My dearest grieving friends

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There is so much I could tell you, so many things that I’ve learned, but I know that, unfortunately, this is a solitary road and you will often feel like you are walking it alone.

But I am writing this to hopefully remind you that no matter what you feel, you are normal. It’s been felt before, it’s been said before and it’s been thought before.

In the beginning you will feel very confused. You will be sad, but the sadness doesn’t yet take hold of your daily life. You are in shock. Some days you will wake up and it will take you a moment to remember what happened. Your entire world just came crashing down, it takes awhile for the dust to settle.

You will count the days at first. It’s been 4 days since I’ve seen their face. It’s been 7 days since I’ve heard their voice. Soon it will be weeks that you count and then months, but at some point, you will lose track and when that happens, something else inside you breaks. This is your normal now. Evidence that time really does make you forget and that will hurt. Get used to random things hurting. This doesn’t fade.

You will run into well-meaning people that will, honestly, try to make you feel better with all sorts of well-meaning words. Some things will help, but most often it will just make you want to run away from the situation, hide your face and your feelings from the world. Don’t feel bad about that. You have an open wound, one that needs time to heal. What most people don’t understand is that the looks of pity and the questions about the pain just reopen a wound that you are desperately trying to keep protected. This will get easier.

There will also be people who will tell you that they understand your loss because they lost something too. I could give you an endless list of what people have related my loss to. A job, a dog, a great-aunt who was 101. Sometimes this will make you angry, but try to remember this one thing, they don’t understand, because no one can. The relationship you had with your loved one was unlike an other relationship you have ever had and will ever have. No one can completely understand your loss. I can meet someone tomorrow whose daughter was tragically killed in a car accident at 17, and guess what? They can sympathize with me on a level that most cannot, but they didn’t lose their Grace Elizabeth, their first born, best friend, with the sweaty nose and heavy feet. I can’t fault anyone for not getting that. Your relationship was special and unique. This will eventually give you comfort.

The five stages of grief are not complete and are not gospel. They are a guideline, one that was established for terminally ill patients nearing death, not necessarily a grieving heart. I can say, from experience, you can go through all 5 stages in a matter of minutes and you can probably add like 10 more. Don’t get stuck in what a book tells you to feel. Don’t let anyone tell you what your grief walk should look like. Respect the journey. The highs and lows alike will be unique to you, but let yourself feel them all. Don’t allow yourself to check out. When it overwhelms you, be overwhelmed, it’s healthy and natural.

There will be days when it takes everything in you to simply get out of bed. This won’t necessarily be in the first months. Studies show that it take about 6 months for the initial shock of grief to subside, and some say that the 9 month marker is the worst. People will tell you the 1 year anniversary is terrible and still others will say the second year is the hardest. When it hits (and it might be multiple times) it will hit hard. It can consume you. There were nights, if I can be honest, that I hoped with everything in me that I didn’t wake up in the morning. That may seem incredibly selfish, considering what I have to live for, but when all you want is to wrap your arms around the one you lost, your life loses its value and eternity becomes very appealing.

I could write pages, probably a book, of things you might feel, of things I have felt. The days that seeing her picture makes me smile, or the days that I avoid seeing anything that reminds me of her at all. How good it feels when someone mentions her name or tells me a memory, but the sting that accompanies it every single time. Learning that it’s ok to laugh again. Letting God place particular people in your life, maybe completely unexpected ones, that end up becoming your greatest support. Learning who you are all over again. Staying in comfort zones, where people know you, they know your story, so you can avoid the overwhelming anxiety of talking to someone new and the possibility of them asking any questions that might require you to talk about it. The fear that you will never be the same again. The pain, that slowly fades, but still remains, with every breath, with every sigh and with every memory.

Write down a list of what you know to be true. It can be anything. The first thing on our list, a week after the accident, was that it was cold out. We knew that for sure. Our list went on, though, with other things that we knew were true. God was still on the throne and we still loved Him. We knew that we were surrounded by people that loved us. This will help.

My dear friend, you are not alone. Many have been on this road, I have been on this road. I’ve walked it, I’ve crawled it, I’ve been carried a time or two, and sometimes, still, I just lay down, unable to move forward at all. You are normal, this is necessary, but God is near

All my love, as we journey together.

