Survived

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I’ll never forget seeing this line in Mattie’s obituary,

“He is survived by father, John, mother, Tracie, brother and sister-in-law, Nick and Amy, brothers, Taylor and Aiden and sisters, Isabelle, Elia and Emma.”

Survived.

He was gone, and we survived.

It didn’t feel like survival. It felt like a crushing collapse of pain had settled on our family.

On August 21, 2014, I woke up got my nails done, ran a few errands, and packed my bags for a weekend getaway with my husband. The first one in many years, I couldn’t remember the last one. Our son Mattie was almost 4 years old. He was born with Down syndrome, and had spent the first year of his life in the hospital overcoming multiple illnesses, two open heart surgeries and a tracheostomy. He finally came home just before his first birthday and though the years to come would bring many hospitalizations and very terrifying moments, our lives had been filled to overflowing with love and joy and the celebration of his life. The 14 months prior to this day had been a dream come true. His health had dramatically improved, we went on a miraculous family vacation for the first time, and we felt for the first time that he was stable enough for us to travel away for a few days.

As I was closing up my suitcase, Mattie’s nurse gave a call for us to come. We walked in to see our son’s blue face and the familiar panic in his eyes as he struggled to breathe. I jumped into to give rescue breathing, and we called 911. With my hands on a bag that forced air into his lungs through his trachea, we transferred him to the ambulance where minutes down the road his heart stopped. I worked with two paramedics to help restore life to my son’s limp body, but life would not return.

My son was gone. My beautiful, brown-eyed boy had slipped out of this life and into the next.

And we “survived” his death.

It has been almost a year since his passing, and here we are, surviving.

We are the ones left behind. We outlived our son. Parents should never outlive a child.

We are the ones who “continue to live in spite of danger or hardship,” the ones who “continue to live in spite of” intense pain and grief.

I have learned that grief is as deep as love is wide, and that sorrow exists because of the power of love’s impact on the world.

I have learned that there is space in the human heart for joy and pain, peace and anger, and hope and sadness to all reside. And I have learned that to truly survive such unspeakable loss, we must allow ourselves to feel them each completely.

I will survive because of Love. For this beast called Grief is not stronger than the power of Love.

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Once Upon a Dream

She crawled under the rumpled sheets of her unmade bed. She laid her head on the pillow and prayed for sleep to come. Her heart spun with anxious thoughts and pain pressed in hard and fierce.  So much loss. The ache so deep. She breathed in, praying that the nightmares would stop.

The swirl came and she felt her body sink into the comfort of the place called her bed, she breathed once more and slipped into the depths.

She found herself carried to that place where the spirit wakes, fully alive under the weight of the body’s rest.

Light surrounded her, sound and beauty, color and form, and she narrowed her focus to a particularly bright spot in the forest.

She approached, her head tilted to the side. Her eyes narrowed, focusing in on what seemed familiar and sweet.

She heard hushed tones, whispers. The mist swirled around her ankles and she felt like she was walking on air.

She saw them.

The two of them.

They were seated on a mossy log, she could see their forms take shape before her very eyes. The mist began to clear.

She lowered herself, and sat quietly. It felt sacred, and she knew she was only an invited spectator.

As the mist fully settled, she gasped. And with that gasp her heart filled with love and light and strength.

She saw him from the back. His brown curls were glowing, his form was sturdy and strong, the tilt of his head so familiar. She saw the slope of his cheek from the side and she knew for sure.

It was him.

His arm was fixed firmly around a little girl, her spirit was so light and pure, radiant.

He leaned in close to her and he whispered.

She leaned forward so she could hear,

“Oh let me tell you about them! You’re going to love them. And they are going to love you. They are so good, so very very good. Take care of them for me.”

And that was it. A whisper. A promise.

And love swirled all about, wrapping her deeply as her spirit returned and her sleeping body soaked it all in.

She awoke.

And she knew.

Love was sending Love.

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Photo courtesy of Charlie Hibberd

This dream was a gift to our family. And the reality of it has entered our lives. Millie is here. Love sent Love. Spoken into being by her Creator just days after our Mattie Love passed into Eternity. Our Millie Love was sent- a gift, one we will treasure every moment of every day. 

The “Inside Out” of Grief

I am not a movie critic, and this is not even an attempt at a movie review. 

And SPOILER ALERT, I’m not going to try to NOT spoil this for you.

I just want to tell you about a family who went to see a movie together and what happened in our own “inside out”.

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The characters that you see above are Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear and Sadness.

They live inside Riley’s head.

