A Grandmother’s Story: My Journey in the Wilderness

Sorry I’ve been away for so long. It’s been more than 2 weeks since the last post. Been struggling with a few things so haven’t felt up to writing either physically or emotionally. Hopefully, I can catch up this weekend to get some thoughts down. In the meantime, my Mom has patiently waited for me to post her most recent piece. Thanks Mom! ~Christina

“Wilderness,” according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary is defined as a wild, uncultivated, uninhabited area, undisturbed by human activity. Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “an inhospitable region.”

Years ago, when I first came to America, I experienced this type of “wilderness,” when I lived in Alaska for several years with my biological father and his family. I was around 9 years old. Even though we lived inside a military base, the areas surrounding us, were uncultivated and uninhabited. We were surrounded by wilderness with acres after acres of evergreen trees, which during wintertime, especially after a snowfall, looked like lovely white Christmas trees. The homes and buildings looked magical with frozen water freezing mid-stream, forming icicles around the edges and from the rooftops. It was beautiful.

During the weekends, my father would take me to the wilderness, probably for two reasons. One to enjoy nature and also to teach me several lessons, such as fishing, dangers with wildlife and active listening. We would get into his two-door VW bug. As he drove, he would tell me to stay near him and he would say, “It’s beautiful here but it’s dangerous to be out by yourself, so stay close, listen to me, or you will become an appetizer for a bear!”

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Papa McKing out fishing in the Alaskan wilderness

When we got to our destination, he would strap on his holster, a gun on each side of his hips, fishing poles in one hand and a bucket in the other. Sometimes, I wondered if he was even familiar with some of the places he took me. But, he just seemed to know what to do. On one trip, he taught me how to shoot his pistol and shotgun. He said, “You’ve got to be prepared, just in case you need to help keep our family safe.” (I was the eldest of his three children).

A serene stream was a few yards away from our car. He would teach me to fish for trout or salmon. Sometimes we would go by the rocky beachside to catch clams, crabs or other shellfish. We would clean whatever we caught during the trip right where we were, if the weather permitted. We would cook our catch over boiling seawater and open flames. No need to get a permit from the KOA. Nope. It was as open as it could be. I loved it! I have never tasted fish and seafood like that since leaving Alaska. You’ve heard of the famous Alaskan King Crabs? They are large and delicious. It’s become a family favorite. Some crabs are larger than myself. (Another story). It was peaceful and quiet, the sound of your breath would often be deafening. Sometimes, I would think to myself that I would scare off the fish. I was just so young and naive. What did I know? My dad taught me which berries were edible. My young siblings and I loved to pick them off the tiny shrubs. No need to wash them, my father said. It’s all natural. To this day, I remember how delicious those wild salmonberries, red currants, cranberries and wild blackberries tasted. However, my father was always nearby, carefully fishing or cooking our catch, and keeping a keen eye on us, reminding my siblings and I, not to go too far. “Remember the bears,” he would say. Especially when we were picking the berries. Fresh berries and fresh fish always seem to attract wild animals.

bear_webFor my father, it wasn’t just any “bear” but the infamous Kodiak bear, known as one of the largest species of the brown bears, the other, is the polar bear. The first time I saw a Kodiak bear was at the local grocery store where everyone shopped. It wasn’t alive. It was caught, killed, and stuffed. Displayed for everyone to see and a reminder of how big and sharp their claws were. As I can remember, it was scary and huge.

I have seen several bears, deer and moose out there in the wilderness with my father. Fortunately, nothing bad ever happened in my adventures with him. Like I mentioned earlier, if danger lurked by, he would always be there to warn us. Being a parent myself, I understand it…The responsibility. Protecting, scouting the area and enjoying the natural surroundings.

But the “wilderness” that I want to talk about is from the viewpoint of Christina and Brett’s journey through grief and suffering. It’s their own “wilderness journey,” as well as mine. We are genuinely going through a very tragic, sad and difficult time. There’s no book in world that can diminish or eliminate the pain. Recently, after reading and researching several topics about grief, I have found that you can experience all sorts of emotions at various times, at varies degrees. But no matter what sort of guidance or literature I find, it still feels isolating and scary, walking through unfamiliar territory.

Pat Schwiebert, wrote in her book “A Grandparent’s Sorrow,” a picture of grief as: “playing the role of parent to a grieving adult child will be both a blessing and a curse as you try to figure out how you can be most helpful in any given situation.” It reminds me of those wilderness trips I described earlier with my father. The wilderness trips he took me on would either be a blessing or result in something tragic, particularly if he was unprepared. He seemed to be ready for any situation. But I have to be honest, there’s nothing that I can do for Christina or Brett to prevent them from facing the “brown bears” in their wilderness journey of grief. The tears, the unrealized dreams, the what if’s, all of the “clawing” milestones that come and go. Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and many other special times. The “brown bears” in our lives, as I’ll call it, are unavoidable.

