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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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It’s time for a new chapter in the American history of death.

For much of our American history, it was not uncommon for a family to lose a child. Disease, childbirth, war, and lack of hospitals made it unusual for a household *not* to have been touched by death in some way.

Despite the frequency of death, or perhaps because of it, grief was not discussed in those days. Grief was expressed in the appropriate times and places, such as at a funeral, but it was not discussed. Our American ancestors were never urged to go to group therapy to revisit their loss… over, and over, and over.

Then, there were two important changes in our country’s history. First, the medical world made significant advances: hospitals became more accessible and more sanitary, vaccines were discovered and distributed, and diseases became more curable — resulting in fewer deaths. Second, death became a topic of interest among philosophers and psychologists, who suggested that death had become an “unnatural taboo” which caused repression of emotion that would surely cause damage to one’s mental health.

On one end of the pendulum swing, in 1911, an article called “Facing Death” in Harpers Bazaar said, “Grief is self-pity. Perhaps if we were less centered upon our own happiness, grief over the loss of our beloved ones would not be the terrible thing that it is.” On the other end of the pendulum swing, the 1960s and 1970s brought about an emphasis on self-expression, talk therapy, and the overwhelming influence of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross‘s book On Death and Dying* published in 1969. By the late 1990s, it had become a widespread belief that people must “give voice” to their grief, or else it would fester. And now we do get urged to go to group therapy to revisit our loss… over, and over, and over.

In other words, death went from being a frequent occurrence with an expectation of limited outward expression, to being an infrequent occurrence with an expectation of significant outward expression.

Here’s why our culture’s history of death is of interest to me: I believe we must let the pendulum fall closer to the middle. I want us to all be thankful that the death of a child is so uncommon… but I want us to remember that it is not unheard of. I want us to respect those who choose to express their grief outwardly… but not judge or “worry about” those who don’t. I want us to remember that life is a gift… but also remember that death is part of the same cycle. I want us to honor the loved ones we have lost… but not lose ourselves in the process.

It’s time for a new chapter in our American history of death. In this chapter, we don’t expect people to die, and we don’t expect people not to die. We don’t judge people for expressing themselves, and we don’t judge people for not expressing themselves. We mourn the ones we have lost, and we celebrate that we had them in the first place. We remember the loved ones who have died, but we never forget that we are still alive… and we have a lot of living left to do.

* Note: I wrote about this book in one of my first blog posts, and I’ll be writing about it again in one of my next blog posts.
 
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Posted by on August 31, 2011 in month 6

 

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The circle of life in our back yard.

Spring has finally arrived in Minnesota. All around us we see signs of rebirth. But this year, I’m also painfully aware of the flip side… we can’t appreciate new life without acknowledging the inevitability and significance of death.

This circle of life is literally on display in my back yard. About four years ago, we noticed that a pair of foxes would appear in our yard from time to time. When the snow started to melt, we realized they had created a den under the trees and brush.

Daddy Fox near the entrance of the den.

A couple of months after the foxes moved in, they had babies! We had seen a lot of wildlife in our wooded neighborhood, but never anything as cute as this. Our whole family was excited to see the little “kits” grow from little balls of fluff to the size of a small dog. As the weather got warmer and the grass and brush started to grow in, the babies would come out to play.

We were delighted when the foxes returned the next year, and the next. The boys loved to watch them from the kitchen windows:

Click to see video of last year’s fox babies.

But this winter, I didn’t see the foxes like I had in the past. I worried that they had decided not to come back to us this year.

But then I finally saw the daddy fox. He appeared the morning after Julian died. Somehow, he looked both confident and carefree as he trotted through the yard. He reminded me of my strong, sweet little Julian.

During those first days of the “after,” I’d often look out the kitchen window toward the fox den. Through my fog of shock and grief, I admired this pair of faithful, committed fox parents. I felt honored that they had picked our yard as the safe place to give birth and raise their little ones, especially this year.

As the snow melted, I’d search for signs of babies. I was surprised I hadn’t seen them yet. Did they pick a different den this year? Did they not have babies this year? Something seemed off. And then on Easter morning, I saw a little mound of brown fluff moving around. A fox baby! I felt relieved. Nature had once again come full circle. And how fitting to have the first sighting on Easter.

I only saw one baby on Easter, but I assumed there must be more. In past years, we had always seen at least 3 or 4 kits. But I kept seeing only one at a time, never a group playing games and tackling each other like in the video from last year. And then just this week, it hit me: there is only one baby this year.

The fox mama that had raised her family in my yard year after year, the creature that I somehow felt kinship with, had ONE BABY. One. She most likely gave birth to at least one more, but only one made it. One. Just like me. There used to be more, but now there is one.

