Watching my father grieve my mother is the second hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
Grieving my own son, watching my husband and children grieve him too, is the hardest.
I observe Papa’s expression, hear the weariness in his voice, note the far off stare when conversation drifts to mundane and unimportant things and realize that was exactly how I looked and sounded in the first months after Dominic ran ahead to Heaven.
I love my mama.
And I spent a lot of time with her these past two years since the fall and heart attack that changed everything in August, 2017.
But I was not her daily caregiver. My schedule didn’t revolve around whether or not someone could stay with her so I could go somewhere else-even if it was just down the road-for more than an hour.
I called each day and talked to Papa, checking on them both, but then I was free to do or not do whatever I wanted to without considering her need to be attached to oxygen and her limited endurance to do anything even then.
I tried to be supportive. I made multiple trips down to the farm and tried to give Papa some space and freedom.
That’s just not the same as 24/7 care.
His grief for the wife with whom he spent 58 years is deeper and wider than my heart can understand.
Just as my grief for the child I had carried, birthed, raised and cared for was impossible for him to fully comprehend.
Dominic is his grandson. And as grandparents go, my parents were extremely involved in my kids’ lives-showing up to not only the important events and occasions but also to many mundane and everyday moments.
But the gap between even frequent visits and daily living is huge.
So while I cannot feel precisely what Papa is feeling about Mama-his wife-I can absolutely understand how very devastating his loss is.
Our losses are different in kind but not in quality.
When I look at him, I’m looking in a mirror.
Grief etched everywhere.
Pain across his forehead.
Heartache painted on his lips.
I am so sad that I am no more able to touch that deep wound and render healing than anyone was able to touch mine and do the same.
No one can do the work he has to do but himself-not even someone who has done the same work in her own life.
All I can offer is to walk with him, no matter how hard it gets, for as long as it takes just like he did (does!) for me. ❤
I thought I understood just how heavy it was the moment the deputy’s words sank deep inside and crushed my heart.
But I didn’t know the half of it.
You really can’t know how large a person’s absence is until you’ve explored the edges of the world without him or her.
When folks started coming up our long and winding drive, even though I knew full well he would not be among them, my eyes strained to see inside every car. When his friends gathered in our front yard, I couldn’t help looking through the picture window trying to make out his face among the crowd. When we walked into his now-empty apartment I thought surely he was in his bedroom, around the corner, just out out of sight.
But he was nowhere to be found. And the hole in my heart where he should be but wasn’t got bigger.
Those were just the early days.
In the weeks, months and years to follow I found everywhere I set my foot that followed a path we’d walked together, I missed him. When the next movie in a series was released, he wasn’t there to watch it with me. Family gatherings, holidays, birthdays, graduations all went on without him and my heart counted his absence.
From sunrise to sunset my heart marks all the Dominic-sized spaces in a day.
At night, dark stillness invites me to recite them.
But after more than five years, most people no longer see any tale-tell sign of this mama’s heart longing desperately for one more minute, one more hug, one more quick exchange of “I love you!”
I have grown stronger and better able to carry this load of missing.
Daily exercise will do that.
And it IS a daily exercise-lifting the missing up on my shoulders or carrying it in a basket on my head like women hauling water from a well far away has taught me to bear it well.
I still miss him.
I will always miss him.
Greater strength means I can shift the missing to make room for living. I can carry that weight and still find room to carry joy.
I never ask anyone to adjust the thermostat in a car or at home unless I’m suffocating or shivering.
It’s a point of personal pride that I can tolerate a wider range of temperatures than most people.
And for awhile, I carried that same prideful disdain for “weaker folks” into my grief journey.
I was determined to endure whatever blows might come my way via comments, behavior, subtle and not-so-subtle attempts by others to circumscribe, dictate or otherwise influence my loss experience. I didn’t want to abandon pride in my own strength by admitting I wasn’t as strong as I wished I could be.
Then one day I realized that being honest was not the same as being rude. Telling the truth was not the same as acting selfishly.