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My dearest grieving friends

Stalemate

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My dad was a tool and die guy. He owned his own company and for most of my childhood, his shop was located in a garage in our backyard. We spent countless hours in that shop. Working on the drill press, or shining some steel that needed to be packed up and sent away. We could make a few dollars cleaning up the endless amount of steel chips that covered the concrete floor or sit by the Bridgeport and tell him about our school day while he worked. My dad liked to create things. It came with the work, I suppose. I remember one time he proudly came into the house to show Amy and I the new earrings he had made us. It was one of those moments where you smile and say thank you, knowing full well you would never wear a pair of earrings made of scrap steel to junior high. The teasing was bad enough as it was, without homemade jewelry.

My favorite homemade creation of his though, was a chess piece he made to replace the rook we lost. The rook is the corner piece, the tower. Although, if I remember correctly, our rook had a face and arms. He looked more like a statue from Easter Island, but we needed him. Often, after a long day at work, my dad would come home, eat dinner and then challenge either Amy or I to a game of chess. This didn’t happen every night, but when it did, I would quickly find something, anything else to do. I loved setting up the board, but I hated playing the game. A few reasons, I think. First, my dad never just let us beat him. He was not the type to worry about us needing a win here or there. He wanted us to know the game and fight for our victory. Second, I’m not a fan of competition. I don’t like the way it makes me feel. I understand that some people thrive in that environment, but I don’t. I know that about myself, and I’m ok with it. And finally, chess frustrated me. It wasn’t the losing, the check or checkmate that irritated me, as much as the stalemate games. The ones where you are left with no more options. It’s not good, it’s not bad, you didn’t win, you didn’t lose, it’s nothing. A stalemate. Restart the game.

Grief takes you on so many different roads. For months I was a wreck. I cried all the time. I woke up with puffy, swollen eyes each morning, and learned how to apply eyeliner on uneven lids like a prize fighter. There were months that I spent angry. Little things would make me upset. I’m pretty good at keeping my words in check, but I would hit our punching bag until my knuckles bled. Then there were days, sometimes weeks of feeling sorry for myself, hating the life I was living and wishing it had been me and not her. Often these roads, or stages like some call them, would repeat…still repeat. Sadness, anger, self-pity, and so many more, in that order or out of that order, lasting for days or months or maybe just hours. Looping around, for who knows how long.

But my least favorite road, the one that I’ve found myself on sometimes, completely without warning, is numbness. This is not listed in the 5 basic grief stages, so if you find yourself here, please know, it’s normal too.

In my life it looks something like this….

A very sweet friend of mine passed away last week. She was older and she had spent the last 8 months of her life in and out of rehab and in a lot of pain, but as I sat at her funeral recently, I felt nothing. No tears, no sadness, nothing. I’ve been here before, so I know when this wave subsides I will again feel the normal emotions that come when a person you love passes away, but for now, no win, no lose, stalemate.

This is not to say that I’m feeling nothing about anything. I found Grace’s old iPod the other day and after charging it, I was overcome with joy, amidst the sobs, when I found video and audio of her that I had never before seen or heard. Minutes of her voice, her smile, her laughter. Things I miss more and more as each day passes. So I feel, I cry, I’m sad, but only about this loss. While I’m on this path of indifference, it’s like I can’t handle any more than just this one thing.

These are the days I depend on the Truth, what I know to be real. The love of my heavenly Father and the love of my family and friends.

So many times since my dad’s death, I have wished that I could make the short walk from our house to the shop, sit on the work bench next to the Bridgeport and just talk to him about life and the twists and turns it’s taken. He would listen, like he always did, until I was all done, and instead of trying to fix the problems, he would hug me and tell me that he loved me. He understood that while he could fix the chess board or fix us a pair of earrings, he could not fix our hearts. That was something only God could do.

Sometimes in life, like in chess, a stalemate is called. There are no more moves to make and no clear winner can be determined. It might be frustrating and I might hate it, but I’ve learned, especially in the last 18 months, to just clear the board and start again.

 

Stalemate

Highway Miles

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It has a name, of course. Everything has a name these days. Most of us have experienced it, some more than others. You leave work, get in your car and head home. However many minutes later, you pull up to your house and realize you don’t remember any part of the journey. You remember putting your keys in the ignition and putting it in drive, but everything after that is a blur.

Are you now wondering what the name is for this phenomenon? It’s called Highway Hypnosis. Evidently, your brain has the ability to focus on the subconscious and the conscious at the exact same time, causing you to be able to arrive somewhere, without giving much thought to the process to which you got there. 

