A week ago I tagged along with a new friend to pick up her very energetic and joyful little girl from daycare.  As we were leaving the building, 4-year-old Maren realized that she had forgotten the picture she colored that morning and was desperate to show it to her mother.  We walked back into an almost empty classroom, and after the teacher briefly looked for the drawing, she informed us that another child must have accidentally taken it.  Maren looked at her mother with a confused face, unsure of what kind of emotion to feel.  The next words out of my friend's mouth were full of wisdom. She looked at her daughter very empathetically and said "It's okay to be sad."   I'm sure my friend had no idea how powerful her words were... for me.

This January has been one paralleled by the weather:  this part of Tennessee has barely seen the sun.  We've seen lots of snow, ice, rain and clouds, but very little sun.  Sure, January is supposed to be cold, but I think it's about time for it to let up.  An artist I listened to a lot in college said it well: Blame it on January.

This time a year ago, ten of us lived on the same street; it was like we were in college all over again.  That was a season I am still very thankful for... and a season that was very difficult for me to let go of.  Most all of those friends moved away for one reason or another.  Within the first six months of 2012, they moved to Pittsburg, Harrogate, St. Augustine and Memphis, but the hardest of all to swallow was that my two best friends ("The Houseboat Girls") moved to Nigeria and Orlando.  No big deal, right?

In order to process through the changes, I did what I always do when I can't make sense of things:  I called Mary.  Mary has been my mentor for the past two years.  She's an older, wiser woman full of truth.  The very first conversation she and I ever had was about risk.  I began to ask if it was really okay for women to risk, or was I supposed to settle down like everyone seemed to keep telling me to?   I understand that being a single wedding photographer tromping all across the southeast may be a little difficult, but did that mean that I needed to hang up my camera and my car keys and settle down in one place?  Mary spoke truth to me.  We talked often about the beauty of being willing to risk as a woman, especially when it comes to loving others and letting them go.

When it came time for so many of my friends to leave town, I panicked.  I'm not sure why, but I couldn't get it together.  Mary's words to me were more powerful than I'm sure she ever knew they would be: "Carrie, you have to learn to grieve".  

I did a lot of grieving last summer.  I spent a lot of time processing the many different changes going on around me.  I spent many days on the road, eyes full of tears, trying to remind myself that God was actively involved in my life, even if I didn't feel it.  I didn't know where I was going to live next.  I was confused, angry, bitter.

And then the Lord did a really cool thing.  Actually, a few really cool things.  Within 24 hours one day in July, my heavenly Father gave me a house, an office and sight.  Sounds a little crazy, but really, He did.  I had LASIK eye surgery the week before we had to be moved out of our house, still unaware of where I would live.  The day before my surgery, I met the girl I now live with and took photos for the family of the guy I now share an office with... AND I went from being 20/800 to 20/15.   As Meghan and I would often tell each other and ourselves: "He is actively involved in your life".

He hadn't forgotten me.  I just had to learn to grieve.  And then I had to learn to receive.

This fall was incredibly busy with LOTS of weddings and TONS of photos sessions.  I barely had time to realize that my community had changed so much.  Jess and I got to celebrate with many different people and I began to really enjoy the changes.

The morning of Christmas Eve I got a phone call letting me know that Mary's heart had stopped and that she was without oxygen for quite a long time, but they were able to get her heart beating again.  She was unresponsive.   The next few days were rather strange. Surreal, really.

I had planned a trip to DC for New Years, leaving Knoxville the Friday after Christmas.  The night before it dawned on me that there was a chance that when I got back from the trip Mary might not be here.  I didn't really want to accept that reality, but my emotions took over.  My friend attempted to console me and I very confidently, without even realizing it, responded with "I just have to grieve."   And then it hit me: those were Mary's words.

Before I left town that day, I planned to go visit Mary in the hospital with her best friend, also named Mary.  Instead I woke up to a text from Mary C. telling me that she had passed away in the middle of the night.

Mary was gone.

That drive to DC felt like I was moving in slow motion.  Everything felt heavy.

