10 Ways I've Changed and Found Purpose in the Pain, on the 10 Year Anniversary of my son's death | The Joyful Mourning Podcast with Ashlee Proffitt | For women who have experienced pregnancy or infant loss

10 years ago on November 15, 2008 my son died. And I would never be the same. Forever changed. Forever would my view of this world, of parenting, of being a mother, of being a wife and a friend and a daughter be changed. Forever would my view of God be different. It would take many months, years even, before I would be able to accept this new reality and begin to see all the changes in me as a gift. But after 10 years of grief I can say that good things can come from brokenness, good things can come from ashes. Hope can be restored. Joy can be had. In today’s episode I’m sharing with you 10 ways I have seen God bring about purpose from my pain.

Character of God

As mentioned in the podcast, I’ve compiled a list of characteristics and attributes of God for you to study and pray through on your own. Even if you are not sure about this God or faith thing I encourage you to see what the Bible has to say about God. This resource has been adapted from this post by Josh McDowell Ministry. 

Characteristics and Attributes of God | Printable Download from The Morning for women who have experienced pregnancy or infant loss.

CHARACTER OF GOD STUDY GUIDE


James 1:2-4 says:  Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

As I look back over the past 10 years I can see that the testing of my faith has not been without purpose.

God’s promise in that verse in James is that my pain was never in vain, and neither is yours — He is working to make our faith in Him stronger, full and complete, lacking nothing. I want to share with you 10 ways I have seen God bring about purpose from the pain.

Number 1. What Really Matters.

The very first change I recognized in myself was an instant shift in my heart and mind about what really matters. I had spent my entire life up to that point focused on periphery non-essentials, things that, while valuable, were not the most important thing. I am an overachieving perfectionist which means I can very easily major on the minors, investing too much time, energy, thought and everyday life into details that just aren’t the most important thing — constantly being anxious and worrying over things that I won’t remember a few days into the future, easily saying yes to too much and too often because a part of me actually thinks I can fix all the world’s problems, at least the ones I can see. For much of my life this meant constantly having a calendar too full with too many responsibilities, roles and projects going at any given time and a brain and a heart that were frazzled at best — which left the most important things in my life getting the worst of me. My son’s death immediately provided for a wake-up call to re-evaluate where I invested my life; what was allowed to get the attention of my mind, the affection of my heart and space on my calendar.  

My son’s death gave me a new perspective, while those around me fretted about non-essentials I could easily see now how most of what had filled my mind and heart before November 15 just didn’t qualify as something worthy of giving so much of my life to. See, when confronted with death you suddenly realize how fragile it is, how fleeting, how precious your days are and that nothing beyond right now is guaranteed. I suddenly had this simple framework for making decisions — is this life or death? Quite literally? Does this deserve to take up such limited and precious space in my mind and heart and calendar? If I don’t have tomorrow how does that change how I spend today?

And I don’t mean that in a way that would suggest to try and tackle all your bucket list big dreams every single day — I mean what does it look like to invest your life, your heart and mind and soul, in what really matters, to find joy in the seemingly mundane, to wash the dishes in a way that is worshipful, to do the work before you with purpose and discipline, to make time for meaningful conversations, to stop and wander — my son’s death showed me what it was like to not be so divided. To be able to slow down and engage life in a way that felt purposeful and meaningful.  This is still something I wrestle with almost daily and am far from perfect in this regard but it’s something I am forever aware of and grateful for; forever changed.

Number 2. What Happens When God Says No.

I can still picture that hospital waiting room and the moment my husband came in and shook his head ‘no.’ We were begging God for a miracle and God had answered. He had answered “no.” I was a girl who grew up in a Christian home, went to church on Sundays and Wednesdays and any other day the doors were open. Even in my early college days of wild rebellion my heart loved God, trusted Him and His Word — even when my life displayed a girl caught in the confusion of who she was and what she believed. And even the seasons surrounding my son’s death was filled with a life, a marriage and a family, our entire life, all dedicated to God’s purposes — see, the year my son died had been a year full of praying and preparing to move and start a new church in a new city.

