Strong, Brave, Courageous

It’s fairly common for parents whose child has died to have someone tell them how strong they are. I think that perception comes from the fact that we are able to bury our children and still function. People see us greeting memorial or funeral attendees and wonder how we can stand up there and actually do that. They think we must be so strong. Initially, I think our instinct to behave as we have in the past takes over. We are numb, and so we instinctually try to act or react, at least for a little while, as we would have before our child died. It’s sort of like muscle memory.

Muscle memory is a term that means our muscles “remember” how to do something. It’s procedural memory, meaning we have repeated a procedure until our muscles automatically complete the task. For example, last May we went on vacation to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. One of the best ways to get around the island is by bicycle. Although we used to ride bikes a lot when I was a kid, I hadn’t been on a bicycle in nearly 40 years. I was nervous about riding a bike again after all those years, but I got on and rode as if I had never missed riding all those years. My body – my muscles – remembered how to ride a bike.

Muscle memory applies to a lot of activities we do – typing, skiing, writing, playing video games, playing an instrument, even walking. We don’t necessarily have to think about these activities, we just do them. I think it’s very interesting that Alzheimer’s patients may not even remember that they were musicians, but can sit down and play the piano or some other instrument.

At first, that’s what bereaved parents do. We try to act according to our previous patterns. We can’t keep doing that, because nothing is the same, but I think that’s how we start out.

I tend to organize and plan things. I’m not as organized as some people, but I spent years organizing homeschool field trips, classes, school schedules, etc. So, when Jason died, my instinct was to take the steps necessary to do what needed to be done. Honestly, I don’t know how I did it.

I went home and started calling people. Who else was going to call them? I had called Eric from the accident site, making sure he had someone else who drive him to our house. I called my sister. I called my mom. I called some of Jason’s friends. I called church people I thought of as extended family. I answered the phone when one of Jason’s tutoring students called and had to tell him Jason had died. I hugged and comforted people who came by the house. I ran to tightly hug Joe or Jenna when they collapsed and sobbed uncontrollably. They did the same for me. The rest of that day was mostly a blur. I was a mess. I had such horrible headache from crying. The next day, though, there were things we needed to do.

It’s strange. Think about planning an event – a party or wedding – and how much time and effort goes into such an event. Weeks, months of planning. Bereaved parents have only a few days to plan their child’s funeral or memorial service.

There is so much to do and so many decisions to make after a child dies. Choosing a place to bury your child. Choosing a casket. Choosing a headstone and what to put on it. Flowers. Visitation or no visititation. Open or closed casket. Funeral or memorial service. Private family graveside service, or open attendance memorial or funeral. Location, date, time of service. Officiant. Music to be played before and during the service. Asking people to participate in speaking or playing an instrument or singing. Choosing photographs for the video montage and music to accompany it. Picking out photographs or memorabilia to display at the service. Picking out what your child should wear. Picking out what you will wear. Trying to figure out where out of town guests would stay and who would get them from the airport. Talking to the officiant to plan the order of service. Deciding which newspapers to put notices in and what to say in the notices. On and on it goes. It’s overwhelming. We had a private graveside service and a open attendance memorial, so we had to plan two events. We made all of these decisions in a matter of a day or two. We had help with some things, but most of the plans and decisions were only ours to make. It’s just crazy for me to think about, even now.

While we were doing all of this, Alina’s parents were doing the same thing. After we made all of our plans, we found out (without any prior knowledge for any of us) that we had chosen the exact same casket as Alina’s family and a burial plot one space away from where Alina would be buried. The odd thing to me – and it has always seemed so odd – is that a person named Henderson is buried between them, and Jesse Henderson (don’t know if any relation) is the person who killed Jason and Alina.

Were we strong or were we just acting on instinct? Perhaps some of each.

I recently read a post on Mother’s Day that talked about how brave mothers are who have lost a child. I’ve never thought of myself as strong or brave. I see myself as broken. I shattered when Jason died, and I feel like I still have so many pieces missing. I’m still such a mess sometimes. I struggle and have lots of scars from Jason’s death and all that happened afterward.  But that post started me thinking of the paths bereaved parents journey after their child dies and some of the situations we encounter that are unique to our journey, and I just have to say that I have changed my mind. Bereaved parents: We ARE brave. We ARE strong. We ARE courageous.

We bury our children and keep on going. We try to find a reason to keep on living. We go back to school. We go back to work. We have to learn how to help others deal with our loss when we don’t even know how to help ourselves. We comfort others when we are are the ones in desperate need of comfort and understanding. We educate ourselves on the process of grieving. At times, we have to put on a mask to hide our grief or find ways to make our grief palatable to those around us. We deal with friends who disappear, either initially or after a while when we don’t “recover” quickly enough for their comfort. We endure people telling us what to do and how we should grieve when they have no idea what they’re talking about. We deal with the hurt when people pretend they don’t see us and choose a getaway down another grocery aisle. We forgive those who hurt us even when no one has asked forgiveness. We have to figure out how to find a new normal. We keep working on rebuilding our lives. We take care of our remaining families.

We deal with people judging us for how we grieve. We deal with people telling us we should “move on” or giving us a time limit of when “we should be over it.” We make allowances for inconsiderate people who don’t understand what it’s like to lose a child. We rejoice at the weddings or graduations of others, knowing our children will never have the same opportunities. We find ways to honor the memory of our children. We make new traditions for holidays while embracing memories of ones gone by. We write and speak and try to educate people on how to help others whose children have died. We live our lives, day in and day out, with broken hearts and a burden of grief we hope no one else will ever have to carry. We cry until we can’t cry any more, and then dry our tears to start a new day. We have walked such difficult paths when it seems others have walked easier ones. We may not do it perfectly, but we keep on going. We deal with so many hard things, but keep on trying. We get knocked down and get back up. We live. We love.

I would just like to say bravo to all of you bereaved parents out there. Most people don’t have to do what we have had to do. Keep trying. Keep walking. Keep writing. Keep speaking about your children and your love for them.

Hugs to each of you,

Becky

© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney

Lost in Thought

I feel like I just need to sit and think about Jason for a bit this weekend. Thursday, March 3rd, will mark the beginning of another year without our precious, bright, sunshine-y boy in our lives. The days and weeks leading up to March 3rd are always a roller coaster of emotions for me. I’ll be going along as usual and then, all of a sudden, realize that I’m sad. It’s been enough years now that I know that, whether I consciously realize it or not, I’m very aware that the anniversary of Jason’s death is marching toward me.

This past fall we went to Oklahoma to pick up what’s left of our “stuff” and had it shipped to North Carolina where we live. We had disposed of most everything we owned when we left Washington, keeping only things such as photographs and memorabilia of our lives. When we left Oklahoma, we were not sure where we were going to go and what we had left ended up going into a storage unit and has remained there for the past six years.

I have recently opened the boxes to briefly remind myself what was in them. Jason’s hats. Jason’s chess set. The police investigation records from the accident (which are tightly taped shut, and I have never looked at and probably never will). Jenna’s baby bonnets. Jenna’s favorite stuffed animal. Eric’s favorite toy as a baby. The guest book from Jason’s memorial service. Photographs. Memories.

It’s all very bittersweet. Photographs of wonderful times long ago. Pictures of a smiling woman that I know is me…or was me…and I’m aware that I am no longer that person in those pictures. People I used to know, people I thought were my friends. Fun times with extended family. Drawings and notes from the kids. Memories that make me realize how much I miss Jason and those times long gone. Memories of a time when things were much more simple and I didn’t have this emptiness and sadness inside of me. Memories that make me smile. Memories that make me cry.

I am so very thankful Jason was born into our family. I feel so privileged to have been his mother. I found this as I was going through some boxes this week, an email Jason wrote to me in October, 2001 that I had printed off. So thoughtful. So sweet. Bittersweet. It makes me smile, and then it makes me cry.

Email from Jason

Oh, Jason, how I miss your kind and loving heart, your beautiful smile, your wonderful hugs. I miss you. I love you. You will never be forgotten.

© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney

The Hidden, Chronic Pain of Grief

As a parent whose child died, I learned that I had to find a way to put on a mask in order to make other people comfortable around me. I felt like I had to appear to be “okay,”

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I have a couple of close friends who have struggled for years with undiagnosed chronic illnesses, and they’ve both shared with me on several occasions how isolating their conditions became because their pain wasn’t visible to others.

In the absence of outward, identifiable symptoms, people either questioned the reality or severity of their injuries, or they were simply unaware of them. If in another’s presence my friends smiled and refused to mention it, then their suffering (though real and debilitating) remained hidden. They appeared quite healthy and normal and even happy—all the while their insides were being ripped to shreds.

This is how it is to be a survivor of a loved one.
This is life in the Grief Valley.
Your pain is chronic and deep and most often, internal.
To show the suffering when it comes just simply won’t work most of the time.
So you hurt and you hide.

My father died two years ago…

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We Are Lost

So much changed when Jason died. My sense of connected-ness to my life, to people that I knew and thought were my friends, to God, to my faith, to my family, to a church and to a place to call home. All of these things literally changed overnight, that horrendous night of March 3rd.

The thing about such a huge loss is that, when your whole life is turned upside down and so much is lost, you have to work at rebuilding nearly everything and it takes so much longer than you or anyone else would expect. We are all a work in progress, but when a child dies, it’s just so much more work to rebuild so many things from scratch. It’s like a ship that has been hit by a hurricane and is ripped away from its safe harbor. You end up in a dark and violent storm, far away from land. The dark, huge waves of grief tower over you, threatening to pull you under. All landmarks are gone. You lose your bearings and all moorings have been ripped away. You feel lost in a huge sea of grief, far from anything and everything that was familiar. You fight and fight and fight not to go under while trying to get back to some semblance of solid and familiar land.

The problem is that, once you reach some kind of shore again, there is no “familiar land” left. Not only has the landscape changed, but you have changed. Both you and your life have been ravaged by the hurricane called grief. The huge waves and deep loss has caused irreparable damage. What was comfortable and familiar is now a stark and alien land. Landmarks are gone. Friends are gone. People don’t recognize who you are. They may not like who you are now. Your energy level and focus is at zero. Deep grief and trying to find a “new normal” (whatever that is) takes its toll. It’s such hard work and it takes so long.

The “Becky” I was before Jason died was confident and independent. She was a wife of Joe and a mother of three who homeschooled her kids until they went to college. She felt like she had done a reasonably good job raising her kids and preparing them for success in life. She was a leader in the homeschool groups to which she belonged. She set up fun field trips and organized graduation trips. She loved to laugh and sing. She had hobbies and interests. She had friends. She served on the boards of homeschool groups. She was involved and connected. She knew she was transitioning to a different phase of life from homeschooling mom to productive workforce employee. She knew some relationships were situation and were going to change, but she was getting used to the idea. She had a plan. She was going to go back to school and then was going to get a job where she could be productive. She knew who she was. She was looking forward to good things ahead – to her kids getting married, to having grandkids to spoil and love, to having a meaningful job and using her abilities to contribute to a better life for her family. She had hope.

And then that person was gone. That life was gone.

The “Becky” I am now still feels lost in some respects. I don’t think I’ve ever reached that place of “arriving,” whatever that is, wherever that is. When Jason died, the life I knew was gone, through no choice of my own. The “Becky” I knew was gone. I was thrown violently into a deep and dark hurricane of grief and I was in that storm for a very long time. I landed in a barren and foreign land, only to be pulled back into a sea of secondary losses. I was lost, lost in grief. Lost in aloneness. Lost without my bearings. Lost without my boy.

In the years after Jason died, I tried to keep moving forward. I had started back to school two months before Jason died, and I kept going for two years. Jenna and I both went back to school the following week after Jason died. Joe went back to work. I may have just gone through the motions, but I did what I could to keep moving forward. We all did. I did well in school and made the dean’s list every quarter. I don’t know how I did it, quite honestly. In spite of everything, we kept on going. I tried to figure out how to “grow,” even though I was grieving so much loss. Too much loss. I tried to find a job. I tried to find meaning and a reason to keep on living. I have learned that it’s not an easy thing to do following the death of a child.

