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It is September

It is September, and I must remember to breathe.  Approaching anniversaries of the loss of a loved one can be difficult, even several years later.  It will be four years for us, and it’s still odd how dread and sadness can creep in and begin to take over.  The flip of the calendar to THAT month sends shock waves through the body and soul.  The flashbacks begin.  The smell of the air is familiar and a reminder of the agony endured years earlier.  Yes, I must remember to breathe deeply and keep my eyes fixed on things above, things that will help me to remember we will be together again one day.  And it will be far better than anything we shared here.  I love you Jacob, and I miss you!

This has been a hard month for us.  This is the month Jacob would have graduated from college.  Of course, that’s assuming he would have completed everything required in the traditional four years of college, but knowing Jacob, he would have made sure it only took four years.

This has actually been a hard day.  It was exactly four years ago today that Jacob graduated from high school with all his dreams for life ahead of him.  Four months later, he died in a car accident.

It has been 3 years, 8 months since Jacob died.

Why would something like a college graduation be so hard for us to face when Jacob never even came close to achieving that goal?  After all, he died only 5 1/2 weeks into his freshman year of college.  It’s hard because his college graduation was a major life milestone we fully expected to mark with Jacob that we will never get to experience.  At least not during this lifetime on this side of Heaven.  But the families of his surviving friends and classmates are able to joyfully celebrate as they always expected.

We’ve received college graduation announcements in the mail.  Jacob’s friends have posted things on facebook about their own graduations.  And they should!  This is an exciting time of life for them.  But it is a painful time for those of us who never got to see our own children celebrate that achievement.

Michael is one of Jacob’s good middle/high school friends, who attended the same university as him.  Tragically, Michael died in a car accident only one semester shy of graduation.  His parents didn’t get to see him walk across the stage to receive his college diploma either.  However, the university awarded Michael’s parents his dual major diploma on graduation night because Michael had earned enough college credits to receive both degrees.  I know it was very difficult and confusing for them to be there when Michael wasn’t there as they had always imagined he would be one day.  Tears of sadness and pain had replaced what they thought would be tears of pride and joy.

Zack is another classmate of Jacob’s who went to the same university.  Zack died about two months into what would have been his sophomore year at the university.  His parents never got to experience the joy of watching him graduate from college either.  That makes a total of three students from Jacob’s high school graduating class of 2006 that never made it to their college graduation at the University of Georgia.  A total of eight young people from that high school class  of approximately 350 students have now died.  The most recent occurred this spring.  When will it stop?

Later this week, Michael and I will be having dinner with some friends who lost their daughter in a car accident only 6 1/2 months after Jacob died.  She was only 14 at the time of her accident.  The night of our dinner with them is the night their daughter would have been graduating from high school.  They are choosing to do what we did on a day that holds so much pain and heartache for them.  Keep busy.  Get distracted by other activities.  Don’t sit at home completely absorbed in thoughts about what should have been.  These days can be like a living hell,  yet the rest of the world pretty much goes on unaware.

Life as normal.  Life as it should be.  I miss the simplicity of that.

Graduation is only the beginning.  There will be careers that get started, weddings that take place, and babies being born.  Those are all things we looked forward to celebrating with Jacob.  Several of my friends who have lost a child in their teen years have said that they either could not attend the weddings of their child’s friends or they cried their eyes out when they did attend.  That leaves me asking the difficult question, “Do I really want to attend such events?”  I certainly don’t want to offend anyone by NOT attending, but I also do not want to ruin their joyful occasion with my tears of pain and sadness.   After all, the events are not about me; they are about the person who is graduating, getting married or having a baby.

I miss the simplicity of life as it used to be.  I miss my son.

For Mother’s Day, my niece sent me an adorable key chain with a turtle on it. She knew how Jacob loved turtles, especially when he was younger.  His passion for turtles was known by many in our community, especially the year he won his school’s oratorical contest after giving a speech on sea turtles.  In fact, Bob Schieffer, the CBS Chief Washington News Correspondent and moderator of “Face the Nation,” spoke at that event back in the spring of 1999 and Jacob’s speech was the only one he mentioned in his closing remarks.  He said something along the lines of, “If only we all could have the kind of passion that young man has for sea turtles…”  Mr. Schieffer and his wife had (and maybe still have) a vacation home on nearby Sea Island which was part of why we had the honor of hearing him speak at the event.

