This is a hard one for me to post. It feels more vulnerable. It’s one thing to try and write what you’re feeling and thinking for people to read. Especially when you can hide behind the security of the internet. It’s quite another to say it out loud, in public. But even then there is a level of security with that because you can walk away and it’s over. But when your talk has been recorded and you decide to post it on the internet, where anyone can see it and nothing ever goes away, it’s a very scary thing.
This is my story. It’s personal. It’s hard. It’s emotional. But I share it because I believe I have something to say that can help others.
Last year I had the opportunity to share my story at my uncle’s church.
My Dad’s side of the family was gathering for a family reunion in Iowa where he grew up. My uncle seized the opportunity and asked me to speak at his church. I quickly discovered it’s more nerve wracking to speak in front of family than it is to speak in front of strangers. I woke up that morning full of nerves, I remember saying to my cousin “What made me think this would be a good idea.”
My Uncle Chuck is the one who introduces me in this video. When he asks anyone who’s related to me to stand up, 3/4 of the small town church stood up. (Most were in town for the reunion). You’ll notice my reaction . . . ya, I freak out a bit.
I’m sorry the sound quality isn’t the best. We had some trouble getting the video copied. You should be able to hear it if you turn up the volume, just watch out for the crying baby who’ll blow out your speakers. 😉
I’ve heard from some people that they cannot hear the video. So I’m posting the content below:
I would like to begin today by introducing you to my boys. Dawson, my oldest is one of the smartest people I know. When he was 4 years old I bought him non-toddler Transformer toys. They were rated for ages 8 and up. Dawson eagerly opened the directions and sat down to figure out his new toy. I will say Dawson is the only male I know who willingly reads directions. After a while he brought me the Transformer and the directions. He was having trouble and needed help. It turns out 8 and up does not include adults. It was well beyond my skill level and I was unable to help Dawson. I apologized to my 4 year old, and he sat back down with his directions. It wasn’t long before he came to me with his Transformer completely transformed. As he grew his engineering mind had him building things out anything he could find. He even built himself a Transformer costume. To this day when I need something put together or figured out Dawson is always the one I think of. Shy, sensitive and stubborn, Dawson is entirely to much like me.
Devin, my youngest was born with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. As a toddler if the house was quite, I knew he was into something he shouldn’t be. When he was 3 years old, my grandparents came for a visit. All the adults were in the living room talking. Devin walked into the living room, marched right up to my mom and said “Grandma, give me a dollar”. My mom, a bit taken back said, “Why should I give you a dollar”. Devin very sweetly replied, “Give me a dollar and I’ll give you a drink”. “But Devin, I’m not thirsty”, my mom replied. Devin just repeated his offer. The two went back and forth for a little bit, until my mom finally said reaching for her water bottle, “Devin I’m not thirsty, and if I was, . . . she reached for her water bottle and it was gone! The little imp and snuck in stolen her water bottle and was trying to sell it back to her for a dollar. In that moment I knew I was in trouble. One afternoon Devin proudly told me his 4th grade class voted him class clown . . . twice.
January 22, 2011 was a beautiful and chilly Saturday morning. I was headed out for a photo shoot. The boys and their dad were going out on an adventure. The morning was hectic and chaotic as we were all trying to get ready and out the door. I was rushing around trying to make sure everyone ate breakfast, while also trying to get ready for my shoot. I rushed up the stairs while Dawson answered the front door. I saw the back of his head as he talked to his uncle. As I was doing my hair Devin came up behind me and pet the underside of my arms while smiling his sweet smile at me in the mirror. Eventually we were all out the door.
My client ended up not showing up for the photo shoot, so I headed home much earlier than planned. As a result I was home when the call came in. With that one phone call my world came crashing down. My family was in a fatal car accident. From the moment I got the call time stopped. A day that began full of the promise of family fun became a day of trauma that altered the course of my life.
At the time the doctor told me my boys had not survived the accident I basically shut down. I really don’t know how long it took for my brain to begin functioning again. What I do know was the first few thoughts that crossed my mind became defining moments for me.
