THE GIFTS OF GRIEF

I remember my childhood excitement when Christmas drew near. Like all young ones, I anxiously awaited that special toy I’d long wanted and wondered what other gifts lay in store every Christmas morning. Mitch loved Christmas a great deal, too. He loved the magic of it all, but most of all, he loved the giving more than the getting.

I search for light in the darkness, for patterns that offer perspective and peace, and I practice an examined life.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

When he passed away, Mitch still believed in Santa and tried so hard to be a good boy.

As his father, I always noticed how hard he tried to be good – and he was good. So, on that cold winter night, when I tucked my sweet boy in for the last time, I wanted Mitch to know one last time that his daddy knew he was a good boy. The only gift I had left to give him was my eternal love. With the tenderest of tones, I told him what a gift he was to me and his mommy. I whispered how proud I was of him and that I would spend the rest of my days trying to live up to his sweet example. With a soft kiss on his face, I pulled Mitchie’s blanket over his chest – his heart beating faintly like a flickering candle about to go out. No sooner had I gone to bed than I was awoken by my grief-stricken wife. Our baby made of sand crumbled and slipped through our fingers – never to return.

That sacred night, my heart suffered a mortal wound. Losing my son, who was a most tender gift, broke me in more ways than I have words to describe.

What gift(s) can possibly come from such a loss? Surely there are none, one might think. I know nothing so cold and lonely as suffering the loss of a child. Yet, even in that hell, there are gifts and spiritual treasures to be found. Their discovery doesn’t come easily – which comes as no surprise. Nothing of any value in life or the universe comes easily; as with all things, the greater the value, the greater the price.

I am still a toddler in matters of grief – but I am learning new things every day. Here are a few things I have learned about the gifts of grief, so far:

Grief, a Teacher
I have learned not to run from grief, as though it were my emotional enemy. Instead, it has become my tender teacher. I am a student of grief, and I’m learning new things every day. Grief, a gift? Yes, grief can give us the gift of a softened heart, a more empathetic soul, and can teach us the value of a moment – because, in the end, we’ll never have now again.

Making Time and Space for Grief
At least for me, I’ve found it helpful to make time & space for grief. I’ll schedule it, even. It’s like a therapy session with myself – wherein I am the doctor, and the patient rolled into one. It’s a time for me to meditate, to practice the art of stillness, then examine my sorrow and begin to make sense of suffering. Making time for sorrow a gift? Yes. By making deliberate space to do the work of processing pain, we learn to process our greater selves, too. We will work on grief the remainder of our lives – but, in time, we’ll learn to work on other parts of ourselves, too.

In the Darkness, We See Stars
Perhaps the greatest gift can be found in the very thing we’re most afraid of. Darkness. The moment I began to realize that it was often in emotional and spiritual darkness that I began to see little flecks of light if I allowed my spiritual eyes to adjust. Each point of light, a tender mercy, a gift from heaven that was always there, but I didn’t have the eyes to see them. Once I recognized those blessings and learned to connect the dots, I started to see I was never alone in the dark and that there is a greater work in progress. I have built a workshop around this very theme – to help people identify their own points of light. It doesn’t matter if you believe in God or gratitude, it’s a profound experience for both the individual and the group.

Those are just three gifts of many that I have discovered in my struggle. I miss Mitch. I would give anything I have to get him back. But that isn’t possible, and wishing won’t make it so. Instead, I search for light in the darkness, for patterns that offer perspective and peace, and I practice an examined life. Three gifts I didn’t expect to discover on my journey with grief.

Tonight, under the quiet of a winter sky, not too different from the night I tucked him in for the last time, I will thank my Father for the gifts my son left behind – the gifts of faith, perspective, compassion, and love.

Perhaps the most tender and ironic gift was my son; a beautiful soul who left my world profoundly empty, yet strangely full.

A GRIEF REMEMBERED

Mitch had passed a few hours prior and we each spent sacred time saying goodbye to our boy.  His body was beginning to change, and it was disturbing to see.  I was frightened by the spectacle of it all.  So, I called the funeral home and asked them to hurry.  Soon, in the dark of winter, I’d hear a soft knock on our door that would usher a kind of trauma we weren’t prepared to experience. 

The death of a child is exactly similar to the birth of a child.  It changes you forever.  In the same way, your life is multiplied by their very existence, it is divided by their absence.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

The funeral home employees were kind and professional and went reverently about their work.  They entered Mitchell’s room and slid a sheet under his body, then lifted my sweet boy onto a gurney, then strapped his body in.  They covered his cold form with his blanket – not to keep him warm, but to show respect for a little boy who had gone too soon.  I suppose the covered him, also, to soften the blow.

Natalie stood at the foot of Mitchell’s bed with a look of horror and disbelief on her face.  Indeed, it was a horror show.  In the long nights that would follow, my dear wife would weep and say, “I don’t want to live.” The long night of grief had just begun – and a long night it would be.  As a husband and father, I scrambled to keep myself, my wife, and children together.

In truth, I don’t need this photo to remind me of this horrible, yet sacred event.  The memory of this night is seared into my mind and soul – written in the most permanent of inks.  I keep it, however, not to wallow in sorrow – but to stay sober about life.  To stay centered in the heart and soul.

The other day I had a lunch appointment with an old friend and colleague.  We talked for a while and covered a lot of ground.  It isn’t my practice to talk of Mitch or grief with people unless they ask.  But, somehow our conversation turned toward Mitch, and we started to talk about life and loss.  My friend had lost his sister many years ago, and though he grieved her loss, he didn’t understand the degree of sorrow his parents felt.  He tried to understand – but until you experience it – it cannot be fully understood.

At one point in our conversation, I observed the spectators of grief – you know … the ones who, from the comfort of their own life say things like, “Isn’t it time to get over it?”  Or, “Just be glad you’ll see them again in the next life.”  These, and a million platitudes like them, only cut deeper into tender wounds of the soul. 

I said, “There is a kind of darkness one comes to know when they lose a child.  And when you walk through that wilderness, you eventually come out the other side a different person.  You change.  Suddenly, the world is different.  The pettiness of people and so much of what consumes society is both pedestrian and trivial.  It’s like someone who knows only simple math is trying to tell you how to solve an abstract problem with theoretical physics.  Suddenly, their level of understanding is elementary – and you are in graduate school, whether you’re ready or not.”

I went on to say that when I hear people talk of people ‘moving on’ I want to say, “Okay, here’s a thought experiment.  What if I told you to leave your young child (or grandchild) on the corner of a busy road and never look back?  What’s more, you only have a few weeks to stop loving them – then, you must never feel after them. You must stop talking about them and act as if they never existed.  Move on.  Get over them.  Impossible, right?  Why?  Because we love them – and that love is forever.  So it is with grief.  Yet, so often, grief feels a lot like love with nowhere to go – and it hurts to hold it in.”

We both had tears in our eyes.  He could see my pain begin to surface and he said, “I think I’m beginning to understand what my parents felt … and feel.”  I smiled and told my friend that grief, like love, doesn’t end.  Though our conversation was met with tender feelings – it was also healing and bridge-building.  Talking helps.  Remembering can be soul-soothing.

The death of a child is exactly similar to the birth of a child.  It changes you forever.  In the same way, your life is multiplied by their very existence, it is divided by their absence.

A grief remembered is only love trying to find its way.

ON TRUSTING THE CURRENT

Natalie took this photo of tiny Mitch on my shoulders while we were on an adventure deep in the wilds of Wyoming. Every time he sat on my shoulders he would pull my hair with his chubby little hands in the direction he wanted me to go. Mitchie would giggle as I winced and moaned from the pain of pulling my hair. The hurt I felt was a nothing compared to the joy I experienced when he laughed.

On this day we were playing by a swift but smooth flowing river. Mitch would use his same chubby fingers to scoop up a pile of pebbles and hurl them into the water, sending a cascade of ripples downstream. To Mitch, it was like fireworks in the water. To me, watching my son was fireworks to my heart.

Although Mitch was young, I felt even younger than him. In many ways, I felt like a child raising a child. In those early years, when the realities of being a father settled on my mind and shoulders, I would panic a little on the inside because I felt wholly inadequate and unprepared for such a responsibility. Oh, I loved my wife and kids with all of my heart, but when I went to college, I never learned how to be all of that. I suppose, as with most things in life, we learn by doing.

What I wouldn't do to go back in time and talk to the younger me. I would tell myself:

  • You will make mistakes. Just remember you are not your mistakes … but you will become what you do with them.

  • Relax, you’re okay.

  • When you fall, try to fall forward. 

  • Read that extra book at bedtime.

  • You will never have now again. Cherish … everything.

  • Slow down and let tomorrow be. Tomorrow will come soon enough.

I tried to do all that stuff … but I wasn't always the best at it.

As I reflect on this tender time with Mitch, I can’t help but think of that fast-moving “wivo” that entranced him so much. Today I can see a different kind of river, a river of time and providence, and it is fascinating to behold. I cannot see where it is going; I can only see backward … leading up to this moment.

As much as I thought I knew what I was doing in my younger years, I can see that I had no idea. However much I tried to peer into the horizon as a young parent and professional, there were currents in life that were taking me places I wasn't wise enough to pursue on my own. I thank heaven for the currents of life that have gently guided me along my own path. I am grateful for the people I have met whose currents blended with mine, even if only for a season. My life is better because of it.

I have learned to trust the current. Yes, I need to make wise choices while in the river … and there are rapids, undertows, and hazards of all kinds. If I'm not careful, I can certainly drown. But I have come to learn I can no more stop the current of life any more than I can stop Niagara Falls with my bare hands. So, rather than swim against the current or pretending such heavenly currents don’t exist, I am trying to swim where I am supposed to swim.

One day, I pray the current will take me to that place beyond the hills; where I will stumble from the shore, tired and tattered … longing for rest. And on that day I will see my son again, and my tears will fill the river to overflowing. Niagara, by comparison, will seem like a dripping faucet.

As much as I yearn to, I cannot peer into the river ahead. So on my journey, I have learned to trust in my heart as much as my head. As I swim through life, I'm learning to trust the current.

THE REAL TREAT*

With Halloween tonight, I can’t help but think of Mitchell’s last.  In previous years, I the weight of grief was heavy on my soul – to the point, my lungs felt shallow and my chest heavy. 

 This holiday is different. 

Though I miss little Mitch, I feel a great deal of love and gratitude for all that ever was.  Yes, I wish I had the power to bring him back – but I am a mere mortal and can only bring his memory to my mind and heart.  For now, that will have to do.

I want to re-share something I wrote in 2014 – just a year after having lost him.  Lately, I’ve been re-reading my previous journal entries here and I’ve wondered to myself, “What’s changed?”  I’ll share some of those observations soon. 

Tonight, I’ll share what I posted just a few years ago.  It’s a meditation on where the real treats of life can be found; and it’s found in the giving, not the getting. 

Here is that earlier post:

 

Trick-or-Treating was always difficult for him. Because his muscles were wasting away he couldn't go very far … each year his Halloween adventures became shorter and shorter. Even though he had a motorized scooter, getting up and down, climbing a stair or two to reach a neighborhood door was exhausting for him. He usually couldn’t visit more than 6-7 homes before he could hardly walk and wanted to go home. 

To help him, Mitchell’s brothers or sister would take his trick-or-treat bag to the door while Mitch sat in his scooter on the sidewalk. Generous neighbors would lovingly place candy in his bag as little Mitch smiled in the darkness. He was always grateful.

There was another aspect to Halloween Mitch loved even more than treasuring candy unto himself. Mitch loved giving candy away at the door. To some of his closest friends who approached the door, Mitch would give them his favorite candy from his own bag. 

I took this photo of Mitch on his last Halloween. He wanted to stay home and give out candy instead of trick-or-treating himself. Each time the door would shut he would turn around only to have a big smile on his face. 

 
 
 

Mitch learned early in his life that in giving he received so much more than those who got; a life lesson he never forgot.

Later that winter my mother came to visit for a few days. We were cuddled in the basement watching a movie when Mitch struggled to get up from the couch and waddled in his funny way over to his grandmother and offered her some of his favorite cheese popcorn from Popcornopolis. I don’t think my mother realized at the time (or even to this day) the physical struggle he went through to simply get up and share what he loved. I remember that moment so vividly. It wasn't the popcorn that really mattered to Mitch, it was the giving … and it was his struggle to give that made it all the more precious. To Mitch giving was getting. 

Tonight is a tender evening for me – for I will remember my little boy who loved to give more than get. I will miss seeing that big smile on his little face and most especially his warm embrace.

Not a day passes I don't think of my son’s quiet example: he gave freely when he had so little to give, and now that is how I want to live. I often marvel and wonder, “How could it be? A little boy, mortally broken, who taught me how to see ...” One day, with a weary and broken heart, I will fall to my knees and thank my Father for sending me Mitchie.

 

A LITTLE BIT BROKEN

I’m often asked how my children are doing with their grief journey. The answer is one part private, three parts complicated, and 100% unique. Each of my children has struggled with grief in very individual ways.

The older I get, the more I’m drawn to conversations that heal – because everyone is a little bit broken, and everyone could use a little healing.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

As a father, I found that my heart not only broke over losing my son, it broke over seeing my children in pain. It broke seeing my wife hurt in ways only a mother can know. In so many ways, trying to keep a family together after the loss of a child is like trying to prevent others from drowning when you, yourself are drowning. After having experienced the emotional toll of death, I now understand how families can disintegrate.

Last weekend my daughter wanted our family to take some photos in some nearby woods. I wanted to support her impulse to take pictures – and this is one I snapped at the end. Laura-Ashley is the consummate young adult: she is spontaneous, borderline responsible ;), continually discovering how the world works, and full of life. I remember being her age – in so many ways, it feels like yesterday – but then again, so far away. When I was her age, it had never entered my heart how beautiful, yet cruel life can be. But life is more beautiful than it is cruel.

Our home life is filled with ordinary moments. We do chores. We get frustrated with each other. We laugh at each other’s jokes. We talk about life and try to support each other’s dreams. Laura-Ashley has one more semester in college before she goes into nursing school, Ethan has dreams of becoming a filmmaker/storyteller, and he is continually developing his craft, and Wyatt is almost 13 and is into kickboxing, wrestling, piano, and Fortite. And Mitch … he’s still ten years old, to me. For the remainder of my days, he’ll always be tender 10.

I think about Mitch every single day – but I don’t always talk about him to my family. That is one of the great difficulties parents who’ve lost children face – we want to talk about our memories or our hurt, not realizing the people around us need a sense of new normalcy. So, each day, I take deliberate steps to be self-aware and aware of others … and try to focus on my kids, so they know they matter to me just as much as sweet Mitch did. Learning to put grief on the shelf and focus on the now is part of the grueling grief journey. And when grief calls, it knows where to find me.

Even still, my sweet daughter and other kids voluntarily talk about Mitch. Almost daily. The difference is, they bring him up in ways that are meaningful to them. Always, my kids talk about little Mitch with great love and adoration. I think we’ve found a beautiful balance of honoring what was and embracing what is.

My daughter loved Mitch a great deal – and he adored her. It warms my heart when she talks about him in the way she talks about him because those conversations are healing.

The older I get, the more I’m drawn to conversations that heal – because everyone is a little bit broken, and everyone could use a little healing.

THE TRUTH ABOUT TRAUMA

When the funeral home employees rolled my son out our front door, I nearly collapsed with grief.  This was the same door my son stood gleefully by on Halloween to hand candy to children.  He was a giver of the sweetest sort – and he found more joy in giving candy to kids than getting candy for himself.  This was the door Mitchell’s best friend would knock and ask to play.  This was the door our hospice nurse told us Mitch was about to die … and in that same moment, heaven sent an angel to bear up our broken hearts.

Everyone can master a grief, but he that has it.
— William Shakespeare

When I first became a father, I wasn’t prepared to be a parent.  Who is, really?  I quickly discovered that when you have a child, your life changes.  Forever.  It doesn’t simply change because you’re responsible for the well-being of a baby, it changes because your soul multiplies.  Once someone has a child, they stop belonging to themselves.  It’s as if part of our soul is cloned and whatever happens to our child may as well happen to us.  We’re pained when they hurt, overjoyed when they’re happy, and when they die … our very souls shatter.  Though we may put our pieces back together, eventually, we’re never the same.

 I was terrified of this moment.  I knew this time was near, so I tried to put it out of my mind and live in fragile moments that remained.  We didn’t know if we had 5 minutes, 5 hours, or 5 days with our son, we just knew that he was on the thinnest of ice and it was about to break.

 Suddenly, in a blink, I found myself watching two strangers roll my sweet son into the bitter winter’s air.  I was mortified.  Incredulous.  I was just talking to Mitch the day before, and he was very much alive … so sweet, tender, and innocent.  As they loaded my boy into the back of the vehicle and drove away, panic shot through my body, tears rolled down my cheeks and began to freeze.  I physically gasped for air as though I was watching my child in the act of being kidnapped. 

As they drove away, every part of me wanted to run down the street and stop them.  I wanted to say, “Please, let me get in the back with my boy.  He must be so scared, cold, and lonely.  I need to comfort him during this difficult time.”

I cannot conjure the words to describe the trauma I experienced at this moment – and the subsequent traumas of grief I felt, a million times thereafter.  I wept so hard that morning I threw up. Then, I wept even harder, and I thought I broke a rib.  Although the sun was rising, the long night of grief was only just beginning.  Over the next few years, I began to learn some painful truths about grief.  I learned some truths about trauma.

 You learn to live with fear.

Grief and fear feel identical in many respects.  C.S. Lewis said it best, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”  Looking back on the early years of my grief journey, I was living in a deep, emotionally traumatic state that felt like fear.  And when the night came, I felt feelings of terror.  Every. Single. Day.

Deep grief is prolonged trauma.

If ever you get impatient, wondering when your friend or family member who grieves will get over their sorrow, if you’re ever tempted to think its time for them to move on, remember that grief is trauma in slow motion.  Everyone on this planet would do well to remember Shakespeare’s observation, “Everyone can master a grief, but he that has it.”

Others will move on, but you will not.

Another brutal truth about trauma is that for spectators of sorrow, empathy has a comparatively short shelf-life.  Others will move on, as they should.  But you will not.  At least not for a very long time. 

 Perhaps the best counsel to those who suffer is this: don’t expect others to understand your sorrow or to linger as long as your sorrow will.  They cannot – for after all is said and done, the journey of grief is traveled by one. 

 To the spectators of sorrow, don’t expect the one who suffers to move on at your leisure or burden-free pace.  Remember that it is they who carry the weight of sorrow – a weight you cannot imagine, not even in your nightmares.  If you’re to serve them, you can lift their weary hearts with words of compassion.  I’ve found that saying, “I’m sorry that you hurt.  I care” is enough, and more.

 It Gets Worse, Sometimes Much Worse, Before It Gets Better

I’ve said this often: death is the easy part, it’s the aftermath that’s hardest.  So, when you see someone who's lost someone – know that they’ll need your love, compassion, and empathy gently at the funeral and the months to come – but more profoundly in the lonely years that follow. 

 I’ll repeat the last part: they’ll need your love more profoundly in the lonely years that follow.

 Time & Healing

When it comes to the trauma of grief, time doesn’t heal.  Instead, time creates space for us to heal if we tend to our wounds with care.  I think of trauma like the adrenaline one might feel just after a ride on a terrifying rollercoaster.  It takes time for fear to leave your body.  The first 15 minutes we feel the trauma course through our veins – but over time, we go back to our regular state of serenity.  The mistake we sometimes make is thinking the death of a loved is the rollercoaster.  It is not.  It is only the beginning.  The rollercoaster of trauma comes from feelings of self-doubt, regret, endless what-ifs, and longing to see our loved one again.  That trauma is a ride that takes many, many years to fade away.  

 Trauma Shatters You

Trauma doesn’t just break a part of you; it shatters many parts of you.  Sometimes all of you.  Yet, somehow, some way, we gather our broken pieces and slowly reassemble ourselves. Depending on the nature of loss, it can take many, many years.  We are never the same person on the other side of trauma – instead, we become a mosaic of our former self.  Sometimes jagged and fragile as our pieces begin to set into their new arrangement.  But always, we emerge a new kind of beautiful.   

The truth about trauma is that until we experience it first-hand, it isn’t just harder than we imagine, it's harder than we are capable of imagining.  Yet, another hopeful truth about trauma is that it lessens over time – how fast and how much is determined by a multitude of factors, most of which are under our control.  

 At first, I wondered if the sun would ever rise and that I might live out my days in the dark shadow of grief.  There was a time I used to look at this photo and weep.  Today, I look at this moment and say reverently, “I remember you, son.  And I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to honor yours.”