I miss my life

I don’t know what’s going on with me lately. I’ve just really been struggling. You’d think after nearly fourteen and a half years, I’d have this whole grief thing down and be on a smoother, less rocky path.

I think I just get weary of the journey at times. Unless you’ve been there, I don’t think people realize how much effort it takes day after day, year after year to get up every day and face this reality, this life without our child, this life that is so much different than we had hoped for, planned for, expected. Some seasons or holidays take more energy than others. Birthdays, holidays, anniversaries – sometimes they’re hard-to-face, emotional times that require more energy and effort than other times.

I just celebrated my 61st birthday. I was 46 when Jason died. How can I still struggle so much at times after all these years? When Jason died, I remember writing in my diary, pleading with God for something good to come out of all this loss. I prayed that the positive impact of Jason’s life and his beautiful, loving spirit would radiate out like ripples from a stone being thrown into a pond and impact the people he knew for good. I prayed that something meaningful would come out of such a senseless death, out of so much loss. Joe and I always felt, from the moment of Jason’s birth, that God had a special purpose for his life. And then he died at age 19. My beautiful, wonderful boy. After all these years, I still don’t see the “greater good” or the reason for so much pain.

Sometimes the loss overwhelms me, especially around birthdays and holidays. They seem to be times of introspect and reflection. I look at my life and wonder what it’s all about. I see a woman who still deeply grieves the death of her son. I see a woman who is lonely and unsettled. After all these years, we still haven’t found a place to be “at home.” We sold most everything in our nearly 3000 square foot home when we left Washington, and, believe me, I mean most everything! We bought a 1700 square foot house and some furnishings when we moved to Oklahoma, but then sold it all again when we left there three years later. We rented a furnished one-bedroom condo when we lived in Florida and now rent a furnished one-bedroom apartment in North Carolina. Most of what we own is packed and stored in less than 25 boxes. We don’t own the couch we sit on, the bed we sleep in, vacuum cleaner we use, or most of the dishes we eat on.

It’s not like we haven’t tried to find a house to rent or buy or a place to “anchor.” We have.   Housing is expensive where we live, and we just haven’t found anything we can afford that we really like enough to move. I’m not sure this is the right place for us, anyway. We just don’t know where we fit. I feel adrift and have felt that way since we left Washington. And now, it looks like our daughter and her husband may be moving away from here. I don’t know what I’ll do without her. I know she needs to live her own life and I want her to be happy. She’s been through so much and deserves to be happy. It’s just that I’ll just miss her so much.

I miss feeling connected and confident, knowing the direction I was headed, knowing my family was safe and happy. I miss imagining a future that looks bright and full of possibilities. Sometimes I look at my life and can’t believe this is my life now. Things just haven’t worked out the way I thought they would. We are so unsettled, disconnected in so many ways. We struggle to make friends, to fit in. We work, but to what end? We do this and that, but sometimes it just doesn’t seem to have any meaning or dispel our restlessness. Our grandchildren live on the other side of the United States and we hardly know them. I expected to be one of those grandmothers who was involved in her grandkids’ lives, taking them places, doing fun things together, making crafts, baking. I expected to be wanted, needed, loved, hugged. Our relationship has never been easy with our daughter-in-law, so that makes it difficult as she does not encourage or foster our connections with our grandkids much, if at all, even when we visit them. It makes me so sad.

I was looking forward to Jason getting married and having kids. I could just imagine little Jason’s running around our house, along with our other grandkids. Joe has told me that he, too, expected us to stay in our Washington house for the rest of our lives, having a place for everyone to come home to visit, playing with our grandkids there. I’ve never known anyone so involved with his kids as Joe, someone who gets so much enjoyment spending time with his family. He’s a wonderful man with an amazing heart for kids, both his own and others. How do we put broken dreams to rest? I don’t know. What could have or should have been – it trips me up sometimes. The losses of what we no longer have trip me up sometimes, too.

My sister is coming to visit in a couple of weeks. As I was doing some cleaning this morning in preparation for her arrival, I got so frustrated with the less-than-adequate vacuum cleaner that is part of our furnished rental that I just yelled, “I miss my vacuum cleaner!! I miss my own stuff!! I miss my home!!  I miss my life!!!”

Silly to miss a vacuum cleaner, I know. It was just the symbol of the frustration, loneliness and sadness I’ve felt lately. I keep on trying. God knows, I keep on trying. Each new day, I keep on trying to find a purpose, trying to find meaning in the day, trying to do the best I can, trying to find the positive and good, trying to be thankful, trying to find a reason to go on. Sometimes it takes a lot of energy to keep on trying, and I simply run out of the energy reserves I have and get weary. I guess I’m just weary right now, needing something to go right.

