We Put Up The Tree (or…life is unpredictable when you’re grieving)

We lugged the Christmas decorations out of the basement this weekend, after my kids assured me we were the very last people on earth who hadn’t put up a tree. Since the accident I’ve been something of a bah-humbug about Christmas fluffery, but I’m not going to take it away from Jana and Michael. We turned on our favorite music, and the kids dove happily into the boxes. 

Last year we didn’t put up Samuel’s stocking. I let the kids decide, and my ever-logical Jana thought it was silly to hang it since “he doesn’t need it, he’s dead.” (Michael took an opportunistic approach. He suggested we include Samuel’s stocking and buy presents as normal, but then he would open it all for his brother, and play with it too. We said no to that.)

When I asked this year, they both wanted it over the fireplace with the others. I was excited. We could fill it with little notes of love, or ideas of kind things we could do for others. Maybe we could buy gifts for Angel Tree or things to use in next year’s Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes. We could write out memories of Samuel. An empty stocking is an opportunity for so many meaningful things!

Then Michael changed his mind. He paced the room, distressed. He didn’t want Samuel’s stocking out because it would remind him that Samuel had died, and then he would be sad. 

OK, no stocking for Samuel.

He deteriorated further as we decorated the tree. He didn’t want to include Samuel’s ornaments, although the rest of us felt it important. He broke down crying. He said he missed Samuel, but he didn’t want to remember his brother’s death, and he didn’t want Christmas to be sad. He admitted he was afraid of dying too. And all of this was going to ruin Christmas.

I sat on the floor and held him, tears running down his face. 

“Mommy?” His voice was small. “If we hadn’t adopted Samuel, he wouldn’t have died, right?”

Oh how my heart hurts. 

How do I answer that question?

The doorbell rang, unusual for a Sunday morning when we’re normally at church. A sweet friend noticed we weren’t there and left early to visit us. I wiped the tears off my cheeks and invited her in, thankful for her gesture. We talked while the kids and I worked on the tree. 

After she left, Michael’s interest bottomed out. He ran off to distract himself with something happier. Jana got scratched by the cat and didn’t want to decorate anymore. She disappeared to her room with the dog. Jeremy’s head started to hurt and he felt nauseous, so he excused himself to lay down, hoping to ward off the potential migraine. The CD ended. I stood in the living room, boxes scattered about the floor, alone except for the grumpy cat. The air felt heavy. I stared at the half-finished tree. 

Things don’t always go the way we plan. 

It’s worse since Samuel died. We get grumpy or tired, or knocked flat by a wave of grief, and things fall apart. But on the other hand, it’s better. Because compared to Samuel, what’s the big deal if our Christmas tree decorating family time is a flop? 

I reheated my coffee and finished the tree by myself. I might not care, but I can shoulder the task because it’s important to my family. I wouldn’t have chosen these lessons of life and death for my kids, but God has allowed it. They are learning what death looks like in this world. They also need reassurance that it’s OK to keep living. Grief and joy can coexist. 

I kept a few things out, just in case Jana decided to contribute a little more in the next day or two. I left most of the other decorations in their boxes. The kids won’t miss them, and I don’t want the extra hassle. We have enough.

We keep going, one moment at a time.

Lessons from my Kids

Every mom who has lost a child knows the fear of those simple questions, “Do you have any kids?  How many?” We have different ways of answering, depending on the trustworthiness of the person we’re talking to, where we are in the timeline of grief, and even how we’re feeling that day.

I prefer not to tell strangers about Samuel’s death because of the awkwardness it produces. It’s even hard to talk about it with many friends who know exactly what happened. Mentioning his death lands into a conversation with a dull and heavy thud. We all stare at it, uncertain of what to do next. It takes energy to navigate the clumsy dialogue that follows. I often end up being the one to comfort the other person. “It’s OK,” I reassure, “I wouldn’t know what to say either.” It’s so backwards. I rarely have the emotional reserves to do this graciously, so I avoid it altogether.

I’ve realized that we, as a culture, are lacking when it comes to dealing with death. We don’t know how to talk about it, and are terrified at pain so deep it might not ever go away. We are a fix-it society. If we can’t cure it by taking a pill, seeing a therapist, or distracting ourselves, we get squirmy. Death, especially the death of a child, is a disturbing reminder that we have less control than we think over our lives.

Recently while talking with a new acquaintance, it came up that Jana had been injured in a serious car accident. She said, “How awful your daughter was hurt so badly, but thank goodness you were all OK in the end.” The now-familiar debate flashed through my head. We were not all OK. Should I nod my head and let it go? Or should I tell her what really happened?

Michael was standing next to me. At her comment, he put his hands over his face, and rammed his head into my side.

I knew my answer.

I will show my children that it is OK to talk about death.

Death is not shameful or embarrassing. Losing a child is not a mark of disgrace on a family.

Of course no one thinks Samuel’s death is shameful or disgraceful. But they act like they do. They look away, change the subject, avoid talking about it or avoid talking to us altogether. They do it because they they don’t know what to say, but it looks, it feels a lot like embarrassment.

I don’t want my kids to learn that.

I will honor Samuel. I will not let the reactions of other people keep me from talking about him, especially in front of his siblings. By mentioning him I will let my kids know that a parent’s love for their child never dies. Samuel’s life was short, and by the world’s standards it might have been insignificant, but he had incredible value and brought us joy and was cherished. We will never forget him.

I will model how to be compassionate and gentle. I will show my kids how to listen, how to remember, and how to love.

So I did.

I told the lady that Samuel died in the accident. It was uncomfortable, but she responded fairly well. She was kind and even gave me a quick hug. Then our discussion moved to the general awfulness of drivers on the road. Safer territory. Michael straightened up, content with the truth. He is grieving, but not ashamed.

