“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”

I did something the other day that most people probably wouldn’t understand. I specifically went into the Christmas aisles at a our local big-box store to test myself. I wanted to see how I would react to seeing all of the Christmas stuff that is now arriving on shelves in force. I wanted to see how badly the vise would constrict around my heart this year as Thanksgiving and Christmas approach. Perhaps I wanted to begin preparing myself for the onslaught of reminders that “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” – or, at least, the implications that it should be. For some people, it’s not. You see, this time of year as Thanksgiving and Christmas approach is always a tricky time filled with potential landmines for a parent who has lost a child.

The vise doesn’t constrict as much as it once did, but I don’t think there’s any getting around the fact that it still does and probably always will. I find that I still have to concentrate on breathing the first time I see a Christmas display. I feel it like a jab right in the heart. I see people already posting online about being so excited that Christmas is coming, that they are already playing Christmas music, that Christmas is the best time of the year for them. For some people, it is. For others – for me – it’s not exactly the Hallmark/Norman Rockwell Christmas or Thanksgiving any more. I feel like it used to be that way, and I had so much fun planning the Thanksgiving menu and couldn’t wait for Christmas to arrive. Oh, the traditions, the food, the conspiring on what special present to buy, the music, the lights. I loved it all!! I could barely function that first Thanksgiving. That first Christmas was torture. The second wasn’t much better.

I have to admit I still feel like I trudge through part of it at times – not all, but part of it – because I don’t feel the unabashed wonder and enthusiasm that I used to. It’s hard to celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas (or even most holidays) without acutely feeling Jason’s absence. What I try to do now is to focus on making Christmas special and meaningful in some way for those I love. But, it’s still a tricky time for me, and I sometimes really have to concentrate on focusing on the positives while being aware of the holes in my life and sidestepping the landmines that are inherent with the holiday territory.

As the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons approach, I’d like to offer an early reminder. If you are a bereaved parent, I hope you will take time to be gentle with yourself. I hope those around you take time to be thoughtful, kind, generous, and gentle with you. You don’t have to do it all. Do what you can and let the rest go. Try to remove as much pressure on yourself as you can. You don’t have to do everything you used to do. You may want to keep some traditions and/or start some new ones. It’s okay. Do what feels right to you for your family and whatever you feel honors the child you lost.

For those who know a bereaved parent, perhaps you could start thinking now about how to do something kind and thoughtful for that parent that may take a bit of sting out of the season. You can’t “make it better,” but you CAN do something. Perhaps you could send a note, telling of a special memory you have of their child. A parent never gets tired of hearing that his/her child is not forgotten or hearing a story that brings a memory to life. Perhaps you could include the bereaved family or a sibling in something. They may say no, so don’t take it personally. But they may need something to look forward to and say yes. It’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle, assuming everyone else captures the same joy at Christmas, and forgetting that there are those who really struggle with loss and its aftermath during this time of year. It’s easy to assume that everyone else is enjoying the holiday season as much as you are. Even after eleven years, I still struggle with the approaching holidays and still feel at times that I’m on the outside looking in at everyone else’s joy and enthusiasm. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the holidays. It’s just that they aren’t quite the same for me any more.

I’ve written before about Christmases after Jason died: A Bereaved Parent’s Christmas; My Christmas Wish for Bereaved Parents; Christmas Day; Christmas Season – Not the “Same as Always” This Year; Caution! Rough Sea Ahead!. Here is an entry from my journal dated 12/25/2003:

It’s Christmas Day. It’s sort of been a mixed bag. I have had such a hard time getting anything done to get ready for Christmas. Doing things to get ready for Christmas meant that I had to focus on another holiday without Jason. How can we celebrate when Jason is gone? I have been trying so hard to figure out how to keep Christmas special for the rest of us without it seeming wrong to celebrate when Jason isn’t here to celebrate with us. It’s just not easy. When I went into stores to look for presents, my heart just felt like it was being crushed or squeezed by a vise. I couldn’t breathe. I would feel panic-y and have to leave before I got anything. It’s so hard to do the things we used to do. It’s just not the same.

