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…

Helping Children Through Grief

In my last post I wrote about how to help a grieving family. It was focused more on the parents and the family as a whole. This week I thought I would provide some insight on how to help children who are grieving. My children were one and three when we lost Christian. Unfortunately we knew the loss would impact Anthony at his age. Many people were of the opinion that Nicky would not be affected as much since he was not yet two years old. As time goes on I am certain that this is not true.

The task of raising children who grow up with a sibling in Heaven is no easy feat. At their ages there were many questions about death and Heaven since they had no point of reference. When children are a little bit older they understand the concept of death more but Heaven is still elusive, even to adults.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says,

“Everyone, including children, must understand four basic concepts about death to grieve fully and come to terms with what has happened. Teens, and even adults, may have a full and rational understanding of death, yet still struggle to accept these basic concepts when faced with the death of a loved one.”

The four concepts we must understand are that death is irreversible, all life functions end at the time of death, everything that is alive dies and there are physical reasons for death.

  • Recently in our community a beautiful little girl gained her wings after 13 short years here on Earth. I do not know the family personally but I do know what occurs in the wake of losing a child, for the family and community. I do not, by any means claim to be a therapist, just a mother who is raising her children after trauma and loss.
  • While questions and answers will differ based on the age of grieving children, some things will not. The absolute most important piece of advice is to keep the door of communication open with a grieving child. Provide him or her with a safe environment in which they can openly discuss the person who has gone ahead to Heaven. Allow the grieving child to share his or her emotions.
  • I can’t speak to what this exactly looks like in a teenager. I would imagine just as with younger children, grief and confusion will be disguised behind other emotions. We had outbursts, uncommon behaviors, difficulty sleeping, regression and even survivor guilt with our children. Almost five years later we see anxiety and anger sometimes. We see sensitivity to certain triggers, not always obvious ones. For example my children still play “dead”, which haunts me, but is normal, age appropriate behavior for them.

    This brings me to my next point. As adults it can be so hard not to put our own anxieties on our children. The grieving child can be even more sensitive to this. The anxiety that arises within me when my boys “play dead” is because of my knowledge, experience and relationship to the word and all that I have lost. This is not how my children see it. They do not yet have the life knowledge, experience and understanding that I have. There is no need to add any more layers of sadness or anxiety onto their own grief.

    If, however, your child is experiencing anxiety about the finality of his or her own life or someone else’s, this is normal after an untimely death. Abigail Marks, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in grief says, “See if you can find out more about their specific concerns and show that you take their feelings seriously. When kids feel reassured and understood, anxiety can begin to shrink”. After losing Christian we were advised to be very honest with our children. We even had a “standard family answer” so that we were all consistent about death. Again, this was age appropriate but we said, “Christian is in Heaven now but he will always be in our hearts and our memories”. We explained that him being in our hearts was the love we have for him and will always have for him. The book, The Invisible String, reinforces this idea. It is geared towards younger children, explaining that we are connected to all of the people we love with an invisible string, even those who are in Heaven.

    My husband and I are firm believers that Christian’s energy is still all around us. He was an extremely persistent child his whole life with us and he continues to exert his persistence from Heaven. We are grateful for this. Through odd occurrences, hearts, pennies and dreams, he has proven that he will always be with us. It will never be the way we hoped, but our relationship does continue. It was important that our children understand that too. They have a continuous relationship with their oldest brother. He often shows himself on important days, regular days, almost every day. They even dream of him. He is a part of this family and always will be. Every day we speak his name at one point or another. They talk about him to their friends and they carry on his memory, just as we do.

    We have been very careful not to let Christian overshadow our living children. We take our cues from them. They have said things like, “Why is everything about Christian?” or “I don’t want to talk about him right now”. That’s okay. It’s normal. We know that means for a little while after they express these feelings we need to monitor how much we speak about Christian, allowing them to bring him up in conversation. Again, we cannot let our anxiety of him being forgotten override the health of our family.

    While we have learned a lot of this on our own as grief is individual to each person and family, we have also worked with mental health professionals since the start of our grief journey. We are blessed with some of the most amazing people in our lives. We thank Christian for this. We believe he put these “angels on Earth” in our path. Their guidance and professional opinion definitely makes a world of difference.

    If you are sensing that your child has some emotions inside but is hesitant to let them out there are a few things I suggest you can do with him or her:

    Get them moving – Here in New York Spring has sprung! Go for a hike, a walk, play a game of basketball, have a game of catch, even ask them to help you complete a physical task – anything to get them moving. Allowing them to choose and giving them control over the activity will encourage them to open up. My son took Tae Kwon Do for two years and it helped him immensely. We even put a punching bag in the basement as a means for him to work out his emotions physically. 

