Wednesday, September 11, 2019

I Can Only Imagine

On September 11, 2001 I sat in the parlor of our church with my besties from my moms' group. We were so happy to be together after a summer apart. It was my chance to show off newborn Margaret, while 2 year old Jack played happily in the nursery. In the room that day we had a flight attendant, a woman whose husband worked at the Pentagon, another whose sister worked in the World Trade Center, and another for whom the Oklahoma City terrorist attack was not just an abstraction, but a reality. Her husband was the only one who called and said, "Get home now. This is terrorism."

As the news unfolded, we tried to take in what we were hearing, yet for the most part, we continued in our meeting. It didn't seem real. I looked at our agenda items, and crossed them off one by one. Later, as people fled Washington DC, some on foot, Tim chose to stay at work in his office, 3 blocks from the White House. It didn't cross his mind to come home early.

Our passivity seemed stark to me. As we learned more, I became certain that if told that everything was fine and to return to my desk at the Trade Center, I would have done so. It worried me that I didn't seem to have much of a survival instinct. I remembered back to childhood when my brother and sister would chase me and I would just stop. I knew they'd catch me sooner or later, so why not make it sooner?

When we heard of flight attendants and passengers fighting back, of fire fighters trudging up flight after flight of stairs toward the danger, I tried to picture myself in their position of bravery and self-sacrifice and couldn't.

Of course trying to inject myself into these scenarios was futile. It's similar to when I hear someone say, "Well, I would have gone all Mama Bear on them..." when discussing a scenario related to a child. Maybe. Perhaps. Maybe not. How do you know?

I would have liked to have believed I would have plunged into a raging creek after my dying son, not sat quietly in our kitchen waiting for news. I would have imagined Tim would have run to the creek, yet he came quietly to the door, shattered, confused, saying, "What do I do? Should I go down there?"

For all of the heroic acts of that terrible day 18 years ago, surely there were ordinary acts too. People sitting at their desks, trying to make a phone call. Those not processing, wondering if the whole work day would be a waste. Making nervous jokes. Weighing the options of climbing down 60-plus flights of stairs in high heels versus waiting until everything was resolved. It was the final few moments of a world where steel buildings didn't fall. Right before people had to make a terrible choice of staying in a burning skyscraper or leaping out of one.

Or maybe it was really the "during" but not yet the "after."

And when the after came, and we were able to imagine scenarios, so inconceivable a short time before, our country came together in the magnitude and sacredness of the horror and loss of life and promise. We put small differences aside. We talked to strangers. We hung out American flags. We went to church. We honored the pain and grief.

18 years later, domestic terrorists hunt down and murder our children in school. Our children spend time training for and injecting themselves into scenarios such as deciding whether to be brave and try to confront a shooter. How to block a door. Whether to throw their bodies on top of each other. Or whether to crouch and pray for survival.

I try to imagine if we'd been told in September 2001 that our great country would be losing kids this way, not just 2 years post-Columbine, but 20. We would surely have pictured ourselves coming together in love and bravery, putting all differences aside and finding a way to protect our children.

But sometimes what we imagine we would do is not what we do.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Ready or Not (Mom), Here She Comes!

We move Margaret into her dorm on Friday.

Today, instead of taking her to lunch and exhorting her to never swim in a quarry, to keep her drink with her at all times, and to attend any and all goofy activities her RA sets up, I am sitting at McDonald's with Andrew enjoying a 59 cent cone. People ask how I'm coping with Margaret, my original "baby", heading off to school. But the truth is, I haven't been able to focus on what I'm feeling, at least not yet, because I'm in the day-to-day of keeping up with an active 3 year old during what surely is the word's longest preschool break.

I am processing neither Margaret's imminent departure nor the fact that the nest I always thought would be empty as of Sept 2019 is full-ish again. Questions like-- "Who am I now? What is it like to parent a young-adult, when I never had the chance to have an adult mother/daughter relationship? Will I be able to do the dorm move-in for Andrew when I'm 65?"-- all remain unexamined. No, I'm just doing the thing. And the thing seems to be snuggling on the couch with too much Netflix, reminding Andrew to un-clench when I wipe his bottom, and an awful lot of playing with the garden hose.