Tomorrow is another day, and I will rise to try again.



Out of sight; out of mind

A Facebook friend recently posted a note about being stuck in traffic because of an accident. “Westbound I-90 is closed due to a fatality accident. I’m stuck in the backup. At least we’re moving a little bit… at a snail’s pace.” She went on to say how thankful she was for her Starbucks ice tea and scone she had with her, that she was thankful she had Sirius XM radio to listen to while she was stuck in traffic, happy that she might get a day off if she could get off the freeway and turn around, and most of all thankful she was safe.

As a person who sees both sides of the coin in nearly every situation, my reaction was two-fold. My first reaction, of course, was that I was glad she was safe. My second reaction was astonishment that there was absolutely no mention or apparent concern about the family of the person who died, other people involved, or those who witnessed the accident. I know I’m sensitive when it comes to reports of a child dying or someone who dies in a car accident, but it all seemed just a bit unfeeling to me. Other friends made comments about how they loved her thankful attitude (“So many reasons to be thankful every day”), how they appreciated the heads-up so they could choose a different route to drive to their destinations so as not to be late to appointments, wanted to know if she was going to stop by since she might have the day off. It was only after someone posted concern for those involved in the accident that the tone changed to “so sad” and “praying for those involved” and any mention that it was a  71 year old woman who had died.

Yeah, that was me; I was the one who mentioned the accident victim. How could they appear not care that someone had died and that the family of the accident was going to have to walk down the rocky path of grieving the death of their loved one? I guess I felt like I needed to validate her existence and and the loss of her life. I wrote a very kind note saying I was so glad my friend was okay, but then mentioned that my heart went out to the family of the person who died. That’s when the tone of the comments changed to sentiments regarding the victim and how sad it was that she had died. I noticed this morning that the original post and thread have been deleted entirely.

As I’ve mentioned before, I know that I react to traffic accidents differently than most people do, simply because Jason died in a traffic accident. The sound of sirens  and the sight of emergency vehicles surrounding an accident don’t go unnoticed; it touches a place in me that can take me back to that day and stir up worries about the safety of my family. I’m not just a curious rubbernecker, gawking as I drive by to see what might have happened. The realization that I am not immune to the death of a loved one is now a very real part of who I am. I know what it’s like to drive up to the scene of an accident and see the bright, flashing lights of patrol cars and emergency vehicles that surround the car where my son just died. I recognize the strategic placement of fire trucks and emergency vehicles as they try to hide the horror from anyone who might pass by and gawk. I know what it’s like to read in the newspaper about the accident that killed my child and his best friend.

I also recognize the “I’m so glad it wasn’t me” attitude (as one gal said, “So many reasons to be thankful every day.”) and the effort to turn the focus away from something so awful as the death of a person who I’m sure was dearly loved by her family to something more mundane and everyday. Out of sight, out of mind. The sad thing is that I’m sure I used to respond exactly the same way before Jason died.

On the tenth anniversary of Jason’s death, I wrote a a couple of posts about some of the things I’d learned in those past ten years. In six months, we will be confronted with the fifteenth anniversary of Jason’s death. Fifteen years next March 3rd. I can’t believe it. I’ve been contemplating writing an updated version of my “what I’ve learned” post to include my observations of the last five years. The “out of sight, out of mind” thing is one topic I would include.

There are some things in the “out of sight, out of mind” area that I’ve noticed over the years in talking about Jason – not only about his death, but also about his life.

Although death is as much a part of life as birth, death is an uncomfortable subject and most people would rather avoid talking about it altogether. When working for an estate planning attorney who prepared wills and trusts for people and handled probates, I experienced this first-hand. People avoid getting their affairs in order in the eventuality of their own death because it’s uncomfortable. When it comes to discussing the death of someone’s child, it’s even more uncomfortable and people would rather not talk about it at all. Out of sight, out of mind.

Even after all these years, when I mention that we have a son who died, people get extremely uncomfortable and sometimes the dynamics of our relationship change. This happened to me recently. It makes some people so awkward to think about the death of a child that they pull away, and the typical development of a friendship may even stall. I think people are so glad it didn’t happen to them. Then they feel guilty about feeling that way and don’t know what to do next. And so they back off a bit. I understand that it’s more about them than about me, but it’s sad. As with many things concerning the death of a child, my head understands, but my heart doesn’t.

