I think often about the things my children know that others don’t have to know.
The fact that life is precious, short and never guaranteed no matter how young or healthy you may be.
The reality that doing everything right or keeping your nose clean or staying “prayed up” doesn’t guarantee you’ll be spared from death, destruction or devastation.
It’s true that several generations ago folks grew up knowing all these things as a matter of course. But we’ve forgotten so much of this with antibiotics, life extending interventions, emergency medicine and abundant food, water and other resources.
I never interact with my earthbound kids without thinking about all the ways we are changed because death has invaded our home and our lives.
My youngest son worked hard to retrieve some precious digital photos from an old laptop.
Being very kind, he didn’t tell me that we might have lost them until he was certain he had figured out a way to get them back.
So he and I had a trip down memory lane the other evening.
In the years since I started sharing in this space I’ve had many challenges in addition to the ongoing burden of missing Dominic.
Our family has gained members, lost members, my health has declined, my husband has retired and all my earthbound children have experienced lots of important and sometimes uncomfortable or unwelcome life changes.
For some reason the past two and a half years have been more difficult to navigate in certain ways since the first two years after Dominic’s death. In fact, the past six months have been particularly hard but I can’t put my finger on exactly why.
Maybe it’s fatigue-emotional, psychological, spiritual, relational-or maybe it’s what marathoners know as “the wall”. That place when you’re fully committed to running the race but suddenly wondering what the heck you’ve gotten yourself into.
I don’t run marathons (just look at me and you’ll know that!) but I do tend to push through pain and discouragement and what others consider unbeatable odds to reach whatever goal I’ve set for myself. I haven’t been able to employ the usual pep talks or psychological tricks or external cues to do that of late.
I’m spending too much time thinking about what I need to get done and not enough time doing it.
I’ve got tons of half-written blog posts in my draft folder and too few finished ones lined up to publish.
I remember feeling a bit like this when I graduated from college three months pregnant with my daughter. One giant task was accomplished but one, largely unknown, task was staring me in the face.
That summer is a blur.
I know I did some practical and predictable things to get ready for Fiona’s arrival but I’m not sure I really had much of a plan.
I’ve been walking the road of child loss for more than eight years now. I’m committed to sharing the journey with whomever it might help. I have a basic daily routine that at least includes finding old posts to re-share if not carving out time to create new ones.
The other hours of my day are spent talking or messaging with family and friends, moderating an online bereaved parent community, trying to keep my house relatively clean (no white gloves allowed!), walking two miles each morning, doing research, cooking meals and handling five or six (typically) other random and/or pressing issues along with caring for our menagerie of pets and livestock.
And while my life is good, I’m definitely experiencing dissonance between what I thought it would be like at 58 and what it actually IS.
I thought I’d be writing books or making quilts or teaching craft or cooking classes in my local church.
I absolutely, positively didn’t think my story would include child loss! I couldn’t have imagined that fused bones in my hands and wrists would keep me from doing so many of the things I love to do.
I’m not complaining (well, I’d complain to anyone who’d listen about Dominic not being here) but I am just being honest.
I know the saying, “Grieve the life you thought you’d have and then move on with the life you actually have and be grateful for it”.
Trust me, I have and I am.
I am so, so grateful for each day’s beauty, blessings and the grace and strength to appreciate them.
I am beyond grateful for a loving family, my precious grandsons, the gift of modern medicine and compassionate companionship of friends who help make my burdens easier to carry!
I do wake every morning thankful for the breath in my body and the promise that this body is not the only one I’ll ever have.
I look forward to the final and complete redemption of every pain, every tear, every sad and awful thing, and the restoration of all that has been stolen.
This life continues to be one I didn’t choose but one I choose to make as joy-filled and as productive as possible.
I’m not usually a person who sits frozen when something unexpected or even something awful happens.
But the events in Uvalde, Texas have paralyzed me.
So many parents, grandparents and siblings thrust into the horror of loss and sorrow in a mere forty-five minutes! How does a heart process that when it knows exactly the long, awful road those families are just beginning to tread?
This isn’t about me, though, it’s about them.
It’s about the dozens and hundreds of people whose lives are touched by the tragic deaths of children and teachers who woke up that morning thinking the school year was winding to a close and looking forward to a summer of freedom.
Instead those families have been circled by chains of grief and will spend the next months and YEARS trying to figure out how to live when their worldview and hearts have been shattered.
I can identify with that.
Dominic was killed weeks shy of his twenty-fourth birthday and an even shorter time shy of finishing his second year of law school.
It was supposed to be downhill from there.
It was three days short of the end of the school year for those precious souls trapped by an evil young man in a classroom with no where to go but Heaven depending on where he pointed his weapon.
How does a parent process that?
How does a mama or daddy keep from lamenting how very close his or her child was to escaping this awful end? How does anyone not count the days and hours and moments that might have meant the difference between life and death?
For those whose hearts have been spared-I am so, so thankful.
For those of us who KNOW- I am so, so sorry.
You have probably also been paralyzed and horrified. You know the long, torturous path stretching before these parents. You know that there are no shortcuts, no detours, no magic to make it less painful.
