Another Voice in the Chorus

The suicide of Rick and Kay Warren’s son made headline news a year ago. Rick is the founder and senior pastor of Saddleback Church, one of the largest churches in America, and author of The Purpose Driven Life and many other books. Recently Kay Warren posted this on her facebook page – her plea for understanding and for the support of true friends:

As the one-year anniversary of Matthew’s death approaches, I have been shocked by some subtle and not-so-subtle comments indicating that perhaps I should be ready to “move on.” The soft, compassionate cocoon that has enveloped us for the last 11 1/2 months had lulled me into believing others would be patient with us on our grief journey, and while I’m sure many will read this and quickly say “Take all the time you need,” I’m increasingly aware that the cocoon may be in the process of collapsing. It’s understandable when you take a step back. I mean, life goes on. The thousands who supported us in the aftermath of Matthew’s suicide wept and mourned with us, prayed passionately for us, and sent an unbelievable volume of cards, letters, emails, texts, phone calls, and gifts. The support was utterly amazing. But for most, life never stopped – their world didn’t grind to a horrific, catastrophic halt on April 5, 2013. In fact, their lives have kept moving steadily forward with tasks, routines, work, kids, leisure, plans, dreams, goals etc. LIFE GOES ON. And some of them are ready for us to go on too. They want the old Rick and Kay back. They secretly wonder when things will get back to normal for us – when we’ll be ourselves, when the tragedy of April 5, 2013 will cease to be the grid that we pass everything across. And I have to tell you – the old Rick and Kay are gone. They’re never coming back. We will never be the same again. There is a new “normal.” April 5, 2013 has permanently marked us. It will remain the grid we pass everything across for an indeterminate amount of time….maybe forever.

Because these comments from well-meaning folks wounded me so deeply, I doubted myself and thought perhaps I really am not grieving “well” (whatever that means). I wondered if I was being overly sensitive –so I checked with parents who have lost children to see if my experience was unique. Far from it, I discovered. “At least you can have another child” one mother was told shortly after her child’s death. “You’re doing better, right?” I was asked recently. “When are you coming back to the stage at Saddleback? We need you” someone cluelessly said to me recently. “People can be so rude and insensitive; they make the most thoughtless comments,” one grieving father said. You know, it wasn’t all that long ago that it was standard in our culture for people to officially be in mourning for a full year. They wore black. They didn’t go to parties. They didn’t smile a whole lot. And everybody accepted their period of mourning; no one ridiculed a mother in black or asked her stupid questions about why she was STILL so sad. Obviously, this is no longer accepted practice; mourners are encouraged to quickly move on, turn the corner, get back to work, think of the positive, be grateful for what is left, have another baby, and other unkind, unfeeling, obtuse and downright cruel comments. What does this say about us – other than we’re terribly uncomfortable with death, with grief, with mourning, with loss – or we’re so self-absorbed that we easily forget the profound suffering the loss of a child creates in the shattered parents and remaining children.
Unless you’ve stood by the grave of your child or cradled the urn that holds their ashes, you’re better off keeping your words to some very simple phrases: “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Or “I’m praying for you and your family.” Do your best to avoid the meaningless, catch-all phrase “How are you doing?” This question is almost impossible to answer. If you’re a stranger, it’s none of your business. If you’re a casual acquaintance, it’s excruciating to try to answer honestly, and you leave the sufferer unsure whether to lie to you (I’m ok) to end the conversation or if they should try to haltingly tell you that their right arm was cut off and they don’t know how to go on without it. If you’re a close friend, try telling them instead, “You don’t have to say anything at all; I’m with you in this.”

None of us wants to be like Job’s friends – the pseudo comforters who drove him mad with their questions, their wrong conclusions and their assumptions about his grief. But too often we end up a 21st century Bildad, Eliphaz or Zophar – we fill the uncomfortable silence with words that wound rather than heal. I’m sad to realize that even now – in the middle of my own shattering loss – I can be callous with the grief of another and rush through the conversation without really listening, blithely spouting the platitudes I hate when offered to me. We’re not good grievers, and when I judge you, I judge myself as well.

Here’s my plea: Please don’t ever tell someone to be grateful for what they have left until they’ve had a chance to mourn what they’ve lost. It will take longer than you think is reasonable, rational or even right. But that’s ok. True friends – unlike Job’s sorry excuse for friends – love at all times, and brothers and sisters are born to help in time of need (Prov. 17:17 LB). The truest friends and “helpers” are those who wait for the griever to emerge from the darkness that swallowed them alive without growing afraid, anxious or impatient. They don’t pressure their friend to be the old familiar person they’re used to; they’re willing to accept that things are different, embrace the now-scarred one they love, and are confident that their compassionate, non-demanding presence is the surest expression of God’s mercy to their suffering friend. They’re ok with messy and slow and few answers….and they never say “Move on.” https://www.facebook.com/pages/Kay-Warren/105128507568

We, as bereaved parents, need to continue to speak up. We need to say this as often as we can – that we are not the same people we used to be, that there is no “moving on,” that it takes a long time to learn to live without our children, that we need people in our lives to support us for who we are and where we are following the death of our precious child for as long as it takes.

