Sharing my mourning journey as my family learns to live a new normal after the death of my 19 y.o. son in an auto accident on 10/12/08.

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Learning From Each Other

My children sharing a moment together.

My children sharing a moment together.

“Mama on the day Jordan died can we go to Wendy’s?”

(What I’m thinking-No honey I’ll be curled up in a ball under the covers willing the day to go away).

What I say instead, “Why do you want to go to Wendy’s?”

“Because it was one of Jordan’s favorite places and they have good Frosties.”

“We’ll see baby, we’ll see.”

I realize that my daughter is remembering one of the last times she spent with her brother, where she was together with all of her siblings for an outing. Jordan had taken them to Target to buy the Mario Cart game for Wii and then they went to Wendy’s.  She wants to honor her brother by replaying a good memory on the day of his death. I want the day to vanish, to never arrive; if it has to come can’t I be sedated throughout?

There are no rules about grief and mourning. The last year has taught me that lesson repeatedly. My daughter and I are the perfect example. She wants Wendy’s and I want the fetal position. We both have a vision of that day and neither one of us is wrong in our choice or being disrespectful, it’s just how we feel. I realize as time goes on how much my family is learning from each other as we make our way through each day without Jordan.

There have been days when my husband or I have held one of our daughters as they wept because a movie or book at school reminded them of their loss. I’ve lain in bed with one of my daughters until she fell asleep or she’s climbed into my bed because she misses Jordan and can’t sleep. I’ve ached for my son feeling helpless as his grief overtakes him and he’s too overcome to go to school. A day when he’s facing a new experience and the only person he wants to talk to is his brother who was his mentor and guide. He says out loud, “Jordan would know.”  Or the time I held him as he wept because what used to be a typical experience of babysitting for his sisters was extraordinary and overwhelming because what he and Jordan used to do as a team he now does alone. Through his tears he kept saying, “If Jordan was here, If Jordan was here….” I’ve held and rocked all three of them.

I’ve acted as secretary to my daughters on days when their pain is so great that my only suggestion to them is to talk to their brother directly. I say to them, “Do you want to write Jordan a letter? I’ll be your secretary and write for you, you can just say whatever you need to say.” Their letters so poignant speak the thoughts of Jordan constantly on all of our minds-

  • Why did your friend fall asleep while he was driving?
  • Were you scared?
  • I miss you.
  • Why did it have to be you?

Questions without answers and the universal statement for all that loved Jordan-“I miss you.” I tell my kids I write to Jordan too. Whenever they need me to help them write I’ll do it. My statement to them always is, “We’ll miss him together.” They walk away feeling a little better. I sit exhausted and distraught. Is there a way to not worry about your children? I see their suffering and I absorb their pain.

Just as I’ve taken care of them they have soothed and comforted me. I’ve learned grace, patience and strength from my children. My son exemplifies all of the traits he admired in his brother. He insisted on speaking at the Memorial service for Jordan and spoke of all the things his brother had taught him, about being an individual, following your own dreams not those of others, and extending yourself in uncomfortable situations to make room for adventures. He told the audience gathered that he would live his life not doing the things Jordan did, but would live the way Jordan did. Before he sat down he did a rap he composed the night before which was an homage to his brother, then said simply, “I’m going to miss him.” As he sat down I looked over at him, touched his face and said to myself, “my son just spoke for our family.” At other times Merrick has helped me to temper my anger at our situation. I struggle with the fact that Jordan’s friends walked away from a car that was totaled without even having to be hospitalized and my son died without waking up. Merrick has said to me, “Mom, it was an accident. They were his friends.” On most days I remember these facts but it is good to have such caring reminders.

My daughters have also each been my teacher. About 6 months after Jordan died, they came to the car one day after school, hopped in and before I could pull from the curb said, “Mom we have some bad news.” I braced myself. In times past, bad news could be someone roofed all the playground balls during recess or someone got sick and had to go home, but now they, like the rest of our family’s definition of bad news is not taken lightly. I asked what happened and one of my daughters told me her first grade Book Buddy’s mother died the day before. I sat there trying to drive without crying thinking, “Why did it have to be my child’s little friend? Hasn’t she been through enough?” The next words were from her sister who said, “ I think it’s good that your Book Buddy has you. You know what it’s like to lose someone you love, you’ll be able to help her.” Of course she was right and so matter of fact in her generosity and grace towards another family.

