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Thursday, August 18, 2016

Grief and procrastination

Love in a cup
It’s been almost two months of procrastinating, of avoiding, of making excuses. Come on, raise your hands if you can relate to the idea of wanting to hide behind, well, anything, instead of doing that thing that needs doing. I can already see some tips of fingers pointing toward the ceiling of those shy hands not wanting to admit that they, too, have put something off. Come on, who’s with me?

What’s your excuse and what have you avoided doing, you ask? Well, I've failed to promote on this very personal soapbox of mine the June issue of Six Hens in which I write about an unfortunate night on my journey through adolescence. I've blamed my procrastination on the fear of hearing judgy voices that might suggest that I deserved to have a near stranger rape the 15-year-old version of myself more than 25 years ago.

But honestly, it has nothing to do with that.

Promoting something here that has nothing to do with grief means I have to admit to myself that I actually had the brain capacity to write about something besides losing my 11-year-old son. Sure, many people reading this know I launched a snazzy lit mag last year in grief’s wake. And managing all of that takes a lot of un-grief-related brain cells. But after writing there and here exclusively about how much having your kid die fucks you up in the most twisted and permanent way, promoting my magazine that includes a story about my ancient history feels all wrong. It feels like I've accidentally cracked open some door to the new normal, a horrible place I’ve read so much about in grief magazines that spew feel-good, grief #7 in this article

I associate the idea of new normal with I'm doing betterNew normal is a place that I will reject with every inhale I draw for as long as my lungs grant me the power to do so. As if you could wake up one day and realize you're actually not all that heartbroken anymore that your totally awesome kid died. As if there is such a magical place with unicorns and rainbows. If there was such a place, the streets would be lined with Ambien and Zoloft and Ativan. I don’t want anything normal because life without my son will never be normal. Even if you put an enticing adjective like new as a disclaimer in front of it. 

But *why* does it matter that I managed to write about something else? And *why* does it matter if I promote it here on this soapbox?

Perfecting the art of not doing stuff 
I suppose it matters because this soapbox has been Riley's digital shrine. My outpouring of soul and love and loss and heartbreak to him, for him, and about him. And promoting that other thing would be the first time in two years that I have put something here that didn't include him. I don't want another millimeter of time or space or thought or love between us. And anything that doesn't include him feels like stepping on to a path of letting him go. Of hopping on that new normal bus and rolling away. No matter how many times I tell myself that it's not. It's not. It's not. It's not... 

With all that said, without further delay, only two months behind schedule, check out the 5th Issue of Six Hens. It’s rad. Just like Riley's love of Tabasco. And garlic. And maps. And how he would hum when doing his homework. And how when he picked up a cello for the first time, he said, "It's like I've been playing it my whole life." And how, the day after we got baby chicks, he was the first one dressed and ready for school so that he could hold them for a bit before it was time to leave. "I love them," he cooed. So there. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Grief and reality

#CentralTeamRiley in Lassen National Park
This is one of those nights when I cannot remember what is real. When I crouch on the ground outside the garage and search for my son’s familiar face among the knots on the slats of wood on the fence. When I cannot remember why my husband continues to love me, even when I’m not a nice wife or friend or housemate. When one of his bear hugs cannot temper down the confusion and grief that hangs from my limbs like bricks.

This is one of those nights when I deserve to be all alone, abandoned. When I imagine my husband finally realizes that I’m not worth the effort. When I imagine he sees how hopeless I am, when he finally decides that I’m not trying hard enough to be a part of our family. When I escape to the shower to avoid watching a movie with them because sitting next to them, while they have a good time is too painful. Even though that’s exactly what Riley would be doing if he were here.

This is one of those nights when I question how I can possibly live the rest of my life without him. When the idea of being around people in any social situation that is not centered around grief is betraying his death and the horrors that he endured in the last days of his life. When I question my loved ones when they want to be with their friends in social situations that have nothing to do with grief. When they find a way to live without Riley.

This is one of those nights when I cannot remember who my safe people are. When I imagine what trades I could make to bring him back. When I cannot remember why anyone continues to love me, or want my company, even when I shut them out, don’t call them back, and am absent from their weddings, their birthday parties, their fundraising events, their going away parties.

This is one of those nights when I’m so confused because I’m so lonely, yet I don’t know how to let people be close to me. Because I’m waiting for them to leave me, just like I knew they would when they got sick of all this grieving. When they know that I know that they’ve wanted to lure me away from grief so that I leave Riley behind and get on with the business of being the old Suzanne, the goofy girl who laughed. The fun one. The one who was complimented for being so good at helping people feel included and comfortable in social situations. The one whose job it was to boost the emotional status of everyone in the room.

This is one of those nights when my body hurts from grief. It physically aches from the loss of my 11-year-old son. It’s weighted and sharp, and my lungs cannot get enough air. The pumping of my heart is strained, as if it cannot possibly continue on it’s own. As if it needs someone’s hands squeezing it so that it can take a break from all that responsibility of keeping me alive, even though I would reject any offers of help because I don’t want relief. I think of ways to hurt myself.