While life goes on and goes back to “normal” for others, for those of us who are walking through the darkest periods of our lives following the death of our child, our lives never go back to “normal.” I will never forget my incredulity when, three months after Jason’s death, a “friend” proudly told me that their lives were “90% back to normal“…and then proceeded to express concern that our “sparkle” was gone. We, along with Alina’s family, had known each other for quite a few years, and our kids had been good friends and fellow homeschool students. Her lack of understanding and lack of empathy hit me like a slap in the face. It still makes me shake my head in disbelief today.

I know that it’s not easy to know what to say to someone who has lost a child. We, as bereaved parents, need to continue to join our voices in the chorus until people hear us and begin to have at least an inkling of understanding – it’s not that we don’t want to “move on”; we can’t just “move on,” especially on someone else’s timetable. We are not the same people we once were. We need love support and understanding, not judgment about what our grief journey should look like or how long it should take. No one can know what it’s like to lose a child unless you’ve actually lost a child. I wouldn’t wish the death of a child on anyone. Please, just let us grieve the loss of our child in our own way and for as long as it takes.

© 2014 Rebecca R. Carney

Added 4/1/14:

Here is an article written about the overwhelming response to Kay Warren’s facebook post:

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/march-web-only/kay-warren-grieving-mental-illness-suicide-saddleback.html?&visit_source=facebook

My Christmas Wish for Bereaved Parents

This is my sincere wish and prayer for all bereaved parents this holiday season – and all through the years that it takes to integrate such a huge loss into the fabric of our lives – that more gentleness and caring would be shared with those who have lost someone especially dear, that more gladness and warmth would be unconditionally shared, that time would be time taken amidst the daily and holiday bustle to recognize the depth of grief behind the mask and the silence of the face, and that a hand of genuine and continued friendship and love would grasp those who are hurting and who so badly need comfort. Sometimes those who deeply grieve aren’t transparent with their grief (for wide and varied reasons of their own); sometimes people around those who deeply grieve don’t take the time to notice or don’t take the time to do anything about it.

My Christmas wish is that you feel loved and cherished this holiday season.

If I Had Known
Mary Carolyn Davies (1888-1940)

If I had known what trouble you were bearing;
What griefs were in the silence of your face;
I would have been more gentle and more caring,
And tried to give you gladness for a space.
I would have brought more warmth into the place,
If I had known.
If I had known what thoughts despairing drew you;
(Why do we never try to understand?)
I would have lent a little friendship to you,
And slipped my hand within your hand,
And made your stay more pleasant in the land,
If I had known.


[From The Sabbath Recorder: Volume 82. American Sabbath Tract Society, 1917]

My Life is But a Weaving

Hand Loom – Homespun Shop, Asheville, NC

We recently toured Grovewood Gallery in Asheville, North Carolina, housed in what used to be Biltmore Estate Industries/Biltmore Industries and the Homespun Shop. In its heydey, Biltmore Industries produced “hand-loomed woolens…sold in some of the best shops in the country. Biltmore Industries’ fame for quality wool fabric even extended to the American presidents.” (http://www.grovewood.com/about-us/history)

Biltmore Industries – Wool Cloth Production

The process of weaving fabric by hand is incredibly intricate, painstaking, and very labor-intensive. I had no idea so much work was involved!! Only men worked on the looms because they had the upper body strength to do it.

In the case of the particular loom used by Biltmore Industries, 1068 individual strands of thread were hand-threaded in pairs through guides (lease rods) onto the loom from a roll of continuous warp (the carefully-wound large roll of threads). One thread from the pair went through a heddle eye on an upper heddle and the other thread went through a heddle eye onto the lower heddle (for a simple, plain weave). If one thread was out of place, the loom wouldn’t work. In order to work properly, there also has to be the correct amount of tension on the warm threads.

As half of the threads on one heddle were lifted up, the shuttle (with weft thread) was passed between the upper and lower threads. The heddles were then switched (using a foot-operated control) so the lower ones then become the upper ones (and vice versa) and the weft thread was locked into the warp so it could firmly become part of the woven fabric. The new thread was then “beaten” against the already-formed fabric, and the process was repeated. All that work…for a basic piece of cloth.

As I understand it, in order to make a pattern such as plaid, up to 8 heddles were used on this size of loom – and an equal number of foot pedals! Complicated, isn’t it??! For wider fabric, more intricate patterns, picture-type scenes or tapestries, the process was even more complicated!! Wow!

