Please use this blog to help us remember Joshua Lee Anderson, who made the tragic and fatal decision to take his life on Wednesday, March 18, 2009. Please post any memories or thoughts you may have in the comments.

Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Eve - December 31, 2010

Reflecting on 2010, the images that flash through my mind center around Josh:
  • celebrating his 18th birthday on Jan 16th
  • the 1 year death anniversary on March 18th
  • half/full marathon fundraiser on March 20th
Then I think of what should be memories but are not:
  • high school graduation
  • going to college
And what he has missed out on:
  • kayaking on the Battenkill River in Vermont during a torrential downpour
  • watching Avatar in 3-D on an IMAX screen
  • learning how to ski
It is strange that I find his absence exponentially more profound than his presence. While alive, he just was. The baby of the family, always there, tagging along, interspersing our family conversations with his wiseguy comments or observations. Low-maintenance except in the mornings when it would take way too much energy to get him up and going. Otherwise, a quiet boy, easy going and willing to go along with anything.
I am glad for all the memories with family and friends in 2010 but as a mother, there is a corresponding emptiness that exists because Josh is not part of them. And he is not part of them because he is no longer with us. And he is no longer with us because he took his life. It is like a funnel - eventually all thoughts lead to that fact. Then comes the grief and sadness. It is inescapable.
I've had some strange dreams lately. Last night, I dreamt that I was at a memorial for Josh that was organized by a good friend. While presenting a gift to me, she began crying which made me cry. This happened right before the alarm went off so I woke up to tears on my face. Missing Josh. Tears while awake. Tears while asleep. Endless supply of tears - for Josh.
I was with my family for New Year's Eve. My mom bought clear balloons with silver snowflakes and after writing messages on them, we sent them up to the sky as a way of remembering our beloved son, grandson and nephew.

Rest in peace, Josh. We love and miss you so much.

God Bless

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas Josh - December 25, 2010

Christmas letter to my deceased son....

Good morning Josh - Merry Christmas! We are here with family and I can't help thinking about where you'd be or what you'd be doing if here. Would you be sleeping on the window seat in your Big Boppa's office or with Tyler and Emily in the other home? And at dinner last night, would you have been at the TV tray or at the table because you are bigger?

Gillian got out the stockings to bring with us. I can't remember yours - I wish I could. Your picture is on the tree - so sad. But I am glad it is there.

I'm sorry you are not here with us.
I am sorry I wasn't there for you.
I am sorry that I didn't do enough for you.
I am sorry that your solution was self-destruction.

I miss you.
I love you.

Mom xxoo

God Bless

Saturday, December 18, 2010

21 Months Later - 12/18/2010

Today is December 18th, twenty-one months after Josh's passing and one week until Christmas. Since we are traveling for the holidays, there is no tree. Only two wreaths on the door and a single candle in Josh's bedroom window - in memory of his life.

I have, however, decorated Josh's grave site with a wreath and his tree with ornaments and red bows.

I want to close this post with a poem I found which is about how a grieving person comes to choose life.

The Thing Is by Ellen Bass

The thing is.....

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you've held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.

When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?

Then you take life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

God Bless

Saturday, December 4, 2010

New definitions: Impulsiveness and Sadness

In mid October, our local library held their annual used book sale. Hardback books were $2 and almost all paperbacks were 50 cents. Very dangerous for someone whose love of books and desire to read has been rekindled in the wake of Josh's death. I came home with two big shopping bags of books and spent less than $25.

In most of the books I've read, "post-Josh", regardless of genre, storyline or author, something hits me. The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink was no exception. In it, I have a new way of looking at impulsiveness and sadness.

Written in the first person, the protagonist, Michael Berg looks back to a life changing event, and cannot determine why he acted the way he did.
I don't know why I did it. Often enough in my life I have done things I had not decided to do. Something - whatever that may be - goes into action; "it" goes to the woman I don't want to see anymore, "it" makes the remark to the boss that costs me my head, "it" keeps on smoking although I have decided to quit, and then quits smoking just when I've accepted the fact that I'm a smoker and always will be. I don't mean to say that thinking and reaching decisions have no influence on behavior. But behavior does not merely enact whatever has already been thought through and decided. It has its own sources, and is my behavior, quite independently, just as my thoughts are my thoughts, and my decisions my decisions (my emphasis).
Those of us with children have asked the question, "why did you do it?" many times and have heard the somewhat annoying answer, "I don't know". The quote above describes this common phenomenon and puts forth the idea that behavior is not always linked to thought or decisions and in fact, can be it's own entity and completely independent. A scary thought. Penned in the margin of my book is "definition of impulsiveness?" for isn't that what it means? That sometimes we do or say something without thinking or making a rational, conscious decision and afterwards, think, "why did I just do (or say) that?" But by then, it's too late. The deed is done.

Is this what happened to Josh that dark night? An impulsive act that was not grounded in thought and conscious decision? Behavior that ran amuck and did "it's" own thing, resulting in the most horrific consequence - his death? Now it is my turn to say, "I don't know."

In another chapter, Michael looks back to a happy time of his life, but because of events that happened since, rather then feeling happy in his memories, he only feels profound sadness.
Why? Why does what was beautiful suddenly shatter in hindsight because it concealed dark truths? Why does the memory of years of happy marriage turn to gall when our partner is revealed to have had a lover all those years? Because such a situation makes it impossible to be happy? But we were happy! Sometimes the memory of happiness cannot stay true because it ended unhappily.....Is this what sadness is all about? Is it what comes over us when beautiful memories shatter in hindsight because the remembered happiness fed not just on actual circumstances but on a promise that was not kept?
I wrote in the book margin: "promise of an intact family" for this was taken away in the never-to-be-forgotten moment when I found Josh's body.

My journal entry: "My memories have been re-ignited with the photo scanning project. All significant days in Josh's short life have been recorded and seeing them again, re-living the events has only heightened the pain. But I don't regret the project. I want to remember. These memories now serve to keep him alive. It doesn't make me "happy" and so I agree with this quote. Some well-meaning people have said things like, "just think of the good times" or "hold onto the good memories" as a way to get past the pain and grief, but it doesn't work, at least for me. There might be a time, in the far distant future, when my memories of Josh will bring joy. Right now, that is not the case. They only serve to remind me of the unkept promise.

God Bless

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010

Our second Thanksgiving without Josh has passed. Incrementally easier than last year. Lauren and Gillian came home so along with my parents and brother, there were seven of us at the table. A week ago I confessed to Tim that having no motivation to shop and cook, I'd rather order a turkey and ham meal from Safeway. He promised help from himself and the girls and so we did sit down to a home-cooked meal, one of the tastiest. Not over cooking the turkey and taking the extra step to make stuffing from scratch were the keys. As we were eating I did, of course, think of Josh along with his older brother who could not be with us and how they both would've had several helpings of the stuffing, one of their favorite sides.

As the day approached, I tried to think back to the last Thanksgiving we had with Josh, in 2008. Unfortunately, I don't remember that much, just snippets, probably because we did not do anything that memorable. Now I know that whenever family gathers, we should take advantage of the time to build new memories. And so yesterday, after being stuffed with drink, food and desserts, we cleared the table and played Taboo and Euchre. Then joined thousands of other crazy people who went to Tysons Mall at midnight. Definitely a memorable experience - through probably not one to repeat next year.

My journal has become a place of self-exortation.
Sue - look at it (Thanksgiving) differently. It is the being together that is most important. The food, etc will get done. Just be happy that family (sans Josh) will be together. Make new memories. Be in the moment. Share love. Give love. Don't be focused on the "to do's". Be focused on family. Be engaged. Be thankful that we will be together.
"Post Josh", I do have a greater awareness that any holiday could be the last. On the one hand I admit that this is a morbid and depressing thought. But had I been more aware in 08, there would be more vivid memories of the last Thanksgiving with our beloved Josh. I want to avoid having this type of regret in the future.

Hope everyone is having a wonderful Thanksgiving with family and friends.

God Bless

Thursday, November 18, 2010

20 Months - November 18, 2010

Time is flying by - how can it be 20 months since Josh has died? It still is unbelievable to me and the same questions swirl in my head. How can this be? What happened? Why him? Why our family? Why didn't he say something? What could I have done?

My post today comes from a journal that I bring when visiting Josh. In it, I write letters to him. The one I am sharing comes from two days after my birthday, which was a sad and emotional day.

