WHAT THE CASUAL TRAVELER CAN’T SEE

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There’s a saying that reads, “Do not teach your child to be rich. Teach him to be happy, so when they grow up, they’ll know the value of things, not the price.” I’ve always loved this saying and have tried to help my children appreciate the little things. Their appreciation often showed up in the language of their prayers; especially when they expressed gratitude for soft pillows, macaroni and cheese, and blanket forts. In my few years on this planet, I’ve come to discover things of greatest value have little (if anything) to do with price.

During his last summer of life, Mitch spent some long-awaited time at his grandmother’s ranch in Southern Utah. On this day, life couldn't have been more awesome; the weather was perfect, and glee was floating in the air like spring pollen. On the horizon, you could see the ancient fingers of Kolob Canyon which stood towering into the sky as a majestic reminder that our lives are but a blink. A reminder that humans are only transients on this planet … a classroom of rock and water.

Before my mother moved to the ranch, I drove by this canyon a thousand times, oblivious to the beautiful landscape I was passing. You see, the highway hugs the mountain so close to the base of Kolob Canyon you cannot see it (not even a little bit) - the road is just too close to it. Without perspective, everything around the highway felt ordinary. But, were you to take an exit near the canyon and get a little distance from the highway, you’d see the most amazing mountain range. This canyon is one of Utah’s best-kept secrets – invisible to the casual traveler.

Once I discovered the relationship between the highway and this canyon, it began to serve as something of a metaphor to me. It reminded me that sometimes I can’t see the true nature of a thing until I step back and look from a different vantage point.

My experience with Mitch taught me the same thing. As I have traveled the long road of grief, I’ve learned to step away from my sorrow and look upon the landscape of this experience from a different vantage point. I have learned to see beauty. I can also see reminders this place is not home … that I, too, am a transient and will one day travel to a better place.

This photo reminds me Mitch lived a good life – and in that, I can find joy. If I were asked to find one image that best illustrated my son, I believe this is it. Mitch was happy – not because of things, but because his family loved him and he discovered ways to find joy in everything. I recently discovered some videos of my family where you can see Mitch skipping in the background, unaware he was on camera. He was skipping because he was simply happy. Although the road he traveled was hard, and he could have found a million-and-one reasons to complain about life not being fair to him, he always stepped away from his limitations and stepped into appreciation. He saw life from a different vantage point. He stepped back, and he saw the canyon.

While losing my son has been a source of great sorrow, if I’m not mindful … if I hug the mountain of grief too closely for too long, I will miss a kind of beauty that might otherwise enrich and inform me. It isn’t always easy – but I have learned to take my mind and heart down different roads.

Of course, to grieve in healthy ways, we must acknowledge there is pain – a whole lot of it. But healthy grief also requires me to balance the scale and acknowledge the things that brought me joy. Finding joy can take time, especially when grief is new, bewildering, and unfamiliar. I had to be patient and kind to myself. In the beginning, I had to travel the only road I knew. Then there were times I had to leave the comfort of my car and hike the back road, bare feet and all, to see the greater canyon.

At least for me, as I traveled the broken road of grief, I’ve searched for trails of gratitude and explored them. Those trails led me to beautiful panoramas of perspective and have helped heal me – but they have taken effort. Grief has taught me to step back and see the world differently. And when I did, I discovered things the casual traveler can’t see.



A CROWD OF ANGELS

It wasn’t long ago a father reached out to me in grief.  He asked, “Do you believe in angels?” 

 This was my response:

 “Yes, I do believe in angels and that they walk among us [sight] unseen. Sometimes, if we're quiet and listening, we can feel their presence.

 Sometimes.

 We had some pretty profound moments with Mitch after he passed away. As Mitch was in the process of dying he slept a lot. Natalie and I were in a state of deep despair and couldn't feel as easily what others felt. Some people, not knowing what was happening at our home the last few days, dropped some gifts or notes at our door. They would leave our house and send us a text saying things like, "I'm not sure what's happening at your home, but I felt something I've never felt before. It felt like I was walking through a crowd of angels.”

 I’ve had some spiritual experiences in my life, but few as sacred as this night.  I’ve written about the night Mitch passed in earlier posts from the viewpoint of everything going dark, and how only when my spiritual eyes adjusted to the darkness did I begin to see the stars.  The stars were a metaphor for little blessings in my son’s life that were always there, but I didn’t have the eyes to see them.  Not until everything went pitch black.  An experience that is simultaneously as beautiful as it was terrifying.

