Tag Archives: Relationships

When Love Dies Slowly

I’m going to call her, M.  I’ve known her for a long time.  When recounting the fallout over the ending of her marriage, something she never expected to happen in her life, M mentioned to me that she “holds space for those who held Space for her”.  I can’t tell you how much I appreciated this sentiment.  In the loss of our daughter I became a different person.  It all began with her terminal diagnosis.  In many ways I’m softer now.  I’m less rigid, more patient, but that wasn’t always the case.  For a while I was angry.  I was harsh.  I was unyielding.  I pushed people away.  Luckily, through it all there were those who were strong enough and committed to loving me through it, those who gave me time and grace.  Indeed, I hold space for those who held space for me.  M held space for me, and in the midst of it all she was fighting her own battle.  One no one around her knew she was fighting.

The themes of Grief, Love, and Life After Loss can stem form many situations, not just from physical death.  M found herself in a position dealing with all three of these in a way she never thought possible.  Like me, M tried to do her best to keep pushing forward in the midst of her situation without focusing on her grief, or on herself. She did everything possible to keep her carefully crafted walls in place.  The walls she had built to feel secure.  Slowly, but surely a crack emerged, and eventually her vulnerability began to show through.  Only then did she learn the way to make it through that grief was to face it head on.  Only when those walls finally came down did M find her freedom in not being contained by them any longer.

“What do I say about grief when it comes to the ending of a marriage? Lots, I say lots. There are so many layers and varied themes in my story…in anyone’s story. I’ll start with the backstory to give you some perspective, but I intend to focus on one theme throughout: grief. I come from a long legacy of lasting marriages. Both sets of my grandparents celebrated fifty years. and my own parents are coming up on that same milestone. I am proud of this legacy and had every intention of adding to it. So, divorce, when it came to my own marriage, was not in my vocabulary. It was unfathomable.

It all began when “good” Christian girl married “good” Christian boy. They had a huge, lovely wedding and went on what was to her, the most bewildering ten-day honeymoon. He barely touched her the entire time. She was baffled. Based on their belief culture, (read: they had saved themselves for marriage) she anticipated his response to being married would be sex, lots of sex, but strangely, that was not the case.

The pattern continued for the entirety of their marriage. Along with a lack of physical intimacy came a lack of emotional intimacy. He worked long hours, played online computer games, and slept more than most adults. They did not talk about feelings, he didn’t want to. They did not go on dates, he didn’t want to. If she asked for these things, or any things at all, he made it clear that he felt burdened and pressured. In disagreements she was always the one to take the blame and need to change to make things right between them. She felt like he was willing to throw her under the bus to get what he needed or just to be right. She did not feel valued by him, she did not feel like a priority in his life. They were not partners, and what friendship they had started with faded yearly. She felt she must be doing something terribly wrong. But, she kept trying to be the good little Christian wife. She would lean in, and he would pull away. She would lean in even more until she was worn out. He sometimes would give her just enough, just a trickle of love to keep her in the ring. She’d regroup and go again. She had committed herself before God, family, and friends that she would do this with everything she had. And, she was not a quitter.

Somewhere in there they got something right, and made two really amazing humans. She got busy being Mom, and that filled some voids in her life. Daily doses of affection can do amazing things for a person’s heart, so do appreciation, and fulfilled purpose. They can also help to mask other underlying issues, for a while anyway. Motherhood gave her all these things. She had hoped that her husband’s heart would be softened by the little people. Maybe it was, but there were no outward signs that it was softened towards her.

Right around the eleven-year mark, she started feeling something she had never felt before. Trapped. Desperate. She prayed a prayer to be released. Oh no! What had she done?! God certainly was NOT going to answer THAT prayer.  She re-committed herself to being the best little Christian wife she possibly could be. Guess what? It did not change things for the better. He detached even more. He kept rejecting her. He gaslighted her left and right (she just didn’t know what that was yet.) By thirteen years in, she felt another new thing: Done. She felt spent, drained, hopeless. Then, ugh, she found herself dwelling on thoughts of another man, a friend. What?! This was not her, not at all. She was shocked by herself. Of course she had been hit on before, flirted with by cute coworkers, even attracted to men who crossed her path, but never once had she considered anything romantic with any of those. She was NOT okay with this. It scared her. Once she realized just what she was doing, that her marriage was in such shambles that she’d even go there, she got herself into counseling.

