Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Where Grief Leads

Grief leads a lot of places, and you don’t want to go to most of them. I’ve written blog posts about how my daughter’s death led me on a Roller Coaster and Down in a Hole.

I think it will probably always lead me to these dark places. Rather than fight to not go there, I’ve decided to just make darkness a part of who I am - to live with it and do the best I can. I choose to walk around inside-out and vulnerable.

For me, that works much better than burying my truth. I’ve buried enough already. So, rather than hiding it or sugar coating it with nonsense like “time heals all wounds” or “everything happens for a reason,” I embrace my darkness in hopes I can help someone.

Such idiotic statements had to be made by someone who doesn’t know anything about losing a child anyway. By sharing what this journey is really like, maybe someone out there who is experiencing the intense pain and hopelessness of child loss - a pain which doesn’t ease even long enough for you to catch your breath - won’t feel quite so alone.

Maybe they’ll even be comforted knowing someone else is enduring a similar experience. Maybe they’ll hang on and fight to see what’s next.

Because there is a “what’s next.” Until we’ve drawn our last breath, new challenges, new experiences, and new mysteries will continue to unfold whether we’re ready for them to or not.

Life might not be at all what we pictured, but there’s more to the story than just the darkness. In fact, maybe darkness and light can’t exist without each other.


Perhaps out of desperation, grief also led me to Just Try. It led me to realize she’s Gone, she’s never coming back, and I have to grab all the good moments and cherish them right here and now, before they too pass like she did.

And guess what? I have something really good to share. It’s so good I’m still almost scared to speak of it for fear of jinxing it.

Time to just blurt it out. My girlfriend and I are buying a gym and will be the official owners on August first! We’re scared shitless, too, and we barely even comprehend how we got here.

Roo died May 18, 2013, just shy of her sixth birthday and a little over four years ago. Life has been a whirlwind since then, as my mind and events have spun at a rapid pace.

I met Christina at a seminar in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, only a few months later. I don’t even know why I went. My friend Marty didn’t need me there; he’s a training guru. He probably dragged me along out of pity.

As you might imagine, I was mostly a disaster and have no idea why she liked me, but she did or she didn’t but decided to fake it and see if things might improve. I’m not sure they did at first, except in little glimpses.

One of those glimpses occurred when she asked me to vacation with her on Maui. It was a gorgeous week, and I loved soaking in her knowledge of the islands she’d been amassing over many visits dating back to her childhood.

Sometimes I vacillate between almost irrational self-confidence and crippling self-doubt. For some reason still unknown to me, in this instance I was supremely confident I could land a job in Hawaii and said as much aloud.

I'd been a professional fundraiser for nonprofit organizations for the last ten years and needed to get out of the small town where my daughter died and start something new. Where better to do that than Hawaii?

It took a few tries but I soon made good on my claim, landing a fundraising position at a Honolulu homeless shelter. Having known me all of six months, Kris picked up and moved with me. She probably figured I needed a caretaker for the inevitable crash.

Hawaii offered plenty to like, but I only lasted a year in the job. Turns out I still hated being a fundraiser, even in paradise.

The best thing about Hawaii wasn’t the gorgeous scenery; it was a crash course in getting to know Kris. Dating someone is easy when you only see them on weekends and have the whole week to look forward to it. Try being around them every moment you’re not working and with no other relationships to divert attention. You find out a few things about compatability real fast.

One thing I learned is that we’re both way into this strength training thing. One of our happy places is in a gym, sweating and straining and forgetting everything else for an hour or two.

Maybe to fill some time and maybe because it’s where our energy gravitated, we talked incessantly about our dream of opening a gym. When we weren’t talking, I’d ask her what she was doing and she’d look up from her laptop to reply, “Working on my business plan.” I’d never seen so many danged spreadsheets.

She even took the step to rent time at a small gym and begin teaching a kettlebell class in hopes of building a following, but I didn’t last long enough in my job to allow her to grow it. We also trained at two independent gyms with interesting operating models that seemed insignificant at the time but would become important later.

Okay, so maybe not everything happens for a reason, but maybe some things do. I’m still trying to work that one out in my mind and arrive at a conclusion that isn’t a cop out.

The problem I’m having is that you can’t say the good stuff happens for a reason without acknowledging the bad stuff, even the really bad stuff, does too. Serial killers and war lords rampage for a reason? Children die for a reason?

Maybe some events are just random and some are about opportunities that present themselves and our free will in taking advantage of them or taking a pass. That’s all I have for now.

Anyway, when I couldn’t make Hawaii work, I moved back to Pennsylvania for a series of missteps as I tried to maintain an income to support myself. I had two, maybe three, fundraising jobs in a little over a year. The fact I don’t even know how to count these follies tells you all you need to know.

