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There and here.

img_1565Today is Julian’s sixth Angelversary. Six years since he lost his battle with leukemia and left the planet. In the early days, I couldn’t imagine how I would be able to live without him. Six years later, I’m living… but I’m not without him. Because he is both “there” and here.

Every once in a while, someone will shyly ask me, “Do you ever sense that he is with you? Do you communicate with him? Do you get signs from him?” And the answer is yes, yes, and yes. Constantly… if I’m paying attention.

Sometimes it’s little things, like looking at the clock when it reads exactly on the hour (to which I always respond, “Hi baby!”). Or, a parking lot that is completely full, except for the spot closest to the door (in our family, that’s known as the “Julian Spot”). Sometimes it’s coins crossing my path unexpectedly, dimes especially. Sometimes these are isolated events, but often they have a frequency. For example, in the past 24 hours, I estimate that I’ve seen the clock at X:00 at least 7 times. That’s not a coincidence, that’s Julian saying “Hi. I’m with you. Always, but especially today.”

Sometimes the gifts from Julian make me laugh in their awesomeness. As I’ve shared before, it’s because of Julian that we are good friends with a famous chef. He’s in the process of opening a new restaurant, and we recently received an invitation for a friends-and-family preview night before they open. The event is on March 12th, the day that would have been Julian’s 10th birthday. This was not a coincidence, this was Julian saying, “It’s my 10th birthday, and I’ve arranged a special dinner for you to celebrate!”

Sometimes Julian sends Earth Angels to protect my family. For example, when my parents were on a train in Russia, they were discussing their plans for getting to their hotel after disembarking at their station. There weren’t many English speakers on that train, but it turns out there was one in earshot. Not only was she listening to their conversation, she was the type of kind person who approached them and explained that their train wouldn’t be stopping at that station on that particular day. Not only did she help them figure out an alternate plan, she negotiated directly with the cab driver to make sure they paid a fair price for their journey. AND she stopped by the hotel the next day to make sure they arrived safely. This wasn’t just random. This was Julian saying, “I’m always watching over you. I see that you’re vulnerable right now. The plan you made can not happen today. I’m sending an Earth Angel to help you.”

My whole family has these experiences. Sometimes we share them with each other, sometimes we keep them to ourselves. But what we all know for sure is that Julian is not gone. He is obviously “there” in Heaven or whatever label we chose to use, but he is also very much HERE with us, all the time. And he confirms that message frequently, when we’re paying attention.

He is the puffy white clouds reflected in a mirror-like lake. The line between “down here” and “up there” becomes almost imperceptible. His spirit is communicating directly with us, just like the beauty of the sky is literally visible here on Earth. He is there AND here.

img_0363p.s. This past year I started making art again after many years. I created an artwork based on this visual metaphor, and it was selected to be included in a show called Spirit: Made Here in downtown Minneapolis. They even interviewed me and made a video about my work. The inspiration for this work of art, as well as the acceptance into the show, was yet another gift from Julian.

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2017 in Angelversaries, year 6

 

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Angel Day #3: The 3rd 3/3

Today is Julian’s Angel Day. The third one. The 3rd 3/3. And he was 3 when he died. Lots of threes today.

I recently read Louise Hay’s latest book, You Can Heal Your Heart. I highlighted several quotes throughout the book, but the one that struck me most is this:

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“The person you were has forever changed. A part of the old you died with your loved one, but a part of your loved one lives on in the new you. This can be a holy transition instead of a lose-lose frame of mind.”

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So in honor of this day of 3, I’d like to share three insights from the “holy transition” I’ve been living through these past three years:

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1. I leaned in. And then I leaned back. And now I fly above. 

I’ve always been a driven person. Goal-setting was automatic; there was always a destination I was striving for. I was “leaning in” way before Sheryl Sandberg told us to. When I was 28, I founded a successful business that grew to support more than 10 families. I served on boards, and I was recognized as a “pioneer” and a “leader” in my field. But eventually I was just on frantic auto-pilot, working nights and weekends for years and years to maintain the leaned-in life I’d created for myself.