One year, while he was in elementary school, we bought him a huge stuffed animal at SeaWorld.  It was a loggerhead sea turtle that Jacob affectionately named Logger.  He literally used Logger as his pillow until the day he died.  He didn’t take it off to college with him, but it was still on his bed at home, so his last night on this earth, he slept with his head on that “pillow.”

Jacob's Logger

The emotional attachment to Logger had ended years earlier for Jacob, but it was so comfortable for him that he just kept using it.  The funny thing is his sister Raleigh took Logger to college with her.  Logger had a strong connection to Jacob for her so he was given a special spot on her bed all year long and is now back home for the summer along with Raleigh.

When my niece sent the key chain with the turtle, she included a note that said, “A special gift from me to you! Happy Mother’s Day with love always from your beloved son, Jacob J Nyenhuis.” I thought that was very thoughtful. Before I opened the package, my niece sent me a text message sayinig there was a story that went with this gift. After I opened it, I figured the story was that she decided to send me a gift on behalf of Jacob as a sweet way to bless me and remember him.

Last Friday, my niece and I talked for the first time since Mother’s Day. She told me the REAL story. Here it is:

She was sleeping and had a dream. Her dog named Angel was in the dream. Angel was able to speak, but the voice was clearly Jacob’s. According to my niece, there was no confusing that voice at all. Jacob said, “You know that turtle key chain you bought when you were in Lake Geneva? I want you to give that to my mom for Mother’s Day so that she will know that I am with her on that day. I want you to include a note with it and this is what I want it to say, ‘A special gift from me to you! Happy Mother’s Day with love from your beloved son, Jacob J Nyenhuis.'”

My niece wanted to argue with him about it because she really loved the keychain, but she knew Jacob wanted her to give it to me as a gift. My niece woke up crying and sitting straight up in bed. She’s never had a dream like that in her life. She’s 31 years old. The first thing she did once she had a chance to wake up and gather her thoughts was run and grab a pen and paper to write down what Jacob told her to put in the note.

As my mind began to comprehend what my niece just told me, one amazing revelation after another unfolded.  It was as though pieces of a mysterious puzzle were being put together.  There are so many amazing facets to this story, but it would be too confusing to explain them all.

Here’s just one: During Jacob’s junior year of high school I began writing a book that I confidently believe God wanted me to write. The story is about a girl and her golden retriever named Angel. (To be honest, I’m not even sure if my niece had her dog Angel at the time I began writing the story in the fall of 2004, but I certainly didn’t get the story idea or the name from her dog.)  In the story, Angel is able to speak to the girl because she is a real angel from Heaven in the form of a dog that delivers messages from Heaven.

Jacob loved that I was writing this story. He would even ask me about it now and then.  He knew what the story was about, but I never let him read it.  When his senior year began, I had already written over 100 pages, but I decided to set the book aside.  I didn’t want to get wrapped up in my writing during Jacob’s last year at home. My desire was to focus on him, and he knew that because I told him.  After he left for college, I brought the story out again but hadn’t yet begun writing when Jacob’s accident happened.

Ten days after the accident, God began pouring into me more ideas for the story.  He clearly told me the story needed to change. The girl in the story (Katie) has an older brother named Matthew.   I sensed God saying that Katie’s brother now needed to die in the story and that God would comfort her in part through Angel. Many more details were given to me but I had no way to write them down they were coming so fast.  Even so, I still remember many of them to this day.

When I sat back and thought more about it, I became disgusted and upset with myself for thinking that God was talking to me about my book. After all, my son had just died. Why the heck was I focused on my book?

The shame I felt for focusing on my book in those first days after the accident has kept me from writing even one word of the story since Jacob’s death.  Today, however, I am wondering if God and Jacob were giving me a hint through a dream and a very personal Mother’s Day gift to begin writing the story again.  I’m going to be praying about this to see what direction to take.  The timing sure doesn’t seem the best, but that doesn’t matter when God is in charge.  In the meantime, I’m savoring the sweet gift from my son in Heaven.

Ever since Jacob’s death in September 2006, it has been hard to face Mother’s Day.  At the same time, I have a strange sense of nervous anticipation each year as this holiday approaches.  If you have read the post before this one about my first Mother’s Day without Jacob, you already know that something incredible happened that day.