We had given our entire lives up to that point, and now our future, for the ministry of God’s people. And somewhere in our hearts we believed that protected us from suffering like this. Maybe we believed that God owed us something. Maybe we believed all of our spiritual activity made us immune to such pain. But God had let death in and this was a blow that would shake my fickle and shallow faith — it would expose a heart that desired the gifts more than the giver, the healing more than the healer. When God said “no” everything I thought to be true about Him now came in to question. Who was this God I had given my life to? Who was this God I thought I loved? The God who I trusted?  

Those questions, when I finally felt the freedom to actually acknowledge their existence — that would take some time, eventually led to a crisis of faith that ultimately revealed God’s deep love for me, not my deep love for Him. Because my deep love was based on condition — how good He was to me in the moment. While my love was conditional, His was without condition, forever unconditional. While my faith was fickle. He was and is forever faithful.  Even in death. Even in pain. Even in suffering. What God revealed to me is not a cliche, when God says no to one thing He says yes to another, you know the old adage, when one door closes another window opens — no gift God would give in the future, apart from Himself, would ever replace the life of my son. So no it wasn’t that God was saying yes to something else.

What I learned from God saying no was that He is far bigger than the God I had created Him to be. For example, I think my first honest, real, desperate cries to Him were after my son died. My former self, caught up in the external evidences of faith, would have never cried out in such a way — with prayers of doubt and anger, prayers that exposed my fears and my fickle faith. Prayers that shouted “Where were you? You could have stopped this? Why didn’t you stop this?” See, I learned that when God acts in a way that challenges what you believe to be true about Him, it forces you to either wrestle with Him about this new reality or it causes you to run from Him. Either way God saying no exposes the reality of our hearts. What we really believe. And God saying no, taught me that He is big enough to handle my doubt, my fear, my fickle faith. He isn’t going anywhere. And He is better and bigger than the gifts He gives and the healing He brings.

Maybe you’re here and you are like me, you grew up with a knowledge and experience of God, you professed faith and love for God but after such heartbreak you’re wondering those same questions: Where were you God? Maybe your faith feels weak or even non-existent. My encouragement to you is to wrestle. Cry out to God, feel the freedom to say out loud what’s filling up the crevices of your heart, God already knows it and He’s big enough to handle all your wanderings. I had a friend who experienced multiple miscarriages and in a season where she wanted nothing to do with God she said “I pray for the want to, to want to” and you just go back as far as you need to with those “want to’s”.  Maybe you’re at a “God give me the want to to want to to want to.” I believe He is faithful to hear those prayers and answer. He isn’t a tricky God and desires for you to come to Him in prayer.

Maybe you’ve found yourself here because you’re searching. You’re heart is broken. You’ve tasted death and now you’re looking for hope and part of you wants to know more about this God and faith thing. You’re desperate for a glimmer of hope, a glimmer of joy again. My encouragement to you is that if that’s you — I don’t think it’s coincidence or chance that you’re listening right now — and the God of the universe loves you and desires to be in relationship with you. My wrestling and my searching led me to seek out the truth from God’s Word, the Bible, about who He is and who He says we are. And in God’s Word we see that He, being a perfect and holy God, created a perfect world but that we, as His creation wrecked it — we thought we knew better, we didn’t trust Him at His Word, BUT in His great love for you and me He has provided a way in which He has made hope for the broken, healing for the hurting, hope for eternity; He has made a way for humanity to be connected to Him through the life, death, burial and resurrection of His Son Jesus. Because Jesus’ sacrifice we can be connected to Him, we can have peace and joy amidst tragedy, and we can have hope that believes there is more than this, more than this broken world, we can look forward to eternity.

