Child Loss and SAD: Seasonal Affective Disorder

Most people are familiar with SAD-Seasonal Affective Disorder-a cluster of symptoms mimicking depression that develop in otherwise healthy folks when the shorter days and longer nights of winter limit sunshine exposure. 

Fewer folks know that nearly every bereaved parent has his or her own version of SAD which has nothing to do with daylight/darkness cycles and everything to do with the calendar. 

For me, it starts in February and runs through May. 

The last time all my children were together was mid-February 2014 as we celebrated the youngest’s birthday.  I remember sitting outside on the unusually warm day and chatting about random things.  There were two upcoming graduations and my oldest son’s wedding.

Someone said, “Hey, we should get a picture.”  Someone else said, “Nah-we’ll be making lots of pictures this spring.”  

So we didn’t take one.  

Every year that’s the day my heart marks the beginning of the end.  

The beginning of a march toward the most awful thing that has ever happened to our family.  

family never gets over the death of a loved one

Then there’s the day Dominic came out to the farm to fix a friend’s car.  They needed the tools and shed to do the job.  We joked and talked and shared a meal.

Then I hugged him and he went on his way.

That grease-stained jacket is still hanging on a peg in the downstairs bathroom.

Spring Break.  I thought I’d see him again before classes resumed but a trip that lasted a day longer than it was going to meant he drove directly to his apartment.  So a couple of weeks passed before he was able to plan another weekend trek out to the house.

I had just exchanged a series of messages with him, sharing photos of the heavy rains that ran our creek out of the banks and almost into the elevated roadway.

julian and creek in 2014

We ended our texts with “I love you.  See you Saturday!”

My heart still accuses me for neglecting the days between the last time I saw Dominic and the last time he drew breath.  If I had known then what I know now…

But we don’t, do we?

So on my season goes. 

From February and all the “lasts” to April twelfth and the devastating news that my son would never come home again.

Then my heart marks the funeral, cleaning out his apartment and the first family celebration of which one of my children was not a part.

A few weeks later is Dominic’s birthday on May twenty-eighth when he doesn’t get any older but I get further away from the last time I hugged his neck.

A long sad season indeed.  

Every parent who is missing a child has their own.  A time when he or she wishes the world would both stop to take notice and spin faster to make the days pass.

My heart and body respond even if my mind tries to pretend these weeks are really no different than the rest of the year.

My son is still missing.  

My heart is still yearning.  

This is still the life I didn’t choose.  

dominic at olive garden

 

Torches In The Dark

There are so many life circumstances that plunge a heart into darkness.  

Child loss is certainly one of them, although not the only one.  

And when you’re in the dark, stumbling around, trying to avoid the sharp corners and looking, looking, looking for a tiny sliver of light to guide you out, it is terrifying.  

If you don’t have a pocket full of matches or a flashlight or a lantern, you are at the mercy of whoever cares enough to come back for you.

I am so thankful for the friends and family who never tire of my fearful cries when I find myself in dark places.  

They come running.  

They don’t leave me there.  

Sometimes all they have is a tiny candle themselves, a sliver of hope they are clinging to.  But they raise it high , share its glow with me and together we take a step forward toward the brighter light of day.

I will never, ever forget the ones who come to me with a torch.

They help my heart when I can’t help myself.  

They refuse to leave me in the dark.  

 

you never forget a person who came to you with a torch in the dark

Photo of man with lantern by Marko Blažević on Unsplash

Fix It Or Forget It: Why Unfinished Stories Make Others Uncomfortable

Attention spans are shorter than ever.

It’s easy to understand why.  We live in a world full of sound bytes, memes, tweets and T-shirt slogans.

But life can’t be reduced to such little snippets, even if we wish it could.

Not every biography has the perfect “beginning, middle, end” arch that makes for a good and satisfying story.

Some of us can’t tie up our experiences in tidy boxes, with colorful bows and a lovely tag line that inspires thousands.

gift box with bow

We are living unfinished, messy, hard stories that keep shifting, changing and require us to face mountain after mountain and valley after valley.

And we stumble. 

A lot.

I suppose it’s tiresome for our friends to have to slow down, turn around, bend down and help us get back up over and over and over.

