Friday, October 27, 2017

When Your Friend's Child Dies

As a parent, I can't think of anything worse than losing a child. It is a fear that grips me at unexpected times, wakes me in the middle of the night and brings me to my knees in prayer. Children should always outlive their parents, yet every day, for the parents of some 21,000 children worldwide, this is their reality and their nightmare. It's easy to distance yourself from this statistic when it doesn't reach you. Yes, in some way we are affected when we learn of the news or in our social media threads of a child who has died, but if we don't know them, it's easy to shed a quick tear and/or say a quick prayer and move on with our lives. But when we know them...well, it's an unexpected navigation that has no clear direction and no clear destination.

This August, my dear friend, lost her daughter who was hit by a car three days after arriving at her university. I had just dropped my own daughter off at her university and was in the middle of a 12-hour drive home when my daughter called and told me the horrible news. I couldn't believe it. For the next 6 hours, I drove in complete silence, waffling between tears and prayer. I had planned to stop somewhere along the way and sleep, but after the news I had to get home, knowing I wouldn't be able to sleep anyway. What do I do? Do I call her? Text her? Do I hop on the next plane and go to her? I was honestly paralyzed with a fear of doing or saying the wrong thing that it kept me from doing anything at all.

When someone dies, there is no "one-size-fits-all" approach to comforting those left behind, just like there is no one way to handle grief when it is you who is directly impacted. A person's faith, personality, and history all play a significant role in how they deal with their grief. And yet, even if we think we know them intimately, there is no guarantee we will know how they will react to the tragic event or what they need. So what are we to do? We go with our gut. We push through the fear of doing or saying the wrong thing and do what we feel would comfort us the most if the tables were turned. For example, I would want to be surrounded by my friends. I would want them to just be present so I wouldn't feel so alone. I would appreciate the calls and texts, even if I didn't answer them, take in the hugs sent in many ways, (flowers, prayer cards, silly things that make me laugh), and I would want to hear every story they have about my child.

It has been over three months since my friend's daughter's death and I have taken my own advice yet, there are so many things I find myself struggling with as I navigate this new terrain. First off, I can't physically be there to help my friend due to my recent move across the country. While so many are able to bring meals, stop over with a smile or get her out of the house, I can only offer texts or phone calls. I want to be there and the fact that I can't makes me feel helpless.

Second,  I believe I am suffering from a form of survivor's guilt. I wasn't aware of it at first but as I reflect on these painful months, I see that this survivor guilt started the minute I heard the news. Normally, I would have posted the picture on Facebook of my daughter and I that I took just before I left her at school. But after the news, I just couldn't. And since the accident, I've only posted a handful of times, always concerned at how my post would affect my friend. I felt like any post I made, especially about my kids, would be a punch to her gut and I didn't want to cause her any more pain. But it isn't only guilt that has pulled me away from interacting on Facebook. It's also the shallowness and hurtful posts that make me think people have forgotten how precious life truly is and the impact their words can have on someone else. When your friend loses their child, all that bullshit doesn't matter anymore. What matters is that I am kind in a world where kindness is not the lifestyle of choice these days.

Third, depression has been my constant companion. Before this news, I was already going through some big changes. I was moving across the country, leaving my son behind and dropping my daughter off at college. I was going from a family of 5 to a family of 3 in two short weeks. It was as though I was wading in the shallow end of the pool and reached the drop-off, unsure if I could doggy-paddle my way to safety. It was all too much at one time and then add my friend's daughter's death. When I was in the process of packing up my house, I was asked if I was sad. I was asked if it was strange to see my house empty, to watch the moving truck pull away, to close the door for the last time. But I didn't have time to be sad, or mad or nostalgic--I was up to my eyebrows in logistics and I knew that if I lost my shit, I would never get through it. So I bagged up my emotions, figuring I would deal with them when the dust settled. I would have a good cry, feel sorry for myself for a few days and then move on. But when tragedy struck, those bagged emotions were sealed because there was something bigger than my own bag of crap.

I am still waiting to open that bag. I thought at some point it would explode, but it appears I am suffering from some kind of emotional constipation that keeps me from moving forward. It's been months since I have written a blog post or worked on my novels. But I am determined to put some holes in that bag, to unleash the contents, accept all that has happened and turn what has bound me into what will lift me. It will be a slow process, I'm sure, but as I have learned, there is always the opportunity to grow, to be a better, stronger, kinder human being.

Growth comes from our experiences, the good the bad and the deeply tragic. What we do with that growth, who we become from those experiences is up to us. We can either let them pull us down and make us into miserable people, or we can allow them to mold us into a more understanding, gentler person who can make a difference in this world. I will leave you with this saying I found on a plaque that I sent to my dear friend:

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Special Night

It was 5:00 on a Monday evening and I was done. The day had begun with some mysterious smell that only he could detect triggering my sensory sensitive eight year old's projectile vomiting five minutes before we had to leave for his homeschool class. This required a full outfit change and clean up. Not for the first time, we had to do the late walk of shame to the sign in desk. This meant that we were late getting home to meet my four year old's therapist. He was out of sorts and uncooperative. When the bus arrived at 11:25, he did not want to get on and the bus driver had to bribe him with music.

I took the dog for a walk and tried without much success to bring some sense of order to the house, quickly becoming overwhelmed as I tend to do. Nothing got done and the piles of papers and school books loomed. Hampers overflowed. The washer and dryer were full. The cat threw up a massive hair ball. You get the picture. Nothing earth shattering or noteworthy happened, but the trivial hassles were piling up and grating on my patience.

Consistent with the theme of the day, The bus was late dropping my four year old home, which meant I was late getting to my eight year old's homeschool class to complete my clean up duties. Since his musical theater class started this same afternoon (why is everything always on Mondays?) we made the forty-five minute trek to the church facilitating the class. When we pulled into the parking lot (you guessed it - late), A was not budging from the car. He was tired, his allergies were flaring, and he had convinced himself his stomach was sick again. After ten more minutes of cajoling, I gave up and we were driving toward home. The four year old began to cry because, why not?

By the time we got home A had diagnosed himself with every known illness. Do you see why he's in theater? I told him to put hi pajamas on. His brother wanted pajamas too. I declared a movie night. Camped out on the couch with blankets and stuffed animals, they watched as I scrolled through the free on demand movies, debating about the validity of super heros and the entertainment value of various animated characters. Finally, they agreed on Curious George Christmas. I wasn't going to be the one to point out that it was September.

While the puppy tried to steal blankets and stuffed animals, I looked at the clock and realized I had no dinner plans. I opened the refrigerator to make an unfortunate discovery. The raw chicken defrosting in there had somehow leaked on the bottom shelf and into the drawers. I closed the refrigerator, washed my hands, and busted out the popcorn popper to buy myself sometime before the hunger monster struck. My four year old when he's hungry's got nothing on salmonella, people!

I may have slightly overloaded the popcorn popper, which started to smoke in protest. I'm pretty sure that's not supposed to happen, but I managed to serve up a big bowl of freshly popped popcorn. To the boys' delight, I even tossed the "no eating in the family room" rule to the wind.

As I disinfected the refrigerator and snuck peeks of my kids (and the dog) eating mouthfuls of popcorn at 6:00 P.M., My inner voice began. Don't you just love her?

"This is a shit day," I thought. "We were late to everything, A missed his first theater class and now he'll probably get a leftover part, and he can only miss two for the session. Should I have made him go? He's not really sick. Am I sending the message that it's okay to not honor your commitments? Why didn't I put this chicken  in an extra bag? Look at them eating popcorn for dinner, and no bath! I really failed today."

In the midst of my inner monologue, my four year old suddenly came running into the kitchen. He wrapped his pajama clad arms around my legs. I looked down at his smiling face. Then he said the words that changed my whole perception. "Thank you, Mom, for the special night."

Before I could respond, E was racing back to the family room to catch up with George and his Christmas shenanigans. I stopped. I looked at the evening from his eyes. He was safe and warm in cozy pajamas watching a special movie with his favorite blanket, his brother, and his puppy. He was eating popcorn in the family room and no one was concerned with crumbs or a spoiled appetite.
What I saw as failing on my part he saw as making the night special. I hope he will remember it that way. If only we could always see things through the innocent, joyful eyes of young children. Often my children are the ones teaching me without even knowing it.

I leaned an important life lesson: Sometimes a mom's shit day is a child's special night.