I wondered if this “only child” fox baby would be different, growing up without brothers and sisters to play with. But this week I saw something amazing. I was standing in my kitchen, and something caught my eye outside. A small pack of deer were eating their way through our yard (this is not an uncommon occurrence). But then I noticed something else: the fox baby was “hunting” one of the fawns. It was a showdown between baby fox and baby deer. The kit clearly had developed his instinct to hunt, but hadn’t yet quite learned how to identify appropriate prey. I took a (blurry) picture of this unbelievable and hilarious scene:

Battle of the babies: Fox vs. Deer

This little fox was focused and determined. He was brave. He was like Oscar — exploring life on his own, finding his own interests, discovering his natural instincts.

The fox family reminds us that the circle of life will always continue, even if it doesn’t quite fit our picture. The average litter is 4-6 kits, but sometimes there is only one. Sometimes, the promise of new life gets taken away too soon. We may not have the future we planned, but that doesn’t mean we are defeated. It reminds us to be stronger, braver, and more motivated to make the most of life.

The foxes returned the morning after Julian died. For the first time, there was only one baby. These were not coincidences. Instead, these were just the first of several signs that there is something bigger at work here. Call it God, the Universe, Mother Nature. No matter what you call it, it is significant. It is meaningful. It is the circle of life.

I’d love to know who visits my blog, and I’d especially like to know if you have any thoughts or comments about it. If you’d like to post a comment about this specific post, click the “Comment” link below. Or, leave a general comment on my Guestbook Page.

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Posted by on May 20, 2011 in month 3

 

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The choice to survive.

Have you ever bought a new car, and from that point on, you see those cars everywhere? I’ve noticed that I’m experiencing a similar phenomenon: I’m searching for meaning and insights about life, and I’m seeing them everywhere. In books, at the movies, around my dinner table.

Last night, we had some of our best friends over for dinner. And at one point I realized, almost every single one of us had lost a parent or child to cancer, and/or have a parent currently fighting cancer. One friend is also a cancer survivor herself. Another friend shared that his mother was diagnosed just this past week, and they were waiting for more test results.

We had a great evening, filled with laughter and wonderful food (made by my husband, the chef of the family). But it was also a reminder of how pervasive cancer is, and how ruthless. As I looked around the table, I was suddenly aware of the strength of this group of people. Here we were, each of us with several good reasons to be angry and sorry for ourselves. But instead, we were strong. We were survivors. We had been victimized by cancer, but we weren’t victims.

Today, I saw the movie Bridesmaids with a bff. And again, I noticed a profound life lesson weaved into the many hilarious scenes. The main character, Annie, has a series of “setbacks” as her best friend is preparing to get married. As her friend’s wedding day approaches, Maid of (Dis)Honor Annie struggles — until one of the other bridesmaids confronts her: “I don’t associate with people who blame the world for their problems,” says Megan to Annie. “The world isn’t the problem… YOU are the problem. But you are also the solution.”

And then Megan proceeds to tackle Annie and pin her against the couch. “What are you DOING?” screams Annie to the husky woman tackling her. “I’m your LIFE, Annie. FIGHT BACK!” yells the bridesmaid in Annie’s face. Eventually, Annie finds her will to fight back and get this crazy (hilarious) woman off of her. (Or something like that… I wasn’t taking notes at the time. But I do strongly recommend the movie, so go see it and tell me if I’m remembering the scene incorrectly.)

This movie, and my friends at dinner last night, reminded me of two things. First, it feels great to laugh. And second, life isn’t fair. Life is hard. Life often challenges us and makes us want to give up. Sometimes life just plain sucks. But we can choose to find our will to survive, and FIGHT BACK with everything we have… or choose not to. But either way, it’s a choice. It’s our choice.

And sure, “our loss” provides me a great excuse for defeat. Some people appear genuinely surprised when they first see me out and functioning in my daily life. But why would I choose defeat, why use that as an excuse? Couldn’t “our loss” be just as effective as a motivation to “fight back” for a joyful life again? Why not focus the emotion and energy into becoming more aware and engaged with life?

We all have our losses. My loss is a lot more public and significant than most, but I had “losses” before Julian died, too. And I’m sure I’ll have more “losses” in the future. We all will. That’s the point of life. It’s a cliché because it’s true: You can’t have ups without some downs. But with each loss, big or small, public or private… we don’t have to surrender and become a victim of our lives. We have a choice.

We can’t control whether or not we are “victimized” (verb) by others or by life in general, but we CAN control whether or not we are “victims” (noun). We have to CHOOSE to be survivors, and take action. And as my friends and I discussed at dinner last night and after the movie today, when we are faced with the ruthlessness of cancer — or any other significant challenge that life throws at us — we have to make a choice: Survive, or not survive. Option A, or Option B.

I choose Option A. I choose to survive. I am a survivor (noun).

I’d love to know who visits my blog, and I’d especially like to know if you have any thoughts or comments about it. If you’d like to post a comment about this specific post, click the “Comment” link below. Or, leave a general comment on my Guestbook Page.

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Posted by on May 14, 2011 in month 3

 

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