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 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. 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.

Reading The Evil Hours

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I’ve been reading a book called “The Evil Hours” by David Morris. It’s an insightful look at his experience with PTSD after being a journalist embedded with Marines in Iraq. I am reading it with a pencil in hand because I keep underlining large sections of it. I’ve never been to war, and I don’t suggest that my experience comes close to the repeated trauma endured by our deployed soldiers. The damage, however, is surprisingly relatable.

One of the stressors of being in Iraq was the concern of IED’s. Every time they went on the road, they drove in fear of these unseen, undetectable, deadly threats. Often they went out and were fine, but other times men never returned, or came back injured. One day Morris and his Humvee patrol struck an IED. 

My instinct is to minimize my experience, because a car accident can’t possibly be as horrific as hitting an IED. But as I read, I realized there were similarities. Both situations happened without warning. Neither of us was targeted, we were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Morris and I felt detached watching the events unfold. The back half of our van was gone, as if it had been blown off. And in my situation, it was my own children pinned, crying, bleeding, and dying.

So, PTSD. As I drive, I’m hyper vigilant. In my mind the threat of another accident is as real as the threat of running over an IED in Baghdad. Every driver can be inattentive, and many are aggressive. Which will turn into an enemy? Which one is going to slam into us? Only my enemies aren’t actual enemies. They are my neighbors, parents of my children’s classmates, or someone trying to make a last minute turn into Starbucks. Any of them can be dangerous, playing with their phones or messing with a lid on their drinks. That’s all it takes. 

I startle at loud noises. I tense up when I hear cars coming down our street. I look suspiciously at cars turning around in the cul-de-sac. I watch for distracted drivers as if I were looking for signs of IEDs in the sand. That person on their phone, are they paying attention to the road? If they come near me will I die? My heart races and I cannot calm myself down.

Morris also talks about the feeling of disconnect that is common in PTSD sufferers. He described his shock at returning from Iraq to find that people understood very little about the war, and most were not interested in his experiences there. They could not relate, did not want to relate. While he was immersed with life and death, the Americans at home moved on obliviously with their sports games, entertainment, family and jobs. He felt cut off. He discussed how people with PTSD feel separated from the world around them, conspicuous and different. Their minds are trapped in another time. Many feel they’ve been branded with a scarlet letter. 

I’ve been keenly aware of my own scarlet letter. I am marked as the mother whose child died. I often feel I have nothing in common with the people around me who continue on with their lives, unable to understand what has changed in mine. It’s as if time froze at the accident. It looks like I’m present, safe in today, but Samuel’s death replays inside my soul, sometimes vividly. Interwoven into my day is the awareness of how easily death can come, and this burden sets me apart. 

I had studied PTSD before my own experience with it. I knew about hyperarousal, nightmares, dissociation, and avoidance. But I did not understand about loneliness. I’ve spent much of the past year angry at others because of my loneliness (even as many have reached out to me), and ashamed at the distance I feel between myself and those around me. It’s been a relief to realize that feeling alone and disconnected is a classic part of PTSD, regardless of the level of support someone has. Understanding has helped me accept, and by accepting I have been less angry. And, ironically, accepting the disconnect has helped me connect better with others.

“We are born in debt, owing the world a death. This is the shadow that darkens every cradle. Trauma is what happens when you catch a surprise glimpse of that darkness, the coming annihilation not only of the body and the mind but also, seemingly, of the world…Trauma is the glimpse of truth that tells us a lie: the lie that love is impossible, that peace is an illusion.” -The Evil Hours, David Morris

On an semi-unrelated note, my driving problems have greatly improved over the past two months. While driving remains stressful, I can do it if needed, and it no longer sinks me into hours of fog and darkness. I spend too much time watching the rear-view mirror, but I’ve stopped exploding and raging at every car that gets close. My bruised hands have healed. I haven’t cursed at another driver for weeks. I have no idea what caused the change, but I’m happy for it.