When God doesn’t heal: 4 tips for facing your grief

I stood in the sanctuary during church, my heart hurting for all the other hurting hearts in the room. One of our own wasn’t there with us. We’d lost someone way too young, way too soon, a vibrant woman who touched countless lives. And many of us were left wondering how to pray now. Because ...

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I stood in the sanctuary during church, my heart hurting for all the other hurting hearts in the room. One of our own wasn’t there with us. We’d lost someone way too young, way too soon, a vibrant woman who touched countless lives. And many of us were left wondering how to pray now.

Because we’d been praying for healing. We’d hoped to see a miracle—genuinely hoped, believing that our God is able to do anything. He is.

But when He doesn’t do it, what then?

When the behaviorist B.F. Skinner did experiments on learned behavior with rats, he discovered that once an animal discovers that pushing a lever would produce a food pellet, that animal will continually press it. But what happens when the result is erratic, when he tries again and again with no reward, when sometimes he gets a pellet and other times he does not? He stops trying altogether.

Maybe it’s irreverent—or somehow warped—to stand in church, listening to praise music and contemplating the behavior of rats. That may be, but I think it’s relevant.

Because here’s the thing. We go to God asking for healing for so many people we love—husbands and fathers and grandmothers and children and friends. We go because we know that only God can turn around that situation. We believe what we read in the Bible, so we know that God can do miraculous things. The lame can walk; the blind can see. We genuinely believe it. We know it’s possible.

And if we’re lucky, we do see healings. Sometimes they’re miraculous—Nathan’s aneurism is visible on the x-ray he brought to church so that we could pray for him, but the next day, the doctors couldn’t find it any longer. Sometimes they’re smaller, less dramatic, but still clearly bear the imprint of God. A person diagnosed with less than a year lives for three, or the doctors fear a serious scenario and the tests all come back normal. Is this a miracle? Did God heal?

Honestly, it feels like a cop-out to say that sometimes healing consists of someone leaving this earth and stepping into heaven. Even so, I believe it’s true. But that feels like a consolation prize, doesn’t it? Something we say we’re grateful for, even though it hurts and makes no sense to us. A way to still think our God is good, when we think what happened is bad.

So what are we supposed to do? Are we supposed to stop praying, stop asking? I don’t think so. The Bible says to pray about everything, to pray without ceasing, to ask and you shall receive.

But, if I’m being completely honest, as some point it begins to feel like our God is capricious, heartless, acting on a whim, arbitrarily deciding, “no… yes… no… definitely not.” Deciding whether to give us a reward, perhaps even playing a game with our emotions.

And it seems as though we’re rats in a box, pushing a lever again and again, beginning to grasp that the food really isn’t coming this time.

How do we get past that?

1. Remember that God knows more than we do. Not just about science, or the details of someone’s life, but He sees from the beginning to the end. He is aware of the repercussions of every action, not just in this physical life but in the eternal, spiritual realm. When we only have a little bit of knowledge, we can’t accurately judge which events are tragic and which are merely sad. Which ones will forever change the direction of our lives, and which will just detour us briefly.

2. Remember that Jesus came to give us life with him for all of eternity. When someone dies, our hearts break. We see unlimited potential brought to an untimely close. But if God’s ultimate plan for us, borne of a love so great we can’t really fathom it, was to unite us with him forevermore… then when someone goes to be with Him, can we really say that it’s not a good thing? There is no place better for the person we love to be than physically present with God.

3. Remember that God understands our hurt, frustration, even our anger. We cannot ever forget that God knows our hearts—and He loves us anyway, even when our thoughts are less than holy, less than generous, less than grateful. In Luke 7:22 (NRSV), Jesus said, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” This passage reminds us that Jesus healed, but the more powerful part, in my opinion, is what He says next: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” I think God knows that seeing healings—or not seeing them—can become a stumbling block to our faith. We start to wonder, “Why him?” and “Why not her?” We feel that our prayers aren’t heard, or we didn’t pray right, or wonder if something we did caused an undesirable outcome.

But Jesus promised that anyone who does not take offense at him is blessed. So don’t despair if you are struggling to stand strong in your faith, and don’t presume all is lost when you find yourself wrestling with doubts. A friend once asked me, after losing her husband unexpectedly, “So when I yelled and screamed at God and told him how mad I am, is that prayer?” I (emphatically) said yes, which brings us to my final tip.

4. Be real with God. Don’t try to hide how you feel; He knows. Don’t ignore your feelings, because they’ll tear you apart if you don’t let yourself express them. But know that God is your refuge. Go to Him with your pain; allow Him to provide comfort (Matthew 5:4). He created you, and He can handle anything you have to throw at Him. And right now, if you are hurting, I promise you that He wants you to let Him in. He’ll help carry the weight of your sadness (Matthew 11:28), and He’ll hold you close while you mourn. He is close to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18), and He knows your heart (Psalm 139). Whatever you feel, He has the answer. He is patient, and He will not leave you, so trust Him with this. And remember, no matter how weak you feel, He is strong. “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:26).

It goes without saying that you don’t WANT to do this. I don’t want to face losses like this, either. But the truth is, you CAN. When my mom died, I fought against it. I resisted with everything in me, and it took me years to feel like I was somewhat okay again. When my dad passed away this summer, I knew something I hadn’t known when Mom died: I will forever be changed by this. The loss won’t destroy me, but it does go with me and forever become part of who I am. Knowing that helped me. It doesn’t make it stop hurting, but it does feel bearable.

Pray with me? Dear Lord, you are the hope for the brokenhearted, and we come before you today, hurting, aching, feeling less than whole—maybe doubting what we believe about you. Maybe wondering if our faith will recover from this blow. Help us to tear down the walls we use to protect our fragile selves just enough to let You in. Because it is only WITH You that we can see the light again, that we can open our hearts enough to be able to remember the good and beautiful memories, to honor the legacies of those we love, and to someday feel whole again. Please help us. Amen.

His banner over me

Lord Jesus, You are here. Whether I feel You or not, whether I talk to You or not, You permeate the atmosphere. I know this is true. When my pleas begin—and end—with “Lord Jesus…” because I don’t have the capacity to form another syllable, You are here. When I lie down to sleep, You cradle ...

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Lord Jesus,

You are here. Whether I feel You or not, whether I talk to You or not, You permeate the atmosphere. I know this is true. When my pleas begin—and end—with “Lord Jesus…” because I don’t have the capacity to form another syllable, You are here. When I lie down to sleep, You cradle me. When my tears fall, I feel Your comfort.

Even so, I don’t know how to do this.

When I lost Mom, I felt as though You’d abandoned me. Later, I realized that if I didn’t feel You then, it was because I had pushed You away.

Oh, Lord, I want to lean on You this time. I want to abide in the shelter of Your wings. I want to draw my strength from You. I want to find joy and I long to worship you in the midst of it all.

But honestly, I don’t know if I can.

I’ve been functioning on auto-pilot. Facts, statistics, details. Because that’s all I think I can handle right now. Facts don’t require emotions.

But you know what else I know? Your banner over me is love. (Song of Solomon 2:4)

When I hold Dad’s hand in the middle of the night, soothing him in the wake of the hallucinations caused by his pain meds—when I show him love—You are here.

When we make his favorite foods or order carryout from Little Mexico, hoping to find something he’ll eat, Your banner of love is waving overhead. When he commented that the sunflowers I bought for his room reminded him of Van Gogh’s famous painting, I smiled because I already knew that, and You were here.

When we set our alarms to give him his meds around the clock, when we help him brush his teeth or adjust his oxygen or refill his water glass or hold his straw or call the hospice nurse with questions or respond to people’s messages or lie in the dark alongside him, tears streaming, unable to sleep, You are here. When we sit beside him, hearing the sounds of his labored breathing, checking his skin for mottling, watching him grimace in pain, squeezing drops of liquid pain medicine into his mouth, listening to the incoherent words he’s mumbling, even when we know he is no longer aware of us being here, You are here.

Wherever love is present, You are too.

Love isn’t the problem. This is: I am certain that I am not strong enough to do this. I don’t know how to move forward after the inevitable conclusion, even though I simultaneously long for it to hasten to arrive.

When Mom died, I felt as though there was nothing to tether me any longer. I felt like I was loose, lost, free (but not in a good way). I lost all sense of who I was when she wasn’t around to define me, to know me. I don’t know what losing Dad is going to do to me. Mom’s personality was strong, and I spent much of my life resisting her. It didn’t stop me from loving her, or calling her three times a day, but it was a different relationship than the one I have with Dad.

Because Dad and I have always just fit together. We enjoy each other. Understand each other. Notice the same things. We can sit together and be comfortable, whether we’re doing something or not. I can easily grasp the kind of unconditional love the Heavenly Father has for me because of the sweetness and completeness of the love Dad has always shown me. I have never ceased to feel adored and cherished and valued with Dad.

What do I do when he’s not here to show that to me any longer?

I try to rest in You, Lord. I want to lean on You, but the distance between where I am in this moment and where I’d have to be to turn to You seems impassable. In order to let You in, I have to lower my defenses. If I open my heart, I will have to feel pain. To get to You, I have to step out from behind this brittle wall protecting my heart. And I just don’t think I can do that, because in that split second of time between the two, it seems as though my heart might disintegrate. The vulnerability in that moment of transition might just obliterate me.

