Sunday, August 17, 2014

08/17/2014

   As a society, we Americans are not particularly well-prepared to deal with grief. Some cultures don't  even expect a grieving person to be ready to re-enter society in any meaningful way for up to a year or more. The person or family is given that much time to process and deal with all the numbing effects of grief. I went back to work three weeks to the day after my son's death. Mostly I did that because I was afraid that the longer I delayed the inevitable, the harder it would become to ever go back. I also wanted  something besides grief to occupy my time and energy. I had been back only a couple of weeks when it was time on our school calendar to hold Parent-Teacher conferences. All of the parents with whom I met were sympathetic to a point, but one parent remarked that I must be over it all since I was back teaching. I was incredulous. It took all of my self-control to not scream at her. This was my son's death we were dealing with not a pet goldfish. How insensitive could she be? In hindsight, it was probably much too soon for me to have to deal with people in that kind of setting, but, again, our culture does not look favorably on grieving for too long, especially not for men. We are raised to be strong, physically and emotionally. We are the providers, the guardians, the protectors. We are taught from an early age that big boys don't cry, that we should get over it (whatever "it" is) and move on. We are supposed to "fix" whatever is wrong and move forward. These kinds of attitudes are especially not helpful when men are dealing with grief. They are among the reasons that many men seem to get "stuck" in one spot
many different times in their journey through grief. Often when I would be faced with a new obstacle
grief had set in my way, my first reaction was to avoid it somehow, to try and go around it or pretend it wasn't there. I tried to lose myself in work. I tried to pretend that I wasn't really feeling what I was feeling. I would try to push away what was making me feel so bad. That only made things worse. As I stated previously, grief demands to be dealt with, but much of the time, I didn't know how to do that. I was feeling guilty that I had failed to protect my son in the first place, and now I was constantly faced with a situation I could not fix, not for myself, not for my wife, not for my surviving children. I was frustrated and angry about the entire thing. How does a man learn to deal with grief?

Sunday, August 10, 2014

08/10/2014

   As I mentioned previously, for me the first step to surviving was the realization that I needed to allow the people around me to just love me. Many of the people closest to us felt an almost overwhelming need to do something, anything, for us in an attempt to somehow help us through this ordeal. However, often what these well-meaning people needed for themselves was not what was particularly helpful to me. Still, I slowly began to realize that we were surrounded by the love, concern, and prayers of many people, some of which we did not even directly know.
   It also began to be apparent that even with all this support around us, in many ways, my journey through grief was going to be a lonely one. While grief demands to be dealt with, it is not on a set timeline. While many people are familiar with the various stages of grief (i.e. denial, anger, bargaining,
acceptance, etc.) such stages are extremely fluid. They do not conform to a neatly set pattern or timeline. What I was experiencing or feeling at a particular moment was not what my wife or children were experiencing. What I felt I needed at a certain moment in time did not often conform to their needs. In short, everyone's journey through grief is highly personal. It ebbs and flows from day to day and often from moment to moment. This aspect of grief makes it very difficult to stay on an even keel.
Many times I would feel like I was making good progress one day, only to feel like I had taken 10 steps backward the next.
   I often became frustrated with myself because I too often felt like I had to keep dealing with the same things over and over again. Why didn't I get the message the first time? Why did I have to go through the same things again and again? Grief is like that. Make no mistake: grief must be dealt with. You can try to run away or hide from it, but it will track you down. It will slowly and methodically follow you like a stalker or a spy pursuing their quarry. Its presence will not always be overtly apparent, but you will always know it is there, lurking in the shadows, waiting patiently to strike until you least expect it, usually when you are the most vulnerable. Again, it is this relentlessly uncertain characteristic of grief that consistently serves to confound and confuse us in our journey. Yes, grief demands our attention. How we respond to that demand can make a world of difference in our journey.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