No more all going out together on a Christmas-tree-finding adventure. How can it be the same to find and decorate a tree without our boy? Jason was the one who put the angel on top of the tree. We’d bring the tree home, put on some Christmas music, and then all decorate the tree together. I’d unwrap the ornaments and everyone would put their own ornaments on the tree. We’d put up the stockings by the fireplace. Our stockings would eventually be filled with fun stocking stuffers we had bought each other. Such a fun, festive, family time.

It’s been so hard to figure out what to do with the stockings. What do we do with the stockings now? Do we hang them up? Do we put things into the stockings for each other? How do we fill four out of five stockings? Jason’s would look so empty. We can’t not put his up. Every decision seems to have so much emotion tied to it. Everything seems to emphasize Jason’s absence.

It’s been such a hard Christmas. I tried so hard to get in the “Christmas spirit,” whatever that is any more, but I don’t think I ever succeeded. I really tried, but just couldn’t muster enough enthusiasm.

On Christmas Eve, Joe, Jenna and I went out to dinner. We honestly were all trying our best to put on our happy faces and have a good time, but we just seemed like a sad little group, I’m afraid. It just wasn’t the same. We all used to go out to dinner for Asian food and then to the candlelight church service. We’d talk and laugh and have the grandest time, full of joy at being together and anticipation of Christmas morning surprises. It was part of our Christmas tradition. Now what do we do?

We came home after dinner and watched Miracle on 34th Street. Both Jenna and I fell asleep somewhere in the middle of it. When we went to bed, tears just started flowing. I couldn’t keep up the pretense any more. I am just so sad.

I got up really early this morning to make cinnamon rolls, just as I used to do. I just wanted to cry the whole time. Do we try to keep traditions we used to have or what do we do? It’s just so hard to carry on with things we used to do. It hurts so much. I don’t know what the balance is. Both Joe and Jenna came down as I was mixing up the dough. I guess they couldn’t sleep, either. After I got the dough made to rise, we went back to bed. I realized that Joe was crying. I asked him if he was okay, and he said he was just so sad. We just held each other and cried.

The day improved once Eric arrived to eat cinnamon rolls with us and open presents. Later in the day, [our friends and their family] came over to have Christmas Day dinner with us and we had a good time together. We played games and went to see a movie. Don’t know what we would have done without them. I’m afraid it would have been a long day.

I don’t know. It seems at times we just go through the motions, but it doesn’t seem to have the same “heart” as it used to. How can we? Our hearts are broken. A huge part of our family is gone. Nothing is the same.

© 2013 Rebecca R. Carney

Happy Birthday to Me

My birthday is coming up soon, and my boss reminded me of that fact a few days ago. Birthday reminders of clients and employees pop up on his calendar, and he had noticed mine coming up. I just kind of crinkled my nose and went back to working. I’m sure he thought my response to that reminder was very underwhelming.

I like my boss. He’s a good guy. He’s generous and nice to me. That’s important to me as a general rule, but especially important in the workplace since I spend nearly as much waking time at work with him during the week as I do at home with my family. He’s really busy, always has a million things on his mind, and so we don’t chitchat a whole lot about personal things. That’s okay. I would really rather not talk about myself or my life, anyway. The point here is that I’ve never said anything to him about Jason or the death of a child. As a result, I’m sure he thought my reaction to his birthday reminder was a typical female-not-wanting-to-get-older thing.

It got me thinking about what I would say if he commented about my reaction to my birthday. Do I just minimize my reaction and let him think that I just don’t want to get any older? Or do I tell him the truth – that I would really rather skip over my birthday and most “holidays” entirely because of Jason’s death? What exactly would I say? Mentioning the death of a child can really make things awkward. Do I say something or let him be comfortable in his lack of knowledge about Jason? What if the topic of how many children I have or something of the like comes up some other time or way? I guess I just need to process this in case the topic of my birthday and lack of enthusiasm about it comes up again before the actual day.

I’ve always loved holidays and everything that goes along with them – birthdays, Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, 4th of July. Making Halloween costumes, planning birthday parties, getting ready to host the 4th of July at our house, baking cinnamon rolls for Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas morning. You name it. I loved it all with a passion.

