Saturday, July 9, 2016

Preparing a Place ... With Eager Anticipation

So, it looks like it's been a little over three months since my last post.  Believe me when I say I haven't been sitting beside a pool somewhere eating bonbons over the past three months.  No, I've been working beside Brad, Larry, Janice, and a host of wonderful volunteers as we labor to get the While We're Waiting Refuge for Bereaved Parents completed by mid-October, when we'll be hosting our first weekend retreat there.

The work, while often hot, dirty, and exhausting, is also exhilarating.  We've been spending a lot of time recently working on preparing the ten bedrooms for our guests.

First there was the framing ...

Then came the caulking ...

Then the insulating ...

Then came the drywall ...

Followed by priming ...

And finally, the fun part ... painting!  Each guest room is a different color, which makes it feel more like a home than a hotel ...

We can't wait to get furniture in these rooms (after we get the flooring installed, of course!), and then comes the really fun part ... decorating them!  We have plans for each room to have its own personality, and to feel warm and welcoming to those who will be staying in them at our retreats.  We can already envision moms and dads walking up and down the hallway, choosing the room that best "fits" them for the weekend.  Our desire is to have special little touches in each room which will bring comfort and encouragement to hurting parents.  There are times when we get positively giddy as we discuss our plans for these rooms.

The anticipation of meeting these moms and dads for the first time, of seeing their eyes light up as they choose their special room for the weekend, of watching as their burden becomes a little less heavy as they set down their physical and emotional baggage, of seeing a smile play around their lips for perhaps the first time in awhile ... These are the things that drive us as we labor in preparing this place.

* * * * * *

Last month, I participated in an online Bible study with several other moms who have children in Heaven.  It was a Precept Bible study called, "Heaven, Hell, and Life After Death."  It was an excellent study, and it was a great experience to discuss these truths with other moms for whom these concepts are more than just vague thoughts for the future ... they are critical truths about which they think every day.  

The last lesson of the series focused primarily on Heaven.  One of the passages we discussed was John 14:1-3:

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.  In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also."

I've probably read those verses more times than I can count.  But they have never struck me like they did that day.  Maybe because I've been spending so much time preparing rooms lately!

It got me to wondering ... I wonder if Jesus is preparing our rooms in Heaven with as much eager anticipation as we are preparing the rooms for our guests at the Refuge?  

As Hannah's life was nearing its earthly end, was He excitedly saying to His Father, "Hey Dad, that Hannah Joy Sullivan will be coming soon, and I can't wait until she gets here!  I've got her room all ready for her ... It's painted her favorite color and I've got some sunflowers in a vase in the corner for her.  There are some pictures of her family and friends on the dresser, and a whole plate full of Spudnuts for her to snack on.  I can't wait to see her face when she sees what I've prepared for her ... I sure hope she likes it!"  

Theologically sound?  Maybe not.  

Is it possible, though?  Maybe.  I like to think so.  He calls us His children, and what good father isn't excited about preparing something special for his children?  

Well ... time to get back to work preparing rooms ... October will be here before we know it!!

* * * * * *

If you have experienced the loss of a child, and would like more information about the While We're Waiting ministry and the bereaved parent retreats we offer, click HERE to go to our website.  

If you'd like to connect with us on Facebook, click HERE to follow our public page (open to anyone) and HERE to request to join our closed group (open only to bereaved parents).  

If you'd like to follow the construction progress of the While We're Waiting Refuge for Bereaved Parents, click HERE for our Refuge Facebook page.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Monday Mourning - Anytime I Want ...

A few nights ago, I had what is a very rare experience for me.  I had a dream about Hannah.

In the seven years since Hannah went Home, I can easily count the number of dreams I've had about her on just a few fingers ... and they haven't all been good.

This was a good one.

I'm not going to share a lot of the details, because I really can't.  The dream was very clear when I first woke up, but became rather muddled as the day went by.  I finally sat down and wrote out a few of the details before it left me completely.

The basic gist of the dream was that after all these years of believing Hannah had died of cancer, we suddenly discovered that she had not actually died.  She had been in some sort of terrible car accident and had been critically injured.  For the last seven years, she had been living with another family who was providing her with some sort of specialized care.

This family lived locally, so Brad and I raced to their house and miracle of miracles, there she was!  She was sitting up in bed and was absolutely radiant.  She could not walk, but otherwise seemed completely healthy.  We talked for what seemed like hours (though I can't remember a bit of our conversation!) and then it was time for us to go.  We hugged her goodbye and I could feel the texture of her long, thick, curly hair in the dream.  This was remarkable because the last time I hugged her here on earth she had only a little baby-fine hair growing back after discontinuing her chemotherapy treatments. Then it was time to leave.

But our departure wasn't sad!

It was clear that the couple who was caring for her loved her and were giving her excellent care.  They were very warm and welcoming to us and said as we left, "You can come back to see her anytime you want to."

I replied incredulously, "I can come anytime I want?  Can I come back tomorrow?"

They laughed and said, "Yes!  You can come back tomorrow and the next day and the next day ... Anytime you want!"

Oh, the joy that filled my soul as I began to grasp that I would be able to see Hannah anytime I wanted to!  I can't even describe it.  It didn't even matter to me that Hannah wasn't coming home with us ... it was enough just to know that I could see her anytime I wanted to.

That joy was still there when I woke up, tempered just a little by the realization that it was just a dream.  The very thought of being able to see Hannah anytime I want to causes joy to swell in my chest even as I write this post.

The feeling of awe stuck with me throughout that day.  It made me think about what our lives might be like in Heaven, where I finally really will be able to see Hannah anytime I want.

I have another daughter here on earth, who is married and lives in the same town as we do.  Since Bethany no longer lives in our home, I don't see her every day, but I literally can see her any time I want.  Even if we lived across the country from each other, I could still see her any time I wanted to ... I could hop on a plane and be there in a few hours, or thanks to modern technology, we can FaceTime or Skype.

Maybe that's how it will be in Heaven, too.  Hannah will have her own place, and Bethany and her husband will have their own place, and we can all see each other anytime we want.  Not that I think we're just going to be sitting around the pool sipping sweet tea together at our respective mansions all the time ... Oh, no.  I believe we'll be worshiping, working, and serving God side-by-side with the multitudes.

But ... I also believe I'll be able to see my girls anytime I want.  And my joy will indeed be complete.

If you have experienced the loss of a child, and would like to get connected to a faith-based ministry which serves bereaved parents, click here for more information about While We're Waiting.

Photo credit: ✿ indecisive via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Thoughtful Thursday - Good-bye Southside

When we lived in El Dorado, Arkansas, our girls attended a magnificent old school called Southside Elementary.  It was built in 1926, and it was an absolute treasure ... at least to those of us whose children attended there.  It was like a school you might see in an old movie, with gleaming wooden floors and stairs that were literally grooved from the footsteps of countless numbers of children.

It was the kind of school where the janitor always sang in the Christmas program, where the first grade teacher had a genuine dentist chair in her classroom and pulled her students' baby teeth, where veterans were honored and hallways were filled with brightly-colored student artwork.

It's where Bethany's kindergarten teacher wrote on her report card, "I love you more than purple," and where she was disciplined for thumping the little boy sitting behind her in the head.  It's where she played the role of teacher in the end-of-kindergarten performance and a pilgrim in the first grade Thanksgiving play.  It's where she had her Most Embarrassing Moment, and was hiding in the bushes when I came to pick her up after school that day.

It's where Hannah read so many Babysitter's Club books that she broke every Accelerated Reader record there was and where she met her best friend Brittany.  It's where she became involved in Odyssey of the Mind and won so many spelling bees her teacher finally asked her not to participate.  It's where she got stuck in "The Big Toy" on the playground and had to be freed by a team of custodians.

It's where I picked up the girls on the afternoon of 9/11 and wondered how to tell them that the world had forever changed.

Southside officially closed its doors at the end of Bethany's second grade year and Hannah's fifth grade year.  There was an assembly where all of us Southside families sang, "Good-bye, Southside," and shed lots of tears.  But the building remained standing, and there was talk of making it into something else ... maybe a cultural center or something.  And after we moved, every time we visited El Dorado, we would take time to drive through that part of town, just to see the old building and reminisce fondly.  It was that kind of school.

Yesterday, Hannah's friend Brittany posted this picture on Facebook and my heart just sank...

It's just a school.  Just a dilapidated old building in a blighted neighborhood.

So much has changed since Hannah went to Heaven seven years ago this month.  We now live in a different house and drive new vehicles.  We no longer have the jobs we had when she was here, and we no longer have our dog.  Bethany is married and no longer lives at home.  Our focus in life is completely different than it was seven years ago.  We are involved in a type of ministry we would never have dreamed we would need ourselves back when our girls were students at Southside and all was right in the world.

It's just an old school building ... but it's another physical tie to Hannah that's now gone.  And that makes me a little melancholy on this thoughtful Thursday.