She told her “good” Christian husband about all of it; about the other man in her thoughts, about the counseling, about the hopelessness and the brokenness of their marriage. He was blank, initially. He listened in silence with zero emotion shown. She made demands. He needed to get into counseling, and then they would eventually go together. He got angry as if her asking for him to get counseling implied that he held some blame. She could see it in his eyes: blame and contempt. Why should he go to counseling when she was the one with the problem? But he did go.

Right away counseling uncovered the landmine that decimated her heart and explained everything simultaneously. She was married to a sex/pornography addict. His counselor identified it in his first session, and he told his wife about it that same evening. Her husband said he was flabbergasted. How did the counselor know, she wondered?! Why hadn’t she known?! She was in shock. Waves of disgust and self-loathing descended upon her unexpectedly as she would go about her life in the days just after his revelation. The ick factor was huge for her. At their first joint counseling session, the female counselor, unprompted, identified his addiction as well. This time he was angry. Why would that woman say such a thing about him?! (Side note: men who regularly partake in pornography tend to objectify and undervalue women in general. Notice the difference in his responses to being found out.) As counseling progressed, he walked a fine line of rationalizing/defending his behavior and owning up to it. He did enough to look like he was working, but not enough to actually change. He had been addicted since he was fourteen. At this point he was over forty. It was his coping mechanism. It was his release, his escape. It was the most nurtured, and deeply hidden piece of his identity. It was one that needed to protect at all cost.

        She understood that no marriage was perfect. She knew one person isn’t solely responsible for a breakdown of this proportion, but by this time, all the deception and lies, all the rejection, all the detachment, all the holding his wife in contempt, they were all byproducts of his addiction. She could see, in hindsight, the signs that should have clued her in years ago. She was an unwitting enabler. When he blamed the dirty movies that would pop up in Netflix’s “recently watched” tab on a glitch in the system or the sweet teenage babysitter; that should have been a red flag. When she found Archie McPhee figurines posed in a variety of sex acts each time she and the kids would pick him up from work and he would quickly knock it off the shelf to keep her from seeing; that should have been a red flag. When he would turn down sex with his wife and then fifteen minutes later disappear into the bathroom with his phone for forty-five minutes; that should have been a red flag.

Again, she tried to be proactive, but after much counseling, studying, support grouping, separating, praying, and soul-searching, she decided she couldn’t do any more. She couldn’t fix this. She called for divorce. There was fallout…so much fallout. He blamed her and shamed her, threatened suicide, got angry, but never once took ownership of what he had done to their marriage. She was criticized by several people. She was shunned by a few. Her kids didn’t understand. Mainly, sorting through her own feelings was the hardest part. Guilt. Hope. Uncertainty. Smallness. Heartbreak. Grief.

Grief. The big one. Overarching all the feelings was her grief.
My grief.

        I was grieving my marriage long before my divorce. Or, I should’ve been
grieving it, because it was dying since the get-go. I don’t know if it’s the way I was raised, the way I’m wired, or the years of being objectified and undervalued, but I did not feel worthy of my grief. I did not allow myself to grieve. I would tell myself, “Hey, look around! There are so many people who have legitimate reasons to grieve.” I just got stuck with in a horrendous marriage. That doesn’t compare to losing a loved one, or a limb. He didn’t beat me. He was never blatantly awful to me, just subtly awful. Do you see that? That’s what I do. I minimize my grief. It was my coping mechanism. It’s too hard to feel. I don’t deserve it. My life is not hard enough for me to deserve grief. All told, my life is pretty good…if you ignore a few little moments here and there:

• a cross-country move leaving my childhood friend/sister behind
• rehoming a beloved dog
• a miscarriage
• rehoming another dog
• a fourteen-year long marriage that was empty, lonely, and devoid of affection
• grappling with my husband’s porn addiction and mental illness
• a divorce
• the loss of independence that comes with a smaller income
• watching my children’s lives be turned upside down

Don’t let me lie to you like I lied to myself. Those things deserve to be grieved. Along with the loss of love, the loss of trust, the loss of one’s sexuality and sexual identity, the loss of a plan or a goal. And sometimes, hard times bring the loss of friends. That happened too, and needed to be grieved.

