I’m sitting quietly under the canopy of night reading my journals. These worn out books cover over 30 years of my life: stories of struggle, despair, breakthroughs and spiritual awakenings. The sound of crickets makes this moment even more nostalgic.
I have over 200 new #mitchellsjourney stories I’ll begin to publish soon. But tonight, I wanted to look further back in time.
In an earlier essay, I made reference to a dream I had that was a foreshadowing of my journey with Mitch. I’ve had two of them, years apart, in fact. They weren’t ordinary dreams - they seemed to come from a much deeper place. It’s interesting to read the details of those dreams in my own handwriting; a kind of forewarning from so many years ago.
I don’t pretend to know what’s really happening in this life, I only know we’re not alone and that something divine walks before us, beside us, and guides our ways ... most often sight unseen. Only in retrospect do things make the most sense, it seems. All the pain, injustice, joy and opportunity I’ve ever known are deeply interconnected.
When I take the time to recognize and document the many points of light in my life, I discover a kind of new, fresh courage when I step into the unknown. Life can be bewildering and hard at times, but it is also sweet and good.
This August: Featured Essays on the Making the Most of Time
We were blessed to meet a long-time reader of #mitchellsjourney over the weekend. @tandon23 and her beautiful family are from Melbourne, Australia. She dropped one of her sons off at college in southern California and then made the long drive to Salt Lake City just so she could see Mitchell’s place of rest and say hello to us.
We were humbled by her gesture of love and outreach, but worried we weren’t worth the fuss of such a long journey. We’re just a regular family trying to sort life out, after all. We were grateful to meet her in person, though, because over the years, I recognized her thoughtful comments and words of compassion. So when she said she was coming to Utah, I was excited to finally greet a friend we hadn’t met, yet.
Natalie loved getting to know her, too. She was especially humbled when Tan handed her a stuffed Kangaroo with a little name tag bearing @mi_tchel__ ’s proper spelling. That was was such a thoughtful act of kindness.
So, after a little breakfast and a visit at the cemetery, we asked them to come to our home later that evening for a BBQ. They met Marlie, Mitchell’s (not-so-little-anymore) dog, tiny Bear (Natalie’s pup), and Ethan. It was a beautiful, healing day.
I was deeply moved and reminded how much our lives are made richer when we share our hearts; both in the giving and the receiving. As far as I can tell, somewhere in the sharing of our hearts is the healing we all seek. @ Herriman City Cemetery
This was Mitchell’s last time at his grandmothers – the place, other than home, he loved to be above all others. I’m not sure if it was the chocolate cake from Costco she would get especially for him, or the small 4-wheelers he could ride into the woods, or if it was the escape from life as he knew it, maybe it was the unbridled love he received – but whatever it was, he wanted to be there.
As we stood at the door and said goodbye my mother reached behind Mitch, who is as shy as he is sweet, and kissed his cheek. I could tell Mitch felt so good inside. I think everybody deserves to feel good inside.
I captured this tender moment with my phone. As we left her place there was a certain heaviness in my heart. I didn’t know where my feelings were coming from – I just sensed something was happening. Something significant. As we drove away I struggled to swallow the lump in my throat. Had I known this was his last trip there, I would have begged to stay another day or two. My mother said after we left she just sat on the floor and wept. Perhaps her soul, not knowing the end was coming, was being prepared for this loss.
It was the last few days of November and the Christmas holidays were just around the corner. I could tell Mitch was excited to see what Santa would bring –but he was even more excited about the gifts he was going to give everyone else. Mitch always gave to others freely. I think deep inside he felt no matter how much he gave, he always got more in return.
