Finding Joy

It’s no secret that my life now looks very different than it did the day Gabe went to heaven. My family went from 5 people to 4 in our home. Then eventually it went down to 3, my 2 surviving boys and me. As I sit back and look at the last 5 years something strikes me. I’m a very different person than I was then.

Grief changes us. But so does life. I think in life we slowly lose bits of ourselves to fit the roles we find ourselves in. Gradually we form an identity, and sometimes that identity takes over. I became a wife, then a mother, a heart mom no less. Eventually I was the mom of 3 boys, 2 of whom had pretty complex medical issues. My identity was wrapped up in a world of the typical mom stuff like playdates, and the not so typical world of doctor appointments, therapies, hospitals, and so many other tasks that consumed me as a mom- and as a person.

When I became single I was scared. Terrified, actually. I don’t know that anyone ever really plans on divorce, and going through it shook my world. All of the stability that was so difficult to rebuild after Gabe’s death was gone again. I started counseling and medication to help myself cope, and the day I started therapy felt like an empty shell. It felt like my joy and hope were gone. I had no idea how life could go on. It felt so unfair- to lose a child and then lose life as I knew it.

But I also knew from surviving the death of my son that walking forward was the only option. The grief of loss of a person is different than the grief from a marriage ending, but both are still grief. Both types of grief need processing and work to heal from.

As I worked through that new grief I started to realize that somewhere way back in time I had lost myself. Somewhere in the motherhood, somewhere in the years of caring for others I lost myself. I had no idea who I even was. It wasn’t an easy process, finding myself. There were so many tears, a large amount of anger, and tons of uncertainty. I began to rebuild my life and my identity and slowly began to bring back the parts of me that had been lost. Somewhere I found joy again, and confidence to tackle life. Once I found that joy and confidence, I was blessed to find love again, with someone who understands me on a level I didn’t think possible.

The past few years have definitely not been easy, but the strength, joy, and love that I have found make the struggles so worth it. I can fully appreciate the beauty because of the sorrows. I’m thankful.

Five Years

It really doesn’t seem possible.

I remember in the early days thinking 5 years seemed like it would never happen. I couldn’t imagine continuing to walk forward. It felt so wrong to keep living when my son had died. A large chunk of my world crumbled that day. When things crumble, though, you get a chance to rebuild.

For the past 5 years I have been learning to fit Gabe’s memory into my daily life. I know that much of the compassion I have because I have been through his death is unbelievably valuable in my job. I know I deal with his brothers differently than I would have otherwise.

Making it through Gabe’s death has shown me just how strong I am. My life looks very, very different today than it did on April 8, 2016. I never would have imagined the changes that would happen in these 5 years, but even though his death was horrible and sad, these changes have not been. Gabe’s death has strengthened my faith, brought new friendships and made old ones stronger, and given me a perspective on life that can only come through a deep loss.

I’m not really sure what life would look like if April 8, 2016 had been just another ordinary day. I’d love to still have Gabe here. But the positive growth and beautiful changes to my life are something I would not pass up.

I once read something about the word “and” with relation to grief. It’s ok to be sad that your child won’t reach a milestone AND happy for their friends that do. It’s ok to be angry that your child is gone AND happy for something good that happens. For me, I’m sad that he’s gone AND I’m thrilled with the way my life is now. I feel peace knowing that Gabe sits from Heaven and has seen this progress over the past 5 years.

Today will be spent with the boys- lunch out and ice cream, of course. Then as the boys spend time with their dad I will spend time with my prince charming- who I know Gabe would have loved.

Life is messy. The crumbling that happened that day really left ruins for a while, but the rebuilding process has been quite beautiful.

Decking the Halls

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Hmm. For the past several years that song definitely didn’t always ring true. Whether it was due to grief or other life stresses, the holiday season certainly didn’t always feel like the most wonderful time of the year. Last year I started to get some of my Christmas Spirit back, and I had a peaceful Christmas. But this year it’s really back, and I think I have more Christmas spirit than I ever have, more joy than I thought possible.

I have been so thankful this year for all the blessings that I have. I still miss Gabe, of course, and decorated his grave as usual. His absence is still loud. But this year things have been different.

