Tag Archives: Mental wellbeing

Grief Doesn’t Die

Memes and GIFs are two words that came out of virtual obscurity…literally, in the last several years and are now household words on the tongues and lips, assuming you can correctly pronounce them, of seemingly everyone in America.  Pop culture and the world of the internet have wedged their way into every detail of our lives for better or worse.

Almost daily I find myself and my husband or friends texting these quippy little quotes back and forth to each other.  Some are just either so profoundly fitting in a situation or, more likely, just incredibly funny.

Of course you can find memes, often comical or at least satirical, to suit any situation; political issues, to family gatherings, workplace frustrations, etc..  But sometimes there are those meant to speak to the deeper feelings we find ourselves dealing with when words of encouragement are needed.

As the mother of a child who has passed, I see a lot of these posted on Facebook, Instagram, and even Pinterest from others who have traveled the same road I am on myself.  And occasionally I post them too.  Once in a while one comes along that just speaks so clearly to how I’m feeling that it feels like it could’ve been taken from my own personal experience.  I guess before the modern day meme came along this duty was reserved for song lyrics sang (specifically to us) over the radio or the occasional Hallmark card – sent via snail mail, of course.

All too often though, I find that while the sentiment may align with my feelings, the execution is lost on me. A metaphorical ball metaphorically dropped, if you will.  I recently ran across one of these little posts which proclaimed that “When you can tell your story without crying, that’s how you know you’ve healed”.

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Now, “healed” is a relative term to varying personal degree for everyone.  While it may be true for some, no blanket explanation could ever cover such a wide ranging, deeply emotional, and profoundly personal topic. I just want to say to the thought expressed in these seventeen all-knowing little words:  bullshit.

If this has been your experience and you have gotten to this point, I am so utterly happy for you and I encourage you to celebrate the place you’re in in your journey and the accomplishment you’ve made.  Hopefully the peace that encompasses it is a blessing to you in your stay.  I can only account for my own experience, of course, but what I can say about my journey is that the absence of tears runs so much deeper than being considered healed at the lack of their presence.

I will never be healed of the loss of my daughter  Not in the conventional, physical sense anyway.  Not until my time on this earth comes to an end and am I reunited with her in spirit.  Until that time, I am forced to wander around broken, like may of us are.  Shattered like a mirror due to myriad circumstances we’ve encountered and endured.  No matter how well you glue the pieces back into place the evidence of the break remains a part of the structure forever.  The mirror may be reconfigured, but it will never not be broken.  Broken is not bad or wrong, it’s simply the sum of the experiences that have taken you to become the person you are today. With rich experiences, both good and bad, we’re all weaving the intricate tapestries that are our lives.

Does that mean that healing cannot happen?  No, it doesn’t.  For some it may.  Yet others may unsuccessfully or unwittingly chase it for the duration of their existence.  Some may simply adapt to the new being they have become.  And still many more find their new identity in the pieces of their life and spend the remainder of it romancing and nurturing their newfound brokenness, essentially becoming its prisoner.  All of this in both positive and negative, healthy and unhealthy ways.  It’s just that tears are not necessarily the barometer of health.

Not expressing tears for me, simply means I’ve become accustomed to my situation.  I am used to it.  There is no longer any shock or novelty in child loss in my life. I am desensitized to the idea of what most people would find too horrific to even entertain in their mind, i.e. the “I can’t imagines” because I have already lived it.

It’s simply another form of survival.  It’s part of how I mitigate my pain.  I have many wonderful aspects of my life to focus on, though they still doesn’t lessen the pain I feel in her loss.  I just refuse to let that pain swallow me up.  I can’t well up and break down every time my daughter’s name is mentioned or someone asks me how many children I have.  In every part of my life; my job, my writing and speaking, my social relationships, my daughter, and her death are front and center.  Not only would it not behoove me to break down at every retelling of her life’s story, but (for me) it wouldn’t honor her, either.  I just don’t let tears overtake me.  That doesn’t make me any more or less healed than anyone else.  It’s simply a personal style of functionality.

I carry on with my life.  I am happy, healthy, and productive.  I tell her story a hundred times in a row and don’t shed a single tear.  And yet, not always, but from time to time I may well up at the site of a dress hanging on a sales rack that I wish I could buy her.  Or I pause to catch my breath whenever a particularly difficult hymn is sang during church services.

