Sunday, October 23, 2016

We All Lose - An Essay by my Very Talented Son

I want to start by saying that this is a very raw narrative that my oldest wrote for an assignment at school (not for the faint of heart). While I am very proud of him for his honest and at times heartbreaking look at his life, it was not easy to read.  The reality is that while he has lived this, so have we - beside him, at times feeling terribly powerless and afraid. If I could have written in the margins of this assignment I would have reminded him that his existence was me winning. Our family has experienced loss and his struggle is his to navigate but not alone and not by losing. Maybe we have a future writer on our hands (even though he says he hates english).

There are many things to lose, almost too many. Losing isn’t avoidable it is a part of life. Whether it be a game, a loved one or an opportunity, if we lose hope or motivation, we all lose. A born winner takes losing much harder than a born loser. Everyone deals with loss differently and for different reasons. For example, losing a game may be experienced differently then losing family or friends. In life we all lose, some just lose more than others.     

I am a born loser. I have managed a few lucky wins here and there but the rest of the time I am losing. I have lost members of my family, I have lost my motivation for success, I believe I am lost. My best friend is the complete opposite, he has been winning since day one. He had a small hiccup when his parents split, but for the most part he is winning. He is intelligent, athletic and has a drive to be successful; I believe he can’t lose.

When I was born I was diagnosed with cellulitis which lead to late onset group B strep.  I was hospitalized for two weeks and was at risk of contracting meningitis, that was when my losing started. At age two and a half my parents told me that I would be a big brother. I was almost three years old when my baby brother died just two hours after he was born. I don’t remember much from that time period other than the dramatic shift in our house from joyous anticipation to devastating despair. My mom became a shell of her former self, empty like the room he was supposed to fill.

It would be seven years later when the Grim Reaper would rear his ugly head again, this time taking my “uncle” away from me, from his family. This man who I aspired to be like. A father who had just welcomed his fifth child. He was the most caring man I knew. I became extremely aggressive in a futile attempt to suppress my pain, the feeling of losing, the feeling of emptiness I had only experienced once before. If a streak consists of three, then this is where my losing streak begins.

Four months later I was on my way home from Disney World with my family, when my mom got a phone call. She sunk deep into her seat, face slipping into a hollow frown as streams of tears flowed from her eyes. Those same awful streams from seven years earlier. It wouldn’t be until we were home that she would tell us that my Grandma died.  I lost control of all my emotions, experiencing endless fits of anger.  The loss of her felt like fuel had been thrown on the fires of an already burning fury.

I went two years without losing anyone.  At the end of grade six I lost my dog. Copper the only dog I ever knew. He was my confidant, he comforted and understood me, we grew up together. Suddenly he was gone and my heart was ripped from my chest. The hurt was immeasurable and the emptiness reached new levels.  I felt so empty like there was nothing left in me to be empty.  I began to slip away, just coasting through life trying not to get attached to people. I wanted to prevent myself from losing more than I already had.

My simmering anger now turned to rage and I blamed it all on my parents.  I tried to run away from everything, love, attachments, my home, but that didn't work because I was only thirteen. I resorted to thoughts of killing myself so I would never lose anyone ever again. I would be freed from the sadness, the anger, the emptiness, the loss. These thoughts were in my head for years; how to do it, when to do it, where to do it. This was how I spent my formative years of thirteen, fourteen and fifteen. At some point the thoughts stopped, I began to realize that if I died I would just become someone else's loss.
At sixteen I lost my great Aunt to lung cancer and my Uncle to a heart attack. I felt nothing. I wasn't affected by their passing and I was not sure if it was because we were not close or just because I was so empty that I had stopped caring. I don’t know. It scared me to think that I could not feel and maybe never would again.  How could I live without emotion, was that even living? For just a moment I wondered if I could bear to keep losing if that was what life was.

Just last month I lost another one of my uncles. We saw him two to three times a year and when we did, him and I would have long conversations about how I was doing and if I was still playing baseball?  He would tell me that he would like to come and watch me play and I would always say that he was welcome but I would never reach out and give him a schedule and so he never made it to a game. Then he was gone, gone forever and I cried.  There was sadness and pain which was followed by a profound joy at the realization that I was alive.

Some may say that I have been burdened by loss. From my earliest memory I was losing and it followed me throughout my life. At times it seemed unbearable and something that was suffered in silence and other times it seemed to scream through my anger derived from my emptiness.  Life can be a collection of losses or an accumulation of memories, I still trying to figure out which one is me. For now, I have lost. I am lost. I will lose, we all do.      

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

A Photo Journal of Another Anniversary that ended in Conversation

Long title to a blog, I know, however I did not want to misrepresent myself, it is not just photography and I plan on ending this blog with the conversation that I had with Landy as I think it was a really important one.
Today is the 14th anniversary of Flynn`s birth and death and this is how I spent my day.

I woke up this morning and it was kinda sunny. The type of day that is mostly cloudy (not the fluffy kind, more the gray rainy kind) with moments of sun poking through.  I dressed in layers for the day and as I left my house I noticed that Flynn`s tree, the weeping pea that we bought after he died and have transplanted 3 times, was budding it`s leaves.

I started the day with my children, whether getting them ready for school or daycare or sipping a coffee on the couch while they got themselves organized for the day.  I did not remind them of the significance of today, not in the morning, I wasn`t prepared to share it with them.

Then I was off to the floral shop where I confused a florist for ten minutes as I requested six, no seven blue orchids before changing my mind and asking for two blue, two purple, two yellow and one white orchid (one to represent each member of our family).  Then came the usual argument where the florist insists on putting water picks on the sprigs and if not that then orchid food and finally if not that, at least let them wrap it in paper.  I had to explain three times that the flowers were simply being placed on a gravestone and did not require any additional treatment.  Finally she tied a blue ribbon and let me leave.  When I arrived at the cemetery I noticed that I was one sprig short, how fitting.
Next, I was off to a favourite coffee spot where I could indulge in a "breakfast" of sorts and made use of free WiFi.  Getting lost in the project I was researching, the sound of the shop fell away and I was left in a tranquil quiet of my own making.

Lunch was spent in the company of care, nurture and friendship with a side of sushi!  I never tire of talking about Flynn or the stories that surrounded our life during that time and today was no exception.  Susan listened as I shared aspects of his story that she may have never heard before and I appreciated her sharing her own moments in time (past and present) where I could listen for her.  We ended on a note of enthusiasm as we discussed a potential project we would like to work on together!

My afternoon was spent watching my oldest play high school baseball, something I may not have another opportunity to do, given our crazy schedules.

I ended the afternoon with a friend pedicure alongside Tonya. I want to share the message she sent me today, as it meant a great deal (as did all the loving messages I received on Facebook, Blackberry Messenger and text).  It started when she asked me how the day was going and I told her that it felt like a heavy day, different than other years, this was her amazing response:

My day ended in a conversation with this guy.  A long time ago I called myself a grief pusher.  At the time I was learning about my own grief journey but was also pursuing an education in social work.  The concept of self determination and the unique and individual experience of grief was a theoretical underpinning to supportive social work practice in grief and I was taking it all to heart.  I took what I was learning and applied it to my marriage; Landy deserved space and appreciation for his own grief journey and I started to give that to him.  Consequently, this little label that I had created of a grief pusher had stood in my own way when it came to Flynn's anniversary.  While I love and appreciate the friends that surround me, the person I most wanted to spend his anniversary with was the one person who like me understands what Flynn's death felt like.  Today I told Landy how hard it is to do this day without him.  I told him I want to do this day together, that is how we experienced Flynn's life and death and I hope that is how we will honour his day.  It will not surprise anyone that it was met with love and kindness and an acknowledgement that next year will be different.
It was a good day.

Monday, May 2, 2016

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Celeste Roberge's "Rising Cairn" sculpture in front of the Nevada Art Museum in Reno. (Photo: Greg Patterson/Flickr)
In the past month this image has crossed my social media feeds multiple times with the caption: "the weight of grief- an illustration of the physical feeling of grief."  At one point, Landy's cousin thoughtfully directed the photo to me suggesting that it might fit on my blog.  I thought I might tackle what this sculpture evokes for me and agree that this blog may be the perfect place to explore that.
The sculpture is actually called "Raising Cairn" and the artist Celeste Roberge derived the name from the cairns of Europe, the piles of stones used to mark spots of significance whether roads, burial sites or borders. Admittedly, Roberge did not intend for the sculpture to depict the "weight of grief."  In fact, that interpretation was made by therapist/counsellor, Janette Murphy, who posted this picture online with the above-mentioned caption and from there the picture went viral. When interviewed this week about the viral photo and the alignment to the experience of grief,  Roberge said that she welcomes the interpretations and believes individual meaning enhances ones connection to the art.