It makes me think of when Jack died, almost 8 years ago. My very first thoughts in those terrifying moments turned to the need to make Margaret feel safe. To showing my sadness but also my strength (what strength?) so she wouldn't think I would disappear too. I didn't check out. I drove to every soccer practice, marveling that the other parents would even let their kids drive with me, when inside I felt so utterly unhinged, each telephone pole taunting me with sweet relief if only I would steer into it. My love for and my responsibility toward Margaret kept me going. And things got better. Much, much better.

I'm NOT comparing college drop-off to the death of a child, but rather pondering whether being busy and focused on other things is healthy, or whether it's just one more way of covering up, rather than exploring one's feelings. I don't know any other way. Just as I was glad when college classes started up soon after my mom died, I was grateful Margaret's needs were too ever-present to ignore. I was grateful to have to go to work to try to stimulate my brain. Keeping busy with Andrew, which can feel both soul-sucking and life-giving, hasn't left much room to consider my girl's latest chapter even though it is right upon us.

But then I remember it didn't all go unexamined, in the face of responsibility, busy-ness, and gaping need. Late nights with you and this laptop were where I did most of my processing those years ago, and I'm grateful you are here with me now.

Friday, August 9, 2019


Do you know what an ampersand is? 

It’s the “&” symbol on a keyboard. A long time ago, I bought a huge ampersand to hang on my office wall. It had no special meaning for me then, but it does now. 

I realized recently that I’ve been living, and even flourishing, in what I’ll call an ampersand life: a life of AND. 

You see, when my sweet son Jack died by drowning, I could not imagine anything other than a future of abject grief and pain. Life felt meaningless and our family hopelessly broken. I am very sorry that many of my readers also know the pain of child loss.

I noticed over time, however, that I’d begun living a life of hope that I could not have fathomed right away, and that certain actions and attitudes helped get me there. 

First was letting myself feel my grief. I used writing to explore feelings of loneliness, pain, anger, fear, and sadness. I did not answer with “fine” when people asked how I was doing. My husband used exercise to push his body to its limits and feel the loss of Jack. You might have a church group, a therapist, a group like TCF or Bereaved Parents of the USA, or one safe person who acknowledges your loss and doesn’t rush you or run away, no matter what scary feelings you share. 

I also tried to be open to the possibility of hope. Even when I felt very little hope, I let myself be open to the chance of hope at some point in the future. To do this, I limited my use of words like “always” and “never” because when I told myself, “I will always feel this way,” and “life will never get better,” I felt closed off from hope.

Staying connected to Jack helped too. I looked for signs from him everywhere, calling them “hugs from heaven”. I dug deep for gratitude and realized I was grateful for the 12 years I’d been able to hug him and hold him on earth. I shared stories about Jack, and said his name.

Now, almost eight years after Jack's death, I experience genuine joy and hope every day. The disorienting pain has softened into a gentle longing and a real appreciation for the time I have left on earth. I find value and meaning in relationships, work, and life again—without faking it!

So what does any of this have to do with an ampersand?

None of this healing came from ignoring the fact that my son died, or shoving feelings of grief away. It came from learning to live in the AND. 

This is what it looks like for me:

I hold sadness & joy at the same time.
I miss my son’s physical presence & I am fully present in the lives of my living loved ones.
I miss the past & I’m excited for the future.
I grieve & I am healing.
I have lost friends & I have made new ones.
My child died & I can still be close to him.
I have one foot in heaven & one foot on earth.
I know great pain & I know great love.

AND does not negate reality. It is not an easy, cheap fix. It is holding two truths at the same time. It is an awareness of the complexity of life and loss & an embracing of what is versus what could have been.

What might living in the AND look like for you?

Monday, July 29, 2019

Helping College-Aged Students Deal with Depression

This is a sponsored post.

People sometimes ask me whether having lost one child, I am extra fearful about the safety of my other children. In general, I’d say no. Jack’s sudden death and the confluence of bizarre circumstances that led to it, convinced me that no amount of worrying can completely protect our kids from harm. Sure it’s scary, but there’s a certain freedom in that. 