Saturday morning I woke up, checked my phone and looked at the date. I stared at it for a couple minutes trying to remember why it looked familiar. With the life we lead, I went through my mental checklist. Was there something planned for Ev, soccer, the play, an appointment? Was it Jim? Something at church or work? Did I have a party to go to, did I have something to plan? I couldn’t put my finger on what I was supposed to remember about that day, until later on that evening when a friend asked me how I was doing, considering it was the 25th.

It was the 25th. For 13 months, the 25th rolled in like a wave. The first nine months or so, more like a tsunami. As the months have progressed though, the waves have become less violent and now, I stand ankle deep in a tide that is somewhat steady.

As I thought about my inability to remember the significance of that day, I wondered how I had arrived here. Much like a ride home that remains a mystery, my journey along this road of healing still catches me by surprise at times.   

The birds are chirping this morning, something I couldn’t hear last March.

Laughter fills my home again. Genuine laughter, not the nervous, awkward kind that becomes normal when what you’re saying and what you’re thinking are so vastly different, you can do nothing more than giggle uncomfortably.

I’m falling for my husband all over again. Not that there was ever a time in the last year that I didn’t love him, but survival mode often leaves you clinging to what is safe and secure. Clinging is bad. It creates a dependency on a person, a human being, with flaws. God created us to love and share life with others, but He also created us to be dependent on Him, and Him alone. As I loosened my grip on Jim, I was able to watch our relationship grow again. Releasing my hold allowed essential nutrients to flow from our source, the Lord.

Again though, these changes happened over the course of this last year without me really recognizing the process. And there are countless others.

I heard a song the other day that I didn’t agree with (big surprise). The lyrics had something to do with God giving us a new heart when ours gets broken. God gives us a new heart one time, when we confess our sins and acknowledge our need for a Savior. Ezekiel says God puts a new heart and a new Spirit in us (His Spirit). But a broken heart, that does not get replaced, it gets repaired.  God will bind your broken pieces, if you allow Him, and almost always it will take longer than you want it to. I am beginning to see some of the restoration, some of the mended pieces of this broken heart, being sealed back together. God is faithful and He is trustworthy.

This is in no way saying that our hearts are fully restored. Jim and I will often look at each other and ask the obvious questions, why us, why are we living this life? We may still have more bad days than good ones and reality sinks a little deeper each time we hear her beautiful name, but God has never left our sides.

One of my all-time favorite verses comes out of Deuteronomy 31. Moses is speaking to the people about Joshua taking his place. Moses says “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified, for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you or forsake you.”

Even though there are parts of this road to restoration that I don’t remember, aspects that remain a mystery, I know who is leading me, and in His mighty hands, I will rest.

Highway Miles

Hearts

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I was nauseous, every day, all day. The doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I had all sorts of tests done, but nothing came back with anything conclusive. It wasn’t entirely new. I had been nauseous on and off since early childhood, but this was worse than usual. Sometime in 2002, they finally decided that it was time to take a look inside. I went with my mom to the hospital for a pretty standard scope. They checked me in, prepped me, and as I was being wheeled back into the OR, a nurse came running up to us.

“Stop! She can’t go into surgery. She is positive.”

I remember sitting up on the gurney saying, “Positive for what?” I knew I had something wrong with me and they finally found it, thankfully before I had to have surgery.

“Mrs. Achatz, you’re pregnant.”

As they sent me back to the room my mom was waiting in, my mind swarmed with thoughts and fears and questions. Grace was almost four. There had only been one pregnancy since Grace and that little one didn’t live. I had decided after that loss, that I wasn’t meant to have more than one, and I had come to terms with it.

But there I lay, processing the words they had told me. Another baby? Another chance? Another possible loss? Another goodbye?

I went home and got on my knees. I confessed my fears, my failures, my inability to trust in something good, and I handed the little life inside of me over to the Lord. Something I have done countless times in the last 14 years.

Evelyn Mae, my princess, was diagnosed with a heart condition last month. One that causes her heart to race, which causes her breathing to be labored, which can’t continue without causing damage. So tomorrow is surgery.

Ironically enough, when the doctor told us, I sat there with many of the same fears racing through my head. Not this one, Lord. Not this time. It’s only been a year. I can’t take another loss. And to be completely honest, those thoughts haven’t dissipated. I would love to tell you all, that after that appointment I came home, fell to my knees and confessed my fears and my failures to the Lord, surrendering my right to her life once again, but I didn’t. I, the great debater, told God that this wasn’t going to work. I have split my time between denial, anger and fear.

