Learning contentment during the holiday season

Stacey and I sat on our deck in late August of 2015 eating dinner. I pushed my food around the plate looking for the words to say that had been on my heart. I sipped on my iced tea and said, “I have been thinking it might be time to sell the house.” She replied, “Funny, I have been thinking the same thing.”IMG_1164

The death of our son Jacob on March 26th 2014 set us on a course in life that we likely would never had chosen otherwise. We sold, I retired at 49 with 30 years of public school employment. Our nest emptied, the kids got married and we currently have no grandchildren. Stacey quit her job and signed on to become a travel nurse. We left Michigan for southern California on September 18th to work for the winter.

We left our friends, our family, our jobs and all that was normal in our lives. Life has taken such a dramatic turn for us since the four deaths in our family. Stacey’s mother died suddenly 7 weeks after Jacob, her death forever changed the dynamic of the holiday season for us.

It is this time of year that our life changes become most glaring and difficult. It is hard to watch families during the holidays because those times have been taken from us. Traditions ended abruptly in 2014 and there haven’t been any new and lasting traditions established since then.

We have no Thanksgiving plans, no plans for Christmas and no plans for New Year Eve. Please, I am not looking for pity but painting a picture of the reality of life during the holidays for many people. It is easy to become depressed and discontent at this time of year.

Thankfully, we have our kids coming to be with us for a week in early December. So stoked about that!

We are doing well. God is gracious. We lack nothing and yet we are having to learn how to be content with the things we no longer have. Things that are forever lost in time and will never be restored. Thanksgiving Day football, deer hunting, food and card playing till midnight. Christmas Eve at grandmas for dinner and opening of gifts. Sharing in a large family circle giving thanks to God. Christmas morning with the kids and Stacey’s annual breakfast with my in-laws. Bowl games, cards games and good times on New Years Eve. All these frozen images in time, they are gone, and we must now learn contentment with the way things are.

Yes, it is difficult to watch families enjoy what has been taken from us at least for the moment. We are not jealous nor envious of others but it hurts to watch just the same. We are content with the things we have and are learning to be content with the things that have been taken away.

In all of this I have found strength and encouragement for coming holidays in the words of scripture. The incarnate One is with me and I am content with him and his promises.

Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you. So we may boldly say:

“The Lord is my helper;
I will not fear.
What can man do to me?”

Hebrews 13:5-6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Better not bitter

I met a man who is a member of “the club” on a Monday not long ago. His name is Leroy and his membership began the day before his son turned 21. Leroy’s son John was murdered in 1995. We shared our stories without shame of tears in an empty laundry room for about thirty minutes. There was an immediate bond between us, an understanding that only a father or mother in the club can know.

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The lives of all parents that have lost children are segmented into life before and after death. And so our stories went in the conversation. I loaded the washer and listened to my new friend describe his pain, his anger, desperation and the hopelessness he wrestled with after his son died. He then shared how all that changed through his faith and love for God.

Our stories are very different but very similar at the same time. Like a two-track through a dark woods our paths run side by side headed in the same direction. We spoke of our paths of hope and how terrible pain pressed us both into a deeper faith in God. Of course, this isn’t always the case with bereaved people, it can go quite the opposite way in fact. I agreed and mentioned to him what the preacher said in his sermon the day before.

“Everyone will suffer in this life” the preacher said, “and how we respond to it will either makes us bitter or better.” He went on to say that the difference between the words better and bitter is simply the letter I in the middle. When suffering becomes I centered bitterness can overtake us.

Leroy described in detail his bitter anger and hopelessness in the early days of his grief. But all that changed for him in time. He went on and spoke of how God has used the death to shape him into someone much different and better than before. I can relate, and so can everybody else who loves God in the midst of suffering.

All things, good and bad, have a definite, useful, and good purpose in the life of a Christian. Who is a Christian? We are those who love God and love his Son Jesus Christ. The believer understands that suffering is used to shape us into something good. Someone better. Someone beautiful.

“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” Romans 8:28

All things really do happen for a reason but this promise is only for a believer. The good purpose of God is to use everything in shaping those who love him into looking like his Son. “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.” Romans 8:29 

I suppose suffering can push those who hate God to confusion, despair and hopelessness. But for Leroy and I we spoke of our love for God and his love towards us. Without a doubt the murder of John and the overdose of Jacob were the most terrible events in our lives. Have those events made us bitter or better? We only spoke of the good intentions of a loving God in our shared stories. There are only happily ever afters for those who love God. God is making us better.

The purposeful good end of all things for those who love God is that he shapes us into the image of Jesus on his potter’s wheel. Someday the shaping will be complete and I will in my flesh behold the face of God. 

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” 1 John 3:2

What a beautiful and meaningful ending to our journeys with suffering and pain.

I am better not bitter.

