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Always Winter But Never Christmas

One of the things that’s difficult about having a blog is the sudden pressure you feel to keep writing.  Some days, I just don’t feel like it.  Some days, I’m even pretty sure I shouldn’t.  I mean, of course I have thoughts.  I always have thoughts.  But some thoughts, especially when you’re literally drowning in the breakers and waves of grief, require you to walk the fine line of wisdom between sharing and not sharing.  Some of the things I have felt and thought and wrestled with in the last nine months have been dark and powerful and ugly.  And I have felt at times what Asaph said in the midst of the pain of Pslam 73:15, “If I had said, “I will speak thus,” I would have betrayed the generation of your children.”

That’s why it meant so much to me when God spoke to my heart the other day through a sermon on Psalm 42.  It was given by John Piper, and focused on the heart of the Psalmist in the midst of suffering.  Piper points out how the Psalmist of 42 actually felt betrayed by God.  He felt cast down.  He felt forgotten.  And He lived in the complex dance of actually feeling those things, and yet not letting them dictate His theology.  He still believed in God’s steadfast character and love in the midst of, not to the exclusion of, what He was feeling.

I think this is an incredibly important point to make, because in the cesspool of suffering there is great temptation to do one of two things.  When the depth to which God’s allows you to suffer becomes almost irreconcilable with what you once believed of His character, you feel enormously tempted to either….

1. Give up on your feelings, or

2.  Give up on your theology.

Grief just hurts SO badly.  And some people come to the point where they just say, “I’m not going to allow myself to hurt this much for even one more day.”  They shut it off by medicating…on drugs, on TV, on trying to have another baby…basically we Americans have about a million ways of medicating.    But mostly, they try to shut it off by burying the pain.  This helps keep the theology in tact, but I’m convinced that it’s almost impossible to live life meaningfully without feeling things deeply…especially painful things.

Then there’s the other extreme…those who chose to be alive to the pain, and dead to their theology.  People who stay emotionally engaged in the pain and drink the cup of suffering all the way down to the last drop…at the cost of everything.   Because you can’t do this for very long without the pain becoming so utterly incapacitating that it’s almost impossible to function in daily life.  In these endless months of suffering and grief, I’ve found simple tasks like going to the grocery store incredibly exhausting.   And the longer you’re willing to sit in the pain of how much the God you loved and trusted and entrusted your babies lives to…HURT you…the harder it is to fully reconcile all the other things you once believed.

And so, in the end…in the pushy way that grief forces you to deal with these extremes daily…you either pick a camp to live in, or you learn to live in the messy. There are those who keep to the camp of Theology by shutting down their hearts completely.  They say, “This is what I know to be true of God…I’ll just believe it and not think about how much He just hurt me.”  And there are those who pick the camp of Feeling… by shutting down their faith completely.  They say, “This is how much I’m hurting, and I don’t care what God says about Himself…I can no longer believe those things.”

Well people, I can wax poetic on either camp…because I’ve been there on any given day.

I think that’s why I so appreciated Piper’s words on the heart of the Psalmist. Here is someone  (technically Sons of Korah) who was willing to stay engaged in both his heart and his faith.  He is honest enough to tell God, “I feel like You’ve betrayed, forgotten, abandoned, and knocked me over with all Your breakers and Your waves.”  And at the same time faithful enough to say, “And yet, I still believe.”

So, why am I saying all of these things?  Well, most of you will never suffer through the living hell of burying two perfectly healthy babies.  And I say “hell,” because it was hell.  If hell is, by definition, “separation from God,” then there’s been no greater temptation to separate from and give up on believing in God’s love…than the days my babies died.  I felt far from God.  I felt forsaken and forgotten.  I felt bowled over and betrayed.  I felt like He didn’t love me.  And like the author says in the book, “When God breaks Your Heart,” I completely felt like it was an almighty, sovereign, powerful God, who had broken mine.

But just because you’ll probably never face that suffering, doesn’t mean that you will not face any suffering…or more importantly, that you will never feel some of these very things.  You may someday feel like the God who you have always loved and trusted and believed to be good…has forgotten and betrayed you beyond belief.