I think a big part of the difference is that I’ve been in a process of decluttering my house. I’ve done that in bits and pieces before, but this is a different decluttering. A decluttering that is very linked to grief. You see, I kept so many of Gabe’s things as is. His room was the same until a few months ago when my friend and I transformed Gabe’s room for his little brother. There was a LOT of stuff in that room that needed to be sorted through. I pushed it aside and then went through it. It was hard. It was painful. I needed support and hugs as I went through it. But it needed to be done. And as I sorted a great thing happened- I felt like I had more room in my brain for happiness.

I think hanging on to so many of Gabe’s things took up space in my mind, and that left little room for happiness. Clearing out his room cleared out some of the sadness. I think I was afraid that getting rid of his things would wipe away the memories, but the memories are still all there.

The decluttering didn’t stop in his room. All over the house I’m starting to really analyze what things add to my life- and what things clutter up my brain. I have a LONG way to go, but I’ve made some progress in my living room, dining room, and kitchen. It feels peaceful being in those spaces now, when before it felt stressful- like there was always something that needed to be cleaned up or put away. I’m nowhere near done with decluttering or going through Gabe’s things. But every bit makes a huge difference in my level of peace.

As I type this I sit in my living room, with less clutter and a beautiful Christmas tree. I am reflecting on this year that has been bizarre, difficult, and also amazing all at the same time. And I’m smiling, because right now, life is good and it really is the most wonderful time of the year!

Grief is a reminder of Love

Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve written. A really long time. There are a few parts of my life that I am not ready to share, and for someone who processes through writing- well that is quite a struggle! It’s been difficult because these parts of my life that I’m processing are all so very intertwined. It’s hard to compartmentalize and only discuss one part. At some point I will be able to share more, but for now most of it will sit in my head.

There is, however, one part that I can still discuss- my grief. That part of my life is mine and mine alone. I can write about it as much as I want, and right now I feel the need to write.

The past few months have been crazy, complete with BIG life changes and a pandemic. I’ve been working for my employer for almost a year (on November 11!), but in that time the pandemic has given me the opportunity to learn not just one new job, but three! That doesn’t leave much time for grief! I’ve also been fortunate to be able to spend more time with my boys, but that also doesn’t leave much time for grief.

Not having time for grief is a very interesting thing. On one hand it is great. It makes life feel so much happier. I can tell I am moving forward and moving on in every way. But then there is the other hand. I imagine this is common for grievers. It’s the guilt. The guilt that this person who was there and now isn’t just sits in the periphery of thoughts. Really isn’t even there most of the time. I spend my days working and my evenings and weekends with those that I love. And life is good.

I’ve been pondering this for a while- the guilt. Wondering what kind of a mom that makes me. How can one of my children be in heaven and I am so happy here on earth. How can I be ok with the fact that my trips to the cemetery are few and far between. And how is it that my son’s grave still has the same flowers that he had in the spring? The blue ones. Normally by now I would have given him a fall bouquet.

But this is progress, and this is healthy, and this is grief. This weekend I was reassured that my son is still there, deep in my heart. I’ve been coasting along and changing things in my life. Many of those changes are in my home. The biggest thing is that Gabe’s youngest brother moved into his room. Gabe’s room sat minimally changed for over 4 years, but it was time to change it. So with the help of a friend (ok, so I helped that friend a tiny bit while he did the VAST majority of the work) Liam’s new room was made. To do that required me to move things out of Gabe’s room- boxes, clothing, and other things.

This past weekend I went through just one box of those things. I found writing, artwork, trinkets, and other things. It all went smoothly until one item. His band shoes. I picked up his shoes and immediately began crying. And not just a little bit. Cries just like those early in grief- deep and pain filled. My friend was there and held me while I cried, and I healed just a bit more.

That wave of grief was quick but so powerful. I’m thankful for it. Thankful for the reminder that no matter how much time passes my heart will always be connected to Gabe. Thankful for that quick burst of pain to show me just how far I’ve come. And thankful to share that moment and memories of my son as I processed through his things.