When a second opportunity arose in Hawaii, I had nothing compelling enough happening at the time not to jump again. So it was back to paradise in fall 2016 for another fundraising job; this time at a health center.

Kris was in a good administrative job by this time and had learned her lesson about my whims. She decided to "wait and see" how the new gig panned out before joining me.

Good thing she did, because I was back in Pennsylvania in seven short months. Duh, I hated it again and wasn't raising any money.

When I returned this time, we still talked about the gym but didn't really see it as a realistic option. Instead, I started focusing my efforts on writing. To finally get out of fundraising, I'd build a small portfolio of published works and apply for communications jobs.

Though I didn't get any offers as a full-time writer - a blessing in disguise - I did manage to get five articles published in the span of a few months. True to form, I like writing what I want to write, not what some twit tells me to write so he can make money while I do his bidding.

While I click-clacked away at the keyboard, a great opportunity dropped into our laps. My friend was closing his gym to focus on other pursuits, and we saw a potential opportunity to make the prospect of owning a small business a little less daunting. This gym, you see, was already turning a small profit.

On top of this, our financial picture had improved with my latest Hawaii jaunt. Kris had paid down some debt; the health center had given me a small severance package (probably to get rid of me without a hassle); I was eligible to collect a few months of unemployment at fairly generous Hawaii rates; and Pennsylvania now had an option for domestic partners to count as family members for health insurance purposes.

These details might sound rather mundane, but I point them out for a reason. People often gloss over the story of how they travelled from point A to B, sort of implying they’re so much smarter and harder working than the rest of us.

I’m not saying I’m not smart and hard working, particularly when I’m immersed in a project that interests me, but I also had plenty of luck and timing to help me along here. I may have made a few of my own breaks, but I didn’t make them all. As a good friend pointed out, however, plenty of less deserving people have had more luck so maybe it was just time for me to cash a decent hand.

If I was in complete control though, don’t you think I’d have made this move years ago? The health insurance component, over which I had absolutely no control, was particularly critical for me to even think about working for myself, as I've been diabetic for over a decade and take some astronomically expensive drugs.

All this to say, if we squeezed and if Kris held onto her job for the time being, we felt we'd have just enough money to buy the gym and pursue our dream. Serendipitously, I was also offered a job as a part-time strength and conditioning coach this fall at the University of Pennsylvania.

That added bit of good fortune will help with gym expenses and will also give me some cachet as a trainer. The dominoes had fallen into place, making the next logical move obvious even to a guy with the intuition of a shower caddie.

So here we are, though we’re still making sense of how we got here. In four short years, my precious daughter had died; I'd fallen in love with someone who shares my dreams; I'd moved to Hawaii and back twice; I'd found a small voice as a writer (I co-wrote a book somewhere in there, too); and I'd stumbled into an opportunity to finally do something I'm passionate about rather than just trudge to work to collect a paycheck.

All we had to do is reach out and grab it... and scrape together a tidy sum of money to make that happen. Courage, fear, or desperation? Maybe they're all the same sometimes.

Everyone’s grief journey is different. A big part of mine has been my quest to lead a more authentic life. So here I am throwing caution to the wind and starting over with something brand new.

I’m just as scared as anyone else of taking chances. Emptying my bank account to buy a gym has kept me awake many nights and will probably keep me awake many more. Since the rug was ripped right out from under my vision of how I pictured the next couple decades of my life, I’m also probably a little more determined than most people to try to “get it right,” whatever “it” is.

The page turned and the next chapter began, whether I wanted it to or not. When I threw out the manuscript and started over, I detested the thought of beginning with, “After he buried his child, he kept right on doing the same boring job and being miserable about it. The only thing that had changed was that he no longer had a reason to justify enduring the drudgery.”

Believe what you want about fate and the amount of control we have over our own destinies. I’m just trying to write part of the story myself and have a hand in how it develops, rather than letting someone else write the entire thing for me.

Maybe I also have a little less to lose than most people in making a change. For sure some important people in my life will be impacted if I fail, but I’m not throwing away a college fund or dragging an entire family down with me.

For many years, I almost led some kind of split existence. By day, I was a mid-level manager. I was okay at it but just okay. I certainly never excelled, and most of the stiff way in which I conducted myself in order to fit in with corporate culture felt fake and oppressive.

After hours, I became a different person. I trained with weights and wrote about training. I swore when I felt like it. I could be louder and sillier and rougher around the edges without offending my gym friends. I tried to help people along the way, and I just generally felt more like the “real me.”

I think about Ruby every day. My lasting impression of her is the immediate sense I always had when I was in her presence of how much she loved her life. She attacked every little activity with everything in her and was always present right in the moment - a lesson we all could heed rather than trudging through our lives like zombies or slaves to our social media accounts.