I have wrestled with the Lord this past year. I haven’t been very willing to surrender her. I have often felt like maybe I could protect her better. Maybe her safety should be left up to me. All incredibly unrealistic, I know, but my thoughts nonetheless.

So I’m sitting here writing this on her 14th birthday, preparing my heart for her heart procedure. We will head to the hospital at 7:00 AM. If you think of it, pray for her. Pray that the surgery accomplishes what it’s intended to accomplish. Pray for peace. Pray for wisdom. Pray for her heart. And if you can, pray for us. Pray for peace. Pray for wisdom. Pray for our hearts.

Right now though, I am going to put down this pen and paper and I am going to do something that I used to be so good at doing. Something I began doing when I found out about my little miracle and I continued to do until last January, when I realized that surrender wasn’t going to always go my way.

I am going to give her back again. Her life, her safety, her heart, is the safest in the hands of God. Whatever that looks like, whatever her future holds, her name is engraved on those mighty hands, and that is where she belongs.

Hearts

Marble Hope

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It took much longer than I had anticipated. We sat down with the funeral director over 10 months ago picking out the shape, the color, what the words would say, which picture would be etched in the marble. Then spring blossomed and bloomed, the summer breezed through, and the fall left its color. The few times I would visit, the only marker was a small plastic plaque with just a name and two dates. One date carrying with it one of my greatest memories, the other date, my worst fears realized.

They told us it would take a while. They said the type of stone we chose would have to be shipped in from overseas, but I needed it to happen, and I can’t even explain why.

So on Tuesday, this past week, we got the call. The area had been shoveled out from the recent snow storm, and the stone was set in place.

I was hoping that it would give me peace, a sense of completion, I guess, and it did, sorta.

I waited until Wednesday to see it. The black marble heart is visible from the road. It stands out like my beautiful Grace did. The words, etched in the stone, Love God, Love Others, were the very words she lived by. And the picture, taken in the summer of 2015, reflects the joy that poured out of her on a daily basis.

It’s perfect. It’s beautiful. It’s exactly what I had hoped it would be…

But, it’s cold. It’s marble. It’s a stone and the emotion that overwhelmed me was not peace.

A sense of finality rushed over me. The last piece to this tragic puzzle had been put in its place. I have nothing left to accomplish for my girl. It’s done. Now memories become my task. Making sure I don’t forget her voice, her walk, the way her nose would bead with sweat.

And oddly enough, while I knelt in the snow, with my fingertips numb from the frozen stone and my forehead pressed against her picture, my thoughts settled on Christmas, at least why we celebrate this season.   

Death entered this world through the fall of a man, but death is not the end because of the birth of a man. God desired eternity with us and so we celebrate Jesus. Isn’t that really what we rejoice in?

The fact that even in grief, there is hope. Even in tragedy, there can be peace. Even in the middle of a cemetery, surrounded by empty, soulless tombs, the promise of eternity can cause a flame that will burn at the hearts of man, melting away the ice of death.

I found myself hoping again. It’s always there. Sometimes the hope can be strong and thick, sometimes, it just barely flickers, but it’s always there.

Hope for a future home. Hope that my arms will hold my Grace again. Hope that death holds no victory.

Hope…wrapped up and laying in a manger.   

Marble Hope

Who Is God?

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Yes, I believe God still heals. I believe He completely restores health, at times. I have seen it happen. I have known, first hand, people who have gone back to the doctor after already receiving the dreaded diagnosis, only to hear, “we don’t know how this happened, it’s just gone.”

I have also fervently prayed for a miracle, believing a healing would come, only to sit at the edge of a bed, holding the callous hands of the first man I ever loved, as he slipped into eternity.

I also believe God saves and delivers, at times. My dad was in a head-on collision when I was a little girl. Both vehicles were going highway speed, my dad was not wearing his seatbelt, and to everyone’s amazement, he walked away, with nothing more than a few scratches. When he got home, he relayed the story to us, and we sat in wonder as he said, “I saw nothing, but I felt someone strong, pushing on my chest and keeping me in my seat.”

And, as you all know, at times, that’s not always the story. As I sat next to my first born in that hospital, looking at her silent face, with the only visible injury being on her forehead, I asked God why? Where was her rescue?

