I’ve learned that there are new things to miss even five years down this road of child loss.
I’ve learned that any odd moment, random smell, taste,touch, or occasion can pierce that place in my heart that screams, “Dominic should be here!”.
I’m also learning additional ways his absence continues to shape the family we have NOW. Dom’s absence continues to impact decisions, expectations, hopes and dreams TODAY.
I miss family photos when I don’t count heads and note unfilled spaces. It’s not just Dom I’m yearning for. I long for us to all be together-no one missing. It’s a little easier (sometimes) when one or more of us aren’t able to make a particular trip or event because then it’s not ONLY Dominic gone from the frame.
But truth be told, I can’t stop my heart from looking and hoping that this time, it’ll be different.
This time, we’ll be whole.
I miss the ease with which I used to toss together family meals, social occasions and holiday gatherings. I’ve always LOVED making things special and never minded cooking buckets of food. I used to plan weeks in advance-gathering recipes, ideas, decorative items and sometimes little gifts or favors for those who attended. I checked with folks for dietary preferences or allergies. It was a joy even when it exhausted me because I loved shaping spaces and experiences to strengthen family ties.
I miss waking up and facing a new day without reservation or trepidation. I’m a sunrise kind of gal. I used to turn my face toward the big picture window in our living room waiting for first light to dawn and the day to get going. Fresh start. New opportunities.
It took awhile but some days I can do that.
Still there are many days I watch the trees come into focus knowing daylight can’t always lift the darkness in my heart.
I miss turning corners in my house or walking on my land encountering only good memories, happy reverie and hope that tomorrow would bring more of the same. When we moved here over twenty years ago, it felt like home. Plenty of space for children to run, exciting adventures discovering woods, water and animal life abounded. There are so, so many memories everywhere I turn. Memories used to spark hope for more. Now they are silent witness to the line that demarcates our lives into BEFORE and AFTER.
I miss the certain assurance when someone doesn’t pick up the phone or answer a text that “all is well”. We have always been a family on the move. It sounds ridiculous today, but a driver’s license was the ticket to a personal cell phone when my kids were growing up. As each one gained the privilege of driving away alone, we made sure they had a way to call and let us know they arrived safely. If I called them and there was no answer, it was a good hour or two before my heart went into overdrive and my mind imagined all the horrible possibilities.
Now I make that trip in seconds or minutes despite any logic that can easily explain it away.
I miss having energy to spare. I know part of my energy drain is simply age. I’m not so cocky as to assume the years don’t play a role in slowing me down. But I know that’s only half (or less!) of it. The constant effort to edit, direct, control and contain my words, thoughts and emotions sucks the life right out of me. What used to easily be a one hour job takes two. And projects I could whip together in a day require a week or more. Discouragement makes me sad and tired. So the cycle continues.
I miss sound sleep and good dreams. Right after Dominic ran ahead to Heaven I could barely sleep at all. There was no escaping awful scenes playing across my closed eyelids. Eventually I was able to lull my mind into a kind of calm and sleep a little. Five years later I rarely sleep more than two hours at a stretch without waking. While I usually roll over and doze off again, I never get the kind of restorative rest I really need.
Dreams are another matter altogether.
They are often full of jumbled bits that leave me unsettled and full of dread.
I miss making plans for next month or next year without the silent caveat that we just can’t be sure they will come to pass. A large calendar hanging prominently in our kitchen was my go-to for keeping track of crazy family schedules and commitments for decades. I took it down a day after Dominic died and didn’t hang another for over two years. I couldn’t bear to turn page after page knowing Dominic’s name would never show up again except in reference to him being gone. I have one now. But while I still write things in different colored pen (easier to see and track) my mind knows every single plan is really just penciled in.
Until the day comes or the moment arrives, my heart holds it lightly.
I miss saying innocent good-byes. I was never the crying mom waving a handkerchief as my kids made their way down the long driveway to the larger world. I always missed them, of course. But the goal was to raise independent persons capable of doing things, going places and living their own lives. So a good strong hug, a kiss on the cheek, “I love you” and they were off leaving a smiling mama behind. It never occurred to me that THIS time could be the LAST time I touched or talked to them.
