He Walks Before

Happy New Year, everyone!

There has been a plethora of 2016 recap posts and 2017 resolutions posts in the blogging world this past week, it’s come to be expected at this time of year.

2016 was an interesting year.

The year began with the losses dear family members, my paternal grandmother and our sweet Nellie in January. The New Year was a ending of sorts on a chapter of my life in which the Lord rescued me, guided me, and restored me. In the time between December 2013 to January 2016, the Lord called six of my family members home to Him. He called me to step out and make a way for myself in the church and led me to a new church home. He tested my faith through the students in my classroom, through the disease that my dad carries in his body, and through calling two of my closest relatives – my maternal grandmother and my Aunt Shelia – home to Him just 39 hours apart from each other.

Though this season came to a close in January 2016, I spent the remainder of the year wrestling in many ways with my next steps. My life had been changed, that much I knew. As I stood in the midst of a world that was falling apart around me, I knew I had experienced the amazing and unbelievable peace that could only come from the presence of Christ Jesus. The barriers that I had around my heart had come tumbling down and I was finally able to feel Him more fully and more profoundly than ever before in my life. I knew how to worship Him and sing His praises in that season because I had just seen firsthand what leaning into Him could look and feel like in the midst of turmoil. But once the dust had settled? Where I did I go from there?…

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I Love You, a Bushel and a Peck

It’s hard to believe that it has already been a year since everything changed. In some ways, it feels like yesterday and in others it seems as if it were a lifetime ago. From December 2013 to January 2016, I lost six of my close family members but it’s these losses, these two in September 2015, that grabbed a hold of me and crumbled every wall and every barrier that I hadn’t even realized I had built. One year ago, not long after this post will go live, I stood at the foot of my grandmother’s hospital bed as she left this world for God’s kingdom. Less than 48 hours later, I stood outside of her house at 1:45 in the morning as her youngest daughter, my Aunt Shelia, joined her.

Grandma & a Baby Ashley

My grandmother was one of the strongest women that I know and to know my grandmother was to be loved by her. She raised her ten children to be the best aunts and uncles (and mom) I could ever wish for, something she did primarily on her own. Though her first taste of work was growing up on a tobacco farm, she worked as a waitress, a cook, a hairdresser, and a third-shift textile worker to help support them before eventually settling into her role with an organization that provided residential services to adults in the community with intellectual disabilities. She loved on her clients just as she loved on her own family, something that I hope I carry on in my own current role as a teacher to children with special needs. And although she had 15 grandchildren, she had a unique way of making each of us feel special when we were with her.

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True Thanksgiving

True Thanksgiving

Last week, I found myself attending a funeral for a member of the church family at my childhood church. We celebrated the life of a sweet lady who was so instrumental to the life of the church and whose son was a friend of my dad. It was a beautiful service and led me to reflect on the past year and the three funerals that I have attended for my own family members in that time.

During the service, some time was spent reflecting on the act of giving thanks to God and it was said, “when we experience true thanksgiving, we allow ourselves to be open to the reality of what God can do.”

Open to the reality of what God can do.

Isn’t that just a beautiful statement? And it paints an even more beautiful image of joy and hope. There are many things that I discovered about the experience of losing loved ones as I’ve journeyed down this path for the past two and a half years. One of them being that, no matter how much it may defy your logic, it is certainly possible to experience joy and gratitude in the face of immense sorrow.

The experience of grief is a choice. Whether or not we experience grief is not one of them, for we all must do that, but we certainly have a choice in how we experience it. And I firmly believe that there is no right or wrong way to experience grief as long as Jesus is our anchor….

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Where She Lived Last

Where She Lived Last

Last week, I came across a blog post that Rory Feek had written and shared about a visit he and his daughter had made back to Indiana for the first time since his wife, Joey Feek, passed from cancer back in March. The strength and faith that these two exhibited touched so many all around the world. As I read Rory’s post, I was struck when he shared something that his father-in-law said when they went back to Joey’s childhood home and the place where she passed away.