The first year after Julian’s death, I appreciated that auto-pilot life. The quantity and intensity of activity in my life was a welcome distraction. But by the time Julian’s first Angelversary came around, I realized I was completely burned out. I cracked. I just couldn’t do it anymore. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do instead — and I couldn’t do nothing — so I leaned BACK. I stayed in my business, but I redefined my job description and I cut back on anything I could cut back on.

Then, when Julian’s second Angelversary came around, I realized that leaning back wasn’t any better. Instead of achieving more “balance,” I’d gone from frantic auto-pilot to bored robot. I was going through the motions, without authentic passion for any of the things that used to excite me. So I made the scariest decision of my life: I decided to transition out of my business. I had some ideas for what I wanted to do next, but I didn’t have an exact plan. I wasn’t even comfortable calling it a “sabbatical,” because I didn’t know if I’d ever want to return to the work I’d done before. I took a running leap into the unknown — no specific goal, no specific destination. I wasn’t leaning in or leaning back. I was flying above.

And here I am today, three years after Julian died, feeling alive for the first time in forever. What am I doing now? For one thing, I’m writing a book. But more importantly, I’m pursuing what Danielle LaPorte calls “goals with soul.” Instead of traditional goals, I’m driven by my core desired feelings: Freedom, Creativity, and Abundance. And when I re-focused on what I really valued, I found that spark again. I was struck by divine inspiration (thank you, Julian!) for a NEW business that will merge my past career in website design with my newly discovered passion for spiritual technology. (More on that later. I gotta get that book done first!)

I leaned in, then I leaned back, and now I fly above. I’m more “me” than I’ve ever been, and it’s because a part of Julian lives on in the new me. And I thank him for that every day.

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2. I’ve examined my “primal thinking” about relationships.

Another one of my favorite quotes from You Can Heal Your Heart is, “Grief is the window that provides the opportunity to examine your primal thinking about relationships.” As I think back on the past three years, I see how profoundly true that is.

I learned two things about relationships shortly after Julian died. First, I was told that I’d be surprised by who supported me in those darkest days (I’d be surprised by who came forward, and I’d be surprised by who retreated). And yes, that was true for me. But what surprised me even more was how my friendships continued to change as the years went by. Friends who were once close drifted away, and people who entered my life after Julian died are now some of my best friends and biggest supporters. I treasure these new soul sisters, and I thank Julian for bringing them into my life.

The second thing I was told about relationships is that the loss of a child often ends in divorce. A child’s death can directly lead to divorce, like when one parent was fully or partially responsible for the death. Or the child’s death can indirectly lead to divorce, like when a spouse’s physical characteristics bring up memories of the child that are too painful to live with on a day-to-day basis, or when the parents fail to soothe each other and feel they must part ways to find joy again.

I’m happy to report that my marriage did not suffer either of these scenarios. When I look back on the past three years, it’s clear to me that Julian’s death brought my husband and me even closer. He’s had his own journey of grief and recovery, and he’s come out the other side with strength and determination. Together, we experienced the very worst thing that any parents can experience, and we learned that we can survive anything… because we have each other.

My “primal thinking about relationships” has shifted a lot in the past three years, and I’m grateful for it. I’ve made beautiful new friendships, and I’ve gained even more strength in my marriage. Julian inspires me to appreciate every relationship I have.

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3. I’ve learned the Truth: love never dies.

Before Julian died, I described myself as “spiritual but not religious.” I still describe myself that way, but now I really understand what that means. I’ve found myself drawn to books like Proof of Heaven and Many Lives, Many Masters. I know in my heart that Julian and I have been together before, and we’ll be together again. But also, WE’RE STILL TOGETHER NOW.

Louise Hay says, “The ultimate truth is that love never dies.” I’m here to tell you, that’s true. And I don’t mean conceptually or abstractly true. I mean, literally capital-T True. Julian is no longer in human form, but he is not gone. He is present in my life every day. In large and small ways, he gives me signs that he is with me. Like for example, last year my whole family was celebrating Julian’s birthday and our server introduced himself to us. His name was JULIAN. That wasn’t a coincidence. That was Julian saying, “Hi! Thanks for celebrating my birthday! I’m here, too!”

Our loved ones’ bodies die, but their love never dies. Their souls live on, and connect with us ALL THE TIME. If you pay attention, you will see it, too.

