Grieving, With Love

In the early days of my grief journey I was certain that there was no possibility of living the rest of my life without my child. I was only 35 years old when he died. Assuming, which of course no one knows, that I would live until at least 75 I had no less than 40 years of my life to live with the pain.

Unknowingly I was doing one of the worst things possible. My vision stretched 40 years out. Quite ironic considering it was difficult to get through one hour at a time in my journey. Sometimes I had to break my day into 5 minute intervals. I would think to myself, “Okay, I made it through those 5 minutes, I can make it through the next 5 minutes”. My therapist would always say, “Just concentrate on doing the next right thing”. It sounded simple but there were moments when I didn’t even know what that was!

If you are a newly bereaved person this means; breathe, get a glass of water, eat something, take a shower, take a nap. We are thinking basic here. You are in survival mode. It is all you can expect of yourself to be hydrated, fed, rested and clean. If you accomplish all of those in one day, good for you! To expect anything more is too much after your life has just been shattered.

This brings me to my next point of self expectations and judgment. It is so easy to be hard on oneself and judge “progress”. It is also extremely detrimental to any sort of positive mindset. I am going to take the pressure off right now. There is almost nothing you can do within the first six months of child loss that will make any difference in your mood for an extended period of time. This, at least, was what I experienced. In no way does this mean you should just give up and accept depression and hopelessness. When you have moments of relief, be grateful. Talk to your angel and tell them how much those moments mean to you or merely do your best to recognize them for yourself.

As a society we are always thinking back to “what worked”. Well grief, and emotions in general, don’t know that they are supposed to follow a script. They aren’t aware of the “do this and get that result” phenomenon. Accept that early on, and just keep trying different things that offer any sort of relief. I tried anything and everything because I was so desperate for a few minutes away from the harsh reality of my life.

Journal about what brings comfort or a sense of escape, and even what doesn’t. This will help you create what I call a Toolbox of Hope. The purpose of collecting all these ideas in one place is not to judge or assess your experiences, but to remember. Grief brain is a real thing.

As a grieving mom I was anxious to have moments of relief, but also scared. If I allowed myself relief did I love and miss Christian any less? Quickly it became evident that nothing would change the amount I love and miss Christian. Yet, it took time for that fear to fade and for me to assimilate to this new life. Like a baby learning to walk, I knew walking meant falling down and sometimes pain, but not trying to walk would mean I could never get to any other place. Slowly a balance was learned. It was much slower than a baby learns to walk!

Time is a large factor in grieving. It won’t wipe out the pain of losing your child, but it will change your relationship to it. While attending a virtual Compassionate Friends seminar last night, one of the speakers said something that resounded with me. He said,

“You can grieve in time with more love than pain” – David Kessler

This is a perfect vision of what my grief has transformed into. I am six years living on this Earth without my firstborn child and I will never stop grieving him. Even after 36, 46, however many years longer I live, I will always grieve him. These days though I am able to feel more love than pain. It is a balancing scale of sorts. Most days my scale tips toward grieving with love, but some days it switches to pain. This is a vast difference from my early grieving days, when it seemed like it was permanently tipped towards pain.

This sounds completely impossible if you are new to grief. I know that. You don’t have to accept it or even believe it right now, but try to keep it in the back of your head as a possibility. Let it shine as a ray of hope.

Wherever you are in your grief journey, know you are not alone. It is okay to feel sad. We are, in fact, on a sad journey. Just know that one day joy will begin to appear again. Sadness and joy will coexist. You will be able to move toward grieving more with love than pain. Love to Heaven…

Coronavirus Through The Lens of Trauma

With the fear of the Coronavirus growing, my anxiety is swelling. I have become the person who furiously scrolls through social media searching for updates. My phone is constantly in close proximity so I can check on any new developments provided from my boys’ school. The uncertainty is percolating through my physical self and is causing headaches.

Without a doubt we can all name someone, or more than one person, who fits this description. The difference is that I’m usually doing the naming, not the one being named. In fact until yesterday I was still of the opinion that everything was being blown out of proportion. This state of pure apprehension is not usually a dominant part of me.

During my meditation this morning, it became clear to me why this virus has captivated my mental state. My body is identifying these thoughts, emotions and fears with the trauma of Christian’s death. Pervasive uncertainty is a defining characteristic of my immediate post child loss life. All certainty was robbed from me. In a matter of moments August 28th 2014 became the day that would forever mark the divide of the before and after in my life.

The morning of August 28th 2014 started off just as so many did, and still do. We had eggs for breakfast accompanied by laughter, tears, sibling arguments, hugs and kisses, brushing teeth and getting dressed. Less than 12 hours later all of that would become completely irrelevant. Our lives transformed into the shocking unknown.

On a much smaller scale this past Wednesday paralleled that terrifying day for me. The morning started much in the same way. There was breakfast, laughter, tears, sibling arguments, hugs and kisses, brushing teeth and getting dressed. I was aware of the Coronoavirus and the general threats of it but we were pretty much business as usual in my home. In the afternoon I headed to school to prepare for the upcoming book fair in a few weeks. Although the district had already alerted parents that school was preemptively closed the week after Spring Break, I still believed that the students would be in school until the scheduled break at the beginning of April.

By the time I left the building that afternoon a Coronvirus case had been confirmed in the nearby town. The college in the next town over announced closure, SUNY classes went completely online and a few neighboring school districts announced closures beginning the following day. The toilet paper crisis had begun but I still wasn’t concerned about that.

After school talk on the playground was centered around the Coronavirus but mainly in a mocking tone. Overall the general consensus of the moms was that everyone was making too much of it. Hours later my husband and I sat on the couch and as President Trump addressed the nation my panic began to rise. There was change in the air. While the change was not as sudden as the trauma of losing Christian, it still felt jarring.

The next morning I found myself at the grocery store with numerous other people who were reacting to the fear. As I wandered around as aimlessly as a blowing leaf, the uncertainty was palpable. Toilet paper was nowhere to be found. I already knew that it was sold out on Amazon because that was one of the first things I looked for during Trump’s speech!

Half of the people in the grocery store listlessly pushed around their carts with a dazed look, as I did. The other half had what appeared to be detailed lists of what would help them to survive a possible quarantine. Checkout lines grew longer and longer and snaked through the aisles. Two hundred dollars and two hours later I returned home, still feeling unsure of my level of preparedness.

The hysteria was like a fire in my belly. The grocery store merely stoked that fire. My parents cancelled their flight to see my sister in Florida, the middle school play was postponed and the weekly Friday Morning Opening at our elementary school was first closed to parents, then was postponed until further notice. The state of my world, changing by the moment, nothing certain.

It all brought me back to that horrific day, that horrific time. As I watched my son lying on the garage floor, helplessness and fear washed over my body. No parent ever imagines themselves in that position. I also never imagined we would be in a place where schools would be closing and the possibility of quarantining was a reality.

When Christian passed away there was nothing certain left in my world. I had just witnessed the absolute most devastating and horrific sight and event. Where I had once built a future for this beautiful boy, it was all gone. The words I imagined my adult self speaking to my growing son, the experiences I dreamt of sharing with him were all gone. It was tragedy’s cruelest magic trick. Here one moment, gone the next. One moment he was walking up the driveway and the next moment he was on the floor of a garage. He was gone in every way but his body.

The hysteria, the fear, the uncertainty – I’ve been here before. This is all too familiar. My central nervous system is having a hard time distinguishing the urgency and uncertainty of the two situations right now. It is definitely wreaking some havoc on me. Fortunately, I’ve had some experience working through traumatic, uncertain times. So, I am going to utilize the tools and coping mechanisms I have learned to minimize the effects. You can find me breathing, meditating, writing and reading. Oh there will also be some mindless TV in there too, I am sure. This is stressful but we will get through it. I know because I have gotten through stressful times before. Love to Heaven…

Am I Grieving Wrong?

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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…