For You, a Moment; For Me, a Lifetime

I used to look at tombstones in cemeteries and do the math between the dates. 

I was most focused on how long this person or that person walked the earth. 

I still do that sometimes.  But now I do something else as well. 

I look to the left and the right to see if the person who ran ahead left parents behind.  My eye is drawn to the solitary stones with the same last name next to a double monument clearly honoring a married pair.

grieving mother at grave

And then I do a different kind of math. 

I count the years between the last breath of the child and the last breath of his or her mama.

Because while that first date marked an end for everyone else, for the mama, it marked the beginning of the rest of her life- a life she never imagined nor would have chosen.  

I wonder how many lives have been cut short by the effects of grief.  I know some folks have tried to research it, but it’s so hard.  Because grief ends up doing things to bodies that look like aging or like other disease processes and it’s really difficult to tease it out.

But those of us who live this life know. 

We know.  

What’s a moment for everyone else, is a lifetime for us.  What is a date on the calendar, a trip to a funeral home, a casserole delivered to a door in hopes of lifting spirits for everyone else, is so much more for us.

grief as timeless as love

I don’t begrudge your ignorance. 

I celebrate it! 

My heart breaks every single time another name is added to the roles of “bereaved parent”.

I think a lot about the generations gone before.  Before vaccinations, before penicillin, before so many modern blessings that lengthen life and give hope where there used to be none.

I think about the families involved in WWI and WWII.  I understand the need to call the first war “The Great War” and assume such atrocities would stop mankind from falling headlong into them again.

But it didn’t.  

So, so many families that made the highest sacrifice. 

So, so many parents that hung that photo of their son or daughter on the wall and never moved it-because they were as frozen in time as their child.  

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

I have a friend who does home-based physical therapy.  She often goes to the homes of elderly patients and lovingly and gracefully listens to their stories.  If it is part of their history, they almost always point out the child who never grew older and tell the tale of how much they miss him or her.

It’s so, so hard for others to understand how very different child loss and out-of-order death is from any other loss in this life.  

But it is not a moment.  

It is not even a week or month or years.  

It’s a lifetime. 

We miss them and mourn them for a lifetime.  

grief is a pain that cant be spoken goes on and on

 

Not a State But a Process

C. S. Lewis gave voice to so much of human experience in ways that help us understand ourselves and one another.

His book, Mere Christianity, began as a series of radio talks that were later compiled, published and sold millions and millions of copies.

I think Lewis managed to use a conversational, inviting voice in all his works.

When I read them I feel like I’m chatting with a friend (granted, an extremely erudite friend!).  He and I are discussing a thing, reasoning through it together.

He’s not teaching me something, he’s guiding me to learn it for myself.

When he experienced the loss of his beloved wife, this giant of the faith struggled like all us mortals.  His grief journal was eventually published as the book,  A Grief Observed, and has helped many of us who sorrow describe our feelings and find our way.

I particularly love this quote:

I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process … There is something new to be chronicled every day. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape … Not every bend does. Sometimes the surprise is the opposite one; you are presented with exactly the same sort of country you thought you had left behind miles ago.
~C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

Lewis understood that grief was not a state which could be changed like ice to water through the application of heat. 

There is no quick fix for a broken heart.  No remedy for missing someone you love.

Instead, grief is a process.

It’s a lifelong journey of remaking a relationship that can no longer depend on physical presence and new memories.  It circles back again and again, asking the same questions, sometimes finding new answers but often having to settle for the old ones.

mixed stages of grief

It’s almost five years since Dominic ran ahead to Heaven and while I have forged new paths in that time, much of my travel has been over well-worn ruts that bring me to the same watering holes.

I’m often surprised that life after loss is not linear at all.

I do feel (as I’ve shared before) that the circles progress ever upward.

I’m not standing still.

But I’m not free to escape the valley.

For One Day

Today I decided for one day to ignore the clock and my own internal tick, tick, tick tracking minutes and hours.

Today I did or didn’t do whatever I wanted.

I refused to check my list.

Instead of optimum efficiency, batching chores and trips upstairs or down, I meandered in and out of rooms.  I picked up one thing and passed another.  I didn’t “clean as you go” when I made my salad.  I started something and didn’t finish.  I stared.  I hummed.  I listened to wind chimes tinkle away the hours.

