“Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of [the] divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust.” 2 Peter 1:2-4 [NASB]
As I sit down to write this it remains incomprehensible that it has been two years since Scott and I touched, held, talked with or laughed with our sweet Sarah. It is even more incomprehensible that we are now entering our third year without her, the third Father’s Day, third round of family birthday celebrations, third Thanksgiving, third Christmas, third new year she will not create memories in, third Easter, third Mother’s Day, not to mention all of the in between dates and days that hold similar or worse stings. In so many ways it seems it was just yesterday that she left, but the aching in our hearts and arms testifies to the reality of our missing and longing for her each of the 17,520 hours of the past 730 days.
Last year I approached the one year mark with great dread, fearful of what the second year would hold. I wrote about that fear here and promised to report back at the end of the second year to share Scott’s and my experience. I am sharing primarily for those who are walking behind us on this painful path. Most of the resources and stories I read last year shared the view that the second year is worse or harder, so I am sharing our experience as an alternate view.
For us the second year was not worse or harder than the first. Over the course of the second year some aspects became less raw. Some new struggles and challenges related to Sarah’s death emerged, other preexisting ones were intensified, while still others were diminished or resolved. The second year for us was not worse or harder, but it wasn’t dramatically easier either. Scott regularly says it is probably best described simply as “different.”
Below I’ve attempted to share our experience with some of the issues most prominent in our minds that we or other bereaved parents have mentioned struggling with in the absence of our children. I’m sure there are many other struggles I have failed to include but hopefully sharing our experience with these few will be of some encouragement or help to those following behind us.
The Weight of Sorrow
The weight of sorrow in response to Sarah’s absence remains the same after two years. The pain of the void she left and of our longing for her have not diminished in any way. However, over the past two years God has been consistently strengthening us to bear it with increasing grace and peace. I am reminded of Peter’s admonition in 2 Peter 1 (above), one of the very passages Sarah was meditating on while on the bus just before she went Home. We have experienced the truth of this passage as grace and peace have been, and continue to be, multiplied to us as we have fixed our focus on the “true knowledge” of God and Christ and on His promises. As we have focused daily on the reality of our eternal Hope in Christ, He has been faithful to powerfully sustain us. Just as Peter wrote, God has used the joy of the Hope set before us to strengthen us to bear up under this present sorrow with “multiplying grace and peace”. We do not believe He will remove the painful weight of Sarah’s absence this side of heaven. But with grateful hearts we are confident He will continue to strengthen us with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience enabling us to wait eagerly with perseverance for His glorious return and our subsequent reunion with sweet Sarah (Col. 1:11; Rom. 8:25).
There were so many experiences in the first year that were cripplingly painful. Many of the most painful being the random firsts that catch you off guard and that few would think of outside of having lost a child themselves. For example, the excruciating sting of the first days and weeks of eating dinner at our table for six without her, or at a restaurant having to request a table for five instead of six. At the conclusion of the second year I still cringe when I have to deduct one from the number of our family, but it doesn’t consistently wreak the same emotional havoc it initially did. The same is true for many of the other things that were physically gut wrenching the first year. I still feel the sting and ache, but being more acquainted with them and what intensifies them, I am usually able to mentally prepare and press through them now.
Throughout the first year sleep was extremely challenging. When I managed to sleep, waking up was indescribably painful as I would have to systematically process through the reality of Sarah’s departure. There are no words to adequately describe the agony of those moments. At the close of the second year I still routinely have those mornings (or middle of the nights) where the reality hits me like a sledge hammer knocking the breath from my lungs, but it is no longer every single time I wake. Sleep remains a challenge, but it has definitely improved, and nighttime now no longer holds the same daunting degree of dread it did in the first year.
Holidays and special dates
As we approached each of the second year holidays and significant dates without Sarah, I found courage in knowing that God had graciously carried us through all of the same dates and events the first year. By remembering and learning from the first year’s holidays and dates, most of the second year ones were better navigated. The pain was similar to the first’s on each of the dates, but making wise choices about commitments during those times made them more manageable, Easter being the exception. Easter was extremely difficult, but in retrospect I realize I naively thought it would not be difficult and as a result failed to adequately anticipate and prepare for all of the aspects that were actually extremely difficult.