        So, what happens when we minimize our grief? Give it a brief nod and then go on with life? What happens to that grief that doesn’t get acknowledged? That doesn’t get truly felt? I believe it eats us up in a variety of ways. I believe it can be responsible for physical ailments. I believe it can be responsible for the inability to move on with life in a healthy balanced way. I believe it skews our view of the world and of the people in it. When I minimized my grief, when I didn’t allow myself to feel what I felt it ate me up. Literally. I lost a large amount of weight quickly which, on my small frame led to other health issues. I lost sleep. I lost my temper. I lost my focus.

        My faith wavered. This was a first for me. Nothing had shaken my faith
before, and it was scary. Unresolved grief can weaken the faith. I mentioned the title “good Christian” several times. It’s because I am a Christian, and I try to be good. I really try. I love Jesus and He loves me. But, questioning the state of my marriage and my beliefs about marriage certainly made me look long and hard at my faith.

I eventually came back around…to the grieving. It took time. It took coaching and it took some really great counseling. It took me learning my worth. I did that by trying to see myself through God’s eyes. It took me humbling myself to realize that I am not strong enough to avoid feeling. I couldn’t stuff it down inside myself any longer. (Side note: Isn’t it funny how pride can make us feel unworthy and overly confident at the same time? That’s another discussion, though.) It took me learning that when the wave of grief comes crashing down on me, the best thing to do is ride it. To go with it wherever it takes me. If I’m driving down the freeway when looms the icky realization that he preferred online sex with airbrushed, silicone-filled porn stars over sex with his wife, then I will pull over and scream and cry if I feel like it. It’s okay. Feel it. Feel all of it, and feel it fully. It’s not easy, but it is necessary.

        Then what? Feel it all forever? For me, the waves gradually became smaller and more spread out. They still come sometimes. I acknowledge them, feel them. But, I don’t dwell. I won’t wallow. That gives the hurt too much power. I’m not sure I’ll ever be completely “over it.” My filters have certainly changed. For instance, Hugh Hefner’s recent passing was a personal trigger for me. Previous to all this, I would have hardly noticed. I certainly did not grieve him, but how he is praised for the legacy he left behind sure did a number on me. It brought a wave of pent up grief and unresolved anger crashing down on me. I still get triggered, which usually brings one of these waves. The difference is they’re manageable now. I no longer need to pull over on the side of freeways to scream-cry. And, the grief no longer fills me. Since I’ve learned to let it pass through, the space it took up has been freed to hold other things. Joy. Love. Wonder. Patience.

        And where is this “good” Christian girl now? As I said, I am divorced. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I wouldn’t say it’s like pulling the plug on a loved one who’s brain dead, but it shares these similarities: technically my marriage was still alive, but in all respects other than technicalities, it was dead. And, I had to let go of the hope I had held for so long that it would eventually be what God had intended marriage to be. So, now I have found happiness again. I put all the weight back on, and then some… My kids are okay. I am remarried, happily so. I am married to a man who understands grief and feelings and intimacy. He’s faced his own losses, dealt with them, been honest about them, felt all the feelings, and grew from them. He shares his struggles with me. I feel safe sharing mine with him. We verbalize that we have it as a goal to talk about whatever we need to talk about, to stay connected, to be partners, to be lovers, and to be friends, to hold each other accountable, and to keep our faith as the keystone of our marriage. It’s a very good thing. It is real and honest and ugly at times, but that’s how I believe it’s supposed to be.

Halcyon 1

        A word about pornography: For me, pornography was a betrayal. It was an act of infidelity. It was secrecy and lies. It was cheating. It went against everything we “good” Christians believe and hold virtuous in our marriages. But, ultimately, it was my now ex-husband’s unwillingness to recognize this that lead to the demise of our marriage.”

For more information about how pornography use kills love, please visit fightthenewdrug.org

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Onward, Soldier. Onward In Love.

The dark does not my steps impede
Your memory, now the guiding light through my crucible
My drive, steeled by the absence of your beating heart
to seek out a world of love and hope
They must connect;
future born of past
in order to become new
To rise after the fall
To toil evermore
Growing
Searching
Reaping for all mankind

Us

Love Them and Let Them Grow

“If I know Becky,” my dad says, “she’s going to spend the next two weeks saying to herself, ‘Is she ok?  Is she having a good time?  Is everything going alright’?  She needs me!  And if I know Skylar,” he continues, “she’ll just be having a great time, being the life of the party, leading everyone around.”

