A LITTLE BIT BROKEN

I’m often asked how my children are doing with their grief journey. The answer is one part private, three parts complicated, and 100% unique. Each of my children has struggled with grief in very individual ways.

The older I get, the more I’m drawn to conversations that heal – because everyone is a little bit broken, and everyone could use a little healing.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

As a father, I found that my heart not only broke over losing my son, it broke over seeing my children in pain. It broke seeing my wife hurt in ways only a mother can know. In so many ways, trying to keep a family together after the loss of a child is like trying to prevent others from drowning when you, yourself are drowning. After having experienced the emotional toll of death, I now understand how families can disintegrate.

Last weekend my daughter wanted our family to take some photos in some nearby woods. I wanted to support her impulse to take pictures – and this is one I snapped at the end. Laura-Ashley is the consummate young adult: she is spontaneous, borderline responsible ;), continually discovering how the world works, and full of life. I remember being her age – in so many ways, it feels like yesterday – but then again, so far away. When I was her age, it had never entered my heart how beautiful, yet cruel life can be. But life is more beautiful than it is cruel.

Our home life is filled with ordinary moments. We do chores. We get frustrated with each other. We laugh at each other’s jokes. We talk about life and try to support each other’s dreams. Laura-Ashley has one more semester in college before she goes into nursing school, Ethan has dreams of becoming a filmmaker/storyteller, and he is continually developing his craft, and Wyatt is almost 13 and is into kickboxing, wrestling, piano, and Fortite. And Mitch … he’s still ten years old, to me. For the remainder of my days, he’ll always be tender 10.

I think about Mitch every single day – but I don’t always talk about him to my family. That is one of the great difficulties parents who’ve lost children face – we want to talk about our memories or our hurt, not realizing the people around us need a sense of new normalcy. So, each day, I take deliberate steps to be self-aware and aware of others … and try to focus on my kids, so they know they matter to me just as much as sweet Mitch did. Learning to put grief on the shelf and focus on the now is part of the grueling grief journey. And when grief calls, it knows where to find me.

Even still, my sweet daughter and other kids voluntarily talk about Mitch. Almost daily. The difference is, they bring him up in ways that are meaningful to them. Always, my kids talk about little Mitch with great love and adoration. I think we’ve found a beautiful balance of honoring what was and embracing what is.

My daughter loved Mitch a great deal – and he adored her. It warms my heart when she talks about him in the way she talks about him because those conversations are healing.

The older I get, the more I’m drawn to conversations that heal – because everyone is a little bit broken, and everyone could use a little healing.

TO HURT & TO HEAL

When Mitch was tiny, he injured his hand and began to cry.  He was more frightened than hurt, but he was hurt just the same.  After a moment of sorry, Mitch realized his hand was going to be okay his mother picked him up and held him as only a mother knows to hold her child. To a young one, there is a certain comfort that comes from blankets and Sippy Cups, but then there’s the comfort that comes from a mother; and no blanket on earth can replace the warm embrace of a loving mother.

Though not an envious man, I am sometimes sorely tempted, when I see the tender bond between mother and child. Though my heart loves deeply, I recognize there is a sacred place for a mother’s love. I wish I had a piece of that because it is beautiful beyond measure. Instead, I’ll take what I can get while sitting on the sidelines and consider myself blessed. 

So there I stood, in my dorky way, trying to comfort my son. I didn't stand a chance against the blanket and Sippy Cup, let alone his mommy’s embrace. I made funny faces and danced like a fool for him, and he started to chuckle. His smile, this very smile you see here, and eyes shrunk-wrapped in tears melted my heart. Though I offered a little sideshow entertainment for my boy, the real performance was already underway by his mother.

Our journey of grief, like everyone who hurts, is painfully unique. It’s a delicate balance of looking forward to sights unseen while permitting myself to hurt because I’m still a human being. That’s the thing nobody told me … healing hurts. 
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

I think, on some level, I’m beginning to understand Kate Bush’s lyrics “I stand outside this woman’s work … this woman’s world. Ooh, its hard on the man, now his part is over, now starts the craft of the Father.” There is a sacredness to motherhood, something far beyond my reach. Though I do my best to be a good dad and husband, I am beginning to realize I am a small player on a much grander stage. Though I do my best to do my part, however important, it is minor in comparison.

