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.” 

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.