I want You, Lord, but I just don’t know how to get to You right now.

I’ll have to rest in the certainty that Your banner over us is love. Your love is freely and boldly declared, visible for all to see, marking me as belonging to You, just as our love for Dad marks us as belonging to him.

Love is Your defining characteristic. You are the source of all love and the embodiment of it. And there is most definitely an abundance of love in this room. In my heart, and in Dad’s, and in the hearts of those who are here with us.

So please, Lord, know my heart. Don’t abandon me or withhold Yourself because of my failings in these moments. Be bigger than I am. Stronger and more faithful. More true, more understanding, more gracious. More forgiving, more hopeful, more solid. More loving. More present. More certain, and more comforting, and more…everything than I can imagine or dream or articulate.

I’m so glad that You are my strength when I am weak, because I’ve never felt weaker.

When the end comes, let Dad pass peacefully from here, where he is cradled in our arms, to there, where he is cradled, forevermore, in Yours.

Please don’t ever let go of me. I will need You then even more than I do now.

And even though I can’t seem to tear down these barriers I’ve erected in self-preservation, I do know how much I need You and love You. I thank You for this incredible man who is my father, and I pray that I don’t need to find the right words in order for You to know that and hold me tight when I collapse. In that moment, please, Lord, whisper to me of how much more You adore and cherish and value me than even my dad ever did. Let me know that, believe it, and in those moments, let me feel him with me.

Because I will always be my daddy’s little girl.

And I will always belong to You, too.


#HonorAllMoms—and May prayer prompt calendar

Today’s post is written by Sarah Philpott, an online friend of mine who posted here once before. When I held a prayer prompt calendar contest, Sarah approached me about designing a calendar for the month of May to recognize all the women for whom Mother’s Day brings sadness rather than the expected joy. I was completely ...

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Today’s post is written by Sarah Philpott, an online friend of mine who posted here once before. When I held a prayer prompt calendar contest, Sarah approached me about designing a calendar for the month of May to recognize all the women for whom Mother’s Day brings sadness rather than the expected joy. I was completely on board, because after I lost my own mom, I’d had a similar experience. I’d rather cry and go off on my own than “celebrate” on that day—even though I have three kids who I love with all my heart. Sometimes the pain overshadows the joy. And sometimes, people aren’t in a position to feel joy because the reminder of their loss is too great.

I’ll stop talking now so you can hear from Sarah, but don’t forget to download the prayer prompt calendar here or on her website.

Mother’s Day was celebrated in a big way where I grew up. As a child, I’d sit alongside my family in the slick wooden pew and gaze at the fetching flower arrangements crowding the floor of our sanctuary.  Roses, peonies, and spring blooms sat ready to be awarded to the ladies of my small Southern Baptist church.

Ms. Nita, smartly dressed in a pastel dress and a Sunday-go-to-church hat, always seemed to be in charge of the program. After we sang from the hymnal, the kids were beckoned to retrieve a bundle of roses from a basket and encouraged to hand the blooms to beaming mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. After the hugs ended, Ms. Nita took to the center stage and said, “Would all Mothers please stand?”

My mother and grandmother would rise and stand amongst the females of my community. It was like a battalion of matriarchs. Then, the ceremony of awards began. We’d quickly find out who was the oldest mom, who was the youngest mom, and who was the mom with the most children. This tradition of honoring mothers is still one of my fondest memories of my childhood.

But it wasn’t until I was an adult, sitting in church on Mother’s Day fresh from the heartache of my first miscarriage, that I realized how many women actually had hurting hearts on Mother’s Day.

I sat recollecting my childhood and recalled how at my old church the mother with the most living children was awarded one of the biggest and most beautiful bouquets.  The congregation always erupted in applause for this dear soul who had her hands full.

But now, with a babe in Heaven and one in the church nursery, it struck me as an odd banner of honor. I realized that beneath smiles many women silently mourn on Mother’s Day. I instantly thought of my mother-in-law. She has five children. But only three are living. Jesse died at the age of two and Lauren at the age of twenty. Then I thought of my mother. She has three children. But only two of us are living. A gravestone in the church cemetery only marks one tiny soul, who was stillborn. Then the face of a friend, who wanted nothing more to be a mother, came to mind.  Infertility had robbed her of the chance of becoming a mother and finances had prevented her from adopting. She too hurt on this special day. It made me realize that these sweet women—and those just like them who had endured the death of their own children or a dream that never came true, were women who also deserved an extra special bouquet.

My grief opened my eyes to the invisible grief that many women bear on Mother’s Day. We often forget these brave women, don’t we?

But we shouldn’t.