I also choose who I tell that Jason died in a car accident, and when or if I talk about it. I don’t bring it up with people I meet just casually or in passing. It’s not that I don’t want to talk about Jason. It just hurts when people ignore Jason’s life and pretend that I haven’t even mentioned his name. I’ve had conversations that awkwardly and immediately turn to something more mundane like the weather or the person will turn and begin to talk to someone else when I tell them our son died. It’s no fun to have people uncomfortable and awkward around me.

Even with people I know fairly well and who know about Jason’s death, when I talk about my children and include Jason’s life in whatever I’m talking about, people have a tendency to ask about my other two children and what they’re doing, but just sort of skip over talking about Jason at all. It’s like I hadn’t even mentioned his name. People act like he never lived. Some people we were really close to “before” don’t respond at all on Facebook when I post pictures on Jason’s birthday or the anniversary of his death. Some people do, and I’m very thankful they take the time to remember Jason. But some would rather skip over the reminder of Jason’s life and his death altogether. It’s hard not to feel like they’d rather keep his life and subsequent death out of sight, out of mind so they don’t have to think about what it’s like to lose a child or about the fact that a terrific guy like Jason died.

Some people tend to think that, because it’s been almost fifteen years, I should be all done this grief stuff and that it shouldn’t affect me any more. It’s so far in the past. Shouldn’t I be over it by now? I read an article in the Huffington Post recently entitled “Stifled Grief: How the West Has It Wrong.” It’s a very good article about some of the unrealistic expectations that we have in our society concerning grief, and I would suggest you take time to read it.

One blogger I follow, Kathleen Moulton, also recently wrote about this recently in her blog entitled, “no earthly thing.” She writes, “There is no earthly thing that can take the pain away of your child’s death…only heavenly.” So true. I will miss Jason for the rest of my life. I deal every day, on varying levels, with the grief and pain of his death. He is never “out of sight, out of mind” for me. I know in my heart that he lived and that his life mattered, and that he was the most wonderful son I ever could have imagined. I hold him close in my heart every day and am so thankful he was born in our family. But, I miss him and I grieve that he is gone. The pain and the grief of his death will permanently end only when we see Jason again in that place where there is no death or sorrow or suffering. And then God, Himself, will wipe away my tears. We will see Jason again and it will be a glorious day. Of that I am sure.


© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney

A Momentous Year


Birthday letter to Jason July 29, 2001. The pastor read this letter at Jason’s memorial service.

The morning of July 29, 2001, I woke up really early, and I knew the instant I woke up that I wanted to write Jason a special note for his 19th birthday. I just had to let him know how special he was to me and how much I appreciated him for who he was.

We tend to think of milestone birthdays as those  more momentous than others and seem to carry more “weight” or reason to celebrate than others. It’s not that the other years aren’t celebrated, it seems that bit more emphasis tends to be placed on those birthdays than others. What those birthdays represent have a stronger meaning. Turning sixteen tends to represent being able to get a driver’s license. Eighteen represents becoming an adult and going off to college or some other type of independent step. For some, twenty-one represents being able to purchase alcohol. Latin cultures have a huge quinceañera celebrations when a girl turns fifteen. Jewish communities celebrate the milestone of a boy turning thirteen with a bar mitzvah. In my mind, as I wrote in the note, I thought it wasn’t one of the ones we typically think of as momentous.

IMG_2558Little did I know, at the time, how momentous that birthday would be. It was the last one we would ever celebrate here on this earth with him.

That year, we celebrated on Jason’s actual birthday with our family and some of his closest friends, and then we had a large joint birthday party at a local park for Jason and his good friend, Justin. Just looking at those pictures, I can tell he was happy and that he knew he was loved. He loved being with family and friends. He loved to have fun.

On July 29th this year, we would have celebrated Jason’s 34th birthday. I can only imagine what his life would have been like and what he would have accomplished by now. What would he be doing? Who would he have married? Would he have children? We’ll never know the answers to those questions.

I am so glad Jason was born into our family. He was 9 pounds, 10 1/2 ounces of pure joy. Kind, loving, thoughtful, empathetic, intelligent, funny. There aren’t enough words in my vocabulary to describe what a special guy he was and how much I love him. And no matter how many years go by, I will always love and miss my precious boy. Happy birthday, Jason.


© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney

A Better World

I dream of a better world

But how can there be a “better world” when you are not in it?

You made this world better and brighter

And it is so much less so now that you are gone.


I miss you, my precious boy.

© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney

Trust, Once Broken, is Not Easily Mended

When the kids were little, I tried to teach them the incredible value of trust. Miriam-Webster dictionary gives one definition of trust as “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something; one in which confidence is placed (my emphasis on words in italics).” Trust is the basis of our close, meaningful friendships and relationships. Trust is the basis of a successful relationship between employer and employee.Trust is imperative in the relationship between spouses and between family members.

imagesAs a way of communicating this intangible concept to the kids, I used a couple of visual examples to show the consequences of breaking someone’s trust. We set up a pattern with dominos on the dining room table, the kind where you touch the first one to knock it over and that starts a chain reaction of the rest falling over. I wanted to show them that one action could affect many things. One action can lead to broken trust and can create an series of unintended consequences, much like the falling dominos.

481000578I also showed them one of my glass flower vases and asked them what they thought would happen if I smashed it on the ground. We talked about whether or not it could ever be put back together again. Even if we were able to find all the pieces and put them back together (which would be highly unlikely), it would never look or function the same. Once broken, not easily mended.

In my last post, I wrote about secondary losses. Following the death of a child, one of these secondary losses can be the loss of friendship, either immediately following the death of the child or as times goes by. The saying ” grief changes your address book” is true.  Initially, people may not know what to do or say, so they stay away. As time goes by, people may get tired of how long it takes to “get over” the death of a child and decide to move on. Either way, it’s fairly common to lose friends following the death of a child. (The online magazine, Still Standing, has an excellent article on this topic.)

I’ve also written about the loss of friendship after Jason died. Losing friends following the death of a child is hard. I recently read an article about the psychology behind people leaving alone people in crisis. The article quotes Barbara M. Sourkes, associate professor of pediatrics at the Stanford University School of Medicine: “When you’re confronted by someone else’s horror, there’s a sense that it’s close to home.” Too close to home, I would add. The article also lists reasons people may disappear – people don’t like to feel helpless, awkwardness around crises, feeling too much empathy in picturing that it could happen to them or their children, or creating distance so that it doesn’t seem real (out of sight/out of mind), feeling guilty that they’re so glad its not them, or feeling like if they stay away from the crisis that it won’t happen to them. Whatever the reason is or whenever the reason people disappear doesn’t make the loss any easier.

In some ways, I think people were waiting until we were “better,” waiting until enough time passed until…what??…until we weren’t so sad? I don’t know. There really is no such thing as “getting better.” One gal told me she wanted to make sure we had enough family time. Christmas 2002, nearly 10 months after Jason died, we had a few more people that usual call. At the time, I felt like people felt like it was safe to try to reconnect, but we weren’t the same people they used to know. Those relationships just weren’t the same.

When people walked away from us, I lost a lot of respect for them. It was hard feeling abandoned by those we expected to support us. Trust was broken. Our confidence in their ability to be true, kind, compassionate friends was broken. Those relationships were broken because of the broken trust. It was hard to feel like they really wanted to be in our lives, that they really wanted to be true friends again. If they really wanted to be our friends, why would they have abandoned us? As I said in my “toolbox” post, I am very guarded. I keep my shield close at hand, ready to put it up to protect my heart. That makes it really hard to let people in and trust that they really do care. It’s a hard thing to start trusting again.

I’ve really tried recently to be more open and trusting. I’ve tried to remove bricks from the walls I’ve put up around myself over the years – walls of protection and self-preservation. I’ve tried to allow people into my life. I’ve tried to be friendly and open to new friendships. It’s a really hard thing to do, this allowing people to be close to me. I’m really guarded. I don’t know if they can handle the brokenness in my life. I don’t know if they will think enough time has passed since Jason died that it shouldn’t bother me any more. I don’t want to be judged or to become a project to be “made better.” I don’t know if they will accept me for who I am. I don’t know if I can trust them to be there for me. It’s just so dang hard for me to do.

I recently confided something in a gal I thought to be a friend. She immediately passed it on to someone else, who came to talk to me about it. It was a trust-shattering moment. I continue to try to forgive that breach of trust, but I no longer look at that friendship the same. I no longer feel that relationship is worthy of my trust.

Trust is a huge issue for me. I want to be trustworthy – worthy of people entrusting things to me, knowing I will handle that trust with care. I want to have people around me that are trustworthy – worthy of entrusting them with my brokenness and fragile heart, knowing they will handle my trust with care.

Things are no longer simple following the death of a child. Navigating this life is more like canoeing down rapids than paddling on a calm lake. We have to be diligent and careful moving down this life-path. It’s like our radar always is on, scanning for things that might rock our boat. For example, Jason’s birthday is coming up, and I have learned that things that don’t normally bother me might make me sad. I have to be aware of that. I have to be aware of emotional triggers.

