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Guest post: Grief and the Holidays: How to survive when you don’t feel like celebrating

Posted by | christmas, community, compassion, death, family life, grief, Guest blogger, kids, Stories, struggle, transitions | No Comments

The following is a guest post from my friend and grief counselor, Patty Behrens. Her insight and encouragement has carried me these last three years since my husband’s death. I love the way she reaches out to people navigating loss,  especially young widows. She facilitates a young widows group I have been a part of called Gals in Growth (GIG) that meets monthly in Fresno.

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“The ‘Merry’ in Christmas and the ‘Happy’ in New Year just doesn’t seem to fit this year.”

Those words were the first line of my very short Christmas letter to family and friends 5 months after my husband died suddenly on a family vacation. I didn’t feel much like celebrating. I wanted to push the fast forward button to skip over the holidays and wake up in January. That was not going to be possible with three children anxiously awaiting the upcoming festivities of Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Can you relate?

Our family of five loved the holidays with all the festivities and traditions of picking out a Christmas tree at a local tree farm. We’d run through the mass of trees hiding and chasing each other on our search for the “perfect” tree. Of course, my hubby was the one to cut the tree, get it secured on the car and bring it into the house for decorating. How was it possible to get through that tradition, not to mention the multiple others?

There was decorating the tree with each of our bags of special ornaments while Christmas music played in the background or lighting an Advent candle with a special dessert each week, delivering gifts and food to a needy family, having my in-laws over Christmas Eve for traditional homemade German food and my husband reading the Christmas story while the kids played the various parts, and eating our special homemade raspberry almond coffee cake with a candle lit as we sang “Happy Birthday” to Jesus.

It was impossible to replicate any of these traditions because “he” was a vital part of all of them all.

We did survive although we certainly did not thrive that first holiday season. I tried the best I could to make things good for my precious children. But, I had to do some things differently. My sensitive daughter wanted to hang on to every tradition as I simply explained, “This year I can’t.”

We let some of those traditions go and others we tweaked a bit to ease the pain. We invited close family friends over for Christmas Eve along with my in-laws for our traditional German meal. That evening we spent the night at my sister’s home despite protests from my daughter. I could not bare the pain of waking up that Christmas morning without him.

I wish I could say that was a smart move; however, it brought some pain of its own. It was too different as we stepped into their traditions, which were far from our own. Christmas dinner at my mom’s house brought more distress as both my dad (who had died a year earlier) along with my hubby were missing. There was no mention of either of them. It was the classic “elephant in the room” scenario.

Back at our house, we reclaimed the day as each child lit a candle in memory of their dad. We snuggled on the couch to watch home videos of him. The memories came bursting forth with laughter and joyous comments as the videos played. We survived our first Christmas.

Our second Christmas was much better as I intentionally made some changes. We chose as a family which traditions and activities were important while other ones were let go. We still invited a family over for Christmas Eve, which started a new tradition for us.

We decided to stay home for Christmas morning to do our thing. We brought the “elephant” out of the room as we played home videos at my mom’s house which opened the door to laughter and precious stories of our loved ones. They were remembered.

Through this grief journey, God has taught me numerous, valuable lessons and even gave me a ministry of helping other widows in ways I had struggled. Care Connections was birthed in April of 2002 and continues today. We have monthly work days where workers do home projects at widows’ homes, including putting up Christmas lights, decorations and trees if needed, along with other home needs throughout the year.

My favorite work day of the year is December as families, singles and people of all ages gather to deliver over 150 gifts to widows and their children letting them know we care and are thinking about them. It’s a tradition for my family. There are also home projects being completed with several of them being Christmas related.

The work days provide monthly opportunities to connect with other families. Through the years, my children had male role models who taught them how to do various home tasks and operate power tools, (Yes, my son learned how to operate a chain saw!) At Care Connections, we all learn to serve others in need.

This year, why not join us? If you live in Fresno/Clovis, I invite you to come with your children or by yourself to Care Connections on December 2 as we once again deliver gifts to widows for a few hours in the morning. We meet at the back of the Bridge Church parking lot at 3438 E. Ashlan Avenue in Fresno at 8:30 am where you can join a work crew or a team delivering gifts. We all return for a delicious lunch at noon where stories of the morning are shared. It may not make the holidays pain-free but it will be one of those activities you will remember as being “good” and lifting your mood for that day.

There’s no magical way to fast forward through the holidays or remove the pain, but there are ways to have “moments of joy” where the pain is eased and to help make the holidays a little bit better. Click here for a guide to Survive the Holidays. For more tips on surviving and thriving through the holidays, sign up here to receive weekly encouragement during this holiday season.

Patty Behrens is a licensed psychotherapist with a private practice in Fresno, California with specialties in grief, trauma and anxiety with a passion for helping others through their life struggles. She is founder and director of the Care Connections grief ministry, http://www.careconnectionshelp.com. To contact Patty or receive her more tips for surviving the holidays, go to www.counselingfresno.org

Photo Credit: Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

An Unexpected Feast: When Grief Meets Gratitude

Posted by | community, compassion, cooking, death, family life, flourishing, food stories, friendship, gifts, grief, kids, soup, Stories | No Comments

We dipped into hearty bowls of butternut squash soup garnished with sprigs of fresh parsley. We passed platters of golden roasted turkey, Nana’s green bean casserole, and homemade crescent rolls. My dear friend added a plate of her family’s special Salvadoran pupusas to the mix, while my famous pumpkin tiramisu chilled in the refrigerator for our grand finale.

What mattered that year was not what we were serving up on our plates but what we were serving up in our hearts. There was a deep gratitude that was almost palpable around the table after the grief journey we had endured as a family.

Just the year before, we had navigated our first holiday without my beloved husband. He was diagnosed with stage four cancer that May and soared to heaven in September, leaving our whole family and community reeling. I never imagined this would be my story. I didn’t ever believe the tasks of a widow-mama would be in my wheelhouse.

That first Thanksgiving we all had to recalibrate for we had lost our leader. I missed him helping me chop the celery for the soup. I missed his booming voice saying the blessing. I missed him entertaining the girls and laughing loud during dessert. His absence loomed large at the table. I had to dig deep to pull up the gratitude then. I had to train myself to name the small gifts – breath in my lungs, three brave daughters, sunsets chasing across the sky, and saving grace.

A year later, the landscape of my heart and our family had changed dramatically.

Just like the abundant food on our table, the blessings were abundant too. My fiancé sat to my right. He started the meal with a blessing-prayer, thanking God for our first meal as a family in the new home we just bought. My youngest girl with the golden hair, like her “Daddy with Jesus,” squeezed the hand of her daddy-to-be. She was bubbling with excitement for the wedding in January where she would be the flower girl.

My dear friend from El Salvador, her two sons, her husband, and his two sisters from India joined our table. They, too, had tasted grief that year as their dad had journeyed through cancer. These were friends who had become like family to us during crisis.

We shared tears and prayers. We drew close together in the gratitude.

After we had emptied the bottles of sparkling cider and most of us were pushing back from the table, there was a kind of hush…

To read the rest of this post, click here and join me at (in)courage.

5 Tips on How to Talk to Kids about Death

Posted by | death, family life, grief, kids, parenting, sharing faith, Stories, struggle | No Comments

I got a text from a friend of mine a few months ago. She explained that she was traveling to Texas to be with her grandkids whose other grandma had just died. She asked if I had any advice on how to talk to the kids. That got me thinking about some of the things I’ve learned these last three years as we have navigated my husband’s death from cancer and the deaths of several others in our community.

I want to first acknowledge that every grief journey is unique. It’s important to be attentive to individual needs and personalities. Everything I have learned has come through trial and error with my three daughters who were ages 2, 5 and 8 when their dad died. I sought counsel from friends who have navigated the journey before me and a trusted grief counselor.

Talking to kids about death can be difficult, but we shouldn’t avoid it. Death is a reality of our life. It’s not possible for me to shield my daughters from the daily dance with death and dying. I want to be the one helping them navigate their emotions and questions. I believe normalizing conversations about death has helped give my children permission to share their feelings and grieve in a healthy way.

