Grief: You Don’t Just Get Over It

Can you “get over” grief? Can you recover from the loss of a child, the loss of a spouse, or the trauma of an attack so that it no longer bothers you?

The grief process: you don't just get over it

There’s been a twitter fight going on recently between Joel Osteen, a motivational speaker who says “yes, you can get over it, God wants you to, and if grief lasts more than a few months you’re wallowing” (okay, I’m paraphrasing), and those who say that some hurts just stay with you. The latter camp believes firmly that Osteen is being insensitive to those who have endured something huge like losing a child, and does not understand the grief process.

Personally, I fall mostly into the second camp, too.

Yes, it’s true, as Osteen supporters say, that “we don’t grieve in the way the world grieves” (1 Thessalonians 4:13), but that doesn’t mean that we just get over a huge, aching void.

Nineteen years ago I lost my baby boy.

At 9:30 p.m. on September 3 he was looking like he had turned a corner. The crisis post-surgery had passed. So I kissed him on the forehead (the only place I could reach without tubes), and said, “Good night, Christopher. Mommy loves you. I’ll see you in the morning.” And Keith and I walked out of the Intensive Care Unit and walked home.

At 1:30 a.m. the phone rang. We had better come now, the nurse said, because he was crashing.

When we got to the hospital they were still working on my baby. Fifteen minutes later they brought his body out to us. He was swaddled in a blanket, and the only thing we could see was his little face, with his little tongue sticking out a bit.

We held him and cried over him, and then I kissed him on the forehead and I said, “Goodbye, Christopher. Mommy loves you. I’ll see you in heaven.” And I handed him back to the nurse.

Over the next few days it hurt to breathe.

It felt like someone was stepping on my chest. I had to concentrate to force myself to eat, to force myself to pick up Rebecca (our daughter who was 18 months old), to force myself to shower.

But then, I remember about two weeks in, I had a good day. I didn’t cry much at all. And I felt guilty about that. What was wrong with me? How could I be “over” such a loss?

I shouldn’t have worried, because a week later I was a mess again. But slowly but surely those horrible days got fewer and farther between. They still came, but there were good moments, too.

About a month after he died someone shared with me this truth about grief which helped me so much:

The Grief Process: How grief actually works over time. We don't just "get over it"

You don’t “get over” grief. Something will set you off–a song, the back of a stranger’s head, a movie–and you’ll be thrown back to that ICU room, feeling everything with the same intensity. But those moments will come less frequently, and they won’t last as long. Instead of a whole day of not being able to function you may just have an hour when you sob and journal.

And those times are random. Sometimes they may be at anniversaries, but often it’s when we’re stressed about something else, or when we’re by ourselves just thinking or even enjoying life. And then it will come–what we’re missing. And it will be so, so sad.

The person who told me this also gave me these words:

When you have good days, do not feel guilty for them. The good days do not mean that you have forgotten the person you loved. They just mean that you are still able to enjoy the good things that God has given you. That love is still there, and there will always be times, unbidden, when that love will manifest itself in tears and in aches and even in rages. But those times will be less frequent. Laughter will return. So enjoy life when you can, and give in to the tears when  you must. This world is broken, and God understands our grief. It’s okay to feel it–but don’t feel badly if you feel it less frequently than you once did.

Those words meant so much to me, and now, every time I have a friend who suffers a great loss, like a miscarriage or a death in the immediate family, I share these truths about the grief process with her, too.

In the discussion on Twitter about Osteen I was sent a lovely article by a grieving mom that tells the same story–how she still grieves, but there is also light in her eyes. And that’s okay.

And so I wanted to share that concept of the timing of the grief process with you all today. Joel Osteen proves that even those who are Christians don’t really understand grief. Grief is not unChristlike or self-focused. Jesus Himself grieves. But Jesus also laughs. And one of the most amazing things about this life is how laughter and grief can often co-exist.

Grieving is not ungodly; covering up pain and not speaking Truth, on the other hand, is.

So let’s extend grace to one another when we grieve, and let’s extend grace to ourselves, both when we have a hard time dealing with grief, and when we seem to be able to laugh too early. Neither is a sign that we are far from God; they are both simply signs that we are human. And that, after all, is how God made us.

How Big Is Your Umbrella: Weathering the Storms of Life, Second EditionIf you’re walking through grief right now, you’ll appreciate my book How Big Is Your Umbrella: Weathering the Storms of Life. It’s all about the things that we yell at God when life is difficult, and what He whispers back. And it talks about how the reality and promise of heaven can make the grief process easier. The ebook version is really inexpensive, so if you’re having a hard time–I hope this can bless you.


Will you do me a favour? Will you share the chart about grief on Pinterest (or on Facebook) so more people “get it”? To make it easy, you can just repin my post here. Thank you!


When Baby Isn’t Perfect

something is wrong with your babyToday is the eighteenth anniversary of my son Christopher’s death, and I’ll be heading out to the graveyard later, likely by myself. I like it better there alone. But I thought this post may be appropriate for the day–about what to do when you get a diagnosis that something is wrong with your baby.

I shifted uncomfortably on the cot. The baby had been pushing on my ribs for over an hour as the technician kept trying to get a better view.

“It’s a boy,” she announced as my husband entered the cubicle holding our 15-month-old daughter. We were ecstatic, but I couldn’t figure out why she wouldn’t look me in the eye.

The next day I learned the answer. “I’m sorry, Sheila,” my doctor told me. “There’s something wrong with his heart.”

It’s hard to explain the panic you feel when you hear that something is wrong with your baby, even one who isn’t born yet. And that panic only worsened for us as, over the next few weeks, I endured a dizzying battery of tests. We learned our son had Down Syndrome and a very serious heart defect.

