It hit me last Sunday that Mother’s Day was coming and this would be my first with one less child. My son, P.J., died on September 19, 2018 at the age of 26. If I’d talked to someone like me a year ago I’d have said “It’s just another day. Don’t let it bring you down.” Mother’s Day aside, if I’d talked to someone like me a year ago, I’d have said “Don’t dwell in your grief. Focus on happy memories and press on.” I would’ve meant well, but my words would have come from an ignorant heart.
Since my husband was battling cancer at the time of my son’s death, I had a distraction. So the first few holidays came and went with only a few tears shed here and there. But then my husband got the “all clear” in late February. He is cancer free! Praise God! At the moment we got that news, it was as if I had awaken from a six month coma. Unfortunately, it was also as if someone had said to me “And by the way, while you were in that coma, your child died.” And then it happened. I started the true grieving process.
These last few months I have been a mess, and since I’m the one known for my positivity and strength, I feel like a failure. I’ve been functioning in a fog, trying to keep everyone else from worrying about me but also barely being able to get the minimum things done. Recently a friend called me “super woman.” But grief is my kryptonite… making it more difficult to stand. I feel weak, but grief is not the opposite of strength, just as fear is not the opposite of courage. Courage is pushing through even though you’re terrified at times. Strength is moving forward even though you are grieving a terrible loss.
It’s just past midnight as I write this. It’s Mother’s Day. I haven’t turned into a pumpkin and I am not any sadder than I was yesterday. Today will be different. It will be another first without P.J., but another day to be thankful that the joy of the Lord is my strength.
“You’re such a positive person,” they say. “You’re always smiling,” they say. “You’re an inspiration,” they say. Today is one of those days that I don’t feel very positive. I am not smiling and I certainly do not feel like an inspiration to anyone. I am a grieving mother and the feelings associated with this new title are so much harder than I ever imagined they could be. I thought I was prepared for this. After all, P.J. had so many close calls. Over the last few years, we saw him going downhill rapidly and we were helpless to change his course. We prepared for the worst… or so we thought. Nothing… absolutely nothing… could have prepared us for this horrible loss. On September 19, 2018, while A.J. was in the hospital fighting a battle of his own following surgery for kidney cancer, we received the call that P.J. was gone. We were devastated at first and then relieved that his struggle (and our constant worry) was over. Relief was followed by guilt and guilt was followed by deep sadness… and all these feelings were experienced within the first 24 hours. The cycle has repeated itself regularly over the past 4-1/2 months.
P.J. was such a mess his last few years on earth, that it was a constant source of heartache for us — a type of dread that consumed us. When something was wrong, he called A.J., and those calls came so often I began cringing at my husband’s ringtone. I would hold my breath until I knew it either wasn’t P.J. or if it was, he wasn’t calling because of some new crisis. A.J. tried to shield me by not telling me the bad things, but I could sense when things were not good. I cried whenever I saw P.J. because he was so thin and so beaten down by the world and everything he’d experienced. When I looked at his scars, I imagined that they cut all the way into his soul and all I could do was weep for him. But he didn’t even want to discuss the possibility of getting help. He was more afraid to fix things than he was to face death.
Before P.J. died, I knew people (some very close to me) who had lost children. I tried to understand what they must be feeling, but couldn’t even begin to imagine it. I can now say without a doubt that until you experience it yourself, you will never understand this type of grief. I would assume, too, that it is different for every grieving parent, depending upon the circumstances surrounding their loss. I don’t let my grief paralyze me… I can’t. Life, after all, goes on. I continue to forge ahead and I don’t dwell in the sadness, but it seems like it’s always there… right below the surface. Sometimes I am able to push it way down inside and can do some pretty daunting things… like speak at P.J.’s memorial service without showing my vulnerability (click here to watch the video). Other times, I will dissolve into tears because of something completely unrelated… something as insignificant as a paper cut or an encounter with a rude cashier.
In the first few weeks following that devastating call, I searched desperately for answers to my grief. I read countless articles and blogs hoping to find someone who had experienced the same types of feelings I was having in the same way I was having them. I needed to know I wasn’t abnormal and that I wasn’t losing my mind. I wanted an explanation of what was happening and I wanted to know how long I could expect it to continue. At one point, I came across an article that talked about how grief comes in different forms and that often times, we grieve the intangible losses as much as we grieve the loss of our loved one. I grieve the loss of the P.J. I knew 14 years before his death… before his struggle with addiction… before the fire… but most of all, I grieve the loss of hope that someday he would find his joy again and we would find our boy again. I grieve never being able to see him hold his own baby the way he held his niece for the first time and lovingly smiled down at her. I grieve never being able to see him rough house with his own children the way he did with his nephews when he visited them in Austin. I grieve that I will never be able to hold him tight in a hug while secretly praying for him… well, not so secretly, really… he was on to me with that but let me do it anyway sometimes. The loss of hope for the future is a devastating one. I grieve that loss deeply and sometimes it feels as if I will never recover from it. But I know there is hope in the Lord. Romans 5:2-5 reads “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Yes! The book of Romans has always been my favorite and a great place to seek comfort on a day such as today!)
P.J.’s journey has taken him to a place where there is no suffering and there is no shame. My hope of someday seeing him whole again is not gone… it has been realized. We can’t hope for what we already know exists! My hope of someday seeing him with his own children has been replaced with the realization that he is now loving on the children from our family who went before him and were waiting at the pearly gates to meet him. P.J.’s journey has taken us to a place where we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God and his journey will continue as we share his story with others who can benefit from our experience. The journey is not over… it’s simply the next chapter.
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