Grief Journal: 11 Months

Eleven months.

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I think I’ve aged 11 years since we lost him. I may be an older mom—I didn’t even become a mother until my 40s—but I always told myself that I didn’t look my age. That’s not really as vain as it sounds, because it really doesn’t have much to do with me; it’s genetic. Both of my parents looked younger than they were and so do my siblings. So, thank good genes; adequate sunscreen has pretty much taken care of the rest.

When I got pregnant for the first time, many people thought I was in my mid-20s rather than celebrating my 40th birthday. By the time Charlie was born, I looked more like 10 years younger than my actual age—mid-30s rather than mid-40s. Even doctors and dermatologists remarked how young I looked. (And yeah, even if you don’t really have anything to do with it, it makes you feel good.)

But now? I look my age and more. 

I recently had to take down my mirror while some work was done in the bathroom. Three weeks with just a tiny hand mirror didn’t really bother me. The older I get, the lower maintenance I become. And since we lost my son, I have approached zero maintenance, only bothering to blow dry my hair or put makeup on if I have a client meeting at work. Anyway, the point is, I went a while without looking in the mirror.

So it was kind of a shock when the mirror went back up and I got a good look at myself, under the new lights. Who was this old woman staring back at me? When had my hair gone so white? Why do I suddenly have loose jowls and a crepey neck? What are these grooves running from my nose to my mouth? Still not many wrinkles, but why are my eye sockets so hollow and sunken? And why was the skin on my chest and arms suddenly so loose, rough and covered with a web of tiny pre-wrinkles? 

But I looked closer, into my own eyes. Eyes that are haunted with grief and guilt and loss. Eyes that are windows on to a soul with a a hole torn in it, hemhorrhaging love that has no where to go. The eyes of someone old, and tired, and worn. 

I guess that is one of the side effects of grief. It ages your spirit and your soul. The last six years, I’ve experienced grief on grief on grief—losing my sister, watching my mother die of cancer, and losing my son. Oh, my darling son. 

That much grief and loss doesn’t make you wiser, but it certainly makes you older, body and soul. I feel fragile, like an old tree that’s starting to go hollow. It requires effort to summon the energy required to put out green leaves, to provide shade and rest and comfort to those I love. I feel like one more storm might send me crashing down. 

Eleven months to miss him. 

Grief Journal: End of School

It’s the end of another school year. 

We should have had a fifth grader. It was supposed to be the first full year with his 504 plan. The first year he was identified as talented & gifted. I wonder how he would have done. Would we have spoken to his fifth grade teacher as often as we did his third and fourth (usually weekly, sometimes daily). Would we have gone to the office as often? Spoken regularly to the principal, counselor and nurse? Still been on a first-name basis with the office staff? (I realized at my oldest son’s eight grade graduation that I didn’t even know the principal’s name.)

School was always really difficult for my son. Ridiculously bright, yet never, ever content—or able—to go along with “the rules,” he viewed school as something to be endured. Yet for the most part, his educators loved him. He may not have wanted to be at school, but he was pretty darn cheerful about it. He had a unique perspective and sense of humor that was hard not to respond to. We were lucky enough to have teachers that really liked our kid and appreciated him for who he was.

Probably the only exception was the school janitor. When he was in first grade, his nickname was “The Happy Puker.” There was a period of time when he was always getting sick to his stomach. We were pretty concerned, honestly. He legitimately had the most delicate tummy of all my kids, and the stress of school didn’t help. Yet, he was always really cheerful in the nurse’s office, chattering away at her a mile a minute while he waited for us to pick him up, offering to help her. It wasn’t until second grade that his teacher figured out that he was *making* himself vomit, just so he could go to the nurse’s office. When we talked to him about it, he sighed. “Yeah, I probably need to stop. It’s making Mr. [Janitor’s Name] mad to have to clean it up, I bet.” He had to be running a real fever for me to let him to stay home from school—although I admit, sometimes I just let him stay home because I could tell he needed a break.

I tried so hard to help him appreciate school. I’d remind him how much his teachers and educators loved him, and how kind they were to him, whenever he got down on himself. See, I’d say, it’s not just your mom and dad that love you (because when he was angry, he’d insist we only loved him because we had to). I’d remind him of his friends, and how much he liked learning cool new things. He adored recess and art, and like music, reading and science. He hated math with a passion, almost as much as standardized testing.

