there’s a ratty old hoodie i think about throwing away. the cuffs are stained from bleach spray. the sleeves no longer reach my wrist. more than once a kind soul points out the small stain just right of the zipper. i’m quick to explain its origin, and just as quick to dismiss the notion that it shouldn’t be there in the first place. the hem is fraying and it no longer holds its original shape. i’ve had it for more years than i can remember and while i know black sweatshirts are easy to come by, i just can’t get rid of it. why?
it’s one of the few things that survived that day. partly because i had it on, and partly because every time i toss it in the donate pile, something compels me to save it.
i didn’t wear it the first few years after the fire. it was too painful. every time i glimpsed the satin stripe, my thoughts jumped back to that day reminding me of all i lost. Again.
time passed and i began to wear it, hesitant at first because flashbacks were frequent. then i wore it a little longer, good memories replaced the sad ones. soon it returned to being just another sweatshirt keeping me warm, or was it? the real reason i've kept it this long finally made sense.
my daughter hugged me in this hoodie. the one who died.
her arms wrapped around my neck, squeezing every ounce of love through her little five-year-old frame. she’d rub her finger along that satin stripe and tell me how “smoothy” it felt. those sleeves covered my arms as i held her body close.
not a day goes by that i don't think about her, wonder what she would look like, her interests, or how school would be for her. would we get along like we did when she was little? i never wanted this journey, to be honest. i mean, what parent does? but i had specifically prayed about it, experiencing the death of a child, begging God to not allow that story become part of mine.
apparently, He had other plans.
this past decade has been filled with more sorrow than i could describe, nor would you truly want to know, yet more hope than i ever thought possible. i have laughed until my stomach tightened in knots and cried until i felt drained of every ounce of liquid. that ugly cry. red face. eyes swollen. voice raspy, sounding more like my 94 year-old grandma than my thirty & forty-something self. i’ve tumbled into despair and felt the breath of God on my brow, whispering words of love as He captured each tear i cried (Psalm 56:8).
my life took a dramatic detour that day of the fire. life changed. relationships changed. my identity changed. there was not one single aspect of my life untouched by her death.
not even my black hoodie. i’m wearing it as i write, reminiscing about the past ten years. some people say that God has a purpose, a lesson to learn when bad things happen. i don’t believe it’s just one lesson, one thought, one moment of “aha”. i believe God teaches us every moment we have breath in our lungs and life in our bones, through bad times and through good ones. i believe He allows things to happen that get our attention and provide an opportunity for us to draw near.
i’ve been doing that these past years, drawing ever so nearer to Him. and as i do, i’ve learned a lot, not just the ones i've listed here, but these are a start. here are 10 lessons i’ve learned since my daughter died.
* God is good even when our circumstances are not. this one was tough. in those early days i wasn’t too sure about it. but then came an “aha” moment: i didn’t need to see God’s goodness in order to believe, i simply chose to believe what the Bible says is true, that He is good. “Yet I am confident I will see the Lord’s goodness while I am here in the land of the living.” (Psalm 27:13, NLT) i learned that His goodness is not dependent on my circumstances. He is good no matter what, and once i started to believe that truth, i started to see His goodness everywhere i looked.
* not everyone will understand your pain, your grief, or your sorrow. and that’s okay. either find the ones who do, or take a risk with those who want to try. ignore the rest.
* people say stupid things. most don’t mean to, they are simply trying to connect. i learned this from our funeral director a week after emma died. and he was right. people have said some pretty stupid things over the years, but as i shifted my perspective to believe they were trying to connect, i released the sting of what they had said.
* life is hard and there are no promises it would be easy. perhaps it’s the pursuit of the American dream, but somehow along the journey we came to expect an easy life. then, when life gets hard, we begin to think that God is against us. nope. life is hard because the world is broken, and so are its people. Jesus talked about this in John 16:33: “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”
* hard seasons don’t last forever. it may feel like they do, especially while they happen, but they don’t. i’m proof. life right now isn’t perfect, but it’s good. really good. and while i’m not where i want to be, i’m definitely not anywhere near where i was. oh, and the Bible talks about this too in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.
* Scripture is true regardless of my feelings. wrestle with it. talk to God about it. test it. but know, God’s Word is true no matter what we feel. there is rest and peace and comfort knowing that when we feel out of control, Scripture is not. it grounds us, stabilizes us, provides a firm foundation for us to cling to during any storm.
* there is strength in community. isolation breeds despair. find your people, those who get you, who want to get you, who give you space to simply be you. it takes time and it’s risky, but it’s definitely worth it. the alternative of living in isolation is far more destructive and lonely. i’ve tried it. hiding doesn’t work.
* nothing is off-limits to hardship. not our kids, our marriages, or our health. there was a time when i thought after Emma died that i’d be exempt from additional hardship. after all, this was every parent’s nightmare, right? wasn’t that enough? surely there’s a quota to our suffering? no, for me life got more difficult for a while but God still proved to be bigger. and this is when we can refer back to lesson #1: God is still good and will provide all that we need no matter what.
* grace and love are more powerful than blame and shame. if given the choice, err on the side of grace and love every. single. time.
* God’s love and grace and compassion and mercy never end. “The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning.” (Lamentations 3:22-23, NLT) every time we see a sunrise, or a sunset, every answered prayer, every breath we take, every smile or moment of laughter, every glimmer of hope is a reminder of God’s love and grace.
and so is an old black hoodie, drawing me in to remember the love of a little girl i can no longer hold this side of heaven but trust i will see again. for now i’ll continue to wear it and remember that even though life can hurt, God can heal.
ps - if you’d like to hear more about what I’ve learned over the past decade, and you happen to live near me (Chicagoland), i’m hosting an event called “when you don’t get your happily ever after”. you can learn more of the details by clicking here.