Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Hope Awakens: A Lesson from Star Wars

by Beth Saadati

I thought it would never come.

Anticipation knots my stomach as I lean back in the movie seat while too many previews play. Then, finally, it’s there. The new VII. 

Just like before, it begins with the familiar orchestrated theme song. The “A long time ago” text. The Star Wars logo over a black field of stars. The yellow slanted words—the opening crawl—summarizing events that transpired since the last film one generation past.

Suddenly I’m that 9-, 11-, and 14-year-old girl who sat in the theater mesmerized by the original release of IV, V, and VI. Who listened to the screenplay and soundtrack records—my treasured Christmas gifts—again and again. Who pounded out John Williams’ score on the piano, the way my son does now, and read through the Scholastic-ordered book trilogy until the pages were worn. Who talked all-things Star Wars and quoted movie lines during a fourth-grade sleepover with a favorite friend until his digital R2-D2 watch blinked 5 a.m.

On the screen before me, the tale unfolds. Awed by the seamless merging of new and old, I connect with characters from the movies I loved. Themes resonate with me—of remaining faithful to friends, of choosing to fight, of clinging to hope while resolving to wait. The clock creeps toward midnight but, immersed in story, I stay wide awake.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

11 Things We Ought to Say When Someone's Lost a Loved One

by Beth Saadati

Most of us have experienced the awkward situation. Someone we know has lost a loved one, and we're unsure of what to say. Not wanting to utter anything hurtful, we stay away. Or, we attempt to communicate around the elephant in the room. 

Although everyone’s grief journey is unique, based on the loss of my teenage daughter, here are some words I’ve found to be safe—even healing—to speak:

1. I’m sorry. Or, I wish it weren’t this way for you. This may sound ordinary. Unoriginal. Even cliché. But, oftentimes, there really are no adequate words. To the one who’s grieving, this simple phrase says far more than most people know. And, if tears come, please don’t apologize or hold them back. Offer them as an unspoken gift as well.

2. I can’t imagine the pain of your loss. It’s okay that you don’t. That honesty—and acknowledgement that I hurt—still comforts.

3. Her life made/is making a difference. If you recall a specific memory, share it. For example, a year ago, Katilyn, 18, told me how much it had impacted her when my daughter invited her to a game night, made her feel welcomed, and, though Jenna didn’t yet know her well, introduced her as a friend to other teens there. Hearing about it brought me joy. I want to remember, to be reminded, to know that Jenna’s life mattered when she was here . . . and that it still does.

4. You were a good _________ (mom, daughter, sister, friend, etc.). Or, It wasn’t your fault.  I needed to hear this then. I still do. Too often it’s easier to recall all I wish I would have done differently than it is to remember what I might have gotten right.

5. You’ll see her again. If you can confidently say this, do. Remind me that, regardless of how disheartening the unexpected plot twist may seem, the story will have a satisfying ending. Just don’t say “soon.”

6. I care about you. Or, if it’s not too awkward, I love you. Like “I’m sorry,” this simple phrase speaks volumes. Most of us don’t verbalize the words enough. And, when we’re grieving, most of us can’t hear them enough.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

10 Things We Shouldn't Say to Someone Who's Lost a Loved One

by Beth Saadati

Holiday season cheer tends to intensify feelings of grief. So, what should we avoid saying to those who have experienced the death of a loved one? Based on the loss of Jenna, my teenage daughter, here’s what I would advise:

1. Time heals all wounds. Sure, grief changes with the passing of time, and a certain amount of healing comes. But I’ve heard from enough people to know that, twenty years later, there will be plenty of times when it still hurts.

2. You’ll get used to the new normal. I have to embrace the “new.” But will it ever feel “normal” to never see my daughter’s face or hear her voice again during the years that I’m alive? Or see her friends driving, attending dances, going to college, and someday establishing careers and families of their own, when Jenna’s not here? I don’t think so.

3. You’ll see her again soon. The last word poses a problem. Time is a funny thing. For example, even though it’s been twenty-five years since my college graduation, it seems more like five. So, when I finally see Jenna someday, the skipped years will probably feel like a hiccup. But, on this end, the thought of a four-decade separation doesn’t match my definition of “soon.”

4. She’s happy now. She’s in a better place. This one’s messy, because it’s true—she’s happy in heaven and I’ll see her again. I want to be reminded of that. It’s still hard to hear, however, because Jenna was fourteen. It wasn’t time for her to go, and I never got to say goodbye. Plus, like any parent, I naturally long to know what she’s seeing and experiencing. But there are no texts, no phone calls, no Facebook posts . . . nothing but a sometimes-unbearable silence.