I experienced such intense fears during that time. Could I handle a sick child? What would this mean for my daughter? Would all my time be taken up in caring for my son? What would his future be like? And above all, would I have to watch him die?

As soon as we learn we are pregnant—and for many of us, even before—we start dreaming of what it will be like to hold the baby, to watch him grow, or to see her blossom. But for some of us, those dreams are shattered. The child we dreamt about isn’t coming. The one we have has something wrong.

The first few weeks can be the most difficult in your life as you struggle to cope with grief and fear, care for a new baby and perhaps even rearrange your life. Here are some steps to help you through this challenging time.

1. Nurture your marriage

An estimated 25% to 33% of marriages break up within a year of the birth of a handicapped child. That’s not a statistic you want to join. Resolve now, before you do anything else, that you will still be each other’s greatest priority. Speak and act kindly to one another. Give each other space to handle the grief differently, without passing judgment. You will need each other in the years ahead. Remember that if you walk through this valley together, your marriage can emerge stronger and more precious to you than you had ever thought possible.

2. Take your feelings to God

Cheryl Molenaar’s daughter Lindsay, now 12, was born with a chromosomal defect that has left her profoundly disabled and with the mental level of a one-year-old. Cheryl remembers feeling grief at the loss of all her hopes and dreams, mingled with intense frustration at not being able to ease her daughter’s suffering.

It’s only natural that these feelings lead to anger toward God. How could He let this happen? For Cheryl, the experience shook her faith. Yet through wrestling with God, Cheryl learned God will always carry you through. “Sometimes you can’t feel God,” she says, “But ask God to let you see Him, and He will show you Himself.”

My son Christopher died when he was 29 days old. Though I never received an answer why, I was given something better: a peace I cannot explain that could only have come from God. God is big enough to handle our questions, when we seek Him out and let Him in.

3. Seek early intervention

Paul and Judith Colley’s daughter Laura was born prematurely at 25 weeks. A year later she was diagnosed with hearing problems and possible developmental delay, so she was quickly fitted with a hearing aid. At two years of age her speech was slow and doctors were concerned with her development. Today, though, after years of speech therapy, she is above average on almost every scale. This child, whom they once thought might be permanently delayed, is flourishing. The reason is early intervention.

When you’re given a diagnosis for your child, the simple truth is that no one knows the potential he or she has. Certainly some children will have a harder time learning than others; but for many early stimulation can help. Ask your paediatrician to connect you with community resources or books that can guide you through the process.

4. Ask for help

No one likes to feel that they can’t cope. Yet for Cheryl, outside help saves her sanity and keeps her from the brink of exhaustion. Seek out help from friends, relatives, your church, and community resources. You’ve been given a big burden to carry, but God never meant for us to carry our burdens alone (Galatians 6:2).

We live in a society that values perfection. Having a baby who’s not perfect throws us through a loop and challenges everything we believe. Yet through that challenge, we will inevitably come to “taste” God more as He sustains us day by day. As Cheryl cares for Lindsay, she is constantly reminded that His “grace is made perfect in weakness”. Her child has taught her things about God no sermon ever could. And as she loves Lindsay, so protectively and fiercely, she gets a clearer picture of how God cherishes her.

If you’re dealing with disappointment and grief, Sheila’s book, How Big Is Your Umbrella?, can help. Read more here.

The Least of These

My story of how we were pressured to abort our son, but chose not to. And how his short life mattered anyway.Yesterday would have been my son Christopher’s 18th birthday. Or rather, it was his birthday, but he celebrated in heaven. I wonder if he’s all grown up now?

One of the things that I wonder about is what I would have called him. I call my daughters by the short forms of their names–Rebecca is Becca, Kathryn is Katie. Would Christopher have been Chris? I never had time to find out. I guess that’s still to come.

It really was Christopher’s short life and death that started me writing. My first few articles I wrote were all about grief and going through hard times, and one of my first books was How Big Is Your Umbrella: Weathering the Storms of Life, where I share some of the things I learned about yelling at God–and what God whispers back. I’ve written a second edition to that book now.

The very first thing I ever had published, though, is still one of my favourites, and I thought it fitting to run it today. I couldn’t run it on his birthday since it was a Wednesday, and I always do marriage posts then. But here it is. It was first in print in the magazine Celebrate Life back in 1999.

The cardiologist walked into the room, glanced at my chart and asked, “So you didn’t get an abortion?”. As I was 34 weeks pregnant, it seemed an unnecessary question.

For one agonizing night we actually considered it. Twenty-two weeks into my second pregnancy we learned the boy I was carrying had Down Syndrome and a serious heart defect. Though my husband and I detested the idea of abortion, we wondered if we were cruel to let him live. On April 17, 1996 we sat in our living room, numb with shock. “What if sparing him suffering is the only thing we can do for him?” Keith asked our minister, Duke Vipperman, who had come by to talk to us.

“You sound as if you believe it is you who are causing his suffering,” Duke replied. Then he explained that we do not cause suffering, it just happens. Those closest to God, who are most at peace, are often those who have suffered the most. “If you try to ease his suffering by denying him life,” Duke told us, “you are in essence saying you can do God’s job better than God.”

For Keith this settled the issue. He had never wanted to abort, but as a physician he wanted to “fix the problem”–to make sure he was doing all he could for our baby.

I knew I could never go through with an abortion, but it was not just because of my moral objections. I had felt him kick. Even though he was small, I sensed him fluttering at only 14 weeks, and he just kept growing more active. I could never abort him. I loved him. He was my son.

Christopher arrived eleven days early on August 6, 1996. Suddenly he was no longer a medical problem but a tiny bundle who breathed a little too fast, and who stared into my eyes with recognition and, I think, love.

