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…

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…

 

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…

The Best Christmas Gift

It’s been a while since I have written. I haven’t felt like myself lately. The holidays this year have heightened my grief and anxiety. It’s not this intense every year. Thank God.

Tomorrow is Christian’s birthday. He would have been 11. The usual questions about what he would look like? Act like? Be asking for as birthday and Christmas gifts? continuously flood my brain and heart. I want him here. Sure he would be driving me crazy. He would be one more child fighting with his brothers. His attitude would probably be growing in size since he would officially be a middle schooler. I am guessing his hair would be a focus. He had the most beautiful head of hair. So many guesses. So much wondering. So many dreams turned to angel dust. In a matter of moments.

All of the wondering gets to be exhausting and overwhelming. The memories aren’t any less emotional but at least they don’t involve guessing. Christian was due on Christmas but was born on December 23rd. We brought him home Christmas Day. As first time parents my husband and I woke to find a beautiful baby boy being rolled in to the hospital room on Christmas morning. He was all snug and sleeping in an oversized stocking. It’s the same stocking that hangs on our mantle each year. The sight was so breathtaking and life changing. This little being would be coming home with us in just hours.

As we made our way home we passed our church. The priest had just finished Christmas mass and was outside. We asked him to bless Christian and he did. One would think a child who is blessed only moments after leaving the hospital would be destined for greatness and safety. The first yes and the second no; at least not in the way we were hoping. We could never conceive of what was to come in his life.

As Christian grew, we grew. Firstborn children teach their parents multiple lessons. Christian was not the best sleeper. He didn’t follow any of the examples of the types of babies they talked about in parenting books. The feeling of failing as a mom plagued me. These feelings not entirely unusual for a first time mom, but confusing nonetheless. One thing that was not confusing, even when I was sleep deprived, was how much I loved him. Again, as the firstborn, every little thing he did made my heart swell ten times. As much as I love my other boys it was different with them because it wasn’t my first time experiencing it.

As his personality developed his mischief did too. This was always a character trait I loved in little boys. As a mom to a mischievous boy it was still adorable but tried my patience!! Now I had to somehow figure out how to refine it without completely making it go away. This did not help my own issue of feeling like I was failing as a mom. When you have a child who does not conform to how others think he or she should behave it can be mortifying. Others make it known by looks, words and glances that your child is behaving poorly. There have been many times I witnessed this in a store and offered words of comfort to the parent instead of the opposite. As much as we love our children, it doesn’t ever feel great to be judged negatively by others.

Christian was not only mischievous but he was a biter! Oh yes he wanted to help me experience it all in his six short years of life. At a mommy and me class he bit a little boy on the back. The mother was not happy but seeing as this was her fourth child, I am sure she had encountered a similar situation before. Her dirty looks and unkind words said otherwise. We made it through. Christian eventually received Occupational Therapy during his preschool years. It definitely helped. Oddly enough I got a call from his therapist the second week she was supposed to see him. She had to cancel because she lost her son suddenly. Heartbreaking. Christian continued on with another wonderful therapist and they were able to make headway with some of his behaviors.

Christian’s larger than life personality was never able to be truly tamed. I wouldn’t have wanted it to be. There were times I wished he would tone it down just a little. He definitely did a lot of living in his short time on Earth. I always say he did everything 100%. All his mischief and love and passion and hugs and smiles and tantrums were at level 100! I’m not sure how we were chosen to be his parents. It’s something we are forever grateful for.

Tomorrow will mark his fifth birthday in heaven. No one should have to celebrate the day their child was born without their child here. We are not alone in this, unfortunately. Tuesday will mark his fifth Christmas in heaven. He is sure to be leading some giant celebration up there! His party in heaven will be mirrored in the smiles, joy and excitement on the faces of my children and nieces as they celebrate the magic of Christmas. It will help to buoy my mood but it will not take the pain away. The longing will remain for the best Christmas gift I ever received. Love to heaven…