Thank you notes

Thank you for being a bright light
during our darkest hours
as we said goodbye to Gabe.

We appreciate every prayer
and act of love shown by our friends.
We are very sad but we feel very loved.
Sincerely,
The Chester Family

Oh, these thank you notes. We ordered them a few weeks after Gabe died, and they sat. And sat. And sat. In their box, first in the dining room and then in Gabe’s room. I eventually mustered the strength to write a few, probably no more than 6, and sent a few of those. There are still a few upstairs, written in their envelopes. There are still MANY upstairs not even folded, still in their box. And that is where they will stay.

I’ve always been HORRIBLE about thank you notes. Truly horrible. Just ask my sister. She is always great about sending them, but she has probably never gotten one from me. It’s not that I don’t appreciate what she has done, it’s that I’m horrible about the process of writing thank you notes.

After Gabe died it honestly didn’t even occur to me in the first day or two that some people would maybe expect thank you notes. My child had DIED after all. The death of a child isn’t a baby shower or party, it’s a horrible event. Horrible for many people but especially for the people living in the house with that child. The references to thank you notes came early- “you should write down everything you receive so you can thank people later”, “Have you written thank you notes yet?” “For weddings you have a few weeks but I guess you have more time for this”. Writing that out makes me want to use bad words. I may be doing that in my head right now, you can use your imagination to figure out what those words might be.

Once I learned of that expectation it created a new stress. One I did not need. I started keeping track of what people did as much as I could. I shouldn’t have been wasting my energy on that. I started to worry if people were waiting, hence the reason Doug and I carefully selected the card you see pictured above- with the tree with a heart, because of our son’s special heart. I realized soon that it would be almost impossible to get everybody. In those first 2 days alone people had cleaned our house, brought us meals, sorted the boys horribly messy playroom, and a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time dropped off a huge box full of disposable plates, silverware and other things that were such a huge help when dishes were the last thing on my mind. Others did landscaping out front, mowed our yard, came to visit, and of course my older sister immediately flew in from Hong Kong to help with whatever I needed. My younger sister came and brought my sweet nephew who provided comedic relief when we needed it. Over the next few days and weeks we received gifts, Rosary beads, cards, money flowers, plants, gift cards, surprises left on the porch, and honestly too many other things to write. But I remember it. Every bit of it. And Doug and I and the boys are thankful for every bit of it.

The problem here, though, is that each thank you note makes us relive horrible moments. The moments when I had watched attempts to revive my son that didn’t work. The moment when the doctor told me they tried but couldn’t save him. That moment when Doug and I left the hospital without our child. Planning the funeral (thankfully with a wonderful friend helping), writing the (very long) obituary, seeing my child in the casket. Those events are all mixed in with those wonderful things that people did for us. Because of that fact those thank you notes will probably never get written. Each one brings all of those painful things to the surface in a way most people can’t comprehend. Each wonderful, loving act of kindness is tied to a pain that can’t be described.

So if you didn’t get a thank you note (almost 100% of you), I’m sorry for that. If you feel you still need one even after reading what I just wrote, then it might be time to examine your conscience and motivation for reaching out to the grieving.

Now that I’ve said that, this is my thank you note. It’s a blanket one and it covers everything. If you did something, gave us something, visited, or any other thing that I didn’t mention- Thank you. Thank you for all of it. Know that we appreciate it and still remember, and probably always will.

And to anyone who ever loses a loved one- know that I will NEVER expect a thank you. In fact, I’d rather you not write one. I would much rather you focus on surviving and tending to your broken heart than writing a note just because someone, somewhere said it is the right thing to do.

