October 7, 2014

holy grief

I was fifteen when I learned a solemn and irritating truth: Christians aren't super skilled when it comes to helping people grieve.

There is this skittery panic that ripples through the church pews when A Griever enters the building.
First, everyone wants to make sure that they say just the right thing to help you know that you can trust God even though you just lived through a trauma that will most likely scar you for the rest of your life.
Secondly, they want to ascertain whether or not you are "okay". They will ask you prodding and inappropriate questions like "How are you doing?" or even worse "How are you handling things?"
"Like a boss. I mean, I'm SUPER GOOD at going to my mom's funeral, thanks for asking."

The funeral was just the worst. Worse than the month before when my best friends and their mom took me to the mall to find a fancy black dress to wear to the impending funeral. I vividly recall standing in front of the mirror at the mall in Kearney, Nebraska (at a JC Penny's, I believe), making morbid jokes about my sexy black funeral dress.

Harder days followed. I had been raised in a home and church where I felt pressure to perform...and so, even as I grieved, I felt the need to keep it together, to cry the right way, to say the right things, to wrap up my sorrow with a tidy "I'm Still a Christian" bow.

A woman once advised me that it was "okay" to question God and lament - after all, even the psalmists did that. "But look at how those Psalms ended...they question God in the beginning, but they always end with praise."

I remember even then thinking that was pretty terrible advice.
We have no idea how long it took a Psalmist to reach that point of praise. 
Who's to say that David didn't start his lament as a 20 year old, and 30 years later finally decide that he could "publish" that Psalm with a praise chorus at the end?

And besides that, I want to push back a bit on this mindset of there being a Right Way and a Wrong Way to grieve.
There seems to be this unwritten code in the Church that ascribes a certain allowance of questioning, a certain level of doubt, and a certain time frame in which a person is allowed to be sad.
And then, it's time to move on. It's time to stop crying during "Blessed be your name" and it's definitely time to stop acting traumatized.

I think that this comes from a very intense level of unease that sits just below the platitudes and easy advice. I think  we say stupid things and give simple answers because we are all terrified at what the Severe Mercy of God might mean for our lives.
We are afraid that God's goodness for us might involve cancer, car accidents, miscarriages, or worse.
We want to believe that it won't happen to us.
And we definitely want to believe that if it does happen to us, everything will turn out for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.

Here's the sucky part:
It DOES turn out for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. And it also still feels really terrible for the rest of your life. For some reason, this just isn't accepted by a lot of Christians. We want for God's healing to come now.

But isn't it possible that God's goodness doesn't wipe away the sorrow of death, at least not immediately? Is it possible that God's goodness, his absolute best for us, is going to feel like the shittiest thing ever for years, maybe even decades?

Is it possible to trust God, and at the same time not make it through the song Great is Thy Faithfulness?

Is it possible that there is nothing more asked of us than to grieve the effects of sin and death with every ounce of our being?

My mom died in May of 2003. I was 15 when she died. The grief was crippling at first. Vomit-inducing. Puffy eye crying was the norm. I cried at school. I wept at home. I thought about her constantly. I kept track of how many days she had been dead. I journaled my anger. I questioned God. I poured over the psalms. I memorized scripture. I tried to forget scripture.
And in all of that, I believe with all of my heart that my grief was honoring to God.

I remembering hearing a verse quoted often after my mom's death...
"We do not grieve as those who have no hope." 

And I second that sentiment. There is hope, and there is a future that does not include death. I believe that my mom's soul is not gone forever. She is more alive than she has ever been.

But does that verse imply that we are not allowed to grieve?
No, it says that we grieve differently. We grieve as those who have hope. 

I think grieving with hope does not include pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and moving on with life. In fact, I think it is very possible that all grieving - by those with and without hope - is honoring to God.

Here's why.
God did not create us for death.
He created us for life, wholeness, eternal wellness and unending relationships.
He did not create our souls with the capacity to absorb watching babies and mommies and brothers and sisters die. It breaks us. This is why we have words like "broken hearted". Do we think God created us with the intention of our hearts being broken? No.
Illness, disease, death. These are all results of the fall.
Affairs, divorce, racism, indifference. All results of sin in this world.

I grieve daily. Sometimes it is the memories of watching my mom suffer that grieve me. Sometimes, it is me wishing I could watch her hold my babies and play with Elliot. Other days, I grieve my own depression. I grieve the effects of sin on my brain, my health, my marriage, my relationships. I grieve the reality that there are new orphans every day, children dying from unclean water, adults selling their daughters into sex slavery.

I grieve because my heart was not made to contain the realities of sin and death.
I grieve because the holiness of God drives me to hate sin.
I grieve because I believe God. I believe Him when he says that we were not made for this. I believe that there was a better plan.
I believe that this grief is holy. And even in this holy grief, I trust Him. I fear the effects of sin at times; I fear that my babies will die, that my husband will get ill, that despite all of my efforts to prevent my mother's story becoming my story, I will someday find a lump. I fear because I do not yet know Him fully. I press on to know Him more, to trust Him more, to cling to The Promise.

