Beauty and Love in the Midst of Tragedy

Over the past several weeks, I have really struggled. I mean really struggled. It has been a very different type of struggle. I have been filled with this hopelessness and bitterness as the reality of my “new normal” really began to sink in.

My day starts now with the sound of an alarm clock squawking at me instead of a 5 year old whispering in my ear that she is hungry. I get up and get ready to go to work and there is no battle with Lauren to get her to put her shoes on so we aren’t late. The bus drives through the neighborhood and I watch her friends bounce off of the bus always waiting for her to get off…then remembering she will never get off that bus. My house is organized and picked up all the time. Instead of it looking like Toys R Us on steroids, it looks like a model home that has been staged for a picture. There are never huge piles of dirty clothes that need to be washed; two loads every Sunday is easy to keep up with. The nights that used to stress me out with how to balance dinner, homework, and the extracurricular activities, now slowly pass by often feeling like bedtime is never going to come. Weekends that were once filled with festivals and fall activities as a family, are now filled with quietness or conversations about what life used to be like. The exhausting moments of life that used to be filled with me pleading for a moment to be alone by myself, are now replaced with hours of loneliness each day.

The reality is that I have a new normal…and I hate it! Everything in me wants to run back to my “old life” and hold on to it with everything I have. I fight this battle every day; the new verses the old. I want to take my old life and make it my new life, but guess what I’ve figured out lately? I can’t. No matter how hard I try. No matter how hard I bargain and negotiate with God. No matter how much I scream and cry, I can’t do it.

I have experienced more pain in my heart than I ever thought possible. I probably have many more gray hairs now than I used to. My eyes may never stop watering as I have probably cried enough tears to flood an ocean. I probably have a few more wrinkles on my face and chronic neck and upper back issues. The reality is that my life will never be the same…and I hate that!

To make it worse, I have never felt as attacked by Satan as I have in the past 6 months. He is trying as hard as he can to keep me down, keep me feeling isolated, and trying hard to destroy my faith and relationship with God. He has attacked me by trying to overload me with guilt about everything. He has attacked my marriage by trying to drive a wedge between Aaron and me. He has attacked my family by allowing hurtful thoughts or words to be expressed. He has attacked my job by bringing up painful memories. He has attacked my friendships by trying to convince me that no one cares anymore. He has attacked my faith by trying to convince me that God doesn’t love me or care about me. He has attacked my life by trying to convince me that I have no identity anymore since I am no longer a mother. He has attacked the community by trying to stop Lauren’s love that is spreading. There are moments where it has felt like he has won. There have definitely been moments where I have been knocked down and sometimes even beaten up some by him, but there have also been many victories against him!

By God’s grace and love, and by reading scripture, and by praying and listening, and by surrounding ourselves with good people, and by leaning on friends and family, we continue to defeat him. My marriage is different now, but I still love Aaron just as much today as I did before Lauren died. Family relationships are different but my family is stronger and closer and communicates even more. My job at the preschool is different but I still have amazing, little children, their families, and the staff that I get to love on and feel loved by every day. Every relationship with friends is different now, but we have gained some beautiful, new friendships that I cherish greatly. My faith is stronger now than it has ever been! I have learned to pray more and to let God take control of my life. I still struggle daily with the loss of my identity as a mom, but I have so many precious and beautiful memories of us together that I will forever be thankful for. And Lauren is definitely having an impact on the lives of so many including this community and around the city, state, and country. Her love is spreading like a wildfire!

Yes, the past six months have been hard, but I have learned so much! I’ve realized that I have a choice to make each day; do I get out of bed and fight the day or stay in bed and drown myself in self-pity? (I have gotten out of bed every single day since March 20th!) I’ve really thought about how every day is a blessing and how there is no guarantee for the next day. I’ve realized that I am beyond blessed to have an army of amazing people who have walked this journey with me every step of the way. I’ve realized what it means to feel truly loved and cared for. I’ve realized that living my life with despair, bitterness and hopelessness is not what Lauren would want for me! I’ve realized what it means to truly have to trust God and believe that He is here with me and taking every step with me. I’ve realized that God has blessed me with so much in life, and even in this greatest tragedy, He continues to bless me. I’ve realized that God has a beautiful plan for me that is bigger and better than I can ever design or plan. I’ve realized that even in the worst moments of life, there is the ability to see beauty and love.

I don’t know what you are facing in life right now that is hard but chances are there is something. Maybe it is a slight bruise or maybe it is a massive, gushing wound. Whatever it is, I want you to know that you are not alone. I am here for you. Aaron is here for you. You have friends and family that are here for you. And God is here with you, walking hand in hand with you every step of the way, even if you don’t feel it.