I loved shopping for stuff for Easter baskets for the kids. I’d keep my eyes open for weeks before Easter for cute stuffed animals and unique things I could buy. One year I got each of them a bottle of sparking cider for their baskets. My husband kind of scratched his head on that one, but I knew that all of them loved sparkling cider and that they would probably get a kick out of having their own bottles to drink. I’d get up early on Easter morning, sit on the floor of our bedroom in front of the closet where I had been hiding everything, put the baskets together, and then set them in front of their bedroom doors so they could find them first thing when they got up. It made me so very happy to surprise them like that.

As I wrote that last paragraph, I physically felt the excitement I used to feel as I got ready for holidays and events, and it made me smile the biggest smile. But then it was followed by tears welling up in my eyes, because…well…holidays just aren’t the same for me any more. You see, holidays bring into focus the holes in my life, especially the huge hole left by Jason and the aftermath of his death. I have too many holes in my life and struggles surround those holes, and they make holidays really hard. They’re all hard, but holidays that celebrate “me” are hard for me in a different way than other holidays.

Everyone likes to feel special to family and friends and that their lives are celebrated by family and friends. I was no different. I wanted to be surprised by gifts and celebrated on my birthday, to be honored on Mother’s Day, to have love gifts or flowers from my husband on Valentine’s Day, to get well-thought-out-just-for-me presents for Christmas.

I remember one Mother’s Day it seemed as if no one had made any advance preparations to celebrate “my day.” It was one of those “Oh, by the way, Becky, where would YOU like to go for dinner?” years, and it rather peeved me a bit that not more thought had gone into celebrating “me.” Selfish. It just makes me feel so selfish now. How I wish I hadn’t been so selfish.

I guess that’s why I especially don’t like celebrating holidays where the focus is on me. I would gladly trade every single one of them just to have the ordinary days back of being together with my entire family. There were times when other things – “me” things or some activity or perceived need to be addressed – that seemed so important to me at the time. Now, I honestly can’t remember most of what they were. If I can’t remember what they are now, how could I have thought they were so important then? What really is important in this life? If I could just take back all of the times I was selfish – times when I thought I needed “me” time or when I thought I wasn’t being valued as much as I thought I was supposed to be – or when I thought I had too much to do to sit down and play a game of chess or cards with Jason, I would do it in a heartbeat.

You see, I’m just not that important in the whole scheme of things. I don’t feel the need to be celebrated any more. I’d rather the focus be on the people I love than on me. They mean the world to me.

If I could just communicate one thing to parents, it would be to cherish and value their family and those ordinary days with their kids. I see parents rushing their kids along or harping at them for one thing or another. It breaks my heart. Don’t realize how much more important those precious treasures right in front of their noses are than getting on to the next store or whatever? When those moments are gone forever – and especially if those children are gone forever – all of a sudden you see things with a new perspective. I know there are a lot of parents who are really trying really hard to do it right and who value their children beyond measure. It just seems like there are also those who forget how short those days are in the rush of adult things they feel they need to do.

Every parent has regrets, I would venture to say, and wishes they had done certain things differently. I have bucket loads of regrets and things I wish I could or had done differently. There’s nothing I can do about them now, and so I just have to deal with it as best I can.

I think I’ll just skip over my birthday this year and see if I can figure out how to reflect – or perhaps deflect – that attention to someone else so they can feel valued and important.

© 2013 Rebecca R. Carney

Taking the time

I’ve been catching up on reading the email notifications I get from blogs I follow. I know, I know. I’ve been slacking off in both my writing AND my reading!

Anyway, I wanted to share a link to a blog I read this morning written by a man whose daughter died three years ago. Like the letter I wrote to Jason on his 19th birthday, Mr. Cartwright wrote a note to his daughter not long before she died, telling her what an amazing young woman she was.

I’m so glad I took the time to listen to that little voice “prompting” me to write that letter to Jason on the morning of his 19th birthday. He didn’t get to see his 20th birthday. The pastor read the letter as a eulogy at Jason’s memorial service.

We have to take the time to tell the people we love how much we love them and how proud we are of them when we have the chance. We have to slow down our busy lives enough to spend meaningful time and have meaningful conversations with those we love. That chance may never come again.

No guilt trip; just a friendly reminder. I’m sure we all try to do the best we can with the time and energy resources we have.

