This is such great advice! via Cathy Day’s principles of Literary Citizenship
- Don’t look for what you could have done differently, though of course this will be your mind’s number one occupation now. Find and practice a trick to refocus yourself – perhaps breathing deeply in, then out. If you can stop searching for how you could have saved your child for more than a minute at a time, consider yourself ahead.
- Make self-care your #1 job. Daily yoga will make you stretch your body once a day, which is better than nothing. Make better-than-nothing your new aspirational standard.
- Ask for what you need. Your friends and family will never be more willing than they are right now to help you. Don’t feel guilty asking. Whether you ask or not, they’ll all stop waiting on you in a few weeks or months, so you may as well get some needs met now.
- Believe any signs that suggest your child is contacting you from the great beyond. No matter what faith you possessed or didn’t before, now is the time for a full suspension of disbelief. Lights flickering? That’s your child. Cardinal outside your window? Thank your child for visiting. Who cares if it’s real? Refer back to better-than-nothing.
- Let yourself cry, out loud with messy tears, anywhere and everywhere. Tell strangers your child died; show them his picture. This will help others keep their own petty problems in perspective – or, sometimes, it will help you connect with someone else who’s been there.
- Write to your child’s friends, thanking them disproportionately for any role they played in your child’s happiness. These people are the last ones who will ever remember your child with you, and you’ll want to keep in touch with them.
- Bury your face in your child’s old shirts searching for his scent. Keep tucked away any clothes that still smell of him. (Thank his girlfriend for leaving you a bottle of his cologne for desperate moments.) Go through his journals, emails, Facebook and Messenger apps and save every word he ever wrote. These are the last words he’ll ever write; maybe someday you’ll feel strong enough to read through them. Make photo and word scrapbooks of his life. Refer back to #1.
- Keep a grief journal and read books and websites about grief. It helps to see how many others have suffered this and other terrible losses and survived. Avoid websites of hopeless misery where other mothers swear it never gets better. It does. Really.
- Forgive yourself for your brain fog, your shakiness, your forgetfulness, your vomiting, your panic attacks, your flashes of rage at innocent bystanders. Let yourself use marijuana as medicine – alcohol, too, if you can be moderate and not get maudlin on it. Don’t worry about if you’ll always be this much of a mess. You won’t be, but you don’t need to figure out a schedule for your recovery now.
- Eventually, start reading a bit about Post-Traumatic Growth. Your child’s death has changed you forever. Someday you’ll get to decide if that change made you more bitter and shrunken or more compassionate and open-hearted… But don’t rush it; you will need to be bitter and shrunken for a while before you get to the growth that’s being forced upon you.
- Punch in the face anyone who tells you that “everything happens for a reason,” “you’ll be with them soon,” “God has a plan but we don’t get to know what it is,” or “your child is in a better place now.” If you don’t approve of violence, just tell those who say these things that they must be sad their child is still alive instead of in that better place they’re so excited about.
- If your child left behind a child, don’t contemplate your grandchildren with terror in your heart. Remember your grandchild is an individual not cursed to repeat your child’s fate. Don’t waste your grandchildren’s lives worrying they’re doomed. Remember how much of the last years of your child’s life you wasted, overcome as you were by terror and despair, and do your best to enjoy each precious moment with each precious loved one left alive in your life.
A POEM FOR MY 52ND BIRTHDAY
The only year I will ever be twice the age
of both my children, the living and the dead
What in your life is calling you,
when all the noise is silenced,
the meetings adjourned,
the lists laid aside,
and the wild iris blooms
by itself in the dark forest.
What still pulls on your soul?
Today I am 52 —
I have spun around the sun
as many times
as there are weeks in each year
and twice as many as my son,
who loved spinning until
he fell down, ever will.
The Mayans marked eras in calendar
rounds of 52 years, each year’s end
opening a portal to the underworld.
I’ve eagerly straddled that divide,
but in math, 52’s an untouchable
number, never the sum of its divisors,
so today I was forced to choose
To start my next era, to embrace
having survived as many years
as there are playing cards in a deck,
laps in the British Grand Prix,
white keys on the piano, upper
and lowercase letters in our alphabet, and
pickups in a game that brings you to your knees.
