The Empty Chair

Most people realize that the “big” holidays are painful for bereaved parents-Christmas, Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day-that makes sense.  

But what most people don’t know is that every single red-letter day-even the obscure ones-can be hard on parents missing a child.

Because any day that marks a departure from routine leaves gaps where I can dwell a little longer on the fact that Dominic is NOT here.

Any day off that lends itself to a family BBQ or celebration or just extra time around the table because we aren’t in a rush highlights that empty chair.  

ask me about the empty chair

 

Dispelling Marriage Myths Surrounding Child Loss

Today my husband and I celebrate 33 years of marriage.  

Our thirtieth anniversary was a mere two months after we buried our son.

Here’s the last “before” anniversary photo (2013)-unfeigned smiles, genuine joy, excitement to have made it that far:

hector and me 29 anniversary

This is us on our thirtieth anniversary, at our oldest son’s wedding -holding one another up as best we could:

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This is us last Christmas:  

beach hector and me and boys in sand

We are definitely the worse for wear, but we are still here.

Together.

There are a lot of myths floating around about what happens to a marriage on the other side of child loss.  The one tossed out most often cites a “study” reporting 90 percent of marriages fail after the death of a child.  

It’s just not true.

But the danger is that if you believe it is true, you may stop trying.  You may stop reaching out across the painful abyss that threatens to keep you apart forever.  You may decide that living alone with your broken heart is better than living alongside someone who may be broken in very different ways than you are.

It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

The truth is that child loss is no more likely to destroy a marriage than a list of other terrible life events-even though child loss is the most terrible.

A child’s death shakes a marriage to its foundations and reveals the weak spots. And EVERY marriage has weak spots.

So the challenge in this season of marriage-like every season of marriage-is to turn toward one another instead of away.  Choose to do the work necessary to make it:

  • Do the best you can to take care of your own emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual health so that you can come together stronger and better able to help one another.
  • Assume the best and not the worst about your spouse.
  • Allow for different grieving styles and different ways of honoring your missing child.
  • Get help from others.
  • Don’t expect your spouse to carry your load of grief as well as his or her own.

It takes energy and commitment right when we don’t have any to spare. But at least in this, we have a choice.

I have already lost so much over which I had no control.  

I will fight for what I CAN hold onto as hard as I know how.

wedding rings

 

 

Be Free to Celebrate [or Not!]

One of the most challenging things that faced me immediately after Dominic’s funeral was that we had two college graduations, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, his birthday, a wedding and my own thirtieth wedding anniversary within two months.

Thankfully we had some amazing friends and family that stepped up and filled in the gaps.

How do you celebrate when your heart is broken?  

How do you make merry when you can barely make it out of bed?

How do you NOT cheat your living children when you’ve buried their sibling?

In the three years since Dominic ran ahead to heaven we have marked the occasions above as well as Christmases, Thanksgivings, my father’s 80th birthday, my husband’s 65th birthday, my daughter’s graduation with a master’s degree and receiving Dominic’s posthumous diploma from the University of Alabama School of Law.

In between these mountain tops were multiple hills of accomplishment that required more or less recognition and affirmation.

So the question comes up:  “How should I celebrate [fill in the blank] now that my child is gone?”

The short answer is:  However best suits your broken heart, the wishes of your immediate grieving circle and your circumstances.  

And you owe no one else an explanation of why you make that choice.

Now, I’ll warn you that not all the choices you make will be received well by others who might be impacted by your decision.  Extended family, no matter how much they may want to understand, often won’t.

I get that-traditions are hard to turn loose.  Family habits are hard to change.  If everyone is used to getting together to open Christmas presents it can seem selfish when one person says they just can’t do it.

But no one but a grieving parent can truly understand that the most random things can trigger uncontrollable anxiety and overwhelming sorrow.  And no one but a grieving parent can know how much energy it takes to JUST SHOW UP.

Every single time my son SHOULD be here with us but ISN’T, is another stark and undeniable reminder that he is gone, gone, gone.

So this is how I make the decision about how to celebrate [or not!] any particular holiday or occasion:  I ask my husband and children first what will best meet their needs, feed their souls, help them face the day with minimal stress and/or sorrow.

Then I stack that against the expectations of others that may be involved.  Where they overlap, we join in.  Where they don’t, we politely decline.  And if there is a way to bend standing traditions to accomodate our grief, I will often propose a compromise.

I try to be thoughtful and plan ahead.  I try to let anyone else involved know as far in advance that we will either be participating (or not) so they can make their own plans. But I reserve the right to back out last minute if I wake up and find out I simply can. not. face. the. day.

So far I’ve realized that having a plan takes a great deal of stress out of the system.  Being honest with extended family and friends is so much better than trying to fake it and finding out halfway through the meal I just can’t.  Choosing to stay home is kinder than making a scene and ruining the gathering for everyone.

Sometimes my suggestions have been met with resistance.

That’s just going to be part of this life.  

I’m learning to stand up and speak my truth even when others don’t understand or like it.  I work at being kind but I won’t be bowled over by someone else’s lack of compassion.

So much of life this side of loss is outside our control.  We do not have to live up to other’s expectations of how or when or where we celebrate [or don’t!] birthdays, holidays or other special occasions.

None of us chose to be bereaved parents.

No one but us has to carry this heavy burden.

If we are going to do it well, we will have to make choices about the battles we fight and the additional burdens we allow others to place upon us.

It’s OK to say, “No.”  It’s OK to do things differently.  It’s OK to not do them at all.  

Be free!

authenticity brene

 

 

Bad Mama?

I have a heart for ALL mamas-the ones who are just starting out all the way up to the ones who launched their fledglings and have an empty nest.

I especially have a heart for mamas who have had to say “good-bye” to one or more of their precious children-sending them on ahead to heaven.

I’ve never met one that didn’t wonder if she did enough, said enough, loved enough-WAS enough.

I have a love/hate relationship with social media.

On the one hand, it allows instant communication and easy sharing of special events among friends and family in ways we could only dream about when my kids were tiny. On the other hand, the perfect pictures and carefully curated lives posted for the world to see place great pressure on those of us who look around at our messy houses and messy lives.

Add to that the articles and memes passed around and you have a perfect combination to crush a mama’s spirit.

Are my children being kept safe?  Are they being kept too safe?  Are they in the right school, the right sport, the right music program? Should I feed them this or that?  Am I doing enough?

Am I enough?

Am I a bad mama?

Can I just tell you something struggling mama?  Can I give you a lifeboat in the ocean of doubt?

God chose you before the foundation of the world to be your child’s mama.  He knows everything about you-past. present and future-and He chose YOU to help shape this little life into the person He created your child to be.

Yes, you make mistakes.  

Yes, you are flawed.  

Yes, you will do some things well and some things not so well.

But that is no surprise to God.

Look closely at the families in the Old Testament-you don’t have to get past Genesis to find dysfunction all over the place.  But God isn’t limited by our limitations.  His plan isn’t thwarted by our inability to follow directions.  His purposes do not depend on perfect parenting.  

Hallelujah! AMEN!

So buckle up and hold on-do the best you can to guide your family down the road God lays before you.  You will make some bad decisions and need to do a few U-turns.

That’s OK.  Lean into the One Who made you and made your children.

God has it under control.  

no way to be a perfect mother child in arms

Five Practical Ways to Support a Grieving Parent

It’s oh, so hard to know what to do when you are watching a heart break.

You want to reach out and make it better, make the pain go away, make a difference.  But it seems like nothing you can do will matter much in the face of such a huge loss.

While it’s true that you cannot “fix”  the brokenness in a bereaved parent’s life, there are some very important and practical ways you can support them in their grief-especially as the weeks turn into months and then to years.

a little consideration eeyore

Here are five practical ways to support grieving parents:

  • Remember anniversaries and birthdays.  Take note of the date our child left this life, his or her birthday, the day of the funeral-trust me, you aren’t reminding us of anything-we cannot forget!  When someone else shares that they remember too it is so, so encouraging.  It means my child is not forgotten, that he still matters to another heart and that someone else recognizes that the world lost a treasure.

every day

  • Keep showing up.  Keep inviting me to lunch.  I may have turned you down a dozen times in the first few months, but that was because I just. couldn’t. do. it.  As my heart begins to comprehend my loss, compassionate companionship sounds more inviting.  I need to talk, but it may take me awhile before I am able to do it.  Please don’t give up-keep trying.

good friends

  • Text. message and send notes.  I won’t always answer them, but a word at just the right moment may be what I cling to for days in the stormy sea of grief.  If you don’t know what to write, use google to find quotes on grief and copy them out.  A word of caution: don’t send articles on “how to grieve” or offer advice on “how to get over the loss of a loved one”.  (Blogs, books, pages written by bereaved parents for bereaved parents are generally a safe choice.)

