Lessons From Loss

Turner would have been five years old this year. Starting kindergarten this fall. That feels significant, monumental, impossible.  We went to dinner with some friends tonight to celebrate, to remember, to grasp at something tangible of him. We were listening to “Praise Him in This Storm” as we drove, as it rained. I know God didn’t send those few minutes of rain during those precise few minutes of song for me and only me, but sometimes it’s hard to not to wonder. Casting Crowns sings,

“I’ll praise you in this storm, and I will lift my hands,

For you are who You are no matter where I’ve been,

And every tear I’ve cried You hold in Your hands,

You’re always by my side, and though my heart is worn

I will praise You in this storm.”

God must have some mighty big hands. Hands that span five years’ worth of tears. I’ve learned a lot of lessons from loss over these past five years. I have to think about what I have learned often; otherwise I might go crazy from the tragedy of it all.

In college, I used to write a monthly newsletter for our college group, and in every issue I included a top ten list of some kind. It usually had to do with something pretty trivial, but it always brought me a lot of joy. My beloved youth pastor even incorporated a top ten list into his message for Jeremy’s and my wedding. And back when I was an overachieving young mom, I wrote an annual Christmas letter in top ten list form. This is my top ten list of lessons from loss thus far, with the obligatory disclaimer “in no particular order.” Here’s what five years without the boy who was supposed to be mine has gotten me. Some of it’s good, some of it’s not, but all of it’s been given to me in this wild, tangled, Turner gift.

1) Anxiety with a capital angst. I would have never classified myself as easygoing, but before Turner, I was pretty convinced of my invincibility. And the invincibility of those around me. I wasn’t a helicopter mom. If my kids could climb up it, I felt ok with them falling off it. If they ate something that had been on the ground, I chalked it up to bolstering immunity. I trusted people, trusted the world, trusted God. But once I experienced tragedy firsthand, everything came to be viewed through the lens of catastrophe. Five years of sleepless nights, terrified that the next catastrophe is around the corner and that I will experience this level of pain and loss again. I joke that you can tell where I’m at emotionally by peeking at my Google search history: symptoms of meningitis, children kidnapped on cruise ships, signs of ___ cancer, how does the Ebola virus spread. It would be funny if it weren’t so stinkin’ sad and exhausting.

2) Crazy love. It is almost painful to think, feel and talk about how deeply and generously we have been loved throughout this process. Family who labored with me through Turner’s birth; friends who visited and prayed with us in the hospital when it was awkward and uncomfortable; people who asked us how we were doing and meant it; meals, cards, prayers, flowers, gifts, time from doctors, nurses, funeral home directors, acquaintances, church members, family and friends. People who wept with us, walked with us, wowed us with amazing, unfathomable, crazy love. This kind of love is the closest I’ve ever been to understanding the magnitude and nature of God’s love. It was that close to being utterly divine.

3) A PhD in griefology. Grief is a worthy opponent, unmatched in strength, stealth, and ferocity. It’s abstract, unstable, unpredictable, and inconvenient. It’s inexplicable, contradictory, merciless and relentless. It’s more of an exhausting zig-zag than it is circular or linear. It rears its ugly head at the most inopportune times and often leaves as quickly and unexpectedly as it came. And it seems its work is never fully done. But grief is also an unlikely friend. It’s healthy, healing and necessary. It confronts that which you seek to avoid, it demands exposure of that which is left in the dark, it is unconventional in its methods but uncontested in its results. It is a hard teacher, but never cruel. It will drag you to the darkest depths but it won’t leave you there forever. As cliché as it sounds, the only way out is through. And the heart of grief is to take you through.

4) A physiological need for the ocean. I don’t know if it’s the immeasurable vastness and unplumbable depths that are so reminiscent of God’s character, or how it is the quintessential metaphor for grief, but time at the ocean brings healing in ways nothing else can. Maybe it’s the way grief crashes in violent waves against the shore of my soul, pulling pieces of the pain away droplets at a time as the water recedes. Or that, though massive, it is still finite and makes the massiveness of my loss feel less infinite. I like to imagine Turner’s little hand in mine as we swim away from the shore and meet Jesus on the other side. He is safe there and I know he will be taken care of. Maybe it’s the wind that reminds me of the Holy Spirit, the great Comforter, that even though I can’t see Him, I can see His work, and I know He is near. I picture myself as a jagged rock, being smoothed and polished by the force and power of that which is far greater than I can comprehend or see.