So there you go. A trinity of transition. Three ways Julian has become a part of the new me. He blessed me in life, and he blesses me still. 

Happy third Angelversary, little one.

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2014 in Angelversaries, year 3

 

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The difference between empathy and sympathy.

The difference between empathy and sympathy.

I never thought much about the difference between empathy and sympathy until my life took a turn and suddenly I received an abundance of both. 

When Julian was diagnosed with leukemia, most people in my life wanted to show me they cared, and they wanted to help — but they didn’t really know what to do or say. When he died two weeks later, they really didn’t know what to do or say. And I didn’t blame them. I wouldn’t have know what to say to me, either.

Earlier this year I read a book that profoundly changed how I understand empathy and sympathy, as well as vulnerability and shame. (And trust me, after losing a child, one becomes intimate with all of the above.) The book is called Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown.

As much as I loved the book, it soon became just another good literary memory as I moved on to read other great books. Then yesterday, the author posted an animated video that so beautifully captures her core message about the power of empathy. The video reminded me of how much I loved that book, and I just have to share it:

My own “hole” was about as deep and dark as they come. Very few people felt they could climb down that ladder, even if they wanted to. What I didn’t quite recognize at the time is what Brené Brown shares from her research: empathy is a vulnerable choice. Empathy is risky and painful; sympathy is not.

For someone to be empathetic with me, they need to get in touch with their own pain. They either authentically revisit  a time when they experienced profound loss, or they allow themselves to really feel the pain they imagine they would feel if they were me. (The latter approach is less effective, but appreciated.)

Sympathizers, on the other hand, may have good intentions but maintain a separation from me and often say the wrong thing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve shared about Julian, and the first thing someone asks is, “Do you have any other children?” The look of relief on their face when I say yes is equivalent to the “at least” insight from the video. At least he wasn’t your only child. I’m grateful for my older son, but nope. Not helpful.

My favorite quote from the video is right at the end: “The truth is, rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.” After Julian died, many people wanted to be able to say something to make it better. But nothing could bring Julian back. What I needed was something to help bring ME back. That something was connection.

Thanks to my personal connections combined with the grief journey I’ve described on this blog, I now feel more connected to the Universe and other people than I ever did before. And maybe that’s why the Brené Brown video struck me so deeply: I now know, without a doubt, that connections are what keep us afloat and alive. Without authentic connections with others, we could so easily be eternally lost in our dark hole.

So if there’s someone in your life who is struggling, be thoughtful about whether you are responding with empathy or with sympathy. Remember that the need for empathy isn’t limited to extremes like cancer and death — there are people in our lives who need and deserve our empathy for minor things, too.

Also, if someone in your life is struggling with something as traumatic as cancer or death, don’t try to convince yourself that you’re unable to be empathetic because you haven’t experienced the exact same thing. As I’ve written about before, pain is pain. If you are human, you’ve felt pain. And if you’ve felt pain, you have the ability to show empathy. You just have to be brave enough to be vulnerable.

You don’t need to be a bereaved parent to understand what it means to experience traumatic loss. I don’t need you to tell me, “I know how you feel because I’ve also lost a child.” I just need you to tell me, “You’re not alone, I’m here, I’ve also experienced pain.”

Because ultimately, Brené Brown says, the most important two words for connection are, “Me, too.”

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Learn more about Brené Brown:

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2013 in year 3

 

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Second Firsts: the book I was looking for.

reading-with-flashlightI’ve always loved to read. When I was young, I’d read with a flashlight long after I was supposed to go to bed. Books — both fiction and non — have always been my go-to source of information, entertainment, and escape. So when my son Julian died, I instinctually gravitated toward books to help me take those first steps on my grief journey. Books had always helped me in the past, and I expected them to help me again. So I spent hours searching for, skimming, and attempting to read countless grief books… but ultimately they made me feel worse instead of better.

Books written by bereaved people typically followed the same formula: “I had a beautiful life, and then my child/spouse died, and then life was horrible, and then I wrote a book.” Books written by therapists were even more discouraging, because their work was based on chronic grievers who, by definition, were less resilient than the average person.