Maybe this is the first time you are hearing this message of hope, or maybe you’ve heard this a dozen times but it seems unnecessary or too good to be true. But this is the truth — God loved you so much that even at your worst, your darkest, your most sinful and ugly, that’s when Jesus died for you — not when you had it all together but in that moment, at your worst. He said, “I’m going to save you at your worst to prove to you that there is nothing you need to bring to the table, nothing I need from you.” The truth of this message offers hope for now and hope for eternity. Belief in Jesus as King reminds us that this world is not our home. That one day all that has been broken will be made whole again. And that belief gives us joy for today, because we know this isn’t the end.

Number 3. What Does the Bible Actually Say.

I wonder how much of my faith before my son died was based solely on my own thinking, with no substance to back it up, no authority. Maybe I had gathered ideas from what culture tells us about who God is or even from the slew of pastors I had heard growing up. And while pastor’s are helpful (I love pastors, my husband is one!) their words can never replace God’s Words — especially in a crisis of faith. See my son’s death forced me to actually figure out what I believed — no longer could I naively say that God was good. It’s relatively simple for someone who isn’t walking through the valley of the shadow of death to proclaim God’s goodness. It’s much harder to walk through loss and death and say with assurance — God is good. He’s here and He’s working and I trust Him.  I felt disappointed in God, as though He had let me down so it naturally became harder to say He is worthy of my life and my heart, my affection and my worship. How do you say that of someone who you think has hurt you? I mean, how does a good God let such darkness in? And if He was in control why didn’t He stop this? And let’s be honest does He even love me? Better yet, is He even real?

Those questions tormented me and what I realized was that in order to answer those questions I had to go to the best and most reliable source, the Bible. I needed to know what God said about Himself. Who was this God I had given my life to? Who was He really? And what I found was far richer and deeper and bigger than I could have imagined. See, we live in an era of christianity that shouts God is for you, for you in a way that communicates a life free of pain, a life full of abundant material blessings, plans for a prosperous future and all things working together for your good — for years we’ve taken snippets of verses out of the Bible and without truly understanding their context we’ve applied them to God’s relationship with us. The problem is that it makes the entire thing about us. About you and about me.

Stay with me here, while God loves you more than you could ever imagine, this isn’t about you or about me — this is about Him and His glory. And if our foundation about who God is is based on how prosperous our life is going at any given time our faith will be as fickle as a roller coaster. We need a better understanding of who He is so that when we are confronted with tragedy and brokenness, with death and sorrow, when our plans fail and we can see no good at all, we can turn to God and see Him as friend, protector, provider, redeemer — not the enemy. When we have a better understanding of who God is we can turn to Him because we will know that He didn’t cause the pain and also that this isn’t some form of punishment either.

We could gain a better understanding from a passage like Romans 8:1 or 2 Corinthians 5:21 that communicate that when we believe in Jesus as Savior we have been made righteous, we have been made clean, that when God looks at you He see Jesus — so there is no condemnation, there is no longer a need for punishment of sin, Jesus already did that for you. Which means what you are going through right now is not a form of punishment. God is not punishing you.

Or if you are believing that you could have done something to prevent this pain or that the death of your baby is your fault we could look at a passage like Job 42:2 or Isaiah 14:27 that give us a reminder that God alone is in control.  To think that we could stop death gives ourselves too much credit, too much power. God being in control is a hard reality to wrestle with because if He was in control then He also could have stopped this pain. That is a wrestle worth talking to God about — and in the end sometimes that means understanding and trusting that God’s ways are higher than ours, we cannot fully grasp the mind of God or perfectly interpret why or how He is works in the ways that He does. He is God and we are not.  

Another helpful passage that brings about a better understanding would be James 1 where we get a reminder that this world is broken and because it is broken we should expect suffering. But that passage also reminds us that while trials can be expected so can the idea that God is using those trails to strengthen our faith in Him.

