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. 

Grief Journal: Nine Months

Nine months.

The grief is no better. I haven’t gestated some relief for the pain I feel every day. I haven’t given birth to a new way of feeling the weight of his loss. Every morning I still take my first waking breath and feel that razor blade armor cutting fresh wounds. Bright and shiny on the outside, torture on the inside; that’s how I start my days. 

Because that’s the thing about losing your child. You never stop loving them, so you never stop grieving them. Your love for them is big—as wide as the sea, as deep as your soul, as bright as the sun. You love for them is endless, and so is your grief. 

You have to get up every day, and function. But inside, you’re still curled up in a ball, crying. 

In my Facebook memories today, this post from my husband came up:

On his way out the door to school, the C-in-C* pulled me aside.
The C-in-C: (quietly) I need to tell you something.
Me: Okay.
The C-in-C: (even more softly) Your hair’s getting thin.
Me: I know.
The C-in-C: Well, are you going to, like…do anything about it?
Me: No. At my age, it’s normal.
The C-in-C: There are things you can do, on TV. Or do they not really work?
Me: They don’t, but it wouldn’t matter. I’m okay with it.
The C-in-C: (hand on my shoulder) I just don’t want your head getting cold.

This kid. This sweet, loving, caring kid. I read this, and don’t understand how he could be dead in three months. 

Saying I miss him doesn’t even begin to cover it.

 

*As a writer, most of my husband’s page and posts are public, so he always used pseudonyms to protect our kids.

Grief Journal: 270 Squares of Love

The ripples from my son’s death still reverberate. It didn’t affect just us; so many people knew and loved him, including his classmates and friends. 

In addition to ongoing grief counseling, his school wanted to find a way to honor Charlie’s memory. They suggested a “Creativity Day,” where 5th graders could participate in a variety of stations designed to spark innovation and creativity—LEGOs, drawing, reading, and more—all the things my son loved best about school. It was a wonderful way to honor him (I posted about it before, including the cool buttons that his beloved teacher and close friends made for all of the kids to wear), and I think it helped many of his classmates put a bit of closure on his loss. 

As part of that event, the kids had the opportunity to color and decorate a square. Most chose some version of a heart. Kids who knew him well chose to illustrate something he really liked, or an interest they shared. The talented team at the school compiled all of those squares into a single image, lovingly placing each square into a rainbow mosaic titled “Let Your True Colors Shine.” 

(True Colors was one of the songs we played at the funeral, and part of the eulogy his fourth grade teacher delivered. My son was nothing if not uniquely himself, and that song reflects the idea that it’s okay to let your true self—your true colors—shine, because it makes this world is a better place when we have all of the colors around us.) 

The staff invited my husband and me to the school so they could present this beautiful artwork:

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It was a bittersweet moment. I have to confess, I was both looking forward to it and dreading it. I was so grateful for the artwork, but it’s still really hard to be in that building; I avoid driving past it on school days, when the kids might be out at recess, because it’s just too damn sad. 

The teachers and staff were wonderful as always, sharing cute stories about our son. Because of the timing, our youngest daughter was with us. She sat quietly, listening to all they had to say. After, she said, “Charlie was pretty cool, right?”  I think it’s a good memory that will help our shy, change-averse child when it’s her turn in another year to go to the Intermediate Center; she knows that the teachers loved her brother and that he had fun there. 

But I’m not going to lie, I cried. In fact, it was four days ago, and I haven’t really stopped crying. 

I hung the picture on our wall once I got home. I spent time looking at each of the beautiful 270 squares, hand drawn by the best bunch of 5th graders on the planet, guided by our amazing and caring school district staff. I wonder how we ever got so lucky as to live here, in this community, surrounded by such love and support. 

And as always, I wish I didn’t have to know just how amazing our town is.

Grief Journal: Haunted by Hindsight

When you lose a child the way we did, you come to understand that ghosts are real—they’re just not what you thought.

You aren’t haunted by your dead child’s spirit, like in the movies. There are no voices in the night, floating white phantasms or morse code rappings. But you are haunted by his memory. Driving past his school and seeing his friends playing outside at recess, you remember his tales of recesses past. Turning off the lights in what used to be his bedroom, you see the glow-in-the-dark stars he saw every night. Cleaning the house, you still find abandoned LEGOs and scraps of drawings. Kissing his beloved Beary Bear (who now lives by your bed), you catch the faintest hint of little boy smell. 

Everywhere you look or go, there are memories and reminders of the son you loved. Sometimes, it’s comforting. Sometimes, it’s torture. Often, it is both. 

But the true haunting is “what if.” 

What if we had gone to different doctors? What if it hadn’t taken a year just to get wait-listed for the crucial pediatric psychiatric evaluation? What if we had changed his meds? What if we had pulled him out school? What if we had been stricter about his internet access? What if we had listened more, focused more, loved more? 

I could list a thousand “what ifs.” Sometimes I torture myself with them. Losing a child this way is a fundamental failure as a parent. Parents are supposed to keep their children safe. With this particular child, our job was to keep him safe until his more-immature-than-most brain and impulse control matured and caught up—while still helping him grow and feel competent. 

It was a balancing act that crashed. I failed at the only thing that ever truly mattered. 

They say hindsight is 20/20, but not in a situation like ours. No matter how we look back, we can’t gain “understanding of a situation or event only after it has happened or developed,” like the dictionary promises. Because all of the “what ifs” don’t help. 

In my rational moments, I know that we made the absolute best choices we could with the information we had. I know how much we loved him, supported him, fought for him, listened to him. I know that what happened was almost surely the result of an impulse his brain was too immature to understand or manage. 

Yet, hindsight haunts me, wrapping me in heavy chains. I walk through this world haunted by the thought of “what if.”