Tag Archives: grieving well

Coming Out with Regrets – Counting on Redemption

During the past few months, while I have NOT been blogging, I have been spending a lot of time with our gay friends, parents of gay kids and reading and replying to emails and messages both from LGBTQ “children” and their parents. I’ve read so many heartbreaking stories; stories that God has used to remind me why He has asked us – and keeps giving us opportunities – to tell our story.

But I am also hearing the stories of previously conservative, Christian parents who have learned what not to do, and how they are loving their children so very, very well. They are communicating real, unconditional love to their kids, and being willing to question and challenge their previous convictions in order to really hear what their children are saying. These parents are coming alongside their kids in beautiful ways….helping their young gay teenagers figure out how to date (very much like young straight teenagers), defending and protecting them from bullying, unsafe relatives and anyone who dares to attack them for telling the truth about who they are, and not simply tolerating their kids, but CELEBRATING them.

At the Gay Christian Network Conference in Chicago, I heard the story of a pastor and his wife whose 16 year old had very recently come out to them. I was deeply moved by their story, not only because they live in the same community where our kids went to college, but because of the very clear way that God had changed and prepared their hearts for what their youngest son had to say to them.

Today that young man, Drew, came out publicly on YouTube, and he did so with such vulnerability, honesty and candor that I am in awe of his courage, his humility and his wisdom.

His 15 minute video is poignant and moving (don’t miss the last five minutes), but I bawled through it, and am crying again as I think about it. For me, the mother who did not respond as Drew’s parents did, it triggered a great deal of sorrow for all the mistakes I made…mistakes that I cannot now undo. It really doesn’t matter much when you make a mistake in balancing your bank statement…or when you vacuum up a broken light bulb to clean the floor, but then break the vacuum…or when your car slips on the ice and hits a curb, thus keeping you home on a weekend when you had planned to go away. But when you make a mistake like giving your own son the message that he IS a problem, that who God made him was somehow flawed and that although it will be difficult, he doesn’t have the option of following God AND having the chance to fall in love…well, that mistake carries with it some pretty hefty consequences. We had no idea, at the time, that the stakes of getting that wrong were so incredibly high.

People tell me all the time that I need to forgive myself, that they are sure Ryan has forgiven me and that I shouldn’t spend one more minute thinking about what I did wrong. But I disagree that I shouldn’t think about my mistakes. It has been this introspection that has allowed us to share our story in the first place, and that has continually kept us learning as we listen to the stories of our LGBTQ friends. It has been this vulnerability that has allowed us to truly look at our errors and explain to other families why doing the things that their pastors tell them (with confidence undergirded by Scripture) actually does not lead to life, but to death.

Everything we told Ryan was communicated in love…love interwoven with an awful lot of fear. But it was, honestly, love. We believed with all of our hearts that his very soul was in danger, and so we were doing everything we could to protect him. But our pleas for him to reject his sexuality in favor of seeking obedience to Christ only led to DEATH. Relational death, spiritual death, emotional death and PHYSICAL death. Not one OUNCE of good fruit came from trying to live those ideas out. Seriously, not one. When I look back, I can’t think of anything positive that came from our efforts to convince our son that he could – and should – be straight. Or if not straight, then completely celibate for the rest of his life on this earth.

Lately Rob and I have been reading a lot of the letters that Ryan wrote us during those early years, along with the journals he kept. We are also planning to read the letters that we wrote to him, which I expect will be excruciatingly painful. But we both feel God telling us to not to fear reading those letters, and not to pretend we never wrote them. It is only by fully accepting what we said to our son, and by grieving our words, that we will ever truly heal. Looking hard at our regrets has changed, and will continue to change, the way we interact with our surviving children. And, God willing, we will be able to better help other families who are responding just as we did, as we share the things we tried, and the results that came from those efforts.

People often tell me that Ryan wouldn’t want us to be sad and that Ryan would want us to forgive ourselves, as he has already forgiven us. Those sentiments don’t resonate with me, because Ryan, being someone who was incredibly sensitive and who carried enormous guilt for every wrong he had committed against others, would “get me.” He would know why I needed to come to him and ask his forgiveness, even though he had already forgiven me. And he would have listened and cried with me as I apologized for so profoundly disappointing him after he chose to come out to me, trusting that because I loved my gay brother and our gay neighbors, that I would stand by him, as well.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, in his brilliant book “Lament for a Son” says this about regrets:

I believe that God forgives me. I do not doubt that. The matter between God and me is closed. But what about the matter between Eric and me? For my regrets remain. What do I do with my God-forgiven regrets? Maybe some of what I regret doesn’t even need forgiving; maybe sometimes I did as well as I could….Still, I regret.

