There are some days that you know will inevitably arrive. We all know that the day will come when someone we love will leave this Earth physically. When that person is a child, you may become obsessed with other days you know are in your future. The path of dreams you set out on when your child was born becomes decimated, and you are now forced onto a different path.
There are the major days we know will be hard – birthdays, graduations, marriages and births. These are days that bereaved parents dread. The thought of them evokes a stifling pain that takes one’s breath away.
Then there are less significant days as a whole, but more impactful in some ways. Most recently the shock of physical transformation has been thrust upon me. My angel, Christian, will forever be six years old. Not nearly old enough to say he lived a full life. Many coming of age experiences and milestones fell away in an instant when he was called to Heaven. Each one dropped into the sand, forever buried. So many major mountains never climbed.
This thought often plagues me. He was my oldest child of three so it is only in the past two years that his brothers have begun reaching milestones that he never did. His classmates, however, have been reaching them, changing and growing since the day he died.
As his classmates and friends age it has been difficult to hear of them celebrating birthdays that he may have been included in. It was difficult to watch them grow into the oldest class in the elementary school, have their special musical concerts, special field day events and finally move on to a whole new era in their life; middle school.
Yet, they still resembled their little Kindergarten selves. Recently, though, their faces have changed. The baby fat that once puffed out their cheeks has been chiseled. The hair, that mom was once responsible for keeping clean and neat, now sports gel and hip styles. Clothing choices have shifted and lets not get into the height changes! More than once upon seeing one of Christian’s friends I’ve gasped, shocked at their appearance. It stays with me and burrows into my heart.
This is the year. The year he would have made those stark transformations. Friends and relatives who don’t see him all that often would have been the ones to gasp. As his mother I would have had the privilege not to notice. It wouldn’t have taken me by surprise because the drastic nature of the change would be less visible to the eyes that saw him every day.
It’s the question that haunts all grieving parents. Who would you be now? I want to know 11 year old Christian!! I want to see him, hug him, know his interests. I even want to be able to argue with him. How would his mischief be impacting my life now?
Facing such vast physical changes in his classmates makes it harder to see the commonalities between them and Christian. It tricks my mind into believing he never was a part of that group. They have left him behind physically. Never in their hearts, but they have surpassed him in age, education and now physical appearance. Each change breaks my heart a little more.
This is a day that I knew would inevitably arrive. It’s just so painful. The reminder of how definitive death is and all that it takes with it is biting. My heart cries out again that this can’t be true. I am supposed to be the mother of a middle schooler! I am supposed to be juggling the schedules of elementary and middle schools. I am supposed to be attending another child’s sporting events, musical performances and anything else he is interested in. But I’m not. I’m mourning him.
Yes, there is so much beauty in the pain. It’s been found unexpectedly, but it doesn’t numb the other side. The depth of the pain where no beauty can ever be found. Love to Heaven…
I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sorry that you have to see your mom suffer through losing her grown son. I’m sorry that you have to watch as his wife struggles to carry on each day without her best friend. I’m sorry that you are witnessing your nieces and nephew grieving their father. I’m sorry that your brother is forever gone physically from your family.
I know that your heart is broken to think that the man who could light up a room with a smile will never have that chance again. You miss his larger than life personality and booming laugh. His story telling skills that seemed effortless but always brought the story to life, forever silenced. You miss all this, yet you feel you must be strong for your mom, sister-in-law and nieces and nephew. His beautiful family suffers each day. As time goes on they learn how to live without him but sadness is at the surface.
You go on, learning how to live without him but sadness is interwoven into your very being. You see his spirit live on not only in his children but your children. You speak about their uncle and they speak about him too. Memories are as vibrant as if he were still here, which he is. It is unbelievable to you that just a year ago your brother’s radiant smile and large personality were present at family gatherings.
Supporting family members after a major loss is exhausting and draining. You are reeling from the loss and yet you want to offer strength and comfort to those around you. I don’t envy your position.