I have to read what’s the content of movies or TV shows. After Jason died, I couldn’t watch movies or TV shows that had car crashes in them. I couldn’t watch loud movies. I couldn’t watch movies about children dying (still can’t). I can’t watch high stress movies or TV shows. When scenes are particularly tense, I still have to close my eyes and breathe deeply until the scene is over.

I have to determine if I can trust someone. I have to judge conversations with people I have just met as to whether or not I should mention Jason. When someone asks me about how many children I have, can they handle the fact that I have a child who died? Is this a passing conversation with someone who moves on or is this someone who might stick around a while? If I do talk about Jason’s death, will they disappear like people did just after Jason died? Can I trust this person enough with my heart to believe that they won’t inflict further hurt? Will they not shatter my trust? Who can I trust?

People make mistakes. I understand that. We are all human and need to extend grace to each other. I’ve worked really hard on forgiving those that have hurt us. But, I also understand that trust once broken is not easily mended. It’s hard to let people that have broken our trust back into our hearts and into our lives.  It’s just never quite the same. Once that glass vase drops, it’s hard to put the pieces back together.


© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney


Photo credits:

Domino photo – https://www.videoblocks.com/video/line-of-white-dominoes-falling-ykoznpb/

Shattered glass photo – www.gettyimages.com

Articles quoted:

miriam webster trust



The High Cost of Losing a Child

I think it’s safe to say that those who have not experienced the death of the child can understand, on some level, that it is a huge, incomprehensible loss. I’m not sure anyone outside the “club no one wants to join” – the “club” of parents whose children have died – can truly understand the impact of such loss, though. I would never wish that understanding on anyone, because that would mean they would have to walk this horrible walk of grief. But, I also think it is safe to say that there is even less understanding regarding secondary losses following the death of a child.

Before Jason died, I never could have imagined the walk we have had to walk. It’s been a rough one, and saying that is an understatement. Jason’s death has affected our family in so many ways. Our lives were shattered when Jason died. And then it seemed like so many other things have broken off and shattered, too, along the way. Friendships. Income. Loss of identity. So many additional losses. Secondary losses.

I think the whole secondary loss thing caught me by surprise. These additional losses were really hard to process. Friends who disappeared. People who avoided us. Questioning my faith. Too many losses to count. I’ve written about some of these secondary losses over the years. It’s difficult to understand how someone who has suffered such a huge loss would continue to have additional losses piled on top. Losses on top of more losses. It’s hard to comprehend and process so much loss. The secondary losses make the load of grief even heavier to bear.

I recently read a good article that talks about secondary losses. The author explains that secondary losses are a result of the primary loss. Our grief encompasses both the primary loss AND the secondary losses. The secondary losses are precipitated by the primary loss (the death of our child), but they become a part of our overall grief.


The author writes, “Though it is easy to think that our grief is solely the grief of losing the person we cared for so deeply, our grief is also the pain of the other losses that were a result of the death.” One grief, many  parts. Yes, I grieve Jason’s death. His death is the big, huge hole in our lives and is the main reason for my grief. But his death also created other losses that I grieve.  I miss friends I used to have. I miss our home. I miss the feeling of security. Had Jason not died, I would not have experienced these and many more losses. All of these secondary losses are interconnected to the primary loss to some degree.

The also author states, “Understanding the possibility of experiencing grief from these secondary losses can help build self-awareness and help identify complexities of our own grief.  Once we have identified these losses we are better equipped to face and mourn them.  We begin to understand that the whole of our grief is comprised of many parts, including the primary loss and the secondary losses.” (http://www.whatsyourgrief.com/secondary-loss-one-loss-isnt-enough/)

I’m not sure I agree completely with this particular concept that we can build a self-awareness in order to be better prepared for secondary losses, especially right after the death of a child. And I’m not sure why there would be a reason to anticipate we would want to prepare for such losses if we didn’t know our child was going to die. Perhaps this would help in the event of a terminally ill child, but, wouldn’t the parent be dealing with enough anyway? I don’t know. Sometimes there’s just no way to prepare for certain things.

