A GRIEF REMEMBERED

Mitch had passed a few hours prior and we each spent sacred time saying goodbye to our boy.  His body was beginning to change, and it was disturbing to see.  I was frightened by the spectacle of it all.  So, I called the funeral home and asked them to hurry.  Soon, in the dark of winter, I’d hear a soft knock on our door that would usher a kind of trauma we weren’t prepared to experience. 

The death of a child is exactly similar to the birth of a child.  It changes you forever.  In the same way, your life is multiplied by their very existence, it is divided by their absence.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

The funeral home employees were kind and professional and went reverently about their work.  They entered Mitchell’s room and slid a sheet under his body, then lifted my sweet boy onto a gurney, then strapped his body in.  They covered his cold form with his blanket – not to keep him warm, but to show respect for a little boy who had gone too soon.  I suppose the covered him, also, to soften the blow.

Natalie stood at the foot of Mitchell’s bed with a look of horror and disbelief on her face.  Indeed, it was a horror show.  In the long nights that would follow, my dear wife would weep and say, “I don’t want to live.” The long night of grief had just begun – and a long night it would be.  As a husband and father, I scrambled to keep myself, my wife, and children together.

In truth, I don’t need this photo to remind me of this horrible, yet sacred event.  The memory of this night is seared into my mind and soul – written in the most permanent of inks.  I keep it, however, not to wallow in sorrow – but to stay sober about life.  To stay centered in the heart and soul.

The other day I had a lunch appointment with an old friend and colleague.  We talked for a while and covered a lot of ground.  It isn’t my practice to talk of Mitch or grief with people unless they ask.  But, somehow our conversation turned toward Mitch, and we started to talk about life and loss.  My friend had lost his sister many years ago, and though he grieved her loss, he didn’t understand the degree of sorrow his parents felt.  He tried to understand – but until you experience it – it cannot be fully understood.

At one point in our conversation, I observed the spectators of grief – you know … the ones who, from the comfort of their own life say things like, “Isn’t it time to get over it?”  Or, “Just be glad you’ll see them again in the next life.”  These, and a million platitudes like them, only cut deeper into tender wounds of the soul. 

I said, “There is a kind of darkness one comes to know when they lose a child.  And when you walk through that wilderness, you eventually come out the other side a different person.  You change.  Suddenly, the world is different.  The pettiness of people and so much of what consumes society is both pedestrian and trivial.  It’s like someone who knows only simple math is trying to tell you how to solve an abstract problem with theoretical physics.  Suddenly, their level of understanding is elementary – and you are in graduate school, whether you’re ready or not.”

I went on to say that when I hear people talk of people ‘moving on’ I want to say, “Okay, here’s a thought experiment.  What if I told you to leave your young child (or grandchild) on the corner of a busy road and never look back?  What’s more, you only have a few weeks to stop loving them – then, you must never feel after them. You must stop talking about them and act as if they never existed.  Move on.  Get over them.  Impossible, right?  Why?  Because we love them – and that love is forever.  So it is with grief.  Yet, so often, grief feels a lot like love with nowhere to go – and it hurts to hold it in.”

We both had tears in our eyes.  He could see my pain begin to surface and he said, “I think I’m beginning to understand what my parents felt … and feel.”  I smiled and told my friend that grief, like love, doesn’t end.  Though our conversation was met with tender feelings – it was also healing and bridge-building.  Talking helps.  Remembering can be soul-soothing.

The death of a child is exactly similar to the birth of a child.  It changes you forever.  In the same way, your life is multiplied by their very existence, it is divided by their absence.

A grief remembered is only love trying to find its way.

DISCOVERING SIGNIFICANCE IN SORROW

Mitchell’s casket had been removed and all that was left was his scooter, gently adorned with his little shoes, a bottle of water he loved to drink, and a few memorial gifts and flowers.  My cousin-in-law, a professional photographer, took this photo just after my family was escorted into the chapel where my tender-hearted wife and I would give the most painful address of our lives. 

