Grieving the Lasts

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Grieving the Lasts

  Years ago we read a sappy article by a mom who talked about how we document our kid’s firsts, but we never document their lasts.   One day this young mother realized she could not remember the last time she’d picked up her child and held him. There was a day somewhere in her not-so-distant past that marked the last time he’d held up his arms and she had lifted him in hers. As her child chalked up firsts worth celebrating—a new tooth or word or skill—there were also lasts for her to grieve.  And those lasts slipped by unnoticed.   When you have a mentally ill child, you notice the lasts. In fact, like a young mom who puts a sticker on a calendar or a note in a baby book, we’ve found it’s okay to document the losses by grieving them as they come. Sometimes you need an experience to experience the loss.   To date, we have sailed, skied, picnicked, and vacationed without one or two of our children. We know this is normal for families as children grow up and leave home, but our children were not missing from these family celebrations for what anyone would call a good reason. They were in treatment centers, maybe getting better at the time, maybe not. Either way, each event caused us to remember the last time they were with us, and the memory made us sad.   As you may know, when your child’s life comes to a standstill, one of the things you have to determine is what will keep moving in your own life, in your marriage, and in the rest of your family. But moving on is never the same, because he or she isn’t on the train with you. Sorrow lives in that empty space.   So where is hope in this kind of grief? Maybe the best way to answer that question is with a story.   One Thanksgiving, when our son Christopher was in a treatment facility far from home, we decided to take the whole family to him. You may know how these places operate. Lots of structure. Very little freedom. Necessary, but nothing at all like the rest of the world.   We were not allowed on the property, and he was not allowed off of it. Which meant there was a narrow margin—a literal boundary line—where we could meet him. We decided to take a family picture right there on that imaginary line. We even wore matching white shirts and khakis in hopes of getting a good shot. But it wasn’t to be. A rather fussy employee informed us this was not allowed.   We argued with her, but it was clear she would not budge. Then she was called inside to answer the phone, and we saw our chance. A portly aide walked by, and we called out to her, “Would you take a picture of us?”   “Oh, honey, of course I would,” she said, enthusiastically innocent of any clue that this was a forbidden action.   It turns out this photo is one of our all-time favorite family pictures. Unless we told you, you’d never know where it was taken. Which leads to the reason we have to hope:   This may not be good, but there’s good in it.   Mental illness isn’t good. Locking your child away because she will hurt herself if you don’t isn’t good. A string of lasts and losses in your family story is not good. But—if you look for it—there’s good in it. That’s because God has to be in it somewhere.   Romans 8:28 has new meaning for us now. We love the way the Message says it: “That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.”   We celebrated Thanksgiving standing on the boundary line between the real world and the treatment center world, and as crazy as it sounds, there was some good in that. In truth, we weren’t just standing on a patch of asphalt. We were standing, rooted if you will, on the purpose to which God has called us: “to be conformed to the image of his Son.” (Romans 8:29, ESV)   You can’t see this purpose in our photograph, but when we look at it, we know it’s there. And maybe this is where we find hope, in seeing glimpses of God’s purposes wherever we can find them. In knowing his goodness even when things are not good.    

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