Child Loss

THE MIDNIGHT HAZE

I find myself returning here most nights, wandering into this midnight haze, body worn but mind in overdrive. Suspended midway between the day that’s trying to furrow itself into my memory and my inability to let go so that I might slip through that narrow tunnel into the void where sleep promises freedom from my grief.

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As I learn to live again through the everyday-ishness that at most times seems incompatible with my reality as a mother whose son has died, I find myself longing for the end of each day when the clatter and chatter is over and I am alone. It’s getting easier to balance the joy and the sorrow in that outside world since it’s been three and a half years since my world collapsed, so I do laugh and I do smile and I do genuinely feel “good” at times. But there remains a darkness in me.

As foreboding as it may be, I long to wander into the midnight haze at the end of each day and drop the cloak which I’ve wrapped myself in, drop the shield I’ve used to protect myself from the world which I so often feel disconnected from. It’s in that midnight haze where I search for the woman I now am. It’s there where I can peer into the dead zone that lies beyond my eyes and become re-acquainted with me, the grieving mother.

Immersed in the midnight haze, I allow myself to breathe in the magnitude of my loss and listen to the silent, yet oh so mournful wails, which emanate from my bones, my bones now long steeped in sorrow. And it’s there, in that place of suspension, where there is no need to still the thoughts, no need to appear normal. It’s there that I can allow the horror to slap me upside the face, to beat into me the truth that this is who I now am, a mother who will never, ever, again see or touch or hear her son on this side of the realm.

The midnight haze. Suspended between two worlds. Free to be. Free to feel the real me, as I pray for the liquidity to slip through that narrow tunnel, to slip into the void where sleep promises freedom. To escape from my grief until I awaken and enter a new day.

I come to me in the midnight haze…because I cannot forget who I am.

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THIS MARCH MOURNING

The gray sky on this March morning is about as lifeless as the gray sweatshirt I just put on. Even though there have been moments recently when the slant of the sun and the warmth in the air brought that indescribable feeling that spring will soon be here, today is not one of those days. Scattered remnants of dirty snow can be seen outside my windows and there is no sign of new life hibernating in the earth or the trees. The weather report promises that spring will be in the air tomorrow—60 and partly sunny—but even that hopeful whisper of new life is diluted by the sorrow that comes this time every year when the calendar page is flipped to the month of March.

My sweet little nephew Cameron should be turning 16 years old tomorrow, but he will remain forever 5 years and 5 days old, taken way too soon by a sudden illness which the doctors failed to diagnose until it was too late. Eleven long years he’s been gone…what an unimaginable length of time to live without that sweet little boy who should be excitedly jumping behind the wheel of a car all by himself tomorrow and speeding toward a new life.

In addition to coming upon the 11-year mark of Cameron’s death this week, March 15 will mark 11 years that Grandma left us and two years ago yesterday that Mom went to meet her loved ones. Though both of them had been afflicted by Alzheimer’s Disease and thus had been lured toward their ultimate destinations during the years leading up to these dates, the pain is exponentially increased by remembering them. Why is it that some people are blessed with both healthy bodies and healthy minds well into old age while others are taken from us too soon, either by them forgetting the lives they were once inextricably woven into or the failing of their earthly bodies? Why?

So, I sit here quietly, in reflection. I’ve spent the last few hours on this dreary morning doing some spring cleaning in my son Nick’s bedroom. Though all of the “stuff” in the boxes and in the closet was Nick’s stuff, I could not “Stop remembering!!” that the bedroom I was cleaning was Ben’s bedroom for many, many years. Oh, the memories that rushed at me. Pure torture having memories flung at you from every direction hour after hour. It took extraordinary strength to endure the “I remember’s” and the “if only’s” that repeatedly assaulted me as I sorted through item after item.