Losing my son has been such a difficult road, but through this deep loss and even in those painful moments I am so thankful.

**The pictures below are Liam’s new room/Gabe’s old room. Liam chose the new color. I think Gabe would approve!

Embracing the Rosebush

This afternoon I finally got around to some much needed weeding on the front and side of the house. As I  walked around the corner I saw a mess of weeds around a very small rosebush.

This rosebush is my nemesis. I’ve never really cared for rosebushes. They are beautiful at first, but then the aphids get them. The leaves become damaged and they don’t look so pretty. They need maintenance- the flowers need to be pruned to look beautiful. And they have thorns! Sharp thorns that make the pruning part very unpleasant. My dislike of rosebushes is really quite justified.

This rosebush in particular drives me crazy. It has been cut down in the hopes that it would die. But it comes back. Last summer a good friend came over to help with yardwork. She actually pulled the rosebush out. So I assumed it was gone forever, but a month or two ago I noticed it was coming back. Again.

This rosebush got me thinking today. I started thinking about how life can be so difficult and so unpredictable. We are often handed horrible things with many thorns. Our choices are to keep fighting those things or to embrace them. Sometimes we are handed the death of someone very precious. Sometimes we may need to take on a different position during a critical time at work (as so many of us are needing to do now), and sometimes the life we pictured shifts into something different. Sometimes it feels like it would be easier if that rose bush were just not there.

Yet the rosebush keeps coming back, and sometimes we need to just not fight it. When things knock us down or start to rob us of our strength, we need to embrace that rosebush that is trying to survive. Because even with those thorns, there are tons of beautiful flowers.

Today I decided to embrace that rosebush. I’ve seen so much beauty come out of my struggles. I’ve persevered through some very difficult challenges and I’m finding beauty in life. And really, it feels so much better to embrace the rosebush than to fight it!

Writers Block

It’s been a long time since I’ve written. I’ve had things going on not necessarily related to grief, but there nonetheless. Those things haven’t taken away my sadness for Gabe, but pushed into the background. I have things I want to talk about but just can’t put into words.

Yesterday was Gabe’s birthday. He would have turned nineteen. NINETEEN. That is a very odd thing. He has been gone for almost 4 years now. One of the most difficult parts of losing a child is the unknown of who they would have become. I have some ideas- he probably would have gone to community college, and maybe would have gone to trade school. But he died as a 15 year old so that is who I remember. His middle brother is now older than he ever was, and his youngest brother will pass him in age 19 days after his next birthday. That is hard to wrap my head around.

We always do something for Gabe’s birthday, but this year looked different. Social distancing and school cancellations made it more laid back than it was going to be (it was supposed to be musical weekend and I had no idea when we would fit in remembering Gabe!). We had to modify a bit- a quick trip to the cemetery and a trip to our favorite outdoor ice cream shop were the perfect way to remember Gabe. The boys and I shared memories of him and enjoyed the beautiful drive.

I wish he were still here to celebrate his birthday. He would have gotten a rootbeer float. But since he can’t be here we go on. His life was beautiful and his death has shaped each of us. I draw on his strength when I need to (a lot!). I’ve learned so much about determination, perserverance, and stubbornness from my son. His life was beautiful, his death helped me learn that I can make it through anything. So while I celebrated the birth of an amazing child, I also celebrated the beautiful lessons he taught me.

Thanks to my mom for the picture above on the left. I had never seen it and pictures that have never been seen before are such an amazing gift to a bereaved mom!

Perseverence

Never give up. I was looking for a different song but I came across this one and it fits, so I’m using it. I actually had never heard it before, but I like it!

Sometimes it is really hard to persevere. When Gabe died it felt like the rest of my life would be covered in sadness. For a long time there was not much room for true joy. Happiness at times, but not JOY. As time went on, slowly bits of joy crept back in and I adjusted to life without him.

Just over 6 months ago another extremely difficult thing happened. I haven’t really spelled it out on here, I don’t think. I haven’t named it, but it’s time. I became a single mom. I won’t be discussing the circumstances here, but it was extremely painful and it knocked me down. I began questioning everything about me, and I went through a brutal period of several months where I truly felt worthless.