52 is the atomic number of tellurium,
a rare, shimmering crystal elementally
more precious than platinum.
Discovering my worth at 52,
I’ve gotten rid of the jokers
so I can play with a full deck
the hand I’ve been dealt.
Here among the living, I will be double
my daughter’s age for just this one year,
old enough to know such coincidences
won’t come twice,
we’ll only get so many invitations to the table,
so many chances to turn a bad deal
into a hand we can play. At 52, I’m all in.
I am mostly doing really well, honestly, but this past Saturday night I cried until mascara made black half-moons under my eyes while Renee and I walked our dog. (Renee gets bonus points for acting unembarrassed by my sobbing on Rt. 116 as I picked up Lola’s poop.) I’d held myself together for Thanksgiving, but two days later the realization hit me: No matter how much gratitude I practice nor how many new traditions I embrace, I will always have a giant hole in every single special day in my life, forever. Understanding I was permanently damaged just made me cry.
Our Thanksgiving was lovely, spent with my wife, my mom, and old and new friends, cooking, drinking mulled wine, feasting, and crafting collages about our gratitude. But all day long I felt like I was experiencing the day from behind glass. I was there but not there. I knew what words to paste and images to clip out for my collage – love, poetry, nature, friendship, rest. I knew how to play hostess and thank my dear friends for spending the day with me. But the absence of Kyle in the world – and my extra-acute awareness of his absence — felt bigger than anything happening right in front of me.
Having to act normal, let alone festive, when the day had that huge hollow center was exhausting. (In fact, I threw up Thanksgiving evening before the first guests left and several more times since then, which is a bummer, as I thought I had my mysterious cyclic vomiting thing licked, but more on that another time.)
Until now, every holiday since my son’s death has been a first – first birthdays without him, first Christmas without him, etc. For all these firsts, it seemed only right that our open, messy mourning would dominate the day. But this year’s holiday marked our first second – this was our second Thanksgiving with Kyle dead… Soon we’ll have the second Christmas without him alive. And it has become clear to me that each year, we’re going to be expected to act a little less sad. Mercifully, I am less hysterical and shaky than I was the first year, more able to practice normalcy – but it turns out I’m no less heartbroken.
I’ve been working hard on gratitude and acceptance. To help keep my Thanksgiving focus on the blessings of friendship and love I still have in my life, I created a slide show of photos of all the loved ones coming to dinner on Thanksgiving. We all enjoyed seeing it play throughout the day. But at the end of the night, I felt compelled to try to convey my underlying sorrow, so I briefly played on repeat a 5-second video of Kyle laughing and talked about how haunted I’d been by the sound of it after I’d stumbled across it while making the slide show. Everyone who heard it was suitably saddened. But why did I do that? Sharing my sadness does not relieve it. Amplifying my grief by making others feel it with me only makes me sadder – and then I feel regretful about ruining someone else’s mood. There is nothing new or helpful left to say about how sad it is that Kyle’s gone. There is now only a hole that we all have to accept and step around.
Holidays and other special occasions when Kyle and I would always have been in touch, if not together, make the hole he left yawn even bigger.
My delayed tears flowed when I realized that the widened pull of the hole – like the dark opening to the Upside Down in Stranger Things — was always going to make holidays scary. Special days will now include a maw opening into an even larger well of grief than I am already facing on regular days. So now this whole month leading up to Christmas (I’m Jewish, but was raised celebrating Christmas) has an ominous spirit. Even worse, I feel this same fear when I know I’ll be seeing Kyle’s daughter; she’s delightful but is also a constant reminder of what he is missing; her most precious moments open the hole widest of all.
I do know that a form of this grief is universal at the holidays, even when we aren’t mourning – because holidays are often a reminder of how our families are seldom quite what we want them to be. The gap between our hopes and our realities can be vast, particularly if we’re aiming for a perfect Hallmark holiday free of criticism and disappointment. Divorce, mentally ill family members, not having the money to buy the presents our kids want, all of these can create their own holes. Even in the best years, when everyone I loved was gathered in my warm and cozy house cooking and laughing together. there were still tensions and squabbles, judgments and tears.
