Broken Hearted But Not Broken

This afternoon as I glanced down at my phone for a quick reprieve I was deeply saddened to discover the news about Notre Dame. I inhaled a sharp breath causing my mother to ask anxiously, “What happened?” When I told her the news she was heartbroken but relieved. Bad news has known to be the worst news in our family.

She and I began to commiserate about the news of the fire, consider what might have been the cause and thank God that at least no one was hurt. Our conversation was cut short as we were snapped back to reality. “They’re back”, she said. The “they” meant my dad, my boys and my niece.

“They” had returned home from picking up my niece at school. I opened the car door and inquired about how her day had been. As though in tune with the world, she lamented over a troubling encounter with one of her friends in Kindergarten. We discussed it for a moment. At the age of six, injustices are easily washed away by the promise of sugar. My mother and I had hidden one hundred fifty Easter eggs for the children to find. When I explained that the “Easter bunny” left a note for them and hid eggs while we were all out, the excitement registered on their faces and in their voices.

The screeches were surely heard around the block. As they sprinted to the front door, I was nearly knocked over. Immediately the exclamations of discoveries could be heard. I brushed past my mom, anxious to see them on the hunt. She held my youngest niece in her arms and said, “I want to hear more of that report when they are done”. Confusion clouded my brain. It took me a minute to realize she meant the fire that had encapsulated Notre Dame.

Just a few moments prior I had been immersed in world history in the making. Today will be noted in History books for years to come. And still life carries on even when history is in the making. It brought me back to the days that will forever be in my own personal history book.

Time stopped today as flames licked a historic cathedral that will now forever be changed. The world carried on around it. Time stopped the day Christian gained his wings, forever changing our lives. The world carried on around us. The concept never ceases to amaze me. Things happen all day, every day, everywhere that are major monumental, events. Sometimes they affect a family and community. Sometimes they affect the world. Either way, the world carries on around it.

Photo Credit: Thibault Camus/AP

This is one of the most shocking aspects of child loss. It boggled my mind that the sun was still rising and setting, kids were starting a new school year, the leaves were changing. All of the things and events that had been natural occurrences at one time in my life were still going on around me, but my life had turned so unnatural.

The strangest realizations had me questioning my sanity. One day I realized I would never again take care of Christian when he was sick. He would never need to be nursed back to health with a proper dose of ginger ale after the stomach bug. No longer would I wait with baited breath as the thermometer read the temperature of his body. Obviously these are more menial tasks of motherhood but if he was able to be sick it meant his body was alive. It meant I could help “make things better”. My chance at that was through.

It was the daily routines that were most unnatural. Bath time with only 2 boys. The world carried on. Only 2 boys to coerce into brushing their teeth. Only 2 boys to corral into bed. Only 2 boys to kiss goodnight. Only 2 boys to imagine growing older. Only 2 boys to imagine carrying out all the hopes and dreams I had for them. And the world carried on. So unnatural, so changed.

Hopes and dreams were lost today, just as they were when Christian became an angel. Yet, children went to school and egg hunts were had. A historical structure survived a trauma but will forever be changed. It will be rebuilt, undoubtedly, but never the same. The rich historical background to include the fire that damaged it but did not decimate it. The world will carry on, just as it always does. Tomorrow the sun will come up. History will be changed and time will go on. Just as we are forever changed. We are not broken, just broken hearted. Love to heaven…

How To Support A Grieving Family

What do I say to a mother or father who has lost their child? What if I say the wrong thing? What if I make them cry? How about the siblings of the angel? What if death is a topic of conversation when they are around? What if it has a negative effect on them? How can I help the family?

These are all valid, well meaning questions stemming from a place of love. Death is an emotional topic and hard to speak to. When it involves an untimely death it becomes increasingly intense. I can say that there were very few people who said something that really bothered me when Christian passed away. Even those who did, were not saying it maliciously.

I am going to give you my piece of advice that answers any and all questions surrounding an especially emotional death, such as child loss. Are you ready? It’s quite profound.

Just be there for the family in any way you feel you can do that. 

If that means you attend the wake, funeral, cook for them, call them every day, text them every day, stop by and check in, take care of their children, give them a wine basket, make a donation to their angel’s fund, go for a walk with them, take them to a yoga class or simply just listen to them talk and cry, you are doing the best thing you can for them. A comprehensive list of ideas can be found here. Some grieving parents will need many people around them and some will need to isolate a little. As much as everyone wishes they could take the family’s pain away, we all know that is not possible. Just be there for them.

Inherently this seems to come easier to the women. Women tend to be more open with emotions and both the grieving mother and friend are able to be more expressive. It can be more difficult with the grieving father. Please don’t forget about him. His pain is just as intense. More often than not he will grieve differently than his wife. An article on the website Love To Know states, “Men often express their grief physically. A grieving father may throw himself into work or projects around the house, or he may take up a hobby to keep himself occupied and avoid dealing with his emotions.” In my own experience I found this to be very true. While I communicated like a rushing river of emotion in every way, my husband tended to be more like the ground after an earthquake. The cracks were deep and full of pain but there was no spouting emotion.

In addition, societal views tend to portray men as the spouse who needs to be “strong”. NO ONE should be expected to be strong after losing a child. Unfortunately I have witnessed people giving my husband this exact advice. It makes me want to scream. As a mom of boys it is something that I am even more conscious of. Given the extent of the trauma my children have experienced at such early ages, it has been a focus to help them learn how to freely express their emotions.

When friends, family and community members see grieving parents in such desperate pain sometimes they rush to provide them with books, resources and information about groups for grieving parents. This can be so overwhelming. I remember receiving information from others almost immediately. Again, it was so thoughtful and completely appreciated. In the beginning I wasn’t able to process or utilize any of it. It pretty much sat in a box for the first six months. The focus of each day was merely based on survival. Sometimes that meant getting through minute by minute. As time went on I did look through all of the things that were given or sent to me. Some of them are resources I still use and some never worked for me. Either way it was the thought that counted.

If you are an immediate family member of the grieving parent you will also have an especially difficult road to travel. As you navigate your own loss you are expected to support the grieving parent. I have seen my family become quite protective over me and my grief. Sometimes things that are said in my presence strike a nerve with my family members as they worry about my reaction to them. When I think about having to watch one of my children grieve his child, while I grieve my grandchild, my head explodes. My parents and in-laws have watched myself and my husband suffer immensely. That road is laden with sadness, guilt and what if’s for them.

As tight knit and close as my own family is, there are days when I can tell that they are “holding back”. They may not sound like themselves or look like themselves. More often than not they will tell me that they don’t share their bad days with me because if I am having a good day they don’t want to upset me. This sometimes happens between my husband and myself as well.

Grief is undoubtedly a tricky road to navigate. Grieving the loss of a child is even trickier. It forever changes everything. Grieving parents will need their family, friends and community to support them for a long time, if not forever. The biggest fear after losing a child is that no one will remember him or her. Parents also fear that after time passes he or she will become less relevant, their names will be spoken less and their absence will become the norm. If you really are committed to helping a grieving family, don’t ever let this happen. Continue to speak the child’s name. Continue to tell stories. Continue to attend memorials and life celebrations. Continue to let the grieving parent know you are thinking of them. Above all, just be there for them. Love to heaven…

Gratitude Done My Way

Sometimes living each day can feel like a whole lot of work. There are mornings I wake up and have a silent conversation with myself about all that lies ahead in the coming hours. The voice inside my head chides me whenever I even think this way. My firstborn had less than seven years to live, less than seven years of mornings to wake up and be excited about. With each day I should be overflowing with gratitude just to have the chance to make memories with the ones I love.

Did you hear that should in there? “Shoulds” indicate judgment on my part and never bring me anywhere positive. I am beyond grateful to be making memories and be an active part of my loved one’s lives. Yesterday, as I was entering Target, both children were holding my hands in the parking lot. I felt so much gratitude to have their little hands inside mine. I do focus on the little/big things. When I break it down and simplify it like that, I feel a little less selfish and ungrateful.

Give thanks for a little and you will find a lot. ~ Hausa Proverb

Gratitude is a buzz word right now. As a grieving mother, I feel like I need to be even more grateful as a way to honor Christian and all the days he never got to live. In my quest to be as grateful as possible, I decided to start a gratitude journal. There are an abundance of journals for sale for this exact purpose.