Despite the grieving I was doing internally, I had a great time in DC ringing in the new year.  Sad to say goodbye, I flew back to Knoxville.  That Friday, exactly a week after Mary had passed away, I got another phone call.

My first friend at Berry College was a guy who looked as if his grandmother dressed him every morning.  The day I met him he was wearing loafers, pleated khaki shorts and a plaid short-sleeve button down.  His hair looked like he was ready for portraits at K-mart, combed just perfectly.

I swore when I got to Berry that I wasn't going to tell anyone I could sing.  I had quite the love/hate relationship with music and made a pact with myself that I wouldn't tell a soul, at least not right off the bat.  I made the mistake of telling Hugh.  Within a few days after we arrived as freshman on campus, Hugh introduced me to a college pastor in need of a worship band, and within a week Hugh made sure I had musicians.  Being a part of that group was one of the highlights of college for me, and thanks to Hugh, we played together every week for the four years we were there.

Three and a half years ago I was actually IN a wedding.  Hugh married this wonderful girl named Krisi.  At first, I thought it was strange when Krisi asked me to be in the wedding; I was friends with Krisi, but I had been friends with Hugh for a much longer time.  I was honored to be a part of it.  I thought Krisi was a strong woman and that Hugh had found quite the catch.  She could call him out on his crap and encourage him to be even more of the man God was calling him to be.  We all stood by their side on their wedding day, confident in their decision.

Hugh finished seminary while Krisi finished OT school and Hugh went on to be the pastor of a large church in Calhoun.  Seven months ago they gave birth to two beautiful twin girls. A little after the girls were born, I went to visit and to take a few photos.

A week after I took these photos, Krisi called me and began to update me on the reality of the past few years and the heartache that she and Hugh had experienced.  Hugh had been showing signs of bipolar disorder, and Krisi was doing all she could to take care of the twins and Hugh.  She was exhausted.  In attempts to honor him, Krisi hadn't told anyone, but finally decided she could no longer handle this alone.  I wasn't sure why she chose to tell me, but she did.  The last few months of 2012, she and I and a few others began to walk through the stress and the pain of her husband's sickness.

That Friday (a week after Mary went to be with Jesus), on the other end of that phone call was a friend asking me if something had happened to Hugh.  My heart sank.

Not again.  I can't do this again.

I called Krisi and asked if she wanted me to drive there.  In typical Krisi fashion, she politely said "Just come tomorrow.", but after I offered a second time she responded "Could you just come now? I need you."   A little before midnight I got in my car and drove to Calhoun, praying for the strength to process through the heaviness of suicide.

What followed was one of the hardest things I've ever experienced.  There were so many different dynamics to process.  For reasons that I still can't make sense of, Krisi chose me as "her person". Krisi could only handle a few people at a time, and for some reason I was safe for her.  Day after day we rode the emotional roller coaster of grief.  Krisi is a STRONG girl.  She knows truth.  She didn't need anyone to baby her.  She just needed a friend to sit with her, and then to occasionally remind her of truth when she needed it, when the lies and the unwarranted guilt began to seep in.

We would get mad, angry that he left. We cried, a lot. We laughed randomly, telling one ridiculous Hugh story after another.  Those ugly orange crocks. We would play with the twins, occasionally referencing how much they favor Hugh. We consoled others as they grieved. We would just drive in silence, wishing he was still here. When the silence got to be too much, I would put this song on repeat.

One of the most powerful things I've ever experienced was getting to introduce Krisi to Erin (many thanks to my friend Katie for the connection).  Erin is another friend from Berry, a friend with a story oddly similar to Krisi's.  Two years ago, almost to the day, Erin lost her husband to suicide.  He had fought the same mental battles that Hugh fought.  And now Krisi was fighting the same mental and emotional battles Erin had fought, and in many ways conquered (she is now remarried and expecting!).  To watch them sit across a table and share stories and grieve together was incredibly powerful.  I watched healing happen before my eyes, healing for both of them.  Erin words to me were "For the first time I gave thanks to God for my story."

I can't even begin to thank her enough for her presence, for clearing her calendar for Krisi.  She spoke truth, one sentence after another, for hours to Krisi.  I have never seen such strength exchanged from one strong woman to another.

Each day that followed we attended a different occasion honoring Hugh, from memorial service, to visitation, to funeral, to burial.  Each day we put on a different black dress and grieved some more.  Each day was different and came with its own unique set of emotions.  I felt so protective over her.  All I wanted was to make sure she had the space to grieve, a very difficult thing to do when so many people love her and the husband she lost.  She clung to me, gripping my hand through much of that week.

As news began to spread, I began to get texts, facebook messages and phone calls from many different people letting me know they were praying for my strength to walk through this with her.  And I must say, I felt it.  The phrase I found myself using frequently that week was "The Lord's provision is perfect."  He gave me His strength to love and care for her.

The burial was all the way in Waycross, GA, which might as well be Florida.  It was quite the hike with the tiny bit of energy we had left, especially after losing sleep with the twins.  Praise the Lord for Krisi's parents and her brother and his wife.  They took care of the girls everyday, giving Krisi the room to process through it all.  I have no idea how we would have made it through that week if it weren't for their presence.  That Wednesday, we left the girls with their grandparents and drove to Waycross on 4 hours of sleep.

I stood there at the graveside service looking down the sidewalk through the trees.  I realized it looked really similar to the sidewalk that runs in front of the Chapel at Berry, where Hugh spent much of his time.  I smiled picturing the day Krisi might bring her girls there and tell them about the days at Berry and the great man their father was.

We stood around waiting for everyone else to leave so that Krisi could really have time to say goodbye.  Eventually we got in the car and as I began to drive away Krisi grabbed my hand.  I looked out the window at the gravesite and saw a dear friend of Hugh's (the last person there) bent over the casket.

I lost it.

For the first time I grieved for me.  I had been grieving with and for Krisi.  I had been grieving for his family and for her family.  I had grieved with the many people that came to his funeral.  I had grieved for his girls.  But for the first time, as it started to rain, I grieved for me.  I gripped Krisi's hand even tighter and drove away, acknowledging that I was leaving my friend Hugh there in the ground next to the sidewalk under the trees.  He wasn't coming back.

Hugh was an incredible man.  He was very sick and his mind made him feel like he could never be who he knew himself to be.  But I believe Hugh wanted Jesus, he wanted Jesus more than anything else.  He knew this life would never be as good as having Jesus.

After we had been in the car for a half hour, it stopped raining, we dried up our tears and acknowledged that life would go on.

For some reason, now that all of the funeral-related events were over, I really wanted to take a photo of Krisi that day.  I wanted a photograph to mark the beginning of something new: an "ebenezer" to mark the beginning of life again.

I saw a cotton field on the side of the highway that I had noticed before and thought "that would be the perfect place".  Our friend, Saxon, had accompanied us for the ride and from the back seat she encouraged me to pull over.

This is my beautiful friend Krisi.  She is a wonderful mother, she was a faithful wife, and she is a loyal friend.  She is STRONG.  And most importantly, her joy comes from the Lord.

Death is a really odd way to build a friendship, but I believe God gave us the gift of grieving together... and as a result, he's given us a much, much deeper friendship. I'm so incredibly thankful for my friend Krisi.

When I got back to Knoxville, I was tired of grieving.  I was ready to move forward, ready for life to feel normal again.  I hadn't gotten to do work in quite a while.  I got back here and tried to get back to normal, but I couldn't.  Someone would greet me with a hug and I would cry.  I didn't want to be around many people.  I couldn't get it together.  I was exhausted and unable to catch up on rest.

I finally got to go back to our church that Sunday and I realized life was just a little too heavy for me.  I stood there thinking "This is a bit much, I need to go find Mary".  And then it hit me.   Mary was gone. I hadn't been home during the time that our community here was grieving the loss of her, and now I had to grieve her.

