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Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Grief and sibling trauma


As we walked home from the frozen yogurt store last week, my son pointed out some Halloween decor at the end of our street that he liked. There were some scruffy black cats and pumpkins and a scarecrow. My neighbors were offering a gentle version of the holiday that's become anything but gentle. When I asked what he liked about them, he basically said that they weren't upsetting like some of the other stuff. When I asked him what he meant, he had a hard time articulating what he was feeling, but it was obvious to me. So I helped him make sense of his feelings as best as I could without putting words in his mouth.

He is also traumatized by the holiday gore lining our streets.

He's seen postoperative pictures of Riley. And he lived with his brother's scars -- the six-inch scar down his torso and the holes from the stitches and the puncture wounds from drainage tubes. All of those scars were familiar to him because that's all he ever knew of his brother who endured six open-heart surgeries during his lifetime. He is familiar with Steristrips holding skin together over wounds. He is familiar with bandages from blood tests. He spent time with his brother in the hospital when he was a baby. He lived with his brother and the aftermath of those long hospitalizations for all eight years that he was lucky enough to have an older brother. So seeing the undead around town with bloody incisions and gaping wounds and bandages is upsetting. He knows what those are in real life. He doesn't want to be reminded of them on the streets of our town. It reminds him of the trauma in his own family. It reminds him of his dead brother. I'm sure he imagines what his brother looked before he died. And afterwards. Those images probably look like the worst of what Halloween offers.

The bloody clown emerging from the gutter is not on display this October. And I have avoided the house near school, the one that incorporated their son's imaginary death in their decor last year. As a result, I don’t know what decorations, if any, they’ve put out this year. But I’m very much on edge as I move through town this time of year. And apparently, I'm not the only one. Still Standing just published a slightly altered version of my piece from last year. Read it here.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Grief and flashbacks

How do you go to bed the night before your child will die? Is he cold? How do you brush and floss? Is he in pain? How many sleeping pills do you take? Does he know that he’s dying? How many minutes beforehand do you take them? Is he scared? Do you look at Facebook before you begin all of this or do you wait until you’re closer to turning off the light? Does he know that you went home? Do you send a message to tell people that your son is actually still alive even though someone has posted that he has died? Does he know you're coming back? In that email, do you tell them that while he is still alive, he probably won’t be this time tomorrow? Does he know the surgery failed? How do you undress and climb onto the cold mattress? Does he have brain damage? How do you sink your head into the pillow and pull the blankets over? Is he angry? How many minutes will it take before the sleeping pills paralyze the limbs so that the shaking stops? Has he heard you screaming? How many more before they punch you into blackness to make the hours pass? Does your screaming scare him? When the alarm knocks the blackness aside, how many seconds will it take before nothingness is replaced with knowing your child will die today? Was it wrong to let the kids see him? How do you push the blankets back? Does he feel trapped? How do you lift your head from the pillow? Has he wanted to die? How do you raise your body from the mattress warmed from the hours of nothingness? Does he blame you? Do you see if anyone has responded to the email that you sent last night? How much is he aware of? Do you do that now or do you wait until you’re ready to turn the light on? Did you ask the right questions? How many minutes before you take the Ativan? Did you choose the wrong hospital? How many anxiety pills do you take? Did you choose the wrong surgeon? As you wonder how many to take, will you also calculate when you’ll be able to take the next dose? How did you let this happen? How long will you stand in the shower before you remember to wash? What should you have done differently? How will you comb out the knots and style your hair? Does he know that he will die today? How will you decide which skirt to wear? Which blouse to wear? Which boots to wear? Did someone make a mistake? Will you brush? Will you eat? How will you walk out the door and get into the car? Will he be relieved? Will you notice all of the other cars rushing to work or to school? Does he know that you want to die and be with him? Will you need to lean on your husband as you walk toward the hospital and into the room where the machines that have been keeping him alive will be turned off? Does he forgive you? Will you recognize the sounds coming from your body? Does he know that you love him? When the machines are quiet, how will you walk away? Does he know that you will always love him?

