Where do you store your grief?

This is one of the writing prompts for my HLH Journaling workshop tomorrow. And i can tell you, i know exactly where my grief is stored, my shoulders and my neck. Why, you ask? Because that’s where I like to bottle everything up and hold on to for later.

I’ve lost some mobility in my neck because of the block of knots that are my shoulders. I see a chiro weekly, a massage therapist monthly and I’m about to add my doctor shortly as I’ve started to get terrible headaches from the neck pain. My chiro told me that I need to add yoga so that I can breathe more. He can barely crack me, it’s so tight.

I workout, I try to stretch and relax as much as I can, but none of that changes my losses. None of that brings my people back. I feel like Atlas, carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. But instead of the world, that ball is the weight of my grief. Heavy and pushing me down.

It’s weird how grief can affect us physically. Part of mine is perhaps psychosomatic, as I was injured in my shoulders and upper body when my son died. The body has a memory for pain and injury. It can remember exactly how something felt. I can remember the sensation of being struck by my car and thrown down the hill. It was not a feeling of weightlessness, but rather like I was in the washing machine, stuck on the spin cycle. And the natural reaction is to tuck. And I feel like ever since that day I’ve tucked into myself, physically. I slouch inwards, as if in defense or protection. Almost as if I’m hugging myself. Or holding myself together.

So this results in tons of shoulder and neck pain. I’m constantly trying to figure out how to make it better. I’m a problem solver by nature, so I need to make it better. I need to learn that my body is a safe space and instead of approaching the world in a protective posture, I need to open my arms to it. I need to end my reign in flight or fight mode and open up to the possibility of joy and love. Because I know that I feel that in my soul, I just need to allow myself to be vulnerable enough in my stature to accept it.

Dia Del Muerto

I first learned of ‘Dia del Muertos’ or ‘Day of the Dead’ from the show Jane the Virgin. Which consequently, if you haven’t watched it, it’s probably one of the best shows I have seen to portray grief. It’s also super funny and has some incredible female characters.

In any case, without giving anything away, there is a scene where they show the Day of the Dead. They portray the character dealing with grief during the first year, then the second year, then the third year, etc. She starts out sobbing and by year 4 she is able to tell funny stories and actually laugh again at those memories. They hurt much less as time has passed.

I love this idea of spending a few days to remember those that are gone. We mourn at a funeral, but what do we do to allow ourselves to grieve over time? The biggest concerns that we as grievers have is that our loved ones are going to be forgotten. I think the idea of being able to set aside some time every single year to tell funny stories, and remember those that we have lost would help all of our hearts.

We do this in my family on Benny’s birthday. And it’s become a beautiful tradition for my family. And all of my kids now know their brother, even though two of them have never met him. But I don’t know that we spend a lot of time talking about my mom and dad who have died. My kids really don’t know their grandparents and that’s very sad.

The Day of the Dead traditions include creating an altar for the deceased, eating their favorite foods, creating decorative skulls, visiting their graves and decorating with marigolds. Ironically, it’s also a day to celebrate the living with gifts of candy or poems dedicated to friends and family. This honestly sounds like something I can get behind! What a beautiful way to love and appreciate all those around you, both living and dead.

So I’m going to try it. We’ll see how it goes. This year Dia del Muertos is observed on November 1st through the 2nd. I’m intrigued to add another tool to my grief toolbox and see if it sticks.

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!

My mom was a teacher her whole life, so teachers hold a special place in my heart. I always loved going to school with her, setting up her classroom and being involved in the various school activities that she ran. It was always so important for her to be involved in her students lives and make learning fun.

I think back to all of the incredible teachers that helped to shape my own life. My health teacher in seventh grade had us work on a ‘life’ project where we had to somehow illustrate our future plans. I drew a floor plan and he ended up showing it to a friend who was an architect. Guess what I studied in College? In 8th grade I wrote an opinion essay on a current news article and my teacher asked me if I actually wrote the first paragraph. Not in an accusatory fashion, but rather she said it was a compliment because she liked the writing.

I had Mr Newcombe for English in 11th grade who strongly suggested that I read Pride and Prejudice for a project. All of my children’s names are now out of Jane Austen novels and my two littles middle names are Jane and Austen. This book had a huge impact on me and is (clearly) still a favorite today. These people helped to shape who I have become as a person. And I am so thankful for their encouragement and guidance.

