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.


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." 

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.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Mounting Losses

I never said I wanted a 'happy' life, but an interesting one. From separation and loss, I have learned a lot. I have become strong and resilient, as is the case of almost every human being exposed to life and to the world. We don't  even know how strong we are until we are forced to bring that hidden strength forward. 
Isabel Allende 

Grief and loss have weighed heavily on my mind lately, as a very dear friend of mine (and many in our community) passed away last month at the young age of 53. While on the one hand it was not a surprise as she had been fighting cancer for years, it nonetheless took the breath away from many of us. This woman was a true bright light in many of our lives and it just didn't seem possible that she was now gone. The world is a much dimmer place without her. She leaves behind three children in their early 20's, a loving husband and a multitude of friends. Another life cut short. 

Mounting losses. That's the term that came to mind this fall as I crossed over a number of thresholds:  the ninth anniversary of my dear friend Toby's passing in September, the fourth anniversary of Matthew's passing in October and the 22nd anniversary of my dad's passing in November.  And now another dear friend has left this world. It makes one realize that you don’t get through life unscathed. As one creates the deep connections that make life so meaningful, it's only natural that we are going to lose people we deeply care about. It certainly doesn't make it any easier knowing that this is what lies ahead. But unless you live in complete isolation, then this is what is in store for us. 

In my new job I interact a lot with the elderly, and I have discovered I thoroughly enjoy working with people in their 80's and 90's. Their wisdom and life experiences are fascinating, inspiring and humbling all at the same time. I love hearing their stories of what they did during the Depression, World War II and beyond. Their memories, which can sometimes be fuzzy on day-to-day matters, are often crystal clear when relaying stories from the past.

More often than not, in the course of our conversation, the subject of loss comes up. It frequently starts with a recent loss (i.e. a spouse) but then dovetails into other losses that have been a part of their lives. Sometimes it's a child or a sibling that died long ago. Sometimes, (especially for those in their 90's) it's the fact that most of their friends have died and they find their worlds getting narrower and narrower. It's not easy outliving everyone.  Yet I'm struck by how resilient, strong and optimistic so many remain despite the multiple and often painful hardships most of them have endured. 

I must admit that I feel a certain affinity with the elderly because of the loss of Matthew. Eighty years ago it was more common for a family to lose a child. Nowadays, thanks in good part to modern medicine, most children survive childhood. Yet these seniors remember a time when it wasn't always so and as they enter their 80's and 90's they have survived many losses and emerged intact and grateful for their full lives.

Since my son died, I know that I think more about death and loss than I did before. That is one of the ways I've changed. But I don't think it's in a particularly morbid way. I think I just live in more of a heightened state of awareness that we are not here forever, and that we should try and live our lives with that thought in mind. It really could all end tomorrow. I realize that sounds trite, and yet how often do we forget and just go through the motions of each day. I think because I now have so many interactions with older people, I am reminded of it more constantly. They are nearing the end of their lives, and they aren't in denial about it. Hearing their stories is a reminder of just how resilient humans can be in spite of the role that “mounting losses” have played in their lives. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to interact regularly with people in their 80's and 90's and learn from them. My life is so much richer because of it.