“Angry stage”? Perhaps.

This is probably the harshest, angriest journal entry I wrote after Jason died. I was very hurt at the time. The mama bear in me raised her head and roared. The “angry stage” of grief? Perhaps. I’m not a big fan of labeling stages of grief. They make grief look too neat, too tidy, too linear, too easy for someone else to apply their own assumptions to where the griever should be in the “stages” or what the bereaved should be doing. In an effort to promote understanding, I have promised not to shy away from the harsh things we faced following Jason’s death, so I am including it below. It’s where I was and how I felt at the time. I was angry.

From my journal dated January 4, 2003:

Well, we took the Christmas tree and decorations down today. All is put away and cleaned up for another year. Every Saturday and Sunday are the same – and this one is no different. We do what we need to do, and then we sit on the couch and look at each other. “Now what do we do?”

Janice stopped by last evening and brought us some flowers. If she’s in town, she tries to remember the 3rd in some way. I really appreciate that. Since we were about to sit down to dinner, I invited her to join us.

Janice started asking Jenna about what she’d done and about who she had seen over Christmas, specifically asking if Jenna had done anything with [the two gals who stopped by the other day for coffee where Jenna works]. I think Janice thought people who were home from college would get together with Jenna. She thought friends would call, invite her to do things with them. People like to picture happy, rosy scenarios – when it’s just not that way. After Jenna left, I just vented some of my frustration about “friends.” I’m just so mad. I honestly can take the desertion for myself, but it’s just so hard to see how everyone has been treating my family.

We’ve served in the church, in the homeschool community. We’ve opened our home and lives over and over again. I’ve spent hours and hours praying for our kids and their friends. We’ve cared about them, invested our lives in them. Now they avoid us, pretend they don’t see us, duck down the next aisle at the grocery store. It makes it hard to respect some of the Christians we know. Aren’t Christians supposed to have a heart after God? Aren’t Christians supposed to be the hands and feet of God on this earth? Doesn’t the Bible say that faith without works is dead?

Janice kept saying how, whenever she sees anyone we know, they ask her how we’re doing. They tell her they think of us daily, that they’re praying for us. They very well may be, but…honestly! How are supposed to know that? We see no evidence of it at all! To leave us so alone, we really can’t tell one way or the other.

Janice said the typical “people don’t know what to do, don’t know what to say, don’t want to intrude in our family time.” Intrude on our family time??!! Really? Our “family time” all by ourselves screams the lack of Jason’s presence. Our “family time” emphasizes the huge hole in our family. Our “family time” isn’t what it used to be; it’s not what everyone must picture. Jeesh!! I have such a hard time swallowing those excuses. That’s what they are – excuses! I told her I don’t understand how practically everybody we know doesn’t have the guts to step up to the the plate and be here for us. Seriously! Where are they? Even if some of these kids and parents are dealing with their own grief, can’t someone step up to the plate?? Anyone? We know lot of people!!

I told her that it’s almost too late now for any of these people to try to “be there” for us. It’s been so long…too long. How do we trust them? How do we believe that NOW they want to be around us?

I don’t want Janice to feel that she needs to go and “talk” to people, to guilt them into calling or trying to hang out with us or whatever. I made sure she knows that motives are extremely important to us. We are not a project. We don’t need anyone to sweep in and fix us or rescue us. We don’t want anyone to do anything out of guilt. Either they want to be around us or they don’t. Either they care about us or they don’t. Either it shows or it doesn’t.

Janice said several times that a lot of people care about us. Really?? Where are they????? It’s really hard to tell. Are we just supposed to “feel” the caring in the airwaves? Maybe it’s the “faith” kind of caring. We just have to have faith that people care…because we sure flat out don’t see it and we don’t feel it.

