Archive | January 2013

In the Shadow of Death

Our Beloved Pet

Our Beloved Pet


Are we ever prepared for the death of a loved one?

On Martin Luther King Day, we had to put down our beloved 13 yr. old cocker spaniel. Three days later, my 93 yr. old mother-in-law, Mary, passed away.

Losing a family member is devastating. Losing two loved ones in the same week is more painful.

Many of us who have a child with serious mental illness (MI) worry about an early death of that child because MI can lead a person to commit suicide.

Our son, Chris, often says, “I won’t kill myself. But if I die, I’ll be in a much better place.”
Each time he repeats those words, I wonder if God is preparing my heart to face the unthinkable: Chris’s life being cut short. How could I face such tragedy?

Christ’s disciples faced the death of their Lord. Such loss. Soon after, He arose from the grave and appeared to them. Such joy! But, then He left them again as He ascended.

Then the disciples did something unexpected. They worshiped Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and praised God.

When our dog died, my first reaction wasn’t joy. When I saw Mary in the hospital after she suffered a massive stroke, my inclination wasn’t to worship and praise God. Sadness flooded my heart. Tears flowed.

How were Jesus’ followers able to praise God when their Master left them? Luke tells us the answer.

“While He was blessing them, He left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped Him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.” Luke 24:51-53

They looked to God. They stayed in His presence.

Only there, can we find the same comfort. Remaining in His Word and continuing in prayer.

“You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You.” Isaiah 26:3
We can have victory over the enemy’s attempt to get us to abandon our faith.

The Bible tells us that we have a cloud of witness (Hebrews 12). Heroes of faith who have gone on before us are cheering us on. Can you hear them speaking to you? They’re telling you, “Trust God. Be patient. He is compassionate and merciful. Keep running your race. You can do it because God is faithful.”

Still, I wonder if I could maintain a trust in God if my son died young. I know the Holy Spirit would comfort me.

That same Comforter helped Job. A man who lost not just one child, but all his children…in addition to his livelihood. Yet, he still praised God.

“Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped. And he said: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’” Job 1:20-21

Job wasn’t the only one who lost his business and all his children.
In 1873 Horatio Spafford, a wealthy Chicago lawyer, wrote the words to the favorite hymn “It is Well with My Soul.”

Job and Horatio Spafford were real people. We can have a blessed assurance that God will help us through such grief. We may not understand why God allows suffering. But by faith we too can say, “It is well with my soul.”

Listen to that hymn as you read Horatio Spafford’s remarkable story.

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No One Knows

old couple in love
The elderly woman shuffled out the door of the nursing home. Her husband drove up and got out of his car to open her door.
Her words said, “Oh, you don’t have to do that,” but her smile said, “I love how you pamper me.”
In a strong Russian accent he lovingly replied, “How many times (will) I have this honor?”
In his twilight years, he still considered it an honor to open the door for his wife. And savored each time he had the opportunity. Not knowing how much longer he’d have with his bride. He sincerely cherished the privilege to serve her.

What a blessing it was to witness his caring spirit!
Who knows how long he’s been caring for his wife? Who knows how many decades he’s tenderly helped her?

Who knows how long you’ve been caring for your child who has mental illness (MI)?

No one knows how many times you’ve extended kindness without getting any thanks in return. No one knows the hurt you feel when your loving acts are shunned or not acknowledged by your child. No one knows how hard it is to keep doing it. Day after day.

Our job is often a thankless job. And yet we continue. Why? Love compels us.
Many of us serve family members to honor God. Knowing He sees our compassionate parenting.
God understands our motives and our pain. The Psalmist echoes our desires:
“Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.” Psalm 139:23

Do you ever wish you could simply give up? Get away. Take a vacation from all the responsibilities.
I used to teach second graders. I loved teaching, but hated grading papers. One day, while buried in papers, I whined to my husband, “I HATE grading papers!”
He calmly advised, “Don’t think of it as something you have to do; think of it as something you can do.”

What a transforming thought! I don’t have to view hard work or difficulties as drudgery. It’s my choice how I perceive unpleasant or challenging situations.

Like having multiple sclerosis (MS) in addition to having a son with MI. I can view it as a curse or a blessing.
A fellow MS patient once shared her reaction to the two disabilities in our family. “What a double whammy!”
I replied, “Actually, it’s kinda bitter sweet. Yes, it stinks to have MS. But, my son Chris and I understand each other’s medical challenges. He’s very compassionate about my cognition problems. He once told me he’s glad that he can help me in return for everything I’ve done for him. Chris witnesses the peace God gives me and knows it’s for real.”