Darcy was in Kindergarten when Benny died. She was our first in school and we really didn’t know the community well. When Benny died, Darcy’s Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Borus, showed up. She came to his services. She had all of Darcy’s classmates make cards for her (which I still have today).

We received a letter in the mail from another teacher in our our district. She gave us such great information on programs for children and loss and was just incredible in her vulnerability. Darcy (thankfully) had Ms. O’Connell in first grade. It was a huge relief to me know that she was being taken care of emotionally in school as well.

When we moved, Darcy was in fifth grade and switched districts. I was nervous, we had been surrounded by so many incredible teachers and families that knew our story. I had to reach out to a new principal and teacher and explain Darcy’s background. Mrs. Sullivan welcomed my daughter and our family with open arms. Darcy had the best 5th grade year and sobbed when it was over.

Darcy entered Junior High in 2019, right before the pandemic. This was truly her first experience with switching classrooms and teachers. And I don’t know if she won the teacher lottery, but they were all incredible. They did the best they could with a really shitty situation and supported my child incredibly through the hardships of working at home. She definitely struggled and there were some tough days when I had to reach out to some of the teachers and explain what was happening at home because they couldn’t see it firsthand. And they just handled it amazingly time and time again. We have been very lucky to have these incredible people be such a huge part of our daughter’s life.

Last fall was tough. I had homeschooled Fletcher for kindergarten so he was really entering the classroom for the first time in first grade. He was also the first child I had sent to school since 2013. I was an emotional wreck. I reached out to his teacher prior to him starting school and explained Benny’s death and our family situation. It’s one of those things I’ve become pretty adept at over the years. Fletcher is extremely different than Darcy though, he has no problem standing in front of a classroom of his peers and talking about his brother who has died. Fletcher craves connection and is one of the most vulnerable people that I know. I honestly think it’s his superpower.

Once again we were gifted not only an incredible teacher but an amazing partner in his education and emotional growth. I am so lucky that this woman is in my son’s life. He misses her during the weekends and over vacations. She has been an incredible lifeline for us as parents as we struggled with Fletcher’s learning this year. She has also been an incredible asset that has allowed him to share Benny so openly.

I had to email Mrs. Macaruso last night to let her know that Fletcher is struggling with the end of the school year. He is extremely sad that he will not be able to see her everyday in second grade. I am extremely sad that I will not have this incredible human as his teacher next year. She not only made this transition from home easy for him, but easy for me as well. We all love Mrs. Macaruso!

I can keep going and going. My children have been so lucky to have so many incredible people to look up to in their lives. They have also had incredible daycare, preschool and dance teachers who have helped to shape who they are now. I am lucky as an adult to have some incredible teacher friends who have changed me and who I am. I’m looking at you Miss Patty and everyone who helps at Hope Lives Here. Or the teacher friends that have joined us in our grief.

Thank your teachers. Show them some love this week. Let them know the impact that they have had on your children and you as a parent.

Either I’m Getting Old or…

Something. My body is tired and tight. My head aches, everything is out of alignment. My chiropractor couldn’t even crack me. Years of trying to hold it all together have finally caught up with me. I think that when your body is in fight or flight mode for so long, it’s really, really hard to decompress.

I look at the above graphic and literally have every single symptom from the shoulders up. My shoulders are tight, which leads to my neck and then my jaw and then my aching head. Apparently I’m clenching my jaw so tight that I fractured a tooth in my sleep (didn’t even know that you could do that). My damn body is tired. Because my mind is tired.

I think that I had a whole year off to grieve Benny. I had a year to sit in it and let it wash over me. Unlike after my Mom’s death I had some time to process things. And it was a truly healthy start to this whole process. For the first time I felt like I was actually dealing with my stuff instead of shoving it down deep.

But we all know that grief doesn’t have a timetable and I wasn’t magically healed after a year. But I was pregnant. And facing a whole new set of anxieties I couldn’t have imagined. And then sleepless nights and chaos. And then 2 years later in the thick of all of that again with the next baby whilst we moved 4 times until we were finally home. And I loved every moment of it (besides the whole moving part).

Things finally settled a little bit for us and I could catch my breath and then boom, Covid. The whole world is thrust into a grief unlike any other. And everything kept changing and we just kept having to adapt.