    “It turns out that exercise can be an important coping tool to deal with grief and loss, whether it’s the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship.”

     

    Give them a journal If you have a child who is maybe a little more introverted or does not share feelings as easily, journaling can be a great option. Journaling does not have to be limited to the written word. Art journaling is a great way to process emotions.

    “According to grief experts, the task of reconstructing your personal self-narrative is critical in the healing process. A grief journal will provide you with a venue for expression without fear of being judged”.

    Encourage music in their lives – Listening, playing and dancing to music are all amazing ways to process emotions. When we listen to certain music, play certain instruments such as the drums or dance around, we are stimulating both sides of the brain. 

    Bilateral stimulation… [which] has been demonstrated extensively in studies to create a greater connection between your mind and your body.”

    Provide them with creative experiences – Ask if they would like to enroll in an art class, take a painting class with them, provide them with art journal prompts (Pinterest has tons!) All of this helps them to get their feelings out and work through them. Emphasize that it is not the end product that is most meaningful but the process.

    “When you are unable to express yourself, but you desire emotional release, making art may help you to do it”.

    Grief is a powerful emotion. Loss, especially when a death is untimely, can be very disturbing. Be patient with yourself as you process these emotions alongside your child. Parents will undoubtedly have an increase in their own fears and strong emotions. It is healthy for your child to see you working through this. While I do not advise voicing your fears surrounding how fragile life is, as your child has learned this firsthand, I do encourage you to share your emotions, memories and age appropriate thoughts. For example you may say, “I was thinking about your friend Christian today. Remember how much fun we had the day we all went to the waterpark?” This may spark a conversation with your child, allowing their feelings to seep out. You may also say, “I went to visit Christian’s family today while you were in school. I feel sad whenever I see them.” These are simple statements but ones that your child can relate to. If they see you modelling your own feelings and that your emotions are there too, they will be more accepting of their own. Grief can be very strong and sometimes that can be scary to a child. Through the parent voicing his or her own emotions, it normalizes them.

    It feels harsh and unfair that some children are exposed to death at such early ages. We have no control over what happens in our lives, but we can control our reactions. Helping our children learn coping skills when encountering large emotions is a lesson that they will value for the rest of their lives. It is horrible to be learned through the death of a family member or friend but it is something that will always be useful.

    How To Talk About Death To Your Child –

    https://www.purewow.com/family/how-to-explain-death-to-a-child?amphtml=true

    Dealing with untimely loss is difficult. As a parent children turn to us for answers we don’t have. There are many times I have said to my children, “I don’t have an answer to your question. It is something I wonder about too”. It’s okay to do that. Parents, be gentle on yourself and do your best. If you feel that you are having trouble answering questions and handling a loss, seek help. Professionals don’t have all the answers either but they have more experience than we do dealing with traumatic situations.

    Above all, open lines of communication are the most important. If that means you have to play a video game with your child to get him to talk – do it! Just let him or her know you are here to listen. Sometimes that is all they want. Listening can be harder than you think. Innately, we want to fix our child if he or she is hurting. There are some things we cannot fix. There are some journeys each person has to take on their own. Grief is one of them. We can walk alongside and provide support, but not fix it. 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…

     

    Quick Thought: Finding Soul

    Writing and helping others is my true soul work. It is what feeds my soul, grows my soul and what makes me happy. It is unconceivable to me that it took losing Christian to dig deep enough to follow my heart and combine the two. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of my gravitation toward these occupations and interests. It’s that I didn’t truly find the strength of my soul until I lost him.

    Before I experienced child loss I was able to rely on my mind to guide me. Things went as planned and none of the bumps in the road were so life altering that I had to fully trust  my heart and soul. After losing Christian nothing was what it seemed. All my beliefs were completely obliterated. Upon embarking on my healing journey I learned that my soul is to be trusted. Even more than my mind. The previously thought impossible has happened to me. Now I am living the previously thought impossible life. Through living life after child loss I found my calling and the way I am intended to honor Christian’s life. It’s all right here, in my soul.

    Grieving Is Like An Ocean

    How many times have we admired a body of water ranging in shades of turquoise from light to dark? The most desirable beach locations feature coveted ocean views where the white sand reflects the light of the sun. In areas where the depth of the water increases or where coral formations are found beneath the surface, the water color darkens. As I sit here admiring this exact view it occurs to me that these waters mirror my life.