I encourage you to stop, and breathe, and take a moment to look for the beauty and the love in the situation. I’m sure if you try hard enough you can find something beautiful or filled with love. It is hard. It would be much easier to just see the negative and to have bitterness or anger, but I promise you, beauty and love will make you feel much better than bitterness and anger ever will. Please know that no matter how hard life is, with support from others, the love of God, and the desire to move forward, we are all resilient and have the ability to bounce back.

Today I Choose Joy

6 months… 184 days…4,416 hours…all of which have felt like a lifetime. As I sit here today, there is a part of me that can’t believe that it has already been 6 months since Lauren passed away. There is the other part of me that can’t believe it has only been 6 months. It feels like it has been 6 years, or 60 years, or a lifetime since I last heard her, saw her, felt her, or hugged her.

Knowing today was coming, I have been thinking a lot about what to say or write. I started this post about 20 times. I struggled with what to share. Do I share the anger and bitterness? Do I share what I have learned? Do I share the reality of how hard this has been? Do I share how thankful I am for everyone? Do I share how I have rebuilt my faith? Do I share the beauty I have seen? Then I stopped and prayed and listened to my heart, and I knew exactly what to share with you.

One thing I have done throughout the past 6 months is journal. I have tried to journal every day but truthfully it has now become every couple of days. I decided to go back to where it all started; my very first journal entry that I wrote about one month after she died.

“This is the very first time I am writing to you since you walked through the gates of Heaven. It still seems so surreal. I am still in complete shock. I still wait anxiously for you to walk back through the doors. I miss you! I really miss you! I miss your laugh and your sweet voice. I miss your loving hugs and cuddles. I miss your energy and passion for life. I miss your vivid imagination and ability to play. I miss your child-like faith and your love for God. I miss the way that you could light up a room and melt someone’s heart with a genuine hug. I miss the way you loved. I did not know it was possible to miss you this much. I know I will get to see you again someday in Heaven, but it will be brutal to have to wait that long.

I have had every emotion possible in the past month. There has been a ton of pain and anger and heartache and sadness, but today, as the first day that I am writing to you, I am choosing joy. I am choosing to fill my heart with joy for all of the beautiful and extremely special memories we had together. I loved all the special time we got to spend together. And we got to spend a lot of time together!

I loved it when we would go out to eat for lunch or to get a treat somewhere. We had so many special mommy and Lauren dates.

I loved it when we would go to the park. You loved the swing and I would push you forever in it. Then you learned how to pump your legs. You didn’t need me to, but you still always wanted me to push you. I loved to watch you run around and squeal with delight as you ran through the playground or through the splash pads.

You loved to climb, and you were so good at it! Remember the first time you climbed the rock wall! You rung that bell with so much pride and then bounced down like such a pro. I loved taking you to the YMCA. We had so much fun in gymnastics classes there. We loved to play on the indoor playground and play air hockey. I also loved to watch you swim. You LOVED to swim! And you were so good at it! Every week for almost two years, we would make the trek to the pool. I loved to watch your excitement and enthusiasm as you learned how to swim. I will forever remember the first time you jumped in by yourself, the first time you went down the slide by yourself, and the first time you swam the entire length of the pool by yourself.

One of my other favorite places to go with you was the zoo. You LOVED the zoo as well! We loved to walk the paths and look at all the animals. You had such a beautiful and loving heart for the animals. We would talk about the animals and you often asked me questions that I never knew the answer to. We loved to ride the carousel together and then cuddle up together on the log ride. I still remember the first time you rode the carousel by yourself. You were so proud! We loved to ride the train on a safari and look for “wild” animals. I think out of all of your favorite memories at the zoo, your absolute favorite was the time you rode the ponies for the first time. You LOVED the ponies! The pride radiated out of you as you rode the pony like a big girl. The ponies were never my favorite, but seeing you walking around so proudly on that pony will forever be one of the best memories for me.

We loved to go shopping together. I guess the shopping bug wore off on you. Secretly, I think you loved to go so you could negotiate with me to get a new toy or a treat. I loved to watch and listen to you play. You were so creative! You could truly get lost in your own imaginary world. I loved to watch you bring the toys to life. You loved to set up parties and weddings for all of your stuffed animals. We also loved to do crafts together. You were so creative. We could get lost for hours in the craft supplies and make beautiful pieces of art. You always wanted to make projects that I had no idea how to make. Somehow between the two of us, we could make it happen.

One of my absolute favorite things to do with you was to cook and bake. We both LOVED to bake and cook together. That was our special thing. It wasn’t a job to make dinner with you; it was a privilege. I loved to see the excitement radiate out of you after our meal was complete. You were getting really good at cooking! You were coming up with your own ideas that made every meal even more special. These will always be some of the best memories that I will cherish with you.
We loved to go to the mall and leisurely walk around. We would usually eat lunch in the food court. Then we would ride the carousel or you would ride in some of the cars. We would usually stop in the candy store at the end for a special treat. You definitely loved candy!

