Student and Teacher of Grief

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

See You In My Dreams

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 Is In Every Step

    Hope. We all need it to survive. After Christian passed away it was completely unfathomable to me that I would ever feel it again. Yet I have and I do. That is not to say that it doesn’t waver, because it does.

    This particular topic is on my heart tonight as I’ve just returned home from an amazing workshop at LiveOnNY. LiveOnNY is a non profit organization that works to procure organ donation in the Greater New York area. The beautiful thing about this organization is that they are actively working with the donor families after their loss.

    When Christian passed away I knew immediately that his wishes would be to help someone else in need. After all, our body only houses our soul. Without hesitation we answered “yes” when they asked if we wanted his organs to be donated.

    Right there we chose hope. There was no chance of our little boy coming back to us but there was a chance that his organs could offer hope for someone else, and they did.

    In the moment when they asked us about organ donation I didn’t feel any bit of hope. I didn’t feel it after we said yes. I didn’t feel it for a very long time. We are four and a half years walking this journey and there are still days when hope eludes me. Most days though it is somewhere in my soul.

    How did I get to a place where I feel any semblance of hope? Sometimes even I wonder. I know I have an abundance of love and support that surrounds me. That certainly helps. I also know that I made a conscious decision to carry on. It is something that I work on constantly. Some days it feels fairly simple. Other days it requires my every effort, every minute of the day. I feel like I am walking through sludge.

    Self care, a topic of today’s workshop, is a large part of me being able to find hope again. From the very start I tried anything that I thought might offer the tiniest bit. That included acupuncture, therapy, walks with friends, yoga, art, exercising, writing, attending grief groups and other activities that are not coming to mind right now. Some worked and some didn’t. Some I still utilize as self care tools today. Most importantly my willingness to try things helped me to find a way to survive this unthinkable loss. The key to hope is finding what works for you.At today’s workshop I met many amazing people. For some the loss was extremely new and raw. It took such courage for them to be there. Their desperation to find any sort of relief written all over their faces and evidenced in their tears. My heart broke for them. It is not so long ago that I was in their place. Even in all I tried I don’t think I had the courage to attend a workshop like this so soon after our loss.

    I saw myself in these people. One woman, a writer, unsure if she will ever write again. Another family of a mother and three daughters who lost their only brother, all clearly devastated. I was them. I am them. Time has just taught me how to integrate the pain into my life today. Sadness and joy live alongside each other in my world, as it will for them.

    That’s hope. Newly grieving people feel devoid of it, but they don’t realize that they are already building it. Every step one takes to find relief from the blinding pain allows hope to filter in. They may not feel it today, tomorrow or next week. It takes time to chip away a big enough space to see the hope shining through. It will. Each time one wakes up and makes it through another day. That’s hope. Pepper it with a few healthy attempts to relieve the pain and you are building hope. It doesn’t feel like it, but you are.

    Thank you to the amazing staff at LiveOnNY for the workshop you led. As one participant said it so beautifully to them, “You should feel great about yourselves today, knowing you are making a difference in lives”. They were my dose of hope today. Love to heaven…

    Expectations and Truth

    Yesterday was one of those days. You know what I am talking about. A day where just about all you can handle is sitting on the couch and watching movies. My boys went into school at 10:30 and were home by 1:30, due to the weather. Thank God they made it home safely. While I had hoped for a longer amount of childless time, I am so grateful that the school district made a smart decision.

    It definitely interrupted my movie watching though. Between being asked for snacks, arguing over every little thing and then being told that they really didn’t want the dinner I had cooked I was ready to explode. Then when I said, “I need a break!” It was met with my six year old’s answer, “That’s because you hate us.” Aaah, yes, pile on the mom guilt.

    Being a mom is hard. Being a parent is hard. Being an adult is hard. Anyone who is reading this can probably agree with at least one or all of those statements! How can it be that some days you feel on top of the world like you have it all under control and the next day you are drowning? Some of this is certainly due to my circumstances but I do not believe that only bereaved parents feel this way. I know that is not true.

