Like Stars

Yesterday I was beyond discouraged. I had high, almost desperate expectations for something important, and it ended in disaster. I was angry and hurt, and certain I had an unfortunate magic touch that could destroy any relationship. My impulse was to run away in hopelessness and quit.

Later I stood in a long line to pick the kids up at school, hands stuffed in my pockets, staring at the floor. I always feel heavy in the school lobby, watching the kindergarteners trip over their shoes and backpacks as they are led down the hall. No matter how busy, Samuel’s absence echoes loudly, and the place feels empty. Two moms next to me chatted about the anxiety they felt dropping their little ones off at preschool every day. “It tears my heart out to drive away each morning, knowing I won’t see him for four hours! I want to see everything he does, hear every cute thing he says. It’s so hard!” 

Their loss is legitimate, but weighed down by failure, loneliness, and grief, I couldn’t muster any sympathy. I stared harder at the floor, willing myself to make it through. A friend walked up and touched my arm to get my attention. “Deep in thought? I think of you all the time. Can I give you a hug?”

And then I didn’t mind so much that I was crying in a room full of people. 

In the evening some friends stopped by. They sat on the rug, giving kisses to the dog. They acknowledged the approaching anniversary of Samuel’s death, and told us they loved us. They showed us a picture they had made of Samuel to hang near the children’s classrooms at church. 

Grief and trauma drain me, and I find myself unable to remember that people care. If I’m not reminded, the darkness in my head and heart take over. The picture for church is precious, but yesterday, it mostly mattered that they showed up. For a while the darkness gets lighter.

Even a small kindness is a gift. I am thankful and humbled by every one. Maybe they stand out brighter because the darkness of child loss is so dark, the way stars shine clear on the deepest nights. People say grief is a lonely road, and in many ways they are right. We have to process our own unique losses. But that shouldn’t be an excuse not to get involved. Friends can’t fix grief, but they are desperately needed. There is an enormous difference between lonely grieving and grieving while surrounded by kindness. 

Looming

We are 10 days away from the first anniversary of our car accident. In those initial months I remember thinking I could never survive a year feeling the way I did. Yet here we are, limping and broken, weary and angry, and it is November again. I vacillate from feeling relieved we’ve made it this far, to feeling guilty because I’ve been alive this whole time and Samuel hasn’t, and then to despair that this anniversary isn’t an ending, but the first milestone of the rest of our lives. 

The kids are either particularly tired, or they are feeling anniversary reminders too. Jana struggles to get out of bed in the mornings. She has become entrenched in feeling that life isn’t fair, and focuses that on her brother. He got more presents on his birthday than she did (9 months ago), he gets to do everything fun, he has more friends, and NONE OF IT IS FAIR. Her frequent dips into this mood are accompanied by a helpless attitude and plenty of tears. 

Just like the accident. We all felt helpless and the kid’s injuries were definitely not fair.

Michael has become a champion of irritability and stubbornness. This morning he complained about his waffle, needing syrup. The syrup was on the table in front of him, but he wanted me to put it on for him. He insisted he couldn’t see any syrup, and that I was punishing him by forcing him to eat a disgusting breakfast. He accused me of plotting his death by starvation (have I mentioned his tendency toward the dramatic?). He nibbled on a corner of his plain waffle instead of putting the syrup on by himself. He resisted getting in the car to go to school, and pretended to be unable to take off his backpack and unable to fasten his seatbelt. He covered his ears and repeated on a loop, in a grumpy and raspy voice, that the music we were listening to was terrible. 

Again, same feelings as the accident. Out of control and angry. 

This season is filled with reminders of Samuel’s death. Pumpkin pie and the smell of turkey are entrenched in my mind as part of our last day as a whole family. A commercial for the Thanksgiving parade felt like a punch in the stomach. The thought of taking the kids to a park on these sunny fall afternoons fills me with deep sadness. It’s how we spent our last few hours with Samuel. Thanksgiving was warm, and we let the kids run off their lunch at a playground. Samuel was the first to climb to the top of the rope tower. I was impressed by his agility and wondered how I was going to teach him a tiny bit of risk aversion so he wouldn’t break his neck, jumping off the top of the swing set or trying to get a toy off the roof of the house. 

I am still haunted by the unexpectedness of the accident, and struggle with the contrast between Thanksgiving and the trauma of the following day. One day we were expressing gratitude, playing outside in the sunshine, pleasantly stuffed from too much dessert. One morning we were excited about our plans, chatting and reading as we drove along. One moment we were safe and naive. Confusion, pain and fear came out of nowhere. Blood, strange hands trying to untangle us from the car, emergency rooms, bare white hospital walls, brain probes, doctors with tears in their eyes. Samuel was gone. Even now it’s hard to understand.

