Grief and learning

Grievers can’t hit the reset button.  We can’t redo the day, the moment, when the tragedy–the loss– occurred.  We wrestle with the what-ifs, the “why did this have to happen to – my son, my spouse, my family” thought patterns.  This is normal in the life cycle of grief.  We desire to close our eyes and reopen them to the time when our loved ones’ hearts were still beating, still alive before our eyes and living.

The truth: this is not how it works.  There is no reset button, no time machine allowing us to return there.

The truth: our loved ones we knew in the past, whether the knowing was as recent as last week or as distant as 30 years ago, can have a positive influence on our thought patterns.  In a joyful sort of way.  And in a way we need in order to keep going and remain as fully alive as possible to the lives God has given us.

The truth:  to practice this way of life is a choice.  We must be intentional or we will over-obsess with dreams for a reset button and/or stay in the darkness.  This way, choice, is to allow our deceased loved ones to give us gifts.  Now.  In the present moment.  If we allow it to happen, the lives and remembrance of our loved ones can equip us to be purposeful, wise, compassionate, wide-awake people.

Since Jude’s death, my wife and I make a choice—not every day—but we do choose to allow the experience of our loss to mold the way we see and relate with the world and others.  We fail miserably at this some days, some weeks. But we are in spiritual formation.  This loss has not just happened to us, but is happening through us.  Our hope, prayer, and choice is to believe Jude’s life, though shorter than we wanted, was and is a gift to the world.

His life taught and teaches us important lessons each and every day.  Because of our experience with him, the individual moments of life carry more meaning.  The Saturday morning breakfasts with the boys are deeply cherished.  I am more passionate about the work I do every day.  We are focused on not wasting time and being a discerning people, a people that does only what truly matters and what God has given us to do with our lives.

Because of Jude, and the gifts his legacy shares, this is how some of our sadness is being transformed into joy. We can’t go back in time, but we can go into today and tomorrow with our hearts and minds wide open to becoming ambassadors of mercy, peace, and truths.

The truths:  we can’t go back.  The ability to make choices is still available to us.  The legacy of our loved ones has much to teach us, if we choose to listen for it.

Learning to surf

I have been dealing with this unimaginable thing called grief for over a year now.  To what do I compare it?  It reflects the experience of surfing.  Surfers float on their boards, in the open water, waiting for the right time, the right wave, the right ride.  Surfers can’t ride every wave.  Waves are coming and coming while they wait for the right one, other waves are crashing on the shoreline while they surf their ride of choice.

Surfing is a process.  Grieving is a process.  Like surfers, grievers practice waiting and the riding of something similar to the power of a wave.  Floating in the ocean of life, we grievers can’t ride every wave of grief that comes our way.  We have to float, wait, and live in our life-ocean.  We have to get out of bed, do the things everybody else is doing, go to our jobs, check the mail, and rake the leaves.  We can’t ride every wave of grief or we would stop living, and those we have lost would not want that for us.  We still have a purpose, a mission, in the here and now.  That may seem untrue, especially without the ones we love no longer on the mission with us.  Yet, we are still called.  Grievers are still beckoned to a life of faith, hope, and love.

Grieving is now part of our purpose, too.  We get on our boards, paddle to where we know the waves begin.  And we wait.  And wait.  And then we paddle, and the wave with its surging power lifts us and our boards, and we ride.  We grieve.  We cry.  We long for those we miss and we want back.  This is an intense moment of grief.  The wave continues its march to the shore.  We stay on it.  Our sadness is breathtaking.  The ride ends.  The wave crashes and we re-enter the water, and get back doing what everybody else is doing.  We go to work, check the mail, and rake the leaves.

Our purpose is faith, hope, love, and grief.  We are grievers.   We did not ask for this purpose.   But we now have these surf boards, and we need to learn to use them; we need to learn how to wait and live again, and we need to learn how to ride the right wave when it comes.


We’re sorry for your loss.
I can’t imagine.
We’re praying for you.

These are words we have heard over and over.  Good people have said them to us.  Other words have made their way to us in emails, letters, and in face-to-face conversations.  Words have floated our way through the writers of poets and prose, through sermons, even through those on a little white paper inside a fortune cookie.  We cherish the written and spoken words containing compassion, truth, and empathy.

Not long after our loss, a pastor visited us and shared words that stuck, words that took the deepest of dives into our thirsting souls and the highest of leaps into our consciousness.  These words clung to us—more-so we have clung to them.  She said, and I paraphrase:

If we believe Jesus, then He is present with us who are alive, and we also believe He is present with those who are with Him through the death of the body, then are we not somehow, still mysteriously connected to those who’ve died before us?  It would make sense that this could be possible, if Jesus is Lord of all, both of this life and whatever happens next.  He is the King over all of it, the one who holds it all together.