We all have a choice. Some days are better than others. Sometimes it’s easier to maintain a positive attitude. Other days, only God’s grace can help us manage a smile.

When I’m having one of those days, it helps me recall the words of a black Baptist preacher. He bellowed his admonition, “Wives, when you wash the dishes, do it AS UNTO THE LORD! Men, mow the lawn AS UNTO THE LORD! Teens, do your homework AS UNTO THE LORD! Children, clean your room AS UNTO THE LORD! Workers, complete your tasks AS UNTO THE LORD!”
The Holy Spirit fills my head with those words. They prod me to keep going as if coaching me through my day. Do it as unto the Lord. That’s right. Do it as unto the Lord. You can do it. Do it as unto the Lord.

A favorite song reminds me of my free will to praise God no matter what. The song, “Blessed Be Your Name” expresses my intention:
“You give and take away. You give and take away. My heart will choose to say, blessed be Your name.”
MS has taken away my ability to teach second graders. But, my heart chooses to say, “Blessed be Your name, Lord.” With an eternal perspective, I’m able to notice the advantages of having MS. Grading papers are gone, and occasional photo shoots are in. I can visit my mother an aunt periodically. How I cherish those get-togethers! Just like that dear man holding the door for his wife, I don’t know how much longer I have with them.

I can sigh, “No one knows what I’m going through.” Or, I can choose to remember Him. My heavenly Father knows. He is well-pleased with my labors. He knows I’m doing the best I can.

Think no one knows? God sees it all. Keep going for Him.
“Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people.” Ephesians 6:7

There’s no place like home.

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How fast could you pick a home? Could you choose the perfect place in two weeks? Who would want to make such a rash decision?

One week ago, we were told my husband’s mother would be discharged from her rehab. center. She had only nine days left @ that facility.

Her home wasn’t an option for a 93 yr. old woman who fell frequently, had to climb 14 steps to get to the bathroom, was alone for most of the day, and who just suffered a stroke—which left her with acute cognition problems.

Where should she go? We had to redefine what home would be for her.

Moms of children with serious mental illness (MI) have to redefine what a home is. It’s no longer about walls adorned with family photos of happy times, or an immaculate house.

MI has a way of stripping away the superficial façade so we can clearly see what matters most. We strive to build a home that’s secure, predictable, and private. We long for independence and former routines. We yearn to see the familiar face in the expression of our child with MI.

A nursing home would be the new home for my mother-in-law. We set out to find one that would provide security and a level of privacy. As we toured the facilities, the admission directors spoke of services. I studied the eyes of the residents. MI trained me well to detect sadness, pain, abandonment, and helplessness. Thankfully, the Lord led us to the perfect place. One where my keen eye caught caring touches of the staff and peaceful looks on the faces of the elderly.

Now comes the time to transfer my mother-in-law. Our next challenge: to ease her transition. Surely, we don’t want her to feel evicted, uprooted, or homeless. We’ll help her adjust by decorating her room according to her wishes.

Is moving ever pleasant? What will help her feel like she’s home? Doing the same things moms do for their MI children. Surround her with love and support, in the context of a safe environment. But how? With God’s help.

Many of us will face moving. What a daunting ordeal! The packing. Moving day. Leaving old friends and familiar scenes.

How we’d love to click our heels, like Dorothy in the Land of Oz, and be transported to a new home! There will be a day when we will be launched from our own fabrication of perfection. In the twinkling of an eye, we will meet Jesus face to face.
Oh, how I long to join Him in the holy city He promised to prepare for believers! To live in the home built by the Master Carpenter where there will be no more tears or sorrow.

“In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” (John 14:2 NKJV)

“God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4 NKJV)

It’s complicated.

Dodgeball

Ask a youngster, “What’s your favorite subject” and recess might be the answer. Some may say gym. My second graders loved to play Bombardment during phys. ed. What fun they had dodging balls coming at them from all sides! Sheer joy.

Do you ever feel like you’re the target in Bombardment? Sometimes it’s as if trials are being hurled at us from all directions. But, there’s no thrill in dodging them.

Recently, that’s been my life.

