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Category Archives for "Grief"

Joy Comes in the Mourning book cover
Oct 09

Happy 10th birthday, LJ

By Jessica Allen | Grief

I’ve been walking around all day with a lump in my throat that’ll undoubtedly burst at the first “how are you?”

Our first son was born and died in October.  Tomorrow (today, by the time I post this on the blog) is his 10th birthday.

There’s something about this double digit milestone, a decade, that feels unbelievable.  Meaning, I actually cannot believe this much time has passed, and even more, I cannot believe I have continued to find my way in the world.   

There is so much to say.  So much I could fill a book.

So I did.  I wrote a book. 

This book has been pursuing me patiently and quietly, mostly standing at a distance “pssst”-ing me every once in awhile.  It was pretty easy to shrug off, what with a business to run, and a family, and a ministry, and saving a marriage, and then having a new baby.  It listened to my excuses and respectfully retreated a few paces, leaving me to my life and all the pursuits that captivate my attention.

Within the past six months, however, it crept closer and closer until it finally wrapped its arms around me and whispered in my ear, “it’s time.” 

So I soaked in the summer sunshine in a beautiful resort pool on my birthday and cried into my cocktail.  I had run out of excuses.  And truthfully, I had run out of steam. 

It is exhausting to keep running away from something you know you are supposed to be doing.   Whether it’s God, or a ministry, or mending a relationship, at some point you will collapse from the sheer weariness of stubborn disobedience and surrender to its persistent voice.   

This book is a ten-year reflection of grief, love, faith, and every real and raw step of the path my life has taken since the birth and death of our son.  I did not hold anything back.  Once I started writing, it tumbled out head over heels.  It felt easy and impossible to write all at the same time.  It stretched me to articulate some thoughts that until now have lived in my body as wordless feelings – actual physical feelings – that twinge my sides and hurt my throat and sting my eyes.  I had to give them words, which gave them life, and that was scary.  Once they’re real you have to reckon with them. 

I wrote the book I wish I had when LJ died - the voice I needed in the darkest abysses of grief.  I needed to know what to expect, how to get through it, and how to begin to really live again. 

Through the past 10 years, I have learned what to expect because we experienced it all in real life.  I have learned how to get through it because we did, bruised but breathing.  And I have learned how to live again because, by the grace of God and the love of our amazing village, I just put one clumsy foot in front of the other until that stumble turned into a walk.  Eventually the walk became familiar enough that I could lift my eyes and see the incredible world around me again.

I can’t wait to share the whole book and its story with you.  It releases December 1 everywhere you like to buy books and I promise you’ll be the first to know the updates, announcements, and special surprises in store as we send this little book into the world. 

In the meantime, please say a little prayer today for LJ, and wish him a happy birthday.  Can you imagine the celebration lavished upon us in heaven?  Down here today, we’re taking the kids for cupcakes in Grace Garden, and then meeting as a family simply to be together after all the kids’ nighttime ball games.  I’m surprising them with a bound copy of the manuscript each.  They have absolutely no idea I wrote the book, and I can’t wait to give them this gift.  I didn’t tell anyone, actually, for some very intentional reasons, but that’s a different story for a different day.

I’ve found healing through writing, that’s not news to anyone here.  But this stuff is still so hard sometimes.  I feel sad, and angry, and cheated, that our 10th birthday party is missing the guest of honor.  I can be faithful and hopeful and trusting and gratefully honor God with my life and still want to stomp my foot and cry “foul.” 

Grief never really gets easier.  It just gets different.  Thanks for loving me, supporting our family, and choosing to lean into the hard stuff.  It doesn’t feel quite so lonely when we face it together. 

HP,

J

what grief looks like 10 years later | dark path with light | black and white photo of light at the end of the tunnel
Sep 21

What grief looks like 10 years later

By Jessica Allen | Grief

I ran across one of the most accurate graphics this week that I've ever seen.  This is exactly true for the season immediately following a loss, and interestingly it is still what my grief looks like 10 years later.  The only difference now is that the top part of the iceberg is a little smaller.  The part under the water is just as big.  Even bigger, maybe, as layers of "what I've learned" have built up over time.   

grief graphic | grief you see | grief that is never talked about | iceberg photo | grief iceberg

Seriously.  Credit to the anonymous wise people who photographed and created this.  Sources unknown.

Depending on which text you reference, there are either 5, 7, or 10 stages of grief.  Navigating the basic 5 just about killed me, ironically.  So maybe breaking it down into 7 or 10 sub-stages would have been easier.  Regardless, there are true distinctive shifts in the grieving process.  And it does help to know that what you are experiencing is normal.  It also helps to know what’s coming on the horizon.    

The only thing harder than losing someone you love is making it through the grieving process that follows.  There's a reason the giant part of the iceberg is the grief nobody talks about.  It's ugly and unpleasant.  I wish we would talk about it more though, because it's universal, and I think we'd feel less alone if we knew someone else was in the same place too.

Any crisis can set you on the grief track: loss, uncertainty, the end of a relationship, career changes, or any other major life curve ball.  I venture to guess that most people we meet out in the world are grieving something.  (That's why it's important to just be nice to people.  We're all hurting.)

LJ's 10th birthday is approaching.  It has pressed me to revisit the 5 stages of grief exactly as I experienced them when he died: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  In reality, each of those 5 stages included their own sub-stages like shock, loneliness, crisis of faith, finding community, and peace-making.  (These are my own designations, not clinical by any means.)  

Looking back on how we navigated death, mourning, faith, and finding joy through the grieving process has been oddly encouraging.  We've come a long way and I'm really... proud?... of the hard work we did to learn and grow through it.  It's a lifelong process so there's still wisdom to be gained as we go.     

My life is more rich and full than I could have ever imagined because I have chosen to wrestle with all these things.  I rumble with them certainly in spite of my own stubborn desire to avoid the painful stretch of change and growth.  But grieving transforms you, whether you agree to it or not.  I like to think we have the choice whether it transforms us for better or for worse.  When we take the time to really lean into the process, grief becomes a powerfully effective teacher.

