Surviving the RIP currents of grief

Walking along the shore in Oceanside California yesterday I noticed a warning sign about rip tides. Being from Michigan I am familiar with these signs because Lake Michigan has dangerous rip currents as well that swimmers must be wary of.

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Fortunately, I have never experienced getting caught in these currents that can kill. They are survivable if a person knows what to do when caught by the unexpected pull into the abyss.

I stepped into the warm Pacific beach sand, set up my beach chair, cracked open an Aquafina and plopped my butt down for some beautiful  California sunshine. It wasn’t long till we left our chairs and waded into the water for a cool down. There were no visible rip currents where we were but the force and power of the water was very evident.

I struggle with grief related depression. Standing waist deep in the cool salt water I felt the strong push and pull of the Pacific and thought of the similarities between rip tides and grief. Escaping and surviving a rip current and surviving grief are very much the same.

The Pull

Grief, like the rip current, has an incredibly strong and visible pull that transports its hostage out into the deep. The victim can see the shore and all the happy beach goers as they struggle alone against the unstoppable force. Very quickly your treading water and it’s over your head, fear takes hold and there is no lifeguard on duty to help us in our distress. Or is there?

Remembering the sign

The beach sign gave instructions on what to do when caught in a rip current. Step one said to identify the current and step two was to exit the shallow water before it pulls you out over your waist. The rip current of grief is sometimes visible, you see it coming, and other times it is sudden and unexpected and catches you off guard. There are times you can walk out of it quickly and many other times you cannot.

Step three tells the victim to remain calm and to conserve your energy. Grief can be so exhausting and it is important to weather the storm, find your peace, and keep your head above the water. Grief has taken me to places I never wanted to go but fighting the current is futile and potentially fatal. Its important to keep your head in a rip current and during grief.

There are times that I have felt like I was going down for the third and final time but I remembered the sign once again. Step four (if you are a poor swimmer) is to wave your arms and call out for help. Hurting people need helping people. We need people to talk to and people to listen to our heart. We need people to laugh with and a shoulder to cry on. We need friends and family, pastors and counselors. We need our spouses and we need to wave our arms and to cry out from time to time. Mostly importantly we need God and to call out to him. Grief should never be done alone.

Step five says to swim parallel to the shore and out of the current. Grief is hard work I have found, and it takes much effort to swim out of it. There have been times where I was just treading water and stuck in my grief. Simply put, without effort there is no progress to the shore I needed to get back to. It is tiresome and when I get exhausted by grief I remember the sign again and step six which says, conserve energy, float and relax. I have done this very often over the last four years. It is a vitally important part of getting back to the place you need to be. I never feel guilty about escaping and getting away from it all, it is a necessary part of the healing process.

Finally, step seven says to swim vertically towards the beach. With every stroke I have found that I am nearer to solid ground. Thankfully I am not where I was, I can see the shore, the pull is gone and I can feel the sand in my toes once again.

Back on the beach

Losing a child is undoubtably the worst kind of grief any person can endure. I wish I could say that the experience in the rip current was just one go around and your done but it’s not. I have found that I get back to the beach and get on with life but the cycle of grief continues. I wade out, I loose my footing, I feel the pull and I get in over my head again and again. I remember the routine and what to do. Thankfully the rip currents aren’t as often as before nor do they seem to be as strong but I do enter them nonetheless.

The lifeguard is always on duty

I can’t imagine navigating the rip currents of grief without a rescuer on watch. The Apostle Peter walked on water when Jesus called him out of the boat but Peter looked away from the Lord at the storm and he began to sink. In fear he cried out these comforting words, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”(Matthew 14:30-32 ESV) 

The Lifeguard is always on duty and has never lost a soul yet.

I doubt, I have weak faith at times. Despite this I have discovered the continual presence of my lifeguard Jesus in the rip currents of my life. He was there the whole time, he never left me and he has not forsaken me. For this I give him thanks.