We cling to these words.  We cling to Jesus, the Christ.  Nothing is impossible with God.  This is why I wrote a letter to my son on his first birthday, a year after his death.

– Sean

Happy birthday, Jude


Dear Jude,

When your Pop-Pop (your grandfather) was the editor of a newspaper years ago, it was his custom to write a birthday letter to your Uncle Lance and me during our earliest years.  He would publish those letters in the newspaper.  He could do that because he was the editor.  Inspired by his decisions to write such letters, I will now write mine.  To you.  Because I am your father.  Because I love you.  Because, for a moment, I want to imagine you hear my heart.

Today is the day you would have become a one-year old, as a Mitchell, living at this address with me, your mom, and two brothers.  We have a tradition for birthdays in this house.  The house is filled with balloons—on the walls, in the floor, and taped to chairs.  Your mommy makes a cake, pie or cupcakes.  Your older brother, Ezra, turned 3 not long ago, and we all enjoyed cupcakes.   He likes Winnie the Pooh, so the house was transformed into the Charlotte version of The Hundred Acre-Wood.  You would have had fun.  We missed seeing you wearing one of the Pooh birthday hats.  His birthday was yet another setting your wonderfully-made presence was desired.  We long for you every day, but more-so on these days when we add intentional layers of fun and playfulness on top of everything going on.

Your five year old brother, Silas, has become a Star Wars fan.  Your daddy is so happy about this.  The two of us would make sure you learned all of the characters, the plot, and in our minds what is the most enduring quality of all things Star Wars: Darth Vader.  He is our favorite character, for all sorts of reasons.  Silas likes him because he is an all-star with a light saber and can wield this energy called the force better than anyone in the land of make believe.  Yes, that sounds exciting doesn’t it?!  Your dad is in the Vader fan club for those reasons, and also for those pertaining to theology and philosophy  (I am slowly teaching Silas these items, and your brother, who is very smart, is catching on!)  We are planning on reading a couple of pages out of our favorite Star Wars books when we visit your marker today.  Oh, and yes, Ezra is slowly learning the ways of the force, too.  We think he would make for a cute Ewok.  So would you.

We had Krispy Kreme donuts for breakfast.  It was the opening act of this special day.  Your mommy is now in the kitchen making a birthday cake, which we will enjoy later in your honor.  Your mommy loves you and your brothers so much.  She is making that cake because it is something she, in a mysterious sort of way, believes she is doing for you.  She has said over and over again this year that she wishes she could do more for you.  She is really good at just about everything, but most important of all, taking good care of your brothers.  She makes sure they encounter a lot of love and grace every day, and even tries to take them to fun places like the Lego store as much as possible!

You have been missed this year, my Jude.  Birthday parties, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, the Easter egg hunt, time at the beach, trips to see family, and all the rest of the days and moments have not been what they could have been with you.  We have had fun this year, but you were needed in places like the Hundred-Acre Wood birthday party.  All of the story would be even better than it already was/is if you were in it.

But aren’t you in it?  Are you not always going to be a part of it?  This is our hope.  This is our confession of faith on the day we think on you and remember what could have been, but yet what is to come because of the promise of resurrection.  We celebrate your eternal life in Christ the Lord.  Later, as the day is coming to a close, we will light five candles.  Each candle represents a life that is part of this home, this family.  We will light yours first.  You will always be a part of us, our coming and going, our September 20th’s and all the rest of it.  You are one of us, Son.   You inspire your mommy and daddy in so many ways.  We are proud of you and enjoy telling your story, describing your features, and sharing how your life has changed us for the better.  Your eternal life matters to God, my Son.  All of this I have been describing—you, me, your mommy and brothers, all of it, is under the reign and mercy of the God of grace and goodness.  We are all in the story of this God who is with you and with us.  How great is our God, my Son!

I almost forgot to share this bit of news.  We are preparing to take your brothers to meet Curious George.  He is a cartoon character, and supposedly George will be reading at the local bookstore today.  Your brothers can’t wait.  We are planning so much fun for them today because we believe it is what you would want for them.  It is yet another way we are honoring you!

Happy 1st birthday, my Son.  We all love you and reach for you in our minds and hearts.  As I conclude, I want to share the blessing with you, once again, that we have shared with you on most of the occasions we have visited your marker this year:

Jude, May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord cause His face to shine upon you and give you peace.
May the Lord receive you into His loving arms and shepherd you through eternity.
May He grant you and us the peace of knowing  we will be together soon, with Christ, apart from tears, pain, and all sorrow.
And may the love of God, the grace of Jesus, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be yours now and forevermore.


Love you forever,