And in reality, for most of us, most days…we wrestle with these two extremes in much more subtle ways.

We visit a friend in the hospital, or go to a funeral, or watch the world news on TV…and though it isn’t our suffering…it’s hard enough to bear it anyways.  We see all this suffering and we try to let God “off the hook” by saying, “Oh, God doesn’t want it to be this way.”

Well, the question I keep coming back to every single day is…if He didn’t, then why allow it?  Is it because He isn’t strong enough?  Or because He isn’t good enough?  And if He isn’t sovereign enough to have stopped it if He had wanted to…then what kind of God is He anyways?  There’s at least a hundred verses in the Word that are absolutely irreconcilable, if God is not all at once…Good, Sovereign, and Strong…all at the same time.

That is not to say that God delights in our suffering.  I know that He doesn’t.  I know that the nine million times I have laid on the floor weeping…God was laying there weeping right beside me.   I know that the Jesus who wept at Lazarus’ tomb…wept with me at my babies graves.  And I’m convinced that the Lord aches over frail humanities collective and individual suffering in such a deep and sincere way that if we could see it clearly, we would be embarrassed by how little we ache and grieve comparatively.

But that doesn’t mean He is this weak God who couldn’t stop it…simply because He didn’t.  I refuse to dumb Him down to some senile old Grandpa in the sky who is wringing His hands and crying, “But what can I do?”  That is not theism….that is Deism.  God, our God, the powerful, sovereign almighty Yahweh, is not a God who set the great cosmic clock a-spinning, and now sits back and watches as we spin and suffer and ache all the way through this broken life.  He is GOD.  He could have called down legions of angels at ANY moment to stop ANY given thing from happening…from the burial of Lazarus, to the crucifixion of His own Son, to the death of my own babies.

But He didn’t.

And we are left with the “Why?”  And it’s the “Why?” that will drive you absolutely insane.  Because it’s the “Why” that will drive you to these dangerous extremes of either disbelief or Deism in the first place.

So here I am, fighting daily against these two extremes with my broken and bleeding heart, deep in the throwes of what my friend calls, “The Black Stage.” And while I certainly agree it’s black, I think it’s a stretch calling it a stage.   A stage is temporary.  But what I’m in doesn’t feel temporary, because what I’m in right now is the rest of my life.  I’m in the learning to live the rest of my life without my babies. It’s not a stage.  I actually have to live the rest of my life without my babies.  It’s not a season.  It’s my new life.

The initial shock of early grief was a season.  It was miserable, and it was also filled with cards, flowers, texts, emails, and people constantly asking if they could help us in any way.  But months three, four, five…nine…those months are incredibly lonely.  It’s not that no one writes or prays or loves on us today, it’s just that most people presume that we’ve moved on…because they have.  Not that they no longer care…but they no longer feel the loss of someone they never knew anyways.

It’s not easy grieving a life when you were the ONLY one who touched them alive. I’m the only one who felt Charlie’s tiny toes kick my very body.  Who touched him as I slept and ate and lived and played and prayed…all the while having no idea that those would be our ONLY interactions this side of eternity.

So, I wouldn’t call this a Black Stage.  I’d call this my New Permanently Broken Life. That isn’t to say that my life was so perfectly unbroken before…because it wasn’t. I was a broken sinner, living in a broken world long before I lived through the hell of my babies dying.  But it was never THIS broken.  And death is a permanent breaking.  There’s nothing that could ever fix this much breaking.  There’s no amount of time that will turn this into a “season” of my life.  It’s just my new life.

But if I had to define it in some way, I’d say that this year, this new, permanent life without my babies, has been, like it was once said of Narnia… “Always winter, but never Christmas.”

It’s been all of the sorrow and suffering and imobilizing fear of parenthood…with so little of the joys.   It’s a lot of work carrying a baby for nine months…Imagine never getting to hold or love or meet that baby.  It’s a lot of work going through the pains of labor…Imagine laboring knowing there will be no cry of life, no eyes to search, no heart to know…on the other side.  It’s a lot of work LOVING someone and risking so much of your heart in the loving…Imagine not getting to LOVE them, but only getting to grieve their unlived lives.

