HAPPY HALLOWEEN

This was Mitchell’s last October.  We went to a local farmer’s lot to pick out some pumpkins to carve.  Autumn had slipped away and we were deep into fall, each day getting colder and colder.  Except this day was especially warm and the evening sun warmed our skin as if from a distant fireplace.

Though Halloween was different that year, in every way that matters, it was a happy Halloween.

Because his leg muscles had wasted away, Mitch had trouble walking around the uneven terrain.  He tripped and stumbled a few times and he was much slower than the rest of the children.  I couldn’t help but notice the look on my son’s face as he saw other kids race past him.  He had a look of gratitude and determination.  At one point he just smiled and said to me, “Dad, I’m just glad I can still walk.” 

After a lumbering about the pumpkin patch for a while, we each took turns giving our boy a piggyback, so our little boy’s legs could rest.  Though he was getting bigger each year, carrying him was never a burden but in fact a great blessing.

Halloween was just around the corner and I wondered what my boy wanted to do.  Each year, trick-or-treating became more and more difficult.  In the beginning, he used his electric scooter to go from home to home.  As each year passed his muscles became weaker.  Trying to climb up a neighbor’s stairs to knock on their door was exhausting for him.  The year prior, he just parked on each driveway and Luke or Wyatt would take his basket and trick-or-treat for him.    That wasn’t much fun for Mitch because, like so many other children’s activities, he sat on the sidelines and watch the party from afar.  No matter his disappointment or wanting to do what other children did, Mitch bore his burden with a tender smile - grateful to be alive.

So, as I carried my son on my back this warm October evening in the Pumpkin patch I asked Mitch what he wanted to be for Halloween.  He said, “Dad, I just want to stay home and give candy to other kids.”

“Are you sure Mitchie?  I will carry you door-to-door if you want.” I replied. 

He responded with a soft whisper, “No, I want to stay home with you.  Plus, I like giving to others more.”

True to his word, Mitch stayed home Halloween night and handed candy out to other children.  Each time he shut the door he had a big smile on his face.  Giving to others brought more joy to little Mitch than getting ever did.  Although his Halloween bag was empty that night, his heart was overflowing.  So was mine.

To our surprise, later that night, thoughtful friends knowing he was too weak to trick-or-treat brought him some of their candy. 

Though Halloween was different that year, in every way that matters, it was a happy Halloween.

In honor of my son, I will look for those whose bags are a little empty and try to fill them with love and encouragement.  Where I can, I will try to carry those who stumble, though I often stumble myself.  For the key to happiness, I’ve discovered, is found in giving, not getting.

ON TROUBLE & DISCOURAGEMENT

Fall was almost in full swing when Natalie and I took our kids to a nearby park.  We decided to visit one of the older parks, where the trees were mature, and blankets of earthy leaves covered the ground.   

I can’t do much about trouble, but I can find ways to rise above it and be grateful for life. 
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Mitch was known to do a funny, signature skip and hop when he was happy.  I’ll share a video of that soon.  Because his muscles were growing weaker each day, his happy skip became more uncoordinated and labored as time went on.  That never stopped him from doing it, however.  In fact, as his body grew weaker, his sense of happiness seemed to grow stronger.  I always enjoyed watching him at the park; sometimes, in the distance, Mitch would have a conversation with himself, then suddenly it was as though he was struck by a bolt of joy and he began skipping out of the blue.

On this occasion, when Mitch tried to skip, his legs gave out, and he fell.  Ethan, his older brother, quickly reached down to see if Mitch was okay and offered to help him up.  My heart swelled with gratitude for my family and the lessons of love and service my children continually taught me.  At that moment, I was overcome with an impression that despite the hardship our family was facing, Heaven was using that experience to help shape us – not just Mitch, but all of us.

