I Danced

dancing

Last Saturday morning, I walked with a family as they said goodbye to their baby. My heart ached for them as we created some tangible memories. I carried them with me…pieces of their pain, forever woven into the fabric of my heart. Every time I wash a tiny baby foot, the humbling privilege of washing feet, as mentioned in scripture, washes over me. How our Jesus values every single life.

As I left in the van, the tears I carefully held back dripped down my face. I watched them holding hands, entering a world without their baby. I felt the ripping raw pain as I drove. Their pain. My pain. The pain of thousands of other parents who once walked out that door into a completely different world.

Life was waiting for me at home.

My son’s band was playing at the Corn City Festival, and our house would be filled with guests. Soon the combination of music and being surrounded by people I love, lifted my heart a bit. I thought of Angie Smith’s famous words, “Life is a sacred dance of grief and joy.” Yes. Yes it is. There’s so much grief carried in this tattered heart of mine.

But…there is also joy. And, sometimes, these tired feet just have to dance.

I danced most of the night, thanks to friends and my darling kitchen boys. I danced with every one of them. At first, I felt a little self-conscious. I’ve never been heavier or older than I am right now. Curvy girls jiggle when they dance. For just a wee moment, I was uncomfortable, silently focusing on my flaws. And, then this fabulous freedom swept over me, as one of the kitchen boys twirled me around in the middle of the street, in front of the stage, at our tiny railroad town festival. This life is short, and I may never have the chance to dance in the middle of the street with my beloved, beautiful kitchen boys and half the town…and eventually in the arms of my husband…again. (Even he can’t resist that kind of contagious joy.) We don’t know what tomorrow holds. So, I danced, with complete abandon. For hours.

And, once I stopped worrying about the things that just don’t matter this side of heaven, I began to feel beautiful. And, loved.

I felt loved by my friends, my kitchen boys, my Tim…and most of all… loved by God.

I felt Him whisper as I laughed and spun…

You are cherished. You are beautiful. You are dearly loved. You are Mine. And, I see you, dear daughter of my heart.

Oh, how grateful I am that I did not allow a few extra pounds and some grey hair to keep me from dancing freely. The kind of dancing that heals the soul-ache of a weary heart. Dear women everywhere, there is nothing more beautiful than a confident, joy-filled, free woman. No matter how she is packaged.

You are cherished. You are beautiful. You are dearly loved. You are His. He sees you, dear daughter of his heart.

So, dance. Dance freely, covered in His grace and love for you. And, remember…radiant joy covers a multitude of jiggles (and other flaws).

 

Photo credit

My Grandfather: King of the Little Things

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James Bodenbender was born in 1933. He died on November 13, 2016. His mother was dearly loved by all who knew her for the way she made her home a haven to those who entered. His father died when he was just 10 years old. He didn’t graduate high school, because he signed up to join the army. He fought in the Korean War, serving his country well. He was a scrappy young man with a love for beer and ladies. Always ready with a swagger and an outrageous story to tell.  He was a boxer, and no stranger to bar fights. Apparently even once fighting a peacock in a bar! That’s the man I’ve heard tale of, but he isn’t the man I knew in my lifetime. He would always tell us stories…elaborate, unbelievable stories. We never really knew if they were true or not, but then again, Grandpa was such a character anything seemed possible. Some were from his boxing days…or stories about other interesting characters he knew. We had nicknames for him…Grandpa Dundee because of his Crocodile Dundee hat and most well-known, Grandpa Holy Mackerel…due to his vivacious love for the phrase: “Hoooooly Mackerel!!”

What I didn’t know about my grandfather is that he achieved the unheard of honor of working his way from general laborer to superintendent in his construction career, educating himself on engineering by reading books. My mother described his work as blowing up mountains to build roads and bridges through them. I’m sure it was much more complex than that, of course. But, he was a proud, hard-working, intelligent man who did not allow the lack of a traditional education to keep him from educating himself and achieving his goals.

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He married my grandmother, Marge, and they had six children. Their relationship was tumultuous, as he continued his outrageous antics. Both with fiery personalities and a strong will, they divorced while the children were still young. Proud and stubborn, neither admitted it much, but a tender place remained in their hearts beneath the pain. For, they did dearly love each other once. And, that kind of love doesn’t just disappear.

Doris was the woman I saw him with the most when we were growing up. He would smile with his entire face, eyes disappearing, as he put his arm around her, or my mother, or me. Many of our family vacations included visits to the various places he lived. He usually lived in places that had hills or mountains…so it was always a beautiful drive. Much more to feast our eyes on than the flat lands of our home in the Midwest. I especially loved to visit him in the fall when the trees were changing colors. Gorgeous tree-covered mountain splendor. We would play car bingo and eat snacks on the way. He had an Atari and an Intellivision that we loved. And a keyboard that played different rhythms. One time, we found the best walking stick ever and walked around the mountains with our find. My brothers loved it! You really can’t beat a good walking stick. Grandpa was telling us stories about mountain lions (which may or may not have actually lived in the area) while we walked. Doris was a southern lady, and always looked at our grandfather with such admiration. She was welcoming and kind, although they two had their troubles. After they parted ways, he moved to our small town for a time, much to my mother’s delight. She always had a special bond with him and it meant so much to her to have him close. My youngest brother, Sean, took a special liking to Grandpa in those days and they’ve continued their bond through the years. They  are two peas in a pod, full of bologna, crazy antics, and unbelievable stories.  His time with us included a whirlwind road trip, a pet pig (in town), and holidays with his famous grin.

Elaine was the woman who loved him during the last 12 years of his life, caring for him in sickness, watching the Molly B Polka Show, and laughing with him. They called each other each night at 7pm if they were apart.  Grandpa loved her and her children and grandchildren as if they were his own. He was so grateful for her part in his life, and so are we.

