comfort

To Be Like Sadness

You know Sadness, from the movie Inside Out? She knows something profound.

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This morning, I read:
If someone asked you if you were compassionate, you might readily say yes. Or at least, "I believe so." But pause to examine the word compassion...For the word comes from the roots that mean literally to "suffer with"; to show compassion means sharing in the suffering "passion" of another. Compassion understood in this way asks more from us than a mere stirring of pity or sympathetic word. 
To live with compassion means to enter others' dark moments. It is to walk into places of pain, not to flinch or look away when another agonizes. It means to stay where people suffer. Compassion holds us back from quick eager explanations when tragedy meets someone we know or love. 
In some ways you might think such opening ourselves to other' pain would only intensify our own. How many people run to where others are suffering? Who easily hears someone weep or cry out or reveal a quiet sadness? Confronted with poverty or hardship or mourning, we say to ourselves, "Let's go where things feel a little more comfortable." Such is our natural logic.
In so many encounters we try to look away from the pain. We try to help our friends quickly process grief. We hastily look for ways to bring cheer to a child or ailing aunt. All the while, however, we act less our of genuine "suffering with" and more out of our need to stand back from the discomfort we fear we might feel. We secretly restlessly want to move from the place where it hurts. Our evasions do not help others, of course, but rather cause them to put up defenses and drive away those who need someone to care. 
One reason we react to others this way grows out of our skirting of our own pain. We resist getting near the suffering of another partly out of our unwillingness to suffer ourselves. For another's hardship suggests to us what can also hurt us. Such reminders unsettle. But our hesitation to look squarely at another's suffering, to sit or stand with someone in pain, weighs on conversations an obligation for the other to "act happy." Even worse, our persisting in denying our losses leads to mounting desire to control other people's lives. In his penetrating study, The Betrayal of the Self, the psychoanalyst Arno Gruen shows convincingly how "the actual source of our cruelty and callousness lies in the rejection of our suffering." 
For we may fall into the illusion that we own people, that we can use them, that we have a right to manage their feelings. By offering premature advice on how to cope, by rushing to reassure, by prodding with advice, we say much about or own needs for easy closure. When we barge in with such consolation, we make hurting souls into objects or projects. 
For all the ways this approach seems to insulate us from the hurts and needs of others, it ends up not helping us at all...We find relationships bending or even breaking under the weight of expectations we place on them in our discomfort with another's suffering. We end up even more alone and walled within our disappointments or sadnesses." 

-Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning into Dancing

By being brave enough to look deeply into our own suffering, we become able to sit with others in their suffering. By learning to show genuine compassion, to truly "suffer with" another, we will build gentleness, gratitude and even joy in our own hearts as well as meaningful relationships with others. Our hearts will be bigger and our world will be better if we can be brave enough to look into and understand the depths of our own suffering.

