What ‘This is Us’ Teaches Us About Tragedy

photo credit:Ron Batzdorff/NBC | 2017 NBCUniversal Media, LLC

After nearly two seasons, the writers of ‘This is Us’ revealed more details of how Jack, the father in the series, died.

We watched him clean the kitchen while his wife slept, putting food away, washing dishes, wiping counters, and then turning off the crock pot. At least he thought he turned it off, but shortly after he left the kitchen, the crock pot burst into flames.

I turned to Russ saying, “You know what I really hate about this? He has no idea what is about to happen. He has no idea that in just moments his home will be burning and his family will survive but he won’t.”

I paused, my throat tight with tears, “It’s just like us. We got up that morning thinking we were going to drive Kalkidan to Montana. We had no idea our lives were about to change forever.”

This is the cruel reality of tragedy. It catches us when we least expect it.

Tragedy is a cruel beast waiting around the corner to devour us as we go blithely skipping by.

One moment we were happily going about our lives. The next moment our car was destroyed, tipped on its side. I was trapped inside and our daughter was gone forever.

I still feel confused. How did it happen?

Of course, I know we were rounding a dangerous, poorly designed curve on the highway. I know we hit ice sending us sliding into the oncoming lane. I know there was a car coming and we were in their path. And I know we collided, sending our car spinning and rolling.

Intellectually, it’s clear – although I only remember 1-2 seconds of the 15 minutes leading up to the accident. But I still can’t make sense of it.

Could we have protected ourselves from tragedy?

If we hadn’t stopped to drop the last Christmas cards in the mailbox would we have avoided the oncoming car? Could we have looked at the 1/2 inch of snow on the ground and decided not to go – but we live in north Idaho; what’s a 1/2 inch of snow? And if we hadn’t rearranged Kalkidan’s seat because she wanted to sit on my side of the car, would she have survived?

If I didn’t love God so much, I would be furious. But I do love him and that forces me to wrestle through the hardest questions. Why did this happen? Did he think we were strong enough to survive losing our daughter? Did he think our marriage was strong enough to take such a severe blow? Did he think our hearts and minds would stay intact?

On the hard days when flashbacks come and I feel weak, I doubt if we are strong enough or if our minds and hearts will ever be healed and whole.

If we can’t protect ourselves from tragedy, what do we do?

Ten Things I’m Learning About Tragedy

1.| Life can change in a moment.

2.| Love your people. Don’t leave apologies unsaid. Hug and kiss your family and friends. Say hello when they arrive and goodbye when they leave. Call your parents. Spend the money (and time) to fly to a friend’s wedding, graduation, birthday party, or other special event.

3.|¬† Pay attention.¬†Look at the faces of the ones we love, not at our phones and computers. When I finish writing this, I’m turning my computer off for the day.

4.| Be intentional with your resources: time, money, energy.

5.| Make memories you want to keep, not forget.

6.| Be the person you want your spouse, children, family, and friends to remember.

7.| Be generous. When it comes to time, it’s gone in a flash. When it comes to money, hold it with open hands and freely give. And when it comes to love, lavish it on people.

8.| Guard your heart against bitterness. Anger and bitterness will pull you into a deep pit. Pray. Ask friends to help you. Get good pastoral and/or professional help. Surround yourself with the voices of people who encourage you to love – friends, writers, musicians.

9.| Let tragedy instruct you. Don’t go back to living the way you did before, be changed in all the best ways.

10.| Remember gratitude. Be radically thankful for the good in your life – everything. Be thankful for the smell of coffee and the sound of rain on the windows. Be thankful for the little one who smiled big at you as you walked by with your grocery cart. Be thankful for friends who reach out even when you want to be alone. Be thankful for sharp pencils and pens with good black ink. Be thankful for the breath in your lungs.

Whatever you believe about God and whether he causes or allows tragedy, or if you’re not sure he even cares, this is what I know; he enters into sorrow with us. When my dreams fill with memories and I wake up confused, God is my comfort.