Here’s the link for Mr. Cartwright’s blog post: http://spiritualwalkwithgod.wordpress.com/2013/06/29/its-been-3-years/; and here’s the letter I wrote to Jason on his 19th birthday: http://onewomansperspective02.wordpress.com/writings/

© 2013 Rebecca R. Carney

Forever 19 or “What if?”

Tomorrow is Jason’s birthday. He would have been 31.

31. It’s hard for me to imagine Jason at 31.

In my mind, Jason will always be 19 going on 20. He will always be a young man with so much potential and a bright future ahead of him, the young man sitting on the kitchen counter telling me about his day while I fixed dinner.

Along with other memories and emotions, birthdays after a child dies are reminders of what might have been. The question of “What if?” raises its head. What if things had been different? What if he had just waited a few extra minutes before leaving our house? What if Jason hadn’t died?

What would Jason be doing if he had lived? Would he be married? Would he have kids? Who would he have married? How many kids would he have? Where would he work? Where would he live? Who? What? When? Where? How? Why? Questions, questions. No answers.

I can’t quite get a clear picture of these things. I notice the life progress of Jason’s peers and friends – getting married and having kids, buying houses, getting college degrees, getting or changing jobs, going on vacations, doing their daily lives. I can sort of conjure up an image, a life of what might have been. But it’s very fuzzy and out-of-focus. It’s all conjecture, anyway. My projections are just that – imaginary projections. They are based on the son I knew – the amazing 19-year old, funny, handsome, kind, courteous, thoughtful, intelligent young man – mixed with bucket loads of “what if’s” and “what might have been’s.”

I wish I had had the opportunity to know the “what if’s” in the life of our precious son. I wish I had had the opportunity to see “what might have been.” I wish Jason had lived.

Happy birthday, Jason. I love you with all my heart. I miss you so much.

© 2013 Rebecca R. Carney

Sometimes my heart just hurts

Honestly, sometimes my heart just hurts.

It has surprised my how close to the surface my grief has been this month over losing Jason. I really thought I had turned a corner last year when I went back to Seattle. For some reason, it felt like the ten-year mark was a major turning point.

But, I have found myself close to tears at unexpected times during this entire month, times when my heart hurts so much the tears want to spill out. This March marks the end of eleven years without Jason and beginning of the twelfth year. Moving forward into twelve years – it feels like I’m once again walking through molasses. The loss of Jason – and so many, many other losses – feels particularly acute right now.

Perhaps it’s just the time of year, the month of the year that Jason died. Perhaps it’s a time when accumulative losses seem particularly heavy. Perhaps it’s remembering the excitement of putting together Easter baskets to leave outside the kids’ rooms on Easter morning…and missing that time like crazy…missing my boy like crazy. Jason, even at 19, kept the Easter bunnies I put in his basket.

Perhaps it’s the unsettled-ness that we seem to continue to walk through since Jason died. There felt like such a contented, settled, happy feeling before Jason died. True, everything was not rosy all the time, but there was happiness and hope and determination to keep moving toward better things ahead. Since then there has been losses of jobs, friends, home; moving here and there, trying to find a place where we “fit.”

Perhaps it’s waiting for spring to arrive outside…and waiting for spring to arrive in the deep places of my heart and grief. Perhaps it’s trying to find a meaningful purpose for my life, a reason for trying so hard to keep on living my life in spite of all this pain and loss. Perhaps it’s just the weariness of the journey on this Good Friday before Easter.

Sometimes the effort of the journey catches up with me and I get weary of trying so hard…and sometimes my heart just hurts. I guess the price of loving a sweet, wonderful boy so much is having my heart heart so much that he’s gone.

© 2013 Rebecca R. Carney

Of Signs and Such

I’m writing about something I’ve never told anyone before. I know there are bereaved parents who look for signs from their departed children, but I’m not one of them. There have been times when I’ve been some place and felt like Jason was particularly close in my heart and thoughts. There have been times when I’ve walked through a room or something and it smelled like Jason – like his favorite cologne or something else that reminded me of him – in one particular area. We don’t even live in the house where Jason grew up and most everything I have that belonged to Jason is in storage, so it kind of catches me by surprise when it happens. There are times when it feels like Jason is far away and times when he feels very near. Why do people who have died feel closer at some times than others? I don’t know. There are times when God has felt close and times when he’s felt so very far away. Why? I don’t know. There are lots of things I don’t know or understand.