Putting my gratitude on paper proved to be harder than I expected. First it meant that I needed to have quiet time at night. That only happens after the boys are asleep. Then it meant that I had to a) be awake after they fell asleep and b) have the energy to actually write down my gratitude list. Unfortunately these things are a rarity. The added pressure I was putting on myself about needing to be extra grateful, because I know how precious life is, was only making things worse.

Things were not going as I wanted or planned them to. Furthermore I was failing at honoring my angel. Wow. That was a tough pill to swallow. If I were hearing this from a friend in my position I would sit her down and have a strong talk with her about how she needed to go easier on herself! My message would encompass the truth that she has to be gentle with herself, celebrate her strengths and be flexible in areas she doesn’t feel strong in.

Despite my empty gratitude journal lying on my nightstand as a constant reminder of my flaw, a new routine developed organically. Each night before my son/s enter into slumber we have quiet cuddle time. It is one of my favorite times of the day. As I laid there with my youngest son one night, I started reflecting on all the positive aspects of the day. It became a habit. Now it is a particularly beautiful part of the bedtime routine for me. It requires no extra items other than my memories and inner voice.

As grieving parents we often carry the added weight of having to revel in the positives. We know just how fleeting a life can be. We know just how quickly an irreversible change can take place, leaving your heart forever cracked. It does put more pressure on us. The truth is we will never constantly be happy or grateful. We are still humans. Yes, we know one of the worst pains on Earth. Yes, we will forever honor our children. Yes, we will celebrate joys. There will be times, however, when maybe we should be more grateful and we are not. That is okay. As a grieving mom this is just something else that I need to accept. I honor Christian in numerous ways. The guilt will have to take a back seat for now. Love to heaven…

 

Student and Teacher of Grief

Every day there are two little humans who are watching, observing and learning from me. When I look at it day to day that thought can be quite scary, but when I look at the big picture it becomes less overwhelming. There is a span of many days from which they learn. The way I see it is as long they see me get back up after I fall, after I make mistakes, we are okay.

Our family has experienced a devastating tragedy. As I am learning how to carry my own pain and continue living, I am both a student and teacher. Along the way of my own journey I am learning about life, myself and my strength. I am also responsible for teaching my children. With my own thoughts, expectations, beliefs and emotions shaken to the core, it puts me on a shaky ground as a teacher.

Perhaps the teaching of thoughts, expectations, beliefs and emotions is not the important part though. Perhaps it is more important to model the process of discovering what one believes. One thing my children do see is how to persevere and find the good wherever we can. I am unsure if I am teaching them correctly in so many areas but I do know that my husband and I teach them to see the best in everything. I also know we have fostered an eternal connection with their brother. There is no doubt in my mind that there are areas that I am not shining in but all I can do is my best.

Although I use the word “heal” a lot in my writing and speaking, I am very conscious that the definitions provided in dictionaries are not akin to my process. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines healing as, “to make sound or whole”. Nope. “to make well again: to restore to health”. If we are comparing to the first days after loss, yes. Other than that – no. “to cause (an undesirable condition) to be overcome”. Nope. For me healing is a journey, not a condition. I am carrying on in my life and continuing to live.

Last weekend I learned a new phrase, “post traumatic growth”. This phrase is very apropos to my journey. Everyone goes through difficult periods in their lives. We all have our own versions of trauma. When we are under duress, we are forced to change. Change does not mean that things turn out the way we want them to. It simply means that things change because we cannot stay the same and endure the stress or pain we are living with.

The reason behind change is often the traumatic part. The journey is often the growth part. August will mark five years since we lost Christian. Over those five years I have met many people who have lost children. None of us will ever be the same or whole again. All of us have learned valuable lessons. In life we are continuous learners. It has been challenging to learn while teaching but I suppose this is a facet of parenting no matter the circumstances. Love to heaven…

 

See You In My Dreams

I dreamt about my beautiful Christian last night. He was so happy, bouncing around the room like a ping pong with his brothers. The specifics of the dream are blurry but I can recall the most important part, at the end. He came over to me, upon my request, and gave me a hug. His skinny arms reached up, wrapped around my neck and squeezed. It only lasted a second, but it was a second of pure bliss.

