FROZEN IN TIME

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I’ve heard it said, “Sometimes memories sneak out of my eyes and roll down my cheeks.” This is a memory did just that.

It was cold outside, but my heart couldn’t have been warmer at this moment. We took our kids on an adventure to play in the freshly fallen snow. As the kids were putting on their snow clothes, Ethan pointed to his Spiderman hat and said, “Hey Mitch, look at my hat!” Mitch smiled and said, “Dat’s cool. Look at mine; it’s mommies. Its soft and will keep me warm.” Were he given a choice to wear any hat on earth or his mom’s hat, he would have chosen his mother’s every time. To Mitch, wearing her hat was like getting a constant hug from her.

How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.
— Winnie the Pooh

With that, our kids ran outside to prance about in fluffy fields of white. Mitch reached down to gather snow in his tiny hands and threw it up in the air. He laughed as a chunk of snow landed on his brother’s head. Ethan giggled, then reached over to kiss his brother on his cheek.

By this time, the warm tears streaming down my face were turning to ice on my chin. If I could have frozen time like molecules of water in ice and forever live in this moment, I would have. I suppose, in a way, this photo did just that. I am forever grateful for tender memories – however much they might evoke feelings of loss and sorrow.

I think Winnie the Pooh said it best, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

WHEN TIME RUNS OUT

I don’t think children understand how often we worry over their wellbeing, how much we pray for their safety, and how we want of their happiness. For over a decade, I knelt by my son’s bed every single night and prayed while he slept. I prayed that Mitch might somehow escape DMD, that his life might be spared. For a season, my prayers felt answered to some degree, because he often seemed healthier and more mobile than he should have been. I am thankful to my Father for that.

On this night, I sat at the head of Mitchell’s bed as my young son leaned into my chest, struggling to breathe. I put my arms around him and held him close so he would feel safe. But Mitch was not safe. He was scared and I was, too. But I knew Mitch enough to know that if I held him, he would feel comforted. Sometimes, in life’s storms, all we can do is comfort each other.

Neither of us knew he had 48 hours left.

Like a baby made of sand, he would slip through my fingers and pass away – and my soul would break into unfathomable pieces.

I’m not sure why people wait to make important changes until time runs out – but it seems to be more common, than not. Mitch taught me to never take for granted the time we have – because it is always later than we think. Even though I did all that I knew to do, when it came to making moments, I wish I would have done better. I don’t live in regret because my mistakes and missed opportunities only motivate to do better and try harder. I am satisfied that I did my best while remembering I can always do better.

Lately, as many have noticed, I haven’t posted many new stories of Mitch; that is because I’ve had to turn my attention to something I helped put in motion before he passed away … something I risked everything to make happen, because of him. Now, I do it in honor of him. About a year before Mitch passed I was asked to help develop an idea that would help people live what they valued and make the most of their life. I didn’t know I was about to lose my son, and my plate was already filled to overflowing; I wasn’t looking for anything new. But when I saw what this new idea could do for people, I sensed it was part of my life mission. 

Aside from my faith and family, I care deeply about two things in life: Mitchell’s Journey and helping people live their core values so they can lead a meaningful life. That is who I am. Because of Mitch, that is who I have become – and I cannot put it down. 

Many have asked what I do for a living, and to those I haven’t been able to respond to … I run a company whose mission is to help people close the gap between what they value and what they do. It’s about making our lives matter before time runs out. 

You can visit www.mycore.com to learn more about that effort … an effort that is designed to help people. Period. It is a software tool that helps people organize their lives and stay focused on their core values. When Mitch was alive, he would sometimes come to the office with me when we were just starting this company. He even said what we were building was “really cool.” In a strange way, maybe part of this company is a legacy of my son. He often asked questions about how it would help people, and each time I would share something he would say, “I’m glad it will help others.” I wish he could see how far it has come – and what it has the potential to do for others.

At the end of the day, it is later than we think. Whether our children are about to grow up and grow out of our homes, or if we’re going to lose them to sickness and death … we don’t have much time. Everything changes quickly and what matters most is making the most of what time we have – and that is what I try to do at Mitchell’s Journey and mycore. Both are deeply woven into my life mission – I do both because of Mitch.

 

WHEN THERE IS NONE TO TAKE

Little Mitch was less than 24 hours from being admitted to the ER. We would then learn he only had days left to live. After a rigorous battle in the cardiac intensive care unit, we took Mitch home to live out the remainder of his days where he was comfortable and surrounded by everything and everyone he loved. No time in my life has been more sacred than that time with my son. We were blessed to have him 3 short weeks … which were also the longest weeks of my life. My knees are still bruised.

I’ll never forget how little Mitch leaned into his mother’s embrace in search of comfort. As his parents, we were desperate to rescue him. He was in a great deal of pain as organs in his body reacted violently to his failing heart. It is a tender, terrible irony that a little boy who had such a loving heart would die from heart failure. Natalie held our boy in her arms, also in search of comfort. But there was none to take.

