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: 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.