A Few More Things I’ve Learned in the Ten Years Since Jason Died

Everyone grieves differently and on a different timeline. It’s easy to want to apply to another person’s (griever’s) experience – with a blanket application or broad stroke – to “help” a bereaved parent. You read or hear something from another source you think will be helpful to the bereaved parent, you want to help the bereaved parent “move on” or “get unstuck” from the grief, you think you have some understanding based on your own or another experience, and you decide to “share” your insight or resource with the bereaved parent. Please remember: Every person is different and unique; every grief is different and unique. Each journey and timeline is unique.

I do not handle grief in the same manner as my husband or daughter, even though we all lost Jason at the same time. Our timeline and manners of grieving diverged very early on (and, believe me, that’s an understatement!). My husband and I do not handle grief in the same manner or on the same timeline as Alina’s parents, even though Jason and Alina died in the same accident at the same time. Jenna and Alina’s sister do not handle grief in the same manner, even though they are both the same age and lost a precious sibling in the same accident. I also do not handle grief the same way someone who may have written a book concerning their experiences following the death of a child.  Each of us individually arrived at the moment of our child’s/sibling’s death with different “tools” in our toolbox, with unique and varied personalities, with unique and varied experiences and backgrounds. Our experiences following the death are also unique and individual. Although there may be similarities, we do not all handle the death of our loved one in the same manner or on the same timeline exactly as anyone else would nor do we have the same experiences following the death.

There are two important points I’d like to emphasize concerning this topic:

1) It’s extremely important for family members to extend grace to each other in huge amounts and not make assumptions that another family member “should” be on the same page or “should” feel a certain way about something, especially concerning major issues such as going through the child’s room, moving, job changes, etc. Family members – mothers, fathers and siblings – will not be on the same time frame or page concerning their grief journey, either from the start or as time progresses. Each person walks an individual path, even though s/he has lost the same family member. Husbands and wives walk individual paths and need to extend each other a huge amount of time, grace, and understanding following the death of a child.

2) Giving a book to a bereaved parent with an agenda of motivating the bereaved parent to “move on” can do more harm than good. As a friend of someone who has lost a child, it’s important to remember that a book, movie, newspaper article, blog, or seminar should not be held out to the bereaved parent as an “answer” or as some type of standard pattern of grief to be followed. (It didn’t bother me to have a book on grief given to me following Jason’s death…as long it wasn’t given to me by a person who did nothing else. I really didn’t like having books given to me with the emphasis on “helping me move on” according to someone else’s determination or as a “comparative” yardstick of what my grief should be.) I’m not discouraging sharing a book with the bereaved parent; just make sure you check your motivations first.

Books can be an extremely valuable resource to bereaved parents and those surrounding them. However, just as family members do not experience the same grief, the grief of another person who may have written a book or who speaks at a seminar about his or her journey through grief will not be the same experience of the bereaved parent you know. It’s not fair to put unrealistic expectations on a bereaved parent who is already dealing with so much. It’s important to remember that most seminars are given and books published in either an analytical or “happy ending/good comes from bad” philosophy. People don’t want to hear “our child died, most everyone disappeared, and then things got really bad.” No one would buy that book or attend that seminar. Although it’s common knowledge that people may disappear following a deep loss, no one wants to hear it. We all want the happy ending or see how the “greater good” wins.

The authors/speakers are a very, very small representation of the actual number of bereaved parents. People writing books concerning grief may not actually have the first-hand knowledge and experience of losing a child. Just because a bereaved parent writes a book doesn’t mean s/he speaks for all bereaved parents. Although a book on grief may have something very valuable to say, whatever the author says is from his or her own perspective/experiences and no one else’s. It may or not apply to the bereaved parent you know.

What bereaved parents really need is an affirming confirmation that the loss of their child is important. They need consistent support and friendship, kindness and caring rather than a book or seminar. As Dr. Lani Leary states her recent blog entry:

While grieving, those in pain need a sense of a compassionate presence. That is a person who provides a healthy relationship and companions them. It is the person who can “just be” with them in whatever way is helpful throughout the journey.

A bereaved parent who has fairly adequate support may not be able to really understand what it’s like for a bereaved parent who does not have support. Once again, just as grief is as unique as the griever, the circumstances and support systems are not the same. Although there may be similarities, there are also great differences. Sometimes those who have support just don’t understand those who don’t. I have read multiple sources that say approximately one-half of bereaved parents feel like they have adequate support and one-half of bereaved parents feel horrendously deserted. Believe me, those are two entirely different paths to travel.

Reading books on grief helps, but no one book contains all the answers a bereaved parent may be looking for. I would venture to say that most bereaved parents at some point turn to reading books on grief to find answers to the many “why’s” that accompany the journey of outliving a child. When reading books on grief, it’s important glean what is meaningful to your individual situation and leave the rest. You can’t compare your grief (see above), but perhaps you can learn something from someone else’s journey that may help you in your own.

Whenever I pick up a book on grief, the first thing I do is read about the author in order to find out his/her background and perspective for writing the book. Secondly, if the author has lost a child, I look for the time distance between the death of the child and when the book was written. Why is this important to me? Because I usually find that with time comes perspective and understanding – sort of the “can’t see the forest for the trees” thing for those too close. I like to buy hard copies of books I think might be a good resource, underlining important passages and making comments in the margins.

It’s not easy being open and vulnerable about grief. Losing a child is so incredibly devastating…I am at a loss to actually put into words what the reality of losing a child is truly like. Being transparent and vulnerable in talking about the death of a child and the surrounding emotions/circumstances exposes a bereaved parent’s deepest pain and innermost feelings. When a bereaved parent honors your relationship and trusts you enough to talk about his/her loss, s/he is laying his/her soul bare to you. Listen carefully. Treat that trust with the utmost respect and kindness.

Bereaved parents get weary of the journey. The journey after losing a child is exhausting in more ways than anyone could even imagine and for a longer period of time than anyone could imagine. We were so exhausted at times we could barely function. No matter how tired you are or what else is going on in your life, you can’t just get off the “grief train.” You have to keep on learning how to integrate the loss of your child into the fabric of your life – you can’t just stop – and that is hard work and exhausting on a continual basis. Getting away for a little while six months after Jason died was such a necessary and incredible gift to us by one of Joe’s business contracts – we didn’t have to face an empty house; we didn’t have to drive by the accident site every day. We didn’t even realize how exhausted we were and how much we needed a respite until we actually got away. It gave us the necessary rest to be able to “keep on keeping on.”

There are many questions to which there are no answers. Why did Jason have to die? I don’t know. Why didn’t God protect him when I had prayed so much for my kids’ and for God to protect them? I don’t know. I won’t know most answers to my questions  until I see God face to face.

Death isn’t cheap and takes a financial toll in more ways than one. Although we didn’t have medical bills from Jason’s death, the financial toll was not a small one. Burying a child is expensive. But the costs don’t stop there.

Once all the kids were in college and I was done homeschooling, I went back to school to get my degree in Business Administration so I could become a “productive, income-producing member of our family and society.” I was excited about the next phase of my life and looking forward to school and employment. I had a plan: I had four years to finish my degree, leaving me with at least fifteen years to produce income before retirement.

I had just started school in January of 2002, right before the accident on March 3, 2002. Although I finished my A.A. and was on the Dean’s List every quarter, I didn’t go on to get my B.A. Several things got in the way – we were seriously thinking about moving from Washington (precipitated by Jason’s death); I was exhausted and had lost some motivation (also precipitated by Jason’s death and returning to school a week after the accident); finances were low; and many other things. I really struggled for a long time in coming to grips with Jason’s death and everything that followed. Sometimes it’s just hard to see a purpose to things and to stay motivated after your child dies.

Joe was exhausted (having returned to work a week after the accident) and burned out at his job, so when his company announced layoffs, Joe volunteered to be the first one laid off. He really wanted to leave Washington and figured better he be laid off than a younger employee with young children.

After a bit, we sold our home and moved from Washington to Oklahoma (major change and not the best fit for us). I got a job in a law office and worked there for 3 1/2 years. I really liked the work, but we decided we needed to find a place that was a better fit. As with any location, the pluses must outweigh the negatives; this is especially crucial as a bereaved parent when emotional and other resources are low. We moved to Florida to be closer to our daughter, and I took a condensed paralegal certification course from the University of Miami, passing the national paralegal certification test the first time I took it (45% pass rate for first-timers, so I was very pleased). But, with the economic downturns and higher availability of more experienced paralegals, I have not been able to find a job. Joe is working at a job with a much lower income than he had received previously.

In addition, I can’t say that we’ve yet found “home.” We have not yet purchased another house (following the sale of our house in Washington and the purchase/sale of our home in Oklahoma), although I am certainly ready to be settled in our own house. We just are not sure yet exactly where that is. The home I yearn for – and the standard against which I hold everything else – is the home that included Jason. It takes a lot of time, energy, and money to move…and try to find a place once again to be comfortable and feel “at home.” In our searching, perhaps we have made some missteps’ it’s not easy to make big decisions following the death of a child.

Would we still be struggling financially had Jason not died? Perhaps. A lot of people are struggling right now and are no longer secure in their employment/financial situations. But, to me, having Jason die knocked both of our projected employment and financial trains entirely off the tracks. (In my mind, I picture a train crossing the San Andreas fault when a huge earthquake hits. The train is knocked way off the tracks, and the tracks – instead of extending straight and parallel into the distance – are a mess, buckled and unusable as far as the eye can see.) It affected our ability – both at the time of the accident and for some time following – to be really, effectively employable and to pursue financial goals purposely and effectively. I felt like I lost years of effective productivity. I needed time to grieve the death of my precious son. A lot of my energy (whatever small amount I had) went to that and to the needs of my family. Energy is low and needs are high. It makes it difficult to muster energy for other things besides what’s right in front of you.

When you are deeply grieving the death of your child and dealing with so many other issues, it’s hard to be the best planner, employee or student you can be. Sometimes the decisions would have made differently or more effectively had your child not died. Following the death of a child, the focus necessarily becomes on the present moments and making it through one day at a time; the focus becomes shorter and narrower. It’s too hard to look into a future that doesn’t include your child. The balance eventually shifts from “only the present moments” to looking into the future and making plans again; from low energy and high needs to more of a balance of between energy and needs. But that took quite a while for me…and it took a financial toll in addition to everything else.

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Please check back to this post. I may update it if I think of anything else to add.

Thank you for bearing with me as I deviated from primarily basing my blog entries on my journals written after Jason’s death. I promise to return to them in the near future. I felt, however, that it was important to pursue some other areas at this milestone of ten years. Additionally, though, I will continue to write commentaries on things and am in the process of reading books on grief for book reviews to post.

© 2012 Rebecca R. Carney

A beautiful post. After Jason died, a neighbor we barely knew brought us a katsura tree. It had beautiful heart-shaped leaves that changed to brilliant colors in the fall. Our son had a wonderful, beautiful, thoughtful heart; that tree was a wonderful, beautiful, thoughtful gift.

Of course, not every griever wants or needs a tree or plants, but this post shows that thoughtful giving to the bereaved can come in many forms and ways.

“Hanging in there”

From my journal dated September 25, 2002:

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

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

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

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

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

How do I make people comfortable around me?

From my journal dated August 18, 2002:

Jenna told me tonight that I need to make people feel comfortable around me. I’m not sure how to do that when I sometimes feel awkward and don’t really know what to say. I’m not a chit-chatter, small-talker. Sometimes I feel like I just don’t care any more. It takes too much effort when I have no energy to even try…it just looks too huge, too much work. I think I’ve been left alone for too long…I don’t know how to deal with people any more.

I’ve tried…but I’m still not breaking the cycle. I’ve reached out, but have felt ignored or blocked in my efforts. I just don’t have energy to put into relationships that are going nowhere. How do I break the cycle? I don’t want to be lonely forever.

We saw Pamela* at Marymoor Park last night. She said something to me about people don’t know if they should invite us to do something fun, like normal. You know, sometimes I have tolerance and understanding why people avoid us or don’t do anything…and sometimes I flat-out don’t!!

Sometimes I wonder what I’d do, and I see that side of the coin…and sometimes it just seems to me that people either have no guts or don’t really care. Just because they’re not sure what to do…just because it’s too uncomfortable to get out of their own comfort zone…we are left terribly alone without adequate support.

Same old song, another verse. Will it ever end? How do I make it change?

“You’ve Got a Friend”

From my journal dated July 12, 2002:

I heard James Taylor’s version of “You’ve Got a Friend” on the radio today. It used to be one of my favorite songs in the whole world for years and years. Whenever I heard it, I’d think of someone – a friend – who especially meant a lot to me. It was like I was mentally dedicating that song to that friend. I would be there for that friend…that friend would be there for me.

“When you’re down and troubled…and you need a helping hand…you just call out my name…”

But I had to turn it off because I don’t believe it right now. I don’t know that I have a friend like that. I don’t know that I could be a friend like that. I feel burned and and I struggle with being bitter. I don’t want to trust people with my feelings. I don’t want to be open and vulnerable. I don’t feel that heart-connection to a friend any more.

Sparkle

From my journal dated June 26, 2002:

Had coffee with Brenda* today. She asked me questions like, “Do you feel like people around you are getting on with their lives?” She was very proud of the fact that their lives were about “90% back to normal.” We’ve known these people for six or seven years. Our kids were friends and have spent a great deal of time together. They have known the Christiansons for many more years than that and their kids were friends with Alina. What does “90% back to normal” mean? They’re 90% over Jason’s and Alina’s deaths? Am I supposed to be happy for them that they are “90% back to normal,” 90% over Jason’s death? Why would someone say that to me?

She also said that it still didn’t seem like Jenna quite had her “sparkle” back. No, I can’t imagine that she does! Jason has been gone less than four months. How is she supposed to have her “sparkle” back, especially with all Jenna has had to deal with on top of Jason’s death? Is the death of her precious brother and abandonment by nearly everyone she knows supposed to mean so little to her that she is able to just bounce back and can “sparkle” again???

I noticed that I sat farther and farther back as the conversation went on…major defensive position! How am I supposed to open up or be vulnerable when things like this happen?