Public Places and Conversations
Throughout the past two years I have learned better how to handle awkward public situations and conversations. I feel particularly liberated having finally accepted that it is okay for me to limit how much information I give in answering questions in casual conversation. For example, I am now comfortable answering that I have four children and then immediately redirecting the conversation without explaining that Sarah is not here. Initially I felt I had to explain, but I no longer feel the need to volunteer that in passing conversation unless there is specific reason or prompting to do so. Certain places are still more challenging than others, but they no longer consistently cause the same level of stress they did the first year.
Learning to recognize and accept my brokenness and resulting limitations and vulnerabilities has been tremendously beneficial in the second year. Bearing them in mind I have learned to be extremely prayerful about plans and commitments. This has also helped me to learn to set more realistic expectations for myself than I probably did the first year. Learning to recognize not just my limitations, but those of each member of our remaining family has been extremely helpful to safeguard us from overextending or overcommitting in a way that strains our family unnecessarily. This is still a work in progress, at times we still get overextended, but we learn from it when we do and purpose to proactively guard against it in the future.
Soon after Sarah left we, her remaining family, made the tragic realization that we were all grieving not only the absence of Sarah but the loss of who we were as her nuclear family. None of us are who we were before Sarah left. As a result our family is no longer the same family we were before Sarah left. The first weeks and months were extremely difficult as we had to willingly let go of who we were both as individuals and as a family. We had to allow room for each of us to change and who we are as family to reflect those changes. The first year held most of the major challenges in this process.
For me, the first year was filled with uncertainty and to some degree fear about the emotional and spiritual well being of our remaining children as we attempted to guide them in the midst of our own brokenness. The second year I would describe as much more secure. We have relearned each other for the most part. We have settled into and accepted the changes that were thrust upon us with Sarah’s departure, though we still routinely feel the pangs of the loss of the family we were.
One of the challenges I’ve seen most frequently referenced as causing pain in the second year of child loss is the distancing or walking away of the inner circle friends who consistently walked alongside the grieving parents the first year. There were friends we were saddened to see back away after Sarah left, but for us that occurred primarily in the first year. When I run into them I feel a twinge of pain in being reminded of their absence, but in general it stings less than it did the first year.
We were tremendously blessed by and are extremely appreciative of the many who graciously gave us “cups of cold water” in the first year and even into the second year, but there was not a specific group of individuals who consistently walked with us day by day. While there was a sadness to that, in retrospect I see how God used it for our good. The lack of a specific core group of individuals consistently ministering to us kept our focus and dependence clearly upon God instead of others.
Having said that, I am in no way advocating pulling away from wounded and grieving friends, scripture is clear to the contrary. I share only to testify how God used our particular circumstances for our good.
Loneliness has been one of two significant struggles for me (outside of the primary struggle of missing and longing for Sarah). I felt it the first year, but it has definitely intensified in the second year. It’s not the loneliness of simply desiring human interaction, though. Instead it’s the loneliness of longing to be truly known and understood coupled with the realization that being truly known and understood isn’t nearly as attainable as it once was.
That loneliness has intensified in the second year as acquaintances have more readily shared their beliefs about what we should and should not be experiencing in response to Sarah’s absence. Misconceived opinions expressed about how and how long we should or should not grieve Sarah’s absence are painful reminders of how difficult it is for others who have not experienced the loss of a child to accurately comprehend the magnitude of the impact. The individuals who critically express such things clearly reveal they are currently incapable of knowing and understanding us. In response to such encounters I find myself increasingly guarded and reluctant to engage transparently in person, which only compounds the loneliness.
That loneliness is unintentionally compounded yet again as Sarah is rarely mentioned by others. In the first year people regularly brought her up to us, acknowledging both her and the sorrow of her absence. Unfortunately that has changed significantly in the second year. We deeply miss her being remembered and mentioned by others, but at the same time we understand that others’ lives will naturally go on without her and she will be thought of less and less by them. There is no anger or expectation that they should remember her. There is just a deep loneliness in her being forgotten while for us she continues to be the same integral member of our family she always has been.
We became part of a While We’re Waiting support group halfway through the second year and it has been helpful in combatting the loneliness. We only meet once a month, but those couple of hours a month are among my favorite. Being with others who know and understand the profound pain and challenges of child loss and yet are continuing to strive to live hope-filled fruitful lives is like an oasis in the desert. To learn more about While We’re Waiting click here.
