The hard times quota

You go through something hard. That should be it right? When something awful happens like the death of an immediate family member, or a horrible diagnosis, or any number of awful life events- that should be it! That difficult event should be your quota. I remember thinking shortly after Gabe died that his death was my hard thing. I would grow and recover and that would be it.

Unfortunately that’s not how life works. Soon after Gabe died life kicked back into gear, tossing some struggles at our family with an employment situation that caused immense stress. And then there was just day to day living that was difficult and felt impossible at times.

And now there’s another situation that I can’t share about but is extremely difficult. It seems so unfair. It seems like I have been handed too much. But you know what? I have been through the worst. So that huge, awful thing that happened on April 8 2016 has prepared me for this. I made it through the deepest grief possible and I’m still standing. I didn’t think I could survive it but I did. I can look back and see that although I walked through the deepest sorrow I am still here.  As awful as the place I am standing now feels, I KNOW that I can overcome this obstacle as well. I don’t want this obstacle, I’d love to just wave it away. But I can’t.

So now I stand, finding the need to recreate myself and figure out who I am and what I want. And hoping that maybe THIS event will fill my hard times quota. I know in reality that it won’t, but hopefully it will count for at least a little while!

29694442_10216268597775784_2959131741370974208_n (1)

Zootour 2019

My boys LOVED the name. Let me tell you 😉 . Several months ago I started planning a family trip and this is the name I came up with. I didn’t get shirts made (they never would have gone for THAT!), but I did refer to our trip as Zootour. Just seemed catchy!

You’re probably wondering what the heck I’m talking about. Those of you on Facebook saw the many pictures, but most people don’t know the significance behind it.

As I wrote about in my last post (Graduation…we survived), June 8 was significant. It was the day Gabe should have graduated. He should have been sitting there in his cap and gown with his friends- but he wasn’t. The awful thing called Congenital Heart Disease stole that milestone and all the others. So we knew graduation would be a tough thing and we knew we would need something good after that tough thing.

We also knew we needed a vacation. Our family has been stressed. Continuing on with a child missing is HARD. It’s not something that’s just hard for the first year, or the first two years. It’s something that ebbs and flows and sometimes out of the blue it just seems even harder. There is no rhyme or reason to the hard. It makes work hard. It makes life decisions hard. It makes family life hard. It makes marriage hard. So we knew we needed a vacation.

Before Gabe died we took few vacations. We really only had one big one, just us- and it was his Make A Wish trip. I think most people don’t realize it, but when your child has a chronic, life threatening illness vacations are not always a priority. There isn’t much money for vacations, and earned vacation time at work is limited. Doug always had to keep some vacation days in reserve for the inevitable procedures and surgeries. And we had 2 children with complex medical issues, so there were twice as many what ifs and twice as many medical bills.


After Gabe died we took 2 vacations. One was 2 months after- a desperate escape to Tennessee that I think was more about escaping our reality than spending time together. It was actually terribly excruciating, arriving in the cabin with one missing and not having him there to share his excitement for everything as he always did. At the end of that year we took a small trip to Williamsburg right before Christmas, to keep busy in the days leading up to what we knew would be an extremely difficult time. That was slightly less painful but really still not a vacation.

So this year we decided we needed a vacation. We needed it for this family that has been through so much and is still here. Early this year I started planning and narrowed down where we would go. Why zoos? Because they are fun! And for me it was also about something Gabe would have loved. Gabe never forgot the name of an animal he met and I’m sure he’s surrounded by animals in heaven. I felt like visiting zoos would be a great way to still incorporate him into our vacation.

We left on June 9, which ironically was the same day that he had surgery in 2014. So it seemed fitting. Right before we left though I went through the house to make sure everything was turned off and couldn’t fight the tears. Because I don’t think any family trip will ever feel right again. Sure we will have fun. But it will never feel right. Because he should be here.