Even when Mitch was home on hospice, he spent his hard-saved money on a collection of Warheads (very sour candy) and gave them away. I remember sitting with him on the edge of his bed as he separated the flavors. He softly pointed to the blue raspberry ones and said almost in a whisper, struggling to breathe, “These ones are rare. They’re my favorite.” He then grabbed my hand and put the precious 3 candies in my palm, then closed my fingers and pushed my hand back to me. I said to him, “Oh, no Mitchie, these are yours. You keep them because I know you love them.” As I reached to give them back he pushed my hand back to me with a gentle smile and said, “No, you keep them. And I want you to eat one right now.” My heart sank a little because I wanted him to have his favorite treats, but I realized in that moment that letting Mitch give was the gift he really wanted.
So, I opened one quickly and put it in my mouth. Mitch began to smile and giggle as I puckered and writhed over the intense sour candy that was destroying my taste buds. Mitch finally burst out in laughter as he saw me cry out “I can’t take it!” For Mitch, giving was a win to him. And seeing me almost gag over the super-sour candy was a second win that paid dividends of giggles and laughter.
I still have those other two candies in a special box that contains treasures from Mitch.
Mitch reminds me daily what it means to win. Sometimes life gives us double-wins when everything turns out as planned. Other times we do our best and appear to fail; but if we are honest and do our best we have already won, regardless of the outcome. What is winning, really? It is doing the right thing – no matter the cost. Mitch always did the right thing. And more often than not, he won twice.
With all his double-wins, my little boy lost his battle with life … yet he won his soul by the way he lived it. And, by the grace of God, while I stumble and fall a million times as I chase after my son, I hope to hold him once more. I hope to look into his innocent eyes and thank him for helping me understand to do good and be good is what it means to truly win.
About a year ago I was cleaning my inbox and stumbled into a letter I wrote my family the night Mitch passed away. I wasn’t expecting to see it, so when my eyes saw the headline, “Mitchell Passed Away”, I was immediately swept up by a tidal wave of tears. After I gained my composure, I began a journey through time, reading emails that were sent the weeks following our son’s passing.
One person especially close to me, just a few weeks after Mitch passed wrote, “Now that the worst is over …” I was mortified by her words and sad to see how out of touch that person was with reality. I thought to myself, “I guess she’s lucky she doesn’t understand.” What she and many others didn’t realize was the worst of everything was just beginning. In matters of grief, especially the loss of a child, hell happens in the aftermath of death. Let me say that again: hell happens in the aftermath of death.
What followed in the weeks, months and years was a new kind of journey for me – a journey where we had to learn to heal in a world where there seemed to be no room for grief.
Two years after my son passed, I was on my way to Southern California to take my oldest son surfing. I remember exactly where I was when I received a call from a friend and colleague from an earlier part of my career. She wanted to give me candid feedback. She was convinced I was stuck in grief and that I needed to move on – yet there I was, with my oldest son, very much moving on with life. No effort was extended to understand my mind and heart; instead, after reading a few stories, she felt that my writings were self-focused and something resembling a sermonette. I appreciate truth and candid feedback, however much it might bruise my ego, yet in her almost flippant assessment of things, I couldn’t help but think of Anis Nin’s observation: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” What she didn’t understand was that my writing found here on Mitchell’s Journey was a private journal that I chose to make public – not to solicit sympathy, but to help others who might be struggling with various aspects of grief. Writing was my therapy – yet, according to her, there seemed to be no room for grief.
Another year would pass, and a well-meaning colleague (who has such a good heart) would put his hand on my shoulder and summarily tell me that the time for grief was over. With a slap on the back he told me the time had come to become like a caterpillar and transform into something new. Again, according to my friend, there was no room for grief. He was ready, and therefore I should have been ready.
Those who read Mitchell’s Journey know I am a man of faith. I not only believe in God, I love Him. I am not angry at Him over the loss of my child. I am hurt, but I’m not angry. In fact, I have come to recognize the many tender mercies He has provided our family; blessings that eased our burdens and offered light to an otherwise darkened path.
