Lindsey Atkins is one of my closest friends. Not only do our names sound similar, but our lives have run parallel in several ways. Some examples: we’re both long-haired brunettes; we both love art, design, and writing; we’ve both been married to youth pastors; and each of us has two sons ages 2 and 4. Also, in February 2016, both of our lives underwent epic changes, culminating to a profound juxtaposition on that Saturday, February 20th. These circumstances compelled us to write our stories together.
Sunday, February 14, 2016:
Weight and Waiting
Waking up on Valentine’s Day, I felt in my body the crashing reality that my husband was not and would never be next to me. After suffering severe internal bleeding, multiple cardiac arrests and trauma to his brain as a result of complications from a heart catheterization procedure, Eric was dead. That morning the weight of my limbs and the sickness of grief paralyzed me into the mattress. In desperation, I called out to God. “God, I can’t. I cannot get up from this bed. I am physically unable to move even a finger unless you take over my body and move it. I need you to be my strength today because I have nothing left.” People had been praying that Eric would be healed, but a miracle did not come in the form of a risen husband returning to his wife and kids. Instead, my kids’ mother got up from that bed. In God’s miraculous strength, I did move forward. In a daze, with loved ones by my side, I faced the next week of my husband’s funeral preparations.
It was hard to drag myself and my toddler out the door. Everything felt heavier this morning, and it wasn’t just because I was 9 months pregnant. As I waddled into the church, I knew I wasn’t the only one in such a low state. The density of despair was almost physically tangible as many had just heard the news of our dear friend Eric Lindberg’s passing. The gravity of this 25 yr-old youth pastor departing from his students, friends, family, young wife Lizzie and their two little boys was barely sinking in. The lobby was quieter that Sunday. Somber. I dropped my child off in the nursery, then made my way to the sanctuary. I spotted and made my way toward my friend Tricia, who was sitting by herself because her husband and mine both worked at the church and were busy with pastoral duties. She turned and saw my face–an available commiserating face–and threw her arms around me as she burst into tears and squeaked, “poor Lizzie” as my tear faucet sprung on, as well. Somehow we regained some semblance of composure. I struggled to completely engage in the service, but I remember elements of it speaking to the situation. Afterwards, I processed some emotions with a few people. While the emotions processed at church were mainly pertaining to Eric’s passing, there was more than that for me to process. I was waiting mere days until the due date of my second child. I felt impatient to not be uncomfortably pregnant anymore, and excited to hold my son in my arms for the first time. However, I was scared about the laboring process, as I intended a natural, unmedicated labor. I dreaded the pain of birth, but was so eager to rejoice when the life inside me was born.
Friday, February 19, 2016:
Help to Grieve and Help to Relax
The night before the funeral, my girlfriends gathered with me… four women who had stood by me on my wedding day. They were all in town for the funeral weekend, but that night I was hoping to do something fun. I wanted to be the host that I so often was in my small group of friends. But I couldn’t wrap my head around what to do. I remember feeling so tired. Emotional. Not necessarily happy, but very touched that my friends were there for me. As I tried to decide what to do, I remember someone saying, “maybe you should just get some sleep…” “No,” I said. “I want to have girl time.” There was a short silence, and then someone said, “…Lizzie… you have to bury your husband tomorrow.” I came back to reality, but only partially, as a tear or two slipped from my eyes. My bridesmaids wrapped their arms around me in a gentle embrace and prayed over me. I do not actually remember a word that they said, but I did feel thankful for them.
Most of the day had been spent resting. It had been a long week. One evening was spent celebrating Valentine’s Day with my husband over a nice meal, which we tried not to take for granted, and where we talked about how God had been leading us to a name for our new son. We chose to name him Bravery. I had been hospitalized that week twice for pregnancy-related reasons, the latest of which involved labor starting and stopping, but not before spending over 24 hours in the hospital enduring contractions, tests, iv antibiotics, vomiting, finding out I was allergic to penicillin, no sleep, nearly being induced, etc. After finally being discharged early that morning, my mom watched our son to allow my husband and I to catch up on sleep. That evening I felt much better and was ready for two of my bffs, Kaylee (a nurse) and Heidi to arrive after insisting to drive two hours to give me moral support, try some home remedies, and show me some crazy exercises in order to help with labor. We laughed a lot. I was so grateful for them. That night, I went to bed and slept sweetly and hard.
