HOPE GROWS

I never imagined a day I wouldn’t weep to the point of exhaustion. For two years after my son passed away, I wept like a child in my closet and in my secret places. Sometimes I couldn’t contain myself and I would cry even in public places. But I wept. Every single day, I wept. “Will grief ever end? I am so tired from sorrow. When will relief come?” I thought to myself in moments of deep despair. 

I have come to learn an immutable truth: grief will last so long as love lasts. The moment I stop loving will be the moment I stop hurting. But that will never happen – for I love little Mitch, even to infinity. So, I accept that sorrow will be my companion the remainder of my mortal life. There is no escaping it. I will not run from grief … instead I will try to learn from it. 

Somehow, after passing through veils of sorrow and the shadows of death, there is light on the other side.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

So far, grief has taught me to enjoy the moment, for we will never have now again. Grief has turned my life upside down, but right-side up – for my priorities are so very different. It has taught me to love more deeply and witness first-hand the supernal doctrine of mourning with those that mourn. I have experienced the healing powers of empathy from others and seen the destructive effects when there is none. Grief, while hellish and painful, has been a tender teacher – and for that I am grateful.

I have found the process of writing out my sorrows, in my journal and here on Mitchell’s Journey, a helpful tool in my grief journey. I’m sure on some level it has helped release building pressure that might otherwise have become bottled up grief. But I have discovered more in writing that just releasing emotional pressure. It has helped me learn and process the things I hold most dear to my heart. Author Joseph Joubert once observed, “Writing is closer to thinking than speaking.” I believe he is right. Writing down my thoughts has helped me sort through my sorrows, to provide context and meaning to suffering, and to see with my spiritual eyes.

This is what it looks like when I write. A blank sheet of paper and a photo. I never write without asking my Father in prayer, “What am I to learn from this? I’m listening.” From there I go on a journey back in time to these moments I hold sacred and dear to me. My memories are vivid and almost tangible … both a blessing and a curse for a heart that longs to love as it once did. I always cry when I write. Sometimes I weep. On occasion, I weep deeper than deep. But somehow, after passing through veils of sorrow and the shadows of death, there is light on the other side. I hear my Father’s voice, however quietly, and I know we’re not alone. I then thank my Father for teaching me something my weary heart needed to know. 

Hearing my loving Father’s voice teach my broken soul, no matter how undeserving I may feel at times, gives me hope that perhaps tomorrow, or someday, things may not be so heavy as they seem today. Already I see a difference from yesterday. And with each step toward healing my hope grows. Even now I look at my tender, yet healing heart and hope grows. 

SHADOWS & VALLEYS

Mitch followed me wherever I went. He was my shadow … my dear child and sweet little friend. He seemed to always find comfort being around me and in his absence I have come to realize how much comfort I took in being around him. 

Last summer we had some family over for a BBQ . Everyone was inside or up the hill in our back yard talking. I found myself at the grill doing what dad’s do and I turned to the place Mitch usually sat while I cooked and he wasn't there. Never a chair seemed so empty. I started to cry. 

I took this photo a summer prior as Mitch sat with me while I prepared dinner at the grill one hot summer evening. It was a perfect night and I enjoyed listening to Mitch talk to me about his plans for the future. I normally never take selfies because I am far more interested in what I see in other people than I am in seeing myself. But this time I made an exception because I was with my sweet boy and I wanted a photo of the two of us. I almost didn't take this – but I am so glad I did. 

I think I am beginning to understand the deeper meaning of the scriptural passage “the valley of the shadow of death.” Over the years I have heard many recite that passage as though they were words from a hallmark card. But I have come to learn that all of ancient scripture are not only accounts of mankind’s dealings with God, but a record of real sorrows, what we’re to learn from them and why we suffer. Deep inside that poetic prose are words that carry heavy meaning. 

Death indeed has cast its shadow. Shadows, by their very definition limit ones view – we cannot see what happens over there. And in death’s towering shadow I find myself on a journey through the valley of grief … a valley that is deep in the shadows … deep in grief. It is a place where I stumble and a place where I weep as my heart and mind search for my son and that unspeakable peace. 

