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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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The motivation of death.

Justin-JohnsonBefore my son died, I had attended exactly four funerals: three were elderly grandparents, and one was a family friend who had fought a long battle with disease. Julian’s Celebration of Life was funeral number five. And last week, I attended funeral number six.

On August 13, 2014, a young father of four died in a car accident. His children attend my ten-year-old’s school, and our whole community was devastated. Almost immediately, a parent task force sprang into action to support the Johnson family.

Everyone was encouraged to attend the funeral, but my immediate response to that request was NO WAY. I told myself, everyone will understand. As if the death of my son excused me from supporting others in their grief.

What I didn’t anticipate is that my 10YO son absolutely, positively wanted to go to the funeral. “Are you sure?” I kept asking him. “It will probably bring up some painful memories for you,” I warned.

“Mom, I want to support my friends. They just lost their dad. And I know what it feels like to lose someone you love so much,” he said. Of course my son would have this perspective. For him, his own potential for pain was irrelevant compared to the potential to help others.

Still, the voice in my head said, I’m just not ready. But then, I realized the meaninglessness of that thought. Is anyone ever really “ready” to attend a funeral? No. Definitely not. So last Thursday, my son and I entered the packed church to support the Johnson family — and stare death in the face for the first time in three and a half years.

There were some painful moments, for sure. I remembered what it felt like to sit in that front row. I imagined the journey that the members of the Johnson family are just beginning. I wondered how I had forgotten to put tissues in my purse.

But more importantly, I marveled at the strength of the human spirit. We experience profound pain, and then… life goes on. Most of us, at our core, are resilient. Life is not supposed to be easy. In fact, I believe, it is supposed to be hard. This is Earth School, after all. Our souls are here to learn.

The funeral experience last Thursday — the opportunity to stare death in the face again — reminded me of the central theme of this blog that I started more than three years ago: When we are faced with tragedy, what do we choose to do? Do we shut down, close up, turn off? Or do we live bigger, love harder, create more?

In a beautiful short film called Existential Bummer, filmmaker Jason Silva observes that sometimes love makes us simultaneously happy *and* melancholy, nostalgic for what we have yet to lose. I think the same concept is reversely true of death: it can make us sad *and* inspired, motivated to maximize our life:

(apologies in advance for the advertisement you might see before the film starts)

Death challenges us, reminding us that entropy is inevitable. Death asks, what will you do NOW? I, for one, agree with Jason Silva when he suggests that we must use entropy to motivate us to extend every moment forever (or at least try):

“Perhaps the biggest existential bummer of all is entropy…. Sometimes I feel nostalgic over something I haven’t lost yet, because I see its transience.

And so how does one respond to this? Do we love harder? Do we squeeze tighter? Or do we embrace to the Buddhist creed of no attachment? Do we pretend not to care that everything and everyone we know is going to be take away from us?

I don’t know if I can accept that. I think I more side with the Dylan Thomas quote that says, ‘I will not go quietly into that good night, but instead rage against the dying of the light.’

I think that we defy entropy and impermanence with our films and our poems. I think we hold onto each other a little harder and say, ‘I will NOT let go. I do NOT accept the ephemeral nature of this moment. I’m going to extend it forever… or at least I’m going to try.'”

It is impossible to avoid tragedy in our lives. No amount of precaution, protection, or prayer will stop death from coming for us and our loved ones when our time is up. But until then, we can make a choice to attend that funeral, to feel that pain, to see the entropy all around us… and be MOTIVATED by it. 

That is my wish for myself, for the Johnson family, and for all humankind studying bravely in this Earth School.

 
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Posted by on August 24, 2014 in year 4

 

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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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A good day.

It’s been a while since I wrote a blog post. And I know people have been curious. How did the holidays go? How does it feel to be approaching the one-year mark? What does “normal” feel like these days?

The answer to each of these questions is, it depends on the day. As I’ve said before, the best question to ask is, how am I … today? I’m happy to report that today was a great day. One of the best days ever, in fact.

Today. January 29, 2012… my husband John and I attended the Bocuse d’Or USA 2012 competition in Hyde Park, NY. John and I both have a passion for gourmet food, so for us it was like having box seats at the super bowl. The winner, Richard Rosendale, was just announced a couple of hours ago and will represent the USA in the 2013 Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, France — the Olympics of food — one year from now. The judges of the event were culinary royalty, and we met most of them personally. It was one of the most exciting days of my life.

As exciting as today was, I can can’t help thinking about one year ago today. January 29, 2011… John and I returned from a business conference and noticed that Julian had some unusual bruises. That was the first night that we sensed that something wasn’t quite right. We didn’t know it then, but we were right on the cusp of the worst thing that could happen to a parent. Oh what a difference a year makes.

So, yes. I could dwell on that milestone. I could let my brain go back to that day and the weeks that followed. I could re-live all of that pain. It wouldn’t be hard to do. But yet again I’m reminded of one of my core beliefs: I can choose to focus on what I have lost, or I can choose to focus on the gifts that each day brings. As Pema Chödrön says, “Moment by moment we can choose to go toward further clarity and happiness or toward confusion and pain.”

Some days, like today, it’s relatively easy to choose to go toward happiness. Today, I have the strength to keep the negative emotions at bay, and feel gratitude for the wonderful things that have happened in the past year. Not the least of which was becoming friends with Chef Gavin Kaysen, who represented the USA in the 2007 Bocuse d’Or and will be the 2013 team’s coach for the coming year. It’s because of Gavin Kaysen that we were able to attend the prestigious event today. And it’s because of Julian that we met Gavin.

Here’s how it happened: Last spring shortly after Julian died, my dad was in NYC and went to Gavin’s restaurant because he’s friends with Gavin’s dad and was curious to meet his friend’s famous son. He asked to meet the chef, and they chatted for a while. My dad described how much his daughter and son-in-law appreciate gourmet food, and he also shared Julian’s story. Gavin, being a father of a young son and with another on the way, was moved by our story.

As it turned out, Gavin was coming to Minneapolis a few weeks later to cook for a fundraising event. One thing lead to another, and he and my dad came up with a plan for Gavin to come in a day early and prepare a meal at my house as a very special birthday gift from my parents to my husband John.

On July 22, 2011, Gavin arrived in Minneapolis and came to our house to spend the day cooking with John, and prepare a wonderful multi-course meal for us and our best foodie friends. We’ve considered him a friend ever since. Our friend, the world-class chef and Bocuse d’Or USA head coach.

I share this story for two reasons. First, because it was exciting to see Gavin in his glory this weekend, sitting at the head table with Chef Thomas Keller, Chef Daniel Boulud, and others. And second, because I believe it is important to celebrate the good things.

None of us needs to be reminded that sometimes bad things happen to good people. But good things happen to good people, too. Life is full of good things and bad things, big things and small things.

The question is, what do I focus on? Do I wallow in my grief and think of January 29, 2011? Or do I feel grateful for the exciting day that was January 29, 2012? Or better yet, do I look forward to John and I joining Gavin in Lyon, France on January 29, 2013? I think you know my answer.

I will never forget that I have suffered an irreplaceable loss. But I will not let it prevent me from having a life that includes joy, wonderful new friends, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2012 in the second six months

 

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