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.

Grief Journal: These Dreams

I dreamed of Charlie last night. He came to tell me he was sorry, he didn’t mean it. He was taller in the dream; I noticed it right away, that he was starting to hit a growth spurt.

As I’ve said before, I don’t dream of him often. This is the third time since he died. Maybe each dream is another milestone in my process of grief. Maybe this one was caused by a new medication I started; vivid dreams are a known side effect. 

Or maybe, each dream is a gift of grace from the universe, connecting my shattered heart to his, wherever his light shines on. 

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Maybe the dead know, their eyes widening at last,
 
Seeing the high beams of a million galaxies flick on
 
At twilight. Hearing the engines flare, the horns
 
Not letting up, the frenzy of being. I want to be
 
One notch below bedlam, like a radio without a dial.
 
Wide open, so everything floods in at once.
 
And sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,
 
Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
– My God, It’s Full of Stars, Tracy K Smith

Grief Journal: The Many Faces of Depression

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Guess which one is the face of my depression? Hint: it’s red and filled with flames. Credit: Inside Out (a really cute movie you should see if you haven’t)

One thing I know about myself—even though I don’t like it—is that for me, depression often manifests as irritability and anger. I can make myself get up out bed, go to work and function, but dammit, no one says I have to be nice about it. 

Let’s be honest, I don’t have the luxury of doing anything with my depression other than picking it up, like a very heavy suitcase, and lugging it around every day. Time and love and therapy and medication haven’t made a dent in the depression I feel after losing my son. Sleeping and drinking all day aren’t an option for all sorts of valid reasons, so the depression becomes my very own set of cement shoes, weighing me down and making everything so much harder—a black fog that colors everything I see a dingy grey. 

It’s a sneaky, mean thing, depression. I don’t know how I appear to casual observers. They probably see me laughing with my kids, or smiling as I walk the dog, or cracking jokes in meetings. They probably think I’m doing pretty well. If I snap or say something bitchy—well, let’s be honest, that’ s not entirely out of character for me in general. They don’t know that all day long, I just want to scream. Often, at anyone I have to interact with. Not because they’ve done something, but just because I am So. Damn. Tired.

The effort of not losing my shit, of maintaining a semblance of courtesy and professionalism with people who deserve nothing less, is absolutely exhausting. 

It’s not just colleagues or strangers, either. I love my children beyond reason, and I’m trying hard to take whatever lessons I can from Charlie’s loss and remember to let go of the small stuff. But sometimes, when my daughter gets snarky when I ask her to do a chore, or my teenager acts as if I’m an idiot, it’s hard not to lose my temper. Depression’s external face, anger, is never far away and keeping that under control takes a lot of damn energy. My kids are hurting too, and they need a calm, loving and supportive parent. I try to be that, and to be apologetic and honest with them when I fail. But I am So. Damn. Tired.

Any joy, happiness or satisfaction is transitory. It’s all colored grey by the black fog of sadness that surrounds me like a second skin. Those cement shoes weigh me down, so happiness can only rise up so far. But the anger is always there and doesn’t care about cement shoes; it bubbles up like lava. 

People say things like, “Oh, Charlie wouldn’t want you to be sad.” Or, “You need to think about your other kids.” Well, duh. Just because something is true, doesn’t mean it’s going to change how I feel.

I hope that one day, those cement shoes crumble away and the black fog drifts away like smoke in the wind. Until then, I will add managing my anger to the never-ending list of things I do every day, because I must, because there is no other alternative. But I am So. Damn. Tired. 

Grief Journal: Missing My Mom

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This is a post about a different grief. Four years ago, my mom died. 

She had cancer, but the cancer didn’t kill her. She had kidney and bladder cancer, necessitating their removal, along with a few other internal organs. Someone who was always busy and on the move, she couldn’t bear the daily dialysis, so when her doctors declared her cancer free, my sweet brother donated one of his kidneys.

It was to be the start of the retirement she deserved, but instead, it turned out that the cancer had seeded itself completely undetected inside her and the immunosuppression drugs brought it back. She’d picked up a nasty case of c-diff in the hospital during that first surgery—it nearly killed her—and it sent her back to the hospital over and over again. It became a vicious cycle—the chemo would suppress her immune system, the c-diff would flare, they’d lower the dose of the drugs to help, her kidneys would start to fail, they’d up the immune drugs and try chemo again, rinse, lather, repeat.

Ultimately, she died of kidney failure—a kinder, faster, less painful way than the cancer would have been, the doctors assured us. Which was something, but not nearly enough.

Some daughters have difficult relationships with their mothers. While we certainly had our moments, that was never really us. I genuinely liked my mother as a person, and would have wanted to be her friend. And we were friends, as much as mother and daughter. After my father left us completely in the lurch—no money, no support—we were partners, working to keep the family together. I had to grow up quickly in some ways, and that forges a bond and trust. She could go off to work three jobs, and I could keep my siblings fed, with clean clothes and homework done. 

Sounds hard, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t, or at least I never thought of it that way because my mom didn’t make it seem hard (even though it must have been terrible for her). My mom believed that you just did what you needed to do, without complaining, and so I believed it, too. 

She taught me important things. Like, life isn’t fair. That bad things sometimes happen to good people. That if you want something, it’s your job to go get it; no one will hand it to you. That people are who they are, and you can only control yourself. That you should absolutely play the Skip card in Uno, even on your kid.

I write that, and it seems pretty negative. But she wasn’t. She was a happy, friendly person who just loved being around other people—and they loved being around her. She wasn’t a pessimist, just a realist who refused to waste time on things she couldn’t change. 

After I first moved from home, I usually saw her once a week. After she and my dad moved to NC, I spoke to her at least once a week and visited often. We had fun when we were together, or during our long chats. I know she made each of us kids feel as if we were her favorite. Or maybe, it’s just that she loved us for ourselves, and so was able to create the relationship that suited each of us best. 

She was also a pretty laid-back mom, believing that she had done her best raising us, and that we’d make the choices we wanted to make no matter what—she knew us well, and knew every last one of us was stubborn, because she was, too. 

But not about dying. During her last hospitalization, I flew to NC. It became obvious that we would be lucky to get her home and into hospice for her last few days. Figuring that out, dealing with the doctors and helping my family understand that was my job. I was the responsible daughter she raised me to be, the reliable one, the unemotional one, the one that knows that bad things sometimes happen to good people. 

She didn’t want to die, but she really didn’t fight it, either. She was tired, and sick and in pain and knew more pain was in the future, not just for her but for my dad and all of us. I spent every night of that week in the hospital in her room. We talked, as she drifted in and out of the medication haze. We told funny, favorite stories. She asked if I was taking care of everything. She told me how much she would miss seeing her grandkids grow up. 

We didn’t need to have any big heart-to-hearts. We’d always said what we needed to, all along. I sent her home to die, surrounded by my dad and siblings, because I’d done what she needed me to do. She wanted me home with my kids, her grandkids. So I told her I loved her, and left. 

She died four years ago, on May 7, just a few days before her 71st birthday. And I miss her every single day. 

Mom, I’m trying hard to do what I have to do, without complaining. But it’s a lot harder without you here to talk to about it. Love you.

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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.