We also loved to spend time with our friends. You loved to play with your friends and I spent time talking with their mommies. You always wanted to go to a friend’s house or have a friend over. I loved to watch you play with your friends that were almost like a brother or sister to you.

I loved to watch your beautiful heart spread love to others. You always challenged me to find ways that we could care for other people. I loved shopping for items for the shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child with you. I loved helping you pack up your toys and send them to children in other areas that needed toys. I loved drawing pictures with you for our neighbors and friends. I loved going places to take care of others with you. I loved baking treats for people to thank them for their help. I loved babysitting little babies with you so their mommies could have a break. I loved picking up trash and litter with you so the park looked prettier. You were so good at caring for others and spreading love and joy to them.

I also loved your faith. I loved when we would sit together and read stories from the Bible. I loved when you would help me create the examples for Bible story lessons that I was teaching my class. I loved going to church with you each week and watching you share your faith and love for God with others. I loved listening to you pray beautiful and heartfelt prayers. I loved sitting on the couch and listening to you “preach” Bible stories and lessons of love to me. I loved listening to you sing the songs on the radio from the backseat of the car. I loved getting to watch you grow and love God with your true child-like faith.

You were also my preschool buddy. We had so many great memories in the preschool. You loved to come in with me and set up before school or the night before. While I would set up, you would play and create and explore and pretend for hours. I loved walking into the preschool with you every day for four years. You always welcomed every teacher with a huge, “Hi” and a bigger hug.

One of my absolute favorite things to do was to just be with you and spend time with you. I loved your touch. I loved your beautiful and caring heart. I loved your hugs and your cuddles. I loved to snuggle and rub your back. I loved to run my fingers through your usually tangled hair. I loved to lie together and take a nap. I loved to tickle you and wrestle with you.

I loved being around you. I loved spending time with you. You always made me feel so special and loved. There will never be anyone else like you. As hard as it is to not have you here with me anymore, I am so thankful for these memories. I am trying to cherish them and remember our special times together.

These are the memories that I choose to celebrate today. Thank you for 5 ½ beautiful years together. You made me a better person. Sometimes I think I learned more from you than you learned from me. Thank you for teaching me what it really means to love. Thank you for allowing me to love you.

I promise to continue to think about you and talk about you. I promise to try the best I can to love others and care for others just like you did. I promise that I am going to try my best to always make other people feel special. I promise to continue to live life fully. I promise to laugh and find joy again one day. I promise to love God and Jesus and spread my love for them just like you did. I promise to always love my friends and family with an unconditional love. And I promise to always love you. You will always be my sweet, baby girl. I will always be your mommy, and you will always be my Lauren. You were and are so special! I am the luckiest person in the world because I get to call you my daughter. I love you so much, Lauren. ”

Life Isn’t Fair

(This was originally posted on Facebook on September 11, 2018)

Recently, several people have asked us if we still need help or how we need help. Since it has been a while, we thought we would give you an update and let you know how we could use your help. We hope you know where our heart is coming from with this letter.

Next week will mark the 6 month anniversary of her passing. It is hard for us to believe that it has been almost 6 months! To say the last 6 months have been difficult, painful, and brutal, would be an understatement. The past 6 months have been horrific. During this time, we have worked hard to rebuild almost every aspect of our lives; our marriage, jobs, relationships, faith and identities. We have searched deeper within ourselves than we ever thought possible. We have had to rely on strength when we felt like an ant climbing a mountain. There have been days of hopelessness and despair mixed with bouts of extreme sadness and overwhelming heartache. We have cried enough tears to flood an ocean, and hardly a moment goes by that we don’t think about her. We have yelled and screamed at God with complete anger and bitterness. Our bodies ache with extreme exhaustion. The heaviness we feel makes it hard just to function at times. We have learned to live life with more silence. We have made more tough decisions than we can count; and the decisions keep coming. The days have been filled with unrelenting and daunting events; some we know are coming and some completely blindside us. And we miss her. We miss her more than we can ever describe; the type of pain that makes you want to rip your heart out of your chest. We are still dealing with shock and denial as tough realities set in. We would do anything right now to have her back or have one more hug, or kiss, or “I love you”. We have realized that life isn’t fair.

Life has been hard, but there have also been many bittersweet and beautiful moments as well. We have connected with friends and made some amazing friendships. We have spread love and kindness to many people. We have rebuilt our faith, and it is stronger than ever. We have conquered some of our biggest fears. We have learned of many special and beautiful stories of Lauren that are now precious memories. We have learned to appreciate life and not take anything for granted. We have felt the power of community. We have been blessed and loved by so many of you.

