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.

INEVITABLE REGRETS

It was a hot summer afternoon at grandma’s house when Mitch reached into his backpack with a subtle, almost mischievous smile, then retrieved my swimsuit. He knew I always forgot to bring my trunks so he went into my bedroom and packed them for me. “Dad, here’s your swimsuit.” Then, with a soft voice, he said, “Will you swim with me?” I chuckled briefly and then, quite unexpectedly, my heart melted as I saw my son’s tender face that seemed to say, “Dad, I don’t have much time.” Then, a lump filled my throat as I thought of the many times he wanted to swim with me and I came unprepared. In the most tender, almost apologetic tone I said, “Mitch, I would love to swim with you.”

We spent the better half of the afternoon playing “Super Shark” and a handful of other games we made up over the years. It was a tender time and a memory I hold dear to my broken heart. 

I didn’t know how to be a dad – and I always felt like I was making things up and stumbling more than making good strides. My youth was complicated and I never had a day-to-day role model to emulate – so I didn’t really know what real fatherhood looked like. My biological father was a good, loving man but I only saw him for a month during the summer. The man I grew up with was angry at the world and especially angry with me, for some reason. My dad taught me how to love, but my drunken step-father (at the time), taught me how it felt to be isolated and despised. I learned to flinch, not flex and grow in confidence.

Because I felt the deep pain of rejection as a child, I never wanted my children to feel any part of what I experienced, so I did my best to give them what I wished I had. Sometimes I wonder if little Mitch wanted to swim with me because he knew I would scoop him up in my arms and hug and kiss him, all the time. 

So there I was splashing around in the pool with my son. By this time, I knew Mitchell’s heart was failing him and it had only been a few months since we learned his heart function was on a steep and unexpected decline. Not a day passed that I didn’t wonder and worry if we were doing enough. We consulted with his doctors and tried medicines that were thought to stabilize his rapid heart decline. Everything failed. We did all that we knew to do and yet we couldn’t save him. When I look back on that labyrinth of decisions with unknowable outcomes, I am tempted to feel regret. 

A few weeks ago, Natalie and I were asked to share some of our thoughts to a group of parents who have children with the same disease Mitch had: Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. One of the panel questions was about making decisions and how to keep from looking back and wondering if they should have done something different. I appreciated that question because I understood it on a very personal level. 

No matter what you do in life, you’re going to make mistakes and regret is inevitable. That is part of being human.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey


My response was “No matter what you do in life, you’re going to make mistakes and regret is inevitable. That is part of being human.” I suggested, “Perhaps we’re better served if we worry less about life’s inevitable regrets and spend our energy doing things that will limit the depth and severity of regret.” I believe if we spend time and energy focusing on the things we truly value, we will stumble, but we won’t stumble far. Our regrets are more likely to feel like bruises, rather than broken legs.

I mentioned in an earlier post that my son’s journey has taught me to turn regret into resolve. I discovered that regret is inevitable, but resolve is a choice. 

Do I have regrets? I have a million of them. But, I have a million more resolves.

As long as I am human I will experience regret; the best way to live with them, as far as I can tell, is to know what I value and always do my best. That is how I've learned to live with inevitable regrets.

SCARS THAT LAST

Sometimes those on the outside of grief wonder what takes so long for those who suffer from moving on. It’s as if because they cannot see a visible scar or site of amputation, there is no injury; which only seems to make the scars of loss more tender and grief more isolating.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

It had been exactly one month since my son had passed away. The cemetery grass bore a burial scar, reminding us of the hell we were living. As if the wind-toppled flowers and weathered stuffed animal didn’t remind me, the grass did, and it pained me deeply. 

Every time I visited the cemetery, there was a quiet desperation in my heart. I wanted to dig up the grass with my bare hands as fast as my feeble arms and trembling hands could so that I might rescue my son from the dark. I could still feel the warmth of his cuddles in my arms and on my chest. Mitchell’s soft voice echoed in my mind and my heart broke over, and over, and over again. 

Sometimes those on the outside of grief wonder what takes so long for those who suffer from moving on. It’s as if because they cannot see a visible scar or site of amputation, there is no injury; which only seems to make the scars of loss more tender and grief more isolating. 

