I’ve found myself in a bit of a writing funk these past weeks. Once January draws to a close (a short reprieve from surviving the holidays) the calendar barrels on to the anniversary of that fateful day.
This will be the sixth time I’ve weathered that period where I mark all the “lasts” and try to honor Dominic’s life and not only focus on his death.
For someone who used to be able to draw up a gameplan for any occasion, I am still out of my depth when it comes to commemorating the date of my son leaving for Heaven.
So I’m sharing this again-as much for me as for anyone else. It’s just plain hard. But I hope these ideas help another heart find a way through the minefield of remembering.
When your child is born you take notes.
You plan to mark this day as a special milestone for the rest of your life.
You absolutely, positively NEVER think you will have to mark another one: the day he or she leaves this life and leaves you behind.
But some parents have to mark both. The dash in the middle is shorter than we anticipated, and our child’s life ends before ours.
So how do you do it? How in the world do you observe the polar opposite of a birthday?
I never ask anyone to adjust the thermostat in a car or at home unless I’m suffocating or shivering.
It’s a point of personal pride that I can tolerate a wider range of temperatures than most people.
And for awhile, I carried that same prideful disdain for “weaker folks” into my grief journey.
I was determined to endure whatever blows might come my way via comments, behavior, subtle and not-so-subtle attempts by others to circumscribe, dictate or otherwise influence my loss experience. I didn’t want to abandon pride in my own strength by admitting I wasn’t as strong as I wished I could be.
Then one day I realized that being honest was not the same as being rude. Telling the truth was not the same as acting selfishly.
Nothing is gained by remaining silent in the face of ignorance or arrogance or just plain inattention. The person who crosses a boundary of compassion or grace or love or empathy and goes unchallenged is set free to do it again-to me or someone else.
So I started telling people the truth:
“I’m sorry, I just can’t talk about this right now.”
“I appreciate your need to fill this vacancy but I’m not emotionally prepared to take on any new responsibilities.”
“Today is a hard grief day, can we discuss this later?”
“I don’t think I will be able to come, it’s too hard to be around a crowd these days.”
“I know you mean well, but your comments hurt my heart. You can’t understand precisely what I’m going through and I know that. I would appreciate it if you respected that fact and didn’t try to ‘help’ me by sending articles, etc.”
“I’m tired today. I’m taking a break from everyone but family.”
“The holidays are hard on my heart. I’m thankful you find joy in them. I won’t be attending the party (family gathering, etc.) this year. Maybe next year will be easier.”
“I’m getting anxious, I need to go.”
Except for a lone individual, every time I chose honesty, it was not only accepted, it was applauded.
People got it! Not that they truly understood in the deepest sense what I was going through, but they respected that I was, in fact, GOING THROUGH something hard, heartbreaking and life changing.
Like I’ve said before, my emotions will leak out somewhere. I can’t keep them bottled inside forever.
When I choose to be honest AT THE TIME it’s so much better.
When I let folks know that what they say, do, expect from and thrust upon me is unhelpful or overwhelming or even painful, they usually respond with gratitude. They almost always accept my boundaries.
Those of us walking the Valley often say that those who aren’t just can’t understand. They don’t know what they don’t know.
But they can be educated about some of what we know.
They can learn that some things hurt and most of them would be glad to know it because they don’t wish more pain on our already broken hearts.
It’s OK to ask someone to make adjustments to make the journey less difficult.
One year ago today Hurricane Michael came ashore at Mexico Beach, Florida packing more wind and damaging power than any hurricane ever recorded hitting there.
What’s more, it held every bit of that strength and smashed trees, houses and power lines for miles and miles inland including the rural county where my folks live 60 miles away from landfall.
My parents and aunt were trapped and unable to leave due to downed trees across the driveway, “yard” and the road leading out to safety. No electricity, not enough fuel to run the generator to power my mom’s oxygen and no running water (well water provided by an electric pump).
They didn’t evacuate because in the 100 years family had been living on that plot of land NO hurricane had ever made it that far inland with more than heavy rain, some strong wind and temporary power outages.
Thankfully, a neighbor had a bobcat tractor and he plus others with chainsaws and tractors were able to clear the dirt road to the main road. Thankfully, my youngest son, Julian, was able to find a way through the downed trees and power lines between our house and theirs and reach them with more fuel, more chainsaws and another set of strong arms to help them evacuate.
Thankfully, the trees that fell around the house didn’t smash it or hurt anyone.
My family had survived the frightening but escaped the truly awful.
It felt like pure grace that no one we loved was killed that day although our hearts broke for those for whom that wasn’t true.
Once power was restored and my parents were able to return home, there was so much to clean up, so much to do and so many repairs to make.
Who could have guessed that less than a year later another kind of storm would sweep across our lives, taking Mama with it?
This time there was nothing left to do.
There never is when death comes knocking and steals a person you love.
I am so grateful for the extra almost-year with Mama. I am so sad there won’t be more.
And today, when I’ve finally stopped long enough to let my heart begin to feel what that feels like, I find my longing for her is folded into my longing for Dominic.
Two deaths, one broken heart.
I’m thankful and confident that death is not the end of their story.
Mama and Dominic and all the people I’ve loved that love Jesus are together in Heaven and waiting for the rest of us to join them.
Unlike the broken trees and broken homes left behind by Hurricane Michael, there will be no tell-tale signs of repair when on that glorious Day our hearts are made whole again.
Every sad thing will come untrue-as if it never happened.
Every tear will be wiped away.
Every promise kept, every stolen thing redeemed and restored.
And Mama will be dancing while Dominic plays his drums.
I have learned so much since that day when Dominic left us suddenly for Heaven.
Some of the things I know now are things I wish I didn’t know at all.
I’ve learned some things that serve me well-not only in how I respond to my own pain and loss-but also how I respond to the pain and loss in the lives of those I love.
I’ve had to practice them this week since my mama was desperately ill and then joined Dominic and Jesus.
It reminded me how hard it is for those who have not walked this Valley of the Shadow of Death to really comprehend how their words and actions either truly support or subtly (or not so subtly!) wound already hurting hearts.
So here’s a short list of things things to say and do that actually HELP grieving friends and family:
Not everyone leaves earth quickly. Some are ill for a long time. It’s natural for friends to want to stop by home or hospital to see a sick loved one and show support for the family. Please call ahead to see if it’s convenient. If it’s not, then don’t come. Respect that while it may feel like a reunion to you and others gathered in the living room or the waiting room it’s a very sober and frightening and stress-filled time for the family. Loud laughing and back-slapping are unwelcome reminders that the person in the bed can do neither.
Please don’t impose your desire to help on the family’s unwillingness to accept it. Offer-that’s wonderful and appreciated-but there may be circumstances you don’t know about that just make it hard or impossible for them to let you do what you would like to do. It’s really, really hard to use the limited energy available to politely turn down an offer.
When you stop by to pay respects, don’t overstay your welcome. You’ll probably never notice that the family is working hard to extend hospitality and make small talk. It’s exhausting. You are not the only people “stopping by for a minute” while the family is trying to take care of funeral details. They are deciding on what clothes their loved one will be buried in, what photos to include in a memorial slide show, what will be served at dinner after the service, who will sing or speak or play a piano solo. There’s just no energy left for small talk. Express condolences, leave the dessert or congealed salad and leave them to the little bit of quiet they may enjoy before the next few days of crazy.
Take time to write notes of remembrance if you can. Facebook comments, text messages, emails, written notes or cards are wonderful! These can be gathered together, printed and saved as a beautiful tribute.
If you haven’t played an active role in the deceased’s life or the life of their family recently, don’t show up and insist on “inner circle” privileges now that they are gone. This is not the time to force reconciliation or expect a family reunion type celebration. While that may be the ultimate outcome of this traumatic and life-altering event, respect those that have maintained relationship over the years.
Instead of asking, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do”, instead say, “How may I serve you in the weeks and months to come?”. Grievers may not have an immediate answer, but ask again in a week or so after others have drifted away. Also consider asking if specific things may be helpful.
Don’t wander around the house. Respect the family’s privacy.
Don’t ask personal questions such as “How did he die?” or “What happened?”. If the bereaved want you to know, they will tell you.
Be attentive to body language.
Allow grievers to lead.
Don’t ignore comments that indicate it’s time to go.
Accept that what you may want to do and what is truly helpful may be two different things.
Fewer words are almost always better than idle chatter.
I cling fast to words that speak aloud what I’ve only thought.
I collect sentences that eloquently express what I can only feel.
I pull them out on days when my head and heart are doing battle and I can’t find any middle ground.
Reading reminds me I’m not the first soul to travel this way.
Others have been here before and left breadcrumbs.
A friend said, “Remember, he’s in good hands.” I was deeply moved. But that reality does not put Eric back in my hands now. That’s my grief. For that grief, what consolation can there be other than having him back?
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son
The promise that I will one day see Dominic again makes the pain bearable. But it does nothing to treat the essential wound. He is not here and I will miss him, miss him, miss him until I draw my last breath.
The worst type of crying wasn’t the kind everyone could see–the wailing on street corners, the tearing at clothes. No, the worst kind happened when your soul wept and no matter what you did, there was no way to comfort it. A section withered and became a scar on the part of your soul that survived. For people like me and Echo, our souls contained more scar tissue than life.” ― Katie McGarry, Pushing the Limits
Katie McGarry, Pushing the Limits
I never knew a person could cry every day for months. Not just a tiny overflow that falls sweetly down a cheek but gigantic gut-wrenching, ear-shattering sobs. That was what I hid from everyone-the pillow-over-my-mouth-to-muffle it-crying in my room in the dark.
Maybe we all do.
Maybe that’s why those untouched by child loss don’t really know how much it hurts and for how long.
grief is a house where the chairs have forgotten how to hold us the mirrors how to reflect us the walls how to contain us
grief is a house that disappears each time someone knocks at the door or rings the bell a house that blows into the air at the slightest gust that buries itself deep in the ground while everyone is sleeping
grief is a house where no one can protect you where the younger sister will grow older than the older one where the doors no longer let you in or out
Jandy Nelson, The Sky is Everywhere
When Dominic ran ahead to Heaven, he was living on his own. He’d been out of the house for a couple of years.
So I was utterly unprepared to find his earthly absence echoed in the house from which he had already been absent. Everything changed, everything was slightly askew.
And it is “a house where the younger [brother] will grow older than the older one”.
For in grief nothing “stays put.” One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?
But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?
How often — will it be for always? — how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, “I never realized my loss till this moment”? The same leg is cut off time after time.
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
I remember being surprised the first time I circled back around in my grief and revisited places in my heart I thought I had subdued and conquered.
But that’s how it is.
Grief has so many layers that I honestly don’t believe we could survive it at all if forced to peel them back all at once. So I’ve resigned myself to the fact I will come back to many of the same sore spots over and over.
I do feel like I’m spiraling upward. Each time I circle around, I’m better equipped to face the fear or guilt or sorrow or despair.
I’m always torn between sharing about suicide awareness and just offering a listening ear to survivors of suicide.
On the one hand, I don’t want a single person who may be shouting warning signals to end up completing suicide because no one listened.
On the other, I want to protect bereaved parents and siblings from any additional guilt they may feel because they “missed” such signals.
But since suicide is at epidemic proportions in our country-especially among young people and veterans-I’m going to try to navigate the middle ground.
To anyone whose loved one left this life by suicide let me say this: You are not responsible! Even if in hindsight you feel like you missed cues or didn’t notice tell-tale signs, in the end it was their own action that led to death.
I do not believe suicide is selfish.
I believe suicide results from pain so unbearable a heart simply thinks there is no other way to end it. It’s not a conscious act as such, it’s a reflexive response to intense pain.
I also know that mental illness-often untreated because it is undiagnosed-wrecks havoc with the logical, reasoning part of a brain.
To those who may be contemplating suicide (something I know many, many bereaved parents think about) let me say this: If you are considering it, reach out.
You are a unique creation and cannot be replaced.
There are resources available and people not only willing, but LONGING, to help you hold onto hope.
As you fall deeper and deeper into the pit of despair, it’s easy to lose sight of the truth that darkness is not all that exists. Trust me, I’ve been there and it’s nearly impossible of your own volition to will yourself out of the funk.
This is where suicide prevention has a role to play.
If someone seems “off”, don’t ignore it, dismiss it or excuse yourself from asking hard questions (even at the risk of being rebuffed or worse).
Often a single person extending a hand and listening ear at just the right moment grants space for a hurting heart to reconsider suicide as the only way out of pain. If they won’t respond in spite of your best efforts, enlist allies.
And walk gently among your fellow humans!
You may never know when your smile, opened door, random encouraging word or knowing glance is the difference between a stranger going home to end it all and going home and making a phone call to get help.