Here’s To You, Deanne! A Toast to My Sister on Her Fiftieth Birthday

I am the youngest of four children.  I was blessed to have a wonderful oldest sister named Roxanne and I am still blessed by my other older sister, Deanne, and an older brother, Jason.  Today is Deanne’s fiftieth birthday, and I toast to her! 

Here’s to you, Deanne, on your fiftieth birthday.

Here’s to you, my loving sister, who was always willing to babysit me and made me laugh when you pretended to eat my arm like it was a hot dog. Here’s to you, who would write me my own personal letters, sent just to me, from across the country when you moved away.  Here’s to you, who always makes people feel special.

Here’s to you, my adventurous sister, who moved across the country to follow a dream at 22 and made a new life – but never forgot home.  Here’s to you who traveled the world. Here’s to you who joined me and Josiah on a hike with no idea where it led, and who ran ten kilometres back to get us the car when we ended up in the next town over.

Here’s to you, my beautiful sister, who makes yoga pants look as elegant as formal wear.  Here’s to you who my friend once described as “looking like a goddess.” Here’s to you who buys what she likes and likes what she buys.

Here’s to you, my energetic sister, who hikes the grind without a pause.  Here’s to the one who parks as far from stores as possible to get an extra chance to walk. Here’s to you who wears me out, and then whips up a batch of cookies while I take a rest.

Here’s to you, my efficient sister.  Here’s to you who resents packing anything bigger than a carry-on bag when she travels.  Here’s to you who gets stuff done. Here’s to you who makes a day count.

Here’s to you, my strong sister, who faced the unbearable when both her sons had a catastrophic accident. Here’s to you who was at the hospital by seven every morning and stayed until you got kicked out. Here’s to you who held your sixteen year old son to calm his body while he flayed in a coma. Here’s to you who sat with your fourteen year old in an I.C.U thousands of miles from home. Here’s to you who kept it together.  Here’s to you who inspired me.

Here’s to you, my hilarious sister, who doesn’t always know why she’s funny.  Here’s to you who makes her kids and husband crack up. Here’s to you who always wants to be in on the joke. When others say you’re funny, I say “I confer.”

Here’s to you, my beloved sister, one of our three rhyming “-annes.”  Here’s to you who was the keep-the-peace one. Here’s to you who has always been who we needed you to be, just as you are. Here’s to you who understands that we are now incomplete, but we are whole together.

Here’s to you, my older sister. Here’s to you, my role model. Here’s to you who will always be older – so that I will never stop having someone to look up to.

Here’s to you, Deanne!  Here’s to you, who is loved at fifty and always.

Me and My Fabulous Sister!

Five Years Later: Reflections on the Five Year Anniversary of My Sister’s Death

This week it will have been five years since my sister died. I can hardly believe it.  

Like every year around this time, this week on the calendar draws me back to that season of grief in my life.  Five years ago was not only when I lost one of the people I loved most in the whole world, but also when I began my life as a grieving person –  a life that I didn’t want, and wasn’t ready for.

I was scared of grief, I now realize.  I was scared because I didn’t know if I could survive it.  I was scared because I didn’t know how to do it. I had taken courses on grieving and walked with many people through loss, so I admit I felt like I had a leg up on things.  In those first few weeks I remember working to tick all the boxes that would make me a “good grieving person.”

Read all the books about grief and loss I can find? Check.

Go to see a counselor?  Check.

Join a grief support group?  On it.

But when I read the books, my grief was so raw that I could barely process them. When I went to the free counselling session provided through work, it was, seriously, awful.  And when I searched for a grief support group online, they were all winding down for the summer.

I remember beginning to feel panicky:  If these things weren’t going to work, what would?  

Five years later, I look back and see grieving Leanne, lost and broken, unable to share her deepest feelings, discovering everything she “knew” about grief was more complicated and tricky than she thought.  I think about what she didn’t understand, and what I would tell her now, five years later.  

