As I got ready for bed last night, I was overcome by overwhelming feelings. Deep sadness. Profound gratitude. Unfathomable unknowing. Fear. Frustration. Anger. Love.
What in the world?
And then, I picked up my phone to set an alarm for this morning and I saw it. It was just after midnight, and it was right there on the little calendar icon.
It’s the 9th. Again.
Missing our sweet Alexander is an underlying current to every day, but some days the waves crash a little bit higher.
Today, as I went about my workday prepping information and promotional materials for our campaign to recruit students for the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering, and as I looked ahead at fall and winter youth ministry planning and checked event signups, that undercurrent was there.
It seems like a weird milestone. Do the months still count after a year? Do I still make time to blog consistently on the ninth of the month even though we are now past Alexander’s first birthday? What do I even write about?
Then, I started thinking about an article that I shared on Facebook over the weekend. I shared the article because, with the exception of just a couple items, it could have been written by me.
Then, I started thinking about some conversations I’ve had recently with friends. Conversations about life and about grief and about finding a new normal and about laughter and about youth ministry and about marriage and about parenting.
And as I thought about that article, and about those conversations, and about all of the things floating around in my brain lately, I realized that it’s no freaking wonder I am feeling overwhelmed. It’s no wonder my brain feels cloudy and I forget little things like where I put my keys or what I needed to pick up from the grocery store. It’s no wonder I went to bed last night with all the feels.
So, in an effort to put some of those thoughts and feelings and whatever it is going on in my brain out there and make some sense of it, here are a few things I wish people knew that I’ve learned in the past thirteen months. Warning, some of this is pretty brutally honest. I’m not trying to call anyone out or be hurtful, but I hope that someone might read this and learn a little bit about how to talk with a parent who is grieving the loss of their child.
Nothing you do will make me “more sad.”
Saying Alexander’s name isn’t going to somehow remind me that my son died as though I had somehow forgotten. Asking how I’m doing isn’t going to make me sad. Being around me, or talking about your kids, or basically anything you might do isn’t going to make me “more sad.” I think about Alexander every single day. Saying something, mentioning him, or asking how I am doing isn’t going to “remind me” or “make me more sad.” In fact, it will likely do the exact opposite. It will show me that you remember and that I’m not the only one thinking about him, which it sometimes feels like.
Losing Alexander has irrevocably changed me.
I have had several people say to me on different occasions over the past thirteen months, something along the lines of “I just miss the old Erin,” or “I just want the old Erin to come back.” Well, guess what? It is not humanly possible to go through something like losing a child and not come out different on the other side. Are there still pieces of the old me here? Yes. Are there glimmers of the “old me” that come out? Absolutely. But here’s the deal: The old me is not here. She is not coming back. There are pieces there, but they have been put back together differently. They have been shaped and cut and sanded and roughed up and shattered and pieced back together. I’m still getting to know this new me. This new me who feels everything exponentially more. This new me who both notices more and pays attention to less. This new me who is both more tired and more willing to sacrifice sleep for things that are suddenly way more important than they used to be. Losing a child changes you irrevocably.
We are still parents. It just looks different.
Due to the nature of my job in youth ministry, I spend a lot of time around parents. Most of those parents have kids who are at least 10 years older than Alexander. It is incredibly meaningful when those parents acknowledge us as fellow parents. Even something as simple as saying “that’s good parenting” when we are interacting with their kids. Sure, we haven’t experienced the sleepless nights and diaper blowouts and life changes that come with parenting a living child, but we have a son who we love as much as a human heart can love. Parenting a child in heaven looks a lot different than parenting a child here on earth. It looks like saying his name and talking about him. It looks like sharing his story and advocating for others who are grieving. It looks like remembering him and acknowledging him during important events and on milestone dates. Parents who lose a child, even their only child, are still parents and ought to be acknowledged as such.
I am learning how to navigate and live into a new normal.
Everything–and I mean everything–in my life has been affected by losing Alexander. Changes that we anticipated didn’t come, but instead there are a whole new set of changes to which I have had to learn to adapt. Friendships. Marriage. Ministry. Identity. Faith. Nothing has been spared. Thirteen months in, and I am still learning how to understand and navigate these changes in all areas of my life. Things will never go back to how they were before we lost Alexander, and I will spend the rest of my life learning how to navigate and live into this new normal. Life without one (or more) of your children changes not only you, but your whole life.
