Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Don't Curse at me for Looking for a Hope you think is Hopeless

I am setting aside a half dozen obligations. This post is jumping in line. I can't keep it in my head because it is making me cranky.

Last night one of my friends posted a link to a writer I had never heard of. I read it because I love her. Today, they same post was posted by several more of my friends. It covers painful ground which is universally relevant.  Death. Sickness. Grief. Tim Lawrence wants you to know that "Everything doesn't happen for a reason."

I don't know Tim Lawrence. I didn't look him up. I don't know his history or his credential. And honestly, I can't even confront his main premise directly. When I read it, it rubbed me the wrong way, but I couldn't quite put my finger on why. He curses a lot, which appeals to some people. I think it dulls his point, but that wasn't really what was bothering me. Lots of my favorite people swear like sailors. It was still bothering my memory this morning, so I reread it and the problem smacked me in the face.

He writes from an authoritative perspective. He writes down at me, not to me. He is not offering a hand or a help, he is spitting fire. He preaches with all the sanctimonious arrogance of a televangelist, but what he is preaching?

He wants you to stop comforting people with platitudes. He wants you to stop pretending everything is going to be OK. He wants you to allow your loved ones to grieve.

It all sounds great. What is bothering me isn't the way he describes his knowledge and experience of grief. It's that he won't allow me to describe mine. Apparently, the way I cope is "categorically untrue" and "bullshit" and "needs to be annihilated." He doesn't just want to be allowed to grieve in his way. He is telling me how to grieve too.

That is one problem. Here is the other. He has two categories of people: the grieving and everyone else. That sounds sane, except that no one escapes grief. No one. So, while he is firing the wrath of the grieving against their inadequate comforters, part of his onslaught misses the mark, because there aren't really two categories. There is only one. We have to switch back and forth from one side to the other. He only mentions empathy once, and it is to inform you, dear reader, that his own troubles have made him more empathetic.

It is very angry reading. Apparently, it resonates with a lot of people. I am glad he has found his way. I hope he is surrounded with good friends who give him what he needs to get through every difficulty. What he asks for is acknowledgement of the pain.

The thing is, when someone says, "Everything happens for a reason," maybe they meant you should look backward and figure out why it happened. Maybe. That would be a weird thing to say, and contrary to most experience, but maybe. Or, maybe they meant to help you look forward in hope. Look for the phoenix.

And maybe the friends who tell you to "take responsibility" mean that you screwed up in some awful way and that is why this awful thing happened to you. There are people who believe that. (And lets all go ahead and agree that that is bullshit.) But, maybe by "take responsibility," they meant for the now. They meant you should grieve, because it really is the only way forward.

He gives you permission to let people go when they say these hurtful things. You have to grieve. And since pains are different and people are different, they may not be able to offer empathy. Or sympathy. Or whatever support you need. What you need might be space.

It is OK to walk away from people when you are hurting and what they say makes it worse. Even if they didn't mean to make it worse. You don't have to be strong for them. And you are allowed your anger. If you agree with every word he wrote, that is OK. But don't preach it to me. That is not how I deal with pain. And I am allowed to grieve in my own way too.

Grief can be isolating.

We need to be more generous listeners. We need more empathy. We need to acknowledge that we are all inadequate; we really cannot fix each other.

As I was reading all sorts of scripture verses came to mind. Some of my very favorites seemed relevant:

"Rejoice always.
Pray without ceasing.
In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise prophetic utterances.
Test everything; retain what is good." 1 Thessalonians 5:16-21

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God. For as Christ’s sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow." 2 Corinthians 1:3-5

"Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted." Matthew 5:4

These are the verses I lean on when I am in pain. The verses which keep me from ever feeling sorry for myself. These are the verses that sprang first to mind. These verses are challenging and even painful. I don't know if there is a reason for everything. I do know that God can and will draw goodness out of the most impossible places.

One more verse:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew 7:26

Grief. Fear. Abandonment. Loss. Pain. Our Lord understands. He hears. He is here.

Dear Maura

Dear Maura,

I am a the parent of a child who has special needs. I heard you. I read the letter you wrote to me and my tribe. Thank you. From all of us, thank you.

I thought I should write back. You see, this past Sunday I missed Mass again. I don't usually. Honestly. But yesterday it was more than I felt like I could do. It is a catch 22, you know. I need the grace from the sacrament to make it to the sacrament. (Like the coffee catch: I need coffee before I can make coffee.)

Going to Church is not easy. Sometimes it takes all I have to get out of the house. I worry that the seasonal bugs will land my sweetheart in the hospital. I worry that her loud breathing will put her on display. I worry that I will hear hushed disapproval of my less than perfect family. I worry that Sarah's sisters will hear some obnoxious comment about how their sister looks. Or worse, that she will hear. She is four now, and she is more socially aware all the time.

I tell other moms whose kids stand out that a smile is the best defense. I tell them that most of the time you can disarm rude staring with a friendly hello. I tell my friends that most people need a connection; they need a little push to realize that we're just people. Normal people with normal feelings and normal needs. I tell them to pick their battles though, because it is exhausting. I choose to believe the best of most people, but I gotta tell ya, it takes a lot of energy to smile and say hello to someone who hurt me and my child, even accidentally.

