Legs of Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No More Grief Shaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grieving, 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…

Anger Rooted In Grief

A vine of sadness climbs up from the pit of my stomach. Rooted in the soil of grief, the offshoots extend through my limbs, each with numerous thorns protruding from them. Gripping sadness pierces my insides.

My memories of you are so difficult to feel. I can see them. When I allow myself to watch videos, I can hear them. I can’t feel them.

Sockless heels grazing my mid shins. I can feel that. It’s the only memory I can feel. It’s from your last day on Earth. You sat on my lap at my parent’s kitchen table just hours before your physical presence would be forever gone.

No longer can I feel your arms around my neck. I can’t feel your small body crashing into me or jumping on me. No more of your hair tickling my face. All of your physicality is gone from my life and my memories.

It’s been six years and I can only feel those bare heels on my shins. It’s not enough. I am angry, furious. Why doesn’t my body remember more of your physical presence? Why can’t I recall those nights when you would sidle up next to me in bed after a nightmare?

You are connected to so many beautiful days and memories in my mind but I want to FEEL them. All I have now is this vine of sadness, growing in me. I will make space for it and acknowledge it because the work I have done has taught me that it’s essential. I must feel to heal.

My work has also taught me that this is a wave. This is part of the grief cycle and I will come back around to the positive part of the cycle, but right now I am angry. Angry that my firstborn has been gone for six years. Angry that I only got to feel him with me, physically, for six years. Angry that that time in my life is over. Angry about these gnarly vines that are thick and twisted. Angry about the thorns that are piercing and painful. Angry that this vine will always exist inside of me. Angry that you no longer live outside of me.

Our spiritual connection will never fade, but I am angry that the feeling of our memories have.

Grief Personifiied

My name is grief and I am here to stay in your life. For better or worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health I will be with you. You have become my bride in this arranged marriage. I won’t be the best husband. I admit that right now, but I will always stick by you.

At times I will reveal my fierce, raging side, selfishly pulling you under and taking you to the darkest places. You will feel overwhelmed and overtaken by me. The negativity that will infiltrate you will be thick and black as poisonous sludge. It will fill every cell of your being. Worst of all it will overtake your mind, allowing me access to your thoughts. When these thoughts are audible in your heart, the pain will be unbearable. You will wish, hope, pray and beg to go back to the time when my round face and angry eyebrows were not known to you. Just when you cannot take another moment of it, and think you’re life will surely end as a result from the eternal despair, I will drain away from you.

Please don’t hate me because there is another side to me. I’m also soft and tender. I’m a thin veil of memories, a slip of string that connects me to your beautiful angel son. There are times I quietly descend upon you in a cloud of love. I slip across your shoulders as soft and smooth as a silk scarf. You can feel my presence and joy at the same time. I whisper a memory in your ear and a smile lights up your face. You hear Christian saying, “mommy”. You see him at the pumpkin patch in his blue and white striped overalls. You feel his thick hair running though your fingers.

You will never leave me and I will never leave you. You didn’t choose me as your lifetime companion but forever I will be.

New Normal For Grief and Virus

So here we are, however many days into this quarantine and I’m exhausted, cranky and feeling completely out of sorts. Comparatively, my situation is not nearly as tough as others, especially First Responders and the medical personnel. That said, I was listening to Brené Brown’s podcast from March 27th and she specifically addresses the dangers of comparative suffering. We feel what we feel and are entitled to it. We can be aware that others have it worse than us and still feel lousy about where we are. That sounds a bit arrogant. I don’t mean it that way at all. Rather, we can’t design how our feelings will surface. I strongly suggest you listen to the podcast. The episode sheds light on the emotional ramifications of the current situation we are all facing.

At the start of the aforementioned episode Brown makes the point that adrenaline has carried us to where we are now, but it is starting to fade. Immediately my head began to shake in agreement with her. As I listened to her calm voice reach me through my earbuds I passed the sleepy homes in my neighborhood. At the start of this quarantine people emerged discussing COVID-19 in shocked tones, yet there was a glint in their eye. It was all so unprecedented. We were living through history. A month later the novelty has worn off.