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The monkey whisperer

I usually begin to write when grief teaches me something. When the keyboard is clicking grief has had something to say to me. The quiet time between blog posts is a measuring stick of progress I suppose. I am healing and the gaps seem to get wider between the times I feel compelled to write.

Grief has been not been silent however, she gets my attention every day but not in ways that are as abrupt, harsh and cruel as in times past.

It takes a long time to accept and adapt to life after the death of a child. Some people seemingly never adapt or recover I have observed, sadly, some are drowned and destroyed. My wife and I have found that adapting, moving, and getting on with life is a necessary and often painful part of the process. Getting stuck in grief is easy to do, it often feels like you are wading through chest deep muck in water filled waders. Yet we press on.

Grief has not been silent, she whispers daily to me. She teaches me new things and has shown me something recently that got the keyboard keys tapping again. I feel free. Not free from grief, but free of the heavy shoes that weigh me down and slow my healing. I am walking with it better now. Time does not heal this wound however, there is always a limp, a stone in my shoe per-se, and the need for a walking stick to catch me from falling. I no longer feel like there is a gorilla on my back, just a nagging monkey on my shoulder who pulls at my heart from time to time.

I walked the shores in Angoon Alaska 3 years ago with that gorilla on my back. This August I returned and walked those same shores and was free from that weight but not entirely. How I wish I could have walked this beach with my son the monkey whispered. My heart sank as my feet stuck in the tidal flat that morning. Soon I was free from the pain, removed the stone from my boot and was on my way once again. And so it goes for me. I am walking free but with a noticeable limp.

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I went to sit with Jacob the other day. I sat there and talked to him and talked with God on the small stone bench opposite of his headstone. I wet the ground again at the resting place of my son and mother-in-law and thought of the strange path my life has taken in the last three and a half years. So much has changed in my life, virtually nothing is the same. I said goodbye to my son and told him we are going to California for the winter. The monkey hopped on my shoulder as I walked away from the cemetery and whispered in my ear, “I am going with you.”

“Yes”, I whispered back, “And I will carry Jacob with me in my heart.”

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Purpose in the pain

The following is something I wrote a few short months after my son Jacob died. My hope is that it may help you better understand the purposes of God in the midst of pain.

Better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all men; and the living will take it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by a sad countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. (Ecclesiastes 7:2-4)

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Last October Stacey and I celebrated our 25th anniversary by going to Mexico. Our time there was memorable and filled with exciting, new, and fun things to enjoy. Six months passed by and we found ourselves in a funeral home preparing to say goodbye to our beloved son Jacob. Which experience would you say is better? Here the preacher says something contrary to human understanding saying it is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting. Why? Because the character of God is learned many times through hardship and less frequently through times of laughter. Therefore the house of mourning is found to be better because it is there that we discover who our God is.

The Christian life is full of growing pangs that we would never have chosen for ourselves, but God is working in us to mature us though various trials he has chosen. We experience the fruit of joy which the Holy Spirit produces as we suffer in the many hardships we endure. This joy is obviously not based in our circumstances but in the comforting fact that God is at work in our lives to sculpt his masterpiece. “My brethren count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. (James 1:2-4)

A test may be grieving you, the circumstances may be grim but our steadfast endurance in the pain produces the fruit that God desires in us. The desired goal of God is that we be perfectly matured and fully equipped for Christian living through the trial. Did you notice James says we need to let patience do the work which God desires to accomplish?Does this mean we can resist the work of God and stunt our spiritual growth? I believe it does. God wants us to stop being children (1 Peter 2:2) and to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 3:18)

There are three levels of Christian maturity. Children understand the basic truth that they have been forgiven. Children develop into strong young men by having the word of God dwelling in them and overcoming the wicked one. Young men grow into fathers by life experiences that reveal the character of God described on the pages of scripture. In all this maturing God uses trials along the way so in the end we can say with John, “I write unto you fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning.” (1 John 2:12-14) We move from reading the book about God to knowing the God of the book though our pilgrimage of pain.