My experiences with grief and trauma have, however, connected me to many families who have experienced teen depression and suicide, and with Margaret heading to college in the fall, this topic looms large! With suicide now the second-leading cause of death for college students, I know it must also be on the mind of many, many of you with high school and college-aged kids. I want to be informed for my family’s sake, and I want to share information with you.

I recently teamed up with Med-IQ to help generate awareness about depression among teens, and learn more about how I as a parent can identify risk factors and access resources. Med-IQ is an accredited medical education company that provides an exceptional educational experience for physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and other health-care professionals. Look for several posts from me on this topic as I learn more! 

Maybe your family is good at communicating, but mine isn’t. Sure, I may overshare on the internet, but at home it’s a different story. 

It reminds me of when Margaret was 6 years old. Two girls in her class were fighting over her. There was drama. Both of the other moms knew all about it because their daughters talked about it daily, yet I didn’t hear a peep from mine, who was smack-dab in the center of  it all. It was an early example of how much my family struggles when it comes to talking about uncomfortable issues and emotions. Heap grief and trauma on top of that and we struggle even more. 

Not that emotional well-being should be a hard issue to discuss, but it is still stigmatized, most particularly for boys and students of color. It is so much easier to talk about physical illness than mental illness; colleges want to change this. 

In fact, the doctors at Med-IQ stressed the importance of looking at mental health in the same way we look at the physical health of our teens. One of the psychiatrists from the University of Michigan, who has decades of experience helping college kids with depression put it this way: “Every student should have a check-up from the neck up!”

Don’t you love that? But how does one even start the conversation about depression and mental health in order to get this “check-up”? A College Guidefrom the National Alliance on Mental Illness gave me pointers. I am printing it out for Tim and Margaret to read so we can all have the same info. 

There is also a great online screeningtool that students can access at any time to see if they might need mental health services. It even connects directly to resources at specific colleges, including my daughter’s. I took the screening myself to see what it was like, and I think asking your child to take this quiz every 6 months or so might be a good way to open up conversation and “check in.”

Transitioning to college is going to be an adjustment in every way. New friends. Freedom. Academic stress. Readily available alcohol and drugs. I’d be lying if I said I’m not nervous about it. I found the following list to be a good starting point of what to look for now and revisit later when school starts:

Signs that your son/daughter might be depressed:

Feeling very sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks.
Severe out-of-control risk-taking behaviors
Sudden overwhelming fear for no reason
Not eating, throwing up, or using laxatives to lose weight.
Seeing, hearing or believing things that are not real
Repeatedly and excessively using drugs or alcohol
Drastic changes in mood, behavior, personality or sleeping habits
Extreme difficulty concentrating/staying still
Intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities.
Trying to harm oneself or planning to do so.
I also found this fact-sheet of statistics and risk-factors about college suicideto be very helpful. 
Some of the info really got me down, but everything I read says it’s better to be more informed, than less. If this is starting to sound discouraging, I’ll say I’ve also learned that certain positive or protective factors common on campuses that can mitigate the risk of suicide such as connectedness to the school community, physical activity and exercise, social support such as RA’s, faculty, and friends, plans for the future, and access to services. 
Collegeswant to support students. Parents want the same thing. When we have more knowledge, we are more equipped to help.
I hope you’ll follow along to learn more.

Important:Med-IQ is conducting an anonymous survey and would appreciate your input. The survey, which includes additional education on this topic, will take less than 15 minutes to complete. Survey responses are shared only in aggregate. Your responses to these survey questions will provide Med-IQ with important information about your experiences with depression and mental health in your college-age child which will help us develop future educational initiatives. Please take the SURVEY HERE.

Once you’ve completed the survey you will have the option of providing your email address to be entered into a drawing administered by SOMA Strategies to win 1 of 10 $100 Visa cards. If you choose to enter, your email address will not be sold, kept, or stored; email addresses are used only to randomly draw the winners and notify them of their prize. 

I was compensated by Med-IQ through an educational grant from Otsuka America Pharmaceutical, Inc and Lundbeck to write about depression in college-aged students. All opinions are my own.

Links to external sites are provided as a convenience and for informational purposes only. They are not intended and should not be construed as legal or medical advice, nor are they endorsements of any organization. Med-IQ bears no responsibility for the accuracy, legality, or content of any external site. Contact the external site for answers to questions regarding its content. 

Friday, July 19, 2019

Summer Check-in

Well, hello there...

My bright idea of re-joining the gym so Andrew could go to up to THREE hours of childcare a day tanked. It was even a DROP-OFF place so I could run to the grocery store or to Panera to write! Andrew was fine with it until the big kids got out of school and the playroom got crowded. He decided he'd only go if there were just FOUR other kids there. Quite specific. So once again I am paying for the fancy gym, but not going. Enjoy your green smoothies and stair masters those of you who actually go!

Margaret, flush with cash from graduation, has decided that work is over-rated and has been clocking in a massive 6 hours of employment each week. Next summer will be a real wake-up call. I've offered to have her babysit Andrew without even needing to get dressed or leave the house, but those two are like oil and water. You might think sibling rivalry wouldn't exist with a 15 year age difference, but you would be sorely mistaken. He refused to let her take him for ICE CREAM today, for heaven's sake.

Margaret's big issue this summer was getting locked out of Instagram because 1) her phone broke 2) we are doofuses who had a defunct email account and phone number attached to her account. The great news is that thanks to an AWESOME blog reader and her multi-talented cousin, Margaret is back in! She immediately went with a friend to take glamor shots in the parking lot of Taco Bell, which I don't quite understand, but to each her own.

My big news is/was that we almost bought a small vacation home. This is something we've been working on for 3 years, and we were supposed to close on it today and go down there on Sunday. I had bags and boxes and board games ready to go. Alas, a bunch of complications came up and we pulled out. I am feeling down about it, weirdly not because I really enjoy the idea of "vacationing" with a three year old (is there such a thing?) but because I envisioned a) accessorizing it with gusto b) opening it up for small-group getaways and writing and grief retreats. My mind was spinning in an excited way and now it just feels blah.

Speaking of grief retreats, I'm honored to be going to Michigan next week to speak at a retreat for grieving moms through a wonderful organization called Starlight Ministries. My blah self wonders what I have to offer when Andrew and I are still in our pj's at 12:18 pm and I haven't written in eons. Deep down, however, I know that if I show up and open myself up to being used, God will take care of the rest.

Last night our nephew (Jack's BFF) came to spend the night and do some work in the area. The dynamic shifted immediately, as if we all let out a collective deep breath we didn't know we were holding. Although most days feel normal, there is still a palpable feeling that there should be a 20-something young man here. It feels so natural, so right. Our family looks vastly different from how it did with Jack alive. But there is muscle memory of how it once was, and those few times that we get to approximate it again, feel anything but blah.

Love you friends. How is your summer going?

Friday, June 28, 2019

Life is Weird

On Friday nights our town has live music and food on the town green. Last Friday Tim and I took Andrew.

We sat on a blanket next to a couple from our neighborhood with young kids Andrew's age. It was great to know we'd reached the stage where we could take him somewhere a little past bedtime, and we could hang out with adults.

As I looked around, I was struck by how many people I knew. Friends from Andrew's preschool across town. Jen from "Moms' Group" when Jack and Margaret were born, who later worked in Tim's office when we dipped our toes back into the working world. Ann, whom I met at "the park" in between kid 1 and kid 2, when we both wore oversized t-shirts, jean shorts, and weary looks. Parents from Margaret's field hockey team. People from both of the churches we attend.

I spotted a group of adults in camp chairs, and realized it was the parents of Jack's baseball teammates. Some had recent high school graduates, so we talked about the craziness of beach week and how glad we were that the kids all made it home safely. Turning to a baseball dad, I blurted out what popped into my head, "My life is so weird!" I gestured to where Tim and Andrew were waiting to get ice cream. 

They smiled and nodded. They may not know me well, but they do know that my life is weird. One kid in heaven, one heading to college, one in the line for ice cream with his daddy.