Most people are aware of the strain a loss puts on a mother, wife and children. When it comes to siblings, especially grown siblings, they are not as in touch with the deep devastation that remains after the loss.
I see you and I see how devastated you are too. Every happy occasion is tinged with the grief. You are open to expressing your emotions but don’t want to overwhelm others around you as you know they, too, have intense feelings.
I am here for you, my friend. I will listen to you tell stories, happy and sad. I will dry your tears. I will echo your smiles. I will be your support when you have none left to give to anyone else. I am here to help lift you up. I will always send love to you and to Heaven.
Sometimes the weight of grief is unknown until a moment, day or event passes. This is how it was for me this past weekend when my middle child made his First Communion.
In the weeks leading up to the event, daily life had me running to baseball practices and games, working the book fair, submitting my writing to different sites, gaining some new opportunities (stay tuned for more about that!) and even a trip for myself to Urgent Care. It left me little time to mull over the latest milestone that was about to be reached. This was probably a blessing.
Lately I have been referring to the “beginning” or “early days” in my writing. As I wrote in last week’s post, my journey is forever changing and evolving. When I look back to the early days, immediately after losing Christian, and even the years that followed, and compare it to now I can see true evolution. In the past if I had been preoccupied leading up to a big event, the aftermath would have left me completely depleted. Over time, however, I have processed and experienced the pain that goes along with my living sons experiencing things their brother never got to.
Anthony’s Communion was beautiful and we are so very proud of him. It was also the quintessential depiction of joy and pain existing together in the moment. Our family was seated in the very first pew. As I watched my eight year old enter the church, hands folded dutifully as prayer hands should be, pride rushed through me. Love poured out of me and a smile graced my face.
As the mass continued on and mention was made of those who are deceased, the weight of grief fell. It fell hard. The storm of sadness moved in and instantly fat tears began to drop. For a little while it made the sunshine of joy invisible. The sun remained there, it just became clouded over by the storm that came rolling through. And such is life.
Anthony’s big moment approached and he was excited to receive his First Communion. In his eyes the warmth of the sun reached me. The storm had passed. The day continued and all had a good time.
The weight of the grief I had been carrying around, presumably for the weeks leading up to the event. was only truly felt on the day after it. I awoke with a surprising amount of relief. This was a revelation for me. The physical, emotional and mental relief so evident that I could not ignore it.
It brought me back to just a year ago. Last June Christian’s friends moved up from Elementary School to Middle School. In the weeks leading up to the ceremony, he was remembered and honored in different ways. At the actual moving up ceremony a single red balloon was attached to an empty chair in memory of my beautiful child. This is a gift that all grieving mothers wish to be given.
Again we see the juxtaposition of joy and pain existing together. My gratitude is greater than words for all of these thoughtful gestures. They also were a painful reminder of the fact that Christian is not moving up to Middle School. With or without him being honored the deep sadness would have been present. It warms my heart that his classmates, their parents and the school, made remembering him a priority.
Life is not easy. We tell our children that when they are young. There is no easy fix and we are all due some pain in our lives. We cannot avoid these storms. We must learn how to get through them. The weight of grief has lifted for now. It will be back. I am sure of it. I will get through it again. I am also sure of that. Love to Heaven…
“It sounds like you are entering the acceptance phase”, my therapist says. “Acceptance doesn’t mean you like it, just that you are beginning to accept the reality that he is gone”. I flinch. Acceptance hadn’t occurred to me.
Am I really there? Isn’t it too soon? I must be a terrible mother. What kind of person loses her son and can accept it?
Oh, hello paradox of truth. We meet again. Every life is filled with joy and pain existing alongside of each other. In my life, joyful moments usher in happiness, smiles and laughter. This NEVER happens without pain. It doesn’t mean I feel the pain at the same time. It just means the shadow of pain is lurking in the darkness. We all live this.
Grieving a child truly makes us examine the marbling of joy and pain. Early in the grieving journey the felt guilt is immense at the smallest inkling of joy. Feeling a smile on my face caused stabbing emotions of remorse to pierce my heart. The judgmental inner voice would scream, “How can you be smiling? Your son is in Heaven!!”
