Category Archives: Parenting

Just for Today

Ten years. Ten thousand sighs. Ten million tears.

Inconceivable that it could be so long, that I have carried on.

Unbelievable became the truth;

Grief became the norm.

But slowly inconsolable became absorbed

And glimmers of hope emerged.

Would there be new life one day,

Would I be glad I stayed?

Today.

I’m glad today.

And that’s all I have.

malc smiling

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For grieving mothers as we approach Mother’s Day.

breastfeeeding_mother_holding_baby

Every day with your child was mother’s day. Every day you held them, fed them, scolded them, sang them to sleep, wiped their tears, changed their diapers, washed their clothes, agonized with them about their break-ups, celebrated their victories, supported their achievements, gave solace in their disappointments. Every day. And now no day is mother’s day. There is nothing more you can do for them, say to them, give them. No more hugs or advice. No more forgiveness for short-tempered outbursts, no more apologies for ill-thought-out judgments. Nothing. Mother’s Day is social convention. Mother’s Day is a lie. The emptiness is every day not just once a year.

I weep with you; I mourn with you. There are no useful words. Just a gentle suggestion: don’t stay by yourself on Mother’s Day. Allow someone else to share your pain. And if you can’t find someone to do that, then find a way of celebrating someone else’s day. Just don’t be alone with your sadness and loss.

Remember: You were a mother, even for a little while. You had the miracle of life in your body, in your arms, in your daily life. That was a great gift, a grace, undeserved. A hand was placed on your chest and that touch entered your heart as no other touch can. A child knew you as his or her mother. Knew that safety, that acceptance, that bountiful love. You did that. You gave that. That was precious. And those years, or months or even moments are yours to remember and treasure.

 

To all mothers on Mother’s Day

Mothers, hug your sons!
Then place your hand on his face and look him in the eyes and tell him you love him, and how proud you are of the person he is. Not what he has done, but who he is. Acceptance. Support. Gifts beyond price.

Calendars

I feel like I am in an emotional loop, moving from funerals to anniversaries to funerals to Mothers Day to Birthdays, Deathdays … maybe it is time to set the calendar aside or maybe it is time to mark different kinds of events. I don’t know. I just feel stretched thin, emotionally translucent, yet somehow numb.

Today is Malcolm’s Birthday. He would have been 30. I like to imagine what he would have been doing, where he would have been living.  Maybe teaching, with photography on the side. Maybe living in a cottage in Old Jefferson and coming over for Sunday lunch and leftovers to bring home.  I like this fantasy. It warms my heart.

If only…

The First Christmas Without My Mother

It goes without saying: to love is to lose; to live is to die. Life is just that – love and loss.  If we dare to love, we will feel like dying when we lose our beloved. The only question about love and death is: Who will go first? I joke with my husband: If you go first I’ll kill you!

When my mother died a few weeks ago I didn’t seem to feel much. I’m catching up now! But it’s a confusion of feelings: sadness as intense as anger. Yesterday I learned how to scream. I have read about scream therapy and been advised about anger work. I have been encouraged to hit or throw or pummel something other than myself. But I have never managed to do any of this with much energy, so it felt pointless. And my attempts to scream, while driving my car and thus insulated from the hearing world, were always throaty, soprano screeches. Not so yesterday. Yesterday I tensed my chest and my throat and made an ugly, forceful, deep grrr sound. It felt good so I did it again…louder and throatier. And then I cried the rest of the way home. A barrier had been breached.

I am not sure which is worse –  having sweet, loving, memories of affection and tenderness, concern and affirmation, and being overcome with grief at her passing, or having no such memories.  I tell myself that my good memories are being held hostage by the bad ones I cannot recall; that perhaps as I face the bad memories the good ones will surface, too. That’s what I tell myself.

I do know that my mother cared for me in the ways in which she was capable. My mother taught herself to cook and parent as best she could. The child of upper-middle class parents, she was raised in a private boarding school from the age of about 4, and parented by nannies during vacations at home. Entering nursing school at 18, she was completely unprepared for independent living, but she could dress with taste, recite all the Catholic prayers, crochet and sew, and – of course – play tennis. She could also play piano well enough to have possibly pursued a career in music. But a high school trauma she would never explain caused her to refuse to ever touch the keys again. My mother was a woman of private pain.

My mother loved her children through her coffee cakes, butterfly scones, horseshoe biscuits. She loved them through her hand-washed laundry, not owning a washing machine until she was in her 70’s. She loved her children through her scrubbed carpets and wallpapered rooms – doing all the decorating herself. My mother loved her children by remaining faithful and committed to her husband, a loyalty that cost her the support of her own large family of 8 siblings, none of whom were represented at her funeral. None.

