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…
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…
Recently I read a book that confirmed my beliefs about dreams and comforted me. As a frequent dreamer, Spiritual Lighthouse, The Dream Diaries of Ann Marie Ruby, caught my eye immediately. During the passage of time that has unfolded since losing Christian, my spiritual journey has been integral to my healing. Dreams have been a large part of this.
From the start of the book I felt a kinship with the author. She talks about nature remaining a constant over time, while things change all around it. This couldn’t be more true. It doesn’t matter how long or dark the night is the sunwill alwaysrisethe next day. The waves will continue to crash and the mountains will continue to stand. Even when your whole world is crashingdown around you, nature is a constant.
Although the topics of the dreams Ruby shares vary, she circles back to two main ideas. One being that there is a “spiritual lighthouse” guiding us throughout life. She also stresses the importance of faith and hope. Some of her dreams reflect day to day life and others relate to worldly and historical events. All proven to be accurate when she researched them.
Interspersed throughout the book are spiritual prayers, adding another layer of dimension allowing the reader to relate it to his or her own present life and circumstances.
Ruby’s dream journal is a beautiful collection of one woman’s journey through her sleep. It proves that dreams are more than just visions in our head. They have definitive meaning. This book helped to clarify what I’ve felt all along. Messages are delivered while we are in a dreaming state of slumber. Thank you Ann Marie for your beautiful depiction of this!
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…
What do I say to a mother or father who has lost their child? What if I say the wrong thing? What if I make them cry? How about the siblings of the angel? What if death is a topic of conversation when they are around? What if it has a negative effect on them? How can I help the family?
These are all valid, well meaning questions stemming from a place of love. Death is an emotional topic and hard to speak to. When it involves an untimely death it becomes increasingly intense. I can say that there were very few people who said something that really bothered me when Christian passed away. Even those who did, were not saying it maliciously.
I am going to give you my piece of advice that answers any and all questions surrounding an especially emotional death, such as child loss. Are you ready? It’s quite profound.
Just be there for the family in any way you feel you can do that.
If that means you attend the wake, funeral, cook for them, call them every day, text them every day, stop by and check in, take care of their children, give them a wine basket, make a donation to their angel’s fund, go for a walk with them, take them to a yoga class or simply just listen to them talk and cry, you are doing the best thing you can for them. A comprehensive list of ideas can be found here. Some grieving parents will need many people around them and some will need to isolate a little. As much as everyone wishes they could take the family’s pain away, we all know that is not possible. Just be there for them.
Inherently this seems to come easier to the women. Women tend to be more open with emotions and both the grieving mother and friend are able to be more expressive. It can be more difficult with the grieving father. Please don’t forget about him. His pain is just as intense. More often than not he will grieve differently than his wife. An article on the website Love To Know states, “Men often express their grief physically. A grieving father may throw himself into work or projects around the house, or he may take up a hobby to keep himself occupied and avoid dealing with his emotions.” In my own experience I found this to be very true. While I communicated like a rushing river of emotion in every way, my husband tended to be more like the ground after an earthquake. The cracks were deep and full of pain but there was no spouting emotion.
In addition, societal views tend to portray men as the spouse who needs to be “strong”. NO ONE should be expected to be strong after losing a child. Unfortunately I have witnessed people giving my husband this exact advice. It makes me want to scream. As a mom of boys it is something that I am even more conscious of. Given the extent of the trauma my children have experienced at such early ages, it has been a focus to help them learn how to freely express their emotions.
When friends, family and community members see grieving parents in such desperate pain sometimes they rush to provide them with books, resources and information about groups for grieving parents. This can be so overwhelming. I remember receiving information from others almost immediately. Again, it was so thoughtful and completely appreciated. In the beginning I wasn’t able to process or utilize any of it. It pretty much sat in a box for the first six months. The focus of each day was merely based on survival. Sometimes that meant getting through minute by minute. As time went on I did look through all of the things that were given or sent to me. Some of them are resources I still use and some never worked for me. Either way it was the thought that counted.