Grief and pain coupled with crying, though certainly not mutually exclusive, are not necessarily married to one another either.  And with a situation so personal, so devastating, who is to say that everyone I interact with is worthy of my tears?  For me, my tears are an intimate expression of my love for my daughter, and something that I’m accustomed to compartmentalizing, not sharing openly.

When it comes to grief, of any kind, please don’t oversimplify these nuances by applying generic thoughts on such a complex topic.  There is no handbook to reference.  There is no cookie cutter for grief.  Someone may not be meeting what your expectations of grief are, but that doesn’t mean that they should adjust their expressions, barring physical and mental harm, of course.  More likely it’s an adjustment of expectations of those grief expressions, and a more open discussion that’s required for deeper understanding.

Most importantly, just be kind and supportive.  Offer a listening ear when needed, and don’t feel that it’s your duty, or even within your power to ‘fix’ them.  Just allow your friend, coworker, or family member the time, space, and respect to grieve in the way that’s comfortable for them.

I encourage you to share you thoughts on what your personal barometers of healing have been in your own life, in regard to any event you’ve experienced. Let us come together to transform
the ideas of what both grief and healing look like to the world outside our doors.

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Taking Care of Yourself, and Taking A Step Back from Grief

After the earth-shattering diagnosis of our youngest daughter’s terminal illness that was Tay-Sachs disease I immediately became an advocate, in my own right for awareness, education, and prevention.

I took to the new community of affected families that was there to welcome me in with vigor.  Families from all races, religions, and walks of life banded together in this group because of the one thing they had in common, the one thing that trumped everything else they didn’t.

It’s desperately devastating.  A club to which no one wants to belong.  But at least we have each other.  It may sound horribly cliché, and while it is, it’s also true.  There is comfort in know you’re not alone.  Solidarity in our plight, as it may be.

Technology has been a godsend against feelings of isolation.  With most of us across the United States not having any local contact with another family like ours (for us, Miss Elliott was the only child with Tay-Sachs in our state) the internet, specifically Facebook is where we turn to communicate with others.

On our private group page families can post questions, most that their doctors can’t even answer, and expect to have a barrage of responses, usually within minutes, from the experts themselves; other parents living this same life.  Conversations usually revolve around day-to-day care, medication dosages, insurance issues, and tips for comfort.

I dove in full force.  I too was suddenly one of those experts and had information to offer new parents as they joined our group.  In some ways, I relished the offering of my experiences.  It helped make them meaningful, exponentially so.  I felt altruistic in my efforts, shifting my focus from inward to outward, which I suppose was also helpful to numbing the pain of the reality of our life.  I felt it my duty to help other parents, in any way possible.  We were a small, but mighty group who rallied around each other.  That sense of community has pulled me through some very dark times, and I would do what I could over the next several years to be there for those who needed someone to talk to, to listen to them, to be a shoulder to cry on.

It’s been seven years since Miss Elliott was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs, and just over four years since her death, and now I find that I’m tired.  I’m tired of speaking up whenever a question is asked.  I’m tired of offering advice.  I’m tired of being pulled into the throngs of the high-level emotions of newly diagnosed parents.  And I also see those parents, perhaps once new to the group themselves are now the experts.  The ones quick to answer a question or supply some advice, and I know, my voice isn’t required in repetition.  And that’s ok.

I see questions posed, and as I find that I can’t muster up the emotional energy to do so I think to myself someone else will answer this anyway.  It’s not that I don’t want to help anymore, I do, I just need to channel my energy in a different way.  To not live in the trenches, as that’s no life at all.  I wince at first, in acknowledgment of this feeling, but I know it’s not unique to me.  It’s a pattern I see repeated by so many families who have lost their children over the years; taking a step back with less involvement, less communication, less participation.  And I think it’s because at a certain point it becomes so mentally and emotionally draining one must step away in order to keep some semblance of sanity, or perhaps to regain it after their child’s passing.  Especially to continue on in the world outside our sheltered group.

