Is It Possible to Stop Grieving Too Soon?

July 25, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Image Credit: Jim Jackson | License: CC-O | Used by  permission

Image Credit: Jim Jackson | License: CC-O | Used by permission

Most of us have encountered people who we thought were stuck in grief, who needed to “get over it.” [Read my thoughts on that HERE.] But what about people we think haven’t grieved enough?

Do you know someone who went through a tragic loss, but who seemed to handle it too well?

There have been times in my life and ministry when I have encountered people who worried me because they didn’t fit my expectation of what grief should look like. I concluded that they were either in denial, or suppressing their emotions, and I was worried for them.

Although it is possible for people to suppress grief, and this can cause real problems, here are a few thoughts to keep in mind before you come to that conclusion.

If a friend or family member seems “too happy” after a loss, remember:

  • If you are not seeing that person 24 hours a day, you don’t have the whole picture.
  • Some people prefer to keep their grief private.
  • Some people do not like to make others uncomfortable, and so they hide their feelings when they are with you.
  • Everybody responds differently to loss. Just because a person isn’t grieving the way you think they should, doesn’t mean they are not dealing with their loss.

When I see someone who is not grieving the way I think they should, I remind myself that I have not walked the road they’re walking, and it’s not my place to judge. My place is to love, support, and encourage.

Often the best way to do that is to go beside them and hold their hand as they walk the road of sorrow.

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A Baby Named Michelle

May 31, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

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Michelle in Baylor\’s NICU

Our daughter Michelle Lynn Pence was born on Monday June 1, 1987. She died exactly one week later, on Monday, June 8th. This would have been her 28th birthday. I am re-posting the story I wrote about our experience with Michelle both to remember her and as an encouragement to anyone who is hurting. At the moment of your deepest pain, God is there with you. — James Pence

The Sonogram

From the moment Laurel and I walked through the door of the specialist’s office, an uneasy feeling crept through my stomach. The two-hour wait did not ease my fears. Now the doctor’s apparent unwillingness to explain his findings only intensified my anguish. I would have given anything to be somewhere else that day.

How different that sonogram was from the first one. Only two weeks earlier we overflowed with joy, anticipating a brief look at our first child. We drove to the doctor’s office, hardly able to conceal our excitement. In the darkened examining room, lit only by the cool light of a monitor, the obstetrician pointed out little hands and feet on the screen. We held hands and smiled when he told us we were going to have a little girl. Then, as the doctor moved the wand around, examining every detail of our baby’s body, I noticed a small bump on the baby’s head. The doctor made no mention of it. But he had seen it too.

“It’s probably nothing,” he said later, “but I’d like you to have a high resolution sonogram anyway. Nine times out of ten, these things don’t amount to anything. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Jim, Laurel, and Michelle in Baylor NICU

Jim, Laurel, and Michelle in Baylor NICU

Despite his reassuring words, when we left his office, our eagerness as new parents had evaporated. Only a gnawing fear remained. Perhaps the perfect child we prayed for might not be so perfect after all.

Changed Perspective

It’s funny how circumstances change your perspective. Before the sonogram, when someone asked us whether we wanted a boy or a girl, we’d say, “It doesn’t matter. All we want is a healthy baby.” We didn’t think that was too much to ask. But over the two weeks between the first and second sonograms, a transformation began to take place. I entered into that period hoping for a perfect child. Now I had to deal with the very real possibility that our baby might have some kind of
disability.

Laurel, a registered nurse, has a medical library. During my private

Laurel and Michelle in Baylor's NICU

Laurel and Michelle / Baylor NICU

moments I would take her books down from the shelf and look up all the possible problems our baby could have, based on the little I knew. Hydrocephalus, spina bifida, meningocele, and other afflictions filled my head like unwelcome house guests who don’t know when to leave. I wanted to get rid of them, but I couldn’t. Instead,one by one I grappled with each and gave it to the Lord. By the time the two weeks of waiting ended, I had prepared myself for anything—I thought.

After the second sonogram, Laurel and I strolled through a nearby shopping mall. The uneasiness that had begun at the specialist’s office intensified. The doctor had
been too evasive.

Jim's parents holding Michelle

Jim’s parents holding Michelle

He had pointed out some obvious problems during the exam. The baby had a duodenal atresia, an intestinal problem that would require surgery. But every time
we asked him to tell us if our baby would be all right, he would dodge our questions. “I have to go home and put all this data in my computer. I can’t tell you anything until it is all analyzed.”

The answer sounded authoritative enough. Why didn’t I believe him?