The first conscious thought I remember having was the realization that God knew when they were born, my boys lives would be short. In that moment the thought brought me a small measure of peace, because I knew God was in control and I would not turn my back on him.
The second defining thought was a fragment of Romans 8:28. It went through my mind like a flash of lightening. The thought that God would make something good come from all this. From that moment, I have clung to that promise with a death grip. It has been this promise that enables me to continue putting one foot in front of the other. Someday I will see something good come from this pain.
The third defining moment for me was actually a decision I made. Standing, next to my dad, in the hallway of the hospital, I decided I was going to be real with my pain. My thought process behind this decision was that I did not want to hide behind the “God is good, so life is good” attitude I had seen growing up in the church. I wanted to show people that God and pain could co-exist in life.
I don’t know where this idea that the Christian life is easy and free from pain comes from. When people are struggling they are often met with comments like “you just need to pray more, have more fain, maybe you did something wrong”. These comments, this attitude communicate that pain in life equals you’re not Christian enough, you don’t love God. If you just had more faith life would be great. This is such an unbiblical attitude and it makes me mad. God NEVER promised us a life without pain. What he did promise us was that he would be with us in our pain. This is what I wanted people to see through me as I grieved the loss of my boys.
In 2013 I wrote a blog post I want to share with you.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted ~ Matthew 5:4
I never understood this verse. How can you call someone who is mourning blessed? I think someone mourning would think they were anything but blessed.
Then I found out what it really means to mourn. I know what it feels like to be so deep in grief you forget to breath. I know what its like to feel the crushing weight of grief so heavy that you can’t breathe. I certainly didn’t feel blessed. And I still didn’t really understand this verse.
Yet, it was in some of those moments of grief, that I felt God’s presence and heard his voice. It’s hard to describe what it felt like one day to have this overwhelming peace spread through me. To know that it was from God and to hear him tell me he had everything under control. It was a “peace that passes all understanding”(Philippians 4:7) that only God can give.
But I still didn’t understand. I’d lost everything that mattered.
Then the other night I was thinking about all the times God came along beside me in my grief, all the people he sent to pray for me and support me and then it dawned on me . . . . I’m not blessed because I mourn, I’m blessed because in my grief God made his presence known and comforted me.
It’s in the word “comforted” the blessing lies, not in the mourning. It is an amazing blessing to feel God’s presence, especially when he’s all you have left.”
There are so many ways God was with me during the most painful part of my journey. Those first few years were excruciating. The pain was so intense any physical movement required an enormous amount of effort. Breathing became a chore. One afternoon I was driving home. I stopped at a stop sign next to a small country school where Devin had played a basketball game. As I sat there at the stop sign, I realized I wasn’t breathing. I wasn’t holding my breath. I had just stopped breathing. I was so scared to take that next breath, to start breathing again. Because I knew as I inhaled I would not only be breathing in air, but pain as well.
So much of my grieving was done in prayer. Initially I was afraid to sit and pray. I didn’t pray for weeks, maybe even months. Somehow I knew to sit and talk with God was going to unleash a torrent of pain and tears that I wouldn’t be able to control. But once I was able to pray, and that intense pain of grief washed over me, I found the easiest way to deal with it was in the presence of God. I would wander into the boy’s bedroom, kneel over Dawson’s bed to pray and end up curled in the fetal position on the floor crying out to God for help. Every time. For months and years. Even today this occasionally happens. And every time after my tears are exhausted and I can hardly breathe from the ugly cry that just happened, I feel better, lighter and ready to handle the next step.
In those desperate moments on the floor of my boy’s bedroom and in so many other ways I learned how God draws close to the broken hearted.
One afternoon I was sitting in my living room. I don’t remember anything about what was going on, or what I was doing. All I remember was sitting there on the ottoman, leaned over with my arms on my knees. I must have been talking with God. Suddenly this feeling started deep within and spread throughout my entire body. It was a feeling of warmth and peace. I wish I had words to describe what it felt like. It was amazing and I knew it was from God. For the first time in my life I truly understood what the phrase “a peace that surpasses all understanding” really means. In that moment I understood how Horatio Spafford could write words like “when sorrows like sea billows roll, it is well with my soul” only days after all his children were lost at sea. I never understood his song of peace in the midst of tragedy until that moment.