I can honestly say that there was very little I learned about God when I went to Mexico. I resided in the house of laughter and my spiritual growth was at best was in neutral. We came home to that long hard winter which ended in the worst day of our lives on March 26th; we entered into the better place of sorrow. How is it better? In all the sorrow, pain and grief we find God, he is the brightest in the darkest of times. He reveals himself in ways that the happy times could never have taught us.

What was the first lesson I learned in the house of mourning? What was the first lesson in the classroom of spiritual maturity for me? Lesson number one for me was a lesson on grace. Being in a helpless and seemingly hopeless place I learned though suffering that, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9) In the weakest moment of my life Christ poured out his grace and showed himself strong. He is the God of all grace and he has plenty to in reserve for your many afflictions in life too. Allow God to refine you in your house of mourning, there is grace for you in your time of great need. (Heb. 4:16)

As sorrowful; yet always rejoicing (2 Cor. 6:10)

God bless, Mike.

Getting off the round about

4 years have passed since 4 family deaths started my wife and I on an unexpected journey with grief. I wish this journey had a final destination where I could get off this damn bus and let out a sigh of relief from the exhausting trip. However, I have discovered the longer I travel this road that there is no ending to this trip and sometimes you get stuck driving in circles in a round about.

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Grief comes to me (us) often and stings in ways we aren’t prepared for. 3 years post-mortem of Jacob and we are still getting our butts kicked by unexpected things in our pathway. I am not driving this bus, so I have no control of where it is taking us and where our stops will occur. One thing I have noticed recently is that the ride seems to be circular and and repetative. This week I was reminded that moving forward in grief requires more than one oar in the water.

There were some unexpected stops this past week for us. Sometimes you just gaze out the window, remain in your seat, ignore the door and wait for the bus to get rolling again. Sometimes it just easier to close your eyes and wait for a change of scenery and hope for a sunnier place.

I thought I was doing pretty good on this trip. I am an open kind of guy, I talk about my grief and I even blog my feelings and experiences for everyone to read. Then I saw myself clearly for the first time in a long time this week and it set me back it my seat. I was like, Ohhhh, yeah, that is how I have been responding to grief since this trip began.

On this grief bus you can run but there is no place to hide. You can close your eyes tight and wish it away, you can check out any time you like but you can never leave. There are many expected and unexpected triggers over the years that have troubled me to which I have had a standard response. The pain comes, anxiety intensifies my grief, I withdraw and seek out a quiet place on the bus until the pain subsides. I knew this was my pattern and I didn’t see it as a problem until recently when I was asked, “Why is this your response to the pain?” and, “What are you running from?” Those were probing questions which I could not answer and honestly have yet to answer.

I can’t get off the bus but I have asked the driver to get off this roundabout because I’m ready for a change of scenery. I trust that my compassionate God will hear that prayer and merge the bus on a straight path to new and pleasant places.

I guess running, hiding and withdrawing are no remedies for grief. I thought I had a handle on this crap but the more I ride this bus the more I realize I am kidding myself. I need to stretch my legs and go to the part of the bus where they offer help for the weary travelers. The bus has been running in circles and I just noticed that I have been on a round about for some time now.

The wheels on the bus go round and round. I am on the bus for life but it is up to me to change my seat if I don’t like the one I am sitting in. There are people on the bus who can help me if I willing to move from my place.

I guess it’s time to change my seat.
 

 

 

 

 

A comforting sign

It is Easter Sunday morning and I have been awake since 4:30. I sip on my coffee in the silence with this Mac on my lap as I listen to a robin sing outside my window. I ponder what life would be like if the birds hushed their singing. What a wonderful grace this is from God that the silence was broken by the melody and harmony of his creation. The wind, the waves, the songbirds and the sound of rain on my roof all speak of the gracious Creator who reveals himself even in the sounds which we often ignore.

