healing

Why I talk about my dead child on Facebook

I know, it makes many of you squirm a little…or maybe even a lot.  It’s uncomfortable.  Our society doesn’t do death, or pain, or life-changing grief, so we follow the crowd and look away.  Pain that can’t be cured is like leprosy…it must be pushed aside, driven to the outskirts and left to fend for itself.  Society teaches us that it’s acceptable to rally around the child fighting cancer. We all get warm-fuzzies in supporting that family and that child in their fight.  It feels good to support a cause like that, but when death wins that battle we quickly drift away.  What society does not teach us is how to be present to a pain that can’t be cured.  It’s too hard.  It’s awkward.  We don’t know what to say. The reality of a dead child is too much to bear, and our culture encourages us to bring a casserole and then carry on with our lives, not daring to take the time to truly peer into that grief.   

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So, when I talk about my grief and the child that is no longer in my arms, it’s often easier to pass by the post without acknowledging.  We’d much rather protect ourselves from the reality of unjust tragedy, however, that tragedy is now my world. I can no longer look away.  When I share my world, it’s easier for others to wonder if I’m stuck in my grief, if I’m seeking pity or attention, or if I’m broken forever, than it is to imagine a pain that deep.  Society implies that if we openly express our grief, we are immature, needy, or we simply can’t cope with our grief...so it’s easy to assume that I must be doing something wrong. 

The truth is, expression of my grief is the work of mourning.  There are so many thoughts and emotions bottled up inside of me that I have to get them out!  That is exactly what mourning is; it is the outward expression of my grief.  This mourning, this outward expression, is not just a small part of the grieving process, it is ESSENTIAL to it.  I’m not making my thoughts about my broken heart and my dead child public because I’m stuck; I do it because I’m healing.   Alan Wolfelt, a leading grief teacher and expert points out, “ Mourners who continue to express grief outwardly are often viewed as ‘weak,’ ‘crazy,’ or ‘self-pitying.’ The subtle message is ‘Shape up and get on with your life.’ The reality is disturbing: Far too many people view grief as something to be overcome rather than experienced.

When I talk about my child, I am doing my grief-work.  My world has been torn apart.  Nothing makes sense anymore.  My feelings, and emotions, and the chaos in my head are overwhelming to me, too.  But the thing is, that chaos is normal for someone who is grieving.  While anyone who has grieved intensely will tell you how normal that “crazy” feeling is; yet it feels anything but normal to me.  I need to be affirmed in my feelings and to be reminded that I’m not as crazy as I feel. 

I tell you about my dead child because telling my story helps close the gap between my head and my heart.  My head knows that my child is no longer here.  That he is dead.  My heart can’t possibly bear that.  My heart has dug in its heels and refuses to come along on this ride.  I must coax it gently into this new world that my child is not a part of.  

I know, my mourning makes you feel helpless and no one likes to feel that way.  In order to heal from my hurt, first I have to explore the depths of it.  As Alan Wolfelt puts it, “To honor your grief is not self-destructive or harmful, it is self-sustaining and life-giving!”  I need to know that there is good reason for the depth of my pain and I need to be affirmed that the loss of a child arguably the most painful loss that can be endured.  I need to know that every sting, ache, stab, crippling pain, and unexpected flood of tears is acceptable and normal.  Please don’t tell me not to grieve, or not to cry.  Don’t encourage me to “be strong”, or to pick myself up and carry on.  The most helpful thing you can do for me is something our culture teaches us to run from. If you want to help me heal, then sit with me for a moment in my sorrow.  Be brave enough to feel my pain for just a moment.  I need to know that while the depth of my pain is as it should be, and then you may gently remind me that I won’t always hurt so fiercely.  Remind me of the hope for meaningful life to re-emerge and that joy won’t always be lost in the shadows. But as you give me that reminder, I ask you to remember to hold space for my sorrow.  I will heal, but I will never be the same.  I will experience joy and laughter, but it will always be tangled with the strings of sorrow.

The grief work after the death of a child is a lifelong job.  Yes, it will be most intense in those first years, but it will need to be re-visited regularly for the remainder of my existence. 

Please be patient with me while I mourn. Share my pain with me for just a moment, in those times that I reach for comfort.  Every time you see a post that makes you want to look away, don’t see me as weak and needy.  Instead, dare to see my courage.  Know that in my weakness I am being strong and courageous.  It takes tremendous energy and courage to stare into the depths of my pain.  Some of the world most beautiful people and missions are a result of intense sorrow.  So remember that by giving my attention to those ashes, I am cultivating ground that can allow something profoundly beautiful to grow.