For me, the “wilderness” has been a spiritual journey, as well. I can’t help but think when the Israelites left Egypt as they traveled through the desert to the Promised Land in what should have taken them only 11 days, took them 40 years. This grief, this mourning, it is in its sixth month. To me, it seems as if it was only yesterday. As I’ve said, I’ve been reading several publications and talking to other grieving parents and grandparents. I found that in hearing their stories, grieving takes a lifetime. Relived when you hear others touched by pregnancy or infancy loss. I’ve heard, you never forget the emotions and thoughts.

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On Sunday, October 23, I was sitting at church, listening to my pastor, Ray Bentley. We have been studying the book of Deuteronomy for a couple months. Word by Word. Chapter by Chapter. In fact, Sunday, I had an epiphany to entitle this blog “Journey in the Wilderness,” taking from my pastor’s sermon series. When Moses led his people out of Egypt, he was guided by God, supported by his family to make the long journey “home.” Along the way, he experienced danger, doubt, discouragement, isolation, confusion and rebellion. I can relate to some of these feelings myself. This is why Moses’ stories seem so fitting to my personal “journey in the wilderness” of grief.

Let me first say, I respect and appreciate Pastor Ray. When I came back from my trip in April from witnessing Emmett’s birth, I shared with my pastor the trials and hardship I was going through and what Christina was going through. It was the first time I had cried for Emmett’s death during church service. I’ll just share with you a quick story about my pastor. In previous sermons, he had shared that he and his wife Vicky had experienced pregnancy and infant loss as a young couple. He would incorporate his loss throughout his sermons occasionally. Sharing often how he and Vicky made it through their wilderness of loss and pain. Needless to say, my pastor had wise and comforting words for my husband and I. Who would understand what my daughter was going through except someone like my pastor. He prayed for Gary and I back in April. He also prayed for Christina and Brett.

Let me give you a little background of my husband and I. We have been married for 16 years. Prior to meeting each other, we both had gone through a spiritual transformation. Some call it becoming a “Jesus Freak,” some say “Born Again.” For me personally, I call it, “The Greatest Love,” and I enjoy studying the Bible. Reading God’s Word is a huge part of my life. It’s as important to me today as it was over 30 years ago, when I first opened my eyes and heart to reading God’s amazing love story. Discovering who Jesus is in my life, helping me to heal from several bumps and bruises. In some sense, it’s my “wilderness journey.”

When Gary and I met, we had both come from past broken relationships. At that time, we were attending a different non-denominational church from our current one where Pastor Ray preaches. Gary was serving in the church as a “Singles” leader at the time we met. When we married, I joined him in this area, at first grudgingly. People can say hurtful things, even in the church, and I had no idea what to expect. I was still navigating the pathway. This was a new trail for me to blaze. I had never been with anyone at church who was a leader. I’ve often been told that my husband was a pastor with a small congregation. I was certainly unprepared for this adventure. A few years later, we were asked by our pastor to serve as “Married Couples” leaders. What I mean by “serving” here is, helping single people or married couples navigate through life in a Biblical sense. Throughout the years, we have seen several circumstances that single people or married people go through, whether it’s broken hearts, loneliness, weddings, baby dedications, suicide, and even the death of a child. It’s what we call “life”. But this wasn’t limited to just giving a helping hand. My husband would teach from the Bible in these settings and we would discuss them in the group so we could actively apply God’s Word in our lives.

Interestingly enough, all the years of experience, nothing seems to minimize the pain that I’m experiencing as Emmett’s grandmother and especially, as Christina’s mother. It sure didn’t prevent it, even as a Christian. It would be hypocritical of me if I made you think that I didn’t doubt or ask God “why?” On a previous blog, I had mentioned this. I have doubted, sometimes too often. Experts on grief state this is a normal feeling. Be careful not to judge! It will happen to you when experiencing the death of a loved one. You never know how you will feel or act, until you live out the trial.

When my father took me fishing, he would show me how to bait the hook, throw the line, and reel in the fish. The step-by-step process. But for some reason, I don’t feel I am equipped enough to guide my children through this “wilderness” that we have been in. I have a great deal of respect for my husband. He reads and breathes the Bible, sometimes for hours. We always tell family and friends that it’s the handbook of life, a love story from God to us. Perhaps you’ve experienced listening to a friend or family member share about going through a hardship. They just don’t seem to know what to do. We can be so quick to give advice. But when it comes to your own grief, it’s so much harder, sometimes your rendered speechless. You don’t know what to do or say. I remember a famous writer “Dear Abby.” People would ask her questions from an array of topics. It was endless. As a reader, you would read the question and “Abby” would always seem to give great advice. You would think, “perfect answer”, how’d she come up with that brilliant idea?

