Various Shades of a Monochrome Loss

7 05 2015

There is a sameness to every loss. Every loss is different.

Jerry Sittser, in his book A Grace Disguised, says that all loss shares similarities. It doesn’t matter the kind of loss or the degree of the loss. It is fruitless, he suggests, to play the game of comparing grief.

We have friends who lost a home in a terrible fire. They had built their dream home and were preparing to move in, when, on Christmas Day, it burned to the ground. Their loss was severe.

We have friends who have struggled with childlessness. Is that a loss? Can one lose what one never had? In their case, they lost their dreams. They lost the fruition of lifelong and deeply felt expectations. Yes, this was loss.

We have friends who struggle with life-long illnesses of children. Is it a loss if the child is still with you, but chronically and perhaps terminally ill? Dreams and expectations may be lost, or at the least changed dramatically.

But isn’t all loss like that? We lost our daughter seven years ago. But the loss is really of the times to come that you plan for and dream of. We expect to have this future time with our child, and then she is gone. Yes, we lost her. But perhaps what we really lost was the her that had not yet come to be.

Or, put another way, the nine-year old Anna we were doomed to lose anyway. Had she lived, she would have never been nine again. She would be sixteen if she were still with us. She would be in high school. She would be getting a driver’s license. She would be (gasp) dating boys.

Sam is eighteen years old. He has grown into a (very large) young man. He works. He goes to school. He has his friends and spends a lot of time with them. Timberley and I spend a lot more time by ourselves than we did a year ago. Sam is not three, or four, or eight anymore. That Sam is lost to us. We can remember, sure, but we don’t have the precocious toddler anymore. He is gone. We lost him.

Our memories still work. We can remember the Sam that is gone. We can look at pictures. Sometimes, if we look really hard, we can look at grown up 18-year-old Sam and still see the toddler. But it’s not quite the same. In the same way, we have our memories of Anna. We can look at pictures. But that precious girl is lost to us, just as Sam the toddler is lost to us.

So perhaps what we lost was the Anna we never had. Anna the 16 year old. Anna the college student. Anna the wife. Anna the mother. We lost the future.

Is it in this way that all loss is the same? We have an expectation for tomorrow, but that expectation proves fruitless. We don’t get the job we want. We don’t get into the school we expect to. We don’t get asked to the prom, or we don’t get asked by the person for whom we hoped. Our child does not live to the age we expect and we lose the lifelong relationship we planned for.

Perhaps in understanding the sameness of loss, we can better come alongside others who are grieving. We know their pain, because we remember our own pain. We don’t compare the loss or the grief, but we let our own experience of loss drive us to come alongside and support the other person.

I said at the beginning that every loss is different. To this point I have been thinking about the similarities of all loss and grief. I want to think now about how each loss is unique.

When we lost Anna, we lost a very particular young girl. There was no one quite like her. I don’t say this as a proud parent (which I am) or because I have over-sentimentalized who Anna was (although I do), but simply as a statement of fact. Every person is unique. Each individual has the idiosyncratic quirks which make that person distinguishable from every other person.

Just as Anna was unique, so I am unique. I am different than every other man, every other husband, every other father. So it is only natural that in the meeting or joining of Anna’s uniqueness and my own uniqueness, there emerged a relationship that was unique. There was never a daughter and a father like Anna and I. Together we were one of a kind.

That unique relationship that I lost no one can quite understand. No one else is me. No other child is Anna. And no other father-daughter relationship was Anna’s and my relationship. And so there was no loss like my loss.

It doesn’t make my loss better or worse, or deeper, or more tragic, or anything of the sort. It just makes it different. And that difference is what makes talking to those who grieve so difficult. None of the things you prepare for quite work. You try to let the person know that you know how they feel. Well, the truth is, you don’t know. “I understand how you feel. I once lost ______.” What does that matter to the other person?

Instead, perhaps it might be good for you to ask the grieving person to talk about the uniqueness of their loss. Since every person is unique, ask about the person who passed away. Ask about what made that person unique and interesting. Perhaps ask about their relationship. What was lost in the absence of that relationship. To my friend who lost his house in a fire, I could have asked for him to tell me about what made that house their dream home. In other words, explore the uniqueness of this person’s pain and grief. Don’t assume it is just like your grief, because it isn’t.