Neal Maxwell wrote, “When the real history of mankind is fully disclosed, will it feature the echoes of gunfire or the shaping sound of lullabies? The great armistices made by military men or the peacemaking of women in homes and in neighborhoods? Will what happened in cradles and kitchens prove to be more controlling than what happened in congresses? When the surf of the centuries has made the great pyramids so much sand, the everlasting family will still be standing…” 

When we started our family, we had no idea what we were doing. We still don’t on some level because each phase of child-rearing, at least for us, is an undiscovered country. Yet we’re learning things each day that we try to apply in the things we do and say. I wish I could wield the parenting power my wife seems to shoulder so gracefully. Such is the power of motherhood, I suppose. I’m just an ordinary dad with more weaknesses than most. So I’ll try to pave the way, moving obstacles where I can and make life a little easier for her each day. 

Our journey of grief, like everyone who hurts, is painfully unique. It’s a delicate balance of looking forward to sights unseen while permitting myself to hurt because I’m still a human being. That’s the thing nobody told me … healing hurts. 

Though I’m still hurting, I’m also healing … and that is a wonderful, wonderful feeling.

 

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Originally Posted in 2014

IN TIME

This photo not only holds a tender story of a time long gone, but a metaphor for today. I find myself where Wyatt once stood in this photo. Next to me, on the edge of the unknown, Mitch, my son and brother, points into the dark water at things I cannot yet see … and he whispers to my soul words meant just for me.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

I can still hear the evening crickets on this nearly magical summer eve. Like a sunburn, I can feel the warmth of summer on my skin. Mitch pointed into the dark water as Wyatt listened intently. “See, those fish? They are a family.” Wyatt replied, “Do they like gummy worms?” Mitch furrowed his brow a moment and thought … then said, “Probably. But I think they like Doritos best.”

I chuckled at my little boys. I wanted to hug them that instant but refrained because this was their moment. My heart was overflowing with a kind of fatherly gratitude I had never experienced until that moment. I dreamt of becoming a father, but I never imagined a love so deep. Part of me wanted to freeze this moment in time and live in it forever; but I knew tomorrow would bring new blessings – so I welcomed the passage of time as both a blessing and opportunity for new discoveries. 

When Mitch first learned he was going to be a big brother, he was so excited. He wanted to usher his wee brother into a big world filled with wonder. With a heart filled with love, I often found Mitch kissing baby Wyatt’s hand while he slept. In time, not many years later, I would find Wyatt kissing Mitchell’s hand as he slept, barely breathing and slipping away. A brutal irony that pains me and heals me at the same time.

Just before Mitch was admitted to the hospital, I called my neighbor who was also my Bishop at the time (a religious leader in my church). I could hardly talk through my tears and broken voice as I said, “Will you please give my son a blessing?” Within minutes this inspired, selfless man came rushing over. As we lay our hands on my son’s head, tears streamed down my face. I quietly gasped for air (a few times it was audible) and fought to keep my composure as I heard this good man share words of comfort, blessing and heavenly insight. He fought back tears, too, as he shared inspired words our Father wanted Mitch to know. A few minutes after the blessing, Mitch said in a whisper to his brother Ethan (observing our tears), “It felt like it was raining.” Such were our tears.

There were many times while Mitch was home on hospice, as he slept, that I wet his hands and neck with my tears. I prayed mightily to my Father for a way out – I begged that He would take me instead. But a way out would not come and soon I would lose my little son. In time, I would find myself in a hell I was afraid to imagine. Yet there I was, in the darkness and heavy in sorrow. I wrote of grief, “There are days … sometimes agonizing moments … the gravity of grief is so great it feels like I’m walking on Jupiter. It’s a place where your chest feels so heavy even breathing is difficult. I have come to learn that once you lose a child you leave earth’s gravity forever. You may visit earth from time-to-time, but Jupiter is where your heart is. And from what I can tell, we will live the remainder of our lives in the gravity well of grief.” (see essay, Walking on Jupiter, June 3, 2013) 

In time, after much weeping and soul-searching, I would find myself leaving the Jupiter of which I spoke. The gravity of grief no longer had the power to take my breath or steal my joy – at least not all the time. This journey from Jupiter was welcomed by my weary soul – for I wondered if the prison of such sorrow was a life sentence. Thankfully, it was not. I still cry for my boy. I wept while writing this very piece. But I feel more love, peace and gratitude now than I have ever felt sorrow – and that’s a lot. 