As each new Mother’s Day approaches, I can’t help but wonder how I might experience Jacob in some way, if at all.  I don’t wait for a supernatural display like the one I received that first Mother’s Day, but I look for small signs.  I don’t EXPECT God to allow these things to happen, but I am hopeful He will.

Last year on Mother’s Day, I felt a deep stirring in my soul several times throughout the church service.  Jacob felt very near.  I was moved to tears.  Those tears are not typical tears.  They come when I experience what I refer to as a “Holy Spirit cry.”  The Spirit touches me deep inside and brings forth these tears.  It doesn’t happen often, so I know the difference.  I still remember having one of these during a church service in September 2005.  I had been experiencing the same thing the day before as I was gardening.  I couldn’t explain the reason behind the tears.  Looking back, I wonder if the Spirit was preparing me for what would take place on a Sunday in September one year later.  Jacob died on Sunday, September 24, 2006.

Another moment Jacob felt near last year on Mother’s Day was when a picture in our living room fell to the ground.  Our golden retriever ran over and began sniffing all around the area where the picture had fallen.  She is typically very timid when it comes to loud noises, but not that time.   In fact, she seemed excited with what she was picking up through her acute senses.

The picture that had fallen was of the sunrise that washed over our island the morning of Jacob’s memorial service.  Jacob’s uncle took the picture, had it framed and gave it to us as a gift.  We love the picture, but we especially love what he had printed around the picture:  “God is real… Heaven is real…  Jacob is Alive!”  And that’s the picture that fell to the ground on Mother’s Day.  That picture had never fallen prior to that, and it hasn’t fallen since.  I have a feeling someone wanted us to remember the truth behind those words.

It feels awkward to sit at my computer and begin writing a post for this blog.  It has been months since my last post.  There are multiple reasons for that – some good, some bad.  I’m just thankful to be sitting here today and typing.

For those of us mothers who have lost a child, we recently experienced another Mother’s Day, or perhaps our first Mother’s Day, without our child.  It’s a tough holiday to mark because the one who helped define us as a mother is no longer here in the flesh.  What we wouldn’t give to hear that child say, “I love you, Mom!” just one more time.  What we wouldn’t give to get another hug, another kiss, another card with a few thoughtful words of appreciation for who we are as mothers.

I will never forget my first Mother’s Day without Jacob.  My husband, Michael, was proactive and contacted several people asking them to remember me on that day.  Dozens of emails filled my inbox, and each one mentioned Jacob and Raleigh (our daughter).  They didn’t address me only as Raleigh’s mom, but Jacob’s mom too.  In fact, some even addressed their emails to “Jacob’s Mom.”  That reference wasn’t meant to exclude Raleigh, but they realized how important it was for me to know I was still very much Jacob’s mom and always would be.  The love and prayers of many people carried me through one of the most difficult days of that first year.

There is another reason I will never forget that first Mother’s Day after Jacob died. Jacob came to visit me.  Now I know some of you are thinking I’ve lost my mind or that I temporarily lost my mind back on that painful and grief-filled first Mother’s Day, but that’s not true.  I was very much of sound body and mind.  So was my husband.  So was our dog.  All three of us experienced Jacob’s presence in profound ways at the same time, in the same room.

It was the early morning hours shortly before dawn.  I woke up and realized it was still dark out, so I shut my eyes.  As I lay there with eyes closed, a scene began playing out in my mind.  I was viewing the scene as if I was standing on the opposite side of the bed and I could see that I was in bed, but Jacob was standing next to my side of the bed.  He bent down to kiss me.  As he did that, I immediately was back in my body and felt him kiss me.  Then, I could “hear” his thoughts and he could hear mine.  We both expressed a desire to be together on that Mother’s Day.  I sensed Jacob’s love for me in a wonderful way.  Then the scene ended.

When I realized what had just happened, I smiled and thanked God for such a precious vision on Mother’s Day.  Feeling such a closeness to Jacob was a sweet gift, and I was praising God for it.  A minute or two later, I felt Michael get up and let the dog out.  Since I sleep with earplugs, I could not hear when she got up and scratched at the door to go out, so it was part of our routine that Michael would usually let the dog out in the early morning hours and come back to bed.  I fell asleep again before he came back to bed that Mother’s Day morning.