Related: How grief changes us for good

In the days and weeks after we lost our baby boy, I read every book I could get my hands on to help me understand why I hurt so much.  Even more, I was looking for the secret for how to feel better.  I found short booklets, long narratives, scientific approaches, spiritual perspectives, practical knowledge, and a beautiful grief devotional I still use.  Each of these books were helpful in their own ways.  Yet what I really needed most was someone to say “this is how it was for me.” 

I desperately sought out stories of how grief looked in real life, because I was living it in real life.  It was not a hypothetical loss in a theoretical classroom that could be navigated with professional terminology on a prescribed timeline.  My pain was ready to pull me under.  I needed to know that another real person with real grief over loss just like mine made it through to the other side. 

I realize now that there really isn’t an "other side."  Rather, real people with real grief simply find a path moving forward and choose to walk it one step at a time.  Sometimes you can go quickly, sometimes it’s slow, and sometimes you have to sit down and rest.  Pausing and resting, or even going in reverse for awhile, is okay.  Quitting is not.  As long as you keep going, there is light to be found along the way.  

I undoubtedly made things messier in the process.  I still get lost in the weeds and have to get myself back on the path.  But the further I walk, the better my bearings have become.  And the more tools I've added to my pack.  Tools like coping skills, compassion, empathy, forgiveness, community, self-expression, awareness of myself and other people, and the humility and willingness to ask for help.  

Heart work = HARD WORK but it's work that must be done. 

I know this got real dark real fast here on the ol' HP.  But matters of the heart are equal parts dark and sweet.  And I have found that the darker the water in which you're willing to swim, the sweeter it is on the shore.

So I'm shining my light down the path today for every heart "walking through it."  Come out of the weeds when you're ready and stay the course.  The world needs you here. 

HP,

J         


what grief looks like 10 years later | kaleidoscope teal and purple
Lost and found grief wheel|waves on the beach|true story
May 14

Lost and Found: a turn of the grief wheel

By Jessica Allen | Faith , Family , Grief

I don’t panic much anymore – life experience has taught me that it’s not much use.  But I panicked this week.

Our little baby is being baptized soon.  All our children have worn a little sea shell on their baptismal clothes – a shell that was used to baptize their oldest brother in the moments before he died.

That tiny shell is worth more to me than the entire world on a silver platter.

And I can’t find it.

Lost things

7 years have passed since our last baptism and I have absolutely no idea where I put the shell.  We never imagined we’d have another baby, and we’ve moved twice since then.  It’s not in the places it should be, or logically even might be.  I can’t even remember if I would have left it sewn to big brother’s vest, or snipped it off to store in the right place for safekeeping.

We have torn this house apart top to bottom trying to find it.

I keep LJ’s things in a chest made for us by a dear friend.  It rests high on a shelf in my closet, and is our #1 “house is on fire” item to grab.

It is packed with treasures – things he wore, the brush we used for his hair, hospital cuffs that barely fit around my fingers.  A celebratory cigar.  Cards people sent, ribbons we wore, programs from his service, a song someone wrote.  The lovey he rested on.  The blankets we snuggled in.  The tiniest clothes you’ve ever seen. 

His clay footprint.  A wisp of his hair.

I don’t open this box often because it’s too hard to unpack – in every way.  I know what’s in there and that’s enough for me. 

But as we are preparing for this baptism, I need to find this shell and that’s where it should be.

So I found myself on Mothers Day carefully sorting through all these precious things… with G peering wide-eyed over my shoulder for the first time. 

Sometimes this story, this motherhood and grief experience, is too surreal to understand.

Things are just things… except when they’re not

I forget how awe-inspiring LJ’s tiny things are.  He weighed only 1 pound.  The hat he wore fits snugly on a little lemon.  No wonder G was captivated.  His story is as natural and as integrated into our family as what we’re having for dinner, so her questions are always simple and straightforward, and so are our answers.

Yet as she wanted to touch and explore the treasures in LJ’s chest, I felt myself heave a wave of resistance against her.  It was a new feeling in the grief wheel, one I haven’t recognized until now.  I don’t think I realized how protective I am of LJ’s things

Maybe it’s because he won’t ever have any more of them. 

Our family members leave things at his niche and I always collect them.  Even down to the wilted flower petals.  I tuck them away in a vase in a cabinet.  The bunny picks from his Easter lily went in there.  So did the candle from his birthday cupcake and the bow from his Christmas poinsettia.  These are all special to me.

But they’re not his things.

Perhaps if I knew where the shell was, I wouldn’t have been so touchy with G.  I heard my voice rise and raise, and realized I was allowing my emotions to take over what should have been a sweet and tender moment showing my amazing daughter what was in the box. 

Most days I have a good handle on this stuff, but yesterday wasn’t one of them.

Search paused

I packed the box back up and paused the search.  It was already past dinner time on Mothers Day and my head and heart and sinus cavity were all pounding.  After a full day of church, brunch, a visit to LJ, family time, and this dogged hunt, I felt completely maxed out.

G went back upstairs to keep looking through closets for boxes we may have missed.  Thank you GOD for making her so unflappable.  She will survive in spite of me, no worse for the wear. 

I laid down on the couch to pull myself back together and make peace with the idea that I might not ever find this shell.  I give things away all the time, I love to do that, and if the shell was still sewn to the vest, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that I could have loaned that little suit to someone or even placed it into a donation box without thinking. 

It’s just a thing. 

But it’s his thing.  It’s his last thing. 

Found things

After a few minutes I went back to check one more packing box of shoes high in the closet. 

The box was mislabeled. 

It was full of LJ treasures.  And at the very bottom of the box… was the shell. Still sewn snugly to the vest.  

I was so relieved that we found it.  So was G.  She said, “Mommy, is it weird that I prayed that we would find it?”  Not at all, sweet girl.  No prayer is ever too small for God to care.

I curled up with Jack in my jammies, checked my brain at the door, and ate peanut butter out of the jar in front of the TV that night.  I don’t do that often but some days there’s just not enough heart space left to unpack anything else. 

So today I am grateful for a lovely Mothers Day spent loving the hearts in my care… yet feeling a little hung over.  Stuffy-nosed, puffy-eyed, and slow-moving. 

The Grief Wheel

Grief is a wobbly wheel.  At the top of the wheel is my lovely, high-functioning life.  At the bottom of the wheel is, among other dysfunction, the panicky voice that came out at G. 