Mother’s Day is still one of my favorite days of the year, and it should be celebrated with unbridled jubilation, breakfast in bed, and homemade cards.

And I love how, at Ms. Nita’s gentle encouragement, my childhood church always collectively gave a big applause to mothers.  Mothers should receive a standing ovation.

But we should expand our celebration of Mother’s Day by showering love and support to all mothers—including those who view Mother’s Day as a stark reminder of what doesn’t exist. Each year, in the United States alone, 1 in 160 deliveries end in stillbirth, 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage, 3,500 babies under the age of 1 die, and 1 in 8 couples experience infertility. Let’s stand in solidarity as individuals and as the church to #HonorAllMoms this Mother’s Day.

Let’s also set aside the month of May to pray and encourage all sorts of women—those who have a baby to hold in their arms, those who do not; those who wanted to be a mom but never got to be, and those who were placed into that role by circumstance; children who have lost their moms and moms who have lost their children.

I think Ms. Nita would want all these special women to have a beautiful bloom.

“After women, flowers are the most lovely thing God has given the world.” Christian Dior

SARAH PHILPOTT, PhD lives in Tennessee on a sprawling cattle farm where she raises her two mischievous children (and one little baby!) and is farmwife to her high-school sweetheart. An award-winning writer, Sarah has contributed to academic books, scholarly journals, and outlets such as the Huffington Post. Her book, Loved Baby: 31 Devotions for Helping you Grieve and Cherish Your Child After Pregnancy Loss, will be published in October 2017 by Broadstreet Publishing. Sarah is a lover of coffee (black), rocking chairs, the outdoors, and Hemingway. Visit allamericanmom.net where she writes about life on the farm and cherishing life in joy and sorrow.


Prayer for the broken

It hurts. God, do you have any idea how much this hurts? I know that Christianity teaches that Jesus took on all our sin, pains, and sorrows when He died on the cross. I’ve been told that You’ve experienced it all—felt love and joy, grief and sorrow. There is nothing I can feel that You ...

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It hurts. God, do you have any idea how much this hurts?

I know that Christianity teaches that Jesus took on all our sin, pains, and sorrows when He died on the cross. I’ve been told that You’ve experienced it all—felt love and joy, grief and sorrow. There is nothing I can feel that You do not understand. Nothing I can say that You do not already know.

But is this really true, Lord? This feels too big. And at the same time, too specific. Surely You didn’t feel this kind of pain. Our cultures and societies have changed. You were without sin. I have way too much of it. Can you really understand?

The right answer, I know, is yes: You know, You feel, You care, You understand, You will never leave me, and You are the source of all hope. I can only find my strength in You. I can only discover answers in You.

But what happens when I know this in my head but don’t feel it in my heart?

What happens when I feel doubt? I want You to be everything You are supposed to be. But I’m afraid that You are not enough. Or that I’m the exception—maybe I’m too far gone. Maybe I’ve made too many wrong decisions. Maybe I haven’t prayed enough, believed enough, tried enough. Maybe You don’t love me enough.

But then I hear You whisper, shushing my objections.

Or is that just wishful thinking?

Lord, I want You to prove me wrong. I want You to push away my doubts and replace my fear with faith. I want it to be an instantaneous, miraculous transformation. But I’m so afraid You won’t come through for me.

And I wonder where that will leave me. What it will say about my faith.

But I guess those things don’t really matter. What matters is that You don’t let go. That You hear my desperate pleas. And that You let me see You.

Oh, Lord, please fix this. Give me hope. Give me something—even the slightest little glimpse, the tiniest little proof that You hear me.

Because, somehow, as afraid as I am to lay myself open wide, to fully trust in You, I do believe. And I pray that this tiny mustard seed of faith will truly be enough to grow into something magnificent.

If You are all that I hope You are, it will happen. And I’m willing to take a chance, because I want to believe. Because I need You, so much more than I want to admit.

So I give You my pain, my fears—and my desperate, fervent, tremulous hope. And I wish, and pray, and wonder, and wait to see what You will do.


When prayer loses its meaning, what then?

Heather Caliri is another woman I’ve met through our shared writing but haven’t had the pleasure of sitting down with, face to face. There’s a vulnerability and a sense of acceptance to be found in her words. Her site is titled “Seeking the Easy Yoke,” and through reading her words I’ve learned that the burden ...