Basic loom workings:

Diagram of the formation of fabric on a loom: (1) warp beam, (2) warp threads (yarns), (3) whip roll, (4) lease rods, (5) top beater, (6) reed, (7) shuttle, (8) breast beam, (9) guide, (10) sand roll, (11) cloth beam, (12) rocker shaft, (13) sley swords, (14) harness (with heddle), (15) heddle eye, (16) batten (http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Hand+loom)

As anyone who has read this blog knows, I’ve always thought of grief as the process of integrating loss into the fabric of one’s life and that I try to understand, explain, and think of concepts in pictures or analogies.

It seems to me that, at times, people tend to think of life as an ongoing process such as weaving fabric (e.g. Carole King’s “Tapestry” or Corrie Ten Boom’s Poem “Life is But the Weaving“). We talk about people becoming unraveled, ragged, frayed. We hear commentators and politicians talk about things affecting the very fabric of our lives. People talk about events that tear at their lives or tear lives apart. All of these are “fabric” terminologies.

To continue this analogy, the death of a child interrupts and changes the patterns in our lives – the entire fabric of our lives and the continuity of the weaving, as it were. It’s as if a giant knife or scissors has come along and hacked at many of the continuous warp threads on which the pattern of our lives is being woven. Threads are missing, frayed, tattered, broken, cut – not just a few threads, but a majority of them. All of a sudden the pattern we were following as we worked on the weaving our of lives  – our hopes, dreams and expectations – is gone. The continuity is gone!!

In the early, numb phases of grief following the death of a child, it seems as though the weaving has stopped. Not only is the pattern is gone – it’s been obliterated – but there’s not much base of thread to work on. We look at the jumbled mess and don’t even know where to start. We don’t have the energy, focus, or desire to start.

Bereaved parents talk about life in terms of “before” and “after” the death of their child. We look back and see the already-completed picture. We look forward and see a mess of broken, frayed, and missing strings. All of those nice, neat, straight threads on which we were weaving the pattern of our lives are gone. The pattern or picture (future) we imagined and were working on is gone. The continuity and patterns are gone – and it’s all so very overwhelming. Sometimes we have to just do the minimal work on our “loom” – whatever we can handle until we are able to do more.

At some point (when we are able), the next phase begins – the restructuring of all those cut and frayed ends into something usable, stable, worthwhile, and meaningful on which we can begin to weave again, something that can handle the tension of weaving a “new” pattern. That’s when reality sets in and all the hard work begins.

We have to untangle the broken threads – both the threads that that hang from the already-finished weaving and the warp threads that should be connected to it. Threads that have been damaged and are not strong enough to handle the tension of the weaving process must be cut and replaced with new thread. We have to figure out a way to connect ALL of the old threads to the new in order to start the actual process of weaving again in earnest.

Once the threads are repaired and connected again, we can slowly and carefully start integrating (weaving) the loss into the fabric of our lives. Sometimes the process is affected or delayed by additional changes or losses – secondary wounds, lost friendships and relationships, loss of another loved one, loss of job, selling a home, moving – all which additionally fray or cut the threads of our continuity and lives. These threads, too, must be repaired or replaced. Sometimes we miss repairing some threads and have to go back later and try to repair the damage. Sometimes we have to compensate for damage that cannot be repaired. The whole thing is a slow, painstaking, labor-intensive and difficult process.

The “product” we complete during this time may not look all that pretty for a while. It may not be lovely to look at; it certainly looks nothing like it used to. It may be uneven and contain unsightly knots or blemishes. It may have holes. It may have odd colors in it. The “pattern” we knew and were weaving – previously almost by rote – is gone, and we have to find a new one – sometimes through trial and error. We may not even have a clue what the pattern will look like right away; all we know is that it won’t look like what was already completed before our child died. The important thing is that we are working on it.

Sometimes people who grieve deeply seem to be selfish and self-absorbed during these early years. Sometimes the process takes longer than others expect it to, so they get impatient and leave. Sometimes they get impatient and step in uninvited to “help,” which may confuse or disrupt the process and not accomplish what was intended.

If those friends and family surrounding a bereaved parent could picture a huge loom (much bigger than the one pictured above) with threads of many, many colors…and many, many, many broken threads…and then picture all the time and energy it would take to untangle, repair and restring all of those threads in order to start “weaving” again the multifaceted and intricate pattern of our lives, then perhaps more understanding and tolerance for the griever and the grieving process would be the end result. If they could picture themselves standing close by to encourage or hand us a tool or thread when we ask or need help, perhaps the restructuring and weaving process would be a little easier.

We have to integrate the huge loss of the death of our child – and any additional or secondary losses – into the very fabric of our lives. Please be patient with us as we endeavor to do the best we can to repair all of the broken threads and once again start weaving the intricate pattern of our lives. Don’t disappear; don’t ignore us. Encourage us; be kind and show us that you care. The integration of our loss into the fabric of our lives may take a while; it’s a very difficult, time-consuming, labor-intensive thing to do.

© 2012 Rebecca R. Carney

Great Expectations

My husband and I started talking this morning over breakfast about expectations and hope. I had earlier read to him a portion of a blog written by a young mother who expressed grief that her birth experience had not been what she thought it should have been and how she resented being told that she should “get over it.” This precipitated a discussion concerning some of our own – well, specifically, some of my own – expectations and hopes that have not turned out quite like I thought they would.