Here are 5 tips to keep in mind as you navigate the sensitive topic of death with little ones:

  1. Be direct with your language.

It’s tempting to use vague language to explain that someone died, but this can be confusing for little ones. I have learned that being direct and loving is important. If you have experienced a miscarriage or the loss of grandparent, it’s good to say “The baby died” or “Grandma died” in a direct way. My girls had the unique opportunity to be with their daddy when he breathed his last breath. After he died, we all had to navigate how to speak about it to others. I urged them to simply say, “My dad died.” We tried to avoid saying “He passed away” or “We lost him.”

  1. Do something creative to help them share.

Kids may not know how to express their emotions at first. I have found that engaging my girls in something creative often helps open the door for them to share. Some grief counselors even use creative play with very little ones to help them process. My girls attended a support group through Hinds Hospice after their dad died. Some of their activities included art projects. Each girl decorated a picture frame and shared memories about their dad. It’s more natural to share while doing something together.

  1. Give them permission to cry.

Nothing has created a more powerful connection between my daughters and me than crying together. As parents our instinct is to want to hide our tears and hold it together in front of our kids. I believe it’s important to share tears with our kids when someone dies. They witness how important that person was to you. They also have permission to grieve freely. My daughters gained a sense of empathy in this process. They comforted me and each other when the grief was especially heavy. I’ve watched them do this with others now too. 

  1. Engage them in ways to honor the person who died.

Kids need to feel like they are part of the process. Each year I invite them to help me think of creative ways to honor their dad on anniversaries and holidays. For example, every year on his birthday they join me and we invite friends to do a special workout in their dad’s honor. Their dad loved running and fitness so this is a way we can honor him and his legacy. On the day of his Heaveniversary, we also do special things to remember him like taking a picnic to the cemetery and inviting friends over for a dinner party where we tell stories about him.

  1. Check in often.

Conversations about death and processing grief need to be ongoing. My daughters and I all have different things that trigger our sadness or instigate questions. I have learned it’s important to check in with each other often. We take opportunities to talk in the car on the way to school or even on family trips when we are away from our home environment. I try to schedule “date nights” with each of my girls one-on-one at least once a month so I have the space to listen and let them share.

Be encouraged, friend. You might feel inadequate to navigate these difficult conversations but just showing up is key. I always say a little prayer and ask God to give me ears to hear my children’s hearts and the right words to comfort them. This is our opportunity to share our faith with our kids in a deeper way. If we are willing to step into these hard conversations with our kids, however messy and awkward, we may crack open the door for God to bring healing for them and for us.

 

*I have developed a FREE download for people navigating grief with kids. This includes tips and resources like book titles, movies and other creative projects that have proved useful with my own girls. Opt in here and I’ll slip it gently into your inbox!

**I offer coaching sessions for parents who are helping their kids navigate grief. Interested in some one-on-one help? Message me here.

 

Grief Journey: Embracing Your Child’s Individuality

Posted by | brave, courage, grief, individuality, Stories, struggle, transitions | One Comment

As a mama of three girls ages 2, 5 and 8, there’s a lot I’m still learning. In fact, every day is a wild journey of discovery about my girls and myself. One thing I do know for sure: we are all different.

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Making space for lament when national tragedy strikes

Posted by | community, compassion, death, fear, grief, politics, social justice, Stories | 5 Comments

A few weeks ago I drove up the mountains to pick up my oldest daughter from 6th grade camp. The highway began to bend and wind into the woods. The sight of the forest took my breath away. I was stunned by the devastation and destruction left by the forest fires in that area.

A grove of trees that just a year ago boasted a vibrant, red-green-gold was now marked by black trunks and brittle branches. The grove was sparse with fallen trees in the road and piles of ashes all around.

I couldn’t help but pull over and just stare in sacred silence. Like many places up and down our beautiful state of California, this area burned. This forest and the people who live near it have endured much suffering and loss.

Calvin Crest Camp, where I was headed, was spared but the fires snuck right up to their back door, and the evidence of the burning is all around. Fires still blaze farther north in Santa Rosa this week. Scrolling through Facebook, I am grieved by the pictures of friends’ childhood homes, hospitals and schools burned to the ground in that area.

Meanwhile, in other parts of our country and world, devastating hurricanes have put whole cities under water. Death and destruction permeate the landscape. Just a few days before I drove up to Calvin Crest, a mass shooting in Las Vegas left 50 dead and countless injured. I have been heavy with the thought of so many people trying to dig themselves out of the devastation.

So much loss. So much to grieve.

These last three years since my husband died from cancer, I’ve learned that if I don’t make space for the grief it will sneak up on me like a forest fire. Before I know it, my heart will be ablaze with grief, unstoppable and racing toward despair.

Because of the deep grief I’ve endured, new grief – like the death of another loved one, a natural disaster or national tragedy – piles up in my heart. It feels like grief stacked upon grief, and it’s heavy to carry. I need to be gentle with myself.

This week I am reminded of the importance of lament. We have moved away from the Biblical practice of lament in the North American church, but I believe now more than ever we need it. Lament is an invitation to cry out to God in suffering and pain. It’s a way to express deep sadness while also acknowledging God at work in the suffering.

In his book, Prophetic Lament, Soong-Chan Rah writes, “The American church avoids lament. The power of lament is minimized, and the underlying narrative of suffering that requires lament is lost. But absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence makes the heart forget.”

I am challenged by these words to carve out space for lament. I do not want to forget the injustices I see around me. I do not want to forget those who are suffering. I do not want to share an article on social media about the shooting in Las Vegas and then move on to a heated debate about gun control. We dishonor those families when we rob them of the time to grieve. We do a disservice to ourselves when we attempt to march on to political discussions unscathed by the human tragedy.

The Bible offers up a model for lament in the Psalms and the poetry of the book of Lamentations. Psalm 40 is one of my favorite examples of lament. David writes opens the Psalm with words of thanksgiving: “I waited patiently for the LORD, and He turned to me and heard my cry for help. He brought me up from a desolate pit, out of the muddy clay, and set my feet on a rock, making my steps secure” (Psalm 40:1-2).

Later in the Psalm, David cries out to God in his own weakness and helplessness: “Lord, be pleased to deliver me; hurry to help me, Lord” (Psalm 40:13). Many of the Psalms express pain, grief, worry, fear and then the Psalmist is led into hope in God. I am grateful that the Bible includes examples of people expressing sadness and grief in times of tragedy and trauma. This gives us permission to lament as well.

Let me encourage you during these difficult times to hold space for grief. We all grieve in unique ways. For me, this means clearing my schedule for a trail run or getting out my journal to write some lines about how these losses are hitting me. For you, it might mean sitting in the quiet of your backyard to watch the birds or strolling through the neighborhood. It might mean letting yourself cry in your bedroom.

When many are grieving, I believe it’s also important to reach out to people and acknowledge the pain. It’s tempting to sweep the tragedy under the rug. Some of us feel sad and helpless, so we stuff it down and quickly move on. We need to fight this urge and intentionally check in with our people.

I’m concerned that in this age of social media we choose to do more of our processing on the internet when it’s our face-to-face relationships that need tending to. We need to listen to others, talk through what we are feeling, and carve out space for prayer. I like to do this by making a pot of soup or a cup of tea and inviting people to my table so we can hear the nuances in each other’s voices. And we can cry together.

My challenge to you is to think about ways you can hold space for lament in your own life. Give yourself permission to put it on the calendar or cancel some other activities. Invite a close friend into conversation or prayer about the state of our world. This is the way we can come together in community and push back the darkness.

**I have developed a FREE RESOURCE for readers navigating guilt and shame in grief. This little exercise has helped me so much on my own grief journey. Check it out here.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash.

Marathon Lessons: How to persevere when your race isn’t turning out how you expected

Posted by | behold, community, courage, death, finishing well, flourishing, grief, running, Stories, struggle | 6 Comments

We began to inch toward the start line. Throngs of runners from 100 countries around the world joined us for this epic race – the 40th Chicago Marathon. I tried not to focus on my nervousness and instead enjoy the experience of being there with so many people from all walks of life chasing the same goal.

