Grief Journal: Effects of Shock

They say when you receive shocking news, like the death of your 10-year-old son, you go into shock. 

I suppose that’s true. I look back on those first few days and it’s like everything was under water, or happening in a really bad dream. There are moments that stick out with crystal clarity, and things that are just a blur. It’s supposed to be your mind’s way of protecting you from something too terrible to bear.

The shock—that anesthetic protection—is wearing off, three and a half months later. 

How does it feel? You know how you cut yourself with a really sharp knife and there’s just a split second before the pain kicks in, where you are looking at this gaping wound, about to gush blood? Or when you get novocaine at the dentist but you feel it start wearing off and you realize, crap, there are a lot of nerves in your gums? Or when you have surgery, and you’re on painkillers and you think “this isn’t so bad,” but then the painkillers wear off and you realize that it IS that bad?

It’s like that. Except much, much worse because those are all transitory situations. This is forever.

The reality of living a life without our middle child is sinking in for all of us. Our family has been blown apart, and is slowly trying to knit itself back together. We will never be the same. There will always be scar tissue. And real scars hurt.

Grief Journal: New Kinds of Firsts

First cry. First smile. First tooth. First time crawling, walking, running, eating solid food, saying “Mama” and “Poppa.” First day at school. First report card. First Christmas, Halloween, Easter. First time in a swimming pool. First book read by himself. First air plane ride. So many firsts when you have a child. Even if he’s not your first child, you celebrate each one because it’s the first time he did it, and every child is unique. 

Now we have different firsts. First time we ever picked out an outfit for our son to wear in his casket. First time we saw him lying there. First time we picked up his ashes from the funeral home. First time we had to decide how best to honor his memory.

First day of school pictures with two kids instead of three. First parent/teacher meetings for only two kids.

First Halloween. Thanksgiving. Christmas. 

The worst part is that they won’t be the last. It’s the first of the rest of our lives, without him. 

Grief Journal: Crying in the Shower

Shower time is crying time. 

I still cry every day. Often, multiple times a day. I cry with my family. My friends. In front of strangers, even. 

Mostly, I leak. The tears spring to my eyes and start rolling down my cheeks. I’m not sobbing or wailing, but I am just…crying.

There’s a running loop going on in the back of mind, constantly asking “What if? Why? What did I do? What didn’t I do? How did I fail him so badly?” Sometimes that loop pushes its way to the front, triggered by a conversation, picture, or place. And I cry tears of guilt.

There’s another loop running in my head, memories of my boy. His smile, his laugh, his energy—boundless enthusiasm and talent and curiosity, wrapped in one skinny, lovely package. And I cry tears of rage because that is gone from this world. 

Then there are the tears of grief and sorrow, for the hole ripped in our family and our hearts. I see his sister cry and afraid to be by herself, and I cry for her tender heart, because she loved her brother so. I see my oldest be strong and stoic because he wants so desperately to help, and I cry for his lost innocence. I see my husband buckling under the weight of his own grief, and I cry for his tears, which I can only share, but not stop.

So while I’m liable to start leaking tears any time, the shower is where I now have my breakdowns. Sort of like Holly Hunter in BROADCAST NEWS, I have a scheduled time to utterly lose it and ugly cry—sobbing, snotting, gulping for air. The water washes away all my tears and grief until I am spent, ready to face another day without my boy.

Yet the grief remains. I am being reshaped, from water without and empty ice within. 

Grief Journal: Seasons Change

It’s autumn now in the Midwest. It’s been a strange fall. A sudden, prolonged and early cold snap means that instead of turning glorious colors, most leaves are just dropping off the trees, dead, a sort of odd olive green color. No warmish days and cool nights; instead, we’ve gone straight to biting winds and wet, rainy days.

Maybe it’s my fault. My son died at the peak of summer, mid-July. I’ve been holding on as long as I can to that season. 

He loved summer—the long days with no school and time to play and hang and just do what he wanted, when he wanted. I’ve never been a fan of heat, but summer has always been a great time as a parent just because it means less rush and less pressure to get the kids up, to school, to activities, to do homework. 