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I am not a sign seeker. God is everywhere and I don’t need something miraculous to affirm that he is, I need only to look and listen to my surroundings to be assured of his presence. Yet, some weeks back, just before the three-year anniversary date of the death of my son I whispered a prayer to God. I asked him to give me peace again and assurance that Jacob with him in his presence. I asked for a comfort and to do something to give me peace.

I kind of had forgotten the prayer until some other things happened. I wouldn’t call it a sign, it was just an answered prayer from God to comfort my sometimes troubled heart.

I need to fill you in on some background before I tell you what happened.

Let not your heart be troubled

The words of Jesus in John 14:1-3 were written on the heart of my son and Jacob could quote them when he was a young boy.  They read as follows, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. (John 14:1-3)

On the headstone where Jacob rests are engraved the first six words of these verses. These words that came from Jesus and were etched in the heart of my son. We had them engraved in marble that we might never forget the promise of heaven and a family reunion.

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My wife Stacey found these words so comforting that she had them put on her arm. In memory of the promise of Jesus and in memory of our beloved son she had this tattoo done shortly after his death.

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So, March 26th came and it happened to be on a Sunday this year. We went to Eden Bible Church and sat in the seats we have been sitting in for years. The service began and I got a light elbow to the ribs as Stacey leaned over and whispered, “Did you notice this?” She handed me the church bulletin and you guessed it, our verses were right there on the front for us to take comfort in. Three years to the day of Jacob’s passing this was the bulletin we were handed.

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I had kind of forgotten the prayer I made to God. Sunday passed and my dad and I were having breakfast at Ursa Major on Thursday morning and our conversation triggered my memory of the prayer I had made. I told him about the prayer and the church bulletin and asked, “Do you think God used this to answer my prayer for comfort?” My dad believed he did and I do as well. Irony? I dont think so. A sign? Perhaps.

Here’s your sign

Today is Easter. This is the best day of all Christian celebrations because it is this resurrection day that stills my heart and says, “Let not your heart be troubled.”

I don’t need nor do I seek a signs from my son. But God in his grace to me has assured my heart once again by answering a prayer in a most ordinary but immensely comforting way and for that I thank him. It was like he was saying to me, “Here’s what you prayed for, let not your heart be troubled.”

Today I celebrate the greatest day in human history. Jesus promised to give the world a sign that he is God by walking out of his grave after three days. He conquered death and by faith in him I have been given life and my heart is not troubled. He has prepared a place for Jacob and he is preparing a place for me, he has promised to come for me so that where he is I will someday be also.

There is only one sign and only one faith that points to heaven and that sign is the resurrection of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Good Friday has passed Jesus is alive; There’s your sign!

“Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:38-40)

Happy Easter my friends!

 

Change: Diminishing grief the hard way

Change. Life is always changing, so much has changed for us that sometimes I can’t believe this is now our life. Three years ago I was on cruise control on life’s highway without a care in the world. The top was down, the sun was shining, the road was smooth with no twists, no turns, no exits and rarely a lane change.

We didn’t see the detour sign and didn’t know that the bridge was out. We drove right off the mighty Mackinac bridge feeling the sudden impact, the continual cold waves, and the shock of all that happened to our family in such a short amount of time. Change. Death changed everything in life. Our life has changed so much in the last three years that Stacey and I have often found ourselves saying to each other, “I can’t believe that this is our life!” It was very surreal at first but reality has now set in and we have evolved and changed with all the changes death brought to us.

Change. Losing a child changes everything in life and I have found that the only handbook on how to navigate the new world we have entered into is the bible. When I say that death changes everything that is exactly what I mean; nothing is the same nor will it ever be the same. It changed my perspective on the world, I don’t think like I used to nor do I respond to life like I used to. Death changed my faith, my marriage, my family, my plans in life, it has altered every aspect of living.