When the grief wheel starts wobbling, sometimes it makes its full lumpy turn in 10 seconds or less.  Sometimes it takes the entire month of October.  There’s still no rhyme or reason for what starts the wheel in motion.  And much to my dismay, in defiance of my 10 years of trying, there’s still no quick push to get it to turn faster. 

(I have paid lot$ of therapists lot$ of money to learn that there really is no trick or instruction manual for this wheel.  We really do have to just muddle through the motion, trusting God for the next best step in the dark.)

Things I’ve found

I like a good moral at the end of every story, but I don’t know that there is one here, and even if there were, my heart is too tired to understand it and my mind is too tired to try to put it into words. 

It doesn’t mean I am any less joyful, or any less grateful for the life I am blessed to live. 

It just means that this heart stuff is hard sometimes, and maybe we aren’t supposed to have all the answers.  Not every wrench in the grief wheel fits onto a Pinterest-worthy graphic.     

In the meantime, I’ll label that box correctly, tuck it back high on a shelf, take a good hot bath, and save the rest of my unpacking for another day.  The wheel will eventually wobble its way around.

HP,

J

I hope you’ll join our Happy Mail Club! I send one love letter a week, with surprises and tips for keeping your sanity (and your marriage) intact. Just pop your fav email address into the box up there and you’re in the club. No secret handshake required. <3

grief wheel|stages of grief
Why Good Friday brings Hope to every longing heart|green grass|Easter
Apr 19

Why Good Friday brings hope for every longing heart

By Jessica Allen | Grief

I hope to get this down coherently.  I haven’t slept much the last few nights, but when my eyes open with a heave of my heart, I get up to write.  The moon is beaming bright and full through my kitchen window, just as it was when I left the church last night.  The dawn has secrets to tell.  Probably mostly because that’s the only time it’s quiet enough around here for me to really listen.  

Holy week is my favorite week of the year.  Amid the hustle and bustle of music preparation and finding just the right surprises for Easter baskets (this year it’s board games and Legos and gum), this is the week where my faith takes special flight.  The weight of God’s sacrifice for me – for all of us – is ever-present in my life and never more so than in these few days between the grave and the sky.  Gratitude abounds, and leaks right out of my face.

I can meaningfully grasp a little insight to each player in the Easter story – Jesus’ disciples’ hope and confusion, Judas’s betrayal and his unbearable guilt, Peter’s good intentions and lousy follow-through, Pontius Pilate’s desire to wash his hands of the whole thing, God’s shaking of the earth, the thief’s final belief in a Savior, Jesus’ surrender to his Father’s will, and Mary’s heart breaking at the foot of the cross.

Perhaps it is Mary I understand most. 

I have held my son as he died. His last breath as precious a whisper as his first. Every ounce of my body aching to bring life back into every tiny ounce of his.

When I cannot understand why God did not save my son, when my soul cries out in sadness, when my mind spins in circles searching for meaning, it’s in those moments I can hear His voice.

Not an actual voice. (Although some people do hear him like that.)

For me it is that weight, a physical feeling, an unmistakable pressing on my chest. Like if I breathe deep enough I will inhale all of Him.  A presence that wakes me up in the middle of the night and begs me to tell my story back to Him. That’s how I “hear” God. 

When I despair, I hear Him say “I know your pain. I have felt it myself.”

He too watched his son take his final breath. He watched as the world turned on him and mocked him as he laid down his life for them. 

He did this so we would never again feel separated, or broken, or alone.

I believe one day I will see my son again, where he is already whole and perfect, and Jesus will be there with him.  I will be whole there again too, and so will you. 

But what do I do here? 

What do I do here where I still am, on this side of heaven?  In the Good Friday seasons of my life when all seems dark, what do I do with the separation and brokenness and loneliness I feel? 

God’s power to raise the dead is not limited to Jesus on Easter morning.  God can raise whatever is dying in my life.

Sometimes with hope, prayer, and belief, He mends what’s broken.

Sometimes He doesn’t.

Those moments are where the miracles happen.  Because even if God doesn’t mend what’s broken, his unfailing promise is to mend you in the process. 

This is where the belief wheels fall off for lots of people: when God doesn’t deliver.  Believe me, I get it.  I have had two critical moments in my faith where I had to decide if this God guy was worth sticking around for.  Because it certainly didn’t feel like He was “for” me at all. 

But the truth is His purpose has always been to restore us – our hearts, our marriages, our families.  He will gather the broken pieces of the life we’ve shattered (or what’s been broken for us) and patch the holes.  He is in the business of miracles, yet often it’s not the miracles we thought we were asking for. 

Whatever miracle you hope for, ask.  Throw Him what you’ve got – He knows what you’re thinking anyway, and there’s no need to dress up a prayer with fancy words.  Be mad.  He’s big enough to take it and gentle enough to listen.

It never occurred to me that God wouldn’t spare my son.  It never occurred to me that He wouldn’t fix my marriage the way I thought He should.  These – so far – have been those critical points at which I almost bailed out. 

What I’ve learned is I can’t give up on God when He won’t make the fix I’m hoping for.  Because the main thing He’s fixing is me. I don’t have to like it, and I don’t even have to like Him in the process.  But if I have hope for the victory, I have to let go and simply let Him work.

This is the paradox of God: that He is expansive as all creation, yet small enough to inhabit my 1 pound, 12 ounce miracle baby boy.

Mighty enough to part the oceans but tender enough to weep for the people he came to save.

Perfect enough to save himself from pain yet compassionate enough to feel it all for me.

This Holy week is a reminder to bring to the foot of the cross all the heartbreak of my loss, confusion, disappointment, anger, and loneliness, knowing with certainty that God is still promising to mend it all.   

And if he doesn’t?  Chances are He’s preparing to unveil an even greater miracle in you.

That is the hope that Good Friday brings to every longing heart. 

Ours the cross, the grave, the skies,

J

Related: He is Not Here

Related: Breaking Plates

Suggested reading:

The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel

The Case for Easter by Lee Strobel (easy and mind-blowing account of the physical evidence of the crucifixion)

Just so you know! These are affiliate links. Should you choose to purchase a book through one of these links, you won’t pay a penny more, but I’ll receive a small commission that helps keep our community up and running. Thanks!

