WHAT THE CASUAL TRAVELER CAN’T SEE

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There’s a saying that reads, “Do not teach your child to be rich. Teach him to be happy, so when they grow up, they’ll know the value of things, not the price.” I’ve always loved this saying and have tried to help my children appreciate the little things. Their appreciation often showed up in the language of their prayers; especially when they expressed gratitude for soft pillows, macaroni and cheese, and blanket forts. In my few years on this planet, I’ve come to discover things of greatest value have little (if anything) to do with price.

During his last summer of life, Mitch spent some long-awaited time at his grandmother’s ranch in Southern Utah. On this day, life couldn't have been more awesome; the weather was perfect, and glee was floating in the air like spring pollen. On the horizon, you could see the ancient fingers of Kolob Canyon which stood towering into the sky as a majestic reminder that our lives are but a blink. A reminder that humans are only transients on this planet … a classroom of rock and water.

Before my mother moved to the ranch, I drove by this canyon a thousand times, oblivious to the beautiful landscape I was passing. You see, the highway hugs the mountain so close to the base of Kolob Canyon you cannot see it (not even a little bit) - the road is just too close to it. Without perspective, everything around the highway felt ordinary. But, were you to take an exit near the canyon and get a little distance from the highway, you’d see the most amazing mountain range. This canyon is one of Utah’s best-kept secrets – invisible to the casual traveler.

Once I discovered the relationship between the highway and this canyon, it began to serve as something of a metaphor to me. It reminded me that sometimes I can’t see the true nature of a thing until I step back and look from a different vantage point.

My experience with Mitch taught me the same thing. As I have traveled the long road of grief, I’ve learned to step away from my sorrow and look upon the landscape of this experience from a different vantage point. I have learned to see beauty. I can also see reminders this place is not home … that I, too, am a transient and will one day travel to a better place.

This photo reminds me Mitch lived a good life – and in that, I can find joy. If I were asked to find one image that best illustrated my son, I believe this is it. Mitch was happy – not because of things, but because his family loved him and he discovered ways to find joy in everything. I recently discovered some videos of my family where you can see Mitch skipping in the background, unaware he was on camera. He was skipping because he was simply happy. Although the road he traveled was hard, and he could have found a million-and-one reasons to complain about life not being fair to him, he always stepped away from his limitations and stepped into appreciation. He saw life from a different vantage point. He stepped back, and he saw the canyon.

While losing my son has been a source of great sorrow, if I’m not mindful … if I hug the mountain of grief too closely for too long, I will miss a kind of beauty that might otherwise enrich and inform me. It isn’t always easy – but I have learned to take my mind and heart down different roads.

Of course, to grieve in healthy ways, we must acknowledge there is pain – a whole lot of it. But healthy grief also requires me to balance the scale and acknowledge the things that brought me joy. Finding joy can take time, especially when grief is new, bewildering, and unfamiliar. I had to be patient and kind to myself. In the beginning, I had to travel the only road I knew. Then there were times I had to leave the comfort of my car and hike the back road, bare feet and all, to see the greater canyon.

At least for me, as I traveled the broken road of grief, I’ve searched for trails of gratitude and explored them. Those trails led me to beautiful panoramas of perspective and have helped heal me – but they have taken effort. Grief has taught me to step back and see the world differently. And when I did, I discovered things the casual traveler can’t see.



YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN

As far back as I can remember, Natalie and I always enjoyed having people at our home; we enjoyed serving those we love with a great meal, and we enjoyed good conversation even more. On this day, we had extended family over for a BBQ. It was a hot, muggy afternoon. The cousins were busy laughing in the back yard playing on an inflatable water slide. Little Mitch didn’t have a lot of muscle strength to do what the other kids were doing, so he stayed behind and wanted to be near me, which I loved.

I knew I needed to create new memories in those empty places – to fill those voids with something of joy and happiness. It took time. Step by step, new memory by new memory, I began to replace that sense of profound emptiness with something new.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

I was busy preparing our meal on the grill. My tripod and camera were on-the-ready to capture any moment that caught my eye. Little Mitch asked if he could wear one of my favorite hats that had artificial grey hair sprouting in every direction from the top. At the time, I didn’t have any grey hair to speak of, and it was one of my favorite hats. Since I’ve lost Mitch, I have grown quite a bit of grey hair; which to me is a visible testament to the price we pay for grief and heartache.

Mitch always wanted to sit next to me when I was at the grill. He’d sit on a stool and quietly talk to me about things that were on his mind. Sometimes he didn’t say anything at all. He just wanted to be – and that’s okay, too. Often, Mitch would make funny observations that were both insightful and witty.

