A Birthday Celebration Disaster

Deuteronomy 34:4
“Then the LORD said to him, ‘This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’  I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.’”

As TJ’s second birthday without him is approaching, I’ve been reminiscing about how we spent his first birthday without him. Last year in July, we went on our first ever family vacation which included nana and papa, daughters, sons-in-law, granddaughters, and grandsons. When all of us are together, we number 21 in total.

We found a very large house in Salt Lake City, Utah to accommodate us. It was nestled into the side of a mountain and had five bedrooms, one of which was a bunk bed room for all of the little gremlins; a media room with a big screen for watching movies; and a giant game room which was any child’s — or husband’s — dream.

Salt Lake City, Utah

We chose the beautiful Salt Lake City for our vacation destination last year because it was a good halfway point with our daughter Whitney who lives in Washington state. I had never been to Salt Lake City before and was taken aback by its beauty. The city is located at the base of the Wasatch Mountains on the east with the Great Salt Lake across the valley to the west. I enjoyed my morning walks along the edge of the mountain looking out across the city below to the view of the Great Salt Lake in the distance. It was breathtaking.

Our fourth day there was TJ’s birthday. After shedding a few tears in the morning and doing crafts and baking cookies with the grandkids all afternoon, the plan that evening was to release sky lanterns in memory of TJ. I had been imagining this event in my mind for months. I pictured releasing them by a lake with beautiful mountain scenery surrounding it. All of us would be standing together with our smiling faces turned upward and maybe some tears streaming down our cheeks as the sky lanterns all floated away together.  The kids would be cheering with joy on their faces as they watched the lanterns light up the sky. Everybody would be happy and thinking about TJ, and I imagined TJ looking down from heaven with a big, peaceful smile on his face. 

But that is totally not what happened.

Early in the day, my husband drove around the city scouting out the landscape for the perfect place to release the lanterns. That evening, as our caravan of cars arrived at the location he had chosen, I gave him a thumbs up and complimented his choice. It was a beautiful, flat, park-like setting with a pond of water nearby. Vegetation surrounded the pond, and mountains were standing tall in the distance. The site was perfect — but looks can be deceiving.

When we exited our cars, we realized the water close by was stagnant and the mosquitoes were insane — like nothing we had ever experienced before. Almost immediately we were attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes. As our arms flailed to defend ourselves, most of the younger kids began to wail at the top of their lungs and frantically scratched their arms and legs. We hurriedly scattered and turned our attention toward the children. In the background, while we were running, I could hear our son-in-law Matt yelling, “Why was this place chosen?!”

After tending to the screaming children, still undeterred and doing our best to ignore the bites, we proceeded with TJ’s birthday celebration. We started lighting the lanterns, but almost immediately we began experiencing more problems. The lanterns weren’t easy to light and were catching on fire. Pockets of fire were scattered around the park. Our son-in-law, Ben, became concerned that the police would be called, so he ran around like a madman putting the fires out with small drinking bottles of water. The lanterns that didn’t catch on fire wouldn’t rise. Our daughters were running after their lanterns that were hovering at eye level blowing and flapping their arms wildly in an attempt to get them to fly. After the last lantern was lit and burst into flames, we counted them up. Only 3 of the 26 lanterns actually flew. The rest were burning in a heap on the ground. We then cleaned up the mess, put all the fires out, hurriedly escaped to our cars, comforted the bawling children, and drove away as fast as we could, scratching our bites all the way home.

My deceased son’s first birthday celebration without him was an utter disaster.

To onlookers, this couldn’t have looked like a family who was honoring their son who had recently passed away. This looked like pandemonium and irresponsibility for lighting lanterns in the hot, dry climate of Salt Lake City. Coming from the green, rolling hills of humid Iowa where releasing sky lanterns is legal, it never occurred to any of us until the fires began that lighting lanterns in a hot, dry climate wasn’t a real smart idea — or even legal.

In my younger years, I would have been devastated that my son’s first birthday celebration after his death was a complete catastrophe, but now in my older years, I’ve learned a few things. I’ve learned that sometimes when things don’t go as planned, it still can be beautiful. The morning after our disastrous evening, we sure enjoyed sitting around recounting the night and laughing hysterically at our foolishness. In the wake of the devastating tragedy of losing TJ that cut each one of us to the core, it was a much needed family bonding moment. We came to the conclusion that if TJ could have seen it, he would be laughing as well at his crazy family.  In fact, he would have enjoyed seeing our mosquito-infested, tumultuous evening way more than the tear-filled, sappy celebration I had envisioned in my mind.