It’s been such a very long winter…and the Christmas joys of parenthood are never coming.

Even the moments that should have felt like Christmas in this long year called 2013…have each been weeks of deep winter pain.  I gave birth to Charlie…the day before Freddo’s 3rd birthday.  Baby Zeller died…the day before Emma’s 6th birthday. And we found out why our babies died…the week of Sophie’s 2nd birthday.  Even moments of Christmas…have felt a million miles from Joy.

And in the winter, the coldest winter of our lives…that is when it’s the hardest to hold on to your faith.  That is when it’s the hardest to believe that God is ALL of those things…Sovereign, Powerful, Purposeful, Good, and LovingALL AT THE SAME TIME.

But I’m learning that it’s in Winter….when you most need to fight to be like the Psalmist’s, to fight to be alive to your heart AND full of faith.

And I’m learning that it’s in the Winter…when it means the very most that He has given us the promise that after all of the hellish suffering of this life…

Christmas is coming.

Someday, somewhere, in a far away Land and an eternal time…the Christ of Christmas will reign.

I miss my babies so much today I ache.  I think I’ve cried at least seven times today and it’s only 3:30.  But I will walk with God, and pour out my pain, and cling to what I believe about Him for one more day.  Because I know, deep in my heart, that someday…Christmas is coming.

Someday, it really will be Never Winter and Always Christmas.

And it will be worth this long, dark wait.


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One Thousand Gifts Later

A few months ago, I shared about the “One Thousand Gifts” challenge I was working on. The goal was to write out 1,000 gifts by the end of the summer. (Here’s the link to that post: http://www.charliessong.wordpress.com/2013/05/16/1000-gifts/.) It felt good to post it. The list making was good. The accountability was good. And the fact that Ann Voskamp even read it and left a comment…meant a lot to my broken heart.

Now that summer is over, and the list is finished, I wanted to share a few thoughts on what I learned in the “midst of the list.”

I’d like to say, “List making is SO great! It makes you feel soooooo much more thankful!” But I can’t. It was a stretch every single day, and most days it was a downright challenge. Some days I even felt kind of mad at the list. The last eight months have been the darkest, most excruciatingly painful months of our lives. To say that these were not easy months to count fresh mercies and things I was grateful for…is a major understatement. Some days, I would sit there for a profoundly long time, just trying to come up with my little list of ten.

And some days, I would get done with the list, and then read back over the ten and think to myself, “But I don’t CARE that I saw a beautiful sunset! I had wanted Charlie. I had wanted to be too busy holding Charlie, and feeding Charlie, and doing extra laundry for Charlie, to have time to watch a sunset. I had wanted to be too busy enjoying what I HAD WANTED… to have time for this dumb sunset!”

I’d like to say, “Counting kept me faithful and grateful on even the darkest of days!” But the truth is…some days, I couldn’t even make a list. The day I felt so disheartened and beaten down that I actually broke our bathroom sink in anger…I didn’t make a list. The day last week when new neighbors moved into the house next door with their eight-month-old baby, and we had to listen to someone else’s baby crying all night long while ours is buried in the ground…I didn’t make a list. And the day this June when another sweet baby passed from this life to the next…I didn’t make a list. Just. Couldn’t. Do. It.

So those are all the things I can’t say about counting gifts. But here is the one thing I can say…

There are always gifts.

Always. Even on the days it took forever to come up with ten. Even on the days they didn’t feel like gifts. Even on the days I couldn’t bring myself to count them…there are always, always gifts.

To the little girl who will sleep on the streets of Calcutta tonight…that unexpected crust of bread- is a gift.

To the mommy at Emma’s school who has been given three weeks to live…the hug she will give her sweet daughter tonightis a gift.

And to my broken heart that has been literally dragged along by my body through the last eight months of life…each and every one of the One Thousand- is a gift.

 

There is so much to grieve as I think of the list I had WANTED…

Watching Emma cuddle with her sweet baby brother.

Charlie’s squeals of delight over bright balloons.

A stroll to the park on a cool summer night.

 

But this is what God GAVE US…

A few weeks ago, we were walking to the park and Emma spotted a huge bunch of pink balloons in our neighbors yard. The gigantic “It’s a Girl!” balloon was impossible to ignore, so I had to explain to the kids that our neighbors had just had a baby girl. Emma was silent for a moment and then said to me, “Mommy, did the same thing happen to their baby that happened to Charlie?”

“No, sweetie, they got to bring home their baby home.”

Silence.

I wonder sometimes…what is she thinking? What goes through her precious heart and mind as she reels and stumbles through the unfairness of life? What war is being waged in her soul as she lives with the pain of being broken people in a broken world? The other day, Emma found me laying on the floor in her room weeping as I looked at Charlie’s pictures. She told me later that night, “Mommy, I don’t want to have kids when I grow up. I don’t want my kids to die.”

I hope this blog never gives you the impression we are doing good. Because we are not. Our big feet, and our children’s little feet, are literally stumbling through this broken life. We live with a suffering inconcievable to most adults…and it breaks my heart that my children have been to two baby funerals in that last eight months while everyone around us gets to bring their babies home.

But here is the part I cannot escape. The part that brings me to my knees in worship again and again, even when my whole soul screams out against it. Even when my soul screams out against Him

“Who gave me ANY of this?”

 

The same God who has allowed for my sweet six-year-old to experience such suffering and heartache…is the One who made her heart in the first place. He gave us Emma. He gives her every breath she breathes. He gives her every tender thought. He makes her deep, and gives her heart the capacity to even wrestle with the suffering of this world. And…He gives her Himself.

I had wanted to put, “Emma’s joy over her baby brother” on my list. But God has given us something different. Something I did NOT want. But something that is still, most certainly, a gift.

“Emma’s faith in the UNSEEN goodness of God.”

“Emma’s joy in the promise of eternal life to come.”

“Emma’s tenderness towards the sorrow and suffering in others.”

I’d rather have baby Charlie in my arms. I’d rather be pregnant with his little sibling right now. But I would be a fool to not find gratitude in who God is making us through the gifts He HAS given.

And so we make our list. With tears, we make our list. With anger and confusion, we make our list. With unanswered questions, and broken and bleeding hearts, we make our list. Because they are hearts that cannot escape His goodness.

Because there are always, always gifts.

 

Undeserved, unexpected fresh mercies EVERY DAY that remind us of His love. Love that outlives the life of any gift. Love that we will still be counting on when we’ve been there 10,000 years. Love that outlasts the lists.

I am more grateful for having made the list. Not just grateful for the things on it, but grateful that in the darkest night of my soul…there were still 1,000 gifts. And grateful that when the paper is gone, and the people are gone, and these gifts are just faint memories of a life long lived…

His love outlasts the list.


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Finally, We Know Why

Last Monday, August 26th, 2013 was one of the most significant days of our lives. We can just tack it on to the most significant (read: painful, agonizing, overwhelming, sorrowful, breaking, devastating, impacting) year of our lives. I keep thinking about New Year’s 2014. I keep thinking, “What will it feel like to finally be able to say…We have made it to the end of the absolute worst year of our lives.

But it’s September right now, and January feels a million miles away.

And yet, Monday, was another big, big, big day.

To back up a little, I haven’t been blogging much lately, because it’s felt like a fight to simply survive. Beyond the usual soul misery of grieving the loss of two babies, I’ve been feeling absolutely miserable physically. I’ve been to so many doctors in the last eight months that I’ve become somewhat numb to the reality of living with a broken body. And, worse than that, I have felt like none of my doctors are really listening to me…no matter how loud I scream. Over the last few months I’ve had this picture in my head of me standing on one side of the ocean screaming for help at the top of my lungs…to my deaf doctors standing on the other side. I have not felt believed. I have not felt believed that something is wrong. I have not felt believed that (in spite of how common pregnancy loss is) it is not common to me. Especially when no one can give any sound explanation as to why. And in a moment when every single thing in my life feels broken beyond belief, it has been incredibly frustrating to feel minimized and not believed.