Eventually, I found a science-based book (which I wrote about in a previous blog post) that gave me hope — but at the time I was most desperate for help from books, the memoirs and self-help books that monopolized the “grief” category on Amazon were depressing and disappointing. My intuition told me that I could find joy again, but no one was talking about joy after loss. 

That was over two years ago. And thankfully, I’ve been able to find other ways to learn, grow, and move through my grief. In fact, I’ve started to write a book about my process and my own journey. In other words, I’m writing the book I wish I found when Julian died.

second firsts coverBecause I’m writing a book about life after loss, I like to keep tabs on what’s happening in the publishing world. So a few weeks ago, I read a newsletter from the publisher Hay House, and I learned about Second Firsts by Christina Rasmussen. When I read the description of this new book, my first reaction was embarrassingly selfish. “That’s the book *I* was going to write!” shouted my ego. This new book, to my simultaneous dismay and excitement, was described exactly as the book I was just beginning to write — the book I was so desperately seeking two years ago. This book teaches people how to “live, laugh, and love again” after loss.

Thankfully, my ego-based first reaction was quickly replaced by my heart’s appreciation for the message that Ms. Rasmussen (whose husband died of cancer at the age of 35) brings to the world via this book. FINALLY, someone has given a voice to those of us who instinctually choose happiness despite tragedy in our lives. And, better yet, offers actionable advice to those of us who continue to struggle.

There are many things I love about this book, and several of her themes are consistent with things I’ve written about on this blog. For example:

  • MEMOIRS
    She, too, was less-than-satisfied by the grief memoirs:

“I read many memoirs written by people who had gone through a tragedy, and these authors placed so much emphasis on their losses that the idea of truly living life after loss, while in the midst of grieving, was never really addressed” (pg 16)

  • REINVENTION
    She encourages her readers to not just “heal” but create a new life (a “new normal”):

“…healing from grief isn’t just about putting your life back together; it’s about creating a new life that makes you happy…. We can even create a life that is more amazing than the one we were previously living.” (pg 24)

  • SELF-DISCOVERY
    She motivates her readers to discover who we are, despite our grief:

“Above all, you have to be adventurous despite your grief, if you want to find out who you truly are and what you are made of.” (pg 32)

  • OTHERS’ EXPECTATIONS
    She acknowledges the challenge of attempting to move forward in a culture that has certain expectations of grief:

“Keep in mind that it’s natural to want to dismiss the return journey from the world of grief. It goes against what we’re being told by the environment around us, which is that we are injured and need to stop, hide, and rest until the pain goes away.” (pg 67)

  • PARTNERSHIP OF LIFE + GRIEF
    She encourages us not to assume that joy and grief are mutually exclusive, and she reminds us of the consequences of not finding a way for life and grief to coexist:

“The longer we have been grieving a loss, the harder it is to start living again. This is one of the reasons why I wholeheartedly believe we must invite life and grief to walk hand in hand. If life doesn’t escort grief back to joy, then it takes us much longer to get there, if we ever do.” (pg 69)

  • BRAIN SCIENCE
    She studied brain science, and learned how the brain is the key to a joyful new life:

“There is a different identity waiting to be revealed. A real evolution takes place in the brain during the days, months, or years following a loss — and it holds exciting possibilities. It can lead to an extraordinarily happy, productive, and fulfilling new life.” (pg 98)

  • THE CHOICE OF HAPPINESS
    She confirms that happiness is a choice that is available to all of us, no matter what we may have endured in the past:

“This discovery that happiness is a choice we must repeatedly make, day in and day out, rather than an event-based experience, set me free from my attachment to loss and enabled me to shift my focus toward living my life. Once I saw this truth, I chose to be happy again.” (pg 100)

The book Second Firsts was meaningful to me because not only does it provide helpful insights into what I’ve experienced in the past, it also makes me very excited for the “grief industry” as a whole. The first printing of the book sold out in record time and was recently re-published, and currently has an average rating of 5 out of 5 stars on Amazon. This shows me that the world is hungry for this message. People are tired of living in the past, and for perhaps the first time, there is evidence that we can thrive after loss.

I’m still working on my own version of the book I was seeking two years ago. But in the meantime, the world is a better place because Christina Rasmussen’s book is in it. And with any luck, someday Amazon will tell you, “If you liked Second Firsts, you might like Emily Eaton’s book!”