What about you?  Have you had times when things didn’t turn out as you had envisioned?  Have some of your dreams ended in disaster and you just weren’t sure how to pick up the broken pieces and carry on?

During my Bible study time the day prior to the birthday celebration, I read about Moses.  Moses led God’s people out of slavery in Egypt. Numbers 20 says that in the first month after leaving Egypt, the community arrived at the Desert of Zin. There was no water for the community, and the people began to quarrel with Moses. Moses and Aaron then went to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and fell face down, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. The Lord told Moses to take the rod and speak to the rock and water would pour out. But Moses instead struck the rock twice with the rod and then spoke harshly to the community. Despite Moses’s disobedience and because the people needed water, the Lord still provided abundantly for the people and water gushed out of the rock, and the community and their livestock drank, but the Lord told Moses that because he didn’t trust Him enough, he would not bring the community into the land the Lord would give them.

Because of God’s Holiness, His correction of Moses was hard — and deserved. Moses was a leader and leaders are judged by a higher standard. All of his life, even since he was an infant, Moses was being prepared to deliver God’s people from Egypt and bring them into the Promised Land. I wonder as Moses grew, when he heard the miraculous story about how Pharaoh’s daughter plucked him out of the Nile River while the other Hebrew babies were murdered, if he knew his life had been saved for a special purpose? I wonder as Moses played and ran through the palaces of Egypt as a child, if he could feel God’s calling on his life and knew that there was something God had planned for him to do? I wonder while Moses was in Midian, if he came to realize that he was there so God could continue to mature him before He sent him out before Pharaoh?  I wonder how many times while bringing the people out of Egypt Moses had dreamed of the day when he and the whole community would set foot on the soil of the Promised Land? But now because of his own disobedience, Moses would not lead the people into the Promised Land and another person would finish the job. How unbelievably disappointed Moses must have felt.

After leaving Egypt, because of disobedience, the community wandered in the desert for 40 years, and then the time finally came to enter the Promised Land. The baton had been passed from Moses to Joshua, and Joshua would lead the community into the Promised Land. In the 34th chapter of Deuteronomy, the Lord took Moses high up on a mountain and showed him the whole land that He had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then Moses died and the Lord buried him. A tender, loving, gracious Father allowed Moses to see the Promised Land with his own two eyes and then privately buried His faithful servant Himself in an unmarked grave.

Maybe God said no to your prayers, hopes, and dreams, and life hasn’t turned out for you like you had planned. Moses’s hopes and dreams didn’t turn out like he had planned either — but here’s the beautiful part about Moses’s story: A short time after Moses was forbidden from entering the Promised Land, God took him home to an eternal life with Him forever. The loss of not being able to enter the Promised Land was only momentary, temporary, and for those of us who are in Christ, the same is true for us. God will also take us home to an eternal life with Him forever as well, and these disappointments and losses that we experienced here on this earth will become a faded memory.

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A Constant Friend

“A friend loves at all times,
and a brother is born for a time of adversity.”
Proverbs 17:17

Ambiguous Loss. That is a term you’ve probably never heard before. What does it mean? In the 1970s Dr. Pauline Boss, a professor emeritus from the University of Minnesota and an educator and researcher, introduced the term “ambiguous loss.” She describes the term in her book Loss, Trauma and Resilience as “an unclear loss that defies closure.” She goes on to say that “ambiguous loss is the most stressful kind of loss. It defies resolution and creates long-term confusion about who is in or out of a particular couple or family.  With death, there is official certification of loss, and mourning rituals allow one to say goodbye. With ambiguous loss, none of these markers exists.”

She did not say that ambiguous loss is the most painful of all losses. Because let’s face it, loss is loss and it all hurts. Ambiguous loss, however, is unique in that it is an “extraordinary stressor — a producer of uncanny anxiety and unending stress that blocks coping and understanding. It freezes the grief process and defies resolution. It understandably encourages denial of loss. It can lead to immobilization and more crises.” (Boss) Ambiguous loss is loss that is seen in families traumatized by war, terrorism, natural disasters, and chronic illnesses and disabilities. The brain injured, the stroke victim, the Alzheimer’s patient as well as the kidnapped or imprisoned also fall into this category. In my own words, it is hell on earth.