Your breath has come in gasps interwoven with prayers for grace and strength.
You’ve avoided blaring newscasts and only checked intermittently for updates.
You may have cried, like me, in the shower or in a corner because the idea of another parent joining this “club” always makes you sad.
It’s especially difficult knowing that the end of the school year was so. very. close. The opportunity to do that kind of damage was nearly out of his reach.
I’m at my dad’s place this weekend for a family funeral.
My great-aunt, the last of seven adult siblings in my grandmother’s family left for Heaven in April. So cousins from around the country are gathering to honor our family legacy and remember, remember, remember.
It’s hit my particularly vulnerable heart (Dominic’s birthday is May 28) hard, hard, hard.
I wake up each morning in the the home where my great-grandparents, my grandparents and my mama lived. My dad still lives here. So. much. life. has transpired within these walls.
Death has been here too.
Grandpapa Cox was laid out in the living room. I remember looking down on him lying there and asking what he was doing, stiff and still in that box.
When I sat in the pew next to more than two dozen folks with whom I share DNA I thought about the hymns and prayers lifted in the little country church we’d all attended at various times. I pictured my gray-haired greatgrandmother, Mama Eva, sitting in the corner by the window-her daughters next to her. I saw my own mama’s casket centered below the pulpit, her hands holding the white rose and Dominic’s photograph.
And here we all are writing new stories while carrying chapters from the old ones with us into the future.
People say, “Let’s not wait until the next funeral to get together” but we almost always do. The most complete family photos tend to be at sad events when folks are compelled to show up and don’t dare offer feeble excuses for not coming.
We have our share of photos from the past couple days. Cousins now lined up with gray hair and laugh lines just like our parents and grandparents before us.
One thing I’ve learned from death is this: you can’t stop time no matter how badly you might wish you could.
For those of us who have experienced child loss we not only mourn what we once had and knew but what we will never have and never know. We lost a future as well as a past.
I’m thankful that most of my folks tend to live long lives and leave for Heaven at a ripe old age.
I’m so sorry that Dominic wasn’t one of them.
Today I’ll breathe and rest and digest the old memories and the new ones.
I’m thankful these good-byes aren’t final.
I’m thankful I’ll see the ones I love sooner than I might imagine.
It would be lovely if life were neatly divided into seasons or sections.
But like so many things, there are no clean lines between now and what used to be.
Who I am today is shaped by who I was the day before.
I think that’s one of the things I enjoy most about fiction-authors are free to wander back and forth among character’s thoughts, past experiences and present reality.
It makes for a more complete story.
Each year about this time (in the waning days of my Season of Sorrow) I usually stop and take stock of how far I’ve come and how grief continues to shape my life.
There are many, many ways I’ve healed and am healing:
I no longer cry every day.
I feel true joy!
The pain of losing Dominic doesn’t dominate me although it plays like Background Music-not always demanding my attention.
I celebrate my family and my family’s milestones with genuine excitement and once again enjoy planning get togethers, birthdays and (most!) holidays.
I function at a higher level and am able to rejoin some groups and participate in some activities I just couldn’t manage in the early years.
I’ve made peace with the questions that won’t be answered this side of eternity.
I’ve incorporated traumatic loss into my understanding of Who God is and how He may work in world while accepting I don’t always like it.
I attend baby showers, weddings and even funerals without bringing all my lost dreams or personal sadness to the event.
I laugh-a lot. It feels good again to belly laugh at family memories or new jokes.
I can extend hospitality once more. That was a core component of my pre-loss life and personality and I missed it.
But there are many ways in which grief and loss continues to inform how I walk in the world:
I absolutely, positively cannot multitask! I have to break daily chores into single actions so I can focus and accomplish one thing at a time. I used to be able to cook, talk on the phone, bend over and motion to a child needing help with school all at once. Not anymore! Just recently I lost an important piece of mail most likely because I was looking at it while chatting to a family member. I put it down and cannot for the life of me remember where it is.
I become anxious when around too many people-especially if they are people I don’t know or the venue is one with which I’m unfamiliar. This even happens in the car driving in new places. I was never an anxious person before. In fact, I was typically the voice of calm in a group of friends panicking over some small detail that went awry. I try not to share my anxiety, but it’s there and it takes a huge amount of energy to corral it and keep it from escaping into wild demonstrations like running from a room. (I do a lot of counting/visualizing/breathing and self-soothing.)
I don’t like noise. To be fair, I never really did but now it’s exacerbated. Shopping can be a real trial when stores insist on blasting music in hopes it makes patrons feel like spending more money. I, for one, just want to get what’s on my list and get the heck out of Dodge! I love children but I can’t tolerate the incessant chatter little ones bring to a Sunday School classroom or a Vacation Bible School craft table. I used to be the first one to volunteer for those posts but I just. can’t. do. it. anymore.
I crave predictability. I know, I know, of all people I should understand control is an illusion. I do. But the tiny details of life-like planning meals, choosing clothes, cleaning routines and evening quiet times- are things I want to be able to count on. Routine is my friend. It helps my mind (such as it is) operate on reliable pathways. I’ve never been a big fan of random, but now it’s something I try to avoid at all costs.