Over the last few years, I’ve watched my surviving children cope with grief in their own, unique way.  It has been a difficult and sometimes dark, treacherous journey.  I don’t write about those experiences because I respect my children’s privacy – but I will say, it hasn’t been easy.  Sometimes the grief journey was made more difficult by outsiders meddling, other times our grief was made complicated by inexperienced psychologists, forever shutting the door of a young mind in need of that kind of help.  In my book, which will be completed soon, I share some of the challenges we faced and what we learned because of it.  I hope it helps others who navigate their journey with loss as we share a kind of “if we could do [certain things] over, we’d do this differently” observations.

I wish weren’t so, but our troubles after Mitch passed were just beginning, and we had to navigate a labyrinth of issues that were as complex as they were bewildering.  During that difficult time, I remembered F. Scott Fitzgerald observation on the difference between trouble and discouragement, “Trouble has no necessary connection with discouragement. Discouragement has a germ of its own, as different from trouble as arthritis is different from a stiff joint.” 

I am certainly not immune to discouragement – and sometimes trouble stirs those feelings up.  But when I remember Mitch, who never let his troubles make him feel discouraged, I’m reminded to step back and recognize that trouble is only temporary.  Discouragement, if not managed, can become a chronic condition.

As I consider this tender moment between little brothers – I’m reminded that no matter my troubles, I can step back and find gratitude for something.  In fact, I can find gratitude for many things.  Anymore, I’m beginning to see that it’s not trouble that weighs us down … it’s discouragement.   

I can’t do much about trouble, but I can find ways to rise above it and be grateful for life. 

A NOT-SO-ORDINARY TREASURE

NEW MJT_A Not-So-Ordinary Treasure.jpg

Today Natalie was helping me clean and organize my office at work. I love her for always helping me.

She stumbled into a little drawer that I hadn’t opened in a few years. Among the many little treasures found therein was an unopened pack of grape bubblegum that expired in 2013. I immediately remembered the circumstances surrounding that little pack of gum. It was October 29, 2012 ... the day Mitchell came to work with me before we went to the hospital to check on his heart. We went to the grocery store, and he said, “Dad, can I get that gum? I just love grape bubblegum.“ I knew time was short with him, so I was eager to help him enjoy things I often take for granted.

As we returned to the office, Mitch sat at my desk and began playing Minecraft on my laptop. He handed me the unopened pack of gum and said, “Dad, will you put this in a safe place? I’ll eat this next time I come to work with you.” I had all but forgotten about this experience until Natalie shared the expiration date with me and pointed to the little cubby drawer where she found it.

I suppose feeling more gratitude than grief is evidence that I’m healing and growing a little.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

My heart was awash with feelings of love and appreciation for Mitch. I didn’t feel grief ... instead, I felt gratitude for having that little boy in my life. I then thought to place this in a little treasure box I have dedicated for special memories of my son. It’s not a shrine; it’s a journal. Not all journal entries are made with pen and paper.

Little Mitch never made it back to work with me. His little treat/treasure was all but forgotten in the dark shadows of a lonely drawer.

Certainly, he was not forgotten, but this little treat he set his heart to enjoy had slipped away into the shadows and out of mind. Until today.

I did not feel any measure of grief over this little treasure and memory of Mitch. Instead, I felt gratitude and feelings of profound love for a little boy that who enriched my heart and soul. I suppose feeling more gratitude than grief is evidence that I’m healing and growing a little. Yet, in this very moment, I must admit that my heart suddenly feels pangs of sorrow. That’s okay because I know healing hurts.

THE MAGIC OF STORYTELLING

As far back as I can remember, storytelling has been a special part of our children’s lives.  At night, the kids would huddle around me as I played music in the background and narrated stories that came to mind as I listened to the mood of the music.  None of us knew where we would go – we only knew every turn was an adventure.  Sometimes we’d laugh, other times they’d clutch their pillows in anticipation – but every time, we’d make memories in real life and imaginary worlds at once.

The magic of story was something Mitchell held close to his heart.  One day, probably soon, I’ll share a story he wrote with his own handwriting in his special journal.  For Mitch, and my other children, stories were not only a means of escape, they became a window to possibility, and a candle that illuminated strengths I saw in them. 

Over the last year I’ve been slowly assembling some content to help other families enjoy the same thing our children did.  I’ll be posting some of this content here over the next few days.  Some of the videos share tender stories of Mitchell and his love of stories, others give ideas on how you can try this form of storytelling with those you love.

