ON SILENCE & SUFFERING

Silence & Suffering_85Perc.jpg

It had only been a few hours since I knelt at this very bed and whispered into my son’s ear how proud I was to be his daddy and that he didn’t need to hold on any longer.  I knew he was tired yet didn’t want to leave for fear of hurting us.  I also believe part of him didn’t want to leave because he loved to be alive – I mean, he truly appreciated life.  I told my little boy how much I would miss him but that he would be okay and he didn’t need to be afraid. 

I often hear parents agonize over saying goodbye to their children at the airport as they go to college, serve missions, or move to some other place.  Though I understand the sorrow of saying goodbye, temporarily, to a loved one … I’ve come to know a deeper, inescapable, nearly suffocating sorrow when you must say goodbye to a child for life. 

This sacred room had become a spiritual train station and my little son had departed on a one-way trip.  Though I said goodbye, I remained unsettled that I didn’t say everything my heart wanted to say.

The morning sun had broken and I was still in a state of shock.  I went back to Mitchell’s room, incredulous, wanting to see if it was all a bad dream hoping to discover my little boy was still with us.  My heart broke as I saw my dear wife sitting where Mitch once giggled just a few days prior. 

Natalie was surrounded by everything that gave Mitch comfort in hopes of feeling close to him.  I knew how much she loved her son and how devastated she was to lose him.  Little Marlie, sensing Natalie’s suffering, jumped on her lap in the same way she tried to comfort Mitch when he was dying.  Natalie closed her eyes and wept.  She had a profound spiritual experience earlier that morning, under to cover of a winter’s night sky – but that didn’t take away the pain of losing him.

Our journey with grief was just beginning and things would get worse … much worse … before they would start to get better.  This photo was taken a little over 4 years ago.  We have healed a great deal since, but we still mourn the profound loss of Mitch.  Not a day passes we don’t think of him a thousand times.  However, behind our smiles and cheerful dispositions are hearts that are still tender … still mending.

It wasn’t long after the passing of Mitch from heart failure, a neighbor and friend down the street received a heart transplant.  I remember visiting him at the hospital while he was in recovery, with some of our neighbors.  At one point, I had to step into the hall to weep a little.  I was sincerely grateful this good man had a second chance at life – in fact, I wept for his family and prayed fervently he’d survive his own struggle with heart failure.  So, watching him smile softly in his recovery room brought me great joy.  Without warning, the pain of my son’s loss to heart failure overcame me and I struggled to catch my breath.  In that moment, I felt like a young child who missed the bus as I saw it drive into the distance … that overwhelming sense of doom and panic that maybe I didn’t do enough to fight the system that denied my son a transplant.  Agony coursed through my veins like a drug and I was in emotional hell.  As my friends and I left the hospital, they were oblivious to my silent suffering – and it was then that I realized after all is said and done, the journey of grief is traveled by one.

At what point does grieving the loss of a child become decidedly sad, improper, or morose?  On the surface, such a question seems unconscionable.  Except, the hard truth is there is often an underlying expectation that those who grieve move on at some point.  There comes a point where observers no longer feel sad with that person, and they begin to feel sad for that person. 

So, what does moving on mean?  I know what moving on looks like for observers … at first, they feel deeply for a season but then their mind and attention shifts to other matters in their own life.  That is as it should be.  Everyone has their own set of struggles and in time, those issues take center stage in their lives – especially as time passes.  Moving on for the sufferer is not so easy – particularly when it comes to the loss of a child.  When someone becomes a parent, they are changed forever in ways that are difficult to describe.  That little soul we ushered to life becomes a deep part of our identity and whatever happens to them, happens to us.  When we lose them, we lose a part of us we can’t get back.

Observing how others respond has been interesting:

  • As time passes, some of those closest to us avoid conversations about our fallen child for fear it would make us sad.  (Don’t worry, we’re already sad.) 

  • Some are uncomfortable because they don’t know what to say or how to say it. (I’ve found the most helpful thing to say is, “I want you to know I care.”)