“Grief is a Roller Coaster”

When I pictured grieving after a big loss, I assumed grief progressed like walking up a hill. It would start in a big valley, a pit even, and the task was to slowly get out of this valley, with things improving bit by bit over time.  But grief isn’t like a hill where every day gets better. Grief is a roller coaster.

The roller coaster is a cycle of really bad, awful, can’t-get-out-of-bed days interspersed with “I-feel-normal-and-actually-kind-of-okay-today” days.  I didn’t expect the latter, and they made me feel guilty. I remember about a week after my sister died saying to my husband: “Could it be possible that I’m over this already?”  I was having a day where I felt kind of normal, and I figured maybe the whole thing was over. I shake my head when I think about it now. I didn’t understand that I was riding a roller coaster, and there were some really big dips to come. Looking back, I would tell Leanne that she was being taken on a ride, even though she wouldn’t have liked that.  

But I would also tell her she was strapped in – strapped in by God, people who loved her, and resurrection hope, and she wasn’t going to fall out, no matter how big the dips got.

Which brings me to my next point…

“The worst time is two-four months after”

Yes, the time after a death is impossibly hard – especially a sudden, unexpected death.  But there is also something that happens a couple months later – a deep drop in the roller coaster. It’s when the rest of the world has moved on, when people often forget you’re grieving, but you are still walking around with the weight of your loss crippling your shoulders every day and wondering “Don’t people care anymore?”  

That’s why,  if you know someone grieving, acknowledging their grieve a couple months later is a huge gift.  For many that is when they are right back in the pit. And if you are grieving yourself, and finding these things to be true, first of all, know that you’re not crazy, regressing or doing something wrong. This is normal. Secondly,  look for support in this time. This is when you take the people up on the “if you ever need to talk” offers. It’s a good time to get a counselor (yes, I tried a second time, and it was a gift from God). You may not have been ready sooner, when your grief was fresh, but now you may be, and your good friends are still ready to listen.  And remember…

“It WILL get better”

There were days I thought “I can’t live with this grief. I will never get over this.”  I would say to people “Does it get better?” and they would wisely say “It gets different….” This is true.  You always carry grief. But five years later is not like it was five years ago, or even four years ago, or three years ago.  It is not as unbearable. This does not mean that I’m “over it.” (Do we ever “get over it?”). It means that what my grief counselor told me was true: I DID find a way to live a new life where grief wasn’t at the centre.  She also told me: 

“You won’t forget”

Oh, how much I needed to be assured of that!   You know what I worried about? That I would forget the sound of Roxanne’s voice.  I would sometimes watch videos, not to reminisce but to assuage that fear that I would forget what her voice sounded like.  What newly grieving Leanne didn’t understand was that you simply can’t forget.  Your loved one is such a part of you, and who you are, that they will not be forgotten.  Five years later, I can hear Roxanne’s voice in my head as clearly as if I talked to her yesterday.  If you have feared you will forget the one you lost, be at peace. Your loved one is a part of you that can’t be lost.  

So…what is loss like, five years later?

Five years later, my grief hasn’t disappeared, but neither have my memories.  

Five years later, I accept that I haven’t “gotten over” my loss, but I’ve gotten to the other side.  

Five years later, I can see that I didn’t fall out of the roller coaster.

Five years later, it still sucks…but it sucks less.

Five years later, this picture still brings tears to my eyes.

And it makes me smile.

me and roxanne

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“Spend the Gift Card Already! OR “Why I Found it Hard to Accept a Four Month Sabbatical”

sabbatical

Last fall I had to face a conflicting reality in my life:  I would soon be eligible for a four month Sabbatical. Our church has a policy that after a number of years of continuous work, pastors can apply for a extended time of leave to learn, refresh and recharge.  This year, my time had come.