Dear Josh,
It is sunny and warm in the sun. I have made the usual run to Safeway. I like the sunflowers as they last over a week. The ones from two weeks ago are done - many of the petals have fallen off. The rest I have put on the grass - bright yellow petals marking where you lay - your final resting place.

The wind brushes across my cheeks and lifts the pages as I write. Chimes sing softly, harmonizing with each other above the drone of mowers in distant parts. Brittle leaves rustle in the wind, making their own distinctive sound. Their last stand before falling to the ground in days to come. It is a different sound than in spring or summer, at the height and fullness of life. I look up and see one leaf loosen its hold and with the wind, fall gently to the ground, scattering haphazardly on the grave sites below. A leaf would have to travel a good distance to land on your site.

It is quite and peaceful here. On the one hand, it is what I prefer. On the other, I wonder where are the living of all the dead around you? I guess over time, visits cease. Will I be able to stop coming? Right now, it is routine. I don't even think while driving - the car knows where to go.

It's been a rough couple of days, Josh. Started on my birthday. I wrote in my journal and all I could think about was the fact that you weren't here. The impact of this horrible reality hit me anew - too much, too sad. I don't want to be getting older, "celebrating" another year of life while you are dead. It hits me again how unnatural it is that you have predeceased me! Never expected! Never imagined!

Yesterday was hard too. I worked on the Halloween slide show for the blog and seeing all the pictures of you, so cute and adorable, with family and friends. Seemingly happy. You did have a happy childhood, didn't you? While working on this, I got sadder and sadder. I could feel my heart breaking inside and it became hard to breathe. Grief is so painful, Josh. It physically hurts.

At 17, your life is done. It makes me so mad I want to hit something, over and over. But there is nothing I can do. No remedy. No fixing. No going back. You've done something to yourself and ultimately to our family that is irreversible. I don't think you knew because if you did, how could you go through with it? No, I have to think that it was extremely impulsive and you were not yourself. I wish you did something that would've indicated your state of mind without being fatal.

Death is final Josh!
Silly boy.
But loved and missed by me and EVERYONE.

God Bless

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween Pics

A slide show of Halloween pictures of Josh with family and friends.

I would give anything to turn back time and have my Josh back home.

God Bless

Monday, October 18, 2010

19 Months Later - October 18, 2010

I have just started reading two books: Beyond Tears: Living After Losing a Child by Ellen Mitchell and When the Bough Breaks: Forever After the Death of a Son or Daughter by Judith Bernstein.

The book by Mitchell compiles thoughts and quotes from nine women who have lost their children; the youngest was 16 years old and the oldest was 28. Bernstein lost her 26 year old son in 1987 to cancer. She did not find the kind of support books that exist today so she set out to write one - interviewing 55 people who had lost a child at least 3 years old and had been gone at least 5 years at the time of the interview.

It helps me to read these books - like dropping in on a support group at will. If there is a story that does not help, I can skip it. If it is too much, the book is put down for a later date. If something hits home, I can underline, highlight, dog-ear the page and write in my journal until thoughts and feelings are analyzed and exhausted.

It helps but it is not easy. As Bernstein says:
No one ever taught us how to mourn, how to deal with the intense emotions, the isolation, the chaotic thoughts, the dizzying ups and downs. No one gets an instruction book about how to deal emotionally with the death of any loved one, let alone the death of one's child; it's too unthinkable. Mourners are in turbulent, unchartered waters without a guide (5).
And because grief and mourning is very specific to the individual, (i.e. what helps me may not help someone else), you are on your own, even in spite of tremendous support from family, friends, or professional counselors. The grief journey can only be traveled by the individual mourner, one step at a time, one day at a time. There is no proxy. I cannot pay someone to travel in my stead. I could possibly deny or postpone the journey but in time, it will be forced upon me.

After nineteen months, I am, of course, still on this journey. The crushing, heart-breaking and relentless grief experienced in the first months after Josh's death has given way to another grief. Mitchell calls it "shadow grief". A good analogy. Always there, though not always seen.

I wanted to share a quote from her book that I have been thinking about lately.
When your children are here, you tend to take them from granted. When they are gone you think of them twenty-four hours a day.
So true. While I think about my other three children daily, Josh is present 24/7 and his death colors my life like a lens through which all experiences pass. For example, I think about him during my reading, no matter the book, genre or subject matter. A recent example will illustrate.

Through convoluted means, which I don't mean to get into now, but could be another post entitled something like "Grief Journey Creates Reading Journey", I bought and read T.H. White's classic, The Once and Future King and loved it. The book is a wonderful story of the Arthurian legend: the boy who pulls the sword from the stone and becomes King, Merlyn, Lancelot, the Knights of the Round Table, Camelot, Queen Guenever and the Quest of the Holy Grail. But how can anything written in the years between 1938-1941 have anything to do with Josh, you ask?

In another post, I wrote about Josh's special connection with dogs. The following passage made me think of him and what would be his dream job.
In Sir Ector's kennel there was a special boy, called the Dog Boy, who lived with the hounds day and night. He was a sort of head hound, and it was his business to take them out every day for walks, to pull thorns out of their feet, keep cankers out of their ears, bind the smaller bones that got dislocated, dose them for worms, isolate and nurse them in distemper, arbitrate in their quarrels and to sleep curled up among them at night. He would talk to them, not in baby talk like a maiden lady, but correctly in their own growls and barks. They all loved him very much, and revered him for taking thorns out of their toes, and came to him with their troubles at once. He always understood immediately what was wrong, and generally he could put it right. It was nice for the dogs to have their god with them, in visible form.
Another passage, describing Sir Lancelot's view of himself was more sobering.
There was an impediment of his nature. In the secret parts of his peculiar brain, those unhappy and inextricable tangles which he felt at the roots, the boy was disabled by something which we cannot explain. He could not have explained either. He hated himself. The best knight in the world: everybody envied the self-esteem that must surely be his. But Lancelot never believed he was good or nice. Under...there was shame and self-loathing.....
I circled this passage after reading and wrote, "was this Josh?" Maybe not what he felt for most of his life, but what about those last days? What about the last hours? He needed to get rid of a problem. What if he thought the problem was himself? Trying to understand his suicidal mindset is futile, I know, but I still ask.

And so I continue to muddle through my days - reading, thinking and writing - with "shadow grief" attached.

God Bless

Friday, October 15, 2010

Pictures of Josh - 12 Years Old

As I was thinking about what to write on Josh's blog today, it occurred to me that it has been a while since I posted a slide show of photos. The last one was three months ago and was from 2003 when he was 11 years old.

Going into my analytical mode I ask myself, "Why is that?" The pictures have been scanned for months and have been sitting in my computer, waiting to be uploaded to Picasa, and then the blog. I did not consciously delay action so it must have been subconscious. Yes, this makes sense. I am running out of years that Josh is alive. He died when he was 17 years old, so each slide show that I create and post brings me closer to the end. Words can't express how sad this makes me feel.

RIP Josh. We love and miss you.

God Bless

Friday, October 8, 2010

Why So Many Suicides?

The number of teens and young adults who have taken their lives in recent weeks is both horrifying and frightening:

25 year old LPGA player
23 year old NFL player
College football player
Northern Virginia high school senior football player
Another kid from the same high school
Third kid with ties to the same high school in a span of two weeks
Four suicides at Fort Hood over 3 days
18 year old Rutgers student

And these are one who have been in the media. How many others are gone - leaving devastation and incomprehensible sorrow and grief for family and friends?

And while the possible reasons vary, the end result is the same.

Although not all are adolescents, I am reminded of a quote from a book, published in 2006 called, By Their Own Young Hand: Deliberate Self-Harm and Suicidal Ideas in Adolescents by Keith Hawton and Karen Rodham, two researchers in England. (See blog post for more thoughts on this book.)

One might regard the extent of self-harm and suicidal behavior by young people in a society as reflecting the extent to which that society cares for and cherishes its young people. Levels of self-harm and suicidal behaviors are far higher in young people in many societies than they were three or four decades ago. There has been much debate about the reason for this. One obvious but important conclusion is that the problem of self-harm and suicidal behavior among adolescents needs to be fully recognized within society. If there is adequate recognition of this problem, then this should lead to prioritization of efforts to understand more about it, to develop preventative initiatives, to ensure that adequate clinical services for adolescents are available, attractive and staffed by knowledgeable individuals, to support helplines for adolescents in need, and to address issues and threats posed by the Internet and other aspects of the media" (pg 193).

Are we a society that "cares for and cherishes its young people"?