October 26th was six months from the day we lost Emmett. My emotions, as a grandmother, have been changing and new ones that weren’t there before are surfacing. You know the commercials with the pregnant lady or the diaper commercials? I can’t help myself when my eyes start swelling with tears, then a sweating forehead and my heart begins to pound. Internally, I’m trying to hold the emotions inside. I tell myself, “Why in the heck am I reacting like this?” I feel like a little girl sobbing because my baby toy broke. Really? What am I so concerned about? My baby girl, my Chrissie, is hurting, broken. Sometimes I find myself staring in the distance, no thoughts formed in my head, my body just feels numb! I feel faint, is it a hot flash, or a mid-life crises? And sometimes, things just race through my mind. I recently got laid off from work. My other child is joining a church with substantially different core biblical viewpoints. And he’s pondering a future engagement and perhaps starting a family of his own. It’s like a whirlwind in my mind! I know I have to trust the Lord, but…Heaven help me!

Trying to navigate through this journey of grief and mourning is so difficult, especially when it’s your own. I found that as a grandmother, it’s doubly hard. I recently received a book from my husband called “Healing A Grandparent’s Grieving Heart” by Alan D. Wolfelt. He writes in his introduction, “What I know about the unique grief of grandparents is this: You grieve doubly. You grieve for the loss of your grandchild, and you grieve for your child whose child has died.”

I have never thought of it in those terms. It feels the weight of the world is on “Me,” the grandparent. To have the responsibility to help your children navigate through the ‘wilderness’ and at the same time “my” personal navigation itself. Avoiding any potential dangers in the next wave of emotions. Wolfelt also referred to grandparents as “forgotten mourners,” because they are often neglected or forgotten because everyone else is either focus on the parent of the child or the sibling of the person who died. He continues and said, “They (grandparents) don’t want to shine the grief spotlight on themselves because their love for their child and grandchild demands selflessness.” Spiritually, this is so true. Jesus is the perfect example of denying oneself. So often, with my “self-talk,” I wish, I could have taken Emmett’s place to spare my own child experiencing grief. I’m not alone in these same feelings; others have shared the same sentiment with me. I can’t thank our readers enough, how your comments, great or small, have propelled us to move forward. You are helping in our healing process, our journey. Please continue reading and sharing your thoughts.

Lastly, over two weeks ago, I had the deepest sadness that I have felt thus far in grieving for Emmett. It came about as I came across an item that I had saved to give to my daughter when Emmett would have been born. But it sat in the corner of my living room. I said, I would never see my grandson with this cute green and gray outfit. A much harder realization came upon me when I thought, I will never be able to give or wrap a gift to Emmett, “My Grandson” and write “Love Nana Liza and Grandpa Gary.” Oh how the gates of loss came over me. A ton of bricks fell on me that day. Literally.

Wilderness… what do I do? Is there a handbook to navigate through this jungle?

I’ll tell you this, after sharing those feelings and thoughts with my daughter and the absence of gift giving for Emmett, my husband and I made something for our little angel with my daughter’s blessing and support. I wrote a special letter to Emmett. Gary wrote a special poem. When I was wrapping his gift with a bow and sealing the packet, I was crying uncontrollably, knowing full well, that he is gone. I felt like I was sealing his coffin. I know it may sound cold, but that’s what I felt. He will never read that letter. He will never see all the small gifts we got. (I will let my daughter decide whether or not she will share or expound what was in the box.) The “gift box”, I did it for me, Nana. Only once the box was taped, sealed and mailed, was when I realized how profound Emmett’s death would deeply affect my heart. It was a visualization for me in terms of how death is so powerful in communicating what has been lost. How valuable Emmett’s life was. It didn’t matter to me how tiny or a short life he lived, he has made a significant mark in my life. I truly grasp the reality that I will never hear his little voice call me “Nana, Grandma”, whatever name he would have called me. This was the hardest thing to accept. The truth of never hearing what his voice would have sounded like when he whispered, “Hi Nana, I love you!” Any name would have been okay. Grandparents are so forgiving, right? I can only imagine it. That’s why I did this exercise, this journey.