I told Janice I can’t wait to move far away. She said it would be starting over in a place where we didn’t know anybody, that at least we know people here and there’s a chance to restore relationships. But how do we trust those relationships now? How do we believe these friendships and relationships are true? If they are true, why have all of us been so alone since Jason died? Do I want to restore those relationships? How would I go about doing that? How do I trust them? It just looks like so much work on my part. Even thinking about it is exhausting.

Trust once broken is not easily mended. You don’t just snap your fingers and things are as they once were. I trusted those people! I trusted them to be here for us when we had absolutely no family close by. They knew we had no family here. I trusted them to be gentle with our hearts. I reached out to them and they did nothing! They did nothing!! Nothing! I told Janice trust has been broken in those relationships, and I don’t have anywhere near the energy that it would take to restore them.

In talking later with Jenna about what Janice and I discussed, Jenna said, “People and the way they have treated us have made it 100 times worse.”

“100 times worse” may be a little high, but it definitely has caused wounds on top of wounds. It has affected us. It has made this grieving so much harder. So much lonelier. People don’t see that when they do nothing they create a greater hurt or wound than if they at least tried to do something. Even doing something small with the right heart is better than doing nothing!

A small kindness goes a long way. If people just put on their thinking caps – along with a little sensitivity – a person of any age can do a small kindness that helps the healing…or at least momentarily lessens the hurting to some degree. It doesn’t take much, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist or some aged wise man to figure out something small that would help. Kindness. We just needed kindness heaped our broken and wounded hearts.

Janice has a tendency to excuse the “kids” – Jason’s and Jenna’s friends. “They don’t know what to do.” “They don’t know how to deal with it.” Okay. I can understand that. Truly, I do. But when they ignore “it,” they ignore us. We pay the price again and again. How do I trust or respect these people again? I just don’t believe people any more. I don’t see how they could possibly even care when it looks to me like they haven’t even thought of us in months and months. At least, that’s the way it looks from this side. They haven’t even bothered to reach across the grief barrier to us for what seems like an eternity – and, whenever they decide it’s “safe” to call or whatever, we’re supposed to believe them, welcome their words and open up our hearts/emotions like a book?? How do we do that?

Trust has always been a big issue for me. Trust. Truth. Honesty. They’re important to me. It’s hard for me to trust once it’s been broken, especially now. It just feels like the stakes are so much higher. Our hearts are involved. Our hearts are broken and fragile. I feel so vulnerable and hurt. I feel like I’ve had to put up walls to protect myself from more pain, more broken trust, more broken relationships. I’ve crawled inside those walls. I feel so depleted emotionally. I’m worn down. It takes a lot of energy grieve. It takes a lot of energy to heal wounds – not only the huge one from Jason’s death, but all of the secondary wounds. I guess it takes less energy to keep the walls up than tear them down to let people in.

I’m sure I came across harshly to Janice, but I think she was trying to understand. I really appreciate that. I don’t want to be mad. I don’t want to be harsh or bitter. It helps no one and hurts no one but me. No one really knows what it’s been like to be so alone.

God, forgive us if we’re jaded. It feels like we’ve been walking across a long, harsh, empty, barren terrain of grief. We’re all so very, very weary.

© 2011 Rebecca R. Carney

The Question of Faith

From my journal dated December 16, 2002:

I keep praying and praying for my family. But I struggle so much with my faith right now. It’s hard to trust a God who didn’t protect Jason. Does He hear me? I have prayed and prayed and prayed for my family over the years, for their lives, for their protection. And yet Jason died. Did God hear me when I prayed for Jason?

Sometimes I feel like scrapping my faith entirely. But I know I won’t, because I do believe in God. It’s who I am. It goes to the very core of me. I have, without a doubt, seen God answer prayers. There’s so much I question, though. There’s so much I don’t understand.

During the offering “ad” at church yesterday morning, the pastor taking the offering said something along the line of “give your tithe and God will bless you,” “pressed down, shaken together,” stuff like that. I looked at Joe and said, “I just don’t know if I believe some of this any more.” He agreed.

