A LIFETIME

I took this photo at a family function today and was overwhelmed with feelings of love and gratitude for my wife and kids - at the same time, I felt an empty longing for little Mitch. What I’ve learned on my grief journey is that I can be happy and sad at the same time, restless and still, empty but full.

More than anything, I am in a place of peace and acceptance for all that there is, all that ever was, and everything that is yet to be.

I have more stories of tender Mitch I want to share - but I’ve spent the last few months focused on my family. Healing from the loss of a child, it turns out, takes more than a little time ... it appears to take a lifetime.

#mitchellsjourney #makeeverydaycount

IN THE CLASP OF OUR HANDS

This happened almost 4 years ago. It was the first of November as we went to a local park as a family. The day had drawn to a close, and we could tell winter was just around the corner. The grass was cold to the touch … about to go into its deep, yellow sleep for the winter. As the sun set behind the mountains, the evening air had a familiar, wintery chill. We were excited to go home and make hot chocolate and sit by our fireplace to warm up.

Just moments before I took this photo, Mitch breathed deeply through his nose, as if he tried to smell the entire earth at once. He exhaled and said, “Dad, Fall smells so good.” Mitch loved the earthy smell of fallen leaves and was grateful to be alive. I smiled softly and reached down to hold his hand. At the same time, he reached up to hold mine – it was as though we knew what each other needed at that moment.

Though I didn’t exactly know Mitch was about to die, I sensed death was near in the same way I could sense the season about to change. Mitch didn’t exactly know his time was short, but he sensed it, too. This was an unseen tender mercy, for our loving Father softly nudged us to be in the moment because the hour was later than we knew.

Little Mitch had just watched teenagers perform tricks at a skate park. This night was the first time I ever heard him wish for something he didn’t have. He said, “Dad, I wish I could be like regular kids and do the things they do.” Though Mitch wanted to be a healthy boy, he was just grateful to be alive. And I was grateful to be his father.

I am grateful for warm moments like the one you see here. I store them up in my heart for times of trouble; and when sorrow and disappointment come, as they surely will, I am reminded of life’s good things.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

This was one of those moments in life where I deeply appreciated what I had in the clasp of my hands. Not just Mitch, either. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for my wife and all of my children. Each of them was so dear to my heart, and my cup was overflowing that night.

Though we would soon sit by a crackling fireplace that night and drink warm things … my soul was already stirred with feelings of love and gratitude. There was no winter that could chill my heart.

I am grateful for warm moments like the one you see here. I store them up in my heart for times of trouble; and when sorrow and disappointment come, as they surely will, I am reminded of life’s good things.

If ever I’ve stumbled in life, I believe it has been because I didn’t fully appreciate what I already had in the clasp of my hands. What we clasp with our hands says a lot about what’s in our heart. If I cling to material things, there is my heart, also. If I hang on to distractions or things that waste time, that has a measure of my heart, too. I wish I could say I clasp on to all the right things … but I am human and I make mistakes. But I've learned to view my mistakes as teachers, not tormentors. When I stumble, I bounce right back, shake it off and keep trying.

For all my mistakes in life, all I know is this night I got it right. There, within the clasp of my hand, was a tender son who needed reassurance. Around me were my wife and other children, each of whom I loved and adored – and though I wasn’t holding their hand at this moment, emotionally they knew I had them in my hand and my heart.

Rose Marie Whiteside wrote, “You will make mistakes, change your mind later on the wisdom of a decision, and hope to find better ways of doing something, but if you outline your values and determine the links to those values, the errors won’t count.”

I love this statement. I believe in it, too. Mistakes matter less if we know we value and try to live true.

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.

NOT THE LIFE I WANTED, BUT EVERYTHING I NEED

Just before a painful procedure, Mitch grabbed my arm and squeezed my hand as if to hug me. Although I was trying to love and comfort my dying son, he seemed to find greater comfort loving me. I loved how he loved.

Looking back, I have not had the life I wanted … but it has been everything I’ve needed.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

It was a strange thing to watch the hospice nurse keep our son healthy, just long enough to die. She did a marvelous job managing our son’s pain, guiding my broken wife and me through the process of death and dying, and offering insights on how to cope with grief. She warned us that everything we were experiencing at the time was the easy stuff – and that much harder, darker days were ahead. She was right.