My husband really struggled after Jason died. Understandable. He was really close to Jason and had always been involved in the kids’ lives. It was hard for us to live in a house that had been so full of Jason’s presence and so full of life, but screamed with emptiness after Jason’s death. It was hard to have to drive by the accident site day after day after day just to get to school and work. It was hard to lose the friends we had and to be so alone. I was struggling so much myself that I couldn’t help anyone else deal with the loss. I couldn’t help Jenna. I couldn’t help Joe. Joe felt helpless to deal with my depression and grief. Neither one of us had the energy to maintain a 4 bedroom house and large property.

Joe worked so hard all of his life to earn a decent living for his family. He worked in an industry where he always had to work really hard to stay on top of current technology, which was sometimes not easy for a non-techy guy. He was very well respected in his job. But, after Jason’s death, I think it was hard to see a reason to keep on trying so hard just to stay on top of everything. Grief makes you incredibly weary. When he learned that the company was going to downsize, he volunteered to be laid off so that none of the younger guys with families still at home would lose their jobs. Being laid off affected our income and Joe’s retirement income. He thought he would find something less stressful and more enjoyable as a second career. Although he’s tried several paths, none of them have really worked out the way he thought.

I also think Joe thought selling our house and moving from Washington would help us “start over,” so he pushed really hard to leave. He thought getting away from so many painful memories, so many painful relationships and so many places that reminded us our losses would help snap me out of my depression and deep grief. I didn’t have the energy to fight. We left a place I loved, the one friend I had made, and Eric and Jenna. In retrospect, leaving Washington caused me more harm than good. I still haven’t recovered from the losses, both primary and secondary. Jenna has moved to be near us and I am so thankful for that, but I feel like Eric’s kids – our grandkids – are strangers to us. We haven’t really had a chance to be involved in their lives, other than a week or two visit once in a while every year or so. That just breaks my heart.

I have decided that too much change compounds the already-too-much loss and prolongs the rebuilding process. Since leaving Washington, we have lived in Oklahoma, Florida and North Carolina, each for three years, and I don’t feel any closer to feeling “at home” than I did when we left. We haven’t found a church to attend that fits. We have been renting a furnished one bedroom apartment, surrounded by someone else’s stuff. What little we have left from our life in Washington has been in storage in Oklahoma for six years. We haven’t made any close friends here (or Oklahoma or Florida), the kind that you can just call up to go to a movie with, the kind of friend that just likes to hang out with you. I’m approaching one of those “big number” birthdays and feel like hardly anyone besides family would celebrate me. Even if I had a birthday party, I don’t know who would attend since we’ve been so unsettled and lived so many places. (Yeah…I’m on a pity party. Don’t worry; it won’t last too long. I will feel celebrated by my wonderful family. They are awesome. Have never been really big on outside-the-family birthday parties for me, anyway, and have only had a couple actual birthday parties in my life.) It’s been a lonely existence at times, though.

We have started looking for a place to buy in North Carolina. It’s not an easy process, this trying to find something in our budget that we like, especially when we are not sure this is really “home” for us. I’m not sure where “home” is any more. I feel like a woman without a country, without a place to connect and grow, without friends, without a “home.” I feel like we have been wandering in this desert of grief for a very long time, and we are just plain weary. We keep on trying. I try to do a good job at my place of employment. Joe has a couple of part time jobs and tries to take good care of Jenna and me. We try to find “something fun to do” on the weekends. We try to lead meaningful and productive lives, but sometimes it’s hard to see the purpose. It’s hard to see where we fit. It’s hard to feel connected and “at home.”

One blogger, a fellow bereaved parent, recently used a phrase that resonated with me – “the complexity of deep heartache.” The complexities of grief are truly deep and vast many, many years after the death of a child.

We had a rough weekend. Looking for houses. Looking for something fun to do. Not succeeding at either one. We just felt so weary and tired of “trying.” At one point, I looked at Joe and said, “We’re lost.” And he agreed.

Too much change. Too much loss.

© 2015 Rebecca R. Carney

My New Reality … Notice I Did Not Say New Normal

This amazing woman inspires me with her clarity of writing and her ability to communicate the depth and width of grief following the death of a child.