I had knee surgery about 25 years ago, repairing my ACL. After all these years, my knee bears the scars of that operation and my nerves are permanently damaged. That was just my knee. In my younger years, I sustained injuries and wondered if I would scar and how long they would last. Most of them faded away over time. But, like my knee, some scars last a lifetime. If our bodies carry scars, what of our souls? My knee doesn’t make me human – but my love and emotions do. Losing Mitch scarred me in a place you cannot see with your eyes. But that scar exists, and it is very real. And like my nerves, there is also damage.

Grief is inevitable and it forms scars that are deep. Scars that last. As it matures, it transforms from an obstacle into a path.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

In my book, I write a great deal about grief rituals, but for now I’ll just say that I visited Mitch every single day for almost two years. At first, I was traumatized and psychologically I think I visited the cemetery to comfort him, even though I knew he wasn’t there. In time, I began to see that I was going there to sort things out and that I was seeking comfort myself. I no longer visit the cemetery every single day. But I do visit often. 

At least to me, grief seems to mirror the cycle of life. The death of our loved ones doesn’t mean our grief dies with them. Much to the contrary, when our children die, grief is just being born … and that grief will live with us until the day we die. However, like humans, grief grows up and matures over time. 

When grief is first born, it is much like that of a newborn: we cry. A lot. We don’t have the capacity for words – only tears. Then, we become toddlers with grief … learning to walk and find our balance in life. Some learn to walk quickly, for others, it takes time. We try to use our words and sometimes they don’t come out right – but we’re growing and learning how to come alive again. Like our human experience, grief grows from child-like stages to adolescence and then into adulthood. During those adolescent stages of grief, some behaviors might seem juvenile, and people may do things that harm themselves or their relationships with others. Not everybody does … but I have seen some that do. Eventually, grief matures and reaches seasoned adulthood, where there is balance, reason, and understanding. 

I have discovered that as long as I live, grief will never die. The death of my son was the birth of my grief and I will have to care for it as though it were a person. In fact, grief is a person. Grief is me. So, I must tend to it and take good care of it and cultivate growth. I am both the parent and the child. Like raising a child, if I’m not disciplined, grief can spoil and become rotten and ruin me. 

When I visit the cemetery, I no longer want to scoop up the earth with my hands and rescue my boy. I mean, I do … but I don’t have that desperate feeling anymore. There is still a tender part of me that always wants to wake him gently from his sleep and say, “Little Mitch, it is time to wake. Let me lay here for you. Let me take your place.” 

I think I understand and have learned to accept what has happened. That doesn’t mean I don’t hurt. I hurt a great deal. However, I have come to a place of balance, reason, and understanding. But there is still damage on the inside and a scar you cannot see with your eyes. 

Grief is inevitable and it forms scars that are deep. Scars that last. As it matures, it transforms from an obstacle into a path. 

I have discovered that as long as I live, grief will never die. The death of my son was the birth of my grief and I will have to care for it as though it were a person. In fact, grief is a person. Grief is me. So, I must tend to it and take good care of it and cultivate growth. I am both the parent and the child. Like raising a child, if I’m not disciplined, grief can spoil and become rotten and ruin me. 

When I visit the cemetery, I no longer want to scoop up the earth with my hands and rescue my boy. I mean, I do … but I don’t have that desperate feeling anymore. There is still a tender part of me that always wants to wake him gently from his sleep and say, “Little Mitch, it is time to wake. Let me lay here for you. Let me take your place.” 

I think I understand and have learned to accept what has happened. That doesn’t mean I don’t hurt. I hurt a great deal. However, I have come to a place of balance, reason, and understanding. But there is still damage on the inside and a scar you cannot see with your eyes. 

Grief is inevitable and it forms scars that are deep. Scars that last. As it matures, it transforms from an obstacle into a path. 

MOMENTS IN BETWEEN

I miss everything in between. I miss everything that was ever routine.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

I have a habit of taking photos of everything – the big things, the little things, and everything in between. When I look at my photos I enjoy seeing the big events, but I love the captures of little things, the moments in between, even more. I love to capture raw moments. At least to me, they become windows into my past, and they serve to remind me, in vivid detail, of life as it actually happened. There is no posturing, no pretending, just life unrehearsed. 