Saturday, February 20, 2016:
Dressy and Casual
In the morning, I cracked open a journal that Eric had started years before in January of 2014. He began the journal as a way to “prove” that he loved me through love notes back and forth between us. That journal is one of my most prized possessions with his handwriting, his signatures, and his words of love for me. I wanted to write something, but I wasn’t sure how to proceed. Eric’s last entry to me had been June 5, 2015. He hadn’t signed it. I turned to the next blank page, wishing that I had written back to him before now, and wanting so much to talk with him today. I wrote the date, “February 20, 2016” and continued,
“Today, when I get up from this bed I will put on my little black dress, slip on new shoes, try to get my hair to look nice, and go to your parents church to attend your funeral.”
I hesitated for a while, knowing that what I had written was my reality, but also somehow unable to connect with the words – to actually believe them. I closed the book, gathered my things, and slipped on my mourning clothes. I looked in the mirror, unsure of my reflection. His ring on a chain around my neck was the only thing that looked like it belonged there. My face seemed like that of a ghost. One week earlier, when I’d first left the lifeless body of my beloved in the hospital, I had looked into another mirror and seen a skeleton staring back at me. I had thought it then , and I thought it now, “When I walk out that door, I will be stepping out as a widow. I am a widow.” That word rang in my ears, the pitch of it like something from a horror movie… the kind from which you can’t look away but you can never unsee.
We all moved forward in our funeral clothes. My toddler wore a blue shirt, black vest and a yellow tie. My 9 month old also wore a blue shirt and black vest, with a yellow bow tie cut and sewn from the very same tie that would be buried with his dad. Eric was wearing his favorite gray suit, a fitted blue shirt and that yellow tie… though no one wouldknow because an unrecognizable body gets hidden beneath a closed casket hood. Bingham, William, and I wore silk flowers to match the casket spread.
After almost 7 hours of precious sleep, just before 6 AM, I was startled awake by my water breaking. I woke my husband and let him in on the news that it was actually time. I was so grateful for sleep and definitive evidence of birth being near, but I was also filled with dread for all that would likely come beforehand. My husband threw on sweatpants and a sweatshirt and jumped into action, gathering the items we’d set aside for the hospital. I’d packed comfortable clothes for our hospital stay; things that would be gentle on a swollen, traumatized, sore body and would be easy to attempt breastfeeding in, but would also make me feel at least a little presentable for visitors and probable pictures that would be taken. It was early in the morning, but that classic, subtle pain of cramping began to wave in and out now as contractions gradually awoke, making me more alert, as well. I knew this was just a faint echo of the deafening pain that was to come. Childcare arrived for our son, and we went to the hospital again. The decision to not try and travel hours away to Wisconsin in order to attend Eric’s funeral that same day was probably best.
Saturday February 20, 2016:
Numbness and Pain
I can still remember an aroma that was in the air on funeral day. The smell reminds me of the color violet… a dull soft, aged purple. The scent likely came from the many flowers lining the stage, surrounding a black metal casket. His picture was on a stand next to it – a photo which had been taken just before his twenty-fifth birthday the previous October. Beside the picture stood a small vase containing two single yellow roses. Around the vase, a pretty blue ribbon read, “Daddy.” There were many colors represented in the flowers, as they attempted to tell the story of a vibrant man who lived with purpose and passion.
During the next few hours, I passed in and out of conscious attention. I believe that God graciously allowed me to remain in shock, knowing that the full weight of my reality might have shattered me. Whether it was due to shock or because of an uncanny connection to the hope of heaven, a friend recalled that I was surprisingly optimistic on that day, and nearly always smiling. In the receiving line, arms fell around me and words flew at my ears. Eventually, the line had to be cut off so that we could find our seats.