 

 

At Least

*One of the purposes of my blog is to help people know what things are just not helpful to say to a bereaved parent. Many of these things can be downright hurtful. I know they come from a good place, but it is so very important to think about what you say before you say it. As I would say to my preschoolers “choose your words”. Would you want someone to say those words to you? This is one of those things. *

“At least”. It’s a short, simple thing that can be attached to many things. It’s something that I’ve come across time and again in this bereaved parent world that I am now a part of. I vaguely remember hearing a few “at least” phrases early on, but thankfully I was too numb to process it. The following are some examples that I have seen a few times:

-“At least you have other children”

-“At least you can have more children”

-“At least he doesn’t have to feel any more pain”

-“At least he lived a full life”

 

Those are just a few of the “at least” phrases I have seen. It makes my skin crawl every time I read those words or hear anyone speak them, when it’s in reference to a death but specifically the death of a child. There is no “At Least” in child loss. Ever.

I’m tackling this subject because I know that when a child dies people don’t know what to say. And sometimes things slip out that the person saying just doesn’t realize are hurtful. This is one of those things. I think during horrible times people often look for the silver lining. They look for one thing that somehow isn’t so bad. Something good to come out of a situation. But here’s the thing. During this specific, horrible thing- there is no silver lining.

Let me repeat- there is no silver lining. Leaving the hospital without your child, seeing their friends and siblings miss them, and seeing them in a casket. Well, there is nothing good about that. The fact that there are other children in the family? It doesn’t take away even one bit of the sadness for the one missing. The fact that a couple who lost a baby during pregnancy, stillbirth, or as an infant can try again to have another? It doesn’t take away the pain or replace the one that didn’t get to come home.

The fact that he won’t feel pain anymore? Yes that is a good thing, but I would much rather have him here, so that I could help him through those hurdles.  The fact that he lived a full life? He had so much more to live- driving, prom, college, graduation, and the rest of his life. Those things were taken. I love that he lived a full life but I would give anything for it to have not been cut short.

Are there good things that happened in the wake of Gabe’s death? Of course. We saw a beautiful community, friends and strangers who reached out to us,  and new friendships were formed. Those things are intertwined in the death of my son. That makes them all very bittersweet. I am so thankful for the love that was extended to our family. The fact is, though, that my child is gone. And none of the good that may come from his death will erase the fact that he is gone. No “at least” can make it feel better.

 

 

For Better or Worse

This is one I’ve been mulling over for a while and I feel like it’s worth writing about. With my husband’s blessing I’m sharing, and he doesn’t even feel the need to preview it. Hopefully he won’t regret that decision!

Doug and I got married on August 21, 1999. I had just graduated from Virginia Tech and we were ready to face life together. We said those vows, complete with the words “For better or Worse”.  When you make the vows you aren’t really thinking about the scenarios under the “worse” category, but those things come. Sometimes they are minor things that feel huge. Sometimes they are HUGE things that feel impossible. We had our share of “for worse” in the first 15 or so years- a child born with a heart defect, a job loss with 2 very young children shortly after we purchased a new home, another child with health issues, financial struggles, and the purchase of a VERY old (1901) house and everything that comes with that.

Under the for worse category the last thing you probably imagine is the possiblity of the death of a child. It is every parents worst nightmare. No one should have to bury a child. Ever. Not a baby, or a toddler, an older child, a teen, or an adult child. Yet it happens. It happens more than many people realize, and it can happen to anyone. When it happens it creates shockwaves in every aspect of life- in life with surviving children, in life at work, at church, in every single facet of life. So of course it will impact a marriage.

Long ago I heard a statistic that most marriages do not survive the death of a child. That this type of loss is too much to take, and it causes marriages to weaken. But here’s the thing. It’s not true. That statistic was made up many years ago, based on anecdotal evidence by one person. That person wrote about it and it became viral, long before viral was ever a thing. People STILL believe it. I see it mentioned often in a Facebook grief group I belong to. Do some marriages fail after the death of a child? Yes they do. Is it just the death that makes that happen? Not usually.  The divorce rate among bereaved parents is right around the same as it is for everyone else.