Are we recognizing there is even a problem? That our young people are at risk from within - from themselves? That suicidal thoughts and actions are not limited to those with a history of depression, but is now a valid option for a vulnerable mind when encountering a problem that appears to be insurmountable? So in actual fact, this tragedy could happen to any family?

Can more be done to raise public awareness and provide education on mental health and well-being? Should there be greater focus and study on the pressures and issues that are unique to a generation which has grown up with the technological advances experienced in the last two decades? Are there viable and easily accessible support options available in times of distress? Can we lessen the "suicide" stigma so that those in need are not afraid to ask for help?

To the best of our knowledge, our son did not share his fatal thoughts with anyone, however fleeting or consuming they were. So for him and probably many others, the first and perhaps only line of defense resides from within.

I am not sure of everything that could or should be done. All I know is that we have joined a rapidly growing group of families, surviving this needless, senseless and preventable act, committed by our loved one.

Josh and all of these others had their whole lives ahead of them. The increasing number of suicides in this country needs to be stemmed and reversed for as we are so painfully aware, it is literally an issue of life or death.

God Bless

Friday, September 24, 2010

THE QUESTION - Over Eighteen Months Later

Where has the time gone? It has been over eighteen months since Josh's passing. So hard to type the three italicized words. Not only that, there are several ways I could say it. For example, very straightforwardly: "It has been over eighteen months since Josh's death." Or if I wanted to indicate how he died: "It has been over eighteen months since Josh's suicide." Or if my fingers cannot type the "s" word, I can say: "It has been over eighteen months since Josh decided to leave us."

All say the same thing - he is gone. No longer here. No smirk....gone.

It has been over eighteen months and in some ways, I still can't believe it. Yes, the room is still empty. Yes, it is just Tim and I at home with our dogs. Yes, he was not in our family Christmas picture last year. Yes, I "visit" him every weekend and bring fresh flowers, trim the grass around his stone, scrub the dirt away and once done with my little "chores", sit and write a letter to him. Yet in spite of these truths, it is still hard for me to believe that he is really gone. I can't explain it. Maybe in God's mercy, it is His way for this awful truth to seep into my heart, mind and soul rather than be borne full force as He knows a mother could never survive.

But the reality hits me in other ways. Recently, I went to a friend's baby shower. Most of the women were strangers and while in the past, I would've engaged them in conversation about such innocuous things that are part of "mother talk" like: how many kids do you have, how old are they, what are they doing, etc., I was panicking internally that someone would ask me these questions. So I was a quiet guest, aloof and stoic. There was nothing in my demeanor or body language that would invite conversation. I was successful. No one approached me and asked THE QUESTION. As a result, I felt a bit sad while driving home. "Pre-Josh", this would've been a time to be refreshed as a woman and mother - connecting with others about life, family, and children. Instead, I felt empty. But small price to pay as THE QUESTION needed to be avoided at all cost.

In Suzanne Redfern and Susan Gilbert's book, The Grieving Garden: Living With the Death of a Child: 22 Parents Share Their Stories, there is a whole chapter devoted to this issue.
One of the incidents many of us dread the most is being hit with THE QUESTION when a stranger asks about our children. It feels like a body blow to our most tender and vulnerable places. THE QUESTION is excruciating when it assults us in situations like a dinner party, the dentist's chair, or an airplane seat. What do you say when you're asked, "How many children do you have?" (pg 31).
One parent's response
Even though I know my answer, I still dread hearing THE QUESTION. Most of the time I can feel it coming. It's often especially hard, as for many people, discussions of their children are "happy talk", relating how much they enjoy watching their children grow and be happy. I know my answer is going to change the atmosphere from happy to horror, as all suddenly contemplate the worst fear of every parent - loss of a child. After "the answer" from me, there's "the reaction". All of us have experienced the reaction of totally ignoring what's been said. Maybe the other party even immediately changes the subject. Maybe a quick acknowledgement and then back to "happy talk" (pg 35).
What more "happy talk" occurs than at a baby shower??? No, THE QUESTION had to be avoided at all cost. In fact, as shown in the next example, one can get very adept in avoiding THE QUESTION.

Last week, I was at a training meeting for work. The night before, several of us met at the hotel bar for drinks before dinner. While most of my work colleagues know about our tragedy, some did not. I was talking to one "uninformed" colleague and the conversation got around to children. She turned to me and began asking THE QUESTION. I immediately focused on what was showing on a nearby TV screen and made some comment that distracted her and everyone else. Mission accomplished. It was a very deliberate move on my part, but one that still feels foreign.

At this time, I am most comfortable with parents that knew Josh or have kids who knew him. We recently went out to dinner with 3 such couples and I was genuinely interested in knowing what was going on with their sons who have gone off to college. Keeping up with their kids is a thin thread to Josh - what he might be up to if still alive. The night did not pass without some tears on my part as we remembered him, but thankfully, they understand and are not afraid of my emotions.

There are ripple effects to Josh's passing, his death, his suicide in terms of how my life has changed. The way I interact with others at a baby shower or a work event is one small example.

God Bless

Friday, September 17, 2010

"One Strike, They're Out" - September 17, 2010

Two months ago, I shared in a previous post about being interviewed by a reporter for a local newspaper and how difficult it was. Well, the article came out on Friday. I hope that parents in our area will demand that the School Board reform the Zero Tolerance policy to one that would help our children, rather than hurt them.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Reminders - September 10, 2010

In a previous post I had shared about a cross stitch pattern, Footprints, that I was working on as part of my grief journey. As one who is notorious for beginning projects and letting them languish for years, I finished this in record time. When completed, off I went to the craft store, taking advantage of their 50% sale to get it matted and framed. It now is on the living room wall, next to the piano, on which numerous items received in the months after Josh's death are displayed.

These items, like many other pictures around our house are reminders not only of our beloved Josh but of our loss. This blog is also a painful reminder. When I read previous posts or write a new one, I have to be ready. Prepared to feel the loss or the "abyss" as one mother , whose 21-year old son died after being hit by a car, puts it in the book, The Grieving Garden: Living With the Death of a Child by Suzanne Redfern and Susan Gilbert. Her description of the abyss: "the searing sense of the full realization of his death....breathtaking, staggering intensity of pain...shattering, unbelievable quality of knowing that my child is gone."

This is what she felt on a daily basis in the days, weeks and months after his death. Then, nine and a half years later, she writes:

I live the bulk of my life at a safe distance from the edge of the abyss. Those early months and years, I often felt that I was right on the edge. Living so near to that abyss left very little room in my life or heart for anything else. And I truly didn't think I would survive if I fell in. Now, while its always in my peripheral vision, my field of awareness, I'm usually not at the edge. But I can go there. Sometimes I am swept there unexpectedly. Other times, on anniversaries or simply on a quiet afternoon, I can choose to go there and feel this primal grief, that bottomless sorrow. For me, to hold his life forever, forever alive in me means that I must also hold his death forever alive in me. I hold it all: the gift of him, the miracle of his life and being, and the abyss. (249-250)

These words really spoke to me. Especially the words: primal grief and bottomless sorrow. This is accurate. This is true. It is what I feel when the loss of our son hits me. When the reality of his death slaps or smacks me in the face. There is no consolation, nothing that can be said or done to make me feel better.

Then the other reality sinks in....that life goes on. The living must continue to live. Josh is gone, but I am not. And so, I have my time of weeping while writing this post, and then onto other things. It is like living on an emotional roller coaster - quite draining. This is why I reserve writing blog posts for the weekend. It is too much emotion for the week as I work in a fairly high-stress job. So it is trying to manage. Cope. Deal. Figure out what I can handle and what I can't which is not easy. And while reading books is helpful, this grief journey is individual. It is unique for each person. So in many ways, one has to figure it out as they go. And with the help and support of family and friends, hopefully I can come through on the other end.

I will end this post with photos of my finished project - in dedication to our much loved and missed boy, Joshua.

God Bless

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Empty Nest

Josh's friends are either at college or will be there soon. He would've been one of them, if he were still here. Tim and I have looked forward in anticipation to being empty nesters but because of Josh's death, what should be a great time in our lives is now just hard, difficult and sad.

Being college sweethearts, we got married right out of school. Nine months later, I was pregnant with our first and by the time our fourth and last child (Josh) was born, I had just turned 30. While it would've been ideal to have time in our marriage without cribs, diapers, strollers or car seats, and to be more financially secure, we adapted and had fun with our large family. We used to joke that with the six of us, the Anderson clan didn't just visit, we invaded.

