Top 10 If I Knew Then

A while after my son died, his father asked me if I thought that it would ever really get “better” like the parents in his grief support group said it would. At the time I said I thought so , but to be honest, I wasn’t sure. Actually, I didn’t believe that it would at all, but I thought that sounded too pessimistic so I said sure it would.

Five years down the road now myself and that conversation is on my mind again tonight.

I’m not someone who is willing to tell anyone what they want to hear if it’s not true so, in answer to “does it get better?”….

“Better” is a word that is clung to by those who are hurting and want to have hope that the pain they feel, in that moment, will go away. “Better” is an ethereal concept that, whether they admit it or not, insinuates that there is an end to grief and the pain of the loss they are feeling.

Sorry, spoiler alert here: “Better” doesn’t happen like that.

If I could share anything, it would be this – let go of looking to when you won’t hurt anymore. Forget about when you will have a day that you don’t cry, or rage, or hate. This is with you for good; in some form or another, this will be carried by you for the rest of your life. How that looks though is different than the “Better” that we think it should look like.

Just like the good things that happen in our lives help to shape us and stay with us, so do the not-so-great experiences. Like deaths of loved ones…and that’s just the way it is.

For myself, “Better” is seeing the things I have learned as the last five years have passed.

My son’s death has shown me that I have a darker sense of humour than I ever thought I did and also that sometimes you do have to laugh or you’ll go crazy. (There’s a funny story about my son’s ashes, a hard corner and a seat belt that I’ll tell another time…well, I find it funny 😉 )

So, not sugar-coated and not all Pollyanna and happy, but here are my top 10 things that death and grief has shown me:

  1. That a heart can keep beating even after you are certain it has been destroyed.
  2. That you can survive what you never imagined that you could.
  3. That tears have no end.
  4. That time does not heal all wounds, but it will soften the edges of the pain.
  5. That grief is a tangible entity, and it is heavy.
  6. That even in the midst of the worst darkness, you can find something to laugh at…. sometimes,and that it’s ok when you can’t.
  7. That when you don’t know how you will keep going, you will. Hope doesn’t always look like we think it will, and that’s all right.
  8. I have learned that asking “Why?” may be pointless, but you will anyways, over and over again.
  9. I have learned that you will never forget.
  10. I have learned that life does go on, and it will never be like it was…but that doesn’t mean it won’t or can’t be good.

Bonus point 11.

I have come to understand how a person can hurt so much that they would rather just not wake up the next day. I have learned that you will be glad that you did make it through that night to see the next day. You will learn to live with the grief.

 

Don’t Put the Past on a Pedestal

I was telling a story today at work to one of my colleagues. We had been talking about families and kids the sometimes odd things that they do and how crazy they can drive us. I was sharing a story about two of my boys from many years ago. Two things occurred to me, even as I was blithering on telling her the story.

One: that I was talking and sharing a memory that involved Willie, by name, without hesitation. This may seem like not a big deal, but for me, it is. I routinely talk about my three living sons (by name and very openly) at work but I skirt around ever bringing up anything that involves mentioning Willie. Why? For the reasons that it invites questions from those who might have never heard his name yet and wonder why I never mention that one (yes that has happened)…. and then the awkward “well, because he’s dead” which is a pretty big downer for a work conversation. So , I tend to only share funny things that don’t include him. Except today, it was with one of my staff, alone, who knows he’s dead and what his name is and she has the amazing knack for not ever looking at me with that look that some people get when I mention him. I’ve never told her how he died or details or much at all. She just knows that I have a son who died shortly before I moved here and started working here. It struck me today how good it felt to be able to talk about him and laugh and share and to be able to share him with someone in a positive way – not in a sad way. It felt good.

Two: The other thing that came to mind as I was laughing and telling this story to her was that when we talk about someone who has died, we so often only reminisce about the good. We remember them with biased, rose-coloured glasses way more than we should. “Don’t speak ill of the dead is a common phrase that I’m sure we’ve all heard. They were human and they were fallible though and it’s ok to remember THAT part of who they were too. My son was a great kid, bright and curious with an awesome sense of humour and dry wit that I was so proud of as his Mom. He was also short tempered, annoying and snarky and he could be a real little asshole at times. In short, he was a normal person. A very normal teenager. True, much of his behaviour in his final few months was fueled by mental illness but before that, he was not always a smiling, blooming roses, sunshine and rainbows type of kid. And it’s ok to say that.