Over the next few weeks we would watch our once vibrant son wither away. I wanted to have that one last conversation with Mitch. I wanted to tell him for the last time how much I loved him and how proud of I was of him. I did tell him such things while he was home … but I wanted just one more. I wanted to tell him that when I grow up, I want to be just like him. I still do.

In 2012, the Thanksgiving prior to Mitchell’s passing we were at my in-laws at a family function. Everyone took a turn to share the one thing they were grateful for. Most parents shared their gratitude for their family and for God. Children shared their gratitude for toys, family and friends. When it came time for Mitch, he simply said, “I’m just thankful to be alive.” I recorded him saying that with my iPhone. I remember that it took a maximum effort to not burst into tears at that very moment.

Another bitter irony that a child who intrinsically valued life would have it taken from him so young.

Comfort and spiritual assurance came and went like a heavenly tide under the dim light of tender mercies. After my son passed away the sky, which was already pitch as night, drew darker still. There were times I sought after heavenly answers and peace … and I received nothing. It would take repeated efforts to reach heavenward before certain answers came. Looking back, I can see that my struggle to find answers and peace [peace, where there was none to take] … that very struggle taught me things I needed to know. I discovered things I would have never learned had answers and peace come at my beck and call, as though God were some kind of cosmic butler. He is no such thing. But He is a parent and a master teacher who understands nothing of value comes easily. Sometimes the answers we seek are discovered in the struggle itself. 

I often hear or read statements like “choose happiness” as though it were possible to blithely lay down our troubles like heavy, unnecessary luggage and simply move on. No sentiment could be more naive or insensitive to those who are trying to find their way through the wilderness of grief and trouble.

How are we to find peace where there seems none to take? It isn't choosing happiness, first.

At least for me, I have discovered that when I first seek meaning and purpose, happiness eventually follows. More than happiness, actually; I experience deep joy and a calming sense of understanding. Yet, when I seek happiness first, I forever hunger for that which cannot satisfy. 

Little Mitch taught me to first seek meaning and purpose, then peace will follow. Understanding will fill those places that seem so empty and hollow.

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.

A SPECIAL GOODBYE

About a week ago I was approached by a Mitchell's Journey follower who had something in common with our family. Her Charlie and our Mitchell were both students of a very special preschool teacher who was about to retire. Both of our children had also passed away. 

So, yesterday Natalie and I attended a retirement banquet for this remarkable woman who played in important role in our son's life. She was a tender mercy for our boy as she helped him make a delicate transition to school. Mitch quickly grew in confidence because of the way she encouraged and guided him. We hadn't seen her for about 10 years so this was a special reunion. At her display table was a kind of memorial with photos of all of her students throughout her career - an evidence this woman was a remarkable teacher who loved her students. The best educators are the ones that teach with love of topic and student. 

Next to the collage of former students was a larger panel with tributes to three of her special needs students who passed away, Mitch being one of them. It was a tender reunion filled with a lot of love and gratitude. 

Here Natalie writes a note to "Mrs. Nancy" thanking her for being so kind and loving to our baby. We had never forgotten her and she clearly remembered little Mitch. When we moved from our first home a decade ago we thought we'd never cross paths with this remarkable teacher again. Fate, or providence, would have it otherwise.

It is interesting how at any given moment we might think a person in our lives a solitary, temporary thread ... unaware how woven our lives may become. The people and events in our lives make for a fascinating tapestry we may not appreciate, or even see, until deep in the twilight of our own lives.

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PRECIOUS MOTHER

I remember driving to the cemetery after work one day only to find my sweet wife knelt quietly at the head of my son’s place of rest. The grass was still mending from the funeral and you could see the painful outline of where exactly he was buried. I never imagined grass could be so brutal.

My dear wife, you precious mother … I love you more than any other. Yes, I love our children as much, too … for they came to life from me and you. But, my love, you are where it started: my heart, my life, and our son departed. My dear wife, you precious mother … because of you, Mitch was blessed above all others.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

I reverently approached my best friend but gave her space – for I saw her suffering an agony only a mother who’s lost a child can know. While I carry a father’s sorrow, which is heavier than anything I have ever known, I reverence my wife’s grief differently than my own. 

Mitch had such a tender relationship with his mom. He often called her “Mommy-Lommie” as a term of endearment. He would always tell me how he thought his mother was the kindest, most beautiful lady on earth. “Don’t you just love Mommy?” Mitch would say with great feeling. 

I have tender photos that I’ll share at a later time that show his sweet expression whenever Mitch was in her arms. This little boy loved his mom. And she loved him.

Mother’s day is around the corner and I can’t help but turn my heart to my dear wife. I struggle to know what I might do to show her how much I love and honor her. Everything I can think of falls short of what I feel. I know the gift she really wants I cannot give. Though I would gladly take my son’s place, I cannot. How that pains me so.

