Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Losing an Addicted Child -- Guilt Joins Grief

In my local network of grieving mothers there are a disproportionate number of us who have lost children to drug overdoses.

Most, if not all, were unintentionally fatal.

My son's autopsy, for example, says accidental overdose, although I know for a fact he intentionally overdosed, regularly. He just never expected to die from it.

For a while we wrestled with whether it might have been intentional, as he had made cryptic phone calls to family members during his last contact. But then again, when he was high most of his phone calls were cryptic in that we couldn't understand what he was saying or talking about.

Two facts blew that scenario out of the water. First, everything was always someone else's fault, so he would have been sure to leave a note with plenty of blame to be shared by everyone who he felt ever let him down. Second, his drug use had resulted in a certain level of psychosis in which he believed himself immortal. The fact that he had survived multiple Near Death Experience (NDE) overdoses, which are actually sought instead of being the frightening thing most of us would espect, and a car accident that should have killed him, only served to reinforce that idea.

All my personal baggage aside, loving and losing an addict, particularly when that addict is your child, carries a load of guilt and grief that is probably a common denominator.

The guilt can span a wide range of issues and is something I wrestle with in different ways regularly. At the same time, I expect I'm not alone when it comes to parenting and losing an addict. If you've walked that path, I want you to know you're not alone.

These are the questions we struggle with when guilt manages to find it's way into our thoughts. These are the questions we should be able to banish, but so often cannot.

"Why didn't I know?"

I knew he was using at the time he died, although I'm sure there were many times that we were together and he was high and I didn't know it. Initially, I thought he was just being a teenager and later I could no longer tell the drug moods from his own because I had lost the real person that lived in his body. I knew the drugs could kill him and I had told him as much, as kindly as I could and as often as I could. Sometimes I screamed it at him with tears. Sometimes it was a silent text message on his phone. Always it was with pain in my heart and with a belief that he would get better. I knew, but I didn't know, because I never really expected him to die. I thought he'd hit bottom and find his way back to living, but that never happened. I didn't know the reality of how that phone call would feel.

"Did I do all I could to help him?"

I never "sent" him to rehab. We all offered at one point or another, I think, to take him. We researched places and talked to him. But he never thought he had a problem, or at least a problem that he needed help to quit. Like any addict, his addiction controlled him and lied to him. He could quit for six months, so it wasn't a problem -- in his mind it was a choice. He wasn't even convinced it was a bad choice because he thought it made him smarter, godlike, better in some way. I suppose there might have been a way to force him into rehab, but it would have been a waste of energy and money. No one gets straight until they are ready to do so, as friends who have managed repeatedly tell me.

"What did I do wrong that caused it?"

That's one of those beat myself up questions that I tend to wrestle with way too often, even after I've successfully put it away time and time again. There's a million things I wish I'd done differently, but the simple fact is that I don't know that any of them would have made a difference. If that sounds like letting myself off the hook, then it's because I need to and so does any other person wrestling with that question. Despite addiction in our family tree that was not hidden, my son made the personal choice to experiment with drugs with his friends. They tried several things before he stumbled on the drug that did it for him and at least one of his friends and they became addicted. I don't think either of them came from bad homes or that as parents we considered each other's sons bad influences. Our boys grew up together and made bad choices together. My son died and I'm thankful her son was spared.

I could have lived somewhere else, taken him to church more, stayed in an abusive marriage to give him a father, not remarried, had a job with regular hours, put him in private school, more carefully monitored his activities, but all of those things are an illusion of control and I know it. I did the absolute best I could and if it was wrong, it was still his choice what to make of it. Parenting, at best, is often an illusion of control as though it were actually up to us how our children "turn out."

"Why couldn't I be enough?"

This one is tied closely to the previous one, but is more personal. If you love an addict, when they fall into addiction you feel like you should be able to love them out of it. That they choose the addiction over you, although in reality it isn't their choice. Even when I think I did the best I could with my life circumstances, I wonder if I gave enough of myself. Did I tell him how wonderful he was? Did I do enough to build him up? Did he know to the center of his being how much he meant to me? And if I did and he did, how was that not enough?

I caught myself with that guilt nagging at me the other night on my way home from the gym (alone in a car is a bad place to be sometimes). That's when my old Al-Anon training managed to raise its head and remind me that it wasn't up to me to fix anyone. That I had loved an addict before and managed to release the feelings of responsibility for his addiction and I had to do the same with my son, no matter how hard it was to do so. Reminding myself of that painful reality will eventually help free me.

As a sidenote, my first addict was my second husband, whom I'm often convinced God sent my way to prepare me to survive Ethan. Otherwise, I have to consider it all just a horrible waste of time and money. He went to rehab, but he didn't deal with his issues or overcome his addiction. I tried to do the things he wanted to do thinking I could make him happy and he'd quit. I bought into all the mind games an addict can play and was manipulated into being someone I wasn't a lot of the time. Al-Anon taught me that his addiction was his own and that I didn't control him. It also taught me that I'd know when I had had enough. I did, eventually find the time when I sent him on his way. (I'm sure he continued on in the same manner with his next wife. I didn't hear from him again until I got word he'd killed himself -- still wrestling with demons he could never let go.)

There's another kind of guilt I sometimes feel when relating to other mothers who've lost their children. Although no one believed my son had committed suicide, he did bring his death on himself. Sometimes I feel guilty because so many children die of disease while fighting to live, or are swept away in a tragedy no one saw coming. But while our circumstances of loss vary, how we feel afterwards is the same.

Grief at losing a loved one isn't unique. No matter how they left us, we are struggling to live with the loss.