In the Wave of Light We Grieve Together

It's October 15...the night for the Pregnancy and Infant Loss wave of light! Lachlan, and all the other babies who have touched my life, have been in my thoughts and close to my heart in the last few weeks.

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I just picked up this new book, "Turn My Mourning into Dancing" by Henri Nouwen. He says this about the dance of finding joy in our sorrow, "And as we dance, we realize that we don't have to stay on the little spot of our grief, but can step beyond it. We stop centering our lives on ourselves. We pull others along with us and invite them into the larger dance. We learn to make room for others--and the Gracious Other in our midst. And when we become present to God and God's people, we find our lives richer. We come to know that all the world is our dance floor. Our step grows lighter because God has called out others to dance as well."

This October, rather than the Capture Your Grief project, my dance has been to accompany a couple of other families as they have stepped into their new worlds of grief and mourning. Truly, in the gift they give by allowing me to be present in their sorrow, my life has become richer.

Nouwen says, "I realized that healing begins with our taking our pain out of its diabolic isolation and seeing that whatever we suffer, we suffer it in communion with all of humanity, and yes, all of creation. In so doing, we become participants in the great battle against the powers of darkness. Our little lives participate in something larger."

Tonight, as we all light our candles in remembrance of our infants and share that light with the world, we take our pain out of its isolation and we participate in something bigger than ourselves. By joining together in a wave of light, we battle the power of the darkness and as we suffer in the communion of humanity we also let our healing begin.

Give Away Your Love

I figured out pretty early on that there was something beneficial for me in reaching out to other people. It didn’t matter too much what it was, it was simply the effort to make the day better for someone else that brought just a glimmer of light into my dark world. In fact, I had little “Random Act of Kindness in memory of Lachlan” cards made up. I didn’t end up using very many of those. I guess I found that the outward acknowledgement of why I was doing it was not necessary. It just felt good to bring a little ray of sunshine into someone else’s day.

Sometimes it was in purely random acts…dropping off a bouquet of flowers for a stranger, buying a coffee for the person in line behind me, or handing a $10 Target gift card to someone just walking in the doors of the store… Those things were good, but I found that they seemed a little bit awkward and forced. What brings more hope and joy and healing for me, is seeing a need and going out of the way to fill it. It is in doing more than what is expected. When I started building Lach’s Legacy, it was to reach out to other people, to support people in their grief, help them find some resources that may be helpful…however, in reaching out, I found excitement, joy and hope. By doing that, I was helping myself as much, or more, than I was helping anyone else. When I get to talk to a newly bereaved parent, I know it comforts them to share their story and to connect with someone who understands, but it also helps me. It gives me new perspective and fresh ideas and it helps me to remember how far I’ve come from the agony of new grief. I’m pretty sure I can feel my heart growing in those experiences.

I find joy…not necessarily a happy, giddy, smiling, laughing sort of joy, but a deep and peaceful joy, when we are able to offer a special kindness to a terminally ill child and their family, when I am able to help a new student feel a little more comfortable in their environment, and when I am able to connect with someone who is working through one of life’s struggles. I get more from those experiences than I give. St. Francis of Assisi figured that out before I did. He said, “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” He was right.

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Self Compassion

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Compassion for myself was something that I had to learn in a new way after Lach died. It goes very much hand-in-hand with the “letting go” post earlier this month. At first, I had to learn compassion in regard to the emotion that I was experiencing. I didn’t have much tolerance for the difficulty I had in holding myself together, especially trying to do routine things out in public. Shopping for clothes was one of those things that, for whatever reason, stands out to me. It was unbearable to look for the 3T size without needing one in the 12 month size. I fought back tears… no one needs to see this wreck of a woman standing in the children’s clothing department. Hold yourself together! Go do something else! I always seemed to lose that battle and the tears won anyway.

Eventually, I think I just got tired of fighting myself. I decided to let go of the fight and allow myself to feel whatever it was I was feeling. I allowed the tears to flow whenever they came. I had to acknowledge that I was going through every mother’s hell and I had to meet myself with the same compassion and understanding that I would give to others on this path. I had to somehow trust that it wouldn’t always be like this, and I needed to give myself permission to work through those things rather try to stuff them away. Not everyone will understand. I might get a few extra looks, but that’s ok. If they knew my story, they would say that’s ok too. Shopping and church were going to bring tears and I learned to let it be… and brought along the tissues I was probably going to need.