In spite of the fact that all of my blood tests keep coming back normal, my body is not acting like my body. I’ve seen so many doctors lately, that Freddo actually said to me, “Mommy, you can just go by yourself to the doctor’s appointment today. I’ll stay home and babysit Sophie.” Hmmm…now that’s a scary image. And such a sad picture of our lives. Even my kids know that something is deeply wrong with Mommy’s body.

Last Sunday, I reached a point of total despair as I thought about my upcoming appointments at four different doctors that week. I knew it would be more appointments where everyone would tell me I’m fine. But…I’m NOT fine. And, devastatingly, my babies are not fine. As I felt the panic and anxiety rising, I cried out to God again and again, “Please tell me what is wrong with me. Please give someone wisdom about my broken body!”

And then, out of the blue, I got a call from my family doctor on Monday. He’s been my doctor since I was born, and has been with me through countless childhood ailments and every season of life. (Think, Dr. Clarkson of Downton Abbey.) He lives 2,000 miles away and hasn’t seen me in five years, but my parents told him a little of what has been going on with me, and he new what was wrong. Immediately. I talked to him on the phone for five minutes, and all of my symptoms confirmed his suspicions, because in his decades upon decades of being a doctor, he has seen this several times. There is something, deeply, devestatingly wrong with my thyroid.

All week long I have been visiting doctors every day, taking blood tests until I feel like a heroin addict, and researching like crazy…and I have ALL OF the symptoms of serious thyroid dysfunction. Trouble keeping on weight, muscle and joint pain, hair loss, eczema, depression and anxiety, infections, brain fog, neck pain, ibs, pain in my liver, poor circulation, high cholesterol, low basal body temperature (mine’s a frigid 96.7 degrees), and most of all…fatigue. And all of these were even more true during pregnancy. I was so incredibly exhausted in the final weeks of Charlie’s life. And though I told my doctor how absolutely fatigued I was, since they are surrounded by pregnant women who complain constantly about being tired, and since the medical OBGYN community strangely knows almost nothing about thyroid disease, all THREE of my doctors dismissed the warning signs.

Warning signs that almost certainly cost my babies lives. I could weep as I tell you how many articles I’ve read about how even a mild thyroid dysfunction can cause miscarriage and stillbirth (including placental abruption) in otherwise healthy babies.

I may not even be able to finish this post, I ache so badly. But finally, it has a name. This nawing fear I have had to carry for the last eight months that despite what all of the doctors say…my baby did not just suddenly…die. Charlie died because something was deeply wrong with my body. And then, so did the next baby.

In the midst of this hard week, we have felt two main things. Regret and Relief.

Relief

Relief that, finally, we have a name. We have a word that gives more clarity to the catastrophic loss we have to live with every day. It doesn’t take away ANY of the pain of burying two babies. And though it cannot change the permanent devastation of the past, it does change how I feel about the future in so many ways. I’ve woken up every day for the last eight months terrified of another baby we so desperately wanted…dying in my body. Terrified that we will never know why. Terrified of the not knowing.

I feel like we have spent these last eight months living under a dark and constant shadow. The shadow of death. Death in the past. And fear of death in the future. So many people have encouraged us to have “hope” that we will one day have another baby. And their words have felt hollow, naive, and honestly, ridiculous…because we didn’t even know why our babies died. We were just told to “keep trying.” To basically, make a wish, blow out the candles, and keep doing the exact same things, with my exact same broken body…hoping to magically, get different results. That, by the way, IS the definition of insanity. And it has felt like insanity.

Though we still don’t know if we will ever again hold a living, breathing baby…we finally have a much clearer picture of the physical why. And it is such a relief to be free of the weight of the not knowing. It is such a relief to know that I am not crazy. And that my doctors, who have looked at me like I’m crazy, not only do not know everything…they actually know almost nothing about something that had such an effect on my body that it actually ended my babies lives. There has been so much anger and sorrow in this, but there has also been so much relief in the finally knowing.