Now, every good-bye is sacred. Every hug a prayer.
I miss hearing Dominic’s name in casual conversation. Oh, we still talk about him. But it’s not the same. Sometimes it’s awkward and leads to odd pauses. Most times it’s more natural. Always it’s with sad recognition that instead of memories we should be sharing fresh stories of adventure.
I appreciate each new day I’m given.
I take nothing for granted because I know how quickly and easily it can be snatched away.
But my heart can’t help but long for the way things used to be and yearn for the way things would be if Dominic were still here.
But when you ask me how I’m doing I never know exactly what to say.
Do I give the conventional, anticipated answer so we can each get on with our day or do I give you the answer that reflects the state of my heart right now?
Either way is risky.
When I go along with convention and answer, “fine”, I let others off the hook. I assure them the card they wrote or the meal they brought or the flowers they sent have staying power to convince my heart they care.
Depending on my relationship with them, sometimes it’s all (or more than) I expected. So we’re good.
But sometimes I thought they’d stick around, check in more often or offer some kind of ongoing support. Then I battle the temptation to reveal the actual state of my heart as a kind of retribution for being abandoned.
When I bravely offer an honest answer, I may catch someone by surprise, or make them supremely uncomfortable, or put them on the defensive as they scramble for some kind of response.
As a society we are simply unequipped to deal with the ongoing impact grief and loss has on a heart. We want all things to fit into the medical model of “wound-treatment-healing”.
But they don’t.
So, so many sad, heartbreaking, life-changing blows are never healed this side of Heaven.
It didn’t take long after Dominic’s leaving for life to ramp up and obligations to pour in. We had two graduations and a wedding within two months of his funeral.
Then there were thank-you notes to write, dishes to return and every day chores necessary to manage a home and family.
No escaping what must be done.
It took me a little while to realize that if I was going to survive this lifelong journey I had to make some changes in how and when I responded to requests to do something, be somewhere or participate in outside events. Because no matter how worthy the request, there was only so much of me to go around and I was forced to spend nearly all my energy and time and effort on figuring out how this great wound was impacting me and my family.
I cannot overemphasize how much strength and energy is needed to do the work grief requires.
At first, turning down a request or asking someone to reschedule was relatively easy-the loss was fresh in their minds and they were gracious and understanding. As the weeks and months and now YEARS have passed, it is harder…
It’s a well known fact that stress plays a role in many health conditions.
And I think most of us would agree that child loss is one of (if not THE) most stressful events a heart might endure.
So it’s unsurprising that bereaved parents find themselves battling a variety of physical problems in the wake of burying a child.
What may be surprising is how uninformed medical and even psychological professionals are with respect to the very real ways child loss intersects with chronic conditions and often creates new symptoms.
Here is a list of only SOMEof the physical manifestations of grief (via What’s Your Grief?) with my own comments :
Fatigue. If you’ve always been an energetic sort, you might find this aspect of grief particularly disconcerting. This kind of fatigue doesn’t get better with rest. I’ve written about that here.
Some days I can barely make myself get out of bed and when I do, I struggle to do any but the most necessary tasks. Don’t automatically dismiss this symptom as ONLY grief (although it most certainly could be!) get a thorough check-up to rule out other causes such as low thyroid, diabetes, heart disease, major depressive disorder or a number of conditions that can be treated effectively with medicine. Don’t beat yourself up if the doctor decides “nothing is wrong” with you. You are grieving and grief is work! I know this symptom has improved for me over time as I’ve established boundaries, admitted limitations and learned to rest when necessary.
Aches and Pains. Our bodies and minds are connected in ways not well understood. Mental and emotional distress can make any underlying pain condition that much worse. When I’m feeling especially lonely, desperate or sad my autoimmune disease flares AND my perception of the very real pain that causes is heightened. Pain and heartache can lead to a downward spiral that is hard to undo. Get help and treatment for the physical and give yourself grace and space to endure the emotional causes of body aches. Don’t self-medicate with drugs, alcohol or other self-destructive coping strategies. Reach out to a safe person and let them help you find a better way.