  • Others worry they’ll say something wrong and offend.  (Perhaps the most powerful thing you’ll ever say is, “I’m listening.”)

  • Still, others avoid talking about pain because of their own struggles with pain. 

  •   On the other side of the spectrum are those who think they have all the answers … they say things like, “Don’t be sad.  Your child wouldn’t want you to be sad.” 

  • Some, foolishly, will square their shoulders, look you in the eye and tell you they think it’s time to move on – as if their bold, armchair counsel can do in a moment what psychologists can’t do for their patients in months or years.  

 

Whether people pull back or lean in, it seems to me all those things serve to further alienate the sufferer.  They silence their pain and take it to a deeper place, far from view or criticism from others – often not knowing what to do or where to go.  Sometimes that hidden pain becomes emotionally cancerous, other times it leads to deep depression, anxiety, or unspecified anger.  This is can be a dangerous state of being.

I have discovered that for many who have lost a child, talking about them is a form of therapy.  In part, it helps because we don’t get to make new memories with them – we only have yesterdays.  Because memories are subject to fade, I’ve also observed some parents want to talk about their loved one(s) – not so much that you won’t forget … but so they won’t.  We cling to details because that’s all we’ve got and they are treasures beyond price. 

Suffering is hard enough.  Suffering in silence, harder still. 

If you have a friend that suffers, lend an ear, a caring heart, and a soft shoulder to lean on.  Even if their loss was years ago – no matter how well they hide their hurt, it is there.  Letting them know they’re safe with you and that you care can help those who hurt work through their struggle.  With your love and heaven’s help, perhaps they can put a few pieces back together.

 

[This photo was taken on March 2, 2013.  7:50 AM]

HOW THINGS CHANGE

A few years ago, I wrote a story entitled, “It’s Okay, You’re Safe With Me.” I reflected on a time we took our kids to an amusement park to take our minds off the harsh realities of our son’s fatal diagnosis. At the time, tiny Mitch clung to my hands as we sat in a small pirate ship that swung back and forth like a gentle pendulum. It was the mildest of rides, but to little Mitch, it was thrilling.

Among the agents of change, there’s the passage of time, however fast or slow. Then, alas, there’s the furnace of affliction – and it’s in our damage that we truly grow.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

A few years passed and we visited that same theme park. Within eyeshot of the kiddie pirate ship towered a much larger pirate ship – this one designed for adults. This ride, too, swung back and forth like a giant pendulum; only the back-and-forth was on a much grander, vertical scale. In fact, that ride always had me somewhere in the middle of trying to catch my breath amid butterflies and wanting to take a nap from being rocked to sleep.

On this day, a much older Mitch sat next to me. When he was tiny, he had to hold on to almost every part of my body to feel safe. By this age, sitting next to me was enough. I thought to myself, “My, how things change.” I was so proud of this little boy and all that he was becoming.

So, as the ride began, Mitch tightly grabbed the bar in front of him and smiled. “This is so much fun, Dad,” he said with a smile. Not only was Mitch older and unafraid, but he had also grown an appetite for the rush and thrill of roller coasters.

Quietly, I admired him. My little boy learned to face his fears in his youth in ways I wished I could as an adult. Despite being young in years and physically weak, Mitch was dauntless. Like most young boys, there was part of Mitch that wanted to be like his dad. If only he knew how much more I wanted to be like him.

A few short years would pass from the moment of this photo, and things would change even more. I’d find myself kneeling at my son’s bed as he neared death. Whatever bravery he demonstrated earlier in his life, none compared to the bravery he had then.  Not only was the loss of my son about to change my world, I was changing on the inside, too.

Just today I read a post from Jackie, a friend of mine, who was reflecting on a great difficulty she’s endured. She quoted a friend and mentor who once told her, “I hope we make our pain worthwhile.” I loved that sentiment – because we’re all going to get hurt in life, so we may as well grow instead of gripe.

That isn’t to say we become flippant or callous toward the suffering of others. In fact, there is a certain sacredness to suffering. I’ve discovered that suffering has drawn me closer to God than any sermon I have heard. At the same time, I reverence the suffering of others because I know what it’s like to tremble in the dark – looking for hope or the faintest spark.