Adrenaline and shock are amazing tools that help get us through initial periods of trauma. I can attest to that as a bereaved mother. There comes a time, however when the strength of these aids wear off and the truth sets in. Brown said, “We are standing at the gaping mouth of normal and we are feeling swallowed”. I swam in the belly of the beast of abnormalcy. Striving to find some way to survive in an unfamiliar atmosphere is not easy. You can try to climb the walls of the belly to exit the same way you entered, but quickly you will learn that the means of escape is just too slippery. There is no way to go out the same way you came in. Everything has changed.

We are here as a collective group right now. We are floating in the belly of the beast looking to get back to where we once were. Slowly, it is becoming apparent that we will forever be changed. We will never go back to exactly where we were. It is also apparent that we must endure the jostling, sinking and floating that we are subjected to while we are in the belly. We must feel the emotions that arise and go along for the ride. We can only control personal coping tools in dealing with the situation.

Our society is now faced with the task of creating a “new normal, while we grieve the loss of normal at the same time”. Yesterday, my family set out to investigate a new hiking trail together. On our drive to the trailhead, the smooth road led us to an adventure that we had never embarked upon before. I couldn’t help but think of how the conversation would be different in the backseat if Christian was still here. For certain, Nicky would have been relegated to the center seat since he was the youngest. My guess is that sibling disagreements would also play out differently. In real time it is one against one. If things were as we had imagined them to be, disagreements would likely be two against one sometimes. The subject matter of their arguments would also be somewhat different as an older sibling changes the dynamics in many ways. Creating new normal and grieving normalcy is a common aspect of my family’s life.

Every day since August 28, 2014 we have continued to live a new normal. Sure, we have been living a version of it for over five years, but in some respects it will always be new. It will never be as we imagined. COVID-19 may have a similar effect on society. No one could have imagined having to shelter in place. The pandemic that we are facing is so extreme that the likes of it date back to the beginning flu outbreak. One day this will be a distant memory, a right of passage for some. Here is where it differs from child loss. The farther we get from the losing Christian, the farther we get from the last time we saw him. He becomes a more and more distant memory. Bereaved parents continue to grieve normal long after we develop the new normal.

When the quarantine is lifted, it is likely that society as a whole will be changed. It is difficult to imagine after all this time, and the restrictions that were imposed, to not emerge more grateful for daily activity. As these days of quarantine fade into distant memory try to hold on to the lessons they are teaching us. Each and every day our loved ones are healthy and safe is a blessing. Each and every day we are able to engage in “normal” daily activities is a blessing. It is easy to lose sight of these things when life is running smoothly. Not every day will be perfect but my hopes are that we will be able to keep these blessings in the forefront of our minds and hearts. Love to Heaven…

Support Is Crucial

Sometimes it takes seeing someone as we were to realize how much we have changed. Let me explain.

I recently met a mother who lost her child two months ago. Let’s call her Nancy. She found me through a mutual friend who knew of my story.

Nancy is raw. Only two months have passed and she is in a place where hope is no where to be found. It hurts to breathe. It hurts to think. It hurts to live.

Shock has infiltrated every cell of her being but nothing is worse than the pain. It invades like an army claiming its territory. The physicality of it is debilitating.

I take the liberty of speaking on Nancy’s behalf because she has shared these emotions with me. Furthermore, these emotions mirror who I was as a newly bereaved mom. She is who I was.

Many of her emotions and experiences are who newly bereaved moms are in general. As she shared with our grief group what her daily life looks like, we all uttered phrases like, “Remember that?” and “The same thing happened to me”.

None of our stories are exactly the same but there are common threads in all of our experiences. Just as there are commonalities in mothering children, there are commonalities in grieving children.

Each of us finds different aspects of grief harder to deal with than others. No one was able to understand the physical severance Nancy felt when her daughter left her. It was so strong that it caused her to faint. After she spoke to other grieving moms she was validated that grief, is in fact, extremely physical.

