The Grief of Christmas

photo-1482517967863-00e15c9b44beThree years ago, I knew it was my dad’s last Christmas. It was bittersweet. I didn’t know exactly when he would die, but I knew it would come before the next Christmas. It was shorter than I expected – only a couple weeks later. And it was difficult. Yet there was a sweetness to that Christmas despite the uncertainty. There were several moments that are etched in my mind, because I was intentional about looking around, noticing the details, and taking a deep breath to soak it in.

The following year was difficult, but I took the grief process one step at a time and learned a new rhythm of life. There were more moments of grief as a good friend’s husband unexpectedly died in an accident and a friend and mentor died after a short and ugly cancer battle. Death awakens us and adjusts our perspective on life. I also adjusted to a new job, enjoyed adjusting to a daughter and son-in-law moving closer to me, helped my mom as much as I could, and bought a house and moved with my then-husband.

Christmas approached, and while it had a taste of bittersweet to it, I also felt a deeply abiding joy. I had settled deeper into God’s presence through the grief process. I was healing. I sat in the corner and looked around the living room in the new house, filled with our family – our two daughters and the men they loved. We laughed, made new memories, and I sighed. Like the year before, I was intentional about looking around, noticing the details, and taking a deep breath to soak it in. I appreciated life and relationships in a clarifying way.

But I didn’t notice all the details.

What I didn’t know waa there was another person in that room, not physically, but relationally. My ex was in the process of leaving his family, and throughout that day, he contacted his girlfriend many times. It might have appeared as if he was there and invested in the rest of us, but he had stepped away emotionally. He was on his way out. He wouldn’t announce it until about six weeks later, but every Christmas gathering that year – with our immediate family, his extended family, and my extended family – included his girlfriend and his disconnection.

I was about to face grief yet again, although this time, I didn’t expect it.

Would it have mattered? I’m not sure. What I know is this: grief is a process. It looks different based on our perspective. It is difficult. It is revealing. It can be confusing and clarifying. It burdens us, yet we also experience uplifting moments as we do life authentically with others and heal along the way.

I know a lot of people will deal with grief this Christmas. Some are reeling from it. Some know it’s coming. Others, including me, have no idea what the day after Christmas or the new year will bring.

Regardless of what you’re aware of and what you’re experiencing, be intentional about looking around, noticing the details, and taking a deep breath to soak it in. Appreciate life and relationships in whatever snapshots you can.

Life can be bitter at times, but it is sweet, too.

Family Time

39453219_10155829003641295_3425556475227930624_nI got to spend the day with my son-in-law. It was just him and me, painting the kitchen. We both like to paint. We are both fairly picky. I wondered how we’d work together.
The day started off well when I saw how well-organized he was. He’d done the time-consuming prep work of taping, taking off and labeling cabinet doors, setting up outside work space, and so on. He’d thought through the various jobs we had and the dry time for each, so he had a plan to maximize the day. It didn’t take long for us to settle in and make progress.

Throughout the day, we listened to worship music, laughed as he Face-timed a sister, heard and discussed several messages from favorite speakers, discussed the confusion over sections of Scripture, and talked about everyday life. We also enjoyed moments of quiet as we worked hard. My daughter/his wife made sure we were fed well throughout the day even though she couldn’t be around the paint fumes. Of course, I would have enjoyed her company, too, but I have to admit: spending time with my son-in-law was good. The two of us had taken a short road trip the week before and had a great time.

It’s good to extend family. It’s good to open our lives to others, especially those who become important to the people closest to us. We don’t choose who our kids marry, but we choose how we accept and grow with them. I get to “mom” another person, one who is important to me. Plus, he comes from a large family. While I might not see them often, they are an extension of him, and I consider them my extended family. More people to encourage; more people to encourage and love the people I love.

Marriage doesn’t assure or require we accept and invest in others. We can refuse to truly welcome people. We can reject, demean, and leave people. But if we do, we miss out. Family is more than obligatory family traditions. Family is doing life together – adventures, celebrations, conflicts, challenges, and more. It’s not picking and choosing when it’s convenient and comfortable.

In that one day of power painting, we finished the kitchen. (Well, he put it all back together once I left.) We made things more beautiful but the process was messy. In fact, I even left a bit of mess behind when they noticed a splatter of paint I must have left on my last quick painting pass before packing up to go home.

They can clean it up. After all, that’s what we do for each other as family.

Trails of Life

photo-1497003874741-791915795a6bI’ve previously written about my experiences of riding behind my dad on the ATV. I haven’t ridden behind my mom as much, but I recently sat back and enjoyed a leisurely ride. We rode the usual paths to look at the sunflower field at the end of its prime, the pumpkin field just coming into its prime, and the freshly-cleared trails. The air had an almost-fall crispness.

Memories flooded my mind and heart as we slowly meandered. We were on the hills that had been covered with trees when I was young. The family worked hard to pick up the debris from the bulldozing process, so the land could be tilled without damaging equipment. My daughters and I had sledded on those same hills, and many extended family gatherings involved piling onto a trailer behind the ATV as we ventured on scavenger hunts. I’d walked those hills many times, sometimes to enjoy the beauty, other times to fit in a workout, yet others to cry and grieve in my comfortable place of solitude. I’d fed cattle along that trail, always thrilled when they would see us coming and run to greet us because they were ready to eat. I’d checked and helped repair fences. I’d walked with my pets through the years. I’d taken dad’s dog for slow runs near the end of his life.

But my ride wasn’t just about the past. Those trails are packed with meaning and memories for me, and as I sat behind mom on the ATV, I added yet another memory. I’d been there before, but each time adds meaning. Each time adds significance. Each time adds appreciation of where I’ve been and anticipation for where I get to go.

Similar experiences don’t always create ruts for us. Sometimes it breeds a familiarity that invites widened experiences. We notice details we didn’t see before. We appreciate changes through seasons and life stages. We don’t need things to be the same every time, because we value moving on. Moving on doesn’t always include leaving something behind; it often builds on what has been. We can focus on the gaps and the “wish there had been more.” We can focus on the regrets, the “wish that hadn’t happened,” like knowing my ex had also walked some of that same trail during a family holiday gathering while on the phone with his girlfriend weeks before announcing he was leaving our marriage. But while someone else’s choices affect us, they don’t determine the context of what we move forward with. We get to assign significance. We get to keep experiences and memories in context.

I love the trails of my childhood that have deepened into the trails of my adulthood. Trails that haven’t all been fun but have been filled with rich memories of people I love. I can’t live on those trails, but they are part of my life’s road map, and I am thankful for them. As I rode behind my mom, I leaned back and looked into the sky. I took a deep breath to soak in the moment. Such a pure moment to enjoy a sweet slice of life.

Adventures Together

photo-1504567961542-e24d9439a724I enjoy hanging out with and helping my mom. When my dad was going through treatments for melanoma, I got into the habit of helping around the house and yard every week or so. My parents are workers, so while they didn’t really need my help, they always had projects going on.

My work schedule doesn’t allow as much flexibility as I once had, but I still try to spend weekly time with my mom, and at least every few visits, I ask what projects are on her list. I enjoy helping however I can.

Recently, we had a full morning planned. It got redirected first thing when one of her neighbors called to see if she/we could pick green beans. One of his regular pickers cancelled. Not only did I get fresh beans for the week, I also got to spend time catching up with one of my very best childhood friends. And we had the added adventure of maneuvering the exceptionally muddy garden.

Mom and I returned to her house and hosed off buckets, shoes, and ourselves before more adventures. We (hopefully) cleared a gutter, de-birdnested her garage, and trimmed trees. That’s the simple explanation of what we did. A bit more detail: I chickened out climbing onto the roof, might be scarred for life by the denesting experience, and had a blast trying to trim tree branches while standing on the back of the ATV while Mom drove. The fact that neither of us got hurt or caught poison oak from our adventures is remarkable.

We had fun together. We accomplished a lot. We made more memories together.

My mom has been through a lot in the last several years. She stood by my dad and loved him well through some tough treatments and decisions. She said goodbye to her very best friend and life partner. She watched my pain as the person I loved and she welcomed into the family as a son walk away with betrayal, dishonesty, and disregard.

Yet we laugh. We move forward. We appreciate what we have. And we have plenty.

Appreciate the adventures of today and the people in your life. Take time to look around, take a breath, and smile.

Two I Do’s and One I Don’t

photo-1488563191899-79b83cb52fb9Marriage begins by imagining what you want life to look like together. Then it becomes real, and you leave the fantasy behind. It’s hard sometimes, but you choose to say I do again and again and again. It’s messy sometimes. But choosing I do when it’s hard and messy is one of the things that makes it deeply relevant. Saying I do makes the sacrifices worthwhile, because we commit to togetherness. We commit to teamwork.

Until someone says I don’t.

Anybody can say I don’t at any time, even when you least expect it, even when you’ve been intentionally saying I do. It takes two I do‘s to get married, and only one I don’t to end the marriage. And those two words have ripple effects across many lives, whether it’s I do or I don’t.

What ripple effects are you creating in the lives of the family, friends, and community in which you’ve been building a life? The do or the don’t?

Thanks.

Thanks to my mom.

Thanks to my daughters.

Thanks to my friends who have parented alongside me.

Thanks to people who have parented me or my girls as if we were your own at times.

Thanks to people who influenced my mom into the woman she became.

None of the people I thank in this brief post are perfect. But we have shared adventures, memories, grief, struggles, silliness, inside jokes, and many smiles together. Our lives will forever be entwined.

You have made my life richer.

Thank you.

Boomerang Encouragement

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Boomerang encouragement: when my daughter takes some of the cards I sent her through her college years and repurposes them into a cheerful collage to encourage me through a tough season.

I know it was a sacrifice. She kept every single card I sent her while she was at college, which was about one card each week. And she can quickly recall what was going on during the season she received many of the cards. She had mentioned many times that she’d like to do something with them someday. I thought about confiscating them a couple times and creating something new with them, but I didn’t want to disappoint her if I created something she didn’t love.

Then she gave them back to me. I don’t know when she had the time to do it, because it was a hectic, emotionally-exhausting time, not just for me but for her, too. But perhaps creating this for me was somehow healing. Whatever her experience with it, it has become one of the very favorite gifts I have ever received.

I don’t encourage others with the intent to have them encourage me in return. In fact, I think that defeats the purpose and purity of encouragement. But sometimes it comes back hundredfold.

Perhaps you could reflect some encouragement back to someone today, someone who has encourage you through the years. You don’t have to be as creative as my daughter.

Simply encourage.