    Recently I was having a conversation with a friend about how a few nights ago the bedtime routine went splendidly. So much so that Anthony, my eight year old, thanked Nicky for the hug he gave him in school that day. Then Nicky thanked Anthony for being included in a game with his friends. It ended with them both saying, “I love you” to each other. Not sure who those kids were but before becoming a parent I actually thought that there would be way more days like that.

    When we examine what our beliefs or expectations are compared to reality, accepting reality can sometimes be so hard. In the case of raising children, you learn pretty quickly that there is a huge divide between what you expected and the truth. I will never forget a time when Christian threw a screaming fit in an outdoor mall and I had to carry him out. It was humbling. That’s for sure. At the time I felt like the biggest failure as a parent. I was still stuck in the pre-child mindset that my child would never do that. I can actually hear some of you laughing out loud because you know what I mean!

    The me of today knows that the exact opposite was true. I was doing a great job as a parent that day. Christian was doing a great job of being a kid. We were both doing exactly what we were supposed to be doing. (Don’t even get me started on the supposed to’s.) Nonetheless, it took time, experience and multiple children to learn this.

    Expectations are the measure by which we define where we want to be. If we set them too low, we are not accomplishing what we are capable of. If they are too high we experience failure. There are some areas of my life where I am in tune with where my expectations need to be. Other areas I am still learning. The saying, “Patience is a virtue” is a mantra that I repeat quite often. It takes patience, time and experience to first learn where to set your expectations, then how to reach them, then to actually reach them. It is certainly not a linear process. We must experience some days on top of the world and others when we are drowning.

    Today I am right in between. I’m not exactly on top and I’m not exactly drowning. After all that madness yesterday I couldn’t bear to even deal with the bedtime routine. I collapsed into bed and asked my husband to put both boys to sleep. Even though he had a long day dealing with the snow, important meetings at work and coming home to a crazy wife who was still the pajamas he left her in, he did. Thank God. Right before Nicky went to bed he came to me and gave me a huge hug and kissed me tenderly on the top of my head. Just like that I melted. It was a kind of nourishment for the next day, a kind of payment for parenting being so difficult. Never in my imagination could I have known just how hard it would be to parent children. I also could have never imagined just how much I would love these children. Love to heaven…

    The Blank Canvas

    With the New Year upon us and a fresh blank canvas laid out before us, many adults commit to different ways they are going to change their lives. They iterate goals they would like to reach and set out in pursuit of them. Not unlike others I have goals but I tend to reevaluate them on a regular basis, so I did not make any hard and fast resolutions this year. It occurred to me this morning that it was time to have the talk about 2019 goals and resolutions with my boys, especially my eight year old.

    Each month at school the Principal’s Award is given to one student in each class. As I launched into my lecture about how he may be able to receive it if he worked hard and went above and beyond, he responded with an answer that reflected his personality. “I am going to let other people get them. I am not out only for myself”. This led me to have a talk with him about how that is a beautiful attitude in some areas but that we all need to have something we are working towards, striving for. He looked at me and said, “I am not working towards the Principal’s Award. I want to reach a goal that is closer”. It was only then that I realized that my anxiety had informed this lecture. Didn’t all children wish to be recognized by the Principal while the whole school looked on? Or is that my hope for him? Each time I open my Facebook feed on the first Friday of the month, I am reminded that my son has not received the Principal’s Award since Kindergarten. In turn that leads me to berate myself about how I am not doing enough as a mother. He needs to read more, practice his math facts more and watch less TV. Changes may need to be made, but nothing positive comes out of me criticizing myself. What really needs to happen is that I need to take a step back and separate my insecurities about mothering from him as a student. Furthermore, the Principal’s Award is not the measure of him as a student or me as a mother. (As I sit and write these words I feel quite neurotic but I know that if I am feeling this way so are others!)