It’s interesting, when you turn to God in your deepest pain, he is there in ways you cannot even imagine. I would be standing in the balcony at church, singing worship songs with tears streaming down my cheeks. Singing songs of praise to God, while feeling the most intense emotional pain I’ve ever know, was such a spiritual experience for me. It was like he was pulling all the pain out of me, leaving comfort in its place. I have no words to describe what it was like, or how close God felt. All I can say is when you take your pain to God, he does not disappoint.
It wasn’t just through these intensely emotional experiences God provided comfort for me. It was through the people around me as well. When we left the hospital the social worker who’d been working with us pulled me aside. She said to me “You have the largest support system I’ve ever seen”. She saw only a fraction of the support that has surrounded me these past 5 ½ years.
Both of my parents come from large families. Growing up I loved having so many uncles, aunts and cousins. But I have never been so thankful to come from a large family as I have since the accident. My mom’s family descended upon us, flying in from all over the country. The chaos of my Greeley relatives was exactly what I needed. They held me up that first week. My dad’s family is a bit quieter, but their support as time has stretched on has sustained me too. I have an amazing family! My large extended family has been a built in support system.
In addition to my family, I have an online family of friends. Several years ago I joined an online photography club. We shared pictures, critiqued each other’s images and grew together as photographers and friends. We laughed and joked with each other. Even though we’d never met, we became family. The support I received from this group of online friends was so evident my family could see how close we were. Shortly after the accident a few members decided we needed to meet. A trip to Las Vegas was planned. Suddenly in the midst of my pain, I not only had something to look forward to, I had something to get excited about. For 3 days we bounced around the desert taking photos. We laughed, picked on each other and had fun. I had a break from the constant pain. For the first time since the accident I felt carefree and the trip was the highlight of my year. I firmly believe God brought this group of photographers into my life when he did, because he KNEW I was going to need them.
Then there was the support I received through friends on Facebook. Yes, social media can be a good thing! Friends from college, high school and even grade school offered me words of support. One afternoon I was having one of my more desperate “help me God” prayers. Crying on the floor of my boy’s room, all I could do was cry out “help me” over and over again. Later that day I received 3 messages from people, all from different parts of my life. Each message told me they’d been praying for me. I began to cherish every single “I’m praying for you” I received. Whenever someone would ask how they could help, I’d ask for prayer. Through various contacts there were people praying for me all around the world. Everyday I would hear of someone else, usually someone I didn’t know, who’d heard about the accident and was praying for me.
The church my family belonged to at the time showed us an amazing amount of support that first week. They supported us in many ways, but one thing has always stood out. Every night for a week at 6pm they had dinner for us at the church. So many members of my extended family came into town that my mom had worried how we would feed everyone. But the church had that all taken care of. In addition to feeding us, those nightly meals gave us an anchor in the storm of that first week.
Another church in town opened up their building to us for the memorial service. We were expecting so many people; our church was not big enough. Over 600 people came to the service. I’m still in awe of the number of people who came to mourn with us.
One of my favorite shows of support was organized by a lovely woman I hardly know. She organized a group of women to leave gifts on my doorstep from December 1st through January 22nd. This is the hardest time of the year for me. Dawson’s birthday, Christmas and the accident day all in close succession are followed by Devin’s birthday in February. This particular year, I felt spoiled and actually looked forward to coming home from work everyday. It made the holidays easier and this difficult time of year more bearable.
I don’t know why God graced me with such a wonderful support system. Especially when I’ve met so many grieving parents who are deserted by family and friends. But through this experience I feel like I’ve gotten a glimpse of what God intended the church to be, a place where people come together and support each other through the painful events in their lives.