I miss my son, my shadow. I love him. I weep for him. And as I find my way through the valley of grief and sorrow, deep in the shadow of death, I am not afraid … for I know God lives. I know He loves us. And while being mortal we may be required to suffer – there is a divine reason for all that we experience. If we look inward and upward we can learn and grow … even through the dark shadows and deep valleys that only God knows.

BUT IF NOT

Mitch lowered his head into his lap, tired of hospital visits and anxious to go home to his friends and family. My son looked to his future with youthful enthusiasm; yet, what he thought was a beautiful sunrise on the horizon of his life was in reality, a darkening sunset. As his parents, we knew time was running out … we saw the sunset but didn’t want to frighten our son. So, we just held him and loved him the best we knew how and kept that terrible reality from his tender mind as long as we could. Medicine was failing us. Medical bureaucracy and antiquated transplant policies failed us. We hoped and prayed something might slow the destruction of his heart from DMD – but such was not the case. Last minute interventions were too little, too late.

I suppose there are a million and one reasons I could be angry with people, medical systems and God for all that has happened. But I am not. I am only grateful. I am grateful for what I did have; for I had a chance to love my little child for 10 amazing years. He became my friend and I became his student. Though I was his father, he taught me more than I ever hoped to teach him.

On my son’s journey through life and death there were many times I cried out in my mind and heart, “Oh, Father, this hurts. Where are you?” After my son passed away, my world darkened by a veil of grief and sorrow – such that I wondered when the night might end. I wondered if it would ever end … for I had never known a darkness so pitch. A grief so heavy. Behind my smile was a broken, weary soul stumbling over pebbles.

Two years later I can say with confidence the darkness fades and strength returns. In fact, light and life return. That is not to say I am over grief - because I’m not. Some days are as dark with sorrow as any day I’ve ever known. Grief is a chronic condition that I’m learning to live with. Yet, I’ve learned to carry grief in ways that won’t injure other parts of me. For that I’m grateful.

The question I hear over and over from others on Mitchell’s Journey is “Why?” I’m not sure it’s entirely possible to know why we experience what we do. When hardships come some people get swallowed up in rage and self-destruct. Others blame God for their suffering – as though they should be the only human exception from pain and sorrow. And there are others who insist a loving God wouldn’t let us hurt – therefore He must not exist, or that He is cruel and unkind. There are so many ways to look at pain and suffering. So many ways to learn from it, or run from it.

I shared this in an earlier post: “Whether we settle the question ‘Is God the author of our suffering?’ or not, is immaterial. If our suffering is caused by other means … be it our own poor judgement or the bad choices of others, or perhaps our suffering is just a result of life in motion … the fact of the matter is God could stop our suffering if He wanted to. That He doesn’t sends the most important message of all.” 

There is an ancient account of three God-fearing men who were to be thrown into a fiery furnace if they didn’t denounce their faith before an unscrupulous king. They boldly replied they would not. They also told the king (Nebuchadnezzar) that they believed God would protect them, but if not, they would remain true. 

But if not … those are easy words to say in Sunday School, Shabbat, or from a pulpit or stage. It is only when we utter those words in our own wilderness of afflictions that the true lesson and test begins. What I’ve learned is we cannot escape hardship: but we can learn and grow from it or we can revile and shrink because of it. I will not shrink.

I believe life is hard because we are meant to become strong as well as good. Despite my heavenward pleas to spare my son, a little boy I loved with all of my heart, I now find myself on the other side of that phrase “but if not.” What I do next with my reality matters. I can shake my fist at the heavens in anger – but that won’t change heaven, it will only change me … for the worse. Or, I can take a knee and plead for understanding and wisdom. I can pray for a soft heart and discerning eyes … to see past mortality’s deceiving guise. For when I hear the terrible ring of death’s loud toll, I am reminded to worry less about the body and more about the soul.

JUST ENOUGH TO LIGHT THE PATH BEFORE MY FEET

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A few weeks ago I re-posted a story entitled “Please, No / Please Know.” In it, I described our struggle of the soul to come to terms with the passing of our son.

A thoughtful and kind follower of Mitchell’s Journey asked: “Have you ever received an answer? Do you “know”?

This was my response:

“What a fair question. Yes, I have received an answer. Many, in fact. I "know." There are still moments of darkness and deep sorrow. Yet, when I look heavenward ... when I connect the tender mercies I've seen, they display like heavenly constellations that point the way ... just enough to light the path before my feet. I know it like a compass knows the north and south poles. I cannot see it, but I can feel its influence. Still, my journey through the wilderness of grief requires that I trust that compass and follow where it leads. I cannot see that far ahead of me. I must still walk by faith. Yet, I know. I absolutely know.”