On this occasion, we were driving to St. George (Southern Utah) when I grabbed my camera and pointed it toward the back and started snapping. I didn’t know what I was shooting and it didn’t matter. I just wanted to capture whatever it was my kids were doing. Later that night, when I saw this photo series for the first time, I was so delighted to see smiles on their face. Ordinarily, my family is so accustomed to my shooting photos; they don’t even look up because they know I’ll stop shooting when they do. For they know I don’t like posed photos. For some reason, they looked up this time and smiled – and I’m grateful.

I love the moments in between. When I think of major events in life: those vacations we saved up for, that night at a musical or play, the family drives through some undiscovered country … it was seldom the sweeping vistas, the beautiful music or the rollercoaster rides I love the most. I find my richest memories are the ones where we were not doing anything big at all. It was those ordinary weekdays at home with the family. It was bath time and bedtime … those times we were exhausted after a long day. It was popsicles on the porch, dinner tables and dancing in the kitchen, pulling weeds and pulling pranks. I miss everything in between. I miss everything that was ever routine.

If grief has taught me anything, it has shown me how to savor life. 

For the things that grieve me are the things that mattered most to me – and because of my pain, I want to do more of what matters with those who remain. Grief has become a catalyst to try harder and do better than I have in the past. To live more fully in the moment … to love with everything I have, and to exercise greater faith. 

At the end of my days, my family won’t care about vacations, cars or play things - they’ll care about the moments in between. The ordinary. The often unseen. 

That’s the stuff life is made of. That’s the stuff that really matters. 

LEST WE FORGET

I will never forget when Mitch sat at the bottom of our steps, struggling to catch his breath after playing one of his last Nerf gun battles. He said to me, “Dad, why can’t I be like a regular kid? I know I will not get better. I know I will die.” In that very moment, keeping my composure consumed what little strength I had left. I was a broken father, stumbling over pebbles and powerless to rescue my son. Still, I hid away a river of tears so that I might comfort my little boy and not frighten him. Though the prospect of losing Mitch frightened me deeply. “Mitch, my son, I don’t know why we have to do hard things. I only know that our Father loves us and that we are on this earth to learn and grow.”

I don’t know how much those words comforted my son in that moment of childhood grief – but I do know he thought deeply about life and death and what happens on the other side. As his father, I did my best to teach him – not to believe my words, but rather I tried to give him the tools so that he might learn for himself … so that he didn’t need to simply believe on my words, but that he might have a knowledge of things for himself. After all, that is the greatest gift we can give our kids … “Don’t believe me. Let me show you how to find out for yourself.” As he neared the end, Mitch came to know (in sacred and undeniable ways) there was more to life than what we saw with our mortal eyes.

So many of the experiences my tender wife and I had leading up to (and during) our son’s death are the kind of life traumas that you never get over. They are not the stuff of nightmares … they are the stuff beyond nightmares. I have discovered that you don't set it aside and move on. That is impossible. Instead, we have to learn to live with those memories and decide what meaning they have for us. 

Though I often write of hard things in this place, I don’t live in a constant state of grief. I have grief moments, but thankfully they don’t last as long as they used to. In a manner of speaking, I no longer see a light at the end of the tunnel – for I believe I have passed through the tunnel. That doesn’t mean all is well and that things are as they used to be. I am forever changed over the loss of Mitch. I will miss him the remainder of my mortal days and I have learned to live with chronic grief. 

At least for me, Mitchell's Journey is like cleaning a deep wound. It's not for everybody. What's more, because my wound is deep, I tend to go deep and it hurts a lot. But that deep cleanse is necessary so as to not allow sorrow to infect my soul.

As I continue down this path of reflection over my son’s journey, I don’t write to wallow. I write to examine. To think deeply. To discover the meaning of suffering and other things. I write because I don’t ever want to be that person who forgets the lesson. I think that’s a universal human struggle: to remember and to see clearly. For when pain passes, we tend to forget and go to what’s easy. Mitchell’s Journey, at least for me, is a place to remember and a place to see. 

I write so that I might remember what I’ve learned at such a terrible price. I write lest I forget and become what I used to be. For where I was yesteryear is no place for me.

