Tag Archives: grief

The Problem With Trusting God

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I’m an ordained elder.  For 13 years I was a pastor.  And if you test my spiritual gifts, one of them will be faith.  So it might surprise you to learn that trusting God is something I struggle with.

Perhaps the seeds of this struggle were planted when I was 11 and my father died from brain cancer.  I grew up going to church and when my father was diagnosed with cancer it was unreal.  Everyone I knew was praying for him to recover.  Yet, despite all the prayers and Bible verses that were quoted, my family watched him slip away from us.  I struggled, I grieved, but somehow my faith remained intact.

Then, the summer after my junior year in college I went on my first mission trip.  I went with an amazing group called YIM that did a fantastic job preparing us for the world beyond our borders.  During that summer I was confronted with the reality of the third world.  I learned about people who lived on less than a dollar a day.  I learned of people who were literally starving to death.  I heard the stories of those who were sick and dying from illnesses that could be prevented by a simple mosquito net or treated with drugs that were readily available to all Americans.

As an American Christian I had always been taught that God provides for his children.  I had memorized verses about God knowing exactly what we need and promising to care for us.  I had studied the passages about not worrying about what we would eat or drink.  I shook my head in agreement when I heard someone say “God always provides, right on time,” or “God didn’t bring you this far to leave you now.”  I accepted these things as truth.

But how could I look in the face of brave Christian brothers and sisters who were facing death and recite those familiar platitudes?  How could I say “don’t worry” to the mother who had no food to feed her children?  Or tell the young man dying for lack of basic medicines, “trust God, he will provide.”?  Suddenly, it wasn’t so easy to “just trust God.”

If God’s children were dying of hunger or sick and suffering in third world countries, what did that mean for me and my struggles?  Surely it wasn’t as easy as just “trusting God to provide.”  I’m not saying that I don’t believe God provides.  Or that I don’t believe God is good, loving, and cares about us and our problems.  I just believe that the way God works is more complicated than easy platitudes allow for.

Over the years I have found myself in many difficult circumstances which have tested my ability to hold onto my faith and trust God.  I have cried with friends who have lost loved ones.  I have faced incredibly difficult challenges in the ministry.  I have struggled as my son fights to overcome the trauma he experienced before he entered foster care.  I have faced extreme financial hardships.  And I have faced the loss of my daughter.  Life has not always been easy, and often I find myself struggling with the question of how to trust God in the midst of suffering.

Ultimately, I believe that God provides through us—the church.  When someone is praying for food to feed their children, clean water, or medicine for their loved one in a third world country, we as a church are designed to be the answer to that prayer.  When a mother admits she can’t buy milk, a man is homeless and eating from a trash can, a refugee is seeking shelter, or a friend asks us to pray for them, we are created to help. It’s not enough to tell those who are struggling to rely on God, or not to worry.  We are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus.

So the next time you’re tempted to tell someone to “just trust God,” consider whether or not God may be trusting you to be the answer to their prayer.

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Toto, I Don’t Think We’re in Kansas Anymore!

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Toto, I Don’t Think We’re in Kansas Anymore!

Have you ever woken up and no longer recognized the life you were living?  I mentioned in my last post that there were lots of changes in my life.  Some changes have been amazing and exciting, others are incredibly frightening and have left me feeling lost and unsure.  As a result, my entire life has been turned upside down and though I’ve wanted to blog about it, I’ve been a bit unsure about how much to reveal.  I’m still not sure about that.  So this is a beginning of a conversation I hope to continue one day.  I hope you will have patience with me as a struggle through this.

My trip down the rabbit hole began last December.  Life was pretty good.  I was working at a church I loved, with people I respected.  Little Man and I were progressing well, moving toward adoption, and enjoying our first Christmas season together.  I was expecting Baby Amaia to arrive in a few short months, and had been stocking up on the most adorable baby clothes and tiny little diapers.

