Friday, October 22, 2021

11 Years Later


"There's something stronger than death, and that's the presence of those absent in the memory of the living."

Valerie Perrin-
Fresh Water for Flowers

We turn the calendar on another year, and find ourselves 11 years further along the continuum of time since we last saw Matthew. As I drive to work in a car that he never sat in, to a non-profit job he never knew existed, I am struck that so much that surrounds me now, was not in Matthew's world eleven years ago. I listen to music not composed when he was alive, watch movies not filmed and read books not yet written. I have friends who never knew him in person, but just as an integral part of our family's past.

My husband and I still live in the house that he grew up in, and are comforted by the memories that greet us in every room. But even the house of his childhood has evolved into something quite different. And while not unrecognizable, it's not as it was when he lived here. Time has pushed us forward into a future I couldn't imagine back in 2010. Back then, our days slowed to an almost unbearable pace, and we were mired down in our grief. It was a slog to get from sunrise to sunset, and the nights could feel endless. As unimaginable as it seemed then, time has been a healer.

It's this concept of time that I ponder on the 11th anniversary. On the one hand, Matthew is stuck in our minds as a forever 21-year-old, while for the rest of us, the years circle around adding rings to our lives like the rings of a cedar tree. His younger brother and sister have long passed him in age, although he will always be the older brother in our family.

Matthew now lives outside the boundaries of time that bind the rest of us to this world. Our lives are measured by time; we are tied to its constraints - past, present and future. For Matthew, that stopped on October 22, 2010.  I happen to believe that his energy is still around us, it's just not as "orderly" as we are used to. I don't know how to explain it when I "feel" him when I am on a hike in the Olympic Peninsula, and I don't know if I need to understand it. I'm just forever grateful for those mystifying and comforting moments. 

Thankfully our memories of Matthew carry us forward. As our pasts recede and time marches us toward an unknown future, we keep him alive in our thoughts and our stories, grateful that we had him for 21 years.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

10 Years Later


Survival in grief, even eventually building a new life alongside grief, comes with the willingness to bear witness, both to yourself and to the others who find themselves inside this life they didn’t see coming. Together, we create real hope for ourselves,
and for one another. We need each other to survive.
Megan Devine

It's been ten years since Matthew died. A decade. In the beginning, I used to wish that I could fast forward through those painful weeks and months of early grief. The pain seemed too unbearable and massive to survive. Instinctively I knew it wouldn't always be so difficult to bear, so why couldn't I just jump over it and get to a place where it wasn't quite so heavy. Of course, I also knew that the only way through grief was to trudge through it, one day at a time. And now here we are ten years later.  How can that be?  But today, on the day when the magnitude of our loss always weighs us down and is most apparent, this year feels even heavier. And I think it's not just for me and my family, but for many of us. Our whole world feels heavy.

We are in the midst of a global pandemic, a vicious election, a world where climate change feels more threatening than ever and a time when the layers of systemic racism that exist are being peeled back and fully exposed. Anxiety and grief are gripping us collectively, and the future seems dim. It's daunting.

When the pandemic crept into our lives in the spring of 2020, the world as we knew it stopped and we shuttered ourselves in. The feelings I experienced in the early days of the pandemic reminded me of the same feelings we had in the early days of our loss of Matthew. The lives we once led and took for granted were upended and our world came to a stop. Feelings of isolation and fear set in. The difference in the spring, compared to when Matthew died, was that this was a collective grief that we all were experiencing for losses that were just beginning to set in. 

Now we are seven plus months into it, without an end in sight. Our grief seems open-ended, even though we know it will end (the election and the pandemic, that is). But the immediate future that awaits us is a winter with shorter, colder days, and the natural world retreating into dormancy.  We, too, will retreat indoors and inward, and we wonder where we can find some light during these times.

Over 222,000 Americans have died of COVID since this started, and 1.13 million in the world. These are staggering numbers, and our sadness is amplified worldwide. We also know that many more deaths await us in the future. People have died away from their loved ones, and the thought of them being alone and scared haunts us. We can't help but think of our own mortality.