The first time going to dinner with friends after losing Christian was a night filled with wine, good food and laughter. It felt like a violation as a grieving mother.
The first girls’ weekend away from my living children began with an incident that produced such raucous laughter tears were streaming down my face. How could I feel that much freedom and happiness?
The first belly laugh my husband and I shared around friends felt liberating and constricting all at the same time. Laughing was a part of who I was, and who we were, before we experienced the traumatic cleaver of tragedy. We couldn’t possibly be grieving correctly.
Positive emotions did not feel acceptable for a long time. No one ever verbalized that they thought I was “grieving wrong”, but I imagined that was how some people were looking at me.
Then the fog of grief lifted just the tiniest bit, and I mean the tiniest bit. When I looked around it seemed the more joy that infiltrated my life, the more signs I was able to recognize from Christian. Those who know us best and love us most seemed to take tiny breaths of relief. No one ever questioned whether we were still broken, that was a given. It just brought them joy to see us experience slivers of happiness.
Anne Lamott, author of Almost Everything: Notes on Hope, says, “But all truth really is a paradox, and this turns out to be a reason for hope. If you arrive at a place in life that is miserable, it will change, and something else about it will also be true.” The truth is I did lose my son and it continues to be the worst pain I have ever felt, but that intense pain did not last forever. Residual pain remains and sometimes the intense pain returns, inhabiting my heart and body. It never lasts forever. Grieving parents can only learn this truth over time.
Each time the intense pain returns and recedes, it grows hope. It is this hope that helps us to move through our lives until we see our children again. Hope is alive and tangible. In my life I have found hope through my children, husband, family (especially my nieces), friends, life lessons, signs from my angel, meetings with people I know he put on my path and many other things. Hope is not always there, but it is ever present.
Trusting in hope helps me to move forward. In the beginning I frequently asked “Why did this happen?” That is an answer I’m not sure I will ever have. Time and experience has taught me that this question robs me of my hope. Lamott says, “‘Why?” is rarely a useful question in the hope business.” I agree with her on this. It won’t bring Christian back. It will only bring on self judgment.
Reflecting on acceptance after my therapist used this word in our session has been enlightening for me. Though I have not made peace with it yet, I can understand that my way of acceptance includes an and. I accept that Christian is no longer a living, breathing being and I don’t like it. On any given day the words that follow the and in the sentence may change. As I am writing today it changes to, “I am angry about it”.
Acceptance is walking in the footsteps of hope. As much I want to, I cannot go back and change the past. If I fight the present, or the movement toward acceptance, it threatens my connection to Christian. Living in the “why?” and “should have been” mindsets only make room for pain. So for now I will continue to grieve as I do. Sometimes this will include questioning my ability to do it correctly. When fear of being healed of my grief surfaces I am always made humble by my tears. Moving toward acceptance is just another recognition of joy existing alongside pain. Love to Heaven…
Recently I read a book that confirmed my beliefs about dreams and comforted me. As a frequent dreamer, Spiritual Lighthouse, The Dream Diaries of Ann Marie Ruby, caught my eye immediately. During the passage of time that has unfolded since losing Christian, my spiritual journey has been integral to my healing. Dreams have been a large part of this.
From the start of the book I felt a kinship with the author. She talks about nature remaining a constant over time, while things change all around it. This couldn’t be more true. It doesn’t matter how long or dark the night is the sunwill alwaysrisethe next day. The waves will continue to crash and the mountains will continue to stand. Even when your whole world is crashingdown around you, nature is a constant.
Although the topics of the dreams Ruby shares vary, she circles back to two main ideas. One being that there is a “spiritual lighthouse” guiding us throughout life. She also stresses the importance of faith and hope. Some of her dreams reflect day to day life and others relate to worldly and historical events. All proven to be accurate when she researched them.
Interspersed throughout the book are spiritual prayers, adding another layer of dimension allowing the reader to relate it to his or her own present life and circumstances.