His first two weeks were peaceful ones, as he was healthier than we expected, and we learned all the facets of his personality. He enjoyed being cradled and listening to singing, but would kick and scream in indignation if he lost his soother. When our 1 ½ year old daughter Rebecca visited him, she would lean over the bassinet, pat his blond fuzzy head and say, “My baby?” I would nod, and promise that we would take him home soon.

But we couldn’t. As his heart began to fail Christopher grew increasingly tired and lost weight instead of gaining it. He was transferred to Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children to await surgery.

During the evening, as I sat alone with him in his room, I would hold him and whisper, “Do you know how much Mommy loves you?”. Babies, so tiny and helpless, inspire a purer love than most. It is an unselfish love, since babies–and especially those who are sick–cannot promise anything in return. I am a goal oriented person, yet with Christopher, I learned to sit and just “be”. I had no choice. And in the quiet, I sensed God whispering His own unconditional love to me, too. “Thank you, God,” I whispered, “for the chance to know this precious boy.”

Usually his room was bustling with visiting friends, relatives, and Keith’s colleagues. We even held a dedication service there. The event was somber, for though we were celebrating his life, we all could see how tiny he was for the battle that lay ahead. The doctors gave Christopher a 25% chance of post-operative survival, for he was only 4 ½ pounds.

On the morning of his surgery I was terrified I wouldn’t hold him again. “I want so much more for you, honey,” I said. “But I am glad to have the chance to love you. No matter what happens, I will see you again.”

For five days he recovered well, and the doctors grew optimistic about his chances. But on September 3 Christopher’s breathing again grew rapid. That night my mother watched Rebecca, and Keith and I visited him together. “Mommy loves you, sweetheart”, I whispered as we left his room. It was 9:30 p.m.

He was only 29 days old when he died later that night.

The number of people at the funeral amazed us. Along with family and friends, many from the hospital attended, too. We asked Duke to talk about the importance of Christopher’s life, as we felt so many had discounted him because of his disabilities. “We must not look down on little children, for they are our model of God’s kingdom,” Duke preached. Jesus Himself chooses to identify with them, for whoever welcomes them, welcomes Him (Matthew 18:5). “Christopher was what we are to be: a little one, utterly dependent on God, struggling against apathy and everything that would deny us the sweetness of life.”

The two years since his death have been full ones. I have shed many tears, but I also smile now when I remember him. We have a new baby girl, and Keith is establishing his own pediatric practice. I often think about how different life would be had I aborted him. I would have no memories and no peace. And how do you talk about your pain? People understand my pain when I say I had a baby who died. Would they understand if I had aborted a baby at 4 ½ months? I can visit him at his grave. But most of all, I can look my girls in the eyes and tell them with conviction that I love them unconditionally. And they believe me, for I loved him.

How Big Is Your Umbrella: Weathering the Storms of Life, Second EditionMany may think his was a wasted life. He never came home from the hospital, he never smiled, and he was rarely even awake. But they didn’t watch the faces of his grandparents when they held him, the nurses as they watched us, or the people we have comforted since. They do not know how Christopher changed us. And so they cannot see that his life is much more than those 29 days. Recently Rebecca told me not to be sad, because Christopher is in heaven, and he is happy now. I think she is right. And one day we will meet him again, and the blessing that was his life will be complete.

My book, How Big Is Your Umbrella: Weathering the Storms of Life, deals more fully with this story. Find out more here.

You can also watch a DVD series that deals with the pain in our lives here.

17 Years Ago I Said Good-Bye to My Son

On September 3, 17 years ago, I said good-bye to my son. He passed away in the wee hours of the morning on September 4. So I’m thinking of my baby boy today!

My husband and I were talking recently about how his death impacted us. It’s a very hard road back from something like that to trusting God again. As we were leaving our oldest daughter at her new university last weekend, we had to put her in God’s hands. And as my husband said, that’s really tough. If you lent some tool that you loved to a neighbour, and they returned it broken and scratched up, you wouldn’t be so ready to lend to that neighbour again. And when a baby dies, it’s easy to feel that way about God.

It is hard to trust again.

And yet Christopher is not broken and all scratched up. He is alive and he is thriving with God.

Christopher, I’m so glad you’re able to run and jump and laugh and do all the things you would have found challenging here on this earth.

And I’m glad that each day that I spend here is not one more day that I’m away from you; it’s one more day that I’m closer to being reunited with you. I’m still your Mommy.

On this day, to honour him, I thought I wouldn’t write a new post. I’d just link to other things that I’ve said about my precious boy.

Remembering…here’s my recollection of our last day together, and how God helped me to let go.

How Big Is Your UmbrellaHeaven is For Real…how a glimpse of heaven last year helped me to get through the anniversary of his death. We all need a little glimpse of heaven!

And for those of you who have also lost babies, here’s  A Prayer Through Tears, a column I wrote as a prayer for all of us walking through this.

I talk a lot about Christopher when I do women’s retreats, and about how having him helped me to be able to truly say that God is enough. And I learned how to trust God in new ways. I’ve written a book about it, How Big Is Your Umbrella–just a short book to help people walk through the things we often yell at God when life is tough, and the things that God whispers back. You can see it here.

Or, if you’re interested, here’s an audio download when I tell my story, but also weave in other illustrations of finally being able to fully trust God.

And now we’re going to have a family day where we celebrate those we have to hold here, and those we are waiting to hold in heaven.

Sometimes We All Need a Glimpse of Heaven


My mother always warned me that time goes faster as you age, but I never really believed her until this summer, when I started to notice how fast my own girls are growing up. Yet it is not only the younger generation that is growing older. Last week my husband’s oldest friend lost his mother, after a very long illness. Life suddenly seems rather short.