Let the sameness of grief drive you to compassion, empathy, and, perhaps, silence. Let the uniqueness of grief drive you to inquisitiveness. Perhaps out of the union of the two a beautiful story will emerge.

Anna at 16? Watch out, parked cars!

29 03 2015

Today is Anna’s birthday. She would be 16. I don’t often think about Anna in terms of what she would be like as an older child. On a lark, I once found a web site that would take a photo and “age” it for you. I put in a photo of Anna at nine and saw what she would look like at 13, or 14, or whatever age she would have been. The results were so grotesque that I decided it was best just to remember her as I knew her. So now I am a little like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind when he realizes that his friend’s daughter never ages. Anna is always a nine-year old girl for me.

Anna's 4th birthday party with her new Indonesian family.

Anna’s 4th birthday party with her new Indonesian family.

But today she would be 16. That age is different. It is symbolic for teenagers coming of age. But it is more than symbolic when it comes to driving. Ah, Anna behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. That would be interesting.

If I think about what Anna would have been like as a new driver, I think of her learning to ride her bike. We were on stateside assignment living in a mission house provided by St. Matthews Baptist Church in Louisville. Anna had her first bicycle and we were teaching her to ride. We had the benefit of living across the street from the church and an enormous parking lot that was empty most of the time. What a perfect place to learn to ride.

Anna on training wheels in Indonesia.

Anna on training wheels in Indonesia.

We put Anna on her bike. After all the stops and starts, the child finally learns to pedal and steer. And to do both of those at the same time. And to keep balance. But as the child is keeping all these things straight, the bicycle does not always stay straight. Anna weaved around the parking lot, making huge circles and arcs, but staying on her bicycle. Fortunately, there was nothing she could hit, so she was completely safe.

Nothing, that is, except for the one car left overnight for some unknown reason, sitting in a far corner of the lot. Surely it was not a problem.

But no, Anna’s loops and arcs took her ever closer to that side of the parking lot. Then closer to the corner. Surely, I thought, she wouldn’t be able to hit the one one parked car in this place. As I thought those words, Bam!, Anna smacked right into the side of the car.

She was unhurt. She wasn’t going fast enough to injure anything or damage the car. But I figured that she had learned her lesson then.

Until later after she leaned to ride better. We took the kids out for a walk. We walked. They rode their bikes. As we walked, we pointed out things to be careful of. “Be sure to stop at the next intersection.” “Look at the stop sign.” Anna had learned to ride well. She had not yet learned to stop very well, however. As I watched to make sure she would stop at the intersection, I saw her try unsuccessfully to stop. Fortunately, she was so fixated on the stop sign, that she ran right into it. Well, I thought, that’s one way to stop. But maybe she didn’t quite get the meaning of the stop sign.


We went out to lunch today after church. We used to eat at Olive Garden every year for Anna’s birthday. It was a place that Anna loved to go when we visited my parents in California. We have started going to other restaurants now, but we always spend a little time reminiscing about Anna. She was a sweet girl. I remembered Anna as an interesting and interested person. She was inquisitive and thoughtful–a deep thinker. Sam remembered Anna as his best friend. She was creative. Timberley remembered Anna’s faith. Anna loved Jesus. She loved God’s word.


Anna, we still miss you. But we also know that we will see you again. As surely as you yourself understood that to live was Christ and to die was gain, we also have the assurance that we will one day stand before the same throne and worship the same God.

Maranatha. Anna resurget.

Remembering Anna. Remembering the Vespa.

9 02 2015
Anna, Dad, and Sam on the Vespa

Anna, Dad, and Sam on the Vespa

My scooter has been out of commission for some time. An electrical problem. As the weather starts to warm up–or, perhaps better, is less frigid–I am beginning to miss my one and a half mile commute to work on my scooter.