Japanese writer Haruki Murakami observed of suffering, “Once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in.”

Yes. Life has an interesting way of changing us. I don’t believe we’re meant to stay the same. Instead, we are [spiritually] designed to change and grow. Among the agents of change, there’s the passage of time, however fast or slow. Then, alas, there’s the furnace of affliction – and it's in our damage that we truly grow.

I SEARCH FOR WORDS, YET THERE ARE NONE

 “Dad, will you open the blinds so I can look out the window?” Mitch said softly as he sat up on his bed.   

Reverently, I lifted the blinds so Mitch could look out the window unobstructed.  I was quiet about it, too, for this was a sacred time when death was near, and the veil was thin.  It was a cold, wintery day and snow covered everything.  The light of late afternoon had become soft and warm as if to compensate for winter’s chill. 

The end was coming; man and medicine were powerless to stop it.

Mitch looked out the window in silence.  At that moment, his countenance changed from that of a young boy to one of an old soul emerging.  I asked him what he was thinking, and he shook his head as if to say, “Not now, Dad.”  Mitch then said, “I’ll tell you later.” 

He knew he was going to die, but he didn’t know he only had a few days left.  None of us did.

I watched my son in silence – respecting his need for space.  I searched for words, but there was none.  I wanted to hold him tight, help him feel safe, and tell him all would be okay.  But things weren’t safe, and he wasn’t going to be okay.  The end was coming; man and medicine were powerless to stop it.

I said a prayer in my heart, “Oh, Father, please … I’ll pay any price.  Can I take his place?”  I guess that was my way of bargaining – and I did it a million times a day.  With all my prayers, I knew that none of us could escape death – nor can we escape hardship.  I understood that it rains on the just and the unjust and we must learn to bear our burdens patiently.  I understood the wisdom of an old Jewish proverb, “Don’t pray for lighter burdens, pray for a stronger back.”  Although I always prayed for a way out - I also said, “But if not, please help us carry this burden.”

Little Mitch never told me what he was thinking that day.

This sweet boy lived out his remaining days as gently as he came into the world.  As death was gnawing and gashing at our door, Mitch surrendered his soul to God with the faith of a child and the heart of an angel.  He was a giant among men, and I was then, and remain today, deep in his shadow; for I am less than a shadow of a man.

In my darkest moments, I searched for words and found none; until I learned to quiet my mind and heart so I could see all that God had done.   It was then and only then I found gratitude in the midst of grief

One day, when I go to that place beyond the hills, I will thank my Father for loaning Mitch to me.  My son, my brother, my teacher – a gift burdened by adversity who taught me how to see. 

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.

A NOBLE MOTHER *

Overcome by a high fever, Mitch lay motionless in his bed.  Our hospice nurse informed us his body was making one last attempt to survive and that his time was very, very near.  Natalie sat by the side of his bed and began reading a children’s book that Mitch purchased and been wanting to read a few months prior.  With a soft voice, even that of an angel, Natalie began to whisper that sweet story to her son.

Little Mitch was awake, but he could not open his eyes.  His only means of communication was squeezing our fingers when asked a question.  He signaled to Natalie he wanted her to read it to him.

You know what I think?  If you’re going to build muscle, you must lift heavy things.  It takes work, sweat and a lot of effort.  Why should my soul be any different?  I guess that’s why we have to carry this.
— Natalie Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Ever since Natalie was a little girl, she dreamt of being a mother.  Having and raising children of her own was the greatest desire of her heart.  So in this tender moment, my heart sank to the floor as I saw a noble mother … a woman who would have laid down her own life if it would have spared her child harm, forced to say a slow and painful goodbye.

There was no malice in her.  She was a kind-hearted soul who always found ways to serve those around her.  As for Mitch … he was innocent and good.  He had done the world no harm – in fact, he brought the world a measure of peace and comfort by his gentle nature.  Yet here they were; seemingly undeserving of such sorrow.