A few weeks ago my mother-in-law was listing various health complaints, when I commented, “growing old sure doesn’t sound that fun, but at least it’s better than the alternative.”

Heaven Is For RealMy dear mother-in-law then said something very wise. “But how do we know?” She asked. “I’m sure heaven is far better than what we have here.”

I believe it is, and yet often that belief doesn’t translate into my everyday life. Too often I live thinking only of the here and now.

Yet if there is something beyond this life, shouldn’t we spend some time figuring out what that is?

Perhaps that is easier for children, who seem to have a better grasp on spiritual things. In just two short weeks I’ll remember the anniversary of my son’s death, fifteen years ago now. His memory is still so much a part of our family, and so my daughters have grown up without being shielded about death, as many children are. And yet it has not made them sad. I remember listening in on a conversation then 6-year-old Katie was having with a friend who was over to play. The friend had picked up a picture of my son and asked Katie about him. She replied, “That’s my big brother Christopher. I never got to meet him on earth, but when I get to heaven he’ll be my tour guide.” I’ve always liked that image.

It is in times of grief that these images are often sealed, either for good or for bad.

We either reject the possibility of a deity and an afterlife, or we run desperately into God’s arms for comfort. I have chosen the latter, and I have found that even in tears, it brings peace.

It was that peace that radiated at the funeral last week, as my friend Bruce reflected on his mother’s Margaret’s life. The service was a beautiful testimony to her sense of humour and her faith. And Bruce ended with a story from December 23, 1986. He had called his mother to come and pick him up in Belleville, but she could not find the keys to the car. “Check your pockets,” she said. He did. And the keys rattled. She told him that perhaps it was time for him to learn a lesson and walk home.

With no other alternative, he started to trudge to his house northeast of the city. Over the years, Bruce admits, the story has become embellished. He admits now that he did not walk uphill the whole way. He was not barefoot. He did not have to climb over mountainous snow banks. And yet, on that day, he remembers his overwhelming thought was of his mother, safe and warm at home, while she left him to walk alone. And as he stood at his mother’s funeral, he had that same overwhelming feeling: she was safe and sound, at home, and he was left to walk alone.

When we lose someone we love, that overwhelming sense of loneliness is inevitable.

I know those days will descend upon me again, whether it be soon or decades in the future. I hope, though, that those days come, I will be able to keep three images in mind: the God who welcomes me; Margaret, safe and happy at home; and my son, waiting to be my tour guide.

How God Used Poison Ivy

I have a dear 16-year-old friend named Liam. My girls have grown up with him and his younger brother Paul; our two families camped together every summer and spent winters at a rustic cabin in the woods.


This summer my mother led a missions trip to a Kenyan children’s home, a place which has rescued over 3000 children. Our family has been there three times; my mother six. But this year, for various reasons, we just couldn’t go. But Liam did.

The week before he left, he took a canoe trip with his family and got poison ivy on his eye. How horrible! And right before a trip to Kenya. Everyone was grumpy and rather perturbed at this intrusion and inconvenience.

'Poison ivy' photo (c) 2007, Erutuon - license:

The doctor said, because it was eye, and because he wouldn’t be near great medical treatment, a cream likely wouldn’t be good enough. He needed steroids. And so Liam was put on Prednisone.

Fast forward to Kenya, and Liam starts to develop a rash on his legs. Nothing serious, and it’s not itchy, so my mother, the team leader, isn’t alarmed. My aunt, who is also on the team, and who happens to be a physician, is very worried indeed. Because it turns out that Malarone, the medication you take to ward off malaria, has a weird, rare side effect that can result in vasculitis (an inflammation of the veins) and eventually, well, death. And it turns out that this all starts with a rash.

The treatment? Prednisone.

My aunt almost didn’t go on the trip, and had she not been there, my mother would not have recognized that this was anything to be concerned about. Liam would have kept right on taking Malarone. And that would have led to–well, you get the picture.

And if he had not had the poison ivy, the reaction would have been worse, because the Prednisone was already calming it down.

I’ve thought about that incident lately in regard to prayer. My blogging friend Rachel has recently put out an ebook, The Sensational Scent of Prayer, looking at what prayer smells like–what is its purpose to God? What does God like to see?

I’ve found myself wondering lately, wouldn’t it have been easier, God, if you had simply prompted Liam’s parents to put him on a different anti-malarial drug in the first place? It’s wonderful that you arranged for my aunt to be on the trip, and for the poison ivy, but it would have been easier if you simply hadn’t have had them choose Malarone in the first place.

But God is not the God of the easy. God’s primary purpose is that we bring glory to Him. As Rachel says in her book, that is what prayer is about: learning to focus on God and praise God even in your circumstances. And what did this episode show Liam? It showed him that God was in control–in very weird ways. Sometimes, as Rachel says, God is in control of things we don’t like. Rachel follows the story of Hannah, Samuel’s mother from the Old Testament, who desperately wanted a child, but “The Lord had shut her womb.” How must it feel to know that God did this to you?

Rachel knows what she’s talking about. She has a special needs daughter, Taylor, with a debilitating illness called MPS, which brings a shorter lifespan, and a more difficult and painful one. I know what it is to have a child with a terminal illness. When I was pregnant with my second child, we were told that he had a terminal heart defect. He may live into his thirties, but he may also die very young.

The latter came to pass. Christopher only lived 29 days. And today would have been his sixteenth birthday, and so I write today in memory of him. I know what it is to pray desperately for God for a miracle, only to see nothing happen. The obvious thing that you wanted to happen, the thing that you felt would be best, didn’t come to pass.