We returned home and tried to resume some sort of routine. The next

Laurel's mother & Michelle

Laurel’s mother & Michelle

day, I went to the church, spread out my commentaries and pretended to study for Sunday’s message. I stared at the books for hours, seeing words and comprehending nothing. Then the church phone rang. It was Laurel. I could tell that she’d been crying.

“What’s wrong,” I asked. “Did the doctor call?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Is everything all right?”

“Not really.”

“I’ll be right home.”

I rushed to my car and drove home like an ambulance driver on a call. I burst through the front door to find Laurel sitting on the sofa with a box of tissues. She didn’t have to say a word.

The news was bad.

“The baby’s going to die,” she said. “The doctor says that when she’s born she won’t be able to do anything at all. She probably won’t even live for a few hours.”

Laurel's father & Michelle

Laurel’s father & Michelle

Later we learned that a genetic flaw had caused multiple birth defects. I sat down beside my wife and melted into tears. I wasn’t ready for this. I had prepared myself for every eventuality but the worst. The reality sank in quickly. Not only would our baby die, but for the next sixteen weeks Laurel would carry a child who had no chance of surviving.

Questions and Struggles

Questions began to flood my mind. How could God allow this to happen? How could we face the loss of a child and still glorify Him? How could I as a pastor tell people about God’s goodness when I wasn’t even sure of it myself anymore? Joining hands, we approached His presence. Through my tears, I prayed, “Lord, you’ve asked us to walk this road. Please give us the grace to do it. Please get us through this.”

For the next four months we tried to forget the inevitable. Even though we had committed our way to the Lord, we still struggled. We struggled with well-meaning

Laurel and Michelle at Home

Laurel and Michelle at Home

strangers who would walk up and congratulate us, asking us what we planned to name the child or whether we wanted a boy or girl. Grief stabbed at us every time the baby kicked. With saddened hearts we continued our weekly childbirth classes, preparing for a new life that would never be. We struggled with friends who made well-intentioned but thoughtless statements like, “You’re young. You can have another baby.” We endured the dull ache of a grief process we could not close.

Then came the night when Laurel felt the first contractions. At eight the next morning we packed up our things and headed for the hospital. We checked into the hospital and were ushered into a labor room, like any other new parents. In the labor room, we realized we had never chosen a name for our daughter. We decided to name her Michelle Lynn.

When she was born at 7:06 p.m. on Monday, June 1, we stole a brief glimpse as the nurses rushed her into the neonatal ICU. She was tiny—only three pounds. But she was our baby. Later we visited her and marveled at how tiny she was. She looked like a china doll, her little body dwarfed by the respirator and other equipment. We had requested that her organs be donated, if possible. So, the doctors had connected her to a respirator to preserve them.

When the doctors determined that Michelle’s organs were too small and damaged to be used for transplant, they weaned her off the respirator and the grim wait began. I jumped every time the telephone rang in Laurel’s hospital room, relaxing only when the expected news did not come. After two days, Michelle was still breathing and showed no signs of weakening. Laurel said, “I’d like to take her home.”

Going Home

I expected resistance from the doctors, but they supported us. They made arrangements with a home health service and on Thursday afternoon a caravan of cars left the hospital. Michelle was coming home!

Our home NICU

Our home NICU

Our little daughter required twenty-four hour care. Because she was unable to regulate her own body temperature, we kept her wrapped in blankets. An intravenous drip provided the fluids she could not take in on her own. Laurel’s parents stayed with us and we each took shifts caring for Michelle, holding and rocking a heavily blanketed baby in the sweltering June heat. For four days we held, cared for and cuddled this little child who couldn’t even respond to us. Her eyes never opened except for a startled blink at the flash of a camera. She never cried, never made a sound.

Quickly our home version of ICU became a routine. Friends from the church brought food. Daily visits from the home health nurse brought supplies and encouragement. Laurel’s mother, also an RN, added a touch of both grandmotherly and professional care. But in the midst of the frenetic activity, I still sensed a cloud hanging over me.

Although I was glad to have Michelle home, I dreaded what I knew was coming. I didn’t know how soon it would happen, but I knew she was going to die. What would it be like? I didn’t know what to expect and I was afraid. I dreaded being there when it happened; I was also afraid that I wouldn’t there.

“Lord, give me the grace to face that moment,” I prayed.

Not only did God give the grace, but He orchestrated Michelle’s
home-going and held our hands through every step.

The moment came at lunchtime on Monday, June 8th, exactly one week after Michelle had been born. Early that Monday morning, her IV had infiltrated and
the home health nurse came to our house to restart it. We laid Michelle on the dining room table to give the nurse a better working space. She got the IV going again and then went on to her other patients. As Laurel’s mother prepared lunch, we kept Michelle on the table. For the first time since we had brought her home, Michelle’s mommy and daddy sat together, holding her hands.