We have given our lives to God; we dedicated our kids to Him; we have given our tithe; we have prayed; we have fasted; we have read the Scripture; we have served in the church. But I do not feel blessed of God right now! How can it be a blessing that Jason is gone??!! How can it be a blessing that the rest of us are struggling so much? It doesn’t add up for me. The formulaic approach doesn’t work for me. Do this and God will do that. Faith without works is dead. We’ve had the faith, done the works. Jason is the one who is dead. I just can’t understand how God would let this happen.

The pastor’s sermon was on joy at Christmas. I just don’t feel it this year. I can’t be phony, paste a smile on my face, and jump for joy.

I know that – without the birth, life, and death of Jesus – there would be no resurrection, no hope of seeing Jason again. I do believe. I do believe that Jason is in heaven. I do believe we will see him again; that we will see my dad, the baby we lost, my grandpa, and all the others who have gone on ahead. I do believe that Jesus was born, that he died for our sins, and that He rose again so that we can have eternal life.

I’m just really struggling with parts of what I believe right now. I question so much. What’s real faith and what’s not? It’s an odd position to trust in/believe in God and all that goes with that – and yet being so angry at him that sometimes I feel like grabbing Him by the lapels (assuming He has any), shaking Him, and asking Him why He didn’t protect Jason and why my family has to walk through all of this.

I trust, but I question. I trust, but I’m mad at Him. Church has always felt like a safe home for me, but I’m struggling with being angry at “His people” for abandoning us when Jason died (and since then). I suppose I’ll eventually find some middle ground. I’ve been a Christian for a long time. I picture my faith like a large tree with roots that go deep. But that tree has been nearly cut off at ground level. I’m questioning everything I took for granted – the sayings, the teachings, the cliches, the formulas, the things I thought I knew and understood to be true. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. I think God is big enough and has enough grace to handle my questioning.

I feel like my faith will grow again from the roots up, but it may not look the same as it did. I don’t want some pie-in-the-sky cliche. It’s got to apply to the tough stuff, to daily life. I want a faith and a hope that is real, practical, strong. I want a “rubber meets the road” faith in God that will carry me until I see my boy again.

© 2011 Rebecca R. Carney

“How Are You?”

From my journal dated December 7, 2002:

I stopped by the cemetery yesterday. I was just so sad and missed Jason so much! All of me cries out for him to be here.

Someone had left 18 long-stemmed, red roses. They were so beautiful. I don’t know who left them, but it made me feel less alone to know that someone took the time to remember Jason.

Sometimes it seems like everyone has moved on, and here we are facing Christmas with a horrendous hole in our family and in our hearts. We just all feel so alone. Sometimes someone will call, but it still doesn’t feel like a call every once in a while is any type of support.

D.G.* called on Tuesday. Haven’t heard from her in months and months. I hate it when people call once every few months, and then expect me to answer the question, “How are you?” It’s always asked in this hyper-sympathetic tone. Like I’m going to be transparent about the most sensitive, deepest hurt in my life – losing my precious Jason! Especially to someone who hasn’t had the guts or even bothered to call once in months! Calls like that just make me mad and tire me out! If they really cared, they would have called earlier…and more often!

8 months

From my journal dated November 3, 2002:

Sunday – November 3, 2002

8 months – 8 long, horrendous, lonely months

I hate it. I still hate it all.

  • I hate the emptiness Jason’s absence leaves.
  • I hate the 3rd of each month, aware of how many months Jason has been gone.
  • I hate the way our house is so silent most of the time.
  • I hate the emptiness of Sundays and going to church, just Joe and me.
  • I hate going so many places and doing so many things by myself.
  • I hate making dinner – enough to feed a crew, but the crew isn’t around any more.
  • I hate that Jenna doesn’t have her special brother in her life any more.
  • I hate that people avoid us, like they might catch something from us.
  • I hate going by Jason’s closed door every day, knowing his stuff is still there just as he left it when he took Alina home that night.
  • I hate the darkness and heavy sadness in my heart.
  • I hate that Thanksgiving and Christmas are marching toward us…they will never be the same.
  • I hate that it seems like everyone has forgotten Jason…like the accident never happened.
  • I hate it that Jason is gone.

