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.

SCARS THAT LAST

Sometimes those on the outside of grief wonder what takes so long for those who suffer from moving on. It’s as if because they cannot see a visible scar or site of amputation, there is no injury; which only seems to make the scars of loss more tender and grief more isolating.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

It had been exactly one month since my son had passed away. The cemetery grass bore a burial scar, reminding us of the hell we were living. As if the wind-toppled flowers and weathered stuffed animal didn’t remind me, the grass did, and it pained me deeply. 

Every time I visited the cemetery, there was a quiet desperation in my heart. I wanted to dig up the grass with my bare hands as fast as my feeble arms and trembling hands could so that I might rescue my son from the dark. I could still feel the warmth of his cuddles in my arms and on my chest. Mitchell’s soft voice echoed in my mind and my heart broke over, and over, and over again. 

Sometimes those on the outside of grief wonder what takes so long for those who suffer from moving on. It’s as if because they cannot see a visible scar or site of amputation, there is no injury; which only seems to make the scars of loss more tender and grief more isolating. 

I had knee surgery about 25 years ago, repairing my ACL. After all these years, my knee bears the scars of that operation and my nerves are permanently damaged. That was just my knee. In my younger years, I sustained injuries and wondered if I would scar and how long they would last. Most of them faded away over time. But, like my knee, some scars last a lifetime. If our bodies carry scars, what of our souls? My knee doesn’t make me human – but my love and emotions do. Losing Mitch scarred me in a place you cannot see with your eyes. But that scar exists, and it is very real. And like my nerves, there is also damage.

Grief is inevitable and it forms scars that are deep. Scars that last. As it matures, it transforms from an obstacle into a path.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

In my book, I write a great deal about grief rituals, but for now I’ll just say that I visited Mitch every single day for almost two years. At first, I was traumatized and psychologically I think I visited the cemetery to comfort him, even though I knew he wasn’t there. In time, I began to see that I was going there to sort things out and that I was seeking comfort myself. I no longer visit the cemetery every single day. But I do visit often. 

At least to me, grief seems to mirror the cycle of life. The death of our loved ones doesn’t mean our grief dies with them. Much to the contrary, when our children die, grief is just being born … and that grief will live with us until the day we die. However, like humans, grief grows up and matures over time. 

When grief is first born, it is much like that of a newborn: we cry. A lot. We don’t have the capacity for words – only tears. Then, we become toddlers with grief … learning to walk and find our balance in life. Some learn to walk quickly, for others, it takes time. We try to use our words and sometimes they don’t come out right – but we’re growing and learning how to come alive again. Like our human experience, grief grows from child-like stages to adolescence and then into adulthood. During those adolescent stages of grief, some behaviors might seem juvenile, and people may do things that harm themselves or their relationships with others. Not everybody does … but I have seen some that do. Eventually, grief matures and reaches seasoned adulthood, where there is balance, reason, and understanding. 

I have discovered that as long as I live, grief will never die. The death of my son was the birth of my grief and I will have to care for it as though it were a person. In fact, grief is a person. Grief is me. So, I must tend to it and take good care of it and cultivate growth. I am both the parent and the child. Like raising a child, if I’m not disciplined, grief can spoil and become rotten and ruin me. 

When I visit the cemetery, I no longer want to scoop up the earth with my hands and rescue my boy. I mean, I do … but I don’t have that desperate feeling anymore. There is still a tender part of me that always wants to wake him gently from his sleep and say, “Little Mitch, it is time to wake. Let me lay here for you. Let me take your place.” 

I think I understand and have learned to accept what has happened. That doesn’t mean I don’t hurt. I hurt a great deal. However, I have come to a place of balance, reason, and understanding. But there is still damage on the inside and a scar you cannot see with your eyes. 

Grief is inevitable and it forms scars that are deep. Scars that last. As it matures, it transforms from an obstacle into a path. 

I have discovered that as long as I live, grief will never die. The death of my son was the birth of my grief and I will have to care for it as though it were a person. In fact, grief is a person. Grief is me. So, I must tend to it and take good care of it and cultivate growth. I am both the parent and the child. Like raising a child, if I’m not disciplined, grief can spoil and become rotten and ruin me. 

When I visit the cemetery, I no longer want to scoop up the earth with my hands and rescue my boy. I mean, I do … but I don’t have that desperate feeling anymore. There is still a tender part of me that always wants to wake him gently from his sleep and say, “Little Mitch, it is time to wake. Let me lay here for you. Let me take your place.” 

