A LITTLE ON THE INSIDE

Parenthood has been the most difficult yet rewarding experience of my life. I wish I could say I did it perfectly, but I didn’t … and I don’t. Nobody really does. Anymore, I don’t try to be the perfect parent … I just try to be loving and kind … to be the father and mentor I wish I had growing up. It is difficult at times, because I don’t know what to emulate – so I just try to be what I never had. I try to be what I wish I had and that’s the best know to do.

At the end of my days, when I kneel before my Father and account for my life, I hope He looks upon my efforts in the same way I try to look upon my children … with a heart of compassion, pleased with effort and personal growth over the illusory achievement of perfection.

When Mitch came home with a drawing or school assignment, I was always so proud of how hard he tried. I would hug him and kiss his face and tell him, “Great job, son. I’m so proud of you. Keep trying and you’ll better and better.” Always, there were imperfections in his drawings … but for him, he did it perfectly. Perfection is a relative term; for he was a young child and did the work of a young child. I didn’t care about flawless execution … at his age, I wanted him to be recognized for doing a little better than the time before. I wanted him to believe in himself and be proud of his accomplishments. As far as I can tell, belief-in-self is the bedrock of education and the scaffolding of character. At the same time, I am a strong believer in providing corrective feedback so that we might know where to stretch ourselves the next time. But, always, offering my children earned praise is high on my list of to-do’s as a father.

On this occasion my neighbor and friend, Jeff Winegar, offered to take our family to Snowbird so Mitch could participate in an adaptive sports program for kids with disabilities. Mitch was nervous about it because he knew he wasn’t very strong and that what little strength he did have would dissipate quickly. “What if I fall, Dad?” Mitch would ask me nervously. I assured him he wouldn’t be required to do anything for which he didn’t have strength and that they had something special for him – so that he would be safe and have fun. Mitch sat in a small carriage attached to two skis. Behind him were two purple tethers which allowed an adult to ski behind Mitch and control his speed down the mountain. All Mitch needed to do was to lean right or left as he decided where he wanted to ski down the mountainside.

I asked my friend Jeff to be on tether while I skied backward to take a million photos of my son. I loved looking at Mitchell’s expressions of glee as the cold wind rushed against his rose-colored cheeks. At first, I saw an expression that seemed to say, “This isn’t so bad. I’m not scared anymore.” Then later, his face seemed to say, “I’ve got this! I can do it!” I was so proud of Mitch and overwhelmed with gratitude as I saw my son’s countenance filled with a new form of self-confidence. He couldn’t race down the mountain like an Olympian, nor was he required to; but he could bravely face the steep slopes and do what he could, with the heart of an Olympian. That is winning, too.

I remember kneeling in prayer that night thanking my Father for giving my son such a great experience. I also thanked Him for giving me the blessing of children - a gift for which I'm eternally grateful. Because of Mitch, each day I try to grow a little on the inside, just like he tried. If I color a little outside the lines, I recognize it and try to do better next time.

Maybe that’s the point of it all … to get better a little on the inside each time. Musicians do it, athletes do it, academics do it … nobody achieves greatness in an instant … but through getting a little better each time. And those who have mastered their craft will each say it comes from within. It always comes from within. Each day. A little on the inside.

 

ON TRUSTING THE CURRENT

Natalie took this photo of tiny Mitch on my shoulders while we were on an adventure deep in the wilds of Wyoming. Every time he sat on my shoulders he would pull my hair with his chubby little hands in the direction he wanted me to go. Mitchie would giggle as I winced and moaned from the pain of pulling my hair. The hurt I felt was a nothing compared to the joy I experienced when he laughed.

On this day we were playing by a swift but smooth flowing river. Mitch would use his same chubby fingers to scoop up a pile of pebbles and hurl them into the water, sending a cascade of ripples downstream. To Mitch, it was like fireworks in the water. To me, watching my son was fireworks to my heart.

Although Mitch was young, I felt even younger than him. In many ways, I felt like a child raising a child. In those early years, when the realities of being a father settled on my mind and shoulders, I would panic a little on the inside because I felt wholly inadequate and unprepared for such a responsibility. Oh, I loved my wife and kids with all of my heart, but when I went to college, I never learned how to be all of that. I suppose, as with most things in life, we learn by doing.