Reflecting on his life and love in the last few weeks, I wrote…

We talked today about the thing that matters most as we reflect back on our lives…love. He held my hand tightly, whispering, “There’s so much love…so many different kinds of love…in this world. So many, I don’t even know. It’s the only thing that matters.”

My grandfather was a simple man, shopping at the Goodwill store and flea markets. Oh, how he loved a good deal! He found simple treasures everywhere. Jars and jars of his beloved marbles. Bells he collected, rescuing and repairing the broken ones to fill his time. In the last days of life, he said, “You don’t think the little things matter much, but they do. They mean so much. The little things are everything.”

He loved nature, building a house in the country with a fish-filled pond near the woods where deer and the occasional fox would wander. He made the best venison jerky around. He fed the birds and laughed at the squirrels from his porch swing. A mighty, strong man, he overcame a stroke, various forms of cancer, heart disease, and more throughout his time on earth.

Regarding one health scare in 2009, (from a former blog post):

“Grandpa was just battling for his own life in the hospital recently. He woke up not able to walk. He crawled to the door and drove himself to the hospital. After frightening a nurse when he motioned to her to come to the car (it was the middle of the night.), someone finally brought him a wheelchair and got him into the hospital. Yes…most people would have just called the EMS. Grandpa Dundee is not most people. After being told, his chances were very grim. And if he walked again, he would have to recover in a nursing home, Grandpa said, (not so sweetly) that he would have none of it. He walked out of the hospital several days later. And he is currently at home, in his house in the country, refusing a nurse’s care. Watching the squirrels slide down the pole (that he greased, so they couldn’t steal the bird seed in the bird feeder!) And eating his six year old turkey jerky. Because he can.”

He lived 7 more years after that.

Much of his last days brought back memories of watching our mother at the end of her life. I wrote these words one week ago:

At the end of her life, my grandfather sat beside my mother’s bedside, just to her left, for 4 weeks. While others were in and out, it was mostly the three of us: my youngest brother Sean, Grandpa, and me…sitting by her bed, interpreting her moans, listening to her raspy breathing patterns, stroking her hair. Me singing or saying a prayer. Mom occasionally waking for a one-liner.

I have buried three of my children, and I can honestly say…those 4 weeks of watching her suffer were the most traumatic of my life…of our lives. It was an honor and a privilege…beauty in the broken…but it was utterly…life-changing…devastating.

The three of us understood like no one else what she endured. My love for our grandfather…and desire to honor him for staying with her…with us…is beyond description. Not only did we not want to leave her in those days…we didn’t want to leave each other…like soldiers in battle together.

Yesterday, I walked into the hospice center…and sat beside him to his left…

We spent so much time with him this month, soaking in his last days. He spoke some of his regrets and I reminded him of the grace and forgiveness Jesus gives us. Nothing can separate us from His love. While looking through boxes of pictures and other mementos he kept throughout the years, I sat in awe, picturing him with a proud grin as he cut out newspaper articles from when his son ran for County Sheriff, my feisty mother’s letters to the editor on a crusade to right the wrongs of the world,  or when his grandchildren were featured in the newspaper for their sports achievements. He was quiet and proud, spending so much time alone. But, it was evident that his family was never far from his heart. I had no idea how much every note, every picture displayed with pride on his refrigerator…meant to him. How he treasured every little piece of our lives. He was in hospice care for 3 weeks at home and spent one week in the in-patient facility before passing on to glory. He said several times that those 3 weeks had been the best of his life, surrounded by love and family. He had seen his family more in the last 3 weeks than he had in the last 30 years. Those words pierced my heart in a way I hope to never forget.

Many precious hours have been spent holding my grandfather’s hand the last few weeks. In the picture above, as my sister-in-law, Megan, and I were holding his hands, he put them together. Such beauty in the holding of a hand. Even when there are no words spoken, love is expressed.

Time stops at the beginning and the end of our earthly lives, so that we soak in the moments that matter. I wish we stopped a little more in the middle, sometimes.

 

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The Broken Stuff

It’s been awhile since I’ve waxed poetic in the wee hours. High time for some heart ramblings. They usually flow so easily, begging for release. Tonight, they are tumbling around in this head and heart of mine, in a nonsensical dance.

The past few weeks, I’ve felt like I’m living in The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. If you haven’t read it, do so. It is one of the most accurate pictures of spiritual warfare I’ve experienced. The same taunting themes dangled in front of me again and again, a parade of mockery and discouragement. I find that speaking truth aloud steals the power from lies. Fleeing the one tempting you toward destruction quiets the noise…for a bit, anyway. Until the next wave.

“Take every thought captive into the obedience of Christ.” I cling to the reminder, run to the truth like a desperate, starving escaped prisoner, finally free.

On Monday, we started our first in a series of weekly bible studies we will be doing on the book Anchored by Erin Cushman. (If you’re local, please join us in person Mondays at 6:30pm EST at SGM…and if you’re anywhere in the world, the study will be streamed live and recorded. Week One video displayed here. You can join the discussion and find other support in our Walking With You Facebook Group.)

Anyway, as the part of the study we had to choose five words that would maybe describe us 10 years from now as a woman…after walking through loss. One of my words was brave. I shared during the study that I think my definition of the word brave has changed over the years as I’ve walked through grief and healing and life. I used to think brave meant…looking strong and tough, not being afraid. Now I find vulnerability and realness and often tears or the sharing of struggles to be brave…more courageous than hiding behind a façade. Doing something anyway when you’re most afraid and filled with doubt and fear.