And I cling to the reality - the hope - that this holy grief will not be forever.
How long, O Lord?
This is the groaning recorded in Revelation, spoken not by unbelievers, but of the Redeemed.
The Song of the Redeemed...How long, O Lord? 
I long for ultimate redemption. I cling to glimpses of The Story being woven into my story.
Someday, tears will be wiped away.
Someday, redemption will draw near and we will know fullness of life.
Until then, I grieve with a holy grief, I trust the Severe Mercy of God that uses suffering and even death to write a story that will end with no more sorrow.

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
[Psalm 13:1-2]

October 3, 2014

just like her momma

My sweet little baby Elliot turned two years old today.

She is a fireball. She laughs loud, screams louder, and you never have to guess how she is feeling.

She is so much like me.

She looks so much like her daddy...but wow, I am just never in doubt that she is my daughter.

 I find myself resonating with her passion, her feisty "NO!", her constant desire to "GO GO GO!"
And I often wonder...will she be just like me? 
Will she suffer from thinking that God has abandoned her?
Will her brain struggle to produce enough chemicals to be happy?
Will she cry herself to sleep for a decade?
Will she feel like a constant failure?
Will she consider ending her own life?

Being a mommy is crazy amazing; it is also terrifying.

And so, on my daughter's second birthday, a letter to her, words that I hope she will never need. But if she does, I hope these words wrap her up tight and help her know without a doubt that she is loved, she is safe, and that she is not alone. 

Dear Elliot, 
You are two years old today.
I watch you running through the house, shouting "GO GO GO" and asking with excitement in your voice "Go outside? Gonna go outside?" and my heart squeezes tight. You are bursting with joy; your smile and laughter fills our house and I wonder, will you lose your love for life someday? 
I think of my own mommy, and I wonder how she would have handled my depression. I wished so many times she could have been there to love me and hold me and wipe away my tears. She made me laugh. She made everything so fun. I needed her so badly. 
If you are depressed someday, I hope I am there for you. I hope we have a relationship in which you can trust me with your pain. 
But just in case, Elliot Kaylene, please hear these words.

First of all, this is not your fault. Being depressed does not make you a failure. It does not make you less of a Christian. There is no way to pray yourself out of depression. There are no formulas to make it all better. Your brain is struggling to produce the right chemicals it needs to be "normal". That's it. It's not simple - in fact, brain chemistry is extremely complicated. But please, if you hear nothing else, please here me now: this is NOT YOUR FAULT.

Elliot, God is near to the brokenhearted... but's okay if you don't want him near. It's okay if you swear at him and tell him to leave. The reality is, He will never leave you. There are so many times in my life that I look back on and know he was near, even when I didn't want him to be. He's kind of annoying that way, like a best friend who won't leave you alone no matter how mean you are to them. There's nothing you can do to change that. He doesn't care if you're being a jerk. He doesn't care if you say the f-word in church (trust me) and he doesn't care if you don't read your Bible. He loves you because you are HIS. And again, he knows that this depression is not your fault.

On that note, let's talk about Christians. Elliot, there are a lot of Christians who have no idea how to handle depression. They really aren't terrible people...at least not all of them. They aren't mean; I think more so they are just stupid. Honestly, I'm surprised I never caused bodily harm to anyone at church. It's okay if you don't want to be around large groups of Christians right now. They aren't all bad...find a few friends who love you for who you are, who know that you are just trying to survive right now, and be with them. Let them care for you. Don't feel guilty for not attending church.

Finally, sweet Elliot, do everything you can to care for yourself.
Try to sleep as often as you can.
Be with people who make you laugh.
Be with people who understand when laughing isn't an option for you.
If you need to eat a big steak every single night for a week, do it. Add a pan of brownies too.
If you need to binge on your favorite TV show instead of going to school for a day, do it.
This is a season. This is not forever. And right now, the priority is finding joy and rest where they can be found.

This is not your fault. You will get through this. You are an amazing person with an annoying brain. Your depression does not define YOU, it just defines a season of your life in which you had a chemical imbalance in your brain. Someday, you will look back and see the ways God was faithful even in this season. Until then, swear a little, eat a pan of brownies, and try not to hurt any stupid people.

You are loved with an everlasting love.

October 2, 2014

in sickness, health, and suicidal depression

I was fifteen years old when my mom died of cancer.
Two years later, my grief was still crippling. Tears were my constant companion. Hope was a foreign concept.
When I was seventeen, I made the best decision of my life and agreed to meet with a counselor.
We met weekly. I cried a lot. Healing came slowly.
The counseling started as grief-counseling. Two years later, my counselor felt that I needed to see a doctor for my depression. So I took a deep breath and made the appointment.

Medication did not help. My depression continued to get worse and worse.
Year after year, I struggled with bouts of depression. Even as my faith grew deeper and my heart grieved less intensely, the depression just grew more and more debilitating.

On May 19th in 2008, my heart exploded with joy when my good friend Jeremy asked me to date him. We had a wonderful two weeks of movie watching, hand holding, and late night conversations.
And then, another round of depression hit.