The thing about life, though, is there aren’t many choices when difficulties emerge. You can give up or you can persevere. And giving up wasn’t an option. So I began adjusting to the new makeup of my family. I began looking for a job that would hopefully come fairly close to meeting my needs, and I learned to be OK alone. I had lots of counseling sessions (and still do!) to help me sort through the complex emotions of single parenthood and remaking myself. I leaned on faith, family, and friends and was hired in a position that I love with a truly amazing team.

The reason I write all of that, though, is because I didn’t think I’d make it. When that storm hit in July I thought I would be miserable and depressed months and years later. But I persevered and faced this challenge head on, and now I’m better for it. I can feel joy again. I’m looking forward to the rainbows that always come after a storm.

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Self Care

I don’t think I’ve written about this one, but lately the importance of self- care has really been apparent. It’s one of those things that tends to get pushed to the side. There are so many things that seem more important, or at least so many things that are more pressing.

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In desperate need of self care!

Family, work, and volunteer responsibilities are just a few of the things that take up time and make it difficult to fit self care in. Schedules are packed and when every minute counts it can feel like there truly is no time.

But we HAVE to make the time. It may mean writing it on the calendar, planning in advance with a friend, or even just having an accountability partner who will call you out if you push it aside.

I honestly didn’t give much thought to self care before I really had to. In fall of 2014 I was in significant pain and finally decided to do something about it. At that time my self care came in the form of physical therapy and a major diet change.  Those two things may not seem like self care but they really were. They were big changes I made to make myself better. To make PT work I had to start doing exercises daily. That took discipline and time, but I made sure to carve that time out of my day.

The diet change was to give up gluten. After years of intense stomach pain and no real answers in bloodwork or a colonoscopy, it was a shot in the dark. The pain started to get better almost immediately. I lost weight (a bit too fast, about 30+ pounds over just a few months time), my skin eventually cleared up, and I think getting the gluten out of my diet helped with inflammation which also helped with the pain in my body.

Those changes together made an incredible difference in my life. Getting the pain under control was the key to being able to be more active. Being more active made me feel better. Feeling better gave me a better outlook on life.

Then in 2016 Gabe died and the exercise came to a grinding halt. My mind shifted from self care to survival. My short term memory just about disappeared. I had no desire to go to the grocery store and feeding my family was a huge task. I honestly don’t remember much of the first months and I don’t really know how I got through. I was on autopilot. When you’re on autopilot you don’t think about self care.

Eventually the fog lifted a bit. With the help of a couple friends I started walking, eventually able to walk 3-4 miles. I also got back on my exercise bike. I got pedicures occasionally, and my frequent visits to the cemetery were also a form of self care for me- driving in the car was time to think and sitting next to Gabe’s grave helped me clear my head and respect the need to cry, journal, and just let my grief wash over me.

Over the years I have realized that for me exercise is critical. When I am stressed it eases that stress. When I’m angry it calms me down. When I’m sad it often boosts my mood. The hard part is that when you are feeling those negative things it’s often not the first thing that comes to mind to ease those feelings!

One key thing about self care is that it can feel selfish. But the truth is if we neglect ourselves and our needs we are less capable of handling the responsibilities of daily life. So it truly is critical!

Remember to care for yourself- in grief or any other stressful situation. If you have suggestions for self care feel free to comment! You never know who may benefit by reading your suggestion.

Thanks for reading!

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After lots of self care!

 

Christmas Spirit

 

Ah, 2019. It’s been a year. Quite a year. A year with change and adjustment. I was actually dreading Christmas this year. I wasn’t looking forward to it at all. I used to love Christmas. After Gabe’s death, though, that changed. Christmas became a time of survival. Getting through with someone missing. It was painful, because Gabe LOVED Christmas so much. He had so much excitement and having him gone changed everything.

Over the past few days though I’ve realized that I have Christmas spirit again. I’m not sure why this year of all years, but it’s back. And I love it. I can now enjoy Christmas carols again. Opening Christmas cards brings joy. Decorating the tree wasn’t the difficult thing I thought it would be, and I love sitting in the living room with the tree lit up.