I guess if there is any counsel I could give to a parent who has just lost a child it would be to buckle up and brace yourself for change. I would also encourage them to not be afraid of making choices for change that will help with the grieving process. I have discovered by experience that grief can be diminished by doing the difficult things.

Change. We can only play the cards we are dealt and I will confess there are times I have wanted to fold and quit the game. In the beginning of the game it felt like I would never get a good hand dealt to me but cards always change and good fortune did come.

Though death did change everything without our consent there are choices for changes we have made to make our journey somewhat smoother again. They haven’t always been easy choices  but I have found healing in the difficult decisions. Death changed everything but we made difficult choices to change and adjust our lives to our new paradigm.

Grief can bring you to a standstill in life. Change has come and we have found that we must change to avoid getting stuck in our grief. The difficult thing with change and moving forward is that it hurts most of the time. Grief therapy and physical therapy are somewhat similar. We must make the choice to go to our appointments, make a choice to do the tough stuff and expect that after the uncomfortable pain has passed there will be healing in the end.

Change. We didn’t choose this pathway but we can choose the path to better places. I have learned that making changes are difficult and downright painful at times but the benefits are worth it. Somebody once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I have chosen to change with all the changes that have come my way and expect a different outcome. It hasn’t always been easy, it hasn’t been always comfortable. I have learned that changes hurt sometimes, (heck, most of the time) but found that in grief the old wrestling adage applies very well. “No pain, no gain!”

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During my years of wrestling with Jacob I have been confronted by huge life changes that I didn’t sign up for. In that time I have made small and large changes to move forward in the healing process. Life is always in flux but for me there is a great comfort that I hold to that never changes. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8) With all the changes in life he is the rock I stand on that never moves and in that I take great comfort.

Though He causes grief, Yet He will show compassion. According to the multitude of His mercies. (Lamentations 3:32) 

 

 

Never Forgotten

Remembering

When I was younger I never gave thought to my legacy and how I would be remembered after death. Now that I am beyond mid-life I think of it quite often and am reminded that each day I live is a day that might be shared in my eulogy.

We want to remember the lives of those we love and we do many things so that they might not be forgotten. This week I will transplant Jacob’s memorial tree from our old house to our new home.

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Jacob’s tree

Last week I had a memorial tattoo put on my right arm of a sticky note that Jake secretly placed in my bible. People have memorial events, establish memorial scholarships and give donations to charities in the name of the ones they love. All of this is good and comforting to do because we never want to forget nor do any of us want to be forgotten.

I visit the graveyard where my son and other loved ones lay in rest for the great day of Christ’s return (John 14:1-6). I remember their lives, I walk around and I see the names of many unknown and forgotten people. There are people who have been resting there for over a hundred fifty years and I ponder who they were and does anybody remember their life? Unless you made a huge dent in human history it is likely that people will forget all about us after about 3 or 4 generations. My life is a vapor, I am here today and gone tomorrow (James 4:14). The most I can hope for is that I leave something behind for this generation and the next that was meaningful and eternally significant.

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Rewarding

 I expect to be forgotten and I am just fine with riding into the sunset and disappearing like a morning mist. Perhaps in a hundred fifty years somebody will look at my headstone and wonder, “Who was this Mike Fekete and what was his life like?” I am OK with that but what I am not OK with is to be eternally forgotten by my eternal God. Thankfully, with God, there is a legacy believers are currently living in this life that will never be forgotten and better yet will be rewarded by him. “For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister.” (Hebrews 6:10) Let us not forget that when we love and serve our Christian brothers we love and serve our Lord. Let us work, let us labor in love, let us persevere to the end for the name of Jesus. FullSizeRender-9

Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith. (Galatians 6:10)

In ancient temples the wealthy memorialized people by purchasing a marble pillar in the name of the deceased. Jesus knew this and said to the church, “He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God. And I will write on him My new name.” (Revelation 3:12) Those who overcome are never forgotten and always rewarded by Jesus. When we honor him on earth he promises to honor us in paradise.