After a long couple weeks filled with struggles on all fronts, I was preparing to go to lead an after school program where SGM talks with high school and middle school students about healthy ways to grieve and express emotions. I was feeling kind of broken today as I prepared to leave. Kind of emptied and unsure what was left to give. It’s often when I feel that way the most that the loaves and fishes flow from my not enough.

I had forgotten once again, in my weary, about God’s extraordinary math…the way He fills in the pouring out.

Today’s activity was to use the acknowledgment pages from my book, Sufficient Grace, to share about the ways that people influence our lives. And, how even the painful relationships or the broken things in our lives can shape us for good and can be part of the acknowledgment pages of our lives. Then, each student would take some time to write their own acknowledgment page. Who would they thank for making them who they are today?

It’s seriously a soul-searching thing that everyone should do at least once. I’ve mentioned before, it was the hardest thing for me to write in the entire book. It’s a powerful thing to do. Even to reflect on those who may have hurt us the most. Those who left some of the broken stuff we carry around in our hearts. Or the people who were there for us when no one else was, the people who believed we could and the ones who doubted our worth and abilities.

So, as I stood before them in my secret weariness, loaves and fishes came forth. They displayed the brave that few know. They with their broken stuff oozing real and beautiful. They who sometimes have been forgotten, cast aside, treated with ugliness, abuse, and neglect. They who wonder if anyone sees…if anyone hears. Finding hope in knowing that they matter. Finding hope by standing together. Finding hope by searching through the rubble of all the broken pieces for the beauty that shines forth beneath the destruction. The beauty God places in the depths of a human heart, beating hope with each defiant breath. Hope that fights to survive and shine light in the dark places. They with all the brave and beautiful broken left me with tears hanging in the corners of my eyes. Thankful once again that I didn’t miss this divine appointment. This work that matters throughout eternity. Because my God is the one who seeks to save that which was lost. My God is the King of finding beauty in the broken…of hope rising eternal…of survival…of light in the dark places…of the brave of vulnerability. And, He will hunt us down with His love.

As I see them, He whispers, “I see you.”

And, I am a puddle of humbled small thinking how I was just hours before wrestling with my need to know that the work I do is relevant or worthy or blah…blah…blah. Somehow whatever seemed so pressing disappears in the face of the raw beauty of realness and courage to speak about the hard things…the heart things. Most of the time we who teach are actually the ones learning. Suddenly all that was weighing on my heart before I walked in seemed so inconsequential in the presence of their brave, beautiful, broken offerings. The fact that they allow me to see a glimpse into those sacred places a gift of unspeakable value.

It’s easy to get distracted from the real work…the work that matters…the purpose God has laid out for us. Before we know it, our energy has been wasted on something that will never matter in the grand scheme of eternity. While fighting the good fight to resist the temptation to allow discouragement to take over and steal my focus from the sacred work there is an ongoing battle to remember to keep my eyes fixed on Jesus and serving others by pouring out His love. Not to look at results or measure the worth or relevance or the number of people who will stand with you or acknowledge your efforts….but to be truly hidden in Christ…so free from being swayed by the constant distractions or whispers of doubt because I’m just His and the “me” part just doesn’t matter. It is a constant battle to die to self.

The verse below was a good reminder. Do what matters. Do what will last. Do it for the right reasons. Don’t look at anyone else. Spend your time on the precious stones, the gold and silver…and forget the wood, hay, and straw. Leave that to someone else.

“For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is.”
I Corinthians 3:11-13

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If Only You Had Enough Faith

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A conversation yesterday regarding a mother facing a life-limiting diagnosis in pregnancy unlocked emotions laying dormant in my depths for more than a decade. Those words, spewing the barbed accusations of not enough.

If you only have enough faith you will be well. Your babies will be well. Your mother will be well.

If you pray believing, then it will be so.

People are only sick because they don’t pray with faith, believing they will be healed. They have doubt in their hearts.

In one fell swoop, I was back there…on my knees begging God to show me how to pray with faith. Begging God to spare my son. Because if only…if only I could just learn the lesson I failed to learn the first time I stood beside the tiny grave that held my twin daughters Faith and Grace…then I wouldn’t have to stand beside the grave again holding our son Thomas who had been giving the fatal diagnosis of Potter’s Syndrome.

I was desperate to understand what was required of me. Desperate to have enough faith. To pray correctly. To be counted among the righteous. Desperate in my broken. Desperate as only a mother can be. Desperate.

I tore open my bible, laid on my face covered in tears. Drowning in tears. As the storm raged relentless, both outside and within.

Show me. Show me the kind of faith you require. Show me how to have the faith that pleases you. Show me what I failed to learn the first time, that we would be spared this agony. Show me.

And He did.

In Chapter 7 of my book, Sufficient Grace, I cover the faith-wrestlings by delving into His Word:

Was it enough to believe that God could heal our baby, or were we expected to believe with confidence that He would heal our baby? That seemed a little presumptuous to me. But I wondered about this faith thing. Was my lack of faith the reason for all this agony? If I could just learn the lesson somehow, would we be spared?”

I wanted to understand faith…so I devoured Hebrews chapter 11…known as “the hall of fame of faith.”

I read about how faith is the substance of things hoped for…the evidence of things not seen.

I read about Abraham and David and Rahab and Noah and Moses…all flawed and broken. All full of doubt and unknowing. But still considered faithful. Still considered His.

Most of all, I read about Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. Did He skip to the cross…knowing all would be well, without a moment of doubt or hesitation? What did His faith look like? After all, He is our example. Did He ever wrestle with what lay in front of Him?

I read in Hebrews how Jesus endured the cross despising the shame…yet He did it for the joy set before Him. The joy of heaven, of our restoration. Yet, He asked the Father to take this cup from Him…if there was any other way. He asked three times, resisting to the point of sweating great drops of blood. And, yet…He is our example. He didn’t love the idea of the cross before Him. He knew the beginning from the end. And, it still was agony. Was I faithless because I didn’t love the cross in front of me? No. Even Jesus wrestled with the agony of the cross. And, yet…He surrendered to the Father’s will, believing Him…even in the midst of the agony.

In Hebrews, this powerful verse spoke to my tattered heart in those silent months of carrying our Thomas:

…the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:38-40)

They had to believe God without seeing. To believe Him when things didn’t go as planned. To believe Him when He gave a different answer than they hoped. To believe Him when they didn’t see the promise this side of heaven.

What of Job? Job…counted as righteous, pleasing to God…and yet he lost all that he had.

And, what of Jesus’ conversation with Thomas in John 21…

You believe because you see, Thomas…blessed are those who believe without seeing.

I stumbled in my desperate search, still hoping I could unlock the code, even amongst all this evidence that faith wasn’t about me.

Faith isn’t about how well I believe, how certain I am. How strong. Faith is about trusting my God. No matter what. Believing when I don’t see. Sufficient Grace is about knowing that His strength is made perfect through my weakness. It is not about me getting it right or performing well enough. Such nonsense diminishes the power of my God.

Still…I longed for an answer. So when I read the familiar story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, my mama heart lept. Could it be?

This sickness will not end in death. No, it if for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.

Will he save my Thomas? Is that what He is saying?

I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?

Yes, Lord…I believe this…and I finally understood. Over the course of a few days, the message sunk in. No matter what the outcome, Thomas will live. God whispered to my heart, whether Thomas lived physically on this earth or whether He was made complete in heaven, He would live. He would live…and his life would be a miracle…no matter what. So…I was expecting new life. New beautiful, amazing life. God whispered His promise in the quiet of my kitchen as my tears dripped on the bible before me.” (pg. 83 Sufficient Grace)

So many people praise God when they see the miracle this side of heaven, the miracle of physical healing. But, God is still good when He chooses to heal by taking a soul home to restore brokenness…by healing a marriage, saving a soul, restoring broken faith, deepening our relationships on earth and with Him.
God is still good and worthy of praise when we don’t get the answers we asked for or when there seems to be no answer at all.

This world is a broken place. Filled with brokenness and suffering. Not because God willed it to be so. He is not a Father up there…shaking His finger…saying “If only you believed enough. If only you sinned less. If only you could figure out some hidden lesson, then you would be healed.”

If you never hear anything I’ve spoken or written…please, please HEAR this…that lie that “if only we had enough faith”…is from the pit. It is NOT from God. If that were so, there would be much less suffering and many would never die. I prayed. Desperate prayers. Elders laid hands on me and prayed. But, God still chose to heal my Thomas by taking him Home. That doesn’t mean I am not His. That doesn’t mean He rejected me. That doesn’t mean I am not “faithful enough.” There is no such thing. There is nothing I could do to earn His love or salvation. To be worthy on my own. I am worthy solely because the blood of Jesus covers me. His love, His grace covers us…carries us. He longs to wipe our tears. To mend our broken places. He waits for us outside of the pit, offering a hand…He sits with us in the pit…until we are ready to take His hand. Nothing separates us from His love. Nothing.

I share much more about our faith journey in my book, Sufficient Grace. Because I just want you to know about His Sufficient Grace, I want to offer it at the special bulk rate for anyone who read this post and would like further encouragement in their own faith-wrestlings. Use the bulk-rate button this week until November 21, 2015 to get the $8 rate.

When the World Keeps Turning

I drove through the drive-through eager for sustenance after many hours walking with a grieving family who lost their baby. The sun, feeling warm and too bright at the same time.

“Have a great day!” the friendly worker said with a wide grin.

I nodded numbly, still touched by the raw pain of grief bearing. A little shell-shocked by the stark reality that the world dares to keep turning, while someone else, somewhere is facing a shattered world, shattered dreams.

I flashed to the grandmother’s question:
“How do you do this everyday? How do you not break down and cry?”

I remembered 18 and 17 years ago, when my own world stopped, and the startling injustice of the world’s cheeky resolve to keep turning when mine had come to a screeching halt, lying in helpless pieces in front of me. Because you heal in many ways. You join the spinning pace of planet earth in its relentless rotation. Sometimes maybe even finding comfort in the certainty of it. But you never forget.

“I’m carried. And I do feel it later. I do break down later. But this is your time, and it’s my job to make sure you are supported in this time. I’m also a mom who has said goodbye to her babies. And I know how much this time with your baby means. I want to give you the most we can.”

As I cried over the fast food I shouldn’t have been eating in the car after leaving, feeling the pieces of their pain mixed with my own that always come with the grief bearing, I smiled as I thought of the grandfather’s response after my reassurance that I do have emotion too, and feel the pain with them. I just save it for later.

He said, “I saw her tear up a little bit ago.”

It is a sacred privilege beyond what I can express to care for babies with brief lives and to walk with their families in that most precious time. A lifetime in moments. It is as healing as it is wounding to the soul who walks there bathed in love and grace and peace beyond our human understanding.

The Grief Bearer

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A dear friend was working with me at SGM Headquarters this week. I was preparing a package containing a tiny casket we would be delivering for young parents who had lost their baby. His observation, his words, as I packed the sacred package, have not left my mind since they left his lips.

He spoke of the idea of sin bearers. People who were called to the death bed to take upon themselves the sins of the one leaving this earth. They would carry the sin and the penalty for all the sins of the dying soul. The biblical definition of a sin bearer is: A person or animal that acts in God’s sight in a substitutionary capacity, to whom are transferred the sins of others, together with the corresponding penalty for those sins. (biblegateway.com) We saw this often during the times of animal sacrifice. Before Jesus came to be the once and for all, ultimate, and ONLY worthy sin bearer, to take upon Himself the sins of the world.