I think I understand and have learned to accept what has happened. That doesn’t mean I don’t hurt. I hurt a great deal. However, I have come to a place of balance, reason, and understanding. But there is still damage on the inside and a scar you cannot see with your eyes. 

Grief is inevitable and it forms scars that are deep. Scars that last. As it matures, it transforms from an obstacle into a path. 

One Day, When You Least Expect It

Then one day when you least expect it ... somehow, some way, you begin discover beauty in the rubble and that flowers still bloom in the rain. A miracle is born and you begin to make sense of pain.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Natalie always does such a sweet and beautiful job with Mitchell's flower arrangements. That is one of her grief rituals and I reverence it.

It is difficult to describe the trauma one feels when they lose a child. Three years have passed and I'm just beginning to get my head around the fact I cannot get my head around it. In every way that matters, life after the death of a child is a waking nightmare. 

Eventually, after years of tears you just learn to live in that nightmare. 

Then one day when you least expect it ... somehow, some way, you begin discover beauty in the rubble and that flowers still bloom in the rain. A miracle is born and you begin to make sense of pain.

BAMBOO & BETTER DAYS AHEAD

So when I’m discouraged, empty handed and with nothing to show, I can hear the loving words of my Father, ‘Be patient, my child, you will grow; take care of your soul and soon it will show.’
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

I pulled up to the cemetery one summer evening only to find my sweet wife sitting by our son with a look of heaviness on her countenance. Grief had washed over her and my soul ached that I couldn’t take it away. I, too, was suffering a father’s grief and wondered if the pain would ever end. As far as I could tell, hell was my new home and there was no escaping it.

I could tell my wife was having a sacred moment, so I sat in my car from a distance and gave her space. I have learned that in matters of grief, allowing our loved ones to grieve in their own way and in their own time is key. As I waited patiently, I had a prayer in my heart that her burdens would seem light. Though I was being crushed under the weight of grief myself, I prayed that I might find a way to carry her burdens so that she might find a little rest.

When her moment passed, she motioned for me to join her and we spent some time talking about how we were each holding up. For every day, every hour was a battle to survive. We sat on the warm grass and wept together and longed to have our little boy with us again. The journey of grief seemed like a broken road that stretched out to infinity. Infinity never felt so long. Never felt so lonely.

I recently heard a friend of mine give an address where he described the unique phenomenon of how Chinese Bamboo Trees grow. After being planted, the seed won’t break the soil for 4 years. It silently lies in wait under the surface and seems to do nothing at all. Yet, in order for it to grow, one must water and care for it every day during those first 4 years – even though there is no visible sign of growth whatsoever. Then suddenly, in the 5th year, seemingly out of the blue, something astonishing happens: the Chinese bamboo tree can grow almost a hundred feet in a month and a half. As my friend shared that fascinating fact, I immediately saw a connection to grief and growth.

At least for me, my first 3 years felt like a constant state of sorrow with no sign of relief. Each day I patiently watered the soil of my soul with prayer, meditation, study and a lot of writing … for writing had become my therapy. It has been said that “Writing is closer to thinking than speaking.” So, when I say writing, I don’t mean simply pouring out my hurt on a page … instead, when I wrote, I tried to think, analyze and process what was happening to me. I determined what meaning my sorrows would have in my life. I didn’t ask, “Why Mitch?” or “Why me?”… instead, I asked, “What am I to learn from this?”

I have discovered that growth through grief is just like the Chinese Bamboo Tree. It takes constant care and feeding long before any visible growth occurs. To the sufferer and the observer, feelings of discouragement and depression can surface because there may seem to be no signs of hope. But I have learned from personal experience that if we’re patient, and if we care for the soil of our souls, we can eventually see growth and better days ahead. 

So when I’m discouraged, empty handed and with nothing to show, I can hear the loving words of my Father, “Be patient, my child, you will grow; take care of your soul and soon it will show.”

I will always grieve the loss of my son. Despite my grief, I can still grow. I don’t know much, but this thing I know.

A LIVING EULOGY

Why do we wait for people to die to say nice things about them? What if that kind word spoken at a eulogy might have made a difference to them when they were living? Whenever possible & appropriate, I try to speak the words I might say at someone’s eulogy, were I asked to speak, so that person might absolutely know how I feel about them and why I look up to him/her. My greatest hope is that those shared thoughts and feelings might help them while they’re living, for a compliment at a funeral does far less good than a compliment in life. 

So, because I don’t wait for birthdays, anniversaries or funerals to say kind things … I am not as keen on anniversaries as every day is a celebration of who and what I love. Strangely, my heart weighs heavy this day, the 3rd anniversary of my son’s funeral. I remember how difficult it was to speak … I almost threw up that morning and I, a grown man, wept like a small child just before the funeral director closed my son’s casket for the last time. 

