WHY WE SUFFER

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As Mitch began to drift away, I would look at him with deep sorrow in my heart. I desperately wanted to scoop him up in my arms and take him to someplace safe. A place like the children’s books we often read to him – a place of hope and happiness, joy and dreams. My little boy once glowing bright with laughter and childhood had become a dim candle about to flicker out. The light in his countenance had been growing dimmer by the day, and I was greatly pained therewith. When I took this photo I had the distinct impression we were no longer counting the days, but the hours.

I remember cuddling next to my son just after I took this photo. I held him gently but firmly and said, “I am so sorry this is happening, son. You are so brave. I think sometimes God sends us the little ones like you to teach us grown-ups what it means to be truly grown up. And Mitch, when I grow up, I want to be just like you.” Mitch squeezed my hand and smiled softly. I kissed his cheek and held him close to my chest as he drifted away, soft as a feather, into an afternoon nap.

While Mitch slept, I wept.

I wept so hard the bed was shaking, and I worried I would wake him. The grief I knew then was but a foretaste of the grief to come. It turns out death was the easy part … for I'd soon experience a kind of bewilderment, emptiness and longing that would become a more painful hell.

I learned long ago it isn't productive to raise my fist to the heavens and wonder why we suffer. Instead, I learned to turn my ear heavenward; to listen for secrets to the soul and learn what I was meant to learn. Too often people get hung up on asking the wrong questions – and therefore get no answers. They ask “why would God do this?” When we hurt, it can be tempting to shake our fists at the Universe and bemoan our circumstance as though we’re being singled out or treated unfairly. But the last time I checked, life isn't fair, and it rains on the just and unjust. Why should we be the only exception? The other day I learned over 150,000 people die each day. Countless others will suffer all manner of afflictions. In the few minutes it might take to shake our fist and complain about our own lives, hundreds of people will have passed from this life to the next, and a great many more will mourn their absence. The world is filled with grief and suffering. Some sorrows we bring upon ourselves. Other suffering just happens, whether from an act of God or simply life in motion.

At least for me, I've come to discover suffering and sorrow are an important part of life’s learnings. Any more I worry less about the origins of my sorrows – for what difference would it make? Surely God isn’t caught off guard or surprised by the events in our lives. Whether He’s the author of some of our sorrows, as a divine teacher, or simply a patient tutor as we struggle with life in motion … He could change the course of our sorrows if He wanted to. The fact He often doesn't sends a compelling message. The question I ask myself is, “Am I listening?”

On this sacred weekend, I reflect on life’s crucibles and am grateful; not grateful that we suffer, but because we can be made better because of it.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

So, as I laid next to my dying son, weeping in the deepest of grief, I felt a pain beyond description that left my soul weary, bruised and weak. I didn't want my little boy to go, for he was my tender son and I loved him so. Though I prayed mightily for his safe return, the answer I received was “No, my son, for there are things you must learn.”

Thus began my journey with grief, down a bewildering path in search of relief. And though I still hear the deafening sound of death’s terrible toll, I have come to understand our mortal bodies are but clothing to the soul.

On this sacred weekend, I reflect on life’s crucibles and am grateful; not grateful that we suffer, but because we can be made better because of it.

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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.

WHEN THERE’S NO ROOM FOR GRIEF

A few days 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 had become my therapy – yet, according to her, there seemed to be no room for my therapy. 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 kind of 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.”

They leave no room for grief. And when there is no room for grief, there is no room for healing.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

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.

This Friday will mark the 5th anniversary of my son’s passing. 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's 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 5 years, I still need room for grief.
 

IN THE QUIET OF NIGHT

When I was a young boy, I remember waking up at night only to find my mother or father gently opening my bedroom door to check on me. Sometimes, more often than not, they’d linger a moment as I’d drift back to sleep. It wasn’t until I became a parent that I began to understand why they’d linger. I found myself doing the same thing with my children, especially when they were young. I’d look upon my children with so much love in my heart I thought my tender heart would explode.

I learned that in the quiet of night, even during those dark struggles of the soul, we must trust our Father and step into the unknown; for in matters of faith, that is the price. That is the toll.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

As far back as I can remember, Mitch wanted Natalie and me to tuck him in at night. That little ritual of pulling the covers up to his chin and kissing his sweet face is something I’ll always remember with a heart of gratitude. Natalie had a special way of tucking the sides of his blanket under his body on both sides, and Mitch loved the feeling of being snuggled. Soon he’d fall fast asleep. Without realizing it, I’d find myself wandering back into his room to check on him, and my other children. I’d crack the door open only to spill some warm light into a moonlit room. There, I’d see my babies fast asleep. Sometimes, I’d think how curious it was that just a few years earlier before they were born, I was totally and completely content to live without them. But now that I had them, I couldn’t imagine a life without them.

I’ve experienced all manner of loss, and nothing cuts so deep as to lose a child.