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Bio-pic_ap-2015_300Heather Caliri is another woman I’ve met through our shared writing but haven’t had the pleasure of sitting down with, face to face. There’s a vulnerability and a sense of acceptance to be found in her words. Her site is titled “Seeking the Easy Yoke,” and through reading her words I’ve learned that the burden hasn’t always been light. But I love the creative ways she tries to reclaim the faith she wants. Head over to her site when you have time to stay and read for a while. It’s worth your time, I promise you. In the meantime, today she’s giving me the opportunity to post on her blog. Here’s a letter I wrote to the 12-year-old girl I once was…

KELLY imageBruno Flicker Creative commons

Dear, sweet girl. You lie there in the angle of light bent around the door, in that sheltered, private spot where the light illuminates your papers, but your parents, in the living room downstairs, can’t see you from where they are reclining. The white painted posts from the stairs in the hallway outside your door cast striped, curvy shadows across the carpet, and you hear the faint noise of a laugh track from the television below. You can’t see her, but you know your mom is wrapped in a soft blanket, quietly turning the pages of a book until she yields to her yawns and goes to bed.

In that sheltered place, you make charts, three-hole-punched sheets of graph paper, painstakingly transferring your prayer list to a new sheet when the check boxes are all filled. Maybe your prayers… << read more >>

An Upside-Down Christmas, part 2: Grief

I used to design and write my church’s weekly bulletin, and I was aware that, for some, certain holidays brought with them sadness. But I believed that surely time healed all wounds. Sure, it was sad when someone died, but I thought it was morbid to dwell on it. I naively assumed people could let ...

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I used to design and write my church’s weekly bulletin, and I was aware that, for some, certain holidays brought with them sadness. But I believed that surely time healed all wounds. Sure, it was sad when someone died, but I thought it was morbid to dwell on it. I naively assumed people could let it go (long before we’d heard of Elsa) and focus on what they did have. My friend Tami lost her mom many years ago, but I didn’t understand her sadness on Mother’s Day—couldn’t she focus on the good memories instead of feeling sad? Or celebrate being a mom to her own children?

Well, maybe she could have (and she likely did).

But how wrong I was. And how sorry I am for all of the opportunities I missed to extend kindness and grace—because now I know.

I know what it is to wonder how I can possibly celebrate when the absence is so real, so gigantic, that the void itself becomes a presence. To question how to “get over it” when the only thing time has proven is that things still have not changed. My mom still isn’t here. And I still miss her. Hundreds, now thousands, of days without her. Exponential sums and moments of being without someone whose body is not here but who is never far from my mind. Granted, I rarely cry myself to sleep anymore. But I still cry. I still mourn. And it overshadows everything, colors it as surely as if a dark filter covered the lens.

The hardest moments are the ones that are supposed to be happy—the celebrations, the milestones. The days in which we feel an obligation to laugh, to have fun, and to hide the pain that consumes us. It’s because of the juxtaposition, the extreme disparity between expectations and what we’re really feeling inside.

Some of you have had big losses—the death of a spouse, a child, a sibling, a parent. The grandmother who raised you. The friend who knew all of your secrets. There are other losses, too. Divorce. Family feuds. Jobs requiring relocation. Budgets and work schedules that keep people apart on holidays. Unmet expectations. Joyful personalities changed by addiction or disappointment. These things are hard enough by themselves, but add in the other stresses most of us feel this time of year—money worries, anxiety about getting the right gifts and finishing dinner preparation on time, loneliness, not enough time—and it may seem impossible to bear.

I’m still—and will continue, indefinitely, to be—trying to figure this out. To make my way and hold tight to the sparks of joy, living in the moment and not the past or the future. I don’t claim to have the answers, but I do have some ideas. The more we try to stuff down our feelings, the harder they fight to be seen. Maybe it’s time we welcome our sorrow. Flip it around and find the comfort that dwells on the other side of the pain.

It’s there. It really is. And I hope some of these ideas will help you find it.


Carry on. My mom was a giver like no one else I’ve ever known, much of it done in secret. She didn’t want the limelight, she just loved to find thoughtful ways to help. In her memory, my household established a new Christmas tradition. All month long, each of us is on the lookout for someone or something that could use a little help. It doesn’t have to be life-altering. It doesn’t have to be about orphans or the homeless or victims of disaster, although those are certainly options. It’s simply about looking for opportunities to give. We’re honoring my mom’s legacy by learning to give the way that she did. By telling our children about the ways their grandmother made an impact on other people’s lives so that she remains real and present in their minds. By cultivating the traits within them that are like her.

Each gift is presented (or provided anonymously) by the family member who thought of it. We don’t set strict budgets, just do what seems right and what we can afford. Gifts in previous years have included: donation of “wish list” books to an elementary classroom during a book fair (not my son’s own class, because he shouldn’t be one to benefit); paying the fee for my daughter’s friend to take the train to Chicago with a school club; my husband paying the bill for oil changes and tires for people he knows through his work at an auto shop; an envelope of cash for friends with small children to help supplement their Christmas buying; anonymous gift cards to an acquaintance who is out of work. Once I start looking, I see one need after another, and the more of them I respond to, the closer I feel to my mom.

