WHEN THERE’S NO ROOM FOR GRIEF

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About a year 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 was my therapy – yet, according to her, there seemed to be 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 certain 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.”

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.

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 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 6 years, I still need room for grief.

THE NIGHT YOU LEFT US

THE NIGHT YOU LEFT US
Today and tomorrow is a sacred time for my family. Just a few short years ago my son passed away on this very evening. We have healed a great deal since then, but there is still a sacred tenderness from a wound that still bleeds. A wound that still needs to be cared for.

This is a letter I wrote my son last year. A message of love from a heartbroken father to his son whose somewhere on the far side of the sea.

Dear Mitch,

The days leading up to your passing were surreal. It was cold outside. Snow everywhere. As the world spun madly on – everything as we knew it was coming to an end. It’s strange, you know, to live among a crowd of people yet feel like you’re worlds apart. That’s how it felt when you were slipping away. Everything on the outside seemed like a dream, oblivious to the hell on earth we were living. There we were, invisible to the world, living in the quiet of our home – and in the depths of our greatest nightmare.

With every dose of medication, you drifted further and further away. You knew what the medicine was doing to you – and you sometimes resisted it because you didn’t want to sleep. You wanted to be awake as long as you could – to live as much life as possible, as long as possible. I could almost hear it, you know … the crunch of the snow as death circled our home, every once in a while I could almost hear it gnawing and gashing at our door – violently trying to break through. I knew it was only a matter of time before death would take you away.

Just a few months prior, I wrote a letter to our family about your heart and how your life was nearing its end. I was careful never to let you see this letter because I didn’t want to frighten your tender heart. In the letter I wrote:

"Today Natalie and I sit with Mitch on the edge of an invisible cliff. He can't see it, but my wife and I can - and the mouth of the abyss is yawned and inching to devour our son. Yet, Mitchell looks out into the vast horizon unaware and envisions a long, bright future ahead of him. In his little mind, he is already making big plans. He wants to build a home next to ours with a tunnel connecting our basements so he and his dad can watch movies and make popcorn. He wants to work for his dad when he's older. He talks about his own kids one day and how he’ll raise them like we raised him. As he points to his vision of the future with youthful enthusiasm and a zest for life, he doesn't realize that he sits on the outermost edge and the ground from under him has crumbled away into the darkness – and his little body is hanging on by a pebble. What Mitchell doesn't understand is the beautiful horizon he sees is only a mirage, and in reality, the sun is setting on his own life."

It was surreal to be with you on the edge of life and death.

It was different than I imagined. More beautiful and at the same time more horrifying than I had a mind to know. But your time at home was filled with love and laughter – and for that I am grateful.

Your quiet, tender ways about you made your mortality and eventual death all the more painful to witness. How often I prayed for heaven to take me, instead of you.

Son, do you remember getting this gift? Well, there is a profound story behind it … a tender mercy put in motion almost six months earlier. I’ll tell you about that another time. But what I want you to know is – heaven was at work preparing the way for you. You were never alone. Not ever.

The people in your path were meant to be there. From your best friend, Luke, to your school teachers and your Bishop … it was as though everything was perfectly timed … just for you.

Your final weeks at home were a mixture of heaven and hell – all rolled into one. A beautiful agony I cannot to this day find words to describe.

There was a distinct moment I could no longer hear the crunching of the snow … the circling of death pacing around our home. I no longer heard the pounding and gashing of death clawing at our door. Death was in our home – and I couldn’t stop it.

Mitch, my precious child, I’ll never forget the time you wanted to be with me and play Legos. You were too weak to sit up on your own. You just wanted to be close … to lay on the edge of my lap and play like a little boy. Your muscles were so weak, and you were so tired that I had to hold your head in my hand to keep it stable. It was then I knew time had run out and whatever we had left was worth more than all the money on earth.

Time seemed to glitch. One moment it would stretch out … other moments went by in less than a blink.

Then, came the night you left us. The night we said goodbye. The night you slipped into the abyss, and all became dark. Never had I known such darkness, borne of grief and heartache.

As your mother and I were swallowed up in sorrow, we wondered how we could live without you. There, in a spiritual pitch of night, something happened I did not expect. As I prayed for understanding and pondered deeply on the meaning of life – almost as if against the backdrop of a darkened sky, I saw a little fleck of light. A tender mercy that until that moment I did not have the eyes to see. Then, the more I looked, the more I began to see – heavenly blessings that were meant for you … and some that were meant for your mom and me.

My eyes began to open. Over the next few years, what I began to see was beautiful. Like a heavenly constellation, these tender mercies, as if little points of light, showed that we are not alone – even in the pitch of night.

I’ll write you again, son. I have so much to share. I wish you were here – or me over there.