Months later I remember watching my dear wife, who knelt reverently by our son’s place of rest, lean over to touch his headstone – almost in disbelief. Natalie tried so hard to love and nurture Mitch while he was alive. Like me, she thought we had more time. As hard as everything was up to that point, we didn’t realize the hardest parts of grief were yet to come. How exquisitely hard we couldn’t imagine.

At least to me, Mitchell’s Journey is as much about the examined life as it is musings on love and grief. I have endured deep suffering over the loss of my child and have come to understand not one of us will be spared hardship and sorrow. At some point in our lives, we will all suffer and drink from bitter cups; we will all weep and gather up our broken pieces … and sometimes we might wonder why the heavens suddenly seem so dark. Only then will we begin to see the stars: tender mercies that can only be discerned in and through the darkness – whose subtle light will eventually illuminate the path and lead our souls out of the dark. Perhaps we would all be fortunate as to have great suffering happen earlier in our lives rather than later … for then we might love strangers more readily, empathize with those who hurt more freely, and help our neighbors with glad hearts. The world needs a lot more of that stuff.

I am still learning how to grieve, yet I marvel at those who are fortunate enough to have not lost a child; they who sit comfortably, incredulously, from the comfort of their observation deck and suggest it is time to stop hurting, because they themselves don’t hurt. Such an assertion is as silly and insensitive as if I were to tell a parent to abandon their love for their living child, simply because I don’t share their personal attachment. Sometimes it is the lack of empathy from others that can make the grief journey seem so long and lonely.

It is not my place, nor any of my business, to know where people are in their grief journey. I have learned to respect the empty space between a parent and lost child as hallowed ground. To observe a sufferer in grief is to watch someone in their own Gethsemane and we would do well to reverence our criticisms and thank God we are not suffering in the same way. And if we are fortunate to have suffered such a loss, we might reach out and lift those heavy hands with love and understanding – for empathy has the power to heal.

At least for me, I measure my own healing by a few examinations:
1) What have I learned from my sorrows?
2) How have I changed?
3) What meaning has this experience had in my life?
4) Have I drawn closer to my Father?

If my answers shed light in the darkness, then I know I’m growing. If I don’t know the answer, then I need to search more.

I promise to not always write about sad things, but for now I still feel sad things … and this is my therapy.

Yet, despite my sorrows today, my heart is glad in knowing my sweet wife always built our son up with kind words, loving encouragement and sound council. She offered our son a living eulogy; Mitch didn’t need to die before nice things were said to and about him. Our little boy never went a day where Natalie didn’t help him feel good about himself. ... where he didn’t know he was loved by a mother who was an angel made mortal. 

BARE FEET & BROKEN BONES

I think that nightmare scenario crosses every parent’s mind at one point or another and we ask ourselves: “What would I do if I lost my child?” In every way that matters, we are asking ourselves what would happen if we lost part of ourselves – for that is what our children are to us. That’s what our children will never understand until they have children of their own: they become more important to us than we are to ourselves.

Just after we were told Mitch had days to live, Natalie’s mother and father came rushing to the hospital to offer love and support. Over the next few weeks, my wife and I would keep the knowledge of our son’s impending death from Mitch. Peace of mind and childhood was our gift to our son – at least for a little while. You see, we didn’t know if he was going to die in an hour, or a day, or in a month and we wanted to help Mitch make the most of what time remained. 

I know that I cannot take their troubles away. But, like this good father I will walk beside them … even with bare feet and broken bones. Until my dying breath, I will walk beside them and try to lead them home.
— Christopher M. Jones | Mitchell's Journey

Palliative care workers circled our room and visited daily asking for permission to talk to Mitch about his death. Each time we told them no. Knowing our time with Mitch was short weighed heavy on our souls. We hid our broken hearts behind a soft smile and we put away our dashed hopes and shattered dreams under a blanket of hugs and loves. Though we didn’t know how to protect him from death, we could protect him from worry and fear. And that is what we tried to do. That was all we knew to do.

When these good parents arrived, Natalie and her father found an empty room in the cardiac intensive care unit. A curtain was drawn and a tender conversation between a daddy and his little girl ensued. Tears of deep grief and anguish fell to the earth. I wonder if the heavens wept just a little that day – not out of sorrow, but empathy. I don’t know what they talked about. I only know that empty room became hallowed ground between a good father and his little daughter. 

I stayed with Mitch and his grandmother in his CICU room. My mother-in-law is as good a woman as there ever was. Her heart was broken for Mitch and her daughter and our family. I’ll write of her another day.