People have asked me how I’m doing, and I am not sure how to answer. I have more energy than I did 6 months ago, which makes it easier to act normal when I’m around other people. I’m guessing it looks to others that I’m doing much better. I’ve regained the ability to distract myself, so I can numb my thoughts in a book or conversation. I’ve entered the “grief comes in waves” phase. In many ways it’s better than constant grief, which was relentless for months and left me struggling through the most basic responsibilities of my day. But the waves are unpredictable, and being knocked down by random triggers is disorienting. Really, the sadness is always there, covered by a thin layer of distraction that takes constant effort to maintain. I’m aware of it steadily draining me, even though I can sometimes keep from feeling it. 

Time moves on. Some days I dread it’s progression, wanting time to stop or go back to happier days when all three kids sat around the dinner table. But right now I appreciate the constant forward motion. However hard the coming holidays are, time will move us beyond them. In 7 weeks Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years will be over. Others will join me in post-holiday gloom, the it’s-going-to-be-a-long-cold-winter feeling that bites at you with the January wind. And I’ll feel more at harmony with the world around me.

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 even 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.

Nighttime Rituals

Every night before I went to bed I checked on the kids.  It started when I was an anxious first-time mom and I had to make sure the baby was still breathing.  It eventually became a sweet, peaceful ritual.

The boys slept in bunk beds in their room, and Jana was across the hall. I’d walk in, collect the books scattered across their beds, and move fallen stuffed bunnies and puppies back to their pillows. I’d pull covers off Jana, who bundles up so much she sweats. And I’d pull covers onto the boys, who kick their blankets and lay curled up with cold bare legs. I’d kiss them again and whisper nighttime prayers of God’s love and mine.

Since the accident I have not been checking on them. I walk past their doors and wonder why, but still don’t go in. I feel guilty for being too tired to accomplish one more thing before I collapse into bed. I’m frustrated with the defeatist attitude I’ve developed about prayer. If God wants to take them, he will, so why pray? And I’m ashamed that I struggle to be fully engaged with them, even when our story is a painful reminder that I should treasure the days. I want to look at the little faces I love and hold the moment forever. Still, every night, I walk past their doors.

Tonight I walked in, and the real reason I have avoided my nighttime ritual knocked the wind out of me. Samuel wasn’t there. His covers were flat and unnaturally neat. I couldn’t kiss his cheek and tuck blue bunny under his arm. There weren’t any contraband toys hidden inside his pillowcase. He wasn’t laying on the bottom bunk, skinny legs sticking every which way, stretched sideways or backwards or half off his bed. He seemed to invent new sleeping positions every week. He had personality, even in his sleep. 

Tears came as I fought for breath. He’s gone. He’s five but he doesn’t get bedtime kisses from his mommy anymore. It’s all wrong.

Grief is cold sheets. Grief is a bedspread that stays smooth, week after week. Grief is a once loved stuffed animal that sits unhugged on an empty pillow.

I am the Hulk

It’s 6 in the morning and the onslaught has been coming for hours. 

I woke up early with my heart racing. My dreams were crowded with arrogant people, smug in their selfishness, callous to the danger their recklessness created for everyone around them. Just like the careless drivers that anger me on the road. 

I tried to go back to sleep, but I was mad and couldn’t get rid of the restlessness. 

It started two days ago when I watched a woman drive through the school parking lot at dismissal time, talking on her phone. The parking lot was filled with children and parents getting out for the afternoon. I was furious. She could run into my kids! What chance do they have against a van when they are on foot? The imaginary anguished screams of parents filled my ears as I envisioned her not noticing a child stepping off the sidewalk into her path. 

I was shaking, and my heart pounded fiercely. I wanted to tell her to get off her phone. The words in my head weren’t nice, and intermixed with things like, “My son died! What more does it take for people like you to pay attention? You’re going to kill someone!” We both stood in line in the school lobby, and she continued her phone conversation behind me. I watched her, wondering if I would really voice my accusations if I caught her eye. The lobby was packed with students, parents, and school staff. It was not the place for an angry confrontation. Still, I hated her carelessness. I needed to stop her. I was ready to fight her to save my children.

I stared at the floor, aware that even my initial statement to her would be loud and aggressive. I fought back tears. I was confused and momentarily couldn’t remember my kids names to sign them out. My hand trembled and I struggled to hold the pen. I got my kids and left. She was still on her phone. 

I hate to think what would have come out of my mouth if she had hung up and looked at me. 

I’ve been agitated ever since, and can’t stop thinking about her. In my imagination she’s out there somewhere, dangerous and rash. I’ve had arguments with her in my head, ending with her cowering and me winning. I can’t shake the irritation. 