Grief-brain is a real thing.
Since losing Alexander, my mind just isn’t as sharp as it used to be. Simple things that I used to be really good at have become exceedingly difficult: remembering where I put something, proofreading something I’ve written, simple math, and remembering to message someone back after they’ve texted me. Many days it still feels like I’m fumbling through day-to-day tasks. A lot of times I can laugh it off, but sometimes it really gets to me. I feel like I should still be able to do things that I used to do, but I just can’t. It’s frustrating to feel like I’ve lost some mental capacity.
Maybe I have become hyper-sensitive. Maybe by not talking about the things that I am perceiving I am making them bigger in my head. But, I notice things. I noticed when people acknowledged the first few monthly milestones and then I didn’t hear anything from them in the month of July as we crossed the one year mark. The author of the article I shared on facebook last weekend put it both bluntly and brilliantly:
“To the friends and family that found the entire death and dealing with my sadness all too hard and held secret events behind our backs that were lied about, stopped inviting us to things we had always been included in and slowly ended our relationship thinking I didn’t notice.”
To be fair, I have also noticed the people who have consistently reached out. People who I would have never expected to, but who have overwhelmed us with love and support. Friends from college who I haven’t seen in years. Former campers from when I worked as a camp counselor. I notice those things, too. Grief has heightened my radar as well as my sensitivity for being included and excluded, whether that inclusion or exclusion is intentional or not.
Telling me I should consider therapy or seeing a counselor doesn’t make me want to do either of those things.
First, I’m not doing this alone. I feel supported. I have safe places to talk about my grief, whether that’s with close friends or with fellow loss parents who we have met online or who have reached out to us. I have always been a pretty “self-sufficient” person–probably has something to do with being a firstborn myself. I look at my life now compared to a year ago, and I can see incredible progress. I can see the ways that I am functioning day to day now compared to a year ago, and I can see that I have taken “forward steps” just like the doctor talked with us about at our six week follow-up appointment. Suggesting counseling feels like pressure to “get better” regardless of how well-meaning that suggestion is.
There is no timeline to grief.
We will grieve for Alexander for the rest of our lives. Over the past thirteen months, I have already begun learning how to carry that grief with more grace than I did early on. But, not a day goes by that I don’t think about how different our lives would be if Alexander was here. Sometimes I feel pressure, whether self-imposed or felt from others, that I should be “better” or “over it” or “moving on.” The reality is this, though: though time will teach me how to carry our grief and incorporate it into this “new me” that I am discovering and learning more about each day, the grief of losing Alexander is something that I will carry until the day I see him again. The grief of losing a child should not be rushed or judged, as learning to live without your child is the most difficult journey of all.
I laugh and play and enjoy day-to-day life.
I was talking with a friend recently about how people who read my blog but don’t see me on a day-to-day basis might think that thirteen months out I am still sitting at home wallowing and crying and sad all the time. I’ll admit that I tend to write on the hardest days, and so my blog is definitely an incomplete picture of what my life actually looks like on a daily basis. The reality is this: on most days, I laugh and play and joke around and am generally able to enjoy life. I hang out with friends and laugh until there are tears in my eyes. I function like a normal adult and go to work and eat meals and keep a clean house. Please don’t think that just because I’m still grieving I’m not functioning. Every day there is a tension between that undercurrent of loss and missing Alexander and the joy and laughter and playfulness that comes with day-to-day life.
Please don’t ask questions about when we will start “trying” again.
I promise you that this will just end badly for everyone. Just don’t do it. To me, this seems like it should be a no brainer, because family planning is so personal and there are so many journeys, whether it is one of child loss or infertility or adoption or anything else. I’m just going to leave that there. If someone has lost a child, they’ll talk about family planning with those they feel comfortable talking about it with, and anyone else should probably just wait.
I was going to try to come up with thirteen things in thirteen months, but ten seems like a good place to stop for today. As you can see, with all this stuff bouncing around in my head on a daily basis, it’s no wonder I went to bed last night feeling overwhelmed and then slept for a solid eight hours. My head and heart needed the rest.
As is the case every day, I am thinking about that sweet son of mine.
Alexander, my boy.
You are loved.
You are loved.
You are loved.