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…

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…

 

Unraveling Grief

Recently I stumbled upon a quote that burrowed into my heart the moment I laid eyes upon it. Unexpectedly it greeted me on my computer screen as if it were my own personal description of how child loss affected my family.

“It is as if each family were a huge ball of yarn; each member a different colored strand woven and wound together. When one member dies, the entire ball must be unwound, the strand removed, and the ball then needs to be put back together and rewound. However, the ball can never be recreated as it was before.”

Jean Galica, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist is the brilliant author of the quote.

This analogy is so beautiful. It immediately conjures up visions of how my boys enjoy playing with yarn. It usually involves one of them holding a ball of yarn as he frantically runs and jumps around the room, unraveling the yarn ball, causing chaos and mess. Then the other child takes a different color and repeats. At the end we are left with criss crossed colors of yarn, spread across a large space, some of it tangled and knotted. To make use of the yarn we must untangle and roll as much as we can back into a ball. More often than not there are pieces that need to be cut out because they are so badly knotted.

As the shock of child loss sets in and family members enter into survival mode, they often spread apart. Although they are still connected, and their lives are tangled together, each person needs to process loss on his or her own. Even as a mother of two living children, after losing Christian, there was some distance between myself and my living children. The tight interwoven nature of our former relationship had slackened. I was no longer able to love them without the imminent fear of losing them looming over me.

My husband also suffered from the anxiety and fear of losing them. He and I dealt with it very differently. While I found comfort in talking openly about every aspect of child loss, he had a much different experience. He and I remained connected and leaned on one other as we were both attempted to process our own grief. The individual balls of yarn that made up our lives were completely unraveled, tangled, knotted and lacking color.

It wasn’t just our immediate family that was deeply affected. Our family unit is tight knit and my children are blessed to have close relationships with their grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins. In those early days a few conflicts arose from the tensions of knots. Everyone was sleep deprived, saddened, confused, angry and mainly using all their energy to process the tragedy that struck our lives.

Over time as each person began to process in their own way, the yarn smoothed out. We were able to work through the knots. Slowly each color of yarn became more vibrant again. Each strand became straighter. The connection was never lost. It was just a mystery for some time as to how we would be wound together again in our ball of love.

Slowly, slowly as time went on we wound around the children. They brought vibrancy and joy back to our lives. Our extended family ball of yarn is interwoven differently but still as tight as ever.

Today the ball of yarn that is my immediate family is so very different than the one that started out as the five of us. The ball that contained five individual colors, wound together, was only in existence for less than two years. Nothing will ever heal that part of my wound. Less than two years to have your family together on Earth is devastating.

The devastation we have experienced plays a large part in how our ball was rewound. Galica says a strand of yarn is removed after you lose a child. This is true. It does not disappear however, the fibers of that one strand are merely divided to become part of all of the other strands. No longer an individual but an energy, a spirit, an Angel. Our familial ball of yarn, immediate and extended, will never be put together again in the same way. The beauty lies in all we have learned from tragedy, adding dimension to each single strand of color. Christian will forever be a part of each of us in ways he could never be before. Love to heaven…

See You In My Dreams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Hope Is In Every Step

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Expectations and Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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