I’ve watched my children and their friends deal with Samuel’s death. They do it with less anxiety than the adults. They are honest and not afraid to talk about sadness. They don’t try to have all the answers. They face whatever is in front of them at the moment.

A new girl came to Jana’s classroom. As they played together at recess, Jana talked about both of her brothers, and the accident that took Samuel’s life. That would scare away many adults, but not this 3rd grader. She expressed sympathy, and they went on to become friends. Her kindness without fear was refreshing.

If I visit school for lunch, some of the kids inevitably ask me about Samuel. It’s still on their minds, and they want to talk about it. The teachers stop this and remind the kids to focus on happy memories. They try to protect the kids from sadness, or maybe they think I need to be protected from reminders of our loss.

Perhaps this is how we start some of our hangups about grief and death. When we hush questions and conversations, we turn losses into unspeakable losses. Pretending that tragedy never happened teaches our children to avoid unavoidable things. If we avoid pain, it’s hard to be present in each other’s lives when we’re really hurting. It takes practice to be comfortable sharing space with someone whose pain cannot be fixed.

There are certainly times to be silent. I don’t need to announce Samuel’s death to everyone I meet. There are times to protect my own heart, times to hold my story secret and precious.

There are also times to be vulnerable and speak openly about death. I am learning this honesty from my children, and we’ll practice it together with courage and tenderness.

Scars

Jana and her friend were talking about a classmate that did something mean to her.

Her friend offered an interpretation, “Maybe he’s mean because he thinks you’re ugly from the accident, but I don’t think you are.” 

It was meant kindly.  I died inside. 

I couldn’t tell if Jana caught what was said or not.  She’s good at hiding things (a skill she unfortunately gets from me).

Do I mention it to her, bring it up and tell her about it if she didn’t hear it?  Risk letting it go unaddressed if she did notice?

Her friends were understandably shocked when they first saw her after the accident.  Her face was swollen, her eye closed, fresh surgery scars on her cheek and eyelid, and one massive yellow and purple bruise covering her face and neck.  She was unsteady on her feet and was exhausted by everything.  But she’s healed so much.  She hasn’t regained full movement in one eye, but most people can’t tell.  I only see it because the ophthalmologist showed me.  The bruising and swelling are gone.  The only obvious physical evidence left of the accident is a round pink scar on her cheek.  Surely her friends are used to her scar by now.

Jana isn’t bothered much by her scar, but mostly because she forgets, not because she’s actually OK with it.  She gets annoyed if I draw attention to it.  I hope she comes to peace with it, or maybe it will fade away.  I imagine when she’s a teenager, she won’t be happy with a constant reminder on her face of the accident and her brother’s death. 

Jana’s Injuries

Jana had facial reconstructive surgery on the third day. The surgeons put a metal plate in her cheek, gave her a synthetic orbital socket (hers was crushed beyond repair), and moved lots of little bone fragments back into place so they could heal. The doctors, both fathers of young children, promised to care for her as if she was their own. Still, it was a terrifying morning. The loss of one child was imminent. What if Jana didn’t wake up too? I prayed desperately and numbed my mind to it until I was by her side again, my fingers tracing gentle swirls on her hand, assuring her (and me) that she was going to be all right. 

After surgery the swelling and bruises crossed to the other side of her face, leaving her unrecognizable. Now both eyes were swollen tightly shut. Her face was so distorted she couldn’t cry properly. Her lips were distended, she could hardly open them. She wined with a high-pitched breathy noise. She couldn’t eat. I sat by her side, unable to ease her suffering. I’ve never felt so helpless.

Jana was in pain and understandably mad about her situation. She pulled away from us when we tried to touch her. She wanted to watch a movie, but couldn’t open her eyes. She would listen to an audio story restlessly, then the next dose of morphine would come and she would fall asleep. Every hour a nurse would come, pry her eyes open, and shine a light in them. This all lasted two or three days. Endless days.  

In the middle of this, we had to tell Jana and Michael their little brother had died. 

Losing someone you love is crushing. Watching the pain in your children’s eyes as they try to understand how they will never see their little brother again burns off parts of your soul that will never be restored.

I can’t do this. 

Nobody asked me though, and nobody gave me a choice.

Jana found comfort in one thing, the piles of notes and cards that filled her room. She had about a hundred and fifty of them…cards from school, from the kids at church, and a basket of notes from a community prayer service that was held for Samuel. In the quiet hours of night when she couldn’t sleep, I read them to her. Notes from higher grade teachers made her feel important, and she especially liked one from a kid who said he wrote on behalf of the middle school. When I finished, she would ask me to read them again. We passed hours this way in the dark, me reading by the light of the medical monitors next to her bed. Sometimes I thought she had fallen asleep, but if I paused, she whispered for me to continue. It was the only time she wasn’t agitated. She would sit still, her head resting back on the pillow, soaking in the words of love and prayer and encouragement. 

A week after the accident, Jana was discharged. Her injured eye was still swollen shut, but she could awkwardly manage soft foods. She couldn’t walk because of her traumatic brain injury. She struggled to support her own weight, was dizzy, and could not put her feet one in front of the other. She didn’t have control over her legs. Because of her concussion she would get a headache if she read more than a single line of writing. She was constantly nauseous. She was still on heavy pain meds. We had referrals for physical therapy and speech therapy. They predicted she would make an excellent recovery, perhaps even a complete recovery, but there was no way to tell how long it would take. She might regain her functioning in weeks, or months.

I could hardly believe she was alive. 

We left the hospital, the first time I had stepped outside in over a week. Our new reality was staggering. We were a family of four, loading Jana’s walker in the back of the car. It was all wrong.