One day it will all be clear, but today, we move forward allowing tragedy to shape us, making us more loving, kind, generous, and thankful.

And to the writers of ‘This is Us,’ thank you for a show that reminds of the importance of family, love, and the essential value of doing hard work to heal.

You might also like:

Do You Like What ‘This is Us’ Has to Say About Adoption?

Ringing in His Ears on ‘This is Us’

‘This is Us’ and Birth Family

With courage and hope for the journey, my friends,

Lisa



Remembering Kalkidan Year 3

This morning we are quiet.

In the early hours, Russ and I sat together, coffee mugs in hands, talking and sharing tears. Year three of remembering the day we lost Kalkidan.

Today marks the most traumatic event we’ve ever experienced while also marking the day Kalkidan ran into the loving arms of Jesus.

Life is marked by the “befores and afters.” My 53 years seem to be divided this way: before and after I fully gave my life to Jesus, before and after Russ and I married and started our family, before and after we adopted our children from Ethiopia, and before and after the accident that nearly took my life and took our daughter’s.

Each of these events changed me profoundly.

Like deep grooves carved into wood, the changes are permanent. Some of the carvings were intentional and beautiful, others unexpected gashes deep below the surface. But like the wood of our dining room table, those scratches and marks are a picture of my life.

I’m glad our table doesn’t have a pristine surface; it reflects thousands of dinners, hundreds of gatherings, loved guests, hard conversations, long hours of work, and countless celebrations.

I’m not sure fancy, pretty tables are all that useful or welcoming.

In an unexplainable way, I’m thankful I was in the accident with Russ and Kalkidan. Experiencing the trauma, the memories, and the pain together¬†binds us. Many marriages end in divorce following the loss of a child. In all honesty, this has been very hard on us and we have held on by threads at times, but today I feel hopeful and solid.

Tonight we’ll celebrate Kalkidan as a family by going to the trampoline park (which she would have loved) and out for dinner where we’ll eat spicy food.

Grief is a strange beast. At year one I felt confused, shocked, and fearful at every turn. At year two I felt deeply sad with shock and fear entwined. At year three, I feel sad while also wanting to help my family celebrate Kalkidan’s life.

Just a few weeks ago I was making our bed and the thought flitted through my mind, “I’m a mom who has lost a child,” as if it were the first time I’d realized it. Then recognition and reality set in.

So many of you grew to love her without ever meeting her in person. You prayed for her. You shared our joys and sorrows. Many of you wept when you heard the news of our accident.

Thank you for walking with us through the valley of grief, for continuing to pray for us, for your love and support. Remember to love your people well with an open heart.

(p.s. A special note of gratitude to Isaiah’s friend who recently found these photos and shared them with us – the sweetest of gifts.)

Lisa

How to Survive When Grief is Your Teacher

Grief is the teacher you hope you’ll never get.

As you trace your finger down the column of names assigned to each class, you hope you won’t find your name on her list.

But then you see it – your name typed in crisp letters, and your heart sinks.

You get the call. You hear the diagnosis.

Or, like me, the doctor finally answers your question, “Is my daughter alive?” And through the haze of your own pain and confusion, he kindly holds your hand and answers, “No, I’m so sorry, she’s not.”

Homeschool

When I found myself on grief’s class list, there was no way I was going to show up in a classroom with strangers, so I homeschooled for a long time.

This worked because I was recovering from the accident, my body was broken, I couldn’t drive; nobody really expected me to show up in class.

Home was the only place I felt safe; so I cocooned myself, did physical therapy, and wrote really raw blog posts.

If you need to homeschool your way through grief for a little while, it’s okay, but eventually, you’ll need to join the class or you’ll drift from grief into something deeper and darker called depression.

Grief and depression may look similar, but they are actually two different classrooms requiring different kinds of support and help.

I often wonder if I’m dual-enrolled.

Online School

If you’re assigned to the grief class but not quite ready to show up, try online school for a bit. You get the perks of support from real people (including the ones who don’t like the teacher either), but you don’t have to get to know them very well.