We all long for the days when we can gather with our family and friends the way we used to. We yearn for a time where we can greet one another with a hug, and sit in a restaurant with the normal background noise of glasses tinkling and the hum of other people's conversations. We dream of a time when we can have friends over for an evening of food and drink and conversation, and when we don't have to wear masks to go grocery shopping, or schedule multiple Zoom meetings a day. And we pine for the day we  can hop on a plane and go on a vacation. We wish we could fast forward through this winter, but we can't. We will have to trudge through it, one day at a time.

I admit, this winter is daunting to me. But along the way, we have to take care of ourselves and our loved ones as best we can. We have to be there for one another and remember that we are all in this together. We may have to force ourselves to take walks outside in weather that we'd prefer to avoid. But we know we always feel better being outside in nature. That's the way through the next few months. When our family lost Matthew, our community held us up, and now we have to all hold each other up. It's about love for one another. It's what we as humans do best, and we need each other now more than ever.  My wish is that we emerge from this time with new hopes and dreams and ways to make meaning in our lives and the world a better place. And I hope we will be able to engage with each other in meaningful ways, and interact more positively with our changing world, and learn that we need each other. It's about love, it's always about love.


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

9 Years

If you haven't already, you will lose someone you can't live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and you never completely get over the loss of a deeply beloved person. But this is also good news. The person lives forever, in your broken heart that doesn't seal back up. And you come through, and you learn to dance with a banged up heart.
Anne Lamott

Nine years ago, (on October 22, 2010) our oldest son Matthew died at the age of 21 and we started on a grief journey that we continue on to this day. Nine years ago, the enormity of the loss was just beginning to settle upon us as we began to place our feet on the path that was only just beginning to reveal itself. Nine years ago, I remember wishing that we could fast forward our way out of the immense pain that was enveloping us so that we could emerge in a place that was somehow less excruciating, less "different." Of course, we couldn't do that. Our world had been knocked off its axis, and now we had a huge line running down it marked "before and after."  We were plunged into a wilderness that we had never encountered before, and our lives were forever changed. Now as I stand at the ninth anniversary, I find I am grateful for many things that I am continuing to learn on this journey. Here are some of my reflections from the past nine years.

The first is that the grief we feel is a function of the love we feel for Matthew, and that love is infinite. Without love, you don't grieve. Yes, we are learning how to live without his physical presence in our lives, but it doesn't mean he is no less present in our lives.  We talk about him all of the time, tell stories, share memories and carry him in our hearts. Our relationship with him has been redefined, but we still have a relationship. This may be a hard concept to understand if you've never experienced a profound loss, but that has been our experience.

Secondly, It's impossible to write about my own grief journey without talking about the importance of connecting with others who were already navigating a similar road.  Before Matthew died, I only knew a few people who had lost children. Our worlds didn't intersect, and possibly more to the point, it wasn't something that was talked about. As the months started to unroll, I began to meet others who were further down the road than we were and they served as beacons of hope for me. I saw that they were not only surviving, but had also found meaning in their new lives.  This was such a crucial concept for me at the time, because life seemed so hopeless. But I began to see how others had picked up the pieces of their lives and reassembled them, so that once again their lives had purpose.

Now some of my dearest friends are walking this path with me, and while I wish that none of us were on it, I am so grateful for their friendships and can't imagine being on this journey without them. Some are years ahead of me, some are walking in tandem with me, and others are just starting out. We light each other's paths as we make our way in a world without our children. No one understands our journey like another bereaved parent; it helps to be with others who are walking the same rocky path.

Third, the feelings of hopelessness do dissipate with time. One of the things that can be so daunting in the early stages of loss is the fear that your life no longer has meaning. You worry that you will never be fully engaged with the world again. Thankfully, meaning does begin to emerge. For me, it happened about 18 months after Matthew died. Something changed within me, and I felt I was ready to give back in some way. I realized I wasn't afraid to walk alongside someone in those early, dark months, and I thought I could support others on their grief journeys. I began a Grief Support Training program in Colorado, and an opportunity arose to lead grief groups in my community. So for the past 7 years, I  have been doing this, and it is truly an honor. I see my role as creating safe spaces so that others can bear witness to each other's losses, share their stories and begin to heal. The non-profit I work for also started a one-on-one Grief Support Program which has been a wonderful way for people who are not "group" people to receive support too. 