 Tonight, I want to share something about that same experience but from a different viewpoint.

 As Mitch lay in his bed, unable to move his body or open his eyes – he could scarcely squeeze our hands in answer to questions.  His weary heart was about to flutter to a stop.  The time was drawing near, and Natalie and I were so very afraid. 

 At various times throughout the night, people came to our door and left gifts for little Mitch in the hopes of lifting his spirits during this sacred transition.  I can almost hear the quiet shuffling of feet in the snow as visitors came reverently to our door to leave a token of love and care.   

 Mitch would never see those gifts in mortality.  They weren’t in vain, however, for they were tokens of love and compassion that would lift our weary hearts after Mitch had gone.

 In a strange way, my home started to feel different … like it was transforming into a busy train station.  I sensed a sacred gathering of others.  Others I couldn’t see.  I don’t pretend to know who was with us or what was happening … I only knew something was put in motion and that other souls were drawing near.  I could feel it in the marrow of my soul and it brought me a measure of peace and calm.  I was hurting deeply, but I wasn’t drowning.

 Looking back, I can see that even in our agony, we were supported by spirits unseen.

 Today, as I face hardships and the unknown, I try to remember this dark night.  And I am reminded that we are never really alone.

A THOUSAND POINTS OF LIGHT

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“Hey Dad, what’s that?” Ethan said pointing to a star. In an instant, my hallway went from routine to reverent as I described a series of blessings that came into our lives during an especially dark time.

In my hallway, just outside my office, is a 7-foot image of what look like constellations. It’s a visual representation of some tender mercies (or points of light) I’ve seen on my life-journey, thus far. A few years ago, I wrote an essay entitled “Nightfall” where I described the spiritual darkness that immediately followed Mitchell’s passing.

I wrote, “With all the lip service we give our religious beliefs, there is nothing so exacting as to see your child die and then to peer into the dark abyss of death. I have been taught that: "Faith, to be faith, must go into the unknown ... must walk to the edge of the light, then a few steps into the darkness." My son's journey, Mitchell's Journey, has forced my wife and I to step into the darkness … a darkness that is as heavy as it is pitch.

Yet, I discovered something in that darkness. When I allowed my spiritual eyes to adjust and look upward, I started to see the stars. Against the backdrop of all that is black and frightening, I can see little flecks of light, tender mercies that were always there but I didn't have eyes to see them. And the accumulation of these tender mercies presents themselves like heavenly constellations so I can find my way. If I look down or to the side, all I see is darkness. Like ancient navigators who looked to the heavens for bearing I can see the fingerprint of God in all that has happened, and I now have a sense of direction. I know we're not alone.

To be clear, it is still nightfall and my heart is heavy with a sinking sorrow. There are days that are blacker than black, and the waves of grief threaten to pull me under. But when I look to the heavens I can see.

I can see.”

Just a few days after writing that essay, I began to make a star chart outlining the undeniable, sometimes unexplainable, blessings that came into my life. Since then, I’ve developed much larger star chart plotting an even more complex tapestry of light, I’ve created a workshop aimed at helping people identify their own points of light and a guided journal. Soon, I’ll begin my deepest life’s work – to build an app that will help people chart and journal their own points of light through the metaphor of a star chart.

This project is among the most sacred of my life’s work – taught through Mitchell’s life, death and my subsequent search for meaning. I’ve been patiently searching for the right time and people to join me in seeing this vision through – and I think the stars are beginning to align.

Ethan, who was Mitchell's big brother and best friend, is now almost 19 years old. As a young adult, he's learning to look back on his life and make meaning of his own journey, heartbreak, and faith. Seeing his life like a constellation helps him see with new eyes.

I have written a lot of unpublished content on Mitch and the topic of tender mercies/points of light and will share that material soon. But for now, I'll say this: when I look at my personal star chart, which is a spiritual chronology of good fortune, hardships, and divine interventions, I can take courage that however dark and unknown my future may seem, things will be okay. Somehow, some way, things work out.

ON TRUSTING THE CURRENT

Natalie took this photo of tiny Mitch on my shoulders while we were on an adventure deep in the wilds of Wyoming. Every time he sat on my shoulders he would pull my hair with his chubby little hands in the direction he wanted me to go. Mitchie would giggle as I winced and moaned from the pain of pulling my hair. The hurt I felt was a nothing compared to the joy I experienced when he laughed.