I don’t think it would have been helpful to me if someone had come up to me early on in this grief journey, right after Jason died, and said to me, “Just wanted you to be aware that you will probably experience additional losses in your life besides the loss/death of Jason, so you had better prepare your self for it.” I was so overwhelmed by Jason’s death, in and of itself, that I don’t think I could have handled it and probably would have rejected the concept of more loss. At some point, we all will deal with secondary losses; I guess it’s just a matter of timing. It didn’t help me, for example, when I went to a local Compassionate Friends group right after Jason died, to hear one gal say to me (after I had explained to the group why I had started to attend), “Oh, you’re just a baby (in your grief process).” I realize now that, at the time she said that to me, I was just a few steps into this journey and that I had (and still have) a long journey ahead of me. At the time, though, it was not a helpful comment and was poor timing. (I never went back to that group.)

But, I still think she has some good things to say about understanding and identifying secondary losses. I also think it’s important to understand that the primary loss of the death of a child can create secondary losses. Those secondary losses may be immediate or the may happen over time. For example, our loss of friendships was more or less immediate. Another mother told me that she had great support after the death of her daughter, but then nearly all of her friends disappeared over time as they got tired of hearing about her grief and felt like she was not “getting over it” quickly enough. No one will experience the same grief or the same losses, whether primary or secondary.

I hope you will take time to read the article: Secondary Loss – one loss isn’t enough??!! As always, I appreciate your input.


© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney


What’s in your toolbox?

I’ve always been a rather independent person. In junior high and high school (and even younger), I wasn’t one who longed to fit into the “in” crowd. I didn’t care particularly what people thought about me or whether I was popular or not. It’s not that I wasn’t friendly or didn’t have friends. I just didn’t live or die by the acceptance or rejection of other people. Besides, the fact that we lived 50 miles away from the junior and senior high schools I attended did not give me many opportunities to interact socially with my peers outside of school. For six years of my life, three hours a day were spent on a school bus, riding an hour and a half each way to and from school. I rarely had the opportunity to participate in after school activities or do things with friends after school. I read a lot of books, got all my homework done on the bus. I was a bit of a book worm, so, even during school hours, I would be found more often than not reading a good book in the loft of the library during free time instead of socializing. I participated in the things I liked (clubs, school musicals, yearbook staff, etc.) and didn’t sweat the things that didn’t work out for me to do. I was aware of being an outsider, but it really didn’t matter that much to me. Our church was 30 miles the opposite direction, so there were few activities outside of church, either. On top of that, until I was a junior in high school, we lived 2 miles outside of the closest town, which had a population of 200.

Both of my parents were school teachers in the same school I attended (my mom taught me in 3rd grade; my dad taught me in 5th, 6th and 12th grades). My dad was also the local Baptist preacher, so I grew up feeling like I had the word “example” stamped on my forehead. Preacher’s families had to look like they were perfect, you know. Teacher’s kids, too. As a teacher’s kid, especially in grade school, the expectation by others was that we should be good students and should do well in school. The funny thing is, when we did well in school, we would have people tell us, “You did well because your parents helped you.” When any of us didn’t do well, we would hear, “Why didn’t your parents help you do better?” Being both a teacher’s kid and a Baptist preacher’s kid in a state that has one of the highest Mormon populations (we lived 200 miles from Salt Lake City, UT) kind of set us apart a bit even further. So, growing up, we were pretty isolated and my closest friends and playmates were my brothers and sister. The day I graduated from high school, I was so glad to be DONE – done riding the bus so far, done driving to church so far, done having to always feel like an example, glad to be moving on to the next phase of my life, glad to be moving to a bigger city (Denver) with more people and more opportunities – that I literally walked out the door of the school after the graduation ceremony and never looked back.

As an adult, though, I realized that my independence in high school, coupled with the long distance from the social world of school and church, was a bit of a disadvantage in that it really had not taught me how to make close, lifetime friends. My problem was that, while I enjoyed having friends, they tended to be situational friendships rather than friendships that lasted a lifetime. Growing up, I had situational friends at school and I had situational friends at church. The friendships I had made operated within one or the other particular, isolated situation. That’s what I knew – situational friendships. I felt like I didn’t know how to make friends or how to be a really good friend outside of a particular situation. I decided to work on establishing deep and lasting friendships.

One of the problems with my “making deep and long-lasting friendship project” was that my independence and lack of proximity to social activities growing up had made me somewhat socially awkward. I’ve never wanted to be the center of attention or the life of the party. I tended to sit off to the side of groups, waiting for someone to befriend ME, to reach out to ME. I didn’t really know all the “rules” for making and keeping longterm friends. I tried all the typical friend-making things I could think of. I volunteered at church and in the homeschool groups. I served on the board of homeschool groups. I taught Sunday School classes. I set up play dates for the kids. I tried everything I could think of.

The thing about establishing a connection with some and becoming true friends is that it takes time. It takes a desire to be friends and a commitment on the part of both parties. Most importantly, I discovered, is that it takes room in the other person’s life for you. That’s a biggie. It has to be a two way street.