08/02/14

   Sooner or later grief comes to us all in one way or another. It is no respecter of status or station in life.  It comes to rich and poor alike. It cares not if a person is famous, powerful or well-connected. It cannot be bargained away, nor can you hire someone else to handle it for you. It strikes viciously, often without warning, with a ferocity unlike anything else we experience. It throws our lives into utter chaos, bringing into question the very principals by which we have been leading our lives. It completely disrupts our belief systems, especially when it involves the death of a young person such as a child, which seems to totally violate the natural order of things: parents are not supposed to outlive their children. Grief absolutely turns our lives upside down. Everything changes, often not for the better. We are forced to realize some very unpleasant things about our lives on this planet. We are left searching for answers to questions we never expected to have to face. We often feel lost, hopeless and alone. We want someone to explain to us why this had to happen to us. How can we survive this situation? When will our lives return to normal? When will we feel like ourselves again? We want someone to give us answers to questions which have no answers. We feel like everything in our lives has changed in the blink of an eye, and we are spinning helplessly out of control. How do we survive?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

07/29/2014

   At the risk of stating the obvious, there are few emotions we experience as humans that can be compared with grief. By its very nature it is devastating and overwhelming like nothing else. It cannot be planned for, it strikes without warning giving us no time to prepare. Even when the loss involves an older person or someone who has been very ill, we may feel prepared for grief. Intellectually, we may accept the death, but emotionally we are never ready to have to live without the person's physical presence in our lives. In my case, to have my healthy, talented, loving, beautiful son ripped away from me in a matter of seconds sent me spinning. I don't think men in general are particularly well-suited to deal with such an emotional cataclysm. Most men are raised to be strong, not just physically, but also emotionally. We are taught to keep a tight rein on our emotions, with the possible exception of anger. It's usually deemed acceptable for men to show anger, at least righteous anger, anyway, but most other emotions are kept in check. Many men believe that overt shows of emotions such as fear, sorrow, or doubt are unacceptable both to others and to themselves. Besides, when dealing with something as powerful as grief what good will it do anyone to fall apart? That's not going to solve the problem. That's not going to bring my son back. That's not going to help my wife and children.
   I had experienced loss many times before in my life: my oldest brother died when I was 12, but he had been born with cerebral palsy and never had a so-called normal life , and two of my grandparents had died at about the same time. Over the years I lost my other grandparents, aunts, uncles, and a cousin, as well, so I thought I was at least somewhat acquainted with grief. However, all of those losses rolled together did not prepare me for the loss of my son.
   Those early days of grief reminded me of a time when I was young. We had gone to the beach for the day. It was not my first visit to the beach, and I felt I was prepared for the waves, but the surf was especially strong that day. A wave knocked me down and took me beneath the surface of the water. I struggled to get my head above the surface to breath. As soon as I did so another wave would again roll over my head, and I'd again find myself struggling to get my head above water. This went on for what to me seemed like forever, but was probably only a few seconds. I eventually was able to regain my feet and get out of the water.
   Grief was making me feel like I was drowning. It struck with such sudden violence that my entire life went into a state of shock. I was feeling overwhelmed and whenever I did feel like I was regaining my footing another wave would smash over me, driving me beneath the surface. This went on for months. At times I felt helpless to do anything about it. The chaos and hopelessness that grief had brought into my life seemed impossible to deal with. Would I ever feel anything else?
 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

07/24/2014

   I realize now that in addition to learning how to take things one step at a time, in the early days literally sometimes taking things one breath at a time, there were other things that helped me overcome the various fears that threatened to engulf me.
   I learned that much of the time my feelings and emotions were transitory and that what I might be experiencing at a certain moment would soon be changing. I realized that what I often needed to do was actually the exact opposite of what my emotions were tempting me to do. For example, there were many times when what I really wanted to do was to curl up into a little ball, find an isolated corner in which to hide myself, and wait for the storm to pass. What I discovered I needed to do was to lean more heavily than ever on the people closest to me, especially my wife and children. In this case, I don't mean leaning on them in a sense of dragging them down at such a horrible time, but rather to mean keeping myself available to them, leaning on each other, supporting each other as much as we possibly could to survive together. If we could not stick together and find ways to help each other through something so absolutely horrible, who else was going to help us?
   Unfortunately, we did discover during those early days that some people we thought would always be there for us, could not find it within themselves to do so. We came to realize that many people just felt so uncomfortable around us that they fell by the wayside, some early on in our journey, and others as time went by. Whether it was because they felt helpless not knowing what to say or do or how to comfort us, or because our situation brought the fear and anxiety that if something this awful could happen to a family like ours it could also happen to them, the fact remained that these people were not able to be there for us.
   Conversely, there were other people who actually surprised us with the level of on-going, consistent support they gave to us. In many cases, these people are still with us today. Of course, there is another group of people who we believed would always be there for us, and indeed they have been, every moment of every day and every step of the way. Besides holding on to my wife and children for support, I learned to let these other people who were so concerned about us all, help us in whatever ways they could. Their timing wasn't always perfectly corresponding to what I might have been feeling at a given moment, but I learned to accept that everything they were doing was done out of true love and concern for us. I discovered again that the moments when I most felt like isolating myself from the entire world were often actually the moments when I most needed to allow people to simply love me.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