There was a time that it almost felt as if Mitchell’s room was transforming into a kind of spiritual train station … that we were waiting until such time our son would be swept away to some far-off place, never to return.  Knowing that time was near, my heart swelled with love and gratitude when I saw Natalie do what noble mothers do … love and serve.

The next day Natalie and I would find ourselves kneeling, not at the side of Mitchell’s then empty bed, but our own, pleading for comfort.  For months, we would wet our pillows with tears of deep grief and a most tender sorrow.

How is it that two noble souls were caused to suffer in such a way as this?  A mother’s lifelong dream dashed and a faithful child’s life cut short.  Surely there are others in this world who would cause harm to others – why not them?  Why must the innocent and pure suffer?

I do not know the purpose of all things – but I have discovered a little about the meaning of human suffering.  I’ve been taught that even if we do well, and we suffer for it, that we’re to take it patiently.  I have learned that it rains on the just and unjust and that nobody is spared sorrow.  I don’t ask “Why me?” … I ask “What am I to learn from this?”

Just today, Natalie and I went to the cemetery to visit little Mitch and reflect on our last 4 years without him.  Natalie said, “You know what I think?  If you’re going to build muscle, you must lift heavy things.  It takes work, sweat and a lot of effort.  Why should my soul be any different?  I guess that’s why we have to carry this.”

There have been times in my life when I fell deeper in love with my wife.  At this moment, when Natalie read to Mitch on his dying day … when she served him with tenderness and love – I fell deeper in love with this noble mother.  And I fell deeper in love with her again today, as she shared a spiritual insight that strengthened me and gave me fresh courage.  I am grateful for this noble mother who loves and serves, despite the heavy things she must carry.

I am a lowly husband and father who stands deep in the shadow of his wife and fallen son.  I hope to always honor Mitch by serving, protecting, and loving his mother.  While the world, delirious and confused, pointing one way and another … I will follow the example of Natalie, my teacher … a noble mother.

 

GOLIATH AND THE LITTLE GIANT

Tiny Marlie stood bravely before Dragon, a much larger puppy. In Marlie’s mind, she was just as strong as her furry friend and always held her ground with a flurry of high-pitched barks and excited prancing. With one soft nudge of Dragon’s nose, tiny Marlie would topple over and roll into summersaults. Physically, she was no match. The moment she tumbled, she would jump to her feet and begin to bark as though nothing ever happened. In fact, she would bark like she was winning. Mitch smiled and giggled as he watched these two puppies play.

As I took this photo, the words crossed my mind, “Goliath and the little giant.” I couldn’t help but notice tiny Marlie as she stood bravely before her much larger friend, playful and strong. Marlie was a little giant – undaunted by what stood before her. In this same moment, I saw Mitch much like his puppy: a little giant of a different sort … a kind of giant you don’t see with your eyes, but sense with your soul. My mind then shifted to the ancient account of David and Goliath and what it meant to take fresh courage in the face of implacable odds.

I often wonder what crossed David’s mind as he stood in the long shadow of Goliath. I’ve heard so many variations of this quote that I don’t know who to attribute, but it has been said that courage is not the absence of fear, but the decision to act in spite of it. Did David’s soul shiver just a little bit at the sight of Goliath? Perhaps. Though small in stature as compared to his 9-foot opponent, David clearly possessed an inner strength and courage that cannot be forged by human hands or feigned by mortal hearts.

I did my best to teach Mitch that he was the son of a King and that he could call on Him for courage when the shadows of doubt grew especially dark or when his Goliaths seemed especially frightening. Mitch battled many Goliaths in his short life: he overcame fear, self-doubt, and a multitude of big and small battles – some so small they might seem insignificant to the casual observer, but to him, they were towering and he faced them bravely.

I sometimes wonder if mortals have life a little backward. We seem to measure so much by the accomplishment of big, visible things … the job promotion, the new car, or any number of accolades. Surely the big battles matter, but I’m persuaded that the little battles matter even more. Sometimes the big battles we face come because we ignored the little battles along the way. In like manner, victory is almost never achieved overnight but instead by little victories won over many days and nights. None of this is new thinking, and it has been said a million times by a million people. But we are human, and we are prone to forget. Perhaps, when we finally see with heaven’s eyes, we will discover to our great surprise that the little battles were really the big battles.