Regret

Honestly, it’s a lot to process in our already broken state. Charlie would be eight months old this week. We would have found out this week if Baby Zeller is a little girl, or a baby boy. I will weep for the rest of my life, over the babies I had wanted here with me today. I will think, “If only we had known BEFORE Charlie died.” And then I will think, “If only we had know AFTER Charlie died.” “If only my doctors took the thyroid more seriously and did routine testing for these things.” “If only the medical community valued symptoms as much as they value blood results and testing.”

With the vision of hindsight, there were so many symptoms and warning signs of thyroid disease. All of my blood tests indicated I was fine, but doctors don’t do routine blood testing for thyroid disease. Especially not throughout a pregnancy, which is when both mother and baby are completely dependent on a healthy thyroid. Everyone kept telling me I was fine. And now we know that I was not fine. I am not fine. And it is so easy in these moments to say, “It could have been different.” “It would have been different.” My babies should have been here today.”

Could have. Should have. Would have. Some of the most dangerous and debilitating words in the English language.

But in the midst of regret that my doctors weren’t more knowledgeable, regret that the medical community doesn’t take the thyroid more seriously, regret that I was deeply sick and iodine deficient and didn’t even know it, and most of all, regret that our story has not gone differently…I do not want to loose perspective on God’s sovereignty.

I’ve been thinking all week about another email I received from John Piper the week after Charlie died. He gave me much needed perspective on the “could,” “should,” and “would” moments of our lives…

“You are right that “what if” and “could have” can kill you. Sometimes I think they are almost more destructive of peace and faith and hope and joy that “I blew it” or “it was my fault.” My own approach to these thoughts is to go to the root. And the root is: We don’t know. And God reigns.

We don’t know. You will drive yourself crazy and never find out what you might have done. “Jesus said: Which of you by being anxious can add a single cubit to his span of life?” The same thing works backward as forward.

And God reigns. Yes, you are right, God could have saved Charlie, and no matter what you did or didn’t do, we know what He choose for your baby.”

Piper’s words mean even more to me today. It is so easy to look backwards and feel overcome with regret and sorrow that something that even my doctors couldn’t see…was probably the physical cause of the end of our babies lives. It’s also so easy to look forwards in overwhelm and fear that that same something still ravages so many of the vital functions of my body. Right now, I am very sick. And scared. And overwelmed that we have come to yet another bend in this long road of suffering.

But I know that Jesus’s words remain. Still. Calm. Constant and Unchanged.

In the stormy sea of suffering that has become our new lives, there is Jesus. He stands on the boat, and says simply, “Peace, be still.” He stands on the boat and says to me today, “Can you Misty, by worrying (about the unbelievably sorrowful past, the physically and emotionally painful present, or the scary and unknown future) add a single hour to your or your babies lives?

No.

Because God holds life. God gives life. And God takes life away. He gave them to me. Charlie, for eight months. And Baby Zeller, for eight weeks. For however long He gives…God is still the Giver…of each and every life. We may finally know the physical cause…but we have always known the spiritual cause. We have always known that God is the ultimate Why. His sovereign plan, His glory, His eternal purposes, are the absolute, eternal Why.

Sometimes God choses to give us clarity as to the earthly Why. And sometimes God choses to hide clarity as to why. There isn’t a mother I know who wouldn’t long to know the physical reason why a baby, at any age, has died in her body. And, it is no small miracle after all of the doctors I have seen in 2013, that God would give wisdom to a doctor 2,000 miles away. It was God. God who hid. And God who, mercifully, eventually, gave.

I don’t want to give you the impression we are doing ok. We are far from ok. We are storm battered beyond belief. And clinging desperately to the picture Jesus gave us in that storm long ago. Clinging to the promise that Jesus stands calm, strong, compassionate, and sovereign. Big enough to calm a child…or to calm a wave.

As the water pours down.

As the waves crash up.

As the storm remains.

He remains.

(There are so many people in our lives who struggle with infertility and miscarriage, and though there are of course, many physical causes for those things, I really believe that this is a far underdiagnosed cause since millions of American’s have undiagnosed thyroid problems. If you’d like more information I have really appreciated this link- from a mom whose baby died because of a problem with her thyroid. http://hypothyroidmom.com.)