As the funeral began and continued, I nodded, worshipped, and smiled. I barely remember shedding a few soft tears and chuckling at eulogy memories. I remember wondering if I seemed calloused or cold to onlookers. I am sure that I caught myself many times wishing that I could tell Eric about each detail I was seeing.
I arrived at the hospital, and was guided to my room. They hooked me up to an antibiotic again, but this time they used something other than penicillin. I suspect one of the reasons I went through what I did 2 days prior was the Lord protecting me from being sick on top of being in hard labor. Praise Him.
I was only dilated to 3 cm, but contractions were steady. They grew increasingly more painful than two days earlier. It became more and more vivid. By the time my mom arrived, and my best friend, Sarah, shortly after, I was dilated to a 5 or 6. For a little comfort, I labored in a specialized bathtub for a little while. It provided a little relief at first, but it wasn’t long before the increasing pain picked up again.
At some point, Kaylee arrived. She was a nurse at a birth center as well as had lots of other birthing experience, so she jumped right into coaching mode. When I was in labor with Wyn, I was instinctively compelled to move around a lot. This usually helps the baby get into or stay in safe, productive positions as things move along. This time around, it was especially excruciating to move much. I just wanted to lay in bed, close my eyes, and not do it. Despite my protesting and dirty looks, Kaylee discouraged that. She kept telling me that I needto keep moving. Everything will go faster and be better if I keep moving. I was frustrated with her a few times, but I knew she was right. I moved from the bed to the toilet, to the exercise ball, to Greg’s arms, to the bed again. Hours passed. At one point, I was almost falling asleep in between contractions, which weren’t far apart. I was just so exhausted and miserable. I just wanted to pass out unconscious. Kaylee let me do this for a little while, then gently but sternly said, “Lindsey, you need to keep moving. Contractions are slowing down. It’s just going to take longer. We need to get this baby out.”
We kept working as the pain got worse. My companions weren’t sure how to help me. They put a mixture of essential oils under my nose. Earlier, they were beautifully fragrant and uplifting. As my suffering grew worse, they became putrid. I pushed them away and pleaded no more. They tried rubbing my back. Though at one point I might’ve thought that comforting, it was abrasive. I did need to be reminded to breathe. I’d start to panic and even hold my breath, then they’d tell me to breathe and show me how. How does one forget to do the most ingrained, subconscious habit of existence? That’s what pain can do. They held my hands. Them just being there helped. I did ask for prayer. Though sometimes I felt silence to be the most helpful, I did ask Sarah at least once to read Scripture to me, which I’d selected weeks earlier. Her soft, musical voice carrying Truth fostered strength. Through the rest of the labor, I couldn’t help but meditate on one verse in particular, over and over: “Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us…” (Romans 5:3-5 ESV).
Saturday, February 20, 2016:
Singing and Screaming
According to a video recording of the funeral, Pastor Luke Dufek had opened by saying, “today is a brutally hard day for all of us. And yet, as we gather to mourn Eric’s death, we are going to look where Eric found hope, in Jesus Christ. And so today is a day that we mourn, but we do not mourn without hope.We do not grieve without the realization that Jesus has risen.”
The musicians worshipped, and so did we. We sang about the God who can heal any earthly sorrow. We sang about God’s faithfulness, and hopeful peace beyond understanding in the souls of believers. And just as I had sung over Eric’s body in the hospital, I remember being fully present to let my heart cry, “you can have all this world, you can have all my world, just give me Jesus!”
Through praise and tears, memories and hope, four pastors gave eulogies. Each of these men had discipled Eric in some way and they not only spoke highly of him, but of the one to whom Eric clung throughout his whole life. In each testimony, there were delightful stories and clear presentations of the gospel. Eric lived his life in such a way that it was nearly impossible to talk about him without sharing the thing about which he was most passionate – the saving power and intimacy of Jesus Christ, the hope and healing of heaven.
