We mark the anniversary of our son’s birth and death every year on his birthday. It’s our tradition to visit his grave to eat cake and let the kids send balloons to their brother in Heaven. Each year, I sweep the weeds from his headstone and treasure up the memories of this precious child whose brief life left an indelible imprint on my heart and that of so many others.
I always gaze at the balloons drifting skyward with a mix of heaviness and gratitude for another year’s passing since saying good-bye to the son I desperately loved and lost.
This year feels different. Weightier somehow. This year, I sense a deeper need to pause and reflect all that has transpired since his passing. It is the fifteenth year. A milestone year.
Time has flown by and grief still periodically blindsides me, but it doesn’t feel like it happened yesterday. It feels like it happened fifteen years ago. And I am grateful. Because I have a deep appreciation for the all of the life and healing that has taken fifteen years to accumulate.
Milestones like this give us a measuring stick of time’s passage that daily living doesn’t afford. Milestones remind us to look out at the breathtaking forest that grew while we were head down, picking our way through the brush. They are the mile markers of life that help us realize how far we’ve come and how long it took to get where we are … spiritually, emotionally and even physically.
And I’ve come a long way.
During the few hours I spent with my son, I periodically pressed the nurse’s tiny stethoscope to his heart to assure myself it was still beating. It grew faint and thready over time. And when all I heard was silence, I thought my heart would stop beating right along with his.
But it didn’t.
My heart beat on, albeit split between heaven and earth. My soul keened for the child I’d lost. I felt suffocated with longing for my son. But my will coaxed me to keep stumbling forward for the sake of the precious toddler playing at my feet. For my husband. For my friends. And for my sanity. I thought this feeling of yearning for Heaven and earth might rip my sense of self in half.
But it didn’t.
I wondered how my arms could physically ache from holding nothing. I marveled at how my body smarted from labor and childbirth and the betrayal of no child brought home to nurse. Pain defined my physical body for weeks and my heart for months and even years to come. I thought perhaps this pain would define me forever.
But it didn’t.
While it’s not true that time heals all hurts, time does pass while the hurts are healing. There were days I could hardly breathe. There were days when the grief threatened to shut me down. But there were also days where I laughed tears of pure joy. There were moments when family and friends surrounded me with such tender care, that I experienced God, Himself, in their hands and feet. There are inside jokes with my husband and sister and friends who bore witness to not only the birth of the child but also the depth of my soul’s grief.
There were quiet moments where God met me in my sorrow and gently knit my heart back together into something sturdier, more compassionate and more in love with Him than ever was I was before.
But these moments are intricately woven into the dailyness of life.
I don’t remember the day when I felt lightness return to my soul. There was no thunderclap moment. No sudden self-awareness. No trumpet sounded to herald the return of my joy. God’s healing touch on my spirit was a miracle performed over years, not minutes. So I am thankful for milestones to provide points of reference and reflection in order to fully appreciate God’s tender, strong hand not only carrying me, but renewing and restoring me.
Humans are a forgetful lot. This is why the Israelites set up altars to remind themselves of God’s faithfulness. It’s also why I have chosen to treat milestones as altars of gratitude. Not just the milestones related to the painfully brief life of my son, but birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and other family milestones that mark the passing of time. They help me to stop and praise God for the hundreds of miracles that have transpired in the every day.
Let all that I am praise the LORD;
may I never forget the good things he does for me. – Psalm 103:2
Someday it will be twenty years, forty years and possibly more since my son left this earth. The years are sure to be filled with a mix of heartache, joy, struggle and miracles. Looking back helps me to to look forward with confidence borne of survival and renewal and hope.
So I am grateful for every milestone – my altars of gratitude – to remind me that He is good, He is faithful, He is sovereign and He still moves mountains.
To read more of Tammie’s posts on grief, click here.