I’m sure that Rachel has felt that, too, and yet she still has learned to turn to God in prayer. And while God has not answered any prayer for healing, God has answered other prayers in marvelous ways.

God is in control. That needs to be the starting point for prayer. And His plans are not always ours. We want the shortcuts, the obvious things. What He wants is a relationship; a deeper trust; a revelation.

Would we have had that if Liam hadn’t have gone on Malarone in the first place? Nope. But because of his reaction, we got to see how God can use something as awful as poison ivy. We saw how God put all the jigsaw pieces together because He cares about Liam. His parents saw that. My mother saw that. Even my aunt, who was nervous as she was treating Liam (rashes and reactions aren’t exactly her medical specialty as an anesthesiologist), saw God in control. And I got to think again that too often I expect God to do the logical, and forget that there are others factors at work.

Today my son would be 16. No, let me rephrase that. Today my son IS 16. He just isn’t sharing a birthday cake with me. And through these difficulties in our lives we either are drawn more towards prayer, or we give up on prayer, thinking, “it never works anyway!”. Yet perhaps the reason it doesn’t work is because we’re looking at it with our perspective, instead of God’s.

If you’re struggling with prayer, why not read The Sensational Scent of Prayer, and follow Hannah’s journey of prayer with Rachel. Maybe you just need to be reminded of who is in control, and that He really does love  you and wants to bless you–even if things aren’t working at as you think would be logical and obvious.

Today, I’m realizing that even though my prayers were not answered as I had wanted, I have been blessed indeed. And my son is safe. He is celebrating his birthday with my grandparents and my uncle, and with others who I’m sure adore him. And we remember him, and thank God for the difference he made in our lives. And that gratitude, even in grief, is the sensational scent of prayer.

The Root of Judgmentalism: It's Not Always What You Think

Photo by vauvau

One of the reasons I love being a columnist is that I love telling people what to do. That’s probably why I blog, too. My downfall is that at times others do not seem to recognize the brilliance of my insight, but I console myself in the fact that one day they might!

Hence, I know that one of the sins I struggle with is judgmentalism. Perhaps we all have it to a certain extent, but I have it in spades. I am constantly having to remind myself that I should not judge, for I too have faults. And I should not expect people who are not Christians to behave as if they were.

And this time of year is especially difficult for me, because of Father’s Day. We had a wonderful Sunday celebrating with my husband and my father-in-law, with lots of card games, laughter, and barbecues to go around.

Nevertheless, I know that many did not have such good days, because the dads in their lives walked out on them. They had affairs on their wives. They abandoned their kids. I struggle when I think of these men.

It reminds me of a wedding I was at when I had to leave early because I had such a visceral judgmental reaction. The wedding was for two people who were closer to my husband than they were to me. While they were smiling and walking down the aisle, all I could think about was the fact that a year and a half earlier the bride had aborted their baby because she was still in school, and they wanted to finish their degrees first.

As I was seething in the pews of that church, I was also pregnant with my son, whom we knew had a serious heart defect, and whom we knew would likely not live long when he was born. We had been pressured to abort, and yet did not, because we wanted to give our baby whatever life we could.

That made the stark choice of abortion all the more vivid to me. And as I was thinking these thoughts, there was this couple, grinning from ear to ear, enjoying the wedding they wanted now that they both had landed jobs after they had received their diplomas. They had lived together for years, had aborted their baby, and had done everything so that their lives could be as convenient as possible.

And what was worse, to me, was that she had not kept the abortion secret. She had told people proudly that she was exercising her right to choose, so that she would not be burdened with a baby when she was not ready.

That was about fifteen years ago; I have no idea what has happened to that couple, or if they have gone on to have other children. Yet I have always almost hated that woman. At the time I refused to stay for the dance, and demanded that my husband take me home, because the thought of her being so happy after she had sacrificed everything that was good and pure on the altar of convenience made me physically ill.

I am not proud of my reaction, and yet I am getting the same tight feeling in my stomach when I think of that moment. I am not sure what I expected; did I want to hear remorse from her in her wedding speech? Did I want her to look miserable? Obviously the emotion I was feeling was not due to her. I was projecting on to this woman for reasons of my own that I still have not entirely figured out.

Perhaps it was easier to project because I did not really know this woman on a personal basis, and everything I did know about her was in such contrast to my own values that it was hard to feel any sense of comaraderie. Yet often it is in our deepest areas of pain that we are the most judgmental. I am most judgmental about men who leave their families, and about women who abort, because these are the big hurts in my life: a father deserting me; a baby I so desperately wanted dying. When others throw away what we would have done anything to keep, it makes us angry not primarily because of the hurt that they caused, but because we take it personally.

As much as we may be right in our assessment, though, we must stop this urge to personalize such sins. That couple did nothing against me; they did everything against God and against their child. It was to God that they owed an apology, and not to me. Yet I was acting the part of God in that story, demanding a penance that was not really mine to receive.

I wonder how often this dynamic plays a part in our own families. I know that I am far more sensitive to when Keith does something that reminds me of a husband leaving, even if he has no intention of leaving. Early in our marriage, when we used to have fights, I told him in no uncertain terms that he was not allowed to leave the house to clear his head, even if it would help, because that would be hurtful to me. I would interpret it too much as what my father did–even though it was nothing close to it. Similarly, when I sense a rift developing between Rebecca, our 15-year-old, and Keith, I immediately lay all the blame at Keith’s feet and demand that he fix it, because I know what it is like to grow up a teen without a father. I am projecting onto Keith sins he has not committed, because they sit so close to the areas of my heart where the hurt is still a little raw.

