TO HURT & TO HEAL

When Mitch was tiny, he injured his hand and began to cry.  He was more frightened than hurt, but he was hurt just the same.  After a moment of sorrow, Mitch realized his hand was going to be okay his mother picked him up and held him as only a mother knows to hold her child. To a young one, there is a certain comfort that comes from blankets and Sippy Cups, but then there’s the comfort that comes from a mother; and no blanket on earth can replace the warm embrace of a loving mother.

Though not an envious man, I am sometimes sorely tempted, when I see the tender bond between mother and child. Though my heart loves deeply, I recognize there is a sacred place for a mother’s love. I wish I had a piece of that because it is beautiful beyond measure. Instead, I’ll take what I can get while sitting on the sidelines and consider myself blessed. 

So there I stood, in my dorky way, trying to comfort my son. I didn't stand a chance against the blanket and Sippy Cup, let alone his mommy’s embrace. I made funny faces and danced like a fool for him, and he started to chuckle. His smile, this very smile you see here, and eyes shrunk-wrapped in tears melted my heart. Though I offered a little sideshow entertainment for my boy, the real performance was already underway by his mother.

Our journey of grief, like everyone who hurts, is painfully unique. It’s a delicate balance of looking forward to sights unseen while permitting myself to hurt because I’m still a human being. That’s the thing nobody told me … healing hurts. 
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

I think, on some level, I’m beginning to understand Kate Bush’s lyrics “I stand outside this woman’s work … this woman’s world. Ooh, its hard on the man, now his part is over, now starts the craft of the Father.” There is a sacredness to motherhood, something far beyond my reach. Though I do my best to be a good dad and husband, I am beginning to realize I am a small player on a much grander stage. Though I do my best to do my part, however important, it is minor in comparison.

Neal Maxwell wrote, “When the real history of mankind is fully disclosed, will it feature the echoes of gunfire or the shaping sound of lullabies? The great armistices made by military men or the peacemaking of women in homes and in neighborhoods? Will what happened in cradles and kitchens prove to be more controlling than what happened in congresses? When the surf of the centuries has made the great pyramids so much sand, the everlasting family will still be standing…” 

When we started our family, we had no idea what we were doing. We still don’t on some level because each phase of child-rearing, at least for us, is an undiscovered country. Yet we’re learning things each day that we try to apply in the things we do and say. I wish I could wield the parenting power my wife seems to shoulder so gracefully. Such is the power of motherhood, I suppose. I’m just an ordinary dad with more weaknesses than most. So I’ll try to pave the way, moving obstacles where I can and make life a little easier for her each day. 

Our journey of grief, like everyone who hurts, is painfully unique. It’s a delicate balance of looking forward to sights unseen while permitting myself to hurt because I’m still a human being. That’s the thing nobody told me … healing hurts. 

Though I’m still hurting, I’m also healing … and that is a wonderful, wonderful feeling.

 

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Originally Posted in 2014

LETTERS TO MY SON: THE NIGHT YOU LEFT US*

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 to never 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 laugher – and for that we are 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 6 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 fiend, Luke, to your school teachers and your Bishop … it was as though everything were 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, I had to hold your head with 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 a 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 5 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

WHEN THERE’S NO ROOM FOR GRIEF

A few days 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 had become my therapy – yet, according to her, there seemed to be no room for my therapy. 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 kind of 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.”

They leave no room for grief. And when there is no room for grief, there is no room for healing.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

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.

This Friday will mark the 5th anniversary of my son’s passing. 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's 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 5 years, I still need room for grief.
 

A NOT-SO-ORDINARY TREASURE

NEW MJT_A Not-So-Ordinary Treasure.jpg

Today Natalie was helping me clean and organize my office at work. I love her for always helping me.

She stumbled into a little drawer that I hadn’t opened in a few years. Among the many little treasures found therein was an unopened pack of grape bubblegum that expired in 2013. I immediately remembered the circumstances surrounding that little pack of gum. It was October 29, 2012 ... the day Mitchell came to work with me before we went to the hospital to check on his heart. We went to the grocery store, and he said, “Dad, can I get that gum? I just love grape bubblegum.“ I knew time was short with him, so I was eager to help him enjoy things I often take for granted.

As we returned to the office, Mitch sat at my desk and began playing Minecraft on my laptop. He handed me the unopened pack of gum and said, “Dad, will you put this in a safe place? I’ll eat this next time I come to work with you.” I had all but forgotten about this experience until Natalie shared the expiration date with me and pointed to the little cubby drawer where she found it.