About a year before, I started dreaming up ways to celebrate my 40th birthday. Choosing something for my 40th carried some weight and grief for me as I remembered that my beloved went to Heaven in his 40th year of life. Running the Chicago Marathon bubbled to the surface as a big challenge I wanted to work toward. I live in Central California now so journeying together with my family back to the city where I grew up seemed like a memorable way to celebrate.


I run races year-round, but my focused training for the marathon began in June. My friend and I disciplined ourselves to run before dawn and the stifling heat of the day descended on Central California. We enjoyed long weekend runs on the trails around our city. Those runs afforded me a new rhythm of quiet to connect with God, to process my grief, to breathe new life to my dreams.

And now, five months later, the big day was here. As the announcer signaled for us to start, I felt a surge of excitement. We began to navigate the streets and neighborhoods of Chicago. I tried to take one mile at a time and not focus on the entire 26.2 miles before me, which was still daunting.

The first challenge was finding space to run. With 44,000 runners, I had to do a lot of weaving and negotiating to find a path for my feet. The timing had to be just right.  You don’t want to cut anyone off, but you also don’t want to get stuck behind a group running a slower pace. Runners elbowed me and pushed me more than once. My hubby-coach ran next to me, and my training partner ran just ahead. I tried to steady the cadence of my breathing. The three of us struggled to stay together because of all the people surrounding us.

I started thinking about a passage in Hebrews I have been working to memorize with a group of women from my church. It says,

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:1-3).


Remember the witnesses

These verses came to me at just the right time, providing inspiration for tackling the race ahead. At mile 3, we passed our family cheering crew – my parents, three daughters, my sister and brother’s family, and even some friends who have become family through the years. They motivated us on with smiles, high fives, hugs and hand-decorated signs. Not only were we surrounded by more than 1.5 million fans lining the streets of Chicago, but we were supported by our people, our witnesses.

I couldn’t help reflecting on how critical the support of my people has been through the years. My tribe has supported me at races, the births of my girls, graduations, weddings and more. They stood with me at my husband’s bedside when he battled cancer. They held me tight at the grave when we surrendered him to Heaven. Their encouragement buoys my strength.

As I ran the race, I could almost hear my Ericlee cheering from Heaven. I imagined him pumping his fist and calling out in that bellowing coaching voice. I thought of the others gathering in Heaven with him to witness my race. I saw my grandparents on both sides, many dear friends, and other heroes of the faith. This is the power of a community of support. I do not believe we humans are meant to run the race alone.


Weed out the thoughts that entangle

I felt a little slower than usual. I couldn’t find my pace and my stomach felt queasy. I made it past the half marathon point. At mile 15, I knew I had to find a bathroom fast. Just in the nick of time, I found one. After waiting in line, I got back out on the course with my team. I was disappointed because I knew I had lost precious minutes there. I felt weak.

My running partner said she was going to go on ahead. I have to admit this was hard. I don’t blame her a bit. In fact, I probably would have made the same choice if the tables were turned.  The competitive side of me just had a hard time accepting that I couldn’t push harder to stay with her.

I would say about 80 percent of running a marathon is the mental game. My mind started to spiral downward at this point. The temperature was rising. The sun started to beat down on me. I felt tired with each plodding step. I was disappointed in myself and felt ashamed that my husband had to run such a slow pace to keep me going. I started to compare myself to others in my mind.

Then those words rang out: “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.” I was hindered by my self talk. My sin was in my attitude, my comparing, my jealousy, my shame. I felt like a tangled mess. I wanted to just lay down in the middle of the street and ugly cry.

I knew I had to rally. My husband offered to carry my hydration vest for me. I literally had to throw that thing off my tired shoulders and figuratively throw off my negative self talk as well.


Run with perseverance

I didn’t realize it until later when my hubby told me but I started saying the words to the verse out loud: “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…” I kept thinking about that word perseverance. It means persisting in spite of difficulty, obstacles or discouragement.

I reminded myself that I believe in doing hard things. I want to model that for my daughters. If I have learned anything in my grief journey, I have learned that the best way to navigate grief is to lean in, to take the next step, and the next. I made it to mile 20.

On mile 22, God sent me an angel. There was a woman on the side of the street giving the most rousing victory speech. Her words spoke truth and life into me. She reminded me that the marathon is about grit and glory. I believe that we are to be glory chasers, giving glory to God even in the most difficult times. Here was my chance. I had to run the race marked out just for me.


Follow the pacer

I’m not going to lie. Those last 4.2 miles were not easy. I was hot. I could feel the chafing beneath my shirt. I kept drinking water but still remained thirsty. Everyone around me was walking. I was tempted to stop, but I couldn’t. Shawn started running just ahead of me then. I knew what he was doing. He was pacing me. He knew I needed someone to follow, someone to chase. I fixed my eyes on his neon yellow “Run Big” shirt, and we ran.

And these words were running through my mind: “…fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” Some days are just hard. Sometimes the race is not what we hoped for or expected. It’s easy to focus my eyes on my shortcomings and disappointments. Hebrews 12 reminds me where to fix my  eyes – on Jesus. He’s the pioneer, the first, the one blazing the trail, my pacer for life.

We had one last hill to climb and then we turned the corner. That bright red banner screaming “FINISH” was my invitation. I shifted to that last gear, and ran my guts out.


And in the end, it turns out the marathon was not just a birthday challenge to accomplish. The marathon was an important teacher for life. I learned to remember the witnesses, weed out the thoughts that entangle, run with perseverance and follow the Pacer.

All for His glory!

 

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Book Review: Shalom Sistas: Living Wholeheartedly in a Broken World

Posted by | book reviews, compassion, courage, flourishing, self-care, serve, sharing faith, social justice, Stories | No Comments

When I was widowed in 2014, one of the most difficult things I did was step away from the missions work I was a part of in Haiti. My late husband and I directed a non-profit, which included for me running a social goods jewelry business. Our work was demanding, fulfilling, creative and challenging – not to mention lots of travel back and forth between countries. After my husband’s death, I knew I needed to step down from my leadership roles in the organization in order to care for my children and make space for our grief.

It was tough.

To walk away from my mission and community in Haiti was humbling and hard. It was a secondary loss for me. Looking back, I know it was the right decision. I also know God has kindled a surprising new sense of mission and purpose for me right here in Fresno, California, where I live.

My ministry focus is my family, my kids’ school, my church and my city. I’ve grappled at different times with what it means to stand up for peace and justice while sitting in the front seat of my SUV with a bunch of kids in the back.

Osheta Moore’s new book, Shalom Sistas: Living Wholeheartedly in a Broken World, reached out to me right where I am today – heart-weary, wanting more shalom in my life, and wondering where I can contribute in this chaotic world.

One night Osheta prayed a brave prayer: “God, show me the things that make for peace.” The book unpacks the answer Osheta received as she studied peace for forty days.

Osheta describes a “shalom sista” as a woman who loves people, follows the Prince of Peace, and never gives up her sass.

By that definition, I’m in. You?

Osheta is a Los Angeles-based writer and podcaster. She is a mother of three and wife to an urban pastor. In other words, she’s got street cred.  Osheta ushers readers in like girlfriends linking up for coffee. She’s a gifted storyteller but still packs a punch with theological prowess on this topic.

Shalom Sistas is divided into five parts: Shalom After the Storm; Shalom with God; Shalom within Ourselves; Shalom in our Relationships; and Shalom in our World.  Each section of takes readers through Osheta’s 12- point “Shalom Sistas Manifesto.”

I resonate especially with this line: “Don’t get me wrong: while shalom brings peace, it is also active and alive. In my forty days of peace, I became convinced that peacemakers are not pliable, passive, or permissive.”

I appreciate Osheta’s perspective because sometimes talk about shalom and peacemaking is misconstrued. The most memorable peacemakers in history were not passive people, but rather souls marked by courage, grit, passion, and deep conviction.

Another chapter that really hit home for me was “This Brown Skin: We Will See the Beauty.” Osheta unfolds her own story of learning to see beauty in her brown skin. Osheta serves her readers with her vulnerable and honest story of how she came to a place of peace with her own body. This is an aspect of shalom I have not thought about before.