Thinking about my scooter now has given me pause to reminisce about the trusty Vespa we had in Indonesia. It was great to drive. It had four speeds that you went through on your way from 0-60 km/h. It was a bit like our Volvo 240 in that was about the heaviest thing on the road. It took a little getting used to because it had such a low center of gravity. And, as you can see in the photo, it  carried almost the whole family. As I recall, we did go out once with all four of us, but that was a very short trip just to see if we could do it. Going out with both kids at once was not unusual. It took a while for Sam to learn how to keep still when he sat behind me. He always wanted to be able to see, so his head kept bobbing back and forth, from right to left, from left to right. Every time he moved, the weight of the bike shifted. In Indonesia you only have inches to work with so it was important to keep a straight line. Anna kept a little more still than Sam. When she rode in front of me, she was always good to keep her hands on the steering column, like in the picture, and not lean. We had good times.

Timberley and I did not go out together very often on the Vespa, but one night we took a “Vespa date” to a local restaurant. About the only thing I remember clearly from the evening was pulling out from our house into the very busy commuter traffic on the four-lane road in front of our house. In Indonesia, you don’t really wait for traffic to clear. You just start moving, never come to a standstill, and whatever you do, do not make eye contact with another driver. If you do, you must stop and let them go by. So off we went, turning into the traffic. There were, as normal for this time of day, about three or four lines of traffic filling the two traffic lanes in our direction. I kept my eyes forward so I would be able to drive and not kill us. Timberley hung on tight and prayed. Then she screamed. I think. It was loud outside. I was wearing a helmet. But whatever she did, she got my attention that something bad had happened. Then she let me know that we had been hit. Sort of. As I pulled into the traffic, the car that I was cutting off came up beside us very close. The car apparently brushed Timberley’s leg with the fender. She said afterwards that she was fine, but that it was very frightening to have a car pressed up against your leg while you are going 25 miles an hours. (That was fast, by the way, for that traffic!)

Those were some good times!

Remembering Anna Today

7 05 2014

IM_A0202Six years ago today Anna died.

I am wearing batik today. My students think I am getting ready for vacation. I just tell them no, it is something else. It is my silent reminder to myself.

I have written elsewhere on this blog about the confluence of dates every spring. Anna’s birthday comes at the end of March. The anniversary of her death comes today in early May. In between nearly every year comes Easter Sunday, the day we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. We remember his resurrection in the past and we look with hope to the day all believers, the living and the dead, will rise to be with him. As one of the many ways that God has been gracious to us in these events, I have considered the calendar to be one of them. Before we come to the day when we remember Anna’s death, we are given an annual fresh glimpse of our future resurrection. It removes the sting of the memory a bit when we know that Christ has conquered death; we now have hope instead.

Having said that, there is another confluence of dates on the calendar that is not quite so kind. I often forget that Timberley has to endure every year a set of dates that I do not experience the same way. When we come to May 7 each year, Timberley is faced with knowing that the next Sunday is Mothers’ Day. That opportunity to honor our mothers is always mixed with more than a regular share of sadness.

God has blessed Timberley this spring in a different way. When we moved to our house five years ago, one of the previous owners had left several rose bushes at various points around the yard. Timberley moved them all to the back of the house where they get good sun and we could enjoy them when we go into the yard. This spring, for some reason, the plants have exploded with flowers. She has been daily bringing more flowers into the house. Her fingers are getting scarred from the painful process of removing the thorns from the stems. But she cannot resist the beauty and aroma of these enormous roses.

The first spring after Anna’s death, I thought the arrival of leaves and flowers in the spring was some sort of cruel joke from God. I wanted a perpetual winter. I had become Lewis’s white witch. But God had other plans. He forced spring upon me that year in Louisville. I was forced to watch bulbs spring out of the earth in new life emerging from dormancy. I was forced to watch seemingly dead trees come to life again with the regreening of the branches. And I had to confess then that God had a better plan for us. He had already conquered death that first Easter morning 2000 years ago. Springtime was one of the annual events that he would give us to remind us that death is not the final word on our lives. He will one day restore all things. Anna’s body, like each of ours, will one day reemerge from the ground like a crocus in the spring. And it will be a beautiful flower indeed.

Happy 15th.

