The Sticky, Thorny, Tangled Mess

This past year has been unparalleled in my memory as far as natural disasters and unnatural tragedies.  I’ve wondered a lot if the universe is trying to “punish” the human race (ha-can you guess my religious upbringing?).

I feel like I’ve spent the past year in heartbroken sympathy for others.  Too many people experienced the loss of loved ones (including pets) and most of these losses have been sudden and unexpected.  I can’t say that I know their pain.  Without a doubt though, I know that the pain they are experiencing is so deep that they can’t put it into words (which is very frustrating).  I also know that these losses have already changed them and will continue to transform and shape them from the moment of their losses forward.  I can’t do or say anything that will help them or heal them.  Just recently, someone who had experienced such a loss over the Thanksgiving holiday asked me, “This will get better, right?  Things will go back to normal?”

I don’t know.  I am only an expert in my own grief. But I’m fairly certain that things never go  back to “normal”.  We never “bounce back” or “get over it” or even “get past it”.  But we can and we do move through.  We are not the same people.  But we are still people and the people we’ve become don’t have to necessarily be broken forever.

Recently, Jake’s sister sent me some older photos she had found of the three of us. We were having fun, smiling, and being goofy. The unexpected pictures took my breath away. My memories of Jake are so shrouded, so ingrained in those last days and moments. The pictures she sent me reminded me of all the goodness, happiness, fun and love that was Jake. It wasn’t like I forgot that. Just that the memories of the end have been blocking all those years before it. Now I picture those bad memories as a tangled, sticky, thorny mess with all of Jake’s greatness waiting on the other side. Sometimes I can take a flying leap over that mess. Sometimes I have to force myself to walk through it slowly, maybe even crawl. It hurts, but I know I need to get to the other side. It still hurts over there, but its a very different kind of pain. The important thing is that on the other side, I smile and laugh at the memories, rather than curl up in the fetal position , immobilized by sadness.

My life has been filled with loss.  I lost a good friend at the age of twelve.  Since then, I’ve attended more wakes and funerals than I try to count.  However, it wasn’t until several years ago that it actually hit me that death means gone.  Gone.  My mother’s best friend, who has been a big part of my life ever since I can remember, passed away.  I flew across the country to visit her one last time.  I remember where I was when I got the message that she had passed.  All of a sudden, death didn’t make any sense to me.  I had just been with her.  Where did she go?  How does that even happen?  How is someone here one minute and actually not here the next.  Forever.  It may sound silly, but it wasn’t until we lost her that I actually, truly started to think about death and how final it is.

I live with the loss of Jake.  Every single minute.  Frequently, I feel a jolt of “Wait a minute.  He was just here.  How?  What?  I don’t get it.  Where did he go?”  My home is filled with pictures of Jake, but sometimes one catches my eye and I can’t stop staring at it.  My brain starts spinning, trying to grasp the reality that he was actually here.  Then all of a sudden he wasn’t.  It doesn’t make sense to me.

I think that everybody has read some sort of analogous comparison of grief with waves in the ocean.  Some are small and you can float over them. Some are huge and they come at you, unprepared, and knock you down for a bit.  I’m a terrible swimmer and those giant waves that knocked me down scared the crap out of me.  They still do.

Recently, I gathered up the courage to bring my kids to an “open play” at the gymnastics place where everything happened.  From the phone call in the parking lot to hiding in a closet waiting for the police to call me back to my beautiful stranger who drove me into Seattle and dropped me at the doors of the emergency room.  My whole body shook as I parked the car.  Once inside, I noticed the closet door was open and I could see inside, almost like I was watching myself in there, pacing the floor and checking my phone as it slipped from my hands repeatedly because it was hot and I was sweating.  My beautiful stranger was behind the desk, checking people in.  It was stinking hard.  My body’s visceral response was something I had no control over.  I sat beside a group of parents who also had kids playing in the gym.  I had this urge to scream out “DON’T YOU PEOPLE KNOW THAT THE LAST TIME I WAS HERE MY HUSBAND KILLED HIMSELF!” I felt like I couldn’t breathe.  But, I surprised myself that day.  I didn’t scream out.  I didn’t run out of the building like a bat out of hell.  I shed a few tears, but didn’t curl up into a ball on the floor, heaving and sobbing.  When I got the kids back in the car, I took a deep breath and thought to myself “Wow.  I just did that.  That was courageous and strong! Good job Kristen.”

For so long, I’ve been lost and kind of…missing(?)…from my life.   While I’ve been wondering “How am I going to do this?”, I didn’t even realize that I have been doing this.  While I’ve been stuck in my head feeling sorry and angry for my kids, I’ve also been parenting children with special needs.  I recognize that some things that used to be a big deal in the BEFORE, no longer seem important to me.  I try to problem solve, rather than being caught up inside the problem itself.

Check me out people!  I am in a continuous and dynamic state of moving through. It’s okay if I become exhausted in the sticky, thorny, tangled mess and have to stop and hang out for a bit.  I have this new and constantly developing sense of my courage and persistence, so I’m pretty sure I eventually will continue forging through.