I'm so thankful that this world is not all there is, and that I'm tied to Hannah by an indestructible cord of love that will last for all eternity.  What a treasure I have in Heaven!  And that's a tremendous comfort while I'm waiting.

"Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."  Matthew 6:19-21 ESV

"For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens."  II Corinthians 5:1 ESV

Monday, January 18, 2016

Monday Mourning -- Sucker Punch

Definition:  suck·er punch
noun  1.  an unexpected punch or blow.
verb  1.  hit (someone) with an unexpected punch or blow.  "Joe sucker-punched him and knocked him out"

This February will mark seven years since Hannah went to Heaven after a year-long battle with brain cancer.  In the early months after her homegoing, life in general felt like one gigantic sucker punch. As time went on, the sucker punches became fewer and farther between, and now they occur only rarely.

And then there was yesterday.

For the last several Sundays, we've had a video presentation early in the service highlighting one ministry of the church.  This Sunday was the youth ministry.

The video consisted of several youth group "alumni", now young adults, each of whom shared what God was doing in their lives and how their time in the youth group had prepared them for what they are doing now.  There were those who had been called by God to be worship leaders, those who had been called by God to attend seminary, those who had been called to by God to serve on the mission field, those who had been called by God to work with youth themselves, etc.  All these fresh young faces, brimming with anticipation and excitement about their future.  So much hope, so much expectancy, so much joy.  It's wonderful to see these young adults who are serving the Lord with such zeal.

But all I could see was the person who was missing.  These were Hannah's peers, the "kids" she had gone on mission trips with, the ones she hung out with on Wednesday and Sunday nights, the ones who attended Disciple Now weekends with her.  Yet she was not in the video, because she died when she was 17, before she ever had the opportunity to graduate high school, go to college, experience the call of God on her life.

Hannah should have been a part of that video.  She should have been flashing her trademark smile as she shared excitedly about how God had called her to be a teacher, or a missionary, or ... who knows what?

I'm one of the sign language interpreters at our church, and I happened to be the one interpreting these video vignettes.  When the video ended, my head and hands moved on, but my heart didn't.  I couldn't shake the fact that Hannah wasn't in that video, and she should have been!

That sucker punch still rankled throughout the day yesterday.  My girl should have been in that video ... but she wasn't.

But slowly, slowly God began to remind me that He did have a call on Hannah's life.  It was a different call than that of the young adults featured in the video, but it was certainly no less of a call than theirs.  What if He had called her to become a teacher or a missionary ... Would her life have had as much of an impact for His kingdom if she had become one of those things?   Or did see the bigger picture for her life, and in His loving sovereignty, call her Home early?

I still wish she had been in that video.  Oh, how I wish she had been in that video.


But I choose to rest in the knowledge that she lived well, she finished well, and she fulfilled God's call for her life in a way that makes this Mama proud.

"And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast."  I Peter 5:10

Photo credit: tim caynes via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC

Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Year's Resolutions for Bereaved Parents

As bereaved parents, we know that some days are going to be difficult ... our child's birthday, their Heaven Day, Christmas, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Thanksgiving, etc.  But another time that can be just as hard (or harder) is New Year's.

For some, there may be a sense of relief that a painful year is coming to an end, but for most, the thought of facing their first (or yet another) whole year without a precious child can be incredibly difficult.

I've never been much of a New Year's resolutions kind of person, but a few years back I put together a list of ten resolutions for myself that I like to review each year about this time.  I've posted these before, but I've tweaked them just a little bit and thought I'd share them again.

1.  I resolve to ... Look forward to the future and not spend time agonizing over the "If Onlys". These things are in the past, they cannot be changed, and it is a waste of my time and energy to be consumed by them.  These thoughts draw me away from doing the things God wants me to be doing today.  And I believe that it dishonors both my child and my Lord when I remain stuck in the past and refuse to move forward.

2.  I resolve to ... Extend grace to those who inadvertently add to my pain by making well-meaning, but inappropriate comments.  And I refuse to replay those hurtful words over and over in my mind, thinking about all the things I could have or should have said, that would have put them in their place.  I will remember that I, too, have said unintentionally hurtful things in my own clumsy attempts to comfort others.

3.  I resolve to ... Extend grace to those who avoid me, or who are clearly uncomfortable talking to me about my child.  They're just afraid.  They don't want to add to my pain, so it's easier just to steer clear of me.  I will remember that I have been that person, too.