Her infectious laugh immediately let you know she was fully engaged in whatever she was doing. Even small tasks, like inspecting a bug no bigger than a speck of dust as it crawled across the concrete, would capture her full attention. Her little forehead would bead with sweat from her determination to learn to eat solid foods; a skill most of us take for granted but one that didn't come easily for her because of some of her developmental delays.

A lot of my thoughts now revolve not so much around specific memories, although I certainly smile and agonize all at once over those on occasion too, but around what she might think if she could see me. I guess she'd see me trying to move forward and live a good life to honor her, but she might also giggle at my sideways and backwards stumbles.

I’m sure I still do things that would disappoint her, but I also think I’m closer to being on a path that would make her happy for me. She knew me. We had a bond that is difficult to explain. If anyone could understand what I’m trying to do and where this grief has led me, it would be her.

One day, it will all lead back to you. But not now.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Gone

Today marks the four-year anniversary of Roo's death. To me, anniversaries are occasions to celebrate, so maybe that's the wrong term. Her life is a celebration of innocence and exuberance, but there's nothing to celebrate about the grim details of her final days.

I was going to let the day pass without writing anything. I was blocked and feel like I've said most everything I have to say. There's no point writing, or doing anything else, if a sense of obligation is your driving motivation.

You've heard my thoughts on how grieving the loss of a child is different from grieving any other loss - how it stays with you always; how it negatively impacts relationships with family and friends; how things that used to be tolerable, like a dead end job, suddenly become completely revolting.

I've also written about how you're damned if you do and damned if you don't when trying to comfort bereaved parents. Case in point: I received one phone call today inquiring how I'm doing. ONE. My only child - my soul - died, and one friend thinks enough of me to remember the date and check in on me.

In truth, it doesn't really matter. I didn't pick that lone call up. I didn't want it, and I didn't want your stupid call either. If I did pick it up, I'd have bitten the caller's head off just for fun. But you can bet I made a mental note of that single call, and I won't forget the gesture.

In addition to feeling like I didn't really have anything new to say, the week was also progressing in a positive direction. My new t-shirt business isn't going gangbusters, but there's a steady buzz of interest. My training has certainly been going well. Maybe I could just let the day slip on by without harping on it.

Then things started rapidly deteriorating. On Tuesday, Kris' parents' seven-year-old beagle died completely unexpectedly. Beagles don't die at seven.

I was in the house that morning with the dog while everyone else was at work. I wasn't paying close attention, but I didn't notice anything abnormal.

I left around noon, and Kris' mom came home for lunch shortly thereafter and found KC dragging her hind legs. They went to the vet, and he put her down early that evening.

We dug a little grave in the dark while the cat meowed forlornly in the background, placed her body in the hole, covered it with dirt, said a few brief words, and that was that. Here one minute and gone the next.

By morning, most evidence of the dog's existence had been put away. Gone were the gates used to keep her from wandering into random rooms and ransacking them in her never-ending quest for food. Her leash no longer hung from the door. Gone also were her bed and toys.

In truth, I felt more guilt than any other emotion. I mostly ignored KC and certainly never bonded with her. To say I'll miss her would be a lie. To say I regret treating her largely with apathy would be far more accurate.

I wonder sometimes if losing Ruby has made it more difficult for me to feel empathy for what I consider to be lesser losses. It may have, or maybe I'm just not much of an animal person. No point dwelling on questions for which I have no answers.

Kris' mom was by far closer to the dog than anyone else. KC was her pet. She walked her daily, made sure she was fed, talked to her in a silly voice, and did all the things you'd expect.

I felt bad for her. This next statement sounds odd, but I was relieved to feel something. I may not have loved the dog myself, but at least I related to her owner's loss. The ability to grasp another's pain hasn't completely left me. A heart still beats.

I scuffed through the next day-and-a-half, processing that KC suddenly wasn't here anymore. Several times going to the kitchen I caught myself stepping over the dog gate that wasn't there. Leaving an upstairs room I shut the door, realized I no longer needed to worry about keeping her out, and reopened it.

Nothing too earth-shattering for me here. They were even already talking about adopting a new pet, so maybe I'd soon be back to these slightly annoying routines. Maybe I'd even try to pet the new one once in a while instead of just breezing by. I got this, I thought.

Then I awoke to this morning's news of Chris Cornell's passing. I love Soundgarden's music and most of the music that came out of Seattle's early 1990's heyday. And now he and my daughter are oddly linked in my mind forever.

Any group that managed not one hit song, but two, with "Black" in the title leaps to the top of my list. We were a match made maybe somewhere darker than heaven, but a match nonetheless. Before I get too teary-eyed, however, perhaps I should share something I posted a few months ago in the wake of another celebrity's death.


Ah yes, more feel-good sentiments from yours truly. Seems I hate your dog and your celebrity crush. Well now... that's not entirely true. If you went into a tailspin about Patrick Swayze, I didn't have much love for you. If you lamented his loss reasonably, and are willing to admit Roadhouse is way better than Ghost, I feel you a little.

