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. 

 

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.

Bitter, no Sweet

When Jana turned one, I was surprised by how fast she had changed. After years of waiting to have children, and months of pregnancy anticipating a baby, the time flew and suddenly I didn’t have a baby anymore. I knew she would grow up. Still, the baby-period went by so fast, and it was over. On her first birthday I realized that raising children is a process of grieving their growing up while celebrating their successes and all that they become at the same time.

I’ve tried to look at Samuel’s death in the same way. After all, if he had lived, there would have come a day when he would have grown too big to be tucked in at night, when the firetrucks and toy cars would have stayed untouched on the shelf for months. I would have given away his 4T clothes this summer because they didn’t fit anymore, and put special kindergarten papers in a box for safe keeping in the basement. These things that bring grief would have happened anyway. 

I can’t make it work. He left these things unfinished, and I can’t let them go as if they were completed and used to their fullest, in their proper time.  The bittersweet part of growing up is stollen. Only the bitter is left.

Every year for halloween our school has a costume parade for kindergarteners and 1st graders. Parents line the hallways, while the kids try their best to contain their excitement and walk composed, two full laps around the school. It is over in a few minutes, but the kids love it. Samuel walked with the kindergarteners last year, in an ugly penguin costume that he adored. He was most proud of having a tail, shy that everyone was watching, and hyper at the very thought of all the candy that he would own by the end of the day. After the parade I helped with the halloween party in his class, making trips across the hall to help in Michael’s 1st grade party too. 

As Jana and Michael are now in 4th and 2nd grade, this was my first year not having a kid in the parade. I watched the 1st grade parents going into school as I dropped my kids off yesterday morning, and cried at the loss. Samuel’s loss, missing all the things that a kid should experience in 1st grade. My loss, not having him, being excluded from the parade, my family now being older than it is supposed to be. I reminded myself that if the accident hadn’t happened, this would have been my last little-kid parade anyway. Jana and Michael have outgrown it, and Samuel would have outgrown it too. 

The loss for Jana and Michael is bittersweet. They don’t get to parade with the little kids, but they are now old enough to manage their own costumes. They have gained independence, cleverness, and blossoming confidence and personalities. 

Samuel’s loss, no matter how I try to frame it in my mind, is just bitter. 

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.

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 instant pain I felt revealed the real reason I have avoided my nighttime ritual. 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.