Season of Grief: How a Heart Marks the Days

It’s different for every heart.

But each of us who know child loss have a season of grief.

It’s so much more than “just” the day our child left for Heaven.

For me, it starts in November and runs through the end of May-fully half of

every.

single.

year.   

November 2013 was my 50th birthday and the kids arranged a surprise party for me at Dominic’s apartment.  My husband was home from California and we were all together for my birthday, Thanksgiving and the Iron Bowl.  So many memories, so many moments.

As the leaves begin to turn in Alabama, my heart begins the countdown.

Then that Christmas-it would be the last one where the table was full and all I have are a few fuzzy photos because we anticipated a spring season of graduations and a wedding.  Plenty of time for better pictures when we were dressed for the camera.

As we hang the lights and the nights get longer, my heart gets sadder.

January was back to routine.  Everyone busy.  James Michael and Julian would be graduating soon.  We had normal back and forth texts and messages, never knowing how precious these few recorded words would become.

As we move toward warmer weather, my heart grows cold.

February 14, 2014 was Julian’s birthday and for a couple of hours all the kids were home. We sat outside on an old trailer laughing and cutting up.  Someone suggested a photo.  Everyone demurred because we were in ragged work clothes and thought it was a waste of time.  Oh, how I wish I had that picture now!

But there’s no going back.

I saw Dominic in March a few times.  Since he lived just 25 miles away I would meet him to go to Sam’s Club and stock up on basic food stuffs.  He came out to our place to work on a friend’s car.  He and Julian met up and made a road trip for Spring Break.

It was the last time I’d see him alive.  My heart hates turning the calendar to April.

April.  What can I say about this awful, awful month? 

I will never be able to recapture any sense of hopeful anticipation as flowers bloom and leaves bud.  I don’t care when the last frost might be because try as I might, I can’t plant a garden.  When the first really beautiful day arrives, whether or not it corresponds to Dom’s death date, it only makes me fearful other young men will take their bikes out for a ride after a long, cold winter.  I wonder how many mamas wake to a knock or phone call. 

The smell of cut grass reminds me of the people that came to help us clean up before the funeral.  The sun streaming in the living room window conjures the mornings I woke and dared it to shine in the face of such tragedy.

My heart barely holds on.

And then May.  Mother’s Day-what kind of mother lets her son die?  Even though logic tells me otherwise, my heart still accuses.

Graduations, weddingsreminders that Dominic never got to finish his law degree, will never marry and that every single molecule of him is gone, gone, gone-no children, no likeness ever looking back at me again in this life. 

Finally, there’s his birthday-the one he missed by only a few short weeks.  Forever 23.  Never any older.  May 28th comes and goes.  Sometimes it’s on Memorial Day like the year he was born but often not.  So I gird my loins to face the date AND the day.

My heart hurts but breathes a sigh of relief.

This season is over.  But it will come again.

So I try, try, try to cram as much into the intervening months as possible.

The calendar is relentless.

 

Even The Worst Day Only Lasts 24 Hours

Thursday was the fourth anniversary of Dominic running ahead to heaven and I felt like I was doing pretty well.

Maybe 48 months of practice had paid off.

No ugly crying-just drip, drip, dripping tears leaking from the corner of my eyes that morning.

Lots of thoughts were going through my mind but none touched my heart so deeply that I was immobilized.  In fact, my youngest son and I went to work on a project together.

Busy hands and all that, you know.

It was a beautiful spring day.  Just like THAT day when my lawn filled with friends and family, shaking heads and sharing hugs.

Doing OK, making progress, making a difference.

So, so many sweet friends sent messages to let me know they were praying for our family.  My phone was making happy noise all morning.

It spoke courage to my heart.

Until thoughtless words and random comments broke through defenses I didn’t even know I had built.

And there I was, overwhelmed.  It was not at all how I expected to end the day and it got worse.

Not only did I fall asleep ugly crying, I fell asleep angry and discouraged.

I know this emotional roller coaster is absolutely normal.  It is absolutely unavoidable.  All I can do is hang on and ride it out.

