Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Our First Christmas

In an earlier post on handling the holidays, there was advice on how to take care during this particularly stressful season. Although I believe the list of coping strategies, they were not all authentically mine. I wanted to take this opportunity to post how I coped with the holidays, the first year after Flynn's death.
Flynn was born in May and by the time December came around I believed I was coping with his death and could handle this family- oriented time of year. We had Rhys at home after all and he was three and a half, needing our undivided attention and fully aware of the promise of presents that this season brings.
As I began to prepare for the holidays, with decorations and festivities it became evident to me that something did not feel right. I did not know how to feel happy when we did not have Flynn with us; the year prior on Boxing Day was when we found out that we were pregnant with him, that along with pregnant family and friends surrounding us, the holidays were beginning to feel unbearable.
Our family no longer talked about Flynn; in fact I felt like I discussed him too much as discomfort crossed the face of my loved ones. Although Flynn lived for only a short time; the previous year during my pregnancy with him was how I landmarked my life. The only way to bring up an event was to position it in relation to my pregnancy or his death. I felt that any conversation with me must be depressing and therefore I did not say much, the holiday events became a source of anxiety as I struggled with how to politely smile and nod through conversations without creating despair.
I soon recognized that I could not make Flynn a part of the larger family holiday, I needed to make him a part of our small family's traditions and I went about figuring how to do that.
We have a custom in our family, we get an ornament for our tree when a child is born and I decided that Flynn needed one for our tree. I went about the difficult task of finding one that had meaning, was hopeful but not whimsically proclaiming "Baby's First Christmas!" I did not find anything and when I felt defeated and like it was an impossible task I received the Willow Tree "Angel of Comfort" from my aunt. It was not meant to be an ornament for a tree but when I got it, I knew that was exactly what it would be for our family. I wrote Flynn's name and birth date on the bottom of the figurine and hung it on the tree. I also bought one for my parent's and my husband's parents for their trees.
After finding the ornament I truly believed I would find some peace during the holidays but I did not, in fact I was feeling swallowed, isolated and depressed by my grief. What I really wanted was to be buying gifts for our son, hanging a stocking with his name on it, waking him to find gifts under the tree that his older brother would open for him. I did not know how to reconcile his death and the holidays.
At work they were having a toy drive for children in need, I had not been paying attention and then a friend asked me if I was going to donate to the Angel Tree? I was not sure that I heard her correctly, the Angel Tree? It turns out that was the name of the campaign and you could pick an angel off of the tree with a child's gender and age and buy an appropriate toy.
I went to the tree and the very first angel that I took off said "Boy, age 0" and that is when I knew that this was how I would honour Flynn during the holidays.
Since that holiday seven years ago, this tradition has evolved to include a toy for boys the same ages as ALL my boys and I involve the whole family in picking the gifts. For me it is the way to make meaning of a difficult time of the year and give to families who need a little help believing in the season just as I did the first year after Flynn's death.
I honour Flynn with a gift for a child in need and in turn it makes the holidays meaningful for my family in Flynn's memory.

Rest in Peace Frosty

I drove into my driveway after work last week, grabbed my things from the van and walked to the end of the drive to gather our recycling bins. It was there that I was met by an interesting sight. At the end of my driveway, as the picture shows, was a snowy grave built by Ash and Rhys.
While "most" children are building Frosty, his wife and children; my children have built a homage to his inevitable death.
This made me reflect on how capable I am of keeping my work at work? I know that I never talk about my families that I support at the kitchen table or at all really (I am not adverse to discussing death with the boys, I just happen not to discuss work).
It turns out that whether I talk about it or not, my boys know that death is a part of our family, what I do, who they are, and although the neighbours may be uncomfortable with Frosty's resting place out front, my children are quite comfortable, even proud of their creative creation and honestly so am I.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Grief and the Holidays

The Holiday Season is fast approaching and it can be a very difficult time when a loved one has died. We are bombarded with images and announcements proclaiming this time of year as joyous, one surrounded by family and friends, a time to celebrate and these sentiments can be particularly hard when we are "Anything But Merry."
Traditions and rituals at this time can lose their meaning, especially when the person that made the traditions special is no longer a part of them. This year we put together a list to make handling the holidays easier and I wanted to share it here:

1. Skipping the holidays is likely not an option, you need to prepare and face them squarely. Make plans that you know you can do and that make you comfortable.

2. Focus on this holiday first. I always say "Do not add future griefs to the present ones." Don't look forward to all the holidays to come. Adding pressure to this holiday by worrying about the other special days, is added stress you do not need.

3. Think about ways to honour the memory of your loved one during the holiday. Whether it is beginning a new tradition or carrying on an old one, make your loved one a part of your celebration.

4. There are always unrealistic expectations during the holidays. They can come from family and friends or they can be expectations that we put on ourselves. Recognize what these expectations are and in doing that you can decide what you can or cannot do. Accept what is normal for you.

5. Take care of yourself. Holidays usually mean extra fatigue, drinking, partying and visiting. By making yourself a priority you will partake in festivities that you have the energy for and let the other activities wait for another year.

6. Remember that you are grieving. You will feel joy, pain and bittersweet memories. Let them come.

7. Plan ahead. Make lists, put events on the calendar, have "escape" plans. Take advantage of your good days, get things done on the to-do list, stay in on the bad days and rejuvenate.

8. Let yourself cry when you need to. You will not ruin the holiday for yourself or for others. Do what comes naturally for you. Holding in your emotions can be destructive.

9. It may be helpful to set limits. Let others know what you need and how they can best help you. Don't be forced into doing something because someone else thinks that you should.

10. Give yourself permission to have joyful times as well as mournful times. They are normal, not a betrayal.

11. Discuss your holiday traditions with your family. Decide what to keep, what to change and what to discard.

12. Make your goals small. Don't over-commit yourself. Take it slow and easy.

13. Go over your plans. Why are you doing them? For you or for someone else?

14. Do something for someone else. Even though you are feeling sad because of your loved ones death, reaching out to others can often bring you a certain holiday peace.

15. Lastly remember that it will not always be this way, this year is about doing the best that you can, with you in mind, for you.

Pardon, what did you say?

People say sympathetic things with the best intention and as a griever it can be hard to recognize that although the words are anything but appropriate the intention is meant to be caring and helpful.

I started to see a chiropractor a month ago and as a new patient in his practice, we had to do an initial consultation. At my first visit we went over my medical history, how many children I have, how many pregnancies, stresses in my life, etc. and during this consultation I explained Flynn's life and death and also my occupation. He was very kind and empathetic, I appreciated that and because of his demeanor felt that this would be a good relationship to aid in my physical well being.
I went for an appointment a week ago after seeing him 2-3 times a week for 3 weeks. We have seen each other so much over the past 3 weeks that we are on a first name basis and I recognized right away that he seemed off of his game and not his normal chipper self. During the treatment he asked me about the emerald ring I wear and whether it was my birth stone and when I told him that it was actually for Flynn and it was his birth stone, he seemed completely flabbergasted. He apologized, told me how sorry he was to hear of my son's death and asked how it happened. I was equally surprised by his lack of memory but chalked it up to a bad day and told him again how Flynn had died due to his premature birth. He responded with "well there must have been a reason."
I felt totally deflated and disappointed. After hearing this response several hundred times over the past 8 years I have come to appreciate the underlying intent of "a reason" but that night any "reason" for my son's death was lost to me. I stared dumbfounded, had my treatment and went home.
The week in between the appointments I was tormented with thoughts of my conversation with my chiropractor. I also recalled, with a sense of irony, that I had left my original chiropractor soon after Flynn's death for saying the exact same thing. Was I destined to live without a back adjustment due to "reason"?
I had to believe that I was in a different place with my grief now, a place of growth and the opportunity to educate. I decided that at my next appointment I would talk to my chiropractor and tell him how "a reason" could negatively impact someone. I would make positive suggestions for dialogue surrounding news of a death that could help him approach it more delicately in the future.

I went into my appointment and before the treatment began I gently tried to start the conversation:
"I just wanted to let you know that last week when I was here we discussed my son's death and I could tell you were having an off day so when we discussed it you had said that there must have been a reason..."

This is where he broke into my explanation and said "What were we talking about last week? I don't remember a discussion?" (or something to that affect)

So thrown off, I tried a different approach:
"Because I work in grief support and helping people manage and cope with grief I sometimes see opportunities to support the community in how to help the griever and when you said that there must be a reason for my son's death (last week) it threw me off because there was a time when that statement has or would have upset me, I just wanted to let you know that when someone has experienced a death, a "reason" may not bring them comfort and "I" statements can be much more comfortable like "I cannot imagine what you are going through...""

He broke in again and said:

"You know I can be really sarcastic and rude and someone will think what I said is hilarious and laugh along and then I take time and try to say something thoughtful and someone can be totally offended, I am sorry if what I said upset you but I won't say the right thing all the time."