This is one of those nights when I hope it gets worse. Because I don’t want to get better. I don’t want to get better at living without my son. I want to suffer for the rest of my life because anything less than suffering means that I’m adapting to his death.

This is one of those nights when I know that while I understand things on an intellectual level, I’m not interested in understanding them on an emotional level. When I understand that my son’s death is permanent, but still hope that I can solve the riddle about out what when wrong so that I can undo his death. When I know that his face and his essence is not actually hidden in a wood knot on the fence, but I continue to stare at it anyway while asking him to forgive me again and again.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Grief and Landscapes

Mindy Stricke's Grief Landscapes
I am honored to share Riley via Mindy Stricke's ‪‎Grief Landscapes‬ project. Each week, she posts a new story and image from her evolving art project about grief and bereavement. Riley's story within her project is entitled Green Tabasco Sauce.

It all started with a questionnaire about Riley and about how I was grieving immediately after his death. There were questions about him and about physical things that make me think of him. I wrote about his beloved stuffed penguins--Freddie and Freddie Jr.--as well as his love of baseball and of the color green and garlic and Tabasco. From there, she photographed an object in extreme close-up. In this case, it was green Tabasco. The finished product, according to her project's web site is meant to evoke "the memory of the person who died, transforming it into an abstract landscape inspired by the participant’s grief story."

A few weeks before Riley was featured on her website, Mindy emailed the image she created to me. She told me that she had played with lot of different angles to photograph the Tabasco bottle and also tried working with the liquid itself. “The process ended up being a mixture of trying to find the most interesting image while channeling the tone of what you wrote. I was going for some of the gray scale you described, and I liked the serendipity of the pinprick of light in the middle of the image, which is Riley to me,” she wrote to me.

I made the mistake of downloading the image on my phone while I was standing outside the bank causing me to burst into tears. I so love the idea of Riley being that center force of light on some kind of buoyant green sphere. In addition to capturing the landscape that I described in the questionnaire, the image also reminds me of a breast which is also fitting. 

When Riley was a baby, all I wanted to do was keep him alive with my body, as if my body alone could save him from the physical defects he was born with. And when he wasn't allowed breast milk for 12 weeks when he was 15 months old because it was too rich for his damaged lymphatic system (injured during his second heart surgery), I was determined to continue using the breast pump so that I could nurse him again when the doctors said his lymph system had healed. Breastfeeding was the thing I latched onto, the thing that I wanted control over. It seemed we had control over very little and I wanted to decide with Riley when to wean him--not the hospital or the doctors or the situation.

Thank you, Mindy Stricke, for allowing me (and Riley) to be a part of your beautiful project honoring grief. 

All of the people and stories in the series have resonated with me in some way. A sentence or a image or a feeling... They are beautiful and powerful and offer a glimpse into real grief. The more we are open to learning about grief and understanding grief, the more we can relate to each other as humans because loss and grief is as much a part of life as birth and love.

Now go see it and read it. It's worth the next five minutes of your day.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Grief and being closed

Open, closed. Open, closed. Open, closed. Like a heart expanding and filling, then contracting and emptying, it’s the way I am moving through the world. For brief periods of time, I open to be in the company of others. And other times--most of the time--I shrink into myself, my tiny, isolated world of words and stacks of photos from when my son was alive. I am open; I am closed. I am open; I am closed.

Right now I am closed.

mother grief
A rainbow lands on Riley's art
As I lie in bed and sense the afternoon sun, a finger of light lands on my index finger like tiny hummingbird feather. I try to feel it. I want it to be warm and weighted like my boy’s hand. I search myself to remember what my son’s hand feels like. I held it thousands of times without much consideration. Why didn’t I pay more attention? I can picture his little boy hand with dimpled knuckles. I can picture his middle-schooler hand with gnawed cuticles, the places where the skin had torn and bled. I can see his rounded fingertips, his nails so short from the constant nibbling. I remember the reddish blue nail beds. I so often look for that color on other children’s hands, but it’s not a color readily available on the playground or in C’s classroom. I cannot see it anywhere. That feather of light taps my skin. Hello Riley, I say to him.

In February, I was open.

I mustered the wherewithal to be open, to reach out and do the simple things that most people do without an internal battle--I got a haircut, I went for a walk, I had coffee with a friend. But then, like a scared turtle, I pulled my head back inside my protective shell to hide again. Maybe it was because April was so very heavy. There were too many things at once to make sense of.

Riley’s 13th birthday appeared on the calendar. My brain cannot seem to reconcile that he is now two different ages at the same time.

My stepson turned 12. How can the boy who is exactly one year and two weeks younger than Riley be older than Riley?

Another mathematical milestone demanded that we recognize that 18 months have been endured without him. 

My stepdaughter was in the ER and then having surgery at the same hospital where Riley exhaled for the last time. I 
even sat for a period of time in the same pre-op room where I last heard my Riley's voice. I love you too, mom, it said.

And so I am closed.

my child died
Riley in Bubblegum Alley
That list of reasons is me trying to apply logic to this illogical reality. I figure if I can point to things, it will explain the latest crying, the way I am avoiding friends. Another school year is winding down without him... Add that to the list. When I examine the cumulation of all of those things, it makes sense. Only it will never really make sense. I vividly recall school beginning, the mandatory first-day-of-school photos, minus one. The calendar is turning without him; the children are growing taller, the notches on the door frame inching up while he will forever be his height on his half birthday just nine days before that surgery that was supposed to fix everything. 

The leaves fall, they grow back and shade the patio, they fall and grow back again. They don’t know how to live another way. I don’t know how to live this way. And so I curl into myself, I crumple, and fall to the ground.

One day I imagine I will open again. I will be in the company of my safe people. In the meantime, I will talk to the light tapping my finger. I will concentrate on giving that light a feeling so that it will be like his hand holding mine, feeling his boy skin on my skin. And then it vanishes. The patch of light leaves me all alone with my broken heart, contracting and emptying.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Grief and Being Better

This is fascinating... I read today that my latest piece in Six Hens implied I was doing "better." You know, 18 months has passed since my son died, so I must be getting over that whole grief-thing. Having gone back and reread it, I understand why some people interpreted it that way. But in reality, I was so low--which really is just my new baseline--and then, during the month that my father in law visited, the manhole beneath me opened and I fell through it and landed even lower down in a pile of rubble. Yes, I managed pick some of the rubble from my wounds. I even found the gumption to try and climb out of that hole. Each time I met up with a friend or went for a walk, it was me inching up that jagged wall.

San Francisco Bay to Breakers
Powerful me, circa 2001
Imaginative readers probably pictured me hoisting myself up, ascending rock-climbing style to the top of a rock face or approaching the finish line of some race with my arms raised above my head in victory, concluding that I was strong and badass and overcoming the whole grief-thing. You know, mind over matter. I can understand why it came across that way because, sure, I did things I hadn't done since my 11-year-old son died, like text friends, go for a couple of walks, and get my hair cut. At the end of the month, though, I wasn't at the top of some rock face or near a finish line with muscles bulging from my 5'6" frame. No, let's say more realistically I was covered in abrasions and blisters and probably back to my dismal baseline. And that was only because I figuratively hollered from the bottom of the hole and my friends came to my aid and figuratively dropped some ropes down to me.

To be fair, I could have landed at the bottom of that hole and lay in the gravel, whimpering quietly. I could have ignored the bits of rope that were dropped down to me. But scratch the ripped version of me climbing triumphantly to a mountain top, shall we? Try this image instead: A whimpering me lay at the bottom of a hole and cautiously called out--not wanting to disturb anyone. Then the ropes that came down somehow magically wrapped themselves around me and my friends with their powerful friend muscles did the work. Yes, I asked for help, but I must give credit where credit is due--they pulled me up.

I read an article yesterday about raising children with invisible challenges or disabilities like ADHD or autism. It said that it's helpful for parents to compare invisible challenges with physical disabilities to help people understand. Here's her example:

I am raising two older boys with physical challenges...I have never - ever - had to justify a single accommodation that they required. Can you imagine a school official saying...."well, you know if your son just tried a little harder, he could get out of that wheelchair and run up the stairs and then we wouldn't need to build a ramp." Are you cringing yet?
Yes! That idea does make me cringe. We'd never think a child in a wheelchair just wasn't trying hard enough to use her legs. That analogy got me thinking about the invisibility of grief which makes it difficult to describe and difficult to understand. Over the last 18 months since Riley died, I have tried to come up with a useful physical analogy to describe my parent grief. My latest is that losing him is like losing my arms. Think about it. Think about what your life--or even just getting through a day--would be like if your arms were amputated. No fingers, no elbows, nothing. And while it is difficult to imagine things we haven't experienced, like that article, I suspect that imagining our bodies minus limbs is somehow easier than imagining our lives minus our living children.

bereaved mom child loss grief
Sibling grief art
Given that I’ve had arms all of my 42 years, life without them would never get easier. I would still be able to walk and move around, but every single thing would always be hard. I’m sure I’d figure out how to eat and brush my teeth, use the computer and the toilet (but not at the same time), but I would never be okay with losing my arms no matter how many years went by and how many beautiful people I met at occupational therapy and support groups who also had lost their arms. I would always, always miss having arms.

Grief is invisible, and it’s hard to understand or empathize with if you aren't enduring it. So this analogy is my (latest) effort to help the non-grieving world (and the not-yet-grieving world because life is a series of losses, is it not?), what losing Riley is like. I will never be okay with losing him and every single thing will always be hard. Always. Because, like amputation, death is permanent. I would always, always miss having arms. I will always, always miss my son. Even if I'm trying to get out and do things that I did before Riley died, I will never be "better." I will only be different.