Now, I know I should have seen this is good news, which I mostly did.  But I also struggled. What would I DO for four months? My kids would be in school and my husband would still be working.  How would I fill the hours between dropping my kids off at school and picking them up again? I joked about being one of those movie cliche moms who picks her kids up from school in workout gear and talks about HOW BUSY she is planning for the school bake sale.  But, like, seriously. I don’t even OWN workout clothes. And planning a bake sale is far from a full time job (at least not the way I’d run a bake sale…).

Plus, I wasn’t supposed to just hang out for four months (was I???).

And I had to do SOMETHING (didn’t I?).

And I had to do things that were USEFUL! (Right??) 

I wasn’t really sure, but my Sabbatical proposal was due to my board for approval six months ahead of time, so last fall, whether I liked it or not, I had to get cracking.  I began by doing what I always do in seasons of uncertainty.

I started making lists.

  • I could go on a missions trip. (But where?  On my own? For how long? If only my husband was off as well!)
  • I could take courses. (Which ones?  From where? Summer school schedules didn’t come out until the winter!).
  • I could do a big project!  (What project? For whom? Why?  How? When?)

I know, it seems ridiculous, but last fall thinking about Sabbatical made me more anxious than excited.  Still, it was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss. And that meant I had to come up with a proposal.

The list hadn’t helped much. I realized I needed others to help me hear from God on this one, so I decided to do something I had suggested to many people over the last few years when they felt stuck in a decision.  I gathered a “wisdom circle.”

A “wisdom circle” basically involves gathering a few people that can help you seek God’s wisdom in your life. There is a process to go through where the person looking for wisdom shares what they are dealing with, and there is time for feedback. In my case, I started by sharing all my Sabbatical woes, my list of ideas and my lack of clarity.  Then the group sat in silence for a couple of minutes. After this, the group shared what they heard me say. No commentary. No advice – just telling me what stood out to them from my own words. Then there was more silence. I shared again. More silence. Then the group shared what my story evoked in them – what they noticed and found themselves thinking about as I spoke. The point of this whole process is to help me listen to what God might be saying to me. 

As I shared my scattered thoughts,  my group kept telling me the same thing: “I hear that you’re worried.” “I hear that you’re anxious.” “I hear that you feel like you have to get this perfect.”  “I hear that you are trying to get Sabbatical JUST RIGHT.”

They were definitely listening.

Then one friend made this comment:  “Sometimes people give me gift cards.  When I get a gift card I almost always end up carrying it around for months or even years.  Why? I want to get the PERFECT thing and I’m afraid if I spend it too soon I’ll regret what I buy.  I feel like you’re treating your Sabbatical like an unused gift card.  You’re afraid you’ll spend it on the wrong thing.”

Hmmm.

If there was a nail in the room, I knew he was hitting it on the head.

I was worried, yes.  I was a perfectionist, yes. But I was also scared.  

I didn’t want to misspend my gift card.

That’s when I realized that spending a gift card is always a little risky. You might order a meal you don’t like at the restaurant and wish you’d ordered something different.  You might buy something and later wish you’d gotten something else. But the thing about a gift card is that it IS a gift. You’re not somehow “less” after you use it if you spend it in a less than perfect way.  And no one gives you a gift card wanting it to cause you worry – it’s meant to be a GIFT, something that brings joy!

I realized God was telling me not to let this “Sabbatical gift card” sit in my wallet because I was afraid it wouldn’t be perfect.  God was inviting me to receive a gift, and it was time for me to spend it.

A few days later, I handed in a proposal to my board. I said that I wanted to take some courses, read, study and travel.  I hoped to take time to visit other churches and pastors and learn things from them that would help us as a church.  I said I would let myself rest, and make space to hear from God in ways my schedule doesn’t always allow.   After I handed it in and the board approved it, I admit that it seemed funny that it had felt like such a big deal. 

My first day of Sabbatical was one week ago. Funny enough, it ended up being a SNOW DAY – definitely a little reminder that I can in no way predict what my Sabbatical will hold! I decided to take my kids to Indigo. In my wallet, I had several Indigo gift cards, there since my birthday in January.  

And you know what I did?

I SPENT THEM.

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“Self-Care Week” OR “Why I Can’t Let Myself Take a Vacation in February”

I don’t know why it can be so ridiculously hard for me to stop working, but the last couple of weeks I have learned that it takes hard work to not work – hard, necessary work.

Next week, I am taking a week’s vacation.  It is completely random for me to take a week’s vacation in the middle of February, especially when my husband and children will not be taking time off.  This year, however, I have some extra vacation time and I felt strongly that I needed to force myself to use it.  (Yes, I know, poor me having to force myself to take vacation!).  But it really is weird to know I’ll wake up each day next week, bring my kids to school, and then….go back home.  This feels especially odd as we go into a church season that is especially busy and when there is lots to do.

The thing is, the theme of rest and healthy life rhythms has come up in my life a lot lately.  I run three different small groups where we have talked about this in the last month. I have taught about the importance of taking daily, weekly, and yearly times of renewal.  I have heard the words come out of my mouth: “These are times when we step back to remember God can handle things without us.”  I realized I also need to live these words, too.

So I declared this all-by-myself-vacation “self care week” and planned to take time to look after my body and soul.  I made a dentist appointment, a hair appointment, and an overdue date for lunch with a friend.  

But it was not easy for me to fully embrace this gift of a week off.  It took more work than I want to admit to say “no” to doing “just one thing.”

I am part of a team that is planning a conference the first weekend of March.  Recently,  we were trying to set up our next meeting and we were having a hard time finding a time to meet that worked for everyone. I mentioned that I wasn’t free next week. Not a single person asked why.  After a few minutes of brainstorming dates, and still finding nothing, I said: “Well, if it makes it easier, I could meet next week. It’s no big deal.  I’m just taking that week as vacation.”

And the whole group said:  “NOOOOO!!!”

Then I said: “Yes I am taking this week off in the middle of February and I can’t believe how hard it is for me not to give in and do things.”  

They all understood and encouraged me not to give in to my temptations to do “just one thing.”

Three out of four Wednesdays a month I run a small group for pastors.  I realized that if I missed our gathering for my “self-care week,” then I would miss seeing them twice this month. To avoid this, I planned to meet with them on my week off. It was only a couple days ago that I told them that I would miss next week.  They were totally fine with it.

Then I said: “Yes I am taking this week off in the middle of February and I can’t believe how hard it is for me not to give in and do things.”  

They all understood and encouraged me not to give in to my temptations to do “just one thing.”

I also run small groups every Wednesday night. I see God working in these group, and so I was also going to meet with them on my week off.  You can probably guess what happened – I told them we weren’t meeting, explained why, they said no problem.

Then I said: ‘Yes I am taking this week off in the middle of February and I can’t believe how hard it is for me to not give in and do things.”

They all understood and encouraged me not to give in to my temptations to do “just one thing.”

(Sometimes, I am a slow learner).

Finally, I had to ask myself why this was so hard for me (if you’re counting, I had planned to do not just one, but THREE things on my “week off”). I came up with three reasons.  Maybe you will resonate with them.  

I Feel Guilty

I don’t like not doing things I committed to do.  When I say “I know we usually meet this time but I can’t do it,” I feel an almost crushing guilt. I feel selfish and unreliable and irresponsible.  I don’t like feeling guilty, so I do things I shouldn’t to help me avoid that feeling. (The unfortunate thing is that when I do things to avoid feeling guilty I often end up feeling other emotions I also don’t like, such as resentment – a blog for another day).  

I Feel Too Important

I focus on the importance of the things that need to be done.  We need to meet to plan this conference. I need to have this meeting. I need to lead my group. I see the value in the things I’m doing, perhaps sometimes too much.  And the truth is…

I Don’t Want to Feel Unimportant

If I can simply “skip” something, then I have to admit that it may not be essential after all.  If I can take a week off from activities, then maybe those activities aren’t actually that important.  If I’m not needed for everything, every week, maybe what I do doesn’t matter that much.  That is hard to admit.