“Hanging in there”

From my journal dated September 25, 2002:

Debra* and her daughter came up to our house today to see the Hawaii pictures. I emailed Lisa* [mutual friends from our old church] to see if she wanted to come by, too. It feels like I don’t really have too much in common any more with either of them. It’s easier for me to just sit back and be a third party. I know I still have some major defense mechanisms that pop up. I keep working on it.

I just don’t feel like saying how I really feel, how I really am. Debra always asks me so seriously how I’m doing, like I’m supposed to open up and really say. I can’t just open up on command. I feel so raw and hurt inside, so ugly and bitter. I always say something like “Hanging in there” or something equally benign. I don’t want people to be able to look into my soul and see how hurt and ugly I am in there…too much pain.

Debra asked what I had planned for my birthday on Monday. I can’t even think about celebrating my birthday without Jason! I don’t feel like celebrating anything at all any more! I don’t want anyone to do anything. Debra said she thought Patricia* was planning on doing something.

NO! I don’t want it! They’ve left me so alone. Why would they do anything now?? I don’t want anything from any of them! I’ve felt so abandoned by all of them, so much pain on top of pain. Do they think doing something for my birthday makes everything okay? Doing something on one day doesn’t make it special! “Special” would have been for them to have been here all along! Don’t swoop down on one day like it’s such a big deal…that you’re doing me such a huge favor to celebrate my birthday! “Ta da! Here we are! We’re here for you today on your birthday!” Where have you been all along??

See…I am so ugly inside. So bitter. I’m so mad at them for leaving me alone, for disappearing, for all the excuses. I don’t want to be like this! I don’t want to have a deformed heart! Help me, God! It’s just so hard.

“That’s my mom!!”

From my journal dated June 11, 2002:

Had a call from a lady at church yesterday. She lost her son when he was 13; would have been 41 now.

Someone must have assigned her the job of calling us. I don’t even know her, and yet she acted like she expected me to open up. I’m too private for that. She said I have to go on for my other kids, that God is in control and has a purpose for “allowing” this. I struggle with the “allowing” part!!! If God is such a good Father God to us, why would He allow this to happen? Would we “allow” such a thing to happen to OUR children?

Then she asked if I was bitter and told me to ask God to forgive me for being bitter. She also said that God may have allowed Jason to die to prevent something worse down the road.

WHAT???!!

I agree that we don’t see the whole picture now, but some of what Christians say to us is ludicrous! No doubt about it…I’m struggling big time with the picture of God as a good God and merciful Father…and struggling to reconcile what I’ve learned and taken for granted with Jason’s death.

I believe Jason would have gotten married, succeeded wherever he went, would have been a great daddy to his kids. That’s what I believe!

“The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” How does that fit? I served God, I prayed and prayed for our kids and their friends. How do I believe now that my prayers “have power with God and with man” when they didn’t protect Jason? When they haven’t helped Jenna since Jason died? When God’s people have left us so alone?

I feel like I’m examining my beliefs to the very core of them. Every concept, every cliche, every sermon, every song, every whatever…I question whether I believe it’s true or not…and I look around and wonder if other Christians really know what they’re saying and singing. Does it actually mean something to them…to me?

So many songs at church don’t hold much meaning to me right now…only the ones that talk about God being holy and worthy. I know Jason is standing before the throne of God singing those same things. I feel torn between being mad at God for not protecting Jason…and wanting to add my voice from here with Jason’s up in heaven.

I want to live my life worthy and upright. I want Jason to be proud of me, to look down from that great cloud of witnesses and say to those around him, “Look at her!! That’s my mom!!” My dad is there, the baby we lost, my grand-nephew Gavyn, Jason, Alina…all gone ahead of us. All cheering us on. It’s hard to be the ones left behind.