I have no desire to get up and do anything. I want to sit here on this gray March morning and allow my thoughts to dwell on what I actually call the March Mourning, that time each year when we all replay the blow-by-blow of those traumatic days of losing Cameron and our grandmother and mother. I know my family members are like me, so I know those moments of terror and great sorrow are carved into their psyches. Even though years have now passed, it seems like each hour of these March days brings back an accurate and intense instant replay of the horror that unfolded during those days when we realized that Cameron and then our grandmother and our mother would no longer walk this earth with us.

So, spring will be in the air tomorrow! But my mind, and the minds of my family members, won’t be exuberant even if that indescribable aura of spring floats in the air. Our senses will be dulled by the persistent March mourning that comes year after year. Though I don’t wish to speak for others, I believe that when tomorrow arrives with the hint of spring in the air and the promise that new life will inevitably follow, any breath of fresh spring air will forever be diluted and dulled by thoughts of loss and death.

It’s quite shocking how much control and power those little blocks on the page of a calendar exert over us. After these days of March have sulked away, the page will be turned to April, the month of Ben’s death. Where does one find the strength and how does one retain the desire to go on when year after year we know that certain dates on the calendar pages cut deeply into us…cut into the place where the sorrow burrows deeper and deeper into our hearts with each passing day?

The calendar on the wall tells me it is March 6, 2016. I want to scream, “Liar! Liar! TIME DOES NOT HEAL ALL WOUNDS!”

This March Mourning…

And then April comes.

REGRETS?

There’s no room for regrets, they say. You can’t go back and change yesterday.

If only their words were true. They’re not. There is such a room, a room that I stumble upon when I wander down those dark and lonely hallways in my head. If I find myself standing in front of the door to that room, I’ll pause and slowly open it just a bit and then slam it shut. I know the demons that live in that room. Those damn demons…they will torture and torment me and all I will be able to do is scream, “I didn’t know my son would die!” I slam that door shut with a vengeance every time.

Who says there’s no room for regrets?

I’LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS

I stood in line at the deli counter last night waiting for my take-out order. As I watched the woman boxing up the chicken, my mind raced. What do I still need to do to get ready? If I do this and that tonight and bake pies after work tomorrow, I should be able to pull off our small Christmas Eve dinner, then wrap presents and bake the sugar cookies that my husband wants and then start the prep for Christmas Day dinner and then go to sleep and wake up Christmas morning. Just like the old days when the kids were young…

It’s our third Christmas without Ben. After doing the bare minimum the last two years and getting away with keeping it simple, I wondered why I was putting myself under so much pressure this year to create at least a small semblance of normalcy for our family. Was I purposely trying to keep busy to keep from going “there” again this year? No, I really want to make things better for Nick and Gina and Ben’s boys and everyone else. That’s why I’m putting so much stress on myself, I thought, and then I heard the words, “I’ll be home for Christmas.”  Oh, no! That dreaded Christmas song again, being piped throughout the store.

I was instantly taken back to my teenage years and the memories that song evokes EVERY time I hear it. I don’t remember all of the details of the day it became etched into my brain as a sad, sad song, but I do remember my mother had been listening to a local radio station. A woman had called into the station after hearing that particular song. She was sobbing hysterically. A loved one (I don’t remember the relationship) had died and she was devastated and distraught. The lyrics “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” had sent this woman into the deepest, darkest pit of her grief. The drama played out over the airwaves as the radio broadcaster talked this woman into not ending her own life. We listened intently for what was, or at least seemed to be, a few hours as the station kept this woman on the air to prevent her from harming herself. I remember that by begging her for more and more information they eventually figured out who she was and had sent help for her. There has never been a time in the 40+ years since then, that I haven’t heard that song and been taken back to that day when I intently listened to the sorrowful cries of that woman who had been left behind when her loved one had died. Cries that I now fully understand.

As I listened to the song while standing at the deli counter, I remembered that woman’s sorrow and was sucker punched by my own sorrow. I wanted to put my hands over my ears to protect my heart. I seriously wanted to cover my ears and run out of the store screaming, “My son is dead! He’ll never be home for Christmas! I can’t stand here, waiting on my chicken like a normal person, cuz I’m going crazy hearing this song during the ‘happiest time of the year’! Forget the chicken!”

“Merry Christmas!” The woman smiled as she handed me my order. “Merry Christmas to you too,” I sincerely replied.

I offer my deepest sympathy and love and compassion to every mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter, husband, wife–anyone who is missing their loved one from the deepest, darkest pit of their grief this Christmas! My fervent wish is that some day we’ll all be home for Christmas—together! And until then, for those who are “home” with me now, I’ll do what I can to make it a “know that you are deeply loved by me” Christmas.

Peace.

 

CHRISTMAS IN THE UNDERWORLD

When the daylight’s gone and I sit alone, I often have thoughts about my worlds, the two worlds that I’ve resided in since Ben died.

Part of my time is spent living in a world where life just seems to go on as it always has. Wake up. Do what I’ve done for years. Look at me in motion and don’t take the time to really see me or listen to my silent signals and you would believe that I am doing quite well. Hardly any exterior tears any more. Some laughs. Some jokes. She’s all better. And I am better… depending on how that word is qualified. I’m functioning again. I can now work and cook and clean and socialize, sometimes all in the same day. When I laugh, I feel it. I’m getting good at balancing joy with sorrow. I’m grateful for who and what I have, but I’m still devastated. Missing Ben is as persistent as every breath I take. So, I stand back and see those wandering around as if the universe is still the same while I know it’s completely different. Facades are deceiving, so I go back and forth between this world and a separate, totally divergent world that very few are conscious of, unless they too live in it.

In my other world, where the real me exists, dark grief and sorrow live. But all is not dark and dreary and dreadful in that world. I have come to know quite a few people in this world. Many have lost their children, many have lost their spouses, so we all share sorrow caused by tremendous loss. Often, there are references to becoming a tribe. Expressions of wanting and needing to be real, to be who we really are, in our grief are prevalent. We expose our vulnerabilities to each other and allow ourselves to lean on each other. Feeling validated is important as many express how they feel as though their grief has been ignored by many in that other world. We talk about how we feel rushed to be all better and act as though all is as it was before. Many, including me, talk about how we’ve been fortunate to have at least a few people in our lives who are able to look us in the eyes and see what death has done to us, but how unfortunate it is that many that live in that other world want us to pretend as we go about our daily lives. Acceptance is paramount to our well-being and our healing and we find it in each other. We spend many hours holding each other up when the rest of the world falls silent as it relates to our grief. Kindness, compassion and empathy flow. This underworld that we have found (in large part a courtesy of the internet) enables us to feel understood, express our hurt and anger and to give and receive solace as needed. The words “shallow” and “unreal” could never be used to describe those whom I’ve met in my new world, this underworld of grief.

Yesterday I met for the first time a woman who is in my online writing group, a group that I found in the underworld. We learned that we live only 30 miles from each other so decided to meet for breakfast. Ironically, the town I work in is where her husband had lived before they married. At breakfast, I learned that she has been a young widow as long as I have been a grieving mother. Her husband died on the exact same day that Ben died… April 30, 2013. When I heard we shared the same devastation day, the words gushed out, “Oh, my God. Your world imploded on the same day that mine did!” It took only minutes for me to start sobbing as I told her about Ben. I don’t do that often any more, sob like that, so I was surprised that I so easily let my guard down with my new friend. Releasing my emotions like that made me realize that it’s become all too common for me to hold my emotions close to me. I’ve been programmed to do so in that other world, I guess. Over breakfast, I understood that even though we may never meet again, our fragmented worlds had brought us together, for some reason. We were two people aware that our lives had been permanently altered on the same day. I knew I was not alone. I am not unique. I am part of an infinite space where deep sorrow and pain are existential and ugly bedfellows, in the now familiar underworld of grief.

With Christmas approaching, my new friend and I talked about our plans for the holidays. She moaned about not wanting to visit her family out of state but how she felt guilty for wanting to be home in her “safe haven.” In my other world, I would have questioned how she could want to be alone on Christmas Day, but I get it. I understand. My longing for Ben increases each time I hear “Merry Christmas.” I feel the kick in my gut when I hear Christmas songs like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” My balancing act goes into overdrive as the holiday season emphasizes my feeling of being a spectator, of being disconnected. I watch those, bent over and arms laden with Christmas gifts, wandering around as if the universe is still the same while I know it’s completely different. I understand the “reason for the season” as they say, but in the underworld I see a constant struggle to rise to the challenge of the superficiality of it all. For some of us, it’s a chore to decorate a Christmas tree, to visit outside of our safe zones, or to stack piles of gifts beneath the Christmas tree after our hearts have been broken. I watched as my husband walked by Ben’s urn this morning and casually rubbed his hand on top of it, as naturally as if Ben was sitting in a chair and he had walked by and rubbed his head. I fought back the tears. How can Christmas ever hold the same magic for us that it used to? Or for others in this underworld who have empty chairs around the Christmas table in what used to be our Norman Rockwell homes?

All I want for Christmas is to do the bare minimum. I want my family to feel a touch of Christmas in our home but not be too Christmas-fied. I want to be home, with my loved ones, where I can pull the memories of past Christmases close to me for comfort or push them away if necessary if the pain rushes at me. I want my family to feel, really feel, how much I treasure them and how desperately I love them. I want to make lovely, memorable Christmas memories with them, ever conscious and grateful for the presence of each and every one of them. I am all too aware that when the clock strikes midnight that day will join the others, will become a Christmas of the past. And at some point in time, it very well may be a Christmas which I wish I could return to, to find some of the Christmas magic which I thought I had forever lost but which was in fact present on this upcoming Christmas Day.

And then, when the daylight’s gone and my house has fallen quiet, I will reach out to my new friends in my new world to see how they fared on Christmas Day, to make sure they know that I am aware of and care about their broken hearts. Christmas in the underworld…in this life of After.

FOR YOU, MY FRIEND:

I will slow the pendulum of time and stand sentry over you. I will allow you to lie dormant, heedless in your healing, until you, and you alone, believe the time has come to fight your way through another layer of debris, to lift your face toward the sun, toward your next season of grief, of life.

Then, as you peer into your future, I will gently silence them, they who are determined to restrain you from returning to the depths of your pain and the darkness inside and focus only on the brightness that they see through their prisms. I shall teach them humble understanding, so they too will come to know that we, now and forever, will view the rest of our lives through the kaleidoscopes of our pasts.

As we wander through our canyons of grief, lost in the never-ending maze of hollows and bends, I will convince you that you need not fear being alone ever again; that if I become weak and falter along my way, and lost in my own grief, you will timely cross paths with another gentle soul who will reach for your hand and guide you gently along your way until we meet again.

I shall walk in the rain with you, seeking shelter in the barren caves as the storms pummel and overwhelm us. We shall rest together, and weep together, and watch as our tears roll down the canyons and meld into the rivulets that will lead us toward home.

And, as we near the end, I will carry you, still wounded and weary, to the water. We shall fall to our knees and weep silently as peace, at last, fills our empty spaces and the water cleanses our wounds. We shall let our souls connect with the sad and lonely who live beyond our gaze. Our sorrow shall become their sorrow and our pain shall become their pain. We will watch as the waves become one heartache that reverberates from shore to shore…and listen as the cries of the grievously wounded unite with ours on the soundless wind.

We have walked each other home.

DARKNESS

I am alone while darkness rises. Always alone. A silhouette in the dark, footsteps falling silently in a world no longer my own. There is no contrast between me and the night that has fallen. How could there be? We have been wed. We have become one, the darkness and I.

Separated from the world around me and from what was once, I feel the darkness as it descends upon me, becomes me, once again in the moonlit night. Everything declines while darkness rises. Nothing overcomes me – this must be life’s way. Welcome, Darkness, my old friend.

The Mirror

I stand in front of the mirror and look deep into those eyes, something I’ve done only a handful of times in the nearly two and a half years since Ben’s death. I’m now so good at performing the menial tasks of brushing her teeth and putting her make-up on without actually looking at her that it feels as though I’m working on a mannequin. As I stare into those eyes, my eyes, for the first time in many, many months I wonder, is it possible that there is a semblance of the woman who used to be, somewhere within that dead zone that stares back at me? Who was she? Is that her?

Is she the woman who loved to garden and marveled at the faces of the daises poised to usurp the mid-day sun? Or is she the tangled mass of roots half-dead and lying dormant, hoping that someday the world around her will thaw and breathe new life into her?

Was she the one behind the camera snapping thousands of pictures, capturing even the ordinary moments of the most ordinary days of her children’s lives so that she and they would never forget the wonder of it all? Or is she the woman now turning her head and shielding her eyes as she walks past a picture of her oldest son, her first true love who has gone on before her, because the knife slashes deeper whenever she looks into his eyes smiling back at her?

Is she the woman whose book had already been written, pages being turned as she willed, with the story simply waiting to be told? Or the one staring at the chalkboard wiped bare, the whispers of chalk marks discernible only to her naked eye, resembling the ghosts of her past screeching and screaming with unspoken words that a happy ending to her story will never unfold?

Is she the woman who lies next to her husband in bed, marveling that they still are together after having seemingly “survived” the sorrow of the storm, four decades after becoming man and wife? Or is she the one silently weeping, so as not to disturb him, wondering if he or anyone else realizes that she may sleep in this bed but no longer resides exclusively in this world?

Is that the woman, lying in that same bed, who would call each of her three children when a siren in the night would send panic to her heart? Or is she the mom now acutely aware that only two of her children are able to respond to their well-being check, as the scream of the third siren has already been quieted with the death of her dear son?

I continue to stare and reflect as I maintain eye contact with the woman in the mirror. Is that the person who was me? I need only look in the mirror to realize that answering the question of who I used to be is impossible without relating it to the death of my son. The reflection in the glass tells me that there will never be an old me without the new me in sight.

The questions and the comparisons continue. Why have I been so afraid to look into those eyes, my eyes? Was I afraid of what I would see or that I would not see the me that has gone before? Fear no more, I say out loud. It may be possible to see her, the woman I used to be, as she merges into and becomes accepting of the shadow that falls upon our reflection, the shadow from the dead zone that resides within me.

PUBLIC DISPLAY OF PERFECTION

I work hard to keep the protective walls up around me, to shield my heart whenever possible. Instead of reacting wildly to insensitive remarks like I did right after Ben died, I’ve trained myself to cut some slack to those whose insensitive words inadvertently stab me directly in the heart. Nowadays, I can usually listen to the blurb, put on a passive face and act as if it’s simply flown over my head. That little shield goes up around my heart and I turn away, not wanting to hurt or confront the one who was insensitive. You see, I want to be a kind and gentle soul when it’s all said and done…as much as that is possible. I don’t want to be remembered as an old and cold and bitter woman when I am gone. And how can I expect others to know that my brain is still (and obsessively so) consumed with the after-effects of Ben’s death? Most probably think I am “better” but I am just oh so good (well trained) at hiding my true feelings. How can I expect them to know that every word I hear, every word I say and every relationship I have is still directly related to and processed in the context of my son’s death?

In the nearly two and a half years (how can it already be that long ago?!?) since Ben died, I’ve learned that there’s only so much outwardly displayed grief that’s permitted in most environments. Only when I am with a precious few of my loved ones do I feel free to be myself, to share my grief and also laughter with them. It’s a strange thing, but I’ve come to realize that once a person has allowed me to cry in their presence and allowed me to be real with them, there comes a sense of freedom to also share a good from-the-gut laugh with them, a laugh that surprises even me when it comes out of me. I guess it’s because they’ve allowed me to take off my mask, to be real, to be me. They’ve let me know that they love me in spite of my often despairing and ugly inner workings. No need to put on a public display of perfection for them!