The generosity our community showed us after Jordan’s death was immense. It was now time for us to pay our respects to another grieving family. My daughter made a beautiful card for her friend telling her you can talk to me at recess whenever you need to. We made plans that weekend to drop a card off to the family and flowers for my daughter’s little friend. The family of one of my daughters’ friends had specially given flowers to my girls and they were so proud to be thought of in such a distinct way. I remembered how they had cherished those flowers and wanted my daughter’s friend to feel the same. My husband, daughter and I made our way to this family’s home and paid our respects. My daughter walked in and made a beeline for her friend so that she could personally give her the card and flowers. As we handed the father a card we’d written to him, we explained to the father, and other family members present the connection between our respective daughters. We then briefly told them of our own loss and we all shared a knowing look about the pain grief brings that words have yet been invented to describe. We were there for maybe five minutes and we saw reflected back in their faces what we knew we must have looked like in the days following Jordan’s death. There was shock, numbness, sadness and a haunted disbelief embedded in each face. As hard as it was to go there we did. Generosity and compassion mean nothing if you don’t give some of what you’ve been given to others in their time of need.

Every day is different. My children have days when they are focused on the present and talk about the mundane things in their worlds. Their talk of getting together with friends, homework, soccer practice, Spoken Word Club help keep me in the present. There are those other days when missing Jordan is a force unto itself. One day my son and I were in the car and he started asking questions about Jordan and what types of classes he took when he was a sophomore in high school. We talked about that for a few minutes and then I gently asked him, “Are you okay? I know you miss your brother.” His reply, “I’m okay but it’s hard. It’s like everything that happened with Jordan and me, the good stuff and the fights; I’m trying to remember it all. It’s all good stuff now.” I sat and listened to him understanding exactly what he meant and missing Jordan too. As I drove I exhaled and said, “What are we going to do?” My son, still facing forward simply said, “We keep going.”  I patted his arm and with a catch in my throat replied, “That’s what we’ll do.”

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Contortion

Jordan's Candle burning in remembrance

Jordan's Candle burning in remembrance

The death of your child twists your body, soul, life into an impossible shape and posture. People who have suffered the loss of a child can try to describe this pain to you. If you haven’t experienced the loss of someone dear then your typical responses are “I can’t imagine what you’re going through” or “I wouldn’t be able to make it, you are so strong”.  (Those responses were ones I felt and uttered out loud.) The truth is until you lose someone you love there is no way to understand how contorted your life becomes and just how much pain you can bear.

As impossible as it seems, there you are forced into pain, twisted into a body and mind-numbing position that you feel will last forever. Every time you try to untwist yourself it doesn’t work. All the sighing, the praying, the unconscious shaking of your head to clear your mind so you can figure out, “ How did I get to such an awful place, I’m in a nightmare? “ or “How could my child be gone?” No matter how hard you try, the questions of how and why don’t have acceptable answers.

The next step is to find a way to fix the situation. There has to be a way to relieve the pain. A way to get your life back the way it was before you felt shackled and twisted by pain and grief. You try, but nothing works. Busying yourself, pretending things are as they were doesn’t work. No mystical or magical tactics come to your aid that will unlock the secret to releasing the pain.  Denial fails every time. Avoidance of your new reality only leaves you at the end of the day with a racing mind and a heart so heavy that the ache threatens to push you over. “How did this happen?” “How can I get out of this awful position, this painful pose?”

Repeatedly you retrace, and don’t give up. You still keep trying because there has to be a way to undo what’s been done; even as a part of you whispers “there’s no going backwards” and further tries to reveal the energy you’re wasting on the impossible. You are stubborn and resolute. Going backwards has to be possible! Backwards is where the life you cherished is,and where all of your children lived safely. All you have to do is figure out how to turn back time and carefully free yourself of what has happened. That can’t be impossible. It has to be possible because you want things the way they were before your child’s death forced you into this awful, ugly, painful pose. You will figure it out. You have to make things right again.

Then, one day it happens; weariness sets in and you run out of ways of figuring out how to unclench, untangle, undo what has happened. There is the moment you realize that all the things you’ve tried don’t work because you’re trying to retrace your steps, go backward and somehow in reverse undo the torture that has contorted your life, your family, and your soul. A new strategy reveals itself. There is a way out of the pain and the numbness, but it means moving differently. It means believing that to untangle is not a backwards movement of retracing, but a forward movement of assuming a new design, a new normal. It is accepting that some parts will always feel a little twisted, will hurt and never be the same. Acknowledging that help will be needed to untwist and unclench what the contortion of death has imposed. As you slowly unclench and breathe, you recognize that this path is the way the pain will lessen.