My husband – bless his heart – is a very black and white person. I, on the other hand, am a person who sees both sides of the coin. Being a woman, I also approach things on a much more emotional level than he does, especially when it comes to things that hurt, are not fair to, or cause pain to my family. I have a tendency to expect things to go or to be a certain way. As I choked up while talking about some hopes and expectations close to my heart that have not turned out as I wished they had, my husband commented concerning a few, “That’s just not logical. There’s no reason to expect they should have turned out that way.” Ahhh – Spock and his logic (Star Trek) have nothing on this man!

I think, though, we are hardwired to hope. You know, “hope springs eternal” and all that. We then add our own expectations – sometimes unrealistic expectations – to our hopes. It’s hard not to add our own expectations (the “shoulds”) to the visions we hold close to our hearts. We picture things the way we want and think things should be – with hope and expectation. We have hopes and expectations for our relationships, for our families, for our kids, for our jobs, for our futures, for every aspect of our lives. We want, hope, expect for things to go a certain way. We want, hope, expect things to turn out for the best.

When Jason was in high school, I printed and framed Jeremiah 29:11 for him. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”* It sat on his bedside table. I expected Jason to prosper and to have a future. I believed God had a plan for Jason’s life – for all of our kids’ lives. I hoped for good things for Jason – for all of my kids. I expected God to protect my kids; I prayed for God to protect them and help them.

I hoped and expected my kids would all have good friends who would value them for the incredible people they are and stand by them through thick and thin. I hoped and expected that they find jobs that would be fulfilling and a life that would be equally fulfilling. I looked forward to my kids graduating from college, marrying, having children (probably). I hoped for the absolute best for my kids; I still hope for these things and pray for the best for my kids and grandkids.

I expected for our home to be a place to which our kids would return with their own families; one that would be filled with family, friends, and fun for holidays or for just any ordinary day; one where I could do crafts and bake cookies with our grandkids. I expected my life to continue on its path into a future I envisioned and had planned. I still have many hopes and expectations, although I feel they are more subdued than they used to be.

What I did not expect was for Jason to die. I did not expect to walk this long, difficult walk through grief. I didn’t expect people we counted on to disappear when we needed them the most. I didn’t expect to move from a place and home I loved. I didn’t expect my family to face some of the heartbreaks and difficult struggles they have. I didn’t expect to be 50-something (ah-hum) years old trying to better educate myself in order find a good-paying, fulfilling job so we can have enough money for retirement. I didn’t expect to have so much trouble finding once again a place to call home – a place where my heart feels at home – and a good job.

What do you do when your hopes and expectations aren’t met, when they disappear into thin air or are crushed to smithereens?

I think this has been one of the greatest struggles for me following Jason’s death and the ripple-effect of events/situations following his death. Sometimes it surprises me how long and far-reaching the ripples go and what they affect. I have a strong belief in the fairness of things and tend to expect that things “should” be a certain way. I still struggle sometimes with adjusting my expectations to the reality that now is. It’s hard for me to let go of those hopes and expectations when things seem unfair; I’m afraid I am not one to let go easily.

Proverbs 13:12 says: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.”** Deferred means “withheld for or until a stated time”; fulfilled means “to measure up to…to convert into reality.”*** Sometimes I feel like I’m over the “hope deferred” parts of life and am ready for the “longing fulfilled” parts; I’m over the “heart sick” parts and ready for the “tree of life” parts. Sometimes I just want to say “Enough already!” and instantly see things change for the better. I’m ready for some of my deep longings to become realities. I think all of us would prefer the “longing fulfilled” rather than the “hope deferred.”

You just can’t pick and choose some things that happen to you, though. Sometimes our “great expectations” just don’t happen the way we think they should.

Joe and watched a movie a long time ago (I think it was Richard Dreyfuss in Lost In Yonkers) where the main character’s sister kept going on and on about how she wanted and pictured her life to be a certain way. It wasn’t turning out the way she wanted it to be, the way she pictured it should be, but she wasn’t actively doing anything to make anything change. She was just complaining about the way it was. Finally, in exasperation after listening to this for countless years, the main character turns to her and yells, “So, change the picture!!” Although some “pictures” are easier to change and some expectations are easier to release than others, that’s become a reminder to ourselves. “Change the picture!”

I don’ think it happens just like that – change the picture. And it certainly isn’t up to someone else to change the picture for you or, without solicitation, to tell you when or how you should change it. It’s your life; you have to own your own changes in order for them to mean something to you. Sometimes a person may ask an opinion or solicit help, but for change to really stick it has to mean something and come from deep within. No one can do it for you. Sometimes it’s a painfully long and agonizing process that requires painting over that ruined picture or a long time and hard, consistent work to plant a landscape so that it is no longer a vast wasteland but a beautiful, productive garden. The healing is in the process of change, one step at a time.

I don’t want to get stuck in my lost expectations or keep my focus on the hopes that have been deferred. I don’t want the landscape of my life to be of a wasteland of unfulfilled expectations or the way I wish things were; I want it to be a beautiful garden, that stained glass window through which God can shine. I want to keep learning and growing from the experiences I’ve had. I just keep reminding myself that there are so many things I don’t understand here on earth. Life isn’t fair. Why do things go well for certain people and not others? I don’t know. Maybe it just seems they do. I think most people have expectations that aren’t met and heartbreaks of their own. I won’t have the answers to why my some of my hopes were deferred and some of my expectations weren’t met on things that are important to me until I see God face to face. I will keep on hoping and doing the best I can.

I want Jason to be proud of me and the way I have lived my life. I want to get to Heaven and have God say to me, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” I want my life to mean something. I will remind myself to hope, to love, to forgive, to remember, to persevere, to appreciate those in my life who care, and to notice the beauty in each day. I will remind myself that some day I will understand, even though I don’t now. As 1 Corinthians 13 says:

1 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.****

*http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jeremiah+29%3A11&version=NIV

**http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Proverbs+13%3A12&version=NIV

***http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary

****http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Corinthians+13&version=NIV

© 2012 Rebecca R. Carney

Why I’m thankful that the cyberworld is at my fingertips

A mere click of a button...
(image from http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/images/)

This morning, as I was reading a blog concerning grief following the death of a loved one, I realized that I was feeling thankful for the cyberworld that is now available at my fingertips. The amount of information that can be reached by a mere click of a button is amazing. I’m probably dating myself quite a bit here, but sometimes I find the internet a truly interesting phenomenon.

After Jason died, I reached a point where I wanted answers – answers to my questions, answers to what “typical” or “normal” grieving looked like, answers to why I felt the way I did and how long my grief would last. I did what I knew how to do and in the way it was done at the time.

I scoured the shelves at the local libraries (to check out) and at our local Barnes & Noble (to purchase) for books on grief and on the death of a child, even though I was acutely aware that I was physically a mess, that my eyes were red and puffy from crying, and that I might break into tears at the drop of a hat while reading a book synopsis. I searched the library archives for magazine articles. I tried to find a grief support group that was a good fit (never did find one). I tried to reach out to others who had lost a child by talking about what I was feeling, by writing emails and making phone calls – all in an effort to find encouragement that I would make it through and that I would survive this horrible loss. I tried to create whatever type of support I could find. I wrote an article for our homeschool newsletter in an effort to encourage/promote understanding and support for bereaved parents.

All in all, it took a lot of physical, trial-and-error searching for helpful resources when I didn’t have a lot of energy (truly, I was a mess!) Although there were some books written on grief that I would consider excellent resources, it was generally not a topic about which much was written in comparison to the need.

A world at my fingertips
(Image from http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/images)

Now, there are many more resources so easily available without even leaving the comfort of our homes. A bereaved parent (or those who wish to support a bereaved parent) can go online to find information, book reviews, helpful resources, download “how to help” booklets, or order resources shipped right to the front door. A bereaved parent can find a virtual community of support and encouragement where there may be none presently available in his or her own backyard. (I’m certainly not suggesting the cyberworld replace the real world when it comes to truly supporting a bereaved parent, just that it can be a resource should none be available.)

The Compassionate Friends has a wonderful website full of helpful resources. Libraries have links to extensive electronic resources (with a library card) that can be accessed from home. Amazon and other sites have extensive book reviews and suggested further reading lists. If I had a Kindle or Nook, I could instantly download a book on grief from wherever I happened to be. I can Google “death of a child” (or whatever the topic may be) and find many, many articles to read until I find something that applies to my given situation.

There are many wonderfully written and insightful blogs by bereaved parents, giving those “outside” an “inside” view of the world of lost children. I am so thankful for the bereaved parents who take the time and make the effort to write about their experiences online. Being vulnerable is not an easy thing to do, especially about something so personal. These blogs contain a wealth of information and encouragement for those who will take the time to read. Sure, you may have to sift through stuff (books, blogs, articles etc.) sometimes to find the gems, but I am thankful for the increasing awareness on the topic of grief because of these resources. I am thankful that so many have the courage to speak up, to no longer allow grief to be swept under the carpet as a taboo topic.

Yep. I’m of a certain age where the cyberworld can still amaze me…and I am thankful for this electronic resource, education tool, and connector to others who grieve.

And I am especially thankful to each of you “out there” who enrich my life by your writing.

© 2012 Rebecca R. Carney

A Few More Things I’ve Learned in the Ten Years Since Jason Died

Everyone grieves differently and on a different timeline. It’s easy to want to apply to another person’s (griever’s) experience – with a blanket application or broad stroke – to “help” a bereaved parent. You read or hear something from another source you think will be helpful to the bereaved parent, you want to help the bereaved parent “move on” or “get unstuck” from the grief, you think you have some understanding based on your own or another experience, and you decide to “share” your insight or resource with the bereaved parent. Please remember: Every person is different and unique; every grief is different and unique. Each journey and timeline is unique.