At work this morning, I actually allowed myself to behave in a manner contrary to my usual self. My boss was meeting with a client. He walked into my office and asked me to prepare a receipt for him to sign acknowledging to the client that we had received the client’s estate planning documents. As he turned to go back into his office, my boss said to me, “He needs a receipt so that his family knows where his documents are….just in case his body cools down to room temperature before he gets his documents back.” I sat there for several moments, digesting those words. Wondering how they could have been said to me. Were they actually spoken to me, the still-devastated mom whose son died? As soon as those words slapped me upside the face, my thoughts went to Ben….I pictured him laying in the middle of the road after his accident. I know my boss. I know him very well after working for him for decades. He is one of the nicest men I’ve ever known. If he had stopped to think, I’m sure it would have registered that those words had the power to hurt and he would not have said them. But, after allowing similar but different remarks to fly over my head for months, I just had to rid myself of the ugly feelings that had been generated by his not ill intended but yet “un-thinking” words.

Because I so desperately needed to tell him that his words had deeply affected me and that I was hurt by his insensitivity and because I knew I would not be able to control my emotions if I chose to talk to him, I wrote a little post-it note for him that read something like this:

“I cannot say this out loud because I will end up crying, and I surely don’t want you walking on eggshells around me, but I just needed to let you know that I am very sensitive to words like ‘…in case his body cools down to room temperature.’ Since Ben’s death, words such as those have the power to stab me deep in the heart. Usually I can play tough, but not today. Sue”

I handed him the note and ended up crying anyways as I listened to him try to explain his rationale for saying those words. But I do wish to give myself a little pat on the back. Today I chose to not let that insensitive remark fly over my head. I chose to speak up to let my boss know that I am not simply a metal robot who walks around without a heart remaining in her chest. It’s not easy trying to function in the same manner that I did before. I can play tough, but sometimes watching and listening to those around me as they continue living in their un-shattered worlds overwhelms me. I don’t believe I emit the deep, unsettled emotions that I feel when I watch them live their perfectly ordinary lives, happy for them yet saddened by what I can no longer take for granted. I am not impervious to what goes on. I have become hyper-aware of what happens around me and super-sensitive to words tossed out into the wind without thought, words that aren’t meant to hurt but which do hurt this super-sensitive soul trying to balance the happy with the sad in her life.

I believe I handled the situation kindly and maturely (in spite of the post-it note delivery). I always worry about and am sensitive to others’ feelings, even in my altered state, but my feelings matter too. No public display of perfection for me today!

POST-IT NOTE REALITY

I remember at Ben’s visitation at the funeral home occasionally looking up to the next person in line and feeling, through the haze, a jolt of recognition. “Oh, my God. Your son (daughter) died too!” With tears in their eyes, those men and women were barely able to whisper to me through their sobs, “I’m so sorry.” Looking back now, I realize that I had seen tears of sympathy from all who had come, but specifically tears of knowing from those who had also lost their children.

A few days after the funeral, I remember standing at my kitchen counter and writing on a 3” x 5” post-it note the names of those people. The list was 13 life stories long. I stuck that post-it note inside the door of one of my kitchen cabinets and would look at it often. I’d stand there and read that list and think, “They survived it. You can too.” Somehow, in those early months, I was given strength each time I looked at that list of 13 people.

But what does “surviving it” mean?

Before Ben died, I’m sure I was sympathetic to those friends or acquaintances. My heart would hurt for them whenever my life would interact with theirs and they would speak of their children. And then I’d go back to my life. I now realize how simplistic it was of me to think that just because I had seen those people “functioning” in their lives after the deaths of their children that they had survived. I didn’t know.

My tears of sympathy have now turned into tears of knowing for them. Like me, each of them could write volume after volume of an autobiography and the wild range of tumultuous emotions that continually zap us as we go throughout each day, creating more havoc in our already restless and exhausted minds, could never be adequately documented.

Now when I see those friends or acquaintances, I make this clear to them, often times without words:

I hear you. I feel your pain. I understand.

I see you for who you really are behind your facade.

I’ll cry tears of knowing with you.

How simplistic of me! As if a 3” x 5” post-it note could summarize the heartache of 13 people?

Really?