5) Winter in the spring. Every February, I feel it coming. The heaviness, the darkness are a little heavier, a little darker. And then a lot. No matter what I tell myself or how I feel leading up to this season, February marks the beginning of what feels like a slow, agonizing march towards death. I don’t have to endure the physical pain of a truly terrible pregnancy or the excruciating agony of giving birth but the emotional ask is far worse. My soul has been branded by this season and there’s no escaping it. Every step between the middle of February and May 15 feels more impossible than the last and by the time I arrive, I am done. It’s a miracle I survived.

6) Empathy, empathy and more empathy. One of the truly blessed secrets as a member of the sisterhood of suffering is your heart is torn open all at once and it bleeds for everyone. Everybody is somebody’s child and that is how you see them. When others are hurting, I don’t have to imagine their pain: I know it. This is potentially the greatest gift I have been given in this loss: the capacity to feel with people instead of just for them.

7) Woulda-coulda-shouldas. To not question what might have been is impossible. To not wonder or wish or want. To not regret. Always longing for a chance to do over, to be clearer about what had been happening in my body…maybe it would have been different. To have let Parker see and hold his brother so that he could live without regrets…it could have been different. To watch the Dragon and the Cowboy delight the world in epic brotherhood….it should have been different. I can know that I know what I know, all the rightness, goodness, purity, and truth that God is sovereign and is weaving together an incredible story for His perfect plan…and still have all the what-ifs lingering in the dark recesses of my mind.

8) The good enough. When you’re me, and you’re living through the loss of a child, and you feel as if everyone is watching you, there’s a temptation to do everything right. That’s my nice way of saying I often felt I could not express the depth of my sadness or anger or fear or doubt. As if God was incapable of handling all of those things He already knew I was feeling. As if somehow I were superhuman. Then I read the story of the death of Lazarus and how Jesus traveled to be with his grieving family. And they greeted him with doubts and fear and anger and sadness, questioning His plan, too consumed by their loss to think, act or speak with pretense. And He wept with them. He didn’t admonish them for not trusting His plan, although He knew the plan hadn’t yet reached completion. He didn’t rebuke them for questioning Him, blaming Him, expressing their dissatisfaction with Him, although He knew all the details of the miracle He was about to perform. He didn’t shame or reject or distance Himself or condemn. He wept. He sat with them in their grief and He wept and went on to miraculously raise Lazarus from the dead. And He weeps with me. And then does the miracle.

9) A fear of God. More of a terror really. In February of 2010, pregnant with Turner, I sat in the chapel of our church and mourned the shocking death of a dear friend’s young husband. I saw God working in that. And I was tired of my spiritual famine. And I asked God for a revival in my heart. If I had known then what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have asked. In my mind, that revival came at an unbearable cost and now leaves me paralyzed with the fear that closeness with God comes at a price that I cannot afford. It is a moment by moment battle to combat these feelings with truth, to view God for who He truly is rather than the demanding punisher I can make Him in my mind. My hope is that someday the faith will be far greater than the fear.

10) My kids have experienced death. Seeing my kids process death, talk about it, understand it, offer empathy to those hurt by it…those are priceless gifts that only come from experience. They have witnessed in a very tangible way how brokenness leads to healing, how death precedes new life. Without the death of Turner, there is no life of Shaeffer, and that is an abiding joy that none of us can imagine living without. A sweet song says “roots grow deep where wind is strong”, and the Turner tornado we survived together has plunged our family roots into unfathomable depths.

So there it is. Not all that I’ve learned. But some. Enough. I hope it gives a glimpse of the profound gratitude and loss that has come from being Turner’s mom. It’s a gift I love and hate all at once. And I’m thankful to share it with you all.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Karen Castello
    Oct 21, 2015 @ 17:12:39

    I spent some time last night reading your blog. Your writing is beautiful Alyssa. You have a way with words and for bringing your readers into your experiences. Thank you for sharing. XOXO


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