I feel like I have been in fight or flight mode since 2013. And I am truly, truly exhausted. With the chaos came very little time for me to continue processing the fact that my son died. Sometimes it’s much easier to lean into the crisis of the moment rather than to face your own reality. Because the reality is that my son died. And it’s fucking awful.

So here we are. I’m ready for a good crack from the chiro. I’m going for a massage to try to clear some of that tension. It’s time to start going through some of this stuff that I’ve been holding onto and to try to change how I’m living. Because I’ve been fighting this battle for so long and my soul is just exhausted.

Resolutions

This is what grief hoarding looks like. This is what it looks like when both of your parents are gone and you’re desperately trying to hold onto every piece of them. This is what it looks like when your son dies and you’re holding onto your memories of him. It is exhausting. It overwhelms me.

It’s extremely hard to be objective about what to keep vs. what to toss. Even with my alive children. Because what if I throw something of theirs away and the unthinkable happens? I remember being very cavalier about Benny’s artwork, because he was the second child. We already had so much from Darcy. And after he died I remember regretting that I had tossed something he had created. I had unwittingly thrown out one of our memories of him.

I am envious of the people who still have their parents. They actually have people who hold memories of them. They don’t need all of this ‘stuff.’ It’s really hard to figure out where to draw the line of what I want to keep of my parents. I have a huge box of albums, clothes and tons of knock knacks. Do I really need the stuff sitting in boxes? If it’s not out in my house is it necessary to hold onto? I wish I had an answer.

I cannot stand the amount of stuff that we have. We just filled a trunk with donations and the truck with trash and I feel like we didn’t even make a dent. The stuff overwhelms me. But then the thought of having to make a decision of what to keep and what to toss overwhelms me.

So I’m starting small. I’m going to begin with the Seasonal decor. I’m hoping that if I start small, with the stuff that I’m not emotionally attached to, it will help me feel better. Maybe I’ll keep going and maybe I won’t. Maybe I will finally tackle some of my grief items. We will see. But this is not my resolution.

I see how things are going and we seem to be sliding backwards, pandemic-wise. So the only resolution I have this year is to give myself a little grace. Which was the exact same resolution I had last year. And you know what I’m okay with that. I hope to clean the basement, I hope to declutter my life, but if those things don’t happen I also hope to not make myself feel bad. Because changing how I view resolutions from physical things that I can see into personal growth, is so much more important. Happy 2022.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

When I was growing up, the holidays were magical. I have so many great memories of gathering with family, singing Christmas Carols, baking and of course, presents! For all of my Dad’s faults, he was super into Christmas. He was one of the rare men that actually enjoyed shopping and put a lot of thought into his gifts. Decorating our house was a huge deal every year. We would get the biggest Christmas tree and spend hours putting tinsel on it. We had a 4′ wreath that went on our chimney along with a plastic Santa. My Mom spent hours wrapping presents for us kids and desperately trying to replicate her Mother’s recipes (which I still find nearly impossible). It was merry and bright.

When my Mom passed, all of that Christmas Spirit seemed to die with her. My Father was a shell of his former self and we all just went through the motions. I remember that the first Christmas without her consisted of me shopping for everything and wrapping it all (including my own gifts). My sister and I had to take my Dad to the ER on Christmas Eve because he was sick (looking back, it was probably too much alcohol and a broken heart more than anything) and we were up late. No one got out of bed on Christmas until 5 PM. It was terrible. Gone was the magic.

Once I moved out, I vowed that I would create my own Christmas magic. When I had my own apartment, there was always a live Christmas tree. I started making my own Christmas traditions. And even though I spent some Christmases alone, nothing was as brutal as that first Christmas after my Mom died. Until my son died.

It’s really hard to get through the holidays when your heart is so heavy with grief. My Mom died 25 years ago and my son 8 years ago. I’ve celebrated more Christmases without both of them then I have with them. And it still guts me. Every. Damn. Year.

The first Christmas after my son died was a stumble. I honestly felt like a puppet as others pulled the strings and I went about the motions. I had no idea what the right thing was to do. Do we hang his stocking? His ornaments? Do we keep our family traditions? How do we honor him?