29 03 2014
07 June 023

Pouty Face Anna

07 June 025

Pity Face Anna

07 June 029

The Queen Holds Court and Blesses Her People




Anniversaries are upon us. Today marks the fifteenth year since Anna was born into this world. April 11 will mark the day that she and Samuel were baptized in Salatiga ten years ago. May 7, of course, marks the day six years ago that she died. Tucked in the middle of all this is the day that we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and that annual reminder that this world is not our home. Anna’s death is not final in any way since she was baptized into death with Christ and was raised with him in his resurrection. She, along with the rest of us here and the rest of the dead saints, awaits the coming of our Lord, at which time the final resurrection will occur and her body–now lifeless ash–will be raised again. What a wonderful day that will be!

These anniversaries that we have every year accompany another related anniversary this year. It was ten years ago that four missionaries were killed by terrorist gunfire in Iraq. One of the four was a young woman named Karen Watson. We had the joy of knowing Karen at our missionary orientation before leaving for Indonesia. She was training for her time in Iraq. That was in Janueary 2003. One evening at orientation, Timberley and I had an opportunity to go out together, and Karen watched Sam and Anna for us while we were out. The kids, almost four and six at the time, probably did not remember much about it. But they did remember a little more than one year later when we heard the news that Karen had been killed in Iraq. The news was a shock and a rude awakening for us that the world around us is a dangerous place. But alongside that thought was the realization that Karen would not have wanted it any other way. You don’t go to Iraq in 2003–we invaded March of that year–without saying goodbye to this world first.

It was a few years after that that we went through the long ordeal of waiting for news about another woman in similar circumstances. Cyd Mizell was a close friend of Timberley and sang in our wedding. But while we were in Indonesia we heard news that she had been kidnapped while working in Afghanistan. Months went by without news until finally the authorities announced that they had enough credible evidence to say that Cyd had been murdered. Her body was never recovered as far as I know. When Cyd died, Anna was definitely aware of the situation and prayed through it with her mother. Again, Cyd would not have wanted things differently. You didn’t go to Afghanistan in 2007 without saying goodbye to your world first.

I say these things not to drudge up bad memories, but to remind myself that Anna understood tragedy. She knew about life and death. She had matured far beyond her nine years. I believe that she could in some sense identify with Karen and Cyd and was able to say with Paul that “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” That was a bargain that she knew she could live or die with and be content.

I pray that as we pass through this season and celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, that you come to know the same peace and contentment that Anna had with Jesus.

Fading West

22 02 2014

Jon and Sam
Sam, Timberley, and I were in Lynchburg the last few days on a college visit for Sam at Liberty University. While we were there (and, privately, what prompted the visit in the first place), we saw Anna’s favorite band, Switchfoot. We never had the opportunity to see them with Anna, but have seen them three times now since we returned to the States. Each time we see them, it seems the show gets better.

Switchfoot had already became our family’s favorite band when we lived in Indonesia. We had their CDs A Beautiful Letdown (a gift from my brother), Nothing is Sound, and Oh! Gravity, as well as their first two CDs Legend of Chin and New Way to Be Human. I began to notice a difference in their lyrics from what we were used to hearing in today’s music. I still remember the day in our house in Semarang when I first heard the lyric to the song “More than Fine” from A Beautiful Letdown. “When I wake in the morning, I want to blow into pieces; I want more than just okay.” I knew at once that I needed to find out who these guys were. We were not disappointed.

Anna’s favorite song, I think, was “American Dream” from Oh! Gravity You can see in the photo below the colored hair bands she kept on her wrist. When I asked her one day if there was any significance to them, she smiled, looked at her brother, and sang out loud, “Red, White, Blue, and Gre-ee-een!” If you know the song, you’ll get it.
Beautiful Anna on Bike

Their songs took on a new meaning for us after Anna’s death. I began to notice more carefully the intense tragedy of much of their music. It became very clear to me that the songwriter, Jon Foreman, has experienced significant loss of his own. How else would he be able to write “Amy’s Song” or “Yesterdays”? Another aspect of his music that was already known to me, but which took on a new life, was the immense debt Foreman owed to C.S. Lewis. Foreman had obviously read much of Lewis and he understood him. He understood Lewis’s portrayal of our lives as being in the shadows, but that we will one day see things as they really are. This was captured most clearly in the song Switchfoot did for the second Narnia soundtrack, “This is Home.”

