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

Lightness
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). 

Change
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. 

Connections
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. 

Milestones
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.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Five Years Later


The Uses Of Sorrow

Someone I loved once gave me 
a box full of darkness. 

It took me years to understand 
that this, too, was a gift.” 



Tomorrow marks the fifth anniversary of Matthew’s death. Five years. It’s almost impossible to wrap my head (and heart) around this indisputable fact. On the one hand, five years ago seems like an eternity, while on the other it seems like only yesterday.

We miss Matthew more than you can know. I spend a lot of time thinking about him, wondering what he would be doing now at the age of 26, (wondering what he IS doing now). It’s a mystery that I hope will one day reveal itself. I’ve learned a lot about grief during these past five years. I’ve learned that grief brings with it great gifts, although they may not be apparent for months or even years later. I discovered that out of this shattering loss, I am grateful more than ever for everything that life has to offer. 

I’m also very aware that my life had been relatively easy before Matthew died. Of course there had been many bumps and sharp curves, and ups and downs. I had lost my wonderful dad when I was in my early 30’s, and a dear friend died five years before Matthew. Both of these losses created huge holes in my life. But nothing prepared me for the grief that fell upon our family five years ago.  Matthew’s death brought us to our knees, and overnight our world shifted on its axis. 

I remember a father and son came to visit us in the first week when we were sitting shiva. He had coached Matthew in baseball, and had tragically lost his daughter (also in her 20’s) to a brain aneurysm three years before. When they came into our house, I was struck by how tender and fragile they seemed. I remember looking at them—three years further ahead on the journey—and realizing then just how devastating this loss would be. I honestly think we were still in a bit of shock that first week. I saw that time would not erase the hole that had just been etched into my heart. I also saw that a special connection occurs between other families who lose children. I was now a member of a club no parent EVER wants to join.

My sorrow has made me more aware of others’ pain and sorrow. It’s made me ponder the whys of life in much more heartfelt ways than before. In my case, it led me to working with others who have experienced overwhelming loss, and I now facilitate Grief Support Groups. I am comfortable in the role of creating safe spaces for people to share their stories in their darkest moments. I consider it an honor to sit amongst the bereaved and “companion” them along their journeys.

Writing has also been immensely helpful to me these past five years. I started this blog 17 months after Matthew’s passing, and have been grateful for this forum. Not only has it been a way to process my own grief, but I have met so many others who wrote me with their stories. I have been truly humbled by others’ experiences. But I think I am going to wrap up Grief & Gratitude. I will, of course, leave it up and welcome anyone to forward it on to someone you think might benefit by reading the words of a bereaved mom. I am also always willing to be contacted by e-mail should someone want to “talk.” I see that as part of my new role in life. But I don’t think I am going to continue on with the blog. I feel like I have said what I needed to say, and I have some other writing I’d like to do. I am grateful to all of you who have read Grief & Gratitude over the years. Your comments and support have helped me more than you will ever know. Thank you.

No one knows what is going to happen tomorrow (or even in the next hour). It is the rare person who does not experience many losses in the course of a lifetime. It’s the cost of being human, and of loving. We don’t have control over these events, or I would argue, many events. Life happens. It’s what you do afterwards that is in your control. You do have a choice then as to how you move forward with your new reality. You can let your heart, which has been broken into a million pieces, remain on the ground with its jagged edges strewn about, cutting you and others as you tiptoe through your new existence.  Or you can begin the hard task of putting it back together again. It will be very different, and will never go back to how it once was. But, like a beautiful mosaic, it will take on a new shape and have new meaning.  And all those little pieces that don’t quite fit together like they used to, will let the light in and out as you move through the world.

Life is hard, there’s no doubt about that. We live in a seemingly broken world.  But I found out that we are remarkably resilient beings. I learned as we make our way through our messy, unpredictable lives that it’s the connections we make along the way that really matter. Each of these connections, whether a brief one-time encounter at the grocery store or a longstanding friendship, gets woven into our very essence, making us who we are. We should all try to remember to be gentle with one another as we laugh and cry and breathe and love our way through our time on earth. Let’s inspire each other and lend a hand or an ear when we can. We don’t know how long we’ve got, so we might as well treat the time we have, like the gift it is. Namaste.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

My Heart Breaks for the Bidens...



Dear Vice President Biden,

The world woke up this morning to the news that your beloved son Beau had died. There are times when the only words that make any sense are “I am so sorry for your loss.” They sound trivial and somehow not sufficient enough, and yet nothing else makes much sense,

For me, there is an added poignancy to this news.  In the fall of 2010 our 21-year-old son Matthew died following a virulent form of strep that attacked his heart. In those dark, early days, weeks and months, I struggled to make sense of this most unimaginable of losses—the death of a child. As my family and I made it through that first year, I found myself needing to see who had also gone through such a loss. As my search widened beyond my own community, your story came up. The story of how as a newly elected senator your wife and baby daughter had died in a car crash. I read how you stood vigilant at your sons’ bedsides, how you were sworn in at the hospital, and how you commuted back and forth from Washington D.C. to Delaware so that your sons could be raised at home. I read up on it all, and it made a difference.

Your story stood as a beacon of hope for me as I struggled through that first year. You showed me the resiliency of the human spirit and that life does indeed go on. You demonstrated through your actions that you can in fact survive to make a difference in the world. Forever and irrevocably changed, but not giving into the despair, which must have resided just beneath the surface (at least in the beginning). I am eternally grateful to you for showing me that.

So now as you lay another child to rest and stand side by side with grief I, and so many others, weep with you. You raised a remarkable son, who followed in your footsteps and served his country, his community and his family well. You should be very proud.  He was taken much too early, but he lived his life honorably and with integrity.

I walk with you in solidarity Vice-president Biden, as a fellow bereaved parent. May Beau’s memory be a blessing to you forever.

Warmly,

Robin Gaphni


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Circle

Today I'm going to post a piece that came out of a writing retreat I attended in December 2013. The retreat was called Relax and Write, and was led by Maia Danziger (and it was wonderful).  I highly recommend attending any of Maia's retreats.

Anyway, this is one of three pieces that came out of the retreat, and it has been published over at The Manifest Station. Here's a link to The Circle.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Happy 26th Birthday!

"Your life begins when someone says your name. Your life ends when someone stops saying your name." 
Unknown



Today is Matthew's birthday. Twenty-six years ago my husband and I became parents and our world and our hearts expanded in ways we never could have imagined.  Matthew was the one who first taught us to be parents, and we are so grateful for his presence in our lives, even though it was cut tragically short. 

We've celebrated five birthdays since he died, and I've written about two of them, here and here. One thing that I've learned these past five years is that one doesn't get over the loss of a child...ever.  There will always be a huge Matthew-shaped hole in my heart, and I wouldn't want it any other way. That loss is a part of me, and always will be. 

For bereaved parents there are now two days that we commemorate our children each year-their birthday and the day they died. Obviously, the anniversary of their death has a very different feel to it than their birthday. Their birthday is still a day of celebration and joy. So if I have any advice to people who wonder if they should acknowledge the birthday of a child who has passed, I would say absolutely.  Memories are all we have now, and we cling to them so that our children continue to exist. Birthdays are a way to acknowledge and celebrate a child's arrival into our lives however many years ago it was, even if they aren't actually here to blow out the candles on the cake.

So today, on Matthew's birthday, we are going to celebrate him, his life and all that he meant to us. We are actually going to Palm Springs to attend a film festival, something our movie buff son would certainly approve. We will take a long walk in the desert this afternoon and go out for Mexican food tonight (one of his favorites) and we will toast the unique and wonderful person that Matthew was. We will always be grateful for the time we had with him. 

I've shared this version of Forever Young before. I guess it's become an anthem of sorts to me. We love you Matthew.