My big fat cat jumped in my lap and I let him stay there even though it means I can’t do anything else because my arms don’t quite reach around him.

moonshine in living room

People tell me all the time, “Don’t worry!  It’ll be there tomorrow!”  But that is precisely what usually worries me-it WILL be there tomorrow.

Today, though, I gulped those words, chewed them and swallowed.  Gone.

And you know what?  

It was fine.  

Fine.  

Just fine.  

I doubt this will be a trend.  Fifty-five years of task-oriented, time-conscious living can’t be swept away by one glorious day of living minute to minute.

But it’s a start. 

enjoy today

Springtime Preview: Countdown to April

We’ve had an unusually warm winter this year.  

Not at all like the winter in 2014 which was punctuated by several deep freeze days and one giant “Snowmeggedon” that resulted in hundreds of people trapped in cars, at work or in schools.  

But there are other things that strike a chord in my heart and make me feel like I’m reliving that January through April. 

Lots of rain-both here and at my parents’ place in Florida.  A few days before Dominic left us, I sent him a photo of his younger brother nearly knee deep in creek water that had spilled from the banks into a nearby field.  He couldn’t believe it!  I still have the texts.

julian and creek in 2014

 

As for my parents’ home-well the rain has already filled the ponds which have risen across some spots in the dirt road that connects them to everywhere.  In 2014, the water got so high they were forced to evacuate for months as travel became nearly impossible except for lifted trucks or tractors.  It probably won’t reach that state again since dirt has been added to the road bed but it’s coming awful close and that taps memories and feelings in ways it’s hard to explain.

The year Dominic left us was going to be a year full of celebrations, culminations and hearty parties.  Julian was graduating with a Business Management degree, James Michael was wrapping up Veterinary School, Dominic would have survived the first two years of Law School with relatively easy classes left, Fiona was advancing in her Masters of Public Health Degree and James Michael and Lillie were getting married.

We thought all we’d need to “survive” that year was a cold winter and wet spring.  

We were wrong. 

This year is another year of celebration:  Fiona is marrying Brandon.  James Michael is coming home from deployment and will welcome, along with Lillie, his first child.  My husband will retire.

And all the preparation, along with the rain, is making me anxious.  

I wish it didn’t.  

Something about the timing, the temperature, the smell of green grass growing and leaves unfurling just overwhelms my heart.  

I’m so much better at planning now than I was just a year ago.  I can think more clearly, work more consistently, stay on track and make progress much better than those first years after Dominic ran ahead.

I have notebooks stacked on my table, decorations stacked in the room that used to be Dom’s.  Plastic bins full of tidbits we’ll use for the wedding and bridal showers.  My dress is sleeved in plastic and hung on the door for safe keeping.

I’m as ready as I can be.  

But once you’ve made big plans and had them shattered in an instant, once you’ve looked far forward to exciting times and had dancing turned to mourning, once you’ve done all the right things to make everything right and it’s gone all wrong-well, you just can’t shake the feeling that it might happen again.

I’m working hard to throw off the mantle of hesitation and anxiety that threatens to weigh me down.

I’m doing everything I can to remind my heart that this is an entirely different year, these are completely different celebrations.

Some days I am really good at it.  

Others, not so much.  

But I AM looking forward to all the beautiful things on my calendar.  

New marriage.  New life.  Bigger family circle.  

Spring is the year’s promise.   

I’m hanging on to that.  ❤

no winter lasts foreer and no spring skips its turn

Child Loss: At Night, It’s Still Fresh

It happens most often as I am drifting off to sleep. 

There is this one spot on the bedroom bookshelf where my eyes landed that first night-one paperback spine that instantly transports me to the moment I had to close my eyes on the day I found out my son would never come home again.

And it is fresh.  

Absolutely, positively fresh.  

Like “just happened” fresh.  

missing-someone

You’d think that nearly five years of intervening experience, nearly five years of grief work, nearly five years of trying so darn hard to learn to tuck that feeling away deep down so it can’t escape would have worked whatever magic time is supposed to work.  

it has been said that time heals all wounds rose kennedy clock

But it hasn’t.  

Oh, most days I can lock that lid down tight.  I can distract my mind, busy my hands and keep my heart from wandering too close to despair.

