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]

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.

 

THE BEAUTIFUL, UNSPEAKABLE LOVE OF MOTHERS

Tucked carefully just under Natalie’s pillow is a purple blanket, worn out and threadbare. It was one of Mitchell’s favorite blankets when he was as a toddler. Among the many places she might keep that treasured heirloom, it rests to this day quiet and unassuming, near her head when she sleeps.

When Mitch was a tiny little boy, he found special comfort in soft things. I’ll never forget when Natalie handed Mitch two small fleece blankets – one was purple and the other green. Mitch immediately smiled and pushed the blankets up to his cheeks. His chubby little fingers felt the soft fabric, and he was in love.

Once again, I was witness to the beautiful, unspeakable love of mothers.

For many years, Mitch clung to those two blankets as if were imaginary friends. I didn’t realize how much he treasured them until the day I found him quietly whispering to himself as he was stuffing both blankets in the produce drawer of our fridge, for safe keeping. When I giggled, Mitch turned his head and smiled and said, “Hi, Dad. One second … one second.” He finished securing his treasure in the fridge, then ran up to my leg and hugged me.” I asked him, “You love those blankets, don’t you?” He said softly, “I wuv them. Mommy gave them to me.” At that moment, I began to see the beautiful, unspeakable love of mothers anew. To our tiny child, those blankets weren’t just a warm fabric from which to cuddle on a cold winter’s night; they were a symbol and an extension of his mother’s love, and it comforted him so.

As the years passed, Mitchell grew up and out of those two blankets. Because they meant to him as a toddler, we kept them safe knowing one day; they would mean more to us than perhaps they ever meant to him. As Mitch grew older, he discovered other symbols of his mother’s love – and he clung to those in times of comfort and in times of trouble.

Years later, when we discovered Mitchell’s heart was about to stop beating, Natalie instinctively ran to the gift shop at the hospital to find something that might give her baby comfort, once again. After scanning the shelves, Natalie finally saw a soft teddy bear whose broken heart was patched and stitched, with a kind of homemade variety. Most importantly, you could tell that tender heart was being held up with love. Natalie’s eyes filled with tears and said, “Chris, this is it. This is what I want to give Mitchie.”

As we walked back to the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit, Natalie clung to the teddy bear as if to transfer a portion of her love to it so that it might, in turn, transfer that loving care to her sick and dying child. Once again, I was witness to the beautiful, unspeakable love of mothers.

When we returned to his room, Natalie said softly, “Here you go Mitchie – here’s something to cuddle with. I hope you like it.” Mitch smiled and said, “It’s really soft. I love it.” By this time, Mitch was beginning to feel sick and said, “Mom, will you tuck me in with this teddy bear?” Mitch fell fast asleep that night – and I can’t help but think it was in part because of his mother’s tender love.

I’ve watched this sweet mother quietly grieve the loss of our child for 1,866 days now. That’s not 1,866 days of wallowing in self-pity – but instead, learning to live a parent’s worst nightmare. The nightmare doesn’t change over time because the inescapable, irreversible facts of death don’t change.

I’m just a brokenhearted father who loves his family and who misses his son deeply … but however much I miss my son, I can tell the space between a mother and her children is a sacred place. Today, like little Mitch did so many years ago, she clings to the symbols of love she had with her son.

Natalie has learned to put her love and pain (which is grief) in an invisible treasure box – for you can’t have one without the other. I'm forever humbled to witness the beautiful, unspeakable love of mothers.

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 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.

On my grief journey, I had to learn 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.
— 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 gray hair sprouting in every direction from the top. At the time, I didn’t have any gray hair to speak of, and it was one of my favorite hats. Since I’ve lost Mitch, I have grown quite a bit of gray 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. Mitch just wanted to be – and that’s okay, too. Often, he'd make observations that were both insightful and witty. There wasn't a moment I didn't adore.

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 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.
 

AN UNEXPECTED TIDAL WAVE

I stopped by to visit little Mitch today after work. I was so grateful to have these beautiful arrangements from @robinojones adorn my little boys place of rest. They were so thoughtfully arranged in memory of Mitch and perfectly reflect the tenderness of his heart and the things he treasured.

Mitch loved Christmas with all of his heart, not just because he got presents (what child wouldn't be excited about that?) ... he loved Christmas more because of the spirit of giving and the meaning behind the holiday.

As I sat on the bench and thought about my son, I was reminded of the things that matter most in life. I cried a little and then, unexpectedly, I cried a lot. I felt a strange potpourri of grief and gratitude coursing through my veins.

I believe my heart has healed a great deal since I lost him, but I will always hurt because he's gone. I will always grieve. This is a burden of sorrow I'll carry until the day I die. Sometimes it hurts a little, other times it hurts a lot.

Today grief washed over me like a tidal wave ... yet I knew I wasn't drowning. I was just learning how to swim in a place of never-ending tides, unexpected undertows and a landscape of fluid emotions. I was okay, but not okay ... and that was okay. That's part of being human.

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.