So tonight, as I scroll through old pictures of the last trip I took with my boys when we were all together, I share one that captures that sentiment perfectly.

This picture shows a moment caught in time with two of my boys; the young man in the picture, who is the main subject, is my oldest son – he’s now 25 and all grown up and someone I am super proud of (like I am of all of them – have to point that out!). He has his usual face of “I’m letting you take the picture but hurry up” that I know and love so well!

The middle finger in front of him, thrust into the frame at the last second, is Willie’s. A perfect capture of him being a little annoying dork. That too, is something I am super proud to say that I remember, and celebrate, of him.

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A voice

What is a voice? It’s what we use to speak; to convey so much – thoughts, feelings, emotions, wants, needs, fears, joys, sorrows. All given life by our voice.

Sometimes our voice is so quiet that we can’t even hear it ourselves, never mind have it audible to others, especially those that we want to hear it. Sometimes it’s so loud that it’s all we can hear and we crave the silence that comes when it is squashed down and muffled by the distractions that we all become so adept at using.

Voices rise and fall and change. They shift and they are fluid like the waves in the air that carry them. Voices can be silent too though. So much spoken without a single sound. Still a voice, still carrying a message.

As I read little pieces of my sons journals I hear his voice. Not his spoken voice anymore but his message carried in his writings. I hear his confusion and his frustration, his yearning for it to all not be how it was for him – for us. I hear the glimmers of hope that he still had, and I hear how that hope faded as the weeks slipped into months and he saw no change for the better in his mind. I hear the sadness that he felt as he heard his own voice, with awareness of his mental illness that grew inside of him, that he felt WAS him. I hear his pleas for help, and I hear when he decided that he knew the answer to his plea. I hear, in his words, the pain that he felt when he surrendered to that decision.

I have kept his voice from his journals so private and in doing so, his voice is silent in a way. I wonder sometimes if that’s the right decision. The first time I heard what he had to say I was shocked and, honestly, I recoiled from it. The raw, violence of his voice, the pain that seared on the pages in his voice scared me – and still does. The desperation and fear that he gave voice to on those pages tore at me and ripped me apart inside. I sit back now, 5 years later, and wonder if maybe that voice, and what it evokes, should be louder. Not so private and not silenced. He died but his voice didn’t.

Yes you can, and you will

For those who lose someone and think they can’t go on.

 

A comment that I read on social media today made me actually speak out loud to my computer. It was a comment that someone made on a thread that was discussing the latest celebrity passing. Debbie Reynolds, having just lost her daughter Carrie Fisher the day before, had passed away and this person expressed her belief this way: “I would die after burying my child too.”. The words “No you wouldn’t” flew out of my mouth. There may have even been a hand gesture at the screen. Ok, more than maybe. There was, and it was dismissive.

I can absolutely understand this sentiment that this person stated. Losing a child is regarded as the worst thing that can happen to a parent – and it does indeed suck in a huge way like nothing else – and that is an understatement of epic proportions! However, like all things in life that we don’t think we can live through, we do. Trust me on this one, sometimes you wish you wouldn’t make it, but you do.

Having been there myself, there were many time that I wished that I would just not wake up the next morning. Actually, more than wishing, I  wanted that. The option of waking up every day and feeling as horrendously as I did that first little while was not an option that I wanted. Nope, not even one little bit. Being healthy and generally ok physically though, I did keep waking up everyday. Waking up and still hurting so badly that I felt like I would die. Waking up and hurting so badly that I wished I would die so it would end. Not because I didn’t want to live, but because I didn’t want to live like I was – having lost my son.

Those wishes didn’t come true though. Not in the way that I wanted then, but they have come true in some manner.

I don’t wake up every day hurting as much as I did in that first while. Some days I do, and I would be lying if I said that it never hurts like that anymore. It does – and it always will, I think. It didn’t kill me though and it won’t.

I remember a conversation that I had with my sons father about a couple of months after our son died. At the time we were getting together to talk and share our grief (we had been divorced for many years). He asked “What if it never gets better? What if it never gets easier to live with? What if all those parents who have lost children who say it gets easier are lying? What if how it feels right now is how it’s always going to feel?” I assured him that he was wrong; that of course it would get easier, blah blah blah. The truth was that I didn’t know if it would and how I felt then, I sure didn’t believe it myself. I also knew that he needed to hear that his fears were unfounded. So that was what I told him. For the record, I don’t think he believed me.