Now I am wondering, did I ever tell her thank you? Or did I just spend my life waiting for the signs of love that 50’s TV shows and James Stewart Christmas movies held out as tantalizing fantasy?  Did she know that I noticed her care and was grateful, even though I wished there had been hugs and soft words?  I have lost the opportunity to get over my childish, self-centered resentments and be an adult in relation to her. I left home at 18, too.  Maybe if I had learned to be angry and to scream 38 years ago I could have had an emotional confrontation and begun an adult relationship with my mother.

From Faith to Doubt to … Hope

This is a draft of an introduction to my next book. I would very much appreciate feedback.

Natural disaster, institutional evil, the suicide of a loved one. The experience of each of these tragedies results in grief and loss: denial, anger, blaming, depression, and eventually, so the theory goes, acceptance and renewal of hope – a new beginning. In the face of tragedy, understanding the common stages of grief and loss can offer victims some sense of order in an otherwise chaotic emotional landscape. But what if, while reeling under the impact of a tragedy, we also face the loss of our religious faith, and along with it the very structures of meaning that have held us together for so long? What if we find ourselves doubting the goodness of our church, the existence of God, the purposeful nature of creation, the meaning of life, the very possibility of hope?

Three separate tragedies – Hurricane Katrina, the Catholic abuse scandal, the loss of a son to suicide – connected through the common ground of grief and loss, and carrying in their wake a profound challenge to religious faith. This may seem too wide a topic for a single book, but it can’t be: this book is not an intellectual exercise; these tragedies tell the story of my life. The questions I raise here surface from the depths of my own grief and sorrow and from my desperate need to reclaim hope, the hope I once relied on, the hope I tried to offer my students, the hope that my son wrote of, even as he prepared to die.

If you are looking for a story of spiritual transformation, a wrenching tragedy followed by a poignant renewal of faith, then this book is not for you. If you need to find immediate comfort, and the reassurance that God has a Plan and everything happens for a Reason, this book will not serve you well. I’m telling you this because I don’t want to cause any more pain: grief and loss are too damn difficult already. But if you are grasping for a raft in the midst of overwhelming tragedy, emotional chaos, or spiritual drought, if you are disillusioned with organized religion, and not even sure about God, let alone God’s plan, then we are on a similar journey and maybe we can share the road for a while.

Typically, spiritual odyssey stories generate speaking engagements, t-shirts, and affirmation cards. They take the reader from the pain and chaos of suffering, sin, and loss to the comfort of forgiveness and the renewal of faith. This story travels in the other direction: from a career teaching theology and leading liturgical music — feeling that I was in God’s hands — to the desolation of suddenly feeling that God had let go.

I used to readily call myself Catholic; now I don’t know what label fits. If “Catholic” can be a cultural descriptor, the way “Jewish” is for many Jews, then I am certainly Catholic. I was born and raised in the Church, received all the relevant sacraments, earned two degrees from Catholic universities, taught theology for nearly three decades in Catholic schools, and raised two sons in the Church. I would not hesitate to check “Catholic” on a census or on a hospital admissions chart. Nonetheless, I am currently ambivalent about God and find it too distressful to attend Church with any regularity.

My story will not nurture a soul hungry for immediate spiritual enrichment, but to those who are struggling to make sense of suffering and God it offers the consolation that you are not alone. It may even help you let go of the guilt of doubting God. And for those who are searching for some sense of meaning and purpose when life seems devoid of any, perhaps it will even offer you a little hope. That is certainly my hope.

Today the younger brother became the older

One of the joys of having a child who loves math and problem solving is that he can work out things like the very day on which he has officially outlived his older brother — counting leap years and everything.  Today, he tells us, is that day. As of 3.30pm he became the older brother. I don’t know how to get inside that experience with him. But then again I don’t think I should. Some griefs are personal.

So, on this day of passage, I want to write a letter to James.

You were a great younger brother.  Malcolm knew how much you wanted to be with him and be like him and be included by him. Although he got aggravated by you following him physically and socially, he was somewhere inside kind of flattered to have a fan. He loved you even while he ganged up against you with TJ; he knew he would always have you.  And as he grew older he was so proud of you. 

As you get your head and heart around the significance of today, remember that the life you live does not have to somehow be valuable enough to compensate for Malcolm’s death. The only life you have to live is your own; the only expectations you have to live up to are your own.   You have nothing to prove to us.

I am sorry Malcolm isn’t there for you, leading the way into adulthood and parenthood. But you are not alone. You have us and you have a big extended family. Stay ever closer to your cousins no matter how far you go geographically. Remember, family is the glue (!) and you can still be “Uncle” James to Beth’s twins.

We love you.