As the film begins, we are welcomed into to a story about a little girl who grows up reaching childhood milestones, loving hockey, developing sweet friendships, and having a wonderful family life. She then finds herself moving across the country with her parents where everything is new and different. The film’s focus is the emotional upheaval that the move has on Riley, however, the setting of the story takes place less on the landscape of Riley’s experiences and more on the landscape of her mind.

Inside Riley’s mind we are introduced to these 5 main characters: Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear and Sadness. They operate a switch board that is Riley’s “brain control board” so to speak. They take turns at the board giving emotion to Riley’s experiences. They capture memories in glass balls and take them to a shoot where they are deposited into short term or long term memory. We are introduced to places like Imagination Land, Abstract Thought, a Subconscious “jail”, Forgotten Memory, a colorful train that runs through the story, aptly named “The Train of Thought”, and the various Islands of her life experiences.

But as I mentioned earlier, this is not a movie review and I’m not even going to attempt to break down the whole story line.

Here’s what I want to share with you about the power of this movie.

Pixar and Disney have managed to bring two movies to the screen recently that have had a powerful effect on our family. I wrote earlier about Big Hero 6 (read here), a movie that allowed Aiden to find a voice to express his grief. And now Inside Out goes deeper to give us all language to express the incredible power and importance of human emotion.

Grief is a crazy beast. There are many days when I feel like juggling the emotional rampage is more than I can bare, not only within my own heart and mind, but in helping to carry my children through this as well.

This movie has so many layers, so much depth, but let me focus on one.

Inside Out has helped me give language to the emotions on this journey called “Grief”.

In the movie, there is a scene where Riley is distraught about all that she has lost in the move: friendships, activities that were important to her, and the security of the familiar. Sadness takes the controls, competing with Joy who is trying to help Riley remain her “happy self”. Joy tries to keep Sadness away, hating to see their girl Riley feeling so sad. At one point Sadness and Joy are both “suppressed”, leaving Anger, Fear and Disgust as the primary controllers of the “brain control board”.

Joy is desperately trying to find her way back to the controls, dragging Sadness along with her; yet at the same time trying to get Sadness to cooperate with her mission to restore Joy.

Grief is like that. Joy becomes further and further removed from the control system of our minds, Sadness tries to express itself, but so many, many times Anger and Fear take the front seat.

As someone I know and love recently said, “Anger is simply a cover for Sadness. It pushes Sadness away because Sadness is more painful to feel.”

I’ve seen this battle in my life, in my husband’s life, and in my children’s lives- Anger covering up Sadness, pushing it to the background because, let’s face it, Sadness is a heavy load. I’ve wrapped my arms around a raging child and tried to help them get to the deeper root, the Sadness that is hiding behind the Anger. I’ve watched as screaming and kicking give way to a weeping and collapse.

As the movie comes to a close, Joy comes to an understanding of how important Sadness is in Riley’s life. She discovers that unless Riley is allowed to feel the sadness of this big change in her life and express it to her parents, that Joy will never be able to return. She is able to look back at Riley’s life and see moments where she had always perceived Joy as the primary emotion, when really the moment would not have been Joyful had Sadness not been expressed first.

So as Joy and Sadness return to the control board, they are united, Joy places Sadness’ hand on the board, allowing Riley to step out of a place of Anger and to express her true feelings to her parents. As Sadness is released, Joy then places her hand over Sadness’ hand, and Riley is able to experience the unique ability of the human spirit to feel both Joy and Sadness simultaneously.

And there you have the beauty and bittersweetness of grief. As the human spirit walks through Anger at pain and loss, and allows Sadness to be freely expressed, it is then that Joy can be experienced again as well, and often with that hand over hand simultaneous expression that is Sadness and Joy interwoven.

Deep within the theme of this movie is also the impact that tragedy has on our past memories. Joy keeps finding Sadness putting her hand on past memories and touching them with Sadness. She keeps trying to stop this. Sadness doesn’t understand why she is doing it. Then the realization comes that because of tragedy even some of the memories of the past are now touched with Sadness.

And so it is, the memories I have of my sweet boy have now been touched by Sadness. It changes them. It doesn’t take them away from me, it deepens them. I can recount beautiful, miraculous Joyful moments of our lives with him and feel at the same time the sting of Sadness, knowing that memories are all we have left; that there will be no new ones. The memories, though they bring a reminder of Joy, also carry the ache of Sadness.

