It’s been three years since my 4-year-old died from brain cancer, but sometimes it feels like it was yesterday. The memories can come roaring back in the blink of an eye, leaving me motionless, breathless, and aching. Sometimes I long to hold little Henry like I long for air. Even as I push forward, I encounter reminders of loss everywhere.
Two years ago we moved half-way across the country. In part, we moved to escape the reminders. We left behind the empty bedroom decorated in oranges and blues. We traveled 1,150 miles away from the library with the fountain in the front and story time on Tuesday mornings. We put days of driving between us and the pediatrician’s office with the green vinyl-covered chairs and matching industrial carpet. I left Henry’s shadows, but I can’t seem to outrun the reminders.
When I hear about a toddler being snatched and killed by an alligator, my blood runs cold. A weight sinks into my chest and doesn’t lift for hours. I know what it feels like to hear your child scream out in pain. I’ve walked through helplessness, terror, and disbelief. I know about the birthday parties his parents will never throw, the presents they won’t buy, the holidays that will feel somewhat empty and off. I understand the pain they’ll feel as they watch other children his age grow, enter kindergarten, and learn to ride their bikes without training wheels. I realize the strain that this type of loss will put on their relationships, perhaps even their identities. I know how, even years into the future, they’ll feel like something is missing when everyone is present.
When mass shootings occur and sacred lives are senselessly slaughtered, I am completely undone. I can’t seem to find words or formulate thoughts through a fog of horror and grief. My heart turns towards the loved ones facing funerals filled with polite and sympathetic conversation. Afterwards, they’ll watch as the shock fades for everyone else. The masses will disperse back into the groove of life while they instead limp forward, tired, cautious, acutely aware of the cruelty this world can dish out. There will be no going back to “normal.” Normal is forever changed. They are forever changed.
And when I come across yet another Facebook status about yet another child diagnosed with terminal cancer, I freeze. I spend a few moments locked in the painful silence of remembering, reliving, dreading for them what lies ahead. We live in a world where pain is everywhere.
Why is the world this way? How do we make sense of all this? As a Christian, I’ve turned to faith for answers. But sometimes faith can bring more questions. For example, the Bible says that God is all-powerful. Can’t God stop an alligator? Or vaporize a tumor? Scripture also says that God is love. Doesn’t God want to paralyze a gunman with murder on his mind?
Does God lack the power or the desire to prevent unspeakable pain?
I know I’m not the only one who has wrestled with this question. Some of you may have wondered: Did God lack the power or the desire to prevent my rape? My miscarriage? My cancer?
Some Christians attempt to answer these questions with phrases like “Everything happens for a reason” and “Sometimes we just can’t see what God’s doing when our eyes are blurry with tears.” Other times we’re told that suffering is “sent to refine us,” is a “blessing in disguise,” or is simply a necessary part of “God’s plan to glorify himself.”
These ideas stem from the assumption that everything is happening according to God’s perfect plan – his meticulous, divine blueprint. But I think it’s time to question that assumption.
After all, how can we call God love if God is the one orchestrating our devastation?
How can we sincerely worship a God whose glory-seeking plan requires alligator teeth in toddler flesh, bullets spraying through a crowd, or terminal brain cancer in a 4-year-old?
How could this God be considered praiseworthy? If God plans all our pain in minuscule detail, then his character doesn’t strike me as loving or praiseworthy. At best, it seems mysterious; at worst, it seems sadistic.
Finally, how do we reconcile this picture of God with God’s self-revelation in Jesus? The Bible says Jesus was the exact representation of God’s essence (Heb. 1:3). Yet when we look to Jesus’ ministry, we see a God who healed the broken… he didn’t break the healthy to glorify himself. Does God in Spirit hold a different standard of morality than his flesh-and-bones representation?
Several years ago, I began to compare God’s self-revelation in Jesus to my picture of a God who designs humanity’s suffering. That’s when I discovered a huge chasm. And during the process of engaging my questions, I found new, more satisfying answers.
Now I stand with a growing number of Christians who think it’s time for us to take another look at one of the most important questions in the world: If God is loving and all-powerful, why do we suffer? In my experience, the answer points us to a God who is more stunningly beautiful, more pure, and more loving than most of us have ever dared to imagine.
Find Jessica Kelley’s book on Amazon: Lord Willing?: Wrestling with God’s Role in My Child’s Death.
