From my front row seat

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Finding Meaning in a Suitcase of Grief

Surely it was a sick April Fool's joke.  It was the evening of April 1st when I got a text from one of our Blue Monarch graduates.  She forwarded me a Facebook post with Erin's beautiful face that indicated she had died that day - April Fool's Day.  We were hoping it wasn't true.

But it was true.

In two days it would have been a year since Erin graduated from our program.  My mind immediately flashed back to her bubbly personality, great sense of humor, and sparkling blue eyes.  And then of course, to her precious two boys.

Erin was so full of life, I couldn't help but remember some of the funny moments with her, too - like the time we all went to a tearoom for high tea.  She surprised us by breaking into a perfect English accent as soon as we arrived, then stayed in character the entire time we were there, which kept us in stitches.  How could she be gone?

When my father died I described that painful journey as a train ride where you stop at depots along the way and exchange one suitcase of grief for a different suitcase of grief.  It seemed there were distinctly unique stages of grief that came in all shapes and sizes.

So the first suitcase I grabbed when Erin died was one of complete shock.  I spent the next twenty-four hours basically numb as I systematically called each staff member to break the terrible news.  I wanted to cry but for some reason I couldn't.

The next day was Monday and the suitcase I carried that day was one of making sure everyone on our staff had oxygen.  I had two psychologists, who are very dear to us, meet with our staff to help us process what had happened.  Some of us spent eighteen months living very closely with Erin and a few new ones on our team only knew her by name.  But it was immediately clear that her death had impacted each of us in powerful and personal ways, and we were all hurting terribly for Erin's children.

I'll have to admit.  As I looked around the room at the beautiful, amazing people on our staff, and observed how they were hurting so deeply over Erin's death, I had to resist having a few George Bailey moments where I wondered if all these people could have been spared this pain if I had not started Blue Monarch in the first place.  And yes, I do realize how crazy that is, but it was hard not to feel some ownership in the raw hurt I saw around me that day.

The third day I held in my hands a suitcase of great anger.  I kept thinking back on the day Erin sat in my office and announced she was not going to participate in our transitional graduate program, but instead she was going home to take care of her mother and brother who needed her.  Someone had given her mother the money it took to turn the electricity back on in Erin's house, and that was all it took to spring her back like a bungee cord to the worst place she could possibly go.  (Erin's mother and brother are now incarcerated so the sheriff's department escorted them both to the funeral home.)

"Erin, I'm telling you.  Please listen to me.  I have sat here with many women through the years who also wanted to return to their old environments and not one of them was successful doing that.  Not one."

In that tiny, baby voice of hers, with a smile of confidence on her face, Erin said, "Well then, I will be the first."

Erin was the first, but not for that.  Even though I can't stand to hear condolences that begin with "At least...", I found myself trying to get some kind of comfort in the fact that at least she was the first we had lost due to drug related circumstances, which was remarkable considering we had served hundreds of women struggling with addiction.  However, this staggering statistic brought absolutely no comfort and felt quite empty.

My next suitcase held great sorrow.  It was the heaviest suitcase so far and I'm still holding it today, although it's slowly getting lighter.  In fact, it wasn't until a couple of days ago that I realized I had gone an entire day without unexpectedly bursting into tears - the kind where you find a quiet place to cry out loud.  Erin's tragic death at the young age of twenty-three, and the impact it will have on her children, has had a profound effect on me.

Months ago, well before I knew anything like this was on the horizon, I got an unexpected email from a professor at Texas Tech.  Unbeknownst to me, she had been using Blue Monarch for several years as an example of a non-profit doing recovery right.  She asked if I would speak to her class of seniors who were going into the field of recovery.  We planned to do this via Skype and I began keeping a list of Ten Things I Wish I Had Known, which quickly turned into twenty.

All of a sudden one weekend, I felt God was telling me, "You need to go there in person.  You need to be there."  I had never been to Lubbock, Texas, the home of Texas Tech, and when I looked online to see if it was obvious why God would want to send me there, I can't say anything jumped out at me.  But I contacted the professor and said, "If it's all the same to you, I think I will come speak to your class in person."  She seemed really excited and as soon as I made my travel arrangements I felt great peace about my decision.

