Walking Wounded

Jason’s death was a very, very traumatic event for me. Having people we thought we could count on leave us alone was traumatic. Although not nearly as traumatic as Jason’s death by a long shot, it caused lasting damage. Going through Jason’s room and cleaning it out before I was ready was traumatic. Moving from Seattle to Oklahoma when I didn’t want to and wasn’t ready to move was traumatic. Each successive move hasn’t done much in the grand scheme of things to lessen the trauma and emptiness. Opening my heart in recent years and trusting people who have proven untrustworthy has hurt me horribly and has been traumatic. In some ways, I feel like I’ve given up on trusting people and making meaningful friendships.

Although I have never been to a doctor who diagnosed me with PTSD, I have had (and still have) PTSD-like symptoms. I probably should have talked to a professional counselor or something about it a long time ago. At the time, PTSD was something that was almost entirely associated with Vietnam-era veterans and not bereaved parents. There were not many coping or helpful resources at the time for a parent whose child had died. I tried going to a grief support group, but that was a disaster. We had very little support. I was so used being independent, to doing everything on my own, to coping on my own before Jason died that I just kept on going by sheer willpower the best I knew how. At one point after Jason died, I talked to my general physician about some of what I was feeling, and he put me on anti-depressants for a while.

At the time, my husband and I were trying to decide if we wanted to open a coffee shop or what we wanted to do with our lives since he had been laid off at his job. I knew someone who owned a coffee shop and was looking for help, so I asked her if she would hire me. I wanted to start at the very bottom rung – cleaning toilets, washing floors, taking out trash, closing up the shop – so that I could learn each job, both to determine if we wanted to actually take on this venture and so that I would know what each job entailed should we decide to go ahead with it.  I ended up doing every job and then managing the place before Joe and I decided that was not what we wanted to do.

One day, a lady I distantly knew from homeschooling came in to get coffee. I greeted her and told her my name when I realized she didn’t remember who I was. She seemed shocked and said, “You’re Jason’s mom! But you’re smiling and laughing!!”

Now, there are a couple of things I would like to say about that encounter. First of all, this lady’s demeanor and tone communicated to me that she didn’t seem to feel that, as a parent whose child had died, I should be smiling or laughing. I felt judged for smiling and laughing.

I want to state unequivocally that it’s okay to smile after a child dies. At first, I felt guilty for even smiling, let alone laughing. I would put my hand over my mouth when I smiled. I felt guilty. I guess we almost have to give ourselves permission to enjoy certain things again and to laugh after our child dies. It’s not necessarily an easy thing to do when the death of a child and grief looms so large. It can take a long time to laugh or to smile again.

The second thing about that encounter was that I realized that the anti-depressants weren’t actually helping me. Yes, they took some of the edge off of what I was feeling, but I realized that what they were doing was helping me to avoid the necessary things I needed to do to grieve Jason’s death. For me, it felt like I was artificially suppressing my grief behind a facade. The pills were masking my true feelings and my grief. I may have been depressed to some degree, but I think that I was also deeply grieving.

I understand that sometimes bereaved parents end up clinically depressed when a child dies and that there may be a place for use of medication to treat depression. There is no shame in that. I think sometimes the symptoms of depression and deep grief are mixed up or confused, even by medical professionals. Did my doctor rush to medicate me? I don’t think so. I think he just didn’t understand how long the grief process following the death of a child could be, and he was trying to help me cope.

This same doctor prescribed sleeping pills for me the day Jason died. I had called him because I had such a horrible headache. I guess I was just reaching out for help. I didn’t know what to do, either for the headache or how to grasp the unthinkable fact that Jason died. He prescribed something for the headache, but he also prescribed sleeping pills.

I probably took the sleeping pills way longer than I should have. I took them for a long time just to get some rest at night so I could function during the day. Some days, I specifically had to concentrate on taking just one of the sleeping pills and putting the rest aside. Some days I was in so much pain and I felt so broken and lost, I really wanted to take them all. One day, I just decided I shouldn’t take them any more at all. I wanted to learn to sleep and function without them.