If there isn’t an obvious tradition to continue, don’t worry. When you pray, ask God to point out opportunities and suggest ideas. My former neighbors lost their son, Henry, to cancer when he was six. I can’t change that. But maybe I could donate gas cards or games to a nearby children’s hospital for another family in a similar situation. My grandmother taught me to say the Lord’s Prayer every night before bed. I think of her when I sit down at night to pray with my son, knowing that just as she established that ritual in my mind, I’m helping provide a framework of prayer for my own child.


Write a special note. Chances are good that even if you haven’t experienced a deep loss, you know someone who has. Send flowers. Write a letter. Drop off cookies. There are lots of ways to let people know you’re thinking of them. But here’s the hard, potentially awkward part: don’t be shy. Mention the loved one by name. It’s a relief to be able to talk about it. To stop pretending it didn’t happen. To stop worrying that nobody else wants to know about your sadness.

If you have a sweet or funny memory, share that. And if not, just say that you’re thinking of them. You don’t have to—and probably shouldn’t try to—provide neat answers in an effort to make the pain disappear. It won’t. Just tell them you’re sorry. That you know how much they miss that person. That it’s OK to still feel sad. And that you care about them. Whatever you do or say, be genuine, and take your clues from the one who is mourning. Don’t force conversations, but don’t hide from them either.


Give a gift to memorialize someone, either for the person you’ve grieving or for someone else who is. Donate to a charity or church or school or organization in the person’s name. Perhaps you can continue a tradition that person started—buying a coat and gloves for a child in the community. Wrapping presents in the local toy drive. Donating a book to the library. If your aunt was known for her baking, write the recipe on pretty recipe cards (labeled “Aunt Sue’s Famous Poppyseed Bread”) and drop off loaves to friends so that they will always say her name when they make it. Go door to door in your neighborhood collecting canned foods and donate them to a local food pantry in that person’s name.


Don’t forget the friends. Our culture accepts that we will grieve a close family member, but often overlooks the friends, coworkers, students or an unmarried partner. My sister’s best friend passed away this year. Everyone was praying for the family, worrying about Teresa’s girls and husband. Of course. Sometimes I would forget that my sister was feeling a profound loss as well.

Occasionally I run into one of Mom’s friends in a parking lot or the baking aisle at Kroger. Until I see them fighting tears, I often forget. She’s missing from their lives as well. They wish they could pick up the phone to tell her something funny. They may not feel they have the “right” to grieve, but they do anyway. Acknowledge that: Thank you for loving her, too. Or she loved you, too, you know.


Tell stories. Let your kids hear about the time she left the sweet potatoes in the microwave through dinner and didn’t find them until the next day. Talk about the funny things that have happened. Point out which ornaments she gave you or describe what Christmas was like when your dad was a little boy. Plop a box of Kleenex in the center of the table if you need to. But let yourself remember.


Or don’t. There are times when sharing is the right thing to do, and times when you aren’t ready or able to “go there.” Give yourself grace. Allow yourself to do—or not do—what is right for you at that moment. And be aware that people grieve differently. My sister and I are very close and we both lost the same person on the same day. But we rarely feel the impact of that loss at the same moment. We both read the same book within a couple weeks. I could barely get through it, sobbing because it brought up all of my emotions. Kerry was fine. But then she has moments that I’m oblivious to, like when she fixes Mom’s recipe for stuffed peppers or rolls out some homemade noodles and she wraps herself in the contentment of showing her love for her family in the same way.


There’s not just one way to grieve. And there are plenty of different ways to honor someone. The only rules? Wrap your words and efforts with kindness and gentleness. Keep trying. And practice grace, both with those who may not know how to help you face your grief and with yourself when you fall short.

Do you have any ideas to share? I’d love to hear them.

In a secret place

  I squint in the harsh light, sweat beading on my forehead, running down my face, trickling between the tears. A small gold box ...

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 [Looking through some old files, I found this short piece, written almost two years ago during the Midwest Writers Workshop. The writing prompt was “write about a secret.” Just thought I’d share.]

shutterstock_109937858I squint in the harsh light, sweat beading on my forehead, running down my face, trickling between the tears. A small gold box is all that remains. My husband lays his Live Strong bracelet on the box with my mom’s remains. Cancer won. Dammit, cancer won again. My family — small, just my dad, my sister and our husbands and kids — shuffles, shifts, awkward in the silence. My brother-in-law leads the prayer; we recite the 23rd Psalm, her favorite, in a lopsided circle of sweaty hands. He praises God for the woman she was, for staying close to us in our pain.