There's a hole in our lives that is supposed to be filled, a person we're supposed to be able to reach out to and grasp with our hands, arms we should feel around us, a voice we should hear, even a smell that we'd recognize in a crowded room.

Grief at losing a child has a special edge. It's a loss out of sequence, as though there were rules to death. It's a future that we imagined that will never come to life, a family tree we expected to spring from our child wilted and cut down, leaving a wound in our lives that will never heal.

Friday, October 2, 2015

From One Grieving Parent to Another

Yesterday the horror that most people felt at what happened in Oregon was a passing thing.

It was disgust and anger that yet again something in our system had gone wrong. Grief that innocent lives had been lost.

It was a rallying cry for gun supporters ("If everyone had concealed carry this wouldn't have happened.") and advocates of more gun control ("He shouldn't have been able to get a gun or get it into a classroom.") and for those who realize our nation's mental health system is badly broken ("Someone should have seen the warning signs and he shouldn't have wanted to get a gun into a classroom."). The world looked at it in horror. There were prayers and candles and for most of the world, this morning life went on.

But for the parents of the young people who died yesterday, life will never be the same.

Although I'm ususally sensitive to these things in my community -- car crashes, cancers and other diseases that claim young lives -- it didn't really hit me until a fellow griever on Facebook posted a picture of a candle.

Then, as they say, the chickens came home to roost. Suddenly I was feeling, just as I have dozens of times since my son died, the waves of sorrow I know they were all feeling. I sat in my living room thousands of miles away from the scene of loss and cried. How would I answer his question?

What would I want to know? Instead of the platitudes from people who've never lost a child, or had a sudden out of sequence loss, what would I want to be told?

And this is what I've come up with for the parents of those lost yesterday (or any other day).

I know how you feel. No matter what anyone says, only a parent who has lost a child can ever comprehend the place you are at right now. The best people for you to talk to are other grieving parents. Not those who have just lost a child like you because you're all hurting too much to help one another, but those people you may have known for years and always been thankful you didn't have this in common with. They will be your best friends in the coming months because they know. They understand and they will listen to you repeat the same litany of pain over and over because they know.

Nothing prepares you for this. You've survived other losses and you can survive this one, but nothing has given you even partial immunity to this pain. Just accept that. Don't wonder why you feel the way you do. Why losing other loved ones didn't give you some perspective on this. Even if your child had been suffering a fatal illness, you couldn't have been prepared for the reality of loss. To lose them suddenly is like having gravity disappear. There is no frame of reference and no way to prepare yourself.

You cannot change what happened. No matter what tragedy took your child's life, you cannot change the past. You can repeatedly grapple with the what ifs, but don't let them consume you. There will be times when that's all you can think about, so don't get too aggravated at yourself. Life is full of what ifs and these are big ones.

This is your grief, no one else's. No one can put a limit on how you grieve or how long except you. (I metaphorically put my grief away sometimes when I cannot let it overwhelm me, like pushing it down into a box and sitting on the lid. Eventually I have to let it out, but there are days and times when I cannot deal with it and so I don't. Other times I cannot get it to leave me alone and I cry as though my son had just been found dead.) You will NEVER get over this and you shouldn't. You will have good days when you catch yourself and feel guilty because you aren't sad and maybe haven't been for a little while. Don't. Your grief will come back. At the same time, your child would want you to laugh and be happy again. If anyone tells you differently, don't listen. They obviously don't know what they are talking about.

Every relationship in your life will be tested by this. Your relationship with your spouse, your God, your friends and the rest of your family. No, this is not what you want to think about now, but it's the reality. Your dead child is always with you and some people cannot deal with that. It's hard to resume intimacy. You cry and people don't want to deal with tears. Whoever stays with you through this is really there for you. Treasure them and hold on to them. Also be aware that you'll make new relationships out of this. Those fellow grieving parents may become people who not only prop you up now, but understand and still care in six months or a year.

It's OK to question God. He's big enough to take it and He feels our pain. He had a son who died. It was not His choice that our children died, but the world and the choices of people in it. Yes, there were times I railed against Him because I had prayed for a different outcome, but I didn't get it. I told my son "no" many times and it didn't mean I didn't love him or desire to give him everything he wanted. I had to accept that from my God as well. If your faith survives this, it will be stronger and it will help you through. I've accepted that this life is just a little piece of who we are and what we're meant for and I know Ethan has gone on to the next phase.

Take care of yourself. Your child cared about you and would want you to do that, beyond anything else. You're fragile and need to be treated that way for a while. I felt like I needed a t-shirt that proclaimed it to the world because some times I walked through the grocery store crying. That's just how life is going to be for a while.

Survival is your choice. You have to choose to keep living, not just breathing, but living. You don't have to make that choice for a while but eventually you will. Right now you can sit in the dark, or stay in bed. You can do without food and take medication to sleep. Whatever you need to get through right now is ok as long as you realize that this probably shouldn't be the way you spend the rest of your life. There are other people who love you and need you in their lives -- even if you don't even know them yet. Eventually you have to decide how you are going to live for them. Try to find a healthy habit and keep living, find your voice and your life again and be the person your child would have wanted you to be.

In the months to come, there may be days or weeks when you hurt as bad as you do right now. No, you don't want to hear that either, but it's true. There will always be a hole in your heart that no doctor can see or heal, but you learn to live with it to some degree. What helped me was my blog, which became a sort of shared journal and I would encourage you to keep a journal. Pour out your pain when no one else wants to hear it. As time passes you can use your journal to measure your healing -- or determine that you're stalled out and need help if it comes to that. Eventually start to look for something good every day, even if it's something little. I found that helped me tremendously to realize that everything was not the dark cloud that it felt like sometimes.

