Tag Archives: grief

What a Waste

I am pretty sure I will spend a good deal of time in Purgatory for the amount of food I have wasted.  I don’t mind throwing away the dregs of an Easter basket or cheese doodles and processed cupcakes left over from the grandparents’ visit.  These can hardly be considered food in the first place.  What strikes at my conscience is the times I am forced to throw away a quarter pound of expired lunch meat that I forgot about or a half of a bag of browning broccoli from the warehouse club that I neglected to prepare in time.  Then there are the hotdog or hamburger buns left from some event that mold before we have hotdogs again, or the worst- the dumping of the tupperware from the back of the fridge that is full of, now what was that?.  During the gag-inducing fridge purge I always pray for mercy.  I ask Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who would have gladly served my forgotten food in its better days, to intercede for those who go hungry around the world and in my own town.  And to win me the grace of better meal planning and discipline so that next time I clean the fridge I don’t fill the trash can to overflowing.

No one buys food at the grocery store with the intention of tossing it, or prepares a meal with the intention of putting it in the back of the fridge for three months and then flushing it.  But many of us do just that.  I read a women’s magazine article that stated Americans typically toss 10% of the food they buy.  The stat sickened me.  Not only for the fact that someone went through the trouble of growing or raising that food, or the fact that someone  is hungry right now for lack of food, but for the irony of the fact that I often stand in front of two products trying to compare cost per ounce to save a few bucks.  What good is it to double my 25 cent coupon when I am throwing away 10 dollars worth of food in one cleaning spree?  To waste food is just that: an all around waste.

If we are good at wasting valuable food, we are even better at wasting something more valuable yet: suffering.  At this point you may be thinking, “Suffering? I thought she was going to say ‘time’, or ‘talent’ or even ‘last month’s rollerover minutes’.  What good is suffering at all and how does one waste it?”  I’m glad you asked!

If you’ve read my blog before you may have heard this before, but it bears repeating.  Suffering is a deprivation of a good that one ought to have.  It doesn’t have existence unto itself, much the same as cold is the absence of heat or darkeness the absence of light.  We suffer when we do not have health or companionship or physical necessities.  Note also that we only suffer the lack of things that are proper to us.  I do not suffer for lack of wings, for example, since I ought not have them.  Lop off my leg, however, and suffering will follow. 

 Bear with me for a moment, and let’s follow this line of thinking to the end.  Think about the best good there is.  That would be God, the source of Goodness itself.  The worst suffering then, would be to be deprived of this, and for eternity.  That is called hell.  The means by which we go about bringing this worst suffering upon ourselves is called “dying in unrepentant grave sin”. 

So if it wasn’t before, it’s clear what suffering is.  And we all know that it touches every one of us in various ways at various times in our lives.  But, how could it possibly be valuable?  The answer is that on it’s own, it is not.  There is nothing inherently wonderful about loneliness, hunger or pain.  We detest and attempt to avoid it.  This is part of our defense mechanism.  But think about the minor, or even grave, sufferings you are willing to endure for a greater good.  This is evident in everything from cleaning out a child’s cut to undergoing chemotherapy.  If it’s necessary for the life or well being of those we love most, we will put up with just about anything.

This is what Jesus was thinking when He left heaven to live in suffering and poverty for 33 years only to have it all end by being subjected to the most humiliating and barbaric death on the books.  It was necessary for those He loved most.  You and me.  He understood that the worst of all sufferings for you and for me (hell, remember), could only be prevented by His life, death and resurrection.  By His death, Jesus offers the just penalty for sin, in its perfection.  He also loves the Father, in His flesh, with perfect love that we in our fallen state could not attain.  Jesus’ suffering had great worth, as it attained for us the best good– heaven!

This is where our suffering gets its merit.  Jesus’ sacrifice is perfect, but in His mercy, He leaves it open for us to participate in “what is lacking” in His own suffering.  There is room on that Cross for my deep losses and my daily irritations.  These, offered in union with the Passion of Christ, can help bring about the mission that He came to accomplish: our sanctification.  Wow.