I remember this summer afternoon so vividly. I also remember having a distinct impression this day that a terrible life storm was on the horizon and that darkness was near. I didn’t understand that feeling at the time, but looking back, I can see it was my loving Father preparing me … in effect, warning me, to make moments matter.

For almost 2 years following the death of Mitch, certain places in my home evoked the most tender feelings. Whenever I was at my grill, I’d instinctively look to my side hoping to see little Mitch next to me, only to find emptiness. I’d burst into tears, and my heart would break all over again. For a season, all I saw was emptiness, everywhere. I had an aversion to certain rooms in my home – for they reminded me of my absent son and those places became a source of deep pain.

Over time, however, I knew I needed to create new memories in those empty places – to fill those voids with something of joy and happiness. It took time. Step by step, new memory by new memory, I began to replace that sense of profound emptiness with something new.

I think part of my grief was magnified because I wanted to go home … you know, the home I once knew and loved. Yet everything stood as a testament that I was no longer home and that I could never go there again.

Author Thomas Wolfe wrote a book, You Can’t Go Home Again (1940), where, among other things, describes how the passing of time prevents us from returning “home again.” On at least one level, it is a brilliant meditation on life and making the most of the time we have.

On my grief journey, I had to learn that I could never go home again … at least to the home I once knew. That time before with little Mitch was my old home. Today is now and that is where I’ve learned to live.

I chronicle my journey with Mitch here, not to fixate on yesteryear and on sorrow – but instead, I write my memories as though I were a weary traveler who discovered a treasure, a memory I wish to keep. I put it here for safe keeping.

Pain has been my teacher and has shown me how to appreciate my present. Whether through death or simply the passage of time, all that we have today will be different tomorrow. In a few short years, my children will have graduated from high school, and I will never be able to go back to this home I have now again. So today, I will live in my home … my current reality … and I will love that place and all that dwell therein. For on some tomorrow, I’ll have a new home, and I’ll learn to adjust once again.

THE GIFTS OF GRIEF

I remember my childhood excitement when Christmas drew near. Like all young ones, I anxiously awaited that special toy I’d long wanted and wondered what other gifts lay in store every Christmas morning. Mitch loved Christmas a great deal, too. He loved the magic of it all, but most of all, he loved the giving more than the getting.

I search for light in the darkness, for patterns that offer perspective and peace, and I practice an examined life.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

When he passed away, Mitch still believed in Santa and tried so hard to be a good boy.

As his father, I always noticed how hard he tried to be good – and he was good. So, on that cold winter night, when I tucked my sweet boy in for the last time, I wanted Mitch to know one last time that his daddy knew he was a good boy. The only gift I had left to give him was my eternal love. With the tenderest of tones, I told him what a gift he was to me and his mommy. I whispered how proud I was of him and that I would spend the rest of my days trying to live up to his sweet example. With a soft kiss on his face, I pulled Mitchie’s blanket over his chest – his heart beating faintly like a flickering candle about to go out. No sooner had I gone to bed than I was awoken by my grief-stricken wife. Our baby made of sand crumbled and slipped through our fingers – never to return.

That sacred night, my heart suffered a mortal wound. Losing my son, who was a most tender gift, broke me in more ways than I have words to describe.

What gift(s) can possibly come from such a loss? Surely there are none, one might think. I know nothing so cold and lonely as suffering the loss of a child. Yet, even in that hell, there are gifts and spiritual treasures to be found. Their discovery doesn’t come easily – which comes as no surprise. Nothing of any value in life or the universe comes easily; as with all things, the greater the value, the greater the price.

I am still a toddler in matters of grief – but I am learning new things every day. Here are a few things I have learned about the gifts of grief, so far:

Grief, a Teacher
I have learned not to run from grief, as though it were my emotional enemy. Instead, it has become my tender teacher. I am a student of grief, and I’m learning new things every day. Grief, a gift? Yes, grief can give us the gift of a softened heart, a more empathetic soul, and can teach us the value of a moment – because, in the end, we’ll never have now again.

Making Time and Space for Grief
At least for me, I’ve found it helpful to make time & space for grief. I’ll schedule it, even. It’s like a therapy session with myself – wherein I am the doctor, and the patient rolled into one. It’s a time for me to meditate, to practice the art of stillness, then examine my sorrow and begin to make sense of suffering. Making time for sorrow a gift? Yes. By making deliberate space to do the work of processing pain, we learn to process our greater selves, too. We will work on grief the remainder of our lives – but, in time, we’ll learn to work on other parts of ourselves, too.

In the Darkness, We See Stars
Perhaps the greatest gift can be found in the very thing we’re most afraid of. Darkness. The moment I began to realize that it was often in emotional and spiritual darkness that I began to see little flecks of light if I allowed my spiritual eyes to adjust. Each point of light, a tender mercy, a gift from heaven that was always there, but I didn’t have the eyes to see them. Once I recognized those blessings and learned to connect the dots, I started to see I was never alone in the dark and that there is a greater work in progress. I have built a workshop around this very theme – to help people identify their own points of light. It doesn’t matter if you believe in God or gratitude, it’s a profound experience for both the individual and the group.

Those are just three gifts of many that I have discovered in my struggle. I miss Mitch. I would give anything I have to get him back. But that isn’t possible, and wishing won’t make it so. Instead, I search for light in the darkness, for patterns that offer perspective and peace, and I practice an examined life. Three gifts I didn’t expect to discover on my journey with grief.

Tonight, under the quiet of a winter sky, not too different from the night I tucked him in for the last time, I will thank my Father for the gifts my son left behind – the gifts of faith, perspective, compassion, and love.

Perhaps the most tender and ironic gift was my son; a beautiful soul who left my world profoundly empty, yet strangely full.

ENOUGH, AND MORE*

About two months ago I was sitting near the front of a large auditorium before the annual PPMD conference was about to begin.  I was scheduled to give a keynote toward the end of the conference, and my mind was occupied, a little frantic even, trying to figure out how to best convey a message of hope and gratitude.

Though my heart remains broken, I can yet bask in the warm glow of good memories.  And in that warmth, I am grateful for all that I had – for that is enough, and more.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

My heart is never so tender as when I’m about to speak to an audience about little Mitch.  I missed my boy and wished he was still with me; yet in sharing him, whether, from pen or pulpit, I get to re-live some of the sweet and all-too-brief moments, I had with him. As a broken-hearted father, keeping my memories close helps him not feel so far away.

So, there I sat … busy worrying - worrying about what I was going to say and how I was going to say it.  I felt strangely unprepared and unqualified.  In the corner of my eye, I noticed a young man walking toward me. His body and posture carried the same signature my son Mitchell had when he was with me.  This young man (16) was from India – but living in California for a few years so he could participate in a clinical trial.  His soft, kind smile reminded me of Mitch. 

He gently handed me a small yellow bag and said he and his mother wanted me to place a gift by Mitchell.  

The lump that was already in my throat because I was thinking about my son began to grow larger.    

Inside the bag was a little figurine of a small child sleeping next to a puppy – symbolic of Mitch and the comfort he received from his little Marlie.  Also, in the bag was a handwritten letter that began with the words, “Dear beautiful, tender, and sweet Mitchell …”  When I read those words, my eyes instantly filled with tears – so much so, I nearly wept.  The letter to Mitch was thoughtful and kind and referred to something Mitchell said when spoke of forgiving an adult who was unkind to him.  Mitch said, “When you see with your heart, you see everything that matters.”

Recently this young man, Abhinav, reached out to me on Facebook and we became friends.  I’m grateful to know another young man like my son – whose heart is kind and thoughtful.  Someone who reminds me what it means to be good.

The thoughtful note and gift so touched me, and I was anxious to honor the request of this sweet family.  So, when I returned home, I went to the cemetery and reverently placed this at the foot of Mitchell’s headstone. 

I have discovered a certain peace and symbolism in this gift – a reminder that my son sleeps in peace.  It also reminds me of the sweet and tender times I had with my little boy. Though my heart remains broken, I can yet bask in the warm glow of good memories.  And in that warmth, I am grateful for all that I had – for that is enough, and more.

 

A LIFETIME

I took this photo at a family function today and was overwhelmed with feelings of love and gratitude for my wife and kids - at the same time, I felt an empty longing for little Mitch. What I’ve learned on my grief journey is that I can be happy and sad at the same time, restless and still, empty but full.

More than anything, I am in a place of peace and acceptance for all that there is, all that ever was, and everything that is yet to be.

I have more stories of tender Mitch I want to share - but I’ve spent the last few months focused on my family. Healing from the loss of a child, it turns out, takes more than a little time ... it appears to take a lifetime.

#mitchellsjourney #makeeverydaycount

WHEN THE TIME COMES

WHEN THE TIME COMES

Recently, our family went on a short trip to spend time together and heal a little.  On the drive home, we saw a spectacular sunset, and I couldn’t help but think of little Mitch and his love of atmosphere and beautiful evening skies.  At that moment, I was overwhelmed with feelings of love and gratitude, peace and grief.  I wonder if I’ll ever get used to feeling so many things at once.

If you remember only one thing from this post, remember this: our loved ones understand everything we feel.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

As Natalie was driving, I took a photo of my two favorite things … sunsets and my sweet wife.  How I love this woman and the goodness that is in her.  Whenever I’m with her, I am a better me.  A heavenly gift I don’t take lightly.

