It’s Complicated

I am finding grief to be a challenge to my practical side. I like to be logical and efficient, and grief is nothing of the sort.  

Being practical feels disloyal to Samuel, and comes with a steep price of guilt.  

(Please don’t remind me that I shouldn’t feel guilty. I know. This isn’t logical, remember?)

For example, it really doesn’t matter if I go to the cemetery over the summer. It is a long drive, and it is emotionally hard on my other two kids. I’m not even driving right now. Still, not visiting feels neglectful, as if somehow fresh flowers are a measure of my love and grief.

I keep running out of hangers when I’m putting away Jana and Michael’s clothes. All of Samuel’s clothes are still in his closet, and I could use those hangers. But that feels like benefiting from his death. Like it’s fortunate that I don’t have to buy new ones, because he doesn’t need them anymore. I can’t do it. I’ll buy new ones.  

Being a family of four is less troublesome than being a family of five. We fit in a hotel room again. It is easier to get a table at a restaurant. The kids don’t fight over how we sit on the couch anymore, I have an arm for each. The package of hamburger buns divides evenly.

I hate all of it.

The guilt in being aware of these things is tremendous.  

I notice them, because I notice Samuel’s absence in everything. I still feel guilty for noticing.

I’d give anything to have him back.

Shaken

It’s common to struggle with anxiety after a child dies. Melanie DeSimone does a great job of talking about it in Why Anxiety Is A Part Of Child Loss. It makes sense if you think about it. The unimaginable, the “it won’t happen to me” happens to you. Many, many pieces of life have to be reevaluated with this new awareness. The world feels unpredictable, maybe even cruel. The result is anxiety.

I am fighting a monumental battle against fears right now. I am fighting, I am not winning. I have the normal (don’t misunderstand that to mean easy) child-loss anxiety, plus worsening PTSD. They feed off each other and intensify. I’m trying to hang on for the next few weeks until I can get help (it’s been impossible to find a PTSD-experienced therapist who has any current openings).  

My fears are focused on two things. The first is a fear about the general safety of my children. Terrible thoughts come to me with the tiniest trigger. The second is much stronger, and that is a fear of accidents while driving. I am hyper focused in the car, aware of dangers that don’t even exist, and not able to turn it off. I practice breathing, grounding myself, trying to distract myself with music or my children. These things help, but the problem has gotten out-of-control. I’m actually doing a decent job of not dwelling on these fears throughout the day. This is not a lingering storm of anxiety. It’s lightning flashes. The thoughts flash through my mind like lightning bolts, leaving me stressed, shaken, or worse. 

Every time a truck approaches me on a two lane road, I wonder if it’s the truck that’s going to kill us. 

I think the same thing when I make a turn and notice whatever vehicle is now behind me. Is that the car that is going to kill the rest of my children?

Last month I left Jana at the pool with a friend. As I drove away, I couldn’t stop imagining her body being found in the pool, floating face down. I reminded myself that she is a good swimmer, and the lifeguards are excellent, but the thought left me shaken and teary until she came home. We haven’t gone back to the pool all summer.

When the kids run across the street to the neighbors house, I cringe and listen with my shoulders tight for screeching breaks. I can’t relax until a minute has passed and they’ve had time to get safely across the cul-de-sac.

Michael and I drove by a pond on the side of the road. For the next few minutes an unbidden movie played in my mind, and I didn’t even realize I was doing it. Our car had crashed into the pond and sunk. I helped Michael out of his seat belt, shaking as I tried to calm him down (which was an exact replay of what happened in our actual accident). Water leaked into the car and we made plans to smash through the sunroof. I told him to take a deep breath, assured him it wasn’t that deep and we were going to make it out, and protected him with my body as I broke the roof. I felt the shattering glass cut my back, the water and slimy tangle of roots pour over us… 

I noticed what I was doing, tried to shake it off and pay attention to the road. Deep breaths. Feel my fingers on the steering wheel, the seat at my back. I was not going to panic because of invented trauma in my head.

These thoughts intrude all day long. This is in addition to a full PTSD outburst if another car is irresponsible, distracted, or anywhere close behind me. Last week I turned around (while at a stop sign) and yelled (silently…I gestured and mouthed words) at the driver behind me, texting on her phone. I didn’t wait to see if she responded. The only reason I didn’t descend into complete meltdown was because the kids were in the car with me.

Instead, I turned around and kept driving, the tears coming. “Mommy, what happened?” It scares them every time I lose control. I cried harder. I noticed the song on the radio, 

“When did I forget that you’ve always been the king of the world? I try to take life back right out of the hands of the king of the world.”

For the last two weeks, I end up in a rage or in tears at least once every time I drive, so I’m driving as little as possible now. I’m not sure if this is wisdom, or if I’m giving in to the PTSD and making things worse. I feel ashamed either way. We finished Jana’s commitments last week, and are staying home the rest of the summer. We are going to eat everything in the pantry so I don’t have to go to the grocery store. The kids might get bored, but at least I won’t have to apologize to them for losing my temper and yelling at other cars.