If you are an immediate family member of the grieving parent you will also have an especially difficult road to travel. As you navigate your own loss you are expected to support the grieving parent. I have seen my family become quite protective over me and my grief. Sometimes things that are said in my presence strike a nerve with my family members as they worry about my reaction to them. When I think about having to watch one of my children grieve his child, while I grieve my grandchild, my head explodes. My parents and in-laws have watched myself and my husband suffer immensely. That road is laden with sadness, guilt and what if’s for them.
As tight knit and close as my own family is, there are days when I can tell that they are “holding back”. They may not sound like themselves or look like themselves. More often than not they will tell me that they don’t share their bad days with me because if I am having a good day they don’t want to upset me. This sometimes happens between my husband and myself as well.
Grief is undoubtedly a tricky road to navigate. Grieving the loss of a child is even trickier. It forever changes everything. Grieving parents will need their family, friends and community to support them for a long time, if not forever. The biggest fear after losing a child is that no one will remember him or her. Parents also fear that after time passes he or she will become less relevant, their names will be spoken less and their absence will become the norm. If you really are committed to helping a grieving family, don’t ever let this happen. Continue to speak the child’s name. Continue to tell stories. Continue to attend memorials and life celebrations. Continue to let the grieving parent know you are thinking of them. Above all, just be there for them. Love to heaven…
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…
Recently I stumbled upon a quote that burrowed into my heart the moment I laid eyes upon it. Unexpectedly it greeted me on my computer screen as if it were my own personal description of how child loss affected my family.
“It is as if each family were a huge ball of yarn; each member a different colored strand woven and wound together. When one member dies, the entire ball must be unwound, the strand removed, and the ball then needs to be put back together and rewound. However, the ball can never be recreated as it was before.”
Jean Galica, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist is the brilliant author of the quote.
This analogy is so beautiful. It immediately conjures up visions of how my boys enjoy playing with yarn. It usually involves one of them holding a ball of yarn as he frantically runs and jumps around the room, unraveling the yarn ball, causing chaos and mess. Then the other child takes a different color and repeats. At the end we are left with criss crossed colors of yarn, spread across a large space, some of it tangled and knotted. To make use of the yarn we must untangle and roll as much as we can back into a ball. More often than not there are pieces that need to be cut out because they are so badly knotted.
As the shock of child loss sets in and family members enter into survival mode, they often spread apart. Although they are still connected, and their lives are tangled together, each person needs to process loss on his or her own. Even as a mother of two living children, after losing Christian, there was some distance between myself and my living children. The tight interwoven nature of our former relationship had slackened. I was no longer able to love them without the imminent fear of losing them looming over me.
My husband also suffered from the anxiety and fear of losing them. He and I dealt with it very differently. While I found comfort in talking openly about every aspect of child loss, he had a much different experience. He and I remained connected and leaned on one other as we were both attempted to process our own grief. The individual balls of yarn that made up our lives were completely unraveled, tangled, knotted and lacking color.
It wasn’t just our immediate family that was deeply affected. Our family unit is tight knit and my children are blessed to have close relationships with their grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins. In those early days a few conflicts arose from the tensions of knots. Everyone was sleep deprived, saddened, confused, angry and mainly using all their energy to process the tragedy that struck our lives.
Over time as each person began to process in their own way, the yarn smoothed out. We were able to work through the knots. Slowly each color of yarn became more vibrant again. Each strand became straighter. The connection was never lost. It was just a mystery for some time as to how we would be wound together again in our ball of love.
Slowly, slowly as time went on we wound around the children. They brought vibrancy and joy back to our lives. Our extended family ball of yarn is interwoven differently but still as tight as ever.
Today the ball of yarn that is my immediate family is so very different than the one that started out as the five of us. The ball that contained five individual colors, wound together, was only in existence for less than two years. Nothing will ever heal that part of my wound. Less than two years to have your family together on Earth is devastating.
The devastation we have experienced plays a large part in how our ball was rewound. Galica says a strand of yarn is removed after you lose a child. This is true. It does not disappear however, the fibers of that one strand are merely divided to become part of all of the other strands. No longer an individual but an energy, a spirit, an Angel. Our familial ball of yarn, immediate and extended, will never be put together again in the same way. The beauty lies in all we have learned from tragedy, adding dimension to each single strand of color. Christian will forever be a part of each of us in ways he could never be before. Love to heaven…