First, a realization hit me that I’m experiencing a mild relapse. Symptoms of my multiple sclerosis suddenly got worse. Knocking me out at the most inopportune times. Like when I was food shopping with my husband, Howie. Wham! That tell-tale listless feeling came over me. It was like an implosion inside my body. Energy collapsed down through my core, leaving me dizzy. The pain in my extremities got worse. With barely enough strength I whispered to my husband, “Please take me home. I need to go home now.”

In denial, I attended a Christmas party a few nights later with Howie. Bam! That same listless feeling came over me. Right in the middle of a game of Charades.  With puddles of tears in my eyes I announced, “I need to go home now.” What a party pooper!

The next barrage came the day after Christmas. This time, a phone call catapulted the news of and incoming trial. The phone rang at 11:00 PM (which was my cue to duck!).  My husband’s brother reported, “Howie, Mom’s fallen and I can’t get her up.” Howie’s 93 yr. old mother most likely experienced a brain stem stroke. Pow! Another trial slammed me.

Another attack floored me. We noticed our beloved Cocker, Allegro had a noticeable growth on his abdomen. Two years ago, a 12 inch tumor was removed. The cancer is now spreading.

Why can’t trials just take a number and wait in line, like we do at the deli section of the food store? Better yet, why do we need to have a bunch of challenges smash us at once? If I had to order them, I’d ask for just one rocky road please….or one scoop of suffering. Actually, I say politely, “No thanks…I’ll pass…not problems for me now.”

But life stressors hit us. It’s hard enough when they come all at once. But, when you add mental illness into the mix, it’s…complicated. In our current situation, we’re exploring nursing homes for my mother-in-law. Given her acute cognition problems and her frequent falling, she can no longer live in her home. She couldn’t safely navigate the 14 steps to get to the bathroom.

Our son, Chris, told us, “I think you’re doing to Grand mom what you did to me.”  (referring to the time he was hospitalized against his will). The last thing I want to do is remind Chris of a painful time in his life. But we can’t put each trial in a box and deal with them one at a time.

Job in the Bible knew a thing or two about trials hitting all at once. He lost all, but didn’t lose it. He lost his livelihood, but not his faith. He lost all his children, but not his mind. His God is my God. I’ll survive this challenging time by following Job’s example. Job was able to say,

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”  Job 1:21

If he could still praise the Lord, so can I. Job chose not to follow his wife’s advice:

“His wife said to him, ‘Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!’ He replied, ‘You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?’”  Job 2:9-10

Dear Father,

Help me accept whatever comes my way. Knowing You will never leave me.  Remind me this isn’t heaven. Help me focus on Your power and love to help me through this.

My Introduction to Mental Illness

holding_handsEarly in my career as a special educator, I faced a particularly challenging situation with a student. Her mental illness foreshadowed things to come. God graciously provided the experience so I would recognize it in my son years later.

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September signaled the time for a new school year to begin. It was my third year of teaching at the school for the blind. I finished typing braille name tags for the desks. I’d meet my new students the next day. The building administrator stopped by my classroom to deliver an important message.

 “One of your students, Kim, is having a psychotic episode,” my supervisor told me.

I searched my memory for the meaning of “psychotic episode.” Pushing aside embarrassed feelings, I admitted my ignorance and asked, “What does that mean?”

Mr. Graham casually said, “Kim’s out of touch with reality.”

His calm tone didn’t match his words. Surely they didn’t match my reaction!

This time I could only ask myself, What does that mean?

I was trying to comprehend it all and still keep my focus on everything that was about to happen in a typical first day of school with multi-handicapped children. Panic started to set in. I bluntly asked, “Can I ask a stupid question? Why is she coming to school?”

“Kim’s parents want her to see the school psychiatrist. He’s not in yet. When he arrives, I’ll let you know.”

Somehow I’d have to deal with Kim until he came in. But, how would I manage her while greeting my other students?

Little did I know, years later I would fully understand what it meant for someone to have a psychotic episode.         But on that day it was all new to me. This was not in my lesson plans.

What am I supposed to do with her? What am I supposed to do with my other very-involved students while dealing with Kim? What am I supposed to tell my aide? 

There wasn’t much time for me to figure it out. I was filled with panic. Emotions consumed me with self-pity.

Why did this have to happen? It’s not fair.        

Like other teachers, I prepared thoroughly for the first day of school. Educators want that day to be very special and run smoothly. I was no exception. I worked hard to ensure a happy and productive start to the school year.         I prayed each student would adjust easily to their fellow classmates, to their aide, and to me.