The thought of not driving anywhere this week brings tears of relief.  

To My Friends Who Hope

A few days ago, I came across a letter. It was written by a woman to her friend who had just buried a baby.

It was gentle and caring. She spoke of hope through the pain, and how the soul grows through loss. It was lovely.

It frustrated me.  

Because I’m not there yet.  

We all grieve differently. There are some who walk through the early days of child loss aware of the refining process happening under their pain. Maybe this young mother needed to be reminded of the truth in that frightening place, right after her loss. Or maybe she will, like me, hide the letter away for a later day.

I just miss my son. And that missing knocks me down and I can’t breathe. I press my hands to my chest because the emotional pain is so physical it threatens to rupture my heart. My hair won’t stop falling out and half of my toenails peeled, then flaked completely off. Yes, grief can actually do that.

When the loss belongs to someone else, it’s easier to hope. My friends feel my pain, they are horrified and hurt by Samuel’s death. They are frightened by how easily the future in his eyes was turned off. They are trying to make sense of it, wrestling with why’s, knocking persistently at the doors of heaven for me. As the days go on, they begin to discover peace. They see God at work. They are comforted and confident that a good God can do something, well, redeeming, with all of this.  

It’s good that my friends get to these places before me. I am deeply grateful. We’d be in trouble if we all carried the same weighty burden. But they are there before me. My eyes are still clouded by hurt. If they tell me too soon or too often, that my pain is a good process, I assume they don’t get it. It’s hard to listen to what they have to say. And eventually, I need to hear what they have to say.

To my friends, please keep working these things out with me. Keep hoping, keep praying, keep fighting for my heart. Search for the answers. Not the kind that make it all OK. Those look like answers but they are counterfeit. Find the real answers, the kind we have to content with in a broken world. The ones that don’t satisfy on the surface, but stretch our faith and make us dig deeper into life. I’m searching too, I’m just slower.  

But if I’m crying so hard I can’t even hear your voice, maybe you should wait before you share. The only words I can hear on the worst days are a hand on my shoulder, a hug, or the tears in your own eyes.

 

“…don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”  C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

 

A Room Full of Grief

I’m not a stranger to hard stories.  I’m a licensed professional counselor and I’ve spent many years listening to heartache and tragedy.  My job has allowed me the privilege of walking with people in dark places, helping them take steps towards healing and peace. 

And still the level of pain in a group of bereaved parents takes my breath away.  

I went to a one day seminar for grieving moms.  I sat at a table with 4 other ladies.  In our group, one child had died of illness, one in an accident (Samuel), one of an overdose, and two were murdered.  The beauty at that table was how no one flinched, squirmed, or said anything awkward to lift the pain as we shared our stories.  Imagine sitting with that group of women and not feeling uncomfortable.  There was no judgement, because when you’re a mom, it doesn’t matter how your child dies.  If it’s a situation the rest of the world might criticize, there is an extra measure of compassion from us.  We get in a small way how every complicated detail thickens the burden.  We spoke freely of our children and their deaths, something that is rarely possible with people who aren’t a part of our reluctant club.  

The heaviness in that room, at that little table, could drown an unsinkable ship.  The death of our children is the start.  From there we descend into depression, anxiety, loneliness, addictions.  Families don’t recover and collapse under the pain.  There are lost friendships, lost faith, lost careers, suffering marriages.  

I am also part of a Facebook group for bereaved parents.  I am drawn to the group, but I have to be careful with my time there.  Every person tells the story of a precious life, gone before anyone was ready.  Moms with recent loss join the group every day, it seems.  They pour out their hearts because it’s hard to find safe places to do that, and the group is a safe place.  I have to be in the right frame of mind or the sorrow can drag me down to a place of despair.  

Many of us are still raw to our bones.  But over and over beauty seeps out with the pain.  Lovely things come out of the nasty places.  Growth is slow, measured in years, but I see it.  If someone is overwhelmed with anger and bitterness, the group whispers understanding, patience, and forgiveness.  Another person shares that they were able to be gentle even though they were stumbling with weariness themselves.  We reflect on small victories and tastes of mercy.  When we share fears, we hear peace.  When we doubt, we are loved and encouraged.  “Six months is barely time to catch your breath, much less to find your footing in faith again,” I’m soothed.  People cling to Jesus because losing a child exposes the frightening depth of our need.  Hold on to Jesus.  Just hold on.  He won’t let you go.  There is nothing else.

I can’t see beauty in the dark places of my life yet.  The ugliness is there, the wreckage. Because my hands spread what’s in my heart, I sure can create damage as I go through the day.  I am hopeful when I see others have gained perspective and earned strength in their years of hard grieving.  When I don’t have my own faith, I hold on to the faith I see in them.  I use their lives to imagine my future.  For now, it’s enough.