Over time, physical symptoms do not completely disappear but they appear less frequently. Time stretches farther between each debilitating episode. I never believed that it would be that way for me. The heartbreak was so eviscerating that I was blinded to how my heart, lungs and body would ever function again.

Eventually our grief leads us back to active mothering and connection. We build and experience a new relationship with our child. Our means of communication change. Our expressions of love change. Our connections change, but the love never does. It continues to be given and received by both mother and angel. When we reach this part of our journey, the pain eases a bit more. We are assured that our angels are still present. It truly helps in finding ways to carry the pain. The “new normal” sharpens into focus.

My journey has taken me to places that are a distance away from where Nancy is today, but I walked in her shoes. My feet covered the ground she is walking. No one can walk that ground for us but they can walk it with us. Joining together, holding space for each other’s pain and speaking about the commonalities we all share can help us, no matter what we are goin through. Love to Heaven….

Photo Credit: Ron Chapple

Pitched Grief

I opened my eyes this morning, greeted by the bittersweet emotion that accompanies an angel dream. Recently I have been having more dreams with Christian in them. He is not the focus but a presence.

In this dream he was both. He was peering through a chain link fence at a baseball field. As he watched a boy hit balls lofted to him from a pitching machine, he had a look of sadness on his face. When I asked him what was wrong, he said nothing was wrong but he wanted to have a turn to hit the ball from the machine. My heart cracked, as it does each time I am reminded of things he will never get to do. He never did hit a ball that way.

At some point during all of this interaction a voice said, “He is unhappy on Earth because he is not fulfilling his purpose”. Well, maybe not those exact words but something to that effect. The inference was that his higher purpose and strongest, most meaningful affect is achieved as an angel.

It got me thinking. Is this really true? Or is this just something those who are grieving tell themselves to feel better?

You may have noticed that my writing has become sporadic. Where I was once in a spiritual growth period, I am now feeling stunted. My path is unsure. My purpose for this life is not clear.

Perhaps it is because I am dipping a toe into the acceptance pond. Five years have passed and that little boy who I imagined I would watch grow is truly gone from Earth.

The world keeps turning. Time marches on. It is a blessing to know that he is not forgotten. So many amazing people reach out to me and tell me the ways in which he affected and continue to affect their lives. Time marches on.

This is a cruel reality. Two boys growing up without their oldest brother. A mother and father left to watch as others morph into the type of person their son might have been. A life full of questions about who Christian would be if he were still alive.

The acceptance of this reality pulses through me in a different way than it once did. When we first lost him breathing was painful. With time that eased and I found a way to breathe but it was not as easy a as it once was.

Waves of grief would wash over me and my breath once again stolen. This still happens but not as frequently.

The dull ache that pulses through me now is constant. It allows me to live my life, function and make new memories with my family. It allows me to feel Christian’s presence.

Acceptance is a necessary stage of grief and reality, but it is also sobering in a way that none of the other stages have been.

And so, here we are peering through the chain link fence wishing, as a family, we could hit that ball from the machine. We will never get that chance. Just as Christian missed out on the opportunity to do so many things, so did we. We are merely spectators as other families experience things wholly and whack those balls out of the park. Love to Heaven…

Six Years A Boy, Five Years An Angel

It has been months since I last sat at my computer and wrote. There is not one simple explanation as to why that is. Today marks five years since Christian ran ahead to Heaven. These last few months feel as though I am wading through murky waters.

Although I know in my heart that Christian is always present, and I continue to receive signs from him, the comfort that this used to provide me seems to have become clouded. Where my life’s purpose of helping others post child loss was confirmed almost daily, it now seems to have completely become invalidated. The waves of grief have been crashing over me stronger and stronger. Their strength has robbed me of mine.

Recently while my boys were looking through old videos they found one of Christian from his fifth birthday. The backdrop was our cozy living room. Christian bounced up and down excitedly as he proudly declared that he was five years old. Behind him stood a vibrant Christmas tree, decorated with glistening lights, well loved ornaments and primary colored balloons. In the middle of the tree was a “Happy Birthday” banner.