That whole day I smiled on the outside while I silently screamed on the inside. Christmas shouldn’t still come without my son. The days shouldn’t have kept creeping by and time shouldn’t have been in motion. My world had stopped on November 8th and anything where we grew further from that date made no sense to me.

It was really hard to watch her opening gifts, knowing her brother should have been there too. It was hard to enjoy the cookies, knowing how much he loved his sweets. It was hard to take pictures, thinking he should be in them. It was hard to recognize that this was our ‘New Normal’.

I’ve written about a few things that we now do previously https://sunshineangelsandrainbows.com/2021/12/03/my-christmas-grief/. The only thing that I vowed that first Christmas was that it was still magical for our daughter. The magic had completely died for me at that point and that was ok. But by god, it had to be over the top for her. She needed to find something to look forward to, something good to believe in, and something hopeful that she could carry with her. And if that came in the form of presents and food and togetherness, then I was ok with that. I was ok with anything that would help us get through that first Christmas.

And that first Christmas turned into our second, third, and now eighth Christmas without our son. And I miss him so very much every single day. The holidays are still brutal, but I find that doing stuff to honor him helps to heal my broken heart just a little bit. And as much as I hate to admit it, I’ve even found a little Christmas magic again myself. The grief and missing are still very much there, but the love that I have for my Mom, my Dad and my son have become my puppeteers during the holiday season.

My Christmas Grief

Thanksgiving is over and now we head into the holidays of family and love. Christmas has been a really hard time for me ever since my mom died. I’ve worked extra hard to make it special for my kiddos. It’s also some place productive that I can put all of this stuck, grief energy.

A few years back another lost mom had posted the Christmas tree she did in memory of her son. Another friend had recommended using all of the metals from the 5K that we do in Benny’s memory as ornaments. That began the ‘Benny Tree.’ I love that he has a space in our home and our hearts for the holiday. My kids also enjoy decorating it and looking at all the pictures and medals.

The year that Benny died we started writing him notes in his stocking. They stay in there all year long and get packed away with the Christmas decorations. Someday his stocking will be full again but at least in the meantime it’s still funny on the fireplace with the rest of the family’s.

Last year I started sponsoring a child for Christmas that is the age Benny would be. It’s sad and hopeful all rolled into one. I love that I get to help someone out and I still get to shop for a boy Benny’s age. I wonder what he would be into and what would be on his Christmas list. And it’s heartbreaking.

It’s taken me 8 years to come up with what makes our holiday feel ‘good’ again. It’s organic and it changes as we change. Right now it just allows me the space to still parent Benny, even though he’s on the other side. If it ever gets to be too much or doesn’t feel right, then we won’t do it. But for now, I look forward to my grief traditions.

13

After Benny died, we were warned about Darcy. She was only 4 and we were told that a traumatic event can seriously affect young children (especially those under age 5) for the rest of their lives. Because of this she is at higher risk of substance abuse and struggles from mental health. We were lucky that we had family that worked in social services to help point us in the right direction. And what the hell did we know, we were still in the trenches of our own grief.

I have spent 8 long years worrying about how the grief and trauma would shape my child. She was picked up by strangers from school and brought to a house covered in police tape and swarming with cops by a family member in shock. And then she’s told her brother is dead. That’s a lot for a 4 year old to process. That’s a lot for a grown adult to process.

I really hate that this is part of my daughter’s story. I lost my Mom at 16 and I struggle with the fact that she also has a juvenile loss. It just feels so unfair that she should know grief at such a young age.

When my Mom died, my Dad shut down. Alcoholism took over and he was shell of his former self for a long time. When Benny died I vowed that we wouldn’t do that to Darcy. I made my husband promise me that we wouldn’t fall apart to the point where we were no longer able to parent.

This may have backfired a bit where we held some stuff too close to try to protect Darcy, but we did the very best that we could. We had no idea what the hell we were doing. And grieving while parenting a grieving child is Fn hard. It’s undescribable. I have never felt so inadequate in all of my life. I couldn’t save her from what was hurting her, or even try to make it better. And I was in so much pain myself.

This girl gave us something to live for. She made getting out of bed every day bearable. Because she still needed us. She saved us in every sense of the word.

Today she is 13. And I look at her in awe of who she has become. Now I’m not naive enough to think that the road of teenage hood ahead of us won’t be hard. But this kid is pretty damn resilient.

The grief and the trauma have effected her, but not completely in all of the negative ways I was told. She still struggles with anxiety and probably always will (like her mama), but she has been taught coping mechanisms that have allowed her to live with it for now. If that changes, we will deal with it.

My bestie and I often joke that we ‘want to be like Darcy,’ when we grow up. In the last few years she has has grown into this amazingly, self assured young woman. She knows what she wants and what she doesn’t. She will not allow anything or anyone to hold her back. She is also the first to offer help, or to stand up for someone else. This girl is strong in her convictions and follows her conscience in all things. She sticks to her moral compass.

All I saw 8 years ago was questions about how we would all fare. I’ve spent so much time worrying about how this trauma would affect Darcy, meanwhile I feel it has given her perspective well beyond that of her peers. She seems to understand what’s important and what’s not. She is wise beyond her 13 years.

I’m really freaking proud of this girl who has gone through so much. She is my right hand girl in all things and so helpful with her siblings. She is always up for an adventure or some crazy scheme I’ve cooked up. She amazes me with her strength, her heart and her perseverance. Happy 13th Birthday Darcy Doodle.❤️

Back To One

I have been struggling this week. Sending the two older kids to school after having them home for over 18 months, has been really, really hard. Having them home was really, really hard too, but this is a different kind of hard.

I cried for days leading up to that first day of school. I knew I was going to miss the kids, even though they do make me absolutely crazy sometimes. I don’t want to paint a rosy picture of a perfect quarantine. Our time at home was anything but. There were plenty of fights, screaming, hitting, biting, normal sibling stuff, just amplified. But they were home and safe, so it wasn’t all terrible.

When Fletcher first climbed up onto the school bus on Tuesday, Perry’s face fell. And she cried. And then I cried. We met him at the school (even though he didn’t want us) and when we left I was crying all over again. I figured it was just normal ‘letting go’ grief. Watching your kids need you less sucks.

With both of the older kids in school, it’s been just Perry and I. We’ve played games, baked a ton, had some dance parties and just tried to figure out the silence. She has a very special bond with Fletcher and this has been extremely tough on her. Perry may be a fighter, but she loves BIG.

I’m feeling so overwhelmed by the silence. And I’ve been at work and in and of the vet with a sick cat, so I haven’t even been home exclusively. But something just feels wrong. And familiar. So as I was pulling the Zucchini muffins out of the oven today, I had a realization. I’m back to one. One child at home. Just like after Benny died and it was Darcy and I.

I’m not sure if I feel better or worse now. Being able to recognize why this all feels so awful makes it a little easier. I feel a little less crazy. But man if it still doesn’t sting. It brings me right back to the days after losing Benny and trying to navigate that awfulness.

It’s also really hard to watch your rainbow babies outgrow their brother. He never got to any of these milestones that my kids seem to be flying through. And as excited as I am for them, there’s a part of me that will always be really sad for the ‘what if.’

AITA?

AITA-Comparing Grief

AITA Original Post: ‘She said, “Now I know what it felt like for you. Losing a kid is so, so hard.” I’m 26M, my girlfriend got pregnant at fourteen and I was a father at fifteen. He was the best little boy ever and I was in love with him. I had a job and her parents kicked her out so she moved in with mine and by the time I was 19, I was happy and me and her moved into an apartment together.

But when the next year, when he was five years old, he got hit by a truck and passed away. It’s been six years and I still think of him every day.

I told her, maybe a little insensitively, “You didn’t lose a kid.” She looked taken aback and said she did and something about how “fur babies” were kids too. I said losing a kid is nothing like losing a dog and she started getting angry and told me she raised her dog for way longer than my son.

I got mad, and yelled at her to never talk about my son again and then I stormed out.’

The comments section on this is nuts. It made me koo koo bananas reading it, so I had to stop. I know everyone is entitled to their own grief and there are no comparisons. Everyone feels differently and is built differently and is a product of their experiences.

However, if a friend ever said to me that they ‘understood’ how I felt about losing Benny because their dog died, that would be it. And to follow that up with ‘I had my dog longer than you had your son.’ Nope. Absolutely not. Just stop talking.

Sorry if this makes me a horrible person. As I see it, this woman made the comparison when she had the gall to say that she ‘understands’ what it feels like to lose a child. I’m so angry that I can barely type.

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