I’ve been traveling the broken road for five years now. Sometimes I travel through the wilderness of grief, other times the desert – where the scorched land burns my feet. And when I am lost, I have learned to look up and remember these points of light. For if heaven has played such a role in our past, you see, I can have faith in what is yet to be.

Sometimes I wonder where you are, exactly, on the far side of the sea. Maybe you will come to visit me – in the quiet of my dreams. And if you do, I want to know what you see.

Love,

Dad

ON SILENCE & SUFFERING

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It had only been a few hours since I knelt at this very bed and whispered into my son’s ear how proud I was to be his daddy and that he didn’t need to hold on any longer.  I knew he was tired yet didn’t want to leave for fear of hurting us.  I also believe part of him didn’t want to leave because he loved to be alive – I mean, he truly appreciated life.  I told my little boy how much I would miss him but that he would be okay and he didn’t need to be afraid. 

I often hear parents agonize over saying goodbye to their children at the airport as they go to college, serve missions, or move to some other place.  Though I understand the sorrow of saying goodbye, temporarily, to a loved one … I’ve come to know a deeper, inescapable, nearly suffocating sorrow when you must say goodbye to a child for life. 

This sacred room had become a spiritual train station and my little son had departed on a one-way trip.  Though I said goodbye, I remained unsettled that I didn’t say everything my heart wanted to say.

The morning sun had broken and I was still in a state of shock.  I went back to Mitchell’s room, incredulous, wanting to see if it was all a bad dream hoping to discover my little boy was still with us.  My heart broke as I saw my dear wife sitting where Mitch once giggled just a few days prior. 

Natalie was surrounded by everything that gave Mitch comfort in hopes of feeling close to him.  I knew how much she loved her son and how devastated she was to lose him.  Little Marlie, sensing Natalie’s suffering, jumped on her lap in the same way she tried to comfort Mitch when he was dying.  Natalie closed her eyes and wept.  She had a profound spiritual experience earlier that morning, under to cover of a winter’s night sky – but that didn’t take away the pain of losing him.

Our journey with grief was just beginning and things would get worse … much worse … before they would start to get better.  This photo was taken a little over 4 years ago.  We have healed a great deal since, but we still mourn the profound loss of Mitch.  Not a day passes we don’t think of him a thousand times.  However, behind our smiles and cheerful dispositions are hearts that are still tender … still mending.

It wasn’t long after the passing of Mitch from heart failure, a neighbor and friend down the street received a heart transplant.  I remember visiting him at the hospital while he was in recovery, with some of our neighbors.  At one point, I had to step into the hall to weep a little.  I was sincerely grateful this good man had a second chance at life – in fact, I wept for his family and prayed fervently he’d survive his own struggle with heart failure.  So, watching him smile softly in his recovery room brought me great joy.  Without warning, the pain of my son’s loss to heart failure overcame me and I struggled to catch my breath.  In that moment, I felt like a young child who missed the bus as I saw it drive into the distance … that overwhelming sense of doom and panic that maybe I didn’t do enough to fight the system that denied my son a transplant.  Agony coursed through my veins like a drug and I was in emotional hell.  As my friends and I left the hospital, they were oblivious to my silent suffering – and it was then that I realized after all is said and done, the journey of grief is traveled by one.

At what point does grieving the loss of a child become decidedly sad, improper, or morose?  On the surface, such a question seems unconscionable.  Except, the hard truth is there is often an underlying expectation that those who grieve move on at some point.  There comes a point where observers no longer feel sad with that person, and they begin to feel sad for that person. 

So, what does moving on mean?  I know what moving on looks like for observers … at first, they feel deeply for a season but then their mind and attention shifts to other matters in their own life.  That is as it should be.  Everyone has their own set of struggles and in time, those issues take center stage in their lives – especially as time passes.  Moving on for the sufferer is not so easy – particularly when it comes to the loss of a child.  When someone becomes a parent, they are changed forever in ways that are difficult to describe.  That little soul we ushered to life becomes a deep part of our identity and whatever happens to them, happens to us.  When we lose them, we lose a part of us we can’t get back.

Observing how others respond has been interesting:

  • As time passes, some of those closest to us avoid conversations about our fallen child for fear it would make us sad.  (Don’t worry, we’re already sad.) 

  • Some are uncomfortable because they don’t know what to say or how to say it. (I’ve found the most helpful thing to say is, “I want you to know I care.”)

  • Others worry they’ll say something wrong and offend.  (Perhaps the most powerful thing you’ll ever say is, “I’m listening.”)

  • Still, others avoid talking about pain because of their own struggles with pain. 

  •   On the other side of the spectrum are those who think they have all the answers … they say things like, “Don’t be sad.  Your child wouldn’t want you to be sad.” 