I couldn’t bring myself to say ‘amen.’

I return home, wrapping up leftover casseroles, coffee cakes, ham loaves. People come and go. The cards are covered with crosses, doves, wispy watercolor wishes. Friends, people from all over, offer to pray. I know them from church, from my mom’s church, from people who read my blog and devotions. They send prayers, they give me devotional books, they record CDs of songs for me about the God of hope. The king of kings. The provider. The creator. The healer.

‘Really?’ I wonder. Healer?

I am an elder of a charismatic, spirit-filled church. We believe God cares about every detail, every sparrow. So I requested prayer, at every opportunity, for my little bald-baby-bird mother. I made her renew her Barnes and Noble Member card for another year. I even paid for it. And, of course, we all wore the Live Strong bracelets.

Most of them broke before she did.

When I was in public, I could ‘toe the party line.’ Prayer changes things. Absolutely.

Yet, alone, a child still inside, I clung tenaciously to my dirty little secret. I knew God would not heal my mommy.

A year later, I’m still right. She’s still gone. And I wonder, how do I get back? Can I relearn belief? Can the faithless regain faith? Enough of Him remains in me that, even now, I hear His whisper. Yes. Come back. Share your pain with me.

So I do, in secret.


The house was built by my great-great-grandfather, the one whose name is in the front ...

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[Note to my wonderful readers: writing this is therapy for me, and the post is dreadfully long and possibly totally irrelevant to you. Feel free to skim or skip this one if you want. But thank you for indulging me.]

The house was built by my great-great-grandfather, the one whose name is in the front of the boxes of antique books I just went through. His daughter is the Anna who inspired my own daughter’s name. The house that he built is the one my parents moved into, young and newly married, with just one adorable red-haired toddler, where they set to work making it into a lovely home. It’s where I made out with boyfriends in high school, whenever I could manage it. It’s where I read every Nancy Drew book ever written, watched every episode of the Hardy Boys on Sunday nights. It’s where Mom left notes on the kitchen table, and Dad walked out the back door to go to his studio to paint. It’s where Dad and I threw the softball together and where my temper flared up every time he tried to coach me — at anything.

It’s where I taped pages of elaborate alphabets to the windows, grabbed handfuls of markers, and learned to draw beautiful typography by tracing. It’s where I played Monopoly during a 6th grade slumber party — or, more accurately, where my friends played it, snuggled into my walk-in closet, while I slept. It’s where Kerry and her friend Jennifer stood on the stair rail to peek into the stained glass transom window over my room and where I screamed hateful words at those little brats. It’s where I cried myself to sleep listening Nazareth’s “Love Hurts,” writing letters to DJ, my first love. And it’s where I brought Mick, my British boyfriend, the summer we met before he left to go back home. It’s where I shared Christmas morning for the first time with a boyfriend after Tim and I met, where I carved out space for “us” instead of “me.” It’s where my cousin Kathy and I giggled upstairs, late into the night. It’s where my glamorous cousin Jodi brought her boyfriends, where I was mesmerized by their long hair and tan limbs and agile minds. It’s where I lay gingerly balanced in a rope hammock, rocking in the breeze until I couldn’t take the bugs anymore, and it’s where I lay late at night on the floor of my room, recording my prayers in the wedge of light from the hallway. It’s where I had my first drink and got to choose my first wallpaper. It’s where I slammed doors and fought Mom and cut my thumb carving a linoleum block and made silkscreens and took 4-H photos. It’s the place I longed to escape from, the place I believed to be the center of all things boring. It’s where I wrote papers for scholarships that would take me away from there, into this wide world and out of small-town minds and hearts.

And it’s where I returned to play Tripoli on a hand-drawn cardboard game board every Christmas. Where we put together jigsaw puzzles on a folding table. Where silver hooks jut out from the brick fireplace mantle, sturdy and strong but not large enough to hold the ever-larger piles of stocking stuffers. Where my grandma fell asleep in her wheelchair after dinner, mouth wide open and head crooked back, snoring so loud it made my mom want to strangle her. It’s where my kids pulled out the ice bucket and rolled quarters and pennies and where they read “But Not the Hippopotamus” with Gran before bedtime.

