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 may not 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. 

Grief Journal: Unforgiven

What happens when you can’t forgive yourself?

There’s a school of thought that says that forgiveness is an important part of healing. That letting go of anger, resentment, hate and other negative emotions is necessary to move past the offense that caused the negative emotions in the first place. That it’s something one does for oneself, rather than for the offender, and doesn’t mean you must forget the offense, or reconcile with the offender. 

I don’t buy this. I believe that there are some things that are unforgivable. Forgiveness is something that has to be asked for by the offender, and that it’s my choice if I want to give it. I can choose not to forgive without letting anger, hate or other negative emotions run my life. Maybe that’s the difference; I don’t need to forgive in order to heal or move past something. But I’ve experienced deep betrayals and things like sexual assault in my life, and I do not forgive or forget the perpetrators. 

It might be because in general, there’s always a part of me that stands outside, analyzing. I’m biased towards fairness rather than making people feel better. Emotions are just one piece of the equation that must be balanced in terms of what is just. That has always given me a reputation for coldness, but I’ve been this way ever since I can remember. One benefit, though, is that I can analyze and judge and not forgive someone without needing to actively hold on to hate or anger—in fact, the end result is that I tend not to waste any emotional energy on them at all.

But what if the person who doesn’t deserve forgiveness is … me? The closer I get to the first anniversary of my son’s death, the more I think about what happened—what I did, what I didn’t do, how I failed. I know if I were talking to a friend in my situation, I would tell them that you cannot control every minute of a 10-year-old’s life. That even children have interior lives we cannot know. That I did the best I could with what I knew, what medical professionals and therapists told me, and what was reasonable to expect. That it really was just a tragic accident.

I tell this and more to my husband, over and over, and I truly mean it. I tell it to myself, and I know it’s true. But all of the could haves, and would haves, and should haves, and only knowing what I knew, and doing My Very Best don’t change the fact that my son died. That he somehow figured out how to do what he did, and felt curious enough or compelled to do it.

It doesn’t change that fact that I failed at the one thing we are supposed to do as parents—keep them safe. All the love in the world doesn’t matter if you can’t do this one fundamental thing. That’s just the cold equation, and it doesn’t add up to forgiveness for me, ever.

Yet, I have to continue on. I have a husband I love and who needs me. I have two living children who need a mom to keep on doing the best I can, poor parenting that it’s proven to be. I have family and friends and neighbors who have covered our family in love in a completely undeserved outpouring of grace. 

I know each and every one of them forgives me. But I cannot forgive myself. Maybe living with that is punishment enough. 

Grief Journal: 11 Months

Eleven months.

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I think I’ve aged 11 years since we lost him. I may be an older mom—I didn’t even become a mother until my 40s—but I always told myself that I didn’t look my age. That’s not really as vain as it sounds, because it really doesn’t have much to do with me; it’s genetic. Both of my parents looked younger than they were and so do my siblings. So, thank good genes; adequate sunscreen has pretty much taken care of the rest.

When I got pregnant for the first time, many people thought I was in my mid-20s rather than celebrating my 40th birthday. By the time Charlie was born, I looked more like 10 years younger than my actual age—mid-30s rather than mid-40s. Even doctors and dermatologists remarked how young I looked. (And yeah, even if you don’t really have anything to do with it, it makes you feel good.)

But now? I look my age and more. 

I recently had to take down my mirror while some work was done in the bathroom. Three weeks with just a tiny hand mirror didn’t really bother me. The older I get, the lower maintenance I become. And since we lost my son, I have approached zero maintenance, only bothering to blow dry my hair or put makeup on if I have a client meeting at work. Anyway, the point is, I went a while without looking in the mirror.

So it was kind of a shock when the mirror went back up and I got a good look at myself, under the new lights. Who was this old woman staring back at me? When had my hair gone so white? Why do I suddenly have loose jowls and a crepey neck? What are these grooves running from my nose to my mouth? Still not many wrinkles, but why are my eye sockets so hollow and sunken? And why was the skin on my chest and arms suddenly so loose, rough and covered with a web of tiny pre-wrinkles? 

But I looked closer, into my own eyes. Eyes that are haunted with grief and guilt and loss. Eyes that are windows on to a soul with a a hole torn in it, hemhorrhaging love that has no where to go. The eyes of someone old, and tired, and worn. 

I guess that is one of the side effects of grief. It ages your spirit and your soul. The last six years, I’ve experienced grief on grief on grief—losing my sister, watching my mother die of cancer, and losing my son. Oh, my darling son. 

That much grief and loss doesn’t make you wiser, but it certainly makes you older, body and soul. I feel fragile, like an old tree that’s starting to go hollow. It requires effort to summon the energy required to put out green leaves, to provide shade and rest and comfort to those I love. I feel like one more storm might send me crashing down. 

Eleven months to miss him. 

Grief Journal: End of School

It’s the end of another school year. 

We should have had a fifth grader. It was supposed to be the first full year with his 504 plan. The first year he was identified as talented & gifted. I wonder how he would have done. Would we have spoken to his fifth grade teacher as often as we did his third and fourth (usually weekly, sometimes daily). Would we have gone to the office as often? Spoken regularly to the principal, counselor and nurse? Still been on a first-name basis with the office staff? (I realized at my oldest son’s eight grade graduation that I didn’t even know the principal’s name.)