On this day we were playing by a swift but smooth flowing river. Mitch would use his same chubby fingers to scoop up a pile of pebbles and hurl them into the water, sending a cascade of ripples downstream. To Mitch, it was like fireworks in the water. To me, watching my son was fireworks to my heart.

Although Mitch was young, I felt even younger than him. In many ways, I felt like a child raising a child. In those early years, when the realities of being a father settled on my mind and shoulders, I would panic a little on the inside because I felt wholly inadequate and unprepared for such a responsibility. Oh, I loved my wife and kids with all of my heart, but when I went to college, I never learned how to be all of that. I suppose, as with most things in life, we learn by doing.

What I wouldn't do to go back in time and talk to the younger me. I would tell myself:

  • You will make mistakes. Just remember you are not your mistakes … but you will become what you do with them.

  • Relax, you’re okay.

  • When you fall, try to fall forward. 

  • Read that extra book at bedtime.

  • You will never have now again. Cherish … everything.

  • Slow down and let tomorrow be. Tomorrow will come soon enough.

I tried to do all that stuff … but I wasn't always the best at it.

As I reflect on this tender time with Mitch, I can’t help but think of that fast-moving “wivo” that entranced him so much. Today I can see a different kind of river, a river of time and providence, and it is fascinating to behold. I cannot see where it is going; I can only see backward … leading up to this moment.

As much as I thought I knew what I was doing in my younger years, I can see that I had no idea. However much I tried to peer into the horizon as a young parent and professional, there were currents in life that were taking me places I wasn't wise enough to pursue on my own. I thank heaven for the currents of life that have gently guided me along my own path. I am grateful for the people I have met whose currents blended with mine, even if only for a season. My life is better because of it.

I have learned to trust the current. Yes, I need to make wise choices while in the river … and there are rapids, undertows, and hazards of all kinds. If I'm not careful, I can certainly drown. But I have come to learn I can no more stop the current of life any more than I can stop Niagara Falls with my bare hands. So, rather than swim against the current or pretending such heavenly currents don’t exist, I am trying to swim where I am supposed to swim.

One day, I pray the current will take me to that place beyond the hills; where I will stumble from the shore, tired and tattered … longing for rest. And on that day I will see my son again, and my tears will fill the river to overflowing. Niagara, by comparison, will seem like a dripping faucet.

As much as I yearn to, I cannot peer into the river ahead. So on my journey, I have learned to trust in my heart as much as my head. As I swim through life, I'm learning to trust the current.

WHAT EVER YOU DO, DO IT WITH LOVE

When Mitch was a tiny boy he’d softly say in a childlike tone, “Dad, come wiff me, I show you sumping.”  With that, his chubby little hand would grab my fingers and gently tug me toward something he discovered.  He was never overbearing but with great love in his heart would gently lead me along.   Until his dying day, that softness never left my son – though he probably could have found any number of reasons to be angry with his lot in life.  He was kind and pure and overflowing with a faith I scarcely comprehend.  I think when my mortal eyes fall away and I see my son for who he truly is, I will see that he was my older brother and that he was here to teach me.

I can almost hear his whisper now, ever so softly in my mind.  Only this time he see’s things that I cannot – for he has traveled down a path far from mortal view.  So, I must listen closely now … I must listen with my heart and mind; for gems of the soul are, on purpose, not easy to find. 
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

 I was always fascinated by the things he found interesting; the way an ice cube melted on the kitchen table, or how bees would land on a flower and not fall off the petal, or the sheer magnificence of a sunset that captured his heart.  Little Mitch was easily entreated and marveled at the little things in life.  To Mitch his cup was always overflowing and he stopped at nothing to drink it all in.

 On this spring day, while taking a walk as a family, my sweet little boy offered that familiar invitation “Dad, come wiff me, I show you sumping.”  With a little tuft of grass in his hand he led me to a corner behind a tall tree and said in his tiny voice, struggling to pronounce the letter “L”, “Dad, wets make a fort.”  I don’t remember the other things he said … I only remember getting choked up by his tenderness.   I wrote in my journal that night, “How great are these little ones.  Indeed, of such is the kingdom of heaven.”             