I know the perfect loop for the four-wheelers, the slight rise in the front yard where there was once a brick walkway, how if you gather enough speed and hit the bump just right it’ll loft you into the air. Just a little, but just enough to make it worth doing. Over and over and over again. I know where the bees like to live and where the hollyhocks grow. Every time I sit on the toilet, I look in front of me at the built-in laundry hamper with the tulip pattern made of drilled air holes, and my eyes go to the two dots that my dad forgot to drill. I know the ten-degree temperature change when your head crests the curve of the stairwell, and I remember imagining the scary things that might be above the panel covering the crawl space. I know the dusty smell of the attic, the fear of falling through the gaps in the floor and crashing through the ceiling, scavenging for forgotten treasure, dust particles making you sneeze. I know the view out my upstairs bedroom window watching for the school bus, because it was the only way to see it coming with all the corn between our house and the one before it. I know at what point the motion sensor light on the porch will come on, and just how far the spotlight lights up the driveway before giving way to pitch darkness. I know which cookbook used to hold $100 bills stashed for an emergency, and how cold the kitchen floor is on winter mornings, and how the sun slants across the field across the road in the evening.

I know how Mom sat on the porch swing that provided that view, reading the paper, settled and at home. And how that was the only place she wanted to be when she died. I remember moving her home from the hospital and how she hurt Dad by saying she couldn’t stand to look at his painting of the golf course anymore, the one hanging on the wall in front of her hospital bed. And I remember my brother-in-law sitting on the kitchen counter the night she died, telling us not to watch them carry her out, because he has never been able to erase the image of them carrying away his dad.

My dad loved my mom with every act of his life. I can’t forget his voice, watery eyes looking up at my sister asking, “Is she really gone? Is she?” I’m devastated by memories of Dad spreading her ashes in the yard, as she requested, saying, “I guess this is the last walk I’ll ever get to take with her.” And I fully remember the depth of his sadness, how the loneliness consumed him, how he didn’t want to be home. I remember the way he sounded like a teenager when he came home from Florida and told me he and Rita were in love. He showed us around her house in Florida with pride, wanting to convince us how great it was. How happy he was. And I see why he doesn’t want to be in the house in Ladoga anymore, that he needs to be able to enjoy life and not worry about this place. He needs to not wake up at 3 am and wonder if the guy mowed the grass like he was supposed to or if someone’s realized that Dad’s out of town and broken in yet. He needs to have fun, not knowing how much life remains. Knowing how quickly it can change.

Yet with every step he takes, I find myself holding more tightly to my memories of Mom. His decisions are not acts of betrayal, but each of them stabs into my heart just as surely as if they were. “I want to remember!” I silently shout, over and over, only to be drowned out by the sounds of change whooshing by. “What, honey?” Dad asks, and I shrug, too weary to repeat myself. The words evaporate, fade, as transient as I feel.

So he puts the house up for sale, and people practically throw offers at him. And that damn grief, that sneaky, slippery darkness, sneaks back into the shadows. Not his. Mine.

Whether or not he owns that house, the memories are still mine. But without a physical place for them to reside, I feel as though the memories themselves are threatened. In writing, a sense of place matters. Your story can’t be floating in a void. It needs to attach itself somewhere. The setting doesn’t have to drive the story, but it helps define the character and her actions.

When I lost Mom, I felt untethered, like there was nothing tying me down. In her absence, I didn’t know what I was anymore. Or who. Over the last two years, I’ve worked to rebuild. I’ve accepted that I know what Mom’s opinion would be, so in a sense, she’s here, even if she’s not. At first, in defiance — because, dammit, if she wasn’t here to stop me I could do whatever the hell I wanted — I chose the opposite path. Then I slowly found my way back to center, not walking in a straight line, maybe, but zigzagging back and forth, in smaller zigs and less extreme zags. I’m starting to feel a warmth when I think of her, not just pain. The loss is still there, sometimes still palpable, but livable.

And now, faced with losing the house, too, I feel like I’m out flapping in the wind again. Nothing to hold onto, no anchor to attach myself to. Logically, I can’t fathom how I could be defined by either a person or a place. I can make my life into whatever I want it to be. History doesn’t matter. Location is irrelevant. No one can take my memories.

Illogically, emotionally — well, that’s a whole other thing.

Choosing which furniture to take, making way in my life for more stuff, I sense how shallow that task is. How devoid of meaning. Boards nailed together, shelves that just happen to have graced the rooms of several generations of family. Family which feels lost to me. Generations past. If no one remembers, they’re truly gone. And I feel the burden of holding on, desperate to show them they mattered. Lives were different because of them. The loss I feel is staggering in its breadth. How do I keep alive that which is no longer present, in a place that will no longer belong to our family?

How do I redefine myself — again — by what is and not what’s gone?

For now, I clean, sort, eliminate boxes and bags of detritus, trying to make way and squeeze even more into my life. And I wait, and hope, that one night soon, maybe tears won’t sneak up on me the minute the lights are out. That I’ll carry on what is good and leave behind the sadness. That I can find ways to memorialize the people I have loved. That I’ll remember, and because of that, so will my kids.

And that I won’t need that house to feel like I still have a home.

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