For ten lovely years we were six.
I loved being six. In fact, I loved it so much that my email address incorporates our last name and the number six.
However, numbers change as children grow up and take flight. After our oldest son married, we were mostly five, but sometimes seven; and when son number two left for college we became four on a day-to-day basis.
But sometimes – gloriously – we are eight because of a grandboy.
I am blessed by this joyful numbering, but what happens when the numbers change for other than joyful reasons?
What if the numbers change because of the death of a child?
September Vaudrey has shared her story of decreasing numbers that came with the death of her middle daughter at the age of nineteen. Colors of Goodbye is a story of hope in a minor key, a story of letting go. When September sensed the voice of God saying, “I am good. This tragedy does not change My character. It doesn’t change who I am. I am good,” she left the door of her heart open to receive evidence of this truth. The resulting memoir is very personal, and yet manages to capture the experience of the entire family’s grief and to offer a record of helpful ways in which their community responded.
Although the author’s focus is definitely the death of her daughter Katie from a cerebral aneurysm, the book is also about Katie’s life: how she wanted to leave ripples in the lives she left behind; how her faith informed her art (and vice versa); how her strengths as well as her faults contributed to her role in the family. Then, because Katie’s funeral occurs at about the half-way mark in Colors of Goodbye, the second half of the book provides a poignant travelogue of one family’s slow traverse through the desert of grief.
I have emerged from this gripping read with a series of impressions, a supply of common-sense advice for ministering grace to the grieving, and some forcefully expressive insights to the loss from which a parent never fully recovers:
- Each family member must be free to grieve in his own way. An extrovert, September struggled to understand the low-key responses of her introverted husband and children. It appears that each tendency carries its unique freight of disadvantages with extroverts oversharing (to the horror of September’s children) and introverts “stuffing” their feelings, and, perhaps, slowing their process of healing. Scott (Katie’s father, September’s husband) needed quiet and distance in order to grieve well. He took on a landscaping project and the physical work probably helped. By contrast, September needed to keep a vigil over Katie’s last hours in the hospital, to do Katie’s make-up and hair for the funeral, to take pictures of her daughter’s dying. She shares the importance of having no regrets and the fact that, “From the very beginning, our grief looks starkly different — and equally right for us both.” It is critical for families to give each other the space to grieve in the manner that seems right for them.
2. When losing a child, “you grieve not only for your own loss, but for everyone else’s, too.” September found that commonality of trauma gave mutual understanding. “Pain is pain, no matter its source.” However, the pain must be faced head on.
3. God does not promise parents a lifetime with their children here on earth. This was a truth that September had to return to again and again. It was heartbreaking to read her accounts of pleading with God to turn back the clock: “Let Katie have a headache. We’ll take her to ER, they’ll detect the aneurysm, and this story can have a different ending.” Scott Vaudrey’s prayer frames the Christian’s vantage point: “How blessed we are that someday we will see her again. We grieve deeply, but we grieve with hope.”
4. The death of a child brings unique pain to a family. Their other children will pose for up-to-date family pictures, will likely add spouses and kids to their photos — while the picture of the child who has died remains frozen in time, out-dated, and unchanging. The dead child will not be present in siblings’ wedding and graduation pictures. There is a tendency for parents to over-protect and worry obsessively over the safety of remaining children, and divorce statistics for bereaved parents are very discouraging.
5. The day after the funeral is not a finish line, but a starting line. Several times in her dated entries from the three years following Katie’s death, September shared her feeling of being trapped in an endless season of waiting. When will life get back to “normal”? She worked her way through what she referred to as “death chores” (writing thank you notes, throwing away bouquets, dealing with paperwork such as medical bills and insurance details, disposing of possessions), trusting for release from pent up sorrow. Even knowing intellectually that, at some point, she needed to accept her new life — her very different life — without five children, her heart still needed to process that brave surrender.
6. September’s memoir is a valuable record of the body of Christ showing up in meaningful, appropriate, and significant ways for a grieving family. I kept a running list of all the thoughtful and helpful acts of love the Vaudrey family received, and I hope that if someone close to me is suffering in that way, I will remember to refer to that list. It ranged from the small and practical (restaurant gift cards tucked into sympathy cards, making it clear that it’s o.k. to talk about the deceased and then listening with patience, providing meals for the family and help with the children) to the significant and symbolic (planting a tree in the yard in memory of the child, including the family in events that would have involved the child, noting anniversary dates, accompanying the parents in difficult duties associated with the child’s death). September spoke fondly of her “posse of girlfriends” who ministered to her in ways that even her family was unable to do.
7. The circumstances of Katie’s death made her an ideal organ donor. The Vaudreys were open and accepting of this option, and September shares how this decision both helped and exacerbated their pain, while affirming that it was the right decision for them.
Colors of Goodbye displays with candor the entire palette of September Vaudrey’s journey through grief. The truth of God’s mercy is put on display, and she trumpets with joy the blessed hope that the believer does not “sorrow as others who have no hope.” On the other hand, this is no candy-coated misuse of Romans 8:28 with the error of “forcing . . . tragedy into some sort of beautiful blessing without giving nod to [the] lacerating loss.”
The Vaudreys’ lives were forever changed on May 31, 2008 when their daughter died. I write as an outsider to this form of grief. However, I believe that, by the grace of God, they have allowed (and I’m sure are still allowing) their heartache to transform their lives with a beauty and joy that is theirs because of (not in spite of) their pain and loss.
This book was provided by Tyndale Momentum, an imprint of Tyndale House Publishers, in exchange for my review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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