Maura, I am looking for you in the pews. I don't want to hide with my eyes glued to the altar. I don't want to pretend it is just me and my immediate family in God's presence. I want to feel the community. I want to be in the community. That is why I am there. We are the body. We are, at times, broken, disjointed, and disoriented. In the Eucharist, we are one. In thanksgiving. In this blessed feast, this sacrifice, this joyful prayer, I am with you.

I've met you. Well, not you but the "we" you represented. We've been welcomed and loved. When you smile at my kids or greet them during the kiss of peace, we don't feel like outsiders. We don't feel excluded. We don't feel like a barely tolerated other. We feel unity. We feel love. When you look at me with a friendly smile or open the door because my hands are full, it is more than a simple gesture. It is a welcome, and I need it. When you invite my family out to lunch with the gang, even if we can't go because it is nap time after all, we feel the embrace of the community. I will try to remember that and to ask for help when I need it. 

I know my child is beautiful. I am glad you can see it too. Your letter was a lifeline, and I needed it. Your words echo Paul's in his letter to the Romans. "Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God." 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Ten things you can do for your friend who is in the hospital with their child

Being in the hospital can be scary, stressful, exhausting and generally awful. "What can I do?" is the single most common question I am asked when I am in the hospital with Sarah. I am deeply grateful for that. But I will not answer then; I cannot focus on the question. Here are some ideas. 

Ten things you can do for your friend who is in the hospital with their child:

1. Coffee. Hospital coffee is often terrible and terribly expensive. A nice cup of coffee is an easy thrill.

2. Visit. Not everyone can, and certainly no one can every time, but consider coming for a quick visit. A hug goes a really long way. Limit your visit though. Your friend is tired. They probably stayed up too late and were woken up too early. Stress is hard on the body too. It might feel like a waste to drive all that way for a short visit. It isn't. 

3. Food. Hospitals vary, of course. Some are better than others. But even in a hospital with good food, food from the outside will be appreciated. Hospitals and even units within hospitals all have different policies about food, so check. The policy is very likely online. 

4. Money. This is something no one is going to ask for when you ask what they need, but I promise it is almost certainly needed. Even with great insurance, hospitalizations rack up costs. Food, parking, gas- none of these expenses will break the bank in a day. But days and weeks add up very quickly. I can give a pretty accurate budget run down for each of the hospitals we frequent- some are much harder on the bottom line than others! Even if we stay afloat during the hospitalization, it is really hard to catch up when you begin to fall behind on bills. I don't hear people talk about this a lot, but nearly every family I know who has a kid who spends time in the hospital is behind on bills. This is why. We are on the same tight budgets that most people are on; the surprise expenses of an unplanned or extended hospitalization can throw the whole budget for months! If money makes you uncomfortable, or you think it will make your friend uncomfortable, think gas cards or grocery cards. 

5. Take the siblings out. Spoil them. You will have my undying affection if you make my children happy during these times. Kids struggle a lot when their siblings are in the hospital. They get less of their parents when they need more. They are worried. They are scared. They might be feeling like they are less important than their siblings. They even be might be mad. Give them a break from full focus on their sick sibling. 

6. Smile. No one does. People think they should feel sad. The thing is, moods are contagious. Bring a little joy. Sing with them. Laugh with them. Don't force a mood you don't feel, but don't leave all the smiles at the hospital door either. We need them inside. 

7. Tell your friend you are going to pray, and then do it. Join the prayers of your friend for health. Add prayers for your friend. Maybe write out a short prayer. When my friends ask for prayers, I pray right away. I will forget if I put it off. It doesn't take long, and I can pray later too. God listens and he knows what they need, so this does not have to be complicated. Let your friend know you are praying. Just knowing you are thinking of them is helpful in and of itself. If you don't pray, send good thoughts. That's helpful too. 

8. Care packages. Care packages are a tried and true method of making someone feel loved. In a hospital care package send a mix of things they might need and things that will make them happy. This does not have to be a huge expensive thing. Here is a list of things you might consider including: 
  • clothing (for the friend or the kid. They are not home. Laundry might be a complication. The kid is probably in a hospital gown, but they will have to go home at some point, and the clothing they came in is probably dirty.) 
  •  a real toothbrush and/or razor (we always forget to bring them.)
  • books or magazines, for either the patient or the parent
  • a toy for the patient
  • tea
  • a real mug 
  • lotion or shampoo samples or lip gloss
  • Silk flowers or balloons. Real flowers are allowed on some units, but not most. 
  • Music
  • chocolate 
  • Vitamins
  • a coloring book. I suppose you could get one for the kid too. 
  • Essential oils are a great choice. Think calming blends. I bring a roller bottle with frankincense and lavender in almond oil. 
You know your friend. Are they silly? Bring a slinky. Are they serious? Bring a journal. When you are planning a package, you might think of it as a sensory escape from the hospital. What would you want to look at or smell or hear or do? 

9. Dinner for the family at home. This simple gesture should not be underestimated. 

10. Offer to sit with the patient while your friend takes a shower or a walk. Or even goes out for a meal with their family. One of the hardest things about being there as a parent is that you feel guilty leaving, even for a minute. You cannot solve this problem for your friend, but you can offer a reprieve. 

Keep asking what you can do. In the moment, your friend might not be able to answer. They'll be tired. Their mind will be occupied. When I am asked, if I answer at all, I am likely to say something inane like, "bring me a fresh towel and a banana." But you know, I heard what you meant to say. I heard, "I love you and I am here." That is huge. That's the biggest thing on the list. 

It can be isolating. You are the village. Just be there.