When Mitch was home on hospice, my regular prayer routine became more focused and more heartfelt. Somewhere, in the quiet of night, by my son’s bed or on the edge of mine, I wept to my Father praying for deliverance. In my suffering, I grew closer to my Father. Even still, never did night seem so dark as when my son was slipping away. I discovered that when God doesn’t deliver us from our sorrows, He will deliver us through them. I also learned, in the quiet of night, a valuable lesson about dark times and how we can begin to discern light – the kind of light that kindles faith.

Just recently, I had a conversation with a father who was undergoing a tremendous hardship. In a private message on Facebook, he asked me, “Do you believe in angels?”

I responded, “Yes, I do believe in angels and that they walk among us, unseen. Sometimes, if we're quiet and listening, we can feel their presence. Sometimes.”

I continued, “We had some profound moments with Mitch [when] he passed away. As Mitch was in the process of dying, he slept a lot [and we agonized that we were losing him before we lost him]. Natalie and I were in a state of deep despair and couldn't feel as easily what others felt. Some people dropped gifts or notes at our door, not knowing what was happening in our home the last few days. They would leave our house and send us a text saying things like, ‘I'm not sure what's happening at your home, but I felt something I've never felt before. It felt like I was walking through a crowd of angels.’”

I believe, despite how dark the world felt at the time, we were surrounded by a host of heavenly angels, bearing us up when we were so tired and so weak. In fact, I don’t think it … I know it. I know it for reasons I will not describe – for some things are too sacred to share.

I’ve come to learn over the last few years something Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, “When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.” I’ve grown to appreciate that phrase, “When it is dark enough …” You see, sometimes it isn’t dark enough for us to see those heavenly blessings, that present themselves like little stars. And if we learn to look, our spiritual eyes will begin to see tender mercies that are meant for you and me.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing new stories about Mitch and how I learned to see the light, even through what seemed impenetrable darkness. I learned that in the quiet of night, even during those dark struggles of the soul, we must trust our Father and step into the unknown; for in matters of faith, that is the price. That is the toll.

I SEARCH FOR WORDS, YET THERE ARE NONE

 “Dad, will you open the blinds so I can look out the window?” Mitch said softly as he sat up on his bed.   

Reverently, I lifted the blinds so Mitch could look out the window unobstructed.  I was quiet about it, too, for this was a sacred time when death was near, and the veil was thin.  It was a cold, wintery day and snow covered everything.  The light of late afternoon had become soft and warm as if to compensate for winter’s chill. 

The end was coming; man and medicine were powerless to stop it.

Mitch looked out the window in silence.  At that moment, his countenance changed from that of a young boy to one of an old soul emerging.  I asked him what he was thinking, and he shook his head as if to say, “Not now, Dad.”  Mitch then said, “I’ll tell you later.” 

He knew he was going to die, but he didn’t know he only had a few days left.  None of us did.

I watched my son in silence – respecting his need for space.  I searched for words, but there was none.  I wanted to hold him tight, help him feel safe, and tell him all would be okay.  But things weren’t safe, and he wasn’t going to be okay.  The end was coming; man and medicine were powerless to stop it.

I said a prayer in my heart, “Oh, Father, please … I’ll pay any price.  Can I take his place?”  I guess that was my way of bargaining – and I did it a million times a day.  With all my prayers, I knew that none of us could escape death – nor can we escape hardship.  I understood that it rains on the just and the unjust and we must learn to bear our burdens patiently.  I understood the wisdom of an old Jewish proverb, “Don’t pray for lighter burdens, pray for a stronger back.”  Although I always prayed for a way out - I also said, “But if not, please help us carry this burden.”

Little Mitch never told me what he was thinking that day.

This sweet boy lived out his remaining days as gently as he came into the world.  As death was gnawing and gashing at our door, Mitch surrendered his soul to God with the faith of a child and the heart of an angel.  He was a giant among men, and I was then, and remain today, deep in his shadow; for I am less than a shadow of a man.

In my darkest moments, I searched for words and found none; until I learned to quiet my mind and heart so I could see all that God had done.   It was then and only then I found gratitude in the midst of grief

One day, when I go to that place beyond the hills, I will thank my Father for loaning Mitch to me.  My son, my brother, my teacher – a gift burdened by adversity who taught me how to see. 

WHO CARRIES WHOM?

It was mid-November and we were enjoying a mild evening at a park just across the street from the apartments where we temporarily lived.  Like many times before, Mitch sat on my shoulders and tried to twist my hat as though it were a steering wheel.  He would laugh and laugh as I walked in whatever direction he tried to turn my head.  He thought pulling a tuft of my hair was like hoking a horn because I would yell “Ouch!” every time.  It hurt, but I didn’t mind because I loved to hear him laugh. 

Looking back, I was never carrying Mitch – I think heaven sent Mitch to carry me. This little boy was a tattered angel who was marked for a short life – heaven knew it long before he was born. And I sensed it the moment I first laid eyes on him. Perhaps, among other things, his mission was to save me from me.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

As Mitch sat on my shoulders, he didn’t understand the terrible future that awaited him.  Tiny Mitch didn’t know we had just sold our home because of him – so we could find a place that would accommodate his future needs.  He didn’t know that we would have sold all that we owned to keep him safe and healthy.  Mitch didn’t know much, for he was young; he just knew we loved him – and that was all he needed to know.   