5. Her death was worth it if it reaches even one person. When I was pitching Jenna’s book, a literary agent asked me this question. I wanted to give the noble—the godly—response and say “yes” . . . but I couldn’t. Because I’d give anything to have Jenna back. Since I can’t undo her choice, the price of capturing her life, and my grief, in words is worth the time, effort, and heartbreak it costs if it only speaks to one person. But that—no pun intended—is an entirely different story.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Life's Unanswered Questions, Thirteen Miles, and a Friend

by Beth Saadati

With another hour left in the race, my legs begin to tire. My calves start to cramp. The familiar burn sets in, but the South Carolina inclines still need to be ascended. Every time we go uphill, Rocky picks up speed.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

“It’s like pulling off a Band-Aid. You do it fast to get it over with.” He powers ahead in a challenge to follow then waits for me to catch up. In wonder, I shake my head . . . and keep on running.

* * *
Two years ago I’d run my first half marathon to push through grief after my teenage daughter’s death. Last year I’d run to conquer the course with my running partner, Amy, and her son, Hansel—one of my favorite students, one of Jenna’s friends. This year I’d wanted to complete it a third time, although I no longer knew why.

With a son or daughter’s suicide, a wave of grief often crests every few days for the first four years. Nearly three years in, healing had gradually come. At the end of August, however, a tsunami hit hard.

Minutes after being told a mother’s daughter was missing, memories had come rushing back. Details and emotions I’d buried when, for a couple of long hours, my daughter hadn’t been found. Flashbacks of the unforeseen trauma from the night my husband and I, with a roomful of friends, were delivered the devastating news. 

New questions now haunted me. “Why, God? When Jenna was missing, where were you?” Though I wrestled to receive answers, none came.

But a Facebook message arrived from Ohio in the form of a belated birthday post from Rocky, another favorite former student when he was a high school freshman and I was twenty-three. Half my lifetime ago he’d led in YoungLife, served on the newspaper staff, and kept track stats for the team I’d coached. He’d even been a groomsman in my wedding.

When is your half marathon? he asked. Maybe I could come down.

It’s in two months, but I'm way behind in training for it. This year I’ll do well to finish.

I’m marking my calendar, wrote Rocky. Let me see what I can do.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

When Fear Presses In: How a Wounded Warrior Wages War

by Beth Saadati
My nine-year-old son slides his hand into mine as we wander the aisles in search of a gift for his sister. He desires closeness. He wants connection.

I cherish the moment. After all, I know what he doesn’t—that the days before he’s no longer a young boy are numbered. That time speeds by and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.

That’s why we’re here. Because, after nearly three years without a teenager in the house, we’re about to have one. In a few days Christa will turn thirteen.

“Do you know what you want to get your sister?” I ask. Reaching over, I brush his hair to the side so I can see his eyes.

“A sword. I already told her.”

“A sword?”

“Yep,” he says, “so she can fight. I just need to find the right one.”

The mom in me is tempted to tell him to save his money since she’ll outgrow it too soon. Instead, I hold my tongue, because Josh is smiling. He looks happy.

It’s been a long week of uncommon bickering with the sister who’s secretly his best friend. He’s deep, battling thoughts no nine-year-old should have. He’s been fighting fear.

Fear that, lost in new teenage ways, Christa will pull away. Fear that she’ll enter a world of hurtful bullying, listen to lies, and lose her way. Fear that he’ll lose a playmate and sister. Again.

I speak words to comfort and assure him. “Christa’s a great kid. She’ll be a terrific teen. Everything will be okay.”

But, as much as I look forward to the joy of living life with my own teen in tow, I feel the fear too. I know no family is immune. And I couldn’t bear the grief of suicide a second time.

“Mom, WalMart doesn’t have it. Can we try another store?” Josh’s words pull me from imagining what I don’t want to see.

So on to Target we go. Same scenario, same warm fingers wrapped in mine, same perusal of plasticized products.

“There it is,” says Josh. He points, and I pull the Nerf sword down.

“It’s $15.99. Are you sure you want to pay that much? Maybe there’s a cheaper one.”

“No, Mom. The black and green is cool.”

“There’s a problem. Read the title.”

“Zombie Strike,” says Josh. “Dad will never go for that.”

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

What the Profile Picture Doesn't Tell: Facing Grief, Finding Joy

by Beth Saadati
A picture may be worth a thousand words,
but it seldom tells the whole story.

On July 1st Mary Denman arrives. For twenty-one years I’ve avoided professional pictures, but now I need head shots—for a radio interview, for business cards, for a blog. I apologize in advance and warn Mary this might be hard.

Hard because I don’t photograph well. Because I’ve never figured out how to pose. Because nothing about “say cheese” comes natural to me. Because, after four years of braces, my lower jaw decided to grow and when I smile big it sticks out and, as my son says, my eyes “go Chinese.” 

Mary smiles and tells me to relax. “I’ll get the pictures you need,” she says. “Plus a couple for your husband to put on his desk.”