I need solitude. I’m still processing some things. I imagine I’ll be doing that the rest of my life as different experiences from NOW interact with my loss. I cannot do that in the presence of others. I need to think, reflect, write, read and walk it out. That means I have to devote time and space to being alone. If circumstances prevent me from quiet solitude for too long my blood pressure climbs, my patience disappears and little things grow large.
I don’t sweat the small stuff (usually-see above!). If time, effort or money can remedy it then it’s just. not. a. problem. I’ve learned the hard way that life and love are the most important things in life. Everything else might be nice but it’s not essential. I’m not minimizing the stress and strain of broken pipes, wrecked cars or lost jobs. It’s just that eventually those are situations that can be fixed. And lest you think I’ve not experienced any of those, I have. My first thought whenever anything happens I once perceived as “the worst thing that could happen” is, “It’s absolutely, positively NOT the worst thing that can happen”.
I need to observe a careful rhythm of commitment and freedom on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. I always kept my big calendars each year and tossed them into a box of “if I ever need to know these things”. When I look back on how busy we were as a young family I’m astounded at the pace we kept, the places we went, the hours I was frantically working to fulfill all our obligations along with the things we just wanted to do. I’m sure some of this is a function of age-I’m no spring chicken any more-but I know in my bones it’s also a function of the ongoing toll grief takes on my body, mind and soul. I can only manage a few days of busyness in a row until I need a complete shut-down for at least twenty-four hours or more. I refuse to schedule any but the most difficult to get appointments in a week where I’ve already inked in other commitments.
Sleep, regular exercise and good food are necessary for me to face life with a good attitude. This is probably true of most folks but just a day or two of fast food, no outdoor walks or interrupted nights and I’m toast. I’m not a whole foods, organic everything kind of gal but I try to eat a variety of fresh and less-processed meals. When I’m home I have an almost two mile path through woods and up gentle inclines that builds muscle, exercises my lungs and body and gives me ample time to drink in the beauty of birds, wildflowers and leafy trees. If you’ve ever been to my home you know that the rest of the crowd can stay up as long as they want to but I’m headed upstairs between eight and nine. Of course I get up before the sun, so my total hours are roughly the same but there’s something about that pre-midnight sleep that restores me like no other.
I could probably list dozens more, less obvious, ways grief still shapes the me of today. But it no longer binds me like it did in the early days. I’m better able to work around the difficult bits and still make a meaningful life with the people I love.
I first shared this five years ago so it may shock some folks that while I have finally tossed most of the things in my fridge that once belonged to Dominic, I’ve got a giant bottle of hot sauce I’m still using.
Every time I add spicy flavor to chili I think of him.
I’m not looking forward to the day it runs out because it will be one more link dissolved between the living son I knew in the flesh and the memories I have to settle for now.
My parents live in another state so I call each morning just to check in and say hello.
We usually chat about what we have planned for the day, what we did the day before and share any important family updates.
Yesterday my dad mentioned that he had been to the grocery store, came home and when putting away the food he bought decided to clean out his refrigerator. He joked that he found some things from years ago tucked in the back where they’d been forgotten.
I laughed and said, “Yeah-I did that sometime last summer.”
And then my heart froze as I remembered another fridge I cleaned out three years ago.
I went on to say, “I threw out all the old stuff except what I took out of Dom’s fridge when we cleaned his apartment.”
Today marks eight years since we gathered with friends and family to say our final good-bye to Dominic.
It had been eleven long days since the deputy woke me up on April 12th. Days when I was both unbelieving and overwhelmed by the fact my son would never cross the threshold again.
I woke up that morning numb.
I’d cried every day but for some reason when faced with this final act I couldn’t muster tears.
We received folks for a couple of hours before the service began and during that time I reached behind my back and placed my fingers in Dominic’s cold right hand clinging to the few moments I had left with his earthly shell.
So, so many people I didn’t expect to come, came. So, so many hugs and whispered words and sad smiles marched past as we were forced to participate in a parent’s worst nightmare.
When the funeral director indicated it was “time” I didn’t want to let go. I turned, kissed his cheek and drank in the last glimpse of his face in this life.
It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Eight years have come and gone.
The first few were excruciating-I experienced every moment of every day through my pain. I spent hours upon hours thinking about and processing what had happened and what I’d lost.
Gradually, over time, and by doing the work grief requires, I have become stronger and life has grown around my loss. I’ve learned that joy and sadness can coexist. Color has returned to my grayscale world. Most of the shattered pieces of me have reassembled themselves into a kind of whole. My family has survived.
I’m so thankful for every person who helped that day when we laid Dominic to rest. I’m so thankful for every person who has helped since. I’m especially thankful to my family for not giving up on me or on one another.
But I’m still astonished that nearly a decade has passed and Dominic is not part of a single memory or photograph.
Grief anniversaries stop me in my tracks and require my full attention.
Today is sacred. It’s a line in the sand marking “before” and “after”.