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…

 

Debut Chapbook Is A Bridge To Hope

There is solidarity in grief, specifically between parents who have lost children. To have experienced this deep tragedy is to understand the sorrow that consumes another’s heart. In my travels over the years I have met many grieving parents. Although it is not a title that defines us it is a piece of our identity.

Most recently I met Amanda Russell, a fellow mother who suffered this devastating loss. To meet her today one would not know the difficulties she has experienced in the past. Every time I see her she has a smile on her face and exudes a warm energy. She is pensive and bright. Her inviting smile is framed by a head of bouncy curls. Even her curls seem to reflect her approach to life. 

It is hard to imagine Amanda in a place where her emotions were so dark and blinding. Yet these searching, dark emotions took hold of her and served as creative motivation behind the collection of poems in her debut chapbook, BARREN YEARS. When Amanda was 22 and newly married, she became pregnant with twins. In a devastating turn of events, during her second trimester, she miscarried. The grief that consumed her after the miscarriage led to her expression through poetry.

Amanda was no stranger to writing prior to her miscarriage. She says, “I have always turned to creative writing when I need to make sense of something”. She goes on to say, “The miscarriage was hard for me to talk about out loud because I would cry or not find the words I wanted, but paper allows drafts”. Through her writing she was able to find solace. The creation of something new allowed her to process the events and devastation of what she lost.

Each person grieves differently. No two people are the exact same. Some of us use the same coping mechanisms and walk the same bridges to hope, but our timing may be different. Some of us are open to sharing feelings but some of us have trouble. Grief and death, especially untimely deaths, are uncomfortable topics for many people. Amanda’s description of not being able to find the words to speak but being able to find the words through the drafting process is beautiful.

It is extremely difficult to put emotions into words on a first pass. I often say to grieving parents, “there are no words”. Is that ironic being that a large part of my life centers around words? It is challenging to enunciate exactly how much emotion I feel for other grieving parents. Furthermore, how I may choose to describe my emotions may not reflect their feelings at that time. Amanda’s poetry, however, seems to grasp the many varied sentiments surrounding child loss.

While we all differ in how we process our loss, there is a common thread of sadness. On the other side is the search for hope. The collection of poems in Barren Years reflect both sides of loss.

In “Stones Amid Pines” Amanda expresses how shedding tears for her children helps her to feel whole again. These words speak the same language of my heart.

A kind of stone in my own right , I sit       

at the grave of my children

and weep so thoroughly

that when I walk away

I am once again whole.

When grief is new and fresh, or when it circles back around, the need for tears to fall is innate. It feels as though the tears that wet our face prove the loss we have suffered. The loss so deep needs to be physically seen and sometimes tears are the only way that can happen. It does not logically make sense but sometimes it is necessary. The expulsion of emotion helps to temporarily purge the deep rooted sadness that has taken up a place in our hearts. It is sometimes the only thing that helps to make us feel whole again.

“Stones Amid Pines” also speaks to time and its softening nature in relation to grief. Never does it change our experiences but rather our relationship to them. Just as surrounding environments continue on, so do the living. As the poem begins she writes about her children being buried where a future church is to be erected. After seven years of time has passed she makes a deferential observation.

Time has done

her great mother-work again.

She has her own way of soothing.

I glance up at the church, birthed out of the hill itself

with castle-like glory

and filled with music,

the intersection of many lives

creating communion.

The glaring contrast of her children’s graves at the bottom of the hill, while a church has been “birthed out of the hill itself” reminds us of how life continues on even when our hearts are not able to beat properly. It is our choice whether or not we carry on, while carrying our angels with us. We have the choice to create new memories and use our own creativity to foster hope. The other choice is to dwell in the place of sadness, allowing the darkness that has seeped into our hearts to forever close our eyes, close our minds and close our future.

The poem succinctly closes by paying homage to grief, sadness and Amanda’s unborn children. She honors “letting it all go once again”. As a reader it feels as though “Stones Amid Pines” is a true reflection of her being able to process grief and realizing that she will forever carry this in her heart. In her words I recognize her understanding that time will continue to lead her back to this sorrowful state periodically.

Writing is so clearly a beautiful form of creative therapy for Amanda. In an interview on the blog, Space Between, she reveals that she utilized other forms of creativity to aid in her healing. “I realized I needed something to take care of, so my dear friend, Linda, taught me gardening. Taking care of my plants, together with writing and many long talks with some of my spiritual guides helped me through. It took me a good five years to begin feeling like myself again. ” Her hope and healing through gardening is evident in “Spinach and Broccoli”, another poem from her collection.

New sprouts emerge

with a burst of courage;

having broken through clay,

they begin reaching for the sun.

The metaphorical value of this speaks to my soul. This is how it is as a grieving mother. Hope begins with the smallest thought, the tiniest idea. It sprouts, taking much courage. The significance of the clay symbolizing a common factor I have seen in every grieving parent at the start of their grief journey. It is that belief that happiness and joy will never emerge again. The hopelessness that grieving parents experience impedes their belief that anything will ever make them smile again. Then one day the sun spreads its warmth and joy. Eventually you begin reaching for it again.

