Grief Journal: Never the Same Again

Lately, I’ve been having dreams with Charlie in them. Not dreams like before, where he was visiting me. Just dreams that he is in. 

In these dreams, I’m searching for him. Once, he’d run away. Another time, we were in a public place and I couldn’t find him in the crowd. I’m always asking people where he is, and I have this overwhelming desire to find him and hug him, but I can’t because he doesn’t want to be found.

I’m not sure what my subconscious is trying to tell me. Every night, I go to sleep and long for him to visit me in my dreams. 

The new normal is life without him. A year and nearly three months on, and he isn’t always the first thing I think of when I wake up. I’ve packed away his loss, pushing it under the weight of an insane work load and the every day stresses of life. It’s the hot core of my being, covered by a smooth veneer of calm that is egg-shell thin. Life goes on, but it’s not the same. It never will be.

This weekend, I was solo parenting while my husband is away. And it was a calm, fun weekend. My 15 year old and 7 year old both pretty much go along with the flow. There was no screaming or yelling, and no melt downs. We ate, and shopped, and ran errands and it was all very nice. 

And I hate it. I hate that I like the new normal. I hate that we never have to start preparing to go somewhere an hour ahead of time. I hate that Charlie never had the chance to learn how to master his emotions.  It kills me that our family is so much more calm, so much more normal, without him.

And so I dream of the absence of him, of searching for him and not finding him. I guess I’m searching for the life we used to have, the life with him in it. Because while that life was calmer and less chaotic, it was also funnier and louder and brighter, full of light and energy. 

I miss that. I miss him. And I’m searching for it but never finding it, not ever again. 29570334_10215623738767384_1962558757798316759_n

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: 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: 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: School Memorial

Today, my son’s school is holding an “Imagination Station” event in his honor. Students will use their imagination to draw, write stories, build with LEGOs, and more—Charlie’s favorite school activities. 

Thanks so much to the school staff—principal, counselors, nurse, teachers and paraprofessionals—for organizing this event. It really brings us comfort to know our son’s friends will be remembering him. He may not have loved everything about school, but he loved his teachers and friends. 

He would have been in 5th grade this year, his last before he moved onto the big world of middle school. I know many of his friends still miss him very much, and struggle with understanding the loss they’ve experienced. I hope they’ll enjoy remembering their friend. I hope they’ll remember that Charlie was never afraid to be himself, and that being creative and imaginative is a great thing to be.

Here are a few of the buttons his friends will choose from to encourage them to be themselves, and let their imaginations fly free.

Risks I Never Imagined

I did not plan on this.

There’s a quote from Elizabeth Stone which goes, ““Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

This is truth.

Parenting is a lesson in not having control. For the most part, this is a good lesson to learn. Letting go, being in the moment, not sweating the small stuff; these are all lessons I’ve learned as a parent, and I’m grateful for them.

The dark side of this is YOU ARE NOT IN CONTROL. Of anything, really.

There are the little risks that you can mitigate, to a degree, through proper care. Like, your kid might choke to death, or accidentally drink poison, or scald themselves with hot water. So you cut their food into tiny bites, and put household cleaners and prescription drugs out of reach, and lower the thermostat on your water heater to below 120 degrees.

There are the life risks. Like maybe your kid isn’t the most popular child, or s/he really wants to play a sport for which they no talent, or they don’t get that part in the play they tried out for. Learning that we can’t stop our children from getting hurt is a hard lesson for parents and kids, but all part of helping kids learn to be self sufficient.

Then there are the “act of God” risks. Your kid could get hit by a car. Or get a cancer and die. Or be terribly unlucky as a teenager, when doing stupid things is seemingly programmed into the DNA of the species. Those are the risks that you push away at night when you can’t sleep, and why a lot of parents just can’t watch movies with children in true peril; it’s unbearable to think about.

But of all the risks I prepared myself for when I became a parent, worrying about if my kids are going to be gunned down in cold blood while they are at school wasn’t one.

I had my first child in a post-Columbine world, but it was still such a shocking event, considered so abnormal, that I never dreamed that it would enter my list of “Things I Need to Worry About As A Mom.”

It’s on there now.

As of right now, there have been 25 fatal school shootings in America since Columbine—122 children and teachers whose lives were snuffed out, just like that. Not by an act of God, not as part of a life lesson, but by a lack of care from every single American who believes that their right to “bear arms” should include semi-automatic and fully automatic weaponry with no other purpose than mass slaughter.

Think about the facts: There are now more guns in our country than there people.  More than 22 million children live in homes with a firearm. Yet only 54% of gun owners with children under the age of 18 say they lock up their guns.

So you do the math. Kids—kids who are hurting, who are still developing decision making skills, who see violence glamorized in our society every day, who are seemingly in despair as never before—have access to guns. What do we think is going to happen?

I never thought when I had children that they would one day be more likely to be gunned down in their school—the place they go to learn and be safe—than they would crossing the street to get there. That’s a risk I’m just not willing to accept—because it isn’t an act of God, it’s an act of violence, and one it is in our power to prevent.

So stop sending your thoughts and prayers. I demand action and change. Because the list of things that keep me up at night is long enough, dammit, and I have three pieces of my heart walking around every day, going to school.

I’m a Grown-Ass Woman, Dammit

I am a grow-ass woman.

Recently, someone wanted me to do something. I didn’t want to do it. I tried to find different excuses. I politely demurred. They persisted. Exasperated, I turned to my husband and said, “I’m a grown-ass woman! I don’t have to do the Stupid Thing!” And I didn’t*.

Here’s a partial list of things I don’t have to do because I Am a Grow-Ass Woman and I am the boss of me:

  • Eat bread-and-butter pickles
  • Floss my teeth every night if I’m just too tired
  • Believe the faith I grew up in
  • Change my own oil because I can, instead of pay someone to do it
  • Eat dinner before dessert
  • Shovel the sidewalks/mow the yard
  • Maintain relationships with people who’ve betrayed or hurt me (even family)
  • Ironing
  • Go on vacation to see family when I’d rather go somewhere fun
  • Shave my legs every freaking day
  • Stop buying scifi/fantasy books, movies and collectibles

As you can see, this list is in no particular order. It changes from day to day, year to year. But the intent is the same. I get to choose how I spend my time and emotional energy. I get to decide how to live my one life, and what my priorities are. Because I am a Grown-Ass Woman.

* The Stupid Thing is on this list, but I’m not telling which item.