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. 

Dear Samuel

Dear Samuel, 

Somehow it’s been a whole year since you left us. 

I didn’t know a person could hurt this much. I look outside my window and am surprised that the world continues on, as normal as can be. I should see flood waters, or war-damaged buildings, something massively tragic, to match the devastation in my heart. It seems that everyone else should have hollow eyes and walk with stone heavy legs the way I do. 

The world looks the same though, just like the day you left. The sky is a pale winter blue, and most of the leaves have fallen onto the forest floor. Nika moves through the house, following patches of sun on the rug for her naps, and the neighbors have pulled out their Christmas decorations. Your friends are in 1st grade now, but otherwise school hasn’t changed. Your best toys are still on the bookshelf in your room. I like seeing them there, they remind me of you. Michael says he doesn’t mind. 

It all looks the same on the outside, but you are missed by many. I know Daddy and I weren’t the only ones who cried over you this week. Ms. Bird gave me a hug at school, she misses you. So does Mrs. Hargrove. All the teachers thought about you a lot this week. I didn’t have to tell them it was the anniversary of your death, they just knew. Ms. Dawn from church misses you, and Miles and Theo. And so many others. There were a lot of pennies and flowers at your grave. Ms. Kelly took you a special rock from Iceland. It was smooth on one side and rough on the other. She knows all about boys and rocks, and hasn’t forgotten how much you liked to touch intriguing things.

I have always been proud to be your mom. You were beyond adorable. Maybe it was your combination of vibrancy and shyness. Your smile and blue glasses certainly helped. You were clever and funny and a hard worker. It was interesting to hear what you were thinking. I still look around and notice little mysteries you would want to explore. I miss trying to answer your questions, already far beyond my engineering and mechanical knowledge. I miss singing in the car with you, and I miss watching you dance and giggle. I miss watching you carry the leaf blower, bigger than you, just so you could help daddy in the yard. I miss hearing you and Michael whisper to each other at night after the lights were turned off. I miss seeing you grin and run through the kitchen to give Daddy the biggest hug when he came home from work. He misses that too. 

Sometimes I try to remember your voice, and it stays just out of reach. I can’t believe I’m forgetting already. My throat tightens with dread because I know as the years pass, I’ll forget more. I am so sorry. Trust me, I desperately want to hold on to every detail in my mind. It is cruel that even some of my memories of you will fade or get lost with time. 

We are indeed dust. It is bitter. 

You taught me so much. It’s because of you I know about hydraulic cylinders, and can identify every type of construction vehicle I see. I also gained a deeper understanding of big things through you, like attachment and fear. Watching you face surgeries and speech difficulties I learned about courage. You taught me about love, and healing, and patience. And now I’m learning about grief. I don’t like this last one so much. 

I’ve never been good at ending letters, and this one is harder than most. The ending is so…final. Because it’s more than the end of a letter. I can remember, honor you, talk about you, look at pictures, and (thankfully) watch videos and hear your voice. But when the conversation is over, or the video stops, or the letter ends, you are still gone. The memories don’t really fill the empty spaces you’ve left. I don’t think anything ever will. Some things can’t be healed this side of eternity. 

I hope you knew you were special. And loved. 

We miss you Samuel.

Love,

Mommy

Little Things

Final day of school before Thanksgiving break. I picked up the kids as usual. A year ago this would have been the last day Samuel went to school. I tried to remember picking him up. Was he excited, bouncy, happy about a class party or waving goodbye to his classmates? Did he ask me to carry his backpack, or argue with his brother? Did I notice the expressions on his face, or really listen to his chatter?

I can’t remember.

Another loss.

I didn’t know I’d want to cherish the details later. I didn’t know it would be important. 

 

Healing, One Year Later

Last Sunday afternoon Jana ran in her first 5K. She’s been training with some other girls from school for two months. After she finished she proudly held up a sign that declared, “I run like a girl, try to keep up!”

As I watched her, I couldn’t help but reflect on her condition this time last year. She had a fractured skull and multiple facial fractures. She was surgically given a synthetic orbital socket since hers was crushed beyond repair. Her facial injuries bled internally, with the blood pooling on the lining of her brain. Her concussion was so severe that a week into it she was still too dizzy to stand up and could not move her feet in a coordinated way to walk. Small changes in the accident could have left her with permanent, disabling brain damage, or she could have died.

This week she looks like every other 4th grader, except for a small scar on her cheek. Even her TBI is 95% healed.

We have many reasons to be thankful.

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, helpless, 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.