Later that morning after Michael and I woke up for good, Michael said, “I think Jacob was here to wish you a Happy Mother’s Day.”  I was shocked to hear him say that and immediately asked him why.  He went on to explain what he had experienced early that morning before it was light out.  He said even though it was dark, our dog, Nikki, had been jumping up and down on my side of the bed.  It was just like the sound she made when she greeted us each time we came home.  Nikki’s nails clicking on the wood floor was what woke him up.  Normally he would wake up to the sound of her nails clicking on the wood floor as she walked over to the bedroom door to go out, but this was different.  He could tell she was jumping up and down.

Michael sat up to attempt to see Nikki jumping around and was overcome by a strong sense of Jacob’s presence in the room.  In fact, it was so profound that Michael began talking quietly to Jacob, telling him, “I love you, Jacob!” over and over.  Jacob’s presence wasn’t frightening or upsetting for Michael.  In fact, it was comforting and peaceful.  That was in stark contrast to another experience he had.  Shortly after Jacob died, Michael woke up to a strong presence in the room, but that presence was frightening and threatening.  He spoke out loud then as well, but it was a prayer for God to remove the presence from the room.

Nikki eventually calmed down and curled up in her bed once again.  Michael knew something had caused Nikki to get up out of bed and jump around like that.  The fact that she only jumped around on my side of the bed suggested that the “something” must have been right beside me since there wasn’t much room between the bed and the wall.  Having experienced a strong sense of Jacob’s presence at that same time, Michael figured the “something” that had excited Nikki was Jacob, and maybe Jacob had come to wish me a Happy Mother’s Day  A couple of minutes later, Nikki got up out of her bed again.  That time she went straight to the door to go out, so he got up and took her outside.

My vision of Jacob standing next to my bed kissing me and letting me know he wanted to be with me, Nikki’s crazy jumping around in the dark on my side of the bed and Michael’s strong sense of Jacob’s presence being in the bedroom were all occurring simultaneously.

Was it just our grief-induced imaginations?  Maybe.  But how peculiar that we would be experiencing those things at the same time.  Stranger yet is the fact that the dog was responding to something as well.  Make of it what you will, but we believe it was real and God allowed Jacob to visit me in a unique way to give me hope and comfort and to remind me that our relationship continues even after death.

People say hurtful things.

That is a lesson quickly learned by someone who is grieving.  Words from a friend or acquaintance intended to comfort you end up coming across as insensitive or inappropriate.

People do hurtful things.

Despite the desire to be helpful, certain acts of service can end up harming a grieving person more than aiding in their healing.

A common mistake people make in coming alongside a grieving person is vilifying the individual or party that may have initiated the grief.  The friend who tries to be helpful by speaking poorly of a spouse/partner who just ended a relationship or the boss who just ended an employee’s job isn’t really being helpful.  That friend would be much wiser to sit with the person who is grieving, listen and acknowledge the pain.  Quietly. 

An act of service often performed by well-meaning friends for someone who has lost a loved one is cleaning up the home or removing evidence of the deceased’s existence.  The intention is good, but is often that last thing the grieving person wants.  Washing the dirty clothes of one who has died, especially if that death was unexpected, is not helpful.  Those clothes might contain the only remaining scent of the deceased. 

Removing and washing linens from the bed of one who has died is unnecessary.  Family members may want to lie down on those sheets one last time.  That may sound strange or even disturbing to some, but it comforts others.  Don’t worry if the linens were soiled.  Offer to wash them, but wait for family approval before acting upon that gesture. 

After my son’s death only five weeks into his freshman year of college, I was comforted by the thought that I could still touch and smell the dirty clothes he had left in his dorm room. He told me the washers on his floor of the dorm were not working, so he had a bunch of dirty laundry.  When I was finally ready to go through his personal belongings, I searched the boxes from his dorm room, longing to bury my face in his dirty clothes and smell that sweet combination of his deodorant and sweat. I found clean clothes of his that were neatly folded, but I couldn’t find his dirty clothes anywhere. I panicked! When I learned that a friend had washed his bedding and clothes, I screamed and cried. Some of the last little pieces of my son that were left on this earth had been washed away by a well-meaning friend.