His fifth birthday was momentous for so many reasons. Five years is a significant passage of time. Christian’s birth set a series of changes into motion for our family. He made us parents, he became an older brother, then an oldest brother. Over those five years we had evolved into a family of five. My destiny as a mother of three boys had been fulfilled. While I would have loved to mother a girl, I couldn’t love my three boys any more.

Christian was our firstborn and this meant he pioneered the parenting road for us. His first smile, laugh and word made our hearts balloon so big we thought they would explode. Our love for him grew each day. He also taught us the necessity of discipline. His mischievous personality produced tears, sleepness nights and uncontrollable worries, not to be outweighed by the love though.

The day he turned five we gave him a huge birthday card, which he opened half naked while standing on the dining room table. If that isn’t an image I don’t know what is! That was him though. He did everything full of love, life and passion. He had an amazing sense of humor and loved to be silly. When he was happy, it was 100% and when he was mad it was 100%. He continues this trend as an angel. His love comes through 100% and them some. His presence is so strong that people who didn’t even know him have felt him.

I will never know why we were chosen to be Christian’s parents. It is a gift that we were able to enjoy for far too short of a time. There is never a day that goes by when I don’t think of him. Never a day goes by when I don’t miss him and never a day goes by when I don’t say his name. This pain and heartbreak is a part of me. This grief has taught me just how happiness and deep, dark pain can exist alongside each other.

He is missed beyond measure. I am still not sure how I will go on living the rest of my life, each day without Christian. He is a special light. Tomorrow will be 5 years and 1 day and the pain will still be there. I will continue on, all the while knowing that the hole in my heart will never heal. I will also know as my son Anthony said, “You still have us, mom”. I will thank God that I have Anthony and Nicky. That is what I can do, Thank God for my living angels and remember, love and honor Christian. Love to Heaven…

Scrapbooking Through Grief

Five years ago last night God brought me to the brink of urgency and fear. He then showered me with his mercy. As I watched my home go up in flames, my emotions flickered between disbelief, fear and sadness. My family had moved into our home a mere eight months prior to the fire that was ignited by a strike of lightening. We were still putting our own personal touches on it.

It was not just a home. It symbolized a life that we looked forward to continue cultivating with our three boys. Many of the key reasons we moved to this home revolved around our children. We imagined all of the beautiful holidays and get togethers to be hosted. We pictured our boys splashing in the pool and playing baseball and kickball games in our large yard. We had space to entertain indoors and ou. We loved our home and all the opportunities it afforded us to spend time with family and friends.

As I watched the fire licking the roof many emotions surfaced. The fire trucks screamed down our street, a small neighborhood of only eight houses. The lights were blinding. The image of the firefighters battling the flames is forever ingrained in my mind. Nonetheless we were extremely cognizant that it was just a home. We were all safe and had the summer to look forward to.

On the morning of July 4th 2014. I woke up dazed and shocked in my parents home. Immediately I said a quick prayer to God, thanking him for my family’s safety. We went about the day in a bit of a fog but managed to enjoy many patriotic activities. We watched the fireworks that night and the explosion of colors reflected on my boys’ faces. My heart swelled with love for them and my husband.

Five years have passed since our home was struck by lightening. It is the turning point in our lives that set everything into motion. Christian’s final summer with us was filled with many smiles, hugs and laughs. I regret that I did not capture more of them.

Two years ago I decided I would create a summer scrapbook. It was such a cathartic activity for me. Summer is when I get to spend the most intensive time with my boys. The project spurred me to capture all of the fun we have together, as a family and with friends. It offered me a daily activity to focus on. During the day I was on constant watch for photo worthy moments. At night I creatively designed the pages for the scrapbook. We often look at it and relive the memories.

(From Summer 2017 scrapbook)

I’m not sure why, but last summer I did not make a scrapbook. It seemed like more work than pleasure. This summer, however, I knew I wanted to take up this project again. Summer was the last season we spent with Christian. It is extremely bittersweet. The scrapbook allows me to enjoy making new memories. There are also many photos of the signs he sends us. So, while photos of his face do not appear, photos of his love do. Love to Heaven…