There was one gal in the church we attended that I really tried to become good friends with. Our kids were close in age, our husbands got along, she was a lot of fun and I really liked her. And so I pursued her friendship (not in a weird, stalking way; just tried to be available as a friend, hoping to develop a good friend). I babysat her kids whenever she asked me, we took her kids with us on outings, we invited them to do things with us. We became friends, yes, but it was definitely not an equal friendship. Have you ever felt like you were down the list a bit with someone when it comes to friendship? She already had a longstanding best friend…and a second best friend…and a third best friend…and none of them were me and never would be me. She already had a circle of close friends and really didn’t have room or the time commitment or the desire for another member. I was outside of that circle.

This really came to light when I invited her and her kids to dinner one night when her husband was out of town for several days. I went all out. I guess I wanted to show her that I could be a good friend when she needed one. I cooked a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, right down to homemade rolls and pies. It took me all afternoon to get ready. The time came for her to come to dinner…and we waited…and we waited…and we waited. She finally showed up two hours late with barely an apology. She had been at her BEST friend’s house and just didn’t bother to call me to let me know she would be late. I felt so unvalued and stupid for even trying. One other time she un-invited us at the last minute to her New Year’s Eve party (the one with all of the close circle friends, the “in” group at church) with an excuse that her oldest daughter didn’t feel like Eric liked to play board games and that really bothered her daughter. It was the first time we had been invited into the “in” group’s private activities. I just don’t think there was room for us.

Another time, a ladies activity was organized for an evening out and we all were to meet at the church. I showed up, along with a couple of other gals, and we sat in the parking lot for a while. Finally, we realized no one else was going to show up and so we went home. Later, we found out the location to meet had been changed, but only the “inside” group members had been called. No one had even thought about calling the rest of us. (I know we weren’t the only ones in the church aware of the “inside” group…and then everybody else.) It wasn’t on purpose; it just never crossed their minds to call us. They all had a great evening out, we learned, while the rest of us just went home. We stayed friends, as did the rest of our families and the families in the group and other people in the church, but I always had a keen awareness of where I stood in the friendship hierarchy. I also learned that it doesn’t do any good to pursue friendships with someone who doesn’t equally value you.

All of those situations were bitter pills to swallow, but I swallowed them (along with my hurt), put on a good face, and carried on. That’s what I’d learned growing up as a preacher’s kid, wasn’t it? To hide whatever is wrong and put on a good face; be the perfect example of…whatever. I hadn’t learned how to problem-solve within interpersonal relationships. I had learned to suck it up, deal with it privately, get over it, smile, and keep going.

So, why am I telling these stories? Because whatever tools that are in your toolbox at the exact moment your child dies – emotional, spiritual, experiences, upbringing, support, family, mental health, physical health, whatever the tools may be that are available to you – those are the only tools you have available to you as you begin your walk into the “valley of the shadow of death.” When a child dies suddenly, there is no time to develop the tools needed to handle that horrendous loss. What you have in your toolbox is all you have in your toolbox to work with.

For me, most of my friendships were still situational. I realized this fact when the kids were all in college, I was done homeschooling, and I was transitioning into a new stage of my life. No matter how hard and how many years I had tried to rectify my tendency to develop situational friendships, I hadn’t entirely succeeded in breaking that pattern. It didn’t seem as though those friendships were carrying over into the next stage of my life, and it made me very sad. I felt very alone. I started going to the ladies Bible study at church (we were going to a very large church by then), trying to connect with people there. I went early, talked to people, made notes of what we had talked about so I wouldn’t forget. I reviewed my notes before going each time, in case I saw the same gal again. I invited someone now and then to have lunch with me afterward. Sounds pathetic, I know, but I didn’t want to live my life without friends. Once again, I found people have to have room in their lives for you and that it takes time. I decided I needed to put my energy into going back to school to prepare for the next stage of life…and then Jason died two months later.

So, when Jason died, my toolbox contained mostly situational friendships, biological family that all lived a long distance away, a large church we attended where we were not well connected. Nearly all of those people did not or could not walk with us after Jason died. They all disappeared. It contained an independent view of myself. It contained self-reliance. I was viewed as independent and self sufficient by others, too. It contained a helpful personality. I grew up in a family that never asked for help (we were taught to be very proud our stoic, independent Norwegian heritage), and so I didn’t see myself as needing help. I was a person who provided help and support – facilitating organizations and meetings, organizing study groups and field trips, helping out when someone needed assistance, teaching classes, etc.; I wasn’t the person who needed support or help.