What I wouldn't do to go back in time and talk to the younger me. I would tell myself:

  • You will make mistakes. Just remember you are not your mistakes … but you will become what you do with them.

  • Relax, you’re okay.

  • When you fall, try to fall forward. 

  • Read that extra book at bedtime.

  • You will never have now again. Cherish … everything.

  • Slow down and let tomorrow be. Tomorrow will come soon enough.

I tried to do all that stuff … but I wasn't always the best at it.

As I reflect on this tender time with Mitch, I can’t help but think of that fast-moving “wivo” that entranced him so much. Today I can see a different kind of river, a river of time and providence, and it is fascinating to behold. I cannot see where it is going; I can only see backward … leading up to this moment.

As much as I thought I knew what I was doing in my younger years, I can see that I had no idea. However much I tried to peer into the horizon as a young parent and professional, there were currents in life that were taking me places I wasn't wise enough to pursue on my own. I thank heaven for the currents of life that have gently guided me along my own path. I am grateful for the people I have met whose currents blended with mine, even if only for a season. My life is better because of it.

I have learned to trust the current. Yes, I need to make wise choices while in the river … and there are rapids, undertows, and hazards of all kinds. If I'm not careful, I can certainly drown. But I have come to learn I can no more stop the current of life any more than I can stop Niagara Falls with my bare hands. So, rather than swim against the current or pretending such heavenly currents don’t exist, I am trying to swim where I am supposed to swim.

One day, I pray the current will take me to that place beyond the hills; where I will stumble from the shore, tired and tattered … longing for rest. And on that day I will see my son again, and my tears will fill the river to overflowing. Niagara, by comparison, will seem like a dripping faucet.

As much as I yearn to, I cannot peer into the river ahead. So on my journey, I have learned to trust in my heart as much as my head. As I swim through life, I'm learning to trust the current.

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.
 

IN THE QUIET OF NIGHT

When I was a young boy, I remember waking up at night only to find my mother or father gently opening my bedroom door to check on me. Sometimes, more often than not, they’d linger a moment as I’d drift back to sleep. It wasn’t until I became a parent that I began to understand why they’d linger. I found myself doing the same thing with my children, especially when they were young. I’d look upon my children with so much love in my heart I thought my tender heart would explode.

I learned that in the quiet of night, even during those dark struggles of the soul, we must trust our Father and step into the unknown; for in matters of faith, that is the price. That is the toll.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

As far back as I can remember, Mitch wanted Natalie and me to tuck him in at night. That little ritual of pulling the covers up to his chin and kissing his sweet face is something I’ll always remember with a heart of gratitude. Natalie had a special way of tucking the sides of his blanket under his body on both sides, and Mitch loved the feeling of being snuggled. Soon he’d fall fast asleep. Without realizing it, I’d find myself wandering back into his room to check on him, and my other children. I’d crack the door open only to spill some warm light into a moonlit room. There, I’d see my babies fast asleep. Sometimes, I’d think how curious it was that just a few years earlier before they were born, I was totally and completely content to live without them. But now that I had them, I couldn’t imagine a life without them.

I’ve experienced all manner of loss, and nothing cuts so deep as to lose a child.

When Mitch was home on hospice, my regular prayer routine became more focused and more heartfelt. Somewhere, in the quiet of night, by my son’s bed or on the edge of mine, I wept to my Father praying for deliverance. In my suffering, I grew closer to my Father. Even still, never did night seem so dark as when my son was slipping away. I discovered that when God doesn’t deliver us from our sorrows, He will deliver us through them. I also learned, in the quiet of night, a valuable lesson about dark times and how we can begin to discern light – the kind of light that kindles faith.

Just recently, I had a conversation with a father who was undergoing a tremendous hardship. In a private message on Facebook, he asked me, “Do you believe in angels?”

I responded, “Yes, I do believe in angels and that they walk among us, unseen. Sometimes, if we're quiet and listening, we can feel their presence. Sometimes.”