You will always look back, but you begin to understand you can’t go back. All those days, months and yes sometimes years of being contorted have taken a toll. All the time spent trying to recapture and redo the past has changed you. Little by little the pain starts to subside. Almost against your will you unfold, stretch. You feel the laying on of hands that helps ease you out of your painful pose. You realize you’re still here and you have to say goodbye- As many times as you need to. You believe in the word eternal and you call out to your loved one everyday. I love you Jordan. You will always be my boy. I miss you. I love you.

Say His Name

Jordan with his Pop-High School graduation 2007

Jordan with his Pop-High School graduation 2007

I’ve never seen a picture of my father as a boy, yet I’ve heard so many of the stories of him growing up in a coal mining community in West Virginia, third youngest of thirteen children, that I have a distinct picture of him in my mind. My father is quite the storyteller and I’ve sat in rapt attention as he’s told me of his boyhood antics as well as those of his siblings. I’ve also listened as he’s shared the sorrow his family endured. As a young man in college, Daddy in less than 14 months, lost a sister to illness, a brother to murder, and his mother after making the statement to my father as they sat on their front porch following the death of her son-“I will not live to bury another one of my children.” She died a few months later.

Every time Daddy shared the story of losing so many loved ones in such a short span of time, I looked at him with compassion and awe. How do you keep going when you lose so much in such a short amount of time? Daddy had survived unimaginable loss and yet didn’t seem haunted by what he endured. His life had gone on with a college degree, marriage, work and family. He spoke lovingly of his family. He told funny and poignant stories of relatives that were long gone by the time I was born. Because of him I felt I knew them. Their deaths did not erase them from Daddy’s heart. He talked about them all the time. I watched him because as untouched as I was by the death of someone close to me, I knew it would happen eventually. Daddy provided my first road map on mourning loved ones.

My “eventually” came with the unexpected, shocking news of Jordan’s death. When I made the call to my parents in the middle of the night to tell them that Jordan their oldest grandchild had been killed in a car accident my mother screamed and cried, and then my father was on the phone. He told me they would be there as soon as they could and they were. By Monday afternoon they were sitting at our kitchen table. The friends who had held watch over us since early that morning quietly left once our family arrived. We sat, cried and talked. Daddy’s words to me were simple and direct, “Don’t stop talking about him. You say his name everyday.” I’m not sure if I would have taken such direct advice from just anyone, but I knew my father’s experiences with loss. Daddy’s advice was him speaking what he had lived. The way I knew about my aunts, uncles and paternal grandparents was because Daddy didn’t stop talking about them. He said their names and his eyes lit up with the memories they invoked.

Every time I called him in the weeks and months after Jordan died sometimes barely able to speak because I couldn’t catch my breath from crying he would calm me, soothe me, always telling me he wished he could take some of the pain away. He never failed to remind me of his feeling that holding in my grief would make me sick.  Then he would ask, “Are you talking about Jordan? You make sure you keep talking about him.” I always told him, “yes we talk about him everyday.”

My children know by the example of their father and I that it’s okay to cry and miss Jordan, but it is also okay to remember all the funny Jordan stories and talk about him as much as they want and need to. We sit at the dinner table and one of my daughters will say “remember the time Jordan raced into the bathroom right before I was going in to take a shower and jumped in the tub with all his clothes on and starting singing in that high voice “I’m taking a shower” as he pretended he was really taking a shower. We would all nod in remembrance and laugh. That story would remind another one of us of some other Jordan story and the love in remembering would grow. There would be other times when something happened at school and one of them would ask Mark or I “did that ever happen to Jordan?” We never turned away from an opportunity to talk about our son/their brother. He always will have a seat at the table.

Even almost a year after Jordan’s death my father still reminds me to “Say his name.” Now with the clarity of my own experience I know what he means. His philosophy about loss has become my own. The person we lose cannot become a taboo subject. Holding in our pain is also holding in our memories and ultimately the joy that person brought us. I knew about my aunt, uncle and grandparents long gone before I came along because of Daddy. They are etched in my heart as though they told me their stories themselves.

My children freely talk about their brother. They laugh together, imitating him and remembering. The way my children talk about their brother assures me that their children will know their Uncle Jordan. And one day in the distant future I pray that I’ll live to have my grandchildren sitting at my knee as I sat at my father’s and have them ask to hear about their uncle, my son. Without hesitation I will openly, wistfully, freely “Say his Name.”