Darkness though. 

Shadows and silence and stillness give room for the memory to rise to the surface.  

And it does.  

My son is never coming home again.  

Fresh.  

Absolutely, positively fresh.

“Just happened” fresh.  

sometimes cant believe you are gone

 

Child Loss and Secondary Losses

While I certainly had no real idea in the first hours or even weeks what losing a child entailed, I understood plainly that it meant I would not have Dominic to see, hold or talk to.

I wouldn’t be able to hug his neck or telephone him.  

He wouldn’t be sitting at my table any more.

But the death of a child or other loved one has a ripple effect.  It impacts parts of life you might not expect.  As time went on, I was introduced to a whole list of losses commonly called “secondary losses”.

secondary losses

Here are just a few:

Loss of a large chunk of “self”.  Dominic possessed part of my heart and part of my life.  It was violently ripped away when he died.  There is part of me that was uniquely reflected from him-like a specialty mirror.  I can never access that part of me again.

Loss of identity.  Before Dominic died I was one kind of mother.  I was a mother of four living children who were making their way in the world as successful adults.  I was a mother looking forward with happy anticipation to the next years.  Now I am still a mother of four children but one whose heart has been changed by tragedy and sorrow. Tomorrow is still bright, but there’s a shadow just behind it.

desimones uab family

Loss of self-confidence.  I used to enter a room without a thought to how I’d be received or perceived.  That’s definitely not the case now.  I’m self-conscious-constantly wondering if I’m saying or doing the right thing.  I never know if a grief trigger will (at best) pull my attention away from conversation or (at worst) send me scurrying for the bathroom.

Loss of sense of security.  I think every parent has moments of fear over his or her child.  When they first go off someplace without us, when they get a driver’s license, travel abroad, go to college.  But all the awful things I imagined didn’t hold a candle to the reality of waking one morning to a knock on my door and the news that Dominic had been killed.  The bottom fell out of my (relatively) safe world.  Bad things, random things can and do happen.  Once it happened to ME, it changed how I processed everything.  The passing years have softened some of the anxiety but I will never be able to assume safety again.

Anxiety

Loss of faith.  I did not “lose” my faith.  I never once doubted that God was still working, was still loving and was still in control.  But I most certainly had to drag out every single thing I thought I knew about how I thought He worked, loved and superintended the world and examine it in light of my experience of burying my son.  It took a long time to work through all the pat answers I had been offered and myself doled out to others for years that didn’t fit with my new reality.  I am learning that doubt is not denial and that I have to live with unanswered questions.

Loss of family structure.  I’ve written before that a family is more than the arithmetic total of the number of members.  There were six of us.  But we were so much more than six when we were all together!  Our talents, personalities and energy were amplified in community.  When Dominic’s large presence was suddenly whisked away, every relationship got skewed.  We’ve fought our way back to a semblance of “whole” but still miss him terribly.  We can function, but we will never be the same.

empty chair

Loss of my past.  Memories are funny things.  They are plastic and subject to change.  And my recall of an event is limited to my own perspective.  For a memory to be rich and full, I need input from others who were there as well.  One vessel of family memories is no longer available to add his unique contribution.  Every time I pull out a photo or dig down deep in my heart to draw up a treasured moment, I realize I’ve lost something I can not recover.  The joke, the glance, the odd detail are all gone.

Loss of the future I anticipated.  I’m a planner by nature.  Not a detailed, OCD, got-everything-in-order kind of planner, but a “big picture” kind of planner.  When Dominic left us in 2014, things were going (pretty much) according to plan.  Each child was well on his or her way to the career path they had chosen.  I was easing into an empty nest and exploring options for life after homeschooling.  My husband was entering his last few years of a lengthy career.  It’s hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, but when your world is shaken by child loss, everything gets scrambled.  You can’t just pick up where you left off and keep going with the pieces that remain. 

There’s a prolonged period of confusion and everyone is impacted differently and in ways you could never imagine.  All of us have changed dramatically in the years since Dominic left us.  He is not the only thing missing from the rest of our lives.  Holidays are altered.  Birthdays are different.  We have to plan special events around uncomfortable milestone dates that roll around every year whether we want them to or not.  It’s a constant readjustment to life as it IS instead of life as I thought it WOULD be.

