Legs of Hope

Two little legs so innocently peeking out of the shopping cart. That was all it took to transport me back to a sweeter time in my life. His feet were snug in a pair of navy blue crocs. In a cotton, navy t-shirt, pair of shorts and a baseball cap, he chatted easily as his mom perused the aisles.

Instantly time was reversed and it was me shopping the store as Christian chatted away. We traversed the aisles, he snug in the shopping cart seat and me beaming with pride that this adorable little boy had been given to me. I trilled about products that we needed and didn’t, and time floated by.

The pace of life was reflected in the simple act of shopping. Shopping trips were born out of the necessity to replenish our home with staples, and the need to pass time. Occupying an overactive two year old was no small feat.

These simple moments are some of what I miss the most. Likely, this would be a cherished and missed memory at this stage of my life, despite my current circumstances. The nostalgia of these small, seemingly incidental moments reflective of feeling nostalgic over growing children.

As a grieving mom, it is certainly more complicated. I am mourning him at all ages.

I have a vague memory of the dichotomy present in my life during Christian’s toddler years. Fiercely I clutched on to the days we spent together in the first half of Christian’s life. These were also my first few years of motherhood.

Constantly second guessing myself, unsure of every decision I made, I feared that I was not a good mother. Sadly, this did affect my ability to be present and in the moment. Intermittently the fragility of life shook me to the core. When I discussed this with other moms, it seemed as though my fears were slightly deeper than others.

Possibly the reason for this was because everything Christian did was BIG. He was the kind of kid who demanded all of your attention as soon as he stepped into the room. He taught me patience, sheerly out of necessity. All he did, he did 110%. When apart from him, his absence was so stark it felt like a limb was missing.

Reflecting back I wonder whether certain moments were preparing me for the most devastating experience of my life. It seems to be so, but I don’t have faith that that will ever be confirmed. Either way I could never be prepared for what was to come.

I always believed that there would be more time. Belief in anything other than that would have been crushing. In June 2014 Christian participated in the last field day he would ever know. He had a broken arm so there were many limitations. Never dreaming that his Kindergarten field day would be his final one, I assured him that there were many more field days to come in which he would be able to participate fully. There weren’t.

No parents expects their child to be gone in body before they reach seven years of age.

Those tiny little legs dangling out of the shopping cart symbolized hopes, dreams and wishes that I had for Christian. They symbolized a kind of life that despite its ups and downs was still immune to the worst tragedy a parent can face. They symbolized vigilant optimism. I was aware of the worst tragedy but optimistic that my life would not be dealt that blow. Once you have been dealt this blow, you can never go back to the blissful state of child loss free parenting.

Some balloons are able to soar with joy. Child loss survivor’s balloons are always tethered down. Sometimes the weight is so heavy the balloon merely sways from side to side. Other times its a bit lighter and the balloon may rise, but it always comes back down. That is the scar of a grieving parent.

Hope Is Found In Other Grievers

If you are new to the grief of child loss and are asking yourself how you will ever be able to live another day in this new reality, you are not alone. Every single parent who has been in your position before you has had the same exact thought. As the the grief strangles us and the pain takes over our physical, emotional and mental health, the disbelief that you will survive this horrendous ordeal is all encompassing.

Many times people ask me about the best advice I received after losing Christian. It wasn’t anything people said. Instead it was meeting and connecting with people who had lost a child, but were able to continue living. They were shining beacons of hope for me. If they were able to do it, then so could I.

The pain was still unbearable, but their collective stories of survival showed me that the unthinkable was possible. Each person I met who had survived their child lifted me up. It was their resilience that sparked a light of hope in me.

There is no end in grief. There is no filling the hole that is in the exact shape of your child. It will always be there, but the edges of it will not always be as pointy and sharp.

It is so hard to reach into your heart when you first lose your child. Each excursion leaves you cut and raw. As time passes and you learn that your child is still with you, the jaggedness softens, allowing you to be blanketed more with love than cut by the edges.

Today I am 2,432 days post child loss. It will be 7 years in August and I am still here, living after the most heart wrenching experience of my life.

My living children inspire me every day to not only survive, but thrive. In the beginning my surviving was an act of love for them. Knowing the trauma they had already experienced, I knew I had to step up and be as present as possible for them. Some days that meant taking them to school and some days that meant crying alongside them as we played with cars. When my emotions were unable to be contained, they always inquired as to why I was crying. My honest answer remained the same. “I miss your brother”.

Mothering two toddlers while grieving my firstborn was beyond difficult, and I had a ton of support and help. Given all that help, I was the only person who was their mother. Being present for them meant being gentle with myself on those days that I just couldn’t handle school runs or playing cars or getting out of bed until the afternoon.

In the months following Christian’s death, my present not only included the day to day activities that my living children were involved in, but also attending to my grief. I had to learn to parent it, nurture it. We do this not to help it grow, but to help our heart grow around it, to help soften those jagged edges. The more we give it attention, nurture it, treat ourselves gently with it and honor it, the more we are able to hold it and carry it. Our grief and emotions need our attention too. If we just stuff them down, they become stagnant and manifest in other ways.

As a mother to all three of my boys, and a wife to my high school sweetheart, I made the commitment to work on myself. Mothers often apply a special version of glue that holds a family together. If I was going to be able to do that I knew I had to be the healthiest version of myself. First, that meant I had to handle my mental and emotional health. Working through the trauma and grief required me to seek professional help.

Weekly appointments with my therapist were a must (and still are). It was absolutely necessary that I have my own safe space to process my emotions, without worrying about hurting anyone else.

While this processing was amazing, my therapist had not lost a child. The connection with other individuals who had walked my actual path became essential. My husband and I found a few groups, but we really didn’t “gel” with them. It was more that we were just going through the motions because we thought it would help.

I was fortunate that I had connected with some other moms who had lost their children. I met with them on an individual basis and that helped more than the groups we were attending. For a while this was enough.

After a few years it became clear that my own healing was progressing well. The urge to help others began to build. I wanted to be the mentor for others, show them that survival is possible.

All the while one of the biggest things that plagued me was how I would be able to keep Christian’s spirit alive. As long as I was living, he would be remembered. It had to be in a big way, though. That was one of his defining qualities – big in every way!

My husband and I knew we wanted to pay it forward because we had received so much love, generosity and help from others. To match this, we formed Love From Heaven – Christian Martinisi Memorial Fund. It’s a non-profit that supports families grieving a child. Our outreach is local and extends across the nation. Once I felt secure that I had formed something that would live up to Christian’s ability to spread light, I was able to turn to my individual goals.

My journey led me to begin a grief group of my own. Then it led me to become a Certified Grief Coach. This met my desire to form a new purpose around my new identity. Helping others heal, sharing my story and being real about my life is my purpose.

As I continue to work on myself, I am learning and growing immensely. It’s the gift of grief. One that I would have never accepted if given the choice. Yet, it’s what I received. My grief is a lesson in the fact that we are all connected. In those connections is where healing lies. I am sure of it. There is not magic healing. It doesn’t happen quickly or easily. Over time, when we see ourselves in someone else, and we realize that we have the resilience too, is when we begin to heal. Love to Heaven…

Grief and Self Trust

Grief teaches us so much more than how to live without someone we love.

One of the most valuable lessons it has taught me is how to trust myself more. This lesson is helpful in so many ways, but perhaps the most rewarding is when I am able to trust my parenting choices.

Like most moms, before I earned the status of mom I had many visions of what it would like in my head. My children would always be well behaved, polite children. They would follow the routine that I so carefully constructed for them. All we need is love, right? I knew how to love furiously.

I was in for a rude awakening. When my firstborn, Christian, entered my life I knew I was immediately blessed. What I didn’t know was that I was a woman who knew absolutely nothing about the most important job I was about undertake – parenting.

As a reader, I had read all the books. I assumed the knowledge gained would be applied and all would fall into place. My dad liked to tell me, “You may have read the baby books, but he didn’t”. Point taken.

On that cold, Christmas morning my husband and I brought home our brand new baby. We even stopped by our church to have the priest bless him. A baby blessed on Christmas Day. The irony of thinking that immediately we had afforded him some sort of special protection. We know now that does not exist.

We fawned over him. He was beautiful. He was perfect. As night approached it became obvious that he was not one for sleeping. My mom was with me, though, so I had added insurance that what I was doing was correct.

Time went on and his dislike of sleep became stronger. He never wanted to miss anything. Again, ironic seeing as his life was cut short. I re-read all the books, tried all the methods and felt like a big failure because no matter what I did, he wouldn’t nap as long as the books recommended or sleep as long as they said he should.

The problem wasn’t in what I was or wasn’t doing. It was in my lack of self trust, lack of self confidence. I have always had this underlying issue. Christian certainly did not make it appear. However, I had always assumed that I would be a successful mother. I always wanted kids, I babysat a lot, my mom was great. What could go wrong? This left me feeling like even more of a failure.

Looking back on this time with Christian now breaks my heart. I do wish I had enjoyed it more. If only I knew then what I know now… or rather if only I trusted myself then like I trust myself now.

There is nothing in the world that makes losing Christian okay or positive. Nothing. Given that I cannot change the situation, however, one positive that has come out of life since his death is learning self trust.

It is happening very slowly and it is a continual process. In my quest to have a continuous relationship with Christian as an angel, I have had to learn about myself and attune to myself in much different ways. This has fostered a more trusting self relationship.

In parenting, this has helped immensely. Questioning every decision I made with Christian was completely exhausting and damaging to my self confidence. These days, I am able to make decisions without questioning most of them. It is a freedom I never thought possible.

When faced with questions I didn’t have the answer to after Christian’s death, I was forced to rely on my own thoughts. Of course, I consulted therapists, other grieving mothers and trusty old books. The thing was no one had all the answers. No one could tell me what was right for my family, but me. It was then that I began to see and act on that.

As my boys grow and our relationship to death changes, we are learning a lot together. I have learned that they need an adult to be honest with them. How will I gain their trust if they don’t believe me? So it has been my practice to practice honesty, age appropriately. I have seen this be a positive in my boy’s lives.

I also encourage them to speak about their feelings and not shy away from them. We speak openly when someone is upset. If they are not in a place where they want to talk about things, I read their cues and let them know that they are not alone. I am always here. Then my trick is to try to get them moving, or get them in the car! Both help to get them talking.

When we were first thrown into the whirlwind of grief, I was terrified that they would forget Christian. They were so little. There were times when I had to really attune to them because I might be sharing a memory and their body language or attention made it obvious that they didn’t want to be a part of it right then. I had to put my own fears, worries, and anxieties aside to see that me forcing Christian memories on them wouldn’t make it any better.

When my boys began to be aware of graveyards and headstones. They naturally asked about Christian and where he was buried. They wanted to know how he could “always be around us” if he was buried somewhere. This led to our conversation about body, souls and energy. It also forged the way for me to see if they were ready to visit Christian’s headstone. They had never been before. There was no pressure, but rather me trusting that they would let me know when they were ready.

With so many decisions about raising a family after a devastating loss like child loss, being individualistic, we forged our own path. I was forced, in a positive way, to trust my instincts. As emotions rose, I knew I had other people to turn to talk things out, and I did. I also had faith that Christian would guide me, and he does.

As my boys get older, their understanding of death and how to continue on, continues to evolve. Each of them holds on to Christian in their own way. They each have a special relationship with him.

Just as I was thrown into the world of children not knowing what I was doing, I was thrown into child loss not knowing what I was doing. Love certainly helped with both. Self trust also made a big difference. If I could go back I would parent Christian quite differently, but maybe I wasn’t supposed to know that then. I don’t know everything about parenting after loss, but I am learning more and more as I go along. More importantly I am learning to trust myself and my instincts. It has been extremely freeing. I must thank Christian for that. Love to Heaven…

No More Grief Shaming

Recently I saw a provoking post in one of the grieving mother groups I follow on Face Book. It said something to the effect of, Stop trying to find the beauty in grief. We can learn to live with our grief but it will always hurt. The latter part is true. The former part, however, is what plagues me.

The author’s words resounded with some of the readers. There were a number of replies asserting that others feel this way too. It’s wonderful that they have found someone who shares their grieving style and perceptions.

It is important to accept the reality of grief. It’s great to be realistic about the fact that it will always be there, but please don’t judge what I do with my grief on my journey.

My agitation lies in the belief that no one should be telling us how to perceive our own emotions or journey. If we choose to find some parts beautiful, so be it. If we choose to focus on the depths of pain, alongside the joy, and not attribute anything positive to our grieving journey, that’s fine too. If we use humor as a relief and are able to find morbid laughter to help us in our journey, it’s our prerogative. If our grieving style encompasses a combination of these, awesome. Grief is so individual, as is our healing process. The important part is to find what works for you.

Claiming that grief should be done in a certain way is “grief shaming”. It results in us questioning ourselves about whether we are doing it right. How about we all just share our journey and whoever relates to a given way finds comfort in that?

We all have enough to focus on. Let’s not grief shame others. We are in it together. Let’s share and support each other. There is no right way to grieve. Find the style and tribe that works for you. Love to Heaven…

Grieving Children and Emotional Dialogue

At the start of my grief journey tears would leak out of my eyes, sometimes without me being aware. Many days I would be driving with my two living sons, then 4 and 2, and a song would play on the radio, or a beautiful sight would greet my eyes or a memory would float across in my mind. It was impossible to hold in the emotion. The question, “Mommy, why are you crying?” transformed into an early teaching opportunity on emotions.

It was not one that I had ever planned to teach my boys. Sure, they had seen me express emotions, but these were intense emotions. Children can sense and feel the intensity. It was obvious to me that I needed to address my tears, and the intensity of my emotions, with these two precious beings who were thrust on this unwanted journey with me. Since they were so young, we were together almost always, meaning that they felt my intense emotions almost always.

A photo of my two boys loving on each other. Thank God they have each other.

There was a certain anecdote that I read shortly after losing Christian. If I were ever able to remember where I read it, I would find the author and thank her a million times over, because it shaped how I handled grieving around my children.

The author was a grieving mother and she detailed the lengths to which she went to hide her intense emotions whenever her living child was around. She felt that shielding her would save her from seeing her mother in pain. One day when the child wanted to do something and the mother denied her because she was afraid that it would put her in a harmful situation, the child looked up at her mother, with large eyes and said something to the effect of,

You never cry about my sister who died, so I didn’t think it would upset you if something happened to me.

All this time the mother had assumed that she was sheltering her, but instead her daughter had interpreted her hidden emotions as apathy. Not only did this affect the way she viewed her mother, as a mother, but it also must have affected her own grieving process. She received the message that it was not safe to express her own emotions. She learned that when something bad happens, we just stuff it down and shut down.

That story has given me the permission and encouraged me to be open about ALL my emotions with my children. When they asked in the car why I was crying, I was honest and said because I miss Christian. When I gather them in a hug, now and then, I tell them how grateful I am to be their mom. Upon the arrival of milestones in each of their lives, it is not uncommon for them to see me shed a tear or many, as well as congratulate, celebrate and express my happiness for them. They are no stranger to seeing their mom experience a variety of emotions over a short period of time.

Isn’t this life though? So often a child is crying and we attempt to distract them from the thing that made them cry. It makes it easier on us as parents, at that time. What if I told you that it made it harder on the child as he grew up? Why are we taught at a young age to distract our feelings away?

It has made us into a society that is uncomfortable with messy feelings. The earlier our children learn that we must acknowledge and feel all feelings, the more equipped they will be to handle life. The more resilient they will be.

A great way to do that is to model it. Let them see that you have “blue” days and frustrating moments. Let them hear that you achieved a goal that you were working toward and you feel proud. Show them that there are a gamut of emotions and we all feel them at some point. The strength lies in feeling them.

The more we normalize and are open about our own emotions, the more encouraged they will be to share theirs. No one escapes this life pain free. Let’s help our children learn how to move through that pain and not disassociate from it. Let them know you see them and you are attuned to their emotions. Let them know you are a safe place and you will help them work through their emotions.

This has helped my living, grieving boys work through some really big feelings. It has helped them to learn that they can feel horrible in the morning, but things can turn around in the afternoon. Even more importantly if an event is traumatic and shakes them to their core, they can learn to work through it and rebuild. This is where strength lies. Love to Heaven…