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.

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

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Death Changes Everything

I feel like I am stating the obvious when I say that death changes everything. Not only death, but more specifically, the death of a child.

In my reading, I have "graduated" to books that deal with parental bereavement, not specifically related to suicide. I say, graduated, because these books did not interest me in the past. I only wanted to know what survivors of suicide had to say or what their experiences were. I am now ready to look at the feelings and experiences of a broader group of unfortunate parents, those who have lost a child - at any age, by any means.

I have found much in the book, After the Death of A Child: Living with Loss Through the Years by Ann Finkbeiner. According to the introduction, the author lost her only son at age eighteen via a train accident. Her motivation in writing the book was to determine the long term effects on parents when their child dies. This was of personal interest and yet, little research or articles/books could be found. So she decided to interview a number of parents and write her own book.

Two major things were learned.

First: Letting go of a child is impossible. No matter how long it had been since the death of their child, none of the parents had "gotten over it". Yes, the pain of the death had receeded, but not the loss itself. A psychologist named Dennis Klass wrote: "The bereaved parent, after a time, will cease showing the medical symptoms of grief, but the parent does not "get over" the death of the child. Parenting is a permanent change in the individual. A person never gets over being a parent. Parental bereavement is also a permanent condition" (pg. 20).

One mother described it like this: "When other people die, it shakes you but you stay right side up. When a child dies, it flips your world over completely" (pg. 152).

Second: A child's death is disorienting. Words that parents used to describe this catastrophic event: inexplicable, unattributable, unnatural, senseless, wrong, unfathomable. And because it is so unnatural, accepting the finality of death is difficult. This book suggests it takes a year for the reality to sink in while the finality takes hold in the second year. This explains why many parents find the second year worse than the first. This scares me. How can anything be worse than the first year?

So parents have to live with a reality that does not make sense, while always carrying around the memory of their child. A tall order. One mother put it this way: "There's always this sadness. Even when you're happy, you've still got this sadness. I'm just dragging around this little bit that's sad. In a way, it's a handicap that we've got. It's there, and I think it always will be" (pg.201).

I think so too. An analogy that comes to mind is amputation. If one loses a limb, such as an arm or a leg, this is a permanent change which will require adjustments for the remainder of life. The loss is ever present. Affecting everything. A handicap that never leaves. One must find the strength, stamina and will to live with it and in spite of it.

A child is part of a parent's heart and soul. Losing a child is like being subject to an internal amputation. Perhaps not visible, but the loss is always there. In fact, when I look at myself in the mirror, I see it. A hole. An emptiness that only Josh could fill. A mother whose eyes can fill with tears within seconds. With all the tears that I have shed, it is surprising that I am not a dry, shriveled up person. Or maybe I am - on the inside.

We are in our second year without our beloved Josh. Parents interviewed for the book said that it took 4, 5 or even 6 years before they began to feel somewhat normal. This makes sense to me. It is so hard to describe the devastation felt - it is like our "Ground Zero". Nothing will be the same. As Tim says, "All we can do is to take one day at a time."

Thanks for the continued thoughts and prayers. I am not ashamed to say that we still need them.

God Bless.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Josh's Trees and Pictures at 10 Years Old

Last year, we planted my favorite tree, a pink dogwood in our front yard - for Josh. A plaque given by one of his friends, with a verse from Psalm 23 is placed nearby.

Last October, another dogwood was planted near the town's youth football field - again, in memory of Josh. You can read about it here.

I am told that it is unusual for newly planted trees to bloom in the first year. And yet, Josh's trees have done so. My grieving heart takes comfort in this small occurrence. Even though it has been over a year, it is still so very, very hard.

I will end this short post with a slideshow of pictures taken when he was 10 years old.

God Bless

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Happy Easter Josh - April 4, 2010

Spring is finally here! After a harsh winter with record snow falls, the DC area is showing signs of rebirth. Cuttings of the earliest blooming trees, bushes and bulbs, (cherry blossoms, forsythia, and daffodils) are what I put in Josh's vase, in celebration of the new season.

We are now into "year 2" of our lives without Josh. It feels odd to write this for at some level, it seems like yesterday that the unthinkable happened and now, here we are, over a year later. How am I feeling these days? The answer is best described by the analogy of emerging from a "grief cocoon" - slowly ready to look at what is going on around me, reach out, take part, make plans and move forward with life.

The operative word is "slowly". In The Worst Loss: How Families Heal from the Death of a Child by Barbara Rosof, this quote describes my year:
Grieving is the hardest work we do. Simply put, grieving is the work of coming to terms with the fact that the person we love is dead. It is terrible work, and utterly necessary. If we do not grieve, we stay frozen in pain; only by grieving can we enable our lives to continue. Grieving families learn their own measure. What they once felt they could not bear for a day, parents find they can bear every day, only because they must. Acute grief, with its disorganizing symptoms and loss of function, slowly gives way to the long, long haul of mourning. This long haul is the work simultaneously, of building a life in which the child does not live and in keeping the child alive in our heart (pp 47-48).
I have not thought of grieving as "work", but rather something painful to be endured. This blog, however, is the evidence of the "hard work" done over the past twelve months. It is not only a web memorial to Josh, but a record of the tasks outlined in the following quote:
When you lose someone you love, your world changes forever. When you lose a child, it falls to pieces. Nothing can ever be the same again. Through grieving you must reassemble a world in which you can live. This new world is not built in a day or a year. Parents say they work with these tasks intensely for two to four years and, one way or another, for the rest of their lives. When a child dies, bereaved parents must:
  • Face the finality of the loss;
  • remember past memories and experiences with their child;
  • sort out what aspects of their child they can keep and what must be let go;
  • deal with a sense of failure and personal diminishment; and
  • build a life for themselves without their child (pg 51)
Reading this book has validated my own experiences and feelings. The massive scanning project that has overtaken my dining room is a way for me to re-live memories of Josh, as I look through pictures at every stage of his short life. Every memory that his friends have shared are like precious puzzle pieces, giving way to a fuller picture of our son. Many blog posts and journal entries have described the difficulty in accepting Josh's death and the overwhelming guilt due to the cause.

And it seems like every experience, conversation or event can be related back to Josh - in some way. This is natural, at least from the point of view of a clinical social worker who has lost two children of her own. Her comment resonates with me:
What I always stress to parents is to take care of themselves and to give themselves time. Most people's timetables for grieving are ridiculously short. Allow yourself two years to get to where your child isn't at the center of your awareness all the time....that's if you're straight with yourself and let the feelings come. If you try and suppress it, it'll take you longer. Then for most people, it's another two years before they feel their lives are reliably back on track. It is a long process, but I haven't seen any way to speed it up (pg 60).
And so the "grief journey" continues. Perhaps not as acute as before, but by no means, close to being over. This may be the most challenging realization for friends and even family - to understand that we have traveled through only one phase of our journey and that our "grief work" must continue. And it cannot be hurried for there are no shortcuts. The way to the other side of grief is through it.

I end this post with poignant words sent on a recent card, which are a source of comfort to me.
God has not promised
skies always blue,
flower-strewn pathways
all our lives through;
God has not promised
sun without rain,
joy without sorrow,
peace without pain.

But God has promised
strength for the day,
rest for the labor,
light for the way,
Grace for the trials,
help from above,
unfailing sympathy,
undying love.

God Bless