I nodded my head at this point, had the treatment and mentally noted to myself that I would not be returning to this chiropractor either. It seems that even 8 years on my grief journey and I can still be affected by the sympathetic yet inappropriate things that people say.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Day To Remember

There are so many days that trigger grief after the death of a beloved person in our life. Some days seem predictable like a birthday, anniversary or date of death but other days seem to come out of nowhere, sneak up on us and catch us unaware and unprepared. The first year after my son died I prepared for the predictable days like his due date (the day he should have been born) or the dreaded Mother's Day and Father's Day, days that I knew would be more difficult to celebrate. The days that I was not prepared for were days like New Years Eve, (leaving the year that Flynn had been born and died seemed unbearable) or my birthday that year because it reminded me that I was a year older and yet my infant son would never celebrate a birthday or blow out a candle. These unassuming days became days when my grief sideswiped me and knocked me off of my feet (on my birthday that year I did not answer the phone or allow anyone to wish me a "Happy Birthday"). They were days that the people around me did not recognize as triggers and yet how could they? I was just as unaware that any day could be a grief day no matter how far past the death I was. Acknowledging that these days exist and being gentle with ourselves to take the time that we need will help to recover from the days that knock us off our feet.
There are also the days that we can see coming and they need our attention too. I always talk to my families about "the plan," the preparation that they can make for the upcoming day that they appreciate will be hard. Knowing how they want to spend the anniversary of the death, for example, can make that day a little more bearable. It can help to ease the anticipation of that date (which is usually much worse than the day itself) and giving permission to scrap all plans if they just seem too hard, once that day comes, is also a good way to manage what these triggers have in store. Having a plan can mean many things; from finding a way to memorialize your loved one, to planning something for just you, to doing nothing and giving yourself permission to do nothing. I tell my families to take time to think about what they want to do, to make it realistic for their energy level and commitment and to have appropriate expectations for themselves and the people surrounding them (for example if it is the first anniversary and family is involved in the day, they may not be make the same commitment for years to come and will that be okay?).
Remember that these days are hard because they remind us of the death and how much we miss and love those who have died. The day will pass and hopefully the moments that we remember our loved one will bring us some comfort on these hard days.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Importance of Self Care

Just a short blog.
I think it is so important to incorporate self care into your daily, weekly, monthly and yearly routine!
It is amazing how often we put ourselves and our cherished loved ones last on our list of priorities for work, for that promotion, for that better way of life, for that education, that prestigious degree because it is for them, they will appreciate all the things we can give them, that these things will afford. But where are they in the equation? Where are we?
Usually we are exhausted, running on little sleep, poor nutrition, a sense of panic at the fast paced life we are trying to navigate. We are not even in the equation and the loved ones we do it for, they would rather have us with them then the things that we could give them. Of course with age comes wisdom and our priorities change, but why not now?
It warms my heart when someone decides to put them self and the person/people they love first, to prioritize self care, to seize the moments we have!
I know why we work hard, strive for better, compete against ourselves and against time. But it needs to be balanced we need to take time for holidays, unscheduled days off, quiet moments because those are the days that will be remembered.
Bora Bora sounds beautiful and I hope above all hope that the sun and beach can be enjoyed and will be a cherished memory.

H1N1 and the lack of Blog

Until SARS hit Toronto it was hard to fathom what a pandemic truly meant. Since the 1918 influenza pandemic our country has not experienced the life threatening panic of a strain of flu that indiscriminately spreads and possibly brings death to those infected. Of course until SARS I did not even know that there had been a pandemic in 1918 that killed approximately 50,000 Canadians, most of whom were between the age of 20-40.
Call it naive or ignorant, our mortality seemed protected by our intellect, good hygiene, as well as accessibility to a great medical system, I think it may have been a combination of both!
Now we as a society are hypersensitive. We seem to be a culture of extremes, either we completely ignore possibilities or we focus on every minute possibility and panic over these rarities to point of neurosis and the media feeds this neurosis with stories that are written as the common experience rather than the outlying possibilities. I am talking about H1N1!
I am not saying that we should not be aware, to practice good hand washing, to stay home when sick, but I am saying that not every sniffle is life threatening, not every fever will result in a diagnosis of H1N1 and even if it does, it does not mean that the influenza will result in life threatening conditions. I am more concerned about some of the irrational panic then I am the flu.
I had a very sick little boy last week, he had fevered for days. After 4 days of fever we had called Telehealth with his symptoms and were reassured it was just croup. After a week of fever we took him to the hospital and there we were told that it was the flu (not H1N1) and that we would have to wait it out. When friends and family found out that he was sick, I started getting emails about the difference between H1N1 and the flu, I had people suggesting that he might have the dreaded influenza, all with the best intention of course, but it kept me aware and as much as I tried to remain level headed about his condition, panic was taking over my thoughts, my sleep, my dreams. When the thirteen year old boy died in Toronto, I received several calls, emails pointing out this piece of news, making me feel like I was not advocating enough for my son's health, or that I was missing something. It made me feel horrible.
I feel for that family, the parents and the brother of that young man, how untimely and sad, and by the sounds of the reports they did what they could, they took him to the hospital, they had him rest but something went wrong for him and tragically he died. It is important to be cautious with this influenza because like any flu, it can result in death, but his story was written by the media to create panic, it was written to make this influenza appear a death sentence and what it has done is created a burdened medical system; hospitals are experiencing 12 hour waits, clinics are closing the doors half way through the day to accommodate all the people in their wait rooms and even Telehealth has a two hour wait to talk with a nurse.
I think we need to be aware, keep up with our good hygiene, stop pushing our kids to go to school when they are sick, stay home ourselves when we are ill, but we should not overreact, start diagnosing ourselves with H1N1, start panicking that we are all doomed, stop buying in to the way the media packages the info surrounding this flu.
My son ended up having pneumonia as a side effect of the flu he had and with antibiotics he is 100% better. When I said to the doctor that at least it was pneumonia and not H1N1, he pointed out that pneumonia is just as and sometimes more serious and he was right. I was being blindly affected by the media and I needed to tune my awareness to the present and not the possibilities. I do have to thank H1N1 because the panic sent me back to the doctors on the 10th day of fever only to get the pneumonia diagnosis in time, for that I am thankful.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Celebration of Life, really?