I know.

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This is the re-post of that article.
http://tinyurl.com/lf5444p

PLEASE, NO / PLEASE KNOW

This hardship has taught me, however, that while I may plea to God “please no” … if the answer is no, I must change my plea to “please help me know.” That is the foundation upon which we grow.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Natalie and I left Mitchell’s room as he drifted to sleep. Mitchell was slipping away. Everything was escalating and we knew time was running out. We both sat in the hall just outside his room and wept. Our tears came from a well of the deepest sorrows. I eventually looked to my weary wife … exhausted, frightened and heavy with grief. My heart broke even more because I knew this woman, who has the tenderest of hearts, loved her little boy in ways only a mother can know. The “fix it” father in me desperately wanted to make it all go away, but I could not. 

There were many occasions that I prayed to God “Please, no.” I petitioned over and over that somehow … some way … my son would be spared. Yet, every medical intervention was riddled with peril. Too much was happening, too late. Every path was a dark path. Even still our prayers continued, “Please, no.”

At some point during my wrestle of the soul I received a distinct impression. After I had cried out what felt a million-and-one times “please no” I was finally answered with “please know”. What followed was a most unique spiritual experience. A peace and understanding had fallen upon my wife and me; and while we didn't have words to describe what we were feeling, we had a strong sense that we were being told “Please know, everything is as it’s meant to be. I've got this.”

Over the years I have come to understand that mortality, our life on earth, is a schooling the soul. It is an education that takes a lifetime to complete. There are books to study, things we must do, knowledge and faith we must acquire … and there are tests. Oh, there are tests. 

There are tests of prosperity; what we do when the sun is shining and our pockets full or overflowing. There are tests of faith; what we do when the lights go out. Test of hardship; how we respond to our difficulties. Test of anonymity; what we do when nobody is watching. So many experiences we encounter … so many learnings, if we become students of the soul. 

When I consider this hardship I pray that the child in my heart can rise above this profound sorrow. I know I can. And I will. But losing my son has broken every bone in my body, wrenched my soul and pulverized my heart. With all that I understand and have felt spiritually my heart still cries out for my son and I miss him terribly. 

This hardship has taught me, however, that while I may plea to God “please no” … if the answer is no, I must change my plea to “please help me know.” That is the foundation upon which we grow.

MY WILDERNESS

As a young boy I used to get lost in the back woods of Edina, Minnesota. The wilderness was thick with all manner of vegetation, rocks and hills – and because of the very nature of nature you couldn't see very far. And when fog settled, you could see almost nothing. 

Being lost as a young child reminds me of the landscapes of my life. Sometimes I sit upon a vista with clear skies and can see far into the horizon. Other times I am scaling my Everest – afraid I might fall. Still, other times I am traveling through a wilderness of hardship where the fog of the unknown makes seeing what’s ahead almost impossible. 

Regardless of the landscape upon which I journey, I have learned to travel by faith. That doesn't mean to travel blind or dumb, but to learn to see with my other eyes and hear with my other ears. There is a difference, and it is significant.

As Mitch started to slip away, I found myself descending into a dark wilderness wherein I could see very little. The further we traveled into this wilderness of grief and sorrow the more difficult the terrain and the thicker the fog. I would hold my son’s face and tell him how much he meant to me. I would kiss and hug him and try to assure him – but inside I was terrified of losing him. I love him so very much. With each minute, each day, the wilderness became ever dark and perplexing. I have never known a wilderness such as this.

My wife came into my office today with tears in her eyes and said, “I know it’s officially tomorrow night (the morning of March 2nd) that Mitch passed away, but the day was on a Friday last year. Today is Friday.” Tears filled my eyes, too. I realized then I am still navigating the wilderness of grief. And what a wilderness it is… 

The other day I stumbled upon a journal entry I wrote when I was 19 years old. I had all but forgotten about the dream – but somehow I had the presence of mind to write it down over 20 years ago. In my dream I was travelling in a forest heading to some place important, but I couldn't put my finger on where. I also had a wife and children but I couldn't see their faces and I didn't know their numbers, yet I knew they belonged to me and me them. Each of them was carrying picture frames. As we made our journey through the thick forest, at some point I realized someone was missing and I began to desperately search for my child. I was in a panic, and then my dream ended.

