Lights and Strength

The darkest stretches of this journey have been punctuated by bright beacons of light.  They offer a warmly comforting glow.  Sometimes they illuminate a place where I can rest my heart, such as the listening ear of a compassionate friend.  Sometimes they are as blinding as the stage lights at a concert, a sacred space where music heals and lightens the burdens I carry.  But eventually, time marches on and they start to dim until they are nothing but the smoky remnants of an extinguished flame.  Then it’s time for me to march on, too.

It’s good to reflect on how far we’ve come.  Where our journey has taken us.  Having made it this far is proof we can make it through another day, another week, another month, another year.

Last night I sat down with some friends to talk about how I’m doing.  And as I openly shared my honest truth – that I’m surviving fabulously and even happy, but always struggling – I realized how strong I really am.  The word “strong” gets thrown around a lot, and its meaning is fluid.  For people (like me) who feel like they’re constantly scraping the bottom of their barrel, “strong” is never a word we would use to describe ourselves.  Truly, by tomorrow I might not feel strong at all.

But when I look back at the mountains I’ve climbed, and the person I used to be, I see nothing but strength.

As I proudly showed pictures of Wesley, and told them my son’s short life and how beautiful he was, the old me still inside beneath layers of change was shocked into silence.  This is the way it goes any time I decide to have courage and be bold, which, in the last few years, has been happening more often with less clumsiness, and more confidence.  It feels good to be at peace with myself, with who I am and what has happened to me.  For me, I have found that peace is synonymous with healing.  It doesn’t mean I hurt less.  If anything, it means I have learned to lean in to the hurt, to feel the pain and still have inner peace at the center of my core being.

There, in the center of my heart of hearts, is where I carry my own light.  And the same grief that tore me to pieces has somehow stitched me up with a gold and glistening thread of divine quality, a material that is nearly unbreakable in a physical way and indestructible in a spiritual one.

This is what it means to be strong, and this is what I find when I look in the mirror of grief and loss.  This shiny material is stitched through my whole being, and made me capable of doing things I thought I couldn’t do.

Never is this most clearly manifested in my sudden and surprising desire and ability to help others dealing with loss, specifically infant loss.  Once unable to even discuss my own feelings, now I help others process their own.  And as I’ve been able to do this, I find myself wanting to go beyond the people that I know personally and lead a group in some way, the details of which I am still exploring.  Regardless, this strength to help others is what drives me to offer help in any way I can, to anyone who needs it, and I am excited to explore this new facet of Who I’ve Become.

Instead of dreading another year without Wesley, I’m stretching forward to the coming days and months where I can use the lessons his absence has taught me to be a source of encouragement and strength to others, to be a good friend and a great mom and a pillar of faith in my community.  That’s not to say I won’t fail, but I hope the time between falling down and getting back up is less, and that the fall is softened by being kinder to myself with a more accurate assessment of my worth.

That’s the beauty of the journey, that we can look back and see how far we’ve come and see our worth stretched over miles and miles of darkness, an immeasurable brilliance that burns long after the lights go out.

So as I carve another notch for another year on this road, I tell myself I’m one year stronger, one year wiser, one year closer to the finish line.  If you told me at the beginning I would have come this far, I wouldn’t have believed you.  I wouldn’t have been able to comprehend the part of the journey that is my reality now.  But that’s not really the point.  Sometimes the destination we have in our mind is blurry, unfocused, unrealized.  But we keep moving anyway.  We may struggle to cover a few inches on some days, while other days we can run miles, but any distance is good enough.  Any distance is evidence of the strength we already have.  The strength is in the struggle.

While I don’t really have any concrete goals for 2016 (other than The Same Goal I’ve Had Forever, aka ‘finish your book’), my plans for this year are more abstract and forgiving and less to do with me at all.  Help others.  Listen more.  Show hospitality.  Practice gratitude.  Be empathetic.  Show compassion.  Be courageous on behalf of someone else.

After all, no one will remember whether or not I lost X amount of pounds, or climbed Mt. Everest, or finally learned how to fold a fitted a sheet.

But people will always remember how you treat them.  Long after you are gone, your light still shines within them.

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Dude, This Is Awesome

Sea turtles are very popular at my house right now.  They are quickly taking over my 21-month-old’s world, and by extension, my world too.  When we go to the park, we have to look for turtles.  When we go to the aquarium, it’s the turtles he wants to see, not fish.  And now that I’ve shown him parts of Finding Nemo, he constantly asks for “Turtles” at home.  In fact, I’m pretty sure he thinks the movie is called Finding Turtles and that they are in fact the main characters.  He doesn’t really give a care about poor kidnapped Nemo.