And.

Because I MUST admit that…

I need to take time off.  

I’m not saying that what I do isn’t significant in the long run.  But I need constant reminders that I’m not what I do.  I need to sit in the truth, regularly, that God can work without me.  I need to learn to trust.  I need to remember that the world keeps spinning when I take a breather.

(I also need a dentist appointment…)  

It may seem like a silly thing, to have to work so hard to accept this week off, and I’m not proud of how much discipline it has taken for me to do it.  But now I’m really looking forward to waking up on Monday and letting God look after things for 8 whole days.  The good news is – God can handle it.

Do you struggle with these things too?  Join me in remembering – God can handle things; self care is not selfish.  Repeat. 

Image result for looking after myself

My Wonderful Birthday Gift (*Received Five Years Too Late)

Well, if you follow me at all you know that I was a leetle uncertain about turning 40.  That big grown-up number freaked me out for all the wrong reasons.  I’m happy to report, as often happens with things that I worry about, everything turned out just fine.  In fact, more than fine, turning 40 was wonderful. There were cakes and cards and friends and flowers and special gifts and four kinds of soup made by my husband for my party.  

And also, there was my friend Jane – my surprising gift at 40 that has left me with good lessons and a full heart.

To tell you why seeing Jane* (not her real name) on my 40th birthday was so special, I have to go back a little in my life and get really vulnerable.  I actually have to go back nearly five years, which really makes me feel ashamed as I write it and have to confess how long I let this story go on.  

Five years ago my sister died, and I had to learn to negotiate a grief for which I was not ready.  As a pastor, I had been around grief and studied grief a lot and there were some things that I knew about it.  One of those things was that during a season of grieving, you can feel like people let you down.  It is easy to feel hurt and disappointed when people don’t give you what you need.  As I prepared to grieve, one of the things that I prayed for was that I would hold those kind of feelings lightly.  I admit, I’m a person that remembers things. And notices things. I knew it would be easy for me to keep a running list in my head of the people who had NOT sent a card, those who had NOT sent me a message, those who had NOT supported me in the way I wanted.  I said to God: “I have lost my sister and I don’t need to lose more. Help me to be forgiving. Help me to be open hearted.”  I tried really hard, and it mostly went okay but there was one area where I failed: my friend Jane.

Jane and I were VERY good friends, with a long history.  We met during university and there was a season when I literally spent EVERY weekend at her house.  By the time my sister died, we weren’t seeing each other all that often simply because we live a couple of hours apart and life was busy.  Still, we always stayed in touch, and there was a special place in my heart for her. I considered her one of my dearest friends.

Then my sister died.

And I didn’t hear from Jane.

To be honest, I didn’t think too much of it at first.  God was answering my prayer to protect me from keeping tabs, and I knew that life was busy for her.  But one day I shared a post on facebook about a certain author who was coming to speak in Hamilton with whom I had some pretty big issues. That afternoon, I received a long message from Jane asking me to reconsider my stance.  

I wrote her back almost immediately sharing further why I was concerned about this speaker, but as I wrote I realized that the reason her message bothered me had nothing to do with the speaker at all.  I was hurt that I hadn’t heard from her at all since my sister died a few weeks before, but that she had found the time to write me over this really inconsequential issue.  To her credit, Jane wrote back immediately with a sincere apology.  She shared that she had been thinking of me and praying for me, but she hadn’t known what to say about my loss. She was ashamed that she had not written sooner. She begged my forgiveness, and I replied saying that she had it.

But something shifted in my heart.

I know, she could not have done any differently than she did.  We all make mistakes and she owned hers and apologized. (I am someone who is VERY indebted to friends being willing to forgive me!).  However, while I  forgave her, my feelings about her changed.  I lost interest in being in touch.  I stopped making any effort to connect to her, I didn’t respond to comments on facebook, and when she suggested getting together I didn’t write back or I found excuses.  

