Lights and Strength

The darkest stretches of this journey have been punctuated by bright beacons of light.  They offer a warmly comforting glow.  Sometimes they illuminate a place where I can rest my heart, such as the listening ear of a compassionate friend.  Sometimes they are as blinding as the stage lights at a concert, a sacred space where music heals and lightens the burdens I carry.  But eventually, time marches on and they start to dim until they are nothing but the smoky remnants of an extinguished flame.  Then it’s time for me to march on, too.

It’s good to reflect on how far we’ve come.  Where our journey has taken us.  Having made it this far is proof we can make it through another day, another week, another month, another year.

Last night I sat down with some friends to talk about how I’m doing.  And as I openly shared my honest truth – that I’m surviving fabulously and even happy, but always struggling – I realized how strong I really am.  The word “strong” gets thrown around a lot, and its meaning is fluid.  For people (like me) who feel like they’re constantly scraping the bottom of their barrel, “strong” is never a word we would use to describe ourselves.  Truly, by tomorrow I might not feel strong at all.

But when I look back at the mountains I’ve climbed, and the person I used to be, I see nothing but strength.

As I proudly showed pictures of Wesley, and told them my son’s short life and how beautiful he was, the old me still inside beneath layers of change was shocked into silence.  This is the way it goes any time I decide to have courage and be bold, which, in the last few years, has been happening more often with less clumsiness, and more confidence.  It feels good to be at peace with myself, with who I am and what has happened to me.  For me, I have found that peace is synonymous with healing.  It doesn’t mean I hurt less.  If anything, it means I have learned to lean in to the hurt, to feel the pain and still have inner peace at the center of my core being.

There, in the center of my heart of hearts, is where I carry my own light.  And the same grief that tore me to pieces has somehow stitched me up with a gold and glistening thread of divine quality, a material that is nearly unbreakable in a physical way and indestructible in a spiritual one.

This is what it means to be strong, and this is what I find when I look in the mirror of grief and loss.  This shiny material is stitched through my whole being, and made me capable of doing things I thought I couldn’t do.

Never is this most clearly manifested in my sudden and surprising desire and ability to help others dealing with loss, specifically infant loss.  Once unable to even discuss my own feelings, now I help others process their own.  And as I’ve been able to do this, I find myself wanting to go beyond the people that I know personally and lead a group in some way, the details of which I am still exploring.  Regardless, this strength to help others is what drives me to offer help in any way I can, to anyone who needs it, and I am excited to explore this new facet of Who I’ve Become.

Instead of dreading another year without Wesley, I’m stretching forward to the coming days and months where I can use the lessons his absence has taught me to be a source of encouragement and strength to others, to be a good friend and a great mom and a pillar of faith in my community.  That’s not to say I won’t fail, but I hope the time between falling down and getting back up is less, and that the fall is softened by being kinder to myself with a more accurate assessment of my worth.

That’s the beauty of the journey, that we can look back and see how far we’ve come and see our worth stretched over miles and miles of darkness, an immeasurable brilliance that burns long after the lights go out.

So as I carve another notch for another year on this road, I tell myself I’m one year stronger, one year wiser, one year closer to the finish line.  If you told me at the beginning I would have come this far, I wouldn’t have believed you.  I wouldn’t have been able to comprehend the part of the journey that is my reality now.  But that’s not really the point.  Sometimes the destination we have in our mind is blurry, unfocused, unrealized.  But we keep moving anyway.  We may struggle to cover a few inches on some days, while other days we can run miles, but any distance is good enough.  Any distance is evidence of the strength we already have.  The strength is in the struggle.

While I don’t really have any concrete goals for 2016 (other than The Same Goal I’ve Had Forever, aka ‘finish your book’), my plans for this year are more abstract and forgiving and less to do with me at all.  Help others.  Listen more.  Show hospitality.  Practice gratitude.  Be empathetic.  Show compassion.  Be courageous on behalf of someone else.

After all, no one will remember whether or not I lost X amount of pounds, or climbed Mt. Everest, or finally learned how to fold a fitted a sheet.

But people will always remember how you treat them.  Long after you are gone, your light still shines within them.

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Capture Your Grief – Day 5. Empathy

Empathy has been defined as “your pain in my heart.”

True empathy can be found in that dark, scary place that all of us are afraid to go.  You know the place I’m talking about – the saddest, loneliest, scariest place in your mind, full of unpleasantries of every sort.  Embarrassment, fear, shame, hopelessness.  No matter our story, we’ve all been there, and we all hate it.  It truly feels like a god-forsaken wasteland of despair.

Yet, when someone bravely dares to sit with us in our own darkness, they are bravely sitting in their own dark and scary place at the same time, and that is empathy – courageously feeling the worst emotions in behalf of someone else.

For bereaved parents, finding true empathy is scarce outside of other bereaved parents.  Someone who has never lost a child simply does not have the capacity to understand.  In other words, it doesn’t get darker than this.

However, I am blessed to have friends who try to show empathy, and sometimes that’s enough.

1. They listen more than they talk.  90% of the time we just need someone to listen (or read) and just be there for us.

2. They don’t try to fix it.  It takes humility to realize they can’t “fix” us.  Some people want to be the ones to make us “feel better” by saying just the right combo of flowery words.  But there is nothing they can say to make us “feel better” about our child being dead.  Absolutely nothing.

3. They don’t use words like “At Least.”  Because there is no “at least” in child loss.  (See video below.)

4. They do say things like “I’m so sorry” or “I’m here for you” or “I love you” (and mean it).  These things are ALWAYS good to say to someone who is going through something awful.  You needn’t be afraid of saying the wrong thing if you stick to these words.  Just make sure you follow it up by being a good friend (see #1).

5. They let us be our broken selves without fear of judgment.  I can’t tell you how grateful I am for friends who have listened through my angry tears and have seen my ugly cry and have heard me say horrible things and acted out in unconventional ways to feel my pain.  They know we (as bereaved parents) are unfixable and unfathomably hurt.  But they see through it all and love us anyway, because ultimately I think they sense our courageousness to simply go on living after the Unthinkable has happened.

Finally, I think the following video best illustrates what empathy truly is, and what it’s not.

May we all practice empathy, and may the pain in our hearts turn to healing.