I share this because storytelling was a big part of Mitchell’s life.  Even during his final weeks on hospice, he wanted to get swept away in story so he could take his mind off heavy things.

So, whether you have sick kids or healthy kids, young ones, or old ones … this content is for you and anyone willing to experience the magic of storytelling. 

New October Content

Over the next few weeks, starting tomorrow, we'll be publishing content for our Seasons Project. Stay tuned for tools, insights, and ideas to make moments matter with those you love. October's content focuses on some family traditions, November will focus on gratitude and December we'll explore tender mercies in more depth.

Here are a few of the highlights for October:

October 15th: The Magic of Storytelling. A set of videos and ideas to inspire you to create memories through music inspired storytelling. This was one of Mitchell's favorite things to do - and it's something you can try with those you love.

October 20th: The second installment of the Letters to My Son series which explores Natalie's journey with grief, faith, and healing.

October 25th: Three Halloween family traditions Mitchell loved. We hope you do, too.

We'll also be sharing more stories of Mitchell and the ripple effect of his journey.

THE COLLATERAL OF LOSS

It had only been a few short months since Mitchell passed away.  Summer was behind us, and the air was getting colder each day.  In many ways, our grief journey was just beginning, and we’d walk many miles in deep in the shadow of death before we’d find any measure of rest.

As a father, my heart was broken and my soul weary with grief over the loss of my son.  Every single day, for over two years, my lungs felt shallow due to chronic weeping. 

I’ve come to understand sometimes I must allow my children to struggle so that they might learn and grow.  ... For all of us, the seeds in need of growth are ones not found on the surface, but deep inside the soul.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Though my wife and I were suffering, it was never lost on us that our children were hurting, too.  As Natalie and I searched for ways to help our children process their own grief, she discovered Intermountain Health Care (IHC) just established a grief workshop for siblings surviving the loss of a family member.  In the previous winter months, I was grateful for the way in which they cared for Mitch in the hospital, and I again admired their desire to help families on the other side of medicine.  Their motto, “The child, first and always” was not only true of their practice of medicine, but their compassion for other children left behind when medicine failed.

As we arrived at an unfamiliar park to drop our youngest son off, we noticed balloons surrounding their gathering point.  “It must be them,” Natalie said with a comforting tone.  Wyatt, unsure he wanted to be there, looked out the window and didn’t say a thing.  None of us wanted to be there.  We just wanted things the way they used to be.

Wyatt stood on the perimeter of the park, unsure of strangers and what to expect.  Suddenly, one of the staff members said, “Hey catch this!”  A Frisbee was hurled toward Wyatt, who then crouched and caught the flying disc as he smiled.  Within moments, other staff members gathered around Wyatt and began playing with him.  They went from being strangers to friends in a matter of minutes.

I had a hard time keeping my emotions at bay as I saw my tender son hurting in his own way and I felt a deep measure of gratitude for these professionals who understood that there is more to medicine than biology and chemistry … that we must also care for the mind and heart, too. Wyatt began to heal that day – and my heart was grateful.

I have learned the collateral of loss goes far beyond a mother and father’s sorrow.  Children suffer in their own way and in their own time – which makes parental grief even more complicated.  We not only grieve over the loss of a fallen child, but we also grieve over the pain our surviving children experience.  I won’t detail such complications in this post – but I will say that even six months after the death of a child, the hell of such grief is only just beginning. 

Despite the collateral damage of loss – which damage, on the surface, can seem significant; there are also collateral gains – if we soften our hearts and seek to understand the meaning of things.  I believe hard things happen because God not only wants us to be strong, He wants us to become compassionate. The collateral of loss is emotional pain … but there is also spiritual gain. 

C.S. Lewis once observed, “The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word "love."  When I think of my own parenting experience, I’ve come to understand sometimes I must allow my children to struggle so that they might learn and grow.  That, too, is love.  For all of us, the seeds in need of growth are ones not found on the surface, but deep inside the soul.