Then the tornado hit.  Three weeks before Christmas I lost my job.  The job that I loved and was so passionate about.  And although I was beginning to struggle with the 60-80 hour work weeks I was putting in as a single mom, the news caught me completely off-guard.  There is a lot about that situation that I would like to share.  There’s a lot that I feel needs to be heard and understood.  But when you work in the church, things are complicated.  A whole-other-universe kind of complicated.  I was heartbroken, and angry, and insanely stressed.  Because apart from every other thing I was feeling, I was a single mom without a job, and when you work in pastoral ministry you can’t just find another job in town.  Continuing to work in my field would mean moving, probably out of state.  And moving would mean giving up my son and soon-to-be-born daughter, who were still in the foster care system.  And that was not an option.  So I went into full-on panic mode.

I applied for close to a thousand jobs.  I only got three interviews and no job offers.  Then on January 29 I got a call that taught me fear.  Baby Amaia’s bio mother was going into labor almost three weeks early and they had discovered multiple problems with the baby.  They didn’t expect her to survive the delivery.  As the foster parent I had no legal rights, and no way of knowing what was going on.  I waited and prayed all night.  Sometime the next day I learned she had survived the birth.  For two weeks I waited each day for news, hoping for miracles.  I was able to go see her in the NICU and was blown away by how tiny she was.  She was hooked up to dozens of monitors and IV tubes.  Then on February 12 I received the phone call that changed our lives.  Baby Amaia would only live a few more hours.  They had decided to take her off life support and she would not survive.  I rushed to the hospital and held my sweet girl for the first and last time, as I watched the life ebb from her body.  There are no words for the pain I felt that day, the pain that still haunts me.  I miss her every day.

After months of looking for jobs I decided to become a substitute teacher until I could find full-time work.  Subbing in an inner city school district was an eye-opening experience.  I have worked professionally with kids for 13 years but I had never experienced anything like that.  The challenges were incredible.  After a few weeks I was hired to stay at one elementary school where I rotated between all types of classrooms, from pre-k through 6th, from standard, to special needs, to emotionally disturbed.  The students pushed me to new levels of frustration and I came home with more than one injury.  But they also broke my heart and made me fall in love with them.

In March an unexpected blessing came.  Little Man’s biological mother suddenly and unexpectedly signed over her parental rights, naming me as the adoptive parent.  This cleared the path for us to begin moving forward with his adoption.  It’s a humbling experience sitting in the courtroom as a parent signs away their parental rights to make way for you to become the mother of their child.  To sit and listen as the judge asks “Are you sure?” in a hundred different ways.  At the end of the day I was free to adopt my Little Man and his case was officially transferred to the adoption department.

Then began months of waiting, bureaucracy, and frustration.  It seemed like everything was moving at a snail’s pace.  In the meantime I began to explore the possibility of moving back to Illinois to be near my family.  Being a single mom is hard without any family around.  With no family in New York I was at a bit of a disadvantage.  I’d always had a great network of friends and church members who served as my support system, but when I lost my job I lost about 95% of those people.  I had not only lost my job, I had lost my church and most of my friends.  Since I’d been exploring the possibility of going back to school and getting a second masters in teaching, school counseling, or speech therapy, having family around would be really nice.  Now that I was looking at adoption, moving to be closer to family was a possibility.

Finally, just a few short weeks ago, we finalized our adoption!  After 588 days in foster care, Little Man became part of his Forever Family!  I can now officially introduce you to Austin!

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After a year and a half, I can finally show you my adorable Little Man’s face!  Officially becoming a family is definitely the highlight of my year, and the best thing that has ever happened to me.  It makes all the struggles and pain of the past year worthwhile.  I am so blessed to call him mine, and so thankful God brought him into my life.

Austin’s adoption day was August 26.  I had decided it was best to move to Illinois, and we had been making plans prior to the adoption.  So a mere two days after the adoption we loaded up a truck full of stuff and the next day we pulled out of town.  We’ve been in Illinois for a few weeks now and everything has been a huge adjustment.  I’ve been living in large cities since I left home at 17.  Now I’ve moved to a small town where everyone knows everything about each other.  I’m coming to terms with the fact that there are no stand-alone Starbucks (although, thank God, there is one in a grocery store), big shopping areas, or fun attractions.  I’m also starting my job search all over again, this time in a small town with far less opportunities.  I’m renting a house for the first time and purchasing appliances, dealing with spiders and cockroaches, and discovering the [insert sarcasm] joys of living in a home that’s over a 100 years old.  I’m struggling with a school district that has been very frustrating to get registered with and just decreased Austin’s services significantly–from 10 times a week in a 5 hour program to 4 times a week in a 2 1/2 hour program.  And on top of all that I’m trying to unpack, make new friends, cook without a stove (going on 2 weeks now), acclimate Austin, and try not to freak out about how I’m going to survive until I find a job.