Kelley is a writer, speaker, and author of Lord Willing?: Wrestling with God’s Role in My Child’s Death, (Herald Press, April 2016). She has a B.S. in Psychology, a M.S. in Counseling & Human Development, and experience as a School Counselor. Born and raised in the South, Jessica now lives with her husband and five-year-old daughter in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She survives the absurdly long winters by going to the gym, dreaming about the beach, and eating copious amounts of chocolate. You can find her processing her faith journey at JessicaKelley.com.
Today’s guest post is written by NYC Funeral Director Amy Cunningham:
It seems fitting to reveal on Saint Patrick’s Day that the most common Google query that reliably draws readers to “The Inspired Funeral” day after day, week after week, is “Irish Funeral Music.” The last Irish funeral music post I wrote, garnered me tens-of-thousands of page views. Either the Irish are needing to know what is traditional or new to their own funerals, or those who aren’t Irish want to convey an Irish vibe to the festivities.
So lately, in my effort to be of sound funeral planning assistance, I’ve been fixated on how to make “Danny Boy,” the most famous of all Irish funeral ballads, new again. Can the beloved, seasoned, ever-so-classic-you-can’t-believe-they’re-trotting-it-out-again ballad be even more heart warming than it already is? Yes, it’s terrific–a total knock-out, in fact– sung in the classic mode by a male tenor, but here are some ideas you might consider when confronted with a funeral where “Danny Boy” is requested.
1. READ THE LYRICS AS STRAIGHT TEXT. DON’T HAVE IT SUNG AT ALL . Just read all four stanzas aloud from a podium, and grope for your handkerchief. Read it as a poem, aloud right now, and realize that by the time most singers get to the best, most moving lines, we listeners have been lulled into a sad, sweet snooze. (Take note, in stanza three: an “Ave” means “a prayer.”)
But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow
‘Tis I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.
And if you come, when all the flowers are dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be
You’ll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an “Ave” there for me.
And I shall hear, tho’ soft you tread above me
And all my dreams will warm and sweeter be
If you’ll not fail to tell me that you love me
I’ll simply sleep in peace until you come to me.
2. HAVE IT PLAYED WITHOUT THE LYRICS AS AN INSTRUMENTAL ON A SLIGHTLY UNUSUAL INSTRUMENT. Here’s a super great “Danny Boy,” totally right for a funeral, on church pipe organ and solo trumpet. Here’s Eric Clapton playing it on guitar with characteristic emotion, and not singing a word. And if you’re bleary-eyed from too much funeral planning and need a little chuckle, here’s “Danny Boy” played as an instrumental, down in the NYC subway system, on a saw.
3. JETTISON THE MALE IRISH TENOR. Women have been singing “Danny Boy” beautifully since soprano Elsie Griffin belted it out at the turn of the century. My personal favorite female-rendered “Danny Boy” is Sinead O’Connor’s, recorded in such a way that you could quickly improve any “Danny Boy” funeral by cuing it from an iPhone into Bose speakers. Nice save. And don’t neglect the grandchildren! They can sing “Danny Boy” at a grandfather’s funeral, and rock the house (though funeral music should generally not be a performance).
4. FINALLY, CONSIDER EMPLOYING A MORE UPBEAT “DANNY BOY” AFTER THE FUNERAL’S CLOSING. This idea might not be everyone’s pint of tea (or Guinness), but imagine “Danny Boy” played on sprightly banjo, after all concluding remarks and benedictions, as people are warmly greeting each other, hugging, finding their coats, blowing their noses, and remarking what a good funeral it was (Irish or not). Moral: it’s okay for a funeral to leave people uplifted in the vast majority of instances, grateful that the deceased were with us for as long as they were, and happier themselves–goddamnit– to still be alive, resolved to make good use of whatever time is left.
About the author: Amy Cunningham is a New York City funeral director and funeral celebrant especially passionate about getting families back involved in more personalized planning. She lectures on back-to-basics funeral planning and the greening of the industry. In her prior life she was a magazine journalist who wrote for Parenting, More, Glamour, and the Washington Post magazine. She is an active member of the National Home Funeral Association and ICCFA.
She writes a blog called TheInspiredFuneral.com
Today’s guest post is written by Sara LeeAnn Pryde.
“Speaking of dead moms…” As if one can delicately work that into polite conversation. Which is why today is so impossible. Every year on January 29th – what would have been my mother’s birthday – my sisters and I wake up to our lives and feel numb. Angry. Empty. Anguished. And inconvenienced at having to pretend it’s just another day. And yet, it is. That’s the added insult to the injury of death, isn’t it? That the world should continue on when we can’t possibly?
For weeks leading up to our mother’s would-be-birthday, we dream of her. A dim, golden-haired waif whose face we can either recall with perfect clarity or never quite make out; so, we wake up on the 29th bloody tired, sometimes wishing we hadn’t, wishing we could stay beside her awhile longer.
