Sometimes in life you can’t understand a concept until going through it yourself. Death of someone you love. Extraordinary grief. That has been the case for me since Jan of 2017. January 9, 2017 rocked my world as I knew it. My youngest son, Harrison died from complications of Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy after a freak fall. I haven’t really been able to write since then. Nothing. Nada.
Within my very small circle of friends and my family I have seen others lose someone close. A grandparent. A great aunt. A distant cousin. Significant others to them, but clearly not close enough to me for understanding. Many had lived long lives or suffered greatly before death. As an ICU/trauma nurse I have experienced death plenty of times in my career. Held the hands of they dying. Comforted those who have lost someone.
The age old adage is that time is a great healer. It will get better. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I have learned that grief is not something that ever goes away. It will always be present and within you. It is now one of the major threads in your tapestry of life. Recently, I had heard as much from my daughter, who has attempted to comfort me. Hah, it should be the other way around. But she has a profound and deep understanding of emotions. She also saw a grief counselor.
Then I came across probably one of the best, most concise and honest explanations of grief from a blogger and author named John Pavlovitz. It is called The Grieving Need You Most After The Funeral. This blog post touched my heart and soul, because it is absolutely true. The reason you have not seen blog posts from me, nor new books or articles coming out. I have been able to write nothing. Create nothing. There has been this terrible black cloud that has been over my outlook on life existence. Despite my strong faith. It was only that faith that got me through that first year.
That and the unending support from my daughter and her partner. We soldiered through the first year and planned a bucket list trip of my son’s that he never got to take, Yellowstone. It was a pilgrimage of sorts to experience what he had always read about in National Geographic on the earth’s wonders. It helped squelch the grief down to a manageable level. But it didn’t erase the grief completely. At that point, I thought there was something wrong with me. I always seemed to be stuck in second gear. I was doing the typical, counting the grief anniversaries. His birthday. The first Thanksgiving and Christmas without him. Seasonally decorating the tombstone. No mother should ever have to do that.
I got through the initial pain by numbing it with wine. Medicating it with comfort food and doing nothing but gaining weight. The grief was still there. What a monster. I forced myself back to church. I could still imagine the where the casket had been draped in front of the alter. But somehow I felt closer to him there. My trips to the grave site became less frequent. I knew he was in heaven and often I would look out at the stars and sky and talk to him.
As we approached the anniversary of his death, I knew I had to plan a trip. No way could I be at my farm and relive every moment of that day. Nor at work, as I manage an ER. An ER and then brief two hours in ICU were where his heart played its final beat. I took my daughter on a NYC excursion of craziness. We needed all the distraction we could manage. Both of us had returned to work. My other two sons too; back to the Navy and FBI. We got through that awful day. Surely 2018 would lessen and finally see that grief subside.
But there is the caveat of the article. Know this. Realize this. Grief never goes away. The time you need your friends and family are the mundane and ordinary days afterward. For weeks. For months. For years. We have survived anniversary number two. Yes we are now those people. Marking the time from a loved one’s death. The blogger, John Pavlovitz had a great quote in that post. “Death is a date in the calendar, but grief IS the calendar.
I have learned to be kinder to myself. Lower my expectations. Love more. Live more. Judge less. Try to just put one foot in front of the other and move back into life. I dreaded another Christmas, but opened my heart to it. Expecting it to be lanced, I was surprised. The last Christmas I spent with Harrison was filled with joy. I had worked night shift Christmas Eve, but he called me and wanted to go to mass. He asked to speak to the priest afterward. He told him how cool it was that the Christmas sermon was all about going from the darkness into the light.
After nine years of waiting, Harrison’s Medicaid checks had finally kicked in. He paid for his college and for the first time bought little Christmas presents for everyone. He wanted to go to my parents home for the day. During the gathering, he leaned over his wheelchair to me with the biggest grin on his face. “I get it, Mom. I really get it now.”
I looked at him inquisitively. “What do you mean?” He explained. “I’ve never gotten to experience the happiness you feel when you watch someone open something that you have given them. Not until today. That’s joy. That’s Christmas.” My Harrison gave me the best gift ever, actually feeling joy. Self actualization.
That first Christmas after his death, I busied myself with activities, to avoid the grief monster. This second Christmas, I was struggling. I just couldn’t get back to feeling happy. So instead I threw myself into planning my parents 65th wedding anniversary. Then after two years of blank pages, writing. I created two very special memory books, one for my parents anniversary and one about the Make-A-Wish safari trip Harrison got to take with us. It was the first time I had been able to re-look at those pictures. I made myself go to a family gathering on Christmas Day. And Harrison gave me the best gift ever – again. Joy. I felt joy again for the first time since his death. My daughter interpreted the message. He is telling you to give back. As much as you can, move from the darkness and into the light. Learn from his life and his death. Learn that in grieving we learn to love.
Thank you for a very touching post. I’m sure it was incredibly difficult to write. I felt the same after my younger brother died in a swimming accident. Despite what friends told me, I never “got over it.” Grief isn’t like that. It’s not something to “get over.” But it is something to share, and to learn from, and to live through. Peace.
Jeanette. You will heal and carry your grief in many ways. I’m 5 years into losing my daughter and grandson to estrangement. The most intense period lasted 3 years. I had intense grief counseling. It’s called complicated grief when there’s no resolution. Grandson Max is 7—we have no idea if he even knows if we exist. For some unknown reason I have come to acceptance. This is the first winter I haven’t suffered from depression. I can laugh and be myself. I meditate and belong to an intentional healing group. I don’t tell people because there’re always questions and some lingering feeling that we must have been bad parents. There’s also a lingering feeling of shame. When people talk about their families their daughters their grandchildren I have nothing to share. Birthdays and holidays will always be hard but I’m better at it each year. My heart ached for you when the tragedy of Harrison’s death happened. Fredrick Blackman writes: “The love a parent feels for a child is strange. There is a starting point to our love for everyone else, but not this person. This one we have always loved, we loved them before they even existed. “ Thank you for sharing some of your grief journey. You are an exceptional person and a creative soul. I’m confident you will again attack life with full vigor. Be kind to yourself. Susan Sent from my iPhone