“Tis the season for giving thanks,” as they say.
Alas, for many families living with disability, the holiday season can be a hard time to muster gratitude. My husband, Larry, and I admit struggling over the years with our attitudes from Thanksgiving through New Years. Disability complicates our rest and family fun. For us, learning to celebrate and appreciate well is taking practice.
We are thankful for people who have gone ahead of us, teaching us how to hold godly perspectives and values over personal comforts — and be able to do that with true hearts of thanks.
In today’s Thanksgiving week reflection, I want to introduce you to one of those families who gently, yet rather unknowingly, nurtured our younger parenting hearts toward gratitude and Christ-centered focus through disability.
We met Joe and Peggy Berglund almost three decades ago at our church. Larry and I were still young and learning to navigate this thing called “special needs parenting.” They didn’t know they were mentoring us. But believe me, we were watching them. Even when we weren’t having any specific conversations with these people, we were learning from them.
One thing this dear couple modeled for us was gratitude.
As iron sharpens iron,
so a friend sharpens a friend.
The Berglund’s are a joy-filled people. Their joy spills from souls that have been steadily fueling on gratitude for decades. You can see their joy in the featured image of this post. They have defied the statistics that terrify couples who are told their child has a very challenging diagnosis. Truly, these friends are a victory story of God’s sustaining and nurturing power on a marriage that has endured the extra responsibilities of parenting in a complicated situation.
Especially when we were young, Larry and I needed to see stories like theirs.
Pictured: Keith and Carly alongside other enjoying a Christmas live nativity at church. Photo circa 2002.
Joe and Peggy’s youngest child, Keith, was in his 20s when we first met. Keith was a social, kind, and popular young man in our congregation who experienced developmental delays. He loved children too. One of my favorite Christmas memories from Carly’s childhood is seeing her standing in front of church with all the other children, watching the live nativity. Keith stood protectively behind her making sure she didn’t fall, eat the straw, or pinch a goat.
Peggy and I recently had a conversation about those “good old days” in the late 1990s and early 2000s. You’ll quickly see why this family has positively influenced life and faith for my family along with many others. It struck me from our conversation that Peggy didn’t realize such blessing was happening. May it encourage every family caregiver reading this that people are noticing your good and faithful care for your family, even when you least expect it.
Now, let me introduce you to my friend.
Photo taken at a celebration in Mount Carmel (September 2022). Neither Joe nor Peggy can remember what was said that was so funny. But she admits, “we do love to laugh.”
Peggy, can you tell us something about your family and how disability has been part of your experience?
Joe and I have been married 61 years (May 26, 1962). We have four children, eleven grandchildren, two great-grandsons, and a great-grandaughter due in January 2024! Our youngest two, Kerry and Keith, are twins. In fact, we’re celebrating Joe’s 85th birthday and the twins’ 50th birthdays this weekend!
Keith is mildly mentally handicapped. He was the second born and was breach so there is some possibility that had impact. He had sensory issues as a boy and there is some possibility of autism.
When you were a young mom raising children in the 1960s, there were far fewer resources than parents raising children with disabilities have now. Cultural understanding was different too. How did people around you respond?
There were challenges with other kids in the neighborhood and at school. It is hard to see that happening to your child. You realize that’s probably going to be something they’re going to deal with, and that’s hard to accept.
There was a particular incident that happened at church. I can’t remember if I was embarrassed by it or just exhausted. My friend Mavis came over to the house and just listened to me and cried with me. Another friend, Mollie, was often available to talk too. I was so thankful to know I could call about things that were brewing in our lives. We kept in close contact with each other. It was very good.
How did you and Joe manage to cope when the situation weighed heavy on your hearts or made life complicated for you?
Having our common faith was what brought Joe and me through. I really don’t know what people do without that. We knew we could pray, separately or together. We have a devotional time together in the morning now. That’s easier to do in retirement, of course.
Over the years, we would talk about what we might have done differently, or what we might have changed if we could do it over. Perhaps if we disciplined more, maybe our son would not repeat this behavior or that behavior. But that really isn’t the issue. And you forget that.
I believe Keith’s situation spurred us to another level in prayer because there were so many times when we were at our wits end. Our kids drive us to our knees!
Committing our children with disabilities and other special needs teaches us so much about surrender, and their transition to adulthood tests that like few other things. What has Keith’s movement toward independence looked like for him and for you?
Keith is 50 now and has been in four group homes. He first moved to a group home at 21 or 22 years old. That was a significant age because he was a twin and he thought he should have opportunity to live out of the home like his sister. Also, his behaviors were getting too much to handle.
At first, I thought it would never work out. And, at one point, he did move because he needed a quieter atmosphere. But then it was almost too quiet for his satisfaction. He is very social but that particular home was too chaotic and negative.
If Keith hadn’t gone into a group home, I might not be here. The stress you have to deal with on a daily basis can be overwhelming. The behavioral issues were beyond what we felt we could manage.
There was also a wonderful season for Keith when about three different men would come over and take him to different places. He went to movies, baseball games, and restaurants.
We feel he’s in a good place now. He’s been in his current group home for about 16 years. They are well equipped and in tune with the needs of their residents. Keith comes home about every other weekend. He enjoys going to church, going out to eat, and flirting with waitresses. We are grateful people are very respectful of who he is, and they are very kind about responding to him.
What is something you see of God’s unique fingerprint on Keith?
What we appreciate most is that Keith has a sensitivity to him. And he wants things to be right. He has a short fuse and will fly off the handle but then wants things mended quickly afterwards.
I can think of a couple stories from church when that sensitivity was so appreciated by others.
One time there was a dear woman named Sue who had recently become divorced. Keith said to her, “I’m sorry to hear about your divorce from Dick.” Sue later told me Keith was the only one who recognized that they had become divorced. Even though it was because he doesn’t have most of the filters that others have, it really touched Sue that he would say that when nobody else did.
Another time, our friend Esther’s dad died. Soon after Esther had a baby and Keith said, “I’ll bet your dad would have loved to see your baby.” Esther loved that because nobody else had said anything about it at all. Keith was tender, sensitive, and lacked a “filter” that might cause others to hesitate, being worried about triggering grief or sounding insensitive.
We could all learn something about letting loving kindness and curiosity flow through our words.
I am so thankful for Peggy, Joe, and Keith! And we deeply appreciate this opportunity to reflect and be spurred on by their lifetime of care giving and care coordinating. Thanks be to God for shining through this family, our family, and yours as we learn to walk together in grace, gratitude and joy!
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Colossians 3:15-17
Lisa Jamieson is an author, speaker, special needs family advocate, and ordained pastoral counselor. She is co-founder of Walk Right In Ministries where she trains and counsels family caregivers to walk abundantly in life, faith, and relationships. Lisa and her husband, Larry, live in Minnesota with the youngest of their three grown daughters, Carly, who has Angelman Syndrome.