School was always really difficult for my son. Ridiculously bright, yet never, ever content—or able—to go along with “the rules,” he viewed school as something to be endured. Yet for the most part, his educators loved him. He may not have wanted to be at school, but he was pretty darn cheerful about it. He had a unique perspective and sense of humor that was hard not to respond to. We were lucky enough to have teachers that really liked our kid and appreciated him for who he was.

Probably the only exception was the school janitor. When he was in first grade, his nickname was “The Happy Puker.” There was a period of time when he was always getting sick to his stomach. We were pretty concerned, honestly. He legitimately had the most delicate tummy of all my kids, and the stress of school didn’t help. Yet, he was always really cheerful in the nurse’s office, chattering away at her a mile a minute while he waited for us to pick him up, offering to help her. It wasn’t until second grade that his teacher figured out that he was *making* himself vomit, just so he could go to the nurse’s office. When we talked to him about it, he sighed. “Yeah, I probably need to stop. It’s making Mr. [Janitor’s Name] mad to have to clean it up, I bet.” He had to be running a real fever for me to let him to stay home from school—although I admit, sometimes I just let him stay home because I could tell he needed a break.

I tried so hard to help him appreciate school. I’d remind him how much his teachers and educators loved him, and how kind they were to him, whenever he got down on himself. See, I’d say, it’s not just your mom and dad that love you (because when he was angry, he’d insist we only loved him because we had to). I’d remind him of his friends, and how much he liked learning cool new things. He adored recess and art, and like music, reading and science. He hated math with a passion, almost as much as standardized testing.

We talked a lot about home schooling, or finding an alternative school. But honestly, for Charlie it just boiled down to being in a situation where he had to do things he didn’t want, when he didn’t want to. He was still learning how life worked. He was well aware of the value of hard work and effort; he just didn’t care about putting in that effort on anything he didn’t value, and fought against accepting that some times you have to, just because. 

I secretly admired him for that. It was a balancing act as his parent, fostering that questioning spirit while still trying to make him a productive member of society. I wanted him to keep that spark, that refusal to go along with status quo or do things “just because.” I would tell him that if you want to break the rules, you need to understand them and figure out which ones you can and should break, when. 

His impulsiveness made that really, really difficult for him. So did the sheer intensity of his emotions, the storms that would rage through him like a hurricane. During his last month of school, he had a pretty serious incident that set a whole new benchmark for the concept of a “bad day.” I was pretty shaken by it, and I think he was, too. Yet, by the time we met with his therapist, he was back to his happy self. It’s one of the “what ifs” that haunt me. Did I miss how intense his storms were becoming? How could I have failed to see how ineffective all the coping strategies we tried to teach him for his impulsiveness were?

At his brother’s eighth grade graduation, all of the students walked across the stage for their middle school diplomas. In a particularly touching moment, they called the name of a classmate who had died of cancer last year and there was a moment of silence. I thought about those parents, wondering if they were there, seeing all of their child’s friends grow up, moving on to the high school adventure their child will never have. I thought about how I will never see Charlie graduate from middle school, or high school. How there was one child missing in our end-of-year school picture, and always will be.

I thought about how much he loved summer, and that’s he’s missing it–missing all of the summers, ever. I hope wherever he is, there’s no school and he finally gets what he wants to do, when he wants to do it. I hope he knows how much I miss him.

Grief Journal: 10 Months

Ten months.

Recently, I realized that marking the 17th of every month has turned from how many months it’s been since my son died, to a countdown of how long it will be until the one-year anniversary of his death. I’m dreading that day more than I can say, for some reason. It looms large in my mind, growing ever bigger and threatening to block out everything else.

I’m lucky, though. Although grief after losing a child is a universal experience, my problems are very much first-world problems. I don’t live in a war zone, or have to worry about food, shelter or safety. Materially, I have everything I want or need. And, I’m lucky enough to have access to medical care, including mental health care.

My entire family needed that access and mental health support after our loss. I don’t talk about their private experiences here, just my own journey, but I can say I wouldn’t be functioning even at the limited capacity I am if I didn’t have access to therapists and psychiatrists and the care they provide. 

Grief affects you profoundly, mentally and physically. I’m more likely to get sick. I can’t handle stress at all; every molehill becomes a mountain. I cry, all the time and at the drop of a hat—like last night at my son’s 8th grade concert when they sang SEASONS OF LOVE. I’m more anxious, irritable and quick to lose my temper. I don’t always feel like taking a shower every day, and I haven’t worn makeup in months (it just runs at some point, let’s face it).

Therapy gives me a place to talk about this, and strategies that help me cope. Medication helps, too, allowing me to keep my head above water and put energy into self-care. 

There’s no shame in needing help. You don’t get a medal for handling grief on your own. Therapy and medication will be part of my life as long as I need them, although how and when I access them will likely change as my grief does. I’m incredibly grateful that I have a health care plan that pays for at least some of this (if I’m ever tempted to not get out of bed, I remind myself that I have to work to pay for everyone’s therapy). So I add this to the list of things I’m thankful for, that I never wanted to be.

Meanwhile, two months to go.