In this same moment, memories of little Mitch wrapped around me like a blanket, woven with feelings of the softest thread.  For a few moments, it felt like I was being smothered in Mitchell’s love.  Tears filled my eyes as I allowed those feelings to wash over me – and that, too, was healing.  I couldn’t tell if Mitchell’s spirit was nearby or if I was simply reveling in the love I have for my son.  Either way, I was grateful for this moment of supernal peace.

After a few minutes, I began to realize night was soon coming, and I wondered if my night terrors would return.  I now recognize that I suffered from a form of PTSD and had no practical support to guide me through the process of healing.  I just learned to write it out, here on Mitchell’s Journey.  Only recently have I not been afraid of the night – those moments between sleep and consciousness; where the rawness of loss would cause me to wake in the middle of the night in a heartbreaking panic, then I’d weep until I could hardly breathe.  I am grateful that no such nightmares visited me that night, as they have so many times before.  I think, for the most part, that part of my grief journey is over.  Even still, those nightmares visit me from time to time – and it is as though I lost my son all over again.

What I’ve discovered on my grief journey is moments of peace will come when I least expect it.  Then, in like manner, the terror of loss will take me to my knees.  Between those opposites, I also experience everything in between. 

At least for me, I’ve discovered something that helps along the journey of grief … and life for that matter.  I’ve learned that when the time comes, I’m better off if I allow whatever feelings I experience to take their course.  When joy comes, I embrace it fully.  I don’t feel guilty for being glad … instead, I’m glad that I’m glad. In many ways, that makes me even more glad.  When I’m sad, I don’t brush it away or pretend those feelings don’t exist.  The suppression or denial of feelings only serves to canker and become strangely malignant.  I suppose the only feeling I don’t entertain is hatred or anger – which, if left unchecked, poison the soul. 

Some people who grieve worry that feeling joy, peace or gladness is a betrayal of their love and loss.  That somehow stepping into a place that isn’t so painful is to step away from the one we lost and suggest no longer care for them.  That is simply not true.  We can grieve and grow at the same time or at separate times – and that’s okay.   Then there are some well-meaning, yet deeply misinformed people on the other side of grief who say foolish things like, “Be happy!  Don’t be sad; your loved one wouldn’t want you to be sad.”  That is blubbering nonsense.  If you remember only one thing from this post, remember this: our loved ones understand everything we feel.  They’re not disappointed in us when we’re sad – they understand how much we love and miss them.  When we’re happy, they don’t feel betrayed – but glad for our own gladness.

This night, as I saw my beautiful wife and the evening sky that brought my heart close to Mitch, I felt a potpourri of feelings and I allowed them, unrestrained, into my heart and soul.  It was both painful and beautiful.  Mitch taught me that when the time comes, face it … whatever it is.  He did that in life and in the face of death.  When he realized he was at his life’s end, he faced hard things with dignity and courage.  Though I stumble drunkenly in his shadow, I try to follow his quiet example … when the time comes, face it and embrace it.   

ALL THAT REALLY MATTERS

I was asked by a mother from Colorado if she could make a t-shirt with Mitchell’s saying, “Be nice to each other and be glad you’re alive.  Nothing else matters.”  Their local school district dedicated today to promote kindness, respect, and peace – and this sweet family wanted to offer Mitchell’s message to the conversation. Their focus today is to have a day without hate.  A beautiful, hopeful, and timely message Mitchell’s Journey can get behind.

This sweet girl, Isabella, has known of little Mitchell’s story for more than half her life now and she’s grown attached to his messages of love, courage, and kindness.  I remember her mother sending me a video shortly after Mitchell passed away.   A much younger Isabella pointed to a beautiful array of colors in a dimly lit sky and said in the tenderest of voices, “It’s Mitchell.”  She knew Mitch loved sunrises and sunsets and wondered if he was there, somewhere in the beautiful horizon.

So, when Isabella’s mother sent me these photos last night, my eyes welled with tears of gratitude.  She even used purple and gold, Mitchell’s two favorite colors.  I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for good people like the Lozano family – who we’ve come to know and love. I also felt grateful for the many people on this earth who share goodness and love – for in the end, as little Mitch taught me, that’s all that really matters. 

Perhaps all of us, wherever we live, can do something today that promotes kindness, respect and peace – in memory of little Mitch and in hope for a better world.

#D3DayWithoutHate

 

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A much younger Isabella who grew up learning Mitchell's message of hope and love.

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Another Image of Isabella - promoting awareness of DMD, the disease that took our son's life.

Another Image of Isabella - promoting awareness of DMD, the disease that took our son's life.