THE WORK OF REMEMBERING

About a year after Mitch passed, Wyatt asked to visit the cemetery, so he could reflect on life and remember his older brother.  Young Wyatt began to notice his memories were fading and said in a tearful tone, “I’m afraid of forgetting my brother.”  Wyatt and I sat on the west side of Mitchell’s headstone as the sun began to set.  I just listened to Wyatt share what was on his young mind and little heart and how much he wanted to be a good boy and follow the example of his brother.   

... to be remembered is not the substance of life – but paving the way for others is.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

On Mitchell’s headstone, I could see Wyatt’s reflection inside his shadow and took this photo of what I saw.  I couldn’t help but think how quickly memories can fade if we’re not careful to record them.  I also began to think how quickly we can forget some of life's most important lessons.  I hope always to remember the people and the lessons – so that I might grow from the love I felt and the things I’ve experienced.  That’s why I do the work of remembering (writing about) little Mitch and our journey with him.

I recently read an article about grief where the author said the greatest fear of a parent who lost a child was having their child forgotten by others.  While that may be true for some, that’s not how I feel. 

It wasn’t many years ago I was working on a documentary and stumbled into an old funeral program from the early 19th century.  Printed on the cover was an almost daguerreotype image of someone reminiscent of the pioneer era.  Written boldly on the cover of the program were the words, “Gone but not forgotten.”  I immediately thought to myself, “If only that were true.”  There, in my hands, I may have been holding the only visual breadcrumb of that man’s existence … evidence he walked the earth and had an impact in his sphere of influence.  It was clear he would be missed by those who knew and loved him, yet generations had since passed, and that lone memorial somehow found its way into my hands.  As far as I could tell, the memory of that good man was all but a vapor.  His memory scattered like dust by the winds of time.

As I’ve reflected the harsh reality, I began to examine why I write of little Mitch. I determined that I don’t write to fixate on the past but to learn from it and change how I step into the future.  I don’t write to keep his memory alive in others – instead, to keep his memory alive in me.  I write so I can make sense of suffering and remember the lessons I’ve learned through heartache and a veil of tears.  I write so I might look heavenward and learn what I must – for all too soon, my time will be up, and I will fall into that deep sleep from which there is no return.  One day, I will be like billions before me --- gone and soon forgotten.  That’s fine by me; for, to be remembered is not the substance of life – but paving the way for others is.                                                                                           

I suppose that’s why I share my journals – so perhaps a flickering candle of faith might light the path for someone else walking a dark road.  When people write me private messages after having read an entry and share how they went their knees and asked their Father if He lives, and how they received an answer, I weep tears of gratitude.  When a mother or father shares how they’ve become more loving or in the moment with their child, my heart is made glad.  Those are the reasons I share stories of Mitch – not that people will remember my son, but that individual lives might see something anew and make a change for the better. 

This work of remembering (Mitchell’s Journey) is about the examined life and making a change for the better.  For it isn't enough to remember the people and events in our lives ... but instead to find meaning.  And if all these stories amount to helping a single soul, even if it’s just one;  my heart will be full, and an important work will be done.  

A GRIEF RITUAL

I've been out of town most of this week on business and landed in Salt Lake early this morning, then drove straight to the office. 

On my drive home tonight all I could think about was how excited I was to see my little family. I miss them a great deal. On my way home I stopped by to see Mitch and saw that Natalie had changed his flowers. 

I was brought to tears to think how much his mommy cares about him and how she tries to love and serve him even though he is gone. She remembers the smallest details, including little birds that Mitch adored, in her arrangements. 

Dressing up Mitchell's headstone is one of her grief rituals, and I adore her for it.

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A LITTLE LOVE CAN DO A LOT

Not long after our son passed away a compassionate follower of Mitchell’s Journey asked me for a sample of Mitchell’s handwriting. She had been following our story and felt compelled to give my dear wife something to comfort her weary heart. This is what she made - exactly as Mitch wrote it on paper just a few months prior. This kind woman, now friend, carefully mailed it to me so we could surprise Natalie for Mother’s Day. I offered to pay her for her kindness but she insisted on giving it to my wife as a gift from her heart. 

When Natalie looked upon this for the first time her eyes filled with tears because she recognized Mitchie’s handwriting.

This little memento is an echo of Mitchell’s love for his mother. I’m forever grateful for this kind woman, this Good Samaritan, who felt after my grief-stricken wife on the edge of a broken road. Katelynne didn't need to do or say anything, but she did anyway … and her little act of love did a lot.