It’s tempting to want to use medication to take the edge off of grief. Grief can be so overwhelming. Living life after the death of a child can be so hard and so overwhelming. Some days it seems impossible to do.

I look back now and I really don’t know how I made it through those times. I got up, I went to school. I did what I had to do – one day, one step, one breath at a time. I did most everything alone. I tried to pretend I was okay, when I really wanted to die. I cried and cried and cried. And then I cried some more. Some days I was so overwhelmed with grief I couldn’t even walk. I had no energy to walk even more one step; I just fell to the floor like a rag doll and cried. I railed at God for not protecting Jason when I had prayed and prayed for our kids and for how betrayed I felt by “His people” deserting us.

It’s almost as if I can step back into that time. I remember it all – the phone call from Alina’s dad telling me Alina and Jason weren’t at their house and that he had driven by a bad accident, the mud I left on the steps as I left the house to go to the accident scene, the sound of the sirens, praying to God, “Oh, God, please NO! Please, God. NO!! I need him!!” Asking the fireman if that was our son in the car in the ditch. Joe telling the policeman, who had confirmed Jason’s death to us, that maybe he was just unconscious and needed to go to the hospital. Going home to call family and friends. Answering the phone in the afternoon when one of Jason’s tutoring students called to ask him a math question and having to tell the boy that Jason had died. Rushing to hold Joe or Jenna as they sobbed uncontrollably, and them doing the same for me. I remember everything about that day like it was yesterday.

I guess I tend to get reflective as those “huge” days approach – Jason’s birthday, holidays, the anniversary of his death. March 3rd, the anniversary of Jason’s death, is approaching rapidly, and memories and feelings feel so much closer to the surface. My mind tends to drift to that time.

I still have a huge emptiness inside of me, a huge loneliness, a huge sadness. I get up, I go to work. I do what I have to do – one day, one step, one breath at a time. I try to do my best, to be the best version of myself I can be and to treat people as I would want to be treated. I still do most everything alone, especially now that our daughter and her husband have moved away. Our older son is across the country and busy with his life, business and family, and our daughter-in-law is not especially helpful in promoting close reltionships. I still try to pretend I am okay, when some days it takes concerted effort and energy to make it through the day. I don’t take sleeping pills any more, but some nights sleep is a welcome refuge. I still hurt so bad at times. I miss my boy every single day. I try to hide it, but I am still walking wounded.

Oh, how I miss my boy.

© 2019 Rebecca R. Carney

 

Sweet Memories

For Thanksgiving Day and Christmas morning, I used to get up really early to start making fresh cinnamon rolls and dinner rolls for my family on these very special days. I would set my alarm for 4 a.m., go downstairs and begin the process of mixing the dough. I’d turn on the oven light for a bit, just long enough to warm the oven up a little, while I got the ingredients together.

The milk went into a large pan and onto a burner to warm to just the right temperature. When it got warm enough, I’d take it off the burner and add in the butter to melt and pinch of salt, gradually mixing in a flour/sugar/yeast mixture, along with the eggs, and then beat it on high for one minute. After that, I’d start adding more flour bit by bit and mixing by hand, eventually pouring the mixture onto the freshly-washed and floured kitchen table, kneading the dough until it was just the right consistency. Once it was all mixed to the perfect consistency, the dough (covered by wax paper and a clean kitchen towel) went back into the now-greased pan and into the oven that had been warmed by the oven light. There it would sit until it had risen to the perfect, fluffy height.

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Dough for cinnamon rolls – Christmas 2000

I’d go back to bed, setting my alarm to wake up and go back downstairs in another hour and a half or so. I would pull the dough out of the oven, carefully remove the wax paper, and then poke two fingers down into the dough. Sometimes it would have risen so much it would look like a muffin with dough pooching over the side of the pan. There’s something so satisfying about poking fingers into beautiful, raised dough. And it smells so wonderfully yeast-y. I’d then fold the dough in on itself to deflate it a bit so I could get it ready for the next step.