compassion greatest form of love

  • Share a memory or photo.  One of the most painful parts of missing a child is that there are no new memories.  But there are “new” memories out there-held in the hearts of others who knew my son.  Times they shared that I know nothing about and that give me a precious piece of him to hold close.  Share a photo if you can. Post it to my Facebook timeline, send it in a text or message so that I can save it. Even better, print it out and send me a hard copy.  These are treasures for a grieving parent.

carry your heart with me in my heart cummings

  • Listen and affirm.  I know my child’s death is “old news”.  Years have passed now and it may seem like something I shouldn’t talk about anymore.  But it is an ongoing event for me.  Every day I am dealing with another aspect of how his absence impacts my life and the lives of my family.  I need to share that.  If I keep it bottled up, I’ll explode.  I’m not sharing on social media because I want to be pitied.  I’m sharing because my son is still part of my life just like your living children are part of yours. So please don’t ignore me and hope I’ll “get over it” if you do.  Acknowledge posts, comment on stories shared and affirm that my child matters.

band-aid-and-heart

You may be surprised how often I get discouraged and feel alone.  

An outstretched hand at just the moment when my strength is fading makes all the difference.

helping-hands

 

True That

In a family full of  young adults on the brink of life, of love, of making dreams come true, you never expect to hear these words, “It is what it is.”

But in a home where loss has taken its toll, I do.

Oh, how I long to restore the unmarred joy we used to know-when everything was possible, positive attitudes could overcome any challenge and the horizon beckoned with welcome instead of warning.

Our watchword used to be “Failure is not an option”.

failure-is-not-an-option

I even had a cute little magnet on the fridge that proclaimed, “Another day, another disaster”.

That was BEFORE.

Before the dawning sun brought real disaster to our doorstep.  Before the thing we had to face could not be overcome by more elbow grease, greater resolve or stronger faith.

Before death became very, very real to us.

We are not struck down in despair.  

We are not fatalists.  

But we do acknowledge the fact that this life is filled with things we cannot change.  We understand by experience that some things must simply be endured.  We embrace the truth that we depend on the mercy of God in every way.

So now we live this motto:  It is what it is.

ljs-228

And we take one another’s hand and walk on, through whatever it is.  We call courage to our hearts that no matter what happens, we will survive together.  

We keep loving and living and leaning.

Because that’s what we do.

Daily Battle: Tempted to Give Up

So many things raced through my mind in the first five minutes of hearing the news:

Oh, God!  Is it true? (I have to authenticate his identity);

How do I tell everyone? (I have to make phone calls);

What do you do when your child dies? (I have no idea how to plan a funeral);

and on

and on

and on.

Of course, that doesn’t touch the FEELINGS flooding my heart.

I don’t really have words for that, even now.

But as the days of crazy activity and people everywhere gave way to the weeks and months of silent sorrow, all I wanted to do was to give up and give in.

What was the point of carrying on if it meant carrying this weight of sadness until I was also in the grave?

At first, my motivation was to help my husband and children through these crisis moments.  My training gave me tools to give them words and ways to frame the pain. Hours of home “therapy” drained me but also gave me a sense of purpose and  direction.

It was a couple of months into this journey when  I faced my first test:  I suffer from a gastrointestinal condition that predisposes me to catastrophic GI bleeds.  Combined with the medications I take for RA, I woke one morning to find I was losing large amounts of blood.

It was nearly welcome news.

As weakness overtook my body, I could feel the lure of simply drifting away into eternity.  I was tempted to lie down on the bed and allow my heart rate to decrease, my blood pressure to dive and my soul to break free from this body of death.

But I didn’t-because I could not knowingly add to my family’s heartache.

No one was home so I drove myself to the emergency room and was admitted to the ICU. Several days and units of blood later I came home, restored to life but not unburdened of grief.

And so it goes.   Each day brings its own temptations.

I will be honest:  I am still motivated more strongly by love of my family than a sense of mission or purpose this side of burying Dominic.

Perhaps that is sin.  I don’t know.

But for right now, that’s enough.

Every day, even almost three years later, I wake up and must choose to go on.

I’m not suicidal!

I’m willing to stick around.  But I am no longer afraid to die.

I can say, like Paul,  “To live is Christ, to die is gain”.

doesnt-get-better-gets-different