Have you ever thought about why Mary was told at the Presentation that a sword would pierce her heart? Lucky for me my Mariology professor had.  For 33 years, she was holding that phrase of Simeon’s in her heart.  For 33 years pondering the untold suffering her son would endure.  Why would God do that to her? To prepare her, for one.  But for another, I think, because God knew she wouldn’t waste a moment of that suffering and He knew how much we would need the graces that she would merit for us. 

But how much more like me and my fridge are we usually than like our Blessed Mother? How many conversions are still waiting to be won because we responded to a difficulty with despair or anger instead of offering it as a gift back to Jesus?  Fr. Elbee in his book, I Believe in Love says, “In the apostolate, the price of souls is suffering, offered in love.” And sometimes it is the daily trials that we waste the most.  I know in my own life, my deepest sorrows have been easier to offer up than the trial of finding that my husband and son have just eaten popcorn over my freshly vacuumed carpet, again

 So, in this most busy time of year, let’s try to see our sufferings as a treasure chest of grace waiting to be released into the world.  And, for heaven’s sake, eat that meatloaf before it goes bad!

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All’s Well That Ends Well

We celebrate two things this week. The first, as you saw from the last post, is Brad’s new job.  He will be working at Sacred Heart Parish in Robbinsdale, as a youth and young adult minister. It’s perfect for him in many respects, and he follows a good friend of ours in that position, which makes the transition even smoother.  We are excited to see what’s in store.

Looking at the other places we both applied, it is easy now to see that God was holding out for this.  Whether we thought so at the time or not, each rejection letter or email we got was a door that needed to close in order for this one to open.  From this side of the trial it is also easy to see how God took a great fear of mine (financial instability) and used it to prove Himself my provider.  Further, through this new job of Brad’s, God has given us a blessing we would not have sought out if we had not been laid off.  And, in these times when many are still searching for work, He has given us authentic compassion and a heart of prayer for the un- and under-employed.

These things were not always visible to us while in the trial, but part of the joy of this gift is being able to see that what we suffered in the past 6 months was for our good.  All’s well that ends well.  That brings us to the other thing we celebrate this week: Gianna’s first anniversary in Heaven.  There are many parallels.

We celebrate not the fact that she suffered and died, of course.  For, in many respects all is not ended yet for us.  We are still in the midst of the trial of life without her.  In celebrating her anniversary, we are recognizing that she has reached her reward.  Just as we look back on 6 months of uncertainty with relief and joy because our employment trial is now over, so does she look now at her own short life and see the meaning behind every needle poke and every tear.  And I think that she sees us all still in this Valley of Tears and with her prayers is seeking to remind us that if we persevere until the end, our outcome too will be glorious.  She and Peter remind us that in comparison with eternity, our lives here on earth are as short as theirs were.  And the result of living it well is worth the cost, even a thousand times over.

One final thought. Many, in hearing our good news this week, have commented on the goodness of God.  Amen!! He is! But the saying reminded me that I should react the same way when I receive bad news, too.  Is God any better today than He was when we got the news that our job had been cut? Was He any better the day Gianna was born than the day she died? No.  God is the same yesterday, today and forever.  He does all things well, and we will come to see even the hardest things this light if we give Him a chance to show us.  Even if we have to wait until Heaven.

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Looks Can Be Deceiving

There isn’t much you can say about a person who lived only three months, as our youngest two children did.  We will never know if our little ones were funny, or shy, or adventurous.  We have no idea if they would have inherited Brad’s sports genes or mine, my artistic eye or Brad’s not-s0-great eyes.  There is one thing that anyone who knew them can attest to, however.  They were stinkin’ cute.  Objectively.

This was one of the strange paradoxes we lived with in the case of both babies.  With Peter it was shocking, as he looked like a totally normal child up until the moment we saw him all wired up in the PICU.  Who could have known, with their naked eye, that this little cutie was fussy not due to a long car ride, or reflux, or colic, but because the cells in his liver did not make enough energy to keep it functioning.  As we sat in the waiting room of the ER at Children’s, there was nothing of our son’s outer appearance that would lead us to believe that he would be dead in five days. 