I’d take a big knife and carefully section each of the dough balls into quarter-portions – some for dinner rolls and the rest (most of it) for cinnamon rolls. I started with the dinner rolls, because they were the quickest to put together. Half dollar-sized chunks of dough were pulled off and rolled into little balls. Into greased cupcake pans they would go, three to a cup, to make cloverleaf dinner rolls. Covered and set onto the stove to rise, I’d move onto making cinnamon rolls.fullsizeoutput_139b3

The remaining sections of dough were individually rolled one at a time into rectangular shapes, and then slathered with partially-melted butter and generously sprinkled with cinnamon and brown sugar. Some had nuts and raisins added, some only nuts, some neither nuts nor raisins. The dough was then rolled up tightly into a long roll and scissored into sections with dental floss. Into the greased, waiting pans the dough would go, ready to be covered and set in the still-warmish oven to rise again.

This time, because the cinnamon rolls and dinner rolls didn’t need to rise as long, I usually set my alarm just to make sure I put them into the oven in time, but I didn’t sleep. Sometimes I’d use the time to take a shower and clean up the kitchen, although I usually cleaned as I went along.

fullsizeoutput_139bfOnce my alarm went off, back to the kitchen I would go to begin the baking process. The whole house filled with the wonderful smell of fresh bread and cinnamon. That usually brought everyone downstairs and we would begin our Christmas morning traditions – eating warm cinnamon rolls while Joe read the Christmas story. Orange juice, milk, coffee, and fruit would complete our Christmas morning feast.

We all munched cinnamon rolls while listening to the story of the birth of our Savior, sometimes taking turns reading so Joe would have time to enjoy the his cinnamon roll while it was nice and warm. The oven would then be repurposed to bake Christmas Day dinner –  sometimes a ham, sometimes a turkey, sometimes both.

I usually would mix up two or three huge pans of dough, having been sternly told by my family the night before to make sure I made enough cinnamon rolls. Believe me, we never ran out of cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning. People would drift back into the kitchen all morning and into the afternoon to get another bite of a cinnamon roll.

I don’t make cinnamon rolls any more. I tried to continue with the tradition, but it never brought the same joy. That first Christmas after Jason died, I’m sure my tears were added to the dough. It was such a tough year to celebrate Christmas at all. Jason had asked me the year before to teach him to make bread, especially cinnamon rolls. He wanted to get up with me on the next Christmas morning and help me make them so he could learn. He didn’t live to see that next Christmas morning.

Yesterday, my husband and I went for lunch to a local cafe here in town called City Bakery. It’s really a combination coffee shop/bakery/sandwich shop. It has a very comfortable vibe with people drinking coffee or eating a sandwich while chatting with a friend or relative, students studying or people on their laptops.

One menu item that City Bakery has is something they call “sticky buns.” They look and taste almost exactly like the cinnamon rolls I used to make. Mine were a little bigger and had a little more gooey stuff inside, I think, but to eat a warm cinnamon roll at City Bakery is like slipping right back in time to those Christmases when Jason was here and I got up early to make cinnamon rolls.

 

 

Sweet memories, but, oh, how I miss my boy. I would give anything to go back to those days.

© 2019 Rebecca R. Carney

Cleaning Closets

The last day or so, I’ve been working on cleaning out my closet. Because our entire set of belongings were in storage for a number of years after we left Oklahoma (including all of my professional wardrobe), I ended up with a double wardrobe. When we settled in Asheville, I started looking for a job. With my professional wardrobe in storage and needing clothes for job interviews and, subsequently, daily wear to work, I ended up purchasing nearly an entire new wardrobe. (Thank goodness for Dillards outlet and their wonderful discount super sales!!) When we moved our storage items from Oklahoma a couple of years ago to where we are, I  ended up with more clothes than I could possibly wear.

Yesterday, I put on music, pulled every item out of my closet to try on and evaluate, and have been packaging up items to pass on to an organization that helps women re-entering the workforce. It’s been very cathartic in many ways.