They won’t show up at your house or expect you to come to their birthday parties. But if you wake in the night needing help with an assignment, chances are somebody else may be in the classroom too.

A little more time will pass and maybe the shock will wear off. Grief may be settling around you like a companion you don’t want, or possibly like a familiar friend because it reminds you of the person you love.

Join the Class

Now you’re ready now to join the classroom of grievers at school.

On your first day, choose a desk next to someone you think you may be able to tolerate. Don’t sit next to someone who looks particularly cheerful because he may tell you to be cheerful too, and personally, I don’t feel cheerful.

If you hear words like, “God will never give you more than you can handle, ” or “Count it all joy, ” accompanied by a wide smile, quickly move to the other side of the room.

Look at the faces of your classmates. Watch closely for a person who looks a little uncomfortable and kind, someone who looks like she could become a friend, then quickly grab the desk next to hers. A friend in the classroom of grief is better than anything else.

The books, assignments, even music, and PE, may all be helpful, but having a friend to eat lunch with each day or whisper to the teacher that your stomach hurts when you have your head down on your desk (because the day is too hard) is worth more than anything you’ll learn this year.

Embrace the Lessons

Grief will teach you lessons in faith, love, courage, perseverance, priorities. Grief will press you to examine your life like you never have before and if you don’t waste the opportunity, grief will change you for the better.

Embrace the lessons grief hands you (even if you still wish you’d never met your teacher) – don’t remain the person you were before.

At the end of the year, you may advance to another class, or like me, you may find you’re a slow learner and you’re staying for another year. It’s okay, because so are some of your classmates, and even the ones who annoyed you at the beginning of the year, have become familiar and a little more dear to you.

Their cheerfulness has given way to vulnerability and sometimes tears. You know their stories better now and they know yours. You have all come to learn that grief doesn’t expect false joy. True sorrow is rooted in love and an imagined future that will never be.

We miss the person who is gone – even if we truly believe we will see them again. For all our saying we know we will spend eternity together, when we wake up each morning, eternity still seems to be a long time away.

Believe the Beauty

If I were to give an end of the year speech to my classmates, I would share this thought:

I was praying yesterday, asking God to help me truly believe, not just with my mind but deep in my heart, that Kalkidan is loving every moment of heaven, that she is experiencing the joy we long for, when God impressed these words on my heart,

Believe the beauty

We are so loved. He is so good. He has prepared a beautiful place for us. We can trust his words, hope in his promises, and believe the beauty.

Much love to my fellow classmates in the classroom of grief. I wouldn’t have chosen our teacher, but I’m learning lessons I couldn’t have possibly learned from anyone else.

[Friends, please share favorite resources, online support groups, books, etc. in the comments. I will add them to the post as a resource list. Thank you for your help and support.]

Lisa

Heaven and The Last Battle

Today I finished reading The Chronicles of Narnia aloud to a child, all seven books, most likely for the last time. That’s a heavy thought for this book-loving, read-aloud loving mamma.

As¬†Wogayu and I made our way through the final pages of The Last Battle, I had to pause several times, my throat choked with tears, as I read descriptions of CS Lewis’ imaginings of heaven.

Kalkidan

What was it like when she got to heaven? What is it like now?

As I read, two happy things in the story stood out to me.

First, the characters discover fruit on a tree, but when they are about to pick it, they each pause because¬†the fruit is so beautiful, each feels “it can’t be meant for me…surely we’re not allowed to pluck it.”

“It’s all right,”said Peter. “I know what we’re all thinking. But I’m sure, quite sure, we needn’t. I’ve a feeling we’ve got to the country¬†where¬†everything is allowed.”

The fruit is so delicious they aren’t able to describe it except to say, “If you had once eaten that fruit, all the nicest things in this world would taste like medicine after it.”

Now that makes me laugh a little.

Our Kalkidan loved to eat – the spicier and meatier the dish, the better.

But deeper and more precious than good food is this description in CS Lewis’ imagining of heaven.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” said Lucy. “Have you noticed one can’t feel afraid, even if one wants to?”

