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.

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 were loud and vicious, intermixed with curses and 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 glared at 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.

I stared at the floor, aware that even my initial statement to her would be yelling 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 I would have done 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 try to ground myself in his innocence. 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, my imagination working up for a fight. 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.  

hulk-667988_640I 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.

Shattered

In the kitchen I reach for a glass from a high shelf. I glance at the cat who is staring at the counter. He twitches, betraying his intent to jump up onto forbidden territory. I am distracted and my fingers lose grip on the glass. It falls to the floor, shattering into a thousand pieces. The alarmed cat escapes as fast as he can.

The floor is covered with sharp, tiny fragments. It will be difficult getting out of the kitchen without cutting my unprotected feet. Tears fill my eyes at my carelessness. My self-esteem is as fragile as the glass these days, and it doesn’t take much for it to crumble into pieces too. As I stand there it occurs to me that this is what it’s like to grieve a child. 

Life shatters. My family and heart have shattered. I stare at the pieces. I don’t have the energy to clean it all up, to put it back together. I don’t think it will fit back together anyway. There are important parts missing. And it’s so, so broken.

Pieces of glass get everywhere. There are shards under the rug, behind the cat bowl, under the dishwasher. Some have flown all the way to the dining room. Little slivers slice deep into your feet if you step on them unaware. Razor edges cut your fingers even if you handle them gently, just trying to pick them up. 

This is grief.

Life, family, self, faith, relationships, peace, meaning, motivation, safely…all shattered.

I’m always cutting myself on slivers unexpectedly. They hide, blending in, until I put my fingers on them and suddenly I’m in pain and bleeding. 

Junk mail addressed to Samuel. Offering some deal he will never be old enough to need.

Reaching under the sofa and finding his sock.

A friend posting photos of her kids, smiling and happy. 

A red crayon.  

A baby.

A thunderstorm. 

Noodles.  

Bleeding again.

When you break something on the floor, you tell everyone to stay away so they don’t step on the glass.  

In the same way people stay out of my life. It’s dangerous to walk too close, they might get cut. My grief is sharp. My thoughts and words and responses can be sharp these days too.

It seems strange, but I make myself a spot in the middle of the broken pieces and settle in. It was precious to me, all that was destroyed, and I don’t want to let it go. My child, of course, is irreplaceable. I feel the loss of everything he is, of the future he will never have, and the emptiness in my own life because of his absence. I also miss the old me, and the carefree way I could move through a day. I didn’t appreciate how easy it was to talk to others until it became awkward and hard. I no longer feel purpose and significance in life through my relationship with God. I’ve lost the joy of worship. My confidence is gone. My ability to laugh whole-heartedly is gone. I can’t pick up toys in the living room or fix afternoon snacks without feeling sad. Peace, patience, energy, fun, all gone.

Life will not return to the way it used to be. Some things are broken beyond repair, yet I hold on to them like they were part of a beloved heirloom and I’m not ready to throw them away.

This is bigger than me. The only solution is divine.

But the Divine seems in no hurry to soften the edges, repair or replace some of what I’ve lost, or at the very least, whisper peace into my broken heart. 

So I wait, surrounded by the remnants of things I treasured.

Moving carefully, trying to minimize more injury. 

Exhausted because of the mental energy it takes to tiptoe through brokenness.

Crying, missing my beautiful son.

Afraid of the memories that come, unwanted, of the moment it all smashed apart.

Wondering if I will sit here forever.