I am definitely no expert on this. Doug and I have been married for 18 years now, but we’ve only been on this new part of our journey for 2 years. What I have learned though is that grief happens. It happens when it wants to happen, and it seems that a key piece of preventing it from chipping away at our marriage is to respect that. We realize that we can’t fix it for each other. We can be there and help each other get through but this is something that can’t be fixed.  When he’s sad he needs time alone. When I’m sad I need to go to the cemetery, and over these 2 years I have been able to do that whenever I have needed to. Early on it was many times each week. Now it’s about twice a week. And my wonderful husband has not once asked me to not go. We both recognize that we are thankfully not alone in this journey, but there are things about it that we do have to do alone.

Marriage is HARD WORK. Under ideal circumstances it is difficult. Under terrible circumstances it can feel impossible. What I know is that I am so thankful to have Doug by my side.  I can honestly say that we are stronger now. We are on this unique, shared journey. We understand each other better than anyone else does. We miss this child more than anyone else possibly can. In a world that has been shattered we have kept our marriage strong. We are in this together- for better or worse.

How many children do you have?

This question. This innocent question. It’s often a conversation starter, and it helps people find some sort of common thing to talk about. It truly is a great question for most. Until the worst happens. Then it becomes a question that you avoid like the plague.

About 2 months after Gabe died I went out with a friend and met a few people. One of them asked me how many children I had. I froze. And I said two. I said their ages and we talked a bit. I felt sick. I felt horribly sick. I wanted to leave. Eventually I excused myself and went to cry in the bathroom. Because I felt like I had slapped Gabe in the face by not acknowledging him. Because he is my child too. I don’t have two. I have THREE. But I was afraid of where the conversation would go. I think I was protecting that person from having to face the horribly reality that was now my life.

As the evening went on we talked a bit more and eventually she asked about my boys’ schools. And that’s when I mentioned Gabe. I told her where the younger boys went, and then I said that I had a son who was in high school, but he died. At that moment she knew who I was. I don’t really remember the rest of the night. I made small talk and eventually left. I will never forget that night. The first time I was asked that question.

As the months went by it would happen again, by another mom at the pool, by new doctors, by other people who didn’t know me before. I learned to not ask anyone that question- because it can be a painful answer for them and because it is usually reciprocated with the same question. As time as passed I have refined my answers and evaluate the situation. To the mom at the pool, just a few months after his death, I said “I have 2 here “(to me meaning at the pool). Now if asked how many I say three, and then tell the person that my middle son is — years old and my youngest son is –years old. Most of the time people aren’t really listening so they don’t catch that I said 3 and gave the ages of 2. If it’s a person that I know I will see again, or attends my church or other place where we will come into contact again I usually do the above thing with the ages and add that my oldest died at 15.

It’s never an easy question, and it ALWAYS makes me pause. There is a very complex amount of thought that happens in that short time of figuring out the best way to answer. What I have realized, though, is that I HAVE to say I have 3. Because I do. And I always will. I have also realized that while that person may be uncomfortable for a few minutes, I am uncomfortable always and probably will be to some extent for the rest of my life. My child will always be missing and that is an uncomfortable feeling that can’t be described.

So I will continue to say three. And maybe in the process I will help a few people feel a bit less uncomfortable about the thought of child loss, or even encourage another parent of loss to have the confidence to speak out so they can remind the world of the missing piece in their heart.

A gloomy day

This post might end up having a lot of rambling. But since it’s my blog I’m OK with that! Todays weather is a lot like my mood. Gloomy. Early this morning I realized that today is yet another significant anniversary- the anniversary of Gabe’s funeral. I remember so many details and for now they will stay tucked inside my heart and mind.

Today is a Sunday so we went to Mass. It was just my youngest and I, because my husband and middle son were away. I started to feel sad. Almost immediately I felt sad. Eventually I started to feel kind of panicked. I like sitting near the end so I can leave discreetly, but we were in the middle. I also realized that if I left I would be leaving my 12 year old to sit alone, knowing that his sad mom couldn’t stay. So I stayed. It took a huge amount of strength to stay. I cried, but I stayed. And I guess that is really what this journey is about – staying even though I’m crying.

