Faith and Strength

“God won’t give you more than you can handle”. I think we’ve all heard that said, either to us during a hardship or to others. It’s one of those phrases that people think is comforting to say, but really just isn’t. And it’s really not quite what the Bible says anyway:

1 Corinthians 10:13
No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

I am no Biblical scholar or theologian, but the above verse does seem pretty clear to me: God will give you struggles BUT with the struggles He will also provide a way for you to endure them.

By far the biggest struggle of my life was Gabe dying. It hit me like nothing else. It was, and at times is, something that has the power to make my heart race and take my breath away. That grief is so incredibly deep. When a grief like that hits you, you have to find strength. That strength has to come from somewhere. For me it came from many places: my family, friends, and my faith.

Going to Mass was a difficult thing. Our family had gone from 5 people in the pew to 4. It was the same church where my oldest son had laid in a casket, so memories of his funeral came flooding back when we were there. At the sign of Peace I would instantly be taken back to our last Mass with him. It was just a week or so before he died and when I went to give him a hug he gave me a silly smile and pulled back. I hugged him anyway. For many months that memory would take over when I was at church. Going to Mass was also difficult because of Incense. It created such powerful memories of Gabe’s funeral Mass and it felt like a wound was reopened every time it was used- which in the Catholic Church is quite a lot.

Now I find myself in a difficult place again. Not as difficult as Gabe’s death, for sure. But still extremely difficult. And now I am really drawing on my faith. I start the day with the daily readings, and a special blog that helps those in my situation. I’m also attending Mass as much as I possibly can. I have actually gone every day this week. Sitting in the peaceful church, or the church on campus, is amazingly calming. I find that I hear a message each time that really applies to my life. It gives me dedicated time to pray and think, time where I’m forced to slow down my busy life and do something that is immensely helpful to me.

This evening I went to Mass, but I also went to therapy. I’ve been working through some issues related to Gabe’s death and my current hardship. I mentioned that I need to be stronger and like any good therapist mine didn’t let that line go. She pointed out the ways I am strong: doing the tasks I need to each day when I feel like I just can’t. Going to events that I KNOW will be painful, but doing it because it’s important. Getting out there and looking for a job and interviewing when it feels so incredibly daunting. And confronting emotions that are so confusing, scary, and sad rather than just stuffing them down and ignoring them. Those things all show strength.

So where does that tie in to faith? Because without my faith I would never have that strength. Part of the reason I was able to move forward after Gabe’s death was because I KNOW he is in heaven with God, having an amazing time. I would not have had the strength to go on without that beautiful assurance. Without my faith I would have given up long ago. Life is hard. Right now life is really hard. But giving up is not an option. So I continue to go to Mass and get that strength that only comes from God. That strength that pushes me forward on the days when I just want to turn around. I’m so thankful that faith and strength are so beautifully interwoven. I have faith that the strength I am developing will lead to far more beautiful things than I can possibly imagine. And I can’t wait to see what those beautiful things are.


Support. It is such an important thing. Over the years I have been able to seek support from friends and family. But there’s a type of support that doesn’t usually come from those we are close to. It often can’t.

In some situations we need support from those who have been there. Those who can say “I get it”. “I know how it feels”. Sure, they may not know EXACTLY how we feel inside (no one truly can). But those people who have walked the same path as us understand in a different way than others can.

Shortly after Gabe was born I found a great group full of people whose children also had Truncus Arteriosus. It was such a blessing to have this group of people who all understood. Those people could say they had been through it and could offer their wisdom and advice. And perhaps the most important thing was that they could say that despite the hard times their children were still there, still thriving. That encouragement was priceless during some very uncertain times.

Later on when my youngest son was diagnosed with a neurological disorder called a Chiari Malformation, I sought out more support. I found other parents who were able to give advice on tests and specialists. It was wonderful to have that support so I wasn’t entering yet another world of medical complexity alone.