The beauty of Osheta’s book is that she challenges us to expand our views and practices of shalom, but she does it in a way that feels inspiring and manageable. The pages of this book are brimming with practical ideas of how to sprinkle shalom like confetti in all directions.

 

**I have had the privilege of being a part of Osheta Moore’s launch team. I did not know her before but she talks to everyone like they are insiders aka BFFs. She also hosts a podcast called “Shalom in the City,” which I highly recommend checking out.

 

The uninvited guests: Battling guilt and shame after loss

Posted by | brave, community, courage, death, grief, parenting, Stories, struggle | No Comments

**I’ve developed a free resource to help people combat the lies that guilt and shame bring. Click here if you’d like a copy gently delivered to your inbox.

 

After my husband died, we had many friends and family who came to visit. People brought us meals, cards, and abundant gifts for my girls. But there were two uninvited guests who kept showing up at my door at the most inopportune times. Their names were Guilt and Shame.

After an intense and harrowing four-month cancer journey, I was especially haunted by guilt that I didn’t do more to save my husband. I agonized over whether or not we had chosen the right treatments.  I questioned God if I should have done this or that to make my beloved more comfortable in the end.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I found the peace I needed to release my guilt. A friend reminded me that when my husband was diagnosed with cancer he was already in stage four. There is no stage five cancer. There was not anything I could do to “save” my husband at that point. In fact, now I realize it’s arrogant for me to even entertain the idea that the treatments we choose will “save” a life. We do our best and follow His leading, but the number of our days is up to God alone.

I also felt guilt about not allowing more visitors to see my husband in his final days. I know many of our friends and family felt guilty for not seeing my husband or reaching out to him before his death. No one realized how aggressive his cancer was. I felt very protective of him in his final days. I knew he was very weak and wasn’t himself. I had to make that hard call to limit the visitors. Later, I took on the guilt of our friends and family who did not get to say their final goodbyes.

When I became a widow and an unexpected single parent, I began to feel guilt and even shame about asking people for help. Without my life partner, I suddenly needed assistance with common household tasks and repairs. Some of these things I weathered through by myself. I learned to do things like taking out the garbage and locking the doors at night – tasks my husband always covered. On some things, I allowed friends to help me. One friend came to fix my garbage disposal, another walked around my home and found things that needed to be repaired.

In that season, I grew an empathetic heart for single mamas. I realized how difficult it is to arrange childcare and to taxi drive kids to events when you’re the solo parent. I would ask for help, but sometimes I felt guilty. I’m grateful for the friends who generously offered up time in their busy schedules to love on my kids so I could attend meetings and work.

I felt guilty for leaning on my friends so much for emotional support. Of course, my tribe wanted to be there for me but it was an emotional shift for me because I was used to being there for them. I had to allow myself to be vulnerable and invite them to sit with me in my grief.

In the last few years of this grief journey, I’ve discovered through research and friends’ experiences that it’s common for widows to feel guilty after a spouse dies. It’s also characteristic for children and other family members to take on guilt. We have a lot of time on our hands to mull over what we could have done differently and guilt sneaks in. For some, this becomes an even deeper battle against shame.

Brene Brown, shame researcher and author of Daring Greatly, defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” She differentiates in her book that guilt is best understood as the attitude “I did something bad,” while shame is believing “I am bad.”

For me, I realized I really had to put my self-talk in the check. There were times when I was particularly sad or feeling insecure because of my grief that I found myself swimming in self-doubt. I wondered if I could go on. I doubted if I could be a good mother to my three girls who desperately needed me to lead and love them well. I wrestled with simple decisions. I found myself resenting household and mothering tasks because I had to do them alone. In those times, my guilt could quickly move to shame if I let it.

When I find myself sitting at the table with shame and listening to her lies again, I have to remember the weapons of what Brene Brown calls “shame resilience.” She says “shame derives its power from being unspeakable” so the first weapon is to call out or name guilt and shame. I learned to just tell my people, “Hey, I’m having a hard time asking for help today but can you help me with…”

My second strategy is one I learned years ago through Beth Moore’s Bible study, Breaking Free. She taught a method for visualizing and taking captive any controlling thoughts. The idea is that you recognize the lie you are hearing in your head and you stand up against that lie with God backing you. Then you tear down that lie from the walls of your mind and put up truth from God’s word. Finally, you make that lie bow down to the truth.

Beth writes, “Taking thoughts captive to Christ doesn’t mean we never have the thought again. It means we learn to ‘think the thought’ as it relates to Christ and who are in Him.” Beth’s method and values help me put things into perspective. Feelings of guilt and shame are natural for all humans but what we do with those thoughts and feelings is important in allowing us to move forward.

I want to encourage you fellow widow mamas and others on the grief journey to bathe yourself in the grace and compassion of Christ in this process. Let these words from Hebrews 4:16 wash over you: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Friends, we are not meant to walk this journey alone. Today, with God’s help, I’m inviting Courage, Resilience and Grace to my table.

 

**I’ve developed a free resource to help people combat the lies that guilt and shame bring. Click here if you’d like a copy gently delivered to your inbox.

Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

Podcast: A conversation about “Chasing Rest”

Posted by | behold, margin, parenting, podcast, rest, schedule, Stories | No Comments

One of my favorite places to go on a late summer night is Moravia Winery – just a short drive from our home in Fresno, California. Somehow even when it’s scorching outside, it’s a few degrees cooler out at the winery. My kids love to play wild and free with their friends on the pirate ship play structure. Some of the daddies play bocce ball.

We lounge on picnic blankets and share goodies. They often have a live band playing music and a food truck selling burritos or a vendor serving up fancy cupcakes. As the sun lies down for the evening, ribbons of color dance beyond the rows and rows of vines dripping with grapes.

Of course, if you drive out to this winery during the winter months, you will witness a different scene from the flourishing vines of late summer/early fall. Mysterious fog often seeps in late at night and early in the mornings. The vines are pruned back, standing stark against the winter sky. They have traded green leaves and lush grapes for gnarly and naked vines. This season in the vine’s life is called dormancy, the resting period before new growth.

Rest is necessary not just in the cycle of the grape’s life but also in our human lives. Rest refreshes the mind, body and spirit. And yet, our American culture lies to us about rest. We are led to believe: time is money; those who multitask best are the most productive; and there is no time for rest.

Choosing to rest is challenging with three growing girls who are creative and ambitious.  They are wired like their mama, who loves to fill the calendar squares and jump into new opportunities too. Whenever I see our schedule is squeezed too tight or we are running from one activity to the next, I try to remind myself of the grape vines out at the winery in winter. A season of rest is important for growth. It’s a time when God does special work underground. Once the vines have rested, tiny buds of green appear in spring. And eventually, the vines are lush and heavy with fruit once again.

 

Kindred Mom just released a new podcast episode where my friend Emily Allen and I talk about this concept of “chasing rest.” To read the full original essay I wrote on this topic, click the link below.  

Chasing Rest

 

Celebrating a Heaveniversary: 10 ways to honor a loved one’s death

Posted by | courage, death, family life, grief, kids, running, Stories, struggle | 4 Comments

It surprises me every year at this time. We are finally settling into a school routine and a fall activity rhythm. I’ve hit my stride with my creative work and the groups I’m leading are kicking off. Then out of nowhere I start to get this slow ache deep in my soul.

Grief sneaks in.

And somehow my body and my soul know before my brain that this was the week. Three years ago, these were the final days when my husband was fighting for his life. My memory skids and careens and bumps over the memories. The call to hospice. The oxygen tank. The way my bedroom was turned into a hospital room. The desperate prayers whispered in the kitchen or the bathroom, in the darkest hours when none of us could sleep.

I prayed a prayer I never believed I could. I begged God to take him, to release him from his pain. I looked into his hazel eyes and told my beloved the girls and I would be ok.

And on September 9, 2014, my beloved husband soared to Heaven.

Such beautiful sweet redemption for him after an intense cancer battle. And unexpected relief for me. I did not have to watch him suffer anymore. I had confidence he was running the streets of gold with a new body in Heaven.

Three years later, my soul still knows. My body still remembers. This Saturday we will celebrate Ericlee’s 3-year Heaveniversary. The girls and I decided last year to name this sacred day his Heaveniversary. I was tired of the awkward phrases like the “day he died” or “death day.” I want this day to be an anniversary when we remember a husband, father, coach and friend, and his amazing legacy. Death was not the end of his story; Heaven is.

Are you longing to celebrate a loved one and their legacy? Do you have a Heaveniversary fast-approaching?

I polled some of my widow friends and asked them how they celebrate their husbands’ Heaveniversaries. The following is a list of creative ideas you might consider to honor your husband, your wife, your mother, your aunt, your friend or others on their Heaveniversary. For us, it has been about discovering meaningful ways to remember each year.

  1. Bring a picnic to the cemetery. It’s a tradition for many families from different cultures to visit the grave site of a loved one on their Heaveniversary. We put a twist on this last year by bringing a picnic. I brought pizza and sandwiches from my husband’s favorite spot. We spread a blanket over the grass. Grandma came to sit with us, and we shared stories about him and other family members who were buried at that cemetery.
  1. Release balloons into the sky and send prayers to Heaven. My friend said she took her three children to the cemetery and they released balloons into the sky in memory of Daddy. There’s something beautiful and sacred about letting go and watching these balloons fly to the heavens.
  1. Take a day to go to the lake or another place your loved one would spend a lot of time. Another friend said she took her daughters to a nearby lake, which was her husband’s favorite place to be. They brought lunch and relaxed together. Sometimes getting away on a trip can be the best way to celebrate.
  1. Visit a favorite restaurant and share memories around the table. We might be tempted to avoid special places during the year, but a Heaveniversary is a perfect day to return to a favorite restaurant or a place you shared your first date. Bring friends or family and share memories around the table.
  1. Look through some of your loved one’s treasures together. We have several boxes in our garage with my husband’s favorite childhood treasures, some of his clothes and cards people sent with special stories about him. A Heaveniversary is an opportune time to get these out and to share them.
  1. Peruse pictures and create an album together. The majority of our pictures are digital now, which means less time to select the best photos and assemble albums. When you take time to peruse pictures and put together a special album, you participate in meaningful remembrance of your loved one.
  1. Gather some friends to watch videos together. One of my daughters’ treasures is their dad’s old iPhone. They found all kinds of silly videos he made of them when they were little or workouts he used to do. Last year, we saved those videos to our laptop and hooked that up to our TV to watch them together. We loved the opportunity to hear his voice and laugh again.
  1. Do something active in honor of your loved one. My husband was an athlete and coach. He loved to get outdoors for a hike or run. One way to celebrate his legacy is to do something active in his honor. You might do this with friends or family. You might even sign up for a race and run in your husband’s honor. The training can be a time for grieving and remembering.
  1. Journal your memories. Sometimes I worry that the best memories of my husband will be forgotten. Carve out some time on this Heaveniversary to write down a few memories of your loved one. They don’t need to be perfect or polished. Writing them down helps you remember and record these memories for family in the future.
  1. Host a Heaveniversary dinner. We started this tradition last year and other widow friends have done the same. We invite some of our treasured friends to our house for a special meal. I intentionally invited some of my husband’s friends who we don’t see as much anymore. After dinner, we gathered in our living room to share stories about my husband. What I thought might be a somber day turned into a true celebration.

One thing I’ve learned these last three years is that I need to be intentional about carving out time and inviting my family into practices of remembrance. I can’t wait for others to stand up and offer their thoughts spontaneously. I need to find courage to lead.

Even three years later, my mind is often triggered by memories of my late husband. He appears in my dreams or I find myself saying something the way he used to say it. These make me pause. The grief never goes away but the path somehow grows easier. A big part of this journey has been taking time to lean in together as a family and remember the man he was, and to continue carrying his values into the future.

This Saturday, we will host another Heaveniversary party to remember my Ericlee. We will laugh, we will cry and we will celebrate.

 

**Interested in reading more about why it’s important to give yourself permission to grieve? Check out this post.

***I would love to send you my FREE guide on Navigating Grief with Kids full or ideas and resources. Opt in here.

 

Featured photo via VisualHunt

Book Review: And Still She Laughs

Posted by | book reviews, brave, family life, fear, grief, hope, laughter, Stories, struggle | One Comment

I remember the weekend after my husband died I took my girls to a concert. It was just the healing balm we needed. The music washed over me and somehow helped me breathe. My girls jumped and danced with their friends. Laughter rang out in the aisles.

After the concert, we saw a friend who used to attend our church. She rushed down the row and burst into tears in my arms. “I’m so sorry,” she sobbed.

For the first time, I realized this grief journey was going to be hard and awkward. I would have my private grief, and I would have my public grief. And I would have to learn to navigate both.

I was not feeling sad at that exact moment. God met me during the concert and my spirits were lifted. Even though I was the newly-minted widow, I was not in the moment of sorrow. I had no tears to share with that friend.

I wondered who else I knew was at the concert that night. Did they see me singing and raising my hands? Did they see the girls and me laughing? Were we grieving right in public? Were we dishonoring my husband?”

These questions raced through my mind, but as the weeks unfolded I realized I had to quiet the temptation to please others in my grief. I had to step into the messy and awkward moments, and allow my community to grieve with me and apart from me too.

I had to let myself dive into the deep of being without my life partner, my beloved. I also had to give myself permission to laugh again. And, that I discovered, takes courage.

Kate Merrick’s book, And Still She Laughs, examines the Bible’s gritty stories of resilient women as well as her own experience losing a child to reveal surprising joy and deep hope even in the midst of heartache. The book was released in March but I happened upon it at just the right time smack in the middle of this summer. I took the book to the ocean and drank up the words with the crashing of the waves as my backdrop.

Kate’s a Southern California girl from a surfer family and she weaves her love affair with the ocean into her story of grief and glory. Sometimes a book can be healing. Sometimes a book read in a specific season in a specific place can be even more healing.

Kate writes,“This book is not intended to take the place of grieving; rather, it speaks to what to do when the tidal wave washes past, when the sizzle from the burn settles, when we finally look around and wonder what’s next.  When we wonder if it is actually possible to come out of the paralysis of darkness and find laughter again.”

Needless to say, I was hooked.

If you are walking through grief of any kind, or if you love beautiful, candid storytelling, this book will minister to your soul. Kate also helped me see some of my favorite Bible characters through new lenses and with new compassion.

What I appreciate most is Kate’s honesty. She doesn’t sugarcoat the pain. She doesn’t offer up pat answers or trite, happy thoughts for navigating grief. She’s frank, funny and real. She’s not afraid to talk about the day of her miscarriage or the time a dog peed on her at the beach or how she and her daughter pranked the nurses during her daughter’s cancer treatment.

Kate makes me laugh. And she is convinced laughter is the key to survival. Laughter “can be healing, literally,” she writes. “It can inject an impossibly terrible situation with a whoosh of fresh air. Sharing laughter fosters a bond between humans. In its purest form it brings life.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Kate’s book opens with this: “She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future” from Proverbs 31:25.

My prayer is that you and I can live and laugh like that too.

 

**If you’re a reader and you love to talk books, check out more of my book reviews here.

***I’d love to send you my Glorygram – a weekly word of encouragement with book, podcast and recipe recommendations. Opt in here.

Transitions: Leaving space for the grief and the glory

Posted by | back to school, family life, kids, parenting, relationships, rest, schedule, Stories, transitions | No Comments

On Sunday evening, we rolled into town after a glorious day relaxing at the lake with family and friends. This was the grand finale to our 12 weeks of summer fun.

We packed these weeks with Track & Field camp, travel to San Diego and Haiti, sleepovers with Grandma, staying up late if we felt like it, days for lounging and days for chasing adventure in our own city with friends.

My oldest piped up in the back seat. “Mom, I don’t think I have any shorts to wear to school tomorrow.”

Mind you, I started sorting and gathering school clothes several weeks earlier. I tried not to shout. “What?!” I screamed.

“Remember, those ones you ordered don’t fit,” came her response. We both started to panic. “I think I need a shirt too,” said my middle daughter. We redirected the car toward the nearest Target for a late night shopping trip. In a more perfectly-planned world, I would have been putting my three lovelies to bed at that exact moment, but that’s not how we roll.

Let the transition back to school begin.

This time of year always necessitates transitions of many kinds. Whether it’s transitioning to the new school schedule, starting a new leadership position or stepping down from one, jumping into that new sports season or concluding our time with a group, change is inevitable.

The longer I live the more I’m realizing the time we spend transitioning from one thing to the next is not as rare as we would like it to be. We live in transition all the time.

We talk about making smooth transitions but what does that really mean?

We can grit our teeth and brace ourselves for the change or we can breathe through it.

I remember when I was birthing my middle daughter I had an amazing midwife. She taught me the art of breathing through the contractions. I still use that breathing technique today when I’m running or just calming my spirit in a stressful situation.

In the birthing process, the time we call “transition” is the most intense. Contractions generally come quickly one right after the other. The baby begins to descend into the mama’s pelvis ready to be pushed out into the world. It’s a time of pain dancing with anticipation.

Our human instinct is to clench our fists, tense our muscles (and our hearts) and reject transition as something foreign, an unwelcome time, that thing that surely will break us. What would happen if we leaned into the transition instead? What if we breathed through the contractions, the painful moments? What if we embraced all that a transition has to offer?

On Monday morning, I dropped off all three of my girls – now a sixth grader, third grader and kindergartener – at school together. There were throngs of parents taking pictures of their kids in front of the school. I noticed several of my mama friends who had a spring in their step and that unmistakable look in their eyes – freedom!

One friend met me at my car. We took a few minutes to catch up on the summer events. Our youngest girls are in the same morning kinder class now. We acknowledged that transitions like these are bittersweet. Although both of our girls are eager for a new school and fresh start, they both had tears the night before over some losses.

My baby girl was eager to spread her “ready confetti” – a special gift from her new teacher – under her pillow. She slipped into bed and then began weeping uncontrollably for her daddy in Heaven. Something triggered for her that he was not here to see her off on this big day.

This reminded me that each new season brings a tinge of grief and a taste of glory. New seasons sometimes trigger memories of our losses but also are pregnant with hope for the future. We have to embrace both to step forward.

Perhaps the hardest transition of my life was the day after my husband’s funeral. Some of my friends took the girls and me to the ocean. I stood there with foamy waves crashing over my feet. I thought maybe I could stand there forever just letting the grief wash over me.

After a while I had a strange realization. He was no longer living but I had to keep on living. I had the rest of my life before me. I had these girls to raise in his legacy.

Most importantly, I had a choice – to live in the past or to step forward into the future trusting God to lead me. I had to embrace the transition. I had to give myself space to grieve, and I had to step forward in faith one day at a time.

The other day I was reading in the book of Haggai. Admittedly, I haven’t spent much time in that book of the Bible but I found myself comforted by the words Joshua receives from God about rebuilding the temple. His words through prophecy in Haggai 2:4-9 are to “be strong” and “work.” The promise is God will “be with” Joshua and the people in the transition, in the rebuilding process.

Of course, it’s important to note that the new glory to come was not just a physical building but Jesus Christ himself, the embodiment of glory.

I am reminded that it’s ok to reminisce about the “glory days” but then we need to step courageously toward a new glory.

Friend, if you find yourself smack in the middle of a transition today, press in, be strong and work. The Lord is right there with you. And He’s right here with me.

 

**If you’re interested in reading more about what it means to be a Glory Chaser, check out this post and my new Glory Chasers bible study here.

Grief journey: How to lift your eyes in the brokenness

Posted by | death, family life, fear, grief, Guest blogger, parenting, Stories | 2 Comments

The following is guest post written by my new friend and fellow Hope*Writer Tara Dickson. We met through a writer’s group and I found myself resonating with her story. I am privileged to watch her navigate her “new normal” as a widow mama and grandma. I hope her story ministers to you today!

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Life doesn’t look the way I expected. Does it for anyone?

My husband left this earth and walked into Heaven a year ago February. An incredibly fit and healthy man, the brain cancer he battled for a year and a half was the last thing we expected on the New Year’s Eve he was diagnosed.  

Can we just stop? I want a do over. How can I can keep from walking into this New Year and all that it holds?

This was not what I wanted my life to look like. Alan would have turned 46 the day after he exhaled earth and inhaled Heaven.  Our children weren’t tiny but they all still needed him. Our oldest daughter had just walked through an extremely painful season in her life a year and a half before. Her daddy, her rock, spoke truth over her at every turn, reminding her to trust herself to the Father. He had coffee with her every morning and held her new baby as she mourned her broken dreams.  

Our oldest son had just started college, while our younger son was in high school. They were both trying to figure out what manhood looked like. Then, there was our youngest daughter. She was 13 when her daddy was diagnosed. She is a natural peacemaker, which means she felt everyone else’s feelings on top of her own.

I still remember the day we were sitting around the dinner table and Alan was telling his sister of how he wrestled with the Lord about his healing. He worried about what would happen to us if he was called to Heaven.

Then, with supernatural peace, Alan told her the Father had reassured him He would and could take better care of us than Alan could possibly imagine doing himself.  My flesh wanted to say, “Wait! When did this conversation happen? I am not okay with this!” It wasn’t many months after that Alan did pass on to Heaven.

Grief is hard, beloved. It breaks your heart wide open and lays you bare. Open and empty for the beautiful work He wants to do. It laid our hearts open to hear his voice call us to move to a new state, and brought good changes that affected each one of us.

The ache in our hearts was real, like a big stone resting on my chest, even making breathing hard.  No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t lift it off.

Spring break started the weekend Alan left this earth. We took that opportunity to get away from the beds we couldn’t sleep in and the questions that followed us around town. The ocean was calling me with waves that reminded me my God is bigger than any storm.

It was the end of February, still too cold to swim but walking the beach kept my body moving. The sand between my toes reminded me that I was still living even though my heart was broken. The constant tide pulling the waves in and out shouted at me that life was moving on even if I felt stuck.

I never find unbroken sand dollars; Alan always did. He was much more patient than I was. That day as I walked along the beach looking on my right and left, I glanced down and in a pool of standing water I saw a small perfect sand dollar. I gently picked it up and held it high the rest of our time on the beach, carefully protecting its delicate beauty.

However, in the throes of washing off sandy feet, ordering lunch, holding Ava, my granddaughter, and going to the bathroom, I inadvertently stuck it in my pocket with another shell. You guessed it, it broke. I discovered it later when I was searching my pockets for something else. I wanted to weep but there were no tears.

As I picked the broken pieces out of my pocket trying to see if it could be pieced back together, the inside of the sand dollar turned up in my hand. The oh-so-tiny, but very present “dove of peace.”

Then the Lord reminded me that when beautiful things are broken there can still be peace in the midst of it all. How can this be so? Through God’s grace and by His word.

The fiercer the battle, dear ones, the more important it is to make sure our hearts our filled up with His truth.  When our hearts are wrung straight out in the pressing of our circumstances the truth of God is what spills out and it extinguishes the lies of the enemy. I have seen my heart spill out doubt and fear as well as joy in the mourning and trust that when I am weak He is strong.

Hebrews 4:12  says, “The word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.”

That walk on the beach may have been the beginning of God teaching me to “Lift up your eyes” to His presence but it hasn’t been the last. He will use anything in our path to reminds us, that His word can penetrate the deepest parts of our soul and spirit. Where there are lies, it will uproot them and plant truth. Where there is unbelief, it will pluck it up and plant faith. Where there is despair, it will cast it aside and plant hope.

So, join me dear one, in lifting your eyes, to the one who longs to reframe everything. Let Him be the lifter of your head and let Him take your broken things and  help you find peace in the midst of them.

 

Tara is a recent widow and mother to four children. She is Nana to Ava Rose and newborn, Aria Violette.  Walking through grief has brought Tara back to her first love, children’s literature. She is finishing up a children’s series and is committed to bringing hope to children and adults alike through her writing. Tara loves a good cup of coffee and bringing life to any space, but nothing tops being a mom and nana! Find her on Facebook and  Instagram.

 

 

Photo credit for sand dollar: johnkoetsier via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Are you on a grief journey? Check out these articles and my weekly Glorygram for more encouragement on your journey.

 

Learning the language of goodbyes with kids

Posted by | community, death, family life, finishing well, friendship, grief, Haiti, kids, parenting, relationships, Stories, transitions, world travel | 4 Comments

The original version of this article was published on my ministry blog, Gilmores for His Glory, on August 8, 2012.

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We have said a lot of goodbyes in our lifetime. Sometimes it feels like too many for my heart to bear. This is one of the sacrifices of building a life in two different countries and befriending people from around the world.

I still remember our first full summer in Haiti. My girls were so little. There hearts were so fragile. We kissed and cried in the Fresno airport when we said goodbye to grandparents and dear friends. Then we began our long journey to our new home in Haiti.

That summer my girls bonded with new Haitian friends and many Americans too. The kids at the orphanage next to our mission house became like siblings to them. They spent long afternoons jumping rope, eating mangoes and playing soccer. Each week a new American team would come to serve, and each Saturday we would stand in the driveway and send them off with hugs.

After they would leave, the girls and I would retreat to the bedroom. My mama instinct was to hold it together, but it wasn’t always easy. More often I would gather my little birds in my arms and we would cry together. We would lean into the loss.

Some of our closest friends live in Germany, the Philippines, Haiti, Florida and Maryland. We have cousins in Spain, Texas, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina and Washington. We visit and this necessitates goodbyes.

I used to wonder if all these goodbyes were too hard for my babies’ hearts, too hard for my heart. I strategized about ways to shield them from the sadness, the longing, and the wondering when we would meet again.

And I found myself asking God some hard questions:

Why must we always say goodbye?

Why risk loving someone deeply when parting will be inevitable?

Since that first hard summer in Haiti, my girls and I have endured many goodbyes, including perhaps the ultimate goodbye. On September 9, 2014, we stood at the bed beside my beloved husband and kissed him goodbye before he graduated to Heaven. It’s a goodbye that still sears my heart, that still makes me ache to my very core.

In this deep longing, I have dug up my answer about goodbyes.

I could draw back. I could avoid goodbyes altogether. I could keep to myself, shelter my kids from friends and family relationships. I could numb out. I could stay put, never travel, never follow my dreams.

I could turn my back on my calling.

I could keep my relationships surface so it doesn’t hurt so badly when people go away.

I could.

But is that what I really want for my life? Is that the mission? Are those the values I want to teach my kids?

Eventually, I realized that the sweet sorrow of goodbye is meaningful. I know the deepest love because I’ve risked that pain. My girls are learning to love well. Our time with people now is quality. And that is a risk worth taking.

I know Moise and Nella and Angeline and Dartiquenov and Cindy and Carla and Marcy and Jeremy deeply because I’ve said yes to the goodbyes. My kids love Gary and Rose Katia and Amanda and Esther and Corban and Hannah and Giovanni and Sophie because we’ve embraced goodbyes.

I can relate to the emotion-filled words of Paul in his letter to Timothy: “I miss you a lot, especially when I remember that last tearful good-bye, and I look forward to a joy-packed reunion.” (‭‭2 Timothy‬ ‭1:3-4‬ , The Message‬‬).

When life is full of goodbyes, life is so much richer.

Now we linger over our goodbyes. They are important to us. We’ve made them into see-you-soons and meet-you-theres.

We’ve promised texts and letters and blogs and photos and Facetime dates. And when we promise, we make that extra effort follow through.

My family has learned the language of goodbye. It’s a heart language. At the close of the summer, my heart is tired, but my heart is full.

We will keep traveling, and we will keep loving, and we will keep releasing our people gently into the Father’s arms for safe keeping.

Who have you said goodbye to this summer? How do you approach this sacred releasing of people? We would love to hear from you in the comments! 

Journey back to Haiti: Learning to Behold

Posted by | behold, grief, Haiti, hope, One Word, sharing faith, Stories, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The moment I set foot on the new tile in the church nestled in the mountains, I could feel the buzz. Wide-eyed, I scanned the crowd. There was an excitement among the women who gathered. They greeted me with smiles and kisses and enthusiastic hugs. Many of them have become dear friends over the years. This was the Esther Women’s conference in Pignon, Haiti – three days carved out each year to join hands and hearts, to sing and seek God together.

For me, this moment felt like coming full circle. My first-ever speaking engagement for a women’s retreat was here in this place six years before. Back then, I delivered one short message on friendship as a complement to the central teaching by my dear friend who was the keynote. Hands shaking and knees trembling, I stood before those ladies, and God planted a seed.

He wanted me to speak. He wanted to use my story.

Six years later, after much tragedy and triumph in my life, I stood before these ladies a transformed woman. My friend Rici from Fresno joined me to lead worship. My Haitian friend, Walquis, stood at my side. He was my first English student in 2002. What joy for him also to come full circle with me now working as my translator!

Is it any wonder that just as I started sharing about how we can see evidence of God’s glory in Creation that a tropical downpour began? The rain played a symphony on tin house roofs and danced outside the church windows. And we marveled at the glory of His Presence inside.

Some might see rain as a sign of a storm – something to fear or deter – but I encouraged the women to remember that in the rain there is provision and abundance. The rain nourishes the crops. The rain cools the air. The rain cleanses. The rain cultivates the soil of our hearts and builds resilience in each of us.

The women connected. They nodded and called out their response in amens.

I prayed for weeks that God would provide just the right illustrations that would reach out to the Haitian women and draw them into understanding. Behold, this was preaching with props included. Let it rain.

Back in January, I chose the word “behold” as my theme for this year. I’ve discovered it’s one of those words splattered across every book of the Bible but I rarely paid attention to it before. In fact, some versions of the Bible even edit it out. The original word “behold” in Aramaic is a verb that means “to see or witness.”

Starting in Genesis 1:31, there is a call to behold: “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.”

As I shared with my friends in Haiti at the conference, God took time to pause and see that all the things He made were good. We are called to do the same.

I see Him in the strong wings of the butterfly forged through pressure and metamorphosis.

I see Him in the brilliant red-orange flowers of the flamboyant tree providing shade for us in the yard.

I see Him in the eyes of my new husband, whom I met in Haiti more than 16 years ago on my first mission trip.

I talked with the women about how He is El Roi, the God who sees, named by a woman who endured much suffering and discovered great faith. Her name was Hagar.

In the Matthew 1:18-25, an angel of the Lord comes to Joseph and asks him also to see and witness. “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.”

That word “behold” precedes the most important announcement ever made – the coming of Emmanuel.

These last seven months I’ve been pressing in and God has been teaching me to behold. It requires I stop, look and listen. To behold is a call to slow, to rest, to marvel at how far God has brought us and trust He is working underground at all times.

On my recent trip to Haiti, I was called again and again to behold. I found myself beholding the progress and redemption I saw in this beautiful place I have called my home in the past.

I witnessed God at work as now a third generation of Haitians are rising up to lead the churches and ministry there. My late husband’s grandparents were pioneer missionaries in these parts in the 1940s. What joy to see the young people carry this torch and continue the legacy with the blessing of their elders!

I witnessed God at work as some of the women who were once on the fringes of this community were now helping lead the conference, cook the food and serve the other women of the church.

I witnessed God at work in the young people who were once fragile, malnourished children I interviewed to bring into the orphanages. Now they are confident and compassionate teenagers contributing to their community and their church. They are dreaming about future careers – a mark of lives transformed.

I witnessed God at work in my three daughters who embrace Haiti and its people as their own, who carry on the passion of their late father who grew up visiting Haiti.

My challenge and encouragement to you today is to ask yourself these key questions: How can God use your story? What are you beholding today?

Beholding beckons us to awake to the wonder of serving Him.The night before the closing session of the women’s conference, I paused with my family to pray. I had some ideas about the last message I would share but I wanted to hear from God. I wanted to listen to where He might specifically lead.

