Grief Journal: School Memorial

Today, my son’s school is holding an “Imagination Station” event in his honor. Students will use their imagination to draw, write stories, build with LEGOs, and more—Charlie’s favorite school activities. 

Thanks so much to the school staff—principal, counselors, nurse, teachers and paraprofessionals—for organizing this event. It really brings us comfort to know our son’s friends will be remembering him. He may not have loved everything about school, but he loved his teachers and friends. 

He would have been in 5th grade this year, his last before he moved onto the big world of middle school. I know many of his friends still miss him very much, and struggle with understanding the loss they’ve experienced. I hope they’ll enjoy remembering their friend. I hope they’ll remember that Charlie was never afraid to be himself, and that being creative and imaginative is a great thing to be.

Here are a few of the buttons his friends will choose from to encourage them to be themselves, and let their imaginations fly free.

Grief Journal: Haunted by Digital Ghosts

I’m old enough to remember how, if someone died, all you had left were a few printed pictures and maybe a letter or two. Now, you likely have hundreds of photos and texts, emails, and even videos. 

It’s as if we’re creating digital ghosts who are haunting us across space and time. 

I’ve lost several loved ones in the last six years. My sister died in 2013. We’ve never deactivated her Facebook page or changed it to memorialized status. Every year on her birthday and death day, people post memories and pictures, or tag her in remembrance posts. It was really jarring and shocking the first year, seeing my dead sister popping up in my live feed. Now, it’s comforting to know people still remember her and that she touched so many lives.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is my mother-in-law. She was in her 90s when she died, and never had a social media presence. I do have emails and even texts from her, and plenty of pictures we took when we visited. But the bulk of memories for my husband are the printed pictures from his childhood. It’s not that we don’t remember her, but there are fewer unexpected reminders.

The situation with my own mother is different. She never had a Facebook page, although my dad does. She pops up frequently in my Facebook memories and in my camera roll, although she long ago disappeared from my photo stream. Nearly four years after her death, unexpectedly finding a picture of her (nearly always with one of her children or grandchildren), can still move me to tears. Her dates—birth and death—fall near Mother’s Day. As always, this year my family will repost some of those pictures on Facebook, and remind each other that although there is always a hole at the center of our family, we have and love each other. 

But my son. Oh, my darling boy. 

I’ve been on Facebook since 2009, and my posts have always included information about my children. I use Facebook as a way to share cute and funny stories and pictures with far-away friends and family. It functions almost as a diary, in way—a quick and easy way to capture a moment in time, because although you think you’ll always remember the adorable things your kids say and do, the reality is so many of the daily details from the past get lost in the parenting present. 

There are a lot of pictures and stories about my son. I post about all three of my children, but he had a knack for saying and doing things that made for great, quick anecdotes. He was a genuinely funny child, and had a unique perspective on life. Even before he died, Charlie posts were always a favorite with my tight circle.

Any time I choose, I can access hundreds of images of my dead son. My phone and iPad are full of pictures and video of him—and by him. He loved technology, and had a YouTube channel of his own where he posted a cappella versions of his favorite game’s theme songs, stop-motion movies, his latest LEGO builds, and musings on life. All of those videos are available for me to watch at a moment’s notice. Any time I want, I can open my phone and look at the Charlie album. 

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One of my favorite pictures of my favorite ghost.

Most of the time, it’s comforting. Some times, it’s unbearably sad because there will never, ever be a new picture. It’s like that with my Facebook Memories. I find that as I get closer to July 16 and the anniversary of his death, I’m keenly aware that what pops up after that will be memories I’ve already seen at least once. Nothing new, not ever. 

His entire life is captured online, in bits and pieces and slices of memory. But the real memory of him lives in my heart, and the hearts of those who loved him. That’s how I believe he lives on, in all of the lives he touched during his short 10 years with us. The pictures and video are just ones and zeros, but they are a way for me to remind the rest of the world that Charlie was here. He mattered. And I miss him. 

Grief Journal: Seven Months

I didn’t post on the seven-month anniversary.

It’s not that I forgot. One thing people don’t get is that as a parent, we don’t have the luxury of forgetting, not even for a minute. There are surges of emotion—of love, of longing, of guilt, of just missing him. But those are like waves on the shore of our grief. The water is always there; just different forms. 