While there are many good reasons to delay having a family until older and more established, there are some perks in doing it our way. One: raising children takes a lot of energy which is more abundant when younger and two: when the last child leaves home, you are still relatively young and have a lot, Lord willing, of good years to look forward to.

"Pre-Josh", this was my hope. At those times when raising four active children was overwhelming, challenging and took every ounce of energy, Tim and I would look at each other, sigh and ask when they were all leaving. We obviously loved each of our kids and would do anything for them, but we also yearned for the time when they were out of the house, on their own and we could just focus on ourselves.

Today, the house is quiet since Gillian left for UVA last week. At times, I am caught in a fantasy - deluding myself into thinking that Josh's room is empty not because he is dead, but because he is at school too. In those moments, I think about what Tim and I would be doing, together, sans children. How would I be feeling now that our empty nest nirvana is here? Would we have gone out to a nice dinner to celebrate our new found freedom? Would we raise our champaign glasses in a toast to the next stage of married life saying, "Here's to the future - we are blessed to be young and healthy enough to enjoy it"?

Then reality comes crashing down and when I peer ahead to the future, instead of seeing a bright new stage of married life, all I see is a life without our beloved Josh. An amputated and crippled family. Struggling to survive this earthquake that has shaken our very core. I don't think Josh would want me to be sad and look so bleakly at the future, but then why did he do this to himself and to us?

I had mentioned a book called The Grieving Garden: Living With the Death of a Child by Suzanne Redfern and Susan Gilbert in the previous post. For this post I want to share a poem that expresses where a mother is at in her grief journey, twenty-eight years after her nine year old daughter died of a rare disease. While I cannot relate now, this poem does speak to me and gives me hope that peace, joy, contentment and happiness may be in the future.


You can shed tears that he is gone,
Or you can smile because he has lived.

You can close your eyes and pray that he will come back,
Or you can open your eyes and see all that he has left.

Your heart can be empty because you can't see him,
Or you can be full of the love that you shared.

You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday,
Or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.

You can remember him and only that he is gone,
Or you can cherish his memory and let it live on.

You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back,
Or you can do what he would want: smile, open your eyes, love and go on.

David Harkins, Silloth, Cumbria, UK 1981

I will end this post with a picture from Homecoming 2008, recently sent by a fellow mom whose daughter knew Josh. Even though he is in the back, this mom knew that I would want to have it. She is right.

Rest in peace, our dear son. We miss you so much.

God Bless

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

17 Months Later - August 18, 2010

It is now seventeen months since our beloved Josh, at the tender age of 17, with his whole life ahead of him, acted on what is still an incomprehensible decision to end his own life. We continue to reel, even after all of these months.

As I was writing in my journal the other night, an image from a 1998 movie, Deep Impact, came to mind. Two people were on the beach waiting for the inevitable. A comet struck the ocean creating a ginormous tidal wave that wiped them and miles of civilization out. After pondering this image, I wrote in my journal:

Absorbing tragedy - a new thought. I was going along in life, minding my own business, so to speak, and Josh took his life. This monumental tragedy - like a tidal wave, a train wreck, a hurricane, a fire - has struck me full force but rather than being dashed to bits, I have been asked to absorb the equivalent - into my heart, body and soul in order to continue with life. Being asked to incorporate this tidal wave of loss into my conscious and subconscious mind. First of all, the impact is enough to kill or if not, to maim and cripple me. Second, it is not something that can be seen from the outside - the devastating damage is internal.

Trying to absorb this immense tragedy - Josh's death, my baby boy who is now gone - is a monumental task if asked to do it one time, but I am constantly faced with reminders that re-open wounds, resurface feelings, and push me back. So it is one step forward and three steps back.

The most difficult thing is that it is all internal. One does not see broken bones, a cast, or burns - no disfigurement or scarring. If someone were burned over 90% of their body, one glance would be enough to know this person has years of pain and healing in front of them. It would be understood. But in my case, because my wounds are not external, no one would know that this kind of pain, grief, suffering and healing is what I face as well.

But when I look in the mirror, I know. I see someone who is not whole. Who is fractured, broken, and burned. A part of her heart that has been cut out - an amputee. I see this and feel it - every day. It is almost 17 months, in fact, the 18th is on a Wednesday which is the day of the week that he died. That is hard because 17 months ago, right now, he was still alive. How I wish we could move time back.

I have finished a book called The Grieving Garden: Living with the Death of a Child by Suzanne Redfern and Susan Gilbert. In it, 22 parents share their stories of loss. The circumstances vary widely - mode of death, age of the child, and how long ago their tragedy occurred. But the feelings are the same. I have found this book to very helpful and plan to share more in future posts. However, I will end this post with a "Permission to Mourn" certificate, shared by a father who lost his 32 year old daughter to lung cancer.


Is granted to the holder of this certificate, ____________________ who is hereby entitled to publicly acknowledge his/her loss, mourn openly, to share narratives of the loss, and to recruit social support in his/her own way and time, without apology or embarrassment. Tears, memories, silence, uncertainty, and strong emotions are hereby enfranchised.

Please treat this griever with kindness, compassion, and love.

This certificate has no expiration date.

We continue to feel the thoughts and prayers of so many who also love and miss our beloved Josh.

God Bless

Saturday, August 14, 2010

"Grief Mine" - Facebook

I have a new term: "grief mine". Like a land mine buried in the ground, ready to blow up an unsuspecting and potentially innocent soul, so grief mines are hidden in places that one would least expect. I landed on one the other night.

I had a hard time sleeping and went online to check my Facebook. A good way to spend a few minutes or hours catching up on friend's activities, viewing pictures, reading wall posts, etc. I happened to see summer vacation pictures of a friend who has a son Josh's age. They were at the beach and he looked so handsome, strong and most of all - ALIVE. In his face, one could see the expectation of a bright future, full of promise, with new adventures and experiences awaiting around every corner.

As I looked at the photos and contrasted them to our summer vacation, also on the beach, but no pictures of Josh - running, playing, posing with his sisters - I began to feel sorry for myself. Started crying. And felt, if I am being completely honest, a little jealous. It hit me that I no longer have what she has. No more happy "all in the family" photos for me. The feelings of despair and sorrow were strong and completely unexpected. I was not prepared. Caught unaware, blind-sighted and knocked flat on my back, emotionally. A casualty of a "grief mine."

At times like this, the reality of his death and our loss is just too hard to bear. So far, at least for me, it has not gotten easier over time.....

Josh - With all of my heart, I wish you were still here with us - alive and well.

God Bless

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Her Name is Grief (2) August 6, 2010

I think of Grief as a "she". A big, round, soft older woman with wide arms and a loving smile. She knows pain, living with it constantly as she feels everyone's loss. Even though worn down and burdened, she still manages to keep some humor. Why do I imagine grief like this?

At this time, almost 17 months later, nothing else comes to mind. Certainly not a monster, horrifying and scary, but rather one who knows sorrow and can empathize. It saddens her that I feel such pain, but at the same time, she knows that it is absolutely necessary for healing, closure, and a chance to move on with life. She is my companion now. She lets me live my life but at times, she needs to be felt in all of her glory. She is cognizant of her power and that too much can be devastating, overwhelming and unmanageable.

She is actually proud of me - that I am able to continue with life, yet still acknowledge her. It may be that too many people actually try to push her to the far recesses of their mind where she cannot move, breathe or help with the healing. Stuffed in a little corner and ignored, her frustration leads to anger which strengthens her power. In fury, she gets out of control and wreaks havoc mentally, emotionally and physically.

But I don’t think she wants to be this way. She only wants to be recognized, acknowledged, and respected. Being aware of her presence, there is no need to be at odds. Instead, we are comrades in the loss of our beloved Josh. From time to time, we need to have a cry, feel sorry for ourselves, think of all that is gone and what will never be, which brings even more tears, until both are drained. After this intense connection, she retreats for a while as she knows that I need a break. And surprisingly, she needs some breathing space too.

As I said in the first post, I think over time, she will become less selfish and needy, allowing other emotions to reside and co-exist in harmony. She will retreat for longer periods of time, knowing that we have spent enough time together. She will be content, realizing her job is almost done. Because of her, I will be at better place - have perspective, acceptance and peace. I will be able to move on.

