Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A Bittersweet Visit to our Alma Mater

From the time our firstborn daughter Hannah started kindergarten, she knew where she wanted to go to college.  (She was a serious-minded student from the very beginning.)  She had a little "Future Tiger" t-shirt that she wore with great pride, and if you asked her, she would tell you she was going to Ouachita.  In fact, she would tell you even if you didn't ask.

Over the years, she never wavered.  By the time she was a sophomore in high school, she already had her roommate chosen and was looking forward to heading off to OBU in just a couple of years.

All of that changed when she was diagnosed with brain cancer in the spring of her sophomore year.  Instead of graduating from high school in 2010 and heading off to college, she graduated early in 2009 and was promoted straight to Heaven.  And as nice as the new dorms are at Ouachita, there's no comparison to the digs she has now.

Maybe she had such an affinity for Ouachita because she always heard Mom and Dad speak of it with such fondness.  We met there and graduated from there back in the late '80's.  We were excited that our oldest daughter had dreams of attending there ... and looked forward to visiting her in the dorm, hearing her stories of run-throughs, functions, and late-night serenades, seeing her perform in Tiger Tunes, and attending her graduation one day.

We made a trip to Ouachita this week, but it wasn't to do any of these things ... It was to speak to a class called "Death and Dying."  The professor knew our story and was familiar with the While We're Waiting ministry, and invited us to speak to his class.  We readily agreed when we were asked, and have been looking forward to it.

The irony was not lost on us; however, as we drove onto campus.  We weren't coming to visit Hannah, we weren't coming to watch her in Tiger Tunes, we weren't coming to her graduation.  We were coming to talk to a class of students (just a little bit younger than she would be now) about her death.


A lot of things have changed on Ouachita's campus since we were students there, but in Berry Bible Building, it was as though time had stood still over the last thirty years.  Other than some updated technology in the classrooms, everything looked exactly the same.

And other than the ubiquitous technology in their hands, the students of Ouachita are still the same.

This group of young adults was bright, kind, and compassionate.  It was a small class, and they listened attentively as we shared Hannah's story and talked about how her death has impacted our family.  They asked a number of insightful questions and even shared some tears with us.  We had the opportunity to share with them how God can bring beauty from ashes and redeem even our greatest losses when we lay them at His feet.  As we talked to them about While We're Waiting, I hope they saw a visual representation of how God can use our greatest pain to lead us to our greatest area of ministry.

Do I wish we had been at Ouachita this week for a different reason than to speak about Hannah's death?

A hundred times YES!

Am I grateful that God continues to use Hannah's story to touch lives?

Oh, yes.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Little Stack of Treasures

Way back in the spring of 1991, my in-laws gave us a wonderful gift ... a Panasonic video camera.  You remember those early video cameras ... the ones that sat on your shoulder and used the big ol' VHS tapes?  This was a rather extravagant gift at that time, and we were very grateful to receive it.  They did have an ulterior motive though; they wanted videos of their very first grandchild who would be arriving that fall!  

That grandchild arrived on October 22nd of that year, and from the very start that video camera was put to good use.  We videotaped every moment of Hannah's life, starting from immediately after her birth, and including every birthday party, Christmas celebration, school program, and church activity.  When her little sister Bethany came along, the recording doubled.  It was so much fun to have two little girls to videotape!  

As they got older, we videoed less and less.  That fancy video camera became clunky and outdated, and people actually made fun of us when we used it out in public.  The girls eventually reached the age where they didn't really want their parents trailing them around with a video camera.  

By this time, though, we had built up quite a collection of VHS tapes full of memories.  We've moved a number of times through the years, but those tapes have followed us everywhere.  As time passed, VCRs went by the wayside, and we began to have fewer and fewer avenues for watching our videos.  We didn't really worry about it, though ... someday we'd do something about that.  

Then Hannah went to Heaven in 2009, and those old videotapes became priceless treasures.  All of our memories of her were on those tapes ... her facial expressions, her laugh, the sound of her voice, her funny mannerisms ... they were all there!   We had to do something to preserve them!  We bought a VHS to DVD machine, and transferred several of them ourselves, but it was a complicated process and many of them didn't work on our DVR even after I transferred them.  Clearly, I was working above my pay grade with this project.

It took eight years, but we finally decided to do something to preserve our memories.  We sent our old VHS tapes off to a company called LegacyBox to be transferred to DVDs.  It was tough to pack up that box and launch these treasures off into the U.S. mail service ... in fact, I only sent off twenty of them, so if something dreadful happened to them we at least would have some left!  

They actually sent a very nice kit with thorough instructions regarding how to pack them up and mark them for processing, so I felt a little better sending them off.  They even emailed me updates from time to time ... "We've received your videotapes," "We're cleaning your videotapes," "We're transferring your videotapes," "We're shipping your videotapes," ... so I knew our treasures were being well taken care of.

We received our DVDs in the mail on Saturday afternoon, along with our old videotapes.  I must say I was relieved to have my old treasures back home ... There's just something special about those old VHS tapes with the peeling handwritten labels.  But I was also really excited to see 20 nice new DVDs filled with memories.  They were even labeled with their contents!  

As I study my nice neat little stack of DVDs, I have some thoughts ...

** I am so incredibly grateful that I have 17 1/2 years of memories with Hannah, and that many of those moments were recorded to be re-lived again and again.  My heart hurts for those moms and dads whose children died before or shortly after birth who only have a few photographs of their child, if that.  They never had the opportunity to make the kind of memories we were able to make with Hannah, and that is just so sad.

** I am also so grateful that we took the time to document so much of our girls' lives on videotape.  I am so thankful for the technology that enabled us to do that, and the technology that enables us to watch those videos today.  My memory is not what it once was (grief brain is a real thing) and having these moments available to watch any time I want to is such a gift.

** As happy as I am with this nice neat little stack of DVDs I now have, it bothers me that Hannah's 17 years can be reduced to a two-inch tall pile of inanimate technology, or better yet, an inch-long thumb drive.  So much beauty, personality, intelligence, courage, and gritty faith contained in those shiny discs.  Even the name of the company who did the transferring bothers me a bit ... Can a person's (or a family's) legacy really be contained in a box?

** Even after eight years, it seems unthinkable to me that all future memories we make as a family will be without Hannah.  The videos have all been recorded, the pictures have all been taken ... There will be no more.  On Hannah's Heaven Day in February I wanted to post a picture of her on Facebook and for just a split second I thought to myself that I needed a new one because I always seemed to be sharing the same ones ... and then reality crashed in with the awareness that there will be no new pictures or videos of Hannah.  Ever.  I'm really not sure why that is still so hard to grasp.

** I love my new little stack of DVDs, but I haven't watched them yet.  I did stick one into the DVR to make sure it actually worked, but popped it back out right away once it came on.  Nope, I'm not ready.  It's going to take a little while to prepare myself for the flood of memories these discs will bring.  We are planning to have a family movie night with Bethany and her husband sometime soon, and I know there will be lots of laughter, but it will be mingled with tears ... the way much of life seems to be after the loss of a child.

We have some wonderful memories with Hannah ... So much to be thankful for!  Our life with her was so, so good, even through her brain cancer diagnosis and the devastation that brought to her body and mind.  It's easy to feel despondent that our time with her is all in the past.

But glory be to God!  Our time with her is not all in the past!  Because Hannah made the decision to trust Jesus as her Savior when she was eight years old, we have an amazing future to look forward to with her.  In fact, our future with her will be exceedingly abundantly better than our past!  What we have experienced here will pale in comparison to what we have to look forward to.  We will have eternity in Heaven ... a place unsoiled by sin and death and where all tears will be wiped away.  A place where video cameras and VHS tapes and DVDs and thumb drives will no longer be necessary because our minds will be whole and our memories will be perfect.  That's where our true treasure lies.

That day IS coming!  I just have to wait.

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."  Matthew 6:19-21

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Hope is Not Cheap ... But It's Free

A few months ago a dear friend of mine who recently lost her husband to brain cancer gave me a little sack filled with these “Hope” rocks for use at the Refuge.  I’ve placed them all around the Refuge, just as little reminders of the hope we have in Jesus.

A few nights ago, our son-in-law, Brad, was here, and he picked up one of them, flipped it over, saw the price tag on the bottom, and said, “Wow!  Hope is cheap!”  I chuckled … but it made me think.  Is hope really cheap?

If you look closely at the bottom of this rock, you’ll see that the original price was $1.99 at Bed, Bath & Beyond.  But, there’s a red line through that price and the new price, highlighted in yellow, is just 99 cents. 

That is pretty cheap, isn’t it?

If you hold this rock in your hand, you’ll notice right away that it doesn’t feel like a real rock … It’s not heavy enough! 

No wonder it’s cheap … It’s fake!  It’s false hope, if you will.

When we are grieving, there are all kinds of “cheap” hope available to us. 

We can put our hope in keeping busy … If we just keep moving, maybe the sorrow won’t catch up with us.