Ruby’s dream journal is a beautiful collection of one woman’s journey through her sleep. It proves that dreams are more than just visions in our head. They have definitive meaning. This book helped to clarify what I’ve felt all along. Messages are delivered while we are in a dreaming state of slumber. Thank you Ann Marie for your beautiful depiction of this!
In my last post I wrote about how to help a grieving family. It was focused more on the parents and the family as a whole. This week I thought I would provide some insight on how to help children who are grieving. My children were one and three when we lost Christian. Unfortunately we knew the loss would impact Anthony at his age. Many people were of the opinion that Nicky would not be affected as much since he was not yet two years old. As time goes on I am certain that this is not true.
The task of raising children who grow up with a sibling in Heaven is no easy feat. At their ages there were many questions about death and Heaven since they had no point of reference. When children are a little bit older they understand the concept of death more but Heaven is still elusive, even to adults.
“Everyone, including children, must understand four basic concepts about death to grieve fully and come to terms with what has happened. Teens, and even adults, may have a full and rational understanding of death, yet still struggle to accept these basic concepts when faced with the death of a loved one.”
The four concepts we must understand are that death is irreversible, all life functions end at the time of death, everything that is alive dies and there are physical reasons for death.
Recently in our community a beautiful little girl gained her wings after 13 short years here on Earth. I do not know the family personally but I do know what occurs in the wake of losing a child, for the family and community. I do not, by any means claim to be a therapist, just a mother who is raising her children after trauma and loss.
While questions and answers will differ based on the age of grieving children, some things will not. The absolute most important piece of advice is to keep the door of communication open with a grieving child. Provide him or her with a safe environment in which they can openly discuss the person who has gone ahead to Heaven. Allow the grieving child to share his or her emotions.
I can’t speak to what this exactly looks like in a teenager. I would imagine just as with younger children, grief and confusion will be disguised behind other emotions. We had outbursts, uncommon behaviors, difficulty sleeping, regression and even survivor guilt with our children. Almost five years later we see anxiety and anger sometimes. We see sensitivity to certain triggers, not always obvious ones. For example my children still play “dead”, which haunts me, but is normal, age appropriate behavior for them.
This brings me to my next point. As adults it can be so hard not to put our own anxieties on our children. The grieving child can be even more sensitive to this. The anxiety that arises within me when my boys “play dead” is because of my knowledge, experience and relationship to the word and all that I have lost. This is not how my children see it. They do not yet have the life knowledge, experience and understanding that I have. There is no need to add any more layers of sadness or anxiety onto their own grief.
If, however, your child is experiencing anxiety about the finality of his or her own life or someone else’s, this is normal after an untimely death. Abigail Marks, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in grief says, “See if you can find out more about their specific concerns and show that you take their feelings seriously. When kids feel reassured and understood, anxiety can begin to shrink”. After losing Christian we were advised to be very honest with our children. We even had a “standard family answer” so that we were all consistent about death. Again, this was age appropriate but we said, “Christian is in Heaven now but he will always be in our hearts and our memories”. We explained that him being in our hearts was the love we have for him and will always have for him. The book, The Invisible String, reinforces this idea. It is geared towards younger children, explaining that we are connected to all of the people we love with an invisible string, even those who are in Heaven.
My husband and I are firm believers that Christian’s energy is still all around us. He was an extremely persistent child his whole life with us and he continues to exert his persistence from Heaven. We are grateful for this. Through odd occurrences, hearts, pennies and dreams, he has proven that he will always be with us. It will never be the way we hoped, but our relationship does continue. It was important that our children understand that too. They have a continuous relationship with their oldest brother. He often shows himself on important days, regular days, almost every day. They even dream of him. He is a part of this family and always will be. Every day we speak his name at one point or another. They talk about him to their friends and they carry on his memory, just as we do.