I brew a pot of coffee, thick as mud, and trip over my accursed cats. How can they think of food today? Some 1200 miles away in California, my sister Brynn begrudgingly slaps the snooze button and buries her head. Not far south in a neighboring city, our sister Chelsie lifts her chunky, blue-eyed infant from the crib and feels her own burn with unshed tears. Ocean eyes, like our mother’s.
The clock is running and daily life proceeds as usual, but we three are frozen in time. We are thinking of our mom. We may want to talk about her, to say her name aloud… but our significant others have never met her, don’t remember what today is, or at least not what it means to us. We may want to hide from it altogether, and are grateful our friends and co-workers are as clueless as the bank teller or grocery clerk.
I sit down to write a tribute to my mother that will do my sisters proud, but I can’t find the words. How can I tell who she was to me? How can I tell why my own identity have splintered in her absence? How can I tell that losing her was more than just a tragic accident? How, especially when we haven’t reconciled that it was an accident at all? How can I breathe to life what is, some days, such a damn, diaphanous mystery?
Cindy was… Our mom was… magic. All smoke and mirrors and sparkle and magic.
And one day she just disappeared for real.
I gave up my memoir and went out instead to buy a bulk-sized bag of Jelly Belly Jelly Beans. They were mom’s favorites – especially the black licorice flavored. She and I would always fight over the licorice ones. The grocery clerk didn’t ask about my dead mom. He asked me about snowfall and if I’d had a pleasant new years’. I resisted the urge to punch him and cried in the car.
Back at home, I rummaged through my kitchen cabinets and art supplies and crafted a ridiculously cheerful Jelly Belly centerpiece on the dining table. Then I ate every single black jelly bean in memory of her.
Sometimes speaking of death isn’t necessary, and sometimes sharing it isn’t possible. We do as we do to get through. We eat the black jelly beans.
About the author: Sara LeeAnn Pryde is an enigma wrapped in a question mark behind a coat of winged eyeliner. She’s moonlighted as a massage therapist, optometric assistant, erotica photographer, small business owner and social media manager, but if you ask what she does for a living, she’ll laugh and ask you if that’s the most interesting question you can come up with.
Today’s guest post is written Caleb Cook:
After Hurricane Katrina ravaged my hometown of Pass Christian, MS I was left with next to nothing. My belongings were either swept into the back bay near Bay St. Louis, or left soaked with only what could be described as a toxic gumbo of mold, brackish water, and sewage. The few things I had left were a few books of poetry and some CD’s, the stuff that would fit into a 98 Kia Sephia.
I was 18, fresh out of graduating high school and only a few weeks into my freshmen year of college when Hurricane Katrina hit. With the feelings of summer still in the air I made the rushed decision to take the destruction of my life and turn it into a way out. I needed money and an apartment, my parents and siblings were living in Florida temporary. So without guidance I hastily quit school and decided to find work. The odd jobs were relentless, back breaking in fact, like helping gut houses out in my town to where there was nothing left but a solid shell, everything gone except wood. Others included laying tile or landscaping; stuff I admittedly wasn’t in love with doing.
Soon thereafter, I was offered the opportunity to work for a DME company delivering Durable Medical Equipment from a friend who had lost everything just as I had done. The job was simple, I was to deliver the equipment to homes and hospitals. The equipment ranged from hospital beds, bed side commodes, oxygen and the related stuff. I was to also show the patients how to use the equipment after I assembled it all. My deliveries took me all over South Mississippi into patients homes and nursing homes. I dealt daily with hospice patients, people with a mere hours left to live, their families, and a vast array of folks from every walk of life.
One delivery stands out more than any of them in my mind. It was early fall almost dusk, when I got the ticket to fix a hospital bed and move it from one room to the next. The delivery was the last one of a long ass day, a Friday to be exact. I could practically taste the freedom of the weekend. This particular delivery would offer a challenge I was getting used to: It was in a FEMA trailer, at a lot off of I-10 in Gulfport. These trailers were small and often challenging maneuvering bulky equipment around. Needless to say I was ready for this problem and expected to be in and out.
I knocked on the door and a polite elderly lady answered, the patient was her husband, a senior with terminal brain cancer. He was sitting in a wheelchair in front of the TV asleep. She proceeded to show me the room and I began the process of disassembling the bed. I was sweating as it was hot inside the trailer as was most homes I visited. The bed was taken apart with ease and soon I was setting it back up in the adjacent room. It was then I hear a big loud THUD. The women begans crying “Help Me!” I immediately run into the living room to find the patient on the floor. The women pleading for my response, my help.