It was what he said next that I can’t shake, because for me, one of the most powerful and freeing gifts is to be able to give words to the things that mull around in my depths…to give a name to the sacred wrestlings. Sometimes the names come from unlikely vessels in mundane moments. Most of life is lived in those moments, the worthy things anyway.

“Mrs. Gerken, you are the Grief Bearer. You take some of the pain onto yourself when you enter in with a family. You take their grief. Some of it goes with you.”

I stopped for a moment. It is exactly like that. Some of the pain from each heart enters mine, and we carry it together. Every life I’ve had the privilege of honoring goes with me…both the gifts, and the heaviness. It is a rare gift to be seen and understood by another. And, I will be honest. Few people see me these days…few grasp the heart of what I do, and the consuming craziness of this calling. There is a lonely melancholy to being unseen and misunderstood, but oh… the soothing balm, when someone sees. One beautifully broken soul to another…

I can be the Grief Bearer, bringing shreds of hope to the pits of despair, shining flickers of light in the darkness, only because I don’t have to carry the heavy weight alone. Because, in the carrying…I am carried. Covered by His grace. Filled with His love. Moving as His hands and feet. I won’t say I’m always adept at remembering to give it all over to Him. Some of it is worn on me, with me always. The deep lines in my face…the wrinkle in my forehead, the tired eyes, the dark circles from little sleep, the weary ache in my bones to match the ache of my heart, and a face permanently stained with tears…as if tattooed in a stream down my cheeks.

I wear the evidence with great honor, knowing that it is an unspeakable privilege to be used in this way. Poured out, grace oozing from this broken vessel…this vessel whom He loves. I can bear it, because of Him…and because…There are other things that stay with me, as well…

The grateful hug of a mother clinging to hope. The “thank you” that speaks volumes. The celebration of a life, however brief…but always worthy. The otherworldly experience of standing again and again in the place where heaven meets earth and peace that makes no earthly sense fills the room, overwhelming my senses…and quieting every inch of turmoil in the hearts that beat in that place, in that room. That room, where Jesus comes near…as much for the church goer, as He does for the drug addict.

Joy is sweeter after tasting sorrow. And, laughter escapes my lips as often as tears stain my cheeks. This too, is a gift that comes from bearing grief…my own…and the grief of others.

And, most of all…the gift of knowing Him. Of knowing about the love of my Jesus, the One who sees the most broken individual and says, “I choose that one.” The One Who hunts us down with His love. Each soul. Every soul. No one overlooked. No one unworthy. No one deemed hopeless. No one.

I will wear the name Grief Bearer with gratefulness, because He lives. And, because of His grace and love. And, so the next family doesn’t walk alone.

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Kelly Gerken is a certified SGM/SBD doula and SGM Remembrance Photographer. She walks with families facing the loss of a baby, helping them to embrace the time they are given to say hello and goodbye, to make precious memories. She has served thousands of families through Sufficient Grace Ministries, since founding the organization in 2004.To learn more about the services offered through Sufficient Grace Ministries, click here.

To request a Dreams of You package, click here.

To find out how to get a copy of Kelly’s book about her experience with Sufficient Grace after the loss of three of her five children and the birth of SGM, click here.

The Insatiable Desire to Mother and to Be Mothered

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It exists in each of us.

The unquenchable, insatiable desire.

To mother our children.

Even when a child passes from this earth, we still long to mother our babies. That may look different for each person. It may be the planning of a yearly birthday party. It may be decorating a grave, spending time, sitting on the cool earth, breathing in the memories with the ache of a longing heart. It may be buying Christmas presents for the Angel Tree or Samaritan’s Purse. It may be the ornaments we hang in their memory. A mother recently shared the need to take her baby’s ashes with her on trips. Several other mothers shared her sentiment. Mothers may start an organization in their child’s memory. Join a crusade to make things better for the next mother. Donate, or raise money to further a cause in their child’s memory.

Reading their stories and knowing my own, I thought deeply about the aching arms. The unsatisfied longing a mother feels in her depths when her child is taken too soon.

A mother still needs to mother, in whatever way that looks like for her. Even when a baby isn’t here for her to care for physically.

Not even the bounds of heaven and earth can quench a mother’s love.

Something isn’t wrong with you, if you find yourself left without a baby in your arms, but still feel the need to mother someone…something…to do something tangible. It oozes from a mother’s heart. It’s a need, like breathing…existing.

This truth I’ve known for many years, but recently, I’ve been struck by another truth regarding the mystery of motherhood.

In the eight years since my own mother went home to heaven, a phenomenon has occurred in my own typically rebellious heart. At least rebellious toward my mother. I didn’t allow her to mother me very often. Occasionally, when it suited me. But, I was prideful. And, gave her few glimpses into my heart, rare concessions. I fooled myself, too. I didn’t need her. I didn’t need mothering.

At the PLIDA Conference in November, I recently had the opportunity to meet a woman who pioneered efforts to advocate for mothers walking through the loss of a baby in a time when it was not only unpopular, but in some cases unacceptable to do so. She was courageous. She helped pave the way for others to be brave enough to change the way bereaved parents were treated. She helped to give them a voice. To set them free. Because of her courage, women were allowed to honor the brief lives of their babies, to give them a proper hello and goodbye. She stood in a time when mothers were discouraged from or forbidden to hold their babies, to even see what they looked like. They were sedated, and the “unpleasant situation” was whisked away from the mother, who was told to move on. Years ago, funerals of tiny babies were held while the mothers were kept safely away in the hospital to recover. If a mother cried too long or didn’t seem to heal at a reasonable rate, she was institutionalized, deemed insane. Not only is this pioneer and the few others who existed back in the years when I lost my sweet babies a bit heroic to me for standing with grieving families when few were, but she is also a wonderful author.

