Heartbroken

Joe and I laid in bed last night talking and feeling all the emotions together. We both are experiencing very intense grief and it has brought chaos, anger, and much sadness to our home lately.

May and June just suck and if I could skip over these two months and jump straight into July, that would be my preference; however, that isn’t a thing, so here we are knee deep (over our heads deep) in consuming yuck.

May holds Mother’s Day, Joe’s dad’s heavenly birthday, and my dad’s birthday (his first heavenly birthday this year). June is Nikolai’s birthday, his death date, and Father’s Day. All great dates to remember what you’ve lost, and I say that with immense sarcasm.

Memorial Day weekend is typically a time when my entire family gathers at my parent’s house for games, relaxation, cocktails on the porch, great conversation, and tons of laughter. This year, it is me, my sister and my mom holding a garage sale to sell my dad’s things to strangers.

Combine all of this with watching Nikolai’s friends’ parents post the amazing senior stuff: awards ceremonies, athletic senior night celebrations, last band and orchestra concerts, graduation party invitations, and all their kids dreams and plans for the future. It’s really almost too much for this mama heart to bear. Don’t get me wrong, I am excited and thrilled for these kids. I’ve known them for years and to see them grow up and step into their next adventure is amazing. However, I also have frequent bursts of anger because my kid should be doing this stuff too.

Nikolai hated school and these last few years would have been the greatest struggle to get him to graduation, yet I sure would have loved the chance to do it and get him to this point. I feel robbed.

Each day that gets closer to June finds me looking at all the FB memories and realizing that anything in 2019 was just a matter of days before his death. I find myself reaching into those photos of him and trying to figure out how he can look so happy and full of life and then one day he’s gone. I still can’t make sense of it.

So much pain. So