We had no regrets, we said.
In the days immediately after Tage went Home, Josh and I were relieved and felt deeply grateful that we didn’t have a lot of “if only we had…” and “why didn’t we think of…”
So, I thought we were in the clear. I thought we wouldn’t be haunted by those final weeks because we agreed that if we had a do-over, we would do it exactly the same way.
But somehow in my quiet moments alone, the enemy of my soul dragged visions of Tage in his final weeks across my mind, and I was powerless to fight them. Torturous scenes from our own horror movie…
Pale, ashen, ghostly face.
Clammy skin, hot with fever.
Tiny dry and cracked lips. Just like Mom had in her final days.
Dirty hair that smelled of sickness but also of my baby.
Skin pulling deep under small ribs, begging for a deep breath.
Wide, fear-filled little blue eyes suddenly open, quickly darting back and forth in response to sharp pain.
Back arching, mouth open to scream but no sound. His frantic eyes told the story.
And I couldn’t do anything to stop it. I held him, heart racing, while we waited for the morphine to kick in, until his eye lids got droopy and closed for a few more moments of peace, wondering how long he would have until the next terrifying test of parenthood.
And the Enemy grinned.
For days, I found myself paralyzed by these visions, my heart breaking over and over again as I remembered his suffering, as I questioned whether he felt our love for him in those frightening moments, as I wondered what he was thinking and feeling while he experienced pain that I would have immediately taken for him if it could only work that way.
But instead, I was powerless. Months later, I was still powerless as I battled the images of the past.
The next week, I sat down for the second time in the chair of my grief counselor. She was young, and new to the job, and single, and does not have children, all things that made me want to dismiss her as a professional that could handle my pain. But I remembered being a first year teacher — young, new to the job, single, with no children of my own — and I had wanted the parents to trust me. So, I chose to entrust myself to her as a professional.
For the first 30 minutes, I didn’t cry at all. We revisited last week’s conversations, and I updated her on a few things. She was really good at active listening, and she put my jumbled, emotional words into concise sentences that helped me pinpoint my thoughts and feelings. It was helpful, but I could tell I wasn’t getting to the root of what was really bothering me this week.
And suddenly, it hit me. The visions.
I began to tell her that I was having difficulty with flashbacks. She asked me to describe them, and within twenty seconds, I was weeping.
My heart rate sped up, as did the convulsive catching of my breath between sobs, and thick tears ran down both sides of my face. “He was in so much pain, and I couldn’t stop it,” I cried as all the memories came racing out of my mouth like a downhill locomotive. “I can’t get his frantic eyes out of my mind. I know it happened in the past, and there’s nothing I can do about it now, but I don’t know how to stop thinking about it. I can’t turn off the images. He was my baby, and he was dying and in pain, and I couldn’t save him!”
She nodded as she took in my words, silenced by the break down that had just happened before her. “You are experiencing Post Traumatic Stress from the event of watching Tage die,” she said. And quite frankly, I appreciated the validation of those words. What I watched over those last couple weeks was nothing short of traumatic, that’s for sure.
“What am I supposed to do with these images?” I asked her as I felt the salt beginning to dry on my cheeks. “I need to DO something with them so they’ll stop haunting me.”
I could see the wheels turning in her mind.
“If you’d be up for it, I could bring in a box next week, and we could do an activity where you visualize putting those images in the box. Then, we could put the lid on it, and they could stay in there until you would ever want to open the lid and look at them again.”
I was dumbfounded.
I tried to hide my scrunched eyebrows and the thoughts of “Are you kidding?” that were going through my mind at the time.
And almost instantaneously, another thought crossed my mind: that’s the best the world has to offer.
My counselor knew her stuff. But when it comes to death and suffering, even the most esteemed counselor’s best advice who doesn’t know our Risen Christ is to put it all in a box and move on. The realization was heartbreaking. Without Jesus Christ, there really is no Hope.
As I drove home, feeling no better than when I had come in, I told myself, “Okay, Molly. You have been trained as a Stephen Minister. You DO have the Hope of Jesus. What would you say to you?”
So, I reminded myself that Tage is with Jesus now. That he is not suffering. That he sees the bigger picture from his view next to Jesus, and that his suffering this side of Heaven was nothing compared to the glory of eternity that he now sees with his beautiful blue eyes. And he’s with my mama!
But sometimes saying things to yourself is not enough. And for the next two days, I continued to battle the images of death that knocked on my mind in my quiet moments.
Then, my friend, Laura, showed up at my house for her regular “check on Molly” visit. I hadn’t said a word about the images to anyone other than the grief counselor, and I casually mentioned them to Laura as I moved on to a different topic of conversation.
“Wait,” she said, “tell me about those images.”
Immediately, tears filled my eyes again as I began to unpack them in front of her. I told her how they were constantly beckoning me to look at them, how the counselor suggested we deal with them, and how I tried the self-talk about Jesus on the way home.
“You are absolutely right, Molly,” she said with tears in her own eyes, “Tage is with Jesus. But I am just so sorry that you are dealing with these images in your head.”
My shoulders went down. I was being understood. The weight was no longer only mine to carry.
“Honey, it’s not fair that satan knows how much pain you’ve already endured, but that he still doesn’t give up. Now he wants to rub your face in it every chance he can get. These images are not from Jesus. They are satan attacking you while you’re down. And when you see them coming into your mind, you fight them with the truth of scripture.”
I know that I know that. I’ve encouraged people with the very same words. But somehow, when you’re in pain and darkness, you can’t see it for yourself. You need someone to bring you the Light.
No more blind-siding. Now I was armed and ready for battle.
I continued to pour out my tears and thoughts about Tage, wondering if he knew how much we loved him and how much our hearts broke for him and his suffering. To which Laura responded, “Molly, you and Josh were incredible parents to him his whole life, but especially in the last days. He knew you both. And he knew you were with him. You held him in your arms and cared for him while Josh was a drill sergeant when it came to Tage’s meds. You both loved, protected, and cared for him so unbelievably well.” I took a deep breath and the corners of my mouth went up a little bit. Maybe I had been a good mother.
“And Molly, I can only imagine how hard it must have been to watch Tage suffer,” then she paused to control her own tears again and with gentle eyes, she radiated peace, “but I know that Jesus loves Tage and He is our Comforter, and who knows how He might have been whispering to Tage in those moments and comforting him in ways we don’t even know.
“When you see Tage in Heaven one day,” she continued, “he is not going to say ‘why didn’t you do this or that when I was dying?’ He is going to say ‘thank you, Mom, for loving me and caring for me so well. You were great, and I wish I could’ve told you that myself.’ ”
Laura was extinguishing the lies I had been believing.
“We don’t have all the answers we want about Tage and why this is his story and your story. But the images don’t belong in a box, Molly. You take those images to Jesus, place them on His lap and let Him hold them for you. Because He does have all the answers. Because He’s working a good plan in this somehow. “
Yes, Jesus is the only one who can handle those images. He knows they are merely smoke and mirrors manipulated by satan to make us think death is the end.
I am so thankful for these words of Paul:
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. (1 Corinthians 15:51-58)
So I’m fixing my eyes and heart on different images now. March 18th would have been Tage’s 1st birthday. It was a very emotional day for us, as I’m not sure how it couldn’t be, and Josh and I struggled to decide what to do to honor Tage. Just the thought of a birthday party without him caused immediate tears.
So instead – I still can’t believe it – these two I-will-never-get-a-tattoo-people did exactly that. With these tattoos, we are fixing our eyes on the Hope of Jesus which is the only anchor for our grief-stricken souls (Hebrews 6:19). The image of an anchor also reminds us of Tage sitting in his nautical themed nursery, and in the center of the anchor is a T for Tage and a cross for Christ’s death that gave us life. What an image!
So, never, ever, ever say never, I guess.
This world is full of suffering. Many of us have experienced heaping scoops of suffering, and God does not look away from it. He watches every moment, and He will redeem every moment. He knows that like the writer of Lamentations, we will never forget or fully get over the suffering we have seen and experienced as long as we are still in the valley of the shadow:
“The thought of my suffering and pain
is bitter beyond words.
I will never forget this awful time,
as I grieve over my loss.
Yet I still dare to hope
when I remember this:
The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
His mercies never cease.
Great is his faithfulness;
his mercies begin afresh each morning.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance;
therefore, I will hope in him!” (Lamentations 3:19-24 NLT)
Death is traumatic. It can be violent, gruesome, sudden, or drawn out, and it has left me behind with questions, doubts, fears, and a constant stabbing ache. I don’t get it, and I struggle to be patient as God works His good plans even in this.
Our very real enemy wants us to believe that he is winning, and in moments of death, it is easy to believe that he is. But death is not the end for those who love Jesus.
So, I handed my box of images to Jesus. We both had tears in our eyes as He took that box from me and set it on His lap. The cross took care of death, and I can’t handle the images left in my mind of it, but I know He can. Then, with a gentle confidence, He set my box on His lap and gave me a silent but firm nod to assure me He’s got this.
His foot is on Evil’s head, and He’s about to crush it.