He’s right.  On both accounts.

It’s day one of her two weeks at sleep away camp.  I miss her.  I was on the verge of tears last night as she’s never been away from home this long.  I am thinking all those things my dad said I would think.  I’m also wondering how I get through these two weeks without her.  I always do.  I’m a worrier.  More accurately, I’m a planner.  I like things orderly and under control.  I like to be able to anticipate the next move.

One common theme I hear from many parents who have lost a child is that they don’t sweat the small stuff anymore.  Problems no longer seem so big, so daunting.  Not after the unimaginable loss they’ve suffered.  I wish I could say that was the case for me, but conversely, it had just seemed to make me into someone who now finds themselves acting neurotic.  Suddenly everything seems to be an issue.  Little things feel like big things.  I struggle to keep every moving part in its place.  I want consistency.

Some parents of child loss have told me that they actually find they are distancing themselves from their children.  It’s a psychological need to guard their hearts.  Hearts that can’t handle another loss like the one they’ve already suffered.  A preemptive attempt to soften any oncoming blows.

I understand this thought process. My reaction after the loss of our Miss Elliott, however has been to grip everything tighter.  To hold on a little longer.  To savor every second, even after it’s gone.  Feeble, I know, but nonetheless, if I could will time to stop I would never let another second tick by.  I’d live in this current moment forever.

The struggle is to find balance.  I haven’t (yet) let the neuroticism take over.  I actively try to make sure that I’m allowing her to grow and thrive, and experience life on her own terms…well, sort of.  Evaluating every day to ask myself; was I too strict, too permissive, etc.  What’s the magic formula?

My husband tells me it’s the worry that let’s you know you’re a good mother, because really, when you break it down, worrying (within reason) just means you care.

First Day

First day of kindergarten, eight years ago.  Ready to take on the world from day-one.

 

She’s strong and outgoing, and like my dad said, she’ll probably be running the place by the time the week is out. We joked that there’ll be no tearful phone calls home in the middle of the night asking us to come pick her up.  And I’m proud.  Proud of her strong will, gumption, and tenacity.  Proud of her unbroken spirit, outspoken opinions, and every-present resiliency.

After the summer she’ll be going into eighth grade.  I only have one more year until she’s in high school.  How did it happen?  Where did the time go?

The most important lesson my parents have taught me that carries over into my own parenthood is just to “love them”.  In the end it’s the only thing you really do have control over.  Just love them, and let them grow.

 

 

Pain, Power, and Finding Love on A Mountain Top

       McKenzie Johnson is someone to look up to, though she, herself would be uncomfortable with the moniker of role model, it’s true.  I admire so much about this woman and what she has overcome in her life.  A grief counselor once told me that we need to be good stewards of our grief, meaning that instead of allowing it to swallow us up and tear us down, we can use our experiences to help others facing similar trials. And likewise, Mac is a good steward of her pain, even through the struggle of overcoming addiction. 

       In my opinion it’s the individuals who have been through various forms of hardship who have the most to offer.  It’s one thing to live your whole life on top, but it’s quite another to be writhing in the depths of despair at some point, and to choose to claw your way up to the top instead. That’s just what Mac does, every day.  She literally climbs mountains, and somewhere along the way she found her voice, herself, and even though she wasn’t looking for it, she found love. 

 Mac2

       “Just over a year ago I wrote my first guest piece here, Numbing the Pain.  In the past year a lot has changed, and a lot has stayed the same.  My mom still has cancer, I am still in recovery, I still find it hard to show emotions to those closest to me, my past still haunts me from time to time. I have climbed Kilimanjaro; and found love doing so, I am building a home, I have become an aunt, I have left my job for the time being. I have stepped into many unknowns, and all my expectations have been blown away, like they usually are.  

       I was reading an interview with Pamela Abalu and her parting statement was, “fear is imagination used for the wrong purpose”. How true that is.  When you have a loved one with cancer, and you yourself have the disease of addiction, there is a lot of fear. In fact, I think fear drives us all in ways we may not even realize.  After almost five years of being sober my fears have evolved from say, wondering if I would wake up the next morning, to am I enough, have I done enough, am I treating my loved ones in way that I am proud of, will anyone find out that I am making it up as I go along? 