When a life changing grief becomes insignificant

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After Lach died I read a book called Hello, from Heaven. It was a lovely little compilation of stories that people told of their "visits" from their loved ones. There must have been a chapter in there of people who had their visits in the form very vivid and vibrant dreams. I wanted to have that experience so terribly. I did have one dream about toward the end of that first year. However, it was not the peaceful hope-filled dream that I was yearning for. Instead, this one left me feeling the wound torn open and the ache of living without him feeling very fresh again. I definitely didn't want to have that experience again. 
I had a different kind of dream about a month ago and I'm finally deciding to share it. Sometimes things are too big for words and it feels like you are taking something away from a powerful experience by trying to make it conform to our language. However, in the case that it might bring a ray of hope to someone else, here goes: 
It began as I was parking my van in a grassy area of a park that was somehow connected to Nehemiah, a local high school boy that was killed in a car accident 2 years ago. This is a kid that I had some secondary connections to, but had never met myself. As I was backing into the spot, suddenly I could see Nehemiah through my rear view mirror and he helped me get parked. Then he playfully came around the car and greeted me with a warm hug as I got out. As I started to look around, I saw groups of people around the park. Some of the people had colors that were brighter and more saturated than everything else around them. I came to understand that those who were brighter were of heaven and everything that was more dull was of earth. I stood there in awe, slowly taking it in, and Nehemiah communicated to me without words that he'd see if Lach could come. I turned toward my left shoulder, slowing taking in the view in amazement, and as I got about 2/3 the way around, there was a grand piano sitting just off in the distance. Lach was sitting on the bench reaching toward the keys of the piano. He was still 10 months old, wearing the green and orange striped shirt that he wore both in the picture we used for his obituary and on the day he died. Everything is about him was bright and radiant. When I spotted him, he made eye contact with me and gave me a sweet and knowing little pursed-lip grin. I ran toward him and scooped him up, hugging him and kissing him. 
There was SO MUCH love and peace and joy. SO MUCH! As I held him, I came to understand our grief response as a teeny tiny completely natural response to being separated from something we are enjoying. In comparison to the joy of the moment, that all-consuming grief of losing a child dwarfed into an insignificant and temporary loss. It became more like the feeling that we have when something ordinary that we are enjoying comes to its natural end... The amazing movie that is now over, the fall of the leaves in autumn, the roller coaster ride that comes to an end...the faint "that-was-great, too-bad-it's-over" response.
At the same time as I was holding Lach and coming to understand the loss in a new perspective, I was also waking up. I knew that I would be waking up to continue living in my separation from him. I was SO ok with this! It was no big deal! It is so small and temporary and insignificant in comparison to the overwhelming love and joy that is to come. I woke up with tears in my eyes...Joyful tears that came from a delight at the glimpse of the what that reunion might be like, and the the peek at a joy, a peace, and a love that are so abundant they dwarf even a life-changing grief into something that is barely perceptible.

I don't dream often, and when I do, there is usually not much to make of it. This dream was something else. It was so clear and so vivid. It gave me new perspective to hold onto as well as hope and courage for the journey. It's a perspective could be applied not just to the loss of Lachlan, but to the rest of life's struggles too.

Hold onto hope all you grievers...as much as your hearts hurt now, they will rejoice a million times over!

For His Soul was Pleasing to the Lord

The one who pleased God was loved, living among sinners, was transported--snatched away, lest wickedness pervert his mind or deceit beguile his soul; For the witchery of paltry things obscures what is right and the whirl of the desire transforms the innocent mind. Having become perfect in a short while, he reached the fullness of a long career; for his soul was pleasing to the Lord, therefore he sped him out of the midst of wickedness. But the people saw and did not understand, nor did they take that consideration into account. Grace and mercy are with his holy ones, and his care is with the elect.
-Wisdom 4:10-15

To be loved so deeply, to be spared the suffering and struggle of humanity, to be created perfectly in God's image and to remain always in that perfection. That is a blessing that has been given to our children who died so young.  It is a gift that is so easy to overlook in the midst of our grief, but if we dare to recognize it, it is a small source of comfort in the sea of heartache!

Sunset Reflection

As this project comes to a close, I want thank those of you who followed along. Your little encouragements with personal messages or post likes, comments, and shares are meaningful to me. Even though I don’t respond to most of them they are appreciated.

This is not an easy project to do…it takes time, it takes thought, it takes re-living some of those toughest moments of my life. However, by actually taking the time and making the effort to put my thoughts into words, somehow I seem to get new insights into some of my own thoughts and feelings, I come up with new ways to describe the experience, and I solidify some things that I’ve felt all along. I think journaling is an incredibly healing experience and these prompts are done very well. They encourage reflection in a way that brings hope and healing. I’d certainly encourage others to give it a try, whether it’s openly for the world to read or in your own private journal at home.

One of the helpful things in my early grief, was to read others experiences and to know I was not alone. To know that others could feel what I was feeling and still go on to lead a happy and fulfilling life brought hope. They could offer new perspectives that seemed to help calm the sea. By sharing this project shared on social media, outside the “safety” of support groups or closed circles of bereaved parents, I hope that others can get a glimpse into the mind of someone wrestling with the aftermath of losing a child. I hope that by “normalizing” grief to some extent that it won’t seem so foreign and scary when it happens to someone we love. I hope it will make it a little easier for us all reach out with gentle compassion and some sort of understanding when people we love are grieving.