I work in a community mental health clinic. The other day one of my clients mentioned that he had learned not to mention his mental illness in church. It broke my heart to hear that. The church should be a place for people who are hurting to find love, encouragement and support. But instead we are too busy living under the God is good, so life is good attitude to be real about our pain, or honestly listen to someone else. I sincerely believe if the Christian community would be more honest in our pain and struggles there would be less of it, because we would share the burden together instead of dealing with it alone. We are to help each other carry our burdens.
There is a scene at the end of the Lord of the Rings movies that I love. Frodo and Sam are trying to get to Mt. Doom so Frodo can destroy the ring of evil. No one but Frodo can carry the ring and at this point in the movie the weight of the ring is too much for him. Frodo collapses and cannot go on. Sam his trusted friend, in a climatic moment in the movie says to Frodo, “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you”. This is what the church should be and this is how I’ve felt these last 5 years. No one can ever carry or take away my pain, but I have been carried through the pain by the love and support of those God sent to comfort me.
One night, nearly 2 years after the accident, I was feeling very sorry for myself. I was working through a Beth Moore bible study on James. This particular evening the word “cherished” kept jumping off the workbook page. In my self-pity I was crying out to God about how much I just wanted to feel cherished. I started thinking about all people who’ve been my support. Then I heard God say to me “see all these people I’ve sent, this is how I’ve cherished you”. Let me tell you that was an experience. I cried for a full 20 minutes. I didn’t stop shaking for an hour! Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be COMFORTED.
Through all this I came to understand Jesus sacrifice on the cross in a whole new way. I grew up in the church. I’ve heard all the bible stories and I know all the songs. I can probably still remember the motions to the songs we sang in Sunday school when I was a kid. But in some ways I never fully understood the sacrifice God made. One evening it dawned on me, God knows what it’s like to lose a child. Worse, he knows what it’s like to watch his son be tortured and beaten, hung on a cross and die. Matthew 27 tells us about God’s reaction. Verse 45: “Now from the 6th hour there was darkness over all the land until the 9th hour.” The footnotes in my bible tell me that’s from noon to 3pm. Right in the middle of the day, and it was dark. If I could have turned the sky dark that day I would have. I’d probably have left the sky dark for weeks. I felt betrayed by the sun when spring came around and the weather started turning warm. Around 3pm Jesus breathed his last and this is what happened verse 51:“And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom”. That’s a very familiar part of the story because it symbolizes the separation between us and God being removed and this is usually where we focus. But it goes on to say “And the earth shook, and the rocks were split.” The first time I really read that after the accident, I read the actions of a Father who was grieving the death of his son. And I could so relate. My world shook to its core. I wanted to scream. If I could have caused an earthquake to outwardly express what was going on internally I would have. Suddenly it all made sense. There are not multiple paths to God, there is only one! And that path is paved with the blood of Jesus. Though intellectually I knew that before. Now living through child loss, it made sense to me in a way it never had before. I understand why God will reject people who reject his son. It’s not because God doesn’t love them, it’s because they reject his son. And his son DIED for them.
Part of being real with my pain isn’t just telling you about all the wonderful things God did for me. It’s also explaining what happened when I allowed my pain to take my focus off God. The last 2 years or so, I have struggled with trusting God. I’ve been through several opportunities to trust God with my future these past couple years. Each time I failed miserly.
The crazy part of me decided it would be a good idea to go to graduate school and get my counseling degree only 2 years into my grief journey. When it came time to find an internship or do a case presentation that would determine if I could graduate I did not put my trust in God. Instead I looked toward the future and saw everything that could go wrong. After all, if God allowed the accident into my life, how could I be sure he would look out for me now?
I let anxiety into my life. I couldn’t sleep or function well. Things got worse as graduation loomed closer and I would have to leave the safety of school and find a job.
I started questioning God’s character. I questioned his motives, his intention and his caring. I would say things like “If I believe in the sovereignty of God then that means he knew the accident was going to happen and he did nothing to stop it. If he’s willing to let something that awful happen to me, then how can I trust he won’t let more bad stuff happen?” I would pull up stories from the Old Testament to show how “scary” God can be. I wanted answers. “How can I trust a God who allowed my children to die?” I wanted answers to this question not only for me but also for all the grieving mom’s who ask “How can a loving God take my child from me?” I asked so many people my questions. I was desperate for an answer. Sometimes I took my questions to God.