From Dee’s blog:

“People’s tolerance for grief runs out quickly. No one knows but those who live it. During these past two years I have met many grievers who have found it necessary to retreat in order to survive. Personally, I have always been afraid to give into that inclination. People do need people as I continue to realize. Many have taken my absence and silence personally just as I have reacted to their sudden hiatus from my life. Even in the early weeks after Amy’s sudden death, people could not resist reminding me how I had changed. How awful to assess a shattered person who is already so self-conscious and feels like an alien. As I recall that now, I understand even more the need to retreat in order to survive.

Grieving the loss of someone you share the deepest loving bond with can be difficult to witness. People will twist and turn your reaction to your devastating loss into intentional wallowing. To quote Mr. “T”, “I pity the fool.” Yes, yes — ignorance is bliss. The reality is that while I will grieve Amy the rest of my life, I remain fully aware my sadness will indeed isolate me from many people from my past. It already has as they need to be in the mood to deal with me and only reach out to me on certain days. Out of obligation, I guess. The confusion lies here as I am not able to go in and out of the ring with them. You are either with me or you are not. And just to be clear, grievers require so little and are not contagious.”

http://deeincollingo.com/2015/08/06/my-new-reality-notice-i-did-not-say-new-normal/comment-page-1/#comment-1930

MourningAmyMarie

The calendar I was desperately trying to ignore screamed the news to me at 12:23 a.m. on August 4, 2015. Everyone was sleeping when I jolted out of bed, sobbing quietly as I made my way to the sofa in the beach house we had escaped to for this week. Much to my surprise Bailey, our family healer, was stretched out comfortably on the floor in the hall which was so unusual because he never sleeps alone. Was he alone? Since we arrived, I noticed he was content to sit alone in the living room too instead of claiming one of our laps. Another un-Bailey like behavior — especially in a strange place. Our family dog is rather neurotic. It is no wonder he has issues as I wonder whether this 12 lb dog of pure love did indeed sign up for the mega job of comforting a grieving family.

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Happy birthday, my precious Mr. Jay…

AND CAN IT BE, IN A WORLD SO FULL AND BUSY, THE LOSS OF ONE CREATURE MAKES A VOID SO WIDE AND DEEP THAT NOTHING BUT THE WIDTH AND DEPTH OF ETERNITY CAN FILL IT UP?         Charles Dickens

Oh, my precious boy…how I miss you…I love you…

Jason's birthday - July 29, 1982

Jason’s birthday – July 29, 1982

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My precious Mr. Jay

 

Jason David Carney - 7/29/82 - 3/3/02

Jason David Carney – 7/29/82 – 3/3/02

© 2015 Rebecca R. Carney

 

Lost in thought on a Sunday morning

Listening to Pandora this morning – this Father’s Day 2015 – songs from my childhood have put me in a contemplative mood. “Tell Me the Story of Jesus.” “I Love to Tell the Story.” “Farther Along.” Songs that remind me of my dad and my growing up years in the church.

sc0018cf1c01Since my father was a preacher, Sundays growing up were busy with church and church-related activities. We kids were responsible for folding the bulletins on the way to church. Church was 25 miles north of where we lived, so we had a half hour to fold them and do whatever else we needed to do to get ready for the day. Dad had prepared the content of the bulletins on Saturday. Mom had typed them up and printed them out on the mimeograph machine in the dining room late Saturday evening.

sc00025c1301Sunday School  was followed by the morning church service where we, as a family, may or may not have been involved in singing “special music.” Since we were small children, all of us had been involved front and center of church services. Church was our second home. My very earliest memories are of falling asleep on a church pew, standing up in front of the congregation singing “Jesus Loves Me” or standing beside my sister as she quoted the 23rd Psalm. She couldn’t have been more than 4 or 5, and I still remember wondering how she could remember all those words and feeling bad because I was too nervous to chime in.