I suppose feeling more gratitude than grief is evidence that I’m healing and growing a little.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

My heart was awash with feelings of love and appreciation for Mitch. I didn’t feel grief ... instead, I felt gratitude for having that little boy in my life. I then thought to place this in a little treasure box I have dedicated for special memories of my son. It’s not a shrine; it’s a journal. Not all journal entries are made with pen and paper.

Little Mitch never made it back to work with me. His little treat/treasure was all but forgotten in the dark shadows of a lonely drawer.

Certainly, he was not forgotten, but this little treat he set his heart to enjoy had slipped away into the shadows and out of mind. Until today.

I did not feel any measure of grief over this little treasure and memory of Mitch. Instead, I felt gratitude and feelings of profound love for a little boy that who enriched my heart and soul. I suppose feeling more gratitude than grief is evidence that I’m healing and growing a little. Yet, in this very moment, I must admit that my heart suddenly feels pangs of sorrow. That’s okay because I know healing hurts.

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.
 

A MORTAL’S GUIDE TO SUFFERING

It was the summer of my son’s passing that I found myself alone for a few weeks. Circumstances were such that my kids were at various camps and Natalie was away from home helping them. On this night I lay on the grass next to my son’s headstone as the summer sun set. I loved to hear the sound of crickets and lay on the soft carpet of grass that covered my dear son. Though the world was harsh and hard, there was a certain softness to this place.

Looking back, this period of my grief journey was especially surreal. The gravity of grief was so great that I could hardly breathe most of the time. Beneath the veneer of my soft smile and dry eyes was a soul that was in a state of constant weeping and grief. It felt that earth and my life before was somewhere far away. 

If I wasn’t at work or with my wife and kids, I wanted to be at the cemetery, next to my son. I don’t entirely understand why I had such a strong desire to be near him – I think on some level the father in me subconsciously wanted to comfort my son who, deep inside, I worried was frightened. Looking back, I am beginning to wonder if I was the one who was frightened and in need of comfort.

So on this summer evening, as the sun fell behind the hills, I jotted the phrase “A Mortal’s Guide to Suffering.” I didn’t know exactly what to do with it … I only knew I needed to remember those words. It has been two years now and I haven’t been able to put that phrase down. It keeps surfacing in my mind and heart – as though it’s a whisper from that other place to explore its meaning in my life.

Since then I’ve begun working on a series with that title, A Mortal’s Guide to Suffering. It is not a pulpit or a collection of “life lessons” … for who am I to teach anyone? I am the least of everyone. I’m just a fumbling student who is trying to listen to my Father, a master teacher, who tenderly and patiently teaches me hard things. So in a way, it is a journal of observations and wonderings.

I have received many messages from people all across the world sharing stories of hope and hardship, love and loss. I have wept as I’ve read your own journeys. I have discovered there is a great deal of silent sorrow in this world, but there is also a great deal of hope and healing. At first I was confused why people found solace in reading another’s sorrow, my sorrow. I think I understand it now, at least to some degree. 

Perhaps the first healing step in a mortal’s journey with suffering is to discover we are not alone in sorrow and that other people understand a darkness we thought was unique to ourselves. It would seem the second step in our mortal journey with suffering is to not only find that others care that we hurt, but to discover the healing power when we learn to care for others, despite our hurt. I don’t believe it’s possible to overstate the healing power of empathy. I have discovered that empathy not only repairs part of the sufferer, it also repairs an invisible part of the person who does not appear broken at all. 

And therein lies one of mortality's great deceptions, to think any one of us are unbroken. To be mortal is to be broken; and while everyone is broken in one way or another, most of us are broken in many places, great and small. Some hide their brokenness in anger and bitterness – they lash out and try to harm others, mistaking that rush and thrill for wholeness. Others retreat in quiet sorrow. Some try to mask or numb their brokenness in things that ultimately hurt themselves and others. Still, there are some who hide their brokenness in egotism and by appearing to be exactly the opposite of flawed. There are many things I hope to become in this life – chief among them is I hope to always be real.

So, in the coming months I will share some of my own personal discoveries of being mortal and suffering – and what I make of it. They’re not life lessons nor are they meant to be a digital pulpit … instead they are a lowly journal ... a guide and road map for me, covered in dirt and dust from stumbling. I do this so that if ever I get lost, I can look back and see the journey and make sense of it all. I don’t know many things – but one thing I know is I am a mere mortal with broken bones; and every day, however much I stumble, I am finding my way home.