At one point during one of the eulogies, when a pastor mentioned celebrating Eric’s residence in Heaven, I glanced around at the other funeral attendees. I noticed one of Eric’s relatives staring in what seemed to be complete shock, utter confusion, disbelief, and/or disgust. I am sure that what he was saying was so foreign to what we usually hear in the world, that anything about death, especially death that seemed to have cut a young life so short, could be worth celebrating.
Every time I didn’t think the pain could get worse, it did. I started groaning involuntarily. It wasn’t long before the groans turned to screams. I couldn’t help but remember when I’d spent the night in the hospital two nights before. I had laid there, miserable. I heard the echoes of regular hospital sounds outside my door: distant beeping, muffled voices off and on, carts rolling, occasional footsteps, but for the most part, it was quiet. Then something jumped above the night shift low-volume setting. A woman who might as well have been in the next room was groaning. She groaned and moaned every once in a while. Then she groaned more frequently. Then she began crying out. Then I began crying, eyes wide, sniffling and blubbering scared in my hospital bed. She began blood curdling screaming. I had not been ready for this. I hadn’t felt the pain that badly yet, but I knew it was to come. I had been sick, tired, and had felt some pain, but not like that; not the kind of pain that elicits a reaction without abandon…where composure is forgotten and ceases to even be a possibility… Fast forward to two nights later, and I was sure my screams were louder and longer than that woman’s…. Compared to mine, hers seemed tame, even. The pain had caused me to go wild. I had lost control. I wasn’t afraid, though; there was no room for that…there was no room to categorize, analyze…only vivid pain, anguish, exhaustion that made everything else fade away. Kaylee helped me focus. When I started shrieking, she’d say, “low~groan in a low voice,” modeling the tone as she did. I could still react to and express my pain, but this helped me channel it, direct it. I had a goal in the midst of it, and focusing on how to best react to the pain somehow distracted me from it.
Saturday, February 20th, 2016:
Burial and Birth
Following the eulogies and message, we sang Hallelujah for the Cross (written by Ross King and Todd Wright) and In Christ Alone (written by Steve Getty and Stuart Townend). A line in the second song caught my ear. “There in the ground, his body lay, light of the world by darkness slain.” Eric’s own body, broken and disfigured, would soon be buried into the cold dark ground. I hadn’t really ever considered the earth until that moment, but it hit me hard that Eric was really, truly, fully dead. His body would soon lay six feet under the ground in lonely, unforgiving, darkness. Jesus’ body had also been disfigured, “his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind” (Isaiah 52:14 ESV). On Friday his body was bloodied and broken and he died. He was put into a tomb in devastating, dense darkness. But Jesus did not stay dead… on Sunday he came back to life! Jesus conquered sin and death. He got up from his grave bed and walked in his body. Because he lives, Eric will rise too, according to 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17. My hope is not in Eric, who is powerless to rise himself from the ground, but in Jesus, who has already done it. Today in paradise, Eric is with Jesus. He is completely healed, free from fear and suffering and pain. Though I am still on earth, my hope is in Christ in whom I find strength to live and move and breathe, who knows every single moment of my life and has a plan for good beyond my wildest imagination. As the song continues, “From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny.”
When we left the sanctuary, Eric’s uncles carried his casket and I followed behind it on Eric’s brother Ian’s arm. On the way up the aisle through the attendees, friends, family, and others, I kept my face forward and my eyes above them. Many of their eyes were fixed on me, just as they had been when I walked down the aisle on my wedding day.
The trip to the cemetery lasted far longer than the clock would have marked it. The ground was not fully frozen, nor was it covered in snow. Instead it was a muddy graveyard, underneath shivering trees and coldness that stuck to my bones. Yet, the place was beautiful in a strange way. I think I remember birds chirping and flowers embellishing headstones. There was a river valley in the distance, and sunlight poured out over everything. Clinging again to Ian’s arm, I looked ahead as the casket was set on its mound. The funeral worker said something, and then Luke said something, and then everyone just sort of stood around in relative silence. Sensing that it was up to me to approach the casket, I moved forward. Standing in front of it, I wondered how I was supposed to do this. I searched my mind to remember how they do it in the movies. With the feeling of a thousand eyes on me, I wasn’t able to summon tears.