  • Some, foolishly, will square their shoulders, look you in the eye and tell you they think it’s time to move on – as if their bold, armchair counsel can do in a moment what psychologists can’t do for their patients in months or years.  

 

Whether people pull back or lean in, it seems to me all those things serve to further alienate the sufferer.  They silence their pain and take it to a deeper place, far from view or criticism from others – often not knowing what to do or where to go.  Sometimes that hidden pain becomes emotionally cancerous, other times it leads to deep depression, anxiety, or unspecified anger.  This is can be a dangerous state of being.

I have discovered that for many who have lost a child, talking about them is a form of therapy.  In part, it helps because we don’t get to make new memories with them – we only have yesterdays.  Because memories are subject to fade, I’ve also observed some parents want to talk about their loved one(s) – not so much that you won’t forget … but so they won’t.  We cling to details because that’s all we’ve got and they are treasures beyond price. 

Suffering is hard enough.  Suffering in silence, harder still. 

If you have a friend that suffers, lend an ear, a caring heart, and a soft shoulder to lean on.  Even if their loss was years ago – no matter how well they hide their hurt, it is there.  Letting them know they’re safe with you and that you care can help those who hurt work through their struggle.  With your love and heaven’s help, perhaps they can put a few pieces back together.

 

[This photo was taken on March 2, 2013.  7:50 AM]

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.

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.

A LITTLE BIT BROKEN

I’m often asked how my children are doing with their grief journey. The answer is one part private, three parts complicated, and 100% unique. Each of my children has struggled with grief in very individual ways.

The older I get, the more I’m drawn to conversations that heal – because everyone is a little bit broken, and everyone could use a little healing.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

As a father, I found that my heart not only broke over losing my son, it broke over seeing my children in pain. It broke seeing my wife hurt in ways only a mother can know. In so many ways, trying to keep a family together after the loss of a child is like trying to prevent others from drowning when you, yourself are drowning. After having experienced the emotional toll of death, I now understand how families can disintegrate.

Last weekend my daughter wanted our family to take some photos in some nearby woods. I wanted to support her impulse to take pictures – and this is one I snapped at the end. Laura-Ashley is the consummate young adult: she is spontaneous, borderline responsible ;), continually discovering how the world works, and full of life. I remember being her age – in so many ways, it feels like yesterday – but then again, so far away. When I was her age, it had never entered my heart how beautiful, yet cruel life can be. But life is more beautiful than it is cruel.

Our home life is filled with ordinary moments. We do chores. We get frustrated with each other. We laugh at each other’s jokes. We talk about life and try to support each other’s dreams. Laura-Ashley has one more semester in college before she goes into nursing school, Ethan has dreams of becoming a filmmaker/storyteller, and he is continually developing his craft, and Wyatt is almost 13 and is into kickboxing, wrestling, piano, and Fortite. And Mitch … he’s still ten years old, to me. For the remainder of my days, he’ll always be tender 10.

I think about Mitch every single day – but I don’t always talk about him to my family. That is one of the great difficulties parents who’ve lost children face – we want to talk about our memories or our hurt, not realizing the people around us need a sense of new normalcy. So, each day, I take deliberate steps to be self-aware and aware of others … and try to focus on my kids, so they know they matter to me just as much as sweet Mitch did. Learning to put grief on the shelf and focus on the now is part of the grueling grief journey. And when grief calls, it knows where to find me.

Even still, my sweet daughter and other kids voluntarily talk about Mitch. Almost daily. The difference is, they bring him up in ways that are meaningful to them. Always, my kids talk about little Mitch with great love and adoration. I think we’ve found a beautiful balance of honoring what was and embracing what is.

My daughter loved Mitch a great deal – and he adored her. It warms my heart when she talks about him in the way she talks about him because those conversations are healing.

The older I get, the more I’m drawn to conversations that heal – because everyone is a little bit broken, and everyone could use a little healing.

THE TRUTH ABOUT TRAUMA

When the funeral home employees rolled my son out our front door, I nearly collapsed with grief.  This was the same door my son stood gleefully by on Halloween to hand candy to children.  He was a giver of the sweetest sort – and he found more joy in giving candy to kids than getting candy for himself.  This was the door Mitchell’s best friend would knock and ask to play.  This was the door our hospice nurse told us Mitch was about to die … and in that same moment, heaven sent an angel to bear up our broken hearts.

Everyone can master a grief, but he that has it.
— William Shakespeare

When I first became a father, I wasn’t prepared to be a parent.  Who is, really?  I quickly discovered that when you have a child, your life changes.  Forever.  It doesn’t simply change because you’re responsible for the well-being of a baby, it changes because your soul multiplies.  Once someone has a child, they stop belonging to themselves.  It’s as if part of our soul is cloned and whatever happens to our child may as well happen to us.  We’re pained when they hurt, overjoyed when they’re happy, and when they die … our very souls shatter.  Though we may put our pieces back together, eventually, we’re never the same.