The questions will always be asked, the answers may never come, but none of the doubt or blame pointed at God, changes who He is and what His intention is for His children.

Faith will always be based on who we understand God to be, not on the situation we are facing. If we seek to understand the why of everything that happens here, I really think, we could drive ourselves mad.  There will always be death, there were always be abuse, there will always be injustice, because there will always be a fallen nature, sin will always be present, during our time here. However, who is God? Is He a loving God who seeks a relationship with His children, or a God whose character changes depending on what situation you are in?

God doesn’t change, ever. He is the same loving God that rescued the Israelites from slavery. He is the same loving God that walked in the furnace with the three Hebrews. He is the same loving God that created a way for us to be saved, by grace, through faith in His only Son. And He is the same loving God that held my heart, as it broke so many months ago.

Ask your questions.

Stand and shake your fist at Him in anger, He can handle it.

When all is said and done, remember He hasn’t changed, your circumstances may have, but He remains the same.

Charles Spurgeon once said “It’s not the strength of your faith that saves you, but the strength of Him upon whom you rely.”

Allow Him to be your strength today, tomorrow, the rest of this year. He handles your pain with the same loving care that He handles your joy. Trust Him today with both.

Who Is God?

The Holidays

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I’m a visual learner. I need pictures to help me understand things better, so for those of you that need a mental image, I will do my best to describe one.

Imagine a dog, on a leash, knowing that it is headed to something it dreads i.e. the vet, a bath, the rain. You struggle to pull them along, but you are met with four paws, in a stubborn hold, claws out, gripping to the security it has to leave behind. You win, of course, you’re stronger, but that animal is going to be miserable until the dreaded activity has reached its completion.

Now imagine me, heading into what I already know is going to be the worst holiday season to date. Imagine me, digging my heels in, fighting the urge to turn back to the familiar, the desire to sleep long and hard through Thanksgiving and Christmas, and if I’m sleeping sound, maybe even January and February, while they each hold in them significant blows.

I know I am not alone either. The holiday season is wonderful for lots of people and I don’t fault them for that. Some of those wonderful people are the ones pulling the leash. But for millions of us, this time of year doesn’t represent all of what we have or are going to get, it represents what we have lost, what we struggle to live without.

My last Thanksgiving with my dad was traumatic at best. He was nearing the end of his life at a Nascar pace and we all just sat at the dinner table trying to pretend that this was not our reality. Thanksgiving has never been the same.

Christmas was Grace and Ev’s favorite holiday. I need you all to know that it has never been mine. I know, begin the Christmas shaming, but I just don’t like it. It’s stressful, it’s cold, it’s so far removed from what Christ represents, it’s just not my thing. But nonetheless, the girls loved it. They would watch as many Christmas movies as the day could fit. The Christmas radio station was tuned in starting sometime in October. They would decorate the tree, they would decorate their rooms, they would make cookies and gingerbread houses. Grace would remind me to smile and not Grinch the season away and I would tease her about the incessant need to be so cheery! Christmas would come and go like it had so many years before. But Christmas will never be the same.

Nothing can go on as it has in the past, can it? At least not for me, and I suspect a few others.

I was talking to one of Grace’s friends a couple days ago and she said the very words I have felt countless times, “I don’t want to be the only person that hasn’t gotten over this, because it feels like everyone else has moved on.”

That feeling is a lonely feeling and this season can be a lonely season. This is in no way a plea for attention, believe me, that’s not who I am, but rather a reminder. Not everyone goes into these special times with a whimsical glee. I may be dragging my heels, the holidays might be the leash, and you may be the well-meaning cheer master tugging me along (and I promise I don’t fault you for that) but the heaviness of approaching any special day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s or birthdays, without our loved ones, can be overwhelming at best. If you know someone who has lost anything (a person, a marriage, a sense of security) remember that under the smile that they manage to muster up, is often times pain. Maybe not pain they want to talk about, but pain that they need mercy for. Pray for them, hug them, remind them that they are not alone.

The Apostle Paul, in Romans 12, talks about some basic principles to live by. A laundry list of ways to look more like Christ, to put action to your “I love you.”

“Hate what is evil, cling to what is good…be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.”

“Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.”

As difficult and as uncomfortable as it may be, remember the mourners this holiday season, you may be the only thing keeping them from slipping out from the leash and taking off in the other direction.

The Holidays