Posts tagged On Death
THE LAST BUTTON
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Some moments in life burn an image into your mind with permanent marker – and some experiences so hard to bare, they change the shape of your soul. This was one such moment that broke me and reshaped me in ways I'm still learning to understand.

My dear wife was dressing Mitch at the funeral home. Our mothers were with us as well as our oldest sisters; each of whom played a precious and sacred role in Mitchell’s life, and we wanted them to participate. Also, we were afraid of doing this alone.

Our once-little-baby had grown into a beautiful, funny, thoughtful, and caring young boy; yet there he was laying quietly on a table – motionless and frighteningly cold to the touch. My sweet wife, along with these other good women, reverently dressed Mitch in preparation for his funeral - where we would honor the good little boy that he was. Natalie was doing okay until she got to the last button – then grief washed over her like a title wave, thrashing her about on the inside. This was the last button she would ever fasten for our son – and that broke her heart. It broke mine, too.

I was a wreck that day. In fact, I was a wreck on the inside for many months afterward. Years, in fact. It took years to learn how to put my broken pieces back together again. Even still, I carry a father’s grief, and it is a terrible burden. Yet as much as I hurt on the inside, I know my wife hurts in ways I cannot imagine - for I am a simple man. She carried him, gave birth to him and made sacrifices in ways only a mother can - and with that pain and sacrifice comes a love unique to that service and surrender. So, I consider her grief hallowed ground. I silence my own tears so that I might wipe hers and scoop up her shattered pieces for safe keeping. And when I can, I try to gather mine.

Maddeningly, some people are so focused on comparing grief they forget to simply honor it.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

All too often I hear people suggest “there is nothing like a mother's love” – in a manner that seems to subordinate or dismiss the love of a father. In like manner, I hear less often the same of a father’s love as being more than anything else. It's almost as if they claim one love is greater than the other. Nothing could be further yet closer to the truth at the same time. They are correct in saying there is nothing like a mother’s love; in the same way, there is nothing like a father's love. Both are different, both are beautiful and sacred in their own right. But to suggest one is more significant or weightier than another ignores one immutable truth ... they are both parents and hurt deeply for the one they loved and lost. Maddeningly, some people are so focused on comparing grief they forget to simply honor it.

So when I look at this photo, I set aside my own sorrows and I reverence my wife’s. Her pain is as unique to her as her relationship was with Mitch. Her love was beautiful, vast, and deep.

The last button. It seems in life the hardest thing is always the last thing: the final lap around the track – when your legs are about to collapse; the last conversation you will ever have with a loved one before they die; or just looking back on a squandered moment realizing, in retrospect, that was our last and wishing we were different.

Neal Maxwell, a man whose intellectual and spiritual insight I’ve long admired once wrote, “We should certainly count our blessings, but we should also make our blessings count.” I love that statement because it reminds me of the importance of putting our blessings to good use - otherwise, we are throwing our gifts away.

Among the many blessings I have received in this life, Mitch ranks my sweetest blessings. Every day when I button my own shirt as I get ready for work, I vow to remember the blessing Mitch was in my life. And most importantly, to make that blessing count … to allow this experience to become an agent of change, for the better. This image, burned in my mind and heart, reminds me to make Mitchell’s last button count – if not for anyone else, myself.


WHY WE SUFFER
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As Mitch began to drift away, I would look at him with deep sorrow in my heart. I desperately wanted to scoop him up in my arms and take him to someplace safe. A place like the children’s books we often read to him – a place of hope and happiness, joy and dreams. My little boy once glowing bright with laughter and childhood had become a dim candle about to flicker out. The light in his countenance had been growing dimmer by the day, and I was greatly pained therewith. When I took this photo I had the distinct impression we were no longer counting the days, but the hours.