He has even started saying “Duuuuuude.”

I was never really into the movie to begin with, and now that I’ve faced infant loss and PTSD I really don’t like the movie at all (the dad’s character, Marlin, hits way too close to home), but my son loves his turtles, and they have an integral part in the film – one might even say the best part.  I know my kid would agree.

In the scene where Marlin wakes up and finds himself riding the back of Crush the sea turtle, he asks for help finding the “East Australian Current” so that he can get to Sydney, and Crush tells him they’re already on it.

The camera pans up as Marlin beholds a flock (?) of Sea Turtles swimming behind him, and you’d think my son has just witnessed a computer-animated miracle.

He holds his breath and screams “TURTLES!” over and over, flailing his little arms.  Sometimes he jumps up and down.  He experiences so much joy from those turtles, he can’t help himself.  He just loves them that much.

No matter how many times he has watched that scene, his level of exuberance is the same.

He also looks back at me (or my husband), as if he’s gauging our response, and waits for us to cry something like “Yeah, turtles!” or “Wow, look at all those turtles!”  Which we always do, no matter how sick we are of watching the same scene over and over and over and over.

He smiles at us, and then goes back to reveling in his joy.

I guess this is the part in Parenthood where your kid starts reminding you of yourself.

Because we are not so different, he and I.  I get just as excited about stuff that I like (a certain Toxic Event comes to mind) and if you were to witness me enjoying a particular thing (say, a show), I probably wouldn’t look that much different than my kid watching Finding Nemo for the millionth time.

I guess I’ve always been that way, even since childhood.  I’m a passionate person, and when I love something, I really, really love it.  I want to talk about it.  I want to tell you about it.  And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t gauging your response as a kind of way to validate my own feelings about it.

Because experiencing joy is great, but experiencing joy with someone else is even better.  Especially if you like the same thing.  That’s why there are fan clubs and Comic-Cons.  We all have something we completely “nerd out” about.  Being a nerd is just loving something to the umpteenth degree.

The problem is, of course, there are always haters.  There are always people who like to rain on someone else’s parade.  And no matter how much we tell ourselves “the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate,” sometimes it’s hard to shake it off and go on experiencing our joy.

No one should tell you to tone down your joy.  You have every right to be as happy as you can be, whether you are broadcasting your happy relationship on Facebook, sharing a hundred baby pictures on Instagram, going to your twentieth Airborne show, or watching those darn turtles in Finding Nemo.

There is enough sadness and tragedy to go around.  There is not nearly enough joy.

And while I am a fan of many things – bands, music, animals, babies, faith – after living through days of not feeling anything except lonely and being numb – I am a huge fan of experiencing joy and having something to be joyful about.

Even if it’s turtles.

 

Capture Your Grief – Day 5. Empathy

Empathy has been defined as “your pain in my heart.”

True empathy can be found in that dark, scary place that all of us are afraid to go.  You know the place I’m talking about – the saddest, loneliest, scariest place in your mind, full of unpleasantries of every sort.  Embarrassment, fear, shame, hopelessness.  No matter our story, we’ve all been there, and we all hate it.  It truly feels like a god-forsaken wasteland of despair.

Yet, when someone bravely dares to sit with us in our own darkness, they are bravely sitting in their own dark and scary place at the same time, and that is empathy – courageously feeling the worst emotions in behalf of someone else.

For bereaved parents, finding true empathy is scarce outside of other bereaved parents.  Someone who has never lost a child simply does not have the capacity to understand.  In other words, it doesn’t get darker than this.

However, I am blessed to have friends who try to show empathy, and sometimes that’s enough.

1. They listen more than they talk.  90% of the time we just need someone to listen (or read) and just be there for us.

2. They don’t try to fix it.  It takes humility to realize they can’t “fix” us.  Some people want to be the ones to make us “feel better” by saying just the right combo of flowery words.  But there is nothing they can say to make us “feel better” about our child being dead.  Absolutely nothing.

3. They don’t use words like “At Least.”  Because there is no “at least” in child loss.  (See video below.)

4. They do say things like “I’m so sorry” or “I’m here for you” or “I love you” (and mean it).  These things are ALWAYS good to say to someone who is going through something awful.  You needn’t be afraid of saying the wrong thing if you stick to these words.  Just make sure you follow it up by being a good friend (see #1).