Except I, by law, could not under any circumstance touch the patient. Hypothetically if I did help, and the patient was to die I could be arrested, sued or fired. This was explained to me countless times during my job orientation months prior. So I did what any 18 year old would do, I ran. I ran outside and into the safety of my work van. I called my boss, who we will name Ralph. Ralph proceeded to tell me to get the signature for delivery and GET OUT of there. He would call the hospice nurse in charge of the patient or an EMT. His voice was of concern, but also nervousness for me his youngest delivery driver ever. I was scared and morally confused about what I should do.
I would like to say I gave in to the pleads and cries by offering my hand of help. However I can not say I manned up because I was still a boy trapped in this strange land between Hurricane Katrina destruction, medical equipment, hospice, death, and mostly fear. I left the FEMA trailer and never looked back. As I returned to the warehouse, Ralph my boss only offered a simple “Are you okay?” and that was that.
6 months later I was home from work watching the local nightly news when a photo of this couple flashed on my TV. They had been murdered in cold blood and the killers were arrested soon after. They were looking for money, one was a neighbor in the park who occasionally took care of the man. My heart sank and then shattered into a million pieces. All I could think of was how I left that couple months prior. How she was crying, and pleading with no physical strength to lift him off that cold, dank, FEMA trailer floor. I left somebody when they were in need and at the end of their life. I began to cry, the cry only a kid of now 19 can cry when his heart is broken. My body still aches with regret.
The next day at work I was given the ticket from FEMA to pick up our equipment from the crime scene so they can move the FEMA trailer out of the park. This pick up would alter me and change me from a boy to a man. At about 11am on a cloudy February day I pulled into the park off of I-10. I had to pick up the bed, oxygen, commode, wheelchair, and a shower chair. The same wheelchair the man fell out of and onto the floor. I felt, as if in this moment Deja Vu and Karma were real. I felt as if God was playing a cruel trick on me by making me relive my regret.
I assumed the equipment would be outside the trailer waiting, and that a clean up crew would have already cleaned the trailer. I never in a million years would have thought I would be going inside this place. The equipment was not outside, it was still inside and I discovered this as I was greeted by a FEMA official smoking a cigarette near the entrance of a door. The glass on the door had been knocked out and police tape was blocking the entrance.
“This is my first time inside,” the FEMA official declared. With a solemn look on her face. I said “It’s my second.” She looked confused.
I realized the reason she was smoking was because it was to cover the smell, she explained to me that the bodies were discovered about 6 days after they were murdered. She also explained that in the police reports she received, that the killers “Not only murdered the couple, but turned the heater on to its maximum temp, as well as turning on the oven and burners. They did this in hopes of killing the dog, and at this point killing the bedridden husband from heat exhaustion.”
She opened the trailer with a set of shiny jangling keys, which I noticed had a smiley keychain on it. The smell instantly hit my nostrils, it was a smell that almost a decade later I still smell from time to time like a phantom of harshness, or the God of Regret punching me in the face. There was a pull of blood and what I assumed was coagulated yellow bile hardened on the floor a mere foot from the door. That was the spot she died. She was shot to death with, an unknown to me, amount of bullets. There were bullet holes in the recliner where she was sitting when she was killed. The living room trashed, with furniture overturned and obviously ransacked. There were bloody footsteps leading into the kitchen before they trailed off down the narrow hall. Around the oven there was plastic cooking spoons partially melted from the heat.
His room was basically untouched from the way I left it that day months ago. There was no sign of struggle or anything just the makings of a robbery gone bad. The pick up of the equipment was without trouble, I got in and got out. Filled with sadness, and regret I finished the order in a half an hour. After it was all said and done the FEMA official closed the door and locked it. She explained that they would come to pick up the trailer in a few days and maybe burn it but she wasn’t sure. She offered me a cigarette, I accepted. Then she drove away without saying a word, never knowing my story of guilt and regret with this couple. I took a drag of the cigarette and immediately vomited on my boots.
I’m 28 years old now and I often think about the delivery, the couple, the murder and that trailer. I replay those scenes in my head like a movie, or maybe it’s just me trying to keep their ghost alive, like a family members who passed away suddenly. I like to say I have no regrets in life, but that would be a lie.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Caleb Cook currently resides in Birmingham, AL and is the author of 4 books of poetry including “Troubleshooting for the Modern Soul” and “The World All Strung Out”. When he isn’t writing he is a father, husband, and chef.
