Justine Froelker shares how she’s turning her grief into a masterpiece, one butterfly at a time

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Inspirational advice from author, podcaster, and speaker

Justine Froelker has tattoos of butterflies on the inside of her forearms. Colorful and free, when she moves her arms, it’s as if they flutter. “There are so many parallels,” she says about the beautiful creatures and us. “I’ve always loved butterflies.”

By now, she feels as if she could write a dissertation on them. Statistically, only one-to-five out of every 100 Monarch eggs laid in the wild becomes butterflies. In the beginning, they are caterpillars for about two weeks and they eat a lot of milkweed; they grow 2,000 times their size in that time, she explains. When they are caterpillars, they molt, which means they crawl out of their old skin in order to grow. “We’re going to have to die to ourselves; we’re going to have to crawl out of our own skin in different seasons in our lives.” But then the craziest part is, she continues, is that they turn around and they eat their old skin to help them continue to grow. “We can’t ever orphan our stories. Our stories will always be apart of who we are. It is absolutely our job to do the work to make them a gift. To work for us and not against us.”

For Froelker, story is important. How it has shaped us, which one we create in our minds and the one that has been pre-written for us. “Our brains are wired for story; our brains will make stuff up because we are trying to make sense of this crazy world and the complicated people we live in with it, including ourselves,” she says. “The stories that we make up are probably the most inaccurate, they are based off our old hurts and our not-enoughness.” She believes that we have this culture, especially for women, we’re consuming all the devotionals, all the self-help books and all the videos and we're still drowning in our not-enoughness. But then, she challenges us: How do you love yourself? How do you live in authenticity? What if you shift this month’s theme of intentional love towards yourself? She adds, “We need to practice self-love in the action of self-care.”

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“The action of self-care is what dug me out of the hole of grief,” she said. We have these traumas, losses and tragedies in our life that we often refer to as the “hard” parts of our life. Froelker flips that narrative: “I call it ‘big’ now. We have big stories.” And, sometimes, what those “big” stories try to penetrate in our minds and taught that we’re not enough, and that, she says, makes it really hard to love ourselves. “When I own my whole story, I become the author of it.”

Some of Froelker’s big stories are just that—big. When she was going into her freshman year in high school, she spent an entire year in a full body cast. She talked about how the impacted her view of self-love in such a pivotal point in her life during one of her Tedx Talks. Fast forward to her and her husband, Chad, having infertility challenges that resulted in going through three miscarriages. “God tells us, ‘You will have trouble in this world.’ When we hold onto those pieces, they define our whole story versus being parts of our story. And when they define our whole story…they really become our identity,” she said. “My grief of, ‘What kind of loving Father has a girl in high school spend a year in a body cast?’ or ‘God is not fair because I can’t have children.’ That grief part comes from those hard parts of my story. Grief became my idol.”

Then, similarly to a butterfly busting through a cocoon, she asked, “But what if I laid that down? What if it’s not a ‘hard’ story but a ‘big’ story? Because if I claim it as a big story, it honors my truth and it glorifies Him. Because, the fact is, those big stories are what lead me to Him in the first place.” It’s not easy and it still isn’t easy for her to claim that truth. She used imagery of a puzzle to better explain. Someone holding on to their past pain is like having a puzzle piece in your hand and the puzzle is laid out before you, missing one piece in the middle. You’ve got to actually put that piece into the picture and push it down to reveal the entire mosaic, only then you’d see the beauty in your story in its entirety rather than you holding on to a piece. And if you do decide to hold onto it, there’s a hole in your story; you’d be missing out on partnering with God to put together this masterpiece. 

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Her and her husband became accidental butterfly farmers after their infertility journey. They planted a garden on their acre of land in Saint Louis, the middle of the endangered Monarch butterflies migration route from Canada to Mexico. Last summer, she released 350 healthy Monarchs. They didn’t get what they originally wanted; they didn’t get what they originally planned for, but God had another plan.

The grief started to swallow her whole until she was determined to seek action towards loving herself again. “I started to love myself as ‘Who am I going to be now as a woman who wanted kids but can’t have them?” She’s practiced traditional mental health for 20 years. She knew the data behind people who have hobbies being happier. “It’s a hobby that is an action of how I love my motherhood. I take care of them,” she adds. “It’s an action in my self-care of how I contribute to a legacy. It is also how I remind myself that we can really survive anything with a little bit of help.” She feels like God created these creatures and placed them here on earth as a reminder that humans can do this, too. Transform. Change. Become anew. “You cannot watch a butterfly—a caterpillar going into a chrysalis—and not believe in something bigger than you.”

She wants you to know that we can rewrite our stories. Froelker said that she used to say that she’d give anything to have her three babies here. “Now I know they were gifted to me in the way that they were, they made me a mother in the way that they did, so that I could live out this motherhood to serve, teach, to show people the loving father and to introduce them to this messy-graced-filled Jesus.”

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She has a story that scares people and makes them feel uncomfortable. I didn’t get what I wanted—what we hoped, what we dreamed, what we prayed for—what we paid for, even,” Froelker explained. “I let go of a dream before it destroyed everything good about me. Then I had to partner with God to clean up the pieces. What I know now is that this story that makes so many people uncomfortable and scares a lot of people, is the very gift from Him because, somehow, with His grace and the story that I've written with Him, it creates the space for people to struggle and, at the very same time, choose to rise.” And, choose to spread their wings and fly.