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2013 in year 3

 

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Smile because it happened.

 

"Don't cry because it's over... Smile because it happened."Today is Labor Day. It’s also the 18-month anniversary of Julian’s death. On days like today, it’s important to remind myself to focus on what I gained, not to dwell on what I lost.

“Lost” is such an odd concept, anyway. Some bereaved parents really hate phrases like, “the loss of a child.” As one of my friends says, “Our sons are not lost. We know where they are. We did not lose them, they died.

She makes a good point. When a person dies, it’s not the person that we have lost — we lost our future with this person. But did we really ever “have” it in the first place? Was it really ours to lose?

It’s easy to take the future for granted, especially when it comes to our loved ones. I expected to have a long, full life with my husband and two sons. When Julian died, my future with my youngest son felt more than lost. It felt stolen. In fact, a simple definition of “bereaved” is, “deprived of a loved one by death.” It is us, the *surviving* parents/children/loved ones, who have lost.

Eighteen months ago, I began reading everything I could find about “surviving the loss of a child.” I quickly discovered that there are two types of bereaved parents who write books, write and comment on blogs, and otherwise get their voice out there: those who are stuck in their grief, and those who acknowledge that what they assumed to be true about their life and their future — their definition of “normal” — has been permanently changed.

I can certainly relate to both sides of this coin, but it was the parents in the latter category that motivated me. They often referred to their “new normal,” which inspired the name of this blog, Creating “New Normal.” I knew I had to make a choice… either stay stuck in grief over the loss of the future I had expected, or be proactive in the process of creating my new future.

I believe it is the spirit of Julian himself that helps me focus on my gratitude for the years I had with him, instead of focusing on the future that has been permanently changed. One particularly powerful experience occurred just a few days after his death, when I went out with my husband and mother-in-law to run some errands. As they went into a gourmet food store, I went into a nearby gift shop to see if they had any guest books we could use for his Celebration of Life, which was happening a few days later.

As I walked in, I thought to myself, I wonder if there’s anything Julian might want me to see in here? Then, instead of walking straight toward the guest books, I was compelled to take a left down an aisle. I felt pulled to the end of the aisle, where a display case held a collection of framed quotes. Most were well-known sayings from famous philosophers… but the one that caught my eye said, “Don’t cry because it’s over… Smile because it happened.”

Tears of gratitude came to my eyes, because this was exactly the message I needed to be reminded of that day. When I noticed that the quote was from Dr. Seuss, I got goose bumps (or “spirit bumps” as my friend calls them). This quote, from this person, in the middle of a collection of famous philosopher quotes? I knew it was a message from Julian. I bought it, brought it home, and placed it on my home office desk. It’s still there today, 18 months later.

This quote became the theme for his Celebration (which I wrote about in a previous blog post), but it also became the mantra for my survival. This quote reminds me of the message of the famous Buddhist saying, “Pain is inevitable; Suffering is optional.” Every moment, it is MY choice. Do I choose to suffer, because I “lost” the future I expected? Or do I choose to smile, because I was blessed with almost four years with him?

I love that the Dr. Seuss quote specifically references a smile, because one of my favorite things about Julian was his smile. He almost always smiled with his mouth wide open with joy. How can you not smile back at this sweet face?

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Of course, sometimes I just need a good cry. But I still feel his spirit in my heart — even more now than in the beginning — and I know he doesn’t want me to suffer. Suffering does not honor his memory, and it certainly won’t suddenly make him “found” again. I know he wants me to smile, and remember what I gained by having him in my life.

I will always be grateful for Julian’s life, and today I’m not crying because it’s over. I’m smiling. Because it HAPPENED. And best of all, I know that just because he isn’t here with me on Earth doesn’t mean he will be absent from my future. He is, and will continue to be, with me in a new way — a “new normal” way.

 
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Posted by on September 3, 2012 in year 2

 

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The last of the firsts.


Today is March 3rd. That means it’s Julian’s first Angelversary. One year since the worst day of my life. The last milestone in a year of unimaginable “firsts.”

The first time I woke up, convinced it was all a horrible nightmare… and later, the first time I woke up and knew it wasn’t. The first time I laughed… and later, the first time I realized I had gone a whole day without crying.

The first of his birthdays without him; the first of my birthdays without him. The first Mother’s Day and Father’s Day; the first Christmas and New Year’s. The first time someone asked me how many children I have; the first time I heard Oscar refer to himself as “an only child.”

There’s a surprising amount of relief in reaching the last of these firsts, the first anniversary of his death. Perhaps the only thing I’ve heard about grieving that might be universally true is, “the first year is the hardest.” And as of today, my family and I have survived that year. It’s behind us now. Another bereaved parent recently told me, “it never gets better, but it does get easier.” I believe that will be true for us, too.

Today, I’m thankful for many things. In this particular moment, I’m thankful that my parents encouraged John and I to take a week off of work and take Oscar out of school to join them in Mexico, at the resort that we spent many family spring breaks growing up. I’m thankful that we agreed to it, despite the fact that we had already planned a vacation for the end of March. It’s peaceful and relaxing here, and I’m grateful to be able to spend this day with my husband, oldest son, and parents.

Today I’ve been reflecting on how I have changed in the past year, as I listen to the waves crashing nearby. As irrational as it seems now, I remember that in the first days after Julian’s death, I felt a very real fear that I would somehow forget him. I also started feeling internal and external judgement about my grieving process — as if intense grief indicated intense love, and healing from grief indicated a lack of love. And if I stopped grieving, I would forget him.

But with time, I gained confidence in my own approach to grieving and healing. Thankfully, I eventually came to the conclusion that Martha Whitmore Hickman described so eloquently in Healing After Loss:

“Of course time eases our grief, provided we let it follow its course and give it its due. Few of us would want the intensity and desolation of early grief to stay with us forever. That’s not what we’re afraid of.

But we may be afraid that we’ll lose the intensity of love we felt for the one we have lost.

At first these two–the grief and the love–are so wedded to each other that we cannot separate them. We may cling to the grief in desperation so we will be sure not to lose the love.

Perhaps the grief and the love will always be wedded to each other to some degree, like two sides of a coin. But maybe after a while, when we flip the coin, it will almost always be the love that turns up on top.”

Today, I’m thankful that in fact love almost always does turn up on top. I’m also thankful that a year has passed and I can say with all certainty that he isn’t alive, but he isn’t gone. I still have a relationship with him. I see him everywhere. I see him in my dreams. I saw him in the whales that appeared a short distance off the beach this morning, despite the fact that they weren’t expected for a couple more weeks. I see him in every sunset.

Sometimes, even in Mexico, the sunset is obstructed by clouds. But that doesn’t make me question whether or not the sun exists. Similarly, even if I don’t see or feel him, I know he’s there. A year ago I was afraid he was gone forever. Today I know he’s with me always.

Today is the first anniversary, the last of the firsts. And as my mom said to me just a few minutes ago, “It’s a good day.”

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2012 in Angelversaries, year 2

 

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Day Zero.

It wasn't just a coincidence that my mom and I were unexpectedly served a red velvet cupcake at lunch today. Red was his favorite color, and we served red velvet cake at his Celebration of Life. This was a message from him. The message was, BE ALIVE.

One year ago today was Day Zero. The “before” was over; the “after” hadn’t quite started.

One year ago today was the day that started with a quick trip to the pediatrician to get my son treated for a persistent cough, and to ask some questions about his unusual bruises. One year ago today was the day that ended with a diagnosis of leukemia.

One year ago today I drove from the pediatrician’s office to Children’s Hospital. Most of that drive, my mental mantra was, “He’s going to be ok. He’s going to be ok. He’s going to be ok.” But for one brief moment, just as downtown Minneapolis first came into sight, I remember thinking… “If Julian died, I would die. I would not be able to function. I would JUST DIE.”

One year ago today I thought I would literally die from grief if one of my children died.

But today, I am alive.

Today, thanks to Julian, I understand more about being alive than I could have even imagined a year ago. And for that, I am grateful.

One year ago today is also the day that I started Julian’s CaringBridge site. You can read about that day, and the days that followed, in my CaringBridge Journal.
 
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Posted by on February 16, 2012 in the second six months

 

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