       They say addiction is a family disease, and it’s true, I know it from experience.  I know now the many ways in which this disease of mine affected the people I love most. And I only know this after finally being forced to acknowledge it in treatment. I would say cancer is also a family disease, affecting all those around the one with the symptoms.

       Mom has always understood me as a being, knowing things about me before I was ready to acknowledge them myself.  In my teenage years, before I was an active alcoholic, I was deep in an eating disorder, anorexia and bulimia.  One day she pulled the car over in our neighborhood, looked me straight in the eye and said, “I know what you’re doing to yourself, do you want help?” I said “Yes,” I still see my therapist she found for me.  The same one who many years later would look me straight in the eye and say “You would benefit from inpatient treatment.” And I did.  I see her tomorrow.  Mom would hand write me letters in college, saying that if I ever needed help with drinking that they were there.  I would throw them away.  I wish so badly I had one of those now.  Mac6Mom is the type of person who if I cry, she cries, and not just because I’m her daughter.  She’s most empathetic person I know.  She will move mountains for people and causes she cares about.

       She is soon to start her fourth treatment in five years, this time a deadly yet potentially curative cocktail of chemo, immunotherapy and a stem cell transplant.  There is nothing easy about what the next six months or more will have in store for us. There is nothing to really prepare any of us.  There have been days where I thought I would implode. Around treatment time my depression and anxiety flare up, my thoughts of alcohol increase, fear is a constant companion. Work has been hard to manage, a new relationship has helped so much although has its own stressor of distance.  But the process for me this time has been different; I have been more present, going to appointments, helping make decisions, telling mom the sometimes-hard truth that she does not like to hear, and looking at things from a different perspective.  I’m focused.

       Sometimes, the closeness of others and the reality it brings is still difficult for me to swallow so I show my love in different ways, like raising (a considerable amount of) money for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society again this year through the Big Climb.  Events like these help me to channel my energy and desire to help in a positive and productive way, as much for myself as for the one I’m helping.  I cannot say that I am a natural caretaker or the best person to be at your bedside, but I am a good decision maker, can ask hard questions and maybe push my mom a little more in areas others wouldn’t, just as she’s pushed me. She can be tougher than she knows.  I’ve learned that I can be, too, but I still won’t cry in front of her.

       In being more present for my mom and family, work has seen me through more than a few breakdowns recently. Again, being vulnerable in front of people who are not my loved ones is far easier for me than showing those who should be closest to me what I am feeling.  I run a team that does over a million dollars in sales a year, I was assisting on teams doing over six million a year before I got my own.  I have always put immense pressure on myself to be the best at everything I take on, my therapist would say I am a perfectionist, and I am not ok with being “ok”.  I have a hard time saying “no,” and an even harder time asking for help. That’s part of the reason I climb.  To get my mind frame out of focusing on the constant pressures I inflict on myself, to get out of my head, to just breathe. 

Mac5

        Having a partner to balance and support me, to point things out that I miss, to have a different outlook on things; a healthy perspective has made a world of difference.  I know that I should not go through this alone, but I have a disease that wants me to isolate, that will creep in through any vulnerability.  If I have learned anything in recovery, it is that we cannot do it alone.  This time I didn’t.  I asked for help, maybe a little too late after one too many things were put on my plate, but I did and I am proud. 

       The last and only other time I took a significant amount of time away from work was when I went to treatment for my alcoholism.  All in all, I was there for five and a half months. I then chose to live in the nearby community for a few months after that.  It was the best, and hardest decision I have ever made. If you would have asked me a few months ago what could possibly take me away from work, my answer would have been, The Pacific Crest Trail or travelling the world for a year, but what has taken me away is that I am taking this time to take care of myself, and my mom.  I don’t want to have to go to treatment again, I never want to have to tell my family I relapsed.  I have a constant fear of this, and it is  truly terrifying for me.

