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.

SOMETIMES WE LEAVE THE BEST PARTS OF US BEHIND

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I’ve experienced a lot of hard things in life – but nothing so hard as being a parent.  

On this night I took my kids to a restaurant; Natalie was at another function, so I was blessed with some one-on-one time with my kids.  At one point I said something that hurt my son’s feelings.  I don’t remember exactly what happened – I only remember he was sad.  When I realized I hurt his feelings my heart broke and I immediately fell to my knees, put my forehead against his and said, “Oh, Mitchie, I’m so sorry.  I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.  Sometimes Daddy’s make mistakes – and they don’t mean to.  I love you, son.  How I love you…”

We spend our lives trying to grow up and out of things - and while growth is necessary, if we’re not mindful, sometimes we leave the best parts of us behind. 
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Perhaps nothing quite shows the nobility of children as their readiness to forgive and forget.  The irony of adulthood is that some hold grudges and try to inflict hurt on others.  But children … they are endlessly good.  No wonder it is said of them, “of such is the kingdom of heaven.”  Sadly, it is adults who bring hell on earth.  If only we could love and forgive as children do.  If only we could see the best in each other and forgive with loving hearts - oh, how the world might change.

So there I knelt at my son’s feet as; a painful fatherly confession was made, and a tender plea for his love and forgiveness was shared.  Mitch put his arms around my neck, and I hugged him tightly.  “I love you, little boy.  With all of my heart.”  Mitch whispered, “I love you too, Dad.”

Mitch was smiling again – and all was right with the world.  Later that night, Mitch and my other kids would snuggle in my arms on the couch as I read stories before bedtime – a tradition Natalie has upheld since our kids were infants.  Heaven seldom felt as close as it did that night.

I know I’m not the first parent to upset their child … and I certainly won’t be the last.  What I do know, is every time I stumbled I immediately tried to make it right.

I suppose the point of this post isn’t that I made mistakes and tried to recover; instead, I can’t help but think of the utter goodness of children and how much I have yet to learn from them.  I saw in my son this night a most pure and loving heart – something I will carry with me and forever try to be.

We spend our lives trying to grow up and out of things - and while growth is necessary, if we’re not mindful, sometimes we leave the best parts of us behind. 

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Originally posted in 2015

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.   

WHEN THE STUDENT IS READY

Little Mitch exited church in an outfit in which he could barely fit.  As his father, I adored watching my tiny boy try to keep his shirt tucked in and his tie straight.  Though Mitch was small in stature, he was always big in spirit.

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
— Unknown

I had just sat in my car, turned on the air conditioning, and began taking this series of photos through my partially open window.  Mitch had no idea I was watching him.  As my son waddled behind his grandfather, an enlightened and thoughtful man, he turned to my little boy and said, “Now Mitch, we’re going to my place to have lunch.  You can come with me, or you can go with your mom and dad.  Either choice is fine – it is up to you to decide.”

Mitch furrowed his brow and began to think carefully about the choice before him.  I always admired my grandfather’s unique way of teaching my children; often, he’d present options and encourage them to make informed decisions.  Natalie takes after her father’s style of teaching by introducing a choice, then encouraging them to consider their inevitable consequences: positive, harmful, or benign. 

My heart melted as I saw my boy sort through his options and decide to go with Grandpa.  I was so proud of him that day.  As we followed them in our car, I saw Mitch look through the rear window to make sure we were following them.  He smiled and waved his tiny hand, then turned around to talk to his grandpa.  My heart was singing a song of joy the likes of which no human words can express.

I was grateful for my father-in-law who turned an otherwise mundane experience into a teaching moment.  As far as I can tell, that is how he’s always been.

There’s a saying “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  In today’s world of mistaken attributions and loose plagiarism, the origin of that quote is unclear to me – but the truth of it is sound.  I have spent the last 20 years of my life in training, education, and leadership development – and if there is one thing I’ve seen time and again, it is this: if a student isn’t ready to learn – no learning will take place, no matter how great the teacher.  The moment we’re ready, however, everything can become our teacher.