Three years

We’re coming up to three years and I’m facing the anniversary with trepidation again, but less so than before. I remember how in those first horrific days I wanted only to be with Malcolm; I agonised over the thought that he was alone and afraid.  As weeks and months passed I felt guilty for abandoning him, for not dying too. As months passed into a year I fantasized about creating a near death experience so I could see him and hug him once more and make sure he was alright; but I didn’t want to die, I would make sure to be resuscitated so that I wouldn’t cause my family any more pain. Now, at three years, even that fantasy seems empty, ridiculous even. Now I wear his jacket to Mardi Gras parades, I read his Facebook page where friends and family still post messages, I look at photos, and sometimes, like today, I help his dad tend to his grave. A parent’s nightmare — having to tend their child’s grave. But that is the last thing we can do for him now, one last act of love.

Another birthday

Yesterday I had a birthday. My husband was out of town and that was OK because it hurts to celebrate a birthday without Malcolm. Our family tradition was to get up and share a birthday breakfast on everybody’s special day. My choice was always McKenzie’s sweet rolls. The boys liked a variety of  donuts, especially chocolate with sprinkles. My husband liked buttermilk drops. We would put candles in the middle of the donuts. And of course we would take a photo. Mal would take the picture of my birthday and the boys would  be on either side at the kitchen table. The photo at the top of this blog is my birthday morning in 2006. James was away at school, Malc was back living with us for graduate school and, although he liked mornings as much as I do, he got up for the traditional breakfast and photo. I love this photo, it captures his beautiful smile, so natural.

And now James will have a birthday tomorrow and he will be the same age as Malcolm was when he died. Next year he will officially have outlived his brother. But one thing that will never change is the memory of those birthday breakfasts where the best presents I could ever have were the people around the table. Happy Birthday for tomorrow, James. Know that your brother loves you still.

The stigma of depression

It is still not OK to talk about depressed children. When you have a child who is depressed you cover up, you make excuses, you lie. Anything but tell people he is suffering from depression. Why? In our case I could say that we wanted to spare our son embarrassment and that sounds noble, right? But why should he be embarrassed? Is it because we are embarrassed? Do we think that others  will blame us for our child’s depression? Sadly, they might. But that is their problem. We can’t control that.

By keeping things secret we are just adding to the shame that the depressed feel.  Would it have helped Malcolm if we had been more open about his depression?  If he had been diagnosed with diabetes, would we have kept that from his cousins and grandparents and teachers? No! We would have wanted them to know, so they could help support his healthy behavior and look out for signs of  any medical crises.

I have diabetes, Type II. I take medicine twice a day and I know that if I don’t manage my blood sugar levels I am putting myself at greater risk for heart attack, stroke, blindness and limb amputation in my future. I don’t fight taking my diabetes medicine. But my depression medicine? That’s another story. I struggle all the time. “If I were a strong enough person and more in control I could do without it.”  “I don’t need it any more, I am feeling better.”  It is so easy to dismiss depression as something I can control, “if I put my mind to it.” Even though I know that depression like diabetes is a bio-chemical issue. Regardless of whether one has “emotional issues” depression is, by the time it manifests, a bio-chemical problem as well. Even with therapy, an adjustment in one’s body chemistry is usually going to be necessary. One’s chemistry has to get re-aligned; one’s serotonin levels have to get adjusted up. Maybe your body will be able to sustain the appropriate levels once it has readjusted, but for many people, like myself, medicine is necessary long-term. I know because I have tried multiple times to do without, only to discover that, yes, it really does make a difference in how well I can cope and how low my mood gets.

I hate myself for needing antidepressants; I don’t hate myself for needing diabetes medicine. What’s the difference? Again I come back to the issue of shame. I feel that I am judged by society as being “responsible” for being depressed. As if it is a character weakness. But because I am not morbidly obese, and therefore not obviously “responsible” for my sugar levels being abnormal, society doesn’t judge my diabetes as a character flaw. The truth is, both probably have a genetic cause to some extent, and my behavior has certainly contributed to my developing diabetes. On the other hand I have done nothing to “cause” my depression.

So, what am I saying? I am saying we need to redefine our attitudes to depression. We need to be supportive of family members who are depressed and not communicate any shame messages. Ask them how they want to deal with telling people, but encourage them to share information with others in order to get support. Don’t encourage secrets because that suggests to them that you are ashamed of their depression. Let them know clearly that you are not ashamed, and if secrecy is their choice, you will comply only because they want it, not because you do.  Of course, if you have been hiding your own depression it is hard to support this attitude convincingly. So maybe the first course of action is to be honest about your own illness, if you suffer too. Joining a support group, getting on medication, and or getting into therapy yourself can model a good attitude towards depression. You don’t want to share your “issues” with your children but you can show them that depression is a medical condition that one need not be ashamed of.  And you need to keep telling yourself until you really believe it.