In some ways, it’s been sad, though. Some clothing items reminded me of pleasant times working for a previous boss, one who hurt me so badly. I have hardly worn any of them for a long time, and it’s time to get rid of them.

A couple of the items made me cry, particularly the sweater and skirt I wore to Jason’s graduation.

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Jason was a very loving young man and had a special way of showing affection for me. He would lean his forehead toward me and we would touch foreheads. Even at his high school graduation and in front of a very large crowd, he leaned his forehead toward me and we touched foreheads. It was so incredibly sweet and touched my heart in a way I just can’t explain. He wasn’t ashamed to show affection for those he loved, no matter the setting. Someone in the audience happened to snap a photo just at that moment and gave it to me later. I’m so thankful I have that photo.

Oh, how I miss that precious young man.

~Becky

© 2018 Rebecca R. Carney

‘Tis a Fearful Thing

‘Tis a fearful thing
to love what death can touch

A fearful thing
to love, to hope, to dream, to be –

to be,
And oh, to lose.

A thing for fools, this,

And a holy thing,

a holy thing
to love.

For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.

To remember this brings painful joy.

‘Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched.”

Judah Halevi

For a parent whose child has died, the awareness that death CAN touch the people you love at any time is greatly enhanced. Before Jason died, I innocently was unaware of the ravages and searing grief the death of a child can leave in its wake. I guess I felt immune. I felt that God heard my fervent prayers and protected my family. My life had a plan. My kids were going to grow up, go to college, get married, have grandkids for us to love and spoil.

It never dawned on my that one of my children would die – at least not before me, not as a healthy, wonderful, handsome 19-year old with the whole world before him. I was so excited for Jason as he was ready to enter the next phase of his life – finish and graduate from college, get a job, get married, have kids. I couldn’t wait to hold Jason’s kids. I was looking forward to rejoicing with him on the various aspects of his life. He was my sunshine, my joy, my precious boy. I didn’t expect him to die. I didn’t expect to outlive him. I didn’t expect death to touch him.

For a long time after Jason died, panic and fear gripped my heart with each siren I heard.  I tend to worry about things concerning my family, anyway – Joe climbing on the roof to clean the gutters, Jenna driving a long distance, stuff like that – but now, there’s an understanding of stark reality behind the worry.

In some respects, I suppose it’s like anything traumatic – you don’t know the walk until you’ve actually walked the walk. We all know on some level of subconscious understanding that people we love will die. We know to some extent that it will be hard to lose someone we love and that we will grieve their death. We assume we will outlive our parents, our grandparents, but know that at some point they will die before we do. We just don’t expect our children to die.

I love my family so much. It is a fearful thing to realize that I am not immune from death’s reach, that they are not immune, that death can reach out and touch the ones I so dearly love. I don’t live in fear, but sometimes the window cracks open to that fear, because I truly know beyond a shadow of a doubt that death can reach out and touch any of those I love at any time. We are frail human beings. Jason worked out at the school gym and played various sports. He took care of himself. He was smart and wise beyond his years. He was physically strong. But he was physically no match for a speeding car driven by a drunk driver.

As I sat across from my husband in the Wild Wing Cafe yesterday, watching the Carolina Panther football game on the big screen TV’s, I felt a huge rush of overwhelming love for Joe. He is such a wonderful man and I love him so much. He is kind, thoughtful, fun. That rush of love was followed by the thought, “I don’t know what I’d do without him.” I seriously don’t know what I would do without him, and the thought of that gripped my heart with anguish. It is a fearful thing to think of a life without him. It is a fearful thing to think about living without any of my family.

Because Joe is retired and I am still working, Joe will call me quite often when he is close by to see if I would like to have lunch. I say Joe is retired, but he has never been one to sit still. He helps our older neighbor around his house and yard, he drives for Uber and Lyft, he helps out around the office with whatever may need done in the maintenance area. He likes to stay busy. I’m sure it seems odd to the people in the office that I go to lunch with Joe as much as I do, but I truly appreciate every moment I have with Joe.