We can put our hope in spending money … Maybe more stuff will make us feel better.

We can put our hope in drugs or alcohol … Maybe we can drown or at least muffle our pain.

We can put our hope in avoidance … Maybe we can stay away from all situations or people which might remind us of our loss.

We can put our hope in our work … Maybe we can find solace in moving up the ladder.

We can put our hope in the good things we do … Maybe if we’re good enough, we’ll get to go to Heaven with our children someday.

We can put our hope in other people … Maybe other people can bring us comfort.

These are all sources of hope that we CAN look to, but none of these will satisfy.  They are cheap substitutes for real Hope.

So where is real Hope to be found?  What is true Hope?

True Hope is not cheap.  It is incredibly costly.  It cost God everything.  It cost Jesus His very life.

Yet it’s available to us for free.

Because Jesus was willing to give up His glory and come to earth as a baby, born in a filthy stable to a teenage virgin, we can have Hope. 

This is a Hope that will never disappoint,
never say the wrong thing,
never run out,
never fail,
never let us down.

We can put our Hope in Jesus, because that is how we get to Heaven.  We can never be good enough to get there on our own.

And because of our Hope in Jesus, we will one day see Him face-to-face, along with our precious children who knew Him here on earth.

Our theme verse for While We're Waiting is Romans 8:25 … “But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance.” 

That Hope helps us wait.  And not just wait with our feet kicked up like in a recliner, but to wait eagerly, persevering in the journey while we’re waiting! 

True Hope helps us wait well.

In John 8:12, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Grief can feel awfully dark, can’t it?  Especially right here at Christmas time when Christmas lights are everywhere!  Everything is lit up … but we can spend a lot of time walking around in the darkness. 

But Hope gives us light for our path.  And there’s nothing cheap about that kind of Hope!

"The people dwelling in darkness
    have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
    on them a light has dawned."  Matthew 4:16 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Thoughtful Thursday ... What Am I Missing?

When my daughter Hannah was little, she had a friend named Nicole.  Nicole was a curly-headed girl with round-framed glasses, and the two of them were in AWANA Cubbies together.  They had a blast learning Bible verses, eating cookies and drinking red Kool-Aid, and hopping and jumping around the room as they belted out the Cubbies theme song together.

Nicole is all grown up now, and is serving the Lord as a youth minister in California.  She still has the same curly hair and (not as round) glasses, and it's been a joy to watch her grow up from afar via Facebook.

Even as I write that, I must confess that there's a tug in my heart ... How I wish I could have seen Hannah grow up like Nicole has!  What would she be like as an almost 24-year-old woman?  There's always that little (sometimes not-so-little) twist of pain as I see Hannah's contemporaries serving the Lord, getting married, having babies.  But at the same time, I am thankful when I see her friends doing well.

Nicole lost her dad a couple of years ago, and she recently shared on Facebook about how she was struggling with the difficult memories associated with his Heaven-going.  But then she went on to say that she had heard a speaker online (who I later discovered was Beth Moore) sharing the story of an aging father who had lost two children many years previously.  The father was speaking at a family dinner to his remaining family members, saying, "I don't want to miss you because I miss them."  This was very encouraging to Nicole as she has really been missing her dad recently.  She said, "I never ever want to miss an opportunity or another human being because of the loss I have experienced."

Her comments really made me stop and think.

What might I be missing because I miss Hannah?  There's so much!

I don't want to miss my surviving daughter or her husband because I miss Hannah.
I don't want to miss my husband because I miss Hannah.
I don't want to miss sharing an encouraging word with someone because I miss Hannah.
I don't want to miss the joy of spending time with family or friends because I miss Hannah.
I don't want to miss the awe inspired by a beautiful sunset because I miss Hannah.
I don't want to miss an awareness of God's blessings because I miss Hannah.
I don't want to miss the opportunity to express gratitude because I miss Hannah.
I don't want to miss the chance to point someone to Jesus because I miss Hannah.

Yes, I miss Hannah.  Oh, how I miss Hannah.  But if I miss my life because I miss Hannah, the tragedy of her death is compounded.

If the situation were reversed, and I were the one who had died seven years ago instead of her, I would certainly not want her to miss her life missing me.  I would want her to live her life to the fullest, squeezing every moment of joy out of it she could.

And I don't think Hannah would want any less for me.  And I know God doesn't ... Jesus said that he came that we "may have life and have it abundantly" (John 10:10).

So yes, I will miss Hannah ... but by God's grace and through His strength, I will choose not to miss this life He has given me.

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