Even still, I’ve observed a certain isolation that comes from people of faith, especially those who haven’t lost a child. Often, when sharing words of hope, people can inadvertently dismiss or diminish the pain of the sufferer. We’ll hear things like, “In the eternal scheme of things, this life is but a blink.” To them I say, “Life is the longest thing I know. Now that I’ve lost my child, this life is an eternity.” Others say things like, “Don’t be sad, you’ll see your child again.” To them, my heart cries out, “But my heart pains to see my son today. I miss him so and I don’t [yet] know how to live without him. I’m trying my hardest to find a way.” I’ve seen others, even those who have lost a child say things like, “I’ve had a spiritual experience and I’m okay – therefore, because I’m okay, you should also be okay.”
There is an endless, almost nauseating list of platitudes and poems that would seem to leave no room for grief. One poem reads, “Death is nothing at all. It doesn’t count.” To that, I say death, aside from being born, is the biggest thing that will ever happen to you or me. It counts a great deal. Poems like these would try to convince us that nothing has happened, that everything remains as it was, our loved one slipped into the next room - just around the corner … when in truth, after the death of a loved one, everything is different and nothing (at least in this life) will ever be the same. That room of which they speak may as well be on the other side of the universe. Poems and platitudes sometimes dismiss the hard realities of grief and mortality. They leave no room for grief. And when there is no room for grief, there is no room for healing.
It took almost 4 years for the worst to pass. What’s more, I’m not stuck in grief – but it is a heavy burden to carry and to others, I may appear to walk slowly. I’m not a caterpillar anymore, and what I am becoming is only just emerging – in my time and in my own way.
I’ve had the burden and blessing to speak to thousands of people over the last few years about perspectives on grief. I am a young student of the subject and have much to learn. What I know so far is, sorrow is sacred. There must be room for grief.
If you know someone who suffered the loss of a child or has a terminally ill child, you can serve them by giving them room for grief. When I say room, I don’t mean space away from them. What I’m saying is you can give them a safe space to talk about their loved one. Giving room for grief can be as simple as saying, “I’m here for you. I care, and I want to listen to your heart.” Your friend may not trust you at first because the world has taught them, over time, there is no room for grief. Everyone is different, but if you’re patient, they’ll eventually feel that you’re safe and will open up to you.
You may be tempted to avoid such subjects with your friend because it is awkward or sad. Sometimes, if we’re to serve our friends, we must set aside our uncomfortable feelings of empathy and give space for the sufferer’s hard reality. You may worry that talking about “it” will touch an already tender wound or that your friend might suddenly remember the realities of loss – as if by avoiding the subject, they might forget the worst thing that could ever happen to them. By avoiding conversation, we leave no room for grief. It is helpful to remember that your friend is already sad and that talking is therapeutic. What’s more, talking about it doesn’t remind them of their loss – they think about it every single day – only in isolation and compounded sorrow.
In many ways, I feel like I’ve come a million miles since I’ve lost my son. Yet, I still have a billion miles to go. I know sacred truths about the immortal soul. I also know that our loved ones are sometimes near. I have experienced moments of peace that surpass my mortal understanding. These things I know of myself and no one can take them away from me. Yet, moments of peace and pain come and go like the ocean tide – that is just part of being human.
Even after 6 years, I still need room for grief.
When I was a young boy, I remember sprawling across my mother’s lap as she softly tickled my back and arms. Within seconds of that gentle touch to my skin, I’d fall into a wakeful trance and wouldn’t move a muscle for fear she would stop. I remember just after Natalie and I were married; I asked her if she might tickle me for a minute. She paused and gave me a curious look, then started to move her hands toward my armpits and wiggle her fingers as if to make me giggle and squirm. I laughed and said, “No, no, sweetie, not THAT kind of tickle … this kind …” I’d then softly run my fingers down her arm, and she said, “Oh! I see.”
Our children inherited my love of soft tickles, especially as little kids. It was a great way to sooth a sorry heart, distract from the pain of a scraped knee, or help a sleepless baby relax on a hot summer night. Mitch often asked me to tickle his arms when he was home on hospice. It soothed his worried heart.
A few years ago I was talking to my 11-year-old son, Wyatt, about philosophical stuff. He was naturally drawn to ideas and wanted to discover the meaning and purpose of things. He asked me, “Dad, what makes a person good at tickling?” I thought a moment and said, “Well, it seems the softer the touch, the better it feels.” Searching for a deeper understanding, he said, “Yes, but what makes someone good at it?”
“I don’t know, son, what do you think?”
Wyatt said, “Empathy.” I was astounded by his insight. He continued, “You know, Dad, the people that tickle the best are the ones that love it the most. They really get it. They understand how it feels, so they know just what to do.”
Humbled by his deep view of empathy, I began to wonder how Wyatt arrived at such profound insight. Then it occurred to me empathy is one of Wyatt’s gifts – and I think empathy a spiritual gift.
I caught a glimpse of Wyatt’s capacity for empathy when he first saw Mitch in the hospital. Little Mitch sat softly on his bed with a pale smile, tethered by tubes, cables, and monitors. His breaths, soft as a moth while his heart, a beating rage. Mitchell’s chest was beating so violently; it looked like a grown man was trying to punch his way out of his rib cage. With a furrowed brow, Wyatt fought back a river of tears as he saw his brother losing his life to an enemy we could scarcely see.
Wyatt, only seven years old at the time, knowing his older brother was about to die, was careful not to say anything that would frighten his older brother. He was not only sad to see his brother go, but he also put himself in Mitchell’s shoes, at least as much as a 7-year-old could, and felt sorrow over all that Mitch would miss. Wyatt not only felt sympathy, he felt deep empathy.
Surviving the death of my child, I have come to understand the greater difference between sympathy and empathy. While they have similarities, they are not the same. In many ways, one is more mental while the other almost spiritual. Sympathy knows the words, but empathy understands the music. Sympathy, say’s “I’m sorry.” Empathy feels your pain and cries with you. Empathy is mourning with those that mourn.
I remember, just after his funeral, walking behind little Mitch from the chapel to the hearse. I nearly collapsed to my knees in grief. I could hardly breathe. Within moments, I’d follow my son’s body to the cemetery, which drive would be the longest drive of my life. A friend of mine stood on the curb, and with tears in his eyes hugged me. He didn’t say a word – he didn’t need to. We both wept. At that moment, I knew he cared, and that brought me a measure of healing.
I’m grateful for the teachers in my life – from my youngest son to dear friends – and to many of you who teach me empathy … not so much by your words, but deeds. I’m especially grateful for Mitch, my most tender teacher.
Just before Mitch fell into a sleep from which he’d never wake, he said, “Dad, can I tickle your back?” Mitch had a heart that wanted to serve – so I said, “Sure, son, as long as I can tickle yours.” Those precious 2 minutes were the softest, most tender tickles I have ever experienced. Mitch had empathy, and it showed. My sweet wife took a photo of that act of love from a dying little boy. I then turned to Mitch and tickled his arms and face. I kissed his forehead and said, “I love you, son.”
Mitch whispered softly, “I know.”
Some moments in life burn an image into your mind with permanent marker – and some experiences so hard to bare, they change the shape of your soul. This was one such moment that broke me and reshaped me in ways I'm still learning to understand.
My dear wife was dressing Mitch at the funeral home. Our mothers were with us as well as our oldest sisters; each of whom played a precious and sacred role in Mitchell’s life, and we wanted them to participate. Also, we were afraid of doing this alone.
Our once-little-baby had grown into a beautiful, funny, thoughtful, and caring young boy; yet there he was laying quietly on a table – motionless and frighteningly cold to the touch. My sweet wife, along with these other good women, reverently dressed Mitch in preparation for his funeral - where we would honor the good little boy that he was. Natalie was doing okay until she got to the last button – then grief washed over her like a title wave, thrashing her about on the inside. This was the last button she would ever fasten for our son – and that broke her heart. It broke mine, too.
I was a wreck that day. In fact, I was a wreck on the inside for many months afterward. Years, in fact. It took years to learn how to put my broken pieces back together again. Even still, I carry a father’s grief, and it is a terrible burden. Yet as much as I hurt on the inside, I know my wife hurts in ways I cannot imagine - for I am a simple man. She carried him, gave birth to him and made sacrifices in ways only a mother can - and with that pain and sacrifice comes a love unique to that service and surrender. So, I consider her grief hallowed ground. I silence my own tears so that I might wipe hers and scoop up her shattered pieces for safe keeping. And when I can, I try to gather mine.
All too often I hear people suggest “there is nothing like a mother's love” – in a manner that seems to subordinate or dismiss the love of a father. In like manner, I hear less often the same of a father’s love as being more than anything else. It's almost as if they claim one love is greater than the other. Nothing could be further yet closer to the truth at the same time. They are correct in saying there is nothing like a mother’s love; in the same way, there is nothing like a father's love. Both are different, both are beautiful and sacred in their own right. But to suggest one is more significant or weightier than another ignores one immutable truth ... they are both parents and hurt deeply for the one they loved and lost. Maddeningly, some people are so focused on comparing grief they forget to simply honor it.
So when I look at this photo, I set aside my own sorrows and I reverence my wife’s. Her pain is as unique to her as her relationship was with Mitch. Her love was beautiful, vast, and deep.
The last button. It seems in life the hardest thing is always the last thing: the final lap around the track – when your legs are about to collapse; the last conversation you will ever have with a loved one before they die; or just looking back on a squandered moment realizing, in retrospect, that was our last and wishing we were different.
Neal Maxwell, a man whose intellectual and spiritual insight I’ve long admired once wrote, “We should certainly count our blessings, but we should also make our blessings count.” I love that statement because it reminds me of the importance of putting our blessings to good use - otherwise, we are throwing our gifts away.
Among the many blessings I have received in this life, Mitch ranks my sweetest blessings. Every day when I button my own shirt as I get ready for work, I vow to remember the blessing Mitch was in my life. And most importantly, to make that blessing count … to allow this experience to become an agent of change, for the better. This image, burned in my mind and heart, reminds me to make Mitchell’s last button count – if not for anyone else, myself.
It feels like yesterday when I heard the sound of muffled thumps and giggles in our living room. I was so intrigued by what I heard that I had to sneak behind our couch to spy on what was happening. As I quietly crawled within view, I saw Mitch laughing as he would squeeze and twist Ethan’s ear like a squishy toy. They were both laughing so hard that I couldn’t help but laugh, too. Little Mitch never had a mind to hurt his brother – only to wrestle as young boys do.
Because Ethan knew his little brother was physically weak, he adapted his play-style so Mitch might feel strong and competitive. Ethan could have easily turned the tables and overpowered his younger brother. Instead, he set aside his pride, bridled his strength and allowed Mitch to win in ways that were unique to him – and in so doing, they both won.
There was a point while home on hospice Mitch said to me “Dad, I just wish I could wrestle. I just want to wrestle...” By this time Mitch could hardly function – so it broke my heart to see him yearn for something he loved to do but couldn’t. I wondered if Mitch missed wrestling so much because his older brother helped him feel normal, healthy and strong.
By surrendering his strength, Ethan did more than serve his brother this day. He reminded me that on the other side of service is the often invisible act of lifting hearts and minds – and Ethan knew how to do just that for his little brother.
This image reminds me there is so much more to service than lifting heavy things or shoveling a neighbor’s driveway. There is a time and place for strong arms - but there is a greater place for gentle hands and soft hearts. The service of a smile, a kind word or loving encouragement can do so much for the downtrodden soul.
Sometimes, perhaps more often than we appreciate, service can be seen in handing strength over to someone who is not as strong – and giving them a chance to win.
I miss the muffled thunder of Ethan and Mitch wrestling in my home. And while part of my home is empty and heart hurting, my soul is overflowing with gratitude because I was blessed with two little giants who showed me the other side of service. They showed me a different kind of love – and I am better off because of it.