Why Good Friday brings Hope to every longing heart|grass field and trees|Easter
failure boat
Feb 07

Don’t let the fear of failure hold you back

By Jessica Allen | Grief , Marriage

How’s this for a little pep talk for your morning?! Yep, we’re gonna talk about it – fear. Specifically our fear of failure. Everybody has it, or had it at one point and learned how to overcome it. If you learn to master it, or at least make peace with it, then you’ll feel limitless.

Last year on a family trip to Disney world our 6 year old decided he wanted to ride all the roller coasters. This is what fear looks like in real life:

I will never not laugh at this.

The short story: the first coaster scared the pants off him, and after that he rocked every single gnarly ride in the parks. It was glorious.

I’m not saying you have to love thrill rides to overcome fear of failure or grow your confidence but it’s certainly a good reminder to our son if he ever voices fear (he’s a perfectionist) – hey, remember that time you crushed Expedition Everest? He’s a lot more eager to try the whatever thing he shrunk over when he remembers the hero he was in Orlando.

Some of my favorite affirmations are, believe it or not, quotes on overcoming the fear of failure. 

Everything you want is on the other side of fear.

Jack Canfield

Pain is temporary.  Quitting lasts forever. (personal favorite)

Lance Armstrong

You always pass failure on your way to success.

Mickey Rooney

Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.

Henry Ford

What is failure to a person who is not afraid to learn from it and try again?

Edmond Mbiaka

Thomas Edison discovered 10,000 ways how not to make a lightbulb. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team and missed over 10,000 shots in his career. Google “sports fails” and you’ll be busy all day. (This is a creative way to boost an energy slump on your lunch hour, btw.)

Aside from that one ballet class I took, most of my failures have a little more lasting impact than a sports blooper. I have some pretty astronomical, royal blunders to my name, and while I certainly never enjoy them in the moment, looking back they’ve brought me some powerful self-discovery and growth. 

Flat on your face is a good place to start completely over.  You’ve had your dignity stripped, ego crushed, plan derailed, and maybe even your reputation blemished.  It always feels like it’s going to show up on the front page of the newspaper, or splattered across the internet, and there’s always someone sick-in-soul out there who wants to make sure you never forget that horrible thing you did or how ridiculous you looked.  (As if they’ve never blown it too.)

Blowing it – big time – has an uncanny way of kicking your ego to the curb.  And the bigger the ego, the bigger the fall.

And ironically, the most massive faceplants are always in the areas where God is trying to use you most.  WHY??

Two reasons we fail and fall hard

  1. If we’re doing anything of substance, purpose, intent, or lasting impact, with all our guts, we build up momentum and attention, and when mistakes happen, big things fall hard. And…
  2. The enemy is going to attack you when you show the slightest sign of making a dent in the world for good.  This is a guarantee. 

Fear of failure keeps you stuck in the comfort zone

If you’re never up to something important, never taking a risk, never sticking your neck out or stepping out, your footing stays firm.  As a result, it’s easy to look back and realize you’ve spent far too much time (maybe even a lifetime) in your comfort zone.  It’s safe there. 

A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are for.

John A. Shedd

There’s a fine line between “healthy boundaries” – which are essential – and missing out on meaningful connection with people.  There’s also a fine line between “self care” and hiding.  This could be hiding from people, from purpose, or from being useful and used in a way that God intends for your life.

Stepping out of your comfort zone takes risk.  Risks are scary and the path is rocky and steep.  It’s hard to find sure footing.  Even when you have a great plan in place, strong mentors to model, and a solid support team, missteps are inevitable.  So in our world where judgement is off the charts and social media shaming reigns supreme, it feels daunting to try anything and risk failing.

Fear of failure becomes powerless when you realize failure is guaranteed to happen.

I have failed in business, I have failed in my marriage, I have failed as a mother, as a friend, as a daughter, as a sister.  I have failed because I have SHOWN UP and TRIED.  I have taken my shot at something significant.

Looking back at some of my most notable bust-ups, they’ve stemmed from honest trying.  Trying to communicate, trying to understand, trying to change, trying to improve, trying feebly to defy my own flawed human nature.  Taking a big step on the path and realizing it was slightly off course.  Dusting myself off and realizing I was on the wrong path altogether.

Interestingly, it’s when I finally waved to failure, thanked it for its service, and said, “see you next time,” that I really felt strong. Like I knew I could take the fall, any fall that came my way, and come up better and smarter because of it. Contrary to the way we feel in the moment, nobody ever died from embarrassment.

There’s learning in failure.  Nobody’s learning anything on the mountaintop. The mountaintop is for celebrating and reflecting.  Rather, where we’re learning is on the side of the mountain, taking our lumps with wet socks and frostbitten toes.  What you learn flat on your face is how to do it better next time. (Bring extra socks. Or be nice to the person that has some.)

Sadly it’s really easy to fall apart and just stay there.  That’s when my confidence tanks, I start hiding again, and begin justifying why I’m not going to take any more chances.  It hurts to fall, even more so if it’s public. 

Pain will either grow you or break you, and that choice is absolutely and only your own.

If you choose to be governed by fear of failure, you’ll never know the exhilaration of purpose.

From the very beginning of my adult life roller coaster, it has been important to me to find meaning and purpose for my heartache. 

I went to a support group once after my son died.  There were many lovely things about it – I highly recommend it – and the community and strength I felt there were life-bringing.  However, what scared me was how ensnared some mothers were, still 10, 15, 20 years down the line.  (OH HOW I NOW KNOW that grief has no timeline, no reason, no logic, no limit.  We’re coming up on the 10 year mark and that’s bringing a fresh set of grief about my grief.  COME ON NOW. #therapy)

Anyway, the whole point here is that I got scared because I couldn’t imagine my life in 20 years still consumed by this profound darkness.  And it was like a spark set off in my spirit.  A hot burn, one I still can’t really understand or control, that mostly makes me want to make my life really mean something.  Because the one person I want to really be here to live it with me, can’t.  He doesn’t get a shot to keep going and continue to shape the world with his life.  But I DO. 

