This is not only the shortest verse in the Bible (John 11:35) but was also the name of the all-day retreat I attended today in Elkhorn, Nebraska. Jesus, in His humanity, grieved the loss of His friend, Lazarus, even though He knew He would raise him from the dead. The whole idea was that Jesus is by our side through our grief journey. We started at 8 a.m. and ended a bit after 6 p.m. I think one of my table mates said it for all of us…”I think I could just sleep for 3 days now!” Grief is exhausting! In the “real world”, I am constantly putting on a mask that doesn’t show the sorrow I feel all the time. I used to be a pretty smiley person but now I actually notice it and feel it in my face when I smile…which shows it doesn’t happen often enough anymore. Wearing that mask is tiring. Trying to find an acceptable public answer to “how are you?” is exhausting. But today there were no masks necessary. Truth trumped all, even if it was ugly and uncomfortable. Everyone was coming from the same tragic event of losing a child….some (and I cannot even imagine) losing more than one child. There were about thirty people present and I swear we all could have filled a pool with the tears that flowed freely all day. There was no holding back as men and women shared their stories – we were all intimately touched because we knew what they were going through. Anyhow, I wanted to share with you some of the insights I learned today…in general and personally.
We started the morning with breakfast. They had tall, white pillar candles in glass containers with our child’s name and photo on them. We were each called up to the front to bring our lighted candle to put on the front table for the day. It was like there was a spot for our children to brightly glow on our talks and gatherings throughout the day. As we placed our child’s candle on the table, we were each given a small wooden cross that fits perfectly in your hand to hold and pray with. We had speakers throughout the day and small groups where we could tell the stories of our child…and our loss and how we feel we are coping at this point. Some of the takeaways I got was there are really two stages of grief: the person you were before your child’s death and the person you are now, after your child’s death. Yes!! A statement that really resonated with me was “it’s okay if you put your cross down and rest sometimes.” That is huge. You don’t have to carry it ALL….all the time. Also…the four C’s: you did not CAUSE this, you could not CHANGE this, you could not CURE it, and you could not CONTROL it. Let all that “what if” stuff go and just grieve. We were charged to do the following: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening”….then dare to be quiet. Twice….once at the beginning of the day, and then once at the end of the day during the Mass, they sang the litany of our children. A slide show was shown of our kids as we asked each of them to pray for us from heaven. I have to admit it is still startling to see Joe’s photo on a big screen with someone singing his name and asking him to pray for us….how did I get here? It still seems so surreal sometimes. How can he really be gone?
While we had our lunch break, we not only ate wonderful homecooked food from the parishioners volunteering in the kitchen, but we also did a craft project. We were given a small clear plastic Christmas ornament and we added colored sand to it. It is obviously too heavy to put on a tree, but it had colors in it that reminded me of Joe. I chose neon green (his favorite color for a long time growing up), dark green (for the army), blue (because Michelle feels blue reminds her of Joe in a comforting sort of way), orange (he was a ginger after all), red and gold (both for his firefighting….his yellow bunker gear and red…well, for fire and the fire engine he rode on). These started out as interesting layers of sand, but as they got handled more and more, the sand started to mix together…making it unique and more my Joe. We had an opportunity to spend time writing letters to our child….but I do that several times a week already. They suggested we also write a letter to God. I thought that might be a better use of my mental and spiritual energy. I went up to the sanctuary to be in a quiet place and think on what I wanted to say to God. It was then I realized I was really angry with God. I hadn’t been able to put a pin in it before. I was the one with stage IV cancer. I was the one who was sick and living on borrowed time. Why would God take Joe and leave me? Joe had a beautiful wife, a wonderful job, and was just starting to hit the “sweet spot” of his young adult life. Gone. I had prepared for my impending death. I had my funeral written, letters to my kids, my obituary….it was all done. Now, we were helping Michelle and Joe’s friends go through the painful task of selecting songs and poems, pictures and mementos to share at his Celebration of Life. When I stripped away the absolute despair for the loss of my Joe, I was mad. I am not so sure it is too healthy spiritually to be mad at God, but if anyone can handle my wrath, it is God. So I went to confession. I was a weeping, snotty mess talking to the priest about this anger I was carrying. He suggested I had hardened my heart….you read about that so much in the Bible…how the people hardened their hearts against God. I was in shock that I might have become one of them. I remembered back to a homily last weekend at my church given by Deacon Wayne Reed, someone I helped teach confirmation class with for two years….a person I admire and consider a friend. He mentioned that a mustard seed is so small but grows into such a large bush…we have all heard the parable of the mustard seed. However, he went even further to say that the mustard seed has a very hard outer shell. In order for it to grow, that shell must crack open. So after my confession, I was kneeling in the sanctuary…praying for the softening of my heart, the cracking of my shell….and I felt the top of my left shoulder get warm….as if someone had put their hand there. I knew there was no one physically. However, I had a strong feeling my Joe was there, trying his best to let me know he was with me and always would be. And….I lost it….for the umpteenth time today. Hopefully that was a small crack in my armor. As we sat down in small groups today I mentioned several times that I am just a “hot mess.” What today showed me was I am not alone in the messiness of life after the death of a child. I met some really wonderful people today. I hate that I met them because they also lost a child. However, I walked away with some goals for my struggling faith life (I am in a desert right now) and with some newfound people that share such an intimate bond with me.
I came home to a package from the oncology social worker at the hospital I receive my cancer treatment and care from. I had finally reached out to them and told them I was struggling. They didn’t know about Joe’s death and immediately jumped into action, getting me websites, addresses, phone numbers, etc for local and national resources. Why didn’t I do this sooner? The package also included a couple of small books on grief, and then one on surviving the holidays. That has kind of been the elephant in the room the last few weeks. This is the time of year I start addressing my Christmas cards and start working on my annual family Christmas letter. Ugh. Where do I start? How do I not make it sound as awful as it feels? How can I do justice to Joe and his life? I am already changing how I sign cards to family….I used to write out all our names…but it just seems to be too hard to not sign Joe’s name with ours, so now everything is “The Messina Family” or “Rich, Cyndi and Kids.” Tiny little things like that will have me in a puddle of tears. So Christmas. Yeah. That will be tough. As much as I detest the idea of reading this book on making it through the holidays, I know it is something I really needed. Today was exhausting. I am heading to bed with the hopes, as I do every night, that Joe will grace my dreams and let me know as is well with his soul. Then I will get up tomorrow morning and once again hop onto Facebook and check to see if there are any “memories” having to do with Joe. I know people may get tired of me sharing these “memories” of Joe, but memories are all that I have right now, and I treasure all of them. Today was a very heavy day…emotionally, spiritually, and physically. I know this was kind of a heavy post as well. I have been taking lots of photos of beautiful things…one of which happens to be my daughter. I will be working on those photos to post soon. I leave you with a photo of the things I received today that were physical. The emotional and spiritual gives were much bigger.