Michael comes into the living room in his pajamas. No one else is awake. We sit on the couch and he, the ultimate morning person, already has a million things to say. I relax some. He tells me stories. His imagination is filled with battles and fighting too, but he’s 7. He fights against the bad guys with lightsabers and special powers. He loves Iron Man and the Flash, and tells me all about their superhero magic. I touch his hair and protect myself from the little elbows and knees that jab me unaware. He doesn’t stay in one spot for long. Soon he’s up and his footsteps run down the hall.

It only takes seconds to pick up where I left off. My mind is back on injustice and anger. It’s Saturday, which means my kids and neighbor kids will be in and out of the house all day. And I’m on edge, ready to fight imaginary people. I feel impatient. I hope to make it through the day without yelling at my kids for something little. 

My home is normally my safe place. I might be anxious or have nightmares, but not the intense triggers I experience in traffic or in public. I feel defeated that today it has followed me here.  

I am the Hulk.

PTSD turns me into a green monster. 

The Hulk wants to do good, but rage is blinding and hard to control.

Unfortunately, he is dangerous to everything around him. Good or bad. Friend or foe.

God help me.

********************

Being vulnerable about grief is easy compared to this stuff.  I read enough to know that although my experience in grief is my own, it’s normal and similar to what many other grieving moms feel.  But it’s hard to normalize PTSD.  People address combat PTSD, but there is very little that is honest about the irrational rage and fear in civilian PTSD. What does it look like to be a mom with PTSD, picking up kids from school everyday? No one seems to know. 

I am hesitant to write about my PTSD. It’s becoming accepted, or at least recognized, that Christians can struggle with depression and anxiety. However it remains an unspoken narrative in the church that christian women don’t get angry, and they certainly aren’t aggressive. I am ashamed and uncertain how to handle my experiences. I am ashamed enough that I have to write an explanation at the bottom of a blog post, hoping I come across as sympathetic instead of crazy.

In this intensified state, PTSD is as isolating as grief. 

The First Day of School

I limped through the first day of school, but I made it.

I watched my kids walk into the building with their friends. Samuel would have run up the sidewalk, partially hidden by a too-big backpack… No, stop. I don’t want to go there today.

I cried, but not as much as I expected. Half-way through the tears I numbed over. 

Then I realized I forgot to take the obligatory back-to-school photo, and the tears started again. I have mixed feelings about documenting our family milestones with photos these days. I want to celebrate important events for my living children, but each picture has a sad, empty spot in it. Two kids, smiling with backpacks, missing the third. Oh, Samuel. 

I feel guilty for forgetting the picture. I feel guilty for my conflicted feelings about taking pictures. I feel guilty for taking one without Samuel in it.

Nothing is easy anymore.

Another School Year

School starts soon. I took last years papers down from the bulletin board to make room for the influx of new information coming next week. I took down Samuel’s kindergarten schedule.

There won’t be a 1st grade schedule to replace it.

I hold it, stare at it, wipe the tears from my face so they don’t drip on it. It’s his first and his last school schedule. I don’t want to mess it up with wet spots.

It’s not fair he’s been robbed of so much life.

My other kids are watching music videos on youtube in the kitchen. It happens all the time, some music in the background of my life that seems at odds with my experience.

And on that day when my strength is fading, the end draws near and my time has come. Still my soul will sing your praise unending, 10,000 years and then forevermore.

I want to be moved by the music, but I am not. I don’t grieve as one who has no hope, but I am certainly grieving as one who isn’t sure. I want to be settled, to feel comfort and know that Samuel is singing and dancing for Jesus. He would love that. He’s so cute he’d draw a crowd, even in heaven.

Meanwhile, back on earth, we’re organizing backpacks, writing names in composition notebooks, and digging out lunch boxes. The kids and I have decided which teacher Samuel would have had this year. I can’t decide if discussions like that help me, or if they add to my sorrow by giving me made-up scenarios to grieve. In reality, he was never going to have a 1st grade teacher. I just didn’t know.

Back-to-school is as hard as any holiday. Like a birthday, it’s a milestone of forward progress and expectations. This year it is happiness for my living children undercut by the pain of watching time go by without Samuel.

Social media turns into a danger zone, with photo after photo of the anticipated day. I can’t do it. Each picture taunts me, highlighting the gap between normal childhood and our agony. This is our first year to start school without Samuel, and it seems someone should realize how hard it is and say something to us.

We go to school to drop off our supplies, meet the new teachers, and help the kids find their desks. In the hallway I see Samuel’s kindergarten teacher from last year. She has suffered too. She’s taught two of my kids. She knew and loved Samuel before he was her student. We talk for a few minutes, both feeling disbelief that he isn’t here. I am thankful at least one person knows this is a painful time.