In that spirit, I'll share my favorite Cornell story. Anybody remember Temple of the Dog? Cornell put this group together in 1991 with a couple Soundgarden band mates and a couple guys who would soon form Pearl Jam. They released only one album, but that lone gem contains one of my favorite songs, Hunger Strike.

Cornell, gifted as he was, was actually having trouble with some of the vocals during rehearsals. Eddie Vedder, with his signature booming baritone, jumped in and turned it into a duet. Egos took a backseat to collaboration, and a great rock song was born. Have a listen:

Temple of the Dog - Hunger Strike

Temple actually toured a bit in 2016 to celebrate the 25-year anniversary of Hunger Strike's release. That's how a proper anniversary is supposed to work; not by placing flowers on a child's grave or writing some dreary shit to try and keep her memory alive. Too bad I didn't make it to one of Temple's reunion shows.

Too bad I didn't make it to one of Temple's reunion shows. That's worth repeating, so I did. Too bad I didn't pet that damn dog. See what I'm getting at here?

KC didn't give us a bit of warning. One minute she was being the little pest she always was - sniffing around for food, turning over waste baskets, and eating dead bugs. The next minute she was gone.

Cornell didn't give any warning either unless something comes out later. Sure, he had his struggles with drug addiction like all those guys did, but he seemed to have made it through that. Hell, he played a show that was, from the accounts I read, completely normal just hours before his apparent suicide.

I haven't written much about the days leading up to Roo's hospitalization for pneumonia. Those final days, and her week-long hospital stay that ended with her death are sort of a blur in my mind. That I might recount something inaccurately has made me reluctant to talk much about it.

One thing I do remember clearly is the feeling of optimism I was starting to have about Roo's development in her final days. She had a lot of catching up to do, but I remember seeing little signs it was starting to happen.

I found some journal notes I made literally hours after she died. I was frantically writing down all kinds of memories, scared to death I'd forget them and her along with them.

In my notes, I wrote about our last day together at a local park. She loved going there to chase the ducks, swing as long and high as I would push her, and swish her hands in water streaming from a large fountain I probably shouldn't have been letting her anywhere near.

She was apparently so giddy to go that she went and sat in her buggy while I washed our breakfast dishes. I don't remember that, so I'm glad I wrote it down.

Here's the hopeful part... I wrote that she was learning to listen better and held my finger patiently as we walked across the large field together rather than excitedly running ahead toward the swing set. If you'd ever met Roo, you'd know what a monumental accomplishment any sort of self-restraint represented.

I didn't write a single word in that journal about ragged breathing or lethargy. I know I didn't see any signs of her deteriorating condition just days before she was so sick she had to be ventilated.

Maybe she was so tough she hid the fact she couldn't breathe so she could play some more. Maybe we all just missed it. Maybe it just overtook her out of nowhere. Like I said, no point dwelling on questions for which I have no answers.

A daughter, a dog, and a damn fine musician. I was trying to get another "D" in there for alliteration and couldn't come up with one, so I threw in a swear word. Any excuse will do, I suppose.

All three were here one day and gone the next. None of them gave us any closure. They just went away. They were gone, nearly literally, in the blink of an eye.

Is there some trip you've been meaning to take?

Do you have some silly grudge you need to settle with an old friend?

Is there someone you just want to hug or spend time with who you miss?

And man, if you have kids, do you spend time with them? I'm not talking about basics like feeding and bathing and shuffling to and from activities and doing homework.

That's baseline. That's shit you have to do. As a matter of fact, fuck the homework once in a while.

I'm talking about really being present and spending time together. You know... talking to them, listening to what they have to say, playing a silly game together, and just getting to know who they are and what makes them tick.

I could continue, but I'm sure you get the idea. Now comes the cliche. Maybe I really don't have anything new to say, but this simple message is one that bears repeating.

We can't buy time back, so don't wait for a more convenient day. Whatever it is you're not doing even though that little voice inside your head is telling you to, start listening.

Do that thing now. There is no tomorrow. There's only today.

I love you. I wish we had more time.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Just Try

Oftentimes, turmoil in one area of our lives can lead to upheaval in other areas as well. Why is that? Is it simply that bad luck really does come in threes?

Probably not. I’m guessing the snowball effect of bad luck, at least in the case of child loss, can be traced to our mental state in the weeks, months, and even years after the loss.

We’re not ourselves. Or at least we’re not our former selves. And this can lead to some unintended outcomes.

Relationships are the big one. Relationships change after the loss of a child. And I mean all of them - romance, friendships, employment - it’s all different.

Sometimes the different nature of our relationships after the loss of a child can actually bring a small measure of comfort into our lives. For example, some marriages are strengthened by child loss, as couples cling to each other for support.