 

The day after

Yesterday was the day. The anniversary of the saddest day. I tried to write but couldn’t come up with anything. Sometimes there are just no words. Everything is jumbled and mixed up. Nothing seems right. Actually, that kind of describes a tiny part of child loss.

Today is the day after. And I very vividly remember the day after April 8. That was the day everyone started to arrive. On a day when the best thing probably would have just been to sit quietly and try to absorb what happened the day before, it was anything but quiet. I remember it started out with a wonderful friend who came and cleaned. She cleaned my house. It was quite a task (I’m not the neatest person in the world). She made all of the clutter disappear and made room on the counters and table for the things that would later arrive- mostly food and flowers. Lots of food and flowers. Friends stopped by. Wonderful friends who talked with us for hours in the kitchen.  Family arrived in the kind of reunion no one wants. Especially when it’s because of a child. We got our first meal delivered that evening. By someone who is now a very dear friend and brought food for everyone, and gluten free things for me, and love.

The day after was the beginning of a week long receiving line. It was a non stop stream of people into and out of our home. We don’t often have visitors. It was difficult. It was difficult to see people make small talk when the most devastating thing had just happened to us. It was just difficult in every way. Everything about it. We felt loved but everything felt wrong. The loudest, most exuberant member of our family was gone and no amount of visitors could fix that.

I’m going to leave today’s post with this. It is a beautiful poem that was read at a Memorial service held in December of 2016 and it sums up what I just wrote. Thanks for reading.

 

What People Give You By Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno

Long-faced irises. Mums. Pink roses and white roses and giant sunflowers, and hundreds of daisies.

Fruit baskets with muscular pears, and water crackers and tiny jams and the steady march of casseroles.

And money, people give money these days. Cards, of course: the Madonna, wise and sad just for you, Chinese cherry blossoms, sunsets and moonscapes, and dragonflies for transcendence.

People stand by your sink and offer up their pain: Did you know I lost a baby once, or My eldest son was killed, or My mother died two months ago. People are good. They file into your cartoon house until it bows at the seams; they give you every blessed thing, everything, except your daughter (child) back.

 

Why this blog?

I’ve contemplated starting a blog for a while, since mid April of 2016. Why then? My son died. He DIED. My CHILD. And when something that horrible happens you have many feelings. Feelings that can’t even be named. They change in a split second and they take over every part of your life. I’ve been using Facebook as an outlet for those feelings but honestly these feelings are too complex for a short paragraph here and there (ok, a few long paragraphs multiple times each day!). So some of my sharing will transition to this blog.

Why is it necessary to share so much about grief? Because child loss is a taboo subject. It is something that no one really wants to think about. The awareness that something so devastating can happen in a split second is so terrifying. But because people don’t want to talk about it those who have lost children feel isolated. It’s hard to handle a type of grief that is rarely mentioned. If it is discussed more, others will slowly be able to handle a friend or acquaintance saying “my child died”, or “I have a child in Heaven”, or “I lost a baby”.

Why did I choose “What I Can’t Control” as the name? It all comes from a song. It is taken from the opening lyrics of a beautiful song. “All of Me” is by Matt Hammit, and Matt Hammit is a heart dad. I am a heart mom. My son Gabe (the one who is in Heaven) had a Congenital Heart Defect. “All of Me” is about loving someone who could die, and that is the journey of a parent of a CHD child.

“Afraid to love something that could break

Could I move on, if you were torn away

And I’m so close to what I can’t control

I can’t give you half my heart and pray He makes you whole”

Those lyrics have been floating around in my head for as long as that song has been around. What I can’t control- well really life is about that. That was just highlighted in the most extreme way on April 8, 2016. I’m having to move on, as he was torn away.

This blog is about the moving on part. Or the moving forward part. As I continue to navigate the rest of my life with 1/3 of my boys in Heaven.

So welcome, I hope that everyone who reads this will learn a bit about grief and about finding the strength to continue when the unthinkable happens.