John, ashes and thanksgiving

He waited until it was just the two us and then timidly asked,

“Mama, what did you do with Anna’s body?”

My John. Only nine, but an old soul. Lover of deep things and smart things- this boy keeps me on my toes.


He immediately apologized when the car was filled with silence.

“Did I upset you mama? Is it too hard to talk about?”

My heart was pounding. I had dreaded this conversation.

I quickly validated and affirmed his question and told him I really did want to answer, but asked if I could have a little time to think about how I wanted to respond. I didn’t want to mess this up. How do you tell your son that his sister is a small box of ashes on your dresser?

Oh death…I hate you.

Chris and I talked and I prayed it through and researched “How to tell your child about cremation.” A few days later John and I were alone again and I explained. I stayed away from scary words like, fire and burn and hugged tight to the truth that our bodies are just a shell. The moment our hearts stop beating, our spirits, the real part of who we are arrive in the place we were all created for. A place where no pain is felt. I then explained that two choices are available to caring for a deceased body, burial and cremation. I explained that both choices are sad because death is sad. There is no way to feel good about either of these choices. The only way to feel good about death is to focus on the new eternal life that has been given and the one in whom that life will be spent with. I explained that Anna was cremated, that her body went through a special process and that at the end of that process her body became a fine powder…ash. I was careful to speak with confidence, so he wouldn’t feel uneasy and scared about what I was sharing. And then he asked,

“Where are her ashes now?”

I told him that the small treasure chest on my dresser he had seen everyday was the home of these precious ashes. I explained that some people place ashes in an urn and some people may choose to scatter them. I explained that for me, there was no comfort in seeing them, but that wrapping the box in a gown Anna would’ve worn was a greater comfort to me. I explained that sometimes when I felt sad I would curl up in my bed, hug the swaddled parcel tight to my chest, cry, focus my thoughts on the hope of seeing her again and the comfort of God for those who mourn. John was satisfied by that answer and asked me once again if I was upset. I encouraged him that anytime I got to speak Anna’s name and anytime I got to connect with him, I felt great measures of joy! I thanked him for asking me his questions. He smiled, hugged me tight and that was that.

A few nights later he came into my room and said,

“Mama, I want to see the box now.”

“Of course” I said, once again my heart was pounding.

What was sacred to me was getting ready to be shared. When I opened the chest, a picture of Anna was on the top. And here’s where it gets hard. My girl, well it took three days for her to come into the world after her heart stopped beating. Her body was beginning to show some of the signs of deterioration. Her skin was peeling – like a sun burn in several places. The tissue around her right eye looked like it was bruised. John had never seen these pictures. We have been careful to crop photos to protect their hearts. I tried my best to explain what he was getting ready to see and then I handed him the photo. He stared at the picture for a little while.  And then looked up at me nodding, smiled and said,

“I can tell how pretty she was.”

Somehow I managed to keep the flood of emotion and tears from sweeping us both away. I smiled and said, “Yes she was Johnny. Thank you for saying that.”

Then he picked up her carefully wrapped box of ashes.

“Is this okay” he asked as he unwrapped the gown.

“Of course” I said.

He handed the gown to me and held the tiny little box wrapped in brown parchment paper. He stared for a moment and then declared,

“I think you made a good decision. I am glad you kept her ashes like this.”

John slowly raised the box, closed his eyes and pressed it against his cheek, an embrace, and my heart melted. He took the gown and carefully wrapped it back up and handed me the box. He turned away and laid down on my bed. He was quiet for a moment and then he looked up at me, clearly wrestling with emotion. John does not like to cry.

“I need to say something,” and then the tears spilled out.

“Of course you can say anything and Johnny it’s okay to cry.”

“I kind of feel her presence with us mom. Like she’s still a part of our family. I am sitting here wondering about who she is and what she looks like and I feel so sad. I miss her.” The tears continued.

I wrapped him up in eyes and arms of compassion and explained that sadness was absolutely what we should feel when we love and miss someone and that grief is hard to feel. After a few more moments he looked up at me again and said,

“But then, I am also thinking about how many good things have happened because she’s not here. Mom you would never have had her story to tell and you wouldn’t be able to help other families who are hurting. Is it wrong to feel thankful that she’s gone? Did God want this to happen because he knew he could make it good?

Beauty for ashes, the glory of God taking the hard, the sad, the dead and breathing new life, new good and new joy into them. I love that my God works all things, even the awful, together for our good! My John was working this out in his heart and mind as he wrestled with both sadness and thanksgiving over the life of his sister.

I stared at this toe headed sweet heart, almost a decade old and my heart swelled with awe and gratitude. The truth is, my John is a part of the beauty for Anna’s ashes because good-bye to my daughter, as excruciating as it was, became hello to this precious boy I call my son.

I explained to John that God takes what Satan intended for evil and He alone can use it for our good. (Genesis 50:20) This is why we can feel both sad and thankful over the same thing. Anna brings both grief and joy. And I explained, “This is life. As you continue to grow you will experience sad things all around you. And as you cling to and trust Jesus with these things you will experience both His comfort for the sadness as well as the beauty and goodness He can bring forth from each painful circumstance. Yes, this is life, holding the good in one hand and the hard in the other, giving thanks while you juggle and wait for his power and love to resurrect and redeem all things.”

I am so grateful for this conversation with John- I needed it desperately! I needed to be reminded as I feel my own hurts and disappointments, as I struggle under the weightiness of pain all around me, that God works all things together for our good, because He is good! And thanksgiving is like a ladder out of the pit of despair. With each rung, you are lifted higher and higher out of the dark and into His glorious light. Can you picture it? Yourself in the pit- climbing the ladder of gratitude into a brighter moment?

Thank you for saving me.

Thank you for forgiving me.

Thank you for giving me a second, a third…infinite number of chances.

Thank you for loving me like no other.

Thank you for healing my hurts and redeeming my losses.

Thank you for my family, my husband, my boys, my girl.

Thank you for faithful friends who never give up on me.

Thank you for a home and warmth and food.

Thank you for my country and those who serve to protect it and me.

Thank you for life and laughter.



Are you hurting today?

Are you holding something hard?

Are you pressed upon with stress, sorrow or pain?

Are you in the deep down darkness of a pit?

Can you will yourself to look in your other hand and call good gifts by name? Can you climb the ladder of thanksgiving and be infiltrated with the light of all that makes you blessed?

I am praying this season of intentional thanksgiving will bring greater joy and healing to every hurt. I am praying that as we hold both the good and hard together that we can also know that we are held in the hands of a God who specializes in beauty for ashes.

 ”Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good. His love endures forever.”

Psalm 107:1


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