07/09/2014

   After we were given the horrific news that our precious son was gone forever, another emotion that  soon came to the forefront, along with anger, was fear. Fear about what such a drastic change would mean to my life and the lives of my wife and surviving children. Fear about what would happen to us, as individuals and as a family. Fear about how, or even if, we could possibly navigate through something so horrible. Fear for the survival of our marriage. Fear of failing to help our surviving children get through such a loss when we were struggling so much ourselves. Fear that this terrible, all-encompassing fog would never lift. Fear that I would never again be able to laugh, smile, feel joy, happiness or peace. Fear that I would never feel normal again. Fearful of a future stretching years ahead of me-a future that would never include my beloved son. Fearful that I had, for some reason been forsaken by God.
   All of these various fears, and probably others, as well, that I've neglected to mention, if taken as a package, would have been impossible to conquer. They would have been just too overwhelming. We realized early on that the only way we could deal with all that was happening to us was to simply take things one step at a time as each day came. Yes, my life had changed-it had been shaken to its core-and much would never be the same again.  However, in spite of the absolutely mind-numbing loss of Curtis, and all the myriad ways that loss has affected my life, there have been many positive aspects that have developed, as well. I will never, ever be able to say that my life is better without my son, perish the thought! I am, however, grateful that I have learned how to better appreciate the positives and dwell less on the negatives. That is not always easy to do, even after all these years. I think that of all the fears I felt in those early days of my journey, that fear was the most pervasive-that I would never again in my life be free of grief, and all that results from that emotion. I feared that I would not be able to find the strength to help my wife or children because of the grief; that I would not be able to function as a person with any degree of consistency because of my grief; that everything I had been and everything I had done would be lost forever because of my grief; that the way I was feeling because of my grief was the way I would feel every single second for the rest of my life; that I would let Curtis, who had loved life so much, down, by not living my life in a positive way because of my grief; that in some perverse way the man who had taken my son from me would win if I gave up because of my grief. I couldn't let those things happen. I had to find a way out of this debilitating fog that swirled all around me. As I tried to deal with only one thing at a time, putting one foot in front of the other, taking in one breath at a time, I slowly began to find my way, sometimes very slowly.

Monday, July 7, 2014

07/07/2014

   I don't mean to imply that I have completely figured out why my son had to leave us at such a young age, nor do I want people to think that I have entirely accepted this reality. I only relate what I have come to believe, specifically that my son had a mission on this Earth and once it was accomplished he was called home where his spirit continues to exist in a place of ultimate peace and joy. It may be a fraudulent rationalization to some, but it brings me great comfort because I believe it to be true with all my heart. It would drive me insane to think that this life is all there is, that our existence is purely random, and that there is no possibility that I will ever see my son again. How utterly pointless and desperately hopeless life would be. In spite of all the agonizing pain and moments of deep anger and depression my son's death has brought into my life, I totally believe that there is some greater purpose in all of this, and while I don't understand it all, I do believe that ultimately love must win out.
   A few months from now we will be facing the fact that Curtis has been gone from us as long as he was here with us-14 years. There are still moments where I find it hard to believe he's really gone, and harder still to believe I've survived this long without him. When I think back to those first horrible days after his death, it's amazing to me that we have not just survived, but have been able to actually thrive in many ways. I never would have thought that was possible. It was only when I opened myself up again to receiving love that I was able to let go of the darkness that had enveloped my life. Once I realized that my son still loved me, that he hadn't left me because he didn't love me anymore, I could begin to love myself again. Once I realized that my son was OK where he was, I could love others, and allow them to love me. What a burden was lifted off my shoulders! What an amazing thing-my 14-year old son was still teaching me life lessons about the importance of love!