 

THE LAST BUTTON

The last button. It seems in life the hardest thing is always the last thing: the last 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 simply looking back on a squandered moment realizing, in retrospect, that was our last and wishing we were different.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

There are some moments in life that burn an image into your mind with permanent marker – and some experiences so hard to bear, 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 tidal 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. I think I've just begun putting my 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. On the other hand, 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. And when I can, I try to gather mine.

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 at the same time closer, to the truth. 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 greater 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 sorrow is as unique to her as her relationship was with Mitch. It was beautiful, vast and deep.

The last button. It seems in life the hardest thing is always the last thing: the last 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 simply looking back on a squandered moment realizing, in retrospect, that was our last and wishing we were different. 

Neal A. Maxwell, a man I greatly admire, 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. 

Mitch ranks among the sweetest of the many blessings I have received in this life. I vow every day, when I button my own shirt as I ready for work, 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, then for myself.

GUILT, GRIEF & GRACE

My dear wife and I had just delivered the most difficult public address of our lives. It had never occurred to us that parents don’t typically speak at their child’s funeral because emotions are so very near the surface. For some reason, we did.

After the funeral service we made the somber journey to the cemetery. My little son was in the hearse in front of us and all I could think was, “He must be so cold and scared and lonely.” I had those same nearly schizophrenic feelings when I was 19 years old and drove my father’s casket alone in the back of a pickup truck from Edmonton to southern Alberta. It was snowing outside and I agonized that my dad was cold and I wanted to protect him like he so often tried to protect me. I cried a lot on that long drive – I was young, sad and very much afraid. Although those feelings of wanting to protect my father were strong then, they were so much more intense toward my son. What you see here was the worst commute of my life.

As we followed our little boy I couldn't help but also think back on my life with Mitch. Instantly I had feelings of guilt and grief and a longing to hold him such that I had never before known. I cried on this drive, too – and my soul cried out even harder.

I couldn't imagine it then, but I see it now: death and dying, the funeral and all its preparations, as difficult as they are … that’s the easy part. It is in the quiet of things, long after death has come to steal away that which is most precious … it is when the dust settles and the world spins madly on … that is when the struggle truly begins.

I have heard many who wrestle with grief share feelings of personal guilt over a million-and-one things they wish done differently. I understand those feelings because I have felt them, too. I wrote in a post last December, “That list of “what ifs”, however counterfeit and scattered with lies, remains glossy, persuasive and deceptively wise.”

Though I may be tempted to feel guilt for what might have been, or perhaps even should have been, I know I always had the welfare of my family at heart and I did the very best I knew how. I wasn't perfect, but I was perfect at trying – and that is good enough for me. Grief is hard enough – guilt makes grief more difficult. Guilt is a lot like fire: if it is properly managed it can wield great power and affect change. If mismanaged, or gets out of control, it can burn us and cause deep scars. 

Yet there are so many moments that invite feelings of guilt: from the foolish things people say, to those who suggest we’re grieving wrong … because we’re not doing it their way. To all of that nonsense I say, ignore it. It is easy to critique the grief of others for those who never knew it or bore it.

I don’t feel guilty for having good days or moments of happiness – as though I've betrayed some unspoken rule of grief. To the contrary, I seek after such moments daily. We are made to find joy – and joy is what I seek.

On the other side of the grief spectrum there are some who suggest, “Mitch wouldn't want you to be sad.” Yet, I am sad that he is gone. I don’t feel guilty for grieving or feeling deep sorrow over the loss of my son … for I believe he understands my grief … that grief is the language of the heart and points to unspeakable love and unimaginable loss. Why feel guilty for that? I don’t feel guilt for grieving and I never will.

Mixed in the many layers of grief are the questions “Why me? Why this? Why?” We may never know the answers … at least in this life. But, I can’t help but think there’s a relationship between grief and grace. At least to me, it seems if we endure our struggles well, grief can become our teacher and open our hearts to a deeper compassion toward others. 

Though I wish the death of my son never happened, it did. Shaking my fist at God in anger won’t change that … in fact, that kind of anger would change me … and I don’t want that.

I’ll never turn my fist toward God. Instead, I turn my ear toward Him and do my best to listen. And, when I slow down and give my heart some space, I am convinced grief is a key to grace.