No More Grief Shaming

Recently I saw a provoking post in one of the grieving mother groups I follow on Face Book. It said something to the effect of, Stop trying to find the beauty in grief. We can learn to live with our grief but it will always hurt. The latter part is true. The former part, however, is what plagues me.

The author’s words resounded with some of the readers. There were a number of replies asserting that others feel this way too. It’s wonderful that they have found someone who shares their grieving style and perceptions.

It is important to accept the reality of grief. It’s great to be realistic about the fact that it will always be there, but please don’t judge what I do with my grief on my journey.

My agitation lies in the belief that no one should be telling us how to perceive our own emotions or journey. If we choose to find some parts beautiful, so be it. If we choose to focus on the depths of pain, alongside the joy, and not attribute anything positive to our grieving journey, that’s fine too. If we use humor as a relief and are able to find morbid laughter to help us in our journey, it’s our prerogative. If our grieving style encompasses a combination of these, awesome. Grief is so individual, as is our healing process. The important part is to find what works for you.

Claiming that grief should be done in a certain way is “grief shaming”. It results in us questioning ourselves about whether we are doing it right. How about we all just share our journey and whoever relates to a given way finds comfort in that?

We all have enough to focus on. Let’s not grief shame others. We are in it together. Let’s share and support each other. There is no right way to grieve. Find the style and tribe that works for you. Love to Heaven…

Grieving Children and Emotional Dialogue

At the start of my grief journey tears would leak out of my eyes, sometimes without me being aware. Many days I would be driving with my two living sons, then 4 and 2, and a song would play on the radio, or a beautiful sight would greet my eyes or a memory would float across in my mind. It was impossible to hold in the emotion. The question, “Mommy, why are you crying?” transformed into an early teaching opportunity on emotions.

It was not one that I had ever planned to teach my boys. Sure, they had seen me express emotions, but these were intense emotions. Children can sense and feel the intensity. It was obvious to me that I needed to address my tears, and the intensity of my emotions, with these two precious beings who were thrust on this unwanted journey with me. Since they were so young, we were together almost always, meaning that they felt my intense emotions almost always.

A photo of my two boys loving on each other. Thank God they have each other.

There was a certain anecdote that I read shortly after losing Christian. If I were ever able to remember where I read it, I would find the author and thank her a million times over, because it shaped how I handled grieving around my children.

The author was a grieving mother and she detailed the lengths to which she went to hide her intense emotions whenever her living child was around. She felt that shielding her would save her from seeing her mother in pain. One day when the child wanted to do something and the mother denied her because she was afraid that it would put her in a harmful situation, the child looked up at her mother, with large eyes and said something to the effect of,

You never cry about my sister who died, so I didn’t think it would upset you if something happened to me.

All this time the mother had assumed that she was sheltering her, but instead her daughter had interpreted her hidden emotions as apathy. Not only did this affect the way she viewed her mother, as a mother, but it also must have affected her own grieving process. She received the message that it was not safe to express her own emotions. She learned that when something bad happens, we just stuff it down and shut down.

That story has given me the permission and encouraged me to be open about ALL my emotions with my children. When they asked in the car why I was crying, I was honest and said because I miss Christian. When I gather them in a hug, now and then, I tell them how grateful I am to be their mom. Upon the arrival of milestones in each of their lives, it is not uncommon for them to see me shed a tear or many, as well as congratulate, celebrate and express my happiness for them. They are no stranger to seeing their mom experience a variety of emotions over a short period of time.

Isn’t this life though? So often a child is crying and we attempt to distract them from the thing that made them cry. It makes it easier on us as parents, at that time. What if I told you that it made it harder on the child as he grew up? Why are we taught at a young age to distract our feelings away?

It has made us into a society that is uncomfortable with messy feelings. The earlier our children learn that we must acknowledge and feel all feelings, the more equipped they will be to handle life. The more resilient they will be.

A great way to do that is to model it. Let them see that you have “blue” days and frustrating moments. Let them hear that you achieved a goal that you were working toward and you feel proud. Show them that there are a gamut of emotions and we all feel them at some point. The strength lies in feeling them.

The more we normalize and are open about our own emotions, the more encouraged they will be to share theirs. No one escapes this life pain free. Let’s help our children learn how to move through that pain and not disassociate from it. Let them know you see them and you are attuned to their emotions. Let them know you are a safe place and you will help them work through their emotions.