The 17th of February was a cold, snowy day. We got dumped with snow. We didn’t leave the house. I, as I do essentially every day, worked. My brain may have been busy, but developing creative briefs and updating schedules isn’t exactly an anesthetic. There’s still plenty of room for the giant throbbing emptiness that fills my heart and soul. Plenty of brain power left over to sing the never-ending refrain, “He’s gone, he’s gone. Oh, my darling son is gone.”

Seven months and one day since I last held him breathing in my arms. It really isn’t any easier. Nothing makes it easier. The dirge that is the background music to my life just keeps playing. 

Worst ear worm ever.

Grief Journal: He’s Not a Statistic

Out of all the things my son should have been, a statistic is not one of them. 

Understanding that I don’t get to control the narrative around his death has been really difficult for me. There is what we believe and think about how he died, and then there’s what the community believes and thinks.

On the one hand, my son was such a bright light, that many people knew him—people I don’t even really know. His death was like a rock dropped into our little pond of a town, and it’s created ripples that go well beyond just our family. But the further out those ripples go, the less it’s about the loss of him—the fact that’s he’s gone—and more about how people think he died, and why, and what that represents. His death is lumped together with the loss of others, as a “symptom” of a problem—one that frightens other parents. 

Our community is loving, caring and inclusive, and trying very hard support its children. That’s an admirable and necessary thing, and I wish more communities would come together the way ours has. Yet, it’s really hard to read about programs, events, coalitions, and book readings around the topic of mental health and wellness. Not because I don’t support those things, but because in my son’s case, he HAD support from mental health professionals, his school, and his parents. 

I want to scream when he’s referred to (always in aggregate) as “one of four losses” or when the programs created are talked about as “in response to a time of tremendous loss.” 

Because none of these programs or readings or anything would have made any fucking difference. Sometimes, despite all the love and care and help in the world, terrible and tragic accidents happen to 10 year olds with zero impulse control or sense of finality.

Do I understand the impulse to do something? Oh, yes. Do I hope these efforts make a difference for others? Of course I do. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a knife to the heart every time my son is mentioned as a catalyst, even if it’s never by name. I rage that he’s become  a statistic, representative of a problem.

Would I feel the same if he had died from cancer, or in a car crash, or something similar? I don’t know.

All I know is, I’m not ready for his death to “be meaningful” or for people to say “at least something good has come of it.” I just want him. How will anything solve that?

Grief Journal: Happy Valentine’s Day

We have a no-first-person-shooter game rule in our house. One day my son informed me, “When I get a wife, I’m playing Doom, Halo and GTA!” To him, being married was a sign of being a grown up.

He was at that age where he didn’t like girls very much. He had plenty of friends who were girls—mostly those he had known for years, or the older neighbor girls—and played with them happily, but he primarily identified with his male friends. Developmentally appropriate, of course. His 4th grade teacher tried hard to ensure that he didn’t sit next to girls in class because he told her, “It’s not that I have a problem with them; I just don’t want to sit by them.” And anything we needed to do to keep him focused in class…

I’d remind him that I am a girl. He’d just roll his eyes and say, “Yes, but you’re my mom. You don’t count.”

He really liked the idea of growing up and getting married some day, though. Even though we told him he didn’t have to get married, or that maybe he’d want to marry a boy, he was quite adamant that he was going to have a wife and kids one day. I always told him he would make a wonderful husband and father. “I know,” he’d reply. He knew that he’d be good at it, because he’d watched how his dad did it. 

He never got to have a Valentine other than his mom. He never had that first crush, first kiss, first date, first love, first heart break.  

He would have made someone an amazing partner. 

Happy Valentine’s Day, my boy. Momma loves you. 

Grief Journal: Get Over It

In reading about parents who’ve lost a child, one idea keeps coming up: “It’s nothing something you ever get over, it’s just something you learn to live with.”

I understand that. No matter how much time passes, I cannot and will not ever be “over” the loss of my son. 

The way the phrase is most often used, “get over it” means to dismiss what happened, to put it in the past, that it no longer matters much. Someone loses a game or fails a test, we say, “Get over it; focus on the next one.” Someone’s feelings get hurt because someone else did something mean, we say, “Get over it; you can’t change them.”

