“I owe my life to three people: Jesus, Dan, and Lilian.”
In the past few years of my life, I have said this specific phrase repeatedly. If you’ve read my blog even once or twice, I’m pretty sure you know why I consider Jesus to be a life changer for me (Savior-Redeemer-Forgiver-Gracer [it isn’t technically a word but it SHOULD be!]).
Ditto on Dan, of course (best-friend-husband-daddy-extraordinaire).
But, Lilian? “Who the heck is that?” you ask. “And if she is such a life changer, why haven’t you mentioned her before, Elizabeth?” Good question. And here’s the short answer: I never mentioned her because I thought that part of my life was finished and tucked away for safe keeping. Last week, something happened that made me realize she is much more prominent than I thought. Her role in my life wasn’t a bit part; it has continued to whisper for ten years.
Now, here’s the long answer:
When my brother Jackson died in 1996, I had never been so up-close-and-personal with grief before. I didn’t know how to grieve, much less know that I even could grieve. Through all of the pithy, pat cliches that everyone spouted off after he died, I got the impression that only weak, selfish people would dare to grieve. Everyone told me I should “be happy, he’s in a better place and he’s no longer in pain.” I knew they were right (that he was in a better place), and didn’t think a “good” sister would begrudge that joy from someone she loves. I allowed myself a week to be sad about his death, then returned home to Kansas City and my TV news job and went back to my life and my regular routine. I quickly learned to stuff my emotions away where I couldn’t feel them, since feeling them meant crying and hurting – which meant I must be selfish if I wished my brother were still alive instead of pain-free in Heaven.
Around this time, I also turned my back on God. I reasoned that God didn’t hold up His end of the bargain I made with Him, which was to heal my brother in exchange for me being a good person and doing good things with my life. Jackson died, therefore God must not care – and obviously wasn’t much of a powerful God anyway. Because if God were powerful, He certainly would have saved Jackson. It was the only logical thing to do, since Jackson was such an amazing person and so strong and vibrant and young, and had such a huge life ahead of him. Why wouldn’t God save him? Since He didn’t, I figured God just wasn’t for me. I walked away and cut God out of my life.
There isn’t much I remember about the next four years. I have photos that show me smiling and living and enjoying life. I appeared happy, but the truth is I was simply “phoning in” my life. I wasn’t actively engaged in living or my marriage or my job. I was punching a time clock and passing time. I didn’t allow deep emotions (except for occasional anger at Dan because he was a good target for my frustrations), and I lived life an inch deep and a mile wide. EXCEPT for October.
September 26th marked the last day I saw my brother alive, so that was the start of my yearly month-long mourning that lasted until October 26 (the day he died). October was also Jackson’s birthday month, so it was a nice package deal for me. I allowed myself to grieve that month, mostly when I was alone. Sometimes I would ask Dan to hold me, but usually I would get out a box of Jackson’s things and go through them on my own and cry over them. I would listen to sad songs (“Go Rest High on That Mountain,” “The Dance,” and “One Sweet Day” were regulars for me). I would look through old photos. I would torture myself with regrets and guilt about why I wasn’t there when he took his last breath. I would ask my sister and parents questions about the last time they saw him, and read old letters from him. But when October ended, I put it all away and stuffed my emotions back into their cave.
Oh, don’t get me wrong: I tried to get grief counseling. Once or twice, I saw a therapist who told me I simply needed to visit Kentucky to see the spot where Jackson’s wife placed a marker and buried some of his cremains. He said that would give me closure. (He also repeatedly called my brother “Jack” even when I tried to correct him. Grrrr…)
That “closure” didn’t quite help. Life continued on, and I spiraled a little further into an emotional tailspin because I couldn’t get a grip on my emotions as easily as I used to. It didn’t help that I was working a really awful overnight job as a TV producer, and my days and nights were mixed up and I wasn’t sleeping well. Dan and I made the decision to move to St. Louis to be near his family so that when we eventually had children, we would be near family. That move just about crushed me.
Living in St. Louis was never in my Life Plan (which was to become a news producer in a top ten market, namely Atlanta), and I hated living here. I was in a town I didn’t know, sleep-deprived and hormonal after coming off a nights-only job, living in a dinky one-bedroom apartment (we were renting until we could find a house), and I got lost every time I tried to leave that awful apartment. Oh, and did I mention I was unemployed? My TV news producer "dream had ended after the overnight job showed me how rough the business could be. The icing on the cake was this: we moved as October changed to November, so I was coming off a month of grief and sadness.
I remember barely getting out of bed that month. I tried to appear normal and functioning when Dan was around, but I cracked a lot and sometimes begged him not to go to work. I tried to find a job and sent out resumes, but I refused to work in TV news again. This meant I didn’t have much experience that seemed useful on a resume.
My mom and I talked off and on, and she told me that the headquarters of a certain ministry was located in St. Louis and I should send my resume there. I humored her and said I would do it, but secretly knew I wouldn’t. What ministry would hire a former TV news producer (who secretly disliked God) and what kind of job would they have for me anyway? I did NOT send in my resume and instead holed up in my bedroom and soaked in my misery.
Then, one day, I couldn’t take it anymore. I remember laying in that bed one morning under a red comforter and having nowhere to go: no job interviews, no appointments, nothing that day. I had no one to talk to and nothing to look forward to besides Dan coming home from work at the end of the day. I remember thinking, “This can’t be all there is to my life. I can’t DO this anymore!” Somehow, I started praying. It wasn’t much. About all I said (and not even out loud) was this: “God, if you are there, you HAVE to do something about this. I’m not gonna make it.”