We talked a lot about home schooling, or finding an alternative school. But honestly, for Charlie it just boiled down to being in a situation where he had to do things he didn’t want, when he didn’t want to. He was still learning how life worked. He was well aware of the value of hard work and effort; he just didn’t care about putting in that effort on anything he didn’t value, and fought against accepting that some times you have to, just because. 

I secretly admired him for that. It was a balancing act as his parent, fostering that questioning spirit while still trying to make him a productive member of society. I wanted him to keep that spark, that refusal to go along with status quo or do things “just because.” I would tell him that if you want to break the rules, you need to understand them and figure out which ones you can and should break, when. 

His impulsiveness made that really, really difficult for him. So did the sheer intensity of his emotions, the storms that would rage through him like a hurricane. During his last month of school, he had a pretty serious incident that set a whole new benchmark for the concept of a “bad day.” I was pretty shaken by it, and I think he was, too. Yet, by the time we met with his therapist, he was back to his happy self. It’s one of the “what ifs” that haunt me. Did I miss how intense his storms were becoming? How could I have failed to see how ineffective all the coping strategies we tried to teach him for his impulsiveness were?

At his brother’s eighth grade graduation, all of the students walked across the stage for their middle school diplomas. In a particularly touching moment, they called the name of a classmate who had died of cancer last year and there was a moment of silence. I thought about those parents, wondering if they were there, seeing all of their child’s friends grow up, moving on to the high school adventure their child will never have. I thought about how I will never see Charlie graduate from middle school, or high school. How there was one child missing in our end-of-year school picture, and always will be.

I thought about how much he loved summer, and that’s he’s missing it–missing all of the summers, ever. I hope wherever he is, there’s no school and he finally gets what he wants to do, when he wants to do it. I hope he knows how much I miss him.

Grief Journal: 10 Months

Ten months.

Recently, I realized that marking the 17th of every month has turned from how many months it’s been since my son died, to a countdown of how long it will be until the one-year anniversary of his death. I’m dreading that day more than I can say, for some reason. It looms large in my mind, growing ever bigger and threatening to block out everything else.

I’m lucky, though. Although grief after losing a child is a universal experience, my problems are very much first-world problems. I don’t live in a war zone, or have to worry about food, shelter or safety. Materially, I have everything I want or need. And, I’m lucky enough to have access to medical care, including mental health care.

My entire family needed that access and mental health support after our loss. I don’t talk about their private experiences here, just my own journey, but I can say I wouldn’t be functioning even at the limited capacity I am if I didn’t have access to therapists and psychiatrists and the care they provide. 

Grief affects you profoundly, mentally and physically. I’m more likely to get sick. I can’t handle stress at all; every molehill becomes a mountain. I cry, all the time and at the drop of a hat—like last night at my son’s 8th grade concert when they sang SEASONS OF LOVE. I’m more anxious, irritable and quick to lose my temper. I don’t always feel like taking a shower every day, and I haven’t worn makeup in months (it just runs at some point, let’s face it).

Therapy gives me a place to talk about this, and strategies that help me cope. Medication helps, too, allowing me to keep my head above water and put energy into self-care. 

There’s no shame in needing help. You don’t get a medal for handling grief on your own. Therapy and medication will be part of my life as long as I need them, although how and when I access them will likely change as my grief does. I’m incredibly grateful that I have a health care plan that pays for at least some of this (if I’m ever tempted to not get out of bed, I remind myself that I have to work to pay for everyone’s therapy). So I add this to the list of things I’m thankful for, that I never wanted to be.

Meanwhile, two months to go.

Grief Journal: These Dreams

I dreamed of Charlie last night. He came to tell me he was sorry, he didn’t mean it. He was taller in the dream; I noticed it right away, that he was starting to hit a growth spurt.

As I’ve said before, I don’t dream of him often. This is the third time since he died. Maybe each dream is another milestone in my process of grief. Maybe this one was caused by a new medication I started; vivid dreams are a known side effect. 

Or maybe, each dream is a gift of grace from the universe, connecting my shattered heart to his, wherever his light shines on. 

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Maybe the dead know, their eyes widening at last,
 
Seeing the high beams of a million galaxies flick on
 
At twilight. Hearing the engines flare, the horns
 
Not letting up, the frenzy of being. I want to be
 
One notch below bedlam, like a radio without a dial.
 
Wide open, so everything floods in at once.
 
And sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,
 
Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
– My God, It’s Full of Stars, Tracy K Smith

Grief Journal: The Many Faces of Depression

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Guess which one is the face of my depression? Hint: it’s red and filled with flames. Credit: Inside Out (a really cute movie you should see if you haven’t)

One thing I know about myself—even though I don’t like it—is that for me, depression often manifests as irritability and anger. I can make myself get up out bed, go to work and function, but dammit, no one says I have to be nice about it. 

Let’s be honest, I don’t have the luxury of doing anything with my depression other than picking it up, like a very heavy suitcase, and lugging it around every day. Time and love and therapy and medication haven’t made a dent in the depression I feel after losing my son. Sleeping and drinking all day aren’t an option for all sorts of valid reasons, so the depression becomes my very own set of cement shoes, weighing me down and making everything so much harder—a black fog that colors everything I see a dingy grey. 

It’s a sneaky, mean thing, depression. I don’t know how I appear to casual observers. They probably see me laughing with my kids, or smiling as I walk the dog, or cracking jokes in meetings. They probably think I’m doing pretty well. If I snap or say something bitchy—well, let’s be honest, that’ s not entirely out of character for me in general. They don’t know that all day long, I just want to scream. Often, at anyone I have to interact with. Not because they’ve done something, but just because I am So. Damn. Tired.

The effort of not losing my shit, of maintaining a semblance of courtesy and professionalism with people who deserve nothing less, is absolutely exhausting. 

It’s not just colleagues or strangers, either. I love my children beyond reason, and I’m trying hard to take whatever lessons I can from Charlie’s loss and remember to let go of the small stuff. But sometimes, when my daughter gets snarky when I ask her to do a chore, or my teenager acts as if I’m an idiot, it’s hard not to lose my temper. Depression’s external face, anger, is never far away and keeping that under control takes a lot of damn energy. My kids are hurting too, and they need a calm, loving and supportive parent. I try to be that, and to be apologetic and honest with them when I fail. But I am So. Damn. Tired.

Any joy, happiness or satisfaction is transitory. It’s all colored grey by the black fog of sadness that surrounds me like a second skin. Those cement shoes weigh me down, so happiness can only rise up so far. But the anger is always there and doesn’t care about cement shoes; it bubbles up like lava. 

People say things like, “Oh, Charlie wouldn’t want you to be sad.” Or, “You need to think about your other kids.” Well, duh. Just because something is true, doesn’t mean it’s going to change how I feel.

I hope that one day, those cement shoes crumble away and the black fog drifts away like smoke in the wind. Until then, I will add managing my anger to the never-ending list of things I do every day, because I must, because there is no other alternative. But I am So. Damn. Tired. 

Grief Journal: Missing My Mom

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This is a post about a different grief. Four years ago, my mom died. 

She had cancer, but the cancer didn’t kill her. She had kidney and bladder cancer, necessitating their removal, along with a few other internal organs. Someone who was always busy and on the move, she couldn’t bear the daily dialysis, so when her doctors declared her cancer free, my sweet brother donated one of his kidneys.

It was to be the start of the retirement she deserved, but instead, it turned out that the cancer had seeded itself completely undetected inside her and the immunosuppression drugs brought it back. She’d picked up a nasty case of c-diff in the hospital during that first surgery—it nearly killed her—and it sent her back to the hospital over and over again. It became a vicious cycle—the chemo would suppress her immune system, the c-diff would flare, they’d lower the dose of the drugs to help, her kidneys would start to fail, they’d up the immune drugs and try chemo again, rinse, lather, repeat.

Ultimately, she died of kidney failure—a kinder, faster, less painful way than the cancer would have been, the doctors assured us. Which was something, but not nearly enough.

Some daughters have difficult relationships with their mothers. While we certainly had our moments, that was never really us. I genuinely liked my mother as a person, and would have wanted to be her friend. And we were friends, as much as mother and daughter. After my father left us completely in the lurch—no money, no support—we were partners, working to keep the family together. I had to grow up quickly in some ways, and that forges a bond and trust. She could go off to work three jobs, and I could keep my siblings fed, with clean clothes and homework done. 

Sounds hard, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t, or at least I never thought of it that way because my mom didn’t make it seem hard (even though it must have been terrible for her). My mom believed that you just did what you needed to do, without complaining, and so I believed it, too. 

She taught me important things. Like, life isn’t fair. That bad things sometimes happen to good people. That if you want something, it’s your job to go get it; no one will hand it to you. That people are who they are, and you can only control yourself. That you should absolutely play the Skip card in Uno, even on your kid.