I was grateful no one had washed the linens on his bed in our home. He had slept on them for two nights before heading back to campus the day of his accident.  In fact, those sheets were the last ones he slept upon before he died. The dirty clothes in his backpack from his weekend visit were untouched as well. To this day, I open that backpack, pull out his clothes and breathe deeply the scent of my son.  While I’ve removed the sheets from my son’s bed, I have never washed them.  They are sealed in plastic bags that I can open whenever I want.

Someone other than the mother and father packing up the nursery of the precious infant who never made it home is like denying the baby’s existence and the time during the pregnancy spent bonding with that child.  Part of the grieving and healing might involve touching each item and weeping over the loss.

Don’t try to cheer someone up or distract them from thinking about their loss.  Every thought, breath, or moment is filled with the pain of that loss.  One of the most refreshing feelings for someone who is grieving is being able to be real and not having to pretend in front of others.

Unless you are absolutely certain that you share the same beliefs as the person who is grieving, do not try to comfort someone using concepts from your belief system.  Far too many people have been hurt by shallow cliche’s that hold little meaning or comfort in the heat of the moment.  Telling someone “This is part of God’s perfect plan,” or “This will make you a stronger person” demonstrates a complete lack of respect for the agony of the moment.  It might make it easier for YOU to deal with the other person’s grief by saying those things, but it probably won’t help the person–at least not in the early days or weeks of grief.

What are the right things to say and do?

While every person’s needs are different, there are some general ways to be helpful:

Listen.  Eloquent words aren’t necessary.  A tender hug can mean more than words.

Acknowledge grief and respect it.  Never tell someone not to cry.

Offer very specific ways you can help.  “I would like to cut your lawn for the next four weeks,” is better than “Call me if you need anything.”  If a mild protest ensues, take that as permission to do what you’ve just offered.  If your offer is strongly denied, consider something else.

When someone has experienced intense grief that leaves them exhausted, coordinate meals to be brought to the home, preferably in containers that do not need to be returned.  If you are close to the person, bring the food about an hour before meal time and offer to sit and talk for awhile.  If you are not very close, simply drop the meal off with a few words of comfort and perhaps a card.

Stay in touch.  Reaching out to others is nearly impossible for someone who is grieving, so it’s easy to become isolated.  Calling the person or offering to go for a walk with them is helpful.  Since dinners are usually the only meal ever brought to the home, suggest going out for lunch or bringing a breakfast or lunch to the person’s house.

Ultimately, we should remember to extend grace to one another.  When the grieving person seems unappreciative or when the well-intentioned friend says or does something that inflicts pain, forgive one another. 

We are all doing the best we know.

One of the quickest and easiest ways to turn my grief into something that is unhealthy and destructive is to play the blame game.  When I point a finger at someone else whom I consider responsible for my grief, I attempt to justify my anger and behavior toward that person and absolve myself.  This kind of behavior might help me get through today, but it will only serve to destroy me in the long run.

New grief requires survival tactics, so if blaming others helps me get through the first few days or weeks, so be it.  For the long haul, however, I am much better off practicing forgiveness, offering grace and investing time in self-reflection.

Let me give you a few examples:

If I just lost a job, I might need a little time to vent about my boss or co-workers to ease the shock and pain for awhile.  But if I’m still ragging on these people weeks down the road, I’m only setting myself up for a bad attitude that will potentially reveal itself through future job interviews.  I am better off taking some time to truthfully evaluate my strengths and weaknesses.  By considering my strengths, I increase my confidence.  Where I find personal shortcomings, it serves me well to consider ways to overcome or compensate for them.

If my marriage is ending, my natural instinct is to protect my heart and my pride, which might lead me to express a lot of bitterness toward my ex.  However, if my desire to vilify him continues over time, it does more to reflect my own insecurity and unforgiving spirit than to hurt him or his reputation.  I sabotage my own reputation and other relationships of mine in the process.  Perhaps my energies are better spent considering where I might have been able to make the relationship stronger or what qualities I should be looking for in future relationships.

In some cases, the blame fully lies with another person.  Hopefully, these are situations where justice is served in a court of law.  But even then, holding onto the anger and bitterness only destroys me.  Directing my energy toward something positive such as bringing about a change in legislation so that further injustices do not occur is a more productive use of my time and effort.

Refusing to play the blame game in the middle of our grief is an essential step on the road toward healing and redemption.

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