my ability. After all, this may be the last one we get to share together.