We have been very careful not to let Christian overshadow our living children. We take our cues from them. They have said things like, “Why is everything about Christian?” or “I don’t want to talk about him right now”. That’s okay. It’s normal. We know that means for a little while after they express these feelings we need to monitor how much we speak about Christian, allowing them to bring him up in conversation. Again, we cannot let our anxiety of him being forgotten override the health of our family.
While we have learned a lot of this on our own as grief is individual to each person and family, we have also worked with mental health professionals since the start of our grief journey. We are blessed with some of the most amazing people in our lives. We thank Christian for this. We believe he put these “angels on Earth” in our path. Their guidance and professional opinion definitely makes a world of difference.
If you are sensing that your child has some emotions inside but is hesitant to let them out there are a few things I suggest you can do with him or her:
Get them moving – Here in New York Spring has sprung! Go for a hike, a walk, play a game of basketball, have a game of catch, even ask them to help you complete a physical task – anything to get them moving. Allowing them to choose and giving them control over the activity will encourage them to open up. My son took Tae Kwon Do for two years and it helped him immensely. We even put a punching bag in the basement as a means for him to work out his emotions physically.
“It turns out that exercise can be an important coping tool to deal with grief and loss, whether it’s the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship.”
Give them a journal – If you have a child who is maybe a little more introverted or does not share feelings as easily, journaling can be a great option. Journaling does not have to be limited to the written word. Art journaling is a great way to process emotions.
“According to grief experts, the task of reconstructing your personal self-narrative is critical in the healing process. A grief journal will provide you with a venue for expression without fear of being judged”.
Encourage music in their lives – Listening, playing and dancing to music are all amazing ways to process emotions. When we listen to certain music, play certain instruments such as the drums or dance around, we are stimulating both sides of the brain.
“Bilateral stimulation… [which] has been demonstrated extensively in studies to create a greater connection between your mind and your body.”
Provide them with creative experiences – Ask if they would like to enroll in an art class, take a painting class with them, provide them with art journal prompts (Pinterest has tons!) All of this helps them to get their feelings out and work through them. Emphasize that it is not the end product that is most meaningful but the process.
“When you are unable to express yourself, but you desire emotional release, making art may help you to do it”.
Grief is a powerful emotion. Loss, especially when a death is untimely, can be very disturbing. Be patient with yourself as you process these emotions alongside your child. Parents will undoubtedly have an increase in their own fears and strong emotions. It is healthy for your child to see you working through this. While I do not advise voicing your fears surrounding how fragile life is, as your child has learned this firsthand, I do encourage you to share your emotions, memories and age appropriate thoughts. For example you may say, “I was thinking about your friend Christian today. Remember how much fun we had the day we all went to the waterpark?” This may spark a conversation with your child, allowing their feelings to seep out. You may also say, “I went to visit Christian’s family today while you were in school. I feel sad whenever I see them.” These are simple statements but ones that your child can relate to. If they see you modelling your own feelings and that your emotions are there too, they will be more accepting of their own. Grief can be very strong and sometimes that can be scary to a child. Through the parent voicing his or her own emotions, it normalizes them.
It feels harsh and unfair that some children are exposed to death at such early ages. We have no control over what happens in our lives, but we can control our reactions. Helping our children learn coping skills when encountering large emotions is a lesson that they will value for the rest of their lives. It is horrible to be learned through the death of a family member or friend but it is something that will always be useful.
Dealing with untimely loss is difficult. As a parent children turn to us for answers we don’t have. There are many times I have said to my children, “I don’t have an answer to your question. It is something I wonder about too”. It’s okay to do that. Parents, be gentle on yourself and do your best. If you feel that you are having trouble answering questions and handling a loss, seek help. Professionals don’t have all the answers either but they have more experience than we do dealing with traumatic situations.
Above all, open lines of communication are the most important. If that means you have to play a video game with your child to get him to talk – do it! Just let him or her know you are here to listen. Sometimes that is all they want. Listening can be harder than you think. Innately, we want to fix our child if he or she is hurting. There are some things we cannot fix. There are some journeys each person has to take on their own. Grief is one of them. We can walk alongside and provide support, but not fix it. Love to heaven…
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…