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…

Use The Same Ruler For Blessings and Tragedy

Sometimes the ruler we use to measure just how bad things are is the same one we need to use to measure just how good things are. Let me explain. A friend of mine likes to tease me about something I said after losing Christian. In effect, it was this, “You know things are bad when (insert any number of people’s names who I hadn’t spoken to in about 20 years) is sending me food, a donation and/or condolence cards.

After losing our firstborn, Christian, my husband and I received many a card, gift and/or meal from people who we had not be in touch with for many years or never even met. That is the mark of an extreme tragedy.

As I have said many times before, we all go through our own trials and tribulations. The sign of extreme trials and tribulations is when you begin to receive support from people you have not been in touch with recently and/or people you never met. In effect, they are saying no amount of time would come in between my support of someone who has been devastated to this measure. The hardship is so severe that it is hard to avert.

My husband and I are high school sweethearts. Our high school years were filled with mutual friends. We attended a small school in upstate New York, with a graduating class of 200 students. We all knew each other. My husband and I chose to live in the same town because we appreciated that sense of community. Never did we imagine just how much we would need to rely on it. Our community has gone above and beyond. Last year I published a thank you to all who continue to support us.

We have an amazing, tight knit group of friends who, like us, decided to raise their families here because at least one of them grew up in our town. They, too, appreciated the sense of community. There were plenty of people from our town, however, who decided that kind of environment was not fitting for them. After losing Christian, one of the most astounding aspects of the tragedy was just how many of them reached out to us, providing their support in so many ways. It was a true testament to the way we all grew up together.

Many years had passed since we had seen some of our classmates, yet they went so far as to write us and let us know the ways in which our tragedy affected their own lives. It was, and still is, quite touching. Even today when we are in contact with many of our classmates on social media, they let us know that they are always thinking of us.

The depth of our tragedy is so deep and dark that those who didn’t know us or never knew us as parents, provided support. Almost five years later I have come to realize that the depth of darkness is equal to our height of blessings. These people can never take the pain away. They know that. We know that. Their support, love and generosity stays with us today. It helps to lift us.

There is no recollection of the exact support we received from who. There is a strong recollection of who showed their support in any way. Big, small, grand, minute – it truly doesn’t matter how you showed you were there for us. It matters that you did.

So, yes, the depth of our tragedy is deep, dark and awful. The height of blessings and support we receive from others truly help buoy us out of the dark. Do we still fall in to that deep darkness of grief? Yes, we do, but the height of everyone’s support and blessings still helps to lift us out when we do. Love to Heaven….    

 

Letter To My Friend Grieving Her Brother

To my dear friend,

I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sorry that you have to see your mom suffer through losing her grown son. I’m sorry that you have to watch as his wife struggles to carry on each day without her best friend. I’m sorry that you are witnessing your nieces and nephew grieving their father. I’m sorry that your brother is forever gone physically from your family.

I know that your heart is broken to think that the man who could light up a room with a smile will never have that chance again. You miss his larger than life personality and booming laugh. His story telling skills that seemed effortless but always brought the story to life, forever silenced. You miss all this, yet you feel you must be strong for your mom, sister-in-law and nieces and nephew. His beautiful family suffers each day. As time goes on they learn how to live without him but sadness is at the surface.

You go on, learning how to live without him but sadness is interwoven into your very being. You see his spirit live on not only in his children but your children. You speak about their uncle and they speak about him too. Memories are as vibrant as if he were still here, which he is. It is unbelievable to you that just a year ago your brother’s radiant smile and large personality were present at family gatherings.

Supporting family members after a major loss is exhausting and draining. You are reeling from the loss and yet you want to offer strength and comfort to those around you. I don’t envy your position.

Most people are aware of the strain a loss puts on a mother, wife and children. When it comes to siblings, especially grown siblings, they are not as in touch with the deep devastation that remains after the loss.

I see you and I see how devastated you are too. Every happy occasion is tinged with the grief. You are open to expressing your emotions but don’t want to overwhelm others around you as you know they, too, have intense feelings.

I am here for you, my friend. I will listen to you tell stories, happy and sad. I will dry your tears. I will echo your smiles. I will be your support when you have none left to give to anyone else. I am here to help lift you up. I will always send love to you and to Heaven.

The Weight of Grief

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…

Am I Grieving Wrong?

“It sounds like you are entering the acceptance phase”, my therapist says. “Acceptance doesn’t mean you like it, just that you are beginning to accept the reality that he is gone”. I flinch. Acceptance hadn’t occurred to me.

Am I really there? Isn’t it too soon? I must be a terrible mother. What kind of person loses her son and can accept it?

Oh, hello paradox of truth. We meet again. Every life is filled with joy and pain existing alongside of each other. In my life, joyful moments usher in happiness, smiles and laughter. This NEVER happens without pain. It doesn’t mean I feel the pain at the same time. It just means the shadow of pain is lurking in the darkness. We all live this.

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Grieving a child truly makes us examine the marbling of joy and pain. Early in the grieving journey the felt guilt is immense at the smallest inkling of joy. Feeling a smile on my face caused stabbing emotions of remorse to pierce my heart. The judgmental inner voice would scream, “How can you be smiling? Your son is in Heaven!!”

The first time going to dinner with friends after losing Christian was a night filled with wine, good food and laughter. It felt like a violation as a grieving mother.

The first girls’ weekend away from my living children began with an incident that produced such raucous laughter tears were streaming down my face. How could I feel that much freedom and happiness?

The first belly laugh my husband and I shared around friends felt liberating and constricting all at the same time. Laughing was a part of who I was, and who we were, before we experienced the traumatic cleaver of tragedy. We couldn’t possibly be grieving correctly.

Positive emotions did not feel acceptable for a long time. No one ever verbalized that they thought I was “grieving wrong”, but I imagined that was how some people were looking at me.

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Then the fog of grief lifted just the tiniest bit, and I mean the tiniest bit. When I looked around it seemed the more joy that infiltrated my life, the more signs I was able to recognize from Christian. Those who know us best and love us most seemed to take tiny breaths of relief. No one ever questioned whether we were still broken, that was a given. It just brought them joy to see us experience slivers of happiness.

Anne Lamott, author of Almost Everything: Notes on Hope, says, “But all truth really is a paradox, and this turns out to be a reason for hope. If you arrive at a place in life that is miserable, it will change, and something else about it will also be true.” The truth is I did lose my son and it continues to be the worst pain I have ever felt, but that intense pain did not last forever. Residual pain remains and sometimes the intense pain returns, inhabiting my heart and body. It never lasts forever. Grieving parents can only learn this truth over time.

Each time the intense pain returns and recedes, it grows hope. It is this hope that helps us to move through our lives until we see our children again. Hope is alive and tangible. In my life I have found hope through my children, husband, family (especially my nieces), friends, life lessons, signs from my angel, meetings with people I know he put on my path and many other things. Hope is not always there, but it is ever present.

Trusting in hope helps me to move forward. In the beginning I frequently asked “Why did this happen?” That is an answer I’m not sure I will ever have. Time and experience has taught me that this question robs me of my hope. Lamott says, “‘Why?” is rarely a useful question in the hope business.” I agree with her on this. It won’t bring Christian back. It will only bring on self judgment.

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Reflecting on acceptance after my therapist used this word in our session has been enlightening for me. Though I have not made peace with it yet, I can understand that my way of acceptance includes an and. I accept that Christian is no longer a living, breathing being and I don’t like it. On any given day the words that follow the and in the sentence may change. As I am writing today it changes to, “I am angry about it”.

Acceptance is walking in the footsteps of hope. As much I want to, I cannot go back and change the past. If I fight the present, or the movement toward acceptance, it threatens my connection to Christian. Living in the “why?” and “should have been” mindsets only make room for pain. So for now I will continue to grieve as I do. Sometimes this will include questioning my ability to do it correctly. When fear of being healed of my grief surfaces I am always made humble by my tears. Moving toward acceptance is just another recognition of joy existing alongside pain. Love to Heaven…

Broken Hearted But Not Broken

This afternoon as I glanced down at my phone for a quick reprieve I was deeply saddened to discover the news about Notre Dame. I inhaled a sharp breath causing my mother to ask anxiously, “What happened?” When I told her the news she was heartbroken but relieved. Bad news has known to be the worst news in our family.

She and I began to commiserate about the news of the fire, consider what might have been the cause and thank God that at least no one was hurt. Our conversation was cut short as we were snapped back to reality. “They’re back”, she said. The “they” meant my dad, my boys and my niece.

“They” had returned home from picking up my niece at school. I opened the car door and inquired about how her day had been. As though in tune with the world, she lamented over a troubling encounter with one of her friends in Kindergarten. We discussed it for a moment. At the age of six, injustices are easily washed away by the promise of sugar. My mother and I had hidden one hundred fifty Easter eggs for the children to find. When I explained that the “Easter bunny” left a note for them and hid eggs while we were all out, the excitement registered on their faces and in their voices.

The screeches were surely heard around the block. As they sprinted to the front door, I was nearly knocked over. Immediately the exclamations of discoveries could be heard. I brushed past my mom, anxious to see them on the hunt. She held my youngest niece in her arms and said, “I want to hear more of that report when they are done”. Confusion clouded my brain. It took me a minute to realize she meant the fire that had encapsulated Notre Dame.

Just a few moments prior I had been immersed in world history in the making. Today will be noted in History books for years to come. And still life carries on even when history is in the making. It brought me back to the days that will forever be in my own personal history book.

Time stopped today as flames licked a historic cathedral that will now forever be changed. The world carried on around it. Time stopped the day Christian gained his wings, forever changing our lives. The world carried on around us. The concept never ceases to amaze me. Things happen all day, every day, everywhere that are major monumental, events. Sometimes they affect a family and community. Sometimes they affect the world. Either way, the world carries on around it.

Photo Credit: Thibault Camus/AP

This is one of the most shocking aspects of child loss. It boggled my mind that the sun was still rising and setting, kids were starting a new school year, the leaves were changing. All of the things and events that had been natural occurrences at one time in my life were still going on around me, but my life had turned so unnatural.

The strangest realizations had me questioning my sanity. One day I realized I would never again take care of Christian when he was sick. He would never need to be nursed back to health with a proper dose of ginger ale after the stomach bug. No longer would I wait with baited breath as the thermometer read the temperature of his body. Obviously these are more menial tasks of motherhood but if he was able to be sick it meant his body was alive. It meant I could help “make things better”. My chance at that was through.

It was the daily routines that were most unnatural. Bath time with only 2 boys. The world carried on. Only 2 boys to coerce into brushing their teeth. Only 2 boys to corral into bed. Only 2 boys to kiss goodnight. Only 2 boys to imagine growing older. Only 2 boys to imagine carrying out all the hopes and dreams I had for them. And the world carried on. So unnatural, so changed.

Hopes and dreams were lost today, just as they were when Christian became an angel. Yet, children went to school and egg hunts were had. A historical structure survived a trauma but will forever be changed. It will be rebuilt, undoubtedly, but never the same. The rich historical background to include the fire that damaged it but did not decimate it. The world will carry on, just as it always does. Tomorrow the sun will come up. History will be changed and time will go on. Just as we are forever changed. We are not broken, just broken hearted. Love to heaven…

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…