So this unpredictable fire makes me do crazy things sometimes.  It pushes me to take leaps of faith.  Some of those leaps grow me wings and I get to soar, but some of them land me in the mud where I have to learn.  One leap forward, one flop back.

When I choose to learn is when I can start using that failure for something good.  If nothing else, it smooths rough edges of my character and teaches me how to be more like Jesus.   When I’m lucky, it gives me the confidence to grab other people by the hand and whisper, “I’ve been there too and it’s not okay right now.  But someday it will be.” 

What failure taught me

So, the good news is, when you’re flat on your face, you’re not laying in a fear of failure anymore – you’re just laying in failure. And now with fear out of the way, you can actually do something about it.

My most recent epic failure taught me that I really did not know myself at all.  I knew the parts of me that I liked – the happy parts, the successful parts, the confident parts.  That girl likes to serve and care for people and make good things and put light out into the world. And although she can be pretty full of herself, she is a delight.  (if I do say so myself.)

I did not know the parts of me that weren’t so likeable – the needy parts, the insecure parts, and the arrogant parts.  I had to spend a lot of time with that girl face down on the ground.  And she’s not so lovely.  She’s full of excuses and bad self-talk and prone to laziness disguised as too much self care.  She has a massive fear of failure. She feels great with a chip on her shoulder and she can dish out judgment like free queso.  But she is willing to learn.

So what did I learn?  This whole blog, that’s what I learned.  That what saves us is being real; opening up what hurts and looks scary to shine a little light inside.  It’s hard work to clean up the mess but with enough pressure, coal becomes a diamond in the cave and so will I.  So will you. 

In some of my darkest pits, I never even knew I needed a flashlight until someone else showed up with one.  So I also learned that there’s peace, redemption, and purpose in shining light in those dark places for other people.  We were made to help each other. 

I learned that marriage is hard, and worth every ounce of work. Love is hard and also worth the work. (It’s simple in theory but so unbelievably hard in practice.) I learned, and am still learning, that I do not know everything and that it’s really hard to admit it. Also I learned that people are inherently good but tragically flawed, and that the dearest ones you can trust are worth their weight in gold.

I learned my priorities are different than I thought they were. And then I learned it was really hard to adjust my lifestyle to get myself in alignment with those priorities. I also learned not everyone likes it when you do that. I’ve learned to stay true to what I know is right and true, and keep my eyes focused on what is lovely and pure (Philippians 4:8) – check out the book The 4:8 Principle if you’ve never read it.

Another one’s coming

I haven’t had a face plant that big in awhile. So I know that I’m probably due one soon. There are things I’m trying, and putting out there, so inevitably I’ll have a misstep at some point. (Thank you in advance for your grace.)

I’m not living in fear of failure.

I’m just trying to keep any inevitable future failure in healthy perspective while I charge ahead into the stuff I believe God is calling me to do, and the person I believe He’s calling me to be. That’s the beauty in befriending failure – you can finally throw yourself all in to what you’re pursuing. When that fear is gone there’s room for big magic.

So here’s a challenge: what was your last epic failure?

What did you learn?  Or are you still hiding from it?

Are you allowing that failure to grow you and give you influence, or are you letting the fear of failure cripple you from making the impact you know you’re made for?

And if you haven’t fallen on your face in awhile… what are you waiting for? Stick your neck out and try at something that matters.  We’re all cheering for your next bold step, and we’ll be here to catch you if – and when – you fall.

HP,

J

I’d love to know what failure taught you too. Drop a comment below!

nine years of grace
Jan 21

Nine Years of Grace

By Jessica Allen | Faith , Family , Grief

I promised I would be present today. Fully present, for Grace.

I also promised myself I would write about it.

So after all the dishes were cleaned and wrapping paper collected, kisses given and little bodies tucked into bed, here I am in the recliner in the dark, rocking my sleeping baby, poking one letter at a time into my phone. Such is this full life – I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Today was a sweetly simple girly birthday, full of all the things she loves and nothing she doesn’t. (which is pretty easy – she loves everything.)

I’m always super mushy on her birthday, mostly because I still can’t believe she’s real. I have to pinch myself to remember her story is the most extraordinary surprise of my life, and from it, infinite good continues to flow.

As beautiful as Grace’s adoption is in hindsight, is as scary as it was in the moment of its happening.

Adoption is complicated. Your heart… your heart. It takes a beating.

Grow. Strengthen. Hurt. Break. Mend. Learn. Heal.

Repeat.

We didn’t have the waiting game to contend with as so many foster and adoptive families do. Our family found us, in the strangest call to action ever. We were less than three months removed from our son’s death and still trying to find our footing. Most days we walked around hollowed shells of ourselves, if we ever even left the house, going through motions and just checking boxes. What was the point of any of it?

When we got the news about Grace, it seemed too good to be true. Or maybe a cruel joke. It was all I could do to put my shoes on, much less rally to accept a newborn into our home. What would our families say? What about all these other people who were actually in the adoption process – surely this would seem unfair.

God is not about the business of fair. (He and I are going to have a gloves-off chat about that someday, anyone want to join me?)

But God is in the business of working all things together for good, for His grand masterpiece. See Romans 8:28

I don’t believe he caused our son to die. I do believe he allowed it. And I believe it broke his heart, the same way it broke his heart when he allowed his own son to die. 

I think he knew it would create a fracture in me… in Jack… in our marriage… that ONLY HE could fix.

Even in our grief, we knew a new baby would never be a replacement for the precious life we lost. 

But it felt so scary.

So I went to talk to LJ in the Garden. I needed his blessing I guess, strange as that sounds. 

When I go, I collect and keep all the petals from flowers people leave, including the gorgeous white roses Jack’s mom left on a regular basis. (Grief and loss do weird things to a person. I can’t stand to watch flowers die anymore.)

As I walked into the Garden that day to tell LJ about Grace, I noticed that, for the first time ever, the beautiful blooming rose in his corner… was pink.

Sign after sign after sweet sign continued to affirm that we were making the right decision. Even still, nine years later; those little winks are encouragement to just keep going, no matter how small and ill-equipped I feel.

The adoption process was hard. Paperwork, questions, interviews, visits, decisions that felt impossible in the wake of a death. Especially crammed into the 3-week timetable we had. Angels in human skin were there at every turn, providing help and encouragement where we felt out of our league. We stayed the course, kept the faith, clung to belief in the miraculous outcome we knew was coming.