Today’s guest post is written by Heidi Evans:
Most children wish for a pony, or maybe a trip to Disney World when they blow out their birthday candles. For as long as I can remember, on my birthday I would wish for a cure. A cure that would keep my father around for my birthday the next year.
My father had cancer my entire life. I spent so many years simply hoping and wishing that one day I would wake up, and my father would be cured. No more doctors’ appointments, no more chemotherapy, no more cancer. That was my wish every single day, but that wish was especially important when I blew out my birthday candles. For some reason it seemed more logical in my innocent mind that if a cure were to happen, it would be more probable on my birthday. I never told anyone of my wish, because everyone knows that as soon as you tell people what you wished for, it never comes true.
This year will be different. This year I will not wish for a cure. This year, I will blow my 21 candles out, and I will wish for something completely different. I will wish that heaven is just as magical as it is in my dreams. I will wish that my father’s pain is long gone, and that he gets to sleep on clouds and eat as many marshmallows as he pleases. That has always been my child-like idea of what heaven is like.
Most people who are diagnosed with cancer spend at least a little bit of their time feeling sad, or hopeless. I was blessed to spend my entire life watching my father handle his diagnoses with grace. I never once heard him complain, and never once saw his fight to live flicker. We spent our 20 years together building memories that I will treasure forever.
In August of 2014 the doctors told my father that there was not much else that they could do in order to treat his cancer. They encouraged the idea that he spend his last few months making end-of-life decisions. That doctor’s appointment was on a Tuesday. My father passed away the very next Sunday. I can remember sitting on the bench in the waiting room of the doctor’s office. My father had just received the news. He sat next to me while I cried, and promised me that we would all be okay. He could not have been more right about that.
The doctor had specifically stated that my father had MONTHS not WEEKS left to live. There was a conversation that I wanted to have with my father, but I struggled with when to bring it up. I did not want my father to think that I had given up hope. The day after the appointment we were sitting in the living room together. I looked at him and bluntly said, “Daddy, are you scared?” My father looked up at me and without hesitation said, “I am not scared of death. I am scared to leave you guys.” That was my father, always taking care of his girls, even until the very end. My next statement was the one I had been thinking about for months. I had read the articles, and heard the stories, about when people send signs to their loved ones from the other side. I could feel the tears welling up behind my eyes, and I embraced them and told my father that when he got to heaven, I needed him to send me a sign to let me know that he was okay. Together we decided on the cardinal.
When I was a little girl my father would wait for the school bus with me. Every few days a cardinal would show up in the tree outside our front door. Every time my father saw it he would get insanely excited and holler at me to notice its beautiful red feathers. For some reason that memory always stuck out in my mind. Even as a grouchy teenager, my father would point out the cardinal and I would smile. My father agreed that when he got to heaven he would send me a cardinal if the opportunity arose. I never told anyone about the conversation that we had. In the same sense as a birthday wish, I needed to keep our agreement a secret in order for it to come true.
Not even a week later, my father was gone. He passed away peacefully in his sleep. If there is anyone in the world that did not deserve to suffer, it was my father. My mother, sister, and I made the funeral arrangements together. Those few days remain a whirlwind in my mind. The world lost a great man, and I lost the best dad the world had to offer. The day of the funeral was as perfect as it could have been, considering the circumstances. The weather was uncharacteristically cool for the month of August. We showed up to the church and greeted our friends and family. The minor details remain a blur in memory. I had so many emotions raging through me, I was not quite sure how to feel. My mother, my sister, and I walked into the chapel as our friends and family stood around us. We were a team. We were minus one of our players, but a team nonetheless. We were his girls. We walked to our seats, and embraced the tears that were inevitable. As I took my seat, I noticed all of the beautiful flowers that people had sent in honor of my father’s life. Out of probably 20 arrangements, the one that was placed directly in front my seat held a small, decorative cardinal. I was at a loss for words. On this incredibly important day, my father took the opportunity to tell me that he was okay, and that he was with me. I tearfully accepted his message, and I let a smile creep across my face for the first time in what felt like forever.
I feel my father all around me, I do not need to see a cardinal to know that he is with me always. In that moment when I step outside, and the wind sweeps my hair off of my neck, my father is there. When I am walking to my car, and I take a moment to look at the stars, my father is there. And this year when I blow out my 21 candles, my father will be there. My innocent, child-like birthday wish finally came true. My father will be at every one of my birthdays for the rest of my life. This year I do not have to wish for a miracle, because I was already given one.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Heidi Evans is a senior living in Oklahoma City, pursuing her bachelors degree in Funeral Service. She works in the Funeral Service industry and plans to be a part of the changes making their way through the death care industry in the coming years.