Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Hollow Spots of Grief

“Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.” ~ C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Normally, I would be wrapping a gift and baking a chocolate cake for Lindsay’s birthday today…anticipating the glee she showed with any celebration…maybe surprising her with balloons like I did last year…
…signing a sparkling, colorful birthday card,  
We love you, Lindsay! Hope you have a wonderful day! 
But there’s nothing normal about life now…just hollow spots where normal once resided. 
It’s been almost nine months since my daughter died—the same length of time I carried her in my body before giving birth to her thirty-four years ago. Funny, it seemed like a long time then—an eternity now. 
I watched a movie a few years ago called “Holes.” The premise involved youths in a juvenile detention camp digging holes for the warden in search of a buried treasure. Holes of all sizes dotted the desert landscape for miles around the camp. Year after year, more holes were dug, the treasure seemingly just one hole away, yet ever elusive. 
My life feels like that desert—stretching out around me endlessly—filled with holes. Just about the time I think I’ve got a handle on my grief and perhaps back on level land, another hole appears. Not all bad ones—sometimes beautiful, but bittersweet memories I cherish. Then other days, like Mother’s Day and her birthday, have the potential to drag me under.  
I cry out to the only One who truly understands—the One who watched his own son die on a cross over two thousand years ago. You might be tempted to rebut, “Yeah, but God knew he was going to raise Christ from the dead.”  
But, as Christians, we also have the promise of our loved one’s resurrection in heaven—and the day of our own homecoming when we join them.  
Lindsay was a beautiful, precocious child who dreamed big and had the tenacity to go out and try to make those dreams come true. Life looked bright from where we sat, the landscape dotted only with hope.  
We never saw the holes…until it was too late. 
Now her death is spread over everything, and likely to some degree, it always will be. I seek to find joy in my memories of her contagious laughter about something silly, her sparkling eyes when she dreamed, and the indelible imprint my daughter made on my life in so many ways. I cling to the hope I have in eternity. I praise God that ours is a temporary life, one to be cherished and lived, but one we’ll shrug off some day, like a butterfly does a cocoon before it takes flight. 
Lindsay’s soul flew away last August.  
Until we meet again… 

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Revelation 21:3-4 

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Death, Grief, and Moving On

Seven months have passed since my daughter Lindsay died. Hard to believe it’s been that long, though even harder to grasp the time’s fleeting compared to the years that lie ahead without her.
In those first weeks after her death, waking up each morning and just breathing hurt. On the nights I slept, Lindsay was still alive. I’d have conversations with her, but she always seemed just beyond my grasp. The more I reached for her, the more elusive she became, until finally I awoke. Then reality crashed down on me, and grief flooded in. She was gone.
My whole life, I’ve heard the verse, “Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55). The meaning is, for Christians, death isn’t an end but a beginning. But it’s only a beginning for the deceased.
The sting is for those left behind. An unrelenting sting that pierces the depths of your soul. Losing a child means part of you has ended—like closing a door never to be re-opened. It’s not so much the legacy most of us reflect on as we reach middle or old age that’s lost. Lindsay’s hopes and dreams that blossomed as she grew from a little girl into a woman—along with our hopes and dreams for her—will never bear the fruit they were meant to.
I appreciate the encouragement of people who’ve continued to reach out to us and include us in their prayers. Isolation in grief is not healthy and leads to depression, but I’ve found most of the time I do best by myself. I don’t have to pretend or engage in conversation. I don’t have to answer the question, “How are you?” I understand people are genuinely concerned, and I love them for it, but it’s a question with an ever-changing answer.
So I usually respond, “I’m okay,” which really means I’m up, functioning, and doing the best I can, which sometimes is fairly good, depending on the day.
But I’m not okay and never will be…and that’s okay.
See, I don’t have to be okay for life to go on. I wake up each day grateful that I’m one step closer to eternity—one step closer to seeing Lindsay again—one step closer to my Savior and living the life I’m supposed to be living. Not the temporary one in this fallen, beat-up world.
Or as the Apostle Paul said, “…to live is Christ and to die is gain (Philippians 1:21).”
This is another verse that became more vivid for me in the wake of Lindsay’s passing. For the first time, I can feel Paul’s angst of being torn between this life on earth—where much is still to be accomplished for God’s glory—and going on to heaven where life is no longer a struggle.
But until He calls me home, I’ll continue to get up each day and seek God’s will for my life, and continue the process of grieving with my family.
Just as we got through the “first” holidays in November and December without Lindsay, other “first” milestones will be marked in the coming months—her birthday and Mother’s Day in May, Father’s Day in June, and then the anniversary of her death in August. To say I dread them is an understatement, but at the same time, her beautiful life should be celebrated. Her birth made me a mother. Likely, I’ll go out to the cemetery on her birthday, sit on the stone bench atop the hill overlooking her grave, reminisce…and cry.
And that’s okay. Tears are God’s provision for managing grief. Tears dredge up your deepest pain and bring it to the surface like dross. You scrape away the pain in those moments and then gather your strength to go on and live another day.
Meanwhile, Lindsay’s backpack sits in her room. Waiting to be unpacked. One day. Occasionally, I go through the clothes in her closet, my fingertips seeking her favorite shirts, or drawing a scarf close to my cheek, closing my eyes and drinking in her scent that lingers…for how much longer? For now, I don’t worry about it…her physical imprint is still here.
Someday, maybe I’ll be able to say my heartbreak has lessened. Today is different than seven months ago, or even two months ago, and it will be different two years from now…but broken hearts never truly mend. Especially when one of the broken pieces is buried.
Life has moved on…and yet it will always be the day we lost her. In a weird sort of way, time stood still. The calendar will always seem to read August 27, because that is the day her laughter stopped and we were left with only memories. 

In our grief, God has shown us compassion, showered us with His mercies, and given us hope to sustain. We continue to walk the path laid before us, and we thank you for your prayers and encouraging thoughts along the way. God has truly blessed us through both.
I remember my affliction and my wandering,
    the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
    and my soul is downcast within me.

Yet this I call to mind
    and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The
Lord is my portion;
    therefore I will wait for him.”
The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
    to the one who seeks him.
Lamentations 3:19-25 
If you’re going through grief or experiencing difficult times, I’d love to pray for you. Please leave a comment or email me confidential requests.
Because of His faithfulness,

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Depression and Suicide: Reflecting Over My Sister’s Death

Michelle - 1980s
That warm, sunny day in February 2005, when I learned my older sister Michelle had ended her life, was agonizingly contradictory. Her death placed a punctuation mark at the end of a long battle with major depression. Yet, as I took a walk outdoors to clear my head and try to make sense of the news, birds tweeted and daffodils were already in full bloom, raising their little yellow heads to the sun as if to say, “Oh, what a beautiful day.”

And that’s the quandary in which many people suffering from mental illness find themselves. They’re often surrounded by happy people saying, “Cheer up, snap out of it. Find something useful to do, and you’ll feel better.”

Don’t get me wrong. Good physical and spiritual habits, as well as having purpose in one’s life, are all part of mental wellness. But severe depression can be debilitating and challenging to treat, despite the best efforts of those suffering or their loved ones.

Michelle and Me
When I was sixteen and Michelle was eighteen, sometimes we’d go to the University of Florida track and run. Michelle loved to run. Me, not so much. I had a tentative grasp on Michelle’s changing moods that were progressively growing darker. She tried. Oh, she tried. After all, we were out running, something she enjoyed.

One afternoon when we finished, we went into the restrooms. I heard her lean against the wall in the adjoining stall and begin to cry. I asked what was wrong. Most of what she said I already knew. In my naivete and helplessness, I said, “We’ll figure it out. I’ll help you.” Of course, what was I going to do? I was a kid myself.  I had no way of knowing this was only the beginning of a long journey—one I’d learn more about than I ever cared to know.

I’ve written many times about mental illness. My family experiences have mirrored others I’ve met at local and state National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) functions. I get emails from people walking this difficult path. I’ve read numerous scientific studies and first-person accounts. Yet, I don’t have the answers to explain the mystery of major depression—why some people overcome while others succumb.

Of a side note, one thing that alarms me after a suicide are folks who speak with great authority on the subject, yet their opinions often prove they have little actual experience with or knowledge of mental illness…which is why I continue to write.

For twenty years, Michelle suffered with major depressive disorder and schizophrenia, the former being the most intractable to treatment. Her heart broke for others battling major depression.  She once said, “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.”

We had many conversations about the state of mental health care. At times, she shared my excitement for the latest news and scientific studies in medical journals. She’d say, “Laura, don’t ever quit looking for an answer.”

Michelle - 1997
But then, once, in a dark moment, she wrote: "There are so many people who love me and they just do not know what to do. Nothing is the answer. I have to do this on my own."

Years later, in her final note, she said, “I just can’t cope anymore. Forgive me, please.”

It’s in those dark, impenetrable moments that one takes their life. For those of us on the outside or left behind, we cope in differing ways. Some grasp for immediate or obvious answers: the person was selfish, only thinking of themselves; if only they’d gotten right with God, He would’ve fixed it.

(I wrote about the selfish angle on my blog a few years ago after country singer Mindy McCready’s suicide. Click here to read.)

I certainly know the validity of spiritual wholeness with God in order to maintain one’s sanity because I’ve experienced that myself, many times, especially since the death of my daughter six months ago.

But suicide goes much deeper than either of these quick explanations. It’s a riddle those of us left in the aftermath struggle to unlock. The conclusion I’ve reached in the twelve years since Michelle’s death is there are no easy answers. Ultimately, suicide reflects deep hopelessness in a person at the moment they make that decision. The only thing we can do is keep advocating for better mental health services and reach out to those suffering with a willingness to listen, encourage, and point people toward effective resources.

Behind every suicide is a real person with a real family who never gets over it. The fact there's still a stigma associated with treating depression medically or with counseling is a form of insanity itself. I can’t believe in the 21st century we’re still having this discussion, but we are.

Today, I also choose to think of the good memories because Michelle’s life wasn’t all dark. She had a happy, mischievous side. She loved to play practical jokes, like the time she put red pepper on my pizza when I had my back turned. Her risk-taking behavior often pushed me out of my comfort zone as a teen. As adults, I’d occasionally be surprised with a letter from her. The stationery was usually dotted with her familiar “smile” notations accompanied with a smiley face. Though she often didn’t feel like smiling, she wanted others to smile.

I treasure the quiet conversations we shared. These became rarer as physical distance of living almost 500 miles apart separated us later in life, and her schizophrenia interfered with her rational thoughts. But in those quiet moments, Michelle spoke from her heart. During her stretches of wellness, she modeled what I feel Christian behavior should be in its truest form—caring for others more than herself and uplifting others to make them feel better about their life situations.

If Michelle was ever angry toward God for how her life played out, she didn’t voice it in our conversations. Instead, she embraced the promise of a better life one day in eternity. She understood what so few grasp—life on earth is temporary. Her temporary life was a minefield. I pray she found the peace in eternity that seemed to elude her here on earth.

Michelle - 2004
Are you struggling with depression, the suicide of a loved one, or maybe just a situation that's overwhelming you? I’d love to hear your story and pray for you. Please leave a comment or email me confidential comments or prayer requests. Also, check out the mental illness tab at the top for a list of resources that might help you or your loved one.

©Laura Hodges Poole