Caring for a child with a brain injury can be a lonely road. There are few who understand. We were suffering from a strange phenomenon that I termed “living in between life and death.” He wasn’t dead, although in some ways it felt like he died the day of his surgery. However, he wasn’t alive either — not really alive, just existing. The person he had once been was a thing of the past. Living in between life and death is an excruciatingly painful place to be. Twice I sought help from different Christian counselors. My hope was to process the grief with someone who understood, but after a few sessions, I was even more frustrated than when I began. I realized that unless a counselor has specific training in brain injury grief and loss, he does not understand the uniqueness and complexity of the pain.

In an article written in Brain Injury Journey magazine, Janelle Breese Biagioni, RPC, states, “Then we have what I identify as extraordinary grief resulting from a disease such as Alzheimer’s or a catastrophic injury such as a brain injury.  This kind of grief is profound. People must grieve who they were, and the family also grieves the person who is no longer there, albeit physically present. Sadly, I think society as a whole is only beginning to understand how profound this type of grief is.”

So, if most counselors don’t fully understand brain injury grief and loss, then how can the friend of a mother of a brain injury victim understand it?

Well, the answer is — they can’t. During the years my son lived with a brain injury, I heard repeatedly how hard it is to be the friend of a person who has experienced this kind of tragedy. I have seen people struggling about whether to bring it up or not bring it up. If they do bring it up, they don’t know what to say because they fear they may say the wrong thing and cause more hurt. I came to the conclusion that is why some do and say nothing and avoid the injured altogether. While it is very understandable why some would react this way, it probably is not the best way to handle it. Handling it this way actually causes the injured more loneliness and pain. Exiting their life translates to “I don’t care about you” even though that may not be true.

How do you relate to the mother of a child who has a brain injury? I believe the first and most important thing is to stay in their life even though it’s hard. It’s not necessary to be there daily or even weekly, but it helps if you just check in from time to time, like once a month, so they know you care. It can be something as simple as sending a text. I had no shortage of friends in my life while my son was alive, and I am grateful for every one of them. Many checked in on me often, took me to coffee or lunch, or just simply sat on the couch and cried with me.  They were one of God’s many blessings during that time. I knew I was loved and cared for.

The second most important thing is don’t judge them or what they talk about. There were many times when I probably sounded irrational to some. There were times I was stuck in certain areas of the grieving process like anger, the never-ending pursuit of trying to find answers, or the most painful of all, the loss and change in TJ’s social standing. Although I may have sounded unreasonable, it really was a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. Many times when we don’t understand or haven’t experienced a situation before, we make judgments of others that they’re irrational, frustrating, feeling sorry for themselves, complaining, etc., but in reality these reactions are normal and have to be processed so the one experiencing the trauma can learn to cope with ambiguous loss.

The best thing the friend can do is just listen and say things like, “I’m so sorry this happened to you,” “I can’t imagine how hard this would be,” “I can understand why you would feel that way,” “I just want to be here for you and be a listening ear.”  Part of the healing process for the one suffering is being able to talk about it without being judged for the way one feels. If they’re angry, let them be angry. If they’re frustrated, let them be frustrated. If they’re sad, let them be sad. Allow the one suffering to feel the way they feel without correcting them. Over time, as they process through their feelings, they will figure out what they need to do differently themselves. Understand this process can’t be sped up, and there is absolutely nothing you can say that will heal the hurt and make it all better. You are not there to solve the problem; you are just there to be a listener.

My friend Amber did an amazing job at being my friend during the course of TJ’s brain injury. Once a month for three years she showed up with two Starbucks coffees in hand, one for me and one for her. During each visit, she sat and talked with me for a couple of hours. She let me talk about my grief, sadness, and my frustrations. She also shared what was going on in her life which helped me feel connected to the outside world. It couldn’t have been easy for her. My problems were heavy, chronic, confusing, and long term, but she stayed by me, loved me, and truly modeled what being the hands and feet of Jesus looks like. She was a gift from God and was very wise at knowing how to be the friend of a mother with a son with a brain injury.