I hope this is true even though I do not feel it as yet. Because of this, I am okay to keep her in my life, to pay attention and be aware. To not be afraid to let her fill me with her presence. We are in this together - she is my friend. She is not against me, but for me.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Her Name is Grief - August 3, 2010

In the past, when reading or hearing of other family's tragedies, I had thought ourselves lucky that we had been spared, then quickly knocked on wood. We had four children who were easily conceived and born, slept through the night at 6 weeks old, did not suffer from colic, and were well behaved. Tim was 100% engaged as their father and in spite of our different personalities, we rarely disagreed on how to raise them. We had no experience with death of an immediate family member as both mine and his parents are living - we haven’t even suffered the loss of our dogs.

Death and his close cousin, Grief rarely intruded in my life, except for example, while reading a sad story. Also, I do cry easily at movies, even an animated one like Lion King, when a character that I care about, dies. At those times, Grief, like a shawl, drapes over my shoulders, enveloping me in her sorrow but is easily discarded when closing the book or walking out of the movie theater. I am now aware that this was only a glimpse of her, a shadow of her true self.

Since Josh's death, on that fateful day of March 18, 2009, Grief, in all of her overwhelming fury, domination, and expansivenss; with no mercy, respite, or break -the "real deal" has come to stay. She invades my heart, soul and mind and when full blown, fills every cell and crevice within my body. Nothing is off limits or sacred. She is with me everywhere, all of the time; no matter what I do or where I am at, she is there. She has now become a part of me. I cannot escape. There is no place to hide, she finds me everywhere.

Strange. What gives her such strength? Such tenacity? Such power? It is tied directly to the love for my boy, who is now gone. Because I love him so much, I grieve so much. And I will love Josh until the day I die, so it stands to reason that I will also grieve until the day I die.

I feel her everywhere. In a picture of Josh, she is there. When I see a kid who has the same kind of build as him, she is there. When I think of places we have been or things we have done, she is there. For example, we are now on vacation in Vermont, a place where he has been. Sometimes, Josh and I would play golf with Tim, in a "best ball" format. With the strokes given (1 if less than 250 yards, 2 if more), it would be quite competitive. I will never forget his smile when a well struck 9-iron would sail 150+ yards, the distance of my driver - sad to say.

During a recent round of golf, on a particular hole, the memory of playing with Josh was so vivid, I could almost "see" him. I remember it being a perfect match of our good/bad shots. We used my drive which landed left of the fairway. His second shot put us in front of the green on the right. We used my pitch up to the green and he made the putt. Anytime we beat Tim on a hole, we would quietly give each other a fist pump. I am happy for this distinct memory, but Grief finds me as well.

I want her to go, but not really for she is proof of my love for Josh. And so, in a weird way, I embrace her, revel in her strength, marvel at how powerful she is. I want her to stay for I fear the time when I don’t cry for him. Would that mean that my love has lessened? Or that I am forgetting him? Or is it possible that as time goes on, she gets weaker, so other emotions can come back? For early on, she is so big, so huge that all other feelings are crowded out. In that way, she is quite selfish and jealous. But maybe over time, she will shrink, so there is room for others - like joy, happiness, peace, contentment, and hope.

I am glad that I don’t feel her 24/7. I know she is there but she lets me get on with other aspects of my life: family, job, working out, reading, etc. She does not control every waking moment, of which, I am thankful. I don’t think I could handle it - way too much. I can hear her voice:

"You have to feel me from time to time. I can’t be pushed back or down for a long period of time. I need to come up and breathe, explode, be felt. Otherwise, it will be worse for you. I know it’s hard, but you have to let me come up. You have to feel me - not all the time, but some of the time. I am not an ogre. I am actually here because of you. For if you didn’t love Josh so much, I would not have a reason to be with you. So do not be afraid. Do not hate me. Do not despise me. We are both here together because and only because of your love for Josh.”

So there it is. Love, death and grief - intertwined. I can’t change what has happened and because of that, she is here to stay.

God Bless

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Our Summer Vacation - Josh is With Us

We are on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, visiting Tim's family - a beautiful, relaxing spot. It was one of Josh's favorite places; in fact, the main picture on the blog was taken here. And while he is always in our hearts, just in case, he has a way of reminding us of his presence.

Tim's parents belong to a country club and on Sunday nights, there is a wonderful buffet dinner. Because we are a big group, we are split between two tables: the adults and "kids". Wouldn't you know, both this year and last year, there was an empty seat at the kids table? It surprised and saddened me last year, but now, I just smile inside, knowing that Josh should have a place with his siblings and cousins.

After dinner, the kids walked down to the beach where Gillian captured a magnificent sunset on her camera. And because it had just started to sprinkle, when they turned back towards the clubhouse, a huge rainbow filled the sky. It may be hard to see, but the last picture actually shows a double rainbow.

I had been asking Josh to show us that he is with us. I believe he has.

We all love and miss you, Josh.
God Bless

Sunday, July 18, 2010

16 months later - July 18, 2010

Yesterday was rough - unexpectedly. Tim and I met with a reporter from the Connection, a chain of local newspapers in our area. She is writing an article about the disciplinary process in Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) and has heard about Josh’s experience and subsequent death.

I was fine at the beginning. We talked about how Josh made a stupid mistake and because of the Zero Tolerance policy in the school system, was treated like he was a threat to the school which meant being sent to another high school for the first offense and most likely expelled completely for the second.

We do not condone what he did. But he was not a threat to the student body, of either school.

The FCPS hearing is a horrible experience, for both child and parents. Due process is non-existent; students are guilty as charged. No decision, upon appeal, has ever been overturned. Our question is this: "If the outcome has already been pre-determined, why go through the hearing process? The student is subject to a highly intimidating environment in which they are expected to answer a barrage of questions. It is a lesson in humiliation. To add insult to injury, there is no support, counseling, or assistance for the child and family, either before the hearing or after.

My words are strong, I know. But until your child gets caught in this net, you cannot even imagine the experience. Our three older children either did not violate school policies or were smart enough not to get caught, so we never had gone through this process. In fact, knowing what I know now, that Josh was not emotionally strong enough to handle the probable expulsion, I wish we decided to forgo the hearing, not even attend. What was the point? I should've protected our son from that type of sanctioned bullying.

We did not do this and the morning before the school board hearing, Josh took his life.

She asked if we received anything from the hearing office after the tragedy - a call, letter, or perfunctory condolence card and was surprised at the answer, "no". And to our knowledge, no study has been done either before Josh's death or afterwards to determine the effectiveness of this policy. This needs to be done. The tax paying parents of the County should demand it.

Then the reporter asked, "Would things have changed if Josh were treated differently?" Wow - that really hit me. My eyes filled with tears immediately. A minute later I replied softly as the answer is too difficult to face, much less hear aloud, "I don't like to think about it because it makes me angry and bitter. But yes, I think things would be different". Left unsaid: "Yes, he would still be alive."

With this next question, she was just trying to understand the timeline of events, not to send me in an emotional tail spin. "Would Josh have graduated this spring?" An innocent question with an easy answer but I had to get up and leave. My hand over my mouth to stop loud sobs escaping my lips, not wanting to make her feel bad. The grief washed over me anew.

It has now been 16 months since Josh's fatal decision. One might think that it has gotten easier with the passing of time. But grief does not travel in a linear fashion. In our experience, the connection between grief and time is better described like an archer's target, with concentric circles around a bulls-eye, representing Josh's death. Each circle around the center corresponds to a period of time, say a year. As time moves on, the distance to the circle increases but not by much. Meaning that any memory, word, song, thought, movie, photo or innocent question can bring back all of the emotions of that time. It is never far away. I know that five, ten or twenty years will bring some distance, but I don't think it will be that much.

I will end this post with two pictures that Gillian found recently. They were taken in 2008 as an assignment for her high school photography class. Any new pictures, especially ones taken when he is older, are priceless treasures.

Josh - we love and miss you.

God Bless

Monday, July 12, 2010

Pictures of Josh - 11 yrs old

It is a good thing that we don't use our dining room for it has been completely taken over by my photo scanning project that I started three months after Josh died (see previous post). I thought it would take a few months - ha! A year later and I am still at it. It is a bit discouraging as it appears as though I have only scratched the surface, but in actual fact, I have accomplished a lot. All of my pictures from the year Josh was born (1992) are digital. Although this was my original goal, it will not feel complete until I scan the rest of my negatives - back to 1983, when Tim and I got married.