I keep secret the main reason I’ve dreaded today, however, although I think Mary might know. My daughter, Jenna, should be a high school senior. Mary ought to be photographing her.

I imagine Jenna standing in my place. Smiling. Posing. Radiant. Glowing. Instead, it’s me who’s left, with a story I wish I had no reason to share. The twisting in my gut reminds me of how much I hate suicide.

Mary suggests we start outside on the back patio. She motions to a bench, and I sit. She puts me at ease, snaps away, speaks kind words. But I can feel my forced smile, my dull eyes, and I’m sure that even the most gifted photographer can’t capture joy that isn’t there.

Next we move to the steps. They’re marked with my husband’s footprints and coated in South Carolina’s staining red clay. I sit against the twisted-iron rail anyway.

“Just be yourself,” Mary says. I loosen up and lean back. The railing wobbles. It’s broken, so I smile—a genuine grin—picturing what the photo would look like if it were to give. Mary captures the moment.

Afterwards, following a quick change of clothes, Mary motions me to the opposite sun-rotten bench. As I sit, I remember being in the same place nearly three years ago.

“Jenna,” I’d called, “could you take a picture for me?”

Gently I placed my new Nikon in her hands, slung the strap around her neck, showed her how to auto-focus the camera. I smiled at her, my effervescent 14-year-old girl, while she pressed the button.

“I’ve taken three, Mom. Is that enough?”

Thursday, August 13, 2015

More Than a Date

by Beth Saadati

Some dates still wreck me. I’ve tried to convince myself that they’re nothing more than another day on a calendar page. But it doesn't work. 

Seventeen years ago I was given a new name, a treasured title. Mom. I tenderly cradled my newborn daughter, Jenna, in my arms. And, August 13th became my new favorite calendar date.

Jenna on her 13th birthday
I'd thought it would forever be a day of cake baking, candle blowing, and gift unwrapping. A day of rejoicing. A day of celebration.

Instead, on Monday I opened an e-mail and read a friend's thoughtful words: "You are in my fervent and constant prayers this week. I know it is bittersweet." 

I answered simply, my reply sincere.

“Thank you, Chris, for remembering and praying. Each birthday gets a tiny bit easier, but this is still the second hardest week of my year. I really wanted to see Jenna turn seventeen.”

As I finished typing the final line, something I’d heard about but hadn’t yet experienced happened. An instantaneous release of tears--a grief burst--came without warning. Then it stopped before I knew what had happened.

I’m not sure why typing that sentence triggered me. Probably because I long to see how Jenna would have blossomed—the beautiful young woman she surely would have become.

But it’s also because birthdays were a big deal to Jenna. My husband and I couldn’t afford polished, prepackaged party events, but Jenna didn’t care. With personal flair, she concocted her own.

Her ideas would start to simmer ten months before she turned a new number. Sometimes sooner. Sometimes immediately after her current celebration.

In my home yesterday, several of Jenna’s friends came and played Apples to Apples and Mafia, Four on a Couch and Taboo. Just like Jenna used to do.

As they engaged in friendly competition, I was surprised to find what I feared I'd lost—a backup dvd of Jenna’s funeral—after the original copy refused to work. For the first time since my daughter's death, I viewed part of the service.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Purple Scarf

by Beth Saadati

When my thirteen-year-old daughter unwrapped the Christmas gift, her eyes sparkled with delight. In the box were two beautiful scarves in her favorite color, purple. For the first time, Jenna and I would match.

I fingered the fringe and ran my hand across the woven cotton weave. Then I read the tag that said they were made by girls once broken, now set free. It told about their private world of pain that shouldn’t exist—about all the wrong of sex-trafficking trade.

We wore the scarves, and we remembered. Atop my winter wool pea coat, I gently wrapped the long length around my neck and let it warm me from the cold I hate.

But Jenna found a second use for hers. Knotting it around the waists of her young sister and brother, she let them lead like horses while she held the reins. Squealing, they ran, lap-looping inside our small ranch.

A more cautious mom would have ended it. Instead, hearing them laugh with childlike delight, I merely delivered the dutiful “Make sure no one gets hurt!”

"Don’t worry! We won’t!” yelled Jenna. Even though, eventually, someone always would.

Not once did I think, in the same room a year later, words would be spoken that no parents’ ears should ever have to hear: “Your daughter is dead. It appears she took her own life.”

A policewoman asked if there was anything special about her purple scarf. What had happened was more than I could comprehend. Imagining how it must have occurred was beyond what I could bear.

At my request, friends packed up Jenna’s remaining scarves. With no desire to see mine again, I then rid myself of the only one I owned.

Two years later, however, something in me wanted it back. Though never again could I wear it, I longed to see it, touch it, hold it as a tangible reminder of what Jenna and I once shared. In faith, I asked for the impossible.