Many of our compassionate companions turn into personal trainers at some point:  “You can do it!  Try harder! Push farther!  You’ve got to work at it!  Don’t give up!  Come on, don’t you want to get stronger, fitter, better????”

personal trainer

The hidden message?  If I wanted to badly enough, would try hard enough, work long enough or get the right help, I could “fix” this.  I could emerge from child loss whole, healed and healthy.

And when I don’t, they get frustrated, disgusted or just plain bored and leave me lonely on the trail.  They walk away and forget-because they CAN forget.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  If you think it’s hard to watch your friend struggle with a broken heart, a shattered life, doubts and regrets, it’s harder to live it.

 

You can walk away.  I can’t.  You can go home, close the door and think of something else.  I go home, close the door and am flooded with thoughts, emotions and overwhelming grief.

mixed stages of grief

 

If I could “fix it” don’t you think I would?

But I can’t.

I will continue to have a messy, untidy, unfinished life this side of Heaven.

And I will keep climbing, struggling and stumbling.

Will you stick around and walk with me?

Or will you walk away?

walking-up-a-hill

 

 

Child Loss: Helpful Tips for Interacting With Bereaved Families

I firmly believe that our friends and extended family want to reach out, want to help, want to walk alongside as we grieve the death of our child

 I am also convinced that many of them don’t because they don’t know how.  

It may seem unfair that in addition to experiencing our loss, we also have to educate others on how to help us as we experience it, but that’s just how it is.

The alternative is to feel frustrated and abandoned or worse.  

So here’s a list of helpful tips (and a great infographic!) for interacting with bereaved families:  

Express condolences and show you care. Don’t avoid me, please!  You cannot make me any sadder.  I need to hear from you.

friends hugging

Refer to my child by name.  Dominic is STILL my son.  He is still part of my story.  But because he’s no longer visible, his name often goes unspoken.  Please talk to me about him, use his name, tell me a story of how he impacted your life or a memory that makes you smile.  It makes me smile too.

Actively listen and be supportive.  It’s hard to listen to someone tell you how much they are hurting and not offer advice or think of ways to “fix” them.  I can tell you from experience that what I need most on my darkest days is for someone to say, “It IS dark.  I’m so sorry.”  Silence is OK too.  Not every quiet moment needs to be filled with chatter.

listening is a postive act

Understand that each family and family member will grieve in different ways.  You may have observed child loss before but what you saw in one family may not translate to the next.  There are no hard and fast rules for this awful journey.  The age of the child, family background and structure, manner of death-all these impact grief.  In addition, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers all bring their personalities, stage of life, beliefs and experiences to the journey.  There were five of us left behind when Dominic ran ahead.  We were each devastated but expressed it in very different ways.  Nearly five years later, those gaps have widened, not narrowed.

Fathers grieve too.  Sometimes support focuses almost exclusively on the mother.  In part because of a common notion that mothers are somehow emotionally closer to their children than dads.  In part because many men are less demonstrative and may do a good job hiding grief.  Whatever the reason, don’t assume one parent is dealing “better” with the loss than another (mother or father) just because he (or she) is not crying openly.  No one escapes this awful blow unscathed.

bereaved fathers

Don’t overlook siblings.  Surviving siblings are sometimes referred to as “forgotten grievers”.  If they are very young, people may think they are relatively unaffected by the death of a brother or sister. If they are grown and out of the home, people may figure that the siblings’ own, very full and very busy, lives keep them preoccupied.  While some of that may be true-to an extent-most surviving siblings are deeply impacted by the death of a brother or sister, regardless of age.  Not only have they lost a member of the family and changed birth order, they have also lost the family they knew, the parents they knew and a co-keeper of memories and secrets.  Bereaved parents are often overwhelmed with grief for their living children as well as the child that is missing. One of the best gifts anyone gave me was reaching out to my surviving children.  It helped my heart to know that they had friends who were supporting and loving them well.

kids cartoon

Be yourself.  People often feel awkward and stiff when approaching a bereaved parent or family member.  That’s perfectly understandable.  The bereaved seem so fragile (are so fragile!) that folks are afraid the wrong word or touch might shatter them into a thousand pieces.  But what your friend or family needs right now is the you they’ve always known and loved.  If you are a hugger, hug!  If you are a storyteller, tell stories (appropriate ones, ones of the missing child).  If you are a cook and cleaner, then cook and clean.  Our family was blessed by our friends doing exactly what they had always done-come alongside in their own special way.  So much had changed in our world that familiar touchstones, familiar routines and familiar faces were a real comfort.

