It happened right after Annie died. I was at the grocery store, wrestling 5 year old William and 3 year old Kate in the checkout line. Grocery shopping has never been on my list of favorites, but add in restless kids, expired coupons, and a too-long list and I was a sweaty mess by the time I faced the conveyor belt. I had done my best to be creative and efficient … but my fuse was rapidly shortening.
The cashier was so sweet. She winked at the kids and gave them a sticker.
“You only have two kids, huh?” she said, indicating that I should have more.
I looked at William and Kate and realized how empty the word ‘only’ sounded. I didn’t want to cry in the middle of the grocery store line, I just wanted to pay and escape.
So I mumbled, “Yup. Two kids.”
But the sonar ears of the kids didn’t miss my answer. Selective hearing. It’s real.
“Mom! That’s not true! What about Annie!?” They were hurt and shocked that I hadn’t rolled out the whole story to a stranger. If it were up to them, we would have announced her death over the loud speaker. Including her in our family, even in the most trivial circumstances, mattered to them.
I really don’t remember what happened after that, but I’m sure I managed to make it as awkward as possible, because, well, at that point there was no way to make a graceful exit.
It was the first in a long line of painful encounters from friends and strangers… most of whom have good intentions. But I’ve always struggled with knowing when to share about Annie, and how not to feel guilty when I choose to dodge the questions with passing strangers.
Our friends, David and Nancy Guthrie, taught us about the Trump Card (think euchre, not The Donald). Bringing the death of a loved one into a conversation has the power to completely change the exchange, even bringing it to a screeching halt. But it can also open up amazing opportunities. Either way, I know that when I share about Annie all eyes are on me. Gulp.
It’s up to me to use my trump card wisely. In the right circumstances, my story can change hearts and encourage people. But it’s not always necessary to show the trump card, as was the case of the grocery store clerk. She didn’t need me to spill the story of my daughter with a line up of full carts behind me, anxious to check out. I must discern if it’s right time.
It used to be a bit easier, because most people I had contact with knew our story. But time changes our spheres of influence, so that’s not as true anymore. To the outside world, we are a normal family with 3 kids. They don’t see the gap between Kate (9) and Eliza (5) as a gaping wound where a little seven year old should be. So I’m forced a little more to share, to approach the awkward questions with grace.
A few years ago, Peter and I were sitting with a group of people we had just met when someone asked the woman next to me how many siblings she had. I watched her as choose her words carefully: “I have a sister named ______, another sister named ________ and a brother named __________”, she said. Instead of answering with a number, she simply named them. I noticed her hesitation and later asked her about it. She told me she had lost a sister in a terrible accident, but hadn’t wanted to delve into it with a large group of acquaintances. By simply giving us the names of her siblings, she hadn’t excluded or included her sister. It’s a trick I use now when someone asks me how many kids I have and I’m not sure about spilling my guts. Instead of answering how many kids I have directly, I’ll say, “Will is 11, Kate is 9, Eliza is 5.” It’s a simple way for me to answer the question, but to keep the conversation open to more. I keep my Trump Card hidden, but I’m ready to use it if the conversation keeps going.
Often, I feel an urging from the Holy Spirit to be vulnerable. It still feels risky to me, but sharing my heart gives others permission to share theirs. I believe that God can use our broken hearts, so I have to be willing to be open about what we have gone through. I’ve never regretted taking an opportunity to share my hurt. Ever.
This precious treasure— this light and power that now shine within us— is held in perishable containers, that is, in our weak bodies. So everyone can see that our glorious power is from God and is not our own. (2 Corinthians 4:7)
There will always be awkward conversations. There will always be opportunities for me to use my trump card or to let it go. But I’m thankful for the way these encounters deepen my dependence on God.
How do you approach these awkward encounters? Because we all have something, don’t we? Maybe you’ve lost a child, or maybe it’s something completely different for you. There’s a trump card for us all. May you have courage to hold it loosely, to see opportunities to be vulnerable. May you hold tight to the Holy Spirit who promises wisdom to you when you ask. Sharing your hurt may be the catalyst someone else needs to begin their own healing.