Weariness is the second significant struggle I have had through the second year. I wrestled with whether or not it should be listed separately from loneliness because, for me, loneliness is a major contributing factor to weariness. Nevertheless, I will attempt to note other contributing factors here.
In addition to loneliness, the progressive realization of the potential length of this journey breeds weariness. In the first year we were so focused on simply surviving as a family that I didn’t really allow myself to think about how long and lonely this path could be. My mantra for the first year was “just do the next right thing.” In the second year it has been more difficult to abide by that mantra because of responsibilities and commitments that have required us to look ahead.
Being forced to drop my gaze from eternity to look down the path of this earthly journey is the equivalent to looking down a long desert path you have to walk with only a single cup of water in hand. My flesh screams it can’t be done, my heart grows faint within me and I feel so very weary. I know His mercies are new every morning and they will be like streams of refreshing water all along that desert path, but daily convincing my aching heart of that truth has been a challenge during the second year.
The second year both Scott and I realized we are particularly subject to weariness when the majority of our time is being dominated by mundane tasks. We both wrestle to muster the energy and motivation to repeatedly do the yard and house work. It all seems so meaningless and inconsequential now. To combat this weariness we have learned it is essential that we are always purposeful to have something eternally significant going on as well; spending time with our remaining children, investing in others, sharing our testimony and/ or Sarah’s, leading or teaching in small groups, etc. Like Paul we, too, proclaim, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better” (Phl 1:21-23 NASB).
Unfortunately the death of a child does not shield us from additional concurrent hardships and struggles. I feel I must not conclude without acknowledging the role of secondary crises in our grief journeys as they can be significant factors impacting and influencing the specifics of our greatest struggles.
Scott was one of two primary witnesses to the accident that took Sarah’s life. As a result the prosecutor’s office informed him he would be the primary witness should the driver responsible choose not to accept responsibility and thereby force the state’s misdemeanor vehicular homicide case to trial. Scott was filled with dread and literally physically sickened at the thought of having to speak of all that he witnessed that day. Unfortunately, two months after the accident in our only conversation with the driver he indicated he was not accepting responsibility. For the entire first year and the first seven months of the second year of our grief journey this secondary crisis played a profound role in compounding our struggles in multiple ways. Additionally, throughout that time we felt led to not speak publicly about details related to the driver. We remain confident that we were being obedient to the Lord’s leading in that choice, but that obedience was costly and contributed to our struggles as well.
I share that to transparently point out that my two greatest struggles of loneliness and weariness have likely been as much or more a product of our secondary crisis than of Sarah’s death specifically. For those journeying behind us, please don’t be discouraged by my sharing those specific struggles and don’t assume you will be forced to endure them as well. Though we share the core commonality of the devastation of child loss, the experiences and circumstances surrounding our losses are unique, bringing with them unique challenges and struggles for each of us.
If you are following behind us on the excruciating path of child loss, I am so thankful to be able to offer you honest hope that your second year of this journey may not be harder or worse than your first year. If I could have you take away one truth from our experience it would be that God uses the joy of the Hope set before us to strengthen us to bear up under this present sorrow with multiplying grace and peace.
If you haven’t already, you will likely soon hear it implied or directly stated that joy should have replaced your sorrow by now. I humbly yet boldly disagree. There is no sin in our lingering sorrow, nor does our lingering sorrow prohibit our present or future joy. He has promised that “He will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). This promise has not yet been fulfilled, but praise God, with certainty there is coming a day when it will be. He knows the sting of death and He weeps with us (John 11:33-35), He collects our tears in a bottle (Psalm 56:8), and one day He is coming to wipe every tear away (Rev. 7:17) These are among the many precious and magnificent promises of His Word that allow grace and peace to be multiplied to us.
Though I do not know you by name, as I type this I am praying over you that God’s truths that have so richly encouraged and comforted me over the past two years will encourage and comfort you as well. I pray that you will choose to run to Him daily as your stronghold and refuge. I pray that His living Word will resonate in your heart and soul as you seek Him through it. I pray that grace and peace will be multiplied to you in the true knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. I pray that He will give you glimpses of how He is redeeming even this most painful of trials for your good and His glory. And lastly I pray that you will be strengthened with all power according to His glorious might to live fruitfully and wait expectantly, “For, ‘In just a little while, He who is coming will come and will not delay‘” (Heb. 10:37).
“I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places,” Ephesians 1:18-20 [NASB]
Our last family walk, June 7th, 2017