I write that, and it seems pretty negative. But she wasn’t. She was a happy, friendly person who just loved being around other people—and they loved being around her. She wasn’t a pessimist, just a realist who refused to waste time on things she couldn’t change. 

After I first moved from home, I usually saw her once a week. After she and my dad moved to NC, I spoke to her at least once a week and visited often. We had fun when we were together, or during our long chats. I know she made each of us kids feel as if we were her favorite. Or maybe, it’s just that she loved us for ourselves, and so was able to create the relationship that suited each of us best. 

She was also a pretty laid-back mom, believing that she had done her best raising us, and that we’d make the choices we wanted to make no matter what—she knew us well, and knew every last one of us was stubborn, because she was, too. 

But not about dying. During her last hospitalization, I flew to NC. It became obvious that we would be lucky to get her home and into hospice for her last few days. Figuring that out, dealing with the doctors and helping my family understand that was my job. I was the responsible daughter she raised me to be, the reliable one, the unemotional one, the one that knows that bad things sometimes happen to good people. 

She didn’t want to die, but she really didn’t fight it, either. She was tired, and sick and in pain and knew more pain was in the future, not just for her but for my dad and all of us. I spent every night of that week in the hospital in her room. We talked, as she drifted in and out of the medication haze. We told funny, favorite stories. She asked if I was taking care of everything. She told me how much she would miss seeing her grandkids grow up. 

We didn’t need to have any big heart-to-hearts. We’d always said what we needed to, all along. I sent her home to die, surrounded by my dad and siblings, because I’d done what she needed me to do. She wanted me home with my kids, her grandkids. So I told her I loved her, and left. 

She died four years ago, on May 7, just a few days before her 71st birthday. And I miss her every single day. 

Mom, I’m trying hard to do what I have to do, without complaining. But it’s a lot harder without you here to talk to about it. Love you.

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Grief Journal: Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Grief is the rock. Life is the hard place. I am the speck being ground into dust between them. 

Here’s the really awful thing about mourning a kid like my son: Some things are not as hard. 

Yes, he was creative and funny and sweet and amazing. He was also challenging to parent, with a hair-trigger temper, zero impulse control and intense mood swings. 

His brain wasn’t wired like the rest of ours are. He hated the way he felt sometimes—hated acting out, hated losing control, hated hurting others’ feelings. I spent so much time trying to help him feel worthwhile, and let him know that *he* wasn’t bad even when he made bad choices. Trying to help him learn to make good choices, to just take a breath before he exploded. Trying to help him understand that you can always start fresh. It was a long, slow process and it required a level of energy and attention that honestly, I didn’t have every single day, every single minute. Being his parent was exhausting, despite how fiercely I loved him.

Whatever he felt, he felt intensely. So when he was angry or upset, he let you know and sometimes, it was, if I’m being really honest, a bit scary. All kids tell you they hate you at some point or another (even if it’s just muttered under their breath), but when he hated you, he meant it, with every fiber of his being. Of course, the flip side is that he loved just as intensely. But those bad times were really hard. He couldn’t be consoled or jollied out of it; you just had to ride it out and then deal with the fallout with love. If nothing else, I tried hard to make sure he knew that no matter what he did or said, I loved him the same. Because it wasn’t his fault. He didn’t ask to be born different.

I spent so much energy and time focused on him. Supporting all of his good and positive and worthy characteristics. Worrying about school. Worrying about his peer and friend relationships. Managing his relationships with his siblings. Working with his teachers and mental health professionals and doctors. Reading about the latest treatments and therapies and parenting approaches, so afraid this was more than “just” ADHD. Focused on his future, because the idea that he wouldn’t have one never entered my head.

And now, that’s gone. The house is quieter, calmer. My two other children are just easier. Of course I worry about them, but the worries are smaller in scale, more “normal.” We can just go out to dinner. I can ask them to turn off their devices without WWIII erupting. They rarely argue about doing chores. Transitions aren’t a problem and don’t require hours of advance planning. We can go places and do things, without drama or tears or incidents. 

They’re not perfect, of course—and they are also grieving the loss of their brother—but the hard truth is that our lives are objectively better in some ways. And that makes the rock that is my grief so much harder and larger, with guilt and anger adding sharp edges. 

I’m just caught between, being ground to nothing, sometimes thinking that I deserve it.