Daddy, Mommy, and baby

Daddy, Mommy, and baby

Then quietly, as the clatter of dishes colored the background, Michelle quietly stopped breathing. I took Laurel’s hand, drawing her away from the conversation.

“I think she’s gone,” I said, my voice breaking.

Laurel looked at her, then back at me and nodded.

The flood of tears I had held back for four months finally came. It was over. I heard the voice of my father-in-law in the background, offering a halting prayer of thanksgiving.

Michelle had gone home.

How can I glorify God after losing a child? How can I tell people about God’s goodness?

I can speak of God’s grace and how it was always sufficient for us—even in the hardest times. I can praise him for orchestrating the moment of Michelle’s death so that both Laurel and I could be with her, even holding her hand. I can glorify him for the countless doors of ministry he’s opened since that time, allowing us to encourage others who are going through similar experiences. I can thank him for seven unforgettable days with an exceptional child. I can worship him because he truly is in control. And all things do work together for good to those who love him.

When Jonathan Edwards, the great pastor and theologian, died unexpectedly due to complications from a smallpox vaccination, his wife Sarah wrote these words, “What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands on our mouths! The Lord has done it. . .. But my God lives; and he has my heart. We are all given to God.”

We, likewise, are given to God. We rarely understand His work while it is in
progress. That is why we must fall back on Scripture and realize that God is at work for our good in all things.

Whatever happens, we must be willing to trust Him every step of the way. That is the only way we can find meaning in what often seems futile. To many people, Michelle’s short life may appear meaningless.

Our sweet daughter

Michelle Lynn Pence 6/1/87 – 6/8/87

To us, it overflows with meaning. And, while it is not a road we would have chosen to walk, God walked with us.

And a baby named Michelle changed our lives forever.

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Why Blog about Suffering?

November 25, 2014 by · 2 Comments 

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Suffering is not a pleasant topic. So why am I blogging about it?

©Photographee_eu - Fotolia.com

Image credit: ©Photographee_eu – Fotolia.com

The short answer is that my pastor asked me to help him with an upcoming sermon series on suffering. In preparation for that, I’m going to be exploring my thoughts on the subject here on my blog. So for the next few months, I’ll try to post somewhat regularly on suffering and how we as Christians should understand and relate to it. I don’t expect that there will be any logical progression to these posts. Rather, they’ll mostly be reflections and musings.

I lay no claim to superior wisdom or understanding. In fact, the longer I live, the more I realize how little I know, especially about this subject. Yet, for some reason that I don’t fully understand, much of my writing over the years has dealt with suffering and pain.

I became a writer because of my own loss. My daughter, Michelle, died when she was only one week old. It remains one of the most difficult times in my life. Yet it also was, I believe, a watershed moment. As my wife and I passed through our grief and pain, I told myself that someday I would write a book about our experience. I never wrote that book, but our loss set me on the path to becoming a writer.

My novel Unseen (originally titled Blind Sight) focused on a pastor who had lost his wife and family in an automobile accident that he caused. In that novel, my character struggled deeply with God’s goodness in the midst of his pain. He asked the question that comes up so often. “How could a good God allow this to happen?” It’s a question I’ve asked a lot, too.

A few years later, I wrote  Mercy Killer (originally titled The Angel) looked at life, death, and suffering through the eyes of a police detective stricken with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). In that novel I explored the question of when or if it is acceptable to end one’s own life. As recent events in the news have shown, there are rarely easy or pat answers to such questions.

A few years later, my path crossed that of Terry Caffey, a man who lost his wife and two sons to murder and then learned that his sixteen-year-old daughter (my daughter’s good friend) was involved in the murder plot. Through a set of circumstances that are at least amazing and at most miraculous, I ended up helping Terry write a book about his loss and about how God helped him to forgive his daughter and the other three people who were involved in killing his family. That book, Terror by Night, was my second “watershed” moment. In the years since then, my writing projects have mostly been with and about people who have gone through serious tragedies and crises. I’m sure I’ll discuss some of those in the coming weeks.

If I’ve learned anything from life, it is that suffering is inevitable and inescapable. Everybody suffers to one degree or another. Everyone experiences tragedy. The only variables are how often, how long, and how severe. And yet, at least in my experience, there is reason for hope. God is touched by our grief and longs to heal us.
As I said, I have far more questions than I do answers. But I hope you’ll go on this journey with me and hold my hand as we walk dark paths together in search of God’s light.

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