SO EMPTY, YET SO FULL*

It was an especially hot summer day when two mothers and 4 children walked into Pioneer Park, each with an arm full of gifts they were about to give away. Quietly they began placing all manner of toys throughout the playground. Each toy had a sticker attached to it with an invitation to play with and keep, signed Mitchell’s Journey. 

Cathy O’Grady, a follower-turned-friend from Boston, was in Salt Lake City and wanted to do something in memory of little Mitch. So, she purchased two carts of toys that included baseball bats, footballs, bubbles, chalk, soccer balls and other things kids used to play with before the advent of technology … before the age of digital isolation and endless distraction. 

She was kind enough to let me follow her and a friend, Tracey Langston, so I could take photos of their random act of love and kindness in memory of Mitch. Each of them wore a Miles for Mitchell shirt because they wanted to take my son with them. 

“Watch how parents will put their phones down and suddenly start playing with their children when they’re given a toy.” Cathy said. Sure enough, exactly as she described, I saw it with my own eyes. Parents who moments earlier were busy scrolling through never ending streams of Pinterest posts, social feeds, texts, emails and other things suddenly set their devices down and began to play with their children. 

I saw adorable little kids stumble into a lonely soccer ball, pick it up with curiosity and then show it to their parents as though they won a lottery. I marveled at how these small, inexpensive toys changed how people interacted with one another. As these anonymous gifts were discovered, the playground went from friendly to an excited frolic.

After these good Samaritans were done placing toys … when parents and children alike were playing with one another, I told Cathy how humbled I was by her act of kindness. As my eyes filled with tears … fighting back a wave of grief … I told Cathy something about little Mitch just before he passed away. As Mitch was facing the realities of his own death he wept and wept as he told me how much he wished he could be like regular kids. My soul unraveled and my heart fell to the floor as I heard my son describe what he wanted to do in “real life” but could not. “Dad, I don’t want to ride a skate board in a video game, I want to do it for reals.” Mitch sobbed in ways only a dying child can know. And my soul writhed. 

I told Cathy how grateful I was for the gifts she gave others. She didn’t just give toys, you see. These little gifts were a means to a much greater end. Cathy gave the gift of play. The gift of relationships.

So, on this hot summer day, never a swing set looked so empty, yet felt so full. I wanted my little boy to be seated there and was pained that he was not. I wished with all of my heart I could push him back and forth, long after the sun set. I wanted to play with Mitch and see his face and hear him laugh, yet he was forever gone. Instead, I saw other children and parents enjoy what I no longer had – and yet my heart swelled with gratitude for their happiness.

I am so grateful for people like Cathy and Tracey … who seek to build others up and serve with love. I wonder how the world would change if everyone gave freely and not want anything in exchange. Something divine happens when we love and lift … for the very act of giving is itself a supernal gift.

You can see more photos of this experience at the park on instagram.com/mitchells_journey/

You can also learn more about Cathy and the many other good works she is doing here: http://sofiasangelsfoundation.org/

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.

A RICH LIFE

It was a cold January afternoon when a kind man walked up our steep driveway with a tattered cardboard box in his arms. Inside that box was a tender, shivering puppy for one sick little boy. Mitch was so excited to have a little furry friend to call his own. 

I think on some level Mitch was beginning to feel increasingly lonely because all of his peers were moving far past him. It wasn't that they didn't care about him … to the contrary, his friends loved him. But as they were getting older and physically stronger, Mitch was growing increasingly weak. The world Mitch used to know was beginning to pass him by and he was beginning to feel more and more isolated. He didn't complain about this, but as his father, I knew what was happening. I sensed it as only a parent can.

About a week before my son passed away he lay on the floor in tears saying how much he wished he could do in real life what he was only able to do in video games. He had just played a skateboard game and wanted so much to do those tricks “for real.” My heart broke as I saw my little boy long to be like every other little boy. Life and hardship would take that away from him and that pains my heart.

I don’t know what drove my father-in-law to give little Mitch a puppy, but the timing of that gift was nothing short of miraculous. Two weeks later Mitch would go to the hospital, then be sent home to die. This little puppy was such a comfort to Mitch. I will share more about those tender mercies in future posts, and some are especially tender, but there is no doubt in my mind this little gift was an act of inspired kindness. Heaven’s hand was very much in this gift.

I posted a short video of that sweet exchange here: vimeo.com/58228257

At some point, as Mitch was getting to know his puppy, I turned my camera toward my father-in-law and captured this image. This good man, who bore the scars of age and experience on his face, stood quietly against the wall and seemed to find great joy in the happiness of my son. I love everything about this photo … not that it is a good photo (because it is not) … I love this image because it captured someone in the very act of goodness. This is what goodness looks like. 

I admire the person who thinks less about heaping riches unto themselves and instead looks for ways to love and lift others. I am convinced the key to a rich life isn't found in what we keep, but instead what we give. 

I think there’s a special place in heaven for this good man. When I grow up, I want to be just like this man. For he is good and he has a rich life.

As Thanksgiving nears, I can’t help but be overwhelmed with gratitude. Though I lost my son, a little person and friend most precious to me, I am grateful I had him in the first place. I am grateful for my family, true friends and all of you. I am grateful for goodness.

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, such 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.