 

A parental view on pain management

My son Jacob Michael Fekete died of an opiate prescription drug overdose on March 26th, 2014. He was 22. The epidemic is a topic I have not written on or discussed very often. But today is different, I feel compelled given President Trump’s declaration about the national heath emergency on opiate addiction.

Unbeknownst to my wife and I Jacob’s addiction began at 16 after having 2 medical procedures. The roots of addiction grew from there on this naive small town parent. By the time he had finished his second year in college Jacob got clean on his own. We learned of the depth of his problem after he came home for the summer between his sophomore and junior year. He opened up to us, confessed his addiction and made peace with his conscience. We were there to lovingly guide him through the summer and beyond but we were always concerned about a relapse.

Jacob chose not to return to Grand Valley State University that fall and opted to enroll in the Maritime Academy in Traverse City Michigan. IMG_0653Things were going well for him there and he was about a year away from completing the program. He lived with us at home and the signs of drug use were not evident, at least not to my wife and I. We were taken off guard, shocked beyond measure because we didn’t see the signs that accompany drug use.

Jacob relapsed during a particularly stressful time in his life. I said good night to him on the 25th of March and Stacey would discover him on the basement floor the following morning. All this only ten months after Jacob’s first cousin Justin Smith died of a heroin overdose. Justins drug dealer now sits in prison.

I don’t know where Jake got the drugs. His death was big news in our small community (as was Justins) and I am sure the dealer knows of his demise. A prisoner of his tormented conscience I have often hoped. I feel no anger towards whomever gave him the drugs that would take his life. Jake did something stupid, it was his choice. We live with those choices but I know he never would wish on us any of the pain we have endured. He loved us.

When I think of drug dealers I rarely envision a thug. I see a professional in a white overcoat with a dignified MD after his name. I recall people speaking the name of a local physician as a pill pusher and snicker about it. It was common knowledge in my community whom to visit if you wanted opiates for pain management. These are the dignified dealers who should be prosecuted in my view. Medical doctors who have betrayed their oaths and hurt their patients and communities, all behind a professional veil.

I guess if I could give advice to parents it would be the following. If your kid has real need of pain control you need to take control of their pain management. Life is full of pain, surgery recovery hurts. Let them feel some pain, use the Tylenol, be careful with the opiates. Keep track of what is used, keep it in a secure location and discard of all unused scripts as directed. It might just save you and your kid a whole lot of deeper pain in the future.

There is no deeper pain than losing a child and there is no pain reliever for those who have suffered the loss. Only time can dull the sharp edge of grief but the ache never goes away. I live with pain and manage it the best I can. One day at a time and presciption free.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remembering Jake

Jacob was born March 3rd 1992. A chubby and content newborn, nearly ten pounds who could have won a cute baby contest. Soon he was sitting up, soon he was walking, soon he was dressed for his first day of kindergarten. Not long after we were attending football games, wrestling matches, choir concerts and high school graduation.

Birthdays, Christmas, vacations, and Sunday afternoon dinners with the entire family have vanished. All that remains are these snapshots of his life. Just frozen images of places, times, and events but not much more. His life doesn’t run like a movie in my mind. There are only clips and screenshots, bits and pieces that flash in my memory.

Sometimes Facebook jars my memory and I recover a forgotten snapshot in time.

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I can’t remember. I want to remember but it seems most of the files have been deleted. They are scattered, unrecoverable and taken away like leaves with the cool winds of fall. There are a few leaves left behind that the late October wind left behind. I hear his voice and the garbled laugh of his great-grandmother. I see his thin-lipped crooked smile and clips of his maturing face as he grew from a boy into a man.

There are other memories that exist in a firesafe box in the basement. They are digital memories on discs and VHS tapes. The box has not been opened. The digital images remain in darkness, unseen but available. I have not come to the place where I can open the box, the very thought still causes me to shutter. Pandora’s box? Perhaps. I guard myself from places that complicate my grief. I’m not ready and I am not sure I will ever be ready. Maybe his brother and sister will discover it years from now and open the treasure chest of their brother’s life. I hope it makes them smile. I hope it warms their hearts. Near the firesafe box is a cedar chest. Someday they will also open the hope chest  and in it they will discover all the cherished family leaves gathered in one place. Full of color, full of beauty, full of memories and full of love.

I long to hear his voice, but not in this way. I desire to see him but not on a 60 inch flat screen. Not now, not yet, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps never.

Life begins and life gets lost in forgotten moments that have passed me by. How I wish to gather the leaves into a pile and admire the beauty of each colorful fallen leaf. Scattered memories are all that remain and every so often I pick up fallen leaf in time and recall a sweet moment. Once insignificant moments in time that have become beautiful and cherished snapshots for me to enjoy today.

Someday hope will end and I will realize my hope when we meet again face to face.

“For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:15-18)

 

 

 

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.