I do not handle grief in the same manner as my husband or daughter, even though we all lost Jason at the same time. Our timeline and manners of grieving diverged very early on (and, believe me, that’s an understatement!). My husband and I do not handle grief in the same manner or on the same timeline as Alina’s parents, even though Jason and Alina died in the same accident at the same time. Jenna and Alina’s sister do not handle grief in the same manner, even though they are both the same age and lost a precious sibling in the same accident. I also do not handle grief the same way someone who may have written a book concerning their experiences following the death of a child.  Each of us individually arrived at the moment of our child’s/sibling’s death with different “tools” in our toolbox, with unique and varied personalities, with unique and varied experiences and backgrounds. Our experiences following the death are also unique and individual. Although there may be similarities, we do not all handle the death of our loved one in the same manner or on the same timeline exactly as anyone else would nor do we have the same experiences following the death.

There are two important points I’d like to emphasize concerning this topic:

1) It’s extremely important for family members to extend grace to each other in huge amounts and not make assumptions that another family member “should” be on the same page or “should” feel a certain way about something, especially concerning major issues such as going through the child’s room, moving, job changes, etc. Family members – mothers, fathers and siblings – will not be on the same time frame or page concerning their grief journey, either from the start or as time progresses. Each person walks an individual path, even though s/he has lost the same family member. Husbands and wives walk individual paths and need to extend each other a huge amount of time, grace, and understanding following the death of a child.

2) Giving a book to a bereaved parent with an agenda of motivating the bereaved parent to “move on” can do more harm than good. As a friend of someone who has lost a child, it’s important to remember that a book, movie, newspaper article, blog, or seminar should not be held out to the bereaved parent as an “answer” or as some type of standard pattern of grief to be followed. (It didn’t bother me to have a book on grief given to me following Jason’s death…as long it wasn’t given to me by a person who did nothing else. I really didn’t like having books given to me with the emphasis on “helping me move on” according to someone else’s determination or as a “comparative” yardstick of what my grief should be.) I’m not discouraging sharing a book with the bereaved parent; just make sure you check your motivations first.

Books can be an extremely valuable resource to bereaved parents and those surrounding them. However, just as family members do not experience the same grief, the grief of another person who may have written a book or who speaks at a seminar about his or her journey through grief will not be the same experience of the bereaved parent you know. It’s not fair to put unrealistic expectations on a bereaved parent who is already dealing with so much. It’s important to remember that most seminars are given and books published in either an analytical or “happy ending/good comes from bad” philosophy. People don’t want to hear “our child died, most everyone disappeared, and then things got really bad.” No one would buy that book or attend that seminar. Although it’s common knowledge that people may disappear following a deep loss, no one wants to hear it. We all want the happy ending or see how the “greater good” wins.

The authors/speakers are a very, very small representation of the actual number of bereaved parents. People writing books concerning grief may not actually have the first-hand knowledge and experience of losing a child. Just because a bereaved parent writes a book doesn’t mean s/he speaks for all bereaved parents. Although a book on grief may have something very valuable to say, whatever the author says is from his or her own perspective/experiences and no one else’s. It may or not apply to the bereaved parent you know.

What bereaved parents really need is an affirming confirmation that the loss of their child is important. They need consistent support and friendship, kindness and caring rather than a book or seminar. As Dr. Lani Leary states her recent blog entry:

While grieving, those in pain need a sense of a compassionate presence. That is a person who provides a healthy relationship and companions them. It is the person who can “just be” with them in whatever way is helpful throughout the journey.

A bereaved parent who has fairly adequate support may not be able to really understand what it’s like for a bereaved parent who does not have support. Once again, just as grief is as unique as the griever, the circumstances and support systems are not the same. Although there may be similarities, there are also great differences. Sometimes those who have support just don’t understand those who don’t. I have read multiple sources that say approximately one-half of bereaved parents feel like they have adequate support and one-half of bereaved parents feel horrendously deserted. Believe me, those are two entirely different paths to travel.

Reading books on grief helps, but no one book contains all the answers a bereaved parent may be looking for. I would venture to say that most bereaved parents at some point turn to reading books on grief to find answers to the many “why’s” that accompany the journey of outliving a child. When reading books on grief, it’s important glean what is meaningful to your individual situation and leave the rest. You can’t compare your grief (see above), but perhaps you can learn something from someone else’s journey that may help you in your own.

Whenever I pick up a book on grief, the first thing I do is read about the author in order to find out his/her background and perspective for writing the book. Secondly, if the author has lost a child, I look for the time distance between the death of the child and when the book was written. Why is this important to me? Because I usually find that with time comes perspective and understanding – sort of the “can’t see the forest for the trees” thing for those too close. I like to buy hard copies of books I think might be a good resource, underlining important passages and making comments in the margins.