This is my life now, and I’m definitely not in Kansas anymore.  So much of the past year has been overwhelmingly heartbreaking.  It has challenged my faith and left me in an emotional blackhole.  And yet, there are glimpses of beauty and hope.  Becoming a forever family is the best thing in my life.  Even painful things, like losing my job, have taught me to trust God and allowed me to see the beauty in spending time as a family–which was something we seriously lacked when I worked in the church.  I don’t know where this yellow brick road will lead me.  I have no idea what my life will be like five years from now–what I will be doing as my next career, where we’ll be living (because houses with cockroaches and zero storage space are not my cup of tea), or how far Austin will have progressed on his journey.  But I have hope.  The wonders of Oz await!

I Chose Loss

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I chose loss. I volunteered for it. Signed up and waited for my turn. I chose loss; but I never thought it would feel like this.

Four days ago I lost my daughter. My beautiful baby girl, who had only ever known life in a NICU incubator. Four days ago I held her in my arms as she lay dying, trying to choke back the sobs as I whispered my love to her. It was the first time she had been cuddled to my side. Four days ago I lost the sweet child I’d been planning and preparing for during the past eight months. And I walked into an empty home filled with baby things I had hoped to fill with loving memories.

I kissed my baby goodbye and walked out of the small, dark room they use for these things, trying to hold it together long enough to get to my car. Long enough to get out before I completely lost it. But I couldn’t make it. Walking through the NICU halls I could see all these other beautiful smiling babies—success stories who had once fought for their lives in this same place. And I lost it, right there in front of the elevators, as I ran to find a bathroom where my sobs choked me until they turned out my breakfast. And I lost it again in the elevator. And the car. And pulling into my garage with its stores of baby goods. And when I finally climbed into bed and pulled the comforter over my head in a useless attempt to shut out the world.

I’ve lived in hiding for the past four days. Barely leaving my front door, other than a trip to the ER when the grief translated itself into physical illness. Today I had to get out. Not for me, but my sweet three-year-old son who doesn’t understand any of this. For my rambunctious love who has been trapped inside our small home for days as the wind chill dropped to -40 outside.   It seems a fitting temperature for death. But not for little boys. So we bundled up and drove to the mall playground. I didn’t want to go. I knew what would happen. But I chose this, and so I held his small hands as he jumped and played. And then the inevitable—we rounded the giant tree to find an adorable little baby girl sitting in her mother’s lap. I couldn’t breathe at first. I needed to look away, but that sweet little boy’s voice kept telling me “Over here, Mommy” as he ran right towards her. I tried to turn my back on them, to hold my son’s hand while looking in another direction. I kept catching glimpses of her mother—looking bored as she held this sweet baby in one hand and texted with the other. I wanted to run up to her and scream, “Don’t take this for granted! Pay attention for all of us who can no longer hold our babies!” But this would only make me look like a mad woman—reveal all the cracks that are breaking into my carefully held together mask.

I wander through purposeless days–throwing away baby shower checklists and registry cards, opening letters that were sent while she was still with us, hiding baby toys in a now forbidden closet. I try to focus on my sweet little boy and hold things together so he can experience some sense of normalcy. And I wait. I wait to find out the funeral arrangements, to learn if she will be buried or cremated, to find out if I will be allowed some small memento from her brief life. Just like I waited sleepless nights to find out if she made it through delivery and her first night, waited to meet her for the first time, waited to be allowed in the NICU.

I wait because this was my choice. My sweet girl is not my biological daughter. And although I have anxiously awaited and prepared her arrival for the past 8 months, I have no legal rights to her—to see her in the hospital, to make the choice to end life support, or to plan her funeral.

I am a foster mom, and I chose this.

I chose to love children who were not my own. Children to whom I have no legal rights. Children whose futures lay in others’ hands. Children I could not love any more had I been their biological mother.

I met my son when he was two and a half—all questioning eyes and nervous giggles, as he tried to stow away toys and hide behind curtains. Over the past 11 months we have learned together what love and trust and family mean. I may have to get permission to take him out of the county or change his hairstyle, but he is my son. And we are moving towards adoption.

The precious little baby I lost was my son’s half-sister. From the time that the biological mom knew she was pregnant, I knew she would be my daughter. Nothing is ever certain in foster care, but according to the case worker, there was a 99.9% chance she would be placed in foster care. And because they strive to keep siblings together, as long as I wanted her, this beautiful girl would become a part of our family.

And I did want her. I knew from the time they told me that my son was on the track for adoption that one day I would want to adopt a little sister for him. Most people doubted my choice. I’m single and my son is overcoming a truckload of special needs as a result of his trauma. People questioned whether or not I could parent two kids. They asked if it was wise for me to take on more “work.” They wondered if it was in the best interest of my son to live with his sister. They doubted that the baby would be safe with a special needs kid in the home.

Once the time came for her birth, we realized the severity of her health problems and were told that she probably wouldn’t survive the delivery. A therapist told me it was better this way. And then she did survive delivery . . . and the first night . . . and the first week . . . and I finally confided to a neighbor what was going on. She told me to leave the baby at the hospital. That she wasn’t worth all the work and I had my hands full already. The doctors felt she’d never survive, that it wasn’t worth using extreme measures on a hopeless case. And since I wasn’t even the foster mother yet, I got to hear the news without any of the obligatory “we’re sorry” or caring bedside manner.

They meant well. They just didn’t understand that she was already my daughter. So I continued to fight for her and pray for her and stay awake nights hoping for a miracle. One week turned into two weeks. And just when I thought things might be more hopeful, I got a call from the caseworker—they expected her to die in the next few hours. I’d only seen her once, I’d never held her, and I had no rights to go visit her; but my baby was about to die. The sweet little girl I had loved and prayed for and stocked a nursery for only had a few precious hours left.

I lost my daughter. The sadness is unimaginable, and every day my thoughts are filled with her and the future that we were robbed of. I remember all the plans I had for our family, and it’s sometimes more than I can bear.

But I remind myself that I chose loss. I chose to be a parent whose child could be torn away from them at any moment. I am a part of a system where kids are moved on to different foster homes, placed with family members, returned to parents, and then come back into the system again. I am a parent in a system that asks me to love each child with every part of me—just as if they were my own—and then be willing to lose them. That’s what I signed up for. That’s what I wanted. And though I never imagined one of those children would be lost this way, I knew there was every possibility that my heart would be broken. This is what I chose.

But I also choose love. I choose hope. I choose to believe she is in a place where her tiny little body is no longer filled with pain. I choose to believe that God will bring healing to our family. I choose to believe that this pain, and loneliness, and suffocating sadness won’t last forever. And I choose to carry her heart in my heart forever. I chose loss, yes. But more importantly, I am choosing love.

photo amaia

Blog Challenge: Day 9

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Today’s challenge is to write about your least favorite childhood memory.  For me, this is easy.  Not because the memory is easy.  It is my most painful memory, and this is perhaps the most difficult thing I’ve ever written.  But it’s easy in the sense that I don’t have to figure out what to write about.

When my dad turned 40 we threw him an “Over the Hill” birthday party.  Everything was decorated in black and featured tombstones with the letters “R.I.P.”  I have a photo of him standing in front of a cake, me holding his hand, while pointing to the tombstone with a goofy smile on my face.  It was all a great joke.

Until a few months later when he woke up in the middle of the night with what he thought was a migraine.  A migraine so terrible he told my mother to either shoot him in the head or take him to the ER.  That night our lives changed.  We learned that he had brain cancer and had six months to live.  And bad memories started piling up on each other like stinking garbage in the dumps of Rio.

There were memories of him seizing on the floor in our kitchen, while I sat by his head, watching helplessly.  Memories of him trying to carry my baby sister down the stairs in our home–we were all so terrified he would drop her, but none of us wanted to tell him he couldn’t hold his baby girl when every time might be the last.  Memories of a hospital bed being rolled into our living room as a makeshift bedroom was erected next to the front door.  Memories of well-meaning hospice workers handing me ridiculous books about kids who had leukemia, which I read diligently and catalogued under terrors that my father would endure.  Memories of us four kids being split up and sent to different homes to live as six months stretched into eighteen months and my mom dashed between work and the hospital an hour away that had become his new home.  Memories of visiting him in that cold hospital room when he looked like a different man.  When he could no longer speak.  When he didn’t even know who I was anymore.

But the worst memory, the memory that still haunts me, is that day my pastor sat beside me on the porch swing at his house.  I was staying with him and his family, and he was getting ready to leave for the hour long drive to Peoria where my father was.  He was going to visit dad and wanted to know if I’d like to come along.  I was playing with his daughter and I was having fun–escaping, for a few hours, the pain of being daddy’s little girl when daddy no longer remembered who you were.

“There’s no pressure,” he said, “you can stay here and play.”  And I so I choose to stay, and for a few hours I forgot about the pain.  I filled my eleven year old head with dolls and toys and other nonsense.

That day my father died.

That day when I choose not to go, when I choose to have fun . . .  That day was my last chance to see him, to hold him, to tell him that I loved him and I would always be his little girl.  That day I made such a cheap, meaningless choice.  And it is one I can’t seem to forgive myself for.

 

You can read about my friend Karla’s memory here.

 

A poem for my father

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It’s been a while since I posted any poetry on here, and today seems a good day to change that.  This is a poem for my father, whom I will always carry in my heart, no matter how many years go by or miles I travel.  Daddy, I love you.

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Father,
hidden in the nighttime shadows of this present world
are you watching me?
can you hear the tremor in my voice? 

Do you remember that cold winter morning
you called a taxi to take me the mile to school?
while others sent children trudging through mountains of snow in search of that brick schoolhouse
you ordered up a taxi—delivered on a silver platter
an absurd luxury in our tiny town of 9,000.
And I knew your love.

I miss that confidence—
love as tangible as bricks and mortar
or your hand in mine
sweeping me into your arms as you
killed the mouse
calmed the fears
sang me asleep every night with your magic charm
            “Good night,
            sleep tight,
            don’t let the bed bugs bite.”
As if I could fear bed bugs with a champion sleeping down the hall. 

Do you remember that cursed night you first knew?
I hope not.
I hope it is wiped forever clean from your memory.
That night our world changed,
I’ve never known such fear. 

There are so many things I want to tell you . . .
how thankful I am for the years we had together
how sorry I am for all the ways I failed you 

If I could go back to that night
I swear I’d do it differently
our last chance to be together
I chose myself over you
I swear, if I could do it again . . . 

But there are no do-overs when it comes to death.

Do you watch us from the shadows?
This lost family you left behind
or is it too painful? 

Can you hear me cry out for you when I think no one is listening?
longing for a shiny, yellow taxi to come deliver me to you
Father.

Nine Months Old

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Here’s a poem I wrote a couple years ago while living in the Middle East.  It was in the midst of the Israel-Gaza Conflict of 2008-2009.  Living in the Middle East as an American made that conflict the topic of conversation everywhere I went.

I’m nine months old here
With the vocabulary of a two year old
So when I listen to your voices on the radio
I can only pick out a handful of your words
But I don’t need a translator to decipher the emotion caught in your throat
Don’t need an explanation for why you keep repeating
“Gaza,” “Israel,” “Philistines,” “Hamas”
Don’t need a tutor to help me conjugate the pain carried across the airwaves
Silent tears fall in the back of some rusty taxi
And guilt follows me around like some dark shadow
Refusing to disappear like Peter Pan’s clever one
Instead I carry around this crate of remorse
For being born in a country with too many ties to this violence
Too few answers to offer in return
And I trudge through this night with shackles
Linking me to your mother’s cries
And I can’t be free of them
And perhaps
I never should be free of them

Remember

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Occasionally,
when the busyness that consumes my life
is hiccupped by some strange interruption,
I hear you whispering to me—
“Remember.”
Sometimes I hear your voice and I smile
but often I blink back tears
hating myself for having ever forgotten
for letting silly distractions steal you from me

“Remember”
you say
and sometimes I try to push your voice away
too comfortable in my self-made world
to want your memory creeping in
interrupting my plans

“Remember”
you cry
and you call me back
and the memories wash over me in waves
and I am all alone in an ocean of
You.

“I remember”
I whisper.
“I will remember.”