As I read my journal entry I lost my breath. I am now beginning to understand the meaning of that dream so many years later - and I can’t help but contemplate what God was trying to tell me about my future. He spoke to me, and I listened … and I wrote it down… but I didn't understand it. If there is one thing I've learned in my own journey; it is one thing to receive a personal revelation (or answer, or warning) but quite another to understand it. 

I have discovered that while navigating my wilderness I must learn to rely on my spiritual hearing, not just spiritual sight. And learning to hear is a delicate and personal thing – borne of personal acquaintance. 

Suppose I told you outside there were 2,000 mothers – one of which was mine. And say I blindfold you and told you to find her. I could describe her to you; I might say she’s 5.5, blonde short hair, a beautiful smile and kind voice. If I sent you out there to find her ---- you couldn't do it. Yet if you were to blindfold me I could find her in minutes. Why? Because I know her voice. So it is with God. 

I am still navigating the wilderness of grief - almost as if blindfolded. But I have ears to hear. And while I may stumble and fall to my bruised knees in sorrow, I will get up and follow that voice that whispers ever so gently. A voice that is so quiet that if I’m preoccupied, I may not hear it at all. 

One day, at the end of my wilderness, when I have learned what I must, I know I will see my son again. Only this time I will hold Mitchell’s face not in sorrow but in deep relief … for I will have closed the loop on that dream I had so many years ago; I will have found my son who was lost from my sight. And I will thank my wilderness for teaching me to hear my Father’s voice … a voice that is leading me home. I hear Him.

FOR TIMES OF TROUBLE

I purchased this coin at the gift shop at Primary Children’s Hospital. 

It was only a few days earlier we were told our son would die and likely only had a few days to live. Shocked and bewildered, my wife and I began to navigate a sea of trouble and grief for which we were scarcely prepared. Hell came barging into our lives and spared no one.

Each night I sat at Mitchell’s hospital bed and watched various monitors tethered to his body display the chaos that was unfolding beneath his skin. This catastrophe of hurricane proportions was so great, and in the doctor’s minds unstoppable, they turned off the audio alarms because they wouldn't stop beeping. I have seen many scary things in my life and none were as scary as what I saw on those screens. I watched my son’s chest pound as though a grown man were inside his body punching his way out. His tender heart was struggling so hard to support his little body. By this time my son had also lost a great deal of weight and he looked sickly. My young son and soul mate, my baby made of sand, was slipping away and no medical intervention could save him from DMD. If ever I found myself in a time of trouble, there was none so great as this. 

One night, at about 3AM, unable to find rest, I sat by my son and posted “Mourning with Those that Mourn” thanking those who were following our son and offering him words of love and encouragement. I was reminded that no matter how impossible some challenges seem, there is always something to be grateful for. And in that moment I was grateful for many of you who took time to love a stranger. If ever there were a testament to the goodness of humanity, it is seen in your goodness to my son. Thank you … from the depths of my soul, I thank you.

In that post I wrote: “While navigating the labyrinth of pain and sorrow, Natalie and I often talk about finding joy, and we believe it is all around us. I think joy is a natural byproduct of gratitude. It's so often the little things, if appreciated, that bring joy to life and amplify happiness. There is so much to be grateful for. There are tender mercies all around us, every day.” 

In times of trouble, gratitude is a lifeline; in times of joy, it is an amplifier. If I believed that then, I believe it even more today. In fact, I don’t just believe it, I know it.

I have also found gratitude an effective means of rising above that which would take us down. It doesn't prevent sorrow but it gives context to pain and suffering and keeps us from getting so dizzy in grief we forget there is still something to be grateful for. If our soul is to be likened to soil, gratitude is the great fertilizer. It lets light in, it nourishes and softens our hearts so other things may grow. I have never known a bitter man who was grateful, nor a grateful man who was bitter. Gratitude is divine. Gratitude is a gift from God.

It is to this end I will always pray … to be blessed with the gift of gratitude every single day. And if I am blind to the gifts my Father so generously gives me, I pray for eyes to see. For gratitude can fill our hearts even when our arms are empty.