This is going to be a bit of rant. I will try to make it a gentle rant. There is a new wave of expectations surrounding funerals and grief and mourning in our society and the after effects of it are walking through my office on a daily basis. It is something we don't think about until we ourselves are affected by it. I hope this rant will get the conversation flowing about death, funerals and the realities of grief and mourning.
Have you ever been to a funeral where everyone was telling everyone else that it was not a funeral but a celebration of life? Did you look around that room, was everyone celebrating?
Have you ever experienced the death of someone where the family decided not to do a funeral and said they would do a memorial sometime down the road? And you are still waiting for it to happen? Was the next gathering filled with conversation about the deceased?
Have you ever said to your family and friends that when you die you don't want people to be sad, you want everyone to have a great time and remember you?
Have you ever said that when you die, you do not want a funeral or memorial, you just want to be buried and be done with it?
The above scenarios have happened to me, in fact, I have said some of the things that I listed above, with the best intentions of course, not realizing the hurt that I potentially caused or will cause.
Death is an inevitable part of life, but it is distinct from life as life (as we know it) has ceased. When we make a funeral a celebration of life, we take the death out of it in our wording, in our avoidance and in our mannerisms. We are a death denying society and even in our funerals we are denying death. A funeral is a ceremony to acknowledge the life (yes) but also the death of that person and give people an opportunity to acknowledge that that person has died through seeing the dead person's body or casket (I will keep opinions on that out of here) and to begin grieving that person's death. By saying we are celebrating it can make people feel weak or wrong to not feel ready to be joyful or happy and that in turn starts the message that grief and mourning are a sign of weakness and are wrong.
So you can imagine the impact on a community when there is no funeral, memorial service, nothing to give family, friends or the community time to acknowledge the death of someone that they cared about. Immediate family is overwhelmed with shock, possibly the dying person them self had expressed that they did not want anything after they died, making the family feel that they should honour this wish. It is so important to recognize that as much as we love that person in our family a funeral/memorial is not for the deceased person, it is for the family, friends and community that need to grieve and mourn and recognize that the death has happened. It is a time that they can express their love for that person and how they contributed to their life. It is part of their healing, coping and managing the grief and for the immediate family it can be so helpful to hear the love and stories of the person that died where mourning can be expressed and is accepted.
So then why do we say this to our family and friends? Why do we want them to love and care for us but not to grieve or remember us? I know that is not really what we want, we probably do not recognize what we are taking away from them. When we tell them that we do not want them to be sad we are again attributing weakness to grief and mourning. Grief is as natural to a relationship as love is and as necessary as breathing.
And do not take the ceremony away from the death. People need to acknowledge death, to help them make sense of it, to accept its reality and to begin to grieve. More than just the immediate family; friends, co-workers and the community need an opportunity to acknowledge, share and grieve as well. Without a ceremony they may never get the chance to talk or remember that person or they may not feel that it is wanted. By the way if they really need the opportunity to talk and grieve that person, next family gathering, next big event will turn into a mini memorial event when you least expect or even want it. People need the opportunity to normalize and recognize death.
So a final thought. Funerals/memorials do not need to cost an arm and a leg. It does not have to be about how much money you put into the after life (unless that is a cultural custom), it needs to be a time and opportunity soon after the death when the community can come together and grieve and mourn together the death of that person they cared for and loved.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The End of Baby Days Dilema