Two years ago I accepted a position with the National Tay-Sachs and Allied Diseases Association as their Conference Coordinator.   It is absolutely my passion.  It allows me a way to help every family in the organization.  A focus and drive for my energy and for my desire to honor Miss Elliott’s life in a broader sense that keeps me involved, but not on a level that feels detrimental to my own mental wellbeing.  As a parent of an affected child first, it’s given me a unique outlook that I hope helps to serve our families in a way only someone in my position could.

I’ll never stop advocating for awareness of Tay-Sachs disease, but finding a way that allows me to carry on in life without being weighed down has been essential to my ability to carry on.  Everyone must find the right fit for themselves, but recognizing what works for you and, perhaps more importantly what doesn’t is vitally important for your own survival through the ongoing stages of grief one lives with, forever, after the loss of their child.

 

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Our family photo from the Annual Family Conference in Orlando, FL, April , 2016

 

 To learn ore about Miss Elliott and her life with Tay-Sachs disease, get your copy of Three Short Years here.

 

 

Numbing the Pain

They say it only makes it worse when you finally feel it. Addiction is a prison of its own making. A cycle that’s hard to break, to say the very least. And when loss or grief is added to the mix the welling up of emotion surrounding the issues at hand often seem to propel one further into that cycle, before if ever, propelling them out of it. Mackenzie Johnson is the daughter of a dear friend, Lynette Johnson. You may have seen some of my writings referring to Lynette in one way or another before, but you’ve undoubtedly seen her pictures. Any of the photographs of my family on this site are Soulumination photos. Lynette is the founder of this wonderful organization that provides the most lovely, candid, real-life photo shoots, free of charge for families of terminally ill children. Families like mine.

I met Lynette when living in Seattle, shortly after Miss Elliott was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease. A friend I’d made online, another mother of a child with Tay-Sachs had recommended I contact Lynette and Soulumination for photos since we both lived in Seattle. I found out that Lynette had traveled to the National Tay-Sachs and Allied Diseases Association’s Annual Family Conference nearly every year, and that she had personally taken the photos of nearly every family in this community across the country, and here she was right in my own backyard.

This vibrant, caring woman who was such a bright and shining light of positivity in the lives of so many families suffering through anticipatory loss or grief itself, was stricken with Cancer. And what’s more, at the same time, her daughter, McKenzie was suffering through the depth of years of addiction and unable to come to terms with her mother’s illness.

In her own words below, Mac describes the process of finally feeling all those feelings she strove so hard to keep at bay for so long, and the impact they have on her now as she’s navigating her way through feeling them authentically and coming to terms with (and finding out) who she is.

“For years and years I wouldn’t let myself feel anything. When one drinks it shatters and suppresses all feelings, the good and bad ones. I did not realize exactly that this is what I was doing. It was a long time in the making, but eventually I found that out for myself.

All those years later when I got sober, it was the pain that hurt the most. Foreign and new it crept in and for the first time, I was powerless to stop it. Pain over the realization of what I had done over those years, pain over my mom’s recent cancer diagnosis. Pain over deaths I never allowed myself to grieve. When my grandparents died one by one, I hid away, not able to join in proper grievance, for alcohol was my comfort and my pain. My last surviving one shares in my disease. It goes untreated, and still I cannot connect.

I knew I drank differently from the very start, I also was aware that I was highly susceptible to becoming an alcoholic. I was already familiar with it because it runs in both sides of my family. Once I started drinking I could not stop. To have one or two drinks is impossible for me. Soon I was drinking every day. I noticed that I was different from most of my friends; my tolerance was greater and I had no end point. I would drink until I passed out. This kept me from visiting much or living near my family. I did not want them to be around this, to know this part of me. I also did not want them to try and stop me, and I knew they would. I made myself independent in every way so they could have no say in the way I lived my life. Until the way I lived my life would lead me very close to death.

When I found out my mom was diagnosed with lymphoma I got drunk immediately after getting off the phone. I maintain that my mom’s diagnosis got me to such a bad place that I finally accepted the help that had been long offered me. One day soon after, I woke up in my boyfriends’ bed, where I had not gone to sleep and I looked down at my wrist. It had happened again, a hospital bracelet. And no memory of it. I went to my phone and texted my sister. My recollection of that text is send me anywhere you want. It probably did not say that exactly. I then poured myself what I knew would be my last drinks. I was passed out by the time my sister had flown in that afternoon.