Some friendships get “more real” in a hurry, as bereaved parents are often willing speak their minds more freely. With seemingly little left to lose, we’re more willing to tell others how we really feel; how we may have been hurt or betrayed by past actions. This new openness sometimes brings long-festering issues out in the open and allows meaningful discussion that leads to healing and a closer bond between friends.

Unfortunately, sometimes relationships go the other direction. A spouse or romantic partner may feel alienated by our grief. A frayed relationship may completely unravel with this added stressor.

Friends may not appreciate our candor and may be hurt by it. Even if we don’t overtly do or say anything, friction often develops with friends and family simply because we’re not the old us.

Almost four years into my grief journey, I’m still sorting out these relationships. I’ve lost some and held on to some. The jury is still out on others, I suppose.

In at least one area of my life - employment - I had some significant issues lurking beneath the surface that I was able to keep tamped down while Ruby was still here. Like a good soldier, I trudged to a job that wasn’t a good fit, because I had mouths to feed. I made it work.

After she was gone, the incentive to walk this line was gone, and I began to seek something else. I sought it not once, but twice, by moving all the way from the East Coast to Hawaii. I might despise fundraising - all the fake smiling and fake relationships - but surely I’d despise it a little less in paradise, right?

Umm, no. And I’m so thick-headed I had to earn double frequent flier miles to learn this lesson.

In 2014, barely six months after Ruby died, I packed up my few belongings and moved to Honolulu to be Development Director for Oahu’s largest homeless shelter. If I was looking for some kind of downshift from the hectic pace of East Coast life, I sure as hell wasn’t going to find it working for a social cause as polarizing as homelessness.

We were in the news nearly every damned day for something! And most of it didn’t make my job as a fundraiser any easier.

Oh, did I mention I brought my brand new girlfriend out here with me? Yep, did that too. Sign me up for Mensa!

Needless to say, it didn’t work out so well. I was a nervous wreck. All I really wanted to do was shut that stupid office door and cry over my daughter. I wasn’t ready to handle PR crisis after PR crisis.

So I didn’t. I packed my stuff up after a year and went back to Philadelphia.

Only things didn’t go so well there, either. In a tough big city employment pool, I was just another small fish. I get that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, but could I just get a small patch of green somewhere???

I thought that patch came in the form of a second chance in Hawaii. I landed a job doing fundraising for another social services agency. It must be destiny, right? You don’t get two pretty good jobs in Hawaii with no significant connections if you’re not supposed to be here, right?

That’s what I thought, anyway. So back on the plane I climbed in September of 2016. Only this time, the girlfriend and I decided to play it smart. I’d come out here and check it out - make sure it was a good fit - and after a few months I’d give her the go-ahead to quit her job and join me.

That day never came. I got fired after six short months. They said it wasn’t for performance - that they had an unexpected and significant financial crisis - but who knows.

I’m still distracted. I’m still not passionate or even really enthusiastic about fundraising. Building those relationships is a process that takes time - probably longer than six months - but the fact remains that I wasn’t raising much money yet.

So now I’m flying back to Philadelphia to start over again. Is it really even starting over if you didn’t get started? Probably not. I guess I’m flying back to Philadelphia to start.

Do I have any positive takeaway from this mess? Sometimes even a realist like me (okay, fine, pessimist) needs to see something positive - just a little sliver of hope.

Well, for one, I’ve finally accepted that fundraising is no longer the path for me, and any moment of clarity is a win when you’re typically as decision-paralyzed as I am. I just don’t have the energy to continue faking it in any area of my life - not in my relationships and not in my so-called career.

I don’t know what’s next, but it’s going to have to be something for which I have genuine interest. I like to write. I like fitness. I’m really good at thumb wrestling. We’ll see.

And the girlfriend… her name is Christina and shockingly, she’s still around! I don’t even know how or why sometimes, but I feel lucky. And I feel like I’ve been careless with our relationship with all this bouncing around the world.

I’m going to try to change that when I get back. I might not find career stability for a while, but I’m going to have to find a way to be present so that something in my life can grow.

This is my grief journey - the first four years of it anyway. I’m not in the habit of giving advice. I’d rather just share my experience and let you take what you will from it.

I’m sure some “expert” will say not to shake up your life too much the first couple of years after you lose a child. That sounds like pretty reasonable advice.

At the same time, I’m grateful for my time in Hawaii… both times. I’m grateful for the friends I made, the lessons I learned, and the beauty I saw. I’m grateful I shared the first experience here with Kris and that she got to visit me twice on this go-round.

Just by expressing gratefulness, something that doesn’t come particularly naturally to me after losing Ruby, I think I’m slowly making peace with some of my mistakes. I’m gradually letting just a smidgen of bitterness go and telling myself I’m allowed to have hope.