Jen's kids are both out of the house now, even though I still remember her son Chris as an infant, dwarfing Jack, who was older. She has gone back to work full-time in her field. Ann's son, Jack's friend from preschool, is studying in North Carolina. I was on that same timetable, until I wasn't.

It reminded me of a blog post, "Why B Normal?" written soon after Jack's accident, about how as a child I'd always imagined my life would be just a little bit different, even though I'm the most steady, predictable person I know. 

And it's true. My life is different. It often feels weird.

Yet thinking about it later, I realized that almost every one of the people on the town green likely had been thrown curveballs: death, divorce, infertility, mental and physical illness, job struggles, discrimination, interpersonal challenges, disappointment, crises of faith, and more. 

Shortly before she died, leaving me motherless at 18, my mom jotted a phrase on a piece of scrap paper and taped it to the fridge. It read, "Life is a very strange time."

I had no idea what it meant, but it didn't take me very long to figure it out.

Life has, indeed, been a very strange time.


We had to duck out of the concert earlier than the empty nesters happily holding their wineglasses, because bedtime awaited; until then, I soaked in the crisp air of a near-perfect June evening. Glad to be out of the house. Grateful to see so many familiar faces and to have friends from the different stages of my life. Open to those I would meet in the next stages as well.

Life is weird, sometimes hard, and often good.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Help Them Help You

May 31st was the anniversary of my mom's death.

She died when she was 46 and I was 18.

Mid-morning on the 31st, I texted Tim and Margaret reminding them that this was the day my mom died. They sent back short texts of sympathy, and I appreciated it. I also wrote on the family wall calendar "Mom 31 years." These two actions gave Tim and Margaret the greatest chance of reaching out and acknowledging my mom's death. Instead of waiting for them to show up for me (OR NOT) as I've done many years in the past, I chose to help them help me.

That's often how it is with grief. The griever is the one who much educate others how best to help. Give me space. Don't give me space. Say his name. Be silent. Talk. Listen. Go on a walk with me. Celebrate a holiday with me. Ignore this stupid holiday with me. My mom died and I want you to mention it.

Is this fair to ask of an already depleted person?

Absolutely not. But if you are grieving, you've likely learned that not much is fair anyway. However, the alternative is for even more pain to be piled on top of pain as we feel unacknowledged, forgotten, or misunderstood.

Shortly after Jack died, my friend Mary seemed absent. I am not saying she wasn't there at our house or for the funeral, but it felt like she was silently disappearing. I knew she loved Jack, and I knew she loved me. I spent an enormous amount of time and energy wondering what Mary was thinking and why she wasn't reaching out. I worried that her own grief for Jack was overwhelming.

Over text we decided to go out to lunch. After talk of mundane topics such as church news and how her son was doing in Algebra died down, I told her I missed her and broached  how she seemed unwilling or unable to grieve Jack with me. To talk about it. To acknowledge the shock. To voice how f*ing unbelievable and devastating it was that Jack had died. Really died.

 It was awkward.

We both cried. She explained that she'd been giving me the space and privacy she thought she'd want if one of her children died. My snarky side wanted to say that I'd been documenting my grief for thousands of people and she surely could have found clues on my blog, but I didn't.

For a lesser friend, I would not have brought up my disappointment and needs at all, but I cared enough about Mary to want to help her help me. Then, she could decide what to do with the information.

That's why I texted Tim and Margaret about my mom last week. Life is disappointing enough. People are disappointing. I know because I disappoint people regularly and fall short all. of. the. darn. time.

Honestly stating our needs can feel risky and vulnerable, but it gives someone a greater chance to be there for us in the ways we need. My friendship with Mary was never the same, but I am glad I said what I did.

If there is a specific way a friend or family member could better support you, consider showing them how, even if you might be angry pissed annoyed that you even have to.

Posting on Facebook on Jack's birthday, the anniversary of his death, or other important dates, and giving people the opportunity to comment, is a huge comfort to me, and it doesn't require anyone else to remember the dates. This is one of the ways I help others help me.

Maybe you can remind your friends that Mother's or Father's Day is tough, or that this was the month your baby was due.

Help someone help you.