Headaches. Needless to say, stress makes tension headaches more likely. Sometimes, though, a headache can be a symptom of something more serious. Don’t dismiss an especially sudden, intense or long-lasting headache as “just grief”. It could be previously undiagnosed high blood pressure, stroke or migraine. Those being ruled out, various relaxation techniques, cold or warm compresses, over-the-counter analgesics and gentle stretches might help.
Sometimes grief headaches can be alleviated by the simple act of telling our stories. Bottling up emotions and thoughts adds to the ongoing stress and tension of my child loss burden. When I spill them-either on paper in a journal, in a closed online bereaved parents’ group or in person to a safe friend or family member-often I feel the band around my head relax and the pain fade away.
Tightness in Chest, Shortness of Breath. The day I got the awful news, I remember asking friends who came to sit with me over and over, ” Am I still breathing?” My world was spinning out of control and my body responded. Anxiety after child loss is real. Broken Heart Syndrome is real. Heart attacks are not uncommon. Don’t ignore these symptoms. But don’t be surprised if they persist despite all tests to the contrary. When I feel trapped and overwhelmed, a walk outside or even to another room can help. Deep breathing exercises and grounding exercises can often interrupt an episode.
Forgetfulness. I wrote this post on Grief Brain: It’s a Real Thing! a couple years ago and am always surprised to see it shared repeatedly. But I think it strikes a chord with any heart walking through grief. You are not crazy! You are not experiencing early onset dementia (most likely). Like other symptoms, get checked out if they persist or worsen. But odds are, your experience falls within the range of normal for anyone whose life has been shattered by child loss. Losing things, forgetting things, getting lost in familiar places, missing appointments or bill payments, inability to remember names of people you know well-all of these are common after loss. In time, the symptoms usually diminish. They have for me. I still have to rely on lists and reminders much more often, though. And that’s OK.
Inability to Focus. Like grief brain, this is another cognitive manifestation that’s not only annoying, it can impact life in significant ways. Before Dominic ran ahead to Heaven, I was an avid reader. I often had three or four books going at the same time. I could spend hours focused on a single project. Not anymore. I sometimes find it difficult to read a recipe.
I have to take frequent breaks when working on something because my mind gets fuzzy and I just can’t pay attention for more than a few minutes at a time. Some bereaved parents have to change jobs or careers because they are not able to perform necessary tasks anymore. This particular symptom has not improved very much for me although I’ve found ways around it. I use lists to keep an external record of what I should be doing and when. I mix up mindless chores with ones that require more attention to give my brain a break. I try to dissect larger jobs into smaller, manageable chunks. And sometimes I just have to admit that today a particular thing just isn’t happening.
Appetite or Digestive Issues. Stress has long been linked to gut problems. I suspect we’ve all had that “rumbling in our tummy” from time to time even before child loss. For many of us it’s exponentially worse after. Some bereaved parents try to stuff emotions by stuffing themselves with food. Others can’t eat at all. Still others experience stomach ulcers or bowel disease ranging from acute to chronic. I was hospitalized twice in the first year after my son’s death for serious colon issues.
Again, don’t ignore sudden or persistent symptoms. Try to eat well and avoid self-medicating with food. Added pounds rarely add up to better emotional or mental health. I let pounds I’d lost ten years ago find me again. Get help if you need to from someone willing to act as an accountability partner. I’ve recently joined a friend in setting goals for ourselves and sharing recipes and meal prep. Try to treat food as another aspect of grief work and manage it the best you can.
Getting Sick More Often. Stress lowers the immune system. That’s a fact. So when bereaved parents encounter germs (as we all do from time to time) it may well be our bodies don’t have the energy or resources to combat them. Colds, flu, strep throat, skin infections may all be more likely this side of child loss. Don’t be discouraged to seek treatment. There is so much we can’t control in life, but getting antibiotics for an infection is pretty easy.
It’s not in your head, mom or dad!
Grief has real physical manifestations.
Don’t be dismissed or denied the care you need.
Educate your healthcare providers and insist on being heard.
*photo credit: The Weight of Grief Scupture ~ Celeste Roberge*