I was living in California when my sister came down to pick me up. We were going to a treatment center in Canada. I refused to stop in Seattle overnight because I thought I would change my mind about going, but I said we could still stop for a moment just to see mom. We stopped at our childhood home. Mom came out, very weak, sick, and bald, using a cane. She hugged me and whispered in my ear “I’m so proud of you.” How could she have been proud of her alcoholic daughter? At the time it surprised me, but gave me hope. It was not until much later that I knew exactly what she meant.

I’ve been sober for almost four years ago now, but the feelings didn’t flood in for me. They have never come easy for me. I’m still finding them today, still finding ways to express them. I still don’t like to feel them sometimes. I like to shove them away, to not show you that I can be vulnerable too, that I have feelings too now. I can cry in front of complete strangers, but not in front of my family. I struggle with relationships with those who are supposed to be closest to me, for it is them who can see the real me. And sometimes I am unsure of who that really is. Vulnerability is a scary word for me, when it should be one of empowerment, strength, beauty. But a part of me struggles and believes being vulnerable to be weak. What will happen to me if those I love see my weaknesses, my feelings, my shortcomings, struggles, my pain? They will only love me for them I am sure.

After all these years of struggling with acceptance, I know that I still haven’t let my feelings on my mom’s diagnosis fully surface. It is hard for me to listen to her talk about it. I refuse to touch her nodes when she wants to see if they have grown. I don’t know why. Maybe if I don’t then it means it isn’t real, that I can disconnect a little longer, protect myself from the pain.

She has been through treatment twice now and will more than likely venture into a third in the near future. When I agreed to my own treatment she was already in chemo. She was very weak and very sick, so sick that she vows she will never do chemo again. I honestly believe she would rather die.

I am a work in progress, I will attend meetings the rest of my life. I will work for my sobriety and sanity the rest of my life. For me there is no cure, only recovery. I spend a lot of time in the mountains now, alone or with a select few other people. I cannot describe it but it is special and spiritual for me. I also believe it is necessary for my being. I literally carry a lot of weight on my back out there, a burden I can control. I look at myself every day, my actions, intentions. I am far from perfect. I see myself do things and while I am doing them I know that they are not who I want to be. I try not to do them again. I try speak up when I am hurting, when I am sad, when I need help. It is hard. I have seen a lot of loss, from cancer and from addiction. I cannot control what my mom’s disease will do, but I can control how I act today and how I love today. I refuse to numb the pain anymore.”

Mac
McKenzie, with sister Llewelyn (center), and mom Lynette

McKenzie is raising money for her mother’s Big Climb effort to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in their continued dedication to fund research for a cure. You can join Mac at the website below and offer your support as well.

http://www.llswa.org/site/TR/Events/BigClimb?px=1651338&pg=personal&fr_id=1510

A Brief History of Grief

“Mom, how does this look?” she asked seeking both confirmation and approval. “It looks good,” I tell her. And it does. Now in middle school, on the precipice of becoming a teenager, she’s starting to learn how to do her makeup. I don’t mind her growing up at all. I’m also glad she seems to enjoy many of the same things I do and that we can share those with each other. Then, there are ways in which she is solely her own person. Not I, not Loren, but a new person growing and changing, and becoming someone all her own. I relish it. I am thankful for it.

We, of course, weren’t granted such a happy fate with our youngest daughter. Not only did she die, but we knew she would, which, in the grand scheme of life and parenthood, may have been the cruelest fate of all (for us): living with the knowledge of her impending death at such a young age, and not only that, but before her death was to occur a relentless genetic monster would take away all of her physical and cognitive abilities.

Let me stop right there to make sure that you know that her life was nothing but a blessing to us. Every moment we were allowed to spend with her was a magical time that taught us the importance of unconditional love, and value of our own mortality. And it changed us in ways we’re still discovering only now, four years after her death. Some for the better, some for the broken.

We are strong, it’s true. Sickeningly so. We just don’t want to have to be, that’s the thing. That’s why people who are in our position often hear repeatedly how someone else couldn’t imagine. They just don’t want to. We don’t either, but unlike you, we didn’t have a choice. We hate to hear that you think we’re strong. Especially when we feel anything but. And when you tell us this, you may not realize it, but it often adds undue pressure to our burden. Pressure of an image we feel expected to maintain.

Four years later I know that the choice we had was whether or not to fight this battle together. We chose to do so with each other. And it’s not just that seven years ago, when we were told our daughter was dying that we walked out of the hospital and made a conscious choice to stick together, it’s that we continue to do so each and every day, even now.

Can we just be real? It is not easy. We have problems. Some of the same problems you probably have, but others that whether we would have had or not had we not been through the death of our child is only speculation at this point. The point is, they exist, so what do we do about them?

I think we’ve always tried to be proactive in acknowledging an issue and trying to work through it. I think communication is one of the cornerstones to ours or any marriage. But that doesn’t mean we always practice it. It’s worse when you can’t even put your finger on it yourself. How, then, are you supposed to communicate that to your partner feelings you yourself can’t understand? Especially if it’s something you’re not proud of, or you might even be scared to admit to yourself, let alone anyone else.

We haven’t always been kind to each other, but recently, with both of us separately on the verge of falling apart, we made a change. We both got honest, with ourselves, and with each other. It was a terrifying admission on both of our parts, but also, in some small hopeful way, freeing. A burden began to lift just by admitting our faults, and choosing to do something about them instead of continuing to spiral into oblivion. Neither of us wanted to live the way we were.

To be candid, Loren deals with fits of explosive anger. Deep seeded anger simmering below the surface that began in his childhood, but has been amplified into rage over time by the events of our shared life and the lack of dealing with these existing feelings for so many years. It’s all consuming. It lurks around every corner. It bleeds itself into every aspect of his life and affects his actions and behaviors in an unhealthy manner. No steps can ever be light enough as to not crack those egg shells. It’s something he’s realized cannot be mind-over-mattered through on his own.

I on the other hand have only recently become aware of the anxiety that’s swallowed me up and refuses to release its grip on my mind. In seemingly normal every day occurrences the fear of the what if overtakes my ability to remain calm and collected. To say I worry would be a vast understatement. The need to maintain the upper hand and to constantly reassure myself that everything is okay has turned me into fearful, controlling, unforgiving, judgmental shell of the formerly vibrant person I feel I can no longer recognize. I’m constantly on edge, lashing out, waiting for some other shoe to drop.

He’s become a scapegoat. I can’t admit I’m wrong.

Enough.

Enough trying to be strong.

Enough pretending to be ok.

Enough trying to prove that we are.

Our daughter died, and we are not ok.

It hurts so much.

But we want to get better.

We won’t let this form of grief be our undoing.

Loren has sought out counseling, recently, which has been a life changing experience for him, and for us. He’s gaining the tools to manage his anger, and to work through is feelings in a productive way. I have finally admitted to myself, and to him how swallowed up by fear and anxiety I feel I all the time. Why it is I’m so controlling, how scared I really am. I too, need to address this issue, and I think finding someone to talk to about it and mitigate the feeling would be a good idea for me as well.

We’re not there yet, wherever there is. Though we are getting there. We’re still staying the course. Someone recently asked me when grief goes away. “Never,” I replied. Grief is not a place to pass through and come out on the other side of, but a continual journey once you’ve been set on its path.

I don’t want you to read this and think that we think that we’re so awesome that even when we have an issue we make a spectacle of how awesome we are at working through it. I just hope that if you read this and you have any of these feelings that you can be real with yourself, and maybe even with your partner. I’ve had to learn that there’s no shame in not having it all figured out or under control. The only shame is in letting everything crumble around you without doing something about it. I know you won’t judge us, you can’t. You haven’t lived through our loss. And I want you to know that no one else can judge you, either. So if you read this and you suspect you might be a dark place like we were, please do something about it. It’s a lonely place to be, and I don’t want that for you.

Strength is not Enough

Time is slipping. I’m not really sure how it can move at such an accelerated rate, yet seem to progress so slowly all at once, but it does. It moves on its own accord. You can’t alter it. You may try, but only in vain. Earlier this month, August 6th to be exact, I was tidying up the house for the evening, sipping some coffee, and heading up to bed-book in hand, to read for a bit, when suddenly a thought hit my like a truck: yesterday was DD. YESTERDAY. For the first time in six years, since its inception, I had missed it.

This was a win.

Diagnosis Day (DD) is when my world fell apart. It was when I learned our precious Miss Elliott was being consumed from the inside out by the ravenous genetic monster known as Tay-Sachs disease that, while first would rob her of every basic form of human functioning, it would also eventually kill her as well. August 5th, 2009 was the day our world stopped. This was the point of no return. At that moment, I would never be who I had been for the entirety of my life pervious to this point, ever again. A change had occurred. I was a new person, in a new life, living a bad dream called Reality.

For years, even since her death, I’ve dealt with the grief and anxiety of that day preemptively as it approaches. It’s like watching your life on an old movie projector. Jagged scenes flash intermittently into your memories and the feelings behind them are so real they’re palpable. You wish you could look away, but you can’t so you squint through half-closed eyes between your fingers instead and try to take in as little as you can handle at a time. Knowing you’ve survived it already doesn’t make it any easier to see again.

This year it didn’t happen. I missed it, completely. I was ecstatic. Grief didn’t consume me in the days leading up to August 5th. Normal life did. I was happy to feel that way, normal. Happy not to feel I had been gulping water instead of air. Happy not to feel the days ticking off the calendar just to get through them. Happy because I had been feeling this way a lot recently. It was energizing, reinvigorating.

I haven’t felt like myself in a long time. I’m tired, irritable, overwhelmed, stressed out. And it’s not me. Could I be anemic, have trouble with my thyroid, something else, I wondered. A visit to the doctor and quick blood draw tells me I couldn’t be healthier. My levels of everything couldn’t have been more precisely in the middle of the normal range…on everything. Great.

So what then?

Being a mom is hard. Being a wife is hard. Being a daughter, daughter-in-law, sister, aunt, friend, coworker, Christian, etc. is hard. I’m hard on myself. I expect a lot out of me. I absorb all the stress like a sponge. I expect to keep going, keep moving forward gliding along so gracefully that no one can see my feet paddling furiously below the surface. I put a lot of pressure on myself to make everyone else feel happy by being polite, sucking up their crap, putting my own thoughts and feelings aside to seem agreeable, showing up for everything, saying yes to it all, entertaining delightfully in a spotless home, all with a freshly baked pie and compliment ready to offer up to the next person I interact with. And all I’ve succeeded in doing is feeling like I’m losing myself for everyone else’s gain.

Losing Miss Elliott was hard. It still is hard. And when you feel like you have this image of I’m doing great to uphold, it’s the kind of pressure that builds up until the final straw drifts down on top of you and you break.

In talking this out with one of my few closely trusted friends she sent me a message that I really needed to hear:

“You know, you don’t have to be “strong” and no one expects you to be. You get to freak out, cry, scream, be sad and be pissed off. It’s your love for your family that keeps you moving forward, not strength. I think people confuse strength with determination. You are determined to live your life and carry on for Elliott, Skylar, and Loren. You are choosing to move forward out of love for your family and you do it with such grace. That’s not being strong. That’s being a mother. That’s being a wife. That’s being you.”

I needed that so much. She wouldn’t see me as less valuable if I had a less than stellar moment. Why should I see myself that way? What I don’t need is to try to live up to a false sense of strength that’s my own creation. It’s exhausting, it’s stressful and eventually, you’ll break. I couldn’t be further from perfect. I need to do a better job accepting that. I think everyone else would accept that of me, but somehow it’s harder to come by that acceptance of myself so I’m working on it. I’m taking care of me. Of my body, of my mind. I’m letting go of the hold that all those old obligations had on me. Of all the expectations that I’ve felt like were there from others, and imposed on me by myself. Of my difficult relationship with grief.

A date on the calendar doesn’t have to rule my emotional well-being. August 5th came and went without so much an acknowledgement of it. I miss Miss Elliott every day. I will always be sad over her loss. It will most likely always be hard for me to deal with, but like my friend said, and even if I stumble, have set backs, or don’t always handle everything as gracefully as I should, I “choose to move forward out of love for my family”, “That’s being me”, and I’m determined to carry on.

How To Talk To The Mom Of A Dead (Or Dying) Child

1. Don’t Tell Me How Strong You Think I Am
I didn’t choose to be strong.  I didn’t pick this path for myself.  Being strong is not the badge of honor you’re implying it is when you’re trying to compliment me and my efforts at not completely falling apart.  I’m just doing my best to carry on.  If there are others in the same position who didn’t make it as far or couldn’t handle being strong that day, don’t demean them by telling me how well I’m doing.  It doesn’t change anything, for them or for me.

2. Don’t Tell Me My Child Has Survived So Long Because I Take Such Good Care of Him/Her
The cemeteries are full of people who were “good fighters”, and children whose parents took just as good of care of them.

3. Don’t Tell Me You’re Glad You’re Not Me
Duh.  I wish I wasn’t in this position either.  Thanks for pointing out how crappy it is, I didn’t realize…

4. Don’t Tell Me You Could Never Be Me Or Do What I Do
That’s a nice thought, again intended to compliment or praise, but the truth is that none of us ever thought we could handle something like this and more realistically still…you’re only saying this because just don’t want to imagine having to.  It’s a natural defense, the inability to conceive of such a notion, but unfortunately I don’t have the luxury myself.

5. Don’t Talk About How Things Will Be “When This Is Over”
I don’t know how things will be, so you certainly don’t know how things will be.  Furthermore, I can guarantee, that for any parent living through the terminal illness of their child “this” being over is unfathomable because that means their child will be gone.

6. Don’t Tell Me He’s/She’s In A Better Place
Assuming you know me well enough to know my religious beliefs, even so, please refrain from offering this useless platitude.  For a mother facing the loss, or impending loss of her child, even one who believes in the idea of a better place, this does not help.  What the mind can logically process the heart can never truly understand, and for that reason it will never feel ok that our children are not here with us and in our arms.

7.  Don’t Tell Me You Understand
Unless you’ve lived the same life as me and suffered the same loss that I have, please, don’t ever tell me you understand.  It doesn’t matter to me that your cousin, or parent, or dog died.  It’s not the same. Even as another mother, your mind may allow you enough logic and reason to comprehend what the loss of a child is, but I tell you truly, you will never know what it is I feel.

8. Don’t Tell Me It Will Be Ok
You don’t know that, and for some of us it isn’t. Don’t downplay the magnitude of this trial.

9. Don’t Tell Me It’s Time…For Anything
There will be no “moving on”, there will only be moving past.  Don’t tell me, based on your narrow outside view when it’s time for me to stop crying, start working, laugh more, yell less, go out, be social, or act “normal” again.  I can’t predict when I’ll be ok doing those things, and you don’t have the authority to decide for me.

What you can do is:

1. Just Be There
Don’t stop coming around because it’s difficult for you.  I’m sorry that it’s a sad situation.  I’m sorry you don’t know how to talk to me.  I’m sorry you’re sorry.  I may not be best company, or the funnest party goer, but I don’t want to lose the people around me on top of losing my child just because it’s hard for you. I don’t want to be forgotten about.

2.  Let Me Be, Let Me Feel
Don’t try to cheer me up or lighten the mood.  Sometimes a mood shouldn’t be lightened.  I need to process my feelings and get through my grief in my own way at my own pace.  Sadness is a big part of loss, I won’t be happy all the time.  Conversely, if I am happy, please let me feel my way through that as well.  These emotions may change very quickly and I may experience them at inconvenient times, but it’s all part of the challenges of my learning to live life in a new way.

3. Tell Me About Your Problems
I still care about what’s going on in your life.  I still want to be included in what’s happening around me.  Yes, I’m dealing with something big, but it doesn’t meant that I don’t recognize struggles of any size.  You don’t have to keep things from me because you think I already have enough to worry about

4.  Don’t Ask What You Can Do For Me, Just Do
Yes, my laundry needs done, yes my grass needs mowed, yes, dinner needs to be cooked…no, I won’t ask you for any of it.  And chances are that when you ask if I need anything, I say “Oh that’s ok, I’m fine.”  Just bring a meal, come mow the yard, make arrangements for my husband and I to have a night out, give me a gift certificate for a massage, take me to get a pedicure, include our other children in activities. Show me that you care about me even when I can’t reciprocate.

5. Don’t Forget About Us Down The Road
When a crisis hits people tend to rally, and fast, but ever so slowly they taper off and the large group surrounding you offering support diminishes.  A year or two or even more on we still need to know that you think about us, that you remember our situation, that you still care.  As time goes on our trials may be different, but trials we will still have.  No one ever wants to look up and feel deserted.  Keep checking in with us, and keep showing us you’re still there for us.

6. Say My Child’s Name
It will not upset me.  I will not be hurt.  I did not forget that he/she died.  Show me that you didn’t either.  Say their name, it’s music to my ears.  Give me a reason to talk about him/her.  I need to know that’s it’s ok to say his/her name to you.  I think about my child as much as you think about yours.  You may have already heard the stories and seen the pictures, but please let me keep sharing his/her life with you.  I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable, but he/she is a person who existed, and I need to know that you remember that.

If you’ve lived through the loss of a child yourself, I invite you to respond to this post with information regarding what experiences from friends and family helped you, as well as what didn’t.

E
Miss Elliott, age two, in her mother’s arms. October, 2010.

Put Your Mask On First And Polish Your Nails If You Want To

Disneyworld

“Don’t worry if the lawn isn’t mowed, or the laundry is piling up”, they said. “Let the dishes rest in the sink, and the trash overflow. Who cares? You have more important things to focus on” I cared. The advice people tend to give you when you’re experiencing a monumental event in life (like caring for a terminally ill child) is often fraught with good intention, but can also be just plain devoid of reality.

The ironic twist here is this: did any of these people stop and offer to come wash my dishes or do my laundry? No. Funny, how did they think we would eat our meals and what would we wear after two weeks of denying our obligation to keep up our home? To the best of my recollection, no one ever offered to mow my yard or take out my trash. No, I did all of those things.

It’s true, I had some very majorly important things to focus on, and the point of their statements was well meaning and innocuous enough, but even so, life was still happening all around me.  Why can’t the little things be important things too?  Why did they have to suddenly stop mattering to me?  The grass didn’t stop growing, our clothes didn’t just stay clean. I still had to function within my household (and Life) aside from just my role as caretaker to my child(ren).

One thing I can tell you is that if these tasks weren’t taken care of, I would have felt even more stressed out, and unstable in my life at that time. It was important to me to maintain my established routine, no matter how trivial it may have been, in order to keep going. I needed something I could count on. Something that was regular, mundane, and consistent. Plus, I needed clean clothes and plates to eat off of.  And even more shocking…I wanted a clean house!

I wanted my makeup applied and my hair curled every day. I wore heels, I put on jewelry, and I polished my nails. These were the things that made me feel like myself. These were the things within my control. This attempt at continuing on with life in general, despite my very important circumstances is what allowed me some sense of normalcy and helped propel me through my grief.

If I would have been forced to set it all aside and focus on nothing but the fact that my child was dying, we would have existed in a rabbit hole. I wasn’t willing to take us down into that dark place. Instead, I sailed gracefully above the water with my head held high, and kept my feet underneath, where no one could see them, flailing about mercilessly as I attempted to keep us afloat.

Tending to your daily obligations that exist outside of what may be the main factor in your life, does not mean that you will automatically be falling short in tending to that main factor. The two are not mutually exclusive. If our ability to love, nurture, comfort and care for others is a well, we must make sure we replenish it from time to time before we realize in a moment of crisis that we’ve completely diminished our resource.

The reason that you’re told to put your oxygen mask on first on airplanes is so that you’ll be taken care of and will still be useful to others. A mother’s instinct is to help her child first, but you can’t help anyone if you’re passed out and slumped over. You can’t help anyone if you can’t focus because you haven’t had a shower, or a hot meal, or you feel disgusted by the three inches of roots showing on the top of your head or the fact that you’re still wearing your three-day-old yoga pants with yesterday’s mascara.

As a mother in this society it’s constantly thrust upon you that in your every waking breath you must be attending to your child’s needs.  Well I believe that taking a moment to refresh your mind and body does not make you selfish, it makes you human.  It gives you a fresh perspective and your ability to care for others will be strengthened in your resolve to also care for yourself, so put your mask on first, and by all means, polish your nails if you want to.