So how do I feel when I see this picture as it relates to my own grief?  Well, it feels more representative of how unavailable I believed others were when I was grieving.  I saw my family (our parents, siblings and extended family) grieving and pained.  Like this sculpture their rocks were wrapped around their heart, protecting it from the outside world and unavailable to me. I watched as they struggled with the weight of our son's death; how could they support us, how would they make sense of our experience and reconcile how it had changed us? If we were not the same then our relationships were also transformed. People seemed immobilized in our presence or unreachable and not from any lack of effort or due to their shortcomings but because while they appeared weighed down by stones, in juxtaposition I felt hollow - we were misaligned.  My stones were not stones at all but rather boulders.  If I were this same wire representation I would have a boulder in my middle and one on my back and the rest of my wire shape would be hollow.  The boulder in my centre ~ my despair, isolation, hopelessness, heartbreak and my grief.  The one on my back ~ my guilt, shame, bitterness, and fear.  If that hollow structure represented my self and my grief following Flynn's death, how could all that empty space, held to it's shape by simple wire, move those two large boulders?  In truth, had I even wanted to move them?

It is the eve of the anniversary of Flynn's birth and death and now I know that eventually I did move the boulders.  Not the same boulders that accompanied that hollow shell that represented me after Flynn died, those boulders changed in shape and size and so did my ability to carry them. That hollowness is merely a hole now and not the entirety of my being.  Writing about carrying boulders evokes a monologue from my favourite movie, The Rabbit Hole, and Dianne Weist's character when she talks about her grief as the brick in her pocket.  That imagery resonates with me and has since I first saw the movie - maybe that is how I have changed, over the past 14 years the boulders have moved from within me to become the rocks in my pocket:

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Hyper Helicoptered Kid - Part Two

This blog has been even more of a beast to write then its predecessor, found here.  If I believed talking about my parenting was difficult, recognizing how it has impacted my children is well, it is heartbreaking.  I tried not to be too clinical in this post, but I know at times I am - call it a coping strategy for the anxiety this post provoked (oh the irony).

I don't even know really how to begin, so I will just say it - my children are anxious.  This is not a mental health diagnosis, although one day that might be a reality, it is an observation of how they interact with their world.  Each exhibits anxiety in varying degrees of course and it manifests itself in very different ways dependent on which kid it is, but they are very anxious kids.  While I recognize that generally children are showing more indicators of anxiety and as a society we are more aware of how anxiety manifests - I cannot help but believe that as a hyper helicopter parent I have contributed to their anxiousness.  This is not a self criticism (not really anyway), the reality being that I do not believe I could have been any other way after Flynn died and I have not sat idly by hoping it would correct itself either (more on that later).

Speaking frankly, anxious parenting has a higher probability of leading to anxious kids. In my last post I talked about parenting from a perspective of constantly evaluating the danger of every situation my children approached and regularly saying things like "don't do that", "get off that", "you will hurt yourself" and flat out "NO."  Children are not just led by what is communicated to them, they also use their intuition to understand what is expected of them.  They look to their caregivers for guidance on every new experience they encounter.  So not only were my children verbally hearing that most things they wanted to do was scary they likely sensed my highly anxious state and interpreted that as "I need to be on alert for the danger." Manufacture that cycle enough times and children become engaged in a continuous belief that nothing is safe and anxiety as a feeling becomes the mechanism of assessing their environment for danger.

You may be wondering how my children exhibit their anxiety.

My oldest, who is quickly approaching 17, starts by getting quiet around the "thing" that is provoking an anxious response.  Typically these are issues relating to school and relationships but if anything is off with his health, he will immediately believe it is the worst possibility he can identify.  If we as parents haven't clued in to what we are not talking about he will progress to an angry reactiveness with limited ability to communicate verbally and from there he quickly escalates to rage.  Once we give him time and space he generally comes to us about an upcoming test, an unfortunate report card or a sore throat and he acknowledges that he was experiencing anxiety.