When confronted by his personal Goliaths, Mitch eventually won every battle with dignity and grace. Notice, I used the word "eventually". He didn’t always win at first, but he kept trying until he ultimately won. The one battle, however, he couldn’t win was that with death. As Mitchell’s final Goliath towered over him and stretched its long shadow, a shadow black as a moonless midnight, I admit I trembled with fear and anguish for my son. I cried out to the heavens, “Take me! Take me!” as though I could distract the Goliath of death and persuade it to come for me instead.

Like David, Mitch faced his ultimate Goliath with a kind of courage that cannot be forged by human hands or conjured up by mortal minds. Instead, he was strengthened by his knowledge of who he was and to whom he really belonged. Though Goliath was huge, David was filled with faith and a certain knowledge … which made him even huger. Mitch, too, was a little giant.

As I examine the past to learn and focus on my present to do, I have discovered one thing, maybe two. If Mitch could stand before his Goliaths, victorious, I know that I can, too. From the Goliath of grief to the quest for peace, I know this one thing is true: the little battles matter both for me and for you.

A SPECK IN THE UNIVERSE

And in the pitch of night, as I looked heavenward I saw a heavenly sight … forever, it seemed, I could see tender mercy upon tender mercy. In that dim light, I learned to see far beyond the veil of mortality.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

It was a punishingly hot summer day. Evening was almost upon us when we stopped by our home which was under construction. We sold our previous home because it had too many stairs and we wanted to have something that would accommodate Mitchell’s growing physical needs.

When we arrived, our kids bounced out of our van and ran around the home to see what had changed. They were freshly bathed and smelled vaguely of soap and shampoo and were dressed in their jammies in preparation for a den party back at our apartment. Mitch and Ethan ran into what would soon be their room. Like little children do, they began making plans about where their beds would go, the forts they would make and where they would store their favorite toys. The little boy in me wanted to join them in their youthful adventures – but this was their time, and I loved watching a little of me in them.

Mitch, wearing his cute yellow t-shirt, ran to the corner of their room and said, “Effie, this is where we’ll sleep!” Ethan smiled, “Sweet, dude” and began to share his excitement about their brotherly plans.

It never occurred to me the hell I would experience in this very corner just a few years later. This spot where you see Mitch standing is exactly where he would die.

This was the same place I fell to my knees a thousand times and pleaded heavenward for my son’s deliverance from death. This is where I bartered with my Father and asked that He might take my life instead. The same place my wife bowed her head, broken and defeated in grief when Mitch would awaken long enough to tell his mom he would be okay. This is the exact same place, to the very inch, she would sense his soul linger after he passed away … where she heard a whisper to her soul, It’s okay, Mommy.

In this unremarkable corner of suburban America, this infinitely tiny speck the universe is hallowed ground. This is where I peered into the abyss, which is death, and found myself gasping for air as I was swallowed up in the darkness of grief. Yet, as my spiritual eyes began to adjust … as my soul began to search heavenward, I started to discern the many tender mercies heaven put in our path so we might bear our burdens more easily. The recognition of these invisible blessings were like little flecks of light – and the accumulation of these blessings presented themselves like a heavenly constellation so I could find my way in the pitch of night. Oh, what night grief can be. So dark … so heavy, one cannot see or scarcely breathe.

Yet, there, in this corner where I wished to die so that I might escape the grief of losing my child, I was given eyes to see Heaven’s tender hand and many loving mercies. Even still, I was required to walk the dark path of grief and was greatly pained therewith; for I wanted my son to be with me. 

This insignificant space, this speck in the universe … this is where I knelt with bruised knees: a plain, ordinary, and flawed man, begging for relief. And in the pitch of night, as I looked heavenward I saw a heavenly sight … forever, it seemed, I could see tender mercy upon tender mercy. In that dim light, I learned to see far beyond the veil of mortality.