Developing enough compassion for myself to allow the craziness in my thoughts while I was working on picking up the pieces was the other part of that. At Compassionate Friends meetings, a group for bereaved parents, many people talked about how crazy you feel after the death of a child. I was glad to know that I wasn’t alone in that, and that just because I felt crazy, didn’t mean I was sure to jump off the deep end.

Even now, I have thoughts that I have to treat with compassion and just let them be, without giving myself a hard time about them. When I get a phone call at work, especially when I’m scrubbed in and can’t answer it, my first thought is “I hope nobody died.” If my phone rings again, I find myself running through the scenario in my head. I know, it’s irrational to jump straight to that, but it’s happened to me before.

I’m a little weird about pictures, too. Talia just had some professional photos taken. I’m excited to capture that cuteness that makes all the 3-year-old tantrums worthwhile, but I also get some sort of satisfaction in knowing that I’ll have those recent and beautiful images if she dies. It’s not in the budget to purchase all of the images, so I wonder how long the photographer keeps the files and I wonder if she would give them to me if Talia died …I know, morbid, right?! Things like that are regular occurrences in my head. They are not the average thought processes, but I suppose burying a child is not an average life event. I don’t bother other people with that mess in my head, I just try to meet myself with compassion, and acknowledge and allow the thought and then let it go. It’s not socially acceptable to think that way, so it’s not something that gets discussed much, but I don’t think it’s necessarily unhealthy to have those thoughts either. To be honest, I think we’d all do well if we spent a little more time considering death. Recognizing the finality of my own life and the life of those I love helps me to live a little more fully and to appreciate the people in my life a little more deeply—my life and theirs is a gift that won’t last forever.

I once heard this quote that I really loved: “Emotions are like small children—you can’t let them drive the car, but you can’t stuff them in the trunk either.” In sudden grief, it’s like unleashing a mindful of unruly and unreasonable toddlers. They are bouncing around EVERYWHERE. Ignoring the situation won't help. Sometimes you have to stop what you are doing, acknowledge the chaos, and grapple with them one by one to put them back in their proper place. Compassion goes a long way in calming the disarray of thought and emotion. It gives you the time, the space, and the understanding necessary to allow the healing process to unfold.

Family is Forever

One of the pieces for me to figure out after Lach died is how to acknowledge his place in our family without him here. I didn’t know other people who had pictures of their dead children on the wall. Is that poor taste? Is that clinging to something that I need to move on from? Should I hold on to him and his place in our family, or is that morbid? Am I honoring him by making a point to keep him as part of who we are, or am I a crazy lady who can’t let go? How do you integrate a deceased child into the life of your family in a way that is healthy?

Different people have different needs and will come to different conclusions on those things. The way I see it, even death does not change the makeup of a family. It may change the way a family looks and it may change the way the family functions, but it does not change who belongs. I wouldn’t think twice about a picture of deceased grandparents on the wall. It is an acknowledgement of people who were loved and a recognition of where we’ve come from. A picture of a deceased child is really no different. We keep Lachlan as a part of who we are by keeping his pictures up along with the rest of them, by openly talking about him in our day to day conversation, and by keeping him in our prayers at night. I hope that by doing so, it sends the message to my other children that they, too, are so important to me that not even death can take away their belonging here.

I do my best to honor Lach’s place without letting him run the show…just like I do with each of my other children. We have days and times that more attention is devoted to him, and other times when he falls to the backdrop. Sometimes there is more discussion of Lach, we stop to note his birthday and his angelversary, and he is included in our Christmas celebrations and twice a year we take a time-out in the other things we’re doing to put on what is often referred to at our house as “Lach’s run,” aka Run for Their Lives!.

Life is a balance of holding on and letting go. I hold on to Lach’s picture, but let go of the fact that he won’t grow with the other kids. I hold onto including him in our Christmas celebrations, but let go of not getting to see his eager smile as he opens his gifts. I hold on to the legacy that he left here, but let go of the fact he didn’t get to create that legacy himself. I hold on to knowing that he is part of our family forever, but let go of having his physical presence in our midst.

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What Heals You?

Carly Marie, the woman who organizes this project, says “Turning the WHY into What Heals You? has been one of my greatest healers. Whenever I found myself asking “why did this have to happen. Why me? Why him?” etc etc I started asking myself what heals me?” She became aware that it was in intentionally turning to what was healing that allowed that process to unfold.