    While I quickly reigned in my anxiety, the urgency in my voice quelled and I asked him what his goals were. He explained to me what he wanted to achieve. Now the fire returned to my voice, but not in an anxious way, in a motivational way. “Well, let’s reach this goal! What do we have to do in order to crush it? Let’s get started right away!” For a second there I felt like I was on a big stage giving a motivational speech. It worked though. I saw the fire ignite in him. The drive that I was so afraid he was lacking, kicked in. It was there all along. I just wasn’t tapping into it.

    It is easy to relate to my middle child as his personality mirrors mine in many ways. Fear of failure sometimes affects how I set and achieve goals. Part of the reason I reevaluate  my goals frequently is because I need to make sure they are a stretch but still attainable. My trainer, Jessika Ramie of FYTE.co, often says, “We may have to adjust our expectations.” Through this mindset, and with her help, I have been able to structure my goals and plans to reach them in a way that fosters success. In turn, my confidence is boosted and I am willing to strive for more and more. My aim is to scaffold this same experience for my son. The more confident he feels, the more he will try. If we have no goals and nothing to strive for, we make much smaller leaps and bounds in life.

    Striving to be our best is a lesson that is important for my boys to learn. They must know that their best means their best. In a world where competition runs rampant it is easy to get caught up in it. For some people this means they may become obsessed with it. For others, like my middle child and myself, it means we shy away from it due to fear of failure. I am so grateful for my husband who is always quick to remind my boys to believe in themselves. If he hears self doubt in their words, he is quick to correct them by replacing their negative words with positive ones and making them repeat after him.

    There are kids who instinctively have less fear of failure and more drive. Whether it is a competitive nature that feeds it or a need to be the best. My middle guy is more sensitive in that way. He is aware of not wanting to take away from others. As I explained to him, there is a time and place for that. Individual goals mean that you don’t have to take away from anyone else. As I write this, it is so clear that individual goals would have been the way to motivate him from the start. It is in his nature to achieve on a individual level where he doesn’t feel the pressure of competing with anyone else.

    This simple, ten minute talk with my eight year old taught me so much, in more ways than one. It taught me about him, myself and my parenting. It reminded me why it is so important to be in tune with my boys. It also reminded me of the joys and beauty of being a parent. My husband and I will support our boys in the best way we know how. We will make mistakes and so will they, but as long as we keep the lines of communication open and the love flowing, we will design these blank canvases together. Love to heaven…

    The Best Christmas Gift

    It’s been a while since I have written. I haven’t felt like myself lately. The holidays this year have heightened my grief and anxiety. It’s not this intense every year. Thank God.

    Tomorrow is Christian’s birthday. He would have been 11. The usual questions about what he would look like? Act like? Be asking for as birthday and Christmas gifts? continuously flood my brain and heart. I want him here. Sure he would be driving me crazy. He would be one more child fighting with his brothers. His attitude would probably be growing in size since he would officially be a middle schooler. I am guessing his hair would be a focus. He had the most beautiful head of hair. So many guesses. So much wondering. So many dreams turned to angel dust. In a matter of moments.

    All of the wondering gets to be exhausting and overwhelming. The memories aren’t any less emotional but at least they don’t involve guessing. Christian was due on Christmas but was born on December 23rd. We brought him home Christmas Day. As first time parents my husband and I woke to find a beautiful baby boy being rolled in to the hospital room on Christmas morning. He was all snug and sleeping in an oversized stocking. It’s the same stocking that hangs on our mantle each year. The sight was so breathtaking and life changing. This little being would be coming home with us in just hours.

    As we made our way home we passed our church. The priest had just finished Christmas mass and was outside. We asked him to bless Christian and he did. One would think a child who is blessed only moments after leaving the hospital would be destined for greatness and safety. The first yes and the second no; at least not in the way we were hoping. We could never conceive of what was to come in his life.

    As Christian grew, we grew. Firstborn children teach their parents multiple lessons. Christian was not the best sleeper. He didn’t follow any of the examples of the types of babies they talked about in parenting books. The feeling of failing as a mom plagued me. These feelings not entirely unusual for a first time mom, but confusing nonetheless. One thing that was not confusing, even when I was sleep deprived, was how much I loved him. Again, as the firstborn, every little thing he did made my heart swell ten times. As much as I love my other boys it was different with them because it wasn’t my first time experiencing it.