It’s not easy being open and vulnerable about grief. Losing a child is so incredibly devastating…I am at a loss to actually put into words what the reality of losing a child is truly like. Being transparent and vulnerable in talking about the death of a child and the surrounding emotions/circumstances exposes a bereaved parent’s deepest pain and innermost feelings. When a bereaved parent honors your relationship and trusts you enough to talk about his/her loss, s/he is laying his/her soul bare to you. Listen carefully. Treat that trust with the utmost respect and kindness.

Bereaved parents get weary of the journey. The journey after losing a child is exhausting in more ways than anyone could even imagine and for a longer period of time than anyone could imagine. We were so exhausted at times we could barely function. No matter how tired you are or what else is going on in your life, you can’t just get off the “grief train.” You have to keep on learning how to integrate the loss of your child into the fabric of your life – you can’t just stop – and that is hard work and exhausting on a continual basis. Getting away for a little while six months after Jason died was such a necessary and incredible gift to us by one of Joe’s business contracts – we didn’t have to face an empty house; we didn’t have to drive by the accident site every day. We didn’t even realize how exhausted we were and how much we needed a respite until we actually got away. It gave us the necessary rest to be able to “keep on keeping on.”

There are many questions to which there are no answers. Why did Jason have to die? I don’t know. Why didn’t God protect him when I had prayed so much for my kids’ and for God to protect them? I don’t know. I won’t know most answers to my questions  until I see God face to face.

Death isn’t cheap and takes a financial toll in more ways than one. Although we didn’t have medical bills from Jason’s death, the financial toll was not a small one. Burying a child is expensive. But the costs don’t stop there.

Once all the kids were in college and I was done homeschooling, I went back to school to get my degree in Business Administration so I could become a “productive, income-producing member of our family and society.” I was excited about the next phase of my life and looking forward to school and employment. I had a plan: I had four years to finish my degree, leaving me with at least fifteen years to produce income before retirement.

I had just started school in January of 2002, right before the accident on March 3, 2002. Although I finished my A.A. and was on the Dean’s List every quarter, I didn’t go on to get my B.A. Several things got in the way – we were seriously thinking about moving from Washington (precipitated by Jason’s death); I was exhausted and had lost some motivation (also precipitated by Jason’s death and returning to school a week after the accident); finances were low; and many other things. I really struggled for a long time in coming to grips with Jason’s death and everything that followed. Sometimes it’s just hard to see a purpose to things and to stay motivated after your child dies.

Joe was exhausted (having returned to work a week after the accident) and burned out at his job, so when his company announced layoffs, Joe volunteered to be the first one laid off. He really wanted to leave Washington and figured better he be laid off than a younger employee with young children.

After a bit, we sold our home and moved from Washington to Oklahoma (major change and not the best fit for us). I got a job in a law office and worked there for 3 1/2 years. I really liked the work, but we decided we needed to find a place that was a better fit. As with any location, the pluses must outweigh the negatives; this is especially crucial as a bereaved parent when emotional and other resources are low. We moved to Florida to be closer to our daughter, and I took a condensed paralegal certification course from the University of Miami, passing the national paralegal certification test the first time I took it (45% pass rate for first-timers, so I was very pleased). But, with the economic downturns and higher availability of more experienced paralegals, I have not been able to find a job. Joe is working at a job with a much lower income than he had received previously.

In addition, I can’t say that we’ve yet found “home.” We have not yet purchased another house (following the sale of our house in Washington and the purchase/sale of our home in Oklahoma), although I am certainly ready to be settled in our own house. We just are not sure yet exactly where that is. The home I yearn for – and the standard against which I hold everything else – is the home that included Jason. It takes a lot of time, energy, and money to move…and try to find a place once again to be comfortable and feel “at home.” In our searching, perhaps we have made some missteps’ it’s not easy to make big decisions following the death of a child.

Would we still be struggling financially had Jason not died? Perhaps. A lot of people are struggling right now and are no longer secure in their employment/financial situations. But, to me, having Jason die knocked both of our projected employment and financial trains entirely off the tracks. (In my mind, I picture a train crossing the San Andreas fault when a huge earthquake hits. The train is knocked way off the tracks, and the tracks – instead of extending straight and parallel into the distance – are a mess, buckled and unusable as far as the eye can see.) It affected our ability – both at the time of the accident and for some time following – to be really, effectively employable and to pursue financial goals purposely and effectively. I felt like I lost years of effective productivity. I needed time to grieve the death of my precious son. A lot of my energy (whatever small amount I had) went to that and to the needs of my family. Energy is low and needs are high. It makes it difficult to muster energy for other things besides what’s right in front of you.

When you are deeply grieving the death of your child and dealing with so many other issues, it’s hard to be the best planner, employee or student you can be. Sometimes the decisions would have made differently or more effectively had your child not died. Following the death of a child, the focus necessarily becomes on the present moments and making it through one day at a time; the focus becomes shorter and narrower. It’s too hard to look into a future that doesn’t include your child. The balance eventually shifts from “only the present moments” to looking into the future and making plans again; from low energy and high needs to more of a balance of between energy and needs. But that took quite a while for me…and it took a financial toll in addition to everything else.