This has helped my living, grieving boys work through some really big feelings. It has helped them to learn that they can feel horrible in the morning, but things can turn around in the afternoon. Even more importantly if an event is traumatic and shakes them to their core, they can learn to work through it and rebuild. This is where strength lies. Love to Heaven…

Grieving, With Love

In the early days of my grief journey I was certain that there was no possibility of living the rest of my life without my child. I was only 35 years old when he died. Assuming, which of course no one knows, that I would live until at least 75 I had no less than 40 years of my life to live with the pain.

Unknowingly I was doing one of the worst things possible. My vision stretched 40 years out. Quite ironic considering it was difficult to get through one hour at a time in my journey. Sometimes I had to break my day into 5 minute intervals. I would think to myself, “Okay, I made it through those 5 minutes, I can make it through the next 5 minutes”. My therapist would always say, “Just concentrate on doing the next right thing”. It sounded simple but there were moments when I didn’t even know what that was!

If you are a newly bereaved person this means; breathe, get a glass of water, eat something, take a shower, take a nap. We are thinking basic here. You are in survival mode. It is all you can expect of yourself to be hydrated, fed, rested and clean. If you accomplish all of those in one day, good for you! To expect anything more is too much after your life has just been shattered.

This brings me to my next point of self expectations and judgment. It is so easy to be hard on oneself and judge “progress”. It is also extremely detrimental to any sort of positive mindset. I am going to take the pressure off right now. There is almost nothing you can do within the first six months of child loss that will make any difference in your mood for an extended period of time. This, at least, was what I experienced. In no way does this mean you should just give up and accept depression and hopelessness. When you have moments of relief, be grateful. Talk to your angel and tell them how much those moments mean to you or merely do your best to recognize them for yourself.

As a society we are always thinking back to “what worked”. Well grief, and emotions in general, don’t know that they are supposed to follow a script. They aren’t aware of the “do this and get that result” phenomenon. Accept that early on, and just keep trying different things that offer any sort of relief. I tried anything and everything because I was so desperate for a few minutes away from the harsh reality of my life.

Journal about what brings comfort or a sense of escape, and even what doesn’t. This will help you create what I call a Toolbox of Hope. The purpose of collecting all these ideas in one place is not to judge or assess your experiences, but to remember. Grief brain is a real thing.

As a grieving mom I was anxious to have moments of relief, but also scared. If I allowed myself relief did I love and miss Christian any less? Quickly it became evident that nothing would change the amount I love and miss Christian. Yet, it took time for that fear to fade and for me to assimilate to this new life. Like a baby learning to walk, I knew walking meant falling down and sometimes pain, but not trying to walk would mean I could never get to any other place. Slowly a balance was learned. It was much slower than a baby learns to walk!

Time is a large factor in grieving. It won’t wipe out the pain of losing your child, but it will change your relationship to it. While attending a virtual Compassionate Friends seminar last night, one of the speakers said something that resounded with me. He said,

“You can grieve in time with more love than pain” – David Kessler

This is a perfect vision of what my grief has transformed into. I am six years living on this Earth without my firstborn child and I will never stop grieving him. Even after 36, 46, however many years longer I live, I will always grieve him. These days though I am able to feel more love than pain. It is a balancing scale of sorts. Most days my scale tips toward grieving with love, but some days it switches to pain. This is a vast difference from my early grieving days, when it seemed like it was permanently tipped towards pain.

This sounds completely impossible if you are new to grief. I know that. You don’t have to accept it or even believe it right now, but try to keep it in the back of your head as a possibility. Let it shine as a ray of hope.

Wherever you are in your grief journey, know you are not alone. It is okay to feel sad. We are, in fact, on a sad journey. Just know that one day joy will begin to appear again. Sadness and joy will coexist. You will be able to move toward grieving more with love than pain. Love to Heaven…

Anger Rooted In Grief

A vine of sadness climbs up from the pit of my stomach. Rooted in the soil of grief, the offshoots extend through my limbs, each with numerous thorns protruding from them. Gripping sadness pierces my insides.

My memories of you are so difficult to feel. I can see them. When I allow myself to watch videos, I can hear them. I can’t feel them.

Sockless heels grazing my mid shins. I can feel that. It’s the only memory I can feel. It’s from your last day on Earth. You sat on my lap at my parent’s kitchen table just hours before your physical presence would be forever gone.

No longer can I feel your arms around my neck. I can’t feel your small body crashing into me or jumping on me. No more of your hair tickling my face. All of your physicality is gone from my life and my memories.