My little boy’s journey through life and death has taught me to not ask why, but rather “What am I to learn?”  That, it seems, is the gateway to significance.  To think less about the why of things, and more about what they mean.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

The last thing on my mind was this scooter that was left behind – so, weeks later, when I stumbled into this photo, I wept.  Then, I caught my breath and wept some more.  Vacant and alone, this ordinary image of my son’s abandoned scooter stood as a stark reminder of what really matters in life.  This was a moment of significance for me.   

I remember kneeling at Mitchell’s bedside just a few days before he passed away.  I remember almost everything, in fact, with vivid clarity.  To carry such vivid memories has been both a blessing and a burden.  With great sorrow I watched my little baby made of sand slip through my fingers and into the abyss.  As I sat by my little boy, who was struggling to breathe, and I ran my fingers softly through his hair and tickled his arms as we just talked about stuff that was on his mind.  My sweet ten-year-old only wanted to run, play and be like all the other young children he knew.  At one point during our conversation at the side of his bed Mitch lamented, with great feeling, how much he wished he could be like “regular kids.”  My soul, already broken, broke some more.     

With tears in my eyes and love pouring out of my soul, I said, “Oh, little Mitch, you are so much more than a mere mortal.  If only you could see who you really are and what you may one day become.  Just remember: our bodies are temporary, our souls are forever.  You, my little boy, are so much more than you know.”  Mitch smiled softly, closed his tear-filled eyes and drifted to sleep.  I kissed his face and then prayed to my Father that my back might be strengthened so I could carry such a burden as grief.  How heavy it would soon become, I knew not.  Soon, my legs would buckle and my hands tremble from the weight of grief.  The hell I knew was just a foretaste of what was to come.

A few days later my little boy was gone and I journeyed through the deepest, darkest recesses of the soul.  All that I thought I knew of sorrow … all my mental and emotional preparations for his death failed me.  I thought I was prepared, but I was not.  The grief I felt prior to my son’s death was merely a whisper.  A faint shadow.  A feather … as compared to the heavy and harsh realities of death.  New to this form of grief, I had to remember what I told my son, “Our bodies are temporary, our souls are forever.”  Though I know that the soul lives on, that knowledge doesn’t take the sting of death away.  It provides context and meaning, but it offers no insulation from sorrow.   Though I have also experienced a comfort and peace that defies my human understanding, those moments of heavenly peace come and go just like the tides of grief.   

I’ve heard it said, “Those who mistake success for significance, will lead a deeply unfulfilled existence.”  

My little boy’s journey through life and death has taught me to not ask why, but rather “What am I to learn?”  That, it seems, is the gateway to significance.  To think less about the why of things, and more about what they mean.

OKAY, BUT NOT OKAY … AND THAT’S OKAY*


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.

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.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

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.

We discover in ourselves what others hide from us, and we recognize in others what we hide from ourselves.
— Marquis de Vauvenargues

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.

A MEASURE OF PEACE

I’ll never forget the look on her face and the sound of her tearful whisper, lips trembling with sorrow, “Honey, how do we do this? I don’t know how to go on.” My heart, at least what was left of it, broke a little more. I whispered, “I don’t know, but we’ll do this together.” 

Our sweet little boy’s body lay silent just a few feet away from us. Almost overnight we found ourselves living a nightmare from which we could not wake … a soul-crushing pain from which we could not escape.

Next to his casket sat Mitchell’s scooter, which once carried his weakening body, now suddenly carried an emptiness that filled the room. I couldn’t imagine grief becoming any worse than it felt that day. I would soon realize that I had scarcely tasted that bitter cup – for the wages of grief were just beginning. Night had not yet fallen.

Moments later, my dear wife and I would walk into the chapel and give the most painful address of our lives. Yes, heaven felt close that day, but I was also in hell.

A few months after Mitch had passed I went to a doctor to examine my elbow, which had experienced some unusual and intense pain. After a short examination he determined I had tennis elbow. Secretly, I was devastated – for something deep inside me was hoping it was something terminal … something to end the deep pain I felt every waking minute of my life.