Friday morning’s sunrise brought new hope, new strength and new resolve. 

Even the worst day only lasts 24 hours.  

I’m so, so thankful for that.

because of the lords great love we are not consumed

 

Four Years. Today.

I remember when the first anniversary of Dominic’s death rolled around.

I was horrified that I had survived 365 days when I was certain I would not make it 24 hours.

Here I am three years later-the fourth anniversary of that awful day.

I’m still horrified on some level-it is obscene for a mother to outlive her child-completely Unnatural.

I’m also thankful-thankful that God has given me the strength to persevere when every fiber of my mama’s heart wants to give up.

Who in their right mind would CHOOSE to carry this pain?

And I miss Dominic.

I miss his voice which is increasingly hard to conjure in my mind.  I miss his sharp wit and snarky commentary on political and social events.  Now that I finally figured out how to tweet, I wish we could exchange comments and quotes.  I miss his laugh.  

dominic at tims wedding

I miss the family I used to have.  The one that could look forward without fear of waking one morning to another member gone-poof!  The family that was only going to grow, not shrink.  A mother’s heart is absolutely ready to expand, but refuses to get smaller because a child is no longer present to receive her love.

desimones uab family

I miss my rock-solid faith in a God Who promised to bless if I only followed.  I am not calling His character into question-I believe as firmly today that He is weaving a good story out of every circumstance as I did before Dominic left us.  But I do not receive this blow as a blessing.

I can’t.

I miss the enthusiasm I used to have for everyday events.  Making things special and beautiful was the joy of my heart.  I loved, loved, loved to add thoughtful touches to a meal or a moment.  While I am just as committed to my family as I ever was, I rarely have the energy for these things anymore.

I miss the future I thought we would all have together. I am still so wounded I refuse to look much further than a month ahead unless absolutely necessary.  The old me who envisioned grandchildren and golden years is gone.

beach-and-family-better

I am utterly unprepared to declare Dominic’s “legacy”.  Of course my child influenced people.  That’s what we do-we interact and influence and leave a trail behind.

But that is completely different than making a choice about what to invest your life’s energy into-completely different than what one attributes to a person whose long life leaves behind actions, words and work that form a cohesive testimony to a personality or passion.

I am not hiding in a hole.  I do not spend days in bed or sitting, sulking and silent, shaking my fist at the sky.

Even today I will get up, get dressed and DO what needs to be done.

But I will be mindful that one of my children is beyond reach.  One piece of my heart is unavailable for me to hold.  

cant-fix-it-my-family-is-always-achingly-incomplete

I will cry at what I’ve lost and be thankful for what I had.

I will look at pictures of Dominic and wish photos and memories were not all that is left of my third child.  

I will continue to live the life I didn’t choose.

family never gets over the death of a loved one

How Can I Survive Grief Anniversaries?

There are more than you might think.  

Most folks would count the date of death and maybe the date of burial or memorial service.

But a mama’s heart counts it ALL.

I count the day he left, the day I was first able to view his body, the days of visitation, the day of the funeral and burial.

  • I count the day we cleaned out his apartment.
  • I count the day I notified credit card companies he would no longer require their services.
  • I count the day I received the death certificate.
  • I count the day I got his posthumous diploma.

And every year these dates roll around again to remind my heart of the pain I felt then and to pierce it afresh. 

grief as timeless as love

So how does a heart survive all these grief anniversaries?  How can I navigate the minefield of emotions and triggers that only I can see?

I believe the first step is to embrace them and not try to deny them. 

 

Earl-Grollman-grief-is-not-a-disorder

I remember the horror I felt when I realized I had survived 365 days since the deputy came to my door when I was certain I wouldn’t make it through the first 24 hours.  It did not feel like victory, it felt like betrayal.  

How in the world could my broken heart keep beating if I truly loved my son?

I cannot, by force of will, fend off the feelings that are sure to invade my heart when it recognizes that another year has passed.  

The most important thing is to have a plan, I think. That way it doesn’t slam you against the wall unawares. The feelings are impossible to outrun, but having a plan means you are anticipating them and in a kind of “fighting stance”.

The plan might be to go away or to go to the cemetery or other spot that evokes strong connection to your child.  It might be an elaborate gathering that includes friends or family or just lighting a candle next to a photograph.  Your heart may insist you stay in bed all day, covers over your head and wait out the ticking moments.

I think each family has to approach the day however makes sense to them. There is certainly no “right” way or “easy” way to do it.

no right way to grieve

I am sorry you have to do it at all.

Here’s the truth:  even THAT day will only last 24 hours. Just like the awful day when your child left you.

However you manage to survive is fine. 

mother and child paintingYou are not abandoning your missing child if you don’t make a big public display.  You are not forgetting him or her if you let go of some of these grief anniversaries over time-you are learning to carry the load.  You are not a bad parent if you choose a getaway to distract your heart from the pain.

You are coping the best you can-choosing to carry on.  

And that makes you awesome and brave.  

courage is always an act of love

 

Surviving Grief Anniversaries

I know I’m not the only one who carries a calendar in my head that threatens to explode like a ticking timebomb.  Days that mean nothing to anyone else loom large as they approach.

IMG_2410

The date of his death.

The date of his funeral.

His birthday.

My birthday.

The day he should have graduated from law school

On and on and on.

How can I survive these oppressive reminders of what I thought my life would look like? How can I grab hold of something, anything that will keep my heart and mind from falling down the rabbit hole of grief into a topsy-turvy land where nothing makes sense and it’s full of unfriendly creatures that threaten to gobble me whole?

Every family,

every child that has run ahead and

every situation is unique.

What works for one person (even in the same family) won’t necessarily work for another. But there are some ways to make these days a little easier.

Here’s a list of what has helped my heart and the hearts of others walking this journey. Take what may help and toss the rest:

  • Invite friends and family to a special celebration featuring foods and/or activities that honor your missing child.  On the first anniversary of Dominic’s homegoing, his friends brought lunch and they shared stories and memories with me-many of which I hadn’t heard since he was living away from home when he left us.  I didn’t do a lot of talking, but just listening was a beautiful way to pass that day.
  • Ask folks to do a “random act of kindness” in your child’s name.  Some parents have printed out cards (like photo Christmas cards) and distributed them with a picture and brief information about their child and a way to post the RAK online (Facebook, Instagram, etc.)
  • If you have a charitable organization or scholarship or other project that bears your child’s name, remind people of it and request donations (if appropriate). Many times friends and family long to do something tangible to show they have not forgotten either.
  • For birthdays and holidays, purchase a cake (at a local bakery) or toys/gifts for a child the same age as your own.  I went a couple of days before Dominic’s birthday and paid for a cake ordered for a little girl’s first birthday.  I left a note that said, “Children are a blessing from the Lord.  Enjoy your sweet blessing.  In honor of my son, Dominic.  Love, His Mama.”
  • Some people launch lanterns at the cemetery or another meaningful place.  Check with local regulations before you do this-you don’t want the occasion marred by a confrontation.  There are environmentally friendly lanterns available online for those concerned about that. (This is why I don’t recommend letting balloons go.)
  • Gather gift cards to give to a local Ronald McDonald House or other charitable group that provides support for families of pediatric patients.  I know one family that did this for a group that had ministered to them during their son’s illness. The response was overwhelming and it touched them as well as all the families that benefitted from the gift cards.
  • Create a quiet memorial space in your own yard honoring your child.  There are lots of ideas online to get you started.  Some parents plant a tree while others use smaller plants and stones along with a bench and special items that remind them of their missing child.
  • Some grieving parents spend the day at home, under the covers and waiting for it to pass.

Most importantly, no matter what you do or don’t do, be prepared to give yourself grace whatever the day holds.

Don’t do what you don’t feel like you can do-even if you made plans ahead of time.

Do whatever helps your heart.

Hug anyone who chooses to come alongside and bear witness to this awful anniversary.

And hold tight to the fact that even the worst day only lasts 24 hours.

track record for bad days is 100