It’s been six years and I can only feel those bare heels on my shins. It’s not enough. I am angry, furious. Why doesn’t my body remember more of your physical presence? Why can’t I recall those nights when you would sidle up next to me in bed after a nightmare?

You are connected to so many beautiful days and memories in my mind but I want to FEEL them. All I have now is this vine of sadness, growing in me. I will make space for it and acknowledge it because the work I have done has taught me that it’s essential. I must feel to heal.

My work has also taught me that this is a wave. This is part of the grief cycle and I will come back around to the positive part of the cycle, but right now I am angry. Angry that my firstborn has been gone for six years. Angry that I only got to feel him with me, physically, for six years. Angry that that time in my life is over. Angry about these gnarly vines that are thick and twisted. Angry about the thorns that are piercing and painful. Angry that this vine will always exist inside of me. Angry that you no longer live outside of me.

Our spiritual connection will never fade, but I am angry that the feeling of our memories have.

Mothering Grieving Children

Children are amazing. They possess the uncanny ability to absorb information even when we have no idea they are listening.

A little over a month ago we lost a very special person in our lives, my father in law. To my children he was Nonno.

They had a mutual adoration for each other. What wasn’t to love? Nonno was a warm, cheery guy who took them into his garden, sang to them and supplied them with raspberries and whole chocolate bars. He had a big heart, big smile and even bigger hugs. Every time he said goodbye he made sure to tell them, “If there is anything you need or want, you call Nonno”. He was a quintessential Italian Nonno.

Family has always been a top priority in both my and my husband’s lives. We are fortunate enough to live 5 minutes away from both sets of our parents. Our children have grown up seeing their grandparents at least once a week. This was an important factor in deciding where to raise our family.

When we knew my father in law was nearing the end of his time on Earth, we knew honesty was imperative when speaking to our children. They’ve had more experience with death than some adults. It was crucial that we speak openly with them.

Curiously they each had a separate reaction. Anthony, age 9, immediately assumed the role of a mature big brother. He seemed to be stoic but it was unclear whether that was for him, for his little brother or for us. We constantly reminded him that we were a safe place. If he had questions or emotions, he was free to share them with us. At times he did provide insight to his feelings. His approach was extremely matter of fact. Death is imminent for all of us. He would miss Nonno very much, but when it was his time, it was his time. He was not detached from his emotions, merely aware of the reality of death.

Nicky, age 7, had a very different and much more effusive display of emotion. He immediately began to cry, demanding to know why so many people he loved had already died and he was only 7. He was angry, confused, hurt and sad.

It would have been great if I could have given him a answer as to why so many people he loved had died. Instead all I could do was listen and tell him I understood why he was so sad.

It can be hard for parents to sit with their children’s feelings, listening to their hurt and sadness. Our immediate instinct is to fix them. Pain and sadness are viewed as negative, undesirable emotions. While no one enjoys feeling them, we must. It is simple as that. We must feel our feelings. Children must be allowed to do that too.

Navigating grieving a child and raising other children at the same time has been one of the hardest things I ever had to do. It is completely overwhelming. Tasked with processing my own grief, and watching little people whom I love so much do the same, is all consuming and confusing.

There is nothing that I would love more than to wave a magic wand and erase the grief their little hearts have endured. I am certain this is not possible. The best course of action is to teach them how to maneuver grief, to teach them that all emotions, and expressions of them, are acceptable and healthy. Most importantly I can teach them how to continue a relationship with their loved ones who they are no longer able to see in the physical state.

Death is always going to evoke sadness. Grief will present itself throughout all of our lives, in different ways. My children’s relationship to grief will most certainly be different than most, given their young experience with death so close to the heart. In a total of 7 and 9 years they lost their brother, great grandmother and grandfather, all whom they were extremely close to.

Mothering my grieving children has been my job for the past six years. At times it hasn’t felt like enough. It certainly doesn’t pay any bills. It doesn’t always offer a sense of reward or accomplishment. At times it feels like I should be doing more than “just” mothering my grieving children. There are plenty of mothers who mother grieving children and have their own career. Sometimes it feels like I should be doing both. Many a therapy session has been spent processing these emotions, which run much deeper than just this. However, Christian is teaching me to trust my instincts and to be grateful for where my feet are.