This photo not only holds a tender story of a time long gone, but a metaphor for today. I find myself where Wyatt once stood in this photo. Next to me, on the edge of the unknown, Mitch, my son and brother, points into the dark water at things I cannot yet see … and he whispers to my soul words meant just for me. 

In time, I will see.

FATHER & SON

“Hey little Mitch,” I said with a soft voice, pointing to the inside of a book. “Will you put your arm here so I can trace it?” Mitch looked at me with a soft but curious expression, “Okay, Daddy.” Mitch flopped his tiny arm on the book and said, “Huwwy, Dad. I have to play wiff fwends.” 

Fighting back my tears, I carefully traced his little arm and even smaller hand. Anxious to go outside and play in the summer sun, Mitch didn’t know this book told a terrible tale about what he would one day experience. He only knew his mommy and daddy loved him and that they would always keep him safe. Mitch, like many young children, worried about monsters hiding in closets or under beds. I worried about the monster hiding inside his body. A monster so frightful and mean, all the science and medicine on earth could not stop it. 

When I was done tracing his chubby little hand I kissed Mitch and said, “Daddy loves you.” With that, my little boy dashed away without a care in the world. Inside, I felt like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders.

For nights-on-end, I sat weeping at my kitchen table as I read this book … a book which, at once, read like a medical text and a horror novel. Though slightly dated, this was the only content I could find at the time that was unflinching in its description of DMD and offered candid advice on how to cope with the harsh realities of muscle wasting. I cried, and I cried. And when I felt pulverized by sorrow, convinced there were no more tears, grief found deeper reservoirs of the soul, and I cried some more.

It wasn’t until my son died less than eight years later that I discovered there is no end to tears. For if there is no end to love, there is no end to grief. At least while I’m mortal.

I believe one day grief will change. Not today. Not in 50 years. As long as I’m mortal, I will grieve over the loss of this little boy I love so much. Grief is a heavy burden of the soul. With each day I carry the weight of grief, I feel myself getting stronger. With each fallen tear, I am learning a deeper compassion for others who hurt. With every heartfelt prayer for relief and understanding, I draw closer to my Father. I know He is there, and I know He cares. I believe He wants us to be strong as well as good – and that is partly why we suffer. I am not strong, and I don’t think I’m very good … but I’m trying. I will never stop trying.

I found this book the other day as I was preparing for a Mitchell’s Journey presentation at a medical school. I had long forgotten I traced Mitchell’s tender hand so many years ago. When I opened the book my heart fell to the floor. I cried that moment like I cried way back then. Only my tears were from loss, not the anticipation of it.

This little hand is evidence my son lived. Though he is gone now, the memory of Mitch lives in my soul, and I cannot get him out of my mind. I am grateful that his memory isn’t a source of agony anymore – but instead a source of deep love and joy, and yes, still pain. Because of Mitch, I have gained a deeper appreciation for life, family, and love. I have learned what it means to be a father and a son. Though imperfect and flawed, each day I try to be a better one.

A GOOD DAY

When Mitch was a tiny baby he knew just how to make me smile. In those early years I remember driving to the intersection where Natalie served as a crossing guard, surprising them with a quick hello. Baby Mitch sat in his car seat content with life and just glad to be alive. Natalie, his faithful mommy, would read books to him as they waited for children to cross the road. Mitchell always seemed excited to see me, but I was even more excited to see him. I'd jump in their car and we'd just talk. Mitch would look at me and smile - and that always seemed to turn a good day into a great day.

This morning as I thought of him, he did it again; I felt his smile in my soul. Today is going to be a great day. 

DIDN'T EXPECT TO SEE THE SUN

I was grateful for this gentle reminder tonight. That life is worth the struggle and internal fight - for it’s in the struggle we find the meaning of life.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

I am just wrapping up a week in north east Canada where it is bitter cold yet beautiful. This evening, I began a long drive back to a small airport that will soon take me to Toronto, then ultimately back home. At one point I looked out the window and saw a most beautiful sunset and took this photo. Instantly I thought of Mitch - or better said, I instantly became aware I was already thinking of Mitch. 

It was the kind of sunset where he would have tugged at my arm softly and pointed, "Look Dad, isn't it beautiful?" In my heart I whispered, "Yes, son. But not as beautiful as you."

