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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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.

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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I miss the little boy who would be here now.

I hate the memories I have surrounding his death.

But they are intertwined with the memories surrounding his birth.

So I clutch them like shards of glass.  They cut me open and make me bleed, but I cannot let them go.

I still feel the bitterness of Loss.  The loss of friends, relationships, laughter, and the person I used to be . . . all the things I lost when my baby died.

The weight of the loss is immeasurable.  “Losing a child” is a euphemism, a cop-out.  I lost an entire lifetime of memories.  I lost the rest of my life as I knew it when I was still pregnant.  I lost my innocence, my childlike joy.

In some ways, I feel as if I’ve lost my sanity.  I don’t try for a “normal” life anymore, and I have given up on ever feeling “normal.”  Nice-crazy is now what I hope to achieve.  I’m broken and strange, and a stranger to myself, but I can still be nice, and I hope that the language of kindness that I speak is enough to make up for what is lost in translation.  Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.  But it’s all I can offer right now.

I love this losing and this loss as much as I hate it, and I hope that someday the love will win the war over the hate.  But each day is a battle, and sometimes I win, and sometimes I lose.  Today I am losing.

On days like these, I sit by the side of the road on my journey of grief, and I wait for tomorrow.

I miss him, but I love the feeling of missing him, because it’s the same as loving him, and it’s that inextinguishable love as a mother that I know I will never, ever lose.

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I Carry You With Me Wherever I Go

Wesley and I in 2011.

with Wesley in 2011

I carry you with me wherever I go.

You’re the kind words I speak.  When I’m called upon to assist others, you’re the gentle tone I use.  You taught me how to use words softly, to build up and strengthen those who are small, and those who feel small.  You yourself were small, just a little bigger than my hand.  You taught me how to be gentle.

You’re the compassion I feel.  When I see others struggle with pain, disappointment, fear, death, sickness, or other problems, you’re my reason for offering to help.  You showed me a love greater than myself – the depths of which regularly become filled with love and concern for others.  You’re the place I go when I need to remember what it feels like.  You taught me how to have empathy.

You’re the courage I possess.  When I’m scared of the future, or when the fear of death creeps upon me, you make me feel brave, because you were brave.  You faced the unthinkable, but you still fought with everything you had.  And even though you succumbed, you bravely passed away.  You taught me how to be fearless.

You’re the faith in my heart.  When I have my doubts, the Hope of seeing you again is undeniable.  The knowledge of your condition in a sleeplike state is of great comfort to me.  I know you are not somewhere missing me, and neither are you gone forever.  You are simply waiting to wake up.  You are the reason I want to be there when you do.  You taught me how to have integrity.

You’re the love in everything I do.  When I’m holding your baby brother, there you are.  You are the soft caresses on a sleepy little head, and the kisses on little cheeks in the morning.  You are the patience in helping with first words, first steps, and all the accidents and messes that have been and are yet to come.  You are the love that shines through it all.  You are teaching me how to be a mother.

Of everyone I have ever met, it was the greatest privilege to have met you.

You have made me so much better than I would have been without you.

So I carry you with me wherever I go.

And when we meet again, I will be the very best person I could ever be.  The very best mother for you.

October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month

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“Awareness” is everywhere.  Raising awareness for diseases like cancer brings necessary and potentially lifesaving attention, monetarily or otherwise, to various research groups.  It also paves the way to show empathy for those who suffer.  It is not a state of mind as much as it is a call to action.  A call for support.  In short, awareness is a good thing.

This month, and October 15th, awareness is being directed toward parents who have experienced Pregnancy and/or Infant Loss.  But what does awareness mean for them?

It means compassion and empathy.  It means a reminder to show and receive support.

All too often, bereaved parents suffer in silence.  The death of a child is an unspeakable tragedy and a taboo subject among many.  But statistics show that one in four women will have such an experience.  In the United States alone, there are an average of 600,000 miscarriages, 64,000 ectopic pregnancies, and 26,000 stillbirths each year.  SIDS kills 4,500 babies annually.  Half a million babies are born prematurely, and some do not survive.  Still other parents experience pregnancy loss via molar pregnancies, birth defects, and other causes.

These statistics, while disheartening to read, are still just cold hard facts.  They do not reveal the anguish of the parents who experience them, and the lifelong journey of grief they leave in their wake.

Awareness is for these parents.  Awareness is for me.

It’s not because I have forgotten what has happened to me.  I live with it every day of my life.  It is a haunting black cloud.  It is a chasm of the heart.  It is the undeniable ache for children I love, and the innocent person I used to be.

No, I’m aware all the time.  I never forget.  This month is so you can remember, too.

“Awareness” is for your loved ones, your family, your friends, and the thousands of parents who cry for their dead babies every year.  It gives you an opportunity to let them know you haven’t forgotten either.  And it answers the painful, crippling doubt every bereaved parent feels, that their dead child is forgotten, with a resounding “no.”  No, they are not forgotten.  And neither is the pain of them being gone.

Awareness is about breaking the silence, and shattering the taboo nature of this subject.  If you know someone who has experienced the death of their baby, please do not hesitate to speak their name, and to let them know you have not forgotten the life of this precious child.  It may be awkward, and you may feel clumsy, but you are giving the parents of this beloved child a precious gift – that they are not alone in their grief, and that their baby mattered.

Any loving parent wants their child’s life to matter.  This does not change when the child has died, and it does not depend on how long the child was alive.  It only becomes more important, more profound, more meaningful.

“Awareness” is everywhere.  But for bereaved parents, it can be difficult to find.

Be aware this month of those who miss their children.  And show awareness all the time by being supportive.  You can do this by speaking their child’s name, by being kind, by showing empathy, and by listening with your heart.  Let the bereaved parent guide the conversation.  If they are reluctant to talk about it, respect their feelings.  Instead, show them sincere kindness.  Let them know you are thinking about them and that they are loved.

Pregnancy loss and infant loss is tragic.  But awareness is always a good thing, especially for the parents who have survived it.  Thank you for your support.

 “The world around you moves on, as if your life was never shattered

and all you want the world to do is say that your baby mattered.” – AJ Clark-Coates