I’m certain I’ve pissed a few people off. But my daughter’s not mad at me. She’s looking down or up or sideways or whatever you believe, and she knows her dumb dad is trying, even if he moves at a snail’s pace. That’s all I can do.

Here’s my pathetic attempt at giving some miniscule piece of advice after saying that’s not really my thing. Don’t shoot yourself in the face?

Well, sort of, and now you see why I don’t give advice. I’m kind of terrible at it.

I saw this show about a state-sponsored program in Thailand where prisoners can be released by winning a Muay Thai fight. This guy fighting for his freedom had stabbed a complete stranger in the neck with a knife - a man he’d never met before - and killed him.

He won the stupid fucking fight and was set free with an absolute pardon, wiping his record clean. They showed the slain man’s mother sitting at his grave thumbing through pictures of him.

Watching this, I realized something profound, for me anyway, about why bereaved parents have such a hard time fitting into the world. We cling to the past with every fiber of our beings. Any little memory is cherished and replayed over and over in our minds as we try to extract every little detail about our child. The past is our lifeblood.

But we live in a world where the future is everything, so much so that a cold-blooded murderer’s life has more value than the life he took. That’s over. Bury it and move on.

There’s no bringing the dead one back, so let’s give the one who’s still alive and who happens to have a five-year-old son a chance at redemption even if he clearly doesn’t deserve it and there’s zero evidence he’ll use it well. And, let’s throw salt in the wound by rewarding a violent murderer’s skill at inflicting more violence.

That’s when it hit me. The future is everything in our world. The past is nothing.

No one really cares what happened to my kid. I can get 100 social media likes for a picture of myself posing with a giant cheeseburger dripping with grease that I’m about to stuff in my fat fucking face. Post a picture of my kid - especially something real where she was in the hospital looking sickly - and no one gives a fuck.

This future-centric world is the world in which I have to live. I can point out how I disagree with this perspective until I’m blue in the face, but it won’t change anything. The past is really just an impediment to forward momentum. Experience a profound loss and you’ll find this out, too.

I’ll remember her, and I’ll do my best to keep those memories alive for others, but it won’t work for anyone except the small circle who loved her. And even most of them won’t care as much as me and her mom.

So where does my great Muay Thai revelation leave me? That they should have put me in the ring with that guy and not called the fight until someone was dead? Yeah, maybe. That this world really can make you feel like shooting yourself in the face sometimes? Yeah, that too.

But remember that gratefulness and hope I was just getting to the point of allowing to creep into my thinking? Maybe I’m ready to cling to that a little, too. Maybe a few of you are as well.

I think I’m onto something with this not shooting yourself in the face thing. I just need to polish it up a little bit. How about this?... Drag yourself out of bed and just try something.

That may not sound like much, but it’s everything when doing it takes every ounce of energy and will to live you can muster. When the voice inside your head screams, “I’m not going to shoot myself in the face, but I really wish someone would do it for me,” getting out of bed and trying is indeed monumental.

Even doing the wrong thing is better than giving up hope and trying nothing. Move to Hawaii and back twice in three years if you have to. You tried something. Gold star for you.

Even if you don’t know what the point of trying is since the one who made trying important is gone...

Even if the past often seems more important than the future…

Even if your decisions seem doomed to fail before you implement them…

Just try.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Down in a Hole

Fuck EVERYTHING! Fuck birthdays. Fuck flowers. Fuck smiles. Do you even read this shit??? Do not make me talk about Christmas and sunshine anymore!!! Ah, fuck them too, just in case there was any remaining ambiguity about my real feelings. Fuck ponies and puppies. And fuck hugs. Glad I didn't forget stupid hugs.

Fuck this little shit. She sucks.
Okay, got that out of the way in one paragraph, and you made it. Gold star for you.

I'm going to try really hard with the remainder of this one not to be quite my usual ranting and raving self. I have an important message - a little life coaching, or maybe it's death coaching - and I don't want it to get lost in my usual barrage of insults and anger.

You know all that anger is just misdirected love, right? At least that's what a dear friend told me. Come here. Step a little closer. That's right; closer now. Slip your hand just inside the cage. Let me show you a little bit of this love up close and personal. Kiss, kiss.

Okay... deep breath... little slip-up there on my promise about the ranting... less cray-cray and more focused on the topic at hand. I got this!

I'm a member of a few grief coping discussion groups. Most of them are specifically geared toward child loss. Interacting with others who have had like experiences can be pretty helpful. They tend to "get" you, and you don't have to explain everything.

It can also be pretty draining. The life events these people have endured are often-times shocking. They've lost their children - sometimes more than one child - in the most random and heartbreaking ways imaginable and unimaginable.

If you had any small doubts about the existence of a good and peaceful God, spend a few hours perusing the posts in one of these groups and those nagging questions become a banging drumbeat in your ears. How could a God who loves us possibly let these things happen?