Although there were times I wished for death, I also knew I needed to be there for my wife and children. I loved them just as much as Mitch, yet, a part of me yearned for death so I could stop hurting. 

I was terrified of going to sleep or waking up – for that transition between wake and sleep often brought the unfiltered horror of losing my child into my mind and heart. Whatever progress I had made was lost in those moments of transition and it was as if I lost my son all over again. And again. And again. And again. Whenever that happened I would find myself in a state of panic and I would run to my son’s room and weep at the foot of his empty bed. I prayed every night that I could fall asleep and wake up quickly – so I would be spared such horrors of the mind and heart. Despite my pleas for relief, I was often not spared – and I spent many sleepless nights staring into the night sky in search of my Father.

Deep was the forest and dark was the grief; I stumbled over pebbles in search of heaven and peace. And when I was tempted to raise my hands and give up, I heard a loving whisper from my Father to instead look up. Surrounded in darkness, tears clouding the sky, I began to see with my spiritual eyes. What I saw is hard to describe … for I discerned a constellation of blessings to which I was previously blind. 

Each blessing, a dim fleck of light, came into view of my spiritual sight. It didn’t matter however great or small, when I recognized these tender mercies something inside me began to arise and stand tall. I was not abandoned in darkness and grief – instead I was tutored to see heaven’s blessings and in them find a measure of peace. 

GUILT, GRIEF & GRACE

My dear wife and I had just delivered the most difficult public address of our lives. It had never occurred to us that parents don’t typically speak at their child’s funeral because emotions are so very near the surface. For some reason, we did.

After the funeral service we made the somber journey to the cemetery. My little son was in the hearse in front of us and all I could think was, “He must be so cold and scared and lonely.” I had those same nearly schizophrenic feelings when I was 19 years old and drove my father’s casket alone in the back of a pickup truck from Edmonton to southern Alberta. It was snowing outside and I agonized that my dad was cold and I wanted to protect him like he so often tried to protect me. I cried a lot on that long drive – I was young, sad and very much afraid. Although those feelings of wanting to protect my father were strong then, they were so much more intense toward my son. What you see here was the worst commute of my life.

As we followed our little boy I couldn't help but also think back on my life with Mitch. Instantly I had feelings of guilt and grief and a longing to hold him such that I had never before known. I cried on this drive, too – and my soul cried out even harder.

I couldn't imagine it then, but I see it now: death and dying, the funeral and all its preparations, as difficult as they are … that’s the easy part. It is in the quiet of things, long after death has come to steal away that which is most precious … it is when the dust settles and the world spins madly on … that is when the struggle truly begins.

I have heard many who wrestle with grief share feelings of personal guilt over a million-and-one things they wish done differently. I understand those feelings because I have felt them, too. I wrote in a post last December, “That list of “what ifs”, however counterfeit and scattered with lies, remains glossy, persuasive and deceptively wise.”

Though I may be tempted to feel guilt for what might have been, or perhaps even should have been, I know I always had the welfare of my family at heart and I did the very best I knew how. I wasn't perfect, but I was perfect at trying – and that is good enough for me. Grief is hard enough – guilt makes grief more difficult. Guilt is a lot like fire: if it is properly managed it can wield great power and affect change. If mismanaged, or gets out of control, it can burn us and cause deep scars. 

Yet there are so many moments that invite feelings of guilt: from the foolish things people say, to those who suggest we’re grieving wrong … because we’re not doing it their way. To all of that nonsense I say, ignore it. It is easy to critique the grief of others for those who never knew it or bore it.

I don’t feel guilty for having good days or moments of happiness – as though I've betrayed some unspoken rule of grief. To the contrary, I seek after such moments daily. We are made to find joy – and joy is what I seek.

On the other side of the grief spectrum there are some who suggest, “Mitch wouldn't want you to be sad.” Yet, I am sad that he is gone. I don’t feel guilty for grieving or feeling deep sorrow over the loss of my son … for I believe he understands my grief … that grief is the language of the heart and points to unspeakable love and unimaginable loss. Why feel guilty for that? I don’t feel guilt for grieving and I never will.

