Today marks five years since Hannah drew her last earthly breath and stepped into the arms of Jesus.
I have to be honest and say that my immediate reaction at that moment was relief that she was no longer suffering from cancer. But that relief was quickly swallowed up by grief ... overwhelming, nearly debilitating sorrow at the loss of my precious daughter.
In those raw early days of grief, I remember looking at other people who had lost children several years previously and wondering how on earth those people had made it. I could not fathom making it through five weeks, much less five years.
And yet, here I am.
It still doesn't seem possible.
I am not the same person I was 1,826 days ago, nor will I ever be that person again. And that's not all bad ... in fact, that's probably a really good thing.
God has done a lot of work in my life over the last five years ... work that needed to be done. And, oh my, He's got a lot more to do. But, if you'll bear with me, I'd like to share a few of the things I've learned over the last five years ... Things I wish I'd known from the beginning.
1. The loss of a child is indescribably difficult. It impacts every fiber of your being, and shakes you to your very core. There are times (even now) when it seems unsurvivable. BUT ... but ... it does, it really does, get better. There are those who will tell you that it never gets better. Do not believe them. However, we must earnestly desire to get better, and actively take steps to make that happen. We are not given a choice about having grief, but we do have a choice in how we grieve.
2. Much of the battle on this journey is spiritual. Actually, "much" may be the wrong word ... "all" is probably closer to the truth. At the time when we are the most vulnerable, Satan is absolutely relentless. He bashes us in the head again and again with "if onlys" and "what ifs". He fills our minds with memories of horrific sights, sounds, and smells. He causes us to question God's goodness and mercy. For me, the best way to fight this battle is to recognize it for what it is ... spiritual warfare. Whenever I get really down, it is always because I've allowed Satan to get a foothold in my mind.
3. This is not a competition. In those early days, I spent a lot of time wondering which was "worse" ... losing a child suddenly and not being able to say good-bye, or having the opportunity to say good-bye but being forced to watch your child suffer in horrific ways. I wondered if it was "easier" if the child you lost was an infant, or maybe it was "easier" if he or she was an adult when they went to Heaven. I wondered how my grief stacked against with that of others. I've learned that it does not matter. After talking to hundreds of bereaved parents over the past five years, I've found that even though our losses are all different, our pain is the same. The loss of a child is heartrending, no matter the child's age or the circumstances of his or her death.
4. There is no time limit on grief. I used to be so ignorant. I actually used to think people "got over" the death of a loved one within a couple of months ... a year at the very most. I now know that one does not "get over" the death of a child ... they just learn how to live without them. I will be "over" the loss of my child when I put my arms around her neck in Heaven.
5. Pain is not wasted in God's economy. God can take our pain and bring good from it. I've learned that one of the best ways to ease my pain is to stop focusing inward and begin looking for ways to serve Him and others. It could be something "big", like starting a ministry or a foundation in your child's memory ... or it could be something "smaller." One sweet mom I know watches the obituaries for parents who lose children close to her son's age when he died, and writes them encouraging notes. Believe me, this is not a "small" thing to those who receive these gifts of love from her.
6. There is a difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is dependent upon circumstances, and since the day Hannah was diagnosed with cancer just over six years ago, my circumstances have not been what I have wanted them to be. Absolutely everything I do is tinged with sorrow to some degree, whether it's just going to work each day, celebrating a family birthday, or planning my younger daughter's wedding. Hannah is not here, and that means there is sadness in my heart all the time. But, I can still have joy in my life, because that is not dependent upon my circumstances. Joy is unassailable, because it comes from my relationship with God. Joy is that deep-down, rugged knowledge that God will one day make all things right, even a 17-year-old girl dying of cancer.
7. I don't have to be strong all the time ... In fact, my greatest strength lies in weakness. I am not strong enough to do this on my own. I must allow myself to be weak and lean fully on Him. That is the only way to walk this road. 2 Corinthians 2:9 -- "But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me." As my dear friend Donna says, God tells us, "I want you to be strong, but you don't have to be stronger than me."
8. C. S. Lewis once said, "No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear." In the early days of my grief, I felt very cavalier. The thing I had feared most in life had happened ... What else was there to be afraid of? As time has passed, I've begun to experience more fear. I've met parents who have lost two, three, even four children. If it happened to me once, why couldn't it happen again? This fear could easily become paralyzing, even debilitating. But, I've learned that I must give that fear to God, and put my loved ones in His hand. I want to love having them more than I fear losing them.
9. I have to remember that I am living in the temporary. This world that seems so real to us now will dissolve in a moment someday. I love these lines from the last book in the Narnia series, "The Last Battle" by C. S. Lewis, "‘There was a real railway accident,’ said Aslan softly. ‘Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is over: this is the morning.’" When this life in the Shadowlands (but a dream) is over, the holidays will truly begin!
10. I also have to remember this ... My future with my daughter is going to be so much greater than my past with her. What an amazing thought.
11. I cannot put a question mark where God has put a period. God put a period at the end of Hannah's earthly life on February 26, 2009. I can question His wisdom in that all I want to (and believe me, I have) but the period is still there. I cannot change that; and I don't believe He wants me to waste the life He has given me in arguing with Him. The period has not yet been placed at the end of my earthly life, and there are so much better things I can be doing with my energy and my time. God still has work for me to do here.
12. Everyone says stupid things to people who have lost children ... even other people who have lost children (I know I've said dumb things myself)! I can choose to replay the hurtful things people have said over and over in my mind -- along with the snarky comebacks I wish I'd hit them with -- or I can choose to extend grace to those folks and move forward. There is only one perfect Comforter ... the rest of us fall far short.
13. God is sovereign. God knew the number of Hannah's days before she was born (Psalm 139:16). There is not a thing we could have done to extend her life by even a single day. It does no good to question whether we should have gone to a different hospital or tried a different treatment. She lived exactly the number of days God had ordained for her.
14. Finally, I've learned that a short life is not an incomplete life. I've talked to parents whose child never took a breath outside of the womb whose lives have been changed for eternity by that brief life. Hannah's life may have been short, but it was definitely not incomplete. In the early months following her death, we heard quite often from people whose lives had been touched by hers ... even a number of salvations directly due to her testimony. As time has gone on, we've heard those kinds of reports less and less. But may I share something with you? A little less than a month ago, out of the blue, we received an email from an old high school friend of my husband's. Brad had not heard from this friend in years; in fact, we did not even know he had followed Hannah's story. Here's what he wrote in his email:
Just a quick note to tell you what a blessing your journey has been to me, my patients and students that rotate through my facility. I made copies of every email you sent out over the years of Hannah's battle and kept them in a bound folder. [The emails he's referring to are available on this blog. Look in the right hand column and click on "Hannah's Story in Emails."]
Each night as the emails came I would read them to my daughter and son and we as a family would pray for Hannah and your family. I will never forget the day in Feb that I sat down and shared the email that Hannah had lost her battle with this disease. We all cried because of your transparency allowed us to be vested in your journey.
Even today I make all our nursing, x-ray, and oncology students to read the collection of emails at the start of their clinical rotation and it helps remind them we are not treating diseases...we are treating beautiful people like Hannah.
My continued prayers for you guys. God bless and thank you for allowing others to see the beauty that continues to be Hannah's legacy.
Ah ... to know that my daughter is remembered, and that her life is still having an impact on others ... there is no greater gift that can be given to a parent who's lost a child.
Five years. It's a long time. But it's five years closer to Home ... and that's just fine with me. Even so, come Lord Jesus.