The most common thing my non-bereaved friends tell me is that they don’t know what to say to me.  I wish they could sit in the back of a room of grieving moms for a day, just to listen.  Their hearts would be sobered by the intensity of brokenness.  They would watch the compassion and grace that spills out when a devastated mom weeps over her child, or weeps for the shattered leftovers of life.  There is humility in advice, and patience for the journey.  Maybe if other people could see this, the little irritations of life wouldn’t matter quite so much.  Maybe they would find courage to speak comfort to hurting hearts without worrying about saying the wrong thing.  They would see that most of the time, the greatest gift is being present.  It’s easier to face the heaviness when you don’t have to face it alone.  

Crushed

New grief.

img004

I drew this a few months after Samuel died, when words were hard.  Those first four endless months I was crushed with impossible weight.  I moved slowly.  My face was too heavy to smile, and I could hardly see anything happening around me.  It was like having a concussion.  I heard people’s voices through a fog, and their words didn’t make sense.  They kept asking me to give direction to this landslide that was supposed to be my life.  “Call me if you need anything.”  They were being kind.  I couldn’t.  I didn’t know.  I really didn’t know.

Please hold my hand.

I still feel this way a lot, but some days I’m stronger.  I am starting to understand what I need.  I’ve trusted a few people enough to ask, and they have been gracious.  Some days I struggle out from under the rocks and limp around, my legs mangled and bruised.  I laugh occasionally.  I talk to people without my thoughts screaming, “Samuel’s dead, can’t you see me?  He’s DEAD!” through the whole conversation.

Still, most days I just need someone to hold my hand.

 

On Being and Not Being an Adoptive Mom

I’ve been trying to decide if I still consider myself an adoptive mom. I WAS an adoptive mom, but am I still?

In a strange way I was looking forward to helping Samuel navigate adoption issues as he grew up. I wasn’t happy that he had a life of loss, but I knew God could redeem his pain. I wanted to see that beauty unfold in my little boy. Samuel knew that he had a different birth mother than his siblings. One day that would have meant something to him. He would have mourned his past and hopefully learned that his story was not only one of loss, but a story of love and belonging and cherishing and worth.

I thought I would be the one to encourage him as he explored who he was, his gifts and weaknesses, without any blood family to give him clues. I hoped to take him back to China to discover his birth culture. In China he would have had opportunity to realize and grieve what he lost. I’m sure he would have wondered (with sadness or relief or that complicated mix of both) at how different his life could have been. I wanted to support him in a world that is often unkind in the face of issues like racial and culture identity. I wanted to pray for him and love him as he fought to overcome the emptiness I saw in his heart, the attachment challenges he faced. I expected all of these things to be ahead of both of us.

God healed the emptiness in Samuel’s heart in a way I never anticipated, somewhere behind the veil of heaven. Samuel is free of his life of loss. I am not.

While on vacation earlier this summer I noticed a little girl about Samuel’s age. She was energetic and spontaneous, working her way around the pool, engaging everyone she encountered. She climbed on people’s shoulders and flitted in and out of their games. She appeared to have a repaired cleft lip. And, as she was Asian and was with Caucasian parents, I wondered if she was adopted.

There are plenty of times when it’s not a good idea to introduce yourself to another family just because you think they have an adopted child like you. But sometimes it happens and is a good thing. Samuel was young enough that being adopted was still 100% positive to him. He liked meeting other kids that were adopted, or even better, from China. We talked with other adoptive families when we could.

As I watched this girl dance through the water, I realized with sadness that connection was shut to me. Maybe forever. Can you imagine the conversation? Yes, we adopted too! Gansu Province. Well, he’s not here. Well, it’s a sad story… Sorry, I didn’t mean to start crying…

Oh how we love the adoption community. It’s filled with the most amazing people. These are families who choose courageous things over fear, who love when their hearts are breaking, and who fight through so many obstacles for their children. We believe strongly in adoption advocacy and orphan ministry. Adoption has been on our hearts for years. We even talked about it on our third date. Who does that?

We will continue to love our adoption friends. The families we met in China and the ones who supported us as we brought Samuel home will always have a dear place in our hearts. But our connection is gone, and the relationships change. I had to remove myself from my adoption-related social media groups soon after Samuel’s death. I couldn’t engage with the community as they faced normal adoption road bumps, worried about surgeries, and rejoiced in the beauty of what they saw God doing in the hearts of their children. It was an in-your-face reminder of who I have lost.

I will always be Samuel’s mom. Always.

Some things fade into the past. I am no longer a mother of preschoolers, or a kindergarten mom. I think being an adoptive mom falls into the same category. I think I am no longer an adoptive mom.

Such sadness. Death destroys many things. I was hoping to keep that title, that privilege, all my life, not all of his.

One Chance

Here’s one of the bad parts about being fragile.  It is crucial for things to work right every time I find the courage to try.

If it doesn’t go the way I hope, if I try at a bad time, I feel defeated.

I don’t have the courage to try again.