Our older middlest who is almost 12 is very different.  He is almost constantly dealing with anxiety.  For example he is always asking questions relating to safety at home, for his siblings, for our extended family and for himself.  He is my parrot parent, constantly telling his siblings (yes even the older one) what they should or shouldn't do and again it generally relates to safety.  He is so hyper-aroused that he has difficulty sleeping, sitting still and experiences physical pain very intensely, so he is hurt often.  His emotional responses to everyday concerns are large and intense too and he often is moved to tears.  He doesn't have the emotional vocabulary to assist him in getting support from the adults around him but we are working on it.  Additionally we are teaching him coping strategies and validating his feelings so that we can talk them out.

Interestingly our younger middlest doesn't seem to exhibit much anxiety outside of situations/scenarios that would naturally provoke an anxious response, but I have a theory on that.
I said earlier that I have not sat idly by when it comes to my hyper helicopter parenting and the impact to the boys.  I have sought out my own support through counselling so that I can cope with and alleviate my own anxious responses and feel more capable of parenting my children as they explore and navigate new experiences.  I have educated myself on the environmental impacts of anxiety on development and how to foster resilience. Most importantly I am practicing self compassion rather then self criticism.  I really believe that my younger middlest is evidence that it is working.  The two older ones are going to be fine too because they have our love and support, we communicate openly and honestly with them and they have benefited greatly from the changes in my parenting that have come about through my own transformation.

Now that I have gotten to the end of this blog, it wasn't so bad to say it out loud!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Hyper Helicopter Parent - Part One

I have tried to write this post a dozen times and each time I fall short or end up deleting the whole thing.  I am not sure that there is anything more openly vulnerable then examining your own parenting.  Without even asking for others opinions, we are often judged by strangers while we try to parent a screaming child in the grocery store or we compare ourselves to those Pinterest parents who we believe epitomize the "perfect parent" thereby minimizing our own abilities.  That does not even speak to the fears that we are going to get it so wrong that some agency is going to show up at the door and document our poor parenting or worse.  Parenting for me has become a practice of managing anxiety and stress so that my little people can thrive and grow.
I often wonder if my parenting would have been as influenced by anxiety had Flynn not died.  Of course it is almost impossible to know, my memories of parenting my oldest as an infant and toddler seem skewed or intangible, like I raised him in a dream and not anything reflecting real life.  I suppose that is what grief does, it doesn't just mess with the days, weeks and months following the death it takes all the memories that occurred throughout your life and warps them until you are not sure if you can trust them.  In my heart I want to believe that I was a calm, unprovoked parent with my oldest.  I assume that I  trusted in my abilities and allowed him to learn through exploration, testing his abilities through practice and wondering around his environment. There is a big part of me that wonders if that memory is true, is that the grief or it's residue - anxiety?
When Flynn died it not only changed me as a person, it changed me as a mother.  I was coping with a constant underlying anxiety - like a hum below the surface of my skin.  Anything and everything could provoke it to agitation and being a mom became a series of "don't do that", "get off that", "you will hurt yourself" and flat out "NO"(when picturing this you should see me as nearing tears or screaming because that is how anxious I felt).  While my fellow moms tell me that they also parent with fears and concerns for their children's safety (to which I have no doubts), I am unsure if it is indeed similar but I have no real way of knowing.  This is in no way a minimization of what others experience in the parenting relationship or to say that as a bereaved parent I fair worse.  What I know of parenthood comes from a place of bereavement and a perspective painted by failure. Regardless of the circumstances of my child's death, being a mother comes with one major responsibility~ keeping your child alive and my child died. So now here I am responsible for my other little ones and parenting becomes an exercise in trying to figure out whether every situation my children approach is really as dangerous or life threatening as my anxiety believes it is.
A friend, who is also a bereaved parent, described her experience of parenting as the hyper helicopter parent and I really appreciated the term as it encapsulated how out of control this style of parenting FEELS.  Let me break this down - Hyper by definition is an adjective to explain being overstimulated or obsessive and the Helicopter Parent has been described as the parent who is overprotective or excessive in the life of their child or children - so the Hyper Helicopter Parent is obsessively overprotective.  I want to give an example of what this may look like from my own parenting but that feels a bit too vulnerable for the World Wide Web.  What I can say is that once in couples therapy Landy turned to me and said that he felt like I would not let him parent because I believed that he might let our children die and that I did not trust that he would do whatever it took to keep them alive and safe.  Sadly he was not wrong but what I did not say in the therapy session was that I didn't even trust myself with that responsibility and there is the Hyper Helicopter Parent at work.

Watch for my next blog about the impact of the Hyper Helicopter Parent on my children.