Kinley is going to be two in November. When he was born Landy and I had the discussion of whether or not he was our last child. We both decided that we would wait until Kinley turned one to make a decision. When Kinley turned one, neither of us were ready to make that choice. I was not ready to be pregnant again but I was not convinced that we were finished having children. Landy on the other hand said he was not sure he wanted any more children but the mention of vasectomy turned him green in the gills. He said that he was not set against another child and that he had been done having children after Rhys and absolutely done after Flynn (Thanks Land!).
I have always wanted a large family, I don't know if I ever defined what large was, but I knew it was more than two children. Being at family Christmas where there is six boys always seemed comforting and such a blessing and although I do not intend on having six children I do believe that one more child would bless this family and complete this house.

When I have talked about children and having babies with my girlfriends everyone of them said that they knew when they were done, when they were ready to hang up the pregnancy days and concentrate on growing those babies into children. I have not had that feeling, that "this is it" moment. Of course maybe I am naive and that moment does not come for everybody, I do not intend to continue to have children indefinitely. I understand the financial responsibility, overpopulation and the affect on the family dynamic. I think my baby days are numbered. Frankly it makes me very sad. I am not even convinced that I need to have another pregnancy, the thought of adopting has been one that I have been considering as of late as well. I love my children, we have the space and the love to provide a family to a child.
I am also quite aware that this may just be the hole that was left after Flynn died, the fourth child that we do not get to hold again. I realize that if he were here we would be done having children.
I have a time line in my head. A length of time that if it passes and we have not had another baby then we are finished and the decision has biologically been made for us or an adoption is out of the question. I just wish that I had that internal moment, like my girlfriends when I look at my family and know that there are no more children.
Landy has left the decision in my hands (again thanks Land) and if I felt it were completely up to me, I know that I would want to have another child biological or adopted. I guess I need to give this one more time, to work itself out. I envy my friends who just know.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Happy 12th Wedding Anniversary (the day after)

It boggles the mind to think that 12 years (and one day) has passed since we said "I DO!"
There is something funny about writing this blog today. Yesterday would have been more appropriate and yet yesterday I could not write this blog and it is because of yesterday that I appreciate 12 years of growing together.

Friday night Landy and I attended a wine and tapas party, it was great food and conversation with friends, a much needed night out in a house of six boys. Before I knew it I had had a phenomenal amount of wine. Needless to say Saturday morning (our true anniversary) I was in no shape to wish anyone anything happy, let alone acknowledge a pivotal day in the my life.
If I would have done this on our 8 year anniversary I would have possibly been met with a scowl, an underhanded comment about how inconsiderate I had been or how much work the kids were. Lucky for me this was my 12 year anniversary and Landy simply rubbed my heaving back saying in all sincerity "my poor baby" and kept the kids downstairs until I could manage the hollering, running and chasing. He even cleaned the toilets (along with my brother), vacuumed the house and did all the dishes.
I finally dragged myself out of bed around noon to get ready for a first birthday for our neighbour's daughter, our anniversary would have to wait a little while longer. I thought of our 1 year anniversary and the need for Landy to come home from Minnesota for that weekend on the threat that it would be his first and last anniversary if he didn't and here we were putting aside our 12 year anniversary to celebrate a pinnacle moment in a child' life. It took all the energy I could muster to make it through the party but I did.
When we got home it was time to acknowledge that this day was also my brother's 32nd birthday and so our anniversary would need to wait again so that we could celebrate a day that came way before our marriage was even a thought.
I thought about our 10 year anniversary, the amazing poem that Landy had written for me, something that will hold more value than anything purchased in a store, a testament to the depth in which his love extends. After dinner and cake for my brother it was time to put the boys to bed and get through the evening tasks of the family: pj's, teeth brushing, story time, etc.
When the boys were tucked into bed and the house went quiet I looked at the clock and realized that 12 years ago at 9pm, Landy and I had been husband and wife for 2 hours. By 9pm on September 26, 1997 we had done our speeches, cut the cake and started the dance that would begin the life that we planned on spending together. Those two young people with big dreams, passionate aspirations and wild and crazy love would one day become the two adults that would have four beautiful children, careers they could be proud of, a house that is built on family and a love that has sustained them through the tough and tougher.
Yesterday, with a volatile stomach and a throbbing head this post would have been difficult to write because I would not have been able to put the love and admiration that I have for the man that chose to marry me 12 years ago into it. Today I recognize just how great that man is and how lucky of a woman I am.