I slept well that night, went for a sunrise run, and then slipped into the church as the women began singing. I knew the finale of this conference must be about beholding God’s glory in community. I shared about how God had provided abundantly for my daughters and me after the death of my husband Ericlee.

And I unfolded the story of how God brought my new husband Shawn out of the fold of our community. It’s a story I never could have crafted or illustrated myself. The women recognized it too. They giggled and clapped. They lifted hands to the heavens with me. And that’s what beholding is all about. It’s stepping back to savor the wild painting the Master artist is in the process of creating. It’s pausing to see how He is “making all things new.”

Beholding calls us to chase His glory in every day. Won’t you join me?

 

Community life insurance: The greatest investment you’ll ever make

Posted by | community, compassion, grief, hope, marriage, Personal Stories, Stories, struggle | 6 Comments

This year my family has faced the most beautiful and painful season of our lives. My husband was diagnosed with stage four melanoma cancer in May. The news came like a sucker-punch to the gut, but it was no surprise to God. In the weeks that followed, we experienced God’s presence and provision in the most profound way and I began to understand how critical community is to our lives.

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Running therapy: how grief crashes like ocean waves

Posted by | brave, courage, death, fear, finishing well, hope, running, Stories, struggle | One Comment

 

The ocean has always been my happy place. Ever since I was a little girl I have found refuge near the water’s edge. There’s something about the crash of the waves, the salty air tickling my tongue and the breathtaking sunsets that draws poetry out of me.

I have run over a diversity of terrains these last few years but Saturday was my first time running an actual race on the beach. I participated in the “Rock’n Around the Pier” Half Marathon from Morro Rock to Cayucos Pier. I found out this memorial run was started to honor runner and teacher Brian Waterbury who died of melanoma cancer in 2003. This out-and-back trail run was quite literally on the hard-packed sand along the Pacific Ocean.

We rode a charter bus with about 35 friends from our Fresno running club, The Express. When we disembarked the bus, we were greeted by the misty, cool air of the Central Coast. This was a welcome contrast to the temperatures that have soared in the triple digits this month in the Central Valley. Fog seeped over the hills and spilled out over the ocean, creating an ethereal mood at the start of this race.

I generally run with my ear buds pumping a carefully-curated playlist of music but there was no need for music when all creation was singing to me. The waves, the wind, the birds. We weaved through kelp, crunched over sand dollars, avoided crabs and leapt rivulets of water.

“Make the race your playground, not your proving ground,” says Lauren Fleshman, a former American track and field athlete. This quote holds particular weight for me. Although I am competitive by nature and training, I have come to experience running as a kind of grief therapy.

When I am running, I feel free. I dig deep and God breathes healing.

My play was interrupted Saturday by two back-to-back phone calls. One from my mom, and one from my brother. I’m not in the habit of answering the phone when running but two phone calls from family alerted me that something might be wrong. My brother let me know that my uncle had died.

Just last week we received word that my 31-year-old cousin died of a heart attack in her sleep. My mom attended memorial services last month for her dear aunt, a close friend and a former student. Our family has experienced so much loss in such a short time.

Of course, these losses stand against a backdrop of losing my husband in 2014 to melanoma cancer. When you’ve experienced this depth of loss, any future losses tend to stir up old grief wounds.

A symphony of waves crashed at my side while waves of grief crashed anew in my heart. This was grief upon grief. It’s hard not to live in fear when grief stacks up. It’s hard not to let your mind wander to the next tragedy, to get beaten down by anticipation of the next death.

Then my feet hit the soft sand. I was running but getting nowhere fast. I found myself gasping for air – the anxiety rising up to choke me. My chest burned. The salty air stung my eyes. The tears started to come. I had to slow my steps to steady my breathing again.

In through the nose, out through the mouth. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale.

I felt like Moses and the Israelites standing in the darkness before the Red Sea. “…and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided” (Exodus 14:21). God was working through my darkness to hold back this sea of grief. If He could harness the wind and these ocean waves, He could surely help me navigate these rough waters.

Then I saw my husband Shawn. He had finished the race and returned looking for me. I felt the hope rising. I found the rhythm of my feet again. I strained and squinted for that arch that marked the finish. Shawn kept telling me it was there but I couldn’t make out the black letters through the mist.

I could see the Great Rock – Morro Rock – rising glorious and majestic before me, and I ran toward it. The words of the Psalmist were suddenly on my lips: “My rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God” (Psalms 62:6-7).

Are you being drowned by waves of grief? Are you squinting through the mist for a finish line? I encourage you to run toward the Rock. The waves of grief will come and go, ebb and flow, but the Rock will provide that refuge.

Finally, I saw it. I picked up the pace. I felt my strength and fight returning. My feet kicked to the next gear. I ran for the finish line. And just beyond towered the Rock.

**Are you navigating a grief journey? Could you use some words of encouragement? I’d love to add you to my Glorygram list, which includes a weekly dose of courage and recommendations. Read more about my Grief Journey here.

Book Review: Remarkable Faith

Posted by | behold, book reviews, hope, identity, inspirational, sharing faith, Stories, writing | 2 Comments

 

I have always loved stories. Even from the time I was a little girl, I have been enthralled with the power of story. When I was in the throes of my elementary school years, my family attended a little neighborhood church on the south side of Chicago. I was always eager to get to Sunday School class. There were not a lot of bells and whistles. We didn’t have a fancy worship band or videos with animated Bible characters to capture our attention.

We did have two teachers who were gifted storytellers.

Every week, these teachers would take turns unfolding the details of the Bible. I was filled with wonder when I heard about the ark-builders and giant-slayers, but I was also drawn to the “quieter stories.” I was intrigued by the woman who gave her copper coins in the offering, which was a sacrifice of all she owned. I could not get enough of the stories about Jesus. I was captivated by the way he talked to the woman at the well and washed his disciples’ dirty feet.

These were not just stories to me, but examples with skin on them that eventually led me to deepen my young faith.

 

When I opened Shauna Letellier’s recently-released book, Remarkable Faith, I was filled anew with childlike wonder over the Bible stories. Like a master storyteller, Shauna draws us into eight Bible stories of “unremarkable” people who went to great lengths to get to Jesus. As a result of their faith, Jesus healed them and used them as examples of remarkable faith.

I was immediately drawn into this book because of the way Shauna reimagines these stories in such a vivid and historically accurate way. She helped me to feel the exhaustion of the father whose son was demon-possessed, to understand the wrestling in the mind of the paralyzed man, to appreciate the response of the noble centurion who counted himself not even worthy to take Jesus’ time and to see the courage of the blind beggars who called out for healing.

This is not typically the genre of book I would pursue but Shauna makes me think outside of the box. Shauna doesn’t just retell the story. She invites us to see, hear, smell, taste and touch the nuances of the culture and experience the world through the eyes of the characters.

I also appreciated her commentary after each story. Her words invite me to think about the implications of faith highlighted by each character. In her chapter on “Unworthy Faith,” I was especially challenged by these words:

“Whether you have built a synagogue, an orphanage, or a fine Christian reputation, you cannot earn God’s favor. God’s grace to us in Christ is a gift! … We cannot place God in our service by stockpiling good deeds and dangling them before him as a currency, as though we hold the carrot that makes him do our bidding.”

What a powerful reminder!

My favorite chapter in Remarkable Faith unfolds the story of the hemorrhaging woman in Mark 5 and her “suffering faith.” Readers are invited into the depths of this woman’s story. She was not only bleeding for more than 12 years, but she was also an outcast in her community because she was considered unclean. She was alienated from her family and likely taken advantage of by doctors. Shauna’s description of her healing is visceral and dramatic. We cannot help but rejoice and worship with her.

Whether you have read these stories many times in the Bible or you are new to them, I highly recommend Shauna’s Letellier’s book, Remarkable Faith. It’s a good read that offers a fresh perspective on faith through the lens of the Bible.

 

**If you love books, we need to be friends. I’d love to slip my Glorygram into your box each week with recommendations for my fave reads. You can also check out my other book reviews here. As always, leave your comments below, especially if you are interested in Shauna Letellier’s book or have your own take on it!