And then she was here. 9 pounds of grace that washed over every bleeding wound and ugly scar I’ve ever had.

The plan seems so screwed up sometimes. But His promises do not fail. 

  • His promise that he will bind up the wounds of the broken hearted. Psalm 147:3
  • His promise that he will equip us where he has called us to go. Hebrews 13:21
  • His promise that though we are infinitely flawed, His character never changes.  Hebrews 13:8
  • His promise that we are more loved and more valuable to Him than all the works of his creation. Matthew 6:26

We. Me. You. More loved than we can understand.

So as I look into the face of this amazing tiny human, all I can muster is gratitude. For her life, the simple breath in her lungs that brought me back to life too. Her story is my favorite and if you’d like to know more you can find it here.

She’s only ours for a little while. I feel such overwhelming responsibility – even more so than with my biological children – to love and guide her well. Because not only was she divinely entrusted to us, she was given to us as a heart-aching gift of an earthly family.

This humbles me every day.

I am far from perfect. And anything I know is because of the amazing strong women in my life who teach me to love and lead with my arms wide open and my eyes looking UP. As long as the mistakes are made right, and we stumble through all this mess with belief in the One who sets us free, it’s all going to turn out just fine.

For our village who has loved and prayed for Grace from the moment you knew her, thank you. Her life – our family’s life – is abundant in blessings because of it. Tonight all our people gathered to eat and celebrate. We are so lucky you’re all here. Thank you for embracing our girl’s love for spaghetti and meatballs, a half-paint-prepped Bora Bora Blue big girl room, enthusiastic piano plunking, and more dollies and unicorns than you’d ever care to see again. There were children and big people everywhere, all loving and helping each other and I never once worried where the baby was. I hope you love being here as much as we love having you here.

Arms wide open means there’s room to wrap everyone up inside. That’s what grace – Grace – has taught me more than anything. I am never alone, even in my deepest despair. And when I can get out of the way just enough for God to take the lead, he will surprise me time and again with something better than I ever would have imagined.

For my girl,

HP

J

There’s more of this over in the “Family” and “Faith” pages of the website – and be sure to subscribe to our community to receive some occasional soup-for-the-soul goodness in your inbox.

growing through pain
Jul 10

Dealing with pain and growing through it

By Jessica Allen | Grief , Life

The truth about dealing with pain is that, despite our best efforts to hide it, we are all doing it. Nobody really wants to talk about it in our super-achieving, social-media-driven, image-conscious and affluent culture.

Sadly, rather than dealing with pain, we tend to medicate it. We run or hide or distract from it. We eat or drink it away, or over program our lives to avoid it. Maybe we build walls of protection from it like humor or sarcasm so we don’t feel it. Or we weave webs of image and material success so no one will ever know we still, underneath all those things, are dealing with pain.

I lived intimately with pain, desperately trying to hold it all in a tidy stack, until a gust blew it all into the wind beyond my reach. Once it was out of my grip, it wreaked havoc in my life until I learned how to call it by name and tame it to submission. (i.e. I learned how to submit to it.)

The surprising part of this process, and the fact that like a crazy person I’ve put all this pain out onto an internet billboard for the world to read, is that it’s earned me quiet, tender, and precious invitations into the pain stories of other people. When you tell your story, it gives other people permission – and courage – to examine their own. In a world of pain, community can be the first step to finding some peace and relief.

Everyone is hurting, somehow. Sometimes it’s “little,” like cutting words or severed friendships or social pressure. (Though we all know by now that pain is not little at all. It’s devouring our youth and crushing a generation of spirits in schools all over the country. But that is another thought for another day.)

Sometimes that pain is big, like a fraying marriage or grief over loss or uncertainty over the future.  Life-altering things that are completely out of our control.

What I have learned is that pain is pain.

No matter how small its source, pain takes root in even the most grateful and gentle spirits and contorts our thinking and behavior beyond recognition. You can only run from pain for a time. It will continue to show up. At some point it will catch up. It will persist after and outlast the most stubborn soul.

I suppose it is possible to try to live without pain… but that would require no relationships, no effort, no goals, no ambition, and no significance. Essentially, a vacuum. And though many of us try to avoid pain by attempting to create such a vacuum, that is not real life.

The encouraging thing here is that pain is designed to teach us something. Physical pain is easy to observe and understand: our fingertips sense heat so we don’t repeatedly touch a stove. Our minds feel fear to protect us from danger (think cavemen and sabertooth tigers).

Spiritual pain is a little more messy. It’s not so tangible, and so it’s easier to ignore. Heartbreak will grow us… or choke us. If we choose to shine a light on it, and really work to become better through it, it is the most transformative tool for growth we have.

But because pain pressures us to suffer in solitude, it has overwhelming power to warp our sense of self and distort our view of other people and the reality we live in. In a nutshell – we sentence ourselves to solitary confinement to try to understand things that just don’t make sense. And the more we spin trying to make sense of the illogical, the crazier we feel.

You cannot do this pain thing alone. I know. I tried and I failed. A wise friend asked me recently, “Who is caring for you? It’s the people who seem strongest that the rest of us forget to check in on.” (This offering was balm for my soul and made my breath catch in my chest. Don’t underestimate the potential of simple words to speak profoundly to another human heart.)

So, strong ones: I am checking on you. What are you running from? Or hiding from?

If you are dealing with pain:

Stop. Pause. Breathe.

I promise you – it may feel as though you’re outrunning what hurts your heart, but you cannot do it forever, and there is peace waiting for you when you plant your feet and simply be still. Reschedule that thing you think you can’t reschedule, say no to the thing you think you can’t say no to. The world will still be turning when you come back to it tomorrow with a refreshed spirit.

Stare it in the face and call it by name.

We as a culture have gotten really good at glossing over what’s real in favor of what looks and sounds good. I choked some personal pain back this week until yesterday I finally told my husband, “I feel sad because ___.”

**If your initial reaction to that idea was to roll your eyes and believe that only children or weak adults voice this feeling, I would gently encourage you to put the sword down and ask yourself why you reacted so. What pain in your own spirit is causing you to judge another for voicing their pain? You cannot give grace to others without first giving grace to yourself. Pain is real. Even yours.  It’s part of our human condition and there is nothing weak or shameful about acknowledging it.