After Erin's death, however, I realized my trip to Texas Tech was going to conflict with Erin's memorial service.  Maybe I needed to reschedule or cancel my trip.

Suddenly it became clear to me why I needed to go.  I had the opportunity to talk to a room full of compassionate people who were going into the field of recovery.  What better way to honor Erin's life than to empower people who were joining our army to fight the ugly world of addiction!

With a heavy heart, as Erin's memorial was taking place back at home, I made sure the students in front of me would know how to spell Erin's name and remember her face.  I wanted them to know that the people they will one day serve are very real.  I described Erin's life and the trials she experienced as a young child, finding herself as the primary caregiver for her younger brother at the age of eight.  I shared Erin's childhood stories of how desperately she longed for her parents to do the ordinary things other parents did - and I told of how she learned to do those same things for her own children while she was at Blue Monarch.

I showed the class the staggering chart Erin made that illustrated how multiple people on one side of her family tree had died from suicide, and multiple people on the other side had been murdered.  And until the results from her autopsy come back, we won't know which side of the family tree her death will belong. 

I described how Erin arrived at Blue Monarch without custody of her two boys.  And then I shared the beautiful memories she made with her children when they were reunited and how much their relationships grew during such an impressionable time in her boys' young, little lives.  I talked about the rich experience her children had as they had the chance to grow and thrive in a healthy environment and Christian home.  How our farm provided a place for her children to just be kids instead of worrying about grownup problems at such a tender age.

Then I felt compelled to share with the class one of the most important lessons God has taught me - that our job is to serve, not fix.  Love, not judge.  It was important for them to know that the services they provide may have an impact down the road that they may not even see.  I knew there would come a time when these students would question whether they were really making a difference in the ugly world of addiction.

And there it was.  That right there was why the last suitcase was so heavy.  How do we experience something like this without questioning whether we are really making a difference?  I found myself asking this question over and over as I grasped for answers.  However, I got the answers to my own question from Erin, herself.

Stuck away in a box with similar letters from previous residents, I found the ones from Erin that described how much she had gained at Blue Monarch and all the reasons she wished she had not left when she did.  Over and over she described the relationship with Jesus she had developed while she was here.  She even drew me a picture of Jesus.  "I'm not much of an artist but this is my first time ever trying to draw Jesus.  I'd like you to have it."  The greatest blessing of all was the change in Erin's soul!

However, I read through all Erin's letters to see if there was anything else that would help me feel we had made a lasting difference.  And then I found one more thing...

From a jail cell Erin had written, "When I spoke to my son, you know what he wanted to talk about?  Normally it's always been 'Mommy why you in jail?  Why was you bad?  When you coming back?' - all bad things, but he didn't ask any of that.  The only thing he said was, 'Mommy, I want to go back to Blue Monarch.' "

Sometimes I feel the biggest challenge we face in what we do is not even the drugs.  It's the extremely intense pull of what's familiar.  It's typically what they knew as children.  So even though it may be dysfunctional, chaotic, and harmful, they are naturally drawn to it like a magnet.  Therefore, we want to become THAT.  We want to become that same powerful, pulling force for the children we serve.

We want the life we provide at Blue Monarch to be what our children spring back to like a bungee cord.  We want to be what is familiar to them, what they long for even as adults.  For Erin, even though her story did not turn out the way we wanted, she gave her children a beautiful gift by providing them wonderful memories of a life they may have otherwise never known, and one she never had herself as a child.  A place where the world is safe, people are nurtured and loved, the future is bright and full of hope.  Erin planted those seeds in her children and we must pray they will continue to grow.

A few days ago I got this in the mail.  It was lots of nice notes from the students at Texas Tech.  My goal was for just one student to make a difference in someone's life because of Erin's story.  But after reading what some of them had to say, I can see that Erin planted many seeds there too - way over in West Texas.  

Thank you, Erin, for sharing your life - and death - with us because I believe God found a way to turn your darkness into light for many others.  And that's a suitcase I'm honored to carry for a long, long time.

CLICK HERE to read an earlier post about God's message to serve, not fix.  Love, not judge.