Dreaming of Christian is not new. It happens less frequently than I would like but at least it happens. My husband rarely dreams of him. Anthony dreams of him sometimes and Nicky said he never does.

There are so many unfair things about losing someone you love. Does it have to be permanent? Why can’t you get a certain number of dreams a week when you can interact with them? Going from daily interaction to nothing seems cruel. Of course we get signs, and they are beautiful, but I am left wanting more!

I like to think of my dream last night as an early Valentine’s Day gift for me. Hugs and kisses are the best gifts! Young children are so generous with hugs and kisses. They become stingier as they get older. Even with my living children I am always saying, “Come over here and give me a hug and kiss!” Sometimes they do it begrudgingly. Other times they just pretend it is begrudgingly.

My favorite hugs are the ones my boys give to each other spontaneously. If they were a little more savvy they would know that they could ask me for anything they wanted in that moment and get it!

In my last post I wrote about some people that I met at a LiveOnNY workshop over the weekend. As I watched three sisters who lost their only brother my heart truly ached for them. It evoked emotions in me that I knew were there but buried for survival purposes.

  • My familial dream of three boys growing up together began the day I found out Nicky was a boy. Brotherly bonds are not to be underrated. Immediately images of three boys laughing, loving, playing and fighting together emerged. Then my thoughts expanded to graduations and weddings. I lamented the fact that I would never be mother of the bride. At the same time I fell in love with the idea that I would be the most important female in their lives until marriage. So many hopes and dreams sketched out. My favorite ones were always based on their brotherly bond. Thank goodness Anthony and Nicky still have this but it pains me to know that the brother who was going to “guide” them – okay be their leader in mischief – is no longer here to do that.
  • Today, the snow is falling in New York again. We are a few days shy of Valentine’s Day – the holiday of love. I found this beautiful project on Pinterest that I am going to use as a way for my boys to record memories of Christian.

    Using my emotional barometer I will judge whether we can make it all about Christian or if we should include all three boys. If they seem to feel any bit over shadowed by Christian’s memory then I will include memories for all three boys. Either way it is a beautiful dedication to brotherly love.

    My life has not turned out the way I had hoped. There will forever be the question, “what would it be like if you were here?” We will never know. We must relish in the memory of the times with all three of our boys and continue to create new memories with our two living boys. Love to heaven…

    Hope Is In Every Step

    Hope. We all need it to survive. After Christian passed away it was completely unfathomable to me that I would ever feel it again. Yet I have and I do. That is not to say that it doesn’t waver, because it does.

    This particular topic is on my heart tonight as I’ve just returned home from an amazing workshop at LiveOnNY. LiveOnNY is a non profit organization that works to procure organ donation in the Greater New York area. The beautiful thing about this organization is that they are actively working with the donor families after their loss.

    When Christian passed away I knew immediately that his wishes would be to help someone else in need. After all, our body only houses our soul. Without hesitation we answered “yes” when they asked if we wanted his organs to be donated.

    Right there we chose hope. There was no chance of our little boy coming back to us but there was a chance that his organs could offer hope for someone else, and they did.

    In the moment when they asked us about organ donation I didn’t feel any bit of hope. I didn’t feel it after we said yes. I didn’t feel it for a very long time. We are four and a half years walking this journey and there are still days when hope eludes me. Most days though it is somewhere in my soul.

    How did I get to a place where I feel any semblance of hope? Sometimes even I wonder. I know I have an abundance of love and support that surrounds me. That certainly helps. I also know that I made a conscious decision to carry on. It is something that I work on constantly. Some days it feels fairly simple. Other days it requires my every effort, every minute of the day. I feel like I am walking through sludge.

    Self care, a topic of today’s workshop, is a large part of me being able to find hope again. From the very start I tried anything that I thought might offer the tiniest bit. That included acupuncture, therapy, walks with friends, yoga, art, exercising, writing, attending grief groups and other activities that are not coming to mind right now. Some worked and some didn’t. Some I still utilize as self care tools today. Most importantly my willingness to try things helped me to find a way to survive this unthinkable loss. The key to hope is finding what works for you.At today’s workshop I met many amazing people. For some the loss was extremely new and raw. It took such courage for them to be there. Their desperation to find any sort of relief written all over their faces and evidenced in their tears. My heart broke for them. It is not so long ago that I was in their place. Even in all I tried I don’t think I had the courage to attend a workshop like this so soon after our loss.