Sometimes I need to write my prayers out. I thought I’d share a few from last year with you.
May 9, 2015
Lord, I am struggling to trust you. I want to fully and completely trust you. Yet I am afraid. I’m afraid of more pain and disappointment in my future. I’m afraid to trust because my life has already fallen apart once. I don’t want to go through that again. I’m afraid you will bring me more pain. I’m struggling to believe in your goodness.
I want to see your divine creativity play out in my life. I want to again be excited about what you have planned for my future. I want the peace that comes from fully trusting you. God please help me with my lack of trust.
May 11, 2015
Lord, my heart is troubled and afraid. I am afraid you will not continue providing for me or that my future holds more intense pain. I’m afraid you have more painful lessons to teach me.
God please remove these fears and doubt from my heart. Replace them with your peace. Show me what I need to do to let go and fully trust you again.
June 9, 2015
I’m beginning to see now that in allowing anxiety and fear into my life I abandoned your love for me. In my anxiety and fear the devil taught me to fear you! I have been afraid of you God. Afraid of what you can do in my life. In that fear I gave the devil a stronghold in my life. Lord I pray that you will drive all the anxiety and far from my life! Fill me instead with your perfect love.
September 28, 2015
Am I confident in God? Not fully. I want to be. I know in my head that God loves us and will do anything for us. But there is a seed of doubt. Why? Because I know God does not always step in when we want him to. He doesn’t stop bad things from happening to us. Why? I don’t know. The bible tells us that God is sovereign and everything is under his control. How do you reconcile that to a God who loves you when something horrible happens in your life. Does that mean God wanted it to happen? Does that mean God allowed it to happen? Does that mean it was part of Gods will? Or is it just part of this broken world we live in? I want to have confidence in God! But I don’t know how to deal with the doubt in my mind. The doubt that says bad things happen and God doesn’t always step in. But then God didn’t’ step in and save his own son from a gruesome death. Because there was a bigger picture. The difference between what God knows about our life and what we know is huge. God can see the whole picture. He can see why I ‘ve had to endure the last 5 years alone. Why I don’t get to see my boys grow up. I wish I could see the bigger picture. Maybe that would make it easier to endure. Maybe it would make it easier to understand my purpose in life.
November 27, 2015
Lord, I’m trying to trust in you. I want to trust in you because I know in my head that you care for me. But it’s hard, hard to believe in my heart when I think about the accident. If you care for me so much why did you let that happen? I’m scared my life will always be like this. Are you taking care of me? I want to believe you are. I want so badly to trust you and not carry these burdens. But I don’t know how. I don’t know what to do. How do I let go and trust you. My kids are gone and I am alone. I hate this. God please help me. Help me understand. Give me wisdom. I want to trust you with my whole heart. But it’s broken. Not just broken God, it’s shattered. I don’t know how to put the pieces back together.
And earlier this year . . . .
March 11, 2016
Lord, give me wisdom to understand your role in the accident. Was it your will? Why didn’t you stop it? How do I trust you when you allowed something so devastating to happen to me? But did you allow it? Was it just part of living in a sinful world? How does your sovereignty play into all this? Lord, I just want to understand. If I’m not meant to understand then please replace my questioning with your peace.
Can you see the pattern? I’m afraid of what’s coming, I’m afraid of what’s coming. I took my eyes off God and looked instead to the future.
I started a devotional on Job last month. I was nearly in tears before I finished the introduction. The author made this statement: “The person of faith is one who like Job, knows what it is to be torn apart by the enormity of God”. Wow! That’s how I felt for over 2 years. Torn apart because my God is huge, he’s in control of all things, and he didn’t save me from this pain. How do you reconcile that?
In my years of questioning, and searching for an answer I came up with only one. You don’t. You don’t reconcile that God loves us and yet bad and painful things happen. I wish I could give you answers. I wish I could answer these questions myself.