It was a muggy evening in June when we took a walk through his favorite childhood park.
Dandelions littered an open field. An old jungle gym stood in the distance. Traffic noises filled in the silence. He held my hand. We walked through the field. I cried silent tears.
I was so sad.

He broke the silence after a while. He said that he had been praying for weeks about whether he should continue to date me. He was struggling with thoughts of being with a woman who was suicidal. He wondered if the timing was right.

God had spoken to him, he told me. And God had asked him to commit to me now, no matter what may happen in the future. So he did.

Less than a year later, he asked me to be his wife in that same field.

In late summer, we stood before hundreds of friends and all of our family, and we made promises. To love, to cherish, to have and hold. In sickness and in health, we said. We promised. I choked back tears, and promised him Until we are parted by death. 

It's amazing how often death tries to part us, even when we are still walking on this earth.
We have fought for each other, clung to each other, held each other tight.
So many nights, I have wept in his arms. Panic, fear, hopelessness have threatened to choke the life, the faith, from my body. Jeremy has been there to loosen the binds.

I cannot imagine what it must be like to hear your best friend, the love of your life cry tears of sorrow, hear the hopelessness in her voice as she whispers, I just want to die...
The words have slipped from my lips more times than I can count.
My heart aches, thinking of the fear and desperation these words must have brought my husband.
But he did not waiver.

He has hoped for me when I couldn't muster the strength to dare to believe that things might ever get better. He has smiled when I could not.

He is not perfect. He is not God.
But in the darkness, the hopelessness, the depression and the sorrow, being held and cared for by my husband was the only thing that could convince me that maybe, just maybe, there was still a loving God.

[quote from Sara Groves, Different Kinds of Happy]

loving (and not loving) your baby...

Depression is not new to me.

Although God granted me a season without symptoms of depression, when I found myself sitting in a room full of people and feeling oh-so-alone once again, it felt eerily like home.

Depression is not my home. It is not where I choose to make my dwelling. But it has followed me for years...decades, demanding to sit with me, sleep with me, nestling into the deep places where all of my hurts and fears reside.

This time, after almost two years of reprieve, depression returned while I was holding a newborn.

Post partum depression.
I was not surprised.
I knew what it was.
I wasn't afraid.
But now, I sat with my thoughts, pondering this new twist.
I don't love my baby.

I sat still and absorbed the thought, not with shock, but with resignation.

Simply hours after the traumatic birth of my 2nd child, I had spoken words full of regret to my husband. In the quietness of the "recovery" room at the hospital, regret, horror and shock tumbled from my lips. I looked down at my sweet, perfect daughter, and I whispered through tears.

This wasn't worth it. 
That was the worst thing that has ever happened to me. 

Two weeks later, I thought the depression was linked to the birth. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common for women to experience after traumatic births.
But day after day passed, and the depression settled in.

I do love my baby, I insisted to myself.
Week after week, the panicked sadness continued.
Days of resenting her newborn cries.
Hours of wishing I could shut my toddler in a room so I didn't have to deal with her.
And the worst of all...wishing I had never gotten married, I had never had children, that I had chosen to kill myself back in college before I had attached myself to so many people.

Life just feels like an endless series of sucker punches.
And I find myself looking around and wondering, how is it that we are all still somehow surviving, somehow clinging to hope, somehow still grasping for meaning.

This season of depression is different than it was seven years ago.
In the past, part of my depression story included trying to figure out who I believed God was.
Now, there is a settledness to this depression; I know He is good.
But wow, life is still just so shitty.
Depression takes my mind so quickly to The Worst Possibilities.
I imagine deaths, illnesses, accidents, and I grieve these sorrows.
 I can taste the salty tears, feel the tightness of my throat, hear the despair of my soul.
My God, My God, why do you continue to forsake me? 
He has not forsaken. I remind myself, over and over, with tears slipping down my cheeks and onto the head of my newborn. Not Forsaken, I rise. I push thoughts of death from my heart, and I preach.
God's goodness has never forsaken you, I insist.

But the reality of death, the deep ache of sorrow, and the painful piercing of God's severe mercy follows me through the quiet hours of being a young mom. Toddler Shrieks and Baby Wails go in one ear and out the next. I wander through life in a trance, washing dishes, throwing toys in a basket, arranging blankets, and in the quietness of my despairing soul, I grasp for God, for grace, for mercy.

glimpses of grief, depression, and the severe mercy of God

I am joining the blog world in writing for thirty one days this month (October, 2014).

It has been a while since I have chosen to write on a public forum about my journey with grief, depression and bipolar disorder. It's hard to open up those deep feelings on a regular basis. It's even harder to stop myself in the midst of a busy day to ponder the questions that ache so deep within...

If you have friends who struggle with depression, or if you personally have battled depression, I hope this blog is a place of solace, a place where you can relate to, learn from, and cry with me.

There aren't easy answers, but sometimes the greatest comfort in the long journey of grief and depression is knowing that you are not alone.

1: loving (and not loving) your babies

2: in sickness, health and suicidal depression
3: just like her momma