       I was never the little girl who dreamed of finding a husband, getting married, and having kids.  I have always been independent and self-sufficient, almost to a fault, living my life in near protest of it, almost as if I had something to prove.  Or maybe just something to hide. I always knew that if I did happen to find that person it would have to a partnership, and someone who understood my independence, wasn’t scared of my past, could live with my current lifestyle of not being around alcohol, could draw my thoughts and feelings out, allow me to cry, to be the tough one, to celebrate my success and not be intimidated by it, make me want to share my life, and let me climb the mountains I love so much. 

       I found him, on the tallest mountain in Africa.  When we first met I thought he was handsome, kind, quietly confident, self-assured and aware, and I remember not being able to tell how old he was.  Over the next few days I was stuck by his patience, his ease with the locals, culture and language.  He led our group of four incredibly independent, strong, wickedly funny, successful women without so much as breaking a proverbial sweat.  We were on the mountain for seven days. He later told me he knew he loved me at camp two.  But at camp two I was busy trying not to let my feelings show, maybe so I didn’t even have to acknowledge them myself. That day we all took a popular little side trip from camp.  It was very busy and I was having some anxiety being around so many people, and the hike made it worse, I think he noticed that.  When we returned to camp I heard him say to another guide, “I’m going to take her on a separate hike, she’s very active.” That awareness and kindness wasn’t lost on me. Our little hikes became a theme for the rest of the climb.  This is where we really got to know each other, just the two of us, on little side trails on Kilimanjaro.

        Mac3After the climb, we convinced him to join us all on safari.  Following that, we both happened to have tickets to Zanzibar, so there we were able to spend our first time alone together. I have never had something feel so easy, right. In the following months, that has not changed, though so many things have not been easy.  He was working and living at Crystal Mountain, me in Seattle. And now he is in Alaska, and me, in Seattle.  But he has never once shied away from me, as I have with him, first because of our age difference (he is considerably younger than me), then distance, then because anytime I let someone get close, I try to push them away.

       I know I am clearly still struggling with my ability to be vulnerable and at times I have even been willing to lose something that I care about so much because of it.  That part of me has never made sense, and I am working today on why I can’t get over this wall or break it down.  This is a theme not only with my partner, but family as well.  I am never easy, add in my mom’s treatment regimen, the usual family dynamics, significant distance in a brand new relationship, all the opposite of easy. Yet he has never wavered, showing me his emotions, love and support all along the way, and not only for me, but for my family as well. I love him enough to cry in front of him, to ask for his opinion when making big decisions, to make us a priority, above myself. He gives me another reason not to drink, not to stay in my depressive tendencies, or act on them. He may not have experienced anxiety, or any of these other issues personally, but he cares enough to stand by me through them. And now I can let him which to be quite honest, feels foreign and scary and certainly does not come naturally. Just as I have to work on my sobriety, myself, my mental and emotional well-being, I have to work on allowing someone to love me, as I am.  And believing that they will”

 

All photos courtesy of McKenzie Johnson

A Five Year Study in Grief

This last Friday marked five years since our daughter died.  Five years.  Five years?  Sometimes it’s so close to the forefront of my mind that it overtakes me.  The reality of it weighs me down and my mind spins out of control.  Other times I can’t put my finger on it being factual at all.  It’s surreal.  It’s visceral.  It’s confusing, and overwhelming, and still unbelievable.

Each anniversary of her death seems to strike me in different ways.  I never know how I’ll feel as the date approaches, but usually I’m OK.  This year I wasn’t.  I’ve come to realize the physical toll grief takes on me.  And every year at this time I get sick.  Headaches, fever, sore throat, sometimes vomiting.  My symptoms seem to run the gamete, but no matter what they may be their cause seems to be psychosomatic.

Realizing this feels like a big step in helping myself mitigate these factors, or rather it should, but I’m not always able to mind-over-matter my way through them.  Sometimes, usually in the week leading up to February 3rd I’m susceptible to them despite my best efforts to stave them off.

This year I cried.  A lot.  I felt an overwhelming sense of impending dread.  I felt weighed down and unable to perform the most mundane of tasks that day.  My mind swirled.  It was scattered.  I paced in circles throughout the house without reason.  I lost my breath and suffered a panic attack.  I prayed.  A lot.  I just couldn’t seem to be still or calm.

I granted myself these moments, moments I usually deny myself, to let it out, to feel my pain and sorrow.  To be human.