Acknowledge the pain you feel, stare it in the face, and call it by name. Only then will you be able to move forward out of its grip.  Journaling is a helpful tool for this.  If the words feel ugly or awkward or scary coming out, congratulations – you’re doing it right.  Nobody ever has to see those words but you.

Walk out of solitary confinement.

Pain multiplies when we go it alone. Research is showing that the “loneliness epidemic” is one of the newest and highest indicators of early mortality, surpassing obesity. WE CAN FIX THIS. Reach out. Find someone trustworthy who will honor – and never belittle – your aching spirit. They don’t have to have all the answers (and reality check: they won’t). But they can listen, and “be with” you. You are never burdening someone by inviting them into the innermost chambers of your heart. Some people wait their entire lives to be asked to be known. Don’t let loneliness multiply your pain.

There are millions of self-help books on shelves all over the world written to help us do millions of things. Lose weight, earn more money, have better relationships, etc. But I believe if we can start dealing with pain in a more intentional way, we won’t need many of those books anymore.

Learning from pain will bring peace, clarity, confidence, vision, awareness, and a quiet belief in the idea that the hard stuff really is there to teach us and make us better. Not just better for our own sake, but for God to use as a stronger voice for other people. Your pain is trying to teach you something. Your story matters. And you may have no idea whose life will be changed forever once you have the courage to tell it.

HP,

J

Reading list

Braving the Wilderness by Dr. Brené Brown

The Power of Vulnerability by Dr. Brené Brown (4th most-watched TED talk of all time)

Mothers Day is hard|Mothers Day feels sad|feels sad|crying woman statue
May 11

When Mothers Day is Hard

By Jessica Allen | Grief

For every woman who swallows the lump in her throat on Mothers Day and for every daughter missing her mom, I see you and you are loved.

For every mama who feels weary and worn out: I see you too and you are loved.

For every mama who has nursed a broken heart, for every mama whose heart is still breaking, and for every mama who has sent a piece of her soul to heaven: I see you most of all. Your dreams are real. And the invisible yet ever-present pieces of your souls matter.

Hidden behind cards and flowers and commercials that we can’t watch with the sound on, there is quiet heartache. There is always so much for which to be grateful… but no amount of gratitude can soothe the pain of a grieving heart.

If this Mothers Day makes you want to hide under the covers, do it. It is just a day, created by the consumer industry to sell things.

Quietly snooze your fit friends on social media who will “splurge on a sliver of cheesecake” at brunch. Crawl into bed and eat the whole damn thing. Everyone’s glowing family photos will still be there for you to double tap tomorrow. Let next week be for health. This week is for wellness.  And maybe breaking some plates.

If this Mothers Day is a joy-filled celebration, savor it! Guilt-free! Spend time on your knees in gratitude, gather your chicks to love them well, snuggle in for a well-deserved nap, and take a moment to reach out in love to a woman you can bless by your care. “I’m thinking of you today” is so simple yet will mean so much.

For me?  Mothers day is always a bit surreal. How does your heart accept a card with one scribbly signature missing? How does your mind wrap around a family photo missing one sweet face?

When I unwrap gifts with my heart full of blessings, will I still choke these tears forever?

I don’t know the answer to that but I do know that for now the tears are okay. They’re the strangest mix of wonderful love and excruciating pain. Love that makes my heart beat out of my chest and pain that rips my chest in two.

I wonder often if blissful ignorance would be infinitely easier than heartful presence. (Why, O Lord, did I ever name this blog that? Writing about shooting buzzards required so much less heart work.) After I shake my fists a little bit I always come back to the same conclusion: I wouldn’t trade this love or this pain or this heartful presence for any amount of blissful ignorance.

As God in His time stitches up that tear in my chest, and builds my scar tissue little by little, there is more room for more love, for more presence, for more depth, than I ever had before.  Our hearts grow into greater capacity to hold everything – and everyone –  we choose to fill them with.  I hope my heart never stops growing.  Mostly I am grateful for that expansion.  But no growth comes without pain.

And when it hurts most, there is always cheesecake under the covers.

Wherever you are this Mothers Day, glowing on the mountaintop or crawling in the dark, lock arms with the people who join in your joy, grab hold of the people who share in your sadness, honor the women who made you the amazing woman you are, and be just as you need to be. This moment in time is simply one snapshot – one that we’ll add to the collection of millions of moments that make up a broken but beautiful life.

Rejoicing, grieving, or somewhere in the muddy middle: I see you and you are loved. Every full and fractured swell of your heart matters to me.

HP,

J

For the little piece of my soul that lives in heaven, and all the pieces still here too

___________

**For an extra read, this is a piece I wrote for submission to a Christian devotional.  Find the full post here.

___________

He is Not Here

It was the crisp cool morning of a South Texas November. Quiet, slow footsteps collected on the cobblestone path as our family gathered to lay our son’s ashes to rest in the marble columbarium wall, tucked away in a garden at the church.

With gloved hands I clutched the brushed gold box close to my chest. It had lain silently on the fireplace mantle for two days. He was there… but not there. And so was I. Present in body yet vacant in spirit.   Numb to all save the salty sting of swollen eyes and the suffocating weight of a broken heart.

We stood closely together in the chill of the morning as the church bells rang. Hands were held, words were spoken, life was celebrated. The vast blue sky hung frozen crystal clear over that holy ground. As our pastor reached for the little gold box containing my entire heart and soul, I imagined how God must have felt in that dark hour on Calvary. How burdened he must have been with the impossible task of handing over his Son to someone else – everyone else. And in that moment I finally understood His limitless love for me. As I struggled to release that precious box, into my empty and open hands flooded love and peace that simultaneously broke me and set me free.

And so my littlest love rests in that beautiful wall. There… but not there. Why do we look for the living among the dead? He is not here!

Praise God for his infinite love that reaches the depths of our wounded souls!

Heavenly Father, thank you for wrapping me in your love, even when I do not understand your plan. You know the cry of my heart. Be with me always. Amen.