Since we knew that it was a possibility that Gianna might inherit the same Mitochondrial disorder that took her brother, we were much more intently focused on her from her conception.  We knew much earlier that we could not go by looks, so testing was done shortly after birth and then at two months.  This lead to a very different, but equally odd, experience of appearance.  She was absolutely beautiful (objectively, of course!), and again, did not look sick.  There were times when I enjoyed this immensely.  During our first two admissions to the hospital, I routinely took her up to the cafeteria with me, or to the family lounge and even once to Mass.  No one could tell she was the patient.  While we were home, I got complements about her from strangers who had no idea that a risky liver transplant was the only hope of her living to four months old.  I enjoyed the break, the opportunity to pretend for a moment that we were a normal family who worried about nothing more than getting a little more sleep.  I also think her cuteness scored her some extra points with the hospital staff.  Not that these dedicated professionals would ever mistreat an ugly baby, but several did comment that she was much cuter than the average critically ill child, especially on the floor we were on.  I took motherly pride in the way they doted over her cute outfits or lingered in our room to hold her.

Gianna’s cuteness also made for some painfully ironic (and often awkward) moments.  During her first hospitalization, when we were slowly trying to come to terms with her likely prognosis, a nurse’s aide came into our room to find me weeping.  Supposing that I was a hormonally unstable, overwhelmed new mother, she said, “new babies are really hard, aren’t they?”  A perfectly compassionate thing to say! “No, she’s dying”, was all I could get out. 

Two days before her death, on her way to the OR to get a pic line placed for easier blood draws, a doctor we didn’t know got on the elevator with us.  “Well, now there’s a healthy one!” he said.  The nurse and I looked at each other uncomfortably as she replied, “No, she’s pretty sick”.  Other times, it was not the awkward one-liners that got to me, but the flip side of what I mentioned before.  I could only pretend so long that Gianna was fine, because she wasn’t.  Once, before our bad news was actually confirmed, I was grocery shopping with both kids, and could barely make it to the car before beginning to cry.  The juxataposition between what appeared to be true and what actually was weighed on me in a deep, surreal way.

This line of thinking was brought up to me at a recent benefit banquet I attended for Prenatal Partners for Life*.  The priest who gave the closing comments remarked that we all were born with a terminal illness: Original sin.  The sick, he said, serve us all well as a reminder of this fact.  His reflection made me think.  In the spiritual order of things, many of us are my Peter and Gianna.  We look fine on the outside, but on the inside we are dying.  Sometimes, the comfort that comes with financial stability, good health, talent and long life can be dangerous to our salvation since they can lull us into a false sense of self confidence.  Why would we have thought to ask our doctor to run a liver function test on our two month old son? All signs pointed to him being perfectly healthy.  In the same way, many people never think to accuse themselves of sin because they seem to have everything under control.  It just doesn’t occur to them.  And as we learned in Peter’s case, undiagnosed illnesses can still kill you even if you don’t look sick.  So it can be in the spiritual life, but for eternity.

With Gianna, we knew not to trust appearances.  We looked inside, and found that something was indeed wrong.  For Gianna, knowing early that she was sick did not end up saving her life.  This is also true spiritually of those who recognize their own sin but choose to cling to it instead of bringing it to Jesus for forgiveness and healing.  Although it sounds like a bizarre category of people, they do exist.  They are those who despair at their own weakness, or who set out to fix it themselves. 

 Gianna’s doctors did their best to try and save her, and we did too.  We gave her all kinds of nasty meds, drew blood from veins that did not want to give it, and did not give up on her last option (transplant) until it was painfully evident that she could not survive the operation.  We availed her of all modern medicine had to offer, and modern medicine failed us.  Gratefully, this is where my analogy breaks down.  When we bring our sinfulness to Jesus, He never fails us.  So many people offered to get tested to be liver donors for Gia, because they were willing to sacrifice even part of their own bodies to save her.  That is precisely what Jesus did for us.  Our hearts were so badly hardened and diseased by sin that we were wasting away.  We needed a heart transplant, and that is what He gave us: His own heart.  Of course, that transplant cost Him His life. 

So next time we pass an elderly lady with oxygen, or a paralyzed man in a wheelchair, or a child with Down’s Syndrome, let’s thank God for the gift of those lives.  More than that, let’s honor those beautiful souls by taking stock of our own.  When we entrust our spiritual maladies to the Divine Physician, He never fails to cure us.