I shall live with them. I shall accept my regrets as part of my life, to be numbered among my self-inflicted wounds. But I will not endlessly gaze at them. I shall allow the memories to prod me into doing better with those still living. And I shall allow them to sharpen the vision and intensify the hope for that Great Day coming when we can all throw ourselves into each other’s arms and say, “I’m sorry.”

The God of love will surely grant us such a day. Love needs that.

Rob and I believe we need to grieve our regrets, and, as Wolterstorff said so eloquently, that they have become a part of who we are. They urge us on to share our story, to encourage other parents to put aside their fear and embrace their children fully, trusting Jesus with the outcome. Our regrets give us the courage to get up in front of hundreds of people and tell them of what we’ve learned, without ever thinking that now we’ve got it all figured out. Our regrets keep us humbled and they keep us desperately needing our Savior.

Yes, our regrets have become part of our lives. Just as our countless joys, sacred memories, soul-wrenching grief, and profound gratitude have become part of us. And as I feel God calling me to dig deeper, to look, without fear, at the things I communicated to Ryan in the years after he came out to us, I am trusting, with complete faith, that God will go with me to those painful places, and that somehow, out of the mess I made, my Redeemer will make beautiful things.

Weep with Those Who Weep…Please.

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When a child dies, the first place that parents, siblings, aunts and uncles often look for comfort is the church.

The church – the Body of Christ – will know how to help us. The church will know how badly we hurt – they’ve helped hundreds of families bury their children.

The church will be our safe refuge from this blinding storm of grief that has stolen our peace, our sleep, our appetites and our ability to think more than five minutes into the future.

The church – where people embody the love of the Man who wept at the death of his dear friend – will weep with us.

When our son died, it was difficult to get out of bed, much less to get up, get dressed and go face hundreds of people on a Sunday morning. But we did go, because we follow Jesus, and going to church on Sundays has been vitally important to our family.

It took about six months for me to realize that I had begun dreading Sundays. Sundays were when we had to see people who would, for the most part, do one of two things:

  1. Act overly happy and bright, in an effort to cheer us up, or to, perhaps, avoid talking about death.
  2. Avoid us entirely – turning the other way when they saw us coming, refusing to meet our glances, suddenly becoming busy looking up something in their Bibles as we walked by.

When our son died, churches were the place where we heard some of the most painful things, many of them from pastors.

Are you better yet?
We heard this one for the first time two weeks after our son’s death, and then countless times afterward.

The death of a child is like falling down and scraping your knee.
When this was said to us, one month after Ryan’s death, by a pastor responsible for funerals at a large church, we couldn’t even respond. We walked away, tears rolling down our faces, and Rob said, “He obviously has never lost a child.” I said, “I don’t think I ever want to go back to church again. EVER.”

This is what your experience will be like: blah, blah, blah.
At this point I always tuned out…the pain was too intense. To be told what we would feel by a pastor who hadn’t lost a child, rather than asked what we needed or what grief was like for us only made our pain worse.

Ryan wouldn’t have wanted you to be sad!
This was usually said by those who didn’t know Ryan well, or how he would have completely understood our tears. And it always made me feel like the person speaking was really the one who didn’t want me to be sad…or to be honest.

I know exactly how you feel.
This was typically followed by examples of how the person had lost a parent, grandparent or once, a pet. Nobody knows exactly how someone else feels, no matter how close you are. We would never say this to another family who lost a child, even if that child was 20, gay, struggled with addiction, depression, Hep C and recent hearing loss, and was named Ryan. Every child is unique, and every death is unique.

Be glad! He is an angel now, watching over you for the rest of your lives!
Aside from the fact that I don’t think this is the way Heaven works, it does what so many trite phrases do: it invalidates our grief. It communicates that we should be happy, not sad. It can make us think that it isn’t okay for us to be honest about how we are overwhelmed by sadness.
In the four years since Ryan’s death, I have heard the stories of far too many grieving families who have found not comfort, but only more pain, by attending church after the death of their child. I don’t think it has to be this way. I don’t think it should be this way.

If I had ten minutes to tell pastors, priests, teachers and leaders what to say to grieving parents and siblings, this is what I’d say:

Ask them what their grief experience has been like.
Allow your parishioners to teach you about grief and loss, and to let you know what they need. Please, please, ask them questions about their grief, and listen without interrupting.

Say their child’s name.
How are you feeling about Annelise? What do you miss most about Matt? The power of hearing your child’s name after they have died is enormous. Most grieving parents fear that their child will be forgotten and that their child’s life and death will not matter.

Our oldest son had been gone for about seven months when someone at church pulled me aside and gently asked, “How are you feeling about Ryan?” I wept with gratitude and relief. I didn’t realize until later that it was the first time I had heard Ryan’s name at church since his funeral. Just the sound of his name – the acknowledgement of his life, his existence and his value were like a soothing balm to my soul.

Let them know that they are welcome no matter how terrible they feel.
If we feel we have to force ourselves to act happy just to come to worship, we’re likely not to come. When we are feeling our worst, we need God the most. Please allow us to find Him in community with others, even when we are miserable. Even when we’re not sure if life is worth living.

Tell them that there is no timeline for “getting over” a child.
Parents who have lost a child – if as a newborn or a middle-aged adult – desperately need to know that there is no expectation to “get better” in six months, one year, five years or ever.

Reassure them, if needed, that God can handle all their questions, doubts and anger.
Although my husband has only felt closer to God since Ryan’s death, after about six months, I began to struggle with a lot of questions that affected my faith deeply. I didn’t need answers – only permission to wrestle through my doubts and fears with God. Remember, too, that asking questions, doubting and not attending church don’t mean we are walking away from God – quite the opposite. Please trust Him to meet us in our pain. He has, and He will.

Listen…without having to provide solutions. And then listen some more.
Unless you are Jesus Himself, you will not be likely to be able to bring their child back. And that is the only thing that would alleviate their intense sorrow. So don’t even try to fix anything. You can’t.

Know that grief – and tears – demand to be felt and experienced.
The research all points to the same thing: if one doesn’t acknowledge and make room for their grief, their grief will find another way to express itself. Alcoholism, health problems, rage issues, marital problems, mental health concerns and a myriad of other stress-related problems can all be the result of “stuffing” grief inside in order to make others feel more comfortable.

Teach your congregation to keep reaching out to the bereaved, even if they don’t know what to say.
In the “club” of parents who have lost children, almost all of them have also lost many friends as well. Friends who used to be close never call or come by anymore. It makes the experience all the more painful. Remind friends that they don’t have to have the perfect words. Often the most comforting thing to hear is, “I don’t know what to say.” Or, “I just cannot begin to imagine what you are going through.”

Know that birthdays and anniversaries of a child’s death are particularly painful, but immensely important.
A simple way to let a grieving family know that you haven’t forgotten them – or their child – is to make a note of their child’s birthday and the anniversary of their death on your calendar, so you’ll be reminded to send them a card, leave them a voice message or shoot them a text. On Ryan’s would-have-been-24 birthday, our pastoral staff sent him a birthday card, complete with personal notes to him telling him how his life has impacted them. It was one of the most comforting, honoring things anyone has ever done for us since Ryan’s death.

Remember that by bringing up their dead child, you won’t remind them of anything they aren’t already thinking about.
Some well-meaning friends avoid talking about the child, because they don’t want to make the grieving family cry. But truly, we can hardly think of anything else – especially in the first months and years. It is only comforting to know that other people remember, too. And our tears aren’t bad…they are necessary. They are healing.

Ask about their child.
Get to know him or her by asking about favorite memories, what they were like, etc. This is especially important if the child committed suicide or died as a result of addiction. Grieving parents of kids who struggled feel especially alone, and often sense judgment and condemnation of themselves and their child. Please acknowledge to beauty of every child’s soul, not just those who were successful in the world’s eyes.

Recently, Anne Lamott was asked what job she’d like if she wasn’t a writer. Here is an excerpt from her response:

I’d like to sit out in the very quiet courtyard at St. Andrew Presbyterian, with a bowl of cherries, and a bowl of M&M’s as communion elements, and talk to people one at a time.

If people were grieving, I would sit with them while they cried, and I would not say a single word, like “Time heals all,” or “This too shall pass.” I would practice having the elegance of spirit to let them cry, and feel like shit, for as long as they need to, because tears are the way home–baptism, hydration–and I would let our shoulders touch, and every so often I’d point out something beautiful in the sky–a bird, clouds, the hint of a moon. Then we’d share some cherries and/or M&M’s, and go find a little kid who would let us swim in his or her inflatable pool. I’d tell the sad person, “Come back next week, I’ll be here–and you don’t have to feel ONE speck better. It’s a come-as-you-are meeting, like with God, who says, “You just show up, my honey.”

This says it all: just giving permission for people to show up, knowing that someone will just be with them, allowing them to feel exactly how they are feeling. Sitting with a friend in their sorrow is the greatest gift we can give to someone in pain. Allow us to be sad as long as we need to. It is in that sadness that God meets us, and that He, slowly, redeems and restores our souls. We will never “get over” our dead child, nor do we want to.

But if we can be patient with ourselves and with God as we heal though the pain, He will help us not to get better, but to be better.