When I lost my son, I found myself at an emotional and spiritual crossroad: I had the freedom to choose a path of inconsolable anguish … forever circling my hurt; or a path of growth, searching for meaning and purpose.  To be clear, both paths were treacherous – laden with the pains of loss and the weight of grief.  The struggle with grief is an inescapable part of being human, yet one path spirals downward, the other circles, up, and out.

For every grief moment, I’ve experienced, which are too many to number, I have sought meaning and purpose.  I asked myself, “What am I to learn from this hardship?  What is my Father trying to teach me?” 

I believe life is filled with hard things, by design.  They aren’t doled out by an uncaring God – but rather a master teacher, who knows that struggle begets growth.  If we’re to become stronger, better, and more compassionate, we must walk through valleys of tears and in the shadow of death – among other hard things. 

In many ways, this image serves as a metaphor for my own life – and if I’m listening to that still, small voice, I can almost hear my Father tutor me in matters of the soul.  In truth, I feel like my little son – in an outfit I’m too small to occupy … ever trying to keep my shirt tucked and my tie straight.

In my heart, I always hope to be a ready student – for there are teachers who are plenty, and I have lessons yet to learn, which are many.

NOT A DAY GOES BY

There isn’t a day that goes by I don’t think of Mitch a thousand times.  On my commute to-and-from work I drive with him in my mind.  Sometimes I imagine him sitting next to me in my car, like he used to, when he would have a father/son day at work.  I want to reach out my hand toward that empty chair and hold his – but he is not there.  Nor will he ever be.  For he has gone from this place and my heart is changed because of it. 

To be stuck WITH grief is to carry our sorrows as we move forward in life. It is to have our backs made stronger as we climb to new heights, while we shoulder the weight of sorrow. To be stuck IN grief is to be tethered, as though we were chained to a boulder … circling our pain again, and again, and again.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

I used to cry all day.  In the beginning, while I was at work and when meetings were over, I would often go outside and salt the earth with my tears.  Sometimes I could hardly breathe.  Save this blog, I kept my sorrow to myself – hiding my broken heart behind a soft smile and a warm handshake. 

At night, I would look at my pillow with a measure of fear … for that space between sleep and wake terrified me.  It was during that transition to-and-from sleep I would experience the loss of Mitch all over again. Sometimes that unfiltered grief was so raw, it would startle me to the point I couldn’t go back to sleep.  For that reason, I was afraid of the night. 

I think it’s safe to say I have been to hell and back.  What matters, I suppose, is that I’m back.  I am grateful to say I am no longer in hell, though grief will sometimes sweep me back to hell from time-to-time.

Not a day goes by Natalie and I don’t talk about our little boy.  We remember his goodness and the lessons he taught us.  We think back on his sense of humor and his tender soul; and when we talk about Mitch, we often do it with warm hearts and a feeling of gratitude. 

Each day is met with memories and a tender longing for our son.  That is what children do to parents … they become the better parts of us and if they are taken away, we spend the remainder of our days in search of that which was lost. 

I often hear people reference others as being “stuck in grief.”  It is a label sometimes carelessly handed out by those who often know very little of grief themselves.  Yet, I have thought a great deal about what that means – at least to me.  When I think of the word stuck, I think of something that is immovable.   When it comes to the loss of a child, grief is a chronic, life-long condition.  Grief isn’t something you experience, like the flu, and move on.  Grief alters every part of you.  You become a spiritual amputee and you must learn to live without a once vital part of your heart and soul.

So, in a manner of speaking, I suppose I am stuck WITH grief – but that doesn’t mean I am stuck IN grief.  I cannot restore the loss of my son any more than an amputee can regenerate a missing limb.  But I can learn and adapt to my new reality and grow – and therein lies the difference, I believe.  To be stuck WITH grief is to carry our sorrows as we move forward in life. It is to have our backs made stronger as we climb to new heights, while we shoulder the weight of sorrow.  To be stuck IN grief is to be tethered, as though we were chained to a boulder … circling our pain again, and again, and again. 

I am not circling, I am climbing - and when I write of grief, I speak of that which I’m carrying … not that which I’m circling.

Mitch was the better part of me.  A million times over, he was everything I could ever hope to be.  Not a day goes by I don’t fall to my knees and thank Heaven for giving Mitch to me.  Because of him, I see things differently.  I am a different me.