Amanda’s collection of poems are clearly very personal creations. Some would be hesitant to share the words of their bare souls. I have a deep admiration for her because she is not one of those people. Her belief is that her words will help others. Grief can be an isolating state to subsist in. Bridging to others through writing has helped Amanda and will help those who read her words. There is healing in connection. Barren Years offers a sense of connection, solidarity and hope.

BARREN YEARS is available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press. You can also check out her website, or follow her on Twitter @poet_russell.

 

 

 

 

 

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…

Student and Teacher of Grief

Every day there are two little humans who are watching, observing and learning from me. When I look at it day to day that thought can be quite scary, but when I look at the big picture it becomes less overwhelming. There is a span of many days from which they learn. The way I see it is as long they see me get back up after I fall, after I make mistakes, we are okay.

Our family has experienced a devastating tragedy. As I am learning how to carry my own pain and continue living, I am both a student and teacher. Along the way of my own journey I am learning about life, myself and my strength. I am also responsible for teaching my children. With my own thoughts, expectations, beliefs and emotions shaken to the core, it puts me on a shaky ground as a teacher.

Perhaps the teaching of thoughts, expectations, beliefs and emotions is not the important part though. Perhaps it is more important to model the process of discovering what one believes. One thing my children do see is how to persevere and find the good wherever we can. I am unsure if I am teaching them correctly in so many areas but I do know that my husband and I teach them to see the best in everything. I also know we have fostered an eternal connection with their brother. There is no doubt in my mind that there are areas that I am not shining in but all I can do is my best.

Although I use the word “heal” a lot in my writing and speaking, I am very conscious that the definitions provided in dictionaries are not akin to my process. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines healing as, “to make sound or whole”. Nope. “to make well again: to restore to health”. If we are comparing to the first days after loss, yes. Other than that – no. “to cause (an undesirable condition) to be overcome”. Nope. For me healing is a journey, not a condition. I am carrying on in my life and continuing to live.

Last weekend I learned a new phrase, “post traumatic growth”. This phrase is very apropos to my journey. Everyone goes through difficult periods in their lives. We all have our own versions of trauma. When we are under duress, we are forced to change. Change does not mean that things turn out the way we want them to. It simply means that things change because we cannot stay the same and endure the stress or pain we are living with.

The reason behind change is often the traumatic part. The journey is often the growth part. August will mark five years since we lost Christian. Over those five years I have met many people who have lost children. None of us will ever be the same or whole again. All of us have learned valuable lessons. In life we are continuous learners. It has been challenging to learn while teaching but I suppose this is a facet of parenting no matter the circumstances. 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…

Quiet Mind Leads To Guidance

Aahhh… Pinterest. I love you so. I pin TONS of things to TONS of boards. There are my select boards which I review periodically. Then there are the boards I hardly look at after creating. Today while looking back at my inspirational board I was reminded of a very important message, “As I quiet my mind I can more clearly hear my inner guidance.” I needed to have this reminder today. The harsh voices have been rearing their ugly heads for the past week and it has really interfered with me being in tune with my inner guidance.

This morning, after an uninterrupted night of sleep (I didn’t even pee until 5am!), I cleared my head and got in touch with my inner guidance. I feared that my terrible, nasty self talk had finally trumped inner guidance. I feared that it was scared away. It was not. It just needed some attention and quiet!

Some of you may wonder what any of this has to do with losing Christian. It may seem as if I am self righteously rambling on. PsychologyToday.com states,¬†“Activations of lower, more primitive areas,¬†including the fear center, are high, while higher areas of the brain (also known as cortical areas) are underactivated. In other words, if you are traumatized, you may experience chronic stress, vigilance, fear, and irritation.” My insecurities are a major irritation. In the past I was able to expend energy to keep them at bay. Since losing Christian my energy expenditure has shifted to easing the above experiences. There is little reserve for my insecurities. To say the least, this interferes with getting in touch with my inner guidance.

My insecurities revolve around self degradation and the question, “Am I enough?”. When it is filtered through my grief and trauma it becomes increasingly difficult for me to rebuke these thoughts. My therapist has provided me with many tools and coping mechanisms along the way. For the most part these work to ground me and bring me back to the present. Sometimes though I fall into the downward spiral.

In the solitude of the morning however, while breathing and quieting my mind, I was able to pull out of that spiral. I connected to my own heart, in which I receive guidance and messages from Christian. I quieted my mind and just listened. As he always does, he helped me to understand what the next step on my journey is. For the hope he provided me, I am very grateful.

So don’t ever discount those ideas you pin and don’t forget to periodically review them! You never know where it might lead you. Most importantly remember to quiet your mind when you need to get some inner guidance. Love to heaven…