THE BEAUTIFUL, UNSPEAKABLE LOVE OF MOTHERS

Tucked carefully just under Natalie’s pillow is a purple blanket, worn out and threadbare. It was one of Mitchell’s favorite blankets when he was as a toddler. Among the many places she might keep that treasured heirloom, it rests to this day quiet and unassuming, near her head when she sleeps.

When Mitch was a tiny little boy, he found special comfort in soft things. I’ll never forget when Natalie handed Mitch two small fleece blankets – one was purple and the other green. Mitch immediately smiled and pushed the blankets up to his cheeks. His chubby little fingers felt the soft fabric, and he was in love.

Once again, I was witness to the beautiful, unspeakable love of mothers.

For many years, Mitch clung to those two blankets as if were imaginary friends. I didn’t realize how much he treasured them until the day I found him quietly whispering to himself as he was stuffing both blankets in the produce drawer of our fridge, for safe keeping. When I giggled, Mitch turned his head and smiled and said, “Hi, Dad. One second … one second.” He finished securing his treasure in the fridge, then ran up to my leg and hugged me.” I asked him, “You love those blankets, don’t you?” He said softly, “I wuv them. Mommy gave them to me.” At that moment, I began to see the beautiful, unspeakable love of mothers anew. To our tiny child, those blankets weren’t just a warm fabric from which to cuddle on a cold winter’s night; they were a symbol and an extension of his mother’s love, and it comforted him so.

As the years passed, Mitchell grew up and out of those two blankets. Because they meant to him as a toddler, we kept them safe knowing one day; they would mean more to us than perhaps they ever meant to him. As Mitch grew older, he discovered other symbols of his mother’s love – and he clung to those in times of comfort and in times of trouble.

Years later, when we discovered Mitchell’s heart was about to stop beating, Natalie instinctively ran to the gift shop at the hospital to find something that might give her baby comfort, once again. After scanning the shelves, Natalie finally saw a soft teddy bear whose broken heart was patched and stitched, with a kind of homemade variety. Most importantly, you could tell that tender heart was being held up with love. Natalie’s eyes filled with tears and said, “Chris, this is it. This is what I want to give Mitchie.”

As we walked back to the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit, Natalie clung to the teddy bear as if to transfer a portion of her love to it so that it might, in turn, transfer that loving care to her sick and dying child. Once again, I was witness to the beautiful, unspeakable love of mothers.

When we returned to his room, Natalie said softly, “Here you go Mitchie – here’s something to cuddle with. I hope you like it.” Mitch smiled and said, “It’s really soft. I love it.” By this time, Mitch was beginning to feel sick and said, “Mom, will you tuck me in with this teddy bear?” Mitch fell fast asleep that night – and I can’t help but think it was in part because of his mother’s tender love.

I’ve watched this sweet mother quietly grieve the loss of our child for 1,866 days now. That’s not 1,866 days of wallowing in self-pity – but instead, learning to live a parent’s worst nightmare. The nightmare doesn’t change over time because the inescapable, irreversible facts of death don’t change.

I’m just a brokenhearted father who loves his family and who misses his son deeply … but however much I miss my son, I can tell the space between a mother and her children is a sacred place. Today, like little Mitch did so many years ago, she clings to the symbols of love she had with her son.

Natalie has learned to put her love and pain (which is grief) in an invisible treasure box – for you can’t have one without the other. I'm forever humbled to witness the beautiful, unspeakable love of mothers.

IT’S NOT A SHRINE; IT’S A JOURNAL*

Just yesterday my boys and I were hustling to get ready for church. Just before we left, I found Wyatt in Mitchell’s room with a reverent disposition – as if he were visiting his brother’s space to quickly to hit reset and get grounded. I love Wyatt and have grown to admire the good young man he is.

I determined at that moment what my son’s room meant to me: it’s not a shrine; it’s a journal.

What is a journal if not a place to reflect and remember?
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

There was a special, tender spirit in that room yesterday and my heart melted a little.

Last fall, someone saw a different post of mine where I mentioned Mitchell's room remained untouched. Someone glibly posted, "No shrines. It's not healthy." It is my nature to think carefully over things, so I began to contemplate if my son's room was a shrine, as this man callously pointed out.