5. They let us be our broken selves without fear of judgment.  I can’t tell you how grateful I am for friends who have listened through my angry tears and have seen my ugly cry and have heard me say horrible things and acted out in unconventional ways to feel my pain.  They know we (as bereaved parents) are unfixable and unfathomably hurt.  But they see through it all and love us anyway, because ultimately I think they sense our courageousness to simply go on living after the Unthinkable has happened.

Finally, I think the following video best illustrates what empathy truly is, and what it’s not.

May we all practice empathy, and may the pain in our hearts turn to healing.

Capture Your Grief – Day 1. Sunrise

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I remember when the sun rose on the day my son died.  The way the light cracked through the windows in jagged pieces as I covered my eyes and buried them in my hands.  That old saying – something about the sun rising and setting in spite of whatever – echoing in the graveyard that was my mind, and I thought I would scream.  How dare the sun rise as my son dies, as part of me dies too.

It was dawn for the other part of me, the one that survived, the side of me that is still here and the resilient spark of a phoenix that rose from the ashes of this dismal wasteland of grief.  From this resiliency is where I speak now, standing on the other side of cripplingly utter despair, and watch the sun come up again.  And then I think, well isn’t that funny.  The sun and I are not so different.  We go on rising and setting.  But we still get up again.  Day after day, in spite of whatever, even when our brilliance is hidden by clouds.  We go on.

The day the sun rose when my son died, I wanted to die too.  But then I survived another day.  And another.  And another.  Until one day I realized I was not just surviving, but living, and not in darkness, but in light.  And now with time and distance between me and that day, I have strung a hundred days where I am grateful the sun continued to rise, and I did too.

We can do this, one sunrise at a time.

Capture Your Grief 2015

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Since October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, I have decided to take part in this project.  While I do not plan to post something for each day of the month-long project, I do think having a share would be of some benefit, both to myself and perhaps anyone who stumbles upon this blog.

As the months and years pass, the pain ebbs and flows, the seasons of grief come and pass, but there is something that never changes for me: a desperate need to feel connected.  When I’m happy and experiencing joy, I want to share it.  When I’m in the depths of despair, I don’t want to be alone.  Pregnancy and infant loss can be isolating.  I suffered in silence for a long time, and there are times even now when I’m afraid to tell someone I need to talk and ask for help for fear of being perceived as a downer and a black cloud, or as if I’m too consumed by grief to express gratitude for the joy I do have.

The truth is I live a full, joyful life with my husband and young son, and not a day goes by when I don’t meditate on all the reasons I have for joy.  But the darkness always comes.  The weather can change on a dime, from sunny and wonderful to downpours of rain and tears.  So many times I feel split in two, as if one half of me is living in a colorful world with my rainbow baby, and the other is trapped in the cold, dark, and lonely world of infant loss.

The only way to process and heal myself is to connect these two different worlds and keep a steady balance so the darkness never consumes the light, but lets the light shine through the darkness.  So many of those lights come from connection.

Grief is a journey.  Thank you for taking a moment to walk alongside me.  It is my hope that you can see that despite the ugliness and raw pain, there is beauty in broken things.

Firefighters vs. Rebuilders

A friend recently asked me about firefighters and rebuilders in the aftermath of Loss.  She had been reading a blog about infant loss, and how tragedy reveals the true nature of ourselves and others.  In particular, there are certain people who rush in immediately and try to help put out the fire and control the devastation, and there are certain others who show up later and help rebuild.  She wondered if that had been my experience.

My initial reaction was vague.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how it was also true in my case.  Firefighters had swept in to do damage control.  There were meals and flowers and cards.  There were concerned friends stopping by just to check on us.  They surrounded us when we were too stunned to move, and they worked quickly, but they didn’t stay long.

The rebuilders, however, were fewer in number.  They arrived slowly, one by one, over the course of many months.  They brought movies and games and laughter.  Sometimes they brought small gifts or just their company, which is the same as gifts.  Some of them just sat in silence with us.  They helped us rebuild the foundations of our selves, and helped us create a “new normal,” a new status quo of being.

At first I was inclined to feel more affection toward the rebuilders.  After all, their presence was usually longer, and therefore felt more.  But then I realized I was doing a disservice to the firefighters, who came in at the most dangerous point in the game and did whatever damage control they could.  Both parties were essential to our survival, and I am grateful for the love we have been shown.

