Grief Journal: It Doesn’t Always Get Better

My therapist recently said something that really resonated. “The second year is often much harder than the first.”

For me, that is true.

The first year, every little event or anniversary was painful because it was the first without him. So many big events, made even bigger by his absence. First day of school with just two kids. First Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year…all of the holidays and he wasn’t there. First birthday he didn’t celebrate. 

So many other little firsts, too. First time I saw all of the neighborhood kids playing, without him. First time I automatically put something in my shopping cart for Charlie, then had to put it back. First time I worked in my new office, his old bedroom. First time I switched out seasonal clothes, and realized my older son’s hand-me-downs needed to go to friends. 

But the second year is worse. Because you realize it’s not just that first time, it’s the rest of your life. He will never, ever go back to school, celebrate a holiday, or play with his friends.

Worse, all of the rest of the years are about the firsts he is going to miss.  Everyone else grows up and on, but he will never go to middle school, or high school, or college. He’s never going to make that first pay check. He’s never going to go through puberty, much less have his first kiss, first date or fall in love. He’s never going to become who he was meant to be.

I didn’t think anything could be worse than that first year without him. I was wrong. 

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First birthday. 

Grief Journal: Scar Tissue

Many years ago, I ruptured one of my ankle ligaments. At the time, the doctor told me it would have been better to actually break the bone. “Bones can essentially heal,” he said. “Your ligament will never be the same; our goal is to create the strongest scar tissue possible to retain the most function.”

When I was in high school, I injured the synovial tissue in my knee (and people say cheerleading isn’t a contact sport). It too has never been the same; to this day, my knee swells if I try to run.

I could go on and on but there is little as boring as other people’s medical problems. The point is, sometimes an injury occurs and the best we can hope for is that the scar tissue allows us to still function. We will never be as we were before, and shouldn’t expect the same level of performance.

I think that happens emotionally and spiritually, too. 

For whatever reason, a lot of us have been thinking of Charlie lately. I don’t know if it’s because the weather has finally turned to fall so we’re more conscious of the dying of the year, or what, but he’s been weighing on so many hearts. School friends of his miss him keenly as they adjust to middle school. His sister and brother feel his absence like a lost tooth, poking at the sore spot. Yesterday, his father and I sat on a park bench and cried while watching some kids play, because he should have been there.

None of us who loved him will ever be the same. We’ve been injured too deeply by what we lost. We can heal, we can go on, but we won’t be the same as before. 

For me, one of the things that’s been affected most is my emotional resilience. Stuff doesn’t just bounce off the way it used to. My hard protective shell is just a thin candy veneer, liable to crack at any moment. Mind over matter doesn’t work. My will is no longer a V8 engine powering me forward. Instead, I’m pushing a lawnmower through waist-high grass.

But I keep pushing. I keep getting up every day. I keep trying, stretching the scar tissue that’s barely holding me together.

Grief Journal: Love is a Verb

I’ve often wondered if our language shapes our perceptions of the world, or if our perception of the world around us shapes the language we use to express it. So Eskimos have dozens of words to describe snow, and Germans have a special word to describe taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others, and English speakers have nearly 3,000 synonyms at their disposal to describe being drunk. Yet there are words we use over and over to describe a vastly different range of feelings and experiences.

Like “love,” for example.

I can say “I love chocolate.” “I love fall and wearing cozy sweaters.” “I love my family.” “I love my son Charlie.”

These are all acceptable uses of the word, and anyone who hears me say them will understand that they represent different kids of love. No one expects that my feelings for chocolate are the same as my feelings for my family or my son. 

“I love my son Charlie.” Present tense. English offers me two options here to allow for the fact of his death—I can either change the tense of the verb or add an adjective. “I loved my son Charlie.” “I love my dead son Charlie.” Both are true. 

I choose, “I love my dead son Charlie.” Just because he is gone, doesn’t mean I have stopped loving him. I still love him as fiercely as ever. It’s just that I have no where to put that love any more. I cannot hug him, or laugh at his jokes, or listen to him tell me all about his latest game. I can’t make his favorite meal, or hold him when he’s frustrated. All of the endless, limitless love I have for my amazing son has no focus anymore. 

I know of other people who have recently lost someone they love. Some of them have started foundations designed to help grieving parents. Some hold fundraisers with the proceeds going to disease research. Others founded companies with a goal of making the world a more positive place. They all exist because of how much the founders loved the person they lost. They discovered that, as the saying goes, grief is just love with no place to go. So they chose to channel that grief, that love. They found a new focus. Many experts on grief say that this is the healthiest way to cope with enormous loss.

An enormous loss like losing a son. One of the hardest parts of loving Charlie after his death is the loss of possibility. I always thought he would do something amazing when he got older, with his fierce intelligence and enormous creativity. I never talked about it like that to him, of course–no kid needs that pressure—but I tried to encourage him to think about all the possibilities open to him. He, quite literally, could have done or been just about anything. It was exciting (and a bit daunting) as a parent to foster his gifts in a positive way.

Now, that’s gone. All that possibility is gone from this world.

In the wake of his death, so many people found special, meaningful ways to honor Charlie. Friends donated books to our library, planted trees, and sponsored children’s programs. Our family funded scholarships to Camp Invention, one of his favorite activities. Each of these was a way to keep the light that was Charlie burning a bit longer.

But I haven’t found a focus, try as I might. I still love my son, but he isn’t here any more. My love pours out of me and echoes through the universe, turning into waves of dark grief because his light is missing. And there isn’t a word for that in any language.