Grief Journal: Not an Anniversary

It’s almost the one-year anniversary of my son’s death. There needs to be another word for this. “Anniversary” is usually accompanied by “happy,” and there’s nothing happy about this. 

In Yiddish, they say “yahrzeit.” I found this explanation: “The yahrzeit is a time for study, charity, kindness and reflection in honor of the loved one. Observed every year, the kindling of a yahrzeit candle and the recitation of the Kaddish serve to honor the memory of a loved one now and for generations to come.” 

Other cultures find ways to meaningfully manage death and loss. Americans tend to avoid talking about death or loss, as if it were catching. You’re just supposed to put it behind you and carry on, keeping your grief hidden away. We compliment people who do this, calling them “strong.” I’ve heard this a lot over the past year and while I appreciate the sentiment, I am not strong. 

When I got the news my son died, I went into shock. I never really understood what that meant until then. But it is a physical and mental reaction—your mind and body just sort of shut down and go on autopilot in self defense, because what has happened to you is so enormous, you literally cannot face or process it. People told me I was being strong then, because I was functioning. There’s a lot of planning and logistics that come with a funeral, and I managed it—mostly because my brain said, “Oh, I cannot deal with this thing, so I will control these other things that I can.” But that’s not strength, it’s self preservation.

I think for the first couple of days, I didn’t really believe it. Because I wasn’t home and didn’t see him, there was a part of me that thought it was all some sort of horrible nightmare. I remember bugging the funeral director about being able to see my son. That lovely man made sure that as soon as the body was released and he could prep it, he called me to come over, even though it was after hours.

When I walked in and saw my darling boy, and knew that he truly was dead, I fell to my knees and cried in a way I never have cried before. Heart-rending sobs filled with pain, because a part of me was dying and it hurt. Much about that first week, and even this last year, are hazy but that hour with my dead son is a memory that is seared into my very soul. I eventually stood up and walked out the door, but there is a part of me that is still on my knees in that room and always will be.

I am forever changed. I’m not the same person I was a year ago. Some of the changes are for the good. I’m a more patient parent, because I realize you really, really don’t need to sweat the small stuff. I’m a kinder person, because I know first-hand how much a kind act or word can mean, even to a stranger and that none of us can know what pain we each carry every day. 

What I am not is stronger. I don’t walk through this world with the same surety, content with my choices. I don’t feel safe, because I know bad things can happen and the world is cruel and random. I understand that love is not always enough. It’s not strength that keeps me going—it’s acceptance that there is no real alternative, and that while love not may be enough, it’s what I have to give to my husband, son and daughter.

While the metaphors I choose to talk about grief are usually about water, I’ve noticed that when people talk about my son, it’s often in terms of light. When we see a rainbow, we say, “Charlie is saying hi.” We think of him as a bright shining light…because he was. And our world is darker without his light in it.

On July 16, please light a candle for Charlie. Help bring back a little bit of the light we lost. Reflect on the lessons he had to teach us. Be kind to your family, your friends and even strangers. Just don’t be strong—because it’s okay to show your grief, to be sad and to mourn. He deserves it. 

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Grief Journal: The Last Picture

This is the last picture I took of my son alive, one year ago. He’s enjoying ice cream, which is something he really loved, as most kids do. And given the challenge we had keeping weight on him, we let him indulge.

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Here are other things he loved, in no particular order:

  • Creating his own LEGOs ideas
  • Drawing in black and white (not color), preferably pencil but black Sharpie was okay, too
  • Reading Minecraft guides
  • Reading the WARRIORS series
  • PACIFIC RIM (his favorite movie), but watching movies in general (especially all GODZILLA movies, THE HUNGER GAMES series and any Marvel movie)
  • Making videos for his YouTube channel
  • Stop-motion animation
  • Music he could dance to
  • “Rock n roll” songs
  • Musicals (we rewatched GALLIVANT a couple of times)
  • Babybel cheese rounds
  • Chips and hummus
  • Hot dogs
  • Candy, his preferred food group (I found a mountain of illicit treat wrappers under his bed)
  • Playing video games—Minecraft, Undertale & Overwatch in particular
  • Sans from Undertale (his last Halloween costume)
  • Being off school
  • Cuddling (he never outgrew cuddling)
  • Riding his bike
  • Hanging with his friends
  • Fashion and picking out new clothes
  • Getting to stay up late
  • The singing role in Rock Band
  • Hiding out in forts
  • NERF guns & battles
  • The Ren Faire/Medieval Times/jousting (he wanted to do this professionally)
  • Root beer
  • The color green
  • Camp Invention
  • Making jokes

I could go on and on. Such a prosaic list—things hundreds of other kids like as well—yet put all together, you get the one and only Charlie. He was so much more than the sum of his interests, but his passions (he loved or hated things, no middle ground) and the things he cared about certainly helped make him who he was. So when I write this list, it sounds dull and dry, yet it sparks a cascade of memories of him, alive with curiosity. He did everything, even sleeping, intensely–and he wanted you to feel intensely, too. Not one picture I have of him captures his sheer joy in living.

I miss him more than I can say. And I still can’t quite believe, nearly a year later, that he is gone. I’m not sure I ever will be able to fully accept a world without his light in it. 

Grief Journal: My Heart Is Heavy

There are so many different metaphors for grief. Right now, the one I feel most strongly is weight. My grief is heavy, and I am tired.

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Every morning I wake up and consider if today is the day I won’t get out of bed. I’d really rather spend the day sleeping, or lost in my iPad. So far, I have always made myself get up. But it’s hard.

Taking care of the house has always been my job—cleaning inside and landscaping outside. These days, it’s just overwhelming. I look at the list—vacuum, mop, clean the bathrooms, weed the flowers—and try to do just one thing a day. Lately, I’m lucky if I can get one thing done a week. I end up lying on the couch, stressed from the mess and dirt, yet not so stressed that I actually get up and clean. 

Work is worse. Earlier this year, my company and I started transitioning me to a less stressful and demanding role. I had one week—one glorious week—of less stress and a manageable work load. Then, it all blew apart. I’m back with more responsibility than ever, with high stakes. It’s not anyone’s fault, and I could have said no…except not really, because people’s livelihoods were on the line. 

I’m trying to accept it and move on, because complaining about it doesn’t help and I need to focus and be positive. But it feels as if I were coming up for air, and then someone pushed me back down into the lightless depths, where the pounds-per-square-inch calculation layers my suit of razor blades with concrete.

Weighted by grief and responsibilities, things take time. Last week, I looked at my ever-growing to-do list, actually hyperventilated, then burst into tears. So now I pull out one or two things and write it on a sticky I place on my monitor—the “must do” that day. On a  good day, I can get through two or even three stickies. I’ve learned to deal with emails as soon as I read them, because I can’t trust my memory to go back and respond. Speaking of memory, I write everything down, because my usual steep-trap recall is completely porous. 

So I’m trying. Trying to be a good, supportive wife. Trying to be present for my kids. Trying to run a home. Trying to be a good employee. 

But I am far, far underwater and really, really tired. My heart is so heavy.