Though I had loved Eric’s body, I knew that he was no longer residing in it. Days before this moment, I had told my son that his daddy had received a new body in Heaven. We had spent the morning celebrating the life of someone who loved Jesus, loved people, and loved telling people about Jesus. Now Eric was in paradise with the Jesus that he loved, and the people he loved had heard all about his Jesus at the funeral.
When I felt like I had been standing there long enough, I made my way to the car, moving forward with the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Kaylee suggested I roll over onto my side, which I hadn’t successfully done yet. I tried. Bad idea. The pain was even more horrific. If Kaylee was going to make me move again, I realized I could maybe try getting on my knees with the bed inclined, leaning over the back of the bed. We did it. It felt right.
Then the nurses and doctor came in. It had been about 10 hours, and they hadn’t checked my cervix in a while to see how far I was dilated. One nurse tried putting a monitor on me, while the other tried examining my cervix. They both struggled. They asked if I could move. Between screams, I expressed I’d rather not. The nurse checking my cervix said, “I don’t feel anything.” My heart sank. I was hoping for, “she’s at a 10 and I can feel the baby!” If she didn’t feel anything, did that mean the baby was way up there still and that my cervix wasn’t open enough for the baby to be very low? I looked desperately into Greg’s face, trying to grasp the possibility of hours of more torture. I screamed through another contraction and said, “I can’t do this!” Multiple voices commanded, “yes, you can.” A nurse asked if I felt a need to push. I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t think about much other than not wanting to be in pain. I muttered breathily that I didn’t think so. The nurses started taking their gloves off, and they made their way towards the door, along with the doctor.
All of a sudden, my body started pushing involuntarily. I screamed, “I’m pushing!” The nurse nearest to me yelled, “I see the head!” I was shocked and relieved. I heard commotion behind me. The low-key, soft-spoken, calm doctor we’d been getting to know had just a little panic in his voice as he asked if I could turn around. I said no. “I really need you to move, Lindsey.” He said again. I really didn’t want to, and my desperate eyes met Sarah’s compassionate, determined ones for help. She nodded. I mustered up courage and tried to lift myself in order to turn around. I assume a better view of the progress was revealed as I did so, because everyone immediately started yelling at me to get down again as the doctor failed to get a glove halfway on. I quickly laid down just as another contraction came on, and I shrieked and pushed with all my might. The internal, aching pain changed to a different, sharp, momentary pain as I felt warm relief while pressure and pain left, surprised commotion around me and my baby was suddenly placed in my arms. As I looked at this new life for the first time, all the pain dissolved and was replaced with bursting, overflowing joy. Yes, that pain was real, it was intense, it was traumatic…but that made the reward even sweeter. I felt like I could face anything on the other side of that. Suffering to hope.
New Life and New Life
In God’s original design for humanity, birth was not supposed to be painful, and death was not supposed to happen. Because of sin, pain is brought on by both birth and death. However, though birth brings forth life temporal, because of Christ, death can bring forth life eternal. Therefore, at the same moment a woman can shout out in pain while ushering a life into this world, those confident in Christ can shout out in joy while ushering a life out of this world. Each experience brings both pain and joy, but Christ is the reason the suffering can become hope, and the reason joy is possible. In John 11:25-26, Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
Jesus can make both kinds of suffering beautiful. “God permits what He hates (suffering), to accomplish what He loves.” – Steve Estes via Joni Erickson-Tada.
Lindsey Atkins is a wife and mother of two beautiful boys. If you would have told Lindsey ten years ago what her life her life would look like today, she would probably be mad at you for ruining the surprise. On any given day, you’ll find her in their home near Minneapolis, Minnesota playing super heroes with her oldest and making funny faces with her youngest, with random artsy projects sprinkled between. Lindsey’s passions include international missions, her loved ones, and art.