Although it's your grief, don't try to get through it alone. Whatever took your child (mine was drug addiction), deep down you share a connection with anyone else who has lost a child because your heartache is different from anyone else's. You lost not only your present, but your future and the dreams you had for your child. At the same time, you share a connection with anyone who has suffered loss, when you feel strong enough to recognize it. Spend time with people who will really listen and hear you, shore each other up for going on with life, and allow yourself to hug and love and smile again.

Life will never be the same, but it's up to you how to live it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Following the Map That Leads to You

I miss the taste of a sweeter life
I miss the conversation
I’m searching for a song tonight
I’m changing all of the stations
I like to think that we had it all
We drew a map to a better place
But on that road I took a fall
Oh baby why did you run away?
I was there for you
In your darkest times
I was there for you
In your darkest nights
But I wonder where were you?
When I was at my worst
Down on my knees
And you said you had my back
So I wonder where were you?
When all the roads you took came back to me
So I’m following the map that leads to you
"Maps" by Maroon 5

Lately I've had bits of that song replaying in my mind.

I know it's a romance gone bad. A struggle to find what happened and went wrong.

But in so many ways those broken hearted songs could also be from a mother missing a child, a true love that even those most committed of lovers can't quite understand.

I find I spend time in my head sorting my way back to Ethan, as though I could unravel what went wrong and make reality different somehow. It's a wasted exercise. It's a silent conversation with my son, "Why didn't you? Why didn't I? If I'd only? We should have...."

There are times that I feel as though I'm wasting all the mental energy I should be using for a million other things simply trying to change the past, to reconstruct something that will make the present different and I get so tired of it. In reality, I'm still struggling to grasp his death and the end of all our conversations and dreams, our shared existence.

It doesn't take much to bring that on, although certainly when this song actually plays on the radio that will do it.

A "Hiring" sign at a job he could have done makes me think of him and what could have been.

Someone talking about their college plans reminds me of all he wanted to do at one time.

Encountering a teenager that I want to grab and shake because he reminds me so much of Ethan in that 'life happens and eventually I'll sort it out because I have no plans way,' and in the meantime he's doing nothing and making bad choices.

The sometimes crushing realization that it's been two years since I saw my son and touched him and that that number will only grow as I get older, but I don't think I'll grow to miss him less. He'll forever be stuck in my mind as the overgrown kid who hugged me at E1's fourth birthday party, picking me up because he thought it was funny that he could, slumped in the back seat of my parents' car as they drove away. I didn't want him to go, ever, yet because of his drug use I couldn't let him stay and there was just never any way around that.

I wonder if he ever really knew how much I loved him, how precious he was to me, how badly I missed the real him that was so often lost in a narcotic haze, or even just the physical presence of him in my day to day life? Perhaps he felt the same way, but the drugs were always between us and we could never find the map that put us back together.

So I listen to broken hearted romance songs and sometimes I cry for the man I lost.

The man I gave birth to and watched grow up.

My son.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Good-bye My Little Preschooler, Hello Little Girl

Today I sat and held a squirming preschooler, her bony sit bones stabbing into my thighs, for the last time.

Tomorrow morning E1 will walk with her mom into a kindergarten classroom and cast aside the title of preschooler. It's a momentous day.

In many ways sending my oldest grandchild off to school is a bigger deal than when my firstborn started school. The children's mother had been in an organized preschool for a couple of years or maybe longer. She'd already been navigating the society of kids her age for a long time. I'd been leaving her with sitters since she was six weeks old.

For most of her life I'd been trusting someone else with her well being a portion of the time. I had to work. Her grandparents worked. Family care was not an option.

So school for my little girl was just a different place and different people. It was walking in on her own and learning new lessons.

She also was closer than she had been at preschool. If she were sick, or, God forbid, had a splinter she wouldn't let the school nurse touch, most of the time I was just a few blocks away. Working at the local newspaper I knew the people at her school and was in and out on a regular basis long before she sat foot in the doors. It wasn't a new place to me either.

Besides there had never been a school shooting, bullies didn't pick on cute little girls, and the world felt like a safe place.

Now two and a half decades later, school isn't always a safe haven of learning and growing. I've seen girls in preschool gymnastics already huddling in the snobby little cliches their mothers probably inhabited. Random gunmen have killed small children in schools more than once. And unlike my own children, E1 hasn't been thrust into someone else's care for much of her childhood.

She's been with her parents and grandparents -- people who love her and would die for her, people who always have her best interests at heart, people who try to protect her from the unsavory bits of life as long as possible. (Yes, all right, she's been with me a lot of the time and I'll miss her doggone it.)

Her friends and playmates have been the children (and sometimes grandchildren) of our friends. They are a group of kids we know things about raised by people we know things about.

Tomorrow all that changes.

The children who become her friends may be temporary or lifelong confidants. Either way they'll influence her decisions and help her choose good or bad.

They may use drugs and fight(or not fight) addiction together like Ethan and his friends, or they may show up with their new baby at a birthday party like my daughter's bestie did last weekend.

There's no crystal ball to guide us; no longer a way to filter and protect her.

It seems at times a precarious place for a 5-year-old, but at the same time a wonderful place. So much to learn and discover, so much about herself that she's just going to start to know, and the fact that now, at least, the mistakes are usually easy to correct and the right path not so hard to find, helps mitigate the terror of the unknown.

Today I said goodbye to our preschooler. Tomorrow I'll begin learning about our little girl.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Getting Ready for Round Four

That wonderful little app on my iPhone popped up the other day with a Time Hop that really took me back.