4.  I resolve to ... Help others understand what I need from them.  If I need to talk about my child, I'll explain to them that it helps me to talk about her, even if it does make me cry.  If I need to be alone for awhile, I'll ask them to respect my solitude.  If I just don't have the energy for chit-chat and smiles, I'll explain to them why.  If I need to celebrate holidays in a different way, I'll discuss it with them ahead of time.  If I don't know what I need (which happens a lot!), I'll even tell them that.

 5.   I resolve to ... Be patient with myself.  Grief takes time ... much more time than I ever realized before.  I will give myself all the time I need, and not try to rush it (even though others may try to rush me along).  I will be gentle and kind to myself and the fellow grievers in my household.

6.  I resolve to ... Find some joy in every day.  There's a difference between happiness and joy.  Happiness is dependent upon circumstances, and happiness can be pretty scarce sometimes.  But joy is God-given, and it is possible to still have joy even in the worst of circumstances.  And it doesn't have to come from big things.  It can be found in little things ... dew on a spiderweb, the sight of your favorite pet greeting you at your doorway, the sparkle of sunshine on the water, the feeling of pulling on a pair of new warm socks on a cold day.  I resolve to look for and appreciate those things.

7.  I resolve to ... Be grateful for the 17 1/2 years I had with Hannah.  I would rather have had her and lost her than to never have had her in my life at all.  And when I consider the fact that I haven't really "lost" her, but in fact, I will spend eternity with her ... the gratitude just overflows.

8.  I resolve to ... Recognize and rebuff the attacks of Satan.  He knows that I'm vulnerable right now, and he would like nothing more than to destroy my witness and to tear my family apart.  He wants me to believe his lies -- that I'm somehow responsible for my child's death; that God is punishing me for some sin; that if only I had had more faith or if I had prayed more, my child would still be here today.  I refuse to allow Satan to have a foothold in my life.

9.  I resolve to ... Depend upon what I know to be true about God, and not on what my feelings are telling me.  So much of the time, my feelings and emotions are completely out of control and unpredictable.  I can laugh and cry and be angry and happy all at the same time.  I can be fine one minute, and sobbing the next.  And I may not even know what triggered the meltdown.  My feelings will lie to me (See #8), but God's Word always tells me the truth.  To keep this resolution, I must spend time with Him, and be intentional in prayer and Bible study.

10.  I resolve to ... Remember that I can do none of these things on my own.  I have no power within myself to keep even one of these resolutions.  It helps to talk to other moms and dads who understand what it's like to miss your child so desperately.  It's great to know that I'm not alone in this thing ... that I'm not the only one who struggles with these things.  But even more than having the support of other bereaved parents, it is critical that I lean on my Heavenly Father for strength.  Because it is only in Him that I can find the strength to keep these resolutions.

"And He has said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.' Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong."  II Corinthians 12: 9-11 (NASB)

Friday, December 25, 2015

Never-Ending Christmas

Hannah Joy, Christmas 1992
Do you remember being a little kid on Christmas morning? The excitement of tearing into those presents with the shiny paper and sparkling bows?  The thrill of new toys, games, clothes, books?  Do you also remember that feeling of disappointment when the last gift was opened and Christmas was "over"?  I don't know about you, but I always looked carefully around the tree to make sure there wasn't just one more gift that maybe I had overlooked.  After all, I had looked forward to this day all. year. long.  It couldn't be over already!  And do you remember how quickly the newness wore off of the things that brought so much excitement under the Christmas tree?  It wasn't long before they were broken, or used up, or grown out of, or simply weren't cool anymore.  The "after" of Christmas can feel very empty.

The things, the experiences, the stuff of this world will never satisfy.  That's because we were made for another world.

Where the shine never wears off because Christmas never ends.

Where every day is better than the one before.

Where all our tears will be wiped away.

Where all that was so very wrong in this world has been made right.

Where every empty place is filled and every broken heart is mended.

Where we will sit at the feet of Jesus with our loved ones beside us (or maybe even in our laps).

And we'll never have to worry about it being "over", because it will last forever.

All because God stooped down, reached into our world, and was born as a baby in the humility of a stable.

Grace beyond imagination.

Mercy beyond merit.

Hope beyond all expectation.

Love so exquisite we cannot even begin to comprehend.

"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men."  Philippians 2:5-7 ESV

Thank you, Jesus.

Monday, December 7, 2015

You Might Be A Bereaved Parent ...

We bought a much-needed new car this past summer ... a Nissan Pathfinder.  Our 2007 Toyota Camry had served us well, but with over 220,000 miles on it, we just couldn't trust it for long distance trips anymore.  And as the While We're Waiting ministry continues to grow and we spend more time on the road, something bigger was needed to haul all our "stuff" around.