I know I am not the only one to suffer. Everyone has their own personal experiences of struggle, loss, and grief. Not everyone’s struggles can be shared out loud. I hope that by telling my story and my path to healing that I am not the only one who gets something out of it. I hope that in some way sharing my experience, because I can, will touch someone else and help in their road to healing, too.

You know that feeling that you get when you actually stop what you are doing to watch and appreciate a sunset…there’s something like that in this project. To stop what I’m doing and give my attention to the journey of grief does something of the same. Grief, like joy and a beautiful sunset, are holy. Grief is love’s souvenir. It is our proof that we once loved—and that that love continues beyond death. When we watch a sunset, or look at a heart after loss, for that moment, we are stopping to notice that heaven has reached down to touch the earth. 

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Give Away Your Love

I figured out pretty early on that there was something beneficial for me in reaching out to other people. It didn’t matter too much what it was, it was simply the effort to make the day better for someone else that brought just a glimmer of light into my dark world. In fact, I had little “Random Act of Kindness in memory of Lachlan” cards made up. I didn’t end up using very many of those. I guess I found that the outward acknowledgement of why I was doing it was not necessary. It just felt good to bring a little ray of sunshine into someone else’s day.

Sometimes it was in purely random acts…dropping off a bouquet of flowers for a stranger, buying a coffee for the person in line behind me, or handing a $10 Target gift card to someone just walking in the doors of the store… Those things were good, but I found that they seemed a little bit awkward and forced. What brings more hope and joy and healing for me, is seeing a need and going out of the way to fill it. It is in doing more than what is expected. When I started building Lach’s Legacy, it was to reach out to other people, to support people in their grief, help them find some resources that may be helpful…however, in reaching out, I found excitement, joy and hope. By doing that, I was helping myself as much, or more, than I was helping anyone else. When I get to talk to a newly bereaved parent, I know it comforts them to share their story and to connect with someone who understands, but it also helps me. It gives me new perspective and fresh ideas and it helps me to remember how far I’ve come from the agony of new grief. I’m pretty sure I can feel my heart growing in those experiences.

I find joy…not necessarily a happy, giddy, smiling, laughing sort of joy, but a deep and peaceful joy, when we are able to offer a special kindness to a terminally ill child and their family, when I am able to help a new student feel a little more comfortable in their environment, and when I am able to connect with someone who is working through one of life’s struggles. I get more from those experiences than I give. St. Francis of Assisi figured that out before I did. He said, “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” He was right.

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What Heals You?

Carly Marie, the woman who organizes this project, says “Turning the WHY into What Heals You? has been one of my greatest healers. Whenever I found myself asking “why did this have to happen. Why me? Why him?” etc etc I started asking myself what heals me?” She became aware that it was in intentionally turning to what was healing that allowed that process to unfold.

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I’ve asked myself that similar question regularly, and I often ask it of newly bereaved parents too. What brings comfort? What helps? There is no ONE thing that is the mainstay of healing after the death of a child. It comes in tiny bits from many different places. The things that are the main pillars of my healing will not necessarily be what the next person needs. If you are close to a griever, you don’t have to just wonder what might help. If you ask them what you can do for them, or what they need, they’ll most likely come up blank. However, if you ask them what helps and what brings comfort, there’s a good chance you’ll get some ideas you can work with.

For me, the list of things that brought comfort and healing is something like this: talking with bereaved mothers, reading and journaling, building a legacy for Lachlan, planting a garden for him, talking with friends who weren’t afraid to hear, offering random acts of kindness to others. Being able to talk to the people at his daycare who answered questions about his last day. The steady presence of family. The people who reached out to us to offer their support whether by card, attending his services, donating vacation hours or cash to his memorial fund, or helping with household jobs was all very humbling and comforting. Finding ways to let my loss bring comfort to others who are on the same path. Knowing that Lachlan and his story has somehow made a difference in someone else’s life. Prayer and an intentional effort to grow my faith and deepen my relationship with God. My rainbow babies, who have brought more purpose, love and joy into my days. Being able to talk about it with my husband, the only other person on the planet that loved him and misses him like I do.