Knowing Alone

You don’t know.
I’m glad you don’t know.
There are so many things I know that I didn’t know before.
I keep learning things that I don’t want to know.

It hurts to be alone with these things I’ve never wanted to know.

Still, nobody can know them except for me.

I know sadness. I know pain. I live grief. But I don’t know what to say to you about your sadness, pain and grief. I know that words never brought me comfort.  Not much has made sense in the AFTER. I’m not saying that there aren’t words out there that can bring someone suffering a loss some comfort and peace. But I don’t know what they are.

I just know what you don’t know.

You don’t know how the most innocuous statements can trigger me so unexpectedly.  Like when my son was in his honor choir concert and the announcer man was talking about the importance of music in schools and thanking all the parents for getting their kids to the extra practices on time because that is a “part of parenting”.  Fine statement, right?  But I started crying. Because getting my kids to practices doesn’t seem like “part of parenting” to me at all.    It seems more like being “part of cruise directing”.  Because parenting for me is not about the logistics of getting 4 different kids to different places at the same times.  I have so many wonderful people helping me with that part.  Parenting for me is living, in my mind, the worst possible case scenario for anything and everything that happens with my kids. The phone rings and before I can pick it up I’m already sitting at Harborview at the bedside of someone I love waiting for the doctor to call time of death.  Reliving. Parenting for me is listening to my youngest son cry “I want to be with you” when I’m walking out the door for the fourth evening that week and leaving him with a sitter because I either have to work or attend another one of my kids’ events that will run past his bedtime.  It’s wondering what sort of damage I’m adding to what’s already been done.

You don’t know the sadness that comes with the knowledge that my support group has grown too large.  There are too many of us.  There is a waitlist to get in.  You don’t know that as much as we all need that support group, every one of us is ready to give up our place so that nobody has to be on a fucking waitlist to get some help.

You don’t know that my mind races so quickly I can’t even keep up with the thoughts.  Or maybe it races so I don’t get stuck on any of the more horrific thoughts.  Like how every time my pre-teen son gets upset and slams the door to his room, I am petrified–beyond petrified–that he’s going to hurt himself–because of something I said or didn’t say and because it “runs in the family”.

You don’t know how it actually feels like a physical punch to my gut-it practically doubles me over in pain, every time I walk into the preschool and see an announcement for an upcoming “Daddy-Daughter Dance”.  I know that sign is posted there.  But it’s like a sneaky, scary monster hiding behind the door that jumps out at me.  I am startled by it,  every single time. You don’t know this because there’s no way you would.  What you see is my Kristen suit and a smile on my face as I greet my little guy who may or may not be happy to see me (depending on whatever matters to a 5-year-old at any given moment).

You don’t know how difficult it is to watch one of my kids do something really cool (like the honor choir) and know without a doubt that my husband would be so proud of him.  But how sad it is for my husband that he doesn’t get to be here.  Even more sad for my kids who don’t have their dad in the audience to support them.  I can be present at as many events as I can physically attend, but I can never make up for daddy’s absence at these events.

You don’t know how I can’t get good mental health counseling for my children.  Good counselors do not accept Medicaid.  Counselors will accept cash.  I will give them cash to help my children.  But then I sit through session after session wondering why I’m listening to this person who is not there.  Who doesn’t know.  At the end of the day, there is just me.  I am the only person on this earth that loves and cares for my kids the way I do.  At the end of the day, I am alone in this parenting.

You don’t know how my 6-year-old daughter’s counselor has been listing off the characteristics of a child with ADHD and I’m thinking–“Holy shit.  She’s talking about me.  I have ADHD”. Then in the next moment I’m sitting on my hands to keep from tearing my hair out because what does this ADHD stuff have to do with my child’s anger and grief? I am paying CASH for fucks sake.  PLEASE stop reading this book to my child about how all dogs have ADHD.  I’m about to scream.

You don’t know how counselors that I pay CASH for come up with ever-loving complicated “systems” of reinforcement and consequences for my kids.  They don’t know how asking me to pull together and maintain this “system” is maybe the thing that will put me over the edge.  But I still try.  They tell me that I need to put together a “simple” collage book with my child-one that’s all about said child and daddy.  Put it in a plastic baggie and close it with duct tape so it can never get dirty or wet.  WHAT?  I don’t have time to check my kids’ homework, let alone spend time ALONE with one child (what are the other kids doing at this time?) to make a book that they can’t ever take out of the bag?  Maybe this is my newly, self-diagnosed ADHD kicking in-but I don’t understand the sense of that.

You don’t know how much my body shook as I held my mother-in-law last weekend because she is going in for major surgery and I know she is terrified that she won’t come out.  You don’t know how I locked myself in her bathroom and cried because–oh my gosh.  Because of so many things.  My kids cannot suffer another loss.  I cannot lose her.  I have grown to love her and appreciate her.  We have a relationship. She is Jake’s mother.  Jake would’ve been by her side every step of the way, giving her courage and making her laugh.  I have no courage to offer.  I have fear.