Earlier this morning a large winter storm was headed our way and the RCMP had blocked off the roads. There was no getting in or out of town and no way of knowing when we'd be able to leave. I wondered if I would make it out in time for my flight. 

So, against the backdrop of a severe winter storm, I didn't expect to see the sun this evening. In many ways, that is how I felt when the storms of grief were especially new to me; I didn't expect to see the sun for a long, long time. In both cases, I am grateful to have seen the sun.

In just a few short days from now my little family will recognize the 3rd anniversary of my son's passing. Three years. To some who sit comfortably on the outside of grief, three years may seem like a long time ... time enough to "get over it" or "move on." They who think such thoughts are wronger than wrong. To those who live with grief, 3 years is but a blink.

Three years into this new journey and grief is still very real. But so is healing. 

Early on, I didn't expect to see the sun. I felt darkness would last a million years and one. But that was not so - for I have since felt my love and hope grow. 

I was grateful for this gentle reminder tonight. That life is worth the struggle and internal fight - for it's in the struggle we find the meaning of life.

A LITTLE ON THE INSIDE

At the end of my days, when I kneel before my Father and account for my life, I hope He looks upon my efforts in the same way I try to look upon my children … with a heart of compassion, pleased with effort and personal growth over the illusory achievement of perfection.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Parenthood has become the most difficult yet rewarding experience of my life. I wish I could say I did it perfectly, but I didn’t … and I don’t. Nobody really does, I suppose. Anymore, I don’t try to be the perfect parent … I just try to be loving and kind … to be the father and mentor I wish I had growing up. It is difficult at times, because I don’t know what to emulate – so I just try to be what I never had. 

At the end of my days, when I kneel before my Father and account for my life, I hope He looks upon my efforts in the same way I try to look upon my children … with a heart of compassion, pleased with effort and personal growth over the illusory achievement of perfection. 

When Mitch came home with a drawing or school assignment, I was always so proud of how hard he tried. I would hug him and kiss his face and tell him, “Great job, son. I’m so proud of you. Keep trying and you’ll better and better.” Always, there were imperfections in his drawings … but for him, he did it perfectly. Perfection is a relative term, for he was a young child and did the work of a young child. I didn’t care about flawless execution … at his age, I wanted him to be recognized for doing a little better than the time before. I wanted him to believe in himself and be proud of his accomplishments. As far as I can tell, belief-in-self is the bedrock of education and the scaffolding of character. At the same time, I am a strong believer in providing corrective feedback so that we might know where to stretch ourselves the next time. But, always, offering my children earned praise is high on my list of to-do’s as a father.

On this occasion my neighbor and friend, Jeff Winegar, offered to take our family to Snowbird so Mitch could participate in an adaptive sports program for kids with disabilities. Mitch was nervous about it because he knew he wasn’t very strong and that what little strength he did have would dissipate quickly. “What if I fall, Dad?” Mitch would ask me nervously. I assured him he wouldn’t be required to do anything for which he didn’t have the strength and that they had something special for him – so that he would be safe and have fun. Mitch sat in a small carriage attached to two skis. Behind him were two purple tethers which allowed an adult to ski behind Mitch and control his speed down the mountain. All Mitch needed to do was to lean right or left as he decided where he wanted to ski down the mountainside. 

I asked my friend Jeff to be on tether while I skied backward to take a million photos of my son. I loved looking at Mitchell’s expressions of glee as the cold wind rushed against his rose-colored cheeks. At first, I saw an expression that seemed to say, “This isn’t so bad. I’m not scared anymore.” Then later, his face seemed to say, “I’ve got this! I can do it!” I was so proud of Mitch and overwhelmed with gratitude as I saw my son’s countenance filled with a new form of self-confidence. He couldn’t race down the mountain like an Olympian, nor was he required to, but he could bravely face the steep slopes and do what he could, with the heart of an Olympian. That is winning, too.

I remember kneeling in prayer that night thanking my Father for giving my son such a great experience. I also thanked Him for giving me the blessing of children - a gift for which I'm eternally grateful. Because of Mitch, each day I try to grow a little on the inside, just like he tried. If I color a little outside the lines, I recognize it and try to do better next time.

Maybe that’s the point of it all … to get better a little on the inside each time. Musicians do it, athletes do it, academics do it … nobody achieves greatness in an instant … but through getting a little better each time. And those who have mastered their craft will each say it comes from within. It always comes from within. Each day. A little on the inside.