In it I was anticipating meeting my first granddaughter after having been to a weekend yard sale and purchased some things for the baby whose birth was still about six weeks away.



Has it been that long since I was forty-something grandmother-to-be? Since my daughter and I agreed I would be christened "Mimi" by this first little bundle of joy (although even then I insisted I would respond to whatever she named me, just as my own sweet Ma Mary had when I was the firstborn grandchild)?

Honestly, it feels like a lifetime (and in it has been, E1's anyway) since I became, in E1's naming, Ma.

Just when I thought things would be gearing down a bit this fall with that first little girl heading off to school, my daughter and son-in-law delivered an April Fool's day surprise. "We're pregnant," my son-in-law announced, almost as an afterthought after loading up the girls on April 1 and backing down the drive.

In fact, he did pull back up and didn't get out of the car. There was some fear of violence on my part. He said my daughter made him tell me because she fully expected to be slapped. Perhaps her fear was not without merit. Before number three I had at least been consulted about my plans for the next five years, so it did come as more than a bit of a shock.

It was much like E1, who was a bit of a surprise and perhaps not quite planned. Two came along quicker than anticipated and Three was debated and planned. Four, however, well, I was reduced to tears.

I've had time to come around, but that day another baby wasn't something I wanted in my future.

The mantle of grandmother sits uncomfortably on my shoulders at times.

There are times when I wish my granddaughters could have the grandmother (Ma Mary) that I had. She was plump and well padded and gave the best hugs in the world. There were always vegetables for dinner and something sweet for dessert. If you showed up at an odd time, there were cheese sandwiches to be grilled or a stash of cookies or candy to be delved into. She worked 40 hours a week sewing baby clothes in a local mill, but still had time to make me the world's greatest doll clothes. Her garden with its towering rows of corn and tiers of beans was an adventure. Her house was always spotless and welcoming, the perfect place to watch "Batman" when I was a grade schooler and TV was still black and white and in the den, or lick my adolescent emotional wounds after some school or home drama, or nap while she was more than glad to take on looking after a baby or two when I was a mother myself.

It staggers me sometimes to think that while I was dragged into the status of grandmother still kicking and screaming at 47, Ma became a grandmother when she was a decade younger and was already a great-grandmother at my age. Yet I was still a small child when I complained about her not coloring her hair any more and she hid her beautiful white curls for decades longer. By the time she was the age I am now, I was a teenager on the brink of driving. She was still young in years, but in my eyes already an old lady defined by girdles and big bras, cataracts and home hair coloring.

She's been gone more than a decade, slipping away in her early 80s, her life in those days defined by glaucoma and diabetes, thick glasses and a walker, the fear of falling and the equal dread of being a burden or going to a nursing home.

In many ways her course has defined life for my mother, myself, and to a level already my daughter, as we seem determined to avoid her fate if possible. My mother, now a decade younger than my grandmother when she died, is still small and thanks to a rescue dog adopted last fall, walks every day. She tries to eat good and complains about not having the stamina of her younger days. I'm actively fighting weight gain and muscle loss as well, remembering the things that crippled my beloved grandma.

So while I'm sorry at one level that my granddaughters don't have my grandma, I also wonder about the differences in the role model they are seeing and what that may mean to them. Instead of anticipating middle age as a slow down and slide toward elderly feebleness, they will remember watching me lift weights, do yoga, dance a Zumba routine to a popular song, and swim in a string bikini. What kind of difference will that make in their attitude toward aging? Will it challenge them to stay strong? Will that be a gift that exceeds, or at least equals, the doll clothes and baked goods?

Will my efforts to stay strong mean I'm still able to look after my great grandchildren, even though I'll be at least a decade older when they are born? Will it mean I can still go on the trips with family that my grandmother couldn't take because she couldn't get around? Will it mean the chance to build new and different memories longer in their lives?

The announcement of a fourth grandchild -- another girl if ultrasound is to be believed -- meant trading cars again so that I have room for four car seats (although I stopped short of a mini van with a crossover with third row seating). It also meant rethinking what I'll be doing for in the immediate future and settling myself back into the idea of being Ma, almost as reluctantly as I did the first time. It means that I'll be tied down with a baby again, for a while, and life the next few years won't quite have the rhythm I'd been expecting. I've adjusted to the idea though. The sacrifice of my time and plans is an immeasurable gift as well, both to me and to them as we share time most families don't get the chance to enjoy.

It's helping out with gymnastics, swim and dance classes, doctor and dentist appointments where I almost fill the role of a third parent. It's outings where people sometimes still think I'm their mother (go me!) when we go grocery shopping or take a fun trip to the park or splash pad. It's picking beans and talking about sustainable gardening, discussing the advantages of free range hens, serving venison instead of beef and still cooking vegetables from my own garden. It's the magic of discovery in watching a caterpillar become a butterfly.

And all the lessons and magic repeated again and again for a new little voice and a new set of eyes and ears.

Looking ahead it may be learning to run a chainsaw, shoot a gun, hunt and butcher, and a thousand things that I wish someone had taken the time to teach me, instead of assuming I'd never need to know or somehow absorb by osmosis. It may mean sharing the things I was taught -- gardening and harvesting food, preserving fruits and vegetables, crocheting, sewing, making really good sweet tea and coleslaw.

So this somewhat reluctant grandma is as ready as she can get for round four. She's excited about school for E1, E2 being the big sister most days, and even one more baby to hold. It isn't quite how I expected to spend my 50s when I had a career dashing around the county for the local small daily newspaper, knowing everyone and everything, but all in all, I think it's a better investment of my time.