This is her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SugarplumsJewelry

When Natalie wears this necklace, she often looks at it as if to look upon her son, or at least a breadcrumb he left behind … evidence this little boy lived and loved his mommy. 

I’m grateful for this Good Samaritan who took the time to stop; who reached out with a little love and helped my wife a lot.

 

GRIEF RITUALS

This photo was taken a few months after Mitch passed away, during the early summer of 2013. My kids were at Cousins Camp – a kind of family reunion for young cousins and their mothers. My oldest sister, Diane Wunderli, who was a faithful supporter to my family and little Mitch as he slipped into oblivion had purchased some floating lanterns and wanted to set them off in memory of my little boy. 

She was one of the precious few who almost had a front-row seat to the horrors of losing our son. There were times she saw my little boy toward the end struggling and she would step away in tears. At one point she read a post about Natalie and I sitting on the hard floor in the hallway just outside Mitchell’s room so we could weep and not frighten him. When she read that post she gave us cushions to sit on and Kleenex to dry our tears. This woman was then, and is today, a living example of what it means to comfort those who stand in need of comfort. It is one thing to talk about doctrines, it is quite another to experience them. Having been on the receiving end of that profound doctrine has been humbling. Her comforting us when we were very much in need of comfort continues to pay emotional dividends to us today – and for that I am grateful.

I wish letting go of grief was as easy as releasing a floating lantern into the sky. I wish that a single memorial might assuage my sorrow and allow me to let go of all that hurts. But life is not that easy.

I have spent a great deal of time thinking about grief rituals and why we do what we do when we lose the people we love. I don’t know the answers – but I am beginning to understand that each grief ritual is as unique to our souls as our fingerprint or DNA is to our mortal bodies. What’s more, how we manage our grief is a very personal journey – and, so long as we don’t hurt ourselves or others, there seems to be no wrong or right way to grieve. Unfortunately some people who sit comfortably on the sidelines of grief, thinking they know best, confuse the hurt someone feels for hurting themselves. They try alter their grief path by saying, “You’re stuck.” Or “You shouldn’t feel that way.” Or, “it’s time to move on” and all manner of idiocracies. 

I have discovered it is far better to listen with love and tell those who hurt you care. We can no more force the healing a broken heart any more than we can force a deep cut to heal. But we can create an environment where healing can take place … we can clean and dress our wounds carefully and keep them free of harmful things that might infect us or prevent healing. But at the end of the day emotional healing happens from the inside out.

There are so many ways I've seen others grieve … I know a woman, for example, who lost her husband and has made a lovely treasure chest which will slowly become home to treasured items that belonged to him. When the chest is full, the rest of his belongings will likely go. Others choose to keep everything. Some push everything away and want nothing to remind them of their heartbreak. I see people regularly visit the cemetery and spend time near their loved ones. Some write songs while others decide to take up arms in a battle to beat the thing that took their loved one away. Pat Furlong, for example, lost two of her sons to DMD. She lost two Mitchell’s. I cannot imagine her sorrow. Yet in her own grief journey she managed to turn rubble and ashes into beauty and hope; she started Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy, which is now a beacon of light and hope for families who face the same disease that took my little boy, and hers. Still, there are others grieving who are simply treading water trying not drown in the deep and dark well of sorrow … people whose hearts are so broken getting out of bed each day is a monumental victory. There are so many ways to grieve – and each grief journey is unique. And that’s okay. 

In ways I have never imagined, I am beginning to see beauty in grief. Not that grief is a pleasant thing – to the contrary, grief is a bitter cup from hell. But grief is also an evidence of love – and that alone is paradoxically beautiful. Each tear is a memorial of profound love and longing. Each heavy chest and sunken heart is a camouflaged prayer to heaven that our loved ones will know how much they are missed. 

Grief is not only about the pain of loss … it is also a very real wrestle of the soul with a seemingly endless inquiry of “what ifs” and “Did I do enough?” Though my heart is still heavy over the loss of my son I have come to terms with a certain truth: despite feelings of self-doubt and anguish over what might have been, the best we can do is quite alright, in the end. 

I’m still contemplating grief rituals - what they mean and why we do them. All I know is they play an important role in healing. I wish I could release my grief like my sister did of this lantern. My own grief journey has taught me that grief is not something I can simply let go, for it is part of my soul now in ways only God can know.