I continued, “We had some profound moments with Mitch [when] he passed away. As Mitch was in the process of dying, he slept a lot [and we agonized that we were losing him before we lost him]. Natalie and I were in a state of deep despair and couldn't feel as easily what others felt. Some people dropped gifts or notes at our door, not knowing what was happening in our home the last few days. They would leave our house and send us a text saying things like, ‘I'm not sure what's happening at your home, but I felt something I've never felt before. It felt like I was walking through a crowd of angels.’”

I believe, despite how dark the world felt at the time, we were surrounded by a host of heavenly angels, bearing us up when we were so tired and so weak. In fact, I don’t think it … I know it. I know it for reasons I will not describe – for some things are too sacred to share.

I’ve come to learn over the last few years something Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, “When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.” I’ve grown to appreciate that phrase, “When it is dark enough …” You see, sometimes it isn’t dark enough for us to see those heavenly blessings, that present themselves like little stars. And if we learn to look, our spiritual eyes will begin to see tender mercies that are meant for you and me.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing new stories about Mitch and how I learned to see the light, even through what seemed impenetrable darkness. I learned that in the quiet of night, even during those dark struggles of the soul, we must trust our Father and step into the unknown; for in matters of faith, that is the price. That is the toll.

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.

I DON’T KNOW HOW TO HELP, BUT I KNOW HOW TO BE A FRIEND

Every-so-often we’d take our kids bowling for family night. In my culture, that’s a long-held tradition of dedicating one night a week to spend as a family. On these bowling adventures, we always enjoyed getting a plate of nachos, a chili dog, and a basket of french fries. The food was never good. In fact, it was awful. But, to spend time with family always seemed to make up for terrible food. Mediocre nachos just taste better when you're giggling.

Heaven is never so close as when we’re with loving family and friends.  And when someone is going through hell, we can bring a little piece of heaven into their lives by simply being a loving friend.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Surrounded by bad food and good company, we’d spend the next hour or two cheering each other on while competing for the highest score.

By this point in his life, Mitch wasn’t strong enough to hold a bowling ball, so family members helped by positioning the ball on an adaptive bowling ramp.  Mitch smiled as he squinted his eyes and slightly moved the ramp at just the right angle.  Then, softly, he’d push the ball down the ramp, and it would hurl down the lane.  When he’d get a strike, Mitch would chuckle as I’d blend sports terminology.   “Great!  You got a goal!” or, “Nice touchdown, son.”  Mitch and I shared a pocket full of inside jokes that always made us smile.

On this occasion, Natalie’s sister and her family joined our bowling adventure.  Mitchell’s closest cousin, Hunter, was always by his side, cheering him on – both bowling and in life.  At one point, Wyatt placed his hand on Mitchell’s back and said, “Nice job, Mitch!”  At this moment, I thanked my Father for the gift of family and friends.  I was especially thankful Mitch had a loving circle of his own.  Mitch was blessed with genuine friends.

Just today I had lunch with a dear friend and colleague.  He’s had a blessed career, and I have admired his desire to serve others with his good fortune.  About two years ago, however, he experienced a tremendous personal hardship that broke his heart and shook his soul.  During his darkest hours, I remember praying fervently that he would find a measure of peace each day as he learned to walk his own journey with grief.  As we were catching up on each other’s lives, he shared something a friend told him during a moment of darkness, and I learned a beautiful lesson.  His friend said, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.  I don’t know how to help … but I know how to be a friend.”

When I heard that tender phrase, I was overwhelmed by its power and simplicity.  It’s another way of saying, “I want you to know I care.” 

Those are beautiful, healing words: “I don’t know how to help, but I know how to be a friend.”  It acknowledges the uniquely difficult journey of the sufferer while offering a shoulder to lean on, a listening ear, and an understanding heart. 

Heaven is never so close as when we’re with loving family and friends.  And when someone is going through hell, we can bring a little piece of heaven into their lives by simply being a loving friend.

So, when I look back on this tender moment with little Mitch surrounded by kids who didn’t know what to do, but knew how to be a friend, I’m reminded of the supernal goodness of children. 

I cherish this memory. 

When I feel grief cast its shadow on my soul, I scoop into my pocket of cherished memories and pull out little gems, like this moment.  They fill my heart with gratitude, meaning, and purpose – which, combined, serve as a lamp unto my feet when the path grows especially dark.  Today I was reminded of another gem to serve a broken heart: that to be a friend is one of heaven’s healing arts.