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

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

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

Gold

4-230Last summer we went on a family vacation to the Black Hills in South Dakota. We saw some breathtaking sights. We explored underground caves, with underground waterfalls, we spotted rattle snakes, we watched the sunrise over the mountains. We saw the Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse monuments, and in true Achatz fashion, ate at some amazing restaurants. The one thing we never got to was gold panning. We just were never able to fit it in.

Gold panning: the process of finding a treasure in the midst of gravel or dirt. Steps that are required include submerging the pan of gravel in water and shaking vigorously. When you lift the pan out of the water, all the impurities should seep out, leaving behind the gold.

The other day, I was talking to a friend about one of the things that I have learned through this difficult season and what came to mind was gold panning. Odd right? But hear me out.

Life is like that gold pan, filled with gravel or dirt. Life will sometimes fully submerge you in disaster, loss, grief and tragedy. And when you are grasping for air, often you will then be shaken up, agitated, pressed a little further.

This process can happen multiple times through the course of a person’s life. Some of us feel like we have been shaken a bit more than others, just being honest, but a little agitation will come to all of us at some point, it’s what you have left after the shaking that reveals character.

So when I look at my pan, what treasure, what gold has been revealed in this process?

People. People have become my gold. When that pan was pulled up from the water, things like money, pride, status and success, seeped out like a waterfall of impurities. As I run my fingers over what is left, I see my husband, who encourages me to take my days one at a time, not getting ahead of myself. As he grieves, he holds my heart and tenderly cares for my brokenness. I also see my Evelyn. She often is the only reason I don’t fall apart. Her strength of character, her inability to see gray areas, her convictions, all challenge me to live a life worthy of my calling.

And every other glistening piece of gold I see has a face. From family to friends, the treasure that remains reminds me of what is of value, relationships.

I told my friend the other day that I probably tell people I love them too much, I might hug people too tight or for too long, but so far no one has complained.

Whether I remain this way or whether it’s just a season, I don’t know, but right now, before anymore panning takes place, I will gather up the treasure that I have found and keep it close. Loving them all, as close to how Jesus loves, as I can. After all, nothing else will join us in eternity.

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 1 Cor. 13:13

Gold

Grief

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Grief…

It’s a lot like being robbed.

I only say that because I know grieving and I know being robbed.

It happened about 12 years ago. Evelyn and I came home after dropping Grace off at school. I unlocked my door, went inside and began my morning routine. After an hour or so of cooking and cleaning, I went to sit down at our computer only to find it missing. I didn’t even think about a break-in, after all, I came home to a locked house, nothing was out of place, no drawers were ransacked, no tables overturned, nothing like the movies. I called Jim to see if he or his brothers had the computer. I can vividly remember what he said,

“Sara, go check your jewelry box.”

As I lifted the lid, my heart sank. All of a sudden, my house, my home, my sanctuary, became foreign to me. The safety I had always felt was immediately stolen from me, along with so many earthly possessions we held dear. Not knowing if the thief was still in the house, I grabbed Ev, went outside, called the police and then called my dad.

About nine months ago, we were robbed again. Only this time, when I called Jim, his words to me were,

“Sara, she’s gone.”

As I dropped to my knees, again my heart sank, only this time much deeper. I felt my security stripped away once again. I began to feel like I was living a violated life. I never asked for this. I didn’t deserve this attack. But nonetheless, grief had robbed me.  

Twelve years ago, a thief took my jewelry, our computer, our video camera and bag, along with most of our home movies. Nine months ago the thief stole so much more.

What does grief steal?

It steals your identity. Who you were, your joys, your pleasures, your singularity. You lose yourself. Sometimes the person in the mirror becomes unrecognizable. You hate that face that stares back at you with hollow eyes.

You hate the random emotions that surge out of control, just under your skin. Ranging from a deep desire to protect everyone, to wanting to run away and be alone. Anger can burn steady and compassion rain down, all while jealousy laughs at you and love holds your hand.

You spend a good portion of your time looking back. Thoughts like “if only it was last year at this time,” “if only I had driven that day,” “if only life were different.” And with all the turning around, the future becomes very uncertain. Where you once planned vacations, you now hope for a day with no tears. Where you once hoped for sunshine, you only plan to get out of bed.

Grief can ransack your home, stealing all you hold dear, but still leaving everything looking exactly the same. I can walk into a room filled with familiar faces, wearing the smile that everyone is accustomed to seeing, chatting and engaging in conversation, and feel completely alone. I have lost so much. I feel so robbed. I know nothing will ever be the same.

When my house was robbed all those years ago, I needed to call the police, of course, but my second call…I needed my daddy. I needed him to wrap his big arms around my trembling fear and assure me that he would keep me safe. And he did.

When my life was robbed in January, I needed to make some calls, I needed to tell people what happened, but my first call…I needed my Abba, my Father. I needed Him to remind me that He was, in fact, holding my life, holding my ache, my pain, my hurt. And I needed Him to remind me that He was now holding my Grace. I needed to hear His voice, His Word, reminding me who I was in Christ and reminding me of my future hope.

We never did catch the first thief, nor did we ever see our items returned. But grief…I have caught this thief, and I plan, by God’s goodness and mercy, to see everything it has stolen from me, fully restored. If not here, if not now, then when I hear His voice saying,

“Sara, it’s time to come home.”

 

Grief