 I was terrified of this moment.  I knew this time was near, so I tried to put it out of my mind and live in fragile moments that remained.  We didn’t know if we had 5 minutes, 5 hours, or 5 days with our son, we just knew that he was on the thinnest of ice and it was about to break.

 Suddenly, in a blink, I found myself watching two strangers roll my sweet son into the bitter winter’s air.  I was mortified.  Incredulous.  I was just talking to Mitch the day before, and he was very much alive … so sweet, tender, and innocent.  As they loaded my boy into the back of the vehicle and drove away, panic shot through my body, tears rolled down my cheeks and began to freeze.  I physically gasped for air as though I was watching my child in the act of being kidnapped. 

As they drove away, every part of me wanted to run down the street and stop them.  I wanted to say, “Please, let me get in the back with my boy.  He must be so scared, cold, and lonely.  I need to comfort him during this difficult time.”

I cannot conjure the words to describe the trauma I experienced at this moment – and the subsequent traumas of grief I felt, a million times thereafter.  I wept so hard that morning I threw up. Then, I wept even harder, and I thought I broke a rib.  Although the sun was rising, the long night of grief was only just beginning.  Over the next few years, I began to learn some painful truths about grief.  I learned some truths about trauma.

 You learn to live with fear.

Grief and fear feel identical in many respects.  C.S. Lewis said it best, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”  Looking back on the early years of my grief journey, I was living in a deep, emotionally traumatic state that felt like fear.  And when the night came, I felt feelings of terror.  Every. Single. Day.

Deep grief is prolonged trauma.

If ever you get impatient, wondering when your friend or family member who grieves will get over their sorrow, if you’re ever tempted to think its time for them to move on, remember that grief is trauma in slow motion.  Everyone on this planet would do well to remember Shakespeare’s observation, “Everyone can master a grief, but he that has it.”

Others will move on, but you will not.

Another brutal truth about trauma is that for spectators of sorrow, empathy has a comparatively short shelf-life.  Others will move on, as they should.  But you will not.  At least not for a very long time. 

 Perhaps the best counsel to those who suffer is this: don’t expect others to understand your sorrow or to linger as long as your sorrow will.  They cannot – for after all is said and done, the journey of grief is traveled by one. 

 To the spectators of sorrow, don’t expect the one who suffers to move on at your leisure or burden-free pace.  Remember that it is they who carry the weight of sorrow – a weight you cannot imagine, not even in your nightmares.  If you’re to serve them, you can lift their weary hearts with words of compassion.  I’ve found that saying, “I’m sorry that you hurt.  I care” is enough, and more.

 It Gets Worse, Sometimes Much Worse, Before It Gets Better

I’ve said this often: death is the easy part, it’s the aftermath that’s hardest.  So, when you see someone who's lost someone – know that they’ll need your love, compassion, and empathy gently at the funeral and the months to come – but more profoundly in the lonely years that follow. 

 I’ll repeat the last part: they’ll need your love more profoundly in the lonely years that follow.

 Time & Healing

When it comes to the trauma of grief, time doesn’t heal.  Instead, time creates space for us to heal if we tend to our wounds with care.  I think of trauma like the adrenaline one might feel just after a ride on a terrifying rollercoaster.  It takes time for fear to leave your body.  The first 15 minutes we feel the trauma course through our veins – but over time, we go back to our regular state of serenity.  The mistake we sometimes make is thinking the death of a loved is the rollercoaster.  It is not.  It is only the beginning.  The rollercoaster of trauma comes from feelings of self-doubt, regret, endless what-ifs, and longing to see our loved one again.  That trauma is a ride that takes many, many years to fade away.  

 Trauma Shatters You

Trauma doesn’t just break a part of you; it shatters many parts of you.  Sometimes all of you.  Yet, somehow, some way, we gather our broken pieces and slowly reassemble ourselves. Depending on the nature of loss, it can take many, many years.  We are never the same person on the other side of trauma – instead, we become a mosaic of our former self.  Sometimes jagged and fragile as our pieces begin to set into their new arrangement.  But always, we emerge a new kind of beautiful.   

The truth about trauma is that until we experience it first-hand, it isn’t just harder than we imagine, it's harder than we are capable of imagining.  Yet, another hopeful truth about trauma is that it lessens over time – how fast and how much is determined by a multitude of factors, most of which are under our control.  

 At first, I wondered if the sun would ever rise and that I might live out my days in the dark shadow of grief.  There was a time I used to look at this photo and weep.  Today, I look at this moment and say reverently, “I remember you, son.  And I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to honor yours.”