Finally, there are no stages to grief. It's messy and unpredictable and certainly not orderly. Poor Elizabeth Kubler Ross, her Five Stages of Death were misapplied to grief, and misinterpreted. Actually, my co-facilitator says that there are really only two stages of grief: who you were before and who you are now (or who you are becoming). That makes much more sense to me.

As I've discovered these past nine years, there's no getting off of the path we now find ourselves on; it's a lifelong journey. In the beginning, the road we found ourselves on seemed almost insurmountable, and yet we kept on stumbling through it, because, it's the only way. Thankfully there are others making this journey and we lean on them at times, and let them lean on us. Soon you learn to balance the heartbreak of losing your child with the many memories you have of them.  Hope returns, and as Anne Lamott says, "you learn to dance with a banged up heart."  

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Jack-Our Healer Dog


Our big, lovable adventure-loving yellow lab Jack crossed over to the other side last Friday. His wanderlust was his downfall and as he headed out on a late evening foray, little did we know that a car would stop him in his tracks. We are heart-broken, but so grateful for the time we had with him.

Jack came into our lives about 3 years after Matthew died. His boundless energy, coupled with his goofy personality helped our family heal in so many ways. Unfailingly loyal (to pretty much everyone), with a passion for balls, sticks, and the open water, Jack melted everyone’s hearts. He was a “Dudley” yellow lab, which meant he had a pink nose and light-colored eyes. 

We have so many Jack stories to tell, and a few of them make us realize we are lucky he lived to be 8 years old. There was the time that he swam out into Puget Sound and kept heading out to sea. For 35 minutes we stood on the beach watching him recede into the distance as he chased sea birds. No amount of our shouting and arm waving could stop him. Finally, for some reason, he turned around, only to have a seal start playing with him.  It took another 10 minutes for him to make it to the shore, and once there he was hardly out of breath, and his tail was wagging.
He was definitely spoiled, with daily walks, a special spot on the sofa and a best friend border collie mix named Ruby. When the kids came home for a weekend, he slept by them on their beds. Whether he was snoring on his back at your feet, or walking by my husband's side out to the orchard, Jack was fully present at all times. He always knew exactly when to put his giant head on your lap, providing the perfect amount of comfort. Many of our friends have experienced Jack's healing abilities. He was the ultimate zen dog, with unconditional love for all who crossed his path.

So you see, Jack was perfect in every way except for his tendency to bolt. When he got it into his mind to go exploring, not much could stop him. He was an amazing fence jumper and under-fence digger. And when he returned from his walk-about adventures, he was happy and his tail was wagging. 

If a life can be measured by how much one loves and is loved, then Jack’s life was incredibly rich and full. Everyone who met him fell a little in love with him, and there are many of us walking around with Jack-sized holes in our hearts. He brought us so much joy and happiness, and asked for little in return.  He was a healer of our hearts, and we will miss him. 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Eight Years...

Tomorrow it will be eight years since our son Matthew died suddenly from a virulent form of strep that attacked his heart.  It has been a journey that continues to unfold before us in ways we never could have imagined. Somehow life has continued to flow, hours turning into days, then into weeks and now into years.

We have found that getting away for a couple of weeks in October helps us deal with the memories of the three weeks that occurred preceding Matthew’s death (the various hospitals, ICUs, surgery etc). This year we took a two-week road trip down to Zion National Park, looping back through Yosemite. It was glorious. We spent many hours outside, hiking in some of the most beautiful spots on earth.  The natural world defined our days much more than when we are home and working. Being outside in nature helped assuage our grief.  You can't help but feel humbled when looking up at the soaring red rocks of Zion or the glistening peak of El Capitan. We talked a lot about Matthew, not the three weeks in October 2010, but about the 21 years we had with him.  There’s an ancient Egyptian proverb that says that “to speak the name of the dead is to make them live again.” So we talk about Matthew a lot.

Normally I try and write some sort of anniversary essay that sums up my thoughts at this specific point of time. This year I find my thoughts are more sporadic, less orderly.  I’m not sure why, but that's how it is. So here are some random thoughts on what grief has taught me as we sit on the cusp of the 8th anniversary.