Pat Schwiebert, author of When Hello Means Goodbye and Tear Soup, among others, was playing solitaire quietly on her tablet when I walked over the first time. I didn’t know the quiet unassuming woman was one I respected and admired for years, until I heard a conversation about her book as someone said the name “Pat.” I interrupted, and like a crazed groupie, asked for a hug.

I never used to be hugger. Funny thing…when the person who loved you first and longest on planet earth is gone…you might discover you’re ok with the occasional exchange of hugs. Because life is fleeting, and there’s less time for pride and walls that keep people at arm’s length, when you realize that.

I found myself flocking toward her table a few times, soaking in nuggets of her wisdom, drinking of the knowledge she shared like a woman in the dessert who found a rare stream of fresh water. It wasn’t long before I poured out my own emotions as if we were having a therapy session in the exhibit hall. She’s good, that Pat Schwiebert. With her quiet steadiness, covered in a shroud of peace. Gentle peace emanating from her. Like a mother.

I touched one of the silk scarves she had on her shelf. Beautiful, bright violet with butterflies.

“Wanda Wilmetta,” I whispered. The name of my grandmother. My sassy grandmother, who once had bright violet lipstick and a violet suede jacket with fringes.

She gave me the scarf, as a gift. And, I kept it wrapped around my neck, feeling the soft comfort. Feeling loved. Feeling ok in my own skin. Feeling empowered and special. Feeling worthy and seen and acknowledged.

Feeling mothered.

Last night, I was at my son’s basketball game. A couple mothers were sitting in the stands at the game with their mothers beside them. I am almost 40 years old and the other moms are not far from my age, give or take. I noticed the one (50′s ish) mother brushed her (mid thirties aged) daughter’s hair from her eyes. A simple, quick gesture.

And, I felt the stir in my heart. It doesn’t matter how old or young our children are, we still and will always long to mother them. We still see our sweet babes in their eyes. Whether they are wee ones…or whether teenagers…or almost 21…or almost 41…or almost 61.

And, whether we realize it or not when we still have our parents, whether we would shrug them away or wince at their need to mother us, we still need to be mothered…no matter how old we are. We still long to have someone love us the way only a mother can. With a desperate longing we may not even realize or acknowledge in ourselves.

Not only is the need to mother our children insatiable…the same is true of the need to be mothered.

Why Can’t You Just Get Past It?

“I don’t understand mothers who lose a child. Why can’t you just get past it?”

People have whispered these words about me in conversation, especially in the early days after losing our babies, measuring grief “performance” by how much I spoke of my children or how easily tears came, or whether or not I was out in public functioning at a “normal” capacity. She will be ok when she is “herself” again. Always happy to comply and perform, I learned quickly to put on a face for them. To not make anyone uncomfortable by speaking of those dead babies. I put their pictures away. I tried to look as “normal” as possible to everyone but a few who could handle my remembering, my speaking their names. A few who were willing to remember them with me. Without squirming in the chair.

For eight years, I was quiet. I’m an excellent performer. An astute pleaser of people. Never wanting to be an inconvenience, an annoyance.

And, then….God, the One much bigger than all the people I know, spoke to my heart, breathing truth in the broken places, blowing off the layers of dust, the words laying dormant, surprisingly still desperate to be written or spoken aloud…and He gave me a voice. It’s the same voice He gave me in my mother’s womb. The one with words that demand to be expressed, and flow through my fingers like liquid therapy. It’s the voice that sings worship songs while babies are ushered to heaven from their mother’s arms. My voice crackled and wavered, trembling as I remembered how to speak. Mustering courage I cannot explain. Because He is bigger than anyone else…bigger than what they may think…bigger than displeasing someone….bigger than being understood or misunderstood…bigger than our comfort levels.

And, He said…speak. Tell this story.

I have never in the seventeen years since burying my children heard those whispered words from others spoken directly to me. Until recent months. Family members questioned an article I had written for a well known magazine for bereaved mothers (Still Standing), because if you talk about missing your babies or your mother or your husband, or anyone who has died (although society may place a bit more value on the loss if that person breathed breath and lived life on planet earth for a designated number of years. I’m not sure how much time must pass before a life is worthy or grieving, remembering, mentioning, recognizing, or missing. I’ve never really been good at rules like that. You’ll have to consult the experts who deem themselves worthy to decide such things.), if you speak of the missing…something must be wrong with you. The more that I speak outwardly about babies in heaven, and supporting families who grieve. The more I write or talk about the experience of returning again and again into raw grief to walk with another family, the more others feel it necessary to form an opinion, to judge my performance. (Which in all instances, I would think is an indicator that I’ve experienced a great deal of full circle, “healing” to be in a healthy enough place to enter in to support someone else. You know…as opposed to wallowing in grief.)

But, it is interesting. The more I talk about the reality of grief and missing, the more people step away, uncomfortable. Or, like the acquaintance who recently asked me on Facebook why I couldn’t get past it (losing babies) and what my children think of me for not getting past it. Not that my children are anyone’s concern other than my own, as you know…their mother…but what they think is that they have two sisters and a brother in heaven. Two sisters and a brother who lived, who’re worth mentioning. They don’t dwell on it, and in fact, we don’t speak of them often in our home. But, we do occasionally. Because, they’re worth mentioning. And, my children know that every life matters. My children know that Jesus cares about the brokenhearted, and if we can do something to help someone else walking through loss, we ought to. My children know how much time and sacrifice is poured into walking with another family. They know that their mother would do almost anything to help carry that burden alongside another broken heart. My children stuff bears and set up tables and the older one stays with me when I’m working at the office late at night, to help walk me safely to my car. They and their friends paint walls, carry trash, dig weeds, and stuff endless Comfort Bears. College students, boys who grew up in my kitchen, and girls who sewed bears at SGM…bravely stand in front of their peers to speak about baby loss…and the work Sufficient Grace Ministries does. Not only are my children just fine with their mother’s line of work…and her insistence on mentioning that there are people walking through grief and babies worth remembering….I would go so far as to say that they wholeheartedly support it.