There was no audible response, no booming voice from God telling me what to do. So I got up and went to the bathroom. I picked up my one and only link to God, which was a copy of the yearly devotional called Daily Guideposts. Dad still sent it to me every year for Christmas, and I felt obligated to read it because sometimes he would ask me about that day’s devotion. I didn’t want to make him feel bad by saying I didn’t read it (and also that God and I weren’t “together” anymore), so I would read it every now and then. I remember picking it up that morning in an offhand way, and catching up on the last few days’ devotions. That’s when God figuratively (although it felt like literally!) hit me over the head with an answer.
One of the devotions was written by a woman who described her move to a new town where she was miserable. She didn’t know anyone, felt lost, and didn’t have a church home. One day she drove by a church where there was a sign for a certain ministry that she used to belong to at her former church. She started going to church there, it became home, and she found joy again.
That ministry was the same ministry Mom was “nagging” me to contact with my resume. I truly felt like this was God’s way of answering my plea for help, but I snorted out loud at Him and wondered why He would want me to apply for a job there. I knew they wouldn’t hire me anyway and it all seemed pointless.
To shorten the story a bit, I’ll summarize here and say I sent in my resume because of the devotion I read. They DID hire me. I worked there for two years. And because of that job and God’s specific answer to my prayer, I stepped out and starting trusting God again. I found a church because I figured if I was gonna work at a ministry, they were going to want me to attend church. I was very tentative with God, but felt a little more peace than I had in a long time. He also kept speaking to me in subtle ways through scripture I’d come across at work, or friends I was making in the office.
One of those friends started talking with me about my grief. She told me about a counselor she was seeing for her own aches, and I agreed to give this counselor a call.
The counselor’s name was Lilian.
She made sense of my grief and why the Jackson-shaped hole in my heart was so devastating. (I spent 22 years of my life c0mparing myself to him, so when he died I didn’t quite know who I was anymore because I had no comparison to measure myself – and my deeds – against.) She helped me understand my family of origin (and my parents’ families of origin) and what parts were deeply unhealthy and manipulative. But even more than all of that, she was the first person to personalize Jesus for me. She showed me in an un-cliché way that Jesus really does grieve with me. He deeply hurts and also deeply rejoices with me. He wants me. He adores me. I vividly remember the day she unpacked the story of Lazarus with me. She explained how Jesus wept for His friend, even knowing death wasn’t the end of Lazarus’ story. She showed me that grief doesn’t mean you’re selfish, and also showed me that God is real enough to feel and hurt. And He’s also big enough to get the last word.
I spent two years of my life in deep counseling with Lilian. She helped me heal and walked me through pain that I had been avoiding my whole life – not only since Jackson’s death, but prior to that too.
Simply put, she changed my life.
I stopped seeing Lilian right before Katie was born. I was emotionally healthy enough (notice I didn’t write the word “strong” because I think strength has nothing to do with it and can be the antithesis of emotional health) to navigate the new baby, and Lilian laid the foundation for me to handle my parents’ deaths in a much healthier way.
I didn’t have much contact with Lilian after that. I’m sure there was a Christmas card or two (from me to her) and maybe an email, but that was it. She was tucked away in the folds of my heart, sealed with gratitude and thanksgiving.
You probably know my story after that, but here’s the synopsis: I left that ministry job after two years (left = fired), went to another job, had a baby, worked one last job then became a stay at home mom. I had Jackson. We found a new church and God’s engraved His grace on my heart and I finally, truly came home to Him. Life was real with ups and downs, and it still is: good, bad, and everything in between.
Last week, one of the “bad” things happened. Jeff, a friend of ours who we met at church, died from a brain tumor. His death is awful. He leaves a wife and two young boys, and there are so many sad things about this. But he also left a legacy of hope, and countless people he introduced to Jesus. I attended his funeral because he’s my friend, but also because I was working at church that day. As part of my job on staff, I greeted people at the door to the auditorium.
I was standing at the door when this woman walked near me. I had one of those moments when I think I know someone, but can’t remember why or how. I would usually just shut up until I figure it out, but I blurted to the woman, “I think I know you.” She looked at me with that “I think I know you too” look and THAT’S when it hit me and I said, “Oh, my God. You’re Lilian!” I have no idea the next words I said, but I do remember hugging her and then telling her how much she has meant to me and how much she changed my life. I asked her if I could have a photo with her, because she affected me so deeply. She agreed, and here it is.
This woman, oh! This woman! To see her in my home (yes, my church is my home!) where my God finally made sense to my tiny little brain, and to have the culmination staring me so blatantly in the face: to have proof that God crosses His “Ts” and dots His “Is” so thoroughly to demonstrate how deeply He loves me… and to show me how intricately He’s been working on His plan for me!
You have no idea the amount of breathtaking awe I felt in that moment, and the amount of love that I knew God had heaped upon me.
There are very few moments in my life where I have had such clarity about the circle of my life. Usually, any clarity I have comes at a much later date, when hindsight makes the moment finally come into focus. But on this day, I knew as the moment unfolded that it was a pure gift from the holiest of holies, my Savior and my Father.
I also know my friend Jeff was rejoicing in heaven to know that God always keeps His promises.