Monday, October 07, 2019

Grief and October

I’ve been anticipating you the last several weeks and here you are. You just show up and expect everyone to get excited about fall sweaters and boots and thick socks. You’ve been pounding on the windows trying to get my attention and I’ve done my best to ignore you. You’re not good at taking a hint.

You punt the sun up into the brisk morning, and then speckle the sky with pink and orange clouds as the sun hangs in the west. It gives everything a warm and cozy glow. I hate it when you try to be cute. It doesn't suit you, and you can’t fool me. Yes, you bring pumpkin spice and pumpkin pancakes and cinnamon brooms because you want me to like you. But I don’t. I never will. I know who you really are.

You stand up a little taller than normal because you carry all of the lasts like badges sewn onto your freshly ironed shirt. His last day at school. His last puzzle. His last joke with his best friend. His last family dinner. His last middle-of-the-night picnic (something we did before every hospital visit). His last words to me (I love you, too, mom). His last hug. His last surgery. His last day. His last breath. And with all of those lasts and this death, you rally humanity to celebrate death and gore and blood and the stuff hospital nightmares are made of. Skeletons hang from trees. And tombstones appear in front yards. And bloody severed limbs lie on seemingly-normal neighbors' front steps. It’s all part of the festivities, you say. Lighten up, you say. I can’t lighten up. I have no interest in your kind of fun. Death isn’t fun. Or festive. Or light.

As I walked the dog around the darkened streets tonight, I couldn’t remember if Riley’s last day of school was today or tomorrow. I should know. If he had a pre-op day, then his last day of school was today. If he didn’t have a pre-op day, then his last day was tomorrow. Why can’t I remember if he had a pre-op day. My feet take me past his school and the gate that he exited through on that last day. I pause by the wall next to the playground across the street. That was where I waited for him after school that day, where I waited every day. Riley’s best friend rolled his backpack for him. There was an awkward, “Well, I guess I’ll see you sometime” goodbye between them, since we weren’t sure how long he’d be in the hospital postoperatively.

All of the images start lighting up. They've been on stand-by all these months waiting to affront me. I keep them close to the surface. Why should I forget. I wouldn't want to. It was part of his story. It's who he was. It's what happened. But most of the time, there is a sheen covering them so that I can drive. So that I can shop for groceries. So that I can cook dinner. So that I can play games with my other children. So that I can kiss my husband like I mean it. But this time of year, the sheen is scratched away. All the rawness is exposed. And there's something about this fifth anniversary.

That last day at school plays in my mind as I stand by the wall next to the playground. I start imagining alternate endings. I hate the forever of this ending. It makes it hard to breathe. My lungs keep insisting on pulling in air, but my throat tightens. I open my mouth because getting oxygen into my bloodstream has become a conscious effort instead of an unconscious reflex. My heart bangs on my ribs. It happens a lot this time of year. Fuck you, October. And then I back away from that scene. It's late and my feet start taking me home. 

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Grief and WTF

Riley would be 16 ½ today. Instead we’re 18 days away from the fifth anniversary of his death. And to be clear, him being dead for four years, 11 months, and 12 days really is no different from him being dead for five years. The pain of grief is unchanged, really. A handful of days or months really doesn’t change the pain of living without him.

But it’s those shifts in time that change the language I use to talk about how long he’s been dead that make it harder. Even though it’s just a word: one versus three versus four or five. Five is all the fingers on one hand. It's all the toes on one foot. It's the number of points on a starfish. Clock numbers are five minutes apart. A musical staff has five lines. Five can be all of those things. But it can't be the number of years my son has been dead. It can't possibly be the number of years that my lungs have continues to inhale and exhale. It can't be the number of years my heart has continued to beat after his stopped beating. It just can't be.

Five feels like bus coming toward me while I stand on the street and watch. It’s not coming fast. It’s inching toward me. It has been every day since he died. But it’s getting closer now. I could smell the exhaust if the wind were pushing it the right way. I won’t move; I’ll stare it down, just like the others. And when it finally reaches me, the grill will push into my torso until I fall to the ground and it rolls over me. Crushing me all over again. Because this bus isn’t the first vehicle to run me over. That first month. The sixth month. The first year. And so on. But five has a new kind of meaning. Half a decade. I can’t help but say, WHAT THE FUCK.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Grief and certain death


My husband has been asleep on the sofa downstairs for almost two hours. I assume that means he’s died. He’d been to the doctor yesterday and wasn’t feeling well today and he said earlier that the medicine he’d been prescribed made him feel funny, a bit wobbly. So now he’s asleep downstairs trying to recover from the thing that has made him feel unwell. Meanwhile I’m upstairs with our crying newborn daughter. I can’t bring myself to check on him. To watch from a distance to see if his chest rises and falls. To listen for each inhale and exhale that would assure me that his heart and lungs continue to cooperate as they work to circulate blood and oxygen through his veins, to his organs, to his brain.

If I check on him and he is dead, it means that I’ll need to call 911 and there’s no turning back from that. It would be another division in my life separating before from after. It would be another grief so loud shouting into my already sore ears. It would pummel me in new ways and bash my heart already bruised from profound grief. And I’d have to raise our newborn as a single parent. Without my love. My rock. The man who has helped me walk the life as a bereaved parent. So for now, I will stay in denial upstairs with our crying newborn and hope that she falls asleep soon. She’s been crying on and off for hours now.

You see, my 11-year-old son died four years ago. And since then, it feels like everyone will die as soon as they’re out of sight. Before school ended my living biological son was off at Yosemite for the week with his class. The whole 7th grade went. Mothers posted online about how much they missed their kids. They said they wandered from room to room sobbing because they longed for the faces and bodies of their babies. The ones that they grew in their wombs and who became tweens. They imagined their kids would walk in the front door any minute from baseball practice or from having lunch downtown with a friend. I wish I hadn’t read those posts. I wanted to reply: “You know that they’re alive, right? That they’ll be home on Friday?”

And while I felt that way, there was a dichotomy. There could have been a bus accident as they drove back from Yosemite. I was (secretly) convinced that there would be a bus accident. An inferno and twisting metal stealing more children’s lives. There are so many ways for children to die. I’ve learned all about them from my grief group for parents whose children have died. They can choke on their dinners; they can have bowel obstructions; they can have cancer; they can die in car crashes or get hit by cars. They can have rare medical conditions; they can have heart defects, like my son. They can get murdered; they can have concussions; they can get crushed in freak accidents; they can kill themselves.

Please stop crying baby girl.

But when she does finally stop crying and she is quiet in her bed, I worry that she’ll stop breathing. That she’ll choke on spit-up and that she too will be gone from this world. All of my beloveds extinguished because life doesn’t care if I’m a good person or a bad person or a mediocre person. Life doesn't care about what I deserve or don’t deserve in the aftermath of my son’s death. One child’s death doesn't somehow protect me from other people dying, from other tragedies, from my own demise. There will be blood clots and pulmonary embolisms. There will be cancer. Or a car accident. A plane crash. Anaphylactic shock. Blood poisoning. It won’t be pretty. Death never is.

I pull the blanket around her body, quieting her flailing arms and her sad cries. She finally settles in her bassinet, and I listen for the pulling and pushing of air, the pushing and pulling of limbs against cloth. She sighs and my muscles relax for a moment. Glancing outside, I see the brittle leaves, the brown stalks, the wilted branches. I let all of the plants in the garden go -- too many things to keep alive. Too much responsibility. I focus on the ones that matter most.

A sneeze followed by creaks on the steps lets me know that my husband hasn’t died. Not today, anyway. He walks into our room and I push my index finger to my lips before pointing to the baby. I sit near her and wait for her to wake, wait for her to cry again, her sounds indicating her aliveness.

And then the cycle will begin again.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Grief and because of...

After Riley died, there was only what I could describe as a primal urge to be pregnant. I imagined it was nature’s way of making sure that our species continued thousands of years ago when children dying was normal because nature was harsh, predators were abundant, and accidents were prevalent. If that urge didn’t exist, I suspect our species would have become extinct.

I wanted it so badly. My mind wanted it. My heart wanted it. My arms longed for it. I wanted to grow a baby and keep it alive with my body. And we tried. After months of negative pregnancy tests, the threshold of what we'd try kept moving. There were intrauterine inseminations, hormone injections, egg retrievals and finally in vitro fertilizations. With those, there’d been three pregnancies and three miscarriages. My body felt broken and my heart was exhausted from the emotional ups and downs. We finally gave up. Letting go was its own kind of grief.

And in letting go, we gave ourselves permission to dream of the not-so-distant future when our youngest goes to college. We began imagining ourselves in Europe or Central America with Adam as the water-sports instructor and me leading workshops for enthusiastic writers. I wrote about it in the last issue of Six Hens. But as it turns out, if you don’t use birth control -- even after many failed pregnancies -- one can get pregnant the old-fashioned way. Even if you’re pushing 45.

Because of those pregnancies and losses, I was six months along before I told anyone. It took me that long to start believing that the pregnancy would result in an actual baby because I knew that a positive pregnancy test didn’t guarantee a baby would be born alive. 

It also took me that long because I was facing an intense internal battle. 

In the three years of successes and failures, it never occurred to me how a pregnancy while in grief would feel. I had not been pregnant long enough to be faced with those thoughts. And how it felt was, well, complicated. How could I possibly be excited for a baby that was only possible because Riley died?

As a result, my pregnancy was emotionally complex and I'd done my best to hide myself and my changing body from the world -- under lots of layers. Fortunately it was winter, so layers were easy. As I quietly shared this news with my closest friends, I cautioned them that it would never be a congratulations kind of pregnancy. And just as it would never be a congratulations kind of pregnancy, it would never be a congratulations kind of birth. Even though births are congratulatory.

You see, I can't get past the reality that if Riley were alive I would never have been pregnant in the first place. And therefore I was pregnant only because Riley died. It's flawed logic, but when someone was excited about my pregnancy, it felt like they must be celebrating the fact that Riley died because the current reality didn’t exist without the other. Even though the intellectual side of my brain knows no one is celebrating Riley’s death, the emotional side of my brain finds it difficult to internalize that.

Ultimately, I do take comfort in the fact that Riley would have been enormously proud to have a new sibling. He’d proven over the years to be an excellent big brother, big cousin, and big friend to our neighborhood children. I imagine it will get easier over time to accept the pregnancy was because of Riley, not instead of. Because of how much I love him. Because of how much I miss holding him. Because of how I have so much love to give. Because of how I long for things to be different for him, for our family.

So, with trepidation, we introduce Riley’s new sister who was born on March 8, 2019. Her first name is Sage. Her middle names are Lois Riley. Lois is in honor of my mom’s sister who died at 4; Riley is for her big brother, who she will love, but never meet. Be proud, big brother. I can sometimes see you in her tiny face.  

Monday, February 04, 2019

Grief and wanting to die

My two boys
In the last four years, I’ve met many bereaved parents. One of the commonalities is that the desire to live vanishes after your child dies. It doesn’t matter if you have other, living children (I do). It doesn’t matter if you have a loving spouse (I do). Nothing matters. Because the worst thing has happened. And all you want to do is go wherever your dead child has gone. Which is away from this planet. Away from the pain, a screaming, invisible pain that permeates into every cell in your body. Because nothing matters at all. I wrote about my death wish in the latest issue of Six Hens.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Grief and hair


There he was sitting in a chair in the row in front of me at tonight’s middle school holiday band concert. We didn’t speak, and I didn’t tousle his blond locks, but I was so tempted. This tempting boy and his messy hair. The hair that looks just like Riley’s hair. His 11-year-old floppy mess, something he called his “straight afro.” Tufts rose in different directions, defying gravity and any comb. 

Between songs, I dug my phone from my purse, poised it to take a picture of my 7th grader who was performing. But in reality, I wanted to take a picture of this rounded head with the perfect, messy hair. This lookalike even wore a black sweatshirt with a red hood, just like Riley had. It would have been creepy, I decided, to take a photo and so I denied myself the pleasure of taking this head of hair home with me as a souvenir of tonight’s visit from Riley. I tried not to stare or alarm his father who sat at his side. 

I desperately wanted to tell Riley’s best friend who sat two chairs to my left. I desperately wanted to tell Riley’s stepbrother and stepsister who sat two seats to my right. I desperately wanted to tell Riley’s dad and stepmom who sat behind me. I wanted everyone to share in this moment, to agree that indeed looked just like the back of Riley’s head. Fortunately I found a crumpled tissue hidden at the bottom of my purse to blot away the emotions that came with feeling so close and then instantly reminded that he, my sweet son, is so far away.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Grief and Halloween



As the van rolls down the winding street, it passes a torso climbing from the gutter. The torso is topped with a head, its face painted white with exaggerated clown lips and topped with a shock of red hair. It's holding a red balloon in an outstretched arm. In the adjacent driveway, a skeleton straddles a motorcycle.

As I head to the library, the grocery store, the Post Office, a row of skeletons lines our neighbor’s front yard across the street from the elementary school. As I drive around town, there are bloody severed limbs on porches. There are partially decomposed bodies dangling from trees. There are bloody mummies. There are blood-splattered tools.

It’s gruesome. Horrible. Triggering. I’ve seen enough bloody bandages, exposed bone, pools of blood, and thick black stitches holding together skin. I’ve seen blood-splattered floors. Blood on the machines designed to hold the bloody fluid pouring from tubes leaving my son’s body. I see these things when I close my eyes. When I’m trying to fall asleep at night. When I have another nightmare. And now they are everywhere during the day. When my eyes are open.

When did blood and death and gore become mainstream entertainment gleefully displayed in front yards? I don’t know how to avoid it because it’s everywhere. I hate this time of year. I hate this holiday. For a society that tends to avoid talking about death and dying and grief, we sure love to slap it around for fun at the end of October.

Should I put my son’s ashes on display in the front yard? Should I scatter his collection of lost childhood teeth on our sidewalk? Or maybe put them in a small bowl next to our mailbox? Should I hang his t-shirts on a clothesline across the front porch? I suspect that would be in poor taste. Because actual death is offensive.

In the meantime, if you pass the middle school in my town, you’ll see a yard with a large decorative -- if that’s what you call it -- tombstone at the end of their driveway. In large letters across the front, it says “RIP Max.” Max is their son’s name. Is it fun to imagine that your child has died? Even when you know a family whose son has actually died? When you've been to their house and talked about grief? Should I put a tombstone in my front yard with Riley’s name on it? Would it still be funny?

I miss when Halloween was about pumpkins and kids dressed as firefighters or dinosaurs or cows and bunnies or Mario and Luigi. And the gore was restricted to rentals from the local video store.

Seriously people, WTF?

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Grief and chances

Riley - perfect at 11
Two of the last three nights I’ve had Riley dreams. When I wake, instead of aching at the realization that my son is dead, I have a moment to reflect on the beautiful make believe world my mind let me wander in for a bit. Even though -- as dreams are -- they are nonsensical as they unfold in unlikely places in unlikely situations, they are as close to bliss as I get.

Two nights ago, I was in an imaginary physical therapy nursing homes on the east coast owned by friends from college. It was illogical that I’d traveled across the country with several bereaved families, my ex-husband, his wife, and our family dog. But that’s exactly what had happened. And while we were there, my dog injured herself in the rain and my physical therapy friends used their expert skills to rehabilitate her while all of us stayed indefinitely at their imaginary nursing home, waiting for her dog body to heal. Even though it was nonsensical and illogical, it was also fantastical when an inviting light beam shone from the ceiling. It was a magical spotlight and when I was under its brilliant beam, Riley was there. Alive, communicative as ever. Three-dimensional. And still 11 years old. His brother was eager to have a turn.

Eleven will always be my favorite age. Riley was perfect. Perfectly curious about maps. Perfectly aware of the importance of family and telling people that he loved them. Perfectly excited about learning and reading. Perfectly content with always having vanilla ice cream. Perfectly sized for sitting in my lap. And perfectly loud in my household with four children, a dog, and a bunch of chickens. It was a heartbreaking moment earlier this year when I realized that no one in my house would ever be 11 years old again. I wrote about it here in the Fall issue of Six Hens.