Archive | March, 2016

Grief.

21 Mar

My mom is dead. My mom died.

I keep repeating those words in my head, unable to comprehend this truth. We knew it was a possibility, even a probability, for so long and yet now that it’s happened, it doesn’t feel real.

Other times it feels like a stab in the heart. Or like an elephant sitting on my chest. Like a nightmare I can’t outrun. Like someone else’s life I am observing. Like the whole world is different. Like the world is the same and I’m different.

With two young kids, I don’t have the option of sitting around grieving. And to be honest, even though spending extra time in bed or on the couch sounds appealing, I want to keep moving forward with life – if for no other reason than my mom would’ve wanted me to. Even in her last weeks and months, she was worried most about how her death would affect us, how we would handle the gaping hole she left in her wake. She was concerned about other people so much that it drove me crazy sometimes!

She loved being a mom, and for the past four years, a grandma. There is hardly any aspect about mothering now that does not remind me of her. When I nurse Annabelle, I think of my mom nursing me until I was over 2 (so she said, I don’t remember it). When I rock either girl in my arms, I think of my mom, who loved, loved, loved rocking babies (no sleep training for that woman!). When they cry, I think of how she wouldn’t have been able to stand it—her momma bear instinct was too fierce.

Those reminders of her make me want to be a better mom. A mom who is more patient, loving, kind, gentle, self-controlled and self-sacrificing. I want to “major on the majors” and make sure I find time for the most important things, not let my days get eaten up with things that don’t really matter (even if they’re things I enjoy). I want to live my life with joy and passion, to pursue my dreams, to make the best use of my days. I want to enjoy being a mother, to truly embrace my role and not just view my girls as impediments to my freedom and personal time (which I do sometimes because I’m selfish). I want to be compassionate and patient with my girls, to hold them when they’re crying, to get on their level and understand what’s wrong instead of getting mad that they’re being difficult. Because life is short, and I want to look back on these years able to say that I loved deeply and lived well.

As we sat by my mom in her last hours, my dad, older brother Jeremy, sister-in-law Jen, younger brother Chris, and I all took turns rubbing her arms and hands. Her freckled hands were as familiar to me as my own. They were her instruments of serving and healing. Those hands cared for us, patched wounds, massaged backs and legs, changed diapers, blew noses, washed bodies, applied sunscreen, dried hair, cooked meals, wiped tears.

I find myself wishing I could talk to her in prayer like Jesus. Even though we were blessed with time for saying goodbye in long, heartfelt conversations, I find myself replaying what I said and wondering, “Why in the world didn’t I bring up more fond memories, instead of her being left alone with all the kids for hours by my dad and grandparents, and her throwing the hairdryer in anger at me when I was being extremely difficult? Did I even tell her that I thought she was an amazing mom and friend, and loved her to the core of my being?” So I ask Jesus to tell my mom that I love her and miss her, and that those aren’t what I think of when I remember her.

Instead, I’ll think of how she was my favorite person on earth next to my husband and babies. I’ll think about how familiar and dear she was to me, and how genuinely I enjoyed being around her. Yes, it’s true her worrywart tendencies drove me crazy sometimes, but isn’t that a mark of true intimacy? I’ll think about the weeks last summer that the girls and I spent with her while Travis traveled. Precious memories. I took them so very much for granted. If I had known then that she’d be gone by now…

But here’s the thing about watching someone die from cancer or disease: you often don’t know what to do or say. Even as a Christian with the greatest hope in the world, I stumbled through conversations and interactions because I just didn’t know. You can’t fully understand what the other person is experiencing, and you’re dealing with your own hard, mixed emotions about the whole situation. You want to be positive, but not Pollyanna. You want to be encouraging, but realistic. You want to empathize with their sorrow and fear, but not contribute or add to it. You want to ask about the situation, but you also want to distract them from it.

What I decided early on, especially since it was my mom, was that I was just going to show up and be real. I was going to try hard to point her to Jesus, and remind her of the hope she had in Him, but if I didn’t have the words, or know what to say, I’d just be there anyway. And I’d say, “I’m not sure what to say.”

Same with being by her side in those last days. What do you do in that situation? I wasn’t sure, but before I even left my house, I determined that I would not let my weird hangups or fear of awkwardness make me regret not doing something for her or with her at the end of her time on earth. So I sat by her on the bed, holding her hand. I hugged her, and rested my head on her shoulder when I saw tears in the corners of her eyes as she listened to a music therapist named Julie sing Beyond the Sunset with just her voice and an acoustic guitar. I wiped her mouth, dotted chapstick on her dry lips, and told her through sobs that this wasn’t the way I’d remember her—that there was this picture from the Mexican family reunion where she was playing a guitar made out of a skewer and aluminum sheet pan and laughing. That’s how I’ll remember her.

My brother Chris called the Tuesday before she died. “They don’t think she has long left,” he said. Even though I had visited her in the middle of January and said what I wanted to say, how do you not rush to the bedside of one you love so dear? So I packed up and hit the road with Annabelle (Travis would follow with Tina Tornado on the weekend so that I could have some quiet time with my mom), arriving in Rochester Tuesday evening. As I was unloading the car, my dad took Annabelle up to see my mom. He said she just lit up when Annabelle entered the room.

That night and Wednesday, she was alert for 30 minutes or so every few hours. Wednesday night, my dad woke up Jeremy, Jen and me in the middle of the night, thinking that the end was near. But her heart was stubborn and held on for all of Thursday too. That was a long day. Some extended family came to visit. The music therapist and hospice nurse came for a bit. Several times, we thought the end was close, but she recovered, heart beating, lungs breathing.

Thursday night, we went to bed around 10:30. About 12:15 am on Friday, I woke up to my dad nudging me and he simply said, “She’s gone.” I got up and followed him into the hall, where we talked to my brother and sister-in-law a bit. We said good night and headed back to bed, but the second I got under the covers, I was like, “What am I doing? I can’t go back to sleep right now!”

So I headed upstairs and asked if I could see her. And it was true: she was gone. Just the shell of her earthly body remained. Her soul, the real her, was in heaven with Jesus. Chris said truthfully, “Now we’re the ones to feel sorry for.”

My dad called the funeral home and they said they’d be out in 30 minutes to take her body. So Chris went and got Jeremy and Jen, and we all stayed in the bedroom until the funeral home people arrived.

While they carried her body out of the house, the rest of us moved into the kitchen and Chris jokingly suggested taking shots of pickle juice (one of my mom’s favorite things) in her honor. “Let’s do it!” I said. So the five of us said, “Cheers,” and drank shots of pickle juice at 1:00 in the morning.

Early afternoon on Friday, Travis and Emma arrived, and the rest of our time down in Rochester was a blur of funeral preparations, seeing extended family and chasing wild kids. That was one of the hardest weeks of my life, and I was relieved when I could finally retreat to my own home and familiar comforts. I see vaguely now that part of the reason was that I wanted to escape the relentless reminders of her absence, a luxury my dad doesn’t have.

Two weekends ago, I returned to Rochester for the first time since my mom died. As I walked in the door of my parents’ house and saw a peace lily from the funeral my dad had placed on the piano, it hit me afresh that my mom was gone. It was just his house now. Little by little, evidences of her decorating, organization, presence will disappear. We boxed up unused medical supplies and sorted through her clothes, personal items, jewelry, shoes, and purses while I was there, making piles of things to keep, things to sell, things to throw. I know it’s time to do these things but it still just feels too sudden, too soon.  I haven’t been able to delete her contact from my phone because it feels like I’d be erasing her. I know it’s not… but still.

Grief is a process, and as the hospice chaplain told us, it’s different for everyone. When I focus on this earthly life, I am devastated my mom died. But when I remember the hope of heaven, and the fact that she’s there now, I feel peaceful. As one of the wonderful sympathy cards we received says (in the words of M.B. Anderson): “God confidently assures us—in the great symphony of life, the final refrain for the believing heart is triumphant, everlasting JOY.”

We’re sad on earth, but my mom is celebrating in Jesus’ presence. We saw her earthly life end, but she is living a glorious beginning.

“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Cor. 15:54-57)

He is Perfect in All of His Ways

2 Mar

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Both Martha and Mary said this same thing to Jesus, separately, when they first saw him after their younger brother, Lazarus, had died from sickness. That kind of response comes from a heart that has been dwelling on the questions, “Why doesn’t Jesus do something about this? Why hasn’t He come? Why hasn’t He healed?” It is at once a statement of belief – in Jesus’ power – and unbelief – in Jesus’ willingness. He didn’t intervene. He withheld healing. He was absent in their time of greatest need.

According to the story recorded in John 11, the sisters had sent for Jesus, the miracle worker, after Lazarus became sick. “Lord, he whom you love is ill,” the messenger said. Surely they expected that Jesus would drop everything and race the 65 miles to Bethany to save his good friend.

But Lazarus got sicker and sicker. No sign of Jesus. As residents of a community that housed sick people, Mary and Martha were probably well acquainted with the process of dying. Lazarus didn’t have long left. Still no Jesus. Where is He? Why hasn’t He come and healed his friend, our brother? Doesn’t He love us?

Then, the unthinkable happened. Lazarus died. The finality of death settled in. Even if Jesus still came, it was too late. Burial preparations were made. Lazarus’ body was carried out of the house. Loved ones and Jews from Bethany and nearby Jerusalem filled the house and village, all mourning the death of this beloved young man.

But Jesus was nowhere to be found.

*******

Meanwhile, Jesus had also been in a town called Bethany, the one across the Jordan, where John the Baptist had first started baptizing. “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”

Jesus’ reaction to the news of Lazarus being sick is the exact opposite of what we would expect, of what Mary and Martha expected. He didn’t rush to be with Lazarus. He stayed where He was. For TWO days. As Jesus and His disciples were preparing for their journey to Bethany outside of Jerusalem, Jesus said, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe…”

*******

Lazarus had been dead and in the tomb for four days, four of the longest days of Mary and Martha’s life, when they finally heard the word. “Jesus is coming.” Martha hurried to meet Jesus outside of the village, but Mary stayed at home.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you,” Martha said.

“Your brother will rise again,” Jesus replied.

“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” Jesus said.

“Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world,” Martha replied.

Martha went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” When Mary heard this, she rose quickly and went out to meet Jesus in the same spot Martha had met Him.

She fell at Jesus’ feet, weeping, and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Overcome by emotion from seeing Mary and a crowd of fellow Jews weeping, Jesus choked back tears and said, “Where have you laid him?”

A few Jews motioned and said, “Lord, come and see,” but Jesus didn’t follow. Instead, “He lifted His face to heaven and wept. Tears flooded His eyes and spilled onto His cheeks, and though He stood strong, His shoulder set, His body shook with sobs. … The sobs washed over their friend and Savior. He cared. He cared more than Martha ever imagined. He wasn’t just busy and callous. He loved Lazarus like He loved Martha and Mary and the other people of Bethany. And this—the death of Lazarus—grieved Jesus in a way they had not seen before. The pain and loss of death broke His heart.”1

“See how he loved him!”

And yet, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”

*******

Jesus wiped His face with His hands and followed the crowd, Mary, and Martha to the tomb where they had laid Lazarus.

“Take away the stone,” Jesus said.

Looks of surprise and uncertainty showed on the faces in the crowd. “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days,” Martha said quietly to Him.

“Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” Jesus said to her.

Martha nodded, and motioned for the stone to be removed. After it had been rolled away, Jesus lifted His eyes to heaven and spoke loudly for the crowd to hear, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.”

Then, even louder, Jesus called, “Lazarus, come out!”

A person emerged from the tomb, bound in graveclothes. Could it be? At Jesus’ prompting, they removed the linen cloths and behold, it was Lazarus, whole and healthy and ALIVE.


Over the past few months of watching my mom battle ovarian cancer, I have found great comfort in this story. I have seen in my own heart the questions of Mary and Martha: Where is Jesus in this? Why hasn’t He answered our prayers for healing?

I have also, like Mary and Martha, experienced the sorrow and heartache of what it feels like when the battle for life is lost: my beloved mother Sheri passed away at 12:12 a.m. on Friday, February 12, 2016. She was able to stay at home and die peacefully, thanks to my loving father, hospice care and modern medicine, and is now cancer-free in heaven, celebrating her new life, face to face with Jesus.

I like to think of her in heaven as she looked in her 20s and 30s – actually, very similar to how I look now. I find comfort in knowing that she now knows the answers to all the questions she had about heaven before she died—because she’s there. I like to think that she knows more about the reasons why God chose her story here on earth to end at age 62, and that she praises His love and wisdom in doing so.

Because that is the ONLY thing that brings me comfort in this time of sorrow: that God’s way are perfect. That my mom’s death from cancer isn’t simply the result of living in a fallen world, but that it has a purpose, that God will use it to accomplish His purposes.

Jesus showed that He had a purpose in the situation with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Because of His love for them, because of His love for His disciples, He let this horrific tragedy happen. He used it to show them His glory, to prove that He had been sent by the Father, and to demonstrate that He has complete control over life and death. If He says that He wins in the end, HE WILL WIN. “Take heart, I have overcome the world.”

Like John Piper says, “We do not lose heart because every single moment of our affliction in the path of obedience — whether from sickness or slander — fallen nature or fallen people — all of it is meaningful. That is, all of it — unseen to our eyes —is producing something, preparing something, for us in eternity. Verse 17: ‘This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.’ …Every moment of your affliction is meaningful. It has meaning. It is doing something. Causing something. Bringing about something glorious. You can’t see this. The world can’t see this. They think, and you are tempted to think, this suffering is meaningless. It’s not doing anything good. I can’t see any good coming out of this. That’s what you feel if you focus on the seen. To which Paul responds, look to the things that are unseen. The promise of God. Nothing in your pain is meaningless. It is all preparing. Working something. Producing something — a weight of glory, a special glory for you. Just for you because of that pain.”

I don’t know why things have to be this way, why God didn’t heal my mom. But I do believe that God does not cause suffering or pain unnecessarily. He is doing something here. There is a greater glory—His glory—to be revealed through this.

I’ve been listening to Chris Tomlin’s song “Good Good Father” on repeat lately. The words speak comfort to my soul:

 

Oh, I’ve heard a thousand stories of what they think you’re like

But I’ve heard the tender whisper of love in the dead of night

And you tell me that you’re pleased

And that I’m never alone

 

You’re a good, good Father

It’s who You are, it’s who You are, it’s who You are

And I’m loved by You

It’s who I am, it’s who I am, it’s who I am

 

Oh, and I’ve seen many searching for answers far and wide

But I know we’re all searching

For answers only you provide

Cause you know just what we need

Before we say a word

 

You are perfect in all of your ways

You are perfect in all of your ways

You are perfect in all of your ways

 

Oh, it’s love so undeniable

I, I can hardly speak

Peace so unexplainable

I, I can hardly think

 

As you call me deeper still [x3]

Into love, love, love

 

God is a good, good Father. I am loved by Him. He is perfect in all of His ways.

1 From The Friends of Jesus by Karen Kingsbury