This lasted for a couple of years, but as my grief abated, so did my hurt feelings towards Jane.  I realized my grief had made me less able to cope in a healthy way with the situation.  However, I never made any effort to follow up with Jane.  I kind of left things as they had been.   

This brings us to a few months ago, and a Sunday morning when I was getting ready to serve communion.  (This is a practice of eating and drinking together as a church to remember what Jesus did for us).  This particular Sunday as I led communion, I asked people, as pastors often do, to consider if they needed to make anything right in their heart before receiving communion. I asked them to consider if they held any grudges against anyone and if there were relationships that needed reconciliation. I invited us all to close our eyes and ask God to show us if we needed to fix any relationships.  I admit it, when I closed my eyes, I thought to myself: “Wow, I’m so glad I’m not in conflict with anyone in my life.”  And in that moment it was like God flashed a billboard in front of me with this word: JANE!!!!!!

And I knew it was true. I knew I had wronged her.  Yes, she had done something that had hurt me. But she had apologized. She had made countless efforts to make it right. And I had dismissed her.  She had deserved better from me. She had deserved for me to have a real conversation with her. She deserved better than me simply freezing her out.  We had been good friends for so long, and I had not treated her well.  And even though I had not held hard feelings towards her for several years, she had no way of knowing that.

I still put it off for a bit. I wasn’t sure what to say: “Um, you may not know this but I said I wasn’t mad and I mostly wasn’t mad but I was kind of mad and I’m really sorry that I didn’t keep you in my heart, even if you didn’t know that I wasn’t.”  I was worried I would make things worse.

Then I was getting ready to turn 40.  And I was making a list for my husband of friends to invite to my party that he might not remember.  As I put Jane’s name on the list, I wondered: “Would she know I really DID want her there??”  

It was time.

I wrote a very long, very weird message.  I explained what I had done. I told her that I didn’t have any excuses, except that grief is weird and sometimes makes no sense. I apologized that she got caught in the cross hairs of my loss.  I asked her to forgive me – all the while saying that I was EXTRA sorry if she didn’t even know what I was talking about.

But of course she did.  She had noticed – how could she not? She wrote back a long message saying how glad she was that I wrote. She apologized to me AGAIN (she really is a good friend) and, with more grace than I had shown her, forgave me.  She even forgave me considering, as I since learned, that SHE was suffering during that time with some struggles of her own, that I’m sure only felt worse when a good friend froze her out. 

And on my 40th birthday she drove 2 hours with her husband and 4 kids on a snowy Sunday afternoon to celebrate with me.  It was the highlight of my day.

What a gift at 40 to sit down with an old friend and catch up on five lost years. What a gift at 40 to remember that no door has to stay completely closed – to know that there is always time and space for new things.

It took turning 40 for me to really ask myself: “What do I need to make right?” and to be willing to do it.  It didn’t have to take that long – I could have written Jane at 36, or 37, or 38, or 39.  I’m sad I didn’t do it sooner.  But if it took turning 40 to do it, I’m glad that 40 happened.  

All of this long story is to say this: if you’re reading this, don’t wait for 40.  Or 50. Or a deathbed.  Or a crisis.  If there’s a name flashing in front of your eyes as you read this, do what you need to do.  Offer the apology.  Ask forgiveness. Make space for the new thing.

It’s such a good gift!

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Facing Forty: Yes, I Need You To Tell Me to Suck It Up

forty

In just a couple of days, I will turn the big 4-0.  As I approach this milestone, many people have asked me how I feel about it.  “Well,” I answer, “To be honest, I am pretty much freaking out.”  

Listen, I want to be able to say that I am feeling grateful and eager and confident as I start a new decade. I want to be able to write about how fortunate and blessed and happy I am (which is true) as I look back to what these last forty years have brought me.  I want to be able to celebrate and anticipate the good things still to come, because I trust that God is always doing a new thing (which is also true).  But it is also true that every time I hear about my upcoming birthday and the number that goes with it I cringe and want to put my fingers in my ears.      