After church, we would go home, eat the pot roast that had been cooking on the stove while we were at church, and then get ready to record the music for the radio broadcast that would be played on two radio stations the following week.

sc0080c86eDad had prepared the “song list” for the day. We, in varying family-member combinations, sang trios, duets, solos or all together. Mom played the piano, organ and accordion; Dad played twelve different instruments, including the guitar, trumpet, trombone, banjo. Sometimes we would have a theme for the program. My favorite was the “old time cowboy service,” complete with sounds my dad made with his mouth that sounded like a horse clip-clopping up to the church door. Dad would add a 15-minute message to the music a day or so later, and the reel-to-reel tapes would be sent to a radio station in the neighboring town and off to another station over the state line in Utah.

sc003843be02In the evening, we would all get in the car and head back to church for the evening service, sometimes either preceded or followed by a “fellowship” time. Wednesday evenings were dedicated to a Bible study and prayer service. Since my junior and high school was 50 miles south, we would get off the bus after school on Wednesday evenings, eat a quick bite for dinner, and then head out for the 25 miles north to church. Up until I graduated from high school, I think I missed one service. One service. Period. And now I have a tough time just going to church.

Ever since Jason died, I have struggled with going to church and with my faith. At first, it was hard to watch people smiling and clapping just like “normal” when our lives were anything but normal any more. Carrying on “church” as we used to, like nothing had happened and as if Jason had not died, was impossible. The noise of the whole thing rattled my nerves and made me extremely antsy. And then there was the whole “disappearing act” by people we knew.

We felt so burned by the way we were treated by Christians after Jason died. I, especially, felt deserted by man and God. We had no blood-related family within 2000 miles, so all of us looked to and relied on our church and homeschool Christian “family” to be there for us. For some reason, they just couldn’t be the support we needed. And it has really affected me. It has affected all of us. Since then, finding a place where both Joe and I feel “at home” in a church has not been easy.

I’ve written extensively about how alone we were and how difficult that time was. I reached out to fellow Christians like a person drowning, desperately grabbing for a lifeline, and felt ignored or like I got my hand slapped. The church I knew as a source of comfort, support and friendship became a reminder of great loss and so many secondary losses. Loss of faith, loss of friendship, loss of support, loss of feeling safe and loved. The strong, genuine connection I felt to church, to fellow Christians and to God still feels somewhat broken. I no longer see church as a source of friendship, comfort or solace. I am very guarded toward church people…and toward being open with people in general. Instead of feeling comfortable and home-y, church still makes me tense and anxious, although not as much as it used to right after Jason died.

I’ve written about my crisis of faith before, too. As I said in my earlier post, I don’t believe that a crisis of faith is a sin. It just means that what I thought I believed didn’t line up with what I’ve experienced. It means I’m still working on adjusting my beliefs. There’s so much I don’t understand about this life and why things happen the way they do. I still struggle so much with Jason’s death and the way our lives have changed beyond measure. It’s just so hard to lose a child. Life is never the same. I keep on trying to find a purpose and keep trying to fan the flames of my faith. I miss feeling a part of something, though. I miss a strong and real connection to fellow believers. I miss my unquestioning faith and my strong connection to God.

Joe and I went to a bluegrass festival the end of February, just a week before March 3rd (the day Jason died) and attended the Sunday morning musical performances. A wonderful group of young musicians named Flatt Lonesome sang a song, He Still Hears, that brought both of us to tears. It’s comforting to know that, no matter what happens to me and no matter how much I struggle, no matter how , God still cares about me and hears me when I pray. He will never give up on me.

He Still Hears

 

When the days can seem so long and the nights are longer still

In times like these you can question God’s good will

Your heart is hurting so and you lost the strength to stand

Cry out the Lord He hears you still

 

He still hears when it seems you’re all alone

He still hears when your bread is turned to stone

God will work according to His perfect all-wise will

Cry out to the Lord He hears you still

 

When your heart is growing cold and the fire is all but out

And life’s hard work brings on an empty chill

Just stir the coals again rebuild the fire the storms have quenched

And cry out the Lord He hears you still

 

He still hears when it seems you’re all alone

He still hears when your bread is turned to stone

God will work according to His perfect all-wise will

Cry out to the Lord He hears you still

Today I will remind myself that I come from a history of faith and a heritage of believers. I will remind myself that the roots of my faith are long-standing and deep. I will remind myself that God still hears me when I pray.

© 2015 Rebecca R. Carney

Edited 6/22/15