And I know what I'm doing day to day, even if it isn't bringing home a big paycheck or earning me accolades, ultimately will mean more than anything I ever put on paper.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Unchurched Again This Sunday

I'm not in church this morning.


I've prayed over it because I want to find the fellowship and love and support and spirit that I had at my old church before the split between the deacons and pastor destroyed it.

I've cried over it because it breaks my heart to be sitting home again, trying to recharge my desire to search while at the same time unwilling to settle for a service that's almost it.

For a while I thought I'd found it, despite the one outspoken guy in Sunday School whose tirade against sin always began and ended with homosexuality. Then that same vein slipped into the pulpit, and the Supreme Court made its ruling, and I knew I just couldn't listen to that again, and again.

I'm not gay. I love and care for people who are homosexual. I can't be part of a worship that says because of their sexual orientation, they are damned or that says that if they were saved they'd go "straight."

I'm the grandmother of three, soon to be four, wonderful little girls whose sexuality isn't known to us yet. I can't take them to worship in a church where they could grow up hearing those words, and then discover that they were part of that group. I want to take them to a church where they'll still be loved and accepted, no matter who their heart tells them to love.

The simple fact is although I still remember the day I heard salvation's call and followed in the footsteps of Jesus into cold flowing waters, I'm closer to the woman at the well than I am to one of Jesus' disciples.

I'm not Jewish. I cannot live under the law and expect that I'm good enough to get to heaven. I have no illusions on that score. Yet for some reason, my fellow Christians seem to think that's what we are somehow supposed to do; not necessarily earn our salvation, but once we've asked for grace we're supposed to show we're good enough for it. The "if they're saved they'll stop sinning" summation.

People I love and care about are on that side of the coin as well. They don't preach against the "homosexual lifestyle" (I detest that term), but they do expect that anyone who comes from it will give it up if they are saved.

I'm sorry, but if they are saved but somehow not good enough, then neither am I. In fact, I'm not sure I know anyone who is. Why is that we pick a few Bible verses and say those things one doesn't do if they are consecrated to the Lord, while at the same time we've decided it's OK if we ignore others?

I've never murdered anyone, but at the same time I've committed sins that I've regretted but not always confessed or been as sorry about as I should. And although I profess to be Christian, according to Leviticus I sin regularly and don't expect that to change. I have tattoos and piercings. I've been married more than once and one of my ex's is still living (and no I won't return to him.) I wear pants and frequently they are blended fabric. I occasionally enjoy shellfish and pork.

So this morning I'm having not a crisis of faith, for I don't doubt God's existence or the love that sent Jesus to die for us all, but a crisis of religion.

I feel guilty for not voicing my views when my fellow church goer began blasting a particular lifestyle, but at the same time I feel it wouldn't have made a difference and would have only served to sow disharmony. I feel hurt that so many of my fellow Christians are so willing to walk on one another by not showing the same compassion to people they don't really know, but should love all the same.

I want to worship. I want a church where we learn how to be more Christlike. I want a church where we show the Lord's love for everyone by being loving ourselves.

I want to not have to put on an armor against my fellow churchgoers to avoid being hurt. That doesn't mean we all have to agree, but to be loving to one another and the world, we do have to sometimes keep our personal discomforts to ourselves. I understand how easy it is to fear and label and distance yourself from things you don't understand, but my personal experience puts me in another place and I also understand how painful those reactions are to people that Jesus loves.

So I'm not in church again this Sunday, but I'm not giving up, although I understand why so many people do. I'm visiting websites and researching and in another week or so I'll be ready to try again.

I'll put on my Sunday best, take a deep breath, and go to yet another strange church looking for the acceptance, the youth programs, the message, and most of all the feeling of God's love that my soul needs.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Let's Hear It for Forced Holidays

I hate Father's Day. Mother's Day too, for that matter. And while we're at it, Valentine's and the seldom noticed Grandparent's Day (and Best Friends Day etc.).

These made up celebrations of love and thanks are just that, contrived as a way to tweak the heartstrings and pull a few dollars from our wallets for cards, meals, and gifts.

The reality is not everyone has these people in their life to celebrate, or people in those roles who are worth celebrating.

Not every father or mother receives a gift, card or even a phone call. Sometimes it's because the child doesn't feel the emotions that drive that gesture. Sometimes it's because the child isn't alive any more.

Mother's Day this year was probably the hardest holiday for me since Ethan died.

It was partially because I was at my third Mother's Day without him and I expected it would be easier, but in reality, it wasn't. Two years earlier, he had been slated to join the family at church and for dinner, but instead he chose to begin using drugs again at about that time. There was some vague talk of girls showing up at his apartment. I doubt they ever arrived and that was just the excuse he needed to start using again. Last year everyone warned me it would be tough, so I guess I braced myself. Even though he'd only been dead five months, it wasn't quite so bad. This year was awful.

So now it's the flip side of that coin, Father's Day when I mourn for my son and the men who could have played that role in his life. Not on their behalf, but his. I also mourn the father he wanted to be and the children he never had.

The man I chose for my first husband and father of my children turned out be a lousy provider, an unbearable partner, and a deadbeat dad. He paid very little child support, and completely disappeared from the lives of his children when I remarried. When Ethan reached the age that he wanted to reconnect, I didn't worry about the money and did my best to ease that effort. But his calls to his "father" didn't result in time or visits, just heartbreak. Even as a young man he continued to try and met the same emotionless response.

The man didn't even show up for his son's funeral and has probably never been to his grave. He never knew the wonderful young man who died and I doubt he has the good sense to mourn his loss. He's never seen his youngest granddaughter and probably never will, as his daughter has wrote him out of her life as well.