I’m not okay with feeling this way. It flies in the face of everything that I value.  I believe that being an adult and gaining experience is wonderful. I find it frustrating that we live in a culture that idolizes youth, and feel that our obsession with being younger is both harmful and unnecessary. I think forty is a great age and that I should be grateful to reach it, because (as my dear sister used to say), what’s the only alternative to turning forty?…NOT turning forty.

So I need to suck it up.

And you all have my complete permission to tell me to suck it up, knock it off, and pull my crap together. I don’t need validation, sympathy or encouragement.  I need to stop believing the lies that getting older is a bad thing. I need to stop weighing myself and my accomplishments against others and some idea of what I “should have” achieved by now.  I need to see forty years as a blessing instead of a benchmark. I need to stop obsessing about the deepening wrinkle in the middle of my forehead.  

I need what I think a whole lot of us need: truth tellers.  I need people who will tell me this truth again and again – that I am as loved and valuable and whole at forty as I was at 20, 25, and 30.

That I will continue to be loved and valuable and whole with every decade I am given to live, no matter what I accomplish, create, achieve or complete.  That I don’t need Botox for my forehead wrinkle because, seriously? Get over it.   

Tell me the truth – that God has only and will ever only call me to follow Him one day, one year, one decade at a time.  That he doesn’t have a rubric for measuring how I’m doing.  That He doesn’t keep “top 40 under 40 lists,” and that He isn’t looking at the ones we make either.

Keep telling me the truth friends, and, if I whine a bit and say: “But forty!”  “But old!”  “But when did this happen?”  you also have my permission to smack me (lightly) on the side of the head.       

I’m guessing I’m not the only one that needs to remember this. I am finding myself thinking of two experiences of birthdays for me as a teenager.  The first was a game we played at sleepovers (our birthday party of choice as soon as we all turned thirteen) called the “best and worst traits” game. We would go around the room and say everyone’s best and worst trait.  (And, yes, this went about as terribly as you can imagine it would in a room full of teenage girls). Either way, we kept playing and I always got the same answers.  “Your best trait is your honesty and your worst trait is your honesty.”  What they meant by this was that I had a slight tendency to say things that did not need to be said, but that I felt obliged to say simply because they were true.  It did not always go well.  (Thank you God for giving me forgiving friends).

The second was that I always had the first birthday of the year.  I was the first of my friends to turn 13.  The first to get my license.  The first to officially reach adulthood on my 18th birthday. Now I’m the first to turn 40.  And on this occasion, I’m going to be the same Leanne I’ve been since age 13 and offer some unsolicited truth, whether you’ve asked for it or not, simply because I’m the first one to get here.

I know a whole lot of you are freaking out just as much as me.  I know we don’t know how we got here or when we suddenly became the age our parents were when they seemed so ancient. I know that on the inside we still feel like those teenagers walking down the road to the arcade on a Friday night.  I know our forehead wrinkles and grey hairs still surprise us when we look in the mirror. I know we look at our kids or our aging parents and we wish we could make time stop.  

And I know we need to suck it up.  

Our lives may not be exactly as we pictured or hoped that they would be. But we have 40 years for which to be thankful and, hopefully, many more years to come.  To all the 1978 babies out there, let us, in our 40th years be people who speak and hear THIS truth: we are loved and whole and valuable at this age, and every age to come.  Instead of lamenting 40, let’s celebrate it.  

(And if anyone tries to tell you any differently,  don’t invite them to the sleepover).

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The Grieving Woman and the Christmas Story

I remember that Christmas when what I wanted most in the whole world was to be having a baby.  We had been hoping to have children for a while, but after some tests we were waiting for an appointment with fertility specialists.  It was November when we got the news that conceiving on our own might not be possible, and I was devastated.  As Christmas got closer, the last thing I wanted to hear about was pregnancy and babies – and here we were entering a season where a story involving those exact things was all around me.  Every pregnant belly made me jealous.  Every baby in a stroller made my heart ache.  And every mention of the miracle of the baby born at Christmas made me wonder why I couldn’t have a miracle for me.  