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I’ve asked myself that similar question regularly, and I often ask it of newly bereaved parents too. What brings comfort? What helps? There is no ONE thing that is the mainstay of healing after the death of a child. It comes in tiny bits from many different places. The things that are the main pillars of my healing will not necessarily be what the next person needs. If you are close to a griever, you don’t have to just wonder what might help. If you ask them what you can do for them, or what they need, they’ll most likely come up blank. However, if you ask them what helps and what brings comfort, there’s a good chance you’ll get some ideas you can work with.

For me, the list of things that brought comfort and healing is something like this: talking with bereaved mothers, reading and journaling, building a legacy for Lachlan, planting a garden for him, talking with friends who weren’t afraid to hear, offering random acts of kindness to others. Being able to talk to the people at his daycare who answered questions about his last day. The steady presence of family. The people who reached out to us to offer their support whether by card, attending his services, donating vacation hours or cash to his memorial fund, or helping with household jobs was all very humbling and comforting. Finding ways to let my loss bring comfort to others who are on the same path. Knowing that Lachlan and his story has somehow made a difference in someone else’s life. Prayer and an intentional effort to grow my faith and deepen my relationship with God. My rainbow babies, who have brought more purpose, love and joy into my days. Being able to talk about it with my husband, the only other person on the planet that loved him and misses him like I do.

I’m not sure that true healing after the death of a child can happen without some sort of intentional movement toward that. Healing work is sometimes uncomfortable and difficult. I work in surgery, so I am reminded of the surgical wound that just won’t heal. Sometimes you have to intentionally work at getting a wound to heal and it doesn’t just happen automatically with the passage of time. It is uncomfortable, difficult, and time consuming, but you can’t ignore it. If you do, the skin might seal shut, but it leaves the perfect place for an abscess to form. The problem will not be laid to rest until it is dealt with. In order to get those tough wounds to heal properly, you have to pack it, debride it, and let it heal from the inside out. The loss of a child is like that. It is a wound that has to be healed from the inside out in order for wellness to be restored. Sometimes things like talking about the loss in a real way, or working through this project are emotionally draining, uncomfortable and take work, however, when you look back at it, you find that there is healing that happens on a deeper level and a lasting peace that comes from it.

Pearls of Wisdom

My message today for the newly bereaved is simply this. You are going to be ok. I know, it doesn’t feel like it. When you are in that new grief and your body physically hurts, when every single moment and thought is entirely consumed by the torment of not having your child in your arms. Your world is shattered and nothing is ok. When you hurt so much that it seems your heart should simply stop beating in your chest. When the idea of living the next 60 years on this planet without your baby is unbearable, it doesn’t feel like it can actually ever be ok again.

I can think of numerous occasions where I’ve met with someone who just lost a baby. When someone asks me how they’re doing, my answer is often, “they are going to be ok, they just don’t know it yet.” There’s no timeline for getting back to good, but it takes a LONG time. You can’t really even perceive that it’s happening, but it does. One day, you’ll just look back and be able to say, “I still miss him, but I’m ok!”

Before Lach died, I viewed happiness and sadness as opposites. Two sides of a coin that can’t both be experienced simultaneously. I know differently now. I can be both sad and abundantly happy at the same time and because of the same event. I always miss Lach and thoughts of him are never too far away, but sadness doesn’t overpower my days anymore. Even on the days I really miss him, I’m ok.

Eventually, you can be even more than just “ok.” You will be happy, fulfilled, content with this life you’ve been given, and able to be joyful with life’s experience. That’s really an understanding that only time can give you. You’ll never be the same, but if you want happiness again, it is yours for the taking, just by making choices most days that lead you by baby steps in that direction.

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Grief Rituals

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One of the things that makes the 3rd, 4th, 5th years and beyond after loss a little easier to bear, is that you have had time to start building some of these grief rituals. Funeral rituals we are taught by our culture, and we can be guided through those motions with some pre-existing mental framework on what to expect. But then the funeral is over, and life begins without your child in your arms, your home, or even on your planet. How do you express the love that continues when your loved one isn’t here to receive it? At first, it’s completely foreign. These are ideas that you’ve never thought to consider, and all at once you are searching helplessly for some way to remember and honor your baby in their absence. At Christmas, we remember and honor a living child by buying gifts, sharing time with them and making special meals…those things don’t work anymore. So now what?