I suppose in the context of learning from mistakes, rather than being defined by them, “get over it” has some value. But I will never “get over” my son’s death.

Like most people, my life (as the Doctor would say) is a pile of good things and bad things. So many good, positive amazing experiences have come my way. And some really horrible, awful things have happened to me, outside of my control and caused by other people or circumstances. Deep, fundamental betrayals. Sexual assault. Multiple miscarriages. Health problems. I was in the room when my sister was taken off life support and died. I slept on a hospital chair for a week while my mom came to understand that she was dying and would not see the next month. All the sad and bad things that can make up a life.

Each of these experiences has changed me in fundamental ways. I move through this world shaped by the scars on my soul, and the pieces missing from my heart.

Losing Charlie has broken me. I’m like a glass vase dropped from a great height, shattered into tiny pieces. Putting those jagged edges back together so I can hold water again is a process and a long one. Would you expect that vase to “get over it”? To be and act the same? 

When people say “get over it,” what they really mean is “I’m over it; your emotions are making me uncomfortable.” Or, “I’m over it, so you should be, too, because my perspective is the one that matters.” Or, “Get over it, other people have had worse things happen and they’re fine.” (As if pain were a contest that one can win.) Or, “Get over it; you still have two children.” (As if I can’t mourn and mother at the same time.)

I’m not, and never will be, over my son’s death. It is too deep a wound. All I can do is take my battered soul and shattered heart and figure out how to keep moving through this world—how to live with the unbearable. 

Grief Journal: What Happens When You Die?

I don’t know what happens when you die. 

I’m not even sure what I believe happens when you die. I do know what I don’t believe, though—I don’t believe you go to heaven. Raised as a the-Bible-is-the-literal-word-of-God Baptist, it was clear even as a child that the Bible is at best, an unreliable narrator on the subject. Do we go straight to the afterlife the instant we die, there to be judged? Or do we “sleep” until Christ returns and raises the bodies of the faithful? (In which case, we are fucked, because my son was cremated.) And why are we judged? Isn’t it supposed to be that those who are “saved” go right to heaven? Except, it seems that there are also hierarchies of heaven, with different crowns and jewels? (In my church, we were taught that if you were saved you went to heaven, but your experience there was based on how good you were on earth.) And what about kids? Do they go to heaven even if they aren’t “saved”? The Bible is incredibly vague on this subject. 

In any case, I long ago left the church of my youth because I’ve never been able to stand hypocrisy. I left the god of my youth behind because after careful study, I decided that while faith is necessary for a fulfilling life, I was only going to have faith in worthy concepts. And the God of the Bible I know seems to be at best angry, jealous and petty, and at worse suffering from multiple personality disorder, with his loving side (Jesus) completely at odds with, and subject to, his vengeful, blood thirsty side. (Please don’t get me started on people who say “It’s for the best, God has a plan.” I reject the God whose plan includes the death of my sweet boy.)

But I’ve never found another religion or belief system that works for me, on either an emotional or logical level. The Summerlands and Paradise are similar to heaven. It’s appealing, this idea of being with our loved ones forever. I really like the idea of reincarnation or merging with the great Light; it fits in with the idea that energy cannot be destroyed, only transformed (until the eventual heat death of the universe, which honestly, is a problem for Future Me).

Death happens to everyone—and it’s truly the last frontier, the great unknown. Beyond functioning as social constraints and constructs, religions help us make sense of death. Even if you aren’t religious, the idea of an afterlife brings comfort. We need to believe we won’t lose the people we love. We won’t lose ourselves. 

I read about the idea of our universe as a hologram, and that the linear nature of time may be artificial, imposed by our meat prison. It’s actually comforting, because it reminds me that we know so little about the nature of reality. So many things are possible, including an afterlife, even if it’s not what we have imagined to date.

But I just don’t know. And I’m comfortable saying I don’t know. I’d like to believe that a light as strong and lovely and wonderful as my son cannot be extinguished. That it is him—not just a memory, not just the manifestation of my bone-deep longing for him—that visits me in my dreams. That he—not just the energy that was him, but his essence, his soul—still exists, somewhere, somewhen. And that we will be together again.

I have faith.