No fear. What does that feel like for a child whose life has been profoundly impacted by trauma? What would that feel like for me?

Kalkidan is fully alive in a place with no fear and only love.

Last night I imagined her being greeted in heaven by her Ethiopian mother who embraced her with exclamations of delight. Then her mother fed her spicy bits of meat wrapped in injera – the best food Kalkidan had ever tasted.

I pictured Kalkidan laughing, her dimples deep, her smile wide. All trauma healed, all fear gone.

This comforts me; it also requires imagination and faith, lots of faith.

Has someone you loved died? Do you try to imagine heaven?

What do you find most helpful and hopeful?


I’ve been very quiet here on the blog – my only explanation is parenting, a whole lot of parenting. It’s been intense, not bad, just a lot!

That, and I’m decluttering, which feels good.

While I may not be writing, I think of you every day. I contemplate what I would say if I were writing, jot down little notes to myself for future posts, and every once in awhile I think about posting on Instagram.

Then I respond to a voice yelling, “Mom!” or take a child to another appointment, or answer more calls or texts. How is¬†it I have fewer children home than ever and yet life feels so full?

I have no explanation.

I hope to send out a “friends-letter” sometime after Labor Day! Sign up if you want a short note from me in your inbox.

Thoughts on heaven? Leave me a comment.

Much love, courage, and hope for the journey.

Lisa

Held By Love

On the morning marking two years, I walked into the kitchen; Russ was standing at the window looking out at the snow. He turned as I poured coffee.

“Do you remember what today is?”

“Yes,” he quietly answered.

“You know what I remember most about that day?”

“What?”he said, reaching out his hand to me.

“The love. We were surrounded by love. Hundreds of people came; they just kept coming. They showed up and held us up with their love. Their strength gave us strength. They carried us.”

He pulled me close against his chest and we stood in the quiet, tears running down my cheeks.

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January 2nd was the two-year anniversary of the memorial service for Kalkidan. I lay awake in the night reflecting on it, thinking about how hard the day was. I honestly didn’t know how I would survive. My body was so broken and bruised, I couldn’t shower and dress myself, I couldn’t walk. My heart was devastated. My brain injured and in shock; I couldn’t think clearly.

Russ and I were crushed. Our children clinging to one another and to us. It was one of the worst days of our lives.

You would think I would remember it that way, but you know what? I don’t.

Yes, I remember my fears, the pain, the overwhelming sense that I couldn’t do it, the sense of disbelief that this was even happening. Surely this was not true. The accident couldn’t be real, our daughter couldn’t have died – this was a terrible dream.

If I let myself dwell on those thoughts too long, my stomach hurts, my chest aches, and I feel myself slipping downward into a very dark place.

The beautiful truth is that my strongest memory of the day is an overwhelming sense of love.

We gathered with our community in the most broken, vulnerable, painful moments, when we were most nakedly ourselves, and we felt loved.

We worshiped. We told our love story of Kalkidan, and declared that everything we had ever said about Jesus was true. He died for her, for us, and she was with Him in heaven completely healed and loved.

Our friends and family, some of you, from near and far, were the hands and feet of Jesus to us during the darkest, most painful days of our lives. Your love, His love, carried us. This is the sweetness of the fellowship of the saints.

You prayed for us, fed us, cleaned our house, sent us cards and gifts, cared for our children, drove me to appointments,  donated, created art, wore orange in memory of our vibrant girl.

When time passed and we thought everyone had forgotten, leaving us alone with our grief, you still showed up, sending cards and flowers, wearing orange again on her second birthday gone, leaving flowers at the site of our accident, and most of all remembering Рjust remembering Kalkidan.

She was so alive – I can only imagine her in heaven.

Friends, when possible, even when you don’t know what to do, just go. Go to the funeral.

The receiving line was long, and every person so precious to me, every minute, every hug, every word. I remember. For those who couldn’t stay to greet us, we read each signature in the guest book, marveling at the people who cared enough to come that winter evening.