But, this unexpected news caught me off guard. Like someone just ripped the rug of confidence right out from under me. Just moments before, excitement bubbled inside me. I eagerly anticipated the first day with them. I was looking forward to meeting my adolescent students who were blind and multi-handicapped. Because of the many hours I spent studying their files, I felt I already knew them. Their records outlined academic, physical, emotional, and social limitations. Each one had needs beyond my training. But, I felt up to the task.

Clearly, all my students presented a challenge. Teaching them would be difficult. But, I was well prepared. I planned for a smooth start. Not, however, for one of my students to be out of touch from reality. My fairy tale script for the start of school wasn’t supposed to begin with such a gaping hole.

I needed to learn an important lesson: life isn’t predictable. Things don’t always go as planned.

Some teachers have to teach with limited teaching supplies due to budget restrictions. I’ve even known teachers who had to start a school year without new textbooks. But, I’ve never known anyone who had to teach a student who had no working mind. This wasn’t covered in my college Methods of Teaching course. I realized my need for God’s guidance.

Leaning on the Lord was a new experience for me. Even though I grew up attending church every Sunday, it was all empty religion and tradition. It didn’t become real until I was in college and faced a crisis in my life.         It was then that I realized there was a difference between religion and a relationship with the Lord who cares for me personally. It all became real. Jesus died for my sins and He cares about my life. So, I said a quick prayer and continued my preparations for the first day.

Heavenly Father, give me wisdom to know how to welcome each student tomorrow. Especially Kim.        

Thankfully, all the other students arrived before Kim. Each delivered by their morning daycare workers. My fairy tale script was still intact, for the moment.

Kim arrived last, escorted by Mr. Graham. Her eyes had an empty, lifeless look to them. Not like the given-up-on-life stares I saw in another student’s custodial care institution. There was no hint of expression on her face.         It almost looked like she was asleep with her eyes open. In a daze. Like a live mannequin. Frozen in space and time.

Mr. Graham guided her to a chair. There she sat. Motionless. Catatonic.

“Welcome to class, Kim. I’m Miss Vicki. That’s Miss Sharon. We’ll be your teachers.”

No reaction.

Teaching the lessons proved easier than expected, considering the circumstances. My emotions proved to be the hardest things to manage that morning. I felt tremendous compassion for Kim. Such a strong urge to reach out to her. To connect with her some way. To ease her pain.

A foreign feeling engulfed my heart. Helplessness. That new and unfamiliar emotion would visit me often as a parent. Too often.

After a few hours, the psychiatrist arrived and took Kim away. Later that day, I learned she was in a fetal position. I couldn’t help her. All I could do was pray for her.

God was teaching me how to handle helpless situations. When things seemed out of control, I could turn to Him. Anywhere. Anytime. He was always available. Able to help those I loved.

Kim returned to school in two short weeks.

“I’ve never witnessed such a quick recovery,” the psychiatrist told me. He went on to caution me.

“Kim will experience paranoia. While she wasn’t in touch with reality, life when on. Events happened without her knowledge. She might think everyone is making things up.”

As predicted, Kim appeared quite paranoid, confused, and distrustful.

Since many of the students in the school exhibited unusual behaviors, visitors had to be approved by the public relations director. If approved, the director would inform the staff in advance of a tour. Unfortunately, around that time the director neglected to notify us of a tour. I would have requested the visitors bypass my classroom so as not to upset Kim.

My classroom had a window on each side of the door. I kept my door closed while teaching. Suddenly, without any notice, there were many faces peering into my classroom. Kim had enough vision to see the door. She noticed the faces staring at her and let out a bone-chilling scream. She put her head in her desk. I thought, ‘Serves them right for not notifying us beforehand!

My four years teaching at the school for the blind presented additional problems to solve. Some insurmountable enough to remind me of my inadequacies. Of my need for God’s guidance.

Encounters with students who had emotional problems, mental illness, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
(ADHD) were part of the job. Never did I imagine I’d face similar situations in my home. God, in His loving care and wisdom, knew those experiences would later help me as a parent.

Through those seemingly impossible problems, God showed me His power and love. Verses in the Bible came alive and had new meaning. Upheld promises bolstered my faith in a loving Father. Years later as a parent, I’d claim those same promises.

“Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us…”  (Ephesians 3:20)

 “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  (Matthew 28:20)  

Thank you, Father for Your constant care when I need guidance.    

How has God prepared you for what you’re facing?