During the course of the trip we drove over 1,000 miles and visited 3 cities and 3 zoos. We fit in stops at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Rhythm Discovery Center in Indianapolis (it’s a percussion museum and it’s great!). The zoos we toured were Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Columbus. Our hotel rooms got progressively smaller unfortunately but the trip was great. There was little complaining, not much fighting, and I really think we all enjoyed ourselves. Our favorite was Cincinnati with Columbus as a close second. We saw so many animals. Since Gabe loved animals so much he would have loved it. We often talked about what we thought he would have liked,  so it was very bittersweet.

We’ll keep moving forward. We’ll keep remembering that amazing spunky boy who overcame some really hard things. And we’ll try to use that spirit to help us overcome our really hard things. But I know that sometimes no matter the fun and joy, it will also sting.

Some pictures from our vacation:







As you can see we had lots of fun, but by the end the boys were ready to go home. One more picture from the percussion museum. We miss you, Gabe!


Graduation…we survived

Graduation. I had been dreading this. Right at the beginning of the school year the anxiety about graduation day started. Senior night for the marching band was kind of the beginning. Then other things came throughout the year. So many things Gabe should have been there for. One after the other. College application deadlines, friends taking their kids on college tours. The hits just came, over and over. One after another. And each one hurt. Some more than others. Looming over it all was that one day I knew would come. Graduation day.

My wonderful neighbor is the head of guidance and very early in the year she gently and kindly mentioned that graduation would come eventually and the school would do whatever we needed or wanted. And I pretty much pushed that day out of my head. Periodically someone would mention something and I’d ponder it and push the thought away. As June 8 got closer it became kind of unavoidable. And honestly up until the day I didn’t even know if I would go. Doug wanted to go, it was pretty much no question for him. But me? I had no idea. I knew it would be painful to see Gabe’s wonderful friends walk up and get their diplomas. Wonderful for them, especially a few close ones who have faced their own struggles. But also extremely painful. A very clear mark of something my child should be there for but wasn’t.

So maybe a week before graduation a trusted person suggested I go. He mentioned that maybe it would be healing. And if it was too much I could just leave- people would understand, and if they didn’t who cares? Now knowing myself I never would have left. I like to blend in and getting up and walking off the football field full of graduates and teachers would mean attention on me. But I knew that if I needed to that was a choice.

As the day got closer I leaned more towards going and decided I would. Not just to be there for Doug (though I did want to be there for him) but for me. Because it was something that Gabe should have done but didn’t get a chance to. I knew I’d regret not going.

The day arrived, and Doug, Liam, and I processed in at the front. Owen played with the band, exactly where he wanted to be. There was an empty chair with a cap and gown draped over it, and a beautiful bouquet of flowers on the seat. An empty chair for my son. We sat through- the wonderful speeches, the standard beach balls and a giant duck float getting tossed around by the graduates, and some beautiful choir music. We had a front row seat as so many of Gabe’s friends walked up and received their diplomas. At the end they shared that part of the class account would go towards Camp Holiday Trails in memory of Gabe, and part would go to the family of one of the seniors- his father died suddenly in March.

And then it was over. The graduates processed out and Gabe’s math teacher brought his cap and gown and the flowers over to us. His math teacher whose son died while he was a student at Virginia Tech. The fact that she was the one who gave us the flowers was particularly meaningful.

So we survived. We cried but we survived.



Be Prepared Part 2

Many months ago I shared about a very special item that we helped purchase for Ashby Recreation Association: an Automated External Defibrillator. I won’t rewrite the story- you can read it here in Be Prepared. It was important for us to have it at the pool and something we could do in Gabe’s memory that may mean the difference between life and death for someone.

The pool was so important to him. He loved swimming: Opening Weekend. This past weekend the pool opened for the summer and the beautiful sign pictured above hangs right above the check-in desk

When we walked in on Saturday I felt nervous. My heart was racing and I felt a little bit out of breath. I knew it would probably be up somewhere but wasn’t quite fully prepared to see it permanently mounted. Yet even as horrible as it is to know that the reason for the sign is the death of my child, the fact that it’s there is pretty awesome. My beautiful boy is right there. His name and dates along with his picture. He will always be remembered there, even by many who never met him. And the device purchased in his memory will be ready if it’s ever needed.