I’ve been hanging on to summer. To that time when my son filled the world with his presence. The change of seasons means time is pushing on without him, and I’m not ready for that. I don’t want to think of all the seasons to come without him.

Grief Journal: Drive By Foodings

They say food is love. I have tangible proof of that love filling up my freezer.

One of the hardest things to manage after my son died, in the run up to the funeral and the immediate aftermath, was the food. 

My house looked like a church potluck exploded. We had what I called “drive-by foodings,” where I’d go out onto the porch and find containers of food. People I didn’t know rang the doorbell, hugged me, and handed over containers of food. My husband brought home food when he would run errands in town; people lay in wait and jumped out with lovingly prepared foil packages of carbohydrates. (This is the Midwest, so everything was mostly carbs, either sweet with chocolate, or savory with cheese.)

My office sent so much food for the post-funeral gathering that I had to put an emergency post out on Facebook, asking for volunteer refrigerator space. People shipped soup, baked goods and frozen delicacies.

Three different people tried to start meal trains. Luckily, they actually checked with me first, and I was able to stop those trains before they left the station, so to speak. It was just the four of us, and none of us were eating normally. The thought of dealing with a meal, delivered every night, and having to heat, serve, stare at the food, and then clean it up, was overwhelming.

Do I sound ungrateful? I’m not. Every single person who shared their food was sharing their love and their own grief. They just wanted to help, in a tangible way. It was amazing to see our friends and community come together and support us, and I will be forever grateful that so many people loved our son, and our family.

But. Damn, the sheer amount of food. I fed as much as I could to our family and friends the weekend of the funeral, but most came from out of town and there’s only so much they could eat. What I could, I froze. Some I forced on our lovely neighbors, who gave of themselves so unstintingly. What couldn’t be eaten or frozen, I gave myself permission to not stress about, and threw away.

Meanwhile, I have a freezer full of food. Every time I open the door, I am both humbled by the love that resides, lovingly prepared and packaged, at zero degrees. And I grieve anew that it is there at all.

Grief Journal: The Casket

I wasn’t home when my son died. That Monday, I was 150 miles away at a trade show, working. It took me three hours by car to get home, as fast as I could, hoping so much that when I got there none of what I’d heard on the phone was true. 

Hoping my son was still alive, and well. That our family and lives hadn’t been ripped apart.

By the time I got home, my son had been taken away to the medical examiner’s office. I had left him the day before in the morning. We’d hugged and kissed. I’d told him to be good. It was the last time I saw him alive. 

I wouldn’t see him again until three days later, at the funeral home.

I needed to see him. I had been begging to see him. I knew there was a process that had to be followed. But I needed to see him for myself. There was just a level of unreality to it all, even thought I’d spoken to the police, the EMS, the fire department. I’d held my husband as he wept, inconsolable. I’d hugged my daughter and oldest son. Neighbors and friends had started coming by, to sit in our house and cry with us.

But I needed to see him.

Finally, our lovely and compassionate funeral home director told me I could come. It was late on Wednesday, after hours, but he told me to come anyway because he is kind and knew I needed to. He prepared me for what I was going to see, as gently as he could, and took me into the room where my son lay in his casket.

My son. My gorgeous, bright, amazing boy. In a casket.

How can you be ready for that? How can you possibly prepare yourself? I imagine parents of children with cancer or other diseases, in their darkest, most private moments, must think about the possibility even as their minds reject it. But my son had been vibrantly healthy—so alive—just a few days before. The idea of him lying in a coffin had never crossed my mind, never been a whisper of a thought.

Yet there he was, lying in the outfit I’d picked out for him, the one he’d worn to his grandmother’s funeral the previous month. The shirt and tie that made him look so grown up, I’d thought at the time, and that now made him look so incredibly young and vulnerable. 

How did it feel?

Like all the light drained from the room. Like I aged a hundred years and my body couldn’t stand up under its own weight. Like I’d been struck by lightning and every nerve, bone and sinew fried.

Like my heart had been ripped out of my body and put in a casket.