I won't try to answer that one, by the way. No, I reckon I'll spend the rest of my life asking it instead.

Many of the posts on these grief discussion boards are exactly what you'd expect - people struggling to find any sort of direction in their lives after losing a child. They post pictures, share memories, wonder aloud how they can possibly go on, search for any sort of meaning in their new world order, and try to support each other.

It's not the blind leading the blind. They've all seen plenty. It's the broken leading the broken.

In addition to the posts I expected to see, I also noticed a significant number that are entirely different and not at all what I expected. A lot of the most passionate discussions are about the significant conflicts group members have had with family and friends following the loss of their child.

Here I was naively thinking profound loss would draw us all together rather than tear us apart. Yet I have to admit, my own experience points to a more grim reality. The ripple effects of losing a child are far reaching and often unpleasant.

The common theme: disappointment.

In nearly all of these conflict posts, group members express dismay at the lack of compassion and understanding displayed by those who are supposed to be their closest allies. They talk about how friends and family have consistently disappointed them with insensitive comments and omissions.

Admittedly, I can see how we - and I say "we" deliberately because I want to be sure to include myself here - are sometimes hypersensitive. I thought I was crazy when I first noticed who was "liking" Facebook status updates I made about Ruby and who was seemingly ignoring them.

Years ago, a friend once quit speaking to me for months. I didn't notice until, about six months into the silent treatment, another friend told me how pissed this person was. Yet here I was after Ruby died - formerly Mr. Oblivious, himself - counting likes. This uncharacteristic behavior served as just another reason for me to feel really fucking pathetic.

Were these friends really even purposely ignoring or am I maybe just not the center of the universe? Is it possible my post just slipped by accidentally and wasn't overtly ignored?

No matter, because blinded by grief, I didn't see it that way. All I saw were people I thought were my friends liking a bunch of stupid status updates about what someone had for dinner or what shitty store they just checked into, while ignoring my anguish.

If I wasn't the center of the universe, well then I demanded to know why the hell not. What could possibly be more important than my dead baby? Your uninformed political opinion? Don't think so, asshole.

As you can see, I was livid over some pretty small oversights. I still am, sometimes. I also thought I was nuts, until I saw other bereaved parents reacting similarly all over the grief support groups.

It isn't always hypersensitivity, either. Sometimes the lack of simple common sense and decency family and so-called friends display is shocking.

I could relate countless examples, but most boil down to these people telling us how we should think and behave. You need to put your own heartache aside and show up for this or that function. You need to check in with me at such and such intervals. Stuff like that.

Oh, really? Is that so? Let me get this straight. I need to make you feel better? Got it. Now fuck right off. In fact, in retaliation I'll be sure not to call in hopes you actually feel worse.

See how it works? Both sides are really at fault, whether they mean to be or not. One messes up, and the other goes out of their way to let them know they messed up. As if this situation wasn't bad enough already, now we add the cluster fuck of human emotions and frailties into the mix.

Why in the world is there such a big disconnect between our expectations and the ability of friends and family to measure up in our time of greatest need?

It certainly can't be that they take joy in throwing salt in an open wound. People can be stupid, but most aren't knowingly and purposefully cruel. Only a psycho like me is cruel for cruelty's sake. In fact, I'm certain friends and family desperately want to be helpful, despite their miserable failings.

So where the hell did the ship veer so far off course? I have a theory, and like most theories, I didn't entirely make it up. I read some stuff smart people wrote, like the article I linked at the end of this essay.

My theory, as simply as I can put it, is that timetables just don't match up. Most of our well-intentioned friends and family have experienced some sort of loss in their lifetimes, whether it be a pet or a parent or sometimes even a spouse or sibling.

I don't want to minimize these experiences. Loss is loss. I know a good friend who struggled for months when his dog died. And while I was too young to really remember the death of my father, I can only imagine that the death of a spouse or a parent (at least one you are actually old enough to remember) is a traumatic event that sticks with you for the rest of your life.

But these losses follow the natural world order. Parents die first. Pets are with us for a decade if we're lucky. Even a spouse or siblings... we're all going to go sometime, and we just hope those closest to us make it to old age before that happens so we have plenty of memories of their full lives to cherish.

While all of these losses stick, we can generally at least make some sense of them and move forward as changed people. And because grappling with these sorts of losses is most people's frame of reference, they expect that forward momentum from us as well. The problem is that there's no making any sense of losing your kid - not after a year, or five, or ever.

I may have told this next story before, but these are the memories I cling to fiercely like a wino strains to get those last few drops from the bottom of the bottle. One night I was lying in the pitch black with Ruby trying to get her to fall asleep before me. The struggle was real. In utter darkness, she was compelled to reach over and begin stroking my eyelashes with her fingertips.