Something’s gotta give – If you stop up a boiling tea kettle, it’s gonna blow its cork

From my journal dated May 20, 2002:

Ohmigosh!! I messed up so badly today. I threw a glass of milk at the wall!!  What a stupid thing to do! It’s just not like me!! I never do things like that! Freaked Jenna out. Thankfully she was nowhere near! Gotta get a grip! What is the matter with me??? Such a knee-jerk reaction to a really stressful situation. [Explanation of stressful situation omitted.]

I’m just so mad. I’m mad at this stupid kid that killed Jason. How could he kill Jason and then just walk away? I’m mad at all these people who leave us so alone to handle everything by ourselves. I’m mad at God for not protecting my precious boy when I’ve prayed since they were born for Him to protect our kids. Why didn’t He protect Jason? He’s omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent. I have trusted Him without question my whole life. I have tried to serve Him. Why didn’t He protect my precious boy? Why were Jason and Alina at that very place at that very moment? A few seconds difference and they would still be alive. Why didn’t God protect them? I trusted Him! Why didn’t He protect them? Why??? I don’t understand!!!

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Anger is a typical reaction in grief. In their book, The Grief Recovery Handbook, J. James and R. Friedman state that “grief is the most powerful of all emotions…also the most neglected and understood…by both grievers and those around them.” (p. 3)

The authors use an excellent example [in Chapter 8, “Short Term Fixes”] of a boiling steam kettle with a cork in the spout – the cork representing misinformation concerning grief, not being able to talk about emotions, or lack of support. As we try to control our emotions inside the kettle, the steam continues to build. It reaches a point of explosion or blowing the cork, which can lead to anything from untidy to disastrous results causing even more damage.

For me, I have always been the one to be strong, to support and take care of everyone, to solve problems, to help and not make demands. I see both sides of the coin and can understand both sides to a situation. As a teenager, it seemed like my mom used tears as a manipulative thing sometimes [although I later realized she just carried her emotions more on the surface than I did], so I determined not to do that. I determined that people would never see me cry and that I would not use tears as a tool to get a reaction from someone else or to play on anyone’s emotions. As a result of my personality and known behaviors, when Jason died, I tried to continue to operate as I usually did, to be strong, to handle my emotions myself, to try to support my family.

But I wasn’t strong; I was broken and heartbroken. I couldn’t help anyone – not even myself. I couldn’t solve anything. I had little support and felt like no one wanted to hear or could deal with my strong emotions. I asked for help and had very little response. I didn’t want people to see me fall apart or cry. I kept pushing things down, trying to stay in control. I was so frustrated, though, so mad, hurting so badly. I didn’t understand anything. My framework of understanding and coping was gone.

I found out, quite dramatically, that it’s very important to find a healthy outlet for grief, one where I felt safe and comfortable in dealing with my strong emotions of grief, with my anger. I couldn’t ignore my emotions; I had to deal with them. I tried to figure out some healthy outlets. I wrote in my journal, my thoughts almost exceeding my ability to put them on paper quickly enough. I wrote ferociously sometimes. When something was bothering me, I would grab my journal and write, sometimes for more than an hour at a time. My journal became my listening ear. I read. I bought and checked out scores of books from the library on grief, trying to find understanding and a connection or common ground with other bereaved parents who had walked similar paths. I walked. I cried. I gave God a piece of my mind when I was driving alone in my car. I figured He was big enough to handle my anger.

I can’t say I was always 100% successful or that my anger went away quickly, but that situation made me very aware of the fact that I needed to find a healthy outlet for my emotions. It was not good for me or for those around me to keep pushing them down. If you keep a boiling kettle corked, it’s gonna explode.

James, J. and R. Friedman. The Grief Recovery Handbook. New York: Harper Collins, 2009.