One day shortly after my father in law went to Heaven, I was getting ready to go spend some time with my mother in law for the day. As I was saying goodbye to Anthony he said, “Mom, give Nonna a giant hug for me and tell her not to worry. Even though we can’t see Nonno anymore he is still here”. My heart melted. It was in that moment that I knew my “just” mothering grieving children was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.

Nonno and Christian and Grandma Tisi are all still here. They send us signs constantly. We feel their love and know they will never truly leave us. Even my boys have experienced this. Thank you Christian for helping to me teach your brothers this very important lesson of life, death and unending love. Love to Heaven…

Grief Personifiied

My name is grief and I am here to stay in your life. For better or worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health I will be with you. You have become my bride in this arranged marriage. I won’t be the best husband. I admit that right now, but I will always stick by you.

At times I will reveal my fierce, raging side, selfishly pulling you under and taking you to the darkest places. You will feel overwhelmed and overtaken by me. The negativity that will infiltrate you will be thick and black as poisonous sludge. It will fill every cell of your being. Worst of all it will overtake your mind, allowing me access to your thoughts. When these thoughts are audible in your heart, the pain will be unbearable. You will wish, hope, pray and beg to go back to the time when my round face and angry eyebrows were not known to you. Just when you cannot take another moment of it, and think you’re life will surely end as a result from the eternal despair, I will drain away from you.

Please don’t hate me because there is another side to me. I’m also soft and tender. I’m a thin veil of memories, a slip of string that connects me to your beautiful angel son. There are times I quietly descend upon you in a cloud of love. I slip across your shoulders as soft and smooth as a silk scarf. You can feel my presence and joy at the same time. I whisper a memory in your ear and a smile lights up your face. You hear Christian saying, “mommy”. You see him at the pumpkin patch in his blue and white striped overalls. You feel his thick hair running though your fingers.

You will never leave me and I will never leave you. You didn’t choose me as your lifetime companion but forever I will be.

Support Is Crucial

Sometimes it takes seeing someone as we were to realize how much we have changed. Let me explain.

I recently met a mother who lost her child two months ago. Let’s call her Nancy. She found me through a mutual friend who knew of my story.

Nancy is raw. Only two months have passed and she is in a place where hope is no where to be found. It hurts to breathe. It hurts to think. It hurts to live.

Shock has infiltrated every cell of her being but nothing is worse than the pain. It invades like an army claiming its territory. The physicality of it is debilitating.

I take the liberty of speaking on Nancy’s behalf because she has shared these emotions with me. Furthermore, these emotions mirror who I was as a newly bereaved mom. She is who I was.

Many of her emotions and experiences are who newly bereaved moms are in general. As she shared with our grief group what her daily life looks like, we all uttered phrases like, “Remember that?” and “The same thing happened to me”.

None of our stories are exactly the same but there are common threads in all of our experiences. Just as there are commonalities in mothering children, there are commonalities in grieving children.

Each of us finds different aspects of grief harder to deal with than others. No one was able to understand the physical severance Nancy felt when her daughter left her. It was so strong that it caused her to faint. After she spoke to other grieving moms she was validated that grief, is in fact, extremely physical.

Over time, physical symptoms do not completely disappear but they appear less frequently. Time stretches farther between each debilitating episode. I never believed that it would be that way for me. The heartbreak was so eviscerating that I was blinded to how my heart, lungs and body would ever function again.

Eventually our grief leads us back to active mothering and connection. We build and experience a new relationship with our child. Our means of communication change. Our expressions of love change. Our connections change, but the love never does. It continues to be given and received by both mother and angel. When we reach this part of our journey, the pain eases a bit more. We are assured that our angels are still present. It truly helps in finding ways to carry the pain. The “new normal” sharpens into focus.

My journey has taken me to places that are a distance away from where Nancy is today, but I walked in her shoes. My feet covered the ground she is walking. No one can walk that ground for us but they can walk it with us. Joining together, holding space for each other’s pain and speaking about the commonalities we all share can help us, no matter what we are goin through. Love to Heaven….

Photo Credit: Ron Chapple

Pitched Grief

I opened my eyes this morning, greeted by the bittersweet emotion that accompanies an angel dream. Recently I have been having more dreams with Christian in them. He is not the focus but a presence.

In this dream he was both. He was peering through a chain link fence at a baseball field. As he watched a boy hit balls lofted to him from a pitching machine, he had a look of sadness on his face. When I asked him what was wrong, he said nothing was wrong but he wanted to have a turn to hit the ball from the machine. My heart cracked, as it does each time I am reminded of things he will never get to do. He never did hit a ball that way.