So every time we enter the pool we will see him, he will be part of the pool, and we will smile at the fact that a teen who loved to be in the center of everything has his picture in such an important location. A teen who truly lived for the pool has his picture there in such a prominent spot. At the pool, where I’m convinced he would have lived if he could have.

Music and grief


980025_10201696127353131_616607450_oOh so many triggers. They are everywhere. As time goes on my grief isn’t triggered as much, but often it comes out of the blue. Like watching a TV show with penguins and suddenly being brought back to our hospital related “vacations” in Boston. Gabe loved the aquarium so we went there a few times- before his cath and surgery and again after his surgery. I’ve seen shows about penguins but for whatever reason on one particular day a few weeks ago the penguins made me cry. A lot. There was sadness that felt so sharp like it did in the beginning. Darn penguins.


That really has nothing to do with music, except that music is a trigger too. And one that I have worked pretty hard to avoid. Gabe had many favorite songs and for 3 years I have steered clear of most of them. Sure I hear them in the store or on the radio, but I have chosen not to listen to so many because of that hurt that is lurking. I think that is a pretty common thing in grief- avoidance. It’s also probably one of the most exhausting things about grief. Bereaved parents become very good at avoiding things- events that will cause pain, sections of stores with certain memories, and their child’s favorite places. Because sometimes it is just easier to rush past that hard thing than it is to stop and go inside. Sometimes it’s just easier to push past the memories than let your heart remember.

And for me music contains those memories. “Shake It Off” (Taylor Swift) brings me back to him sitting in the back seat doing a silly dance that he did. “Wake Me Up” (Avicii) reminds me of driving to church with the boys singing in the back. All three boys. “Prodigal” (Sidewalk Prophets) reminds me of him- always breaking rules and needing love anyway, and a very special retreat he went on 3 months before he died. We also have some of the lyrics on his headstone. “Ride” (twenty one pilots) reminds me of the days after his death, when it really felt like he was just taking his time on his ride.

So today I made a playlist. I took many of the songs that I know he loved and that remind me so much of him and I put them in a this list.  I called it Gabe’s Strength because he had an amazing amount of strength and I hope to be able to carry some of that as I continue on. Because if there’s one thing a bereaved mom needs to keep going it is strength, and sometimes that strength comes from her child.






Food related quirks

Raisin bran. I know I’ve mentioned Gabe’s obsession with Raisin Bran before (Post only, and not the Post that Costco has- it’s different!). When he ate his raisin bran he would clank the spoon in the bowl. Not intentionally, but because he was just loud and couldn’t do anything quietly. Ever. Even eat. We called it the cereal bell because it sounded just like a bell. And I’m not kidding when I say it would clang about 4 times a day. Breakfast, after school, after dinner, and then usually again right before bed. When he was actually supposed to be heading up to bed, but would remember at that moment that he was hungry. We went through a lot of raisin bran.

Grilled Cheese. He LOVED grilled cheese. I often had to make two sandwiches for him. He would eat about one and a half and then be full. But he loved them. His brothers don’t care for grilled cheese. I miss making it.

Nutella. When he got braces raisin bran was too hard to eat, so he switched to bread with Nutella as his favorite food. So the raisin bran routine above? It turned into a bread with Nutella routine but much quieter.

Gum. Oh the gum. He got started on a gum habit very early on. Because he had a disorder called Pica he would eat non food items. Giving him gum was a way to try to get him to not eat so many things. Except that he ate the gum. He would go through so much gum. We bought it in large quantities and had to move it to different hiding spots in the kitchen. He would always figure it out and the gum would disappear.

Milk. He drank so much milk. We would go through 5-6 gallons each week, most of it going to Gabe. He would take those big cups you get at JMU basketball games (22 Oz.) and fill them with with milk, usually mixing it with nesquick. He drank at least two of those every day. Sometimes he would try to get strawberry milk, but the red dye made him crazy. So we discouraged that!