I write this today because I’m honestly just happy that I am in this place, this place of being able to survive through very difficult things and not only be standing but truly thriving. It’s a gift to be able to look back on something difficult and realize that it hasn’t ruined me- it’s made me stronger.

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So to all who are not feeling the Christmas spirit this year, for whatever reason, please remember that where you are now is not where you will always be. I’m not saying that you will ever get over what that difficult things is, but you will learn how to carry it and still be able to enjoy life, and Christmas, and whatever else is hard right now. Feel what you feel, honor your grief, and allow your heart to heal. It takes time but it’s not impossible!

A New Chapter

As we go through life we face hard things. Sometimes really hard things. March 27, 2001 was the beginning of one of those hard things. My adorable redheaded baby was one week old and had just been diagnosed with a heart defect, and not a minor one. He was diagnosed with something called Truncus Arteriosus. In short his pulmonary artery and aorta never separated into the two distinct vessels that they should have separated into. The words of the cardiologist were “your baby’s heart is very sick”. I learned that he would need open heart surgery quickly, preferably within 2 weeks. At 15 days he went through that first LONG surgery and did great, but I was tossed into a very unfamiliar medical world.

I always loved medical things (Rescue 911 was one of my favorite shows as a child!) but this was a different level medical learning. I had to take Gabe to various specialists (cardiology, gastroenterology, pulmonology, neurology), and eventually he also had Speech Therapy and Occupational Therapy. Gabe was on several medications, some of which had to be carefully prepared in bottles as Zantac syrup was mint flavored and mint is really not a popular flavor for babies! A few months after being on Zantac, Gabe was diagnosed with aspiration, which had likely caused and/or complicated the issues that pulmonology was dealing with. The remedy for aspiration was to thicken his feeds. I would grind up rice cereal and combine it with formula to a honey consistency. The breathing issues improved some but he still needed regular breathing treatments, sometimes day and night. At times it was overwhelming. Keeping track of the specialists and the care was a huge responsibility and much of it fell on me as the part time working mom.

What I learned through those struggles though was just how much I loved medical things and health care. I learned about Gabe’s conditions easily and was confident in health care settings. I knew I may end up in health care one day but couldn’t exactly see how or where I would fit.

Last fall I took my first step into healthcare, volunteering in a PT clinic. I loved it. I loved the patient interaction and I loved learning about the patients medical struggles. In the spring I took medical terminology and did great- I ended the semester with a grade of over 100. This summer I started looking for a full time job. Most of the available jobs were not interesting to me. I didn’t want to find a job only to have to change again soon.

I applied for a job in health care in a great department and didn’t get it. I was pretty discouraged, but a couple of weeks later that same department called me about a position that involved assisting people with chronic and complex conditions. The goal is to help them avoid readmission to the hospital. The job description seemed like something I would love. I wasn’t sure, though, if I had enough experience. Most of my experience is in child care. I gave that interview my all and was confident. I clicked with the team and shared that although my resume doesn’t reflect my experience with health care, my life experience does. I shared a bit about Gabe and his struggles and the level of care coordination he required. They said “That’s what we do!”

I was called back to shadow for a few hours one day and waited anxiously for a call, and it came. I was offered the job with a very large employer. It’s full time with wonderful benefits and it is perfectly timed now that my boys are older. This week I started learning about the department and the care team. Next week I will start in my role, working closely with an RN and patients, doing home visits and helping to keep people healthy.

As I look at this amazing opportunity I can’t help but be thankful for my sweet child and his medically complex life. He had so many struggles and challenges but he rose above them, often with a smile on his face. I learned so much caring for his needs. I am also sure he has given me strength. That strength showed up after he died as I embarked on the journey of life without him, and it is here now as I start this new chapter of life. Gabe’s spirit is always here and he would be so proud. Tomorrow I will spend much of the day with a social worker in the ER. It is the same ER where Gabe was brought and where I saw the heroic efforts to try to save him. I anticipate it may be difficult, but hopefully I’ll have a bit of extra strength with me from my beautiful heart kid.