Our purchase included a free trial of Sirius satellite radio, and we enjoyed it while it lasted.  One station that I particularly enjoyed was one that featured brief comedy routines by stand-up comics.  As I chuckled along with Jeff Foxworthy doing one of his "You Might Be a Redneck" routines, I began to wonder what a "You Might Be a Bereaved Parent" list might include.

Here's some of what I came up with ...

If you've ever laughed and cried in the same ten-second time period, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever put an article of your child's clothing in a zip-loc bag because it smells like your child, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever left an empty Coke can sitting in one place for months (or years) because it was the last thing your child drank, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you ever find yourself seeking out a seat at the end of the aisle and close to the door so you can leave a church service/concert/ball game/school event/graduation/baby shower quickly, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever cried through an entire church service/concert/ball game/school event/graduation/baby shower, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you still have your child's phone number stored in your cell phone even though you personally canceled his phone service, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever called your child's phone number, knowing she wouldn't answer, but you just couldn't help yourself, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever been dumbfounded by the insignificant things people complain about on Facebook, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever smiled and said, "Fine" when someone asked, "How are you doing?" even though it was a lie, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever tried to run away from Christmas, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever wanted to throat punch someone who said, "At least you have other children," "God must have needed him in Heaven," "You can always have another baby," or some other such nonsense, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever had to restrain yourself from typing a snarky comment to a parent bemoaning their child's first day of kindergarten/high school graduation/week away at summer camp on Facebook, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever typed a snarky comment to a parent bemoaning their child's first day of kindergarten/high school graduation/week away at summer camp on Facebook, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever stuttered around on your response when asked, "How many children do you have?" you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever lied when asked "How many children do you have?" because you just couldn't deal with the deer-in-the-headlights look at that particular moment, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever choked when the waitress asks, "How many?", you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever gotten out 4 plates for dinner and had to put one back, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever avoided an entire aisle at the grocery store because it contains your child's favorite food, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever slept with your child's hairbrush/stuffed animal/pillow, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever dreaded having a family picture taken, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever been moved to unquenchable tears when singing a song about Heaven, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever found yourself marking time by "before" and "after", you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever looked at a picture of yourself "before" and wondered who that person is, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever wondered if/how to plan a birthday party for someone who's not going to be there, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever been told, "You're so strong ... I could never be that strong," and you know that you're really not strong at all, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever heard, "I don't know how you do it," and you don't know how you do it either, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever had to make absolutely unthinkable decisions at a time when you're least prepared to make them, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever found yourself feeling completely alone in a crowd of people you once knew very well, maybe even your own family, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever wished you could just completely disappear during a particular month or months, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever been left gasping when someone posts a picture of your child that you've never seen before on Facebook, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever felt grief so heavy that it was literally difficult to sit upright, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever been jealous of older people because they're probably going to get to Heaven before you do, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you've ever thought you might be going crazy ... or are pretty sure you really are going crazy, you might be a bereaved parent.

That's a very negative list, isn't it?  And understandably so.  The loss of a child is an incredibly painful, life-changing experience.  But, that being said, it's not without some positive things as well, particularly if you have a sustaining faith in a good, loving God.

Here are a few which come to mind ...

If your focus on the here-and-now has been replaced with an eternal perspective, you might be a bereaved parent.

If your penchant for small talk has been replaced with a desire to discuss weighty topics of eternal significance, you might be a bereaved parent.

If your shallow relationships with others have been replaced with deep, rich, life-long friendships based on common bonds you wish you didn't have, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you find yourself appreciating and savoring every moment you have with your surviving children, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you find great joy in watching your surviving children grow up, because that's what children are supposed to do, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you live with a heightened awareness that bad stuff happens, and you need to make the most of every opportunity you have to spend time with your loved ones, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you find yourself with a desire to learn all you can about Heaven, because your child now lives there, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you are deeply saddened and moved to heartfelt prayer every time you hear about a parent who has just lost a child, you might be a bereaved parent.

If, because of an awareness of the fragility of life, you have a new urgency to show people the hope that is only available through Jesus Christ, you might be a bereaved parent.

If you are a bereaved parent yourself, and would like to get connected with others who understand the experience of losing a child, I encourage you to check out the While We're Waiting ministry.  Click here to visit our website, or here to join our faith-based Facebook community for bereaved parents.