Life Event Checklist
It’s called a Life Event Checklist.
It includes milestones like marriage, birth of a child, that same child starting college, divorce, and losing a job. Insurance companies, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, and financial advisers use these lists in risk assessment. That’s because Life Events—the good and the bad ones—are loaded with the potential to produce stress. And then there’s this: Life Events hit us when we least expect them to.
For the parents of mentally ill children, the Life Event Checklist can get turned upside down. Sometimes, for us, the good things on the list can hurt us the most. And nobody warned us to prepare for that. We’ve discovered it’s the happy events on the list—prom, graduations, weddings, baby showers—that cause the most grief. That’s because we have these pictures in our heads of what certain Life Events are supposed to look like.
Our daughter, Hannah, was away at a treatment center when the date for her junior prom rolled around. The classic prom picture involves up-dos and pretty dresses; flowers and couples lined up on a staircase while parents sigh and take pictures. For a brief moment, all seems right in the world. But most Life Events never turn out the way we imagine. In fact, neither of us remembers our own prom night as the sparkling, magical event it was supposed to be. Even so, it hurt that Hannah was going to miss hers.
So is that how we handle the lost events in our children’s lives, by smashing the picture and ignoring the pain? We don’t think so. We’re learning that the way to navigate troubling Life Events is to look for Real Life instead.
Real Life is not lived in a still frame. Real Life is more like a film reel, one that is always running. Social media freezes and edits Life Events down to one stunning photograph and adds a catchy caption, and we all swallow the lie that the event defines the life. But the truth is that everything changes. Yes, Life Events can hurt so bad that you think they’ll never end. But they do, they always do.
Real Life is full of, well, life. We may have cried together on our couch the night that would have been Hannah’s prom, but we didn’t die. We give these Life Events far too much power when we think they will kill us. They won’t.
Real Life is often found in what we cannot see. Psalm 145:17 says something about God that we can’t always see when a Life Event goes sour: “The Eternal is right in all his ways; and He is kind in all his works.” (The Voice) We can’t see it, but this is what has sustained us during the pain. No matter what things look like, we have learned to bank on the righteousness and kindness of God.
The way to Real Life is often through the pain of a Life Event. We would prefer for our kids to never experience pain. We don’t want to suffer either. But suffering is exactly where we’ve discovered the deepest truth about who God is, and it is where we have seen the most growth in our kids. Clearly, God is shaping them into who they are going to be, not who we want them to be right now.
Real Life changes how you pray. Was the dress and the date and the flowers really all we wanted for our daughter? Or did we want more, did we want her to find life? Of course we did. As we prayed for her, God directed us to substitute our meager plans for something more.
Real Life is better when you enter into someone else’s joy. Recently, Hannah missed another important event at our Christian School. During the graduation ceremony, each graduating senior hands a rising junior a Bible. As you can imagine, this is a poignant moment for the kids as well as their parents. Hannah’s two cousins graduated the year before her, so our entire family anticipated this special ritual. But, again, Hannah missed it. Graduation was hard. Chris sat it out, but Teri had to step away more than once. It felt like an incredible loss. But we didn’t want our grief to stop us from celebrating with our nephews, so we threw them a party. The added bonus was that staying busy entering into their joy kept us too busy to mourn.
Real Life occurs when you surrender the Life Event. Once again, we had to ask ourselves, was this ritual, as important as it was, all we wanted for our Hannah? It meant a lot to us, but wasn’t there more? Over time, we surrendered our picture of her Life Event to the better Life we knew God was painting for her. What we thought we wanted for her was a special ceremony, but God gave us a glimpse of the better picture, of the legacy He is creating for her.
Hannah is home now, months after that graduation day. Not long ago one of her cousins dropped by our house just before he left for college. He’d made sure the entire family was home so he could present her with a gift. You’ve probably already guessed that it was a Bible, signed by both cousins.
Maybe that afternoon in our living room was not what any expert would call an official Life Event, but in our eyes it was full of Real Life, the kind of life God gives us when we will put aside our dim, incomplete pictures of how our children’s lives are supposed to be and make room for the Life he has in store.
Written by Chris and Teri Bledsoe