I am taking it a little at a time. No rush. No deadlines. No pressure. For I can only do what I want or what feels right. Sometimes it is days or even weeks before I feel like doing something on this project. "Pre-Josh", this would have bothered me. I am a list person - write it down and check it off. A big project like this would've been reduced to manageable chunks, to be tackled every weekend until finished and then onto the next project. I am (or used to be) a goal-oriented person. The more goals, the better. They motivated and energized me. No longer. Strange how a significant personality trait can just dissipate - as if it were never there. That person seems foreign to me now.

So what am I doing with my time - outside of work? I've been reading a lot. I watch Red Sox games while working on my cross stitching project. There is a story about Josh in my head that I've started to put on paper. A little this and a little that. Nothing big, nothing much. But enough to get me through each day and night.

These picture are of Josh in 2003. He was eleven years old and you can see the beginnings of the infamous "smirk".

I love you Josh. I think about you every day and miss you more now than ever before. R.I.P


Saturday, July 3, 2010

Anger and Grief - July 3, 2010

Shortly after Josh died, I read that anger is one of the 5 or 7 stages of grief. Intellectually, this made sense, but it had not been my experience.....until now. Over 15 months later, I feel anger. It is a surprising emotion - after months of sadness, pain, grief and sorrow; followed recently by weeks of feeling numb and empty.

Each weekend, I visit Josh and write him a letter. Today was sunny and hot, but not humid. Flags were everywhere, swaying in the breeze. Other than the chimes in Josh's tree and the occasional bird chirping, it was quiet. I told him I was angry.

I am angry at him for what he did to himself, to me and our family. I am angry at myself for not even thinking that suicide was a possibility, and thus all I asked him was, "You're not thinking of hurting yourself, are you?" at which point, he looked at me like I had green hair and said "no" in a disgusted tone and left the room. Taking him at face value, I thought, "Okay, at least that is not an issue." How wrong I was.

I am angry at God for not intervening. Perhaps one lucid thought in the midst of the irrational mindset could have deterred him from following through on the fatal action. Or maybe Tim or I could have woken up and diverted his plans. I have heard numerous stories of thwarted suicide attempts and think, "Why not Josh?" Why couldn't he be saved too?"

I am angry at the unfairness of it. If suicide, from a purely statistical point of view occurs in x number of teens, or in x number of families, or to x number of parents, why him? Why us? Why me?

There are pictures of Josh all over our house, in every room. When I see these photos or think about him, I do not think of the happy memories. If I am completely honest, I think, "You stupid boy. Why did you do such a dumb thing? Why couldn't you have chosen a non-fatal route? You did something that is irreversible. There is no turning back. We cannot fix this. You are gone and there is nothing we can do to change this."

Then the finality of his death hits me once again. I feel guilty at being angry at Josh, who is after all, the one who is dead, and I weep out of self-pity - for him and for me.

Thanks to those who continue to remember Josh and who keep us in your thoughts and prayers as it is still so hard.

God Bless

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Congratulations LHS and SLHS graduates

The past few days have been cloudy, overcast and rainy in the Washington DC area. But today is a beautiful day, with bright sunshine and blue skies, fitting for Graduation Day for the two high schools that our Josh attended.

Having gone through this with Josh's three older siblings, I think back to what it was like, and perhaps the feelings and thought bubbles in their minds. Amazement while getting dressed, thinking, "Wow, is it really here?" Bittersweet feelings: sad that one chapter of life is ending but excited (and a little scared) at what new experiences and friendships lie ahead. Jittery nerves while lining up with fellow graduates, waiting for the start of the ceremony. Pride when walking up to receive the hard earned diploma. Sheer joy when it is all over - surrounded by friends and family - hugs, handshakes and high-fives. Pictures, pictures and more pictures - causing twitching faces due to all the smiling. Off to family celebrations, then ANGP (all night grad party), then whatever is planned for the summer.

It is a special day for parents as well. I remember feeling many of the same things: relief and amazement that high school is over, thinking, where did the time go? Pride while watching them receive their diploma; happiness at seeing their joy. Congratulations to other graduates and families marveling at how these kids are all grown up, ready to embark on their futures, hoping that we have given them the tools to succeed. Wanting the whole week to be a special one: hosting family members, graduation parties, attending various events for seniors, volunteering at ANGP. It is their graduation, but it feels like that for us as well.

Admittedly, it has been a sadder than normal week for me as I can't help but think about what we would be doing if Josh were still alive. How different things would be. Another big event that he (and we) are missing out on.

One consolation, and it is a big one, is knowing that Josh has not been forgotten by his friends and the community. I've received a couple of emails which have touched us deeply.
I am the parent of a former classmate of Josh's (my daughter sat next to Josh throughout 6th grade at Forestville) and am also co-chair of this year's Baccalaureate at LHS for the Class of 2010. As you may remember from your older kids, Baccalaureate is an independent, interfaith, celebration of graduation with music, prayer, and reflection. We are all conscious that, in an ideal world, Josh would have been graduating with this class. As a result, one of the groups of performers have asked to dedicate their song ("Three Little Birds" by Bob Marley) to Josh. We recognize how hard this week in particular and want to let you know that Josh will be in everyone's hearts and prayers.

As high school graduation approaches, we want you and Tim to know that Josh will be in all of our thoughts. The seniors who were promoted from Forestville in 2004 will be having a kickball game and potluck dinner. As a group, we are planning a class contribution to Josh's memorial fund. Josh's blessed memory will always remain in our hearts.
While we were invited to both events and to the graduation ceremonies of both schools, it would be too difficult to attend. It is enough to know that he has been and will continue to be in the hearts of friends and classmates. I will end this post with pictures taken from a couple of yearbooks that we have received.

Inside cover of the 2009 McLean Mustang Yearbook

Half-page dedication in LHS yearbook

We appreciate so much what others have done to ensure Josh's memory lives on.

God Bless

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Teammates Still Remember Josh

Over a year has passed since Josh left us on that fateful day, March 18, 2009. He was a gifted athlete and school was marked not so much by quarters passed, but sports seasons. He left us two days before the opening South Lakes lacrosse game. The boys played that Friday night with a man down on defense on the first play - in memory of him. We received pictures of that night which are posted on the blog.

He would be in his senior year. Another South Lakes lacrosse season has passed. I received an email with this note from a SLHS mom. It encourages us to know that our beloved son still lives in the hearts of his teammates.

My name is Meagan Church. My son, Jeff, is a student at South Lakes (sophomore) and I wrote to you last year shortly after Josh passed away. Jeff gave up soccer last year to try out for the JV LAX team. I thought it might be a mistake (I was afraid that he wouldn't make the team since he didn't have any experience) but I supported his decision to try. Since all of the players started out together Jeff had the opportunity to meet Josh. Jeff was impressed that an older, "cool" guy would be nice to the younger, newer players like Jeff. Jeff played on JV last season.

This season Jeff started on JV but was moved up to Varsity for several games. When the season ended I opened up Jeff's LAX bag to clean things. Right away when I unzipped the bag I noticed the letters "JA" on Jeff's helmet. I was thinking JA, JA, JA... then I remember that the players had put Josh's initials on their helmets to honor him.

I took this picture to share with you. I hope that you don't mind. You know how dirty, wet and sweaty these boys get. It was clear to me that the initials were not faded--someone had to have taken the time to go over them again--they were clear and the ink was dark. I asked Jeff about it and he said that all of the helmets are that way. It's obvious that the players missed and honored your son in every game they played. I'm proud that my son had the chance to wear a helmet with Josh's initials on it.

Josh - I wish you knew what an impact your short life on Earth has had on so many people. Rest in peace, my beloved son. Know that you are still missed by family, friends and teammates. We all wish with all of our hearts that you could have found another way.

God Bless

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Grief Journey - How Long?

As mentioned in the Mother’s Day #2 post, I have read a short book called Life After The Death Of My Son: What I am Learning by Dennis Apple. This father lost his 19-year old son due to complications brought on by mono. He died in his sleep on the family room couch and was discovered by his dad. It was a totally unexpected death of an otherwise healthy young man. He wrote this book 17 years after the death of his son and I have found much that validates my own feelings/experiences with gentle guidance for the long road ahead.