Then we all went across the pond and Bill opened up the house for us that we had stayed in while we were there those last few months in Indiana.   Joey’s daddy had come to that house often he said.   Most days he stops by and just sits outside.  “This is where I feel Joey the most”, he told us, ‘…where she lived last”.   But he’d not been inside since that day in March when his daughter left us, exactly three months before.

It’s amazing sometimes to think about the things that tie us to certain places. When a particular place is full of happy memories, going back and reminiscing is a joyful thing. When a place is marked with sadness, we want to block it from our lives and memories completely. When it comes to losing someone so precious to us, I think we sometimes feel a little of both sides. On the one hand, the places where our loved ones left this earth is marked with an unimaginable sadness because they are no longer with us but on the other, we can be filled with joy that this was where they lived last and went to go be with the Lord.

I found myself struck by Joey’s father’s description of the home as “where she lived last.” Back in September, when my family lost my grandmother and my aunt less than 48 hours apart, so much of this little North Carolina town became marked with a wide range of emotions and memories. This town, barely a blip on the map and so easy to pass right through, was a place that held so many of my happiest childhood (and young adult) memories. But now, this hospital that was a few miles down the road became the place where my grandmother breathed her last. This exit off Interstate 85, one that we never really had to take to get where we were headed, was the place where we lived as we prepared ourselves for her passing. My grandmother’s home, where I had spent many a weekend and holiday with my family, became the place where my aunt left this earth in the middle of night, just a few hours before her mother’s funeral….

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When The World Remains the Same

Psalm 126:5

While I can’t speak for everyone, in my life I have found that one of the most isolating experiences that a person can have is loss. Any feelings other than isolation are essentially an illusion to the outsiders looking in so that they believe that the grieving individuals in their lives are fine.

Now that I am on the other side of a season of loss that spanned two years and one month, it is startling to me how drastically different the world looks when you make it out. And you do make it out, my friends, let me be clear on that. Our Heavenly Father always sees you through to the other side. For me, my entire world changed when I said goodbye to six family members in that short time. I was lucky, though. God, in his infinite wisdom and love, strategically planned my life and my journey of faith so that I was in a place that I could rely on Him solely for comfort and refuge when I needed it like the air I breathe.

There’s something about experiencing something so tragic and life-altering that can leave you feeling as though you’re carrying this invisible mark or sign. You’re haunted by the things you have seen, the things you have experienced and yet the world continues moving. It almost seems impossible. Life goes on, whether we want it to or not. I can remember vividly, even through the myriad of emotions that I felt on September 19, 2015, how badly I wished I could scream out to everyone I passed.

Look at me! Can’t you see that I have just experienced something tragic? I just watched my grandmother die two days ago and my aunt died this morning as I was outside. She died this morning and we still had my grandmother’s funeral, hours later. How can you just go through your day??

But they just keep on going. Kind words like thank you, have a nice day can feel like a slap in the face. I couldn’t help but think back to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry’s encounter with the thestrals. A grim creature that one can only see if they have seen death. As the days moves forward, it gets easier to accept the passage of time. You become better at smiling genuinely and not feeling as though you’re breaking some sort of “grieving person” code. But as I began to put one foot back in front of the other and get back into a routine, I realized that I was never going to survive this season without opening my heart to the idea of joy and gratitude, as foreign as they seemed in the state I was in. True joy and true gratitude can only come when your heart has been healed and your soul has been comforted by our Lord.

“Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy” // Psalm 126:5 (NIV)

The world looks different to those of us who have experienced death and understand what tragedy looks like and feels like. September is never going to be just another Fall month for me just as my drive through Burlington on the way to Raleigh is never going to not bring back the memories of the week that was spent there. I have been shaped and molded by what has happened to my family and I have experienced the peace that could only come from our Savior to my very core.

“Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls” // 1 Peter 1:8-9 (NIV)

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