So my friends, whatever shape your pain and grief may hold, Anger is not bad. Feel it. Acknowledge it. It’s ok. It’s not a place to stay, but at times a visitor that creeps in to the journey. But as I am learning and as I am teaching my children, never let the Anger push Sadness to the background for too long. Sadness must be felt because Love is great, and together we are learning the unique dance that Joy and Sadness share. Joy comes in waves. Sadness comes in waves. And at times one hits with more intensity that the other, and at other times they wash up against us with the same steady rhythm hand in hand.

Thank you Pixar for helping our family and many others find expression for the feelings that are part of each of our unique life journeys.

A Letter To My Son on Father’s Day

Two years ago I wrote a letter to my son, the week before he was to get married, that began,

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Son,

The day I held you in my arms for the first time, you changed my world forever. You taught me how to be a mother. You taught me how to love more deeply that I ever could have imagined….

*you can read the full letter here: A Letter to My Son

Today I start another letter in much the same way,

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Son,

The day I held you in my arms for the first time, you changed my world forever. You taught me how to be a mother. You taught me how to love more deeply that I ever could have ever imagined.

I’ve watched you become a man. The kind of man who is strong yet vulnerable, wise yet humble. A man who is creative, brave, and kind. A man who is talented and gifted, yet always strives to learn more. A man who has become a husband, embracing that roll with all that you are, your strength and your weakness. You’ve laid your imperfections on the table and with it shown the true nature of strength of a man.

I’m proud of the man and husband you have become and are becoming.

Yet the other day, you shook my world again. The other day, I watched you in a moment become a father.

I saw that look in your eyes as you gazed on the beauty and miracle of your newborn daughter.

I heard the change in the timber of your voice as you spoke to her.

I saw your eyes deepen and become softer that I ever thought possible.

In a moment you stepped into a role that will change the life of one little girl forever.

You will be the one to help shape her image of how the world perceives her.

You will be the one that will instill in her a sense of beauty, a sense of belonging, a sense of worth like no one else can do.

And I’m watching you do it already.

Oh son, that my heart could be any fuller of love for you, I could not have imagined.

But the other day when I saw your hands wrap around a tiny life that you have called “daughter”, my heart exploded into a gazillion tiny new pieces of love.

The day I held you in my arms for the first time, you changed my world forever. You taught me how to be a mother.

The day you held your daughter in your arms for the first time, you changed my world forever. You gave me the name “Noni” and I don’t need any lessons, I know exactly what to do.

You have taught me how to love more deeply than I ever could have imagined.

And you keep teaching me, every day of my life.

 

Love,

Momma

The Severed Limb

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They say time heals all wounds.

I’d like to think that’s true, but I have my doubts.

Heal: “make better, make well, to be cured”

I don’t feel that time heals grief any more than time would heal an amputated leg. That leg is NOT going to grow back. My life will not return to the way that is was before Mattie died.

That person with the severed limb will not walk the same. They will learn to walk with support, and they will find new ways to get around. Healing after loss may come in the sense of learning to live within the pain and loss, the severed limb, but not if healing means to return to normal.

I will always grieve.

And yet heal also means: to mend, to improve, to alleviate

So maybe there is “healing”, but there is not cure. It will not be all better.

I will mend. I will improve. The intensity may be alleviated.

I know enough to know that I will not always feel the same way I feel at this moment. I know enough to know that there will be a time where I will walk a little easier with a prosthetic strapped to my soul. And I know enough to know that even in that place where I will be able to breathe a little easier, smile more at beautiful memories than cry over the crushing weight of loss, that I will always grieve.

As Max Lucado so perfectly stated in his book Traveling Lightly,

As silently as a cloud slides between you and the afternoon sun memories drift between you and joy, leaving you in a chilly shadow. No warning. No notice.

…..why won’t sorrow leave? Because you buried more than a person. You buried some of yourself.

So yes, part of myself has been buried, and I’m trying to get to know the new me. I am learning how to walk with a missing limb. Breathing in everything that my strong, kind, loving son taught me about life, and praying that who he was will become a prosthetic that helps carry my soul.

Dinner Time

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I shared this photo recently on Facebook (it was taken about a year ago), but tonight I had kind of a download in understanding the intensity of grief I feel each evening starting around 5PM.

It was kind of driving me crazy. Like clockwork, it would whoosh in.

I wasn’t aware of the cycle at first, but now I see it clearly. My chest gets tight when it’s time to make dinner. I avoid it. It’s hard to even get the simplest kitchen tasks done. I simply dread it. I kept thinking maybe the days have just been long and I’m spent by that time.

But today I realized, that this time of night was my favorite time of day. We would wish our day time nurse good night, and we would bring Mattie downstairs after his nap. Having this boy in my kitchen or in the living room near by wrestling his brother was one of the most joyful times of day for me. The house was full of sounds that made me happy. I would hook up Mattie’s dinner time feeding, stop occasionally  to tend to his other needs, all while juggling dinner preparations. But mostly I would revel in the beauty of our crazy normal.

