Grief Journal: Dark Times Ahead

“A year without him ever in it.”

I was standing on line in Target when my friend sent me a DM with that line. It was kindly meant, as part of a larger message about being gentle with myself, but it physically hit me, like a punch in the gut. 

I leaned over my cart and made a sound. The woman behind me said, “Are you ok?” I nodded, choking back tears.

An entire year without my son. A year that he will never be part of, that he should have been. The year he would have turned 11, and gone to middle school. 

For the rest of my life, I’ll refer to him in the past tense. He is trapped in the amber of memory, frozen in time. Every year, I travel further into a future without him, my broken heart beating on because it must. The way ahead is less bright without his light. My tears make the path slippery and uncertain, and I am crushed by the weight of this grief.

Grief Journal: First Christmas

Firsts after loss are hard. We managed to survive our first Christmas without our son, but only by essentially running away.

Christmas is a big deal in our house because Christmas time is family time. When my siblings’ kids were small, I happily went to their houses to celebrate. After I moved to the midwest, I took my older son and then-fiancé home for Christmas—and hated it. I hated traveling in winter, I hated shlepping all of my kid’s gear, plus all the presents, and I hated not waking up in our own home. I love my family, but realized I, too, was entitled to give my children the great Christmas memories I had of waking up as a child in my own bed for Christmas morning. 

So after that year, we stayed home and gradually built our own traditions. Christmas became all about uninterrupted family time, something we so rarely got during the year. All the silly little things we did every year signaled that it was time to slow down and enjoy being together. From everyone getting a new ornament on Thanksgiving based on what they loved that year, decorating the entire house, posing in matching pjs, thoughtfully donating to charities, and opening one gift Christmas Eve, to watching special videos, gathering at the top of the stairs Christmas morning before racing down to see what Santa brought, wearing pjs and eating nothing but our favorite snacks all day…the entire run up to Christmas was one big tradition. 

We couldn’t face it this year. How could we do all of those things without the one who made them loud and silly?

So we didn’t. 

We put out a few things so our youngest daughter would feel the Christmas excitement, but didn’t put up our tree. I didn’t buy special ornaments this year, or go anywhere near the box that holds 10 years of my son’s special ornaments. 

We chose a place none of us had ever been and as different from where we live as possible—beautiful Tucson, AZ. We spent the run up to Christmas exploring the region, eating amazing Mexican food, and swimming in the pool. Santa came, but most of our presents waited at home for us.

And you know what? It helped, just a tiny little bit. We cried and were sad, but there wasn’t the constant reminder of our boy every single place we looked. We didn’t have to go through the motions of tradition, knowing that our hearts were missing a piece. No one in Tucson knew who we were or what we have suffered. We could look out at the mountains and desert and cactus and cry because we know our boy would have loved them, but not feel the terrible weight of remembering him enjoying them.

We could feel our grief, but not be crushed by it, just for a few days. 

So thank you, Tucson, for making our first Christmas bearable, as much as a loss like this can be borne. Thank you for giving us space to grieve and be together as our new family, a family of five with only four still breathing. 

Grief Journal: In Dreams

I dreamt of him again.

Usually in my dreams, I am not myself. Dreams are the stories I tell myself each night, and I’m just a character, as well as the observer and narrator. But when I dream of dead people, I am always me. 

He showed up, smiling his amazing smile, his face freckled from the sun. I longed to hug him, and the observer—the part of me that always knows I am dreaming—told myself to hurry up. But he wiggled out of my arms and away, disappearing like fog in the sun. 

I started to cry in the dream, and I woke up crying. Even in my dreams, I can’t hold on to him.

Grief Journal: Nature Abhors a Vacuum

They say nature abhors a vacuum.

There’s a big empty, unfilled space in our home and hearts right now. The absence of our son has created a vacuum in our lives– a blank, energy-sucking hole where he used to shine. 

He was a loud kid and he made us a loud family. Our house has three-and-a-half levels, so we called up and down the stairs a lot. We yelled for the kids to come home, from wherever they were playing in our neighborhood, or the yard. We played music so he and his sister could have dance parties while I cooked dinner. 

And my ADHD son was just naturally loud—and as much as I tried to be quiet and calm, sometimes the only way to get through to him was to be loud, too. Holding back his emotions was not ever his issue. Instead, his emotions washed over him and he was as loud in his joy as he was in anger or sorrow. He loved to talk and sing and from the time he could speak (very early), he narrated his life with glee—“pew pew”-ing, “vroom vroom”-ing as he played, describing his LEGO builds, and singing along with his video games. (He often posted acapella versions of his favorite game theme songs on his YouTube channel.)  He loved music. “Turn it up, Mom!” he’d beg from the back seat whenever a favorite song come on, so he could “rock out.” Even in his sleep, he was noisy—he talked and even sometimes walked in his sleep. 