Psalm 23 reminds us that no matter how dark the valley we are never alone. God never leaves us and that message is repeated over and over and over again throughout the Old Testament in books like Deuteronomy and Joshua and again in the New Testament in passages like Romans 8 where see that nothing can separate us from God.

And one of my personal favorites that gives me a better understanding of where God is in the midst of pain would be John 11 where we see Jesus broken and weeping over death. He is not apathetic towards your pain. And because we see God’s plan for the future in books like Revelation we know that one day He will restore all that has been broken and all that has been lost and that brings me so much hope.

I could go on and on about the truths I found in the Bible about who God is, reliable truths worth staking your future eternity on as well as your current hope and joy. I’ve listed a few additional truths you can research on your own over on the show notes for this episode. I encourage you to see what the Bible has to say about this God I’m talking so much about. And if you are finding it hard to believe a specific character trait of God, pray that to Him. Tell Him you are having a hard time believing that to be true and ask Him to help you believe or to help you to better understand.

I still wrestle with those truths but I have a foundation to stand on, a foundation that reminds me that God is for me, but not necessarily in the way that world or American christianity tell me He is, no in a far deeper and richer way.

Learning all these truths about who God is gave me a hope-filled anticipation of eternity, which leads me to:

Number 4. Eyes on Heaven.

Maybe everyone’s like this but I feel like thoughts of death and what happens after this life started a bit young for me. I can vividly remember being 7 years old laying in my bed, my heart beating so fast and so loud that I was sure my mom could hear it from the other room; fear had gripped my young mind as I considered death and realized I was utterly afraid to die. Perhaps it’s the unknown of it or the lack of control over it, either way I have never been one too look forward to what’s after this life and would do my best to not even think about it.  Instead I focused on what I could see, what I know, what I understand and at some point I began living in a way as if this were it — this was all there is. I put all my hope into this life working out perfectly, all my effort was spent on building a life here. And here in America and even within American Christianity we believe that we can live our best life right now. We can work hard and reach our goals and achieve our dreams and as long as we’re kind and treat people well and recycle and eat organic produce everything is going to work out just as we planned.

But that kind of living forgets God and forgets His Bible. Because this world is broken. And when we put all our hope in finding perfection here we are setting ourselves up to be drastically disappointed.  I’m just saying, hearing the words “there is no heartbeat” or having to leave a hospital with empty arms or burying a son is not my definition of living my best life now. Listen if this is all there is I don’t want any part of it.

Through my son’s death I learned what it meant to long for heaven. To not see this temporal place or this life as more than just that, temporary. Once that shift takes place in your heart you begin to live life a little differently. You aren’t as surprised by the brokenness and you aren’t as defeated either — because you know that one day all things will be made new; that one day God is going to set it all right again.  You are just able to see what matters, like I mentioned in #1, a little more clearly.

Number 5. My Need for God.

I’m not sure if it’s a personality issue or something from my childhood or just being a human but I hate being needy. I want to be the strong one, the in control one, the able to conquer all things in front of me with efficiency and a big smile on my face. I think part of me believed that God would love me more if I needed Him less. So that’s how I lived. Held God at a distance, never wanting Him to get too close because then He would see how messy my heart really was. Of course this only revealed my deep misunderstanding of who God is. No matter how hard I try to hide, He knows me better than I know myself. He knows all my thoughts and He still loves me. He’s not disappointed in my mess or my neediness. BUT I didn’t fully recognize that truth or understand it’s beauty until my life fell apart.  

This believing that “God expects me to hold it all together” was never more pervasive than when I lost my first baby and walked through the agony of miscarriage. I can see that looking back now — how I didn’t trust God with my neediness, with the pain and hurt and deep agony that a mother experiences when her baby dies. I kept that loss neat and tidy. I was full of fear and guilt and confusion and bitter jealousy over every pregnant woman I encountered but I never prayed about any of those things, never voiced them, just stuffed them way down deep and pretended God wouldn’t see or know. I was desperate for God’s peace, in great need of hope and joy and yet I didn’t understand that dependence on God is good — needing Him is good, recognizing my need for God is the point. But I didn’t, so I moved on quickly — putting all my focus on getting pregnant again. I don’t think I fully allowed myself to grieve the loss of that baby until after my first son was born and I came to grips with what I had lost.

And it wasn’t until that fateful day when I awoke to my lifeless son Aaden, my nearly 6 week old perfectly healthy baby boy, that I began to recognize my absolute need for God. No longer was I able to keep up the facade of a neat and tidy heart. No longer could I pretend that I had it all together. No longer could I ignore the fear and guilt and confusion and bitter jealousy.

I had suddenly been confronted with the reality that I actually have no control. None. Our American culture tries to tell us to make our own destiny, that we can do anything, that we are in control of our lives — but in reality we are only in control of the way we handle the reality right in front of us. I had always been powerless over life and death but suddenly I knew it to be true first hand. I had always needed God but now I knew it to my core. I would not be able to take another breath unless He put air in my lungs. I was desperate. This sudden realization of my true lack of control made my need for God ever more real. I am powerless but He is powerful. And never not in control. Never not on the throne, ruling and reigning.  

God used my son’s death to teach me that I’m not God; and that all my efforts of being the strong one, in control one, perfectly put together one, were just a vain attempt at being my own God, my own rescuer, redeemer, protector and provider. He already knows I’m not strong, that I’m not in control, and that no matter how hard I try things are going to fall apart. He already knows that I’m afraid and sometimes I have a hard time trusting Him and sometimes my heart wants the gifts He gives to others. He knows sees how needy I am and instead of being disappointed or annoyed or done with me — He loves me. In fact in Isaiah 41 He says “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up….”

You know what this means? He welcomes you and me and all our brokenness. We don’t have to try and hide it from Him. And He promises to be with us, to be our God, to be our help and strength. He promises to hold us up when we just can’t.    

Number 6. My Need for Community.

You know one way God tangibly held me up? People. Just like Number 5, I hardly recognized my need for community until my life fell apart. I like to be the strong one, the one who doesn’t need help but all that changed when I experienced the death of a baby. I needed people on their knees in that hospital waiting room. I needed people to cry out to God the prayers I could not muster when God said no. I needed people to open His Word and faithfully read it out loud to me. I needed people to pray me to sleep. I needed people to remind me of God’s character and His goodness. I needed people to remind me to take a shower. I needed people to remind me to eat and brush my teeth and get dressed. I needed people to make sure I showed up at the gym twice a week so they knew that at least twice a week I put on some kind of clothes and got out of the house. I needed people to take care of my 17 month old because I was just too afraid. I needed people to gift us a funeral and a place to bury our son. I needed people to clean the house I just couldn’t go back to. I needed people to help me pack my baby boys’ things away.

And even though it looks differently than it did in those early days of grief I still need people now — I need them to pray for me when I’m hurting a little extra. I need them to remind me of God’s goodness and faithfulness because I’m so forgetful. I need them to say my son’s name out loud and tell me they remember.

For the past 10 years community has been an extension of God’s grace to me. They’ve held me up.

No one is immune to this. God created all of us for community. It’s one of His great gifts to us. And while people can hurt us, they can say and do the wrong things — the risk is worth the reward.

Number 7. Empathy & Compassion

I am forever a different kind of woman because of my son’s life and death. And one of the most clear evidences of that difference is the way my heart breaks for another grieving mother. To some that might sound a bit strange but I see it as a gift to be able to truly identify with someone who is hurting, to look them in the eye and I say I understand, I’ve been there — it is so comforting to offer a message of “you’re not alone in this” to another hurting mother. And truly understanding what someone else is walking through means I know exactly how to be praying, I can offer wisdom about what to expect, what’s going to be extra difficult, what to be prepared for; having been there I know how to meet physical needs and help those around them understand this new reality as well.

My heart physically aches when I hear of a mother losing a baby. A knot fills my throat and hot tears fill my eyes. I ache at what’s been lost and I ache at the thought of the pain to come. But amidst the ache I can, with confidence, say to another grieving mother, you will laugh again, you will have hope again, you will get through this but you will never forget your baby. Not because I’m a counselor or a grief expert or a motivational cheerleader, but simply because I’ve been there. Because I know.

Number 8. I Mother Differently

It is unlikely that anything impacted my mothering more than the life and death of my son Aaden. See when you lose a baby your heart shifts and now you see it all very differently. When I would hear my baby’s early morning cries, actual relief would sweep over me. While most mother’s probably give a tired sigh at the sound of a baby’s cry in the morning – I would nearly squeal with delight. Because they were alive. We had made it through another night. With my two children I had after Aaden died I never minded the middle of the night feedings or irrational crying or even the messy blow outs. Why? Because it meant I had a living baby. There is just a different kind of joy and gratitude that takes up residence in the heart of a mother who has experienced the loss of a baby. That doesn’t mean I am never frustrated or tired or angry; and that doesn’t mean that mothering comes super easy or that I never take it for granted; no it just means that my son’s death taught me what a gift it is and how quickly it can be taken and so I do my best to actually view it that way, that getting the chance to mother a child is a gift worth treasuring. Even in the sleepless nights or terrible twos or sassy sixes. Even in all the mess and imperfection.  

Number 9. Joy and Sorrow Can Coexist.

I used to think that joy was the absence of sorrow but I’ve since learned  that joy and sorrow are two different things but the presence of one does not mean that the other cannot also be present. Thinking that those two feelings could not happen simultaneously added an extra layer of confusion in the early days of grief — was it ok to laugh when my heart was so broken? Did that mean I loved my son less or missed him less? Did the presence of joy mean I had moved on? When I began to understand that being joyful or even experiencing moments of happiness, of laughter and light heartedness did not cancel out the sorrow, I felt much more comfortable and at ease with the awkward dance of grief — the dance where in one moment you can experience both joy and deep sorrow. I can look at my nephew who was born just days before my son Aaden and I can experience both joy and sorrow, joy over the boy he’s growing to be and also sorrow as I think of what I’ve lost. It’s a dance. And knowing that both can exist and that one doesn’t cancel out the other and that it’s ok to feel the awkwardness of it takes some of the confusion out of life after grief.

And lastly, Number 10. I can do hard things.

Not because I’m superhuman now or am awesome in and of myself but because I lived a nightmare and know for sure, for certain, without question that God never left me alone. He was right there, giving strength and help and holding me up. So not only do I not have to be afraid of the hard things. I can actually face them knowing I have the strength and the power and the help and God’s hand holding me up.

I can walk through the valley of the shadow of death and see it for what it is — just a shadow. Because of Jesus, death has been defeated and that means I don’t have to fear a shadow. It can’t hurt me ultimately.

And I know that one day all hard things will have their end. Which means I can face them knowing this isn’t the way God intended it to be nor is it the way it will be forever. It’s the difference between running a race when you have no idea where the finish line is versus running a race where the finish line is in sight. You can run harder, with more purpose and endurance, without fear because you know the end will come. That is my reality as a believer — I can run this hard, difficult and often painful race because I have the end in sight, I know the pain and suffering will not last forever, I have the day in sight when all will be restored and be made right, new and complete. A day when I will see my son again.

So to my friends walking through death and loss, carrying such painful loads, know this, your pain is not without purpose. God is working beauty from ashes in you. And a day is coming when all of the pain and suffering will see it’s end, a day when all will be made right and your heart will be made whole again. Until that day, know that God has never left you nor will He ever. He is your strength and your help and He is holding you up. And you are more loved than you could ever know.