That day I sat in my living room helping my roommate take ornaments off the Christmas tree and I couldn't stop crying.  I said something to Lindsay about how I couldn't figure out why I was having such a hard time getting it together, and then Lindsay said something that hit me where I needed it most:  "Is the point for you to stop being exhausted, or is the point for you to let Jesus meet you in that exhaustion?"  

That night, my friend Caroline sang a powerful song.  I highly recommend listening to it.  The lyrics have been on repeat in my head for quite a while now:

I breathe you in, God, cause you are thick all around me When I don't understand, I will choose you 

I spent that next week here letting Jesus meet me in my pain.   It was okay for me to be sad.  My friend David kept reminding me that the only work I needed to do was to believe that God would meet me there.  I just had to fight to believe.

Time continued to move in slow motion.  I moved my office to a new space.  I spent time painting the new one, moving it, getting back to work editing again and meeting with brides.  To the few of you still waiting on photos, THANK YOU for loving me so well with your patience.  I began to catch up on sleep.  I hung out with one friend at a time.

One of the greatest gifts came in the form of my close friend Peggy and her husband.  They just let me be me.  Their home became a refuge.  They took me to dinner and we laughed over ridiculous things.  When I needed it, they would gently remind me that my work was to believe that the Lord loved me. They created a space for me to grieve, in whatever form it came.

A week later I got another phone call letting me know that Peggy's father had passed away.  She has been caring for her parents and their illnesses for many years now.  Her father, Papa, fought his last fight... and now he's with Jesus, too.

Yesterday, in 20 degree weather, I sat with Papa's grandchildren at his funeral at a beautiful Veteran's cemetery here in East Tennessee.  The river wraps around the property and Papa's grave is right next to the flagpole.  As the gun shots went off and "Taps" was played, they folded the flag and presented it to the oldest son.  A beautiful woman sang Amazing Grace like Aretha Franklin while the six grandsons (including my friends David & Daniel) carried his casket away.  I can't even begin to imagine what that must have felt like.

Following the funeral, we went back home, ate lunch and spent time together.   Each person grieved in their own way, in their own time. If there is anything I've learned about grieving, there is no right way to grieve.  Everyone handles it differently and there is no expectation.  Many good stories were told of the great man that Papa was.  There was a lot of numbness, occasional silence, celebration here and there as they could muster up the smiles, and laughter as they just got to be together as a family.  I watched as their family's memories comforted them in their grief.

I have learned a lot about grieving this month.  Blame it on January.  Or maybe I should say, thank the Lord for January.  Thanks to January I know a different Jesus than I knew in 2012.  He is with me.  He is a God who's provision is perfect.  He meets me in my pain.  He only asks that I believe that He loves me and that He is capable of redeeming it all.

I always say that being near water is the most peaceful place I could possibly be.  To me, sitting in front of a body of water reminds me that if God can calm something like the water, he can calm me.  If He made it, if He is in control of it, then who am I to think that I can outsmart him? What is the point in even being anxious?  I don't have the option of believing the lies of "I should have said more" or "I should have done more".  I don't have the option to give any power to the "what if" questions.

This whole month I feel like I've sat by the water, the vastness of it, and I've been reminded that I must have the faith to believe.  I must rest in the Truth that I know.

My best friend Meghan said it best (on her own blog) in remembering Mary:

[Mary] gave immense encouragement during such a dark season of my life and i only wish i could’ve shared what Christ has done since then. I wanted her to have seen the fruit that she helped water. To share not just in helping carry the burden but also the blessing. Her open arms to all the single women my age was the biggest blessing we could have asked for.  I miss you Mary, yet i know you are cheering us on with a cloud of witnesses. You have your reward with Christ. That is what we all should be longing for. This place is not our home.

Grief is a gift, and I am very thankful for it.  It heals.  It restores.  It builds our faith in the One in whom we can place our trust.

This place is not our home. May we long for home more and more everyday.

To those of you who made it this far, THANK YOU for taking so much time to "listen" to my heart.  And forgive me for pixelated photos, most of them were from my iPhone. May the Lord give you the ability to grieve the big and the small, when and if you need to.  He is big enough to calm the waters of your life.

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