    I saw myself in these people. One woman, a writer, unsure if she will ever write again. Another family of a mother and three daughters who lost their only brother, all clearly devastated. I was them. I am them. Time has just taught me how to integrate the pain into my life today. Sadness and joy live alongside each other in my world, as it will for them.

    That’s hope. Newly grieving people feel devoid of it, but they don’t realize that they are already building it. Every step one takes to find relief from the blinding pain allows hope to filter in. They may not feel it today, tomorrow or next week. It takes time to chip away a big enough space to see the hope shining through. It will. Each time one wakes up and makes it through another day. That’s hope. Pepper it with a few healthy attempts to relieve the pain and you are building hope. It doesn’t feel like it, but you are.

    Thank you to the amazing staff at LiveOnNY for the workshop you led. As one participant said it so beautifully to them, “You should feel great about yourselves today, knowing you are making a difference in lives”. They were my dose of hope today. Love to heaven…

    Expectations and Truth

    Yesterday was one of those days. You know what I am talking about. A day where just about all you can handle is sitting on the couch and watching movies. My boys went into school at 10:30 and were home by 1:30, due to the weather. Thank God they made it home safely. While I had hoped for a longer amount of childless time, I am so grateful that the school district made a smart decision.

    It definitely interrupted my movie watching though. Between being asked for snacks, arguing over every little thing and then being told that they really didn’t want the dinner I had cooked I was ready to explode. Then when I said, “I need a break!” It was met with my six year old’s answer, “That’s because you hate us.” Aaah, yes, pile on the mom guilt.

    Being a mom is hard. Being a parent is hard. Being an adult is hard. Anyone who is reading this can probably agree with at least one or all of those statements! How can it be that some days you feel on top of the world like you have it all under control and the next day you are drowning? Some of this is certainly due to my circumstances but I do not believe that only bereaved parents feel this way. I know that is not true.

    Recently I was having a conversation with a friend about how a few nights ago the bedtime routine went splendidly. So much so that Anthony, my eight year old, thanked Nicky for the hug he gave him in school that day. Then Nicky thanked Anthony for being included in a game with his friends. It ended with them both saying, “I love you” to each other. Not sure who those kids were but before becoming a parent I actually thought that there would be way more days like that.

    When we examine what our beliefs or expectations are compared to reality, accepting reality can sometimes be so hard. In the case of raising children, you learn pretty quickly that there is a huge divide between what you expected and the truth. I will never forget a time when Christian threw a screaming fit in an outdoor mall and I had to carry him out. It was humbling. That’s for sure. At the time I felt like the biggest failure as a parent. I was still stuck in the pre-child mindset that my child would never do that. I can actually hear some of you laughing out loud because you know what I mean!

    The me of today knows that the exact opposite was true. I was doing a great job as a parent that day. Christian was doing a great job of being a kid. We were both doing exactly what we were supposed to be doing. (Don’t even get me started on the supposed to’s.) Nonetheless, it took time, experience and multiple children to learn this.

    Expectations are the measure by which we define where we want to be. If we set them too low, we are not accomplishing what we are capable of. If they are too high we experience failure. There are some areas of my life where I am in tune with where my expectations need to be. Other areas I am still learning. The saying, “Patience is a virtue” is a mantra that I repeat quite often. It takes patience, time and experience to first learn where to set your expectations, then how to reach them, then to actually reach them. It is certainly not a linear process. We must experience some days on top of the world and others when we are drowning.

    Today I am right in between. I’m not exactly on top and I’m not exactly drowning. After all that madness yesterday I couldn’t bear to even deal with the bedtime routine. I collapsed into bed and asked my husband to put both boys to sleep. Even though he had a long day dealing with the snow, important meetings at work and coming home to a crazy wife who was still the pajamas he left her in, he did. Thank God. Right before Nicky went to bed he came to me and gave me a huge hug and kissed me tenderly on the top of my head. Just like that I melted. It was a kind of nourishment for the next day, a kind of payment for parenting being so difficult. Never in my imagination could I have known just how hard it would be to parent children. I also could have never imagined just how much I would love these children. Love to heaven…