Like my thirteen year old said, when the woman’s questioning prompted me to ask him his thoughts: He said very definitively, “No! Why would I think that?! We lost kids in our family. Nothing weird about helping other people who lose kids.”

So, here’s the thing. We as a society are not very good at respecting and understanding bereavement, or loss of any kind. We get uncomfortable when someone speaks of missing someone they love. We are uncomfortable by many emotions. And, often confuse a person’s mentioning of a memory as not “adequately healing or getting past it”. Those words kind of make me want to vomit, if you’re wondering. It is part of the way that we support others at SGM, being real about the missing. Giving a voice to it. Making it ok to speak it aloud. The missing never goes away. You don’t get past that. It doesn’t mean you aren’t functioning just fine as a healthy member of society. It doesn’t mean you’re wallowing in grief. It doesn’t mean you spend your days crippled by emotion and will never laugh again. And, it certainly doesn’t mean you aren’t leaning on and trusting in God to carry you. For the love of Pete…if you weren’t, you may not get out of bed at all. Life on planet earth is tough.

I laugh and cry more than anyone I know. It took me so many years to speak their names. To stop worrying about if it made someone uncomfortable or caused them to question my sanity or whether I was “moving on” well enough. I used to hate that I cried easily, felt deeply. I hated it because other people didn’t understand it. My strong mother, other women in my family…and most people. Most people think showing emotion is weak, or an indicator of some unhealthy part of you that needs fixing….a cry for help…or, my least favorite, an invitation for advice. I don’t need a reminder to be grateful for what I’ve been given…the preciousness of the people I love is not lost on me. I am one of the healthiest people emotionally that I know…and I cry and laugh every single day. Part of being healthy for me, is being ok with that. There is nothing wrong with having a heart brave enough to feel. Do you have any idea the courage it takes to keep a heart soft in this cruel, broken world, to resist the urge to cover feelings with layers of walls, to resist the safety numbness offers?

I speak about the missing, not because I spend every moment crippled and overcome by it. Not because I am wallowing in death and unable to function in the land of the living. There is nothing meant to invite anyone to fix or be concerned about. I speak of the missing, so that others quietly carrying this weight know they aren’t alone, and that it’s ok to miss someone. It’s ok to remember them. Mentioning a memory is not wallowing in grief. I will remember and mention my babies, my mother, my grandparents, my dear friend Dinah, and anyone else who goes on to glory ahead of me until we’re reunited in heaven. Because they’re worth mentioning. They’re worth missing. They’re worth remembering. They’re worth honoring. Their lives matter. And, I gave up being afraid to speak of what makes someone else uncomfortable, because it’s more valuable to be free to offer comfort and hope in the speaking…than to concern myself with the comfort level of someone else who is choosing to judge what they do not know…and who themselves may likely being carrying unexpressed pain. Just because emotion scares someone else, doesn’t mean I have to be afraid to speak…and neither do the mothers I know, missing their children, everyday….as they drive to carpool, make peanut butter sandwiches, watch school programs, and sit down at the dinner table, living life fully…but always with one (or more) missing.

A dear friend and beautiful mother spoke these words recently in the above-mentioned Facebook discussion on mothers “getting past it”. Leigh Ann’s words are an excellent answer to anyone wondering what it’s like for a mother and family, missing children, and they were and are a great blessing, honor and encouragement to me:

“I so admire Kelly and the work she does on behalf of other grieving families. I have wanted and contacted Kelly to physically help at her ministry and then when it comes right down to it I can not. You see I am not as brave as her. God gives her grace to step into other’s lives and minister to them in their darkest hour. Her work through her grief ministry puts her in situations that can only trigger feelings of sadness at losing not only 1 child but 3 beautiful children, but yet she has the strength to do it. We all grieve so differently…and I am so thankful the Lord lays it on Kelly’s heart as well as other brave parents who come along side her. I only wished in December of 1996 that our family been on the receiving end of such a wonderful ministry.

What would you say to your 6 year old daughter when she asks how her baby brother will go to Heaven, when he was to little to ask Jesus in his heart himself? Or the 11 year old brother who asks if he didn’t pray correctly because his brother died? Or the 9 year old brother who tells you not to cry because Jess is in a better place? Or to the husband who comes home from work defeated because no one seems to realize how hard it is on Dad’s to lose a child? What do you say to yourself when you wake up sobbing even years later because of a dream you had about your son and the suffering he went through, and you don’t want to share those feelings with someone else because it has been 17 years ago and my goodness….probably for fear that someone may think your crazy and you should be over it. Please let me explain, my older children have been wonderful and the Lord blessed us with another beautiful daughter after Jess passed away, whom, by the way, never took Jess’s place but brought much joy and healing back into our family, but there is not a family event, birthdays, Christmas, weddings, and just plain ordinary days that I don’t feel like something is missing. I don’t pout about it or even speak it out loud at the time, but it is an awareness that he is not with me physically.

I am thankful to know that I will be reunited with him in Heaven some day. So you see, although some of us, like Kelly, are in the day to day trenches helping others, some of us are silently in the background praying, and yet others help out her Ministry with finances, time and donations. But rest assured, we never get past it….my prayer for you is for further understanding in this area and to be gentle with those who you felt responded harshly…maybe now you could be one of those who could be strong enough to come along beside and support a truly wonderful ministry in a way the Lord would lead you to do so?….I hope my rambling helps you to understand our feelings a bit better….love and prayers….”