MUSICAL TRIBUTE TO MITCH

Tonight Natalie and I listened to a woman perform a song she wrote in memory of Mitch. It was a beautiful, complex and passionate piece of music. I had never met her before and she wrote me a private message just yesterday to tell me about her performance tonight. I am grateful that she did.

It is my nature to be deeply moved by music; music (at least to me) is a language of the soul. I have heard other songs written in honor of Mitch, each beautiful and touching, but this one was different. This song moved me deeper than deep and I felt a whisper of my son. Afterward, I asked her if I could arrange to record it professionally. I truly hope to. 

She has a gift of the soul and it touched mine. Thank you Erin Wood. You have blessed our life with your beautiful talent.

http://instagram.com/p/tb2OpTS1ZU/

FIVE SHOVELS, ONE MISSING BOY

In my garage hang 5 shovels that were used, as a matter of ceremony, to bury my dear son. Every day I come home I see them. I can’t NOT see them. These shovels are now symbols of what matters most and the price my family paid to be reminded of such. When I see them, suddenly material things are worthless to me; the pursuit of fame and attention, ring hollow and lame; and all the tinsel and chatter of the world lose their luster and powers of persuasion. 

I just see 5 sacred symbols, still bearing dirt from the burial site, and am reminded of one missing boy I would do anything to see and hold again.

I don’t keep these symbols visible to agitate already tender wounds nor do I use them to fixate on the pain of loss; the kitchen table with an empty chair does that well enough. Instead, these shovels keep me focused and clear-minded. They remind me of the realities of life and also point to my most treasured relationships. Each day I leave my garage remembering Mitch and I make a promise to do better than the day before – to make whatever time I have on this earth matter. When I return home I am reminded to talk a little softer, to listen more intently, and to love more visibly … for everything, and I mean everything ... is temporary. 


I made this video just after Mitch passed away vimeo.com/61500841 wherein these shovels were shown.

These symbols keep me sober and sane. They remind me to never dig a pit for my neighbor or intentionally cause harm to others, but rather to take compassion and help dig others out of trouble and help where I can. They remind me that I, too, will one day be laid to rest and I will be held accountable for my choices … for the help or harm I caused others. 

I hope to never hurt another but always help ... and if I'm lucky, to build a soul with heaven's help.

A LIVING MEMORIAL

Last year an anonymous follower arranged to have a bracelet made that bore my son’s handwriting of the last thing he ever wrote me. When I opened the package and saw it for the first time, I wept. I had posted a photo of Mitchell’s handwritten note when he was home on hospice many months prior and this kind person used that photo as the source for the bracelets inscription. I was profoundly touched by this gift. Whoever you are, thank you. I wish I knew who you are so I could thank you personally. 

The woman/artisan who was hired to make this bracelet was the same woman who sent my wife a gift just after Mitch passed, again with his handwriting that read “I Love My Mom.” I will write of that sweet story soon. 

I have treasured this bracelet greatly. Although I have many weaknesses, this memorial around my wrist serves as a reminder to always do my best. While in Mitchell’s eyes I was the best, I knew I fell short in so many ways – but I always tried my best. Like the saying, “fall down seven times, stand up eight”, that is what I will do until my dying day.

As I approach Memorial Day I have a certain heaviness in my heart. I am grateful for the men and women who sacrificed their lives for peace and freedom –and I will always reverence them. At least for me, Memorial Day also represents another layer of fallen ones … the ones who fought a different kind of war and died while fighting to live. My son is one of them; along with so many other children who fought a battle with DMD and lost. In fact, that is a battle no one survives. Not one.

So this weekend I have a reverent heart for those who fought violent battles behind enemy lines - and also for my son and many others who fought an invisible biological enemy and died. 

I have long lamented the tradition of honoring someone after they've died when they could have used the boost while they were living. I never go a day and not tell the people around me how great I think they are - for they may be fighting an invisible battle of the soul and dying a little inside each day. Everyone is fighting a battle of some kind ... so why wait to compliment, honor and build up the ones we love until they are gone? 

What's more, we write funeral talks, paint masterpieces, sculpt statues and build all manner of memorials in honor of the fallen. And while those are good and worthy endeavors, I would rather become a living memorial than build one. I would rather take the lessons learned at so high a price and become what I learned rather than point to a statue of an ideal. This day, and every day here after, I will try to sculpt my life in such a way that I bring honor to my son – a much worthier soul than my own.

As I make my journey to that place beyond the hills, I know I will fall down seven million times … but I will stand up seven million and one – because my little boy believed in me and saw something I didn't.

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Bracelet created by: www.facebook.com/SugarplumsJewelry