Our grief journey so far has been more complex than I ever imagined. Perhaps that is one of the reasons grief is so difficult to process … precisely because it is so complex. If it were simple, it might be easier. But it is not simple: grief is a tangled web of wanting, longing and loving something you can no longer hold. It is a briar patch of self-doubt, what if’s, and wonderings. It is the isolation of being misunderstood or simply not understood. It is learning to breathe in an emptiness that suffocates.

As difficult as it’s been, grief has also been a beautiful teacher. It has taught me how to be more compassionate and patient. It has taught me to better appreciate light – having experienced pitch darkness. Grief has taught me how to talk to my Father as a child might talk to a parent. Most beautiful of all is seeing those I love discover heavenly gems.

It wasn't long ago I was asked to speak to a group of women about the extraordinary influence they can have in the lives of others. The night before I was to speak to this group Natalie and I were talking about our journey so far. She looked me in the eyes and said, “Chris, I remember feeling betrayed and saying to God, ‘I tried to do everything you asked and THIS is what I get?’” Natalie paused a moment, with tears in her eyes she continued, “Then it occurred to me: this is my price to know God.” Tears filled my eyes and my heart filled with peace as I felt the truth of her words. 

I have marveled at the transformation I have seen in my wife over the last 2 years. I can see the hand of God shaping her, tenderly and sometimes painfully, into something beautiful, not bitter. Yes, her heart is broken and tender – but it has become wiser and more caring. Through her suffering, she has come to know her Father in deeper ways. 

My dear wife, you precious mother … I love you more than any other. Yes, I love our children as much, too … for they came to life from me and you. But, my love, you are where it started: my heart, my life, and our son departed. My dear wife, you precious mother … because of you, Mitch was blessed above all others.

OKAY, BUT NOT OKAY … AND THAT’S OKAY

The funeral director told us it was time to close the casket and suddenly I gasped for air and tried to hold back my tears - but nothing could stay my sorrow. This was it. I wasn't ready to look upon my son for the last time – to say goodbye to his little body, his sweet face … this little boy I used to cuddle, hug and laugh with. My youngest son, Wyatt stood beside me and watched me in grief and sorrow tuck his older brother one last time. 

I carefully pulled Mitchell’s favorite blanket up to his chin, like I did every night, and said “I love you little boy … my sweet son. Oh, how I love you.” I cried a father’s tears … and until that moment I had tasted no deeper tears. I had never known so great a sorrow as to say goodbye to my child. Sweet Mitch trusted that I could keep him safe from harm. He thought there wasn't anything I couldn't do. When he looked at me he saw superman. When I looked in the mirror I saw a broken man. But I tried. God knows how hard I tried. But I was only human.

Months later, my oldest son, Ethan, came into my office while I was writing an entry for Mitchell’s Journey. I was unprepared for the interruption and my eyes were red and filled with tears. Ethan asked, “Dad, are you okay?” I immediately tried to be superman and put on a brave face, wiping my eyes and said, “Yeah, I’m okay” … as if to suggest all was well and that I was simply rubbing my tired eyes. But Ethan was discerning and knew better: I could tell by his expression he knew I was grieving. 

In that moment I thought to myself, “What good do I do my children when I pretend?” I realized I do him no favors when I am not being real. I paused a moment then looked Ethan in the eye and said, “Actually, I’m not okay. But I’m okay. Do you know what I mean?” Relief washed over his face and I could tell he not only understood but that he was glad I was being real … as if it gave him permission to be real, too. I wanted my son to know that it is okay to hurt … that you can be “okay” but “not okay” and that’s okay.

Ethan and I talked about Mitch for a while and he shared some of his sorrows about losing his younger brother. We both cried together. I hugged Ethan and let him know how much I loved him – every bit as much. We crossed a threshold with grief that day. My son knew it was okay to hurt and that pretending otherwise serves nobody, not even ourselves. To the contrary, we do a great disservice when we pretend. 

I had a moment of truth a few years prior when I read the words of an 18th Century French writer who observed, “We discover in ourselves what others hide from us, and we recognize in others what we hide from ourselves.” When I read those words I vowed to retire my masks and get real. 

I've tried to have similar exchanges with my other kids. My children, each unique, process their grief differently. And that’s okay, too. In all things I want to be real with them – for it is when we’re real that we become equipped to deal with real life.

I am still walking on Jupiter where the gravity of grief is great. The air is thin and my tears fall as generously as spring rains. Yes, I have moments of sweet relief and happiness is returning – but grief and sorrow linger. I cannot run from sorrow any more than I can run from my shadow on a sunny day. I must learn to live with love and sorrow – there seems no other way. 

I’m okay … but I’m not okay … and that’s okay. That is part of being human.

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(Re-post from April 1, 2014)
As a general rule, I try to limit re-posting content but I have received a lot of requests from people to see this particular post again. Since I originally posted this story last April, almost 22 million people have seen it. To my surprise, the original post continues to get comments and shares daily – which thing I never supposed, not even in my wildest imagination. So, I share this again, not because I am stuck in grief, but because I know somewhere out there are a great many people who hurt and want to know if it’s okay to not be okay.