Hope in the midst of hurt

May 30th, 2017

When a child's life turns upside down, the actions and reactions of adults matter. A lot.

Hope can be held out to the hurting, and it’s not as difficult to offer as you might think. Personal presence, in and of itself, is often enough. No explanation, spiritual quip, or extravagant gift necessary.

As a preteen, I experienced deep grief. I was shown love and hope by some wonderful adults in my life. Their presence has not been forgotten. But I also remember the words and actions of those who were not as helpful to me.

*     *     *

The line at my mother’s viewing stretched through the formal funeral home reception room and snaked against the wall all the way to the door. Most everyone wore downcast faces. Though their shoulders slumped and their faces pointed toward the ground, their eyes focused on us, my family, to see how we were responding to this tragedy.

I stood in front of Mom’s open casket with my dad by my side. Other family members stood to our left and our right, flanked by lovely smelling floral arrangements whose brightness clashed with the dreary scene.

As I looked at Mom’s body lying there so still and stiff, my own body ached. She still looked like herself. The dress she wore was one of her favorites. Her face portrayed a gentle and pleasant countenance, which was true to her sweet nature. Her hair was nicely styled. Her familiar hands lay crossed near her chest.

Yet a foreignness cloaked her figure. She looked wrong. Of course she did. How could her body appear alive when it was void of life? How could her temporary shell pass the inspection of a daughter who knew too well that this was not really her mom? Even so, I studied her, cramming my mind with everything I feared forgetting. 

Those in attendance that day, as well as those who read about our loss in the newspaper, pitied the poor man who was now left to rear two young children on his own. What a tragedy for a young mother to die so suddenly.

Some people at the viewing tried to soothe our pain with gifts and words. I was given a flat and crunchy chocolate cookie in the shape of a teddy bear. White icing lined his features, and I can still remember what he tasted like in my mouth, a little bitterness mixed with the sweet.

One woman stood in front of us and said, “God must have needed another alto in His angel choir!”

I cringed and then shook my head. “No, I don’t think so,” I responded. “The Bible doesn’t ever say that people become angels when they die. Angels and people are two separate created beings.” The woman’s eyes grew large and her mouth closed slowly as she walked away. Though perhaps not the best time for a theological conversation, I could not let it pass. I had lost my mother, and trite comments about God needing another angel tasted more bitter and dry than the bear cookie.

Despite my youth, I did not wish to be talked down to or excluded. I wanted to face my reality head on and deal with it in my own way. That is why, later that day, after being taken to a friend’s house for a break, I requested to be driven back to the funeral home. I had tried to allow myself to be distracted at Jennifer’s house by watching Anne of Green Gables, but even the beloved character on the screen couldn’t keep my attention. I wanted to be with my parents. Jennifer’s mom understood and drove me back to the viewing.

As hard as it was for me to be there, I did not want to be anywhere else.

*     *     * 

The ladies from my church took me under their wings and loved me as if I was their own daughter. At a time when I physically ached whenever friends talked about going to the grocery store with their moms, those women included me in their lives. Betty, Susie, and Gia took me to the mall to go bathing suit shopping. I smiled much of the day and enjoyed a moment of normal, a preteen girl at the mall with other women.

Another woman, Margo, let me hang out at her house often. She also opened her heart to me. She allowed me to talk about and process the changes in my life, while at the same time making me smile and laugh in the present.

And Joan, who lived back in Pennsylvania, and who had been my Sunday school teacher when I just a little girl in pigtailed braids, sent me letters in the mail. Joan never missed a birthday or holiday, and her neat and pretty handwriting filled page after page. She made me feel as if I was not forgotten. And when I wrote back to her, she’d respond, which made me feel as if what I had to say was important.

*     *     * 

Nearly thirty years later, there is still a special place in my heart for Margo, Joan, Betty, Gia, and Susie. I don’t see them often, but when I do, I could squeeze their necks. They were there for me when I needed women in my life. Their simple acts of loving, listening, and bathing suit shopping impacted me greatly.

The hope they offered was accepted. And it will never be forgotten.

If there is a grieving child in your life:

Do: Listen to them. Whatever they feel like telling you, just listen.

Don’t: Tell them how they should feel.

Do: Be there. Take them to ice cream. Go for a walk. Sit beside them at the kitchen table with a box of tissues. It really doesn’t matter what you do. Just be there.

Don’t: Try to reason away their pain or explain why their personal tragedy occurred.

Do: Pray!

Portions of this article are excerpts from the book Brownie Crumbs and Other Life Morsels (2017) by Christy Cabe.

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