It’s been so long since she’s been gone, much longer than she ever was here, that sometimes it’s hard to remember what our life with her was like.  The fact that our life with her was all-consuming doesn’t change that fact.  The fact that our life looks so drastically different now only makes it harder to connect to what it once was, in my mind.

Loren left for work, but not before asking if I was ok.  Unable to put a brave face on this morning,  “Just sad,” I told him.  “I know,” he responded.  He told me he loved me, kissed my forehead, and recounted that he was so in tune with my stress that he can always tell if something’s off.

An hour later I called him for no reason other than to hear his voice.  I needed his comfort.  He assured me he could come home if I wanted or needed him to. Gathering myself I declined his offer.  I was determined to get through this day without further disrupting it for anyone else.

I forced myself to shower.  It took a long time to go through the motions.  I dressed, and eventually went outside to once again shovel the drive as it had now been snowing heavily all morning.  It needed to be done, regardless of what day is was.  The weather didn’t care.

In the midst of my shoveling effort my brother pulled up.  He stepped out of his truck and presented me with a bouquet of pink and purple carnations.

I cried again.

Skylar texted and asked me to pick her up after school and go to the orthodontist because the wire on her braces had shifted and was sticking into her cheek.

Life keeps moving forward.

As she opened the door and got in the car after school she too asked if I was ok.  Crap, even she can see it on my face, I thought.  I’m normally much more adept at masking it.  “I’m ok,” I lied.  I’m sure she didn’t believe me.  I struggle with wanting to tell her what day it is for her to share in remembering and honoring her sister, and vice versa to shield her from feeling the sadness I feel on this day if she doesn’t already realize the significance of the date on her own.  I didn’t mention it further.

At the orthodontist’s office I waited while she went back into the ortho chair.  I was the only one in the waiting room at this time, except the receptionist at the front desk.  Once again, preoccupied with my own issues and becoming overwhelmingly emotional I began to cry.  Noticing my obvious breakdown the receptionist came over to ask if I was ok.  I lied again that I was fine, but it was a pretty poor performance so she leaned in to give me a hug.  I apologized.  I wasn’t necessarily sorry for making someone else uncomfortable, just for the fact that I was causing a scene and let my emotions get the best of me in public, which I am usually able to contain.  I told her today was the anniversary of my youngest daughter’s death.  She began crying as well and told me that her son died in June.

And there it was.  I don’t have the market cornered on grief, even though I had been wallowing in my own loss all day.  At least I knew she understood and didn’t think I was crazy.

Skylar came out.  We finished up the appointment, and then the receptionist told her they were having a game that day.  She told Skylar she could win a prize if she threw the beanbags through the hole in the board she was holding.  Two out of three in and Skylar won a pair of movie tickets and a t-shirt.  She was ecstatic.

A friend texted with her remembrances of Miss Elliott and commended me on always carrying myself with such grace in light of my loss.

Ha. Not today.

It wasn’t until later that I realized I hadn’t seen the staff at the ortho office offer this game to any of the other patients as they left the office that day.  The receptionist had just been exceptionally kind due to my emotional distress.  It reminded me that it’s ok to be human.  It’s ok to show my feelings of sadness and grief.  As uncomfortable as it may make me, sometimes it’s necessary to let it out.

By the time we got home my eyes were blurry and stinging so badly from all of my crying that out came my contacts and I wore my glasses for the rest of the night.

Walking in the door my husband tells my I’m beautiful.  I laugh at his seemingly horrible judgement, but he means it.  He truly believes it.  Even in that moment with my red, puffy, makeup smeared eyes. He loves me fully; in spite of my flaws, mistakes, and the ways I’ve let him down over the years.  It reminds me that even through the ups and downs, even in the midst of grief, being here at home with the two people who mean more to me than anyone else in the entire world, the only two other people who can share in this level of grief, as intimately as I can, is all I need to get by.

 

Help: On the Horizon vs. At your Door

It had been a particularly trying day.  Disastrous, really.  I had come home from grocery shopping in the middle of winter to find frozen pipes that had busted and thawed, and water was now gushing from the ceiling in my laundry room onto the wood floors below.

The valve to shut the water off to the whole house had frozen in place outside in the ground.  After struggling unsuccessfully to wrench it free, I deemed it a lost cause and ran to the garage where I dumped the Rubbermaid trashcan full of garden tools onto the floor and frantically ran to place it inside the house to catch the water pouring from above.  I opened the back door and began sweeping the water covering the floor outside.

Then I called my husband at work and screamed through frustration and tears into the phone; “GET HOME NOW”.

Taking to social media later in the day to lament and seek out commiseration, I suppose, I quickly had a message from my friend, Halcyon.

“Can I bring you dinner?” she wrote.

My immediate instinct was to respond with a no thank you, a how thoughtful, or that I appreciated it, but we’ll be fine.  Then for some reason, I just accepted.  I did want that dinner.  It would help. It would be one less thing I would have to worry about in the midst of such a terrible day, and it felt like a win.

We were no strangers to acts of kindness at this point in our lives.  Our daughter’s terminal illness and death were humbling in ways we never even considered needing to be humbled before her life, but the general idea of utilizing the village before you seems somehow, almost un-American.  As if accepting help is an admission of our inability to pull ourselves up be our own bootstraps, rather than an act of love and concern for other humans that makes the world go ’round.

She brought warm soup and fresh baked soft bread from Panera (one of my favorite places).  It was delicious.  And so appreciated.  The real gift she gave, however; was not the meal itself, and not even the act of caring, but the outreach she exercised to begin with.  She didn’t let me know she could help if I needed, she didn’t even ask what she could do for us.  She took action, and offered something specific, something concrete.  She then placed it in a time frame and set to work on following through.

When facing life’s challenges, simply wanting to help or letting someone know you’re there to help is often not enough.  Don’t make vague statements or plans that don’t amount to anything.  While the thought is appreciated, the action always speaks louder.

When someone is struggling with a difficult situation, the burden of need is already on their shoulders.  Don’t add to their overflowing plate by asking them to tell you how you can help.  Often, it’s just too much for someone to even consider tying to navigate the map of help-need to be able to organize or convey those needs to you.

Perusing social medial recently I found a message from a friend, posted on her personal page, as a cry for help.  She posted the following picture with the message, “Definitely me sometimes”.

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What followed, to be honest, as someone having been in need myself annoyed the crap out of me. The response, even though positive, genuine, and seemingly in an effort to be supportive, just wasn’t.

rsz_1quote_message

Simply telling someone you’re there for them simply doesn’t do anything.  If you’re going to talk the talk, you’d better be willing to walk the walk and actually be there. Don’t wait for a friend to ask for help.  They are already overwhelmed, so they most likely never will.  Just take the initiative and go out of your way to be there without waiting to be asked.

I specifically remember the phrase “we support you” being uttered to us repeatedly when Miss Elliott was alive.  How?  I always wondered, because with certain people those words seemed to be all there ever was.  Nothing to back them up, no outreach, no follow through.

What was interesting to me about the respondent’s message to “call me” was that someone else, yet another friend, liked the comment, in what I can only assume was a show of solidarity, or a me too response.  But even when my friend reiterated that she always needs someone, and implores her to please just come over, the respondent again defaults to asking the person in need to call her.

Don’t do this.  It’s painfully obvious that this person should have picked up the phone at that very moment.  Should have gotten in her car and driven over.  She should have done anything worthy of being called helpful, but what happened here instead was that this person did, literally the least she possibly could have done, and probably mentally checked off a box in her mind that allowed her to continue in her thinking that she reached out, did good, and helped.  She didn’t.

Sometimes in our attempts at care toward others we place them into our box, our comfort, zone, rather than stepping outside of that zone ourselves to look deeper into what they really need.  I think we usually just tend to look for what may be easiest for us to offer.  We fail, so often at truly going that extra mile.

This interaction would have left me feeling even more alone.

There are many things that everyone needs, so make a list of what would help you because chances are, it would help someone else too.  Some simple suggestions of ways to help that I like to give are:

  1. Mow the lawn
  2. Wash and fold the laundry
  3. Clean the house
  4. Let them take a nap or get a hot shower
  5. Bring dinner
  6. Take the kids somewhere for a bit (a movie, to the park, etc.)
  7. Bring groceries
  8. Run errands
  9. Help coordinate appointments
  10. Go to their house to visit
  11. Help them have a night out aloneand most of all
  12. Just listen without trying to fix their problems

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.