On the grief journey:
  • First year was a daze - living a parent's worst nightmare.
  • Second year, facing painful reminders on the calendar, "we knew we were in this for the long haul."
  • Parents who have lost a child are in a fog, like waking up from general anesthesia, for years, not days.
  • "Bereaved parents feel as though they're on a long, sad march but have no final destination. We feel as though this overwhelming sadness will be with us forever."
  • "Bereaved parents are also learning how to play hurt, but the casual onlooker has no idea how badly they've been injured or how long it will take to recover."
  • Grieve until the "cup of sorrow is fully drained."
  • In the author's case, it was five long years before he and his wife were ready to move forward with their lives.
Although it is daunting to think that my grief journey is in it's infancy, I don't shy away from this truth. Deep in my heart and soul, I know it will take a very, very long time to recover from or be reconciled to Josh's death. How long? I don't know. Why so long? Apple gives some answers.

Why the death of a child, in particular, is so hard:
  • Losing a child is like "having your heart ripped out of you, without the aid of an anesthetic."
  • It is unnatural - summed up in this saying: "When I buried my parents, I buried my past; when I buried my spouse, I buried my present; but when I buried my child, I buried my future."
  • A child carries the parent's DNA. Everything connected to the parent that was in that child dies as well: physical features, mannerisms, idiosyncrasies, etc.
  • This death is unique, creating a cascade of other losses: future birthdays, graduation celebrations, first job, wedding, first home, grandchildren.
  • Parents grieve over these additional losses.
I've learned that losing Josh has been a compound loss. Loss upon loss upon loss. Like dominoes - one falls and so they will eventually all fall. One event that builds upon itself. This is why it has been so overwhelming.

Why it will take as long as it takes:
  • "As a parent mourns the death of her child, the mourning itself provides the connection between the parent and the invisible umbilical cord that keeps the two connected. To cut the cord would be abandoning the child. Few grievers understand this truth, and it is the reason we become resentful of those who try to hurry us through our grief. To us who grieve, it feels as though they - the buck-up-and-get-over-it people - are trying to separate us from our child."
  • In fact, people who try to push grieving parents towards a quick resolution, show that by doing so, they have not suffered this loss. Fellow bereaved parents know better.
  • A good response for those well-meaning people: "People close on houses, not the death of a child."
The whole concept that mourning Josh maintains my connection to him is not something I could have articulated prior to reading this book, but it is true. And even the thought of someone saying "I should be over his death by now" makes me angry. I hope this is never said to me.

Why it means so much to keep up with Josh's friends:
  • "Grieving parents keep a mental record of the age of their child, and they carefully watch whose who were friends of their child as they continue on."
Aha! This is why I like receiving emails, calls and visits from Josh's friends. Why I am happy to accept a friend request on Facebook. Why I know what college choices have been made. Why I have graduation photos in small frames on a table with Josh's pictures. Why his friend's sports photos are on my fridge. Why Tim goes to see his friends play football, basketball, baseball and lacrosse. We still want to know what goes on in these boy's lives - those who are the same age as our Josh would have been.

Do you ever get over it?
  • This author's answer, seventeen years later: "No, you never get over it. It gets different, but you never get over it. For us, the first five years represent the worst of the nightmare. We'll have a big scar on our hearts forever."
Surely Josh did not know this would be the consequence of his fatal action. But I wish he did, for maybe that knowledge would have saved him.

God Bless

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

14 Months Later - Do You Have Any "Josh Treasures?"

My friend Roxanne put this picture of Josh in a beautiful photo album filled with pictures of our two boys. I had seen most of the pictures but not this one. In speaking to her recently, she spent six hours going through previous pictures and found others of Josh that she will send to me. We talked about how finding forgotten pictures of him is like finding "Josh Treasures".

My daughter, Gillian, recently found a couple of black and white pictures that she took of Josh in 2008, when she was taking a photo class in high school. (I will put those in another post.) When she showed me, I was so happy that she found them. A few months ago, I probably would've broken down, so I can see some progress in my grief journey. If you have any pictures of Josh, please email them to me: I would love to have them.

I love this picture. What a strong, handsome (and funny) guy.

I'd love to hear of your favorite or most vivid memories of Josh. Each memory, like each picture, is a treasure, wrapped up and stored in this mother's heart. Thanks so much to all those who have shared their "Josh Treasures" with me so far. I will never tire of hearing them. These memories keep him alive.

God Bless

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day #2 - May 9, 2010

Last year, the days leading up to Mother's day, which was two months after Josh's death, was worse than the actual day. This year, the opposite is true. I knew the day was approaching, but did not feel anything, one way or the other. We made plans to meet my parents at Josh's grave site and then take them to a nice Mother's Day brunch.

Then, last night, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was watching Star Trek and thinking that Josh would've really like the movie. In fact, I think the trailers were out in the weeks prior to his death. I began wishing for the "good old days", when we would watch movies together. He would stretch out next to me on the bed or on the floor, with the dogs curled up beside him. My wishing became a yearning, a longing, a desire so strong that I could "see" him next to me. Then the knowledge that it would never be brought on pain similar to the first days after his death - sharp, overwhelming, deep and intense.

I haven't felt much lately, but now realize that it doesn't mean the pain isn't there. It is ever present, flowing underneath the consciousness and at different times, will come to the surface and release, like a geyser, enveloping and drowning me in emotion. Then the feelings subside, replaced by a numbness - most likely the body's way to protect itself as one could not possibly cope with feeling such grief every day, for months on end. But this kind of numbness has its price too.

Despite Josh's death, life goes on and I am swept in its current. Apart from the geyser-like burst of emotions just described, I mainly feel a deep hollowness inside, a black hole or void that is in the shape of my son, filling every cell in my body. An anesthetizing emptiness - one that erases the enjoyment of life or even the desire for a fulfilled life.

I can relate so much to this poor father's words, describing what it was like to come back to an empty home, after the sudden death of his 19-year old son.

We had to face the empty house, the place where he died, by ourselves. The engine was still running as I turned to my wife and said, "All I have to do is reach up to the visor and press the garage door button and we can lean back in our car seats, hold hands, close our eyes and die together."

"Yes," she said. "I know its very tempting. But we could never do that to Andy. But if we didn't have him...." She didn't finish her sentence but we both knew how tempting and easy it would be to slip out of our pain. We both wanted to die and felt it would have been a wonderful gift if somehow we had a legitimate way to leave the world.

This feeling continued for nearly five years. We were not seriously suicidal, but we had no desire to live either. It's hard to admit, but it's a feeling shared by countless bereaved parents.
Dennis Apple wrote Life After The Death of My Son: What I'm Learning, seventeen years after his otherwise healthy son died from complications due to mono.

I recently went to a Pink Ribbon luncheon, an annual event raising money for breast cancer. The key note speaker was a women who was diagnosed with a virulent form of breast cancer while a young wife and mother, barely in her 30's. She became a warrior, fighting for her life which meant subjecting her body to untested medical treatment, basically becoming a human lab rat. And despite all odds, she has won the fight and has been cancer free for over ten years. Her story was motivating, I am sure, for all the women in that room currently undergoing treatment for breast cancer.

"What if that happened to me - post Josh?" Would I become a warrior and do anything and everything to live? Or would I lie down in submission and allow the cancer to do it's work? Being brutally honest, I don't have the energy or the desire to fight for life. While I would not do anything to deliberately put myself at death's doorstep, if the opportunity presented itself, I wouldn't fight it because I really don't care what happens to me now. I think this is what Apple means when he says, "we had no desire to live". I am indifferent to life, apathetic and uncaring.

And then I get a Mother's Day card from my 22-year old daughter that says:

You'll never know
how many times your voice
on the other end of the line
has helped me get through a bad day....

....or how often I'll remember
some little piece of wisdom
you gave me
months before,
even though it seemed
like I wasn't listening
at the time.

You'll never know
how much it means to me
to share my feelings
with the one person
who probably knows me
better than anyone,
and who has become
such a wonderful friend.

I love you, Mom

Knowing what a hard day this would be for me since none of the kids would be here, she arranged for her friends who live in DC to hand deliver a beautiful flower arrangement to me - in her stead. It is a wonderful gesture of love and when I called to say "thank you", her parting words were, "Remember Mom, there are three other kids who love you very much."

So because of my three surviving children, if I were faced with the choice of life or death, maybe I could find the will and desire to live. For them.

God Bless

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Gone But Not Forgotten - April 25, 2010

It has been one year, one month and one week since Josh left us all. I say "all" because the loss is felt well beyond just his immediate or extended family. His friends still think about him, miss him and continue to remember our beloved son.

Two such friends came over this week. They had been talking about visiting for quite a while, but just could not do it. Not sure how they would feel being in his home, seeing the pictures, and facing the fact that he is gone. Death is strange that way - the knowledge can rest in the mind, to be put away when too painful or when one wants to pretend it didn't happen. That Josh just went away someplace and will return - with the infamous smirk. The distance to the heart is mere inches, but can seem like miles when reality is hard to accept.