Mixed in the many layers of grief are the questions “Why me? Why this? Why?” We may never know the answers … at least in this life. But, I can’t help but think there’s a relationship between grief and grace. At least to me, it seems if we endure our struggles well, grief can become our teacher and open our hearts to a deeper compassion toward others. 

Though I wish the death of my son never happened, it did. Shaking my fist at God in anger won’t change that … in fact, that kind of anger would change me … and I don’t want that.

I’ll never turn my fist toward God. Instead, I turn my ear toward Him and do my best to listen. And, when I slow down and give my heart some space, I am convinced grief is a key to grace.

OKAY, BUT NOT OKAY … AND THAT’S OKAY

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.

------
(Re-post from April 1, 2014)
As a general rule, I try to limit re-posting content but I have received a lot of requests from people to see this particular post again. Since I originally posted this story last April, almost 22 million people have seen it. To my surprise, the original post continues to get comments and shares daily – which thing I never supposed, not even in my wildest imagination. So, I share this again, not because I am stuck in grief, but because I know somewhere out there are a great many people who hurt and want to know if it’s okay to not be okay.

TRADING REGRET FOR RESOLVE

Every-so-often I drive by the mortuary and am reminded of the moment I saw little Mitch for the first time after he passed away. When we first entered the room we saw him lying on a table, lifeless and cold on the far end of a dimly lit room. The scene was something from a nightmare I was afraid to entertain, even in my mind. I struggled to find my breath as I swallowed the lump-turned-basketball in my throat. I stayed back so Natalie could have her time with Mitch – for I knew a mother’s love was sacred and different from mine. 

When it was my turn to be with Mitch my heart tumbled into a deep abyss and it seemed for a moment my soul was certain to drown in the darkest waters. I wished so badly to wake my son that I might hold him and tell him I loved him – but he was gone. Tears streamed down my neck this day, and for many months after. I had just entered a phase of grief where I wept every single day for almost 2 years. I didn't cry. I wept.

So when I drive by that mortuary or simply reflect upon my own experience with loss I am reminded of the fragility of life. Not that we die – for I have seen plenty of death in my life and I don’t need to be reminded that life is perishable. Rather, I think about how easy it is to die a little on the inside, long before our bodies perish. We die from addiction and distraction, grief and anger, and a myriad of other things that would rob us; stuff that will take life away from life. 

I don’t post on Mitchell’s Journey because I’m stuck in grief or that I fixate on death and sorrow. I am just trying to examine my life and discover ways to become truly alive.

I wish I could say I lived a life of no regret – but I haven’t. I don’t think it’s possible to live such a life because we are human and flawed. In fact, I am wary of the man or woman who says they lived a life of no regrets because such a tale is born of fiction and self-deception. 

Regret is an unavoidable human condition. It is the wanting for a different outcome and the pain we cannot make it so. Regret is a measure of grief. It is part of grief. Regret is part of being human. Yet, I don’t believe, being human, the purpose of life is to cling to regret, guilt or self-loathing. Life is hard enough and I have come to believe it is well enough to do your best and forget the rest. 

Do I wish I would have been different when Mitch was with me? Absolutely. Do I have regrets? I have many. But I am learning to forge those regrets in the fiery furnace of sorrow and build a new resolve that is sharper and stronger than I have ever known. 

Each time I meditate and write about grief or an aspect of my son’s life and death, I am learning to trade regret for resolve. 

One day, when I look back from that place beyond the hills, I know I will be glad I lived the life I lived. Not because I didn't make mistakes, but because I learned to turn regret into resolve. A resolve that is teaching me how to truly live. A resolve that is leading me home.

On those days I am especially weary in grief, stumbling over pebbles and struggling to breathe … I can hear a loving whisper, “Rise my son, for your time is not yet done. You aren't learning how to walk, but rather how to run.”