* For more info about Prenatal Partners for Life, an amazing organization helping parents of children with adverse prenatal diagnosis, infant death and disabled children, check out: www.prenatalpartnersforlife.org

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Small Talk Made Awkward

Recently, I was at a gathering where the guest of honor was the only person I really knew.  As I sat eating dinner with Isaac, a opportunity for small talk opened up with a young couple at my table.  They had a small child in a high chair and the wife was obviously very pregnant.  (Very pregnant ladies are great for small talk!)  After we had exhausted the requisite questions about their family, they asked, “so do you have other children besides him (Isaac)?”

How to talk about your dead child?  I remember distinctly asking this question a few days after Peter’s funeral to a friend of mine who is also the mother of a baby saint.  She had flown out from California to support me and shortly before she left town we met for coffee.  “What will I say to people when they ask how many kids I have?!” The thought was occurring to me for the first time as I processed with her.  “You’ll know, Libby,” she said, “you’ll figure out who to tell and who not to”.

She was right.  As I’ve muddled through the past two years, I’ve worked out a system for how to handle “the question”.  Not that I ever sat down and drew up procedures or anything, but I’ve figured out how I am most comfortable handling the question.  Here it is:

* People who I will likely never see again. For these people, like those at the party above, or clerks, people in waiting rooms, etc, I answer their question without lying.  For instance, if they say, “Do you have kids?” I will often answer, “I have a preschooler at home”, and proceed to talk about Isaac.  If they ask a more pointed question, such as the folks at the party did, I will answer honestly.  Morally, this is not necessary.  It is not a lie to withhold information from people who don’t need to know it.  And perhaps someday I will leave my saints out of the  answer.  For now, though, it feels almost like betrayal to not include them in such a direct question.

* People I will see often, or be in relationship with.  I don’t say, “Hi, I’m Libby and my babies died”, but I do talk about them even if the question is only indirectly asked.  I would rather them find out up front then tiptoe around it.

* Amount of disclosure.  I have no problem talking about my kids.  What mom doesn’t want to brag about her babies? I realize, though, that death is a touchy subject for people, and stumbling upon a story like mine over sheetcake and coffee is not what most people are expecting when they arrive at someone’s party.  When people seem freaked out, I quickly change the subject.  If they have questions, I answer them.

* I make sure people realize they were infants. I realized after a few tries, that when you say “we lost a baby” people think you had a miscarriage.  I understand that the loss of miscarriage is great, so it’s not a grief snobbery kind of thing.  It’s just not what happened to my family.  Plus, Isaac talks about his brother and sister sometimes, so I think it’s an important distinction that he actually held them and touched them and met them.  Again, not neccessary for the folks in the first category, but something I still feel is kind of important.

* I have accepted the awkwardness. Let’s face it.  Dead babies are awkward.  No one knows what to say or do when they come up.  It is part of our cross that we have the power to bring the most pleasant conversation to a screetching halt.  I just try to ease the burden of the subject on the other person, and be gentle with myself as well.

Like many parts of grieving, I don’t think there is any right or wrong to this question.  Are you a grieving parent? How do you handle this question?

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Lessons Learned From Yardwork, pt 1

Last summer my daughter died.  The summer before that, I was in my first trimester of pregnancy.  The summer before that I was in my third trimester of pregnancy.  The summer before that I had a child attached to my hip that would eat all the grass he could get his hands on.  All this to say that this is the first summer when none of those things apply, and as a result I find myself somewhat available to actually do some projects around the yard that I’ve wanted to get to for, oh, four years.  Mind you, when I say “projects” I am not one of these people who builds retaining walls or puts in their own patio or something.  My current endeavor is removing landscaping rocks (aka “weed holders”) and replacing them with transplanted hostas from other parts of the yard. I think I might get crazy and buy and plant a shrub or two as well.

Today was a perfect day to work on the task at hand.  Cool, dry and I was home alone with Isaac anyway, and heck, kids need fresh air, right?  I was pretty proud of myself, too, for devising a way for my eager preschooler to help.  I had him get his rather large dump truck, and showed him where to dump the rocks.  Then I would load it up, and he could drive the truck over and dump actual rocks onto a pile.  Genius!

