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.

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.