As Mitch and I were hugging hands, it took every ounce of strength to hold back my tears – for I wanted to bury my head in the couch and weep like a child. I thought to myself, “This is not the life I wanted. How can I possibly save him?” My bright dreams of becoming a father had turned into a nightmare of the blackest velvet pitch.

My son would soon die and I would experience a grief so great, there are simply no words to describe it. Then, my professional world turned upside down. Good people, who might have been mentors, turned dark and twisted. Life went from bad to worse. When I thought things couldn’t get worse, life became darker still. Grief would soon take a toll on my surviving children – which as a parent was heartbreaking. I don’t write about their grief journey because I respect their privacy. But I will say that sibling grief is real and my wife and I do all that we can to help our children the best we can.

Looking back, I have not had the life I wanted … but it has been everything I’ve needed. I didn’t want to lose little Mitch – but his life and death have changed me for the better. I am not mad at God. But I am sad … and that’s okay. I don’t allow other life challenges, disappointments, and failures to make me bitter – I’m trying to figure out how they can help make me a little better. I have a long, long way to go. I am still learning to live with disappointment and grief -- but I am also learning to live in harmony and peace.

I know when I die, I will go to that place beyond the hills and see my boy again. And if there are no tears in heaven, I will be the first to make them – and the stars will bathe in them. Perhaps we will hold hands like this again – where I try to comfort Mitch and he comforts me. I have a feeling that we’ll look back on our lives and say “Well, it wasn’t the life we wanted but it taught us everything we needed.”

When I see life through that lens, I understand things differently, indeed. For we are souls eternal; gathering light and knowledge, even to infinity.

ALWAYS ON MY MIND

This morning, as I left for work, I couldn't help but notice the sunrise and think how much Mitch would have loved it.

Mitch has taught me something about the duality of grief; though I may suffer chronic grief, my heart can still be filled with gratitude.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Because little Mitch is never far from my mind, when I saw this display of light and color, my heart swelled with gratitude and I thought to myself, "Oh Mitch, that sunrise is for you." In a way, I felt like I had Mitch beside me - even though he was not. Not the way I want him to be. That, my friends, is grief. It is to feel great pain, despite our spiritual beliefs. A longing for what was lost and aching for relief.

Mitch has taught me something about the duality of grief; though I may suffer chronic grief, my heart can still be filled with gratitude. I can be afraid and still have courage.

I think that's how I've learned to survive grief ... I acknowledge my sorrow, but then I look for reasons to be grateful. I can smile through the tears.

ON GRATITUDE

Gratitude not only strengthens the heart and soul, it also serves as a light to shine ... not on what was lost, but what remains.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

We had just parked in front of my in-laws for a Thanksgiving dinner. My not-so-little Mitch, always asserting his independence, began to walk awkwardly down the slight slope of their front yard to the front door. Walking can seem like such an easy thing to those of us who have muscle strength. But to Mitch, walking was difficult ... as evidenced by his awkward gait and increasingly visible struggle to lift his legs high enough to put one foot in front of another. Despite his independence, he would need help up the stairs. 

Mitch was so interesting; whenever life seemed to take things away from him, his gratitude for what remained only grew stronger.

He shared his gratitude for life on many occasions and in many different ways. Each time he expressed his gratitude for life, his words were simple and profound. One day I will post the audio from a one-on-one interview with Mitch where he said "I'm grateful for life." 

I think he sensed early in his life that he would only be here a short time. He knew it, in a way, just like I knew it; except I think he knew it without knowing it.

I wonder if one of the reasons he valued life so much was precisely because Mitch sensed something was seriously wrong. nWhatever the reason, because this young boy was so grateful for life, he lived and loved deeply - never taking a minute or moment for granted.

He gathered gratitude like a wise traveler might store up oil for their lamps ... in preparation for those long, dark times when the only light we might ever see see will come from the light within.

Gratitude not strengthens the heart and soul, it also serves as a light to shine ... not on what was lost, but what remains.