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Please check back to this post. I may update it if I think of anything else to add.

Thank you for bearing with me as I deviated from primarily basing my blog entries on my journals written after Jason’s death. I promise to return to them in the near future. I felt, however, that it was important to pursue some other areas at this milestone of ten years. Additionally, though, I will continue to write commentaries on things and am in the process of reading books on grief for book reviews to post.

© 2012 Rebecca R. Carney

Reading Books on Grief

Grief is often a lonely, misunderstood walk. “Secondary” wounds – in addition to the deep grief of losing a loved one – can cause even more agony. I have seen, from this side of the fence, how misunderstood the bereaved and the grieving process can be, especially when it comes to the death of a child. Since Jason died, I have often thought that it might be helpful to have an information/awareness program about grief. You know, one of those nationwide, bring-attention-to, promote-understanding, spotlight-a-cause type of programs.

To me, the solution for lack of understanding is education. I have envisioned helping those who were grieving by enlightening those surrounding the griever – how to help, what to say, what not to say, how long it takes, and generally raising awareness of what to do so the griever is not left alone. I have envisioned an encouraging resource for the bereaved – making tools and resources available to the griever, encouraging support for the griever, recommending books to read, and many other ideas, too huge to voice right now, that are tucked away in my heart and brain.  Maybe I’m a dreamer, but I have a huge vision of how I would like to help bereaved parents. My heart goes out to those who deeply grieve. I would like to help those who grieve if I could.

Promoting understanding – that’s why I decided to write this blog. Since I am a very private person, writing this blog (and sharing my heart and life) was not a decision I took lightly. I weighed my own concerns against a possible greater good and came to the decision that the only way to give some insight into life after the death of a loved one is for those who have “been there” to openly talk about their experiences. Books and blogs seem a logical step.

However, I am beginning to wonder if it’s one of those “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” type of things. You can write books and blogs about grief experiences, but you can’t make people read them and understand unless they really want to. People turn away from grief. They don’t want to know. They don’t want to try to understand.

I know, I know. That people turn away should be obvious, especially concerning such a difficult topic as grief. No one really wants to discuss grief unless they have to or unless they’ve been there. No one wants to delve into understanding the grief process “just because” or “just in case.” No one wants to think about losing a loved one, particularly a child. No one wants to think about death – either their own (how many people avoid making a will?) or the death of someone they know and love. Absolutely no one wants to think or talk about the death of a child.

I wrote recently in response to an article questioning the need for so many books and blogs on the topic of grief (http://onewomansperspective02.wordpress.com/2011/09/17/the-topic-of-grief/). The author of the article felt that grief should be private and that there were too many books and blogs written about grief. I beg to differ. To me, these are tools that can promote understanding.

A couple of days ago, I read a blog reviewing the book The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (http://thebooknutsblog.wordpress.com). The book is written by a woman whose husband died in 2003 and about her life following his death. Although the blog’s author states that she feels Ms. Didion is a “talented writer,” that the writing is “very eloquent,” and that the author is “restrained” concerning her grief, the blogger said she would “cautiously recommend” it. The blogger said that she is unable “to connect with her [Ms. Didion’s] feelings on any level” and that she sometimes felt that she “just didn’t want to pick up the book…because I knew that such a sad matter might reflect upon my own mood.” When she finished the book, she said she “longed for something light hearted (sic) or escapist to read.” When I asked regarding the cautious recommendation (whether it was because of the technical/medical terms or the book’s sad content), the blogger answered that her caution “would definitely be due to the upsetting nature of the book.”

“Upsetting nature of the book” – the book was written about grief. Wanting to read something “lighthearted or escapist” when finished – the blogger wanted to avoid the topic because it might affect her mood. She wanted to escape the downer that grief is by moving onto something light to read. My first thoughts on reading those words were, “What about the people whose lives these books and blogs represent? They can’t just move on to something else a little more lighthearted. They can’t so easily dismiss their grief in order to improve their mood. They can’t just escape their lives. Those books and blogs represent someone’s actual reality – the forever reality of the authors’ lives.”

I’m sure the blogger is very earnest in her review, and that she meant no disrespect. She seems like a very nice person. But, it just made me stop and ponder. As many wonderful books and blogs that have been written on the subject of grief, do “outsiders” – those who have not personally experienced great loss and deep grief – actually take the time read them? If non-bereaved do read the books or blogs, do they set the whole thing aside once they’re done – out of sight, out of mind – in order to move onto something lighter that won’t bring them down or affect their mood in a negative way? Do they try to understand? Do they see the lives and loss represented in those words? Do they see the hearts bared in an effort to promote understanding? Or do they just turn away?

© 2011 Rebecca R. Carney