Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Gannet Girl

To My Readers:
I have been blessed with a little on-line community of grieving mothers whose blogs I read day after day. They help me so much, because they often are able to put into words what I am feeling but cannot express. They also comfort me. Yesterday, one of the bloggers, Gannet Girl, asked us to tell her our stories, because she had questions in the aftermath of her own son's death one year ago. The following Question and Answer format is my response to her.

To Gannet Girl:
Yesterday, after I read your post, I gave you my quick comment. Your questions continued to echo through my day, so I sat down in the afternoon and wrote out my long answer-- a summary of my experience of the last year. It took me about two hours, amidst flowing tears and various interruptions, to get it all down. Then I accidentally hit some button on my new, capricious, over-sensitive computer, and it all disappeared. I closed my computer in total defeat with the thought, "I don't think I have the strength to do that again."

Tonight, however, after I read Karen G's Q & A format, I decided "I think I can do that"! And she's right, you do deserve answers. I, too, want those kinds of answers, so I simply appreciate the opportunity to share my experience on the very poignant issues you raise. I hope my answers aren't too depressing, and I hope it helps you in some way.

Gannet Girl's post:
"There is only one thing I want to know. I want to know your story, and yours, and yours. I want to know how you survived, or didn't. I want to know about those hours after 4:00 in the morning, when you wake up and stare at the ceiling, or read email, or try yet another Russian novel. I want to know what it was like when your child died, what it was like when the world broke apart. I want to know what it is like when you climb a mountain or drive to the coast and your child is not with you. I want to know whether your laughter feels different, whether your sight has changed. I want to know what you have to say about this part of the journey, this minute, knowing full well that in the next one your words might be completely different. I want to know about the moments when sheer, raw courage takes over ~ the moments when you put your feet on the floor next to the bed and stand up. I want to know how we are going to do this for years to come."

"I want to know how you survived, or didn't." I have physically survived, but emotionally, I am not so sure how much of me has survived. I feel I am a shell of my former self. It seems the area most impacted is my ability to relate to others, even my family. It's hard for me to socialize, difficult to make small talk, and tiring for me to extend myself. I do what I need to do, but it feels exhausting and I can only do these things for a short time. My husband and I have long silences between us now. It's as if we are tired of the same sad words. We try to help each other and take life very slowly now. We can't take much pressure.

I used to be a counselor on a church staff. Helping people was my life and a great joy, but I can't do it much now. I also used to be a big help to my daughters and my grandchildren, but now I find it exhausting and I am not able to connect with them as I would like. This makes me very sad because these are all of my favorite people, and I hate that I can't be more there for them. It's a cruel irony to me that the loss of one of my blessings makes it so hard for me to enjoy the rest of my blessings.

"I want to know about those hours after 4:00 in the morning, when you wake up and stare at the ceiling, or read email, or try yet another Russian novel. " Bedtime is my worst time of day. Like Karen G, I have flashbacks, which turn into obsessive thinking, replaying things over and over again in my mind, endlessly. I still occasionally experience shock and ask myself if all this really happened. I work very hard to not feel anything at night. I don't drink or take sleeping aids, but I have a rigid "no think" rule at bedtime. I also have a dvd player with headphones that sits on my bedside stand, and as soon as my sad thoughts start, which they do every night when the light goes out, I turn on the dvd and watch something funny like Seinfeld. This also works at 4 am. I have honestly felt like I wouldn't survive the night with the pain in my heart. Everything is easier in the light of day. As far as reading Russian novels, I haven't been able to read much of anything for a year and I have always been a voracious reader. It just requires more sustained attention than I can muster.

"I want to know what it was like when your child died, what it was like when the world broke apart." Joey's death was sudden and unexpected. We had been with him four days prior and had a truly wonderful time together celebrating his sister's college graduation. I hugged him goodbye at the airport and he flew back to L.A.-- and I never spoke with him again. It hurts me just to write those words. He died in his sleep from heart failure, ultimately a complication from epilepsy, though he had no seizure. We were never warned of this possibility and the shock of it still stuns us, as he was fit and healthy and vibrant.

The worst of it was that he lived alone and laid in his bed for two days. That one still torments me. When he didn't appear for a social event, one of his friends went and checked his house and found him. We were at the movies when his friends called us, and my husband grabbed my hand and pulled me out of my seat and took me to the lobby, and told me the words, and I collapsed.