So for Day 28 in my month of gratitude, I return to acceptance. I am grateful for what is still good (so so much, and I never forget it), grateful that technology let me end my Thanksgiving night with a video chat with my daughter and a video performance and reading by Kyle’s daughter, grateful that Jamie had a good celebration with friends and that Amy made her husband a heart-filled treasure hunt for his birthday, grateful for my mom living near enough for a sleepover on Thanksgiving night, grateful the universe put two wonderful pseudo daughters, Priyanka and Natalie,
in my life – and let them be part of the slumber party here, grateful a friend’s cancer surgery the previous week went well, grateful another friend found homes for several homeless boys this month, grateful for the fabulous mother-daughter film Ladybird that I got to see with my mother the day after Thanksgiving, grateful for the writing accountability buddies who have been meeting with me virtually and in person.
Much as I hate it, I am even learning to accept the hole. I don’t expect ever to feel grateful for it — but I am grateful for the love that dug it, and for all the love that pulls me out of it every day.
My lack of faith sometimes causes me to miss some pretty bright signs.
Or perhaps … my delusional wish to believe in an afterlife sometimes causes me to imagine signs where there are none.
You can decide, depending on your own bias, which of these statements is true about the signs – or the delusions – I had the last couple of nights.
Our friend Carolyn had come to watch some disappointing episodes of Stranger Things with us, and as she was getting ready to leave, I stepped outside to give our dog her night outs. As soon as I clicked on Lola’s harness, I looked up at the sky — and drew in a breath at the beauty of the full moon shrouded in fall clouds over darkly silhouetted trees (see totally inadequate picture).
The moon, as I explained when sharing this photo in a Facebook post, was a symbol my children and I used to communicate our connection to one another. Wherever we were, if we wanted to tell the other two we loved them, we would send a photo of the moon – even though photos cannot do the moon justice. We understood this meant we were shining our love up at the moon – and that the moon, in turn, was beaming our love back down on the other two. This practice stemmed from a fun elementary school assignment in which students had to find the moon each night (even if it meant driving around for a viewing) and then create a project about it each day. Kyle and Jamie wrote poems about the moon, did artwork and science projects about its phases, and looked forward with excitement to our nightly search. So did I.
Since Kyle died, the moon’s beauty is often a reminder of how there are now only two of us looking up at it – and only one other person to whom we can send a photo. But the moon is still a reminder of our spiritual connection, now as a symbol of how Kyle’s love continues to shine down on us even though he’s not here with us. I try to keep my heart open to that idea, though sometimes seeing the moon just makes me tear up with how terribly I miss my son.
Jamie has a haiku she’s saved in her phone that Kyle wrote and texted to her about their moon connection – and I thought he’d sent the poem to both of us. After sending Jamie a message last night while looking at the full moon, I yearned for a connection with Kyle, too, and thought I would dig up his haiku message. Turns out I couldn’t find it – nor any of the messages I know he sent me with moon photos. Nearly all my many texts and FB messages from him seem to have disappeared. (Perhaps this is a sign that I am supposed to stop looking for them, part of my letting go.) But as I looked at our last FB Messages, I was prompted by a yellow hand in double parentheses with the words, “Send Kyle a wave.” By this time, I was crying a little, telling Renee why I was sitting outside in the dark tearing up at the sight of the moon, and so when this prompt showed up on my phone screen, I laughed through my tears and said, “OK, fine, I’ll send him a wave.” And I pushed the button and a little wave showed up, and now the screen says “Waiting for Kyle…” at the end of the exchange.
It wasn’t until I woke up this morning that I realized how I had gone looking for a sign from Kyle, and then he had pretty much waved at me… This idea really made me smile.