I feel like holidays, birthdays, and anniversary days are so much easier to bear when you know what to expect from those big days without them here. These rituals that develop over time bring a calmness to my heart, a framework to build the day around, and the satisfaction of an outlet to express the undying love that continues for them. For Lach’s birthday, we will usually try to find something fun to do together as a family, celebrate with cake, and send a bouquet of birthday balloons to heaven. For his angelversary (the term often adopted to refer to the anniversary of death), again, time spent together is important, and when the weather cooperates, we’ll try to plant something in his garden, combatting death with new life. One Halloween, our family went as Avengers and the Captain America costume held Lach’s place. On Christmas, we buy an Angel Tree gift for a boy Lach’s age, and his stocking is filled on Christmas morning with little things a 10 month old would enjoy that can then be donated to a child in need.

These are small and simple rituals, but they honor his place in our family and offer some structure to help us through those days that are especially hard not to have him here. While small in outward appearance, those little rituals transcend the physical act itself to communicate a love that never dies.

Healing Therapies

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The list of healing therapies is long. Reading, fancy coffee, hot baths, an occasional massage, or a casual walk. Cards, notes, and gifts from those who cared. Talking with a friend who wasn’t afraid to hear what I had to say, or a bereaved mom who would convey to me that I would be ok again, grief support groups. A hard run, a soft warm bed, looking through pictures of the baby I missed so much, journaling, sharing random acts of kindness in his memory, Lach’s Legacy. Creating something beautiful—a drawing for his headstone, a garden for our yard, a chest to keep his belongings. Long tearful talks with my husband, a toddler to crawl into my lap, family who sat with us in our grief. Music and poetry. Silence and prayer. …but the greatest of these is love.

All of the little physical things helped me get through that particular moment, but the most healing came in the conversations, the genuine empathy, and the love of those around us. It was there that I knew we didn’t suffer alone, we didn’t remember Lachlan alone, that I was offered new hope and perspective, that I was loved enough for people to reach out and sit with me when I was shattered into a million pieces. Love, gentleness, and a willingness to suffer alongside us…that’s where the roots of true healing begin. 

Brave Enough to Face the Darkness

"Sudden and tragic loss leads to terrible darkness... The darkness comes, no matter how hard we try to hold it off. However threatening, we must face it, and we must face it alone... I had a kind of waking dream shortly after [the darkness set in]...I dreamed of a setting sun. I was frantically running west, trying desperately to catch it and remain in its fiery warmth and light. But I was losing the race. The sun was beating me to the horizon and was soongone. I suddenly found myself in the twilight. Exhausted, I stoped running and glanced with foreboding over my shoulder to the east. I saw vast darkness. I wanted to keep running after the sun, though I knew that it was futile, for it had already proven itself faster than I was. So I lost all hope, collapsed to the ground, and fell into despair. I thought at that moment that I would live in darkness forever. I felt absolute terror in my soul... 
The quickest way for anyone to reach the sun and the light of day is not to run west, chasing after the setting sun, but to head east, plunging into the darkness until one comes to the sunrise.
I discovered in that moment that I had the power to choose the direction my life would head, even if the only choice open to me, at least initially, was either to run from the loss or to face it as best I could. Since I knew that the darkness was inevitable and unavoidable, I dicided that from that point on to walk into the darkness rather than try to outrun it, to let my experience of loss take me on a journey wherever it would lead, and to allow myself to be transformed by my suffering rather than to think I could somehow avoid it. I chose to turn toward the pain, however falteringly, and to yield to the loss, though I had no idea what that would mean."

-Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised

When I read this, it really struck a chord with me. In the wake of losing a child, there is so much uncertainty and fear. At the time, I would have preferred for my life to have ended with Lachlan's, but because broken hearts still beat, I had to make the choice to walk toward the east in hopes of eventually coming into the light.

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This picture, to me, represents those moments when you find a tiny bit of light in the darkness, a ray of hope that eventually the sun will rise and that we will be able to regain some peace and joy. That despite the loss we can find meaning and purpose in life again. That is part of why I chose to start Lach's Legacy. Those glimpses of light brought hope and encouragement for me, and I wanted to be able to share that light and hope with other families who have suddenly found themselves in that all-encompassing darkness. All I have to offer is the tiniest bit of direction on where I found those rays of light on my journey. My prayer is that other families will find comfort in some of the same places that I did, and that the tiny bit that I can offer will somehow bring a glimpse of hope for them too.