When I look at this tender photo of my son I am reminded it isn't what we do together as families that matters as much as how we do it.  My most treasured memories with my family aren't the big trips to Disneyland or other attractions, which things were always significant financial investments.   Instead, the memories I treasure the most were the emotional investments in my children … it was the tiny adventures just down the street from where we lived; it was the cuddles on the couch, the heart-felt talks about whatever was on their mind, or the wandering conversations on the grass.  Those memories are where my heart yearns to go – for they were woven with love.  I would rather have one loving conversation with my children than a thousand trips to all the wonders of the world.  In every way that matters, our children are the world’s greatest wonders. 

Even in his later years, before he passed away, Mitch would often come to me and just as tenderly say, “Dad, come with me, I want to show you something.”  I was always anxious to see the world through his eyes.

I can almost hear his whisper now, ever so softly in my mind.  Only this time he see’s things that I cannot – for he has traveled down a path far from mortal view.  So, I must listen closely now … I must listen with my heart and mind; for gems of the soul are, on purpose, not easy to find. 

Sometimes, when I’m listening, I think Mitch still beckons me to see the things my mortal eyes are blind to, yet my spirit seeks eagerly.  

 I am so thankful for my little son who taught me one the most important lessons on earth and heaven above: whatever you do, do it with love.

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.

IN TIME, YOU WILL GET STRONGER

There are some moments in life that burn an image in our minds that cannot be erased.  This was one such moment.  A few years ago, this image (both what you see here and the memories that play out in my mind like a movie) used to be painful.  Today, though still a little painful, I see things differently.

... in time, you will get stronger.  Because you will get stronger, your burdens may feel light, but the weight of grief is the same. 
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Mitch was barely home on hospice, delicate and frail.  We were told he was at risk of instant death, that his heart might just stop.  There would be no time for goodbyes.  No final “I love you.”  Every second I lived with the knowledge that we could go from Mitch laughing one moment to dead silence in a single moment.  Or, he would linger a while and fade away slowly.  Both outcomes were a veritable hell for us to contemplate.  Not knowing how our son might die, we protected Mitch from such harsh realities for as long as we could so he could enjoy what time remained with a measure of joy, doing what he loved.  I have never regretted that decision. 

As he reached to grab my hand Mitch gave me a look as if to say, “Dad, I know you will keep me safe.  I know you will help me.”  If only he knew how frightened and powerless I felt during that time.  If only he knew how often I knelt at the side of my bed pleading to heaven for a way to save my boy.  I tried to bargain with God.  I asked, pleaded even, that He would take my life instead – even violently if that were the price to be paid.  I would have done anything to spare my son.

A few short weeks from this photo, my sweet son, my baby made of sand, slipped through my fingers – never to be seen again in this life.  How that pains me so.

It has been a little over 4 years now, and I’m still learning how to grieve. 

So, what of grief and the passage of time?  It seems there are two opposing views.  Some say it never gets better while others say it gets easier.  Which, then, is true?  I believe, in life, nothing has meaning except the meaning we give it.  If we see sorrow as simply a living hell – then we will live in hell.  If we choose to see sorrow as a tender teacher, we can learn and grow. 

You will never hear me say “it never gets easier” or that “it will get better.”  Instead, I say this to those who suffer … in time, you will get stronger.  Because you will get stronger, your burdens may feel light, but the weight of grief is the same.   

Just tonight I was just talking to a colleague of mine who shared a story of a woman who had a disabled child years ago.  At first, she was angry at God and the universe.  She wondered why such a heavy burden was placed on her shoulder when she was trying to do all the right things and live a good life.  Years later, after loving and caring for her child, then losing him – she reflected that what she once thought was an unreasonable hardship was the best thing that could have happened to her.  When my friend shared that woman’s story, my eyes immediately filled with tears – for I knew the truth of it. 

Everyone is different and we are each learning to accept life’s difficulties in our own way – so it is good to be patient with others and ourselves as we sort things out.  As for me, I’m not mad at God for taking my son.  I am profoundly sad, but I’m not mad.  Instead, I thank heaven for loaning one of its sweetest souls to grace my life.  In retrospect, I can see that I wasn’t really leaving the hospital to take Mitch home.  Instead, he was sent here for a brief season to teach me … and to help me make it to my heavenly home. 

I am deeply flawed and there is much I don’t know – but because of my little son, I know which direction I must go.