I have managed for a little while now to somehow look “all together” on the outside while I slowly do the work of putting piece after piece together on the inside. I now realize the inner puzzle of my grief doesn't look anything like I thought it would.
I have spent the last few days walking with and remembering our sweet baby who was born and died 8 months ago. Every month, there is this ritual of the 4th and the 5th. My dearest son. Our sweet monkey. I am trying to process everything that has been in my head and my heart and this unfamiliar calm that is settling over me. I barely have words to put to any of it. The fragility of my grief brain has been tested in the last 4 weeks. I have warned Ralph that there is a breakdown coming – there have been too many challenges and changes and beautiful and painful moments for my tender heart to just roll with it all gracefully. In fact, after what I thought was an award-winning performance playing the Perfectly Normal Mother at Clare’s back-to-school night on Wednesday, I dissolved into an hour of tears in Ralph’s arms immediately upon returning home. Big ugly grieving mother sobs. It still comes out of the blue like this, startling us both.
The last 4 weeks had me carrying my grief for the first time through so many new and normal scenarios. Our Lake Week reunion at Lake Wallenpaupack with 60 close family members. My annual William and Mary college jaunt for a week in Maine with 12 good friends. Packing up and driving our daughter Leah to James Madison for her freshman year. Clare starting middle school at St. Theresa and turning 11. Nathan beginning public middle school for the first time. Maggie buying her own car and driving off to Virginia Tech by herself. Our daughter Carrie getting engaged. Each of these events was a challenge to my delicate system. I am painfully slow at taking it all in. I am still learning how to be ME with this gaping hole in my heart, practicing how to live my own life in all its joyful, painful complexity.
The house is quiet now with only 3 children here. I haven’t had only three children in the house since 2004. In the first space available after their departure to school, I managed to have a 3-hour lunch with a dear friend who is also grieving the loss of her son. This was a balm to my soul. After so many situations where my grief is either uncomfortable for others or ignored or I am feeling I have to hide it, it was such a gift of peace and love to sit with this friend and know she knows. I don’t have to say anything and she knows. I have not spent much time with her since her son died, other than seeing her at John Paul Raphael’s funeral. Both then and now, I could sense the profound transformation within her. The loss of not just Jay, but her own carefree spirit, I think. The loss of naiveté or invincibility or the illusion of safety. I can see this change because I know it in my very own soul.
the illusion of normal
Can others see it in me? A shadow of sorrow always in my eyes or a stillness like the depths of the ocean? Maybe a blank or a lost stare or a layer of tears? Because mostly, in the play-by-play of my life, I am fairly normal these days. I get up and get dressed and go to mass and the gym and clean my house and see friends for lunch and do the laundry. I laugh and watch movies and play games and sing and order books to read. But the inner me is so different. It takes so much more time and space and quiet for me to live my life. For every hour I am “out and about”, I need another hour to be quiet and calm and give my sadness the attention it needs. To feel whatever I need to feel. To BE whatever my mind and body need to be that day. My friend reaffirmed the critical nature of this component of grief, especially when the brutality of the first months has subsided. I need to keep feeling it. It may be silence in my head and heart. It may be a stillness that feels numb. It may be tears that erupt and open the cavern to my grief – the waves still so powerful they knock me down. I know only enough right now to know that returning to who or how I was is no longer an option. I am trying to let go of any expectation of being that girl and learn to recognize the new me – always broken. Always in two pieces and two places.
With great hope, I have a fresh understanding that this is not a terrible thing. That in fact, it may be the beginning of an awakening we are each always meant to have. These days, I can be happily engaged in a conversation or event and still, simultaneously, have this radically deep perception that the whole world has cosmically changed even if no one else seems to notice it. I go through the motions in this normalcy, but I am always carrying this secret – that the world is NOT THE SAME. At any moment the veil can shift and I can be instantly transported to my other self in her other place where the grief and love live together and where I feel closest to my baby and closest to God. If I am being honest, I would stay in this other place if I could. Not because I don’t want to live, but because this other life, this other reality, feels more real to me than the regular world most of the time. In fact, it is this place – this spiritual place in our souls of deeper intensity and connection and joy and faith and communion and suffering – I think this is the place of sacred, whole-hearted, holy living. I WANT to be here. I just don’t know yet how to be here and in the rest of my life at the same time.
Sometimes I miss her, my former self that didn’t know about living in two different realities. Missing her feels like a betrayal of the treasures I have mined in this sorrow, though. Sure, that girl didn’t carry the pain, but she also didn’t have this new understanding of life and death and a deeper intimacy with the Lord. She didn’t have her baby, even if I have to wait to hold him again. She was so afraid still, of loss and failure. She didn’t have the freedom of falling into her worst nightmare and being held aloft on the other side. I know I am right where I need to be, but when I feel worn out from the burden of love, it is tempting to just want to go back to some selfish, safe, narrow version of my life. But that would be without John Paul Raphael. He is only here in this joy and pain together. So, I accept my new perspective, even though it means feeling a disconnect with my day-to-day life. Loving the Lord and my son in heaven both with my whole heart means the comforts of this world, however lovely, will never truly satisfy.
I have some clarity about this point this week. That what I lost wasn’t just John Paul Raphael, but also me. If I use the common expression that I was “shattered” by his death, then I have certainly come a long way in the last 8 months in putting my pieces back together. In some ways, though, it is like doing a familiar jigsaw puzzle. I look at the pile of pieces and think, "okay, that’s a lot of pieces", but I know what this puzzle looks like, so I get to work. I feel relief in getting the border of edges complete, defining the shape of myself again.
I have functioned at this stage for some time now – looking “all together” on the outside and slowly doing the work of putting piece after piece together on the inside. But what I am only just understanding is that many of the pieces in my puzzle are brand new. New shapes, new sizes, smaller or bigger than they were before. More complex with more intricate points of connection. I feel frozen. I thought I was doing so well but am only now comprehending that if my heart was once 100 pieces, it is now 1000 and I am nowhere close to figuring it all out.
I miss you, John Paul Raphael. I miss me too sometimes. The simplicity of not being a grieving mother. But, just as I rejoice at the gift of your life and feel hopeful in the mission of your death, so too I understand that I am finding a gift and mission in my own heart, in my own self, as I am being remade in this time of healing and re-birth. I am learning to live with you, sweet baby, in a brand new way. The Lord is close and He invites me to live a whole new kind of life, both in and out of this world, trusting the nearness of His presence (my Lord and my God!) and his presence (my dearest child).
Let yourself be loved.