For about fifteen minutes.  Considering this was about three times longer than he usually stays on a task I desire him to complete, it was pretty good.  But there are a ton of stinking rocks in that rock bed, and to be honest, he was actually helping at the time he quit!  After that, he piddled around, clipping things with the garden scissors (though not my highest priority weeds), throwing the rocks into a nearby bush, requesting my participation in a stick fight, and generally just being kind of whiny.  My helper was not super helpful to say the least.

I couldn’t help but think that this is often how we are with God.  Or, at least how I am.  I begin with a burst of excitement to “help him” somehow further the Kingdom, and when it starts getting mundane or even slightly uninteresting or frustrating, I start to whine.  Or I get a better idea, to go do something else.  Nevermind if it is actually something God wanted me to do.

If you haven’t read Uniformity With God’s Will by St. Alphonsus Liguori, skip your Starbucks tomorrow and buy it (it costs about as much as a grande coffee of the day. Or better yet, buy it and read it at Starbucks. It’s not long).  He talks about just this thing.  To be really effective in living out our Baptismal call, we need to be doing what God wants us to be doing, not just some nice stuff that strikes our fancy.  St. Alphonsus goes so far as to say that we shouldn’t just accept God’s will, but want what God wants.  I’ve read this little book many, many times and fall short every time.  It is a tall order, because uniformity is not something we “muster up”, it is the action of grace at work in our lives.

On the retreat I was on in February, at the height of my pity party and despair over the effectiveness of my ministry, a fellow retreatant received a word from the Lord for me.  She said, “God wants you to be his useless instrument”.  She explained that this did not mean that I was useless, of course, but that I only needed to do what was asked of me and not worry about the rest.  In theory, I can imagine how freeing it would be to really live that kind life.  That life of uniformity.  Like John XXIII I could say every night, “It’s your Church, Lord, I am going to bed!”  So, as we continue on this path of uncertainty about jobs and family and whether I can keep a transplanted shrub alive, I am praying for grace to align my wants more closely with God’s.

PS: Going back to Isaac for a minute… it would take a lot of trust and discipline for him to keep loading rocks for a few hours.  He’s a kid who is uninterested in our house’s curb appeal.  If he were to keep at a task he found brain-numbingly boring, it would have to be because he trusted my vision for the project and loved me enough to know that I was keeping him on task to complete something great, even if at the end of his little part, he didn’t see any results.  (Okay, theoretically. Stay with me.)  How much more so with God.  It helps to see the big picture of what we are doing for him.  For instance, a volunteer who bakes cookies for a youth ministry event realizes she is “sweetening” the kids up so they might be more open to hearing about God.   But even in times when we can’t possibly imagine how what we are going through helps anything, we need to trust the One who can see the whole project, and understands exactly what our part is in that project.  And in order to trust this One, we must believe that he loves us and has our best interest at heart.  Let’s all pray to be convinced of that love in a deeper and deeper way.  It makes all the difference in the world.

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“God will never give you more than you can handle”

People use a lot of cliches when they are dealing with those who are suffering.  There is much truth to some of them, but it has occured to me that it might be good to spend some time examining exactly what we’re saying when we use them.  Words mean things.  And the words we use can effect what we believe about things.  

 “God will never give you more than you can handle”.

This saying strikes me as inaccurate in two aspects.  The first is that it calls to mind an image of God standing back with an armful of suffering, shoveling it out to his unsuspecting children, filling them up with it until they are just about to topple over, then stops.  The next picture in my mind is of a person floundering around shouldering the enormous burden while God sits back and watches.  This image is not accurate, of course.

God is all good. He is Goodness, Love, Perfection.  Suffering is a lack of a good.  Therefore, it cannot be “given”, and even if it could, it could not be given by God!  Suffering is a result of sin, either directly or by the fact that Original Sin earned us a fallen world.  Sickness, the toil of work, the pain of childbearing and rearing and especially death were not the original plan.  God permits suffering because it honors our freedom and because, through his mysterious providence, it somehow works out for our good, if we let it.  Just as he allowed his Son to suffer and so to win our salvation, so can suffering well borne, be a participation in the salvation of the world. It is not given merely for us to “handle”.