Some tools I needed were definitely lacking. My toolbox lacked a strong support system. It lacked family that lived close by. It lacked the ability to know how to ask for help. (When I did ask for help, I failed miserably.) It lacked the ability  to know how to confront situations and resolve them, instead of swallowing the bitter pills and carrying on. It lacked any knowledge on how to handle such deep grief. My toolbox lacked a lot of the tools I needed for the walk of grief ahead of me.

Thankfully, my toolbox contained a strong relationship with my daughter and husband. It contained the connection to a gal who, although we were not close at the time of Jason’s death, became and still is my best friend. I don’t know what I would have done without them. It contained my intellect and my commitment to get an education to prepare for the next stage of my life, having started back to school two months before Jason died. It got me out of bed and out of the house.

Out of necessity, I have developed other tools that are now in my toolbox. Not all of them are particularly helpful, though. I carry a big shield that I keep at the ready. I hide behind it at times. I guard my heart with it. It keeps me from being open and vulnerable, especially with new people and those who have hurt me. It’s one I developed out of necessity – one I developed early on when my heart was so raw and hurting, and the people we counted on could not be there for us, deserted us, and hurt us so badly. It protects me from not being hurt like that again. It also keeps me alone and makes it difficult to make new friends. It also contains a lack of trust, a lack of belief that other people have the possibility of having our best interest at heart. And so, I hold people at arms’ length. I’m trying to change that one, but it’s not an easy thing to do.

My toolbox now contains the tool of deflection. I learned early on that most people don’t know how to react to being told our son died. Some do not react very well. Some pretend like I didn’t even mention Jason. Some people get really awkward, and then start treating us like a pariah. Some people act like we are invisible and that they don’t see us.

The summer after Jason died, I ran into a clerk that I knew in our local Albertson’s. She only worked part of the year (summer), since she and her husband wintered in Arizona. As she helped me with my deli order, she was very friendly and chatted away. Then she asked, “How are the kids? What are they up to?” I hadn’t quite developed this tool of deflection yet and said, “I suppose you heard Jason was killed by a drunk driver earlier this year.” It was like someone slammed the door in my face. Her physical reaction was dramatic; she just sort of crumpled. She didn’t say another word, frantically finished my order, shoved it across the counter at me and tried to get away from me as quickly as she could. She was a mess!! I went behind the counter and gave her a hug. I didn’t know what else to do. She wasn’t being mean or anything; she just didn’t know what to do or say, I’m sure. I deflect talking about Jason’s death or steer conversations away from certain topics, not because I don’t want to talk about him or because I don’t care about him, but that I’d rather choose how and when I talk about the death of our precious boy. I don’t want to intentionally cause awkward situations. I guess I just need to make sure that Jason’s death matters to the person I’m talking to and that they can handle it. It hurts me too much to feel that someone doesn’t care that Jason died.

My toolbox also contains compassion. I no longer have the fear of talking to someone who has lost someone close. When I worked for a probate attorney in Oklahoma, I had no hesitation in expressing my condolences and asking how I could help. I could talk about the subject of death with the client. I’ve always been one who hugs people, but now I am no hesitant to step forward and hug someone who is hurting.

Although this certainly is nowhere near the complete list of the tools I had in my toolbox when Jason died, the tools I lacked when Jason died, or the tools I have developed since Jason died, I think you get the idea. We bring with us into deep grief – like tools in a toolbox – our upbringing, our personality, our experiences, our education, our emotional growth. We bring our attitudes, our strengths and weaknesses. We bring our connections to friends and family. Whoever we are to that point in our lives and whatever tools we have developed and have available to us at the exact moment our child dies, especially in the case of a sudden death, those are the only tools we have available to us at that exact starting point of our grief journey. It affects so much of how we grieve, how we react, how much support we have, how long it takes us to come to grips with who we are now and what the world around us now contains (or doesn’t contain). It affects whether or not we have PTSD.

It’s important to know that there are now (better than when Jason died) some really good resources out there, and some really good information for both the parent who child has died and those who know a parent whose child has died. I am so thankful for bereaved parents who write and talk about their experiences. By far, no two grieving parents have the same experience after the death of a child. We are all so different, our losses are different, and the available tools we have in our toolbox are different. We can learn from each other, though, and encourage each other. We can’t affect how other people treat us or whether or not they stick beside us. But we can talk about our experiences and what worked and didn’t work for us.

What’s in your toolbox? Would love to hear your input on this subject.


© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney