I’d like to encourage my fellow travelers in this Valley today.
Often I write about and share the hardest parts of this journey. Because there are so, so many hard parts!
And they are rarely spoken about above a whisper (if at all!) in greater society. I am determined to be as honest as possible lest I know of a hidden danger along the way and fail to warn you.
But there are also precious joys tucked away along the difficult path.
The trick is to train your eye to see them and your heart to receive them.
I’ll be the first to admit that for months (probably two years) despair and sorrow and loss were all I could truly feel.
Bereft is the word I’d choose if forced to choose only one.
I became so adept at finding the sad in every situation I fell out of practice in finding anything else.
To be honest, it didn’t take much to find the sad. Holidays were duller, celebrations were always missing one, even a sunrise didn’t shine as brightly knowing Dominic was never going to set eyes on that day’s bright glow.
At some point, unbidden, a tiny spark of gratitude-like a wildflower among weeds-drew my heart to joy. Even if I tried, I couldn’t help responding to the fact that not every moment of every day was clad in mourning clothes.
Little by little color seeped back into my life.
I found that if I grabbed those bits, held them close and meditated upon them, they soon came closer and closer together. They grew to fill not just moments but sometimes hours.
Do not be distant, O Lord, lest I become so mired in yesterday’s hurts, that I miss entirely the living gifts this day might hold.
“Liturgy for Embracing Both Joy & Sorrow” from Every Moment Holy Vol. II: Death, Grief & Hope
I can’t weigh all my blessings on a giant cosmic scale against the bruising of child loss and make it balance. But I have also realized that I don’t have to live in a constant state of bitter sadness just to prove I love my son.
It brings good things, hard things, beautiful blessings and awful bruising. I have-in the years since Dom left us-had challenges and triumphs.
I’m learning that if I pluck the flowers of joy when I see them, I’m better able to survive the moments of despair when they overtake me.
I first shared this post three years ago when I was approaching the four year milestone of Dominic’s leaving for Heaven.
By that time most folks who knew me when he died had relegated that part of my story to some ancient past that surely I was over by now. I’d met others who had no clue my heart skipped a beat on a regular basis because one of my children was buried in the churchyard down the road.
And even the closest ones-the ones I thought would understand forever-were sometimes impatient with my ongoing refusal to leave Dominic behind and be “healed” of my grief.
What I long for more than anything as the seventh anniversary of his departure draws near is simply this: Let me be me, whatever that looks like.
Don’t try to fit my journey into your mold.
Even in the very first hours after the news, my brain began instructing my heart, “Now, try to be brave. Try not to disappoint people. Try to say the right thing, do the right thing and be the example you should be.”
I’m pretty sure most everyone older than five has suffered a bump, bruise or sprain that left them tender for more than a few minutes.
And if you have, then you know the slightest brush up against that sore spot can elicit quite the reaction.
There’s an emotional correlate to physical bruising. And when someone hits that nerve it hurts. Really, really hurts!
It’s impossible to know where all those places are on another person’s body, much less their heart. So we often cause accidental pain to one another.
Many bereaved parents share some emotional bruises others might never see or think about. Lots of everyday interactions press hard against the tender places and make them hurt all the more.
I don’t expect family and friends to walk on eggshells around me, second-guessing everything they say or do. That would be awful for all of us!
But just in case you wonder, here are places my heart is tender:
Talking about Dominic’s “legacy”. I am still unprepared to discuss my not yet 24 year old son in terms that should be reserved for someone who has lived a long life and left a better documented trail behind. I don’t want him to have a legacy. I wanted him to have a life.
Ignoring his absence in family gatherings. Yes, we’ve added to our number since he left us. But it was never about absolute numbers! It was always about the faces around the table and shared laughter. HIS voice is unique. And I always hear the silent space where it should be no matter how loud and lively the celebration.
Weddings and children among his friends. No, I’m not sad at all that these precious people are living life, expanding their families and doing all the things young folks SHOULD do. But even as I rejoice for every single exciting milestone I also mourn the fact that I will never have the same opportunity with Dominic.
The smaller and smaller space Dominic occupies in daily life as time goes by. This is simply a function of human existence. Over seven years of life have come and gone since he was here to make a memory, share a meal, comment on social media, be included in photographs. I can force the issue and bring him up in conversation or have someone hold a giant picture of him for family portraits but that is not. at. all. the. same.
Unexpected and unanticipated grief triggers. I still gasp inside when I see a young man speeding by on a motorcycle. Mention of certain topics, plans, courses of study take me straight back to conversations I had with Dom about what he wanted to do when he finished law school. Sometimes it’s the smell of soap or shampoo or coffee or grilled chicken-all things I strongly associate with his last couple years on earth and his first apartment.
Photographs of myself this side of child loss. Other people can say what they will but I see the toll grief has taken on my body, in my eyes and in the way my smile lies lopsided on my face. I want all the pictures I can get! I’ve learned too late that begging off because I’m not in the right clothes or don’t want to stop long enough to snap the photo is a mistake. But I’ve yet to line up for one where I didn’t feel Dom’s absence and wish he were there.
Crowds and unfamiliar places. I can’t claim to ever have loved being smashed together with others unless it were family. I used to be able to tolerate it better though. I guess it’s my last ditch effort to carve out control in a world that feels out of control that I avoid large groups and unfamiliar places. I can feel my heart pound faster at even the thought of such a thing.
I know specific circumstances and life experience make each heart’s tender places a little different.
Mine may not be yours.
I don’t expect (really, truly, do not expect!) that everyone (or even anyone) around me might take note of my own.
But I am still tender. And I may well still react.
Bruises are bruises even when we try hard to cover them up or protect them.
It’s so easy to focus on the miles left to travel and forget how far I’ve come.
Life has a habit of reminding me that there are hills yet to climb, emotional hurdles still to come and (the ever looming threat) gray hair, wrinkles and an aging body with which to tackle them.
But every now and then I remember to take stock of just how many miles I’ve already traveled.
I pause, sometimes with pad and paper, and recount the bends, twists, devastating events and challenging circumstances I’ve already navigated (some by the skin of my teeth and ALL by the grace of God!).
Doing that helps my heart hold on to hope.
It helps me take one more step, one more breath, last one more sunrise to sunset. It’s a way of speaking courage to myself when I’m afraid I won’t be able to endure and might give up before I complete my course.
So if you are, like me on some days, feeling undone by long years stretching ahead or a particularly hard season already upon you, may I ask you to think back, to take stock, to answer a few basic questions?
Are you getting up each morning and caring for yourself and/or others?
Are you fulfilling job obligations (if you’re employed outside your home)?
Have you lost a job, changed jobs, found a job, retired or relocated?
Are you sending birthday greetings to friends, family and children or grandchildren (even if they are belated!)?
Have you celebrated important milestones with those you love (even if you cried before, during or after)?
Have you planned a wedding, baby shower, birthday party or other public event?
Do you pay your bills?
Have you resisted the urge to turn to food, alcohol, drugs or any other destructive habit or behavior in an attempt to numb your pain?
Do you take the garbage out?
Have you taken a shower recently?
Are you connected to a faith community/bereaved parent group/small group of some kind?
Are you still married or with a long term partner even though grief may have strained the relationship?
Have you or are you caring for an ailing family member?
Are you buying groceries/preparing meals/or otherwise feeding yourself and others in your household?
Do you practice self-care (exercise, journaling, prayer/meditation, rest and proper nutrition)?
Has your home life shifted significantly (empty nest, boomerang kids, elderly parents moving in)?
Do you/have you addressed health concerns and are you following recommended and prescribed treatments?
Do you maintain contact with those you care about (even with coronavirus limitations)?
Is there at least one thing you pursue that feels like a break from responsibility (reading, a hobby, pets, watching old movies…)?
Then you’ve covered miles, my friend.
You are making progress.
No matter how much is left to travel, you have it in you to make it! ❤
After the sharp stab of loss, I think helplessness is the most frightening thing I have felt in this journey.
When I am overcome with the sense that I will never make it, that I can’t go on, that I am not going to be able to put one foot in front of the other for even one more hour, much less one more day-I cry out to Jesus and tell Him that.
I have never gotten an audible answer, or a miraculous phone call or a perfect note in the mail–BUT I think in the moment of absolute surrender, the moment when I know with certainty that I can not do this without His supernatural grace, mercy and strength- HE gives it to me.
So I collect quotes, copying them down in my journal and sometimes hanging them where I can see them throughout the day.
Here are a few that speak to my heart. I hope they speak to yours. ❤
I wish there WERE a secret to surviving this journey. But there isn’t. There is just one moment, one breath, one step at a time. I do the best I can each day.
Over time I’ve grown stronger and better able to carry the load. Over time I’ve learned how to shift my focus from my son’s death to his life.
Death ends so many things.
But it does not end the influence of my son’s life on my heart and it can’t steal the moments I shared with him.
As long as I hum the tune of his unique song I can still hear him.
Before I was the one in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I didn’t realize it’s a lifelong journey. I acknowledged that loss changed a person but I didn’t know that it keeps changing you. Grief influences how I experience the present not just how I view the past.
When Dominic ran ahead to Heaven it instantly changed the landscape of my life. The future I thought I’d have was shattered and I was thrust into unfamiliar and often frightening territory with no road map. It has taken a long time to learn how to walk in this uncertain world and I still stumble.
There are no set standards for how or how long a heart grieves. Everyone brings his or her own personality and experience to the process.
It’s tempting to look for a structured guide to measure my progress.
Others can share how they are walking this road but ultimately I have to forge my own trail through the wilderness.
This is one of my very favorite quotes. Great love, great grief. How could it be any different?
When a child is born into a family, no one finds it strange that the addition changes everything. When that child leaves too soon they shouldn’t find it strange that it changes everything once again.
I didn’t just lose my son, I lost the family I used to have.
The place he should be but isn’t looms large every time we sit at the table, gather for celebrations or just line up for a group photo.
Part of the work grief requires is learning to hold onto the love and influence my son poured into my own life. I have had to redefine my relationship with Dominic-figuring out how I to mother a child I can no longer see or hold.
There’s a lot of pressure on grieving hearts to “get better” based on the medical model of illness, treatment, recovery. But grief is not a disease. It truly is the price you pay for love. I have experienced healing in the six years since Dominic left for Heaven but I won’t be fully healed until I join him in eternity.
Every single child is a unique gift to the world.
When death steals their presence, the light and love they shared with others lives on.
As long as we remember, as long as we speak their names, they continue to be a gift to those who love them . ❤