When Gabe died support became even more critical. Death of a child is brutal. Death is brutal, but losing my child who was there every day was a particularly difficult pain. I needed to talk to others who had been through it and were still thriving. I needed to see that although I felt like an emotional basket case I would not always feel like an emotional basket case. I needed reassurance that the hard days wouldn’t always be so hard. Reassurance that the constant sadness would one day be less constant, and reassurance that eventually happiness would come again.

Now I’m going through this new struggle and I’m needing support. Thankfully I have found it in the form of a great counselor, a friend who is going through it, and a face to face support group of others in the same boat. This newest struggle is hard. I had someone by my side to get through the other struggles and that person is no longer here. So I will rely on others- those going through it and those who have been there. Those people will reassure me, just like after Gabe’s death. They will reassure me that one day the hard days won’t be so hard, the constant sadness will one day be less constant, and that eventually happiness will come again.


As time has steadily moved on since Gabe’s death I have noticed that certain things don’t trigger my grief like they used to. The most recent realization was on Wednesday evening, with incense.

I went to Mass and adoration and there was incense. Incense plays a big role in Catholic masses and on holy days. It is also burned at funeral masses. I very vividly remember sitting in the front row at church as the priest swung the thurible (the name for the incense burner) over Gabe’s casket. The symbolization was of Gabe’s soul going up to heaven. I remember the lighting of the church at that moment and the reality of what that meant. It hurt.

Needless to say after his funeral Mass incense was painful for me. Almost every time it was used I felt sadness. Sometimes my heart would pound before I would even realize what was happening- it was such a strong trigger. At some point, I guess, I adjusted to it. It stopped being a trigger. As I sat in my pew on Wednesday night I was completely fine with the incense.

I think this shows progress. It’s been almost 3 and 1/2 years so it’s taken a while but it was a gradual desensitization that I’m so thankful for. It truly does take time. I know there are other things that  will continue to be triggers for a long time, but I’m very thankful that this one beautiful thing is now beautiful again.


**The picture above is at the Easter Vigil on March 26, 2016. Gabe received his First Holy Communion in the Catholic Church that night, it was 6 days after his 15th birthday and 13 days before he died. The picture below is a cross that was cut out from his casket. It sat right on the top, and we were given the cross to keep. The casket was a beautiful wooden casket made by the Trappist monks, given to us as they do for children who die.


When grief gets pushed to the side

What I Can’t Control- I chose the name of this blog very specifically, from lyrics of a Matt Hammit song that I identify with (Why this blog?). When Gabe died there was this gigantic piece of life that I couldn’t control. In the early days of the loss of someone so significant, the grief takes over. It truly is all you can think about. At times it literally takes your breath away. For several months I would have episodes of heaving sobs where I would have trouble catching my breath. Nothing I have ever been through even comes close to that. That deep grief is absolutely uncontrollable. You can try to control it, but it just comes out in other ways- fatigue, pain, depression, and so many other ways.

As time progresses it changes shape. By time I mean years, not weeks or months. Eventually it becomes almost comfortable, that grief. You carry it around with you. There are times it emerges but it’s not as severe and it’s not overpowering. I have been carrying this grief around for just under 3 and 1/2 years. My grief and I fell into a rhythm. Gabe’s presence kind of sat in my heart. It felt comfortable. He was still so far away but also felt accessible.

Lately though, that grief has changed again. I find myself in a position where I am in need of a full time job, among other things. A new What I Can’t Control is here. Life is shifting again and with that shift my grief is shifting as well. I have found that Gabe is distant. It’s almost like I have no room to process my grief anymore, like he’s getting squeezed out of my heart. It is painful. He’s feeling more distant and it is extremely uncomfortable. My hope is that as things settle down and my new situation works itself out I will once again have more room to hold him in my heart.

As I work through these changes and eventually disclose what this new situation is my blog may take on a slightly different focus. This blog will evolve, just like my grief. My faith is still strong, and I have so much support from friends. I’ve been through the absolute worst. I can get through this thing too.



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!

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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.

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. 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. Gabe’s dad 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. 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 we 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 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 I 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 I enter the pool I will see him, he will be part of the pool, and I 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.