Almost five years later now and I can say that, for me, grief has become something that is manageable – most days. I can’t speak for him and we haven’t talked in awhile so I’m not sure how he’s doing to be honest. I can say though that, now, I do believe that those parents who say it gets easier to live with, probably aren’t lying. Does it get “Better” with a capital B? Mmmmm, that’s not something I can answer because that concept (to me) infers that the “issue” is resolved, and death is one issue that won’t ever be reversed or resolved. So I’ll leave “Better” up to each person’s interpretation.

I can say though that when you lose someone and you’re thought is “I can’t live, I can’t go on”, I want to remind you that “Yes you can, you will”.

Can a person die of a broken heart? I believe they can in some ways. Debbie Reynolds was 84 and yes, it is very likely that the stress and shock of her daughter’s death tripped the wire that was holding her in this life.

Can a person choose not to live because of a broken heart?  Yes, and that’s worse than them dying because of it, in my opinion.

You can’t choose to not hurt, but you can choose to hurt and live anyways.

Yes, you can, and you will.

Ripples and Differences

After Willie died, one of the things that played over and over in my mind was the usual grief fueled mantra of “something good has to come out of this” aka “this has to have some meaning, it can’t just be what it is (which you don’t even know what it is)”. It is the mantra of every grieving survivor of loss – more so of those who have lost someone in a tragic or sudden manner, especially someone young.

I clung to that like a life raft at times. That someday, somehow,in some way, his death would have meaning and it would serve a purpose. A purpose that would bring happiness or solace to a person’s life in the same magnitude that it had brought pain and sorrow to mine and my family’s. That it would be a catalyst for change in policies and systems that needed it the most. A wonderfully rose-coloured view that gave me what I needed at times to get through nights that blazed with lonely hurting. A wish that, I knew, held promise like a sieve holds water.

Aside from this blog, which to be honest, I frequently consider shutting down because it feels like it doesn’t have any reason to be, I haven’t done anything. Aside from this blog.

There are parents, friends and family members who have created fundraisers, walks, awareness building events and the like as their way of making the death of their person “mean something” or “do some good”. They speak or give presentations or write for publications that shine a light on the tragedy or the injustice that caused their loved one’s death. They expose and discuss and petition for change in the gaps in resources, funding, hospital beds, out-patient services, access to care… the list is endless and varied. They open the lines of communications, they give voice to those who can’t speak anymore. They shine a light on the things in the shadows. All great work and yes, sometimes, changes are made and impacts happen.

I’ve seen the almost manic pursuit of trying to realize the dream of making their loss into something that make sense. Of have it not be for nothing… because if it doesn’t have some good come of it, then what? What is it but a senseless and unfair death that shouldn’t have happened? What do you do with that, how do you figure out how to live with that?

You just do, because the truth is that no matter what difference you make, it will never make the one difference that will make it better for you. It won’t bring them back. Reality check – it also may never stop it from happening to someone else. Life isn’t always fair and death is part of it and sometimes, you just can’t do anything about it. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do what we can though. Reaching out, connecting and shining a light can do things, sometimes.

But you know what it can do, what is has done, for me sometimes? It has shown me that thinking on the small and personal level is where it matters, for me. If I think about the massive shifts in policies and resources in the medical system that need to change – it’s overwhelming and literally depressing. The realist in me says to give my head a shake if I think that any significant changes will EVER be gained. What can be gained though is smaller and yet, so much larger in so many ways.

Having someone message me after an entry and tell me that they don’t feel alone; like they are the only one who feels how they feel…. having an acquaintance come to me in person when we run across each other and share how she never knew that we shared this commonality of grief until she saw my blog entry via social media… having a friend reach out when her daughter expressed suicidal thoughts because she knew that I had been there and that I knew what she was going through…hearing the strength in her voice after that conversation and knowing that sharing DID make a difference to her.

These are the ways that differences are made, that some good is found in the bad. We may not be able to do much, but we can make sure that we aren’t silent. We can ensure that no one ever has to feel like they are alone. Sometimes, all we have is the ability to share and come together, and the power of that is immeasurable. So, we talk and we share and we can’t hide; because people who need someone live with enough shadows as it is, we need to be the light for each other.

P.S. I came across this before and it’s worth sharing. Impact, we all have it, and yes, the ripple effect works for hope and hurt.

The Impact That We Have

You never know how something you say can affect a person. This is one story of that truth.

