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…