For more information about Sufficient Grace Ministries and the services they offer to bereaved parents visit: www.sufficientgraceministries.org

Let it Go

Can’t sleep. In the wee hours of this morning, the words are begging for release. So, here I am.

Last night, I watched the Disney movie, Frozen. Several parts spoke to me in the deep recesses of my heart, the places most often tucked safely away.

When Elsa sings the words from “Let it Go”…

Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always had to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they know…

My soul aches with recognition.

And, as she finally releases it all, she finds sweet freedom, creating beauty from her curse, dancing as she transforms into the gorgeous creature she was created to be. I think of His redeeming promise to make all things beautiful in His time.

And, by release, I mean, she embraces her curse, and sees the gifts hidden beneath the surface, beauty rising from the ashes.

Proclaiming…

It’s time to see what I can do, to test the limits, break on through.

A kingdom of isolation…no right, no wrong, no rules for me. I’m free.

So much like when a heart heavy with the woes of grief breathes it’s first breath of life in the land of the living. When the haze clears enough to remember what it feels like to live. The first foreign-feeling, hesitant laugh that arises from deep in your belly, sounding like it came from someone else…because in this unfamiliar new skin, it’s easy to forget the sound of your own laugh.

Or what it feels like to really live. Free.

And, maybe…maybe you never knew what that felt like anyway.

Before.

Maybe it’s impossible to know that depth of freedom and release, that fullness of life, until you have tasted the air in the valley of the shadow of death. Until you’ve been locked in the room, frozen with the curse. The one you can’t even explain to those closest to you.

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all
Up here in the cold thin air I finally can breathe
I know I left a life behind, but I’m too relieved to grieve…

I am often asked how I can perpetually walk in this shadowy place, alongside those who are broken with grief.

I guess my answer would be…

Here, I can finally breathe.

 

 

The Cloak of Shame

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I knew the moment they left my body, two tiny baby girls who would never breathe a breath on planet earth…I looked at him and knew we would never be the same.

It was among of the first words I spoke to my friend, Ginny. After.

“I need you to know, I’m not the same.”

I will never be who I was. That day, a part of me died right along with them. And, in the death, there was also a birth. Not just theirs…but mine.

There are many things we don’t know while still living under the veil of innocence. I didn’t know a woman whose babies died in her womb would labor before giving birth. I didn’t know about standing beside a tiny grave at the tender age of twenty-one. I didn’t know about living this life in the same skin, as a very changed me and loving the boy beside me, both of us all broken. I didn’t know about the silence. Silence so thick you can’t breathe.

I learned.

The moment the nurse answered my whimper of aching arms with a cold vase placed abruptly on my lap, wheeling me passed the nursery full of crying babies, I learned. I felt the first weight of it draped across my young shoulders. The cloak of shame, whispering, “Don’t you dare be an inconvenience. Cover this. No one wants to see your broken.”
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I suppose if we dig even deeper, passed what makes sense with our minds, to the places in our psyche we rarely graze for fear of what lies beneath our layers, we would find an even more harsh accusation. Where does the shame come from anyway? Is not the loss and the pain of grief enough? Why does shame drape over us, heavy and dark? Is the healing and the breathing not enough without finding the strength to emerge from the heavy, dark garment of shame?

Buried beneath, the ugliest of questions. The wounded often carry the most shame. And, why…why is that?

“You’ve already been enough of an inconvenience. Pain in the place of joy for your family. Your body failed. You brought broken babies into this world. And, you are now broken. No one wants to see any of it. The least you can do, is cover it up, keep it to yourself.”

“If you speak of your broken places, someone may think…

…you are weak, a victim, looking for pity, wallowing in grief.”

When none of that is true, why do we believe it? Why are we held captive by it, gripped and covered and silenced by it? And, why, when we are finally ready to stop wearing the cloak of shame that never fit right, anyway, do others react in such strong ways, sometimes with opposition, or ridicule, misunderstanding, or lack of compassion?

Can we muster the courage, brave rising from the deep…can we find enough to lift the cloak of shame, to peer out from the layers that have become a familiar covering, a place to hide….falsely offering shelter? It took years for me to find my way out. To find the brave, enough to just speak the names of my children aloud. And, even more years, not to run back to hide under that tattered garment, apologetically, when faced with scorn or averted eyes.
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Shame whispers, “You’re a disappointment. A blemish.”

To be truly honest, I’m still finding my way out, still tuning my ear to listen to the “Voice of truth that says, ‘Do not be afraid’“, in place of the crippling lies shame whispers in the dark. Part of healing is to shed the weight of a cloak that isn’t meant to fit. There is nothing shameful about speaking their names. Or living beautifully broken. Or walking with a limp. No shame.

In rebellion of the shame, I seek boldness. Freedom.

In fact, I would venture even further to say, that you are courageous, not weak.

Victorious, not defeated.

Beautiful in your broken, not blemished beyond repair.

You are not the same, but you are even more precious, made of the kind of tilled fertilized soil that grows a tall, strong, deeply rooted plant.

You have value and worth…and so do the sweet babies who left a hole of missing in your heart.

Lift your head, and look out from beneath that clumsy garment stifling you. Pull it down from your face. Let your hair fall free. Feel it slide off your shoulders and fall to the ground. Leave it there. And, walk away…limp and all.
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You are more than an inconvenience. And, so are the babies you carried in your womb, and carry still in your heart.

He has sent Me (Jesus) to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound…

To comfort all who mourn,
To console those who mourn in Zion,
To give them beauty for ashes,
The oil of joy for mourning,
The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;

Isaiah 61:1b,2b-3a