Loss of ability to focus and function.  Oh, how this surprised me!  I was in some kind of zone for the first month after Dominic left.  My other children were home, we had to make it through planning his funeral, two graduations and cleaning out his apartment.  I also had to handle paperwork for my husband to take short-term disability due to grief.  I cried a lot, wrote down dozens of notes but managed to do what I had to do.  Then I crashed. I couldn’t remember a thing.  I couldn’t read more than a couple sentences at a time.  I hated the telephone.  I could barely stand to hear the television.  I had to make a list of the most basic things like brushing my teeth, feeding my animals, turning off all the lights before bed.  It was awful!  And it didn’t really get better for well over a year.

I still suffer from a very short attention span, low tolerance for noise and an inability to accommodate last minute changes.  I don’t schedule anything back to back.  I live in a rural area and sometimes shop in the nearby town.  I will start the day with a long list and shorten it repeatedly as I go along because driving in traffic, crowds and random sounds ramp up my anxiety and make me want to go home with or without what I came for.  I have changed the way I do so many things.  My pre-loss memory has never returned.  

griefbrain1

Loss of patience.  I am at once impatient and long-suffering.  I have zero patience for petty grievances, whining and complaining.  Yet I have compassion for other people living hard and unhappy stories.  I berate myself for not being “better” and, at the same time, extend grace to others who aren’t “better” either.  I want to shake people who bowl over weak, hurting, desperate souls.   I don’t have time for moaning about rain when you were planning a picnic but will listen for hours to a mama tell me about her missing child.

Loss of health.  I had a number of chronic health conditions before Dominic ran ahead.  Within the first year of his departure, I was hospitalized twice.  My experience is not unique.  Some parents suffer immediate health effects (heart attack, blood sugar spikes, anxiety/depression) and some see a slow decline over time.  In part because child loss, like any stressor, will negatively impact health and also because sometimes bereaved parents stop doing the things that help them stay healthy.  At almost five years, I’ve learned how to manage the stress better although some of my health issues continue to get worse.  It’s hard to tease apart what is age, what is disease and what is grief.

When your child leaves this life before you do, it changes everything.  

Not only things you might expect, but many you’d never imagine.  

It’s a constant balancing act, readjusting every day to new challenges.  

Struggling to keep my head above the waves.  

grief like the ocean learn to swim

 

 

Baby Steps Count

When my daughter was learning to walk, I would hover near-ready to catch her if she fell.

I covered sharp corners or moved furniture so that the chance of injury was minimized. I clapped and cooed each time she made a little progress-pulling up, cruising around the edge of the sofa and coffee table-those tentative moments when she was brave enough to let go and then plop on her bottom.

And finally, when she made her first unassisted steps between the security of holding on and my waiting arms.

It was a judgement free zone.  

I wasn’t looking for technical perfection or measuring progress according to any external metric.

crawling walking baby huff post

I didn’t rush the process. I couldn’t do it for her.  I could only support her own efforts toward the goal we both had in our hearts.  I never despised her baby steps.  

They were a beginning.  

And everything has a beginning.

When Dominic ran ahead to heaven, I felt like I was physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually knocked to the floor.  I had no idea how I was going to make a life after this great blow.   I could barely get dressed, much less do anything that took more thought or energy than that.

I was overwhelmed.   I had to learn to walk all over again.

And I did it with baby steps, in a judgement free-zone I created for myself where I refused to gauge my progress against anyone else’s.

its all about the baby steps

Because baby steps count.

Here are some of the baby steps I’ve taken and am still taking:

  • Got up, got dressed, bought groceries.
  • Cooked dinner.
  • Cleaned the bathrooms.
  • Went to church.
  • Remembered a birthday and sent a card.
  • Drove to an unfamiliar place to meet someone for lunch.
  • Exercised.
  • Made phone calls.
  • Went to work.
  • Volunteered.
  • Slept through a whole night.
  • Organized a party.
  • Showed up to graduations, a couple funerals and a wedding.
  • Kept doctor’s appointments.
  • Laughed.

I have yet to hit my stride and I don’t think running is in my near future, but I am moving forward.  I’m making progress.  I don’t have to meet a timetable or get anyone else’s approval.  

It’s my journey.

And baby steps count.  ❤

feet on path