There are many standard answers I could give. We live in an evil world. God gave us free will. Bad things happen. But none of these soothe the pain in my heart. None of them help me understand why God allowed this pain into my life. I don’t think there are answers that will satisfy my broken human heart. But then if I had answers I wouldn’t need faith.
You see, I don’t think we are meant to get the answers to these kinds of questions. If we had the answers it wouldn’t be faith. Knowledge yes, but not faith. It’s easy to trust things we know and understand. It requires no effort, no faith. Faith is trusting God in spite of the questions and in spite of the doubts. I think God wants us to lean on him even in the uncertainty and doubt. That is true faith.
Recently I’ve begun to realize all my questions were more about me than about God. When I took my eyes off God and looked toward the future, all I saw was fear. I was afraid of more pain and more suffering. When I allowed anxiety into my life instead of trusting God, I allowed a spirit of fear to gain a stronghold over me. In that anxiety and fear I quit spending time with God. Which only made the anxiety and far worse.
I also realized my questions were about my pride. What has happened in my life isn’t fair and I wanted answers. I deserved answers. At one point I even told God he owed me an amazing future. I mean really, how prideful can you be to tell God he OWEs you something. But since I didn’t trust God, I tried taking control of my life so I didn’t have to struggle anymore. In reality my struggle was made worse because I wasn’t willing to let go of my control. There’s a level of humility required to say to God “I trust you no matter what”. You have to be willing to put yourself aside and give God control. That requires submission to his will.
As a result of all my questioning I would beat myself up. I felt like such a horrible person. After all the wonderful things he did for me after the accident, here I was questioning his goodness and love. But I now know, the questioning isn’t wrong it’s human. In the multitude of people I talked to there was one pastor I spoke with who tied my questioning to my grief process. It had not occurred to me that my questions were coming from grief. In that one statement she helped me normalize what I was going through. It’s normal to ask these deep and confusing questions. It’s part of growing and maturing in our faith. It’s part of dealing with the hurt and pain in life. It doesn’t mean I’m turning my back on God or that I have a lack of faith. Like the author in my Job study says, “such feelings are not incompatible with faith”.
For the past 2-3 years I have been trying to be strong on my own. I’ve focused on the future and what could go wrong. I’ve been trying to control the outcome so I don’t have to experience more pain. This has led me to more anxiety and depression than I have ever known. My life has been more difficult and less peaceful as a result. Grief and child loss are hard enough on their own. But I compounded it by walking away from the peace God gave me.
Even in my doubt and questioning, everything God has done to comfort me is still there. My support system hasn’t deserted me after all these years. God is still providing for me. And he’s still there waiting for me to come back and rest in him. Just a few days ago I was finally able to let go of all my questions. I still don’t have answers. But I have my peace back, and that is far better than any answer. My most recent prayer has been: I would rather have the peace that comes from trusting you than answers to my anxiety fear filled questions.
I was recently reminded why that afternoon, when God filled me with his peace, I understood how Horatio Spafford could write the words “It is Well, With my Soul”. It was because his peace came from knowing he would spend eternity with God. The feeling of peace, that afternoon, was more than just God comforting me. The peace came in knowing that I belong to God. That my eternal future is set. That was not something I was sure of before the accident. Not because I hadn’t given my life over to God, but because I didn’t believe God loved me back. But in those first few years after the accident I felt God presence in such a strong and comforting way, I knew without a doubt he loved me and I would spend eternity with him.
Our hope is in heaven. Peace comes from knowing this hope will be realized.
Our lives are bigger than here and now. Bigger than the problems we face today, tomorrow or in the next 10 years. When I focus on the future all I see is what can go wrong. Like Peter walking on the water and taking his eyes off Jesus and only seeing the waves that can sweep him away. When I focus on God I have peace, because even though life is filled with struggle and pain, I know God loves me and I will spend eternity with him. That is where the true comfort is.
I’ve had so many people tell me how strong I am. But I’m not. I cry, I despair, I question, I get bitter and angry. Left to my own devices I would not be standing here today. It’s God who gives me strength. It is through his promises for my future, those he sent to support and comfort me and his hope that I will one day see my boys again I have strength.