    During the bright spots in my life everything is clear. It is easy to see where I am going. My feelings are soft, like the sand. They sit below the surface with smooth waves washing over. As the sun graces me with its warmth it is met with a reflection of joy, happiness and contentment.

    In the darker, deeper times my feelings are below the surface. They are complicated. The sun still shines on them but my positivity does not radiate back. The coral represents difficult situations and feelings. If I get pulled down too far or caught in the coral, difficulty arises. My breath runs out and I am unable to maneuver my way to the surface.

    Life cannot be lived solely in the clear waters. At some point the undertow pulls us into deeper, darker waters. We all face this. Attempts to swim against the undertow, or ignoring the pull, will only lengthen our time away from clear waters. The strength comes in our ability and willingness to swim parallel to the shore. We must feel our feelings. We must stay with those feelings until they are felt and processed. Then we are able to return to clear, calm waters. We may get drawn back in to the deeper areas again, but the more we practice swimming parallel to shore, the more familiar this becomes to us.

    We must always remember that the ocean as a whole is beautiful. The calmer, clearer waters are great for relaxing and reflecting on our lives. It is in the deeper, darker waters where we see the stunning underwater life. It cannot be seen above the water but under the surface there is living beauty.

    Four years have passed since I lost my son, Christian. Many times I have been pulled into the deeper, darker waters. In the early days of my grief journey I fought the pull. I floundered under the crashing waves, unable to see the surface, let alone rise up for air. My mind could not comprehend a life without him. It took a long while to see any of the living beauty in those dark waters. When I finally did begin to see the beauty I slowly stopped floundering and rose to the surface. I remained there for a while. Occasionally I would take a few strokes parallel to the shore. Those few strokes left me completely depleted of energy.

    It took time to build my stamina. Time, patience, practice and faith. Finding a good trauma therapist was key for me. He truly helped me to process my feelings in a safe space. He also pointed out to me that each time I had a setback and disappeared under the water, I always rose back up. When you are grieving that water is not just dark, it’s black and oppressive. You are not quite sure which way is up. There is a great fear that you will never make it to the surface again, but you do. You keep repeating this pattern as more and more time passes in between being pulled under. Slowly, finally, you gain faith that you will always rise back up. You learn ways to ensure that you will rise back up to the surface. You put those ways or routines into practice and follow through with them even if you don’t feel like it. They are insurance. Insurance that you will survive and thrive. It’s not easy but it’s worth it. Love to heaven…

    Hold The Tears, Mom

    My boys are off to school. Even Nicky, my Kindergartner, went off willingly. Not before telling me, “Mom, don’t cry. If you cry, you will make me cry”. His perception and true understanding of the situation was more progressive than I knew. Nothing but a smile was plastered to my face all morning. I held my tears. I did. I gave him a giant hug and kiss. Then he got on the bus, holding his big brother’s hand. He hesitated just the slightest bit, only enough for a mother to notice. Off the bus went and my tears started flowing.

    I decided a few weeks ago that I would send Nicky on the bus with Anthony, his older brother. I contemplated meeting the bus at school but decided against it. Mother’s intuition told me that this would make for the best transition. Well, emotion took over and I hopped in the car to spy on him. Knowing that the Kindergarten classes line up outside before going into the building, allowed me to steal a glimpse of him. Luckily he didn’t see me. It was hard to tell the exact emotion on his face but I could see that he wasn’t crying. That was all I needed to know.

    My anxiety has eased slightly but I will feel much better once he is home. My tears have stopped but his words resound in my head. You see, Christian said those same words to me just a few days before he was taken. The scene has remained one of my sharpest memories of his last days. It was a steamy August night and I was completely overwhelmed. While unsuccessfully attempting to get my three young children to go to bed, my middle son had an accident and my youngest son was crying and carrying on about something else. My emotions got the best of me and I burst into tears. Christian responded by speaking the same words Nicky spoke. In hindsight it feels as though he was foreshadowing the future. Hearing Nicky tell me not to cry today snapped me right back to the moment when Christian said those words. There have been many times I’ve heard Christian’s voice in my head when crying over missing him.

    Obviously today’s situation differs from the one with Christian, but the heartfelt words spoken by both of my boys have been carved into my soul. Today my youngest child is spreading his wings. My middle child continues to successfully fly. My oldest child continues to spread his light. All three of my boys make me proud each day. I am no longer a mother to babies, toddlers or preschoolers but I am a mother to three children who are out in the world, leaving legacies. How can I cry about that? Love to heaven…