For almost 11 years, we carried Mitch on our shoulders and backs and always in our hearts.  One might think it was a terrible burden to have a child with a fatal disease … a disease that would not only kill him, but would slowly take every part of him away.  Certainly, carrying a muscle-wasting, fatal disease on our shoulders was a burden.  But carrying our child with that hardship was also filled with blessings – and the blessings far outweighed the burdens; for when it comes to our children, no burden is too great. 

The night Mitch passed away he couldn’t open his eyes, but he could squeeze our hands to tell us he was listening.  I wonder what crossed his mind that night.  I remember whispering to him as I wet his pillow with my tears … I whispered memories I had with him and told him how grateful I was to be his daddy.  I hope memories like this photo crossed his mind and gave his weary soul comfort.  I hope he found peace knowing we loved him and were proud of the young boy that he had become.

I did my best to carry Mitch on my shoulders.  Not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually.  In strictly mortal terms, he was younger than me. Though spiritually, I began to sense his soul was much older than mine.  I thought I was on earth to carry him and help him learn and grow – but as heavenly paradoxes go, the opposite was true.  He was teaching and shaping me.  Looking back, I was never carrying Mitch – I think heaven sent Mitch to carry me.  This little boy was a tattered angel who was marked for a short life – heaven knew it long before he was born.  And I sensed it the moment I first laid eyes on him.  Perhaps, among other things, his mission was to save me from me.

Though he is gone now and my heart aches deeply because of it, I sense him from time-to-time.  Not through butterflies and rainbows, but a distinct spiritual impression his soul is near and that he is doing the work of angels … guiding me quietly through whispers that are felt more than heard.  I sense that he is tending to my broken soul – and I hope I am listening. 

Thanksgiving is near and I have a great many things to be thankful for: faith and family are chief among them. I am also grateful that hidden somewhere deep beneath life’s burdens are also blessings – blessings that are earned by-and-through struggle. And whenever I get confused and wonder what to do, I think about my Father and my son ... and I ask myself, "Who's carrying who?"

LEARNING TO TRUST*

I remember his tiny smile as he sat in a school bus for the first time.  Mitch was about to leave on a new adventure.  He didn’t know where he was going exactly, he only knew his mommy loved him and trusted she knew best.  Natalie kissed Mitch on the forehead and said in a whispered tone, “I love you, little boy.  I’ll see you at school.” 

This life is a heavenly classroom, clothed in mortal cares ... where we learn to trust in heaven while carrying hardships from here to there.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

As the big bus drove out of the neighborhood Natalie jumped in our minivan and followed them to the elementary school several miles away.  By the time the bus arrived at school, Natalie was there to help our little boy off the bus and usher him into class.  

To Mitch, the world was a very big place – made even bigger by his declining muscle strength.  A small staircase to you and me may as well be Mt. Everest to a child with DMD.  Mitch could be easily knocked down by a simple bump in a lunchroom.  Hallways made him nervous because a river of preoccupied people, in a rush to get some place, threatened to trample him unaware.

Natalie knew our son needed help, but wanted to stretch his horizons and help him grow.  So, she repeated the inconvenient routine of helping him board the bus each day and then follow him to school – where she would help him on and off the bus.  Natalie wanted our boy to learn independence.  And that he did. 

I loved this day.  I loved seeing my little boy smile at me through the window of the bus.  Mitch had this look on his face that seemed to say, “Look Dad!  I can do hard things.  I’m a big kid now.”  His eyes seemed to say, “I love you.”

I remember walking with Natalie and Mitch into his preschool class for the first time.  There he would meet “Mrs. Nancy.”  She was energetic and kind and had a way about her that brought instant relief to nervous parents and excitement in the minds of her students.  I loved her immediately.  I’ll write more of her another day – but I am grateful she was placed in our son’s path.  She was a tender mercy for our little boy.

In many ways, this image serves as a symbol of another journey.  Only this time Mitch has been shuttled to a place far from sight.  Sometimes I panic because the mortal father in me wants to know he’s alright.  Yet, I know he is fine – and in a heavenly sense, I realize he was never mine.   For Mitch is my brother, the son of my Father … even still, in his death, my mortal heart is still bothered.  For I love and miss him, you see.  And in my agony, I reach deeply for things heavenly.  Could it be that is the reason for suffering?

Somewhere out on the horizon is my son … or rather, my brother. He is at a school of another sort.  I cannot see it with my eyes … but I can feel it with my soul.  Though he may be learning and growing … I also believe he is here, even now, helping and showing. 

Now it is my turn, seated in a big and unfamiliar bus.  Like my son, – I have learned to listen and to trust. I know my Father loves me and believe that He knows best.  The wisest of all parents, He knows the growth that happens when we’re challenged and given tests.  This life is a heavenly classroom, clothed in mortal cares ... where we learn to trust in heaven while carrying hardships from here to there.