Many people say judgmentalism is caused by pride; we think we are better than others. I think it is also caused by hurt. We are angry that things did not work out differently for ourselves, and when others seem to be replicating the problem, it is almost as if they are denying the hurt feelings that we ourselves have. The answer to judgmentalism, then, is not always to look at our own sin. I think sometimes it’s to look at our hurts. Take those hurts to God. Often we stop telling God what we’re really feeling because we’re afraid that if we start all this anger will come pouring out, and it won’t help anybody. We’ll never be able to stop. Yet we need to be honest with God. He knows what you’re feeling anyway, and He’s the only one who can wipe away the tears.

When we don’t go to God, we take it out on others. That pain is still there, and it is ugly and it is big and it won’t be silenced. If you won’t take it to God, it will emerge in obscure ways in anger; usually in the anger of judgmentalism. You will start projecting onto others because that way you have a seemingly safe method of exorcising some of the pain. But it doesn’t work, because it doesn’t really get to the root.

If you find yourself overreacting in certain areas of your marriage, or overreacting with your kids, ask yourself if they’re touching a scab, or maybe even an open wound on your heart. And then ask God if He will start to heal that wound. Don’t be afraid to touch it. Sometimes healing hurts initially. The alternative, though, is to live with the pain. And to me, that’s not much of an alternative at all.

If you want to read more about how I walked through healing after losing my son, check out my book, How Big Is Your Umbrella: Weathering the Storms of Life.

Pain is Not Un-Christian

C. S.Image via Wikipedia

One of my favourite authors is C.S. Lewis. I love his Narnia series, and I have read them out loud about five times now: once to my cousins when they were young; once as a camp counsellor; and three times to my children.

I also challenged myself a few summers ago to read through his non-fiction works, and I did. I loved Surprised by Joy (you can read my comments on it here), but I was really touched by A Grief Observed. As someone who has also gone through grief, I found it real, refreshing, and melancholy. And perhaps it was the melancholy that I liked. This wasn’t one of these “Just look to God and all will be joyful again!” type of books. This was one of those “sometimes life is just awful”. And isn’t that closer to the truth?

Today, for Good Friday, I thought it might be good to return to this question about how the dark moments fit into our lives as Christians. I think that it’s a misnomer that Christians are always supposed to be happy and nothing is supposed to get to us. God, after all, is a God who cries. Perhaps the times that we are closest to Him, Lewis once said, are not in times of ecstasy but instead in times of grief. That is when we touch God’s heart the most, and understand the tears that He shed.

I don’t think we should be ashamed of our tears, or think that it means we haven’t healed, haven’t surrendered, haven’t advanced. This world is fallen, and life is pain. God understands that. To be a Christian is not to feel no pain; it is to have God carry you when that pain comes.

I have written books about emotional healing, and I’m working on another right now. Again and again I hit a brick wall when I really dig deeply into the way the church often handles pain. We think that it is something that we need to get over, that the pain itself is somehow an aberration of life, a betrayal of faith, and something from which we must emerge.

I’m not so sure. I think joy and pain can coexist; and to think that pain must be banished is also, I believe, to banish love. Pain is simply what we feel when the object of love is taken from us. It is a loss. In that loss, we often feel God’s love much more acutely, and hence that is why pain and joy often are experienced together. But to say that a grieving parent must somehow get over their grief, or that a betrayed wife must heal from her loneliness, I find harsh. I don’t think God asks us to heal; I think God asks us to turn to Him in these times, and it is then that we are given strength, and mercy, and peace.

My mother does not pine over my father, who left her over 35 years ago. She has a full and rich life, though it did not turn out the way she would have hoped. But every year, at Christmas, when we sing a certain hymn at church, it all comes flooding back: the desperation she felt, realizing she would be a single mother at 29; the loneliness; the grief; the betrayal. Because she sang that song to me in the midst of her grief, it has the power to take her back, and she feels briefly sad again. It does not mean that God has not ministered to her; it is just a reminder that this life is hard, and that we do still bear the marks of a fallen world while we walk upon this world.

If you are bearing those marks more acutely today, I do understand. I have been betrayed by a father. I have lost a son. And I can tell you, too, that I also experience great joy. There were days, though, when I couldn’t feel God, and when it was all I could do to breathe.

I wrote a little book about it called How Big Is Your Umbrella: Weathering the Storms of Life. If you’re sick of Christian books that tell you that you should be happy, you’ll appreciate this. And if you have a friend walking through sorrow, and you don’t know what to say, it can help.

And today of all days, I hope that, if you are walking through sorrow, grief, or even just a funk, that you will still be able to turn to God, even in that pain. He is there, and often He feels closest when we feel the most vulnerable. May you feel God carry you.

Do You Ever Think About Heaven?

'Clouds' photo (c) 2007, Karin Dalziel - license:

Heaven is one of those things I always held in the back of my mind. It was real, in the way that Mercury or Venus is real, but it’s not like I’m going to see it any time soon, so what relevance does it have for me right now? It’s fun to think about, but no one can honestly say what it’s like.

Then I had a son who died, and heaven suddenly became real to me. Sometimes I’ll be walking through a normal day, thinking about nothing in particular, and a flash will hit me–a vision of him running in a field and laughing, or climbing a tree. He would have had difficulty running or climbing here with his heart problems, but I know that in heaven he’s happy, and healthy, and thriving. And one day I will arrive, and Christopher will greet me and show me around.

I’ve read novels lately, too, most particularly by Randy Alcorn, which feature heaven, and what a wonderful place it is. They’ve made me think about it in a different way.