Pancakes. I would make a double batch of pancakes and he would eat a healthy portion. When I put the leftovers in the fridge he would eat them, one at a time, as he walked through the kitchen. Open the fridge, grab a pancake, and eat it cold.

Granola bars. He could really go through granola bars. He LOVED the peanut butter and chocolate chip ones. While he was working during musical rehearsals he would bring those to school. And if he forgot I would get a frantic call after school that I NEEDED to bring 3 granola bars for him. And also his folder that he inevitably forgot.


I typed up that list so I will remember. Memories of those little quirks pop up from time to time and start to fade as time passes. Today I’m feeling sad. For whatever reason this morning at Mass Gabe’s absence was screaming at me. Our family is not complete. I’m a mom to three boys and for the rest of the years I live one will never be there. That could be a very, very long time. And I know, people like to say he’s there in spirit. Or he’s always there. Or be thankful for the other two (and, I am so very thankful for them!) But I’m going to get real for a minute- those things sound great but when it’s your child it’s not good enough. It’s just not.

Because I want him here. I selfishly want to buy Post raisin bran, huge quantities of bread and cheese for those grilled cheese sandwiches. I want to have to buy Nutella in the big jars at Costco. I’d give anything to hide gum in the kitchen again, to be looked at strangely when I put 6 gallons of milk on the conveyor belt at the store. I’d love to HAVE to make double batches of pancakes again to feed his carb addiction, and I would be so happy to have to buy so many granola bars.

I wish he was still here. Not in spirit. But actually here touching every part of my life. Today is Bereaved mothers day. Next week is regular Mothers day. I wish I only had reason to understand the one next week. Because now I understand the bereaved one, and the regular one carries a sting with it that will never be eased.

Oh yes, and yogurt. I would buy the individual cups to make it easier. He would scoop it into a bowl. I have no idea why. Such a weird kid. I miss him.

So Wrong

Today was a great day for me. This morning I got spend some time with a wonderful friend. It was perfect. This friend has been here listening and walking with me in my grief. Then I was able to go to a baby shower- another wonderful friend, who has also been instrumental in my grief survival, is going to be a Grandmother in the summer and we got to celebrate that new, sweet life that will join her family.

Today was beautiful. I couldn’t help but notice the beauty of the sky today. Puffy white clouds with gray mixed in, and various shades of blue. It looked like a painting. Everywhere I drove today I couldn’t ignore the beauty.

Also today, though, I heard that a girl in my area passed away. She got sick just a few weeks ago and yesterday she was unable to fight any more. Suddenly I realized how wrong the beauty of the sky seemed.

Driving around I couldn’t help but remember how it felt for me, 3 years ago. On days when it felt almost cruel that the sky looked so blue and perfect. It just felt so wrong.  I knew everyone was going about their usual business and enjoying the sky- just as I did today as another family is starting on this journey. I can’t say what they are feeling- while we have a common loss I am not them. But I do know that for me it was horrible. It didn’t feel like the sky should be beautiful. It didn’t feel like anyone should be doing anything. It felt like the world should stop. Because my world did.

So today  even though I am happy, I am sad for her family. And I realize that just because the day is beautiful to me doesn’t mean it is beautiful for everyone. For someone today is filled with sorrow. It’s not something I ever realized before Gabe’s death. But now it is not something I can ignore. Sometimes things in life are just so wrong.

I’ve Learned

Three years ago on this day life changed. It was going one way and then sometime shortly after 4 PM it took an awful turn. It was completely shocking and devastating. Now that I’ve been on this journey I’ve learned some things.

I’ve learned that I’m much stronger than I thought I could be. It takes an immense amount of strength to even get up in the morning (especially in those early days and months) when you remember, every single morning as you wake up, that one child is no longer here.

I’ve learned that my children are extremely strong. They had so much trauma that day and continue to overcome it. I know they miss Gabe so much yet they keep moving forward.

I’ve learned that most days are good, some even great. Gabe is always on my mind. ALWAYS. But I go about my day and do what I have to do.