After some time had passed Mitch asked me to get Natalie. When I went to get her I stumbled into a most tender and beautiful scene. I saw a good father embrace his daughter as she wept. In her trembling hand was a pamphlet about how to talk to your child about death and dying. That impossible scenario we couldn’t imagine living suddenly became a harsh reality.

When I saw my wife and her good father I sensed something similar between our Father. I thought of those times I knelt by my bed with bruised knees pleading for a way out for my son; the nights seemed to stretch out into infinity as I wet my pillow with tears. I felt the words in my heart, “I cannot take your troubles from you, but I will walk with you and lift you when you fall.”

Somewhere out there lives my son. And when I see him next I will drop everything and I will run … boy, will I ever run. The heavens will weep once more – but this time out of joy – for a family will be reunited with their young, fallen boy.

When I think of my own children, two of whom are teenagers and my youngest now ten, I know that I cannot take their troubles away. But, like this good father I will walk beside them … even with bare feet and broken bones. Until my dying breath, I will walk beside them and try to lead them home.

A MORTAL’S GUIDE TO SUFFERING

It was the summer of my son’s passing that I found myself alone for a few weeks. Circumstances were such that my kids were at various camps and Natalie was away from home helping them. On this night I lay on the grass next to my son’s headstone as the summer sun set. I loved to hear the sound of crickets and lay on the soft carpet of grass that covered my dear son. Though the world was harsh and hard, there was a certain softness to this place.

Looking back, this period of my grief journey was especially surreal. The gravity of grief was so great that I could hardly breathe most of the time. Beneath the veneer of my soft smile and dry eyes was a soul that was in a state of constant weeping and grief. It felt that earth and my life before was somewhere far away. 

If I wasn’t at work or with my wife and kids, I wanted to be at the cemetery, next to my son. I don’t entirely understand why I had such a strong desire to be near him – I think on some level the father in me subconsciously wanted to comfort my son who, deep inside, I worried was frightened. Looking back, I am beginning to wonder if I was the one who was frightened and in need of comfort.

So on this summer evening, as the sun fell behind the hills, I jotted the phrase “A Mortal’s Guide to Suffering.” I didn’t know exactly what to do with it … I only knew I needed to remember those words. It has been two years now and I haven’t been able to put that phrase down. It keeps surfacing in my mind and heart – as though it’s a whisper from that other place to explore its meaning in my life.

Since then I’ve begun working on a series with that title, A Mortal’s Guide to Suffering. It is not a pulpit or a collection of “life lessons” … for who am I to teach anyone? I am the least of everyone. I’m just a fumbling student who is trying to listen to my Father, a master teacher, who tenderly and patiently teaches me hard things. So in a way, it is a journal of observations and wonderings.

I have received many messages from people all across the world sharing stories of hope and hardship, love and loss. I have wept as I’ve read your own journeys. I have discovered there is a great deal of silent sorrow in this world, but there is also a great deal of hope and healing. At first I was confused why people found solace in reading another’s sorrow, my sorrow. I think I understand it now, at least to some degree. 

Perhaps the first healing step in a mortal’s journey with suffering is to discover we are not alone in sorrow and that other people understand a darkness we thought was unique to ourselves. It would seem the second step in our mortal journey with suffering is to not only find that others care that we hurt, but to discover the healing power when we learn to care for others, despite our hurt. I don’t believe it’s possible to overstate the healing power of empathy. I have discovered that empathy not only repairs part of the sufferer, it also repairs an invisible part of the person who does not appear broken at all. 

And therein lies one of mortality's great deceptions, to think any one of us are unbroken. To be mortal is to be broken; and while everyone is broken in one way or another, most of us are broken in many places, great and small. Some hide their brokenness in anger and bitterness – they lash out and try to harm others, mistaking that rush and thrill for wholeness. Others retreat in quiet sorrow. Some try to mask or numb their brokenness in things that ultimately hurt themselves and others. Still, there are some who hide their brokenness in egotism and by appearing to be exactly the opposite of flawed. There are many things I hope to become in this life – chief among them is I hope to always be real.

So, in the coming months I will share some of my own personal discoveries of being mortal and suffering – and what I make of it. They’re not life lessons nor are they meant to be a digital pulpit … instead they are a lowly journal ... a guide and road map for me, covered in dirt and dust from stumbling. I do this so that if ever I get lost, I can look back and see the journey and make sense of it all. I don’t know many things – but one thing I know is I am a mere mortal with broken bones; and every day, however much I stumble, I am finding my way home.