I have to admit that as a teen and young adult I feared heaven. I thought it would be boring–standing around singing all the time. Not that I don’t like worship; I actually really do. And to finally be able to find the harmonies all the time–that would be bliss! But it’s not something I want to do for thousands and thousands of years. And then thousands after that. I want to knit. I want to talk. I want to explore.

And somehow those things never meshed with my view of heaven. I had too much of the popular culture image of haloes and white robes floating on clouds.

Recently my youngest daughter and I reread C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, the final book in the Narnia series, and reading his description of heaven made my heart beat a little faster, too. I love the imagery of “higher up and further in”, as the children experience heaven to be like earth, only magnified so much better. They can run and climb much more easily. They can see and hear so much more acutely. They can experience colour, and wind, and beauty as if the senses are more finely attuned.

Personally, I think God has saved most of His creative power for heaven. As Keith Green used to sing, “In six days He created everything, but He’s been working on heaven 2,000 years.”

We have nothing to fear, and everything to look forward to. Sure, I worry about what relationships will be like in heaven. No marriage? Does that mean that we aren’t close to our kids in the same way, too? But I think it’s just that everything is so magnified that these kinds of special relationships aren’t as key. Intimacy is felt with all, and though that seems like we are losing something special, in the end, we’ll gain.

Here’s a thought for you: the best friend you will likely ever have in your life you probably have not met yet. She may be some saint who died in 1247, but she was created especially for you. And one day you will meet her, and you will laugh together, and share so much. If you are lonely here, you will not be lonely forever.

As a speaker, I travel around and meet wonderful Christians for a night, or a weekend. I talk to many women who are so lovely, especially older women. And I long to sit at their feet and chat and share my heart, but there isn’t time. But one day there will be, and often while I’m saying good-bye, inside I’m making a mental note to look her up in the hereafter, because that will be one of the blessings of dying in this life: really knowing so many with whom we only scratched the surface on this earth.

A few years ago a dear man in our congregation passed away. He was a stalwart in our church; so humble, and through his humility he exercised perhaps the best servant leadership I have ever seen in a church. He died three weeks after being diagnosed wtih cancer. Yet I know that he is having such a wonderful time now, and I am looking forward to seeing him, too.

It is often the older people that I get these “longings for heaven” with. I don’t know if it’s because their time on earth is shorter, or because we don’t move in the same social circles, so it’s harder to get to know them well on this earth. But often I see these lovely older saints, and I think to myself, “there’s really no hurry. I will have an eternity with them”, and I smile to myself. At times it’s only a glimpse of someone, or the sound of their giggle, and I just know that here is a kindred spirit. But there’s really no way of growing that relationship here. So I just add them to my list of those I will have such fun with on the other side.

And then, of course, there’s Jesus. Can you imagine actually being able to talk to Him, and hug Him? Can you imagine being able to ask Him questions, to hear Him affirm you in words that reach your ears, and not only your heart. We were created just for that, and while that relationship begins here, it does not end. It will meet its fulfillment there.

I know life is often busy, and it has its frustrations and its disappointments. But I don’t believe that this is our REAL life. This is temporary; heaven is eternal. This will pass away; heaven will not. In effect, heaven is the real, not this. That does not mean earth doesn’t matter; what we do today has repercussions throughout eternity, and we were put here for a reason. But perhaps if we kept things in perspective, and realized that this is only for a time, there is so much more to come, we could endure our daily petty trials just a little bit better.

And in heaven, my dear readers, we’ll be able to meet face to face, too! So introduce yourself to me, come on over, and we’ll chat for a while, as we run higher up and further in. After all, we’ll have all the time in the world.



'Clouds' photo (c) 2007, Karin Dalziel - license:

I’m not having a good day.

My son died thirteen years ago today. It’s strange; sometimes the anniversaries bother me, and at other times I don’t think about it very much. But last night I had such dreams, and I find I can’t concentrate this morning.

I tweeted that, and @HisFireFly tweeted this back:

Maybe God desires your concentration to be on your memories, there is much to remember…

Perhaps she’s right. I’ve been having a running conversation with Christopher in my head all day, and so maybe I’ll just write it out. I keep trying to turn it off, but perhaps that’s not the right thing to do. Maybe I need to walk through this today. It’s been a long time since I’ve done so systematically. So here goes.

Hi Christopher,

I can’t stop my mind today from going back thirteen years ago. Imagine! You would have been a teenager now. But back then, on September 3, you were in the PICU, recovering from massive heart surgery four days ago. I was sitting with you when I noticed that your blood pressure was down to 54 over something very small. No one else caught it. The nurse was preoccupied with someone else, so I tracked down a doctor, who yelled at me for bypassing the chain of command. But when he came over he was quite alarmed and immediately gave you two units of fluid. And he had you re-intubated. That broke my heart, because we had been so excited when the tube had come out that morning and you were breathing on your own. It just seemed so barbaric to stick it back in.

I used to be able to remember your cry. I heard you cry for the last time right before they stuck that horrible tube back in, but I can’t remember now. That bothers me.

Daddy and I visited you together that night, which was unusual. Usually we came in alone since one of us had to be with your sister, but that night Nana had her and we both went in and sat with you. We left at 9:45, and on my way out of the ICU my last words to you were “Mommy loves you, sweetheart.”

At that point you were doing well. Your blood pressure had come back up and you seemed all right. I actually went to sleep peacefully.

The phone rang at 1:45 that morning. I knew something was wrong as soon as it rang, and I was right. I woke Daddy up, and called Judy who lived in an upstairs apartment to come and sit with Rebecca while we rushed down. We didn’t have a car, but it was a 15 minute walk. We made it there in 7 I’m sure.