As I tried to examine the truth of things, I walked into Mitchell's room with an open heart and mind, and I began to see unfinished Lego bases he ran out of time to make. I saw little treasures on his night stand he so carefully placed. Mitch never cared much for things – but he did associate memories with certain items, and if it had an emotional tie, he treasured it for what it meant – not so much for what it was. Little Mitch was so excited to have a bedroom of his own; you can still see childhood posters and a calendar he hastily taped and pinned to the wall when he first moved in. They aren’t level, which makes the wall decorations even more endearing.

On his bed is a piece of art I had an artist paint that represents a tender exchange Natalie had with Mitch, the night he passed away. As she lay cuddling in agony over Mitchell’s lifeless body, she had a distinct impression Mitchell’s spirit remained to comfort his mommy.

As I examined Mitchell’s room, my mind was swept up in memory, and I could almost see my son there again, breathing softly under the warmth of the morning light. It was a tender, healing moment. But healing also hurts, so I felt a little of that, too.

With few exceptions, virtually everything in Mitchell’s room remains untouched. I determined at that moment what my son's room meant to me: it's not a shrine; it's a journal.

What is a journal if not a place to reflect and remember?

One day, when we're ready, we will deal with his room. But for now, it is a tender place to go to remember and reflect. I don't go there often … but when I do, it is always met with feelings of love, gratitude, and of course a little grief.

I used to go there and weep … but now, when I visit, my soul feels more peace than grief. It is a journal not confined to pencil and paper – but instead, one I can see, touch, and remember a little boy who shaped my heart and enlarged my soul.

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.

D

TRANSFORMATIONS (Part II)

Several months before Mitch passed away a friend and colleague handed me a metal coin he created for one of his businesses. On the face of it was etched a butterfly and the word transformations. He gave it to his clients as a token and reminder of what we are meant to become, something far greater than we currently are. This good man, who has faced incredible difficulties of his own, learned to channel his own disappointment and sorrow into love and the service of others. I admire him greatly.

On this afternoon we took Mitch and the kids to the mountains where we would take our second-to-last family photo. Had I known what little time was left, I would have asked Natalie if we could take turns driving so we could each cuddle with our son. 

We found ourselves at our destination surrounded by a forest whose colors, save a few patches, were nearly gone. Mitch and the kids scooted down old wood trail across the marshland. I reached into my pocket and discovered the coin my friend gave me, which I mistakenly thought I left on my office desk. As I held it I couldn't help but take a photo of it and contemplate the process of transformation. Soon, I would find myself wrapped in a cocoon of grief, wondering if all was lost and if life would ever be worth living again. Such is the sorrow of losing a child.

I really don’t know much about grief, but I’m learning a little each day, and each day I experience a little more of a transformation. I used to write of my journey THROUGH grief, as though somewhere a great way off, there would be an end to it. Any more, I write of my journey WITH grief. For as far as I can tell, grief will be my companion so long as I live on this earth. Such, also, is the sorrow of losing a child.

There was no way of knowing what would happen when I started Mitchell’s Journey. Like a camping tent, I set it up with the intent to eventually take it down. I don’t think I can do that now. Mitchell’s Journey has transformed into something I’m still trying to understand. 

I will still write of hard things because hard things happened. I will share hard stories because I don’t want anyone to ever confuse DMD as an inconvenient journey. Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy is a fatal journey. 100% catastrophically fatal. Not one can escape it.

I recognize, also, the exhausting toll such stories can take. So, I am also going to write of the transformation I’m experiencing and the hope and happiness I feel in my heart. Today I feel as much joy in my heart as I do sorrow, which thing I never imagined nor ever quite supposed. The journey of grief has taken me places I never had a mind to go.

To those who are stumbling deep in the wilderness of grief, I want you to know there is eventually peace. It will never stay, not like it did before, but you will appreciate it when peace comes to you more and more. The road is long and skies sometimes dark and bleak, trust me when I tell you … somewhere out there, on your own journey, is happiness and peace. Just keep moving forward at your own steady pace and remember the journey of grief is not a race.

One day, perhaps at our journey’s end, we will look back on our broken paths and marvel at where we've been. I wonder if the parts of us we thought were so broken will be the very thing that transforms us like the promise of this token.

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.

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.