    As his personality developed his mischief did too. This was always a character trait I loved in little boys. As a mom to a mischievous boy it was still adorable but tried my patience!! Now I had to somehow figure out how to refine it without completely making it go away. This did not help my own issue of feeling like I was failing as a mom. When you have a child who does not conform to how others think he or she should behave it can be mortifying. Others make it known by looks, words and glances that your child is behaving poorly. There have been many times I witnessed this in a store and offered words of comfort to the parent instead of the opposite. As much as we love our children, it doesn’t ever feel great to be judged negatively by others.

    Christian was not only mischievous but he was a biter! Oh yes he wanted to help me experience it all in his six short years of life. At a mommy and me class he bit a little boy on the back. The mother was not happy but seeing as this was her fourth child, I am sure she had encountered a similar situation before. Her dirty looks and unkind words said otherwise. We made it through. Christian eventually received Occupational Therapy during his preschool years. It definitely helped. Oddly enough I got a call from his therapist the second week she was supposed to see him. She had to cancel because she lost her son suddenly. Heartbreaking. Christian continued on with another wonderful therapist and they were able to make headway with some of his behaviors.

    Christian’s larger than life personality was never able to be truly tamed. I wouldn’t have wanted it to be. There were times I wished he would tone it down just a little. He definitely did a lot of living in his short time on Earth. I always say he did everything 100%. All his mischief and love and passion and hugs and smiles and tantrums were at level 100! I’m not sure how we were chosen to be his parents. It’s something we are forever grateful for.

    Tomorrow will mark his fifth birthday in heaven. No one should have to celebrate the day their child was born without their child here. We are not alone in this, unfortunately. Tuesday will mark his fifth Christmas in heaven. He is sure to be leading some giant celebration up there! His party in heaven will be mirrored in the smiles, joy and excitement on the faces of my children and nieces as they celebrate the magic of Christmas. It will help to buoy my mood but it will not take the pain away. The longing will remain for the best Christmas gift I ever received. Love to heaven…

    Ramblings and Gifts

    It’s that time of year again when the air is filled with the magic of the holidays… and the sadness for some. I’m not alone in my struggles and I do not wish to put a damper on anyone who is not feeling sadness. However, I know that there are millions of other people out there struggling as well. Some for the same reason, some not. I don’t have any words of wisdom today. More a rambling of thoughts.

    This was an exceptionally tough week. My cousin, Tonia, would have turned 50. It had me reflecting on her and a trip all of the females in my family took when she turned 40. The first thing that comes to mind are the laughs we all shared. We had a great time. It was a beautiful tribute to what the holidays represent to me – enjoying time with those you love. Tonia bought each of us an ornament to commemorate the trip. It will be bittersweet, as it is every Christmas, to place that ornament on my tree.

    Last week was also an emotional week. My youngest son turned six. All of the “firsts” he is experiencing as a six year old were Christian’s “lasts”. To use a very intellectual term blah. Each time I think about that the tears spring to my eyes. He seems so little and yet Christian seemed so big when he was six. I found the list he wrote to Santa that year. Immediately my memory sparked. My bright, brown eyed boy wishing for the magic of Christmas to be bestowed upon him. His heart so young and pure. The excitement of the season buzzing all around. This year as his brothers write their Christmas lists, search for the elf and decorate the tree, Christian watches from above.

    Grief is a spiral and sometimes it spirals back to an intensity level that can only be sustained for a short amount of time. When this happens I retreat back to survival mode. One of the most important things I did early on, in survival mode, was find one positive thing in each day. Yesterday while preparing lunches for my boys and running around, completing daily morning tasks, they were playing a game. It was a beautiful sight. They were playing and laughing. No one was whining or crying. Whoever was losing was not lamenting over it. They were enjoying their time together. It was a gift. It could have easily been missed by me in my frenzy. I’m sure sometimes I do overlook these moments. Yesterday I didn’t and it made my day. Wishing you all these beautiful gifts of the season and all year through. Love to heaven…