As we have walked this road of the great unknown, we have done it with you. We are so thankful for you! Thank you for raising us up, when we could barely stand. Thank you for supporting us in moments of extreme darkness. Thank you for feeding us when we couldn’t put two thoughts together. Thank you for finding babysitters so we could enjoy much needed time together. Thank you for the never ending, constant flow of prayers. Thank you for loving us so unconditionally during the deepest, darkest, absolute worst time of our lives.

People have asked us if we still need help. It is hard for us to ask for help, especially since we have had to ask for so much help. We do need your help; we really do. If you are wondering how you could help us, here are some ways.

Please, please, please continue to talk to us and invite us to do things together! You are not a nuisance! You are not bothering us! We want to talk and do life with you! We want to talk about Lauren! We don’t want you to be afraid to talk or do life with us. Truthfully, it is really hard for us to feel like people are afraid of us. We are still Jen and Aaron. Our story is different now, but we still care about and love you and your families so much. We cherish the friendships that have been created with all of you. We cannot imagine doing life without you.

We also see your beautiful hearts. We know that often you are afraid to talk to us or interact with us because you don’t want to hurt us or you don’t know what to say. We get that. We really do! That’s why we are so blessed to have so many special friends that care about us and love us so much. We hope this brings you some comfort: We don’t expect anyone to have “the right words” or to be able to do anything “to make this all better”. We don’t! We know that no one has the right words or can make this all better. But what we do know is that because many of you have been there for us, you have given us words or done something for us to help make that moment better! That’s how we live life right now; moment by moment. We can’t begin to tell you how many times someone has reached out or done something for us at the exact right moment. It is because of you that we are getting our feet back under us.

We also know that you sometimes don’t want to talk to us because you don’t want to make it worse for us by talking about your kids. We get that, too. Here is the honest truth with that: We LOVE you and we LOVE your kids! Yes, talking about them can be hard. But feeling like we aren’t a part or aren’t involved in your lives can be even harder! We love your kids just as much today as we did when Lauren was playing with them. As Aaron and I have searched and struggled to find our new identities, we have realized how blessed we are to still be involved in your and your family’s lives. We don’t have a lot going on, so we want to go to games and cheer on your children as they play their favorite sports. We want to celebrate their birthdays and attend their birthday parties. We want to talk about them. We want to be there to celebrate the big milestones as they occur. We want to be there for you, too!

Please don’t be afraid to talk to us about Lauren or to bring Lauren up in conversation. Right now, all we have are precious and beautiful memories of Lauren. As we talk about Lauren, we often hear about stories and memories that other people have with her that we never knew about. Hearing those stories allows us to create more special memories to hold onto and to cherish dearly. This might sound absurd but there is another issue we deal with when people are afraid to talk about Lauren. Satan is really good at misconstruing our thoughts. When people don’t talk about Lauren, we can easily begin to believe that she has been forgotten about already. It is very easy for us to feel like everyone else has “moved on” with their lives and forgotten about us and Lauren. Satan can cause us to believe that she isn’t important anymore. We know it isn’t true, but it is a constant struggle that we battle with Satan.

There is a misconception out there that since it has been almost 6 months, we don’t need as much help anymore. The reality is that we still really do need your help! There is also a misconception out there that we are always really busy, when the reality is that we spend a lot of time at home alone. We don’t get invited to do much with anyone anymore. Without Lauren around, we don’t have much to fill our days and evenings. The reality is that we can go days without hearing from anyone or doing anything with anyone. It can become very lonely. We can’t guarantee that we will always say yes to doing something. We also can’t guarantee that we won’t have tears and emotions. In fact, there is a good chance that we will cry and be sad, but we love you and your families. Any tears or tough feelings that we have are temporary and will fade. The tougher pain is the long term reality of not doing life with people we love.

There is one other way you can help. For both of us, going to the cemetery is something of importance and necessity to us. As hard as it is to be there, we usually find peace there by feeling physically close to her. It can also be very lonely to go to the cemetery by ourselves. We have been reluctant to ask people to go to the cemetery because we don’t want to ever force someone into an awkward spot about whether or not to go if they aren’t comfortable. We also don’t often ask people to go because we know it can be hard to go between work schedules and family schedules. So, if you are willing to go and are comfortable going, will you please let us know? We would really love to start going more with friends and loved ones. It comforts us to feel connected with her and others at her grave.

Sorry that this is so long. We have said it so many times, but we really truly are so thankful for you! Saying thank you for all you have done, for all of your support, and for all of your prayers doesn’t feel appropriate enough. But please know how much we love you and how truly thankful we are for you and your family. You mean the world to us. ♥️♥️

The Last First Day of School

(This was originally shared on Facebook on August 30, 2018)

This memory tugged at my heart strings this morning. One year ago today was Lauren’s last first day of preschool. I was an emotional mess that morning knowing that after four years, it was her last first day of preschool. Little did I know that it would be her last first day of school ever