At some point during all of this interaction a voice said, “He is unhappy on Earth because he is not fulfilling his purpose”. Well, maybe not those exact words but something to that effect. The inference was that his higher purpose and strongest, most meaningful affect is achieved as an angel.

It got me thinking. Is this really true? Or is this just something those who are grieving tell themselves to feel better?

You may have noticed that my writing has become sporadic. Where I was once in a spiritual growth period, I am now feeling stunted. My path is unsure. My purpose for this life is not clear.

Perhaps it is because I am dipping a toe into the acceptance pond. Five years have passed and that little boy who I imagined I would watch grow is truly gone from Earth.

The world keeps turning. Time marches on. It is a blessing to know that he is not forgotten. So many amazing people reach out to me and tell me the ways in which he affected and continue to affect their lives. Time marches on.

This is a cruel reality. Two boys growing up without their oldest brother. A mother and father left to watch as others morph into the type of person their son might have been. A life full of questions about who Christian would be if he were still alive.

The acceptance of this reality pulses through me in a different way than it once did. When we first lost him breathing was painful. With time that eased and I found a way to breathe but it was not as easy a as it once was.

Waves of grief would wash over me and my breath once again stolen. This still happens but not as frequently.

The dull ache that pulses through me now is constant. It allows me to live my life, function and make new memories with my family. It allows me to feel Christian’s presence.

Acceptance is a necessary stage of grief and reality, but it is also sobering in a way that none of the other stages have been.

And so, here we are peering through the chain link fence wishing, as a family, we could hit that ball from the machine. We will never get that chance. Just as Christian missed out on the opportunity to do so many things, so did we. We are merely spectators as other families experience things wholly and whack those balls out of the park. Love to Heaven…

Six Years A Boy, Five Years An Angel

It has been months since I last sat at my computer and wrote. There is not one simple explanation as to why that is. Today marks five years since Christian ran ahead to Heaven. These last few months feel as though I am wading through murky waters.

Although I know in my heart that Christian is always present, and I continue to receive signs from him, the comfort that this used to provide me seems to have become clouded. Where my life’s purpose of helping others post child loss was confirmed almost daily, it now seems to have completely become invalidated. The waves of grief have been crashing over me stronger and stronger. Their strength has robbed me of mine.

Recently while my boys were looking through old videos they found one of Christian from his fifth birthday. The backdrop was our cozy living room. Christian bounced up and down excitedly as he proudly declared that he was five years old. Behind him stood a vibrant Christmas tree, decorated with glistening lights, well loved ornaments and primary colored balloons. In the middle of the tree was a “Happy Birthday” banner.

His fifth birthday was momentous for so many reasons. Five years is a significant passage of time. Christian’s birth set a series of changes into motion for our family. He made us parents, he became an older brother, then an oldest brother. Over those five years we had evolved into a family of five. My destiny as a mother of three boys had been fulfilled. While I would have loved to mother a girl, I couldn’t love my three boys any more.

Christian was our firstborn and this meant he pioneered the parenting road for us. His first smile, laugh and word made our hearts balloon so big we thought they would explode. Our love for him grew each day. He also taught us the necessity of discipline. His mischievous personality produced tears, sleepness nights and uncontrollable worries, not to be outweighed by the love though.

The day he turned five we gave him a huge birthday card, which he opened half naked while standing on the dining room table. If that isn’t an image I don’t know what is! That was him though. He did everything full of love, life and passion. He had an amazing sense of humor and loved to be silly. When he was happy, it was 100% and when he was mad it was 100%. He continues this trend as an angel. His love comes through 100% and them some. His presence is so strong that people who didn’t even know him have felt him.

I will never know why we were chosen to be Christian’s parents. It is a gift that we were able to enjoy for far too short of a time. There is never a day that goes by when I don’t think of him. Never a day goes by when I don’t miss him and never a day goes by when I don’t say his name. This pain and heartbreak is a part of me. This grief has taught me just how happiness and deep, dark pain can exist alongside each other.

He is missed beyond measure. I am still not sure how I will go on living the rest of my life, each day without Christian. He is a special light. Tomorrow will be 5 years and 1 day and the pain will still be there. I will continue on, all the while knowing that the hole in my heart will never heal. I will also know as my son Anthony said, “You still have us, mom”. I will thank God that I have Anthony and Nicky. That is what I can do, Thank God for my living angels and remember, love and honor Christian. Love to Heaven…

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…