Keep in mind words matter.  Now is not the time to try to satisfy your curiosity about exactly “what happened”.  Loud joking is rarely welcome.  Many bereaved families find it hard to laugh in the first days, weeks, months because it feels like betrayal.  Don’t offer platitudes intended to help them “look on the bright side” or consider that “it could be worse”.  There is nothing worse than burying your child.  Nothing.  Listen and take direction from the person you are comforting.  Follow his or her lead.  And if something less than helpful slips out, own it and apologize.

pencil-drawing-bereaved-mother

It’s never too late to reach out.  NEVER.  Sometimes people stay away at first for lots of reasons.  Or they show up for the memorial service and then fade into the background.  After a bit, even if they want to reach out, they may feel embarrassed by the long absence.  Don’t be.  So many people stop calling, visiting and texting within the first weeks that your outstretched hand of friendship will be a welcome beacon of hope.  If you need to, apologize for your absence.  Be honest.  Admit you were scared or whatever.

Then show up. 

Stick around.

You don’t have to be perfect.  

Just be present.  

bereaved families infographic

Child Loss: Can My Marriage Survive?

A few decades ago, faulty research methods made popular an inaccurate statistic that a disproportionate number of marriages fail after a couple experiences child loss.

Like many urban legends, once fixed in the minds of many, it’s nearly impossible to dislodge.  

And that is more than unfortunate because when marriages falter (and they often do) after child loss, lots of people just give up because they think failure is inevitable.

But it’s not. 

Marriage is hard under any circumstances.  It requires sacrifice, compromise, communication, change and most importantly, commitment.

Any stressor makes it harder. 

I can’t think of a bigger stressor than child loss. It’s no surprise that many marriages tend to flounder in the tsunami of grief, sorrow and pain that follows the death of a child.

But grief rarely causes the problems that surface, it simply makes them unavoidable.

Suddenly all the energy that was once available to deflect, to distract, to pretend is gone.  And things that have gone unaddressed for years or decades can no longer be ignored.

charlie brown too tired to cry

It’s important to make that distinction because if child loss is the only reason a couple can’t find their way, then giving up might make sense.  Anyone who lives with child loss knows that the pain, sorrow and missing will never go away.  We become better able to deal with it, but it is something we will carry for life.

If, however, child loss is simply the force that shook other problems loose, then working on those specific issues is not only possible, it’s doable. 

wedding rings

Here are some common conflicts in marriage that surface after child loss:  

Different ways of expressing (or not expressing) emotion.  Men and women often grieve differently.  You and your spouse may have always dealt differently with strong emotions but until it was grief, it went unnoticed.  Sometimes these differences cause conflict because one spouse cries openly while another rarely mentions their missing child.  To the open griever, it feels like her spouse doesn’t care.  To the secret griever, it feels like his wife is dramatic and out of control.  If you don’t talk about it, the gap grows wider and can become unbridgeable. 

It’s OK to grieve differently.  But it’s not OK to blame someone for grieving differently.  Ask questions.  Give grace.  Listen carefully.  Grant space. 

style of grieving marriage quote

Blended family dynamics that have gone unaddressed.  Some bereaved parents are no longer married to the mother or father of their child.  They have remarried and are part of a blended family.  Any differences in grieving styles between spouses can be exaggerated when the biological parent feels like the stepparent “doesn’t get it”.  Sometimes the bio-parent becomes bitter that his family circle has been broken while his spouse is spared.  The list is practically endless but nearly always starts with things in the relationship that were always there-favoring one child over another, a sense that the stepparent never cared for her spouse’s children as much as for her own, or other silent resentment.

Before you assume that the only reason your spouse isn’t crying at all or as much as you is because it wasn’t HIS child, think carefully about it.  Have there been rumbles in your relationship before?  Consider the full sweep of how your spouse treated your missing child-is there ample evidence that he or she loved your child well?

Don’t jump to conclusions.  Ask questions.  Give grace.  Listen carefully.  Grant space.

listening is a postive act

Underlying health problems.  Sometimes child loss causes or uncovers health problems.  If you or your spouse suffer from heart disease, diabetes or other chronic health issues, the stress of burying a child can make any or all of them worse. Child loss can also push marginal mental health to the point of requiring counseling and/or medication.  Chronic pain tends to get worse.  Thyroid medication often needs to be adjusted.  All of these things can make someone grumpy, short-tempered, less likely to extend grace and mercy.  Add that to the stress of child loss and it’s no wonder spouses may find themselves at one another’s throats. 

One spouse may be motivated to take better care of him or herself while another may give up and give in, refusing medication or treatment for the most obvious health problems.  Frustration and a sense that the unmotivated spouse is making life harder for everyone adds to family stress.

If you find yourself or your spouse acting out of character,  a thorough physical examination and blood work can expose underlying health problems.  Appropriate medical intervention will make a huge difference.  Counseling is often an important part of that intervention.  

Old wounds.  Child loss is such a deep wound!  It frequently uncovers other, older wounds as well.  You or your spouse may have wounds from earlier in your marriage or from earlier in life before marriage.  Many, many times we cover these up and *almost* forget them.  But when a heart is shattered in the aftermath of burying a child, all those tender places become exposed.  Whatever tricks we’ve used to keep them hidden just don’t work anymore.

If you feel like you are reacting disproportionately to everyday stresses, stop and listen to your own heart.  Is there an offense behind the offense you think you’ve suffered at the hand of your spouse?  Is there an unhealed wound shading the meaning of words and actions that otherwise wouldn’t upset you?

 

heart baloon girl

I could list a dozen more examples of the complex reasons a marriage may struggle after child loss.  

I won’t.  

Marriage is a commitment.  A difficult, trying, time consuming, energy zapping commitment under the best of circumstances.  

 

Child loss may be the worst of circumstances.  

But remember that child loss alone is rarely the reason a marriage flounders.  

Look deep.  

Grant space.

Ask questions.  

Strain to hear what your spouse is really saying.  

Give grace.  

We can’t bring our children back but we can choose to fight for our marriages.  

They do not have to become another casualty in this life we didn’t choose. 

hands across table

 

 

 

 

Child Loss: A Letter to My Living Children

I never thought it possible to love you more than I already did.

But I do.

photo (20)

Your brother’s untimely departure has opened my heart in a whole new way to the glory that is your presence.  It has made me drink you in like water in the desert.

No more do I take even a moment for granted.  Never again will I be “too busy” to listen to you, to hug you, to greet you on the porch when you decide to make your way back home.

Read the rest here:  A Letter To My Living Children*

Child Loss and Secondary Losses

While I certainly had no real idea in the first hours or even weeks what losing a child entailed, I understood plainly that it meant I would not have Dominic to see, hold or talk to.

I wouldn’t be able to hug his neck or telephone him.  

He wouldn’t be sitting at my table any more.

But the death of a child or other loved one has a ripple effect.  It impacts parts of life you might not expect.  As time went on, I was introduced to a whole list of losses commonly called “secondary losses”.

secondary losses

Here are just a few:

Loss of a large chunk of “self”.  Dominic possessed part of my heart and part of my life.  It was violently ripped away when he died.  There is part of me that was uniquely reflected from him-like a specialty mirror.  I can never access that part of me again.

Loss of identity.  Before Dominic died I was one kind of mother.  I was a mother of four living children who were making their way in the world as successful adults.  I was a mother looking forward with happy anticipation to the next years.  Now I am still a mother of four children but one whose heart has been changed by tragedy and sorrow. Tomorrow is still bright, but there’s a shadow just behind it.

desimones uab family

Loss of self-confidence.  I used to enter a room without a thought to how I’d be received or perceived.  That’s definitely not the case now.  I’m self-conscious-constantly wondering if I’m saying or doing the right thing.  I never know if a grief trigger will (at best) pull my attention away from conversation or (at worst) send me scurrying for the bathroom.

Loss of sense of security.  I think every parent has moments of fear over his or her child.  When they first go off someplace without us, when they get a driver’s license, travel abroad, go to college.  But all the awful things I imagined didn’t hold a candle to the reality of waking one morning to a knock on my door and the news that Dominic had been killed.  The bottom fell out of my (relatively) safe world.  Bad things, random things can and do happen.  Once it happened to ME, it changed how I processed everything.  The passing years have softened some of the anxiety but I will never be able to assume safety again.

Anxiety

Loss of faith.  I did not “lose” my faith.  I never once doubted that God was still working, was still loving and was still in control.  But I most certainly had to drag out every single thing I thought I knew about how I thought He worked, loved and superintended the world and examine it in light of my experience of burying my son.  It took a long time to work through all the pat answers I had been offered and myself doled out to others for years that didn’t fit with my new reality.  I am learning that doubt is not denial and that I have to live with unanswered questions.

Loss of family structure.  I’ve written before that a family is more than the arithmetic total of the number of members.  There were six of us.  But we were so much more than six when we were all together!  Our talents, personalities and energy were amplified in community.  When Dominic’s large presence was suddenly whisked away, every relationship got skewed.  We’ve fought our way back to a semblance of “whole” but still miss him terribly.  We can function, but we will never be the same.

empty chair

Loss of my past.  Memories are funny things.  They are plastic and subject to change.  And my recall of an event is limited to my own perspective.  For a memory to be rich and full, I need input from others who were there as well.  One vessel of family memories is no longer available to add his unique contribution.  Every time I pull out a photo or dig down deep in my heart to draw up a treasured moment, I realize I’ve lost something I can not recover.  The joke, the glance, the odd detail are all gone.

Loss of the future I anticipated.  I’m a planner by nature.  Not a detailed, OCD, got-everything-in-order kind of planner, but a “big picture” kind of planner.  When Dominic left us in 2014, things were going (pretty much) according to plan.  Each child was well on his or her way to the career path they had chosen.  I was easing into an empty nest and exploring options for life after homeschooling.  My husband was entering his last few years of a lengthy career.  It’s hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, but when your world is shaken by child loss, everything gets scrambled.  You can’t just pick up where you left off and keep going with the pieces that remain. 

There’s a prolonged period of confusion and everyone is impacted differently and in ways you could never imagine.  All of us have changed dramatically in the years since Dominic left us.  He is not the only thing missing from the rest of our lives.  Holidays are altered.  Birthdays are different.  We have to plan special events around uncomfortable milestone dates that roll around every year whether we want them to or not.  It’s a constant readjustment to life as it IS instead of life as I thought it WOULD be.

Loss of ability to focus and function.  Oh, how this surprised me!  I was in some kind of zone for the first month after Dominic left.  My other children were home, we had to make it through planning his funeral, two graduations and cleaning out his apartment.  I also had to handle paperwork for my husband to take short-term disability due to grief.  I cried a lot, wrote down dozens of notes but managed to do what I had to do.  Then I crashed. I couldn’t remember a thing.  I couldn’t read more than a couple sentences at a time.  I hated the telephone.  I could barely stand to hear the television.  I had to make a list of the most basic things like brushing my teeth, feeding my animals, turning off all the lights before bed.  It was awful!  And it didn’t really get better for well over a year.

I still suffer from a very short attention span, low tolerance for noise and an inability to accommodate last minute changes.  I don’t schedule anything back to back.  I live in a rural area and sometimes shop in the nearby town.  I will start the day with a long list and shorten it repeatedly as I go along because driving in traffic, crowds and random sounds ramp up my anxiety and make me want to go home with or without what I came for.  I have changed the way I do so many things.  My pre-loss memory has never returned.  

griefbrain1

Loss of patience.  I am at once impatient and long-suffering.  I have zero patience for petty grievances, whining and complaining.  Yet I have compassion for other people living hard and unhappy stories.  I berate myself for not being “better” and, at the same time, extend grace to others who aren’t “better” either.  I want to shake people who bowl over weak, hurting, desperate souls.   I don’t have time for moaning about rain when you were planning a picnic but will listen for hours to a mama tell me about her missing child.

Loss of health.  I had a number of chronic health conditions before Dominic ran ahead.  Within the first year of his departure, I was hospitalized twice.  My experience is not unique.  Some parents suffer immediate health effects (heart attack, blood sugar spikes, anxiety/depression) and some see a slow decline over time.  In part because child loss, like any stressor, will negatively impact health and also because sometimes bereaved parents stop doing the things that help them stay healthy.  At almost five years, I’ve learned how to manage the stress better although some of my health issues continue to get worse.  It’s hard to tease apart what is age, what is disease and what is grief.

When your child leaves this life before you do, it changes everything.  

Not only things you might expect, but many you’d never imagine.  

It’s a constant balancing act, readjusting every day to new challenges.  

Struggling to keep my head above the waves.  

grief like the ocean learn to swim