I know part of why this didn’t occur to me while it was happening is because my wife is as close to actively atheist as an agnostic can be — as Kyle sometimes was. She doesn’t believe there is any higher power, doesn’t see how it’s possible that there could be a supreme being caring about each individual hair on our heads. I get it. The idea is impossible to conceive, beyond human understanding. A friend of mine in high school who had found Jesus but managed never to get preachy about it wrote a poem about how trying to explain the vastness of God’s love was like trying to scoop up the ocean with a Dixie cup. Our minds are the Dixie cups, way too small to hold on to an idea so big as God. Kyle liked that analogy, too, and told me he shared it sometimes in meetings. (Here, as a total aside, is the value of poetry, even when we don’t know who our audience might ever be. I read this line in high school; it was never published outside the school — but I still remember it 35 years later, and it has now been shared with countless others)
But back to my musings on signs from the beyond: I feel better when I believe in them and worse when I discount them. So hey there, Kyle, thanks for encouraging me to wave at you. I’ll try to keep my eyes and heart open for your next sign. And I’d also like to recognize that maybe your daughter dressing up the same way you did at the same age could have been a sign, too. I hope you could see her following in your Power Ranger footsteps from wherever you are:
P.S. I called my cousin Debbie two nights ago to make sure she was OK after the NYC terrorist attack; she was, thank God. But she mentioned that she’d read my last blog post and wondered if I’d ever finished compiling my poetry manuscript. YES, I did, and I am sheepishly proud of it, and I’ve sent it in to several poetry publishing contests and also sent several individual poems in for consideration by various magazine editors. I did all this while I was in Maine staying alone in the empty home of our friends, and am hugely grateful I had that time and space to get that done. Now on to National Novel Writing Month, because it’s good to have goals.
Tonight marks the start of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement and most somber day of the Jewish year, a day meant to be spent fasting and repenting for the previous year’s sins. In the exact opposite of that spirit, I would like to share an irreverent poem I wrote about repentance 15 years ago in a poetry circle with my children:
ATONEMENT FOR ALL
The Catholics go in weekly
to seek forgiveness for each deed.
They confess each sin, bow meekly,
do penance as their priest decreed.
The Baptists seek more salvation:
“Praise the Lord” louder, “Christ is great.”
One born-again exclamation
wipes clean a lifetime’s whole sin slate!
The Buddhists urge a strength of mind,
an inner path to living pure.
Avoiding sin means being kind;
confession just is not a cure.
The Jews have got a special spin
on the matter of redemption:
We set aside one day to win
a mea-culpa exemption.
On Yom Kippur we fast all day,
a swap for falling short all year.
Give God our regrets, then we pray
to get the once-a-year “all-clear.”
If we’re sorry, God sets in stone
our names in the Book of Life.
Then it’s a year til we atone
for the next twelve months of strife.
I need relief from Jewish guilt,
so I like that we make amends.
But even contrite to the hilt …
one day seems not enough to spend.
So I propose a medley:
a forgiveness potpourri:
When you’re wrong, admit to it fast
When others are failing, be kind.
Don’t wait all year for God’s die to cast:
Atone as you go for true peace of mind.
I hope that didn’t offend anybody, but I am discovering there is no way to be a writer without taking that risk – so what I really hope is that it made some of you laugh.
Regarding my own Yom Kippur, I will not be spending the day atoning. My son is dead, so if I believed in a punishing God, which happily I do not, I would expect I’ve already received the worst punishment I could have been dealt for whatever sins I may have committed. More to the point, I have spent the entire past year praying and reflecting on the suffering I have caused myself and others, so I think I’m covered for the day.
Instead, I am enjoying a blessing beyond measure. Dear friends have loaned me the use of their bright and beautiful home in Cape Neddick, Maine, and I am here for two weeks putting together a book-length collection of my (more serious) poetry for submission.
Renee was with me for a romantic getaway the first couple of days and is coming back to share another whirlwind mini-holiday with me Sunday-Monday, and at the end of my stay here I am thrilled that Jamie will be flying out from Portland for a mother-daughter writing retreat with me here during the holiday formerly known as Columbus Day weekend. But mostly I am here on my own.
When my friends first generously offered me the use of their home while they were traveling, it was because I was grieving and in need of time alone to mourn. But that was many months ago, and something about building myself up for the one-year mark has helped me turn a corner. So instead of mourning (or rather, in addition, as mourning is part of my forever now, like breathing), I am here writing, reading, revising, compiling, doing yoga, dancing, eating, circling poetry book contests in Poets & Writer’s Magazine, and playing with pastels on the lawn overlooking the ocean. I am blessed. God is good. And I am glad to be here. If I have anything to atone for, it’s for all the days I’ve failed to be this fully alive.
Yom Tov, everybody – which means, “have a good holy day.”