MY EYELASHES! I couldn't see anything, and this rambunctious baby with all the dexterity of a moose, who once accidentally head butted me so hard she loosened a tooth, somehow steadied her little hand enough to strum her fingertips over my eyelashes without poking my eye right out. Magical.

She did this for several minutes while I didn't dare move and spoil the moment. And then she reached down, took hold of my index finger, brought it up to her own eyelashes, and began moving it back and forth so I could experience what she just had.

That was at once one of the most beautiful moments of my life and, in retrospect, a source of immense pain that will never ease. I have laid in bed alone in darkness many nights since her death and replayed that sequence over and over in my mind's eye, tears of frustration streaming down my cheeks.

Where is my little baby now? How do I get to her? Will we ever touch eyelashes again?

The chain is broken and unbroken all at once. All our hopes and dreams for the many milestones in their lives - driving and prom and graduation and marriage and a career and family of their own - are extinguished with their death. The story just cuts off somewhere in the middle with no resolution.

And yet the chain of love transcends time and space. Those questions I ask in the darkness have no answers. I don't know where she is or how to get to her or whether I will ever hold her again.

But the love is as strong today as it was that day. It will be as strong tomorrow and next week and next year. Lying on my death bed, I will be thinking about touching her eyelashes in the darkness.

Maybe I was just trying to be nice above, and that's not really my strong suit. Maybe loss really isn't loss. Maybe this loss is different. When family and friends expect the wounds of our loss to scab over like theirs have, maybe they are expecting the impossible.

When our wounds remain gaping wide open even three or four or twenty years later, they don't understand. They can't, because they haven't experienced it. See, timetables and expectations just don't match.

Or my kid died. Same difference.
So what is it that bereaved parents really want from friends and family? I'm kind of speaking for myself here, but also hopefully for the collective group I've come to know.

We live our new lives down in some hole. Maybe we even get to a point where we can come out once in a while, give a glimpse of our old selves, and see an old friend. But the pretending to be okay or to be thinking about anything else for very long is exhausting, so at some point, undoubtedly before friends and family are ready for us to, we retreat back into that hole.

If you really want to help, stop trying to drag us back out before we're ready. Stop telling us it will all be okay when clearly it won't. Instead, come down here and join us just for a little bit. That's what we really want from you more than anything else.

We won't lie to you; it's bad here. We know it frightens you to see it up close and that you're petrified of something like this happening in your own life. Get too close to the leper and maybe you'll catch it too. We get it.

Does that really seem like the decent thing to do, though? Turn your back and look away because you can't handle it, or because we're such an unpleasant reminder of the worst thing that can happen.

Are you that fucking soft? Man up. Deal with it. We're not asking you to bear this oppressive burden every minute of every day like we do, but you can't ask us to be free of it in order to spend time together.

What is that??? I'll see you on your good days and we won't mention your dead kid, because that might make you sad again and then I'll be sad too. Fuck that. Don't bother seeing me at all if you can't handle sadness (and anger). I'm better off without you if you only want the version of me that you want.

A friend contacted me for advice on what to say to make a recently bereaved parent "feel better." I guess this friend thinks I'm some beacon of wisdom on this topic, seeing as how I'm now well over three years into the journey and am doing so fucking peachy. I was immediately incensed, and I know I have to watch that seething anger.

But c'mon. You really think you're going to utter some magical words that make the person feel better? That shouldn't even be your goal; compassion should.

All child deaths are bad. There is no good one. In this case, however, the person's daughter committed suicide, and the family found her hanging from the basement rafters. That's their last mental image of their beautiful teenage daughter.

Did you ever stop to think this probably won't get much better and that there's not much hope you can offer? In fact, offering hope is sort of insulting. "Oh, time will help. Things will return somewhat to normal."

No, they won't; not when your kid dies. Not when you have to cut the rope and let their lifeless body fall to the floor or pull the plug and let their last bit of life force dribble away to nothing.

You're stuck dealing with this forever, and it's likely never going to soften much. It's survival mode now. One day at a time takes on a whole new meaning, as you literally grit your teeth and fight like hell just to get out of bed for days, months, and years on end.

You're never going to feel like celebrating holidays like other people do. It's not just that first year or two. It's all of them.

So if you're going to talk to a bereaved parent, my advice is to keep it real. False hope only serves to minimize the person's grief experience. They're dying inside. The last thing they want to hear from you who couldn't possibly know is that it will all be better someday.

They didn't miss a fucking tax deadline. They were robbed of a life they created. A piece of their soul died. Acknowledge that, not just once, but over and over again, and you'll be well on your way to real empathy.

And for God's sakes, listen to some Alice in Chains. Jesus, all this hand holding puts me in a dour disposition. I need some happy music to break out of my funk... or not.


Further reading on this topic:
Grief is NOT Self-Pity, Joel Osteen