In the end, we were one of those couples that had to cancel the appointment at the fertility clinic when we found out we were having a child.  We only knew the pain of longing for children for a short time, so I can’t pretend to understand the experience of women who have been on a longer, harder journey than me. However, that season of heartache did teach me something:   Christmas can be a painful time for women that long to hold their children and are unable to do so.  This includes women who have wanted children and not been able to conceive, those who have miscarried and those who have outlived the children they loved.  

When we read stories in the Bible, I always encourage people to look for where they see themselves in the story. But where does a woman who has had to come to terms with infertility find herself when she reads the story of Elizabeth conceiving in her old age?  Where does a woman who has miscarried see herself as she reads of a joyous birth, something she never got to experience with her baby?  Where does the grieving mother, facing the first Christmas since her child has died, find herself as she sings of “mother and child” and aches to hold her own child again?

When you feel so far from Elizabeth, from Mary, and from the joyful mothers in the Christmas story, where do you belong?  Is there a part of the story that can feel like yours? I have been reflecting on this question often this Christmas and I can’t shake the desire to share this message for those who need to hear it: broken hearted women ARE in the story. We just don’t talk about them as much.

Many of us will know the famous part of the Christmas story that says some “wise men” came to find Jesus.  Because they were looking for a king, they logically talked to the current king, Herod, about where to find the new king that had been born.  Herod’s scholars directed them to Bethlehem, where it was said the Messiah would be born, and Herod asked them to come back after they had found the child.  His intention, however, wasn’t to worship Jesus, but to kill him.  The wise men decided not to return to Herod, and when Herod realized he had been tricked, he wanted to do all he could to prevent another king from taking his place.  He ordered that all boys in Bethlehem, aged two and under, be killed.  By the time this happened, Mary and Joseph had already taken Jesus from Bethlehem, so his plan failed.  Instead, it led to the murder of completely innocent babies – babies that were loved and wanted and cherished and held and longed for by mothers who had to let them go.  The Bible describes the devastation by saying:  A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.

How great the wailing must have been.

Each time I read this story, it takes my breath away. I can hardly handle the thought of opening my door to find a soldier there to kill my child.  I can’t imagine the anguish. I can’t fathom the pain in those mamas’ hearts.

I know why we don’t dwell on this story at Christmas, but sometimes I think maybe it deserves a little more airtime.  Sometimes I think there are a lot of us who need to remember that there is sadness in the Christmas story too – that there were mothers who had their dreams shattered alongside those who had their dreams come true. The hurting women are part of the Christmas story – the ones with the empty arms and  the broken hearts.

Yes, the Christmas story is ultimately one of joy. But it never demands that those in pain be forgotten. It doesn’t sugar coat, cover up, or forget heartbreak.   We always stop the readings before we get to the awful part on Christmas Eve, but it strikes me that Scripture never left it out.  God didn’t say: “This is too sad.  It’ll bring people down.  Let’s not mention it.”  It isn’t justified or explained away. It is simply acknowledged and named and allowed to be.

I know we forget this in churches, especially at Christmas time.  We don’t always want to make space for the sad stuff, and this can make those who carry sadness feel forgotten.  For that, I am sorry, and it is why I want to say it again: if you are a grieving, hurting, longing, dream-shattered women – you belong in the story, too.  Alongside Mary and Elizabeth are the mothers who mourned. There’s space for your loss there, and there is space for you. 

When you’re ready, and when you’re able, I know you’ll see the hope in the story as well. The Christmas story shows us that the impossible can become possible through the power of God.  Your impossible may be believing that there can be joy in your life again. Have hope that Christ’s coming can make even this true.  One day.

But, this Christmas, if it’s not the day, and you are more broken than joyful – you don’t have to wait to feel you belong in the story.  You’re already here. It is, after all, for your sorrows that Christ came.