I was back at work for the first time since my son had died. I worked, managing a fitness facility on-site in a corporate environment. My job was one where I saw the same people, day in and day out. I was at a number of sites with the company that I worked for, but this day I was at what was one of my “home sites”. A place that I had been at for over 6 years and one that I knew everyone by name. Aside from managing the site, I also worked the desk, taught classes, did one on one training sessions with clients and generally was around, a lot. My nature is one of being very open and sharing. I talked about my kids and life and connected with the people in the gym. They shared about their lives and kids and spouses and the usual banter was always ongoing. Many of the people in my facility were more than just clients in a sense, I had known them so long and we had shared so much. I may be an introvert but I love connecting and I loved my job and my sites.

I had missed work and even though I knew I wasn’t up to teaching, I wanted to get back to trying to have some sense of normal after Willie passed. So, about a month after, this was my first time back. The plan was for me to come in for a few hours and just see how it went.

Just before the lunchtime rush started, the first few regulars started to trickle in. There was the awkward, not-sure-whether-to-ignore-the-obvious encounters. I smiled and went along with it. There were the openly almost weeping sad, pitying faces that I hated more than anything at that time (and still do). I hugged and cringed inside and got them on their way.

Then there was one of the regulars, I am going to call him Sam. Sam was someone who was quiet and polite. He had been a regular and we knew each other by name. We had chit chatted but he had never been really talkative beyond the standard level of polite conversation. He generally kept to himself and, while never rude, was never one to actively reach out to start a conversation either.

This day he came in and walked to the desk to sign in before going to get changed and start his work out. He was clearly a bit taken aback to see me and he smiled and said hi, like he always did and he signed in. He paused a bit but then just turned and went into the change-room. I let out a breath I didn’t realize I had been holding and realized that maybe this was not such a great idea to have come into work.

A few minutes later, Sam comes out, towel and iPod in hand. He starts to walk past the desk then stops and turns back. He asks if he can talk to me for a minute, in private.

What Sam shared with me with was this: He didn’t know details, just that my son had died, by suicide. He didn’t want to know details or what had happened. He just wanted to tell me that it wasn’t my fault. He said that ever since he had heard, he had wanted to reach out but wasn’t sure if he should. He shared that he had been a teen that had struggled with depression and suicidal ideation. He had wanted to die. His parents had told him how much they loved him and how it would get better and that he would be okay. He told me that, in those times, it didn’t matter to him what his parents said. What anyone said. He said that he made it out of that and he is alive and glad that he didn’t kill himself. He said that what I needed to know was that it had nothing to do with his parents. That they didn’t stop him, they didn’t help, they didn’t impact it. That if he had killed himself, it would not have been because of lack of them trying or it not being “enough”. He wanted me to know that he had been how my son had been. He wanted me to know that it wasn’t my fault.

He was shaking and holding back tears while he talked to me. We both were. He shrugged and ended with a simple “there was nothing you could have done, it’s not your fault” and he walked away.

I was more touched by this than he could have known. He probably still doesn’t know.

He wasn’t someone saying they knew how I felt… he was someone sharing how the other side of this loss felt, in a way that I hadn’t thought of.

I can’t imagine what it took for him to open up and share that part of himself. I hope he knows, somehow, just how much it meant to me, and how much it still does.

The connections we make and have mean more than we are aware of at times. We may think that a kind word or action (or a harsh one) has no impact but we are wrong. Don’t hesitate to reach out, it just may make a difference more profound than you imagine.

Thank you “Sam”, and I’m glad you made it too.

That Makes Sense

I dreamed of you last night. You were younger than you were when you died. Not by a lot though. You were like you were before you got sick. You were being silly and a little bit of a sarcastic trouble maker. You were teasing your brothers at dinner. They were the age they are now though. Not the age that they were when you died, or the age you were in the dream.

You noticed. You turned to me, a laugh still on your voice, and asked me: Why am I only 12 years old? Why aren’t I older, like I should be?

Why am I only 12? Why am I sometimes 5 years old, or a baby, or 10, or 16? Why?

I smiled at you and said simply that it’s because you’re dead.

You are whatever age you are in our minds when we are thinking of you, when we dream of you and remember you.

Sometimes you are 16 and at the end of your life, angry and sad and unreachable. Other times you are that little boy who held my hand and sang silly songs as he walked beside me grinning as I laughed at you. Sometimes you are even what you never will be, the young boy grown into a man.

You looked at me and suddenly you were 16 again. Dressed like you were when I said goodbye for what I didn’t know was the last time. You shrugged, like you did a lot back then, and you smirked and said that it makes sense. Since you’re dead.