We had to fly to L.A. and when we got there, he was already at the morgue and we couldn't see him till the next day, which was horrendous to us. The mercy was that so many friends were there waiting with sheltering arms for us. After that, it was just a series of painful, unspeakable decisions about his remains and his belongings, and planning a memorial services. All of it still very, very traumatic for me and difficult to ponder.

"I want to know what it is like when you climb a mountain or drive to the coast and your child is not with you. I want to know whether your laughter feels different, whether your sight has changed." This is the worst part for me. You get through the rest of it only to have to face the crushing reality that your child is gone and you will never speak with them again in this life. Your dreams for them are over, your future as a family is totally changed. It's empty and unnatural and overwhelming to suddenly face life without them. I hated that I couldn't reach him by phone or email, or ever see him again. Now I talk with him anyway, and I send messages via Jesus and that's an improvement over the unbreachable brick wall I initially felt separated us. I was crazy with the void of his absence, like I wanted to jump out of my skin. Every one of us hates doing life without Joey, and our hearts are in heaven, though we are still on earth. Every single thing that made up our life has changed. Nothing was left unscathed.

"I want to know what you have to say about this part of the journey, this minute, knowing full well that in the next one your words might be completely different." I don't feel like my life is in my control anymore. It's uncomfortable to me that my feelings change so much and that I have difficulty putting it into words so much of the time. But that's just the way it is. That's why I blog so many pictures of events and the grandkids. I just can't put all the feelings and changes into words. It falls into my catch-all basket broadly labeled "grief behavior".

"I want to know about the moments when sheer, raw courage takes over ~ the moments when you put your feet on the floor next to the bed and stand up. " Packing up my son's belongings was the hardest single thing I have ever done in my life; next to that, doing his memorial services, which I can't even think about, and then packing up our own things and moving cross-country to be with our daughters. I wish I didn't have to do any of it and these things took all my strength and raw courage. I haven't recovered from them. There is so much loss and sheer will power in these actions that I can't even bear to think about them.

"I want to know about the moments right before that, the moments of sadness so deep that you cannot push your feet out from under the covers." All the time-- longing, missing, yearning, aching. Crying so many tears, and still I can't cry hard enough to empty them. There is always a new supply. I don't even bother wiping them away anymore. They just dry on my cheeks and down my neck and on to my chest. The monotonous soundtrack that runs behind our life now: Joey's gone, Joey's gone, Joey's gone. I'm accepting that I have a broken heart that will never heal, and life will never be really good again, but I also feel so deeply, sadly, dismally disappointed by it.

"I want to know how we are going to do this for years to come." For me, truly one day at a time. My faith in God and Heaven has grown, and I am counting on His promises to wipe every tear. I am trusting in God to make this okay one day and that somehow gives me hope for the future. I know now that Jesus came for one reason and that was to destroy Death. I long for that.

For the every day, I keep it as simple as I can. I find it soothing to immerse myself in beautiful things: nature, sky, sea, mountains, trees and flowers, beautiful music and lovely little moments, and in the sweet hugs of my children and grandchildren. Those are the things that help me face the future.


Gannet Girl said...

This is a beautiful post, Karen. I have lived so many of these exact same experiences, and even the ones which were different were the same.

All day I, too, think: Josh is gone, Josh is gone, Josh is gone. No matter what I am doing.

And so often I think: This is not my life, right? I think that when I die I will be thinking, But that wasn't really it, was it?

Anonymous said...

Feels like something heavy is sitting on my chest reading this and I haven't lost a child. It's so painful to read. It's so raw and honest. But we( those of us who haven't lost a child) do need to read this---to live our lives like it will be the last word we speak to someone--and we need to stop running around like there is no pain.

I wish with all my heart that I could take ya'lls pain away but nothing ever will. There isn't anything big enough or special enough to do it.

Karen, I cradle your heart in mine.

karen gerstenberger said...

Thank you for reaching so deeply into your heart and sharing this with us. I know it's hard to write it down; it's hard enough to live with it, let alone speak about it. But here, you are held in community and love; here, you are understood, though we've never met in person. We understand, because we are living the same life which, as GG said, "is not my life, right?" But it is.
I think that Jesus also came to show us that we are not alone. He (and his mother!) suffered very much as we are now. God cared enough to spell it out. I just didn't GET it, until Katie got sick.
You & your family are in my heart. XO

Jaimers said...

I really apprecited this one Mom, very honest. I love you and I am sorry.

Liza's Eyeview said...

Karen, when I first started blogging in 2006, I couldn't really explain well enough to my family and friends here on Maui the kind of support I get from my bogging friends who I have not met in person. But it was there. It was deep support. It a support that cradled me on my lonely times when I felt abandoned. ...

That said, I just want to say that it gives me great satisfaction to see that you have found your bloggy friends who knows exactly what you are feeling. Bloggy friends who you can share your deep sorrows without the fear of being misunderstood. It's one of the greatest gifts isn't it?

It's a long journey you all are travelling. I am glad you are there for each other. This is the kind of friendship that sticks closer than a brother....

Many will read this post and will cry with you. Some will read and ask "when will they ever get out of this mode - geez, get a life". The last comment hurts but with friends who understand, those "move on" comments can be deal with kindly, knowing that one cannot truly totally understand a situation unless they had been in it.

You ladies have made yourself vulnerable by opening up your grieving feeling to everyone. Thank you for such courage. We will continue to lift you up in prayers, and will also pray that the joy of the Lord will sustain you, give you strength and will make you enjoy life once more. A different life, but with God's grace you can all enjoy it...

Love you all,

Liza's Eyeview said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Liza's Eyeview said...

OK, that was me deleting the previous comment because it was a duplicate of the first (my computer duplcates my comments, I don't know why or how it happens). Anyway, I am back here to encourage you ladies to reach out more in the internet and blogging community. I know there are many people out there grieving and God can use you to minister to them just as you minister with each other. How to find them? I do not know, but the just be open and the Holy Spirit will lead the way.

Anonymous said...

I am also glad you went back and wrote this for you and for us. I cried, when don't I, and understood
every word. It is strange that at first it seemed I was the only one that went through all that stuff. I felt like no one else could possibly feel and go through what I
had. We look to God and all his words and I just know that I have to trust in His word. I am always so sorry for your loss!!! It does take a huge blow to us and just to survive and be somewhat normal takes great work. I call it pretend, most of the time. I am thankful for the time spent with my Angie before she went home. I also shutter at what you both went through upon finding out Joey was gone. None of it is easy.
Lovin you and praying for you

Anonymous said...

I disagree Karen...I think this is the best counseling you've ever done.
You have a special gift sharing your heart and ministering to so many who hurt beyond words.

josh said...


I always thought you guys loved Joey so deeply and thoroughly, and your post reminds me of that. Some of the effects of his leaving on your mind sound similar to the effects of my sister's head injury; it's interesting that emotional injuries can affect the brain the same as physical ones.

I agree with the person who said this is the best counseling you've ever done. It's a different kind of counsel, flowing naturally and existentially out of your experience. In a way, it's a more pure use of your gift, because it's the Giver using it through you rather than you being aware of it and trying to use it yourself as in the past. If that makes sense. Exercising our gifts unconsciously is always better. But of course now you know, so it's all ruined...just kidding. Keep writing as you walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Bill and Lu Kepler said...

I forget to breath when I read your writing, Karen. I finish and I am breathless. It's desolate, dark, heavy, but through it all is an overwhelming sense of love. And so I love you back.

You give a me some sense of understanding, when I haven't had to bear your burden. You help me understand when someone like John Travolta, for example, can't function because of his grief.

Here on Maui, three more boys from Keanae, 2 of them brothers, were killed last week in a single car accident. I can now count 8 teenagers from Keanae who have been killed in accidents. Each time that happens, mothers and fathers are wounded, then re-wounded. Your writing gives me a glimmer of what they are going through.

Thanks, Karen.


Anonymous said...

Dear Karen,
This took me back 40 years to my own loss...though I know it did not even come close to your pain. I am crying all over again and hurting deep inside for you. I remember sitting in that little meeting room at Hope's Ohukai location as you taught several of us girls about loss and grief...listening to our stories and gently explaining how losing a child is the absolute worst kind of grief. Your words were impressed upon my memory, and I never even dreamed that you would be living them one day. I have hope that the time will come when you can push your way out of this cocoon of pain and sadness (like a butterfly struggles to be free of its chrysalis) and emerge into a bright, new morning. Love, Patti Franks

Jeri said...

Karen, I'm crying with you and agree with many posted comments on how you're counseling through your grief. Maybe one day you'll have the strength to write a book that I'm sure will touch many.
Much love,

Kassie Clark said...


Kassie Clark said...

I have no words, but this describes me so well. I just wanted you to know that your blog is bringing much comfort right now. from one grieving mama to another.