I’m not sure that true healing after the death of a child can happen without some sort of intentional movement toward that. Healing work is sometimes uncomfortable and difficult. I work in surgery, so I am reminded of the surgical wound that just won’t heal. Sometimes you have to intentionally work at getting a wound to heal and it doesn’t just happen automatically with the passage of time. It is uncomfortable, difficult, and time consuming, but you can’t ignore it. If you do, the skin might seal shut, but it leaves the perfect place for an abscess to form. The problem will not be laid to rest until it is dealt with. In order to get those tough wounds to heal properly, you have to pack it, debride it, and let it heal from the inside out. The loss of a child is like that. It is a wound that has to be healed from the inside out in order for wellness to be restored. Sometimes things like talking about the loss in a real way, or working through this project are emotionally draining, uncomfortable and take work, however, when you look back at it, you find that there is healing that happens on a deeper level and a lasting peace that comes from it.

Grief Rituals

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One of the things that makes the 3rd, 4th, 5th years and beyond after loss a little easier to bear, is that you have had time to start building some of these grief rituals. Funeral rituals we are taught by our culture, and we can be guided through those motions with some pre-existing mental framework on what to expect. But then the funeral is over, and life begins without your child in your arms, your home, or even on your planet. How do you express the love that continues when your loved one isn’t here to receive it? At first, it’s completely foreign. These are ideas that you’ve never thought to consider, and all at once you are searching helplessly for some way to remember and honor your baby in their absence. At Christmas, we remember and honor a living child by buying gifts, sharing time with them and making special meals…those things don’t work anymore. So now what?

I feel like holidays, birthdays, and anniversary days are so much easier to bear when you know what to expect from those big days without them here. These rituals that develop over time bring a calmness to my heart, a framework to build the day around, and the satisfaction of an outlet to express the undying love that continues for them. For Lach’s birthday, we will usually try to find something fun to do together as a family, celebrate with cake, and send a bouquet of birthday balloons to heaven. For his angelversary (the term often adopted to refer to the anniversary of death), again, time spent together is important, and when the weather cooperates, we’ll try to plant something in his garden, combatting death with new life. One Halloween, our family went as Avengers and the Captain America costume held Lach’s place. On Christmas, we buy an Angel Tree gift for a boy Lach’s age, and his stocking is filled on Christmas morning with little things a 10 month old would enjoy that can then be donated to a child in need.

These are small and simple rituals, but they honor his place in our family and offer some structure to help us through those days that are especially hard not to have him here. While small in outward appearance, those little rituals transcend the physical act itself to communicate a love that never dies.

Healing Therapies

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The list of healing therapies is long. Reading, fancy coffee, hot baths, an occasional massage, or a casual walk. Cards, notes, and gifts from those who cared. Talking with a friend who wasn’t afraid to hear what I had to say, or a bereaved mom who would convey to me that I would be ok again, grief support groups. A hard run, a soft warm bed, looking through pictures of the baby I missed so much, journaling, sharing random acts of kindness in his memory, Lach’s Legacy. Creating something beautiful—a drawing for his headstone, a garden for our yard, a chest to keep his belongings. Long tearful talks with my husband, a toddler to crawl into my lap, family who sat with us in our grief. Music and poetry. Silence and prayer. …but the greatest of these is love.

All of the little physical things helped me get through that particular moment, but the most healing came in the conversations, the genuine empathy, and the love of those around us. It was there that I knew we didn’t suffer alone, we didn’t remember Lachlan alone, that I was offered new hope and perspective, that I was loved enough for people to reach out and sit with me when I was shattered into a million pieces. Love, gentleness, and a willingness to suffer alongside us…that’s where the roots of true healing begin. 

Empathy

She showed up first. We were little more than acquaintances at the time. She knew of Lach’s death and she came. She had such a way about her that things seemed better when she was there. She stayed in the background but relieved me of the pressure of having to tend to people. She let people in, she answered the phone, she made coffee, and she gave us a ride to the hospital. We had been away from home for a week or two during the time of Lach’s funeral and burial. She called and asked if it would be ok to clean the house for us. As we were returning home, I couldn’t help but be a little anxious about this new normal that we were going to have to find, and that we were going to have to start back into the daily chores of living. It lightened my heart to find things cleaned and tidy. Lach’s room was untouched, his things as we left them, the fingerprints still on the mirror. There was a vase of fresh cut lilacs on the table, fresh fruit and a new gallon of milk in the fridge. Maybe it’s because she was the first one, maybe it’s because we didn’t know each other well enough that I might have expected it from her, maybe it’s because those things were outside the box of casseroles and sympathy cards, but those were some of my most memorable moments of empathy. Since then, we have grown to be good friends and she has continued to be a wonderful support for me along the way. 
Empathy is as unique as the individual who is giving it. I think they key is just to do something! You don’t have to know the person well to give an incredibly kind and meaningful gesture, even if it is small and simple. Many people out of true love and concern make themselves available, “Call if you need anything. I’m here for you.” Even on the hardest days, I would let the dishes and the laundry pile up before I would ever call someone and ask them to do those things for me. People bring casseroles. They know you’ll have company that needs to eat even if you can’t. Those things are certainly appreciated, but the things that stood out to me were the things that were outside that box. Having someone take care of mowing the lawn, offering to take Westin for a couple hours, getting a group together to help us create a memorial garden for Lachlan, help in creating the memorials, Lach’s Legacy, and the Run for Their Lives, and even simply a coffee date and a loving conversation or a walk around the neighborhood.

Here are my tips on offering empathy to a newly bereaved parent: 
1. Know that there is more going on than what you can see. From the outside, I may have appeared to be holding myself together. I may have been playing with Westin at the park, I may have been talking about my trip to the grocery store, I may have been working just like everyone else. But what was on the inside was something different. I was being eaten up inside that I could give Westin undivided attention without Lachlan there, that the grocery trip was too easy when you’re not wrestling a 10 month old while you do it, or that I could work without a baby in my arms. 
2. Ask. Coming into a conversation with a newly bereaved parent can sometimes be scary. We are unsure of what to say or how to say it, we are afraid we might say something that will be hurtful. Keep in mind that grief is as unique as a thumbprint. There are some common threads, but no two people will look at any part of it the same way. What might bring comfort for one griever, may be painful for the next. Don’t expect to know what they might People who could come to me with an open mind and an open heart were always a blessing.
It was a relief to be able to talk about Lachlan without feeling judged or worrying about falling short of expectations, or feeling like I wasn’t doing it right because I wasn’t doing it as they thought I should. It was healing for me to have a conversation with someone who was willing to ask and ready to hear.
The questions you could ask to show your empathy and your love are endless: Are you able to eat? Are you able to sleep? What are some of the things that have brought you the most comfort? Is there anything in particular that has been hard for you lately? Have you thought about any kind of memorial? How are you feeling about going back to work? Are you finding it hard to take care of your other kids? Can I see some pictures of your baby? Tell me about him… Those kinds of questions helped me to know that someone cared, that they were interested in actually knowing my struggles and not giving any expectations on what I should think or feel or do. Share your own experiences of loss or grief, but remember that they are your own and what worked for you may not be helpful for them. 
3. Do something. Pick out something you would like to do for them and ask for permission to do that. It was much easier to say yes to someone who said, “we would like to take care of your lawn for the next couple weeks, is that ok with you?” than to call someone to say, “my heart hurts too much today, will you mow my yard?” Remember that now every item the child has ever touched is sacred to the parents. They are the physical proofs that the child was there. Make sure to ask before helping with anything that is the baby’s. Even the unfinished bottle, the poopy diapers, and the dirty laundry. A time will come when those things will have to be addressed, but the right time to address them is different for everyone. 
4. Remember. Remember birthdays and anniversaries. Remember that Thanksgiving and Christmas are happening without their child to share it with. Mother’s day is hard when you can’t hold the child who made you a mother. Remember times that you spent with the child and memories of the child. If you didn’t know the baby ask them to tell you about them. When you see something that makes you think of them, tell them that. 