Now, it’s so quiet. My daughter is a delightful chatterbox, but she talks and plays at a reasonable volume. My oldest has entered the teenage years, where a grunt speaks volumes, and he too has always been a fairly quiet child. 

My middle child was the loud one, the one that took up a lot of space, physically and emotionally. The one that demanded attention. The one that, once he wound down for the day, loved nothing more than cuddling with mom and watching tv.

There’s a vacuum of silence, an empty space where my son used to live, and the only thing I seem to have to fill it are tears, quiet and raw. 

Grief Journal: His Bedroom

It’s odd how you can experience the same tragedy as someone else, yet handle it totally differently. Grief, for example. 

My son’s old bedroom is now my office; I’m typing this in the spot he used to cover with LEGOs. I’m the only one in my family that can go into his bedroom. Everyone else avoids it, even now, spending as little time as possible.

For weeks after he died, we kept the door closed and the room was just as he left it–except for where the police had scattered papers every where, looking for a note that didn’t exist. I would steal in quietly, breathing in his smell on his blankets, bargaining with the universe that I would never again ask him to clean up his mess if I could just hold him one more time. But I knew his room couldn’t stay the way it was. It was like having a mausoleum in the house (and it gave my daughter, whose room is next to his, nightmares, thinking she heard her brother in the night). 

So I gradually cleaned it up. I packed a couple of boxes of things I couldn’t bear to give away, things that were quintessentially my son, things he loved and that 10, 20 or 30 years from now—whenever I can bear to see them again—I will instantly know what they signify. I filled many, many bags of trash because, let’s be honest, clean and tidy were not words ever applied to any space he inhabited for long. I gave boxes of books and his beloved LEGOs to his school. I shared a few treasures with his friends. And I passed on his bedroom set so another little boy could enjoy it.

I emptied his room as I emptied my tears, hauling them up in buckets from the well of grief in my soul. And when it was empty, I cried some more because that damn well is bottomless. 

Then I filled the room with what I need for my office space, so I can work from home and support my family. I sit in here every day, doing all the things I need to do.

And it doesn’t make me feel sad to be here. It’s the only place in my house I can have pictures of my son, because my husband can’t bear to see pictures or any reminders right now, just as he can’t bear to be in this room. 

And that’s okay, because we are grieving differently, you see. We both lost a son, but our experience of him was uniquely our own and we grieve based on who we as individuals are. 

For me, I couldn’t bear to keep my office in the basement, next to the play room where he died, because I know all I would think about is how maybe if I had been home working instead of traveling, this would never have happened. I never set foot in that office to work again; I worked at the dining room table instead.

I couldn’t bear to be where he died. I wanted to be where he lived. The place I tucked him into bed every night and said, “Hugga, hugga, hugga, kissa, kissa, kissa, love you, love you, love you. Sleep tight.” like I had done every night of his life. Where I had read him stories, and come to marvel at his latest creations, and had so, so many heart-to-heart talks. I can’t bear *not* to be reminded of my beautiful boy because then it would seem as if he never existed. 

Maybe from the outside it looks cruel that it’s only been five months and I’ve already transformed his bedroom. But I think it’s helped—my daughter doesn’t have nightmares, we can keep the door open. It will always be his room, but in our daily lives, it’s becoming something else. We don’t have to call it “Charlie’s Room” any more, but mom’s office. It’s okay if there’s a light on because our first, gut-wrenching thought isn’t that he’s back. 

To me, it  feels like I’m still close to him, in the space that was his refuge, where he spent so many happy, peaceful hours. A place where he really lived. And where maybe I can figure out how to live again, too.

Grief Journal: Time’s Prisoner

Prisoners of the present, slaves to linear time

Our five senses only know the now

Rushing us toward the unknowable future

Away from the past

Even the past beloved and cherished

Bereft, we’ve created our own friendly spirits

To conjure up the ghosts of Christmas past

Trapped like flies in digital amber

Our loved ones endlessly recreate moments that replace our memories

We cannot touch

Cannot speak

Cannot give the love that fills us to overflowing

And in the now

We can only show as tears

Grief Journal: Going Away

We are headed out of town for Christmas this year. I found a place far away where it is warm and sunny, and rented a house with a pool and a hot tub (something my daughter is very excited about).

Because my son loved Christmas. I mean, all kids do, but he really, really, really loved it. And we can’t bear to think of waking up on Christmas morning, and walking down the stairs and not seeing this face.