I remember cuddling next to my son just after I took this photo. I held him gently but firmly and said, “I am so sorry this is happening, son. You are so brave. I think sometimes God sends us the little ones like you to teach us grown-ups what it means to be truly grown up. And Mitch, when I grow up, I want to be just like you.” Mitch squeezed my hand and smiled softly. I kissed his cheek and held him close to my chest as he drifted away, soft as a feather, into an afternoon nap.

While Mitch slept, I wept.

I wept so hard the bed was shaking, and I worried I would wake him. The grief I knew then was but a foretaste of the grief to come. It turns out death was the easy part … for I'd soon experience a kind of bewilderment, emptiness and longing that would become a more painful hell.

I learned long ago it isn't productive to raise my fist to the heavens and wonder why we suffer. Instead, I learned to turn my ear heavenward; to listen for secrets to the soul and learn what I was meant to learn. Too often people get hung up on asking the wrong questions – and therefore get no answers. They ask “why would God do this?” When we hurt, it can be tempting to shake our fists at the Universe and bemoan our circumstance as though we’re being singled out or treated unfairly. But the last time I checked, life isn't fair, and it rains on the just and unjust. Why should we be the only exception? The other day I learned over 150,000 people die each day. Countless others will suffer all manner of afflictions. In the few minutes it might take to shake our fist and complain about our own lives, hundreds of people will have passed from this life to the next, and a great many more will mourn their absence. The world is filled with grief and suffering. Some sorrows we bring upon ourselves. Other suffering just happens, whether from an act of God or simply life in motion.

At least for me, I've come to discover suffering and sorrow are an important part of life’s learnings. Any more I worry less about the origins of my sorrows – for what difference would it make? Surely God isn’t caught off guard or surprised by the events in our lives. Whether He’s the author of some of our sorrows, as a divine teacher, or simply a patient tutor as we struggle with life in motion … He could change the course of our sorrows if He wanted to. The fact He often doesn't sends a compelling message. The question I ask myself is, “Am I listening?”

On this sacred weekend, I reflect on life’s crucibles and am grateful; not grateful that we suffer, but because we can be made better because of it.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

So, as I laid next to my dying son, weeping in the deepest of grief, I felt a pain beyond description that left my soul weary, bruised and weak. I didn't want my little boy to go, for he was my tender son and I loved him so. Though I prayed mightily for his safe return, the answer I received was “No, my son, for there are things you must learn.”

Thus began my journey with grief, down a bewildering path in search of relief. And though I still hear the deafening sound of death’s terrible toll, I have come to understand our mortal bodies are but clothing to the soul.

On this sacred weekend, I reflect on life’s crucibles and am grateful; not grateful that we suffer, but because we can be made better because of it.

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A GRIEF REMEMBERED

Mitch had passed a few hours prior and we each spent sacred time saying goodbye to our boy.  His body was beginning to change, and it was disturbing to see.  I was frightened by the spectacle of it all.  So, I called the funeral home and asked them to hurry.  Soon, in the dark of winter, I’d hear a soft knock on our door that would usher a kind of trauma we weren’t prepared to experience. 

The death of a child is exactly similar to the birth of a child.  It changes you forever.  In the same way, your life is multiplied by their very existence, it is divided by their absence.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

The funeral home employees were kind and professional and went reverently about their work.  They entered Mitchell’s room and slid a sheet under his body, then lifted my sweet boy onto a gurney, then strapped his body in.  They covered his cold form with his blanket – not to keep him warm, but to show respect for a little boy who had gone too soon.  I suppose the covered him, also, to soften the blow.

Natalie stood at the foot of Mitchell’s bed with a look of horror and disbelief on her face.  Indeed, it was a horror show.  In the long nights that would follow, my dear wife would weep and say, “I don’t want to live.” The long night of grief had just begun – and a long night it would be.  As a husband and father, I scrambled to keep myself, my wife, and children together.

In truth, I don’t need this photo to remind me of this horrible, yet sacred event.  The memory of this night is seared into my mind and soul – written in the most permanent of inks.  I keep it, however, not to wallow in sorrow – but to stay sober about life.  To stay centered in the heart and soul.

The other day I had a lunch appointment with an old friend and colleague.  We talked for a while and covered a lot of ground.  It isn’t my practice to talk of Mitch or grief with people unless they ask.  But, somehow our conversation turned toward Mitch, and we started to talk about life and loss.  My friend had lost his sister many years ago, and though he grieved her loss, he didn’t understand the degree of sorrow his parents felt.  He tried to understand – but until you experience it – it cannot be fully understood.

At one point in our conversation, I observed the spectators of grief – you know … the ones who, from the comfort of their own life say things like, “Isn’t it time to get over it?”  Or, “Just be glad you’ll see them again in the next life.”  These, and a million platitudes like them, only cut deeper into tender wounds of the soul. 

I said, “There is a kind of darkness one comes to know when they lose a child.  And when you walk through that wilderness, you eventually come out the other side a different person.  You change.  Suddenly, the world is different.  The pettiness of people and so much of what consumes society is both pedestrian and trivial.  It’s like someone who knows only simple math is trying to tell you how to solve an abstract problem with theoretical physics.  Suddenly, their level of understanding is elementary – and you are in graduate school, whether you’re ready or not.”

I went on to say that when I hear people talk of people ‘moving on’ I want to say, “Okay, here’s a thought experiment.  What if I told you to leave your young child (or grandchild) on the corner of a busy road and never look back?  What’s more, you only have a few weeks to stop loving them – then, you must never feel after them. You must stop talking about them and act as if they never existed.  Move on.  Get over them.  Impossible, right?  Why?  Because we love them – and that love is forever.  So it is with grief.  Yet, so often, grief feels a lot like love with nowhere to go – and it hurts to hold it in.”

We both had tears in our eyes.  He could see my pain begin to surface and he said, “I think I’m beginning to understand what my parents felt … and feel.”  I smiled and told my friend that grief, like love, doesn’t end.  Though our conversation was met with tender feelings – it was also healing and bridge-building.  Talking helps.  Remembering can be soul-soothing.

The death of a child is exactly similar to the birth of a child.  It changes you forever.  In the same way, your life is multiplied by their very existence, it is divided by their absence.

A grief remembered is only love trying to find its way.

THE TRUTH ABOUT TRAUMA

When the funeral home employees rolled my son out our front door, I nearly collapsed with grief.  This was the same door my son stood gleefully by on Halloween to hand candy to children.  He was a giver of the sweetest sort – and he found more joy in giving candy to kids than getting candy for himself.  This was the door Mitchell’s best friend would knock and ask to play.  This was the door our hospice nurse told us Mitch was about to die … and in that same moment, heaven sent an angel to bear up our broken hearts.

Everyone can master a grief, but he that has it.
— William Shakespeare

When I first became a father, I wasn’t prepared to be a parent.  Who is, really?  I quickly discovered that when you have a child, your life changes.  Forever.  It doesn’t simply change because you’re responsible for the well-being of a baby, it changes because your soul multiplies.  Once someone has a child, they stop belonging to themselves.  It’s as if part of our soul is cloned and whatever happens to our child may as well happen to us.  We’re pained when they hurt, overjoyed when they’re happy, and when they die … our very souls shatter.  Though we may put our pieces back together, eventually, we’re never the same.

 I was terrified of this moment.  I knew this time was near, so I tried to put it out of my mind and live in fragile moments that remained.  We didn’t know if we had 5 minutes, 5 hours, or 5 days with our son, we just knew that he was on the thinnest of ice and it was about to break.

 Suddenly, in a blink, I found myself watching two strangers roll my sweet son into the bitter winter’s air.  I was mortified.  Incredulous.  I was just talking to Mitch the day before, and he was very much alive … so sweet, tender, and innocent.  As they loaded my boy into the back of the vehicle and drove away, panic shot through my body, tears rolled down my cheeks and began to freeze.  I physically gasped for air as though I was watching my child in the act of being kidnapped. 

As they drove away, every part of me wanted to run down the street and stop them.  I wanted to say, “Please, let me get in the back with my boy.  He must be so scared, cold, and lonely.  I need to comfort him during this difficult time.”

I cannot conjure the words to describe the trauma I experienced at this moment – and the subsequent traumas of grief I felt, a million times thereafter.  I wept so hard that morning I threw up. Then, I wept even harder, and I thought I broke a rib.  Although the sun was rising, the long night of grief was only just beginning.  Over the next few years, I began to learn some painful truths about grief.  I learned some truths about trauma.

 You learn to live with fear.

Grief and fear feel identical in many respects.  C.S. Lewis said it best, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”  Looking back on the early years of my grief journey, I was living in a deep, emotionally traumatic state that felt like fear.  And when the night came, I felt feelings of terror.  Every. Single. Day.

Deep grief is prolonged trauma.

If ever you get impatient, wondering when your friend or family member who grieves will get over their sorrow, if you’re ever tempted to think its time for them to move on, remember that grief is trauma in slow motion.  Everyone on this planet would do well to remember Shakespeare’s observation, “Everyone can master a grief, but he that has it.”

Others will move on, but you will not.

Another brutal truth about trauma is that for spectators of sorrow, empathy has a comparatively short shelf-life.  Others will move on, as they should.  But you will not.  At least not for a very long time. 

 Perhaps the best counsel to those who suffer is this: don’t expect others to understand your sorrow or to linger as long as your sorrow will.  They cannot – for after all is said and done, the journey of grief is traveled by one. 

 To the spectators of sorrow, don’t expect the one who suffers to move on at your leisure or burden-free pace.  Remember that it is they who carry the weight of sorrow – a weight you cannot imagine, not even in your nightmares.  If you’re to serve them, you can lift their weary hearts with words of compassion.  I’ve found that saying, “I’m sorry that you hurt.  I care” is enough, and more.

 It Gets Worse, Sometimes Much Worse, Before It Gets Better

I’ve said this often: death is the easy part, it’s the aftermath that’s hardest.  So, when you see someone who's lost someone – know that they’ll need your love, compassion, and empathy gently at the funeral and the months to come – but more profoundly in the lonely years that follow. 

 I’ll repeat the last part: they’ll need your love more profoundly in the lonely years that follow.

 Time & Healing

When it comes to the trauma of grief, time doesn’t heal.  Instead, time creates space for us to heal if we tend to our wounds with care.  I think of trauma like the adrenaline one might feel just after a ride on a terrifying rollercoaster.  It takes time for fear to leave your body.  The first 15 minutes we feel the trauma course through our veins – but over time, we go back to our regular state of serenity.  The mistake we sometimes make is thinking the death of a loved is the rollercoaster.  It is not.  It is only the beginning.  The rollercoaster of trauma comes from feelings of self-doubt, regret, endless what-ifs, and longing to see our loved one again.  That trauma is a ride that takes many, many years to fade away.  

 Trauma Shatters You

Trauma doesn’t just break a part of you; it shatters many parts of you.  Sometimes all of you.  Yet, somehow, some way, we gather our broken pieces and slowly reassemble ourselves. Depending on the nature of loss, it can take many, many years.  We are never the same person on the other side of trauma – instead, we become a mosaic of our former self.  Sometimes jagged and fragile as our pieces begin to set into their new arrangement.  But always, we emerge a new kind of beautiful.   

The truth about trauma is that until we experience it first-hand, it isn’t just harder than we imagine, it's harder than we are capable of imagining.  Yet, another hopeful truth about trauma is that it lessens over time – how fast and how much is determined by a multitude of factors, most of which are under our control.  

 At first, I wondered if the sun would ever rise and that I might live out my days in the dark shadow of grief.  There was a time I used to look at this photo and weep.  Today, I look at this moment and say reverently, “I remember you, son.  And I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to honor yours.”