I can understand completely. But I want to say to his friends - if and when you would like to talk, our door is always open.

We had a good visit. The tissue box was near. Although sad, I wanted to hear about their memories: how they found out about Josh's death, what was their first reaction, what do they think now, what other experiences do they have with suicide, what they remember most about him, etc. Our conversation was similar to what I've had with other friends: frank, personal, deep and real. They encouraged me not to feel guilty but I cannot accept absolution - at least not yet. The compassion, sympathy and love expressed by his friends is amazing and so appreciated.

We talked about Josh's Facebook page. They said that people were continuing to post, even as recently as this month. They learned that I had received a copy of the posts right after his death and on his birthday but had not seen anything else. Sure enough, a couple of days later, one of these friends sent me a couple of emails with the rest of the posts. I've read all of them and can see now that his friends have posted when they heard of his death, after coming to see us, at each month's anniversary, during the football season, on his birthday, on the one-year anniversary and at random times - whenever they thought of him. Even friends who are now in college. If people continue to post on his wall, I will receive updates from his friend. What a kind, thoughtful thing to do.

To see the multitude of posts on his wall, even a year later is surprising to me, but in retrospect, it shouldn't be. Not when I know that another of his friends wrote a half page article for the school newspaper called "Remembering Josh: One year after the death of a beloved classmate, students continue to honor him in many ways."

Or when I hear of a lacrosse teammate who is wearing his number, 33, during this spring season. I hope Josh sees all of this and that he feels the continued outpouring of love - just as we do.

Rest in peace, my dear son. Much loved, much missed and still remembered by family and friends. We all wish you could have found another way out.

God Bless

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Memories: Like Priceless Treasures

About two weeks after Josh died, a singing group at his high school, the South Lake Singers performed a moving song called Prayer of the Children at the SingStrong competition, which they dedicated to our son. (Click here to view the YouTube video on a previous post.)

A few weeks ago, I received an email from one of the singers who has since graduated and gone to college. With permission, both the email and essay are below.

"Although Josh and I were not close friends, I am good friends with many of the people that love him dearly and the few times that I did hang out with him I was always struck by how kind he was to everyone and in every situation. I regularly read your blog and keep your family in my thoughts. I am now in college, and for my freshman writing seminar my first assignment was to write a personal narrative. There were no constraints to the assignment, and with a lifetime of experiences behind me I did not know what to write about. So I sat down at my computer and just began to write, and the words that followed surprised me. I ended up writing about my experience performing "Prayer of the Children" with South Lakes Singers at SingStrong and your son. I know that the words I chose could never do him justice, and a stranger reading my paper would never understand just how wonderful he is and how much he did for the world, but I decided to share it with you so you would know that he touched and changed the people that were even on the very outskirts of his life."

I remember standing on that stage and experiencing the overwhelming feeling of unity. All of our heartbeats were suddenly one and we felt the steady beat pulsing through our connected fingers. It’s as if we were all tied together by one string; sixteen people who come from completely different places emotionally, mentally, and physically, that were suddenly all the same. We came together for one cause and we made our message clear.

I loved the time of day when I would get to put away my notebooks and binders, stand on the risers and hear the sounds of music circling all around me. There was nothing like singing to make me forget about anything real going on in my life and just let me focus on the intricate details of music. To feel the harmonies and dynamics take me away into a different world so separate from anything going on in my real world was a release I looked forward to each day. During my senior year of high school, my choir started working on a very memorable piece called “Prayer of the Children” by Kurt Bestor. It is so incredible and overpowering, the first time we heard it my teacher played it over the loud speakers in our class room and the music pushed through the whole room, threatening to make the walls expand. The voices jumped out of the speakers towards us, bringing with them the emotion of the whole song. After hearing the piece, I was thrilled to be able to try our hand at performing it, but I didn’t know if we would ever be able to match the intense passion with which the recorded choir sang. We had many excellent performers in my choir, but emotional connection is something we had always struggled with. We were good at singing the correct notes with the correct rhythms, but conveying the emotion and overall message of a song was foreign to most of us. We had never experienced the things that many songs are about like loss, heartbreak, or intense grief and we didn’t know how to find that place within ourselves where we would be able to fabricate those emotions to replay them through the song. Every class our teacher would try to get us to connect and understand what the true meanings of the lyrics we were singing were, but we were never able to reach that point on our own.

During my senior year of high school, a great tragedy struck my community. A beloved, talented, and incredible boy took his life very suddenly. Never in my life have I seen people so open with their emotions. To see football players break down and cry was heartbreaking but very connecting at the same time. This was, and remains, a very sad experience, one of the saddest things I’ve experienced in my life, but I strongly believe that everything happens for a reason and I knew that we would all be able to find a way to learn from it. To see everyone’s grief plainly expressed all over their faces shows how important Josh was to them as a friend and to our community as a whole. Nobody was ashamed to admit that losing Josh was a painful thing, and this reminded us all that even if it is not expressed every day, there are always people in our lives that care about us. He reminded us that even in the deepest and darkest shadows of life, we have to remember that those shadows wouldn’t be there if there was no sunlight to create them.

After Josh passed away, everyone was distraught. He was truly one of the most strikingly kind people I have ever met, and I know that he left a positive impression on everyone. He was an amazing athlete, helping our team score touchdowns every game but more significantly always keeping up a positive attitude in everything he did. To say it was shocking to find out Josh would no longer be flashing his quirky smile in the hallways is an understatement, he is missed every single day. There are clearly things we did not know; things he was aching to be helped with, things he was struggling with so hard internally. Josh’s struggle gives meaning to the lyrics:
“Can you hear the prayer of the children?
On bended knee, in the shadow of an unknown room
Empty eyes with no more tears to cry
Turning heavenward toward the light”.

He gave our song a meaning.

The choral program at my high school was awesome and my teacher worked so hard to ensure that we had every opportunity available to us. Because of her efforts we were able to host the East Coast A Cappella summit, an amazing event that invites professional a cappella groups from all over the world to perform and raise money for Alzheimer’s research. Every year there is a high school competition and the winner gets to open the big show on Saturday night. It is very competitive and a huge honor for the winner to be able to stand on the same stage as legendary professional groups. My choir was preparing “The Prayer of the Children” for the summit, but after Josh passed away we questioned whether something as mundane as a choir performance was appropriate during a time of such struggle. We didn’t know if we would be able to get through it, just a week after the passing of someone who was a great friend to many of us. The words are incredibly moving:

“Can you feel the hearts of the children?
Aching for home, for something of their very own
Reaching hands, with nothing to hold on to,
But hope for a better day a better day

and are so central to Josh’s struggle, and for one of the first times we were finding an unavoidable connection between our music and our lives. Even in a time of intense sorrow and emotional pain we understood that maybe our connection to the meaning of the music could be a small way to help us deal with the passing of Josh.

Standing on the stage wearing black with Josh’s number 33 painted across our chests, gave us a physical reminder of what we would never forget: what experience brought meaning to our song. In that moment on that stage I felt like part of something bigger. In light of such a huge and devastating loss that could never be replaced, we were also creating something. A connection among us and with our audience through our music-through the powerful words, the raw emotion, the crisp rise and falls of our voices as they went from loud to soft that made goosebumps rise up on the arms of all sixteen of us singing our hearts out. And that’s literally what we were doing-letting everything go from that terrible week and finding solace in the message of the music. We all felt our voices join in the air with the loss, the anger, the grief, and our need for Josh, but in that air we also found our strength. Together we would be okay by uniting ourselves in the music and for the first time feeling a connection that not only transformed our performance of the song, but brought us together in all of our times of need.

During that performance, we sang ‘Prayer of the Children’ for the first time without a physical conductor standing in front of us guiding us through the piece. We just stood there, sixteen people who come from completely different places emotionally, mentally, and physically, that were suddenly all the same. As we all lined up on the stage and clasped hands we were ready to show what we were learning from the harsh reality we were plunged into and how it gave meaning to the words we had previously sung so mindlessly over and over again. There was no cue to start, we all just knew. We felt the music within each of us because the song was no longer just a song. It was a message, it was a connection, it was Josh.
I am so grateful that Josh's friend took the time to share this with us. Any memory of our beloved Josh is a priceless treasure - stored in my heart forever.

God Bless