Russ and I chose these verses from Psalm 27 for our 27th anniversary and I have loved them ever since.

I would have lost heart, unless I had believed
That I would see the goodness of the Lord
In the land of the living.

Wait on the Lord;
Be of good courage,
And He shall strengthen your heart;
Wait, I say, on the Lord!

Friends and family showing up was such a powerful experience of the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. God strengthened our hearts through them, through you. He gave us courage. You gave us courage.

Dark days of grief pulling us under like pounding waves did come, and sometimes still do, but I look back on that hardest of days and remember it overflowing with love.

Lisa

Mom, Dad, Kalkidan

Why You Shouldn’t Fake It (thoughts from a teenager)

My daughter, Annarose, posted this on Facebook a few days before Christmas and I asked to share it with you. She is a deep thinking, eighteen-year-old with wisdom beyond her years, born of suffering as a sister of kids from “hard places” and later through the loss of Kalkidan. I love this girl beyond words. She leaves tonight, co-¬†leading a team of students to Nicaragua through the University of Idaho.

snowy mountain

‚ÄĘChristmas 2012, my Sophomore year: little sister is hospitalized in the psych ward over the holiday.

‚ÄĘChristmas 2013: little sister is living in residential treatment, 362 miles from home.

‚ÄĘChristmas 2014: Best Christmas of my life. Two days later, my little sister dies in a car accident.

Life comes apart.

‚ÄĘChristmas 2015: Our first Christmas without her. Beautiful & Hard.

‚ÄĘThis Christmas: My lovely friend Mamta is in a car accident and goes to be with the Lord. Grief twofold.

Christmas is complicated.

This time of year is so beautiful and festive. It’s overflowing with love and joy. But it also carries so much pain. I look at the shimmering tree and think of the moment I knew… my sister wasn’t going to be okay. I followed my siblings up the stairs, past the glittering lights, to where we would be told she was no more. We would stay there a long time, crying out in agony.

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I dance in the snow, sifting delicate flakes between my fingers and think of the moments I spent out on the rope swing, tilting back until the white world and white heavens blended together and I felt like I didn’t exist anymore. That would be less painful, to not exist.
*
I plug in the sparkling white lights that drape my room and am carried back to the long nights where I couldn’t sleep and instead hunched over my guitar, making up songs about this strange reality I now lived in.
*
I help carry the gorgeous evergreen up to the house. Soon it will grace our living room with its glorious presence. But when I look at it, I can’t help seeing our tree from two years ago, carelessly tossed out by the fence as we hurried to take down all the Christmas decorations before my parents got home from the hospital. It was just too painful to have Christmas anymore.
*
I feel numb this year. Where did the joy go? Where did the old me go?
*
When Mamta went to be with Jesus on Thursday, all I wanted to do was worship. All I wanted was to crawl into my Dad’s arms and be comforted by His presence. It was the same with Kalkidan.
*
This season, I’ve been feeling sad and confused at my lack of energy and excitement for the holiday. The magic is gone. I’ve been trying to force it, making myself sit down to plan Christmas cookies as if it’s a chore, trying to conjure inorganic delight in myself. I feel broken.
*
Last night, I was reminded that the Christmas spirit, holiday vibes, fun, traditions — that’s not what this is about. It’s not all about smiles and cheer. Christmas is about us being lost in a deep, dark brokenness and a God who loves us so much, He wrapped himself in human flesh and was born to a couple of outcast teenagers in a cave in order to come alongside us.

It’s about a Savior who yearns deeply for us and rescues us from this darkness. I don’t have to clean myself up or paste on fake smiles. This is exactly what Christ came for.

He came for me. He came for you.

He came to wash us clean and fill the world with light again, pushing this great big darkness back until it has nowhere to flee.

My heart may hurt, my eyes may be filled with tears, I may feel weak and numb this Christmas. But I know that in my profound brokenness, I am LOVED by a God bigger than all of this.

He is stronger. He is enough. He is my comfort.

Annarose