My Life in Boxes

Last fall, we went to Oklahoma to get the last of our things out of storage and to move them to North Carolina where we now live. They’ve been in storage for seven years since we moved from Oklahoma. We spent two days repacking things into smaller, uniform moving boxes and and once again whittling down our earthly possessions. Again. Deciding what’s important to keep and what’s replaceable. Again. Taking boxes and boxes and boxes of household goods, kitchen items and clothes to Goodwill. Again. I’ve done this process too many times and it’s hard on me every time. If I never again hear the words “we need to get rid of” or the phrase “Are you really keeping that???,” it will be too soon. It seems I always feel pushed into giving away something that really was important to me or that I later wished I had kept.

The last remaining things of our life in Seattle. The last remaining physical items I have that connect me to Jason. The history of our lives. Photographs. Scrapbooks. Christmas ornaments. Momentos of our lives when the kids were little. Jason’s chess set. A few books. A couple of my dad’s Bibles. Tax records. Important papers.

Less than 50 12″ x 12″ x 18″ boxes. Less than 50 boxes is all we moved. That’s all we have left. Seriously, that’s all we have left that we can call our own (since moving from Oklahoma seven years ago, we have lived in rented, fully-furnished one bedroom apartments in both Florida and North Carolina, so we don’t have any furniture, etc.). Less than 50 boxes. It seems like such a small amount of things that reflect the busy, fun, full life we had before Jason died and the big house and home that was so filled with love and activity. Sometimes it feels like my life has shrunk so small since then.

But, those items in those boxes also are a reminder that physical things are just that – things. They are just things. I lived without seeing or physically touching those things for seven years. Although those things may remind us of Jason and the time he was alive, there is no way those flat, one-dimensional items can truly reflect the real Jason – the awesome person he was, his intelligence and humor, his beautiful blue eyes, the many facets of his wonderful and Godly character, and his truly kind and loving nature. Those are things that can only be held closely and fully in our hearts and memories.

Holding you close in my heart and in my memories today, my precious boy. I miss you and I love you more than words can say. I look forward to the day I can see you and hug the real you once again.

~Becky

© 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.

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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.

~Becky

© 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

http://stillstandingmag.com/2014/08/losing-friends-child-loss/

 

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.

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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.

~Becky

© 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.

~Becky

© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney

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

Becky, where art thou?

My husband and I went to see a movie last night. During the introductory commercials, they played the trailer for the new Jason Bourne movie, and it made me think of my best friend in Washington.

When the very first Jason Bourne movie came out, Joe and I went to see it with Mary and her husband. At one point in the movie, the villain jumped through a window and attacked Jason Bourne. It was a particularly tense scene and when the guy crashed through the window, I screamed loudly and startled Mary even further. At the exact same time, Mary grabbed my arm and startled me even further. We scared each other so badly. It was so funny. Remembering that moment makes me chuckle to this day.

Mary and her husband were the only people who intentionally stepped toward us after Jason died when everyone else stepped away. I think I’ve mentioned her before. I didn’t know Mary very well before Jason died, even though their daughter and Jason dated for a while. I don’t know what I would have done without her. Jason was so crazy about their daughter; he truly loved her. I secretly hoped they would marry some day. What a sweetheart! I would have loved to have her as my daughter-in-law.

A few months after Jason died, Mary asked me if I wanted to start walking with her. She kept asking me off and on for several months until I finally heard her through the fog of grief and we started walking together about six months after Jason died. As we walked, we got to know each other and eventually became dear friends. Becoming good friends usually takes time and consistency. Walking together provided exactly that – the time and consistency to become friends. I firmly believe people have to have room or make room for people in their lives. That’s what Mary and her husband did. They made room for us in their hearts and in their lives. We went to movies together, celebrated holidays together, walked together.

When the ad for the new Jason Bourne movie came on last night, I just had to text Mary to let her know I was thinking of her and how much I missed my movie buddy. Truth is I just flat out miss her. I miss my friend. I miss the person I was when she was my friend, and I miss that time.

Have you ever had something happen – you hear a piece of a song, see a scene in a movie, are driving somewhere – when all of a sudden, just for a moment, you are transported back to a familiar time that is so warm and comforting that it just fills you with longing for that time? As crazy as it sounds, that’s what happened when that Jason Bourne ad came on. Parents who have lost children talk about waking up feeling warm and cozy, and then reality crashes back in when they really wake up and they realize what they have lost. That’s sort of what happened, I guess. I had such a strong memory that it took me back to a warm and friendly place, and then I came back to the reality of my life as it now is. I had a stark realization, once again, one of the things I have lost.

There are two times in my life when I feel like things changed so drastically that I feel like I lost myself. The first time was when Jason died. That one was huge beyond any other. The second time was when we moved from Washington.

After Jason died, I felt like I was thrown into the deepest, blackest, darkest, scariest, loneliest ocean where the waves of grief were so huge and black that I thought I would never survive them. They would tower and crash over me one right after the other, and I felt like I wasn’t able to come up for air. I was madly swimming, trying to stay afloat, trying to swim back to some type of solid ground.

In one journal entry from that time, I remember writing about how I wish someone would just come along side of me as I swam – just for a while – so I could just grab ahold of the edge of their boat to rest for a while so I wouldn’t drown. I needed a friend. I was trying to find some land, some firm footing to stand on. I was exhausted. And then Mary and I started walking together. It funny, because we didn’t talk a lot about Jason or how I was feeling or whatever. She just walked beside me and was my friend.