You don’t know how much I hate myself for wanting to do things for myself.  I’m not just talking about a “nice bath” or a girls’ weekend getaway.  I am not going to pretend to be selfless or some kind of martyr.  I want things too-things that don’t have to do with the kids at all!  But I know kicking and screaming and flailing myself around on the floor doesn’t actually work.  I don’t know how to make it work and if I figured it out-would I just hate myself for actually doing that thing for myself?  In our modern American culture, people give you lip-service about how moms need to take care of themselves in order to take care of their kids–the whole airplane/oxygen mask thing.  But then society frowns upon moms who do just that.  Because how are we supposed to squeeze in “me” time between extra honor choir practices, birthday parties, “mandatory volunteer hours” (okay what the fuck is that even supposed to mean?), work, counseling, laundry, sports practices, math team, school projects that are supposed to be completed with “limited parental involvement”, all while making sure our kids are eating organic, well-balanced meals, brushing their teeth WELL, flossing (haha), showering WITH soap, changing (and/or wearing) underwear, and taking them on field trips to homeless shelters so they can truly understand how privileged they are?   I want more than that.  I hate how selfish that sounds.  But that’s my true confession.

You don’t know these things, because how would you?  Just like I don’t know you.  I don’t know what to say to loved ones who have lost (or are losing) their loved ones.  I don’t know what to say to strangers who are suffering loss.  I don’t know what’s under your suit-the things that hurt you and scare you.  But it’s so important that I realize that I don’t know and you don’t know.  The best looking, fanciest, perfectly creased, cleanest suit could be hiding fear, pain, grief, trauma, illness, anxiety, nightmares, sadness, panic, anger, guilt, regrets and more.  I wish I had known more about what was under the Jake suit before it was too late.





Sorry :(


Dear Jake,

I channeled a lot of anger into my trail run this morning. so I’m feeling a little better than I was yesterday.  Yesterday…when I came across this “note” that you left for….me? The kids? Your mom? Your sister? Your friends? I came across it unexpectedly as I was trying to organize the house we moved into.  Of course, I burst into tears and the flashbacks have been haunting me ever since.

Fuck your “sorry :(”

You have no idea.  You have no idea what you were even “sorry” about.

I sent this to your best friend yesterday.  He said, “A brilliant guy with a dumb moment”.

In that moment, you were in pain.  You were in so much pain.  I know that.  But, I also know-that pain was temporary.  You took your temporary pain and left it for us-the people who love you, to live with permanently.  Forever.  You’ve broken us all.  For good.

The pain you left wasn’t spread out amongst all the people who love you.  The pain that you alone felt was left for every single one of us–for some, magnified times 10, times 100, times infinity+ 1.  It’s not temporary and it’s not just me, or your friends, or your mother, sister, family.  You left that pain for your children to bear for the rest of their lives.  Granted, the two littlest ones don’t get it–they think you are just in some other “place” and you’ll be coming back.  But they still hurt.  They still cry for you.  They tell me they want me to die so you can come back in my place and take care of them.  The two oldest–well, you know they are different.  The oldest wears his pain on his sleeve.  The second oldest is exactly like you-he doesn’t even know it.  He does and says things that he couldn’t possibly know are all you.

Jake-you left your pain for each one of your children-they will carry it for the rest of their lives.  You took away their joy and happiness of being with their dad.  They didn’t deserve this–and someday I’m going to have to tell them you were “sorry :(” ??  Fuck Jake.  They idolized you.  You were their hero.  You took that act and turned it into a possibility–an option for the people who loved and idolized you.  FUCK FUCK FUCK.

Your best friend’s wife was here for me during the year mark and as her voice cracked so I could hardly hear her, she told me how the day you did that was the “worst day” of her life.  She has lost her father, her brother, her beloved dogs–but August 27, 2014 was the worst day of her life.  You see?  It wasn’t just the worst day of my life, the kids’ lives, your mom’s life, your sister’s life, or your friends’ lives.  The pain you left behind is so far-reaching-so beyond any number I could even imagine. You are at the center of these never-ending concentric circles. You took away your temporary pain-and left it for all of the people in those circles to feel forever.

I know you didn’t know this.  I know you weren’t thinking clearly. Chantix altered your brain.  You never would have done such a thing to the people you loved.  You loved and gave of yourself so fiercely, so tirelessly.  My poor Jake-I guess I’m glad you can’t feel any regret, because knowing the pain you have caused to the people you loved, would have brought you more pain than you ever could have experienced or imagined. 

So for now, my anger is directed towards you.  Yes, it is interwoven with love and sorrow–this complex, intricate weaving of emotions that cannot be explained with words.  All I know for sure is that your “sorry :(” just doesn’t fucking cut it.

But, I love you from the bottom of my heart and your toothbrush is still here waiting for you.