And they did it again on their latest album, Fading West. The last song, “Back to the Beginning Again” features this:
“I can feel it building up inside/The images that play inside my mind/The dreams that I’ve been dreaming all my life/The colors that live outside of the lines/But dreams aren’t all I hide beneath this skin/The cord is cut, the fears and doubts begin/My hope is anchored on the other side/with the colors that live outside of the lines.” Foreman understands that this life is not all we have. And it is not even what we might call the real life. It is a shadow of what is really real. Where the colors live outside the lines.

Anna would have loved the concert last night. Her favorite part, of course, would have been when Jon Foreman came out into the crowd, as he always does. Tonight, however, he stood right in front of her brother, Sam, and essentially sang another of her favorite songs, “This is Your Life”, to him. In the middle of the song, he borrowed Sam’s red sunglasses and wore them for awhile until he returned them to Sam and went back to the stage.

If you get a chance to see their Fading West concert, I would encourage you to see it. If you don’t know their music, it would do your soul some good to get to know it.

Time Well Spent

16 02 2014


I am listening to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. It is an old record that I have which I have been able to lately listen to again thanks to Timberley’s Uncle Butch giving Sam an old portable phonograph. I guess that I never listened to any of my vinyl albums while Anna was alive. But I suspect she would have liked this album. The music is beautiful (if you like Russian Romantic era music–I have friends who don’t). Anna liked beautiful things. The music is big. It has a sense of adventure in it. But mostly she would have liked it because it was about Scheherazade. Anna knew the story of Scheherazade in the form of a book called Shadow Spinner. That book tells the story of Shahrazad, a young girl who creates new stories every morning. It is the story of a strong girl who becomes the heroine through her bravery and creativity. Anna probably never thought of herself as particularly brave, but she loved stories of heroines.

As I was listening to Rimsky-Korsakov, I thought I would peek into Anna’s room (our guest room where we keep many of Anna’s old things–Anna never lived in this house) and see if I could find the Shahrazad book. I couldn’t remember the title or what it looked like, so I was having to search through all of the titles on the shelf–and there are many. I finally saw Shadow Spinner written in a mildly Arabic-looking script and knew that I had it. I opened the well-worn pages. Anna was certainly not hard on books, but she read books many, many times. Hearing the story long ago of Shahrazad (Timberley and the kids used to read stories out loud) made me think of Anna. When I hear the music of Scheherazade now I am reminded of Anna.

Anna has been on our minds much lately. Today perhaps more so because of an unrelated milestone. We are celebrating Timberley’s 50th birthday today. As I searched Anna’s bookcase looking for that book, I had to look through many titles. Mixed into the shelf were some books that belong to Timberley about homeschooling and such. I saw the Children’s Herodotus (what is homeschool without reading Herodotus?). I began thinking of the long hours that Timberley spent on teaching the children. The books on this shelf represented an enormous investment that she made in the lives of our kids.

With our loss of Anna at such a young age, one might be tempted to say that Timberley had wasted those hours in school, preparing Anna for a future that never came to pass. Of course that is not true. I have heard of and know parents who have lost children at a point in life where the child is ready to move into adulthood and sprout their own wings. They are graduating from high school or college, or just getting married. The questions about what might have been, I’m sure, are devastating and would continue long in the parents’ minds. But that is not so much the case with Anna. Anna was meant to be a child. Not really that. It was almost as if she were already fully grown, or fully mature as a nine-year old. She was aware of the physical change that would begin to take place in her body as a teen-ager and she was terrified of it. She liked her physical age, but her mind had already far surpassed it. (Anna would be approaching her 15th birthday were she still with us. I cannot imagine her at that age. I have tried. I failed.)

So what did Timberley do in school with Anna? She prepared her to be a fully mature nine-year old girl. She built into her a godly character. She encouraged a love of reading and a love of God that created a thirst for God’s word and a passionate desire to be with the Lord. She now has her greatest desire.

So, Timberley, as you look back at your first fifty years and remember the things you have done and where you invested your life, I want you to remember the call that God placed on you to make disciples of your children. I want you to know that you prepared one of them very well, and she graduated at the top of her class. You have done well.


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