In the whole scheme of things, we are rather frail, fragile creatures. No matter what precautions we take, there are a lot of things beyond our control. We and the people we love are given only a certain number of days. Our days are finite. We are given only a certain number of days with the people we love. I never, ever would have thought in my wildest nightmares that I would have only 7,157 days with Jason. We have to do our best to make each and every one of our days count, and to show the people in our lives how much we care for and appreciate them.

Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Psalm 90:12

Remind me how brief my time on earth will be. Remind me that my days are numbered–how fleeting my life is. Psalm 39:4

https://biblehub.com/psalms/39-4.htm

Oh, my boy. How I miss you. “Your life has lived in me, your laugh once lifted me, your word was gift to me. To remember this brings painful joy.” ‘Tis a painful thing that death reached out and took you from us. I love you yesterday, today, forever. ~Mom

Hugs,

as always,

~Becky

© 2018 Rebecca R. Carney

Empathy

One of Jason’s outstanding qualities, among his many, was his kind and caring heart and that he was a very empathic person. Even as a little boy, Jason had so much empathy. He had the ability to understand what others felt on such a personal level.

Empathy is described as “…the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from their point of view, rather than from your own. You can imagine yourself in their place in order to understand what they are feeling or experiencing.” (Psychology Today – https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/empathy)

One Christmas my husband’s sister sent a book to the kids, something along the line of “how things work.” One of the articles in the book had to do with tear ducts and showed a photograph of a child on the beach, crying because he had sand on his hands. As he looked at that book, Jason would stop at that page and stare at the picture. He felt so much empathy for the little boy in that picture that it truly made him sad. He could imagine what that child felt.

After a while, the book would automatically fall open to that page because Jason was looking at it so often. I think he, in his young child’s mind (in addition to his helpful and caring personality), he was trying to figure out a way to help that little boy to not be so sad. We eventually had to put the book away, because there was no way for him to actually solve the problem depicted in that picture and we didn’t want him to be unnecessarily sad.

When the kids were small, I made each of them a Raggedy Ann or Andy doll. I started making Raggedy Andy’s for Eric and Jason, and then made a Raggedy Ann doll for Jenna one Christmas when she was three years old. Jason watched me every step of the way as I made the doll for Jenna – stitching the features (eyes, nose, mouth) on the face, adding a hand-stitched heart on the chest, sewing the body together, adding the stuffing “just so” in every part of the body, hand-writing “I love you” in the heart with a fabric pen, adding row after row of bright red yarn-hair, sewing the dress and apron with the red rickrack. He was so excited to be a part of the secret, best-ever Christmas present for the sister that he adored.

When Christmas morning arrived, Jason could barely contain his excitement when it was time for Jenna to open her present. Jenna opened the present, looked at the Raggedy Ann and just set it aside. She didn’t really care about it one way or the other.

In her defense, Jenna was never one of these girls who was crazy about dolls, and I knew this about her. As a matter of fact, she didn’t like dolls at all and never understood why some girls liked them so much. But, both she and Jason absolutely loved stuffed animals. As a small child, Jenna carried around a yellow striped, stuffed tiger for a long time. The tiger’s tail curved around and connected to its body, making a perfect handle to carry it everywhere and anywhere. In my mind, I guess I thought Jenna might see the Raggedy Ann more as like stuffed animal than a hard, rubber doll, and imagined how great it would be for each of them to have a Raggedy Ann or Andy to make a complete set. However, I always had in the back of my mind that she might not like it because she might view it more as a doll than a stuffed animal.

Jason stood beside me for the longest time, with his hand on my arm or shoulder, carefully watching me. He was so worried that my feelings would be hurt because Jenna wasn’t absolutely thrilled about the Raggedy Ann I had put so much work into. I hugged him and kept reassuring that I was okay, that my feelings weren’t hurt. But his little-boy caring heart was concerned about me.

My precious, empathetic little boy grew into the most wonderful, kind and caring young man. I miss him beyond words!!

~Becky

© 2018 Rebecca R. Carney