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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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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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