Nothing is gained by remaining silent in the face of ignorance or arrogance or just plain inattention. The person who crosses a boundary of compassion or grace or love or empathy and goes unchallenged is set free to do it again-to me or someone else.
So I started telling people the truth:
“I’m sorry, I just can’t talk about this right now.”
“I appreciate your need to fill this vacancy but I’m not emotionally prepared to take on any new responsibilities.”
“Today is a hard grief day, can we discuss this later?”
“I don’t think I will be able to come, it’s too hard to be around a crowd these days.”
“I know you mean well, but your comments hurt my heart. You can’t understand precisely what I’m going through and I know that. I would appreciate it if you respected that fact and didn’t try to ‘help’ me by sending articles, etc.”
“I’m tired today. I’m taking a break from everyone but family.”
“The holidays are hard on my heart. I’m thankful you find joy in them. I won’t be attending the party (family gathering, etc.) this year. Maybe next year will be easier.”
“I’m getting anxious, I need to go.”
Except for a lone individual, every time I chose honesty, it was not only accepted, it was applauded.
People got it! Not that they truly understood in the deepest sense what I was going through, but they respected that I was, in fact, GOING THROUGH something hard, heartbreaking and life changing.
Like I’ve said before, my emotions will leak out somewhere. I can’t keep them bottled inside forever.
When I choose to be honest AT THE TIME it’s so much better.
When I let folks know that what they say, do, expect from and thrust upon me is unhelpful or overwhelming or even painful, they usually respond with gratitude. They almost always accept my boundaries.
Those of us walking the Valley often say that those who aren’t just can’t understand. They don’t know what they don’t know.
But they can be educated about some of what we know.
They can learn that some things hurt and most of them would be glad to know it because they don’t wish more pain on our already broken hearts.
It’s OK to ask someone to make adjustments to make the journey less difficult.
I think it’s almost always offensive when someone says, “I know just how you feel” to a grieving heart.
Even two biological parents of the same child have a slightly different relationship with him or her because their experience is filtered through the lens of distinct personalities, shared adventures, struggles, joys and secrets.
We are a family of six-four kids and two parents.
Each one of us has experienced Dominic’s death differently because he was uniquely woven into the fabric of our separate stories as well as our corporate story.
Parts of me reflected back from him are gone forever. The unique give and take we shared is my loss alone.
Sibling memories, inside jokes, sneaky “don’t tell mom” pranks and antics belong to his sister and brothers and are part of their loss I can neither understand nor access.
Yes, we share corporately the loss of a son and brother, but none of us can really say, “I know just how you feel”.
Because we don’t.
And that’s one of the things that makes grief a very lonely journey.
All these feelings wrapped inside of experiences bound up in memories stored in two hearts. Only now one of them is inaccessible and the other is trying to find a way to carry both halves of the relationship.
Part of the work grief requires is gathering up the fragments of memory and tucking them safely away.
It will be different for each heart.
Even hearts that mourn the loss of the same person.
I’ve written before about how I choose to leave some things just as Dominic left them-even over five years later.
It’s my way of maintaining physical space in our home that represents the space in my heart where only he can fit.
It’s also more than that.
As time progresses, nearly every other tangible evidence that Dominic existed is being worn away.
Sure there are photographs-but even they are growing old while he is not. No fresh adventures captured on phone or film. No new Facebook or Twitter posts. No new anything.
And as he becomes less relevant to other people’s lives, the gap between my experience and their’s grows ever larger.
Because he is just as relevant to my life as he ever was.
I have four children. Dominic is third of four, second of three boys. He is Uncle Dominic to my new grandson although Ryker won’t meet him in this life. He is my encouragement to keep doing hard things because he never allowed difficulty or pain to stop him from doing them.
His absence looms large. Every. single. day.
And sometimes, when it seems the world has forgotten him, when all the bits and pieces of who he was in life and how he touched others are floating away in the ocean of human activity, it looms larger.
So on those days I’m a little weepy.
On those days I may talk of him more.
On those days I might have to pull out the old photos and post them online.