For me, it validates what I have lost, but more importantly, what Christina and Brett have lost. I imagine, the best I can, Emmett being present. That’s why on my previous blog, I shared one of my favorite songs, “I Can Only Imagine.” Because this is all I am left with. Imagination? I was on my knees as I packed Emmett’s gift. A perfect position of surrender. I thought. That was a Friday. I didn’t get to say “goodbye” to Emmett. I wasn’t at the hospital when Christina and Brett said their goodbyes. It doesn’t matter, it’s really their son, and I’m just the grandmother. One who was given permission by my children to share their intimate painful experience in their lives as husband and wife. That is a privilege, one source I read, I can’t remember from where.

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My elementary school in Alaska covered in snow

Now, I’m continuing on this journey of wilderness. I’m eager, but apprehensive of the length of time this will take. It is the rest of my life? The accessible resources or acknowledgements in the media, which discuss pregnancy and infant loss, are minimal, if you can find any at all. I find that appalling. I spoke to one grief support group leader and was advised that some organizations, whether it be in the health industry, victims of crimes, or media, don’t want to talk about it or be partnered with a legitimate organization that deals with the issue in a non-church sponsored way. October has several well-advertised awareness programs such as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Domestic Violence Awareness, Retts Syndrome Awareness Month, etc. But the bottom line here is that those causes are easily talked about or portrayed in the media. Shouldn’t this change? We see so many commercials with a mother or couple happily taking a baby home. It would be great to hear professional advice to families making difficult situations, surviving the decisions they had to make, and showing the emotional side of this medical crisis that touches the population, and sharing resources that are available. It’s more than just delivering babies. We all don’t get that “happily ever after” ending. Why doesn’t the medical industry show how they have helped families deal with those situations? We live in the age of education and equality for everyone, don’t we? (I’ll stop here for now! But, it is disappointing, and this is why we can feel isolated.)

This journey is allowing me to learn how to grieve with my adult child and I can continue to help her shift through the jungle maze. A grieved parent told me, that because of my love for my daughter, she said, “I know you will make it and so will your daughter because of how much you love Emmett.” Love is and should be what propels us! I can never say enough, how much I love my son Brett and my daughter, Christina. If you’re a grandparent and this is your first loss, give yourself permission to mourn, to weep and grieve. We do not have to be the forgotten mourners.

xmas_card_webI like this quote by Mitch Albom: “Death ends a life, not a relationship.” Even though, this has been difficult, my relationship with my daughter is continually growing and evolving. I see trees toppling down in a wild forest, a path clearing for us to take, one step at a time. When we see the “brown bear” in the distance, we face it together by communicating with one another without judgment or expectation that we need someone to fix a problem. Sometimes, we just need you to listen and help us remember “by name” our loved one. It tells us after weeks and months of mourning, that our loved ones are not forgotten. They are still special. They are honored. But, I also think of others who are unaware of the “brown bears” lurking in their lives. Who will prepare the way, just as my father did when he took me in the wilderness? There is no escape from death, but there is hope.

Let me share with you a children’s animated video through as short story called “The Small Creature.” I love it because it allows me to view things through the eyes of a child. And sometimes, I really like things to be simplified, especially at this time in my life!

Here’s some resources I have found as a grandmother that has been helping me navigate through this “wilderness” journey. I hope you will find them useful, too. If you have a favorite resource, please share it in our comment box. I would love to hear how you have navigated your way through your wilderness.

1) “Healing A Grandparent’s Grieving Heart” by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

2) A Grandparent’s Sorrow” by Pam Schwiebert, R.N., Director of Perinatal Loss/Grief Watch

3) http://www.griefwatch.com/grief-facts

4) www.aheartbreakingchoice.com/Turner/Back2God.aspx

5) https://reconceivingloss.com/grief-and-self-care/

6) https://reconceivingloss.com/why-we-need-to-write-our-stories-of-loss/

7) https://stillstandingmag.com/2016/10/support-grieving-grandparents-baby-dies/

8) http://emilylong.com/

9) http://bible.com/v/TK “Walking Through Miscarriage with God”

10) http:bible.com/r/cP “7 Days of Praying Through Loss”

“Grandchildren are the dots that connect the lines from generation to generation!”
-Lois Wyse

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One thought on “A Grandmother’s Story: My Journey in the Wilderness

  1. Thank you Liza again, for taking the time to share your grief journey. You made so many interesting points that I have never thought about, like, grandparents grief is in the background due to the love they have for their grieving child, and how the media doesn’t want to touch this kind of grief and so it is off limits. But more importantly, I connected with you when you described in painful detail wrapping your gift to Emmett and writing that special letter that will not be read meaning he would miss feeling your love and you his. I am so sorry for your deep profound loss and the silent and lonely process you are experiencing as a parent and grandparent, especially thousands of miles apart from Christina. I love how you are each sharing your hearts. So tender and fragile, so real.
    And “Bird” made his way back home
    Prayers and blessings.
    Michelle

    Liked by 1 person

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