The funeral director told us it was time to close the casket and suddenly I gasped for air and tried to hold back my tears - but nothing could stay my sorrow. This was it. I wasn't ready to look upon my son for the last time – to say goodbye to his little body, his sweet face … this little boy I used to cuddle, hug and laugh with. My youngest son, Wyatt stood beside me and watched me in grief and sorrow tuck his older brother one last time.
I carefully pulled Mitchell’s favorite blanket up to his chin, like I did every night, and said “I love you little boy … my sweet son. Oh, how I love you.” I cried a father’s tears … and until that moment I had tasted no deeper tears. I had never known so great a sorrow as to say goodbye to my child. Sweet Mitch trusted that I could keep him safe from harm. He thought there wasn't anything I couldn't do. When he looked at me he saw superman. When I looked in the mirror I saw a broken man. But I tried. God knows how hard I tried. But I was only human.
Months later, my oldest son, Ethan, came into my office while I was writing an entry for Mitchell’s Journey. I was unprepared for the interruption and my eyes were red and filled with tears. Ethan asked, “Dad, are you okay?” I immediately tried to be superman and put on a brave face, wiping my eyes and said, “Yeah, I’m okay” … as if to suggest all was well and that I was simply rubbing my tired eyes. But Ethan was discerning and knew better: I could tell by his expression he knew I was grieving.
In that moment I thought to myself, “What good do I do my children when I pretend?” I realized I do him no favors when I am not being real. I paused a moment then looked Ethan in the eye and said, “Actually, I’m not okay. But I’m okay. Do you know what I mean?” Relief washed over his face and I could tell he not only understood but that he was glad I was being real … as if it gave him permission to be real, too. I wanted my son to know that it is okay to hurt … that you can be “okay” but “not okay” and that’s okay.
Ethan and I talked about Mitch for a while and he shared some of his sorrows about losing his younger brother. We both cried together. I hugged Ethan and let him know how much I loved him – every bit as much. We crossed a threshold with grief that day. My son knew it was okay to hurt and that pretending otherwise serves nobody, not even ourselves. To the contrary, we do a great disservice when we pretend.
I had a moment of truth a few years prior when I read the words of an 18th Century French writer who observed, “We discover in ourselves what others hide from us, and we recognize in others what we hide from ourselves.” When I read those words I vowed to retire my masks and get real.
I've tried to have similar exchanges with my other kids. My children, each unique, process their grief differently. And that’s okay, too. In all things I want to be real with them – for it is when we’re real that we become equipped to deal with real life.
I am still walking on Jupiter where the gravity of grief is great. The air is thin and my tears fall as generously as spring rains. Yes, I have moments of sweet relief and happiness is returning – but grief and sorrow linger. I cannot run from sorrow any more than I can run from my shadow on a sunny day. I must learn to live with love and sorrow – there seems no other way.
I’m okay … but I’m not okay … and that’s okay. That is part of being human.
First posted on April 1, 2014. I share this again knowing somewhere out there are people who hurt and want to know that it's okay to not be okay.