Suggested long reading: Luke 24:1-8

In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” Luke 24:5-6, NIV

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. – Lamentations 3:22-23, ESV

Mothers Day is hard|Mothers Day feels sad|crying woman statue

infant loss
May 11

He is Not Here

By Jessica Allen | Grief

It was the crisp cool morning of a South Texas November. Quiet, slow footsteps collected on the cobblestone path as our family gathered to lay our son’s ashes to rest in the marble columbarium wall, tucked away in a garden at the church.

With gloved hands I clutched the brushed gold box close to my chest. It had lain silently on the fireplace mantle for two days. He was there… but not there. And so was I. Present in body yet vacant in spirit.   Numb to all save the salty sting of swollen eyes and the suffocating weight of a broken heart.

We stood closely together in the chill of the morning as the church bells rang. Hands were held, words were spoken, life was celebrated. The vast blue sky hung frozen crystal clear over that holy ground. As our pastor reached for the little gold box containing my entire heart and soul, I imagined how God must have felt in that dark hour on Calvary. How burdened he must have been with the impossible task of handing over his Son to someone else – everyone else. And in that moment I finally understood His limitless love for me. As I struggled to release that precious box, into my empty and open hands flooded love and peace that simultaneously broke me and set me free.

And so my littlest love rests in that beautiful wall. There… but not there. Why do we look for the living among the dead? He is not here!

Praise God for his infinite love that reaches the depths of our wounded souls!

Heavenly Father, thank you for wrapping me in your love, even when I do not understand your plan. You know the cry of my heart. Be with me always. Amen.

Suggested long reading: Luke 24:1-8

In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” Luke 24:5-6, NIV

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. – Lamentations 3:22-23, ESV

experience changes us
Apr 24

How Experience Changes Us For Good

By Jessica Allen | Grief

If you met your 10-years-ago self on the street, would you recognize her?

If I ran into 10-years-ago me, I don’t know what I’d do with her. I think I would recognize her bright eyes, fresh and rested skin, quiet spirit, and complete confidence that she knew exactly where her life was headed. I might introduce myself (because she probably wouldn’t recognize me at all) and offer to treat her to a cup of coffee. Just to hear her story.

After it was all over, I think I’d hug her tight and whisper in her ear, “Life’s coming. Just hold on.”  I don’t think she’d get it, but that’s okay.  Someday she’d understand.

She was a soft, sweet, and lovely lady. Yet I am beyond grateful I’m not that all-knowing girl anymore. Bumps, bruises, complete derailments, joys, sorrows, victories, and defeats have molded me into a stronger, healthier, more resilient, broken yet more beautiful version of myself. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.

Depending on how we respond to it, experience can change us for better or for worse. But one thing we’re guaranteed: experience changes us for good.

How experience changes us as a faithful teacher

Every experience, positive or negative, offer us the opportunity to change. Sometimes an experience is something that happens to us (job change, death of a loved one, an unexpected surprise) and often it’s something we make happen (choices to move, improve our health, make new friends).

When challenging and pivotal experiences arise, we have some choices as to how we respond.

Responses that prevent growth

  • We can run and hide. Often if the circumstances feel threatening enough, we can emotionally (and sometimes even physically) run away from them. Avoidance is easy.
  • We can become bitter. We can allow seeds of disappointment to grow into resentment, anger, and stress. Stress is one of the highest contributing factors to physical disease. Harboring it instead of processing it begins taking a toll on our health – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, relationally, and even financially.
  • We can blame others. It feels better in the moment to make a problem someone else’s fault. But we’ll never learn or grow when we’re pointing the finger.
  • We can stay right where we are. We can reject the opportunity for growth altogether. God is never going to force you to change. In my experience however, when I have ignored the invitation to change, he will continue to send up flares and red flags and take away the things in which I find comfort and strength.

Responses that encourage growth

  • We can take responsibility. We can own our part in the situation and take steps to finding a solution. My happiness is up to me, and me alone. I can make decisions in support of the direction I desire my life to go.
  • We can seek help. There is no shame in counseling. NONE. Healthy people get help! Seek out a professional who can help you navigate these tough emotions with care, sound advice, and an objective and wise perspective.
  • We can keep going.  Take faithful steps forward, knowing that victory comes to the person who never, ever, ever gives up.
  • We can grow. Embrace the learning part of the struggle. Read, listen, connect with wise people, strengthen your faith and relationships.
  • We can lean into our faith. This is a choice, a tough one. Do you believe enough to hold onto your faith for dear life? I can’t imagine navigating life’s heartaches without God at the wheel. I don’t ever want to try it. (If you’ve never walked through a fire with God at your side, I must ask: would you be willing to try?)

Traumatic experience is by far the toughest teacher.  Grief experience in particular throws these response choices at us in rapid fire, when we’re most overwhelmed, and most vulnerable to take the “easy way out” options.  Stay in the fight. Don’t throw in the towel. It will feel easy to run, hide, blame, resent, and stay stuck in the mud. Hard experiences require even harder work to come out stronger on the other side.

How experience changes us by opening our eyes

I think we all at some point have a look-ourselves-in-the-mirror moment where we realize “I’m just not the same person I was.” We have that moment with our spouses too.  (You can still love each other – the new versions of you are wiser, stronger, and better-equipped to tackle the tough stuff together.)

Thank GOODNESS I’m not that same person anymore. To wish away all the personal growth, gained wisdom, changed perspective, would essentially be regretting the well-lived life I’ve been blessed with. I have more to offer now as a human being than I ever did years ago. And the next season of my life will bring even more experience to use for good. Holding onto past hurt, blame, resentment, disappointment, failure, or frustration is only holding me back. (This is the fertile soil in which stress and depression tend to grow.) When I live in that past, I can’t connect with the learning and growth that allows me to make a more meaningful contribution to my faith, my family, my friendships, and my career.

Do you want to be different in 10 years? Or how about in 10 minutes? Allow whatever experience you’re walking right now teach you something for the better. Choose how you will respond to hardship and disappointment. Will you respond by running away and blaming others, or will you respond by growing and leaning into your faith and relationships?

One path is easy but ends up taking you in circles. The other path is a harder walk but there’s something amazing waiting when the darkness clears.

Choose your own adventure!

HP,

J

Reading List

Rising Strong by Brené Brown