March 3 2005 020On the morning of March 3, 2005, I was really low. It was the third anniversary of Jason’s death. After taking a shower, I came downstairs and into the breakfast nook where Joe was sitting at the table. As I looked out the sliding door to the backyard, I looked at Joe and exclaimed, “It looks like your name is written in the clouds out there!” He said, “I know!” I ran upstairs and got my camera to take a picture because I didn’t think anyone would believe me. I just sat and watched it for the longest time.

I’m not one to hyper-spiritualize things or try to find some spiritual hidden meaning in everything. But I do believe God wrote Joe’s name in the clouds that morning. It had been a very long, lonely struggle for three years, and both of us were very weary. I think Joe particularly needed encouragement at that time. The Bible says that God is near to the brokenhearted. I honestly believe this was God’s way of being close to Joe on that morning, March 3, 2005.

© 2013 Rebecca R. Carney

A Bereaved Parent’s Christmas

Christmas…

I’ve been sitting here, listening to Christmas music, and thinking about our Christmases since Jason died.

The first Christmas when I was so numb, hurting so bad, and at a total loss on how to “do” Christmas any more without our precious boy. Finding a chair in the corner at a Christmas party and trying to figure out how not to be the “wet blanket” at the celebration…and trying to be social so people would quit avoiding me – I failed miserably at both of those attempts. Sitting all by myself in the midst of the Christmas decorations strewn all over our family room floor, crying my eyes out as I tried to figure out whether it hurt more to put up or not put up the stockings and decorations we’d collected over the years. The friend who stopped by to pick something up while I was sitting there on the floor, surrounded by decorations and grief, and who couldn’t get out the door quickly enough after she collected what she had come for. When absolutely everything about Christmas emphasized Jason’s missing presence and pierced me to the bottom of my very soul. Picturing Jason helping pick out and put up the tree. He was the one who put our angel up on top of the tree every year. I was supposed to teach him how to make my “famous” Christmas morning cinnamon rolls and I added my heartbroken tears to the dough that year. Everything about that Christmas hurt to the core of my being.

The Christmases when I tried to shop, but couldn’t figure out how to pull up any enthusiasm, and left the stores empty-handed and trying to keep my emotions and tears in check until I could get into a private place. The ones when I fought down panic as I tried to shop for presents. The one when we couldn’t travel to extended family and they couldn’t travel to us…and no one had time amidst their own holiday hustle and bustle to do anything with us. One gal told me they would have time the week after Christmas. That was a bad Christmas.

The ones when I drove by brightly-lit houses as families or friends arrived for some type of Christmas celebration, watching people hug each other with the joy of the season…while I felt like an outside observer to the warmth, welcome and celebration of the whole season in general. The warmth and glow of the season seemed like it was for others and not me. Ours used to be the home brightly lit and welcoming, so full of family, love and laughter. I used to look forward to Christmas so so much excitement. It seemed as though I “used to do” many things that no longer applied to me. I struggled for many years as I approached so many Christmases with dread…wishing I could just skip over the whole thing, knowing how acutely and painfully I would miss Jason’s presence. Some days it was more than I could bear.

Christmases are hard for bereaved parents. The memories of what “used to be” are ever present and everywhere. I miss the pure excitement of a Christmas without the shadow of loss.

Christmas doesn’t hurt as much as it once did. I wish I could say it didn’t hurt any more, but that wouldn’t be honest. It’s been a process over the years to make new traditions while not totally scrapping the old. I haven’t gotten up at 4:30 a.m. to make cinnamon rolls from scratch for years – perhaps I will sometime in the future. We have started some new traditions and have started a new collection of Christmas tree ornaments. We try to make Christmas a special and meaningful day and season as best we can for those we love. We try to notice the small things and don’t take anything for granted.

We will always miss Jason every day, and especially during the Christmas season feel his loss acutely, wishing he were celebrating Christmas with us. I’m sure every bereaved parent would say the same thing about his or her own child…

Merry Christmas to each bereaved parent who may read this. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

© 2012 Rebecca R. Carney