But there is another group for whom I am grateful.  They are the rebuilders who continue to come back years later.  They know this is a long term project, and we will never be able to completely rebuild on our own.  They don’t come with judgments and time limits over how long this is going to take.  While others have grown frustrated over never seeing a finished product, wondering why we are still not “over it,” they understand our hearts will never be completely healed at this time.  Neither do they reminisce about the people we once were, or seem shocked that we cannot and will never be those people again.  They accept us for who we are today, as angry or as miserable or as devastated as we might be.  They don’t mind the scenery of broken souls and stunning ruins.

It’s those people that make me a better person, not just in healing, but in the work of helping to heal others too.  There isn’t much fanfare and you don’t get a medal, but the grueling work of healing hearts and being there for people has a reward of its own kind, a healing change within yourself that you don’t even know is happening until one day you realize that giving of yourself and your time has sealed some of the cracks in your own heart while you were busy collecting pieces of theirs.

Whether firefighter, rebuilder, or friend, we all need each other, and we will all be called upon to help our loved ones if and when disaster strikes.  There is wisdom in knowing that one day we will all face tragedy of some kind.  And in the face of tragedy, whether it’s our own or that of someone else, we all discover who we are and what we’re made of.

 

The Darkened Shroud and The Bean Trees

A few months ago, a friend recommended a book to me called “The Bean Trees” by Barbara Kingsolver.  After sitting untouched on the shelf for a month, my husband found it in a half-hearted search for something to read.  He blazed through it during our recent beach vacation, and then lent it to his mom, who also read it.  Suddenly the two of them were engaged in a secret discussion, and then invited me to share in the family book club so I could weigh in with my thoughts, too.

While not intended to be a review, this book catches one in a subtle trap of simple words and old fashioned Kentucky slang.  The story is warm yet heartbreaking, and perhaps no one realized just how much I would get lost in the warm glow of a “Southern tale taken West.”  Neither did anyone realize how much I would identify with Esperanza.

She’s a side character with very little dialogue, and throughout most of the story, the reader feels indifferent toward her, then irritated, even frustrated, until her pitiable state is revealed: her very young daughter was kidnapped in their home country of Guatemala, and she has no way of ever finding out her fate.  She takes on the role of a bereaved mother in extreme grief – panic attacks, PTSD, even attempted suicide, until finally the reader is left to believe she finally “freed” herself and found resolution through a turn of events involving the daughter of the main character, Taylor.

When I finished the book and thought I had finished crying, I found my husband in the kitchen one lazy Saturday morning.  We talked about the story, the significance of the “bean trees,” the Kentucky slang, and the characters that strangely reminded us of people we knew in real life.

“I saw myself in Esperanza,” I confessed.

“Yeah,” my husband said sadly.  “I did, too.”

This bothered me so much, I could hardly talk about the book anymore.

While this was a work of fiction, my reality is not a book I can close and put back on the shelf.  The panic attacks I have are real.  They are debilitating, and frustrating to those around me.  I’m the character in the story with all the burdens of baggage, from PTSD to social anxiety to just plain social awkwardness.  And while I’m glad to be alive, honestly there were times I wished I wasn’t.  Nobody should have to feel pain like this.  It’s a fate I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.  An incredibly lonely, isolating, darkened shroud.  An abyss.  A life in ruins.

But I don’t want to be a side character.  I want to be the protagonist.  I want to be the hero.

Some days it feels like a conscious choice, and on other days it feels like an impossible dream.  Lately it feels like loss defines me, written like a bio with my picture attached.  I’m tired of sympathy and pity, but I want do want support and encouragement.  I don’t want the rest of my life to already be buried in a grave.

So I rise up.  I fill my life with good things.  I chase every twinge of happiness, down to small whimsies.  I wrestle with self-pity and defeat it with helping others and showing support to those who are also trying to grow despite harsh conditions.  If nothing else, this darkened shroud is the place I go when I am called to show empathy, and thus it has become more sacred than ever.

Yet I still feel like I have to apologize for the way I stumble through the days, broken and tired and weeping and angry and bitter and haunted . . . and a mess.  “Sorry,” I think to myself in a self-conscious moment after I’ve done something incredibly vulnerable, “I’m just dealing with an unspeakable tragedy is all.”

But I think the most important lesson I’ve learned in the now almost four years, is that I must be patient and kind with myself.  I’m not a character, and this is not a story.  This is my reality, and as painfully harsh as it may seem, I’ve still got growing to do.

And if you’re here because you’re a survivor, or even a spectator, your presence is appreciated.  In the dark abyss of grief, every person with an open heart is like a light.

As long as there is light, I know I will never lose my way.

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