The Early Days
The past couple of years, I have had the privilege to walk with other bereaved moms just beginning the unfathomable journey of life without their child.  I have been reminded how those early aching days, weeks and months were the hardest I ever experienced. At the time, it was impossible to imagine continuing on without Matthew. Darkness fell over our family and time seemed to come to a standstill. I remember how each day took such a tremendous effort to navigate, how hard it was to get up and somehow get through the day before falling into a deep and dreamless sleep at night. For me, sleep was the only respite from grief’s heavy grip. It was relentless and brutal. Suddenly and without warning, we found ourselves on a road without a map, and felt lost and unprepared for the journey ahead. For those who are just beginning this road, I want to tell you that you will get through this. I can’t tell you when, but you will not always feel the searing pain you are feeling right now. It does get easier

As that first year passed and then a second year, the path began to seem clearer and easier to navigate. The mud that had been such a slog to get through became hard-packed, and light began to appear. Time began to have a form again and each day didn’t seem interminable. At some point I found that I could smile  and even laugh again. I learned that you can laugh even when you are in the midst of the deepest grief. Humor was essential to my survival. (and some of the darkest humor has come from other bereaved moms). 

The loss of Matthew changed me completely.  Grief changed me, changed my family and changed the course of our lives. It’s an irrefutable fact.  I think one of the results is that we are more empathetic and aware of the preciousness (and precariousness) of life. We are less likely to get truly upset about the small stuff, because after you lose a child, everything seems like small stuff. You look at the world with softer eyes and gain an appreciation for precious things like a beautiful sunset or crisp autumn leaves. Everything is a little more intense and you find that you seek deeper connections to people and that there's not much room for superficiality. 

From the beginning, the connections I made with other bereaved moms have been vital to my survival. Some of them were further ahead, some walking in tandem and others just beginning the journey. We form bonds that are instant and strong because no one else can possibly understand what it means to lose a child. I met two women in their 90’s (Rae and Evelyn) who had lost their children 40 and 50 years ago, and when they talked of them, their voices grew softer, their eyes filled with tears and I would look at them and nod. I understood that the pain never goes away. It’s always there, but you somehow manage to integrate the loss  into your life so that it becomes a part of you. You learn to carry the memories you have of your child so that you can move forward with grace.

Making Meaning of your Life
 At some point, as the loss becomes integrated into your life, you realize that in order to carry on you need to have hope. You need to find meaning again. In the beginning, this seems impossible. But I found as the years went by, that I was able to give new definition to my life. In my case, I started a new job working with the elderly, and also with the bereaved. I feel not only comfortable with them, but like I have an understanding of them, and can BE with them in supportive ways. 

Life’s milestones (graduations, weddings, births etc.) will always be somewhat bittersweet for us. We will always know that someone is missing from these big events.  In the beginning of our journey, we went to graduations. It’s where we were 6,7,8 years ago. Now we go to a lot of weddings.  And while we can’t help but wish that we had been able to go to Matthew’s college graduation or Matthew’s wedding, we are also truly honored to participate in the important life events of our dear friends and their children. We can be both joyful (and a little sad) as we learn to navigate life's milestones without Matthew.

You are never “over it.”
People who have not experienced the loss of a child might think that after 8 years you are “over it.” They may look at me and see someone who is “all better.” Yes, I laugh, I have fun, I have a job that is meaningful and a loving family. And they might (erroneously) assume that I’ve gotten over the death of Matthew. But I am here to tell you that you never get over the loss of your child. Never. Ever. And why would you want to? We will always have a hole in our hearts and will carry it with us as we move forward.

Grief and loss are reminders of how fleeting our time is on earth, and the importance of living.  I know firsthand that life is both light and shadows, and that it’s possible to savor and enjoy it, even with the most profound kind of loss. It's pretty remarkable how resilient humans can be. For those that have lost a child, I stand in solidarity with you and wish you love and light as you move forward in life.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Seven Years

Once in a while you get shown the light
In the strangest of places if you look at it right.
Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter

Today marks the 7th "anniversary" of our oldest son Matthew's passing. He would be 28 years old. His younger brother and sister are now three and five years older than he was when he died. We wonder what he would be doing, where he would be living, would he have a long-term girlfriend, would he be married? How would he be navigating the peaks and valleys of his twenties? Of course we don't get to experience that with him, and that's the most painful part. Missing him and all that he brought to our lives, is our painful reality; knowing that all we have now are the many memories. 

One of the hardest things for bereaved parents to manage is negotiating the pain of losing a child with the desire to live a life with meaning and joy. You don't want to turn into a bitter person, and you know that it is in your control as to how to move forward. When you are cracked open as you are following a death such as this, you look at the world differently. Things get put into perspective like never before. You really don't sweat the small stuff, because so much of it is really small stuff.

I included the above quote because this is what Matthew used for his Senior Quote in high school. At the time, both my husband and I thought that was such a great choice for a quote. It fit Matthew, and his somewhat offbeat philosophical way of looking at things. We also appreciated that he took a quote from the Grateful Dead. Little did we know then, that this has become somewhat of a mantra for us as time has unfolded. Let me give you an example. Just this summer we were down in Oregon for the total eclipse. It's hard to put into words what that was like. During those moments of totality, as we stood within the shadow of the moon, the beauty, the colors, the quality of light made time seem to stand still. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced. On the one hand, you felt small and insignificant, while on the other hand you felt incredibly connected to each other. Afterwards, as we drove away and were in that post-eclipse sort of daze we decided to turn on Pandora to the Grateful Dead station. The first song to come on was "Scarlet Begonias"-which is where Matthew's senior quote came from. Wow!

Moments like this seem to happen more often than they used to. Or perhaps it's that I am more aware and tuned in and seeing things more acutely. The protective armor has been stripped away, and the light seeps in more easily. These past seven years I have been quietly putting the broken pieces of my heart back together again, realizing nothing fits quite the same as before, that there are more spaces for the light to seep in. That's my new reality.  And when I am shown the light, in whatever form it takes, I try and be grateful for it. That's what the grief of losing Matthew has taught me.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Six Years Ago

Be a lamp or a lifeboat or a ladder. Help someone's soul heal. Walk out of your house like a shepherd.
Jalaluddin Rumi

 Six years ago today, our son Matthew died. Six years ago today, our lives changed in ways that continue to unfold before us. Six years. Thankfully, the memories of the three weeks preceding October 22, 2010 are beginning to recede in time.  I am happy to relinquish the memories of emergency rooms, ICU stays in two hospitals, hospital waiting rooms. It now takes effort to bring them to the surface, and I am content to not relive those days. What I am happy to relive are the memories of Matthew when he entered this world in January 1989 up until late September of 2010. Our family talks about him a lot. When we see a movie or read a book that we think he’d like, we always bring it up.  A hike is always a reminder of him with his deep love of the outdoors.  Anytime we see a Robert DeNiro movie, we are reminded of Matthew (he looked like a young DeNiro AND did a great DeNiro impression). The bands Slightly Stoopid and Sublime always put a smile on my face, and I cannot watch the Mariners or the Seahawks without thinking of him. His 21 years on earth are not forgotten by us, and we will forever walk around with a Matthew-shaped hole in our hearts.

What has changed for me these past six years is how I view the world. I now recognize that by and large people are trying the best they can to bring their best possible selves to their lives. It’s not always easy.  We make mistakes, we stumble, we fall, and sometimes we fall hard.  Sometimes it can seem like there are insurmountable obstacles placed directly in front of us, and we have no idea how we can get over or around them. But we are remarkably resilient, and with a little time,  and a little help, we brush ourselves off and stand up again and keep trying. We keep going forward as best we can, because that’s what you do in this life.

I’ve learned that it’s our connections with others that make life worth living. Showing up for one another matters. In fact, it may be all that matters. Whether you are on the giving end or the receiving end, we are connected to one another, and these connections (let’s call them love) are essential to our well-being.

So while today is a difficult day for us, it’s also a day for remembering our wonderful son and being grateful for all that he brought to us.  His passing at the age of 21 reminds us that life is short, and that we need to be  grateful for every loved one in our lives now, as well as for those who are just memories. Because when everything is stripped away--all the material stuff, the seemingly important commitments, the arguments big and small, and we are left with just our essence, love is all that matters.