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Support Circles

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When someone reaches out to me after the death of a child, it’s usually not the bereaved themselves, but close friends and family. I often get the question, what can I do?! How can I help? How do I be a good support person for these parents?
I truly admire those who are able to say that and to reach in to parents who are hurting. It’s not an easy thing to do. In our culture, we tend to want to avoid topics and feelings that are uncomfortable. Being a support person for someone who is grieving is especially hard because there’s no advice, no words, no deed that you can bring to the table to take away the pain. The path of grief is a lonely journey that can be travelled only by the griever. For a support person to understand that you cannot hurry them along the path of healing, but that you are simply there to sit and walk beside them as much as the path allows is essential. 
For most people, it seems, that being allowed to talk about their loss and their hurt is the number one thing that is helpful. Don’t be afraid to ask about their baby, how they are doing, what they are struggling with, and what seems to help. Before Lach died, I didn’t understand that very well. If someone went through something difficult, but by outward appearances seemed to be doing ok, I didn’t want to ask, or say something about it in the case that I might be ruining an otherwise decent day. After Lach died, I learned that even if by outward appearances I looked ok, my thoughts were completely consumed by him in every. Single. Moment. Having someone ask about Lachlan or my grief, may have brought tears, but generally they were very welcome tears. It was a huge weight off my shoulders to be able to talk about what feels like the elephant in the room. To know that someone cares and they were willing to just BE with me in my grief lightens the load. If someone is really not in a place that they would like to talk about it, usually grievers will find ways to be brief in answering your questions and finding ways to suggest that this isn’t a good time.

Don’t let being scared stop you from asking. Let me tell you, even with living the experience of loss and making a point to reach out to others who have experienced similar losses, I am still scared every time I talk to someone new. What will I even say?! Nothing can make this better! However, I know that saying SOMETHING is better than saying nothing at all. The hardest step is just getting up the nerve to start the conversation. My best advice is to ask questions. Really hear them out. Don’t allow yourself to be judgmental when you hear their responses. Thoughts and feelings after a big loss are wild and crazy. They can be scary to the griever themselves. People often feel like they must be crazy for the thoughts that they have. Giving advice or telling people what to think or feel doesn’t meet them where they are and can be much more likely to be hurtful. Bring coffee, take a walk together, make a phone call and as much as you can, just listen with the intent to understand.
I really have been very fortunate in the support I’ve had in my grief. People from many different avenues in my life have reached out to us in one way or another to show they care. One of the places I have found the most comfort is in the company of other bereaved mothers. I learned very quickly that in general other bereaved parents had a different way of asking questions and talking about the loss. They tended to be very open, understanding of the craziness in my head, empathetic and encouraging. Since then, I have been fortunate to meet so many other parents who have had to say goodbye to their precious babies. Even when I am the veteran griever reaching toward someone in their new grief, there is comfort for me when they reach back. Even 8 years later, I find that telling my story and hearing the experiences of other grieving parents is therapeutic. For all of you who have been willing to reach back…thank you!

Picture IMperfect Family

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The image of our family is always hard. It’s not what I planned. It’s not the complete picture that I had envisioned. There is something missing. What we have makes it hard to answer “How many kids do you have?” An innocent question that can’t be answered without what feels like an awkward exchange. When we have a formal family picture taken, I bring a dragonfly to mark his spot in the photo. That's more for me than it is for anyone else. It's better for me to have his spot marked in some tangible way.
In my mind’s eye, the picture is as it should be. Four stair-step boys and their baby sister, but what I have to show to the world is something different. Lach’s pictures are on the wall in line with the rest of them, but it isn’t right. It never will be. I should have a school picture of my second grader on the wall with the standard head and chest shot and smooth gray background. It should be right there, between my 4th grader and kindergartener, instead of the close up snapshot of his adorable face with a laundry basket backdrop.
While Lach leaves pictures on the wall missing something, I think the images in our hearts are enhanced. When we imagine our family together, it has to be with heaven as the backdrop. With his place being in heaven instead of our home, we are left with a constant reminder that we are destined join him and we destined for something beyond here. The kids all know that Lachlan is in heaven and that if we play our cards right we will someday have the opportunity to join him in paradise. We dream together of what heaven might be like. Emmett grins and giggles at the thought of a new and improved body. Leo will at times ask in exasperation, “When can I die? It takes sooo long! I want to go to heaven!” While it’s a little disturbing to hear your preschooler whine about why he can’t die already, I love that he is looking forward to his place beyond earth where we can be together forever and where our family picture will finally reflect what’s in our hearts.