Grief is such hard work. Trying to learn to live without your child is such hard work, and I worked very hard at trying trying to figure out how I was supposed to go on without Jason. I kept going to school. I applied for jobs. Mary and I consistently walked together and got to know each other as friends. I kept trying to figure things out. I was working very hard at trying to find purpose and meaning to my life. I was beginning to feel just the very vaguest possibility of getting close to some shoreline of a life ahead of me where I could feel the sand beneath my feet again, of some reason to go on, when Joe started pushing me really hard to leave Washington.

It’s hard when spouses are on different grief trajectories and have such different needs. How do you choose whose needs are most important to meet? Joe was desperate to get away from Washington; there were just too many memories there for him. I was desperate to stay and didn’t want to leave the place that was my home. But I felt like, if I didn’t go with Joe, he was so desperate for change that he would move without me. I just couldn’t take any more loss, and so we sold our home and moved. It was probably the worst thing we could have done for me. I don’t think I’ve ever recovered from that move. I was nowhere near “recovered” from Jason’s death, and it then became more complicated when we moved. I’ve never recovered from either one. They are intricately combined.

I had to go through Jason’s room and get rid of things before I was ready to in order to get our house ready to sell. I had to decide what was important enough to me to keep and what to “get rid of.” I am rather a collector of things and Joe is a minimalist, so he kept insisting that I “get rid of” things. (Side note – never “get rid of things” under duress!! You will regret it. Pack it up in boxes for storage until you are in the right place to deal with it.) I had to move away from our daughter, from our grandson, from my one and only best friend. I had never in my life had a best friend who valued our friendship as much I did. But I was too exhausted to stand up for what was best for me. Besides, I’ve always been one to put the needs of those I love above my own. I bowed to Joe’s need to leave. Four years after Jason died, we left Washington and I felt like my anchor had just been cut loose and I was being pulled back into the ocean of loss.

Four years may seem like a long time to work on figuring out how to live after the death of a child. It’s really not. It had taken me 46 years to reach the point I was when Jason died, 46 years of living to develop the person I had become. Jason had been a part of our lives for nearly 20 years. It had been 20 years of living my life with him in it. And then Jason’s death truly shattered me. I don’t doubt that it will take me 20 years to figure out how to live my life without him.

My world was my family, my kids. When a child dies, there are so many multi-faceted aspects of a parent’s life that shatters. I remember writing at that time how I felt like I had been ripped away from what I knew and who I was, and had been thrown into a place where there were nothing was familiar. There were no landmarks to help me find my way back to my life and to the person I once was; there were no friends to help me find my way. I think part of the reason I felt that way was because my life was in a big transition already from homeschooling to preparing to re-enter the workforce. Then, after Jason died and we were left so alone, I felt abandoned in a foreboding and foreign land. Even with Mary and her husband as friends, we did most things alone and had to figure out things by ourselves. There were still a lot of holes in our lives left by people who had disappeared. There were huge holes left in our lives by Jason’s absence. I eventually learned that the Becky I used to be was gone and that I needed to work on finding and figuring out the “new” me. I had to do it for myself. As the saying goes, you can’t go forward if you’re always looking back, so I tried to focus on looking forward and moving forward. And then we moved from Washington, and it felt like so much of my forward-facing work was gone.

When we moved to Oklahoma, I pulled way back inside of myself and went into survival mode. It was as though a lot of the “new” me I had been working on was destroyed and I felt lost again. I never did connect to anything or anyone. No offense to anyone who lives there, but I hated Oklahoma. Since then, we have lived in Florida and North Carolina, and I still don’t feel “at home” anywhere or connected to anything or anyone. At times, I feel adrift and alone. Because my heart was so raw after Jason died, the pain of abandonment by  people we considered good friends went deep and has left me unwilling, in some ways, to trust people and open my heart to them. I haven’t really tried to make friends any place we’ve been since we left Washington. I almost feel like I have resigned myself to a lifetime without the connection and true comfort of friends.

I guess that’s what struck me last night in that moment of remembering. I miss the ability to be at home in my own skin, the freedom to laugh with a good friend, the huge welcoming hugs, the comfort of calling someone on short notice to hang out, the comfort of familiar things, the ability to connect to another human being, the ability to feel like I’m “home.”

I’ve been scanning photographs from negatives and prints to digital format. As I look at the person in those pictures, knowing it’s the me I used to be before Jason died, I think that’s made me particularly reflective. It’s funny how you can look back over your life and really see times where things drastically changed and realize how much those events changed you. I miss the me that I was before Jason died. I also miss the me that I was before we left Washington, the new me I was working so hard on. I lost something huge and valuable at both of those times in my life. I’ve never “recovered” (if there is such a thing) from Jason’s death.

Part of the reason is because I was thrown back into no-man’s land by moving away from a place that was home to me, away from a place and people I loved. It just felt – and still does – like it was too many losses. The primary loss of Jason. The secondary losses of friends. More losses when we moved. Too many losses. All I have left from our lives in Washington are 25 or so boxes of photographs and memorabilia. Everything else is gone. We rent, so we don’t have our own home. The place we rent was already furnished, so we don’t even have our own furniture. My feet were knocked out from under me by that initial move from Washington, and I was pulled back into that black ocean of loss. I don’t feel like we’ve ever found a place to really rest and be at home. No matter how hard I try (and I do try!!), I just can’t seem to recapture the energy to try as hard as I was before we left Washington. I just feel tired, tired of trying. I don’t feel as resilient as I was and I get weary of putting so much energy into moving forward. And I still feel so lost at times.

I just can’t seem to find enough remnants of the Becky that I once was to keep on rebuilding. They’ve got to be around here somewhere. I think I left some in Washington. I might have left some in Oklahoma or Florida. This one seems to have some pieces missing.

© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney