PROFOUNDLY EMPTY, YET STRANGELY FULL
Our skin burned as if from a roaring campfire. The summer sun was about to fall behind the Oquirrh Mountains and offer some relief from the heat. Little Mitch scurried about on his plastic big wheel, wearing his favorite Hulk Smash t-shirt. I loved how he lifted his legs as he rolled down the modest incline of our driveway and giggled and giggled. I smiled then and I smile again today. A small Band-Aid on his foot offered evidence he was doing just what little children should do: explore. There was a thin storm cloud above us that created almost magical mist all around us; drops of water that looked like diamonds falling from the heavens.
I look back on these nearly perfect moments in time with gratitude. Life wasn’t perfect back then. I worried a great deal about work, bills, and what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was a young father often humbled by the sacred responsibility of raising children. “Who am I to do such an important thing?” I would ask myself. I felt woefully inadequate as a father, but my love for my wife and children gave me the courage to carry on.
No matter where I am in life, it seems, I have to find the courage to carry on.
I have been asked to speak at a funeral director conference in two weeks on the east coast. There I will share Mitchell’s Journey and a candid insight on our experience with a funeral home.
Yesterday, as I began preparing my keynote for the conference, I began to reflect back on that time at the funeral home. I went through a corner of photos I hadn't ever really looked at. I took the photos, but I quickly put them away because my heart was much too tender. But now I had to look at them. I had to pull the relevant parts of the story so that I could share with these funeral directors our unfiltered experience. I thought I was ready. I wasn’t. I wept and wept. I wept so hard I almost threw up 3 times.
Don’t worry, I’m okay. But I’m not okay. And that’s okay.
Some who lack empathy, or perhaps just lack insight, ask “Why do you do this to yourself?” To them I answer, “I am not doing this for me, I’m doing this for others, so they might understand and see.” Whether I’m speaking to the medical community, bereavement groups, businesses, religious institutions or youth groups … and now funeral homes … I share Mitchell’s Journey so others know what happens on the other side of medicine … what happens when we take our children home from the hospital to die, and how we die on the inside, yet must learn to live afterwards. I share this so others standing on the outside of grief might have a glimpse of what a sufferer might be feeling or thinking. I share so that others who are walking in darkness might find a measure of light, if only just to light the path just beneath their feet.
Even though I didn’t really want to go there yesterday, I had to, so that I might better serve that audience with information that will help them help others. At least for me, helping others makes the hurt worth it. I am going to hurt anyway, so I may as well use it to help. As I said in a recent keynote to a bereavement community, “Grief is like a flame that cannot be extinguished. As long as I love, there will be fire. What the flame means to me … what it does to me or for me is found in how I carry it. The flame of grief can either burn me or help me see.”
I don’t know that I will have anything special to say; I’m just an ordinary dad who lost his son and is learning to live with chronic grief. I just happened to capture every detail of our funeral experience. I hope whatever I share helps a little. I hope.
Which brings me back to this picture: my son was a beautiful soul who left my world profoundly empty, yet strangely full.