When we got the hospital the doctors put us in a little waiting room, and came in to tell us that your heart had stopped and they were trying everything. I told them not to hurt you, and if it seemed like it wasn’t going to work to stop. Your little body had been so tortured already.

They brought your body out a half hour later. They had wrapped it in a blanket, and your little tongue was sticking partway out, the way it often did. Your blonde hair was wisping over your forehead.

But you weren’t there. It was the worst feeling of my life. I so wished I had never held your body like that, because it wasn’t you. I knew you were gone already, and the whole experience felt so empty. Daddy needed it, but I didn’t. I wish my last glimpse of you was when I said, “Mommy loves you, sweetheart.”

Instead I found myself saying, over and over again, “I’m so sorry.” I don’t even know what I was sorry for. I wasn’t sorry for you that you had died; I knew that you were with Jesus, and it was so hard to see you in pain with all those tubes and so blue, and I knew that now you would be able to run and play and do all the things little boys are supposed to do. But I was still sorry. Sorry that I couldn’t have been there to comfort you. Sorry that I couldn’t hold you after your surgery. Sorry that I couldn’t have spared you all of that. Sorry that you had to be so tortured. Sorry that I wouldn’t see you grow up.

They cut us off a lock of your hair, and gave us your handprints and footprints.

I didn’t feel like I had said good-bye then. I had said it earlier. The day before your surgery, when the doctor came in to talk to us, he said you only had a 25% chance of making it through the next day. We had thought it was closer to 60%, but you were so small, you see. You had lost so much weight since your birth and you were down to four pounds. Our friend Tommy came in to take photos, in case it was your last day. Here’s us together right after I heard the news:

That night I couldn’t sleep, and I walked to the hospital at 5:30 a.m. to sit with you for two hours before surgery. That was when I really said good-bye. I sang with you and prayed over you and held you in my arms, even with all the tubes. I told you that it was okay to go. I told you that Daddy and Rebecca and I would be okay, and if it was just too hard you could go to be with Jesus. I told you that I so wanted to watch you grow up, and to hold you and to love you and to be your Mommy, but I knew life was so hard for you, and you were having trouble breathing, and I told you that it was okay. I loved you, and I would always love you, and I would be with you again.

They let me walk with you down to the pre-op room, and I was the one who handed you over to the anesthetist as they took you in to surgery. Passing you over was the hardest thing I ever did in my life. I really didn’t think you’d come back to me. I felt like I was handing you over to your death. Daddy and I had prayed over you in that room, and Daddy gently lifted me up and helped me hand you to her. She was a nice woman. She wore a little surgical cap with teddy bears on it, just like Auntie Allee wears. She smiled and told us that they were going to do everything and that they would take care of you.

It was a gift when you made it through surgery, and then made it through that night. And the next night. And the next. I guess I thought we’d really have you now. I started letting myself dream about you growing up, and what Rebecca would be like playing with you, and how you would laugh.

But it was not to be.

I don’t know how to feel now. It’s been so long, and I share your story with others everytime I speak. I know you made such a profound change in my life, and in Daddy’s. Rebecca was at summer camp this year and she always spends a lot of time with the Down Syndrome kids. They love her. You would have, too, and one day you will have time to get to know her.

When Katie was born she looked so much like you (though she was twice your size!). She had the same wispy blonde hair, the same blue eyes. She gets sad that she never shared this earth with you the way Rebecca did, I heard her telling a friend a few years ago that when she gets to heaven you will be the first one to greet her, to show her around. You will have such fun with her.

I find it harder to remember you today. It’s just fading so fast. I keep replaying certain moments in my head. I remember when you got feisty when they came to do yet another blood test, and even though you weren’t feeling well you kicked that nurse hard for someone who was only 4 1/2 pounds! And I love the look on your face when they gave you that gross medicine. Auntie Allee caught it in a photo:

But lately I’ve been thinking less about those moments and so much more about heaven, and I know that when I get there I’ll get to know you so well. It’s not that I’m moving away from you, even after thirteen years. It’s more that I’m moving towards you, and I’m closer to seeing you again now than I was then.

I’m so blessed that I got to be your mommy. I did sing over you, and cuddle you, and pray over you, and kiss you. I wish I could have done more, but that time will come.

It’s just that sometimes I feel so sad, and today it seems worse than usual. I’m remembering that day. It’s 10 in the morning now. Back then I was making phone calls, trying to find a funeral home we could afford. We had already called Grandma and Grandpa early this morning and told them that we wanted to bury you in Belleville, and Grandpa was out already looking for a good place. He found a perfect one; the most peaceful cemetery just outside the town.

That doctor called around 10:30 to apologize for how he yelled at me the day before. I found out later that he had lectured his residents to not rely on nurses but to listen to parents’ concerns, since it was me who had caught your deterioration. He actually had a lot of grace to make that call. It must have been hard, and I respect him for it.

The minister was due at our apartment at 11 to talk about the funeral. Your sister was playing with her friend Alison, Judy’s daughter. They were three weeks apart. I don’t think Judy had had any sleep after we called her in the middle of the night, but she was there first thing in the morning to watch Rebecca. She found me recently on Facebook, and it was good to reconnect.

Oh, Christopher, I miss you. A few weeks after you died Auntie Allee had her pictures developed, and there was one that made me burst into tears. I was holding you, and your eyes were open (you were so rarely awake), and you were looking right at me. I am so blessed to still have that picture.

And I am blessed to be your mommy. I know that if you had lived you would have always had health problems, and been short of breath. Today I imagine you playing baseball, and running, and singing, and laughing. I know you are with Jesus, and He loves you so much. I will join you someday, too, and then we will finally be able to laugh together.

UPDATE: I put this video together as a prayer for those of us who have lost babies. I know how you feel.