Secondly, I don’t know that it is true that he only gives us what we can handle.  In real life and online I have met many people who have lost children.  To be frank, there are many who can’t handle it!  I don’t think any one of us can.  Those who seem to be coping fairly well, from what I can see, are those who have faith.  I would venture to guess that it is because we realize that we can’t handle the loss and we are reaching out for help from God. 

I think this is another reason why God allows us to suffer.  It is too easy when things are going really well to settle into the comfort of believing we gained all this for ourselves.  But when we are experiencing difficulty, when we come face to face with the fact that we cannot control that which is most precious to us, we come to realize that we can’t make it on our own. 

This is no ego trip for God.  Like everything he does, it is for our good.  Because even if we could control our temporal lives, our eternal ones are beyond our reach.  Our salvation is more than we can handle, and if temporal things help us remember that, then we are on good ground.

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The Waiting Place

 waiting 1

You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race

down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace

and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space,

headed, I fear, toward a most useless place. The Waiting Place…

…for people just waiting. Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go

or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow

or waiting around for a Yes or a No or waiting for their hair to grow.

Everyone is just waiting.  (Dr. Seuss, Oh! The Places You’ll Go)

 This time last year we were up north previewing the camp we and other area youth ministers had rented for our Junior High students in June.  The day was unseasonable cool and I remember wondering how our kids, in just four short weeks could ever dream of swimming in the lake.  Isaac was with friends, and we brought Gianna along.  In typical fashion, I had forgotten to bring the Bjorn, so Brad and I took turns holding her as we walked through cabins and woods.  Brad spent a lot of the day on the cell phone, with spotty coverage, arguing back and forth with Children’s Hospital staff in St. Paul.  We had recently gotten Gianna tested for some elements in her blood that would indicate that she had the same mitochondrial disorder that took her brother.  We were anxious to hear the news that would confirm what we’d come to accept: she was a healthy little girl and we had nothing more to worry about than beating away her would-be suitors.  The mix-up between clinic staffs was finally cleared up and a call from our doctor came in right as we approached the Target parking lot where our carpool had met.  The numbers were not good.

We entered “The Waiting Place” that day, as further results and retests and appointments were scheduled.  Was it a fluke? This is a hard test to get right.  And once the worst was confirmed, over Memorial Day weekend, we continued to wait. For a liver, or a miracle, or for our little girl to join her brother in heaven. 

I feel like I’ve spent much of my life in The Waiting Place.  As the youngest, I waited through much of my childhood to be as big as my sister.  I waited for college, for summer vacation, for NET, to get married, to have kids, for those kids to finally be born… there always seemed to be something new and exciting to look forward to.  I admit I spent more time than necessary going over and over how things might turn out, sometimes to the point of restlessness.  Gianna taught me a lot about waiting while savoring the present moment.  From the first weeks after her conception, we treasured her.  But especially after her sickness was confirmed, we had no choice but to live only in each day.  I look back and marvel at the fact that the end of May to mid July is only about 6 weeks.  Holy cow, it seemed like an eternity.  Partially because of the grief-and-hospital-induced trancelike fog in which we were living, but partially because we filled up each hour not with the past or future, but with the present moment.  As hard as it was, I will look back on that month and a half as one of the most precious of my life.

Most of our life’s waiting will (gratefully) not be as dramatic as ours was in May 2008.  But it can all be as full of the present moment, and all be as fruitful.  Jesus was 30 when He started His ministry, which lasted only 3 years.  Do you realize what that means? He waited for 30 years! He and Mary worked, took care of their cave, worshipped… day in and day out for thirty long years.  You can bet (being as they were both sinless and Jesus was God and all) that not a moment of that time was wasted.  Jesus, through His humanity in those hidden years, sanctified waiting. 

And so, as we enter a non-life threatening, but still anxiety-inducing (job-searching) waiting this May, I need to continue to remind myself that this is not a “most useless place”.  This is right where God wants our family right now.  And if I let it, with the help of grace, it can be a holy time, sanctifying us as we wait in joyful hope. 

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