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.” 

A REASON FOR GLEE

There is a saying that reads, “Do not teach your child to be rich. Teach him to be happy. So when he grows up, he’ll know the value of things, not the price.” I always loved this saying for many reasons and have tried to help my children appreciate the little things: soft pillows, macaroni and cheese, and blanket forts. After all, true value has little (if anything) to do with price –and the things of greatest value cannot be purchased with money. Not at any price.

Once I discovered this, the relationship between the highway and this canyon began to serve as something of a metaphor to me – a reminder that sometimes I can’t see a thing until I step back and look from a different vantage point.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

During his last summer of life, Mitch spent some long-awaited time at his grandmother’s ranch in Southern Utah. On this day life couldn't have been more awesome; the weather was perfect and glee was floating in the air like spring pollen. On the horizon, you could see the ancient fingers of Kolob Canyon which stood towering into the sky as a majestic reminder that our lives are but a blink and humans are only transients on this planet … this classroom of rock and water.

Before my mother moved to her ranch I drove by this canyon a thousand times, oblivious to the true beauty of the landscape I was passing. The highway hugs the mountain range and base of Kolob Canyon in such a way you cannot see it (not even a little bit) because the road is too close to it. Without the proper perspective, everything feels ordinary. But, if you take an exit near the canyon and get a little distance from the highway, you will see the most amazing mountain range. This canyon is one of Utah’s best-kept secrets – invisible to the casual traveler.

Once I discovered this, the relationship between the highway and this canyon began to serve as something of a metaphor to me – a reminder that sometimes I can’t see a thing until I step back and look from a different vantage point.

My experience with Mitch taught me the same thing. As I travel the long road of grief, when I step away from my sorrow and look upon the landscape of this experience from a different vantage point, I see beauty. I also see reminders this place is not home … that I, too, am a transient and will one day travel to a better place.

I love this photo because it reminds me Mitch lived a good life. If there were one image that best illustrated my son, this is it. Mitch was happy – not because of things, but because he was loved by his family and he discovered ways to find joy in everything. I have recently discovered many videos of my family where you can see Mitch skipping in the background (unaware he was on camera) because he was simply happy. Although the road he traveled was hard, and he could have found a million-and-one reasons to complain about life not being fair to him, he always stepped away from his limitations and appreciated life from a different vantage point. He saw the canyon.

While having lost my son has been a source of great sorrow, he is also a great source of inspiration to me. And though I walk imperfectly, I will learn from my little boy. Like Mitch, I will find a reason for glee. For indeed, as I step away and look upon my life differently, I can clearly see there is beauty all around me.

Thank you, Mitchie, for teaching me to be happy – to always find a reason for glee.

JUST THE BEGINNING

I wonder what would happen if everyone had a chance to read the warning label before we made life decisions.

 The day of my wedding my warning label might have read: “Congratulations. You are young and in love. Enjoy the calm before the storm, for the years ahead won’t always be kind to you. In fact, they will be brutal. Yes, you’ll experience triumphs, but you’ll also come to know the darkest tragedies. Though you won’t mean to, you will make choices that hurt each other and yourselves. You will fail at a business before you succeed and while you've failed you’ll find yourselves searching the couch to find enough quarters to pay for diapers. You will struggle, and you will be afraid. At some point, you’ll wonder if you're capable of anything at all. You will come to know the darkest storm clouds and your wilderness will be vast and deep. Your heartstrings will be wrenched and pulled until you can no longer stand. You will have a child that will die, and you will fall to your knees and weep until your knees are broken and worn. Pain and struggle will be your teacher. And that’s just the beginning.”

Yet, next to the warning, I would have also read a benefits label: “Take heart. Though you may feel alone, you will not be, not ever. Your Father will be with you – for He is your tutor and all that will happen will be for your good. You will have a family and come to know a love you scarcely comprehend on your own. That love you will come to feel for your children will be but a speck compared to the love your Father has for you. At one point you’ll finally understand that to know the love of family is to know a little more about God, for we are all His children. Your tears of joy and sorrow will become a lens to your eyes and you will begin to see things you didn't before. Your heart will grow and feel more love and joy than you can imagine. Like a heavenly constellation, you will begin to see the tender mercies poured out upon your lives by a loving Father - however, you will only see those stars in the pitch of night. You will make connections between them and eventually see the hand of God through everything. And that’s just the beginning.”

Today marks our 21st anniversary. On that cool September day, I married my wife, I had no idea the journey that lay before our feet. I’ll never forget crying as the officiator spoke, not out of sorrow but out of a deep sense something was being put in motion – more than I knew. All I knew was I loved my wife and it was good. I knew I would be imperfect, but I would do my best. My love for this good woman has only grown stronger and deeper. I consider myself blessed beyond measure.

 Today, as I look back upon the 21 years we've had together, knowing the depths of horror and the heights of happiness – I wouldn't trade my life for anything. Between the hurt and the happiness, I have come to know a different kind of love – and for that love I am grateful. I would do it all over again. To infinity and beyond, I would do it all over again.

 And to think that today I can no more read the warning and benefits labels for tomorrow.

 Today is just the beginning.

ENOUGH, AND MORE*

About two months ago I was sitting near the front of a large auditorium before the annual PPMD conference was about to begin.  I was scheduled to give a keynote toward the end of the conference, and my mind was occupied, a little frantic even, trying to figure out how to best convey a message of hope and gratitude.

Though my heart remains broken, I can yet bask in the warm glow of good memories.  And in that warmth, I am grateful for all that I had – for that is enough, and more.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

My heart is never so tender as when I’m about to speak to an audience about little Mitch.  I missed my boy and wished he was still with me; yet in sharing him, whether, from pen or pulpit, I get to re-live some of the sweet and all-too-brief moments, I had with him. As a broken-hearted father, keeping my memories close helps him not feel so far away.

So, there I sat … busy worrying - worrying about what I was going to say and how I was going to say it.  I felt strangely unprepared and unqualified.  In the corner of my eye, I noticed a young man walking toward me. His body and posture carried the same signature my son Mitchell had when he was with me.  This young man (16) was from India – but living in California for a few years so he could participate in a clinical trial.  His soft, kind smile reminded me of Mitch. 

He gently handed me a small yellow bag and said he and his mother wanted me to place a gift by Mitchell.  

The lump that was already in my throat because I was thinking about my son began to grow larger.    

Inside the bag was a little figurine of a small child sleeping next to a puppy – symbolic of Mitch and the comfort he received from his little Marlie.  Also, in the bag was a handwritten letter that began with the words, “Dear beautiful, tender, and sweet Mitchell …”  When I read those words, my eyes instantly filled with tears – so much so, I nearly wept.  The letter to Mitch was thoughtful and kind and referred to something Mitchell said when spoke of forgiving an adult who was unkind to him.  Mitch said, “When you see with your heart, you see everything that matters.”

Recently this young man, Abhinav, reached out to me on Facebook and we became friends.  I’m grateful to know another young man like my son – whose heart is kind and thoughtful.  Someone who reminds me what it means to be good.

The thoughtful note and gift so touched me, and I was anxious to honor the request of this sweet family.  So, when I returned home, I went to the cemetery and reverently placed this at the foot of Mitchell’s headstone. 

I have discovered a certain peace and symbolism in this gift – a reminder that my son sleeps in peace.  It also reminds me of the sweet and tender times I had with my little boy. Though my heart remains broken, I can yet bask in the warm glow of good memories.  And in that warmth, I am grateful for all that I had – for that is enough, and more.

 

ONE STEP AT A TIME, A MOUNTAIN TO CLIMB*

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A few weeks ago, my brother and I agreed to summit Mount Timpanogos.  I was excited for the adventure because I’d never climbed a mountain before.  Even more, I remember Mitch tugging softly at my arm, deep in the evening shadow of Aspen Grove, as he pointed to this mountain and said, “Dad, I wonder what it’s like up there.  I guess I’ll never know because my legs are so weak.”  I hugged him softly and said, “Son, one day I’ll climb it and take pictures for you.”  My sweet boy smiled and tucked his head into my arms.

The next year Mitch was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and in less than a year he died.  I forgot about my promise to Mitch because my heart broke and I was trying to keep him alive.  Then, after he passed, I was just trying to survive grief.  I’m still trying.

It wasn’t until my brother and I decided to climb it that I remembered what I told Mitch.  I didn’t say anything to anyone, because it was a promise I made my son.  I quietly printed a painting of Mitch and slipped it inside my backpack. 

On our first night, we camped at Emerald Lake and I took a photo of little Mitch and said a prayer in my heart, “Hey Mitch, it’s Dad.  I’m sorry I’m late … but I’m going to take photos for you. I hope you can see what I see.”

I learned a lot on this hike.  Firstly, I learned that I can do hard things.  I learned that I don’t like heights and I especially don’t enjoy standing on the edge of nearly thousand-foot cliffs.  I learned that it’s probably a good idea to train for hard hikes – whereas I jumped in before I was physically ready.  An indiscretion I’d pay for on the way down the mountain.  We’ll get to that in a minute.

Despite the difficulties of the hike, I was inspired by the majestic beauty of earth.  I loved the fresh air, mountain flowers, vast glacial valleys, and wildlife.  Had Mitch he been with me physically, he would have been in awe of everything. 

On day two, my brother and I reached the mountain summit.  The view was breathtaking.  

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At the summit was also a small fiberglass storm shelter with autograph laden walls – I added the signature Mitchell’s Journey 2018.  In my heart, I said, “It took me seven years to get here son, but we did it, Mitch.”

A few hours later, we were back at basecamp.  My knee was starting to swell from a surgery years ago, and I knew I was going to be slow.  I didn’t say anything about it but told my brother to head down the mountain ahead of me because I was not going to be as fast as him.  As I started my slow descent, I began to walk strangely to compensate for my injury.  Doing that made my legs incredibly weak.  It was a struggle.  What should have taken me three hours, took nine.

There were times I wondered how I could go on.  I looked down the vast mountain valley, 4 thousand feet below and got discouraged.  “Oh, Mitch, I don’t know how I’m going to make it.”  But I remembered what my sweet wife taught me, “Just take the next best step.”  So that’s what I did.  I had to stop looking at the vast distance ahead of me and just concentrate on the next step.  It made all the difference.  Though I started to walk like a drunken toddler, I looked at the ground and said to myself, “Okay, I have the strength for one more step.”  One step turned into two steps, and before I knew it 2,000 steps had passed – then I’d turn around, startled by the distance I covered.  If ever there were a metaphor for grief, this is it.  We can look across the vast valleys of sorrow and wonder how we’ll ever make it.  That’s how I survive grief – one step at a time.

There was a point that my legs were so weak that I was sure I’d collapse at any moment – and I almost did a thousand times.  My brother kept tabs on me via text.  “How are you doing?”  “Call me when you get to your truck.”  “Are you okay?”  There was a brief moment I tried to take a shortcut through some tall bushes, only to meet a 500-foot cliff.  I wasted precious energy and water trying to climb up the mountain to find my way back to the trail – I made the same loop three times.  I learned that uninformed shortcuts in rugged terrain are not a good idea.  I texted my brother about my misadventure, and he became especially worried.  I assured him I was okay.

By the time the sun was setting, my phone was almost dead, and I had to turn it off to conserve what little battery I had left – should a real emergency arise.  Every step was a huge struggle.  My awkward walk to preserve my knee obliterated my leg strength.  I was literally stumbling over pebbles.  I began to think about Mitch and other boys with DMD.  There I was, looking at a simple dirt path, struggling to put one foot in front of another.  Though I don’t pretend to know their struggle first-hand, my struggle with leg weakness helped me empathize in new ways.  To a young boy with DMD, a simple staircase may as well be Mt. Everest. 

As I found myself finally near the bottom of the trail, I turned my phone on to check my position on the trail.  I then saw a text from my brother, “I’m on my way.”  I texted him back, “I promise I’m fine.  My legs are just really weak … I have less than a mile to go.”

At long last, with the mountain’s night breeze pressing on my skin, I looked down a dimly lit corridor of trees that led to the parking lot.  My legs were jelly and getting to the parking lot was going to be a struggle.  As I slowly exited the canopy of trees, there was a small grassy field separating the forest from the parking lot; and out of the corner of my eye, I saw my brother running at breakneck speed toward me.  I said, “Oh, Doug, you didn’t need to come back.  I was fine … my legs were just weak, that’s all.”  He insisted on carrying my pack to my truck.  Though I was exhausted, I noticed his eyes carefully studying me – looking for signs of trouble.  Even when my 40-pound backpack was relieved, I found it difficult to take a step without the help of my walking sticks.

In truth, I became emotional at the sight of my brother running toward me with a look of deep concern.  I was emotional not because I needed to be rescued – but because he cared enough to try. 

A lot happened on this hike.  I kept a sacred promise to Mitch.  I learned I can do hard things – even when I’m not prepared for them.  I was reminded that any difficult journey, including those of grief, is best traveled one step at a time.  I experienced a new level of empathy for children with muscle wasting diseases like DMD.  I learned that naive shortcuts can be dangerous.  And perhaps, most tenderly, I witnessed what brotherly loved looked like when I saw my brother running toward me at the trails end.

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Though in this photo I’m standing on the summit of a mountain … in a way, I’m also standing on a different summit – one that can’t be seen with mortal eyes.  From there, I see life differently; and in the haze of the distant horizon, I see taller mountains yet to climb.  I can reach their summits, however slowly, one step at a time.

 

 

SOMETIMES WE LEAVE THE BEST PARTS OF US BEHIND

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I’ve experienced a lot of hard things in life – but nothing so hard as being a parent.  

On this night I took my kids to a restaurant; Natalie was at another function, so I was blessed with some one-on-one time with my kids.  At one point I said something that hurt my son’s feelings.  I don’t remember exactly what happened – I only remember he was sad.  When I realized I hurt his feelings my heart broke and I immediately fell to my knees, put my forehead against his and said, “Oh, Mitchie, I’m so sorry.  I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.  Sometimes Daddy’s make mistakes – and they don’t mean to.  I love you, son.  How I love you…”

We spend our lives trying to grow up and out of things - and while growth is necessary, if we’re not mindful, sometimes we leave the best parts of us behind. 
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Perhaps nothing quite shows the nobility of children as their readiness to forgive and forget.  The irony of adulthood is that some hold grudges and try to inflict hurt on others.  But children … they are endlessly good.  No wonder it is said of them, “of such is the kingdom of heaven.”  Sadly, it is adults who bring hell on earth.  If only we could love and forgive as children do.  If only we could see the best in each other and forgive with loving hearts - oh, how the world might change.

So there I knelt at my son’s feet as; a painful fatherly confession was made, and a tender plea for his love and forgiveness was shared.  Mitch put his arms around my neck, and I hugged him tightly.  “I love you, little boy.  With all of my heart.”  Mitch whispered, “I love you too, Dad.”

Mitch was smiling again – and all was right with the world.  Later that night, Mitch and my other kids would snuggle in my arms on the couch as I read stories before bedtime – a tradition Natalie has upheld since our kids were infants.  Heaven seldom felt as close as it did that night.

I know I’m not the first parent to upset their child … and I certainly won’t be the last.  What I do know, is every time I stumbled I immediately tried to make it right.

I suppose the point of this post isn’t that I made mistakes and tried to recover; instead, I can’t help but think of the utter goodness of children and how much I have yet to learn from them.  I saw in my son this night a most pure and loving heart – something I will carry with me and forever try to be.

We spend our lives trying to grow up and out of things - and while growth is necessary, if we’re not mindful, sometimes we leave the best parts of us behind. 

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Originally posted in 2015

A LIFETIME

I took this photo at a family function today and was overwhelmed with feelings of love and gratitude for my wife and kids - at the same time, I felt an empty longing for little Mitch. What I’ve learned on my grief journey is that I can be happy and sad at the same time, restless and still, empty but full.

More than anything, I am in a place of peace and acceptance for all that there is, all that ever was, and everything that is yet to be.

I have more stories of tender Mitch I want to share - but I’ve spent the last few months focused on my family. Healing from the loss of a child, it turns out, takes more than a little time ... it appears to take a lifetime.

#mitchellsjourney #makeeverydaycount