There were others who could have stepped into the role, men who had known my son all his life and who he might have been comfortable turning to: my childless brother, my father, my grandpa.

My grandpa lost my grandma, and much of his drive, and then died at the time when Ethan began really needing a man around. He would have been such a good person to turn to, because somehow he and my grandmother were both able to reach across a lot of generational gaps with advice that was sometimes tough but because of who they were still loving.

At the same time, I sometimes wonder if men don't choose to remain childless out of a fear that they will turn into their fathers and don't wish to inflict that on another child. My brother didn't try to be a role model. My father spent a lot of time with Ethan as an adult, but in many ways it was the same quality as the time he spent with me (belittling, judgmental and lacking in love, kindness or support).

My husband came along too late in Ethan's life and they were never really able to connect across the storms known as puberty that were already shaking my son's identity.

Instead Ethan chose as a male role model the father of a close friend who would turn a blind eye to their youthful exploits and allow him to hang out as much as he wanted. That freedom made him leave home at 16 -- a difficult age in North Carolina where children are considered legally adults in many aspects and he felt entitled to make his own decisions. When he came home a few months later to finish high school, I'd already lost him completely to the addiction that eventually consumed his life.

So I have a personal grievance against Father's Day. Painful memories of Mother's Day. Enough lonely Valentine's Days to sour me on the date, and think Grandparent's Day is a total effort to get bucks without any merit. (Best Friend's Day, well, make me choose one why don't you?).

At the same time, if you're blessed to want to celebrate any of these holidays, chances are you really don't need to.

If those relationships (fathers, mothers, sweethearts, friends or grandparents) are worthy of celebration, then there are regular calls, visits and shared meals, and there's no need for the commercial gimmicks that drive the "holiday."

Personally, if they all disappeared from the calendar, I wouldn't mind. Any relationship that deserves the notice of the day isn't made stronger by having it, or made any more special by the dollars spent commemorating it. And every commercial, card and comment only drives pain into the hearts of those who, for whatever reason, don't have it: the fathers and mothers without children, the children without parents, the brokenhearted without those they love.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

It's not too late for reinvention

The other day I looked In the mirror and saw Holly Hunter.

Well almost.

Years ago when Holly Hunter played a tough as nails but faith challenged, hard-living detective on "Saving Grace," I fell in live with her physique. I loved her wild blonde hair not terribly unlike my own and I longed to have her ripped yet skinny arms and legs, her slender torso where ribs and vertebra were prominent.

She defined the somehow scrawny but fit woman I would like to be.

I read that her appearance was often what resulted when more mature women went for more muscle and weight loss. Some combination of diet, workout and getting older creates that sculpted pared down appearance. I liked it, but I never dreamed I would have it.

Yet I looked in the mirror the other day and there she was. I was so excited I had to tell my husband. "Look I have Holly Hunter's arms!" He feigned understanding so of course I had to explain the whole background.

If I could have dreamed a new body, that's the body I would have dreamed.

The fact that I dug it out of the cocoon of more than a year of comfort eating made it doubly surprising.

Before my 23-year-old son died, I was at my most fit point. When I got the call informing me that he'd been found dead, I was logging five miles on the exercise bike that I'm not sure I ever rode again. Instead I allowed myself to find comfort in food, or alcohol. I couldn't make myself do solitary exercising like walking for miles. Even though I still made it to the dance studio for Zumba and Piyo, I slowly added the pounds back on. I wasn't overweight, but my favorite clothes were getting too tight.

Earlier this year I had to decide whether to invest in bigger clothes or get back in shape. I had purchase Piyo from Beachbody last summer when my class was canceled, but I'd never committed to it like I did the live class. Still, the free coach who came along with it was the person I contacted when I decided I needed something more. Thanks to social media, she was well acquainted with my lifestyle and recommended 21 Day Fix Extreme.

I told her the workouts looked pretty "kick ass" and she told me she thought that despite my status as a three-time grandmother I could handle it.

I didn't expect a transformation, but that's what I got.

I stuck with the program, which did kick ass, for three weeks despite falling asleep on the sofa an hour early and having to miss my weekly Zumba fix because my sore legs couldn't handle extra exercise. I gave up cream in my coffee, wine to help me sleep, and bread. I persevered even though I couldn't really see a difference and neither the scale nor the tape measure were arguing with me.

Then I finished, but in three weeks I'd learned a new way of eating. I'd thought for a long time that I was not eating the right amounts of foods and probably chronically undereating. I decided to keep following the eating plan, even though I gave the exercises a rest.

The pounds seemingly melted away, burned by the muscle my coach had assured me I was building during the workouts. My favorite clothes fit, then got too big. I finally had to buy new clothes anyway, but several sizes smaller than what I'd been wearing. I've gone back to enjoying a few favorites on the weekends -- wine and a burger, perhaps some dessert -- but I know that I've changed forever the way I eat. It's been four months now and I have no desire to return to the person I was a year ago, or even six months ago.

I don't keep the same exercise routine, but I've done the entire "Fix" twice and I'm working on a third time, looking for muscle not weight loss now. And I'm able to combine it with dog walking, playing in the pool, or my weekly Zumba fix without keeling over from exhaustion.

I've become so passionate about the program and what it did for me that I've signed up as a Beachbody coach myself. I'm also considering training to teach the program that first got me into Beachbody, Piyo, which I still love, but mostly as a live class that I cannot find locally.

Although the program can involve making money if you're really good at it, it's not about that to me. It's about looking around me at friends who don't feel good or don't like the way they look and realizing that it really can be as simple as a short commitment that changes the way you live. You can do it when you're 20, 30, 40, or even in your 50s. (That's as far as my own experience can take me.) I wish I'd done it sooner. I wish I'd known what to do.