I loved my normal.

And now most evenings, it’s just far too quiet and my heart remembers how this time of day is supposed to feel.

Yes, I know only one person is missing. Please don’t remind me that I have other children. I know I do, and I love them each dearly.

But one child is missing from his place on my kitchen floor. And that spot is very, very empty.

Dear Father Who Grieves,

Father’s Day is just around the corner.

The often unnoticed, or not noticed nearly enough, member of the grief process when a family has lost a child is the father.

I’m not sure I understand this fully. I’ve read articles that seem to indicate that because a mother often spends more time with a child and is more nurturing, that their grief is more visible and even more intense, therefore getting more notice or seeming to greater on some “grief scale”. 

I don’t buy that. 

Clearly I know that all men are unique, just as all women are unique, so please forgive anything I am about to say that feels like a generalization or a stereotype.

Here’s what I know. I know my man. I know Mattie’s father. 

And he grieves deeply. Today he wept over an empty laundry basket that will never hold his son’s dirty clothes again.

A man at his core has an inborn desire to fix, to care, to support and provide safety for his family.

And when a child is lost, it shakes the very core of his nature. Something has happened that cannot be fixed. Something has happened that is honestly out of his control and the safety of his family is in jeopardy.

Everything is broken.

So let me speak to you from my heart, because honestly I don’t think there are enough people talking to YOU or sharing in your pain.

 Loux Family 129

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Dear Father Who Grieves,

I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sorry that your child is gone. I’m sorry the dreams that you had for the future of this precious life have been smashed before your very eyes. I’m sorry for the walks you will not take, the balls that will not be thrown, the games that you will not attend. I’m sorry for the kisses that will no longer be planted on your cheek, for the tea parties unattended, for the girl you will not walk down the aisle. I’m sorry that you won’t watch your child get on the bus for kindergarten, tell you about his first crush, or cry on your shoulder over a broken heart.

I’m sorry for the overwhelming sadness that sometimes cripples your ability to enjoy life. I’m sorry for the ache in your chest when you lie down at night and the punch in the gut every morning when you wake up.

I’m sorry that you are hurt and angry. You feel cheated and robbed. Life isn’t making much sense right now. And I’m so sorry for every trite word thrown at you, for every insensitive utterance that has hit your ears and caused you more pain.

This can’t be fixed and that very truth infuriates you. Things are broken, and you don’t have a single tool to put it back together. Your tool box is simply empty.

You look around and your family is hurting. You feel helpless to be strong for them all, to hold them up in your own weakness. It’s paralyzing at times. You see your wife and maybe you don’t know how to reach into her pain- maybe it scares you. She’s changed in many ways and you’re worried you won’t get her back. You get mad. Sometimes it might even come out as anger toward her, but you know deep down, it’s not her you’re mad at. It’s this unspeakable pain that has woven a thread through the very fabric of your lives that causes rage to burn. Be mad. Shake your fist at the sky for a moment.

Then, grab your wife and hold her close. She’s the one who knows your pain more than any other. She doesn’t need you to fix what cannot be fixed, she just needs you to be there. She wants to connect with your heart and love you through this. It’s ok to be broken with her. Marriages fall apart under this kind of pressure. Guard yours. Be broken together, but hold tight in the brokenness and don’t let go.

You may have other children who have lost a sibling. You hold them as they cry. They ask questions that you cannot answer. You’re the guy they look up to. You’re the one that’s supposed to have the answers and make everything feel better. I’m sorry you feel helpless. But you have something amazing to give- just you. Wrap those strong arms around them and simply listen. Hold them close and tell them that you understand, that you are hurting too.

Maybe friendships that you once had are barely existing. Perhaps no one knows what to say, so they say nothing. Maybe the men in your life have simply disappeared, or maybe they think you’re just find because they don’t ask or are afraid too. I’m sorry if you’ve lost friendships at a time when you need them the most.

I’m sure sometimes it is hard to talk and find words for all that you are feeling. Maybe you’ve never been very good at that anyway. I encourage you to find your words. Write them down. Talk to someone you trust. Get your family into counseling. Don’t get stuck in your head, you’ll self-destruct.

Most of all, I want you to know that I notice you. I notice you as I look into the eyes of my own husband, and I’m sorry if you have been unnoticed by those around you. I want you to know that I acknowledge your loss and your pain.

Nothing trite, no poems or verses.

Simply know this, I am so very sorry.