I’ve learned that the only ones who understand this particular loss are those who have been through this particular loss. All types of loss are different. I can’t understand what it’s like to lose a sibling or spouse, and those who have been through those losses don’t understand mine. And that is ok. I lean more on those who unfortunately “get it”. Compared to those on this journey I’m pretty appropriate in my grieving where I am right now. Other child loss parents have communicated that it takes YEARS to really comprehend and begin to clear through the rubble, but those who have not been through it don’t seem to understand this. I think some are starting to panic that I’m not better yet. The funny thing though is that I don’t really think I’m doing bad. I am caring for my boys, my house (OK I’m not doing so well there but that’s nothing new!), keeping marriage going, and I have a VERY demanding job caring for 12  children between 11 months and 5 years. I’m also taking a class that has tons of learning and memorization- and I have a high A. Not only am I not doing bad, I think I’m doing pretty darn well.

I’ve learned that my grief is appropriate for ME. And that I’m exactly where I need to be. In the words of a children’s song: Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, can’t go around it, have to go through it!

And I’m learning how to do just that.


**Disclaimer: I hope this one isn’t taken the wrong way by anyone who reads it. I write so people can get a glimpse of what it’s like to live with a child missing, but I hope that those who have not been through it never have to understand what it feels like. I don’t want anyone to feel bad because you don’t get it. I hope you can stay blissfully unaware**

Today was an interesting day. My wonderful husband did our taxes yesterday (Thank you wonderful husband!!) but there was a tiny error so he got an e mail saying it was rejected. This led him to call me this morning to ask for our boys information, which led me to look in our important papers file. I found the information that I needed. I also found this:


And the Police report from that day (which I didn’t take a picture of), and funeral home papers, and also this:


From a Mothers day card when he was small. I love the GIANT comma, and the fact that even though he wrote that around age 4 or 5 his handwriting was so distinctly his, and similar to how it was at age 15.

After that morning of finding those grief triggers I went out with my youngest to do some grocery shopping. I hate grocery shopping. I hated it before. I hate it on my best days. I really hate it on days when grief is already triggered. I felt like I wasn’t myself, moving around in a cloud. I felt unrecognizable. I saw another mom from the heart world, talking to someone, and I knew today I just couldn’t stop and chat. It would have put me over the edge. Then I had to go to another store to get the rest of the groceries. I sat in the parking lot for a few minutes, almost too exhausted to go in. Because grief does that sometimes. So we sat, and I gathered myself and we went in. The rest of the day was rather unproductive, I just couldn’t focus on much of anything.

In the evening I went out with a couple of friends and this is where the luxury part comes in. As we were finishing a group of firefighters came in. Immediately I wondered if any of them were on that call on April 8, 2016. If any of them tried to save my boy. Then they got a call and immediately left. After a few minutes they left the fire station (the restaurant was right next door) in their trucks with lights and sirens. And I realized that most people have this wonderful luxury. They don’t have to associate the death of a child with firetrucks. Most people don’t even bat an eye in a situation like that. And that is a luxury.

There are lots of different things this applies to. When I’m irritated that my husband is home late-that’s a luxury- because someone else has had to bury theirs and would do anything to have the luxury that I have. Even when Gabe was growing up I saw it in the world of having a child with a serious health issue- I would have loved to have the luxury of a first ER visit being something minor rather than a diagnosis of a complex heart defect. Having a healthy child is a luxury.  I’m having trouble thinking of other examples right now in my grief brain fog, but I’m sure those reading know what I mean. The thing about this is we don’t realize that they are luxuries until that luxury is gone. I didn’t look at firefighters or firetrucks that way until my child was gone. And now I can’t see them and not think about that day.

If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, or this is the first time you have thought of these things- be thankful and appreciate that luxury.

Today had some rough spots. Tomorrow is a new day.


***Gabe would have turned 18 on March 20. I didn’t blog that day, as we tried to keep busy. I feel kind of guilty for not writing something on his birthday. Being a grieving mom is hard.***