I want other people to find the person they'd like to see in the mirror. Whether it's Holly Hunter, or someone else entirely.

And most of all I want them to see that the face smiling back at them is their own.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

We should have celebrated instead of mourned

We should have been celebrating somewhere today.

The sense of what should have been and what is missing has hovered over my afternoon like a dark storm cloud, finally descending on me as I took a brief walk with my dogs.

As a family, we should have been gathered somewhere eating pizza and laughing at Ethan mimicking my dad, who wouldn't hear it and would have no clue what we were laughing about, or wielding our cumulative sharp wit at one another and innocent bystanders. We should have split a couple dozen chocolate-covered, cream-filled Krispy Kreme doughnuts or a big chocolate cake, and sung happy birthday.

On Tuesday, my mom will observe her birthday. There will be no celebration to speak of, because it would also have been Ethan's birthday.

My son, had he lived, would have been 25.

Ten years ago, I would have imagined a day filled with promise. A bright young man with a college degree and a wife, or at least a fiancee on his way to living his dream.

Five years ago there was still hope that the addiction had released him. He had an apartment and was being treated for the seizures caused by his drug abuse. I didn't know he was still using, and that jail time and a horrible automobile accident weren't all that far in his future.

Just two years ago, he was living sober and there was hope that somehow he'd manage to stay that way. Then he lost his support network, alienated the people who would have helped him stay clean, and withdrew into a spiral that left him alone, finally dead of an overdose.

So there was no celebration today, and won't be on Tuesday. My mom who once delighted in sharing a birthday now has an especially painful memory instead.

For the last week it seems the harder I have tried to run from the reality of what will be, the harder it has stalked me. I'm like a mouse being toyed with by a cat. I'm not really getting away, no matter how busy I make myself.

Today, I decided not to run. To sit down by the computer and once again give in to the tides of grief that I've been avoiding fairly well; to return to therapy, as it were, because I know that facing the pain, wrestling with it through words, helps me in the end.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

So Loved

It was one of those inspirational signs that got me thinking.

It referred to Jesus as God's unspeakable gift. While I didn't really get the word choice (Unspeakable? Wouldn't indescribable be better?), it set me to thinking about God's love.

Parents who have lost a child may find themselves questioning God or their own faith -- I know I did. I was angry at God for allowing Ethan to die, full of questions and rocked that my prayers and faith had not led to his recovery from addiction. I was so certain that it was just a matter of time, that God would put the right people in his life or open the door that would allow him to see what his life had become. It was not that I stopped believing in God -- the whole idea is incomprehensible to me -- it was that it felt like He didn't really care.

Yet eventually this terrible loss took me to different place. In this place I feel God's love in a way I don't think I ever comprehended it before.

We're not perfect and from the time Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, we could never be. Yet God wants us to be with Him. Sure, it would be easy to say that everyone got a free pass, but then what would be the point of life and what kind of souls would we possess if we'd never faced any challenges or had to make choices? So from the beginning, He had a plan. To show His love, He would forgive our imperfections. So that we could understand how hard that was, it had to involve a sacrifice. For a time He allowed lesser sacrifices, but He knew that a time was coming when the sacrifice had to be huge. It was.

He sacrificed His son, Jesus, for us. He sent him out of his eternal presence to earth to live as a mortal man, He allowed men to beat him and crucify him. In order for Jesus to die, He had to sever for a while that eternal connection.

I've lost a son. I know the pain of a child's death. Would I let my son die for a bunch of people who didn't even know or care about him? Soldiers' families do it every day. Would I let him die for people who might care? Law enforcement officers' parents do it all too often. Would I let him die for someone I loved? Maybe, if he were willing, but just imagining that choice brings tears to my eyes.

Would I have let him die if it had been within my power to stop it? No way in this world or the next.

God did all those things.

Had He even thought it, the crowds crying for Jesus' death would have dropped dead, the soldiers would have crumbled to ash, Jesus would have soared back to His side. He could have stopped it, but out of love for people who would one day realize the sacrifice and people who never would even acknowledge it, He didn't. Jesus died for our forgiveness. There is nothing within our power that could ever equal that sacrifice; all we have to do is believe and accept it.

There are people who lose a child and say, "How can a God who loves me do this?" I have been that person at times. But I've become the person who says, "How could God love me that much?"

With all the mistakes and baggage I've accumulated through my life, how could He love me enough to send Jesus? How could He love any of us enough to accept, even for a little while, this pain?

Sure, He knew how it was going to turn out. He knew Jesus would triumph over death and rise from the grave. Don't we know the same thing?

I know that Jesus' victory is Ethan's as well and that while Jesus was in the grave for three days, Ethan flew from his body into the arms of the God who loved him enough to make the sacrifice of His own son.

No, that doesn't heal my grief. I'm still floored by it sometimes. I still cry and my arms ache to hold my son, my ears strain for the sound of his voice.

But sometimes when I cry, like now, it's not because of my loss. It's because I finally understand how much God loves me and the rest of humanity.

Perhaps, after all, it was an unspeakable gift He gave.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger

There's a well known saying I've found to be true.

What doesn't kill us does make us stronger.

Most of us go through life with a mental list of the things we don't believe we could survive. The list is generally the things we fear most -- not the phobias that make us laugh nervously in a crowd, but the things we don't talk about, the things we see happen to other people and say a silent prayer of thanksgiving because they aren't happening to us.

That list might include cancer, debilitating injury or disease, living with addiction, and loss in myriad forms.

For a parent, that list would be topped by the death of your child.

It's the darkest place you can imagine going, the thing you shy away from facing. When it happens to a friend, you struggle with what to do and say and may even try to avoid it because your own fears drive you to deny that reality. Even when it happens to a stranger, you feel some internal tug.

That's the world where I used to live. It's a place where my absolute worst fear, despite my son's addiction and all of the darkness and pain that came along with it, was still something I could not imagine facing.

I'd faced addiction in people I loved before. I'd faced lumps and biopsies. I'd escaped domestic violence. I'd buried my dearest pet (and hardly eaten for a week). I didn't realize each of these survivals was preparing me, making me stronger.

Then Ethan died.

My worst nightmare came true. My reality shifted from what I had known to living what had been unimaginable. There was no path to follow, no plan for how to survive. It was the thing that I didn't believe there was a way to survive, not in a way that saw life go on with any degree of normalcy.

Yet, the next morning I got up again. One day at a time I accepted a new reality. Somehow despite all the pain and the sense of being lost in a dark place inside much of the time, days passed, then weeks, months, and finally a year.

The thing I ran from became my reality and changed who I am.

It's a oxymoron that losing Ethan made me stronger, but at the same time chipped away that tough veneer I showed the world, that professional objectivity I'd spent 25 years as a journalist perfecting. Now, instead of running from someone else's pain, I'm more likely to cry for and with them. I want to help them bear it because having gotten this far, I know I'm stronger and that one day, in their own time, they will be stronger, too.

I want people who have lost a child, regardless of the age or circumstance, to realize none of us are alone in what we are feeling. Whether it's a tragedy that rallies the community for a few weeks, or one that no one knows how to talk about, what we're left feeling is the same broken sense of being. We're still mothers and father and aunts and uncles and grandparents, it's just that our children aren't where we can touch them any more. They live every day in our hearts and through faith we will see them again someday.

Now when I hear of a child dying, my prayer is for those left behind and it's usually said with tears in my eyes because I know what they are going through. Knowing that the things I needed to hear were the words only other parents who had lost children could say, I try to reach out whenever I can. I try to pass on the love I felt when my friends who had lost children came to my house after Ethan's death, when strangers hugged me with tears in their eyes.

I still like to pretend I've had my share of pain and that life has been as dark for me as it will ever be, but I also realize there is no quota to be met. Bad things could still happen and all the fears that I still carry for my loved ones and myself could become real all too easily. There are still things I don't think I can survive, but sometimes there's a part of me that says it's more of a matter of not wanting to live through than it is inability to survive. And perhaps that's what it was all along.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Happier New Year

Happy New Year.

Last year those words rang as false to me as the words of a TV evangelist promising physical and spiritual wealth if only we mail in a check.

This year, I realize there is the possibility of happiness again.

The thought hit me while curled at the end of the love seat with a dog on my lap as I contemplated a Facebook news feed full of holiday greetings. I was suddenly mindful of the tender swath across my abdomen and thought that a year ago I would never have imagined being exactly who and where I was today.

A year ago the reality of Ethan's death was still something that stood by the bed to greet me each morning. Every day I had to embrace the new reality of my life, opening my heart for what still felt like it should be a death blow for me as well. Laughter, and even a smile, felt like a betrayal of my son. How could I share holiday greetings when my world was so torn apart? How could I go on living, making new memories, finding a different future than the one I'd always believed in?

Last year, Happy New Year felt like a lie I could not abide. Kinder new year was the most I hoped to find.

Yet against the odds, it seems happy found me anyway. Not with the tossing out of the calendar, but in the days and weeks that followed.

I discovered I was not an island, the only person who had ever felt my kind of loss, but instead just a mountain peak. As the tide of my grief subsided, I found I was part of a chain of mountains connected to others who felt the same pain. There were friends with whom I never expected to share this bond, and virtual strangers I met in cyberspace.

Our shared pain transcended circumstance and distance. We connected through blogs and text messages and late night Facebook messaging and phone calls. Sometimes the grief returned like a high tide and sometimes like a tsunami, but I learned to reach across the waves to the other mountains and hold on.

I learned that when others offered to talk it wasn't the platitudes that are often offered to the grieving. They called and sent cards and messages and I accepted that they were sincere and when I found myself teetering on an emotional ledge, I learned to pick up the phone.

I discovered there are other kinds of grief and loss that give me common ground with people who haven't lost a child, and I learned to accept hugs and comfort and friendship where I found it.

I struggled with good habits and bad, and found the long peaceful walks I'd enjoyed for so long were one thing I could not endure. But a needy dog with more issues than friends meant I couldn't quit, even when I had no desire to go. I lost two of my support networks -- my Zumba studio and my church -- but I kept dancing and worshipping and found that while I missed old routines, new ones weren't always bad.

I found that airing my grief helped me work through it and that taking time to focus on good things helped me recognize there were still reasons to smile. I found songs to make me cry and others that made me smile and sometimes one song that would do both. I opened myself to seeing Ethan everywhere, and after a while it gave me pleasure instead of pain.

I took care of myself, sometimes the hardest thing to do when life demanded so much. I struggled to balance my desire to withdraw from life with my need to keep living, and gradually the living and moving won out.

Now the waves of grief are more likely to lap around my feet than crash over my head, but the sound of the ocean never fades. I know the shore of loss is where I'll pass the remainder of my days, but I no longer feel I'll be drowned there.

Instead I feel hopeful that happy will continue to find me as long as I'm willing to see it. A new year full of change and possibility has begun. I never would have imagined myself here, yet here I am, embracing the life God has given me to lead, becoming another mountain to those still lost in the flood of grief.