Sometimes the weight of grief is unknown until a moment, day or event passes. This is how it was for me this past weekend when my middle child made his First Communion.
In the weeks leading up to the event, daily life had me running to baseball practices and games, working the book fair, submitting my writing to different sites, gaining some new opportunities (stay tuned for more about that!) and even a trip for myself to Urgent Care. It left me little time to mull over the latest milestone that was about to be reached. This was probably a blessing.
Lately I have been referring to the “beginning” or “early days” in my writing. As I wrote in last week’s post, my journey is forever changing and evolving. When I look back to the early days, immediately after losing Christian, and even the years that followed, and compare it to now I can see true evolution. In the past if I had been preoccupied leading up to a big event, the aftermath would have left me completely depleted. Over time, however, I have processed and experienced the pain that goes along with my living sons experiencing things their brother never got to.
Anthony’s Communion was beautiful and we are so very proud of him. It was also the quintessential depiction of joy and pain existing together in the moment. Our family was seated in the very first pew. As I watched my eight year old enter the church, hands folded dutifully as prayer hands should be, pride rushed through me. Love poured out of me and a smile graced my face.
As the mass continued on and mention was made of those who are deceased, the weight of grief fell. It fell hard. The storm of sadness moved in and instantly fat tears began to drop. For a little while it made the sunshine of joy invisible. The sun remained there, it just became clouded over by the storm that came rolling through. And such is life.
Anthony’s big moment approached and he was excited to receive his First Communion. In his eyes the warmth of the sun reached me. The storm had passed. The day continued and all had a good time.
The weight of the grief I had been carrying around, presumably for the weeks leading up to the event. was only truly felt on the day after it. I awoke with a surprising amount of relief. This was a revelation for me. The physical, emotional and mental relief so evident that I could not ignore it.
It brought me back to just a year ago. Last June Christian’s friends moved up from Elementary School to Middle School. In the weeks leading up to the ceremony, he was remembered and honored in different ways. At the actual moving up ceremony a single red balloon was attached to an empty chair in memory of my beautiful child. This is a gift that all grieving mothers wish to be given.
Again we see the juxtaposition of joy and pain existing together. My gratitude is greater than words for all of these thoughtful gestures. They also were a painful reminder of the fact that Christian is not moving up to Middle School. With or without him being honored the deep sadness would have been present. It warms my heart that his classmates, their parents and the school, made remembering him a priority.
Life is not easy. We tell our children that when they are young. There is no easy fix and we are all due some pain in our lives. We cannot avoid these storms. We must learn how to get through them. The weight of grief has lifted for now. It will be back. I am sure of it. I will get through it again. I am also sure of that. Love to Heaven…
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.
“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.
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…
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
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.
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. 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…
A few weeks ago while my husband patiently carved pumpkins with my boys I was reminded of Halloween 2010. Anthony, my middle son, had just been born, exactly one week before Halloween. In an effort not to diminish the excitement of Halloween for Christian, my parents carved his first pumpkin with him.
It doesn’t take much for me to see them in the kitchen. The newspaper was spread across the table. Two large, bright orange pumpkins sat ready to be carved. Christian, full of energy, wore an old collared white shirt. This was to protect his timely Halloween pajamas. As the first child he always had pajamas for the holidays and only wore them at the appropriate time of year.
Christian’s excitement vibrated throughout the house. The brightness of his smile rivaled the bright orange hue of the pumpkins. My parents assigned him the appropriate jobs of picking which shapes he wanted the eyes, smile and nose to be. After cutting off the top they also gave him the job of scooping out the pumpkin gunk. For an almost three year old boy, this was a great task! He sat with his arms elbow deep in the pumpkin scooping out the flesh.
This is how life is now. I live half in the past and half in the present. Each time my boys experience an event, it is linked in my mind to when Christian experienced it. Sometimes I share my memories with my husband and my boys. Sometimes I keep them to myself. I clutch my memories just as tightly as an elderly woman holds her purse. Fear is the same driver for both of us. The fear for me is that somehow these memories will be taken from me by time.
Time is my enemy and also my friend. The cyclical nature of it helps to perpetuate memories. The repetitiveness of special days, holidays, places we went and things we did are burned into my memory. It is both overwhelmingly sad and beautiful at the same time. As much as the current daily events also spark my memories and sometimes intense sadness, it scares me when his life won’t be as relatable to my children anymore. My fear is as they move out of the easily comparable age range, memories will dissipate and become less relevant. In some ways that is unavoidable. There are numerous milestones and events that Christian never got to experience. Right there the relatability factor is affected.
As much as the above is true I am reminded, as I write this and reflect, of the many things I “thought” child loss would encompass. Some which came to fruition and some that didn’t. The thing is we never quite know what will happen. Immediately after losing Christian I feared my boys would never remember him. This is worlds away from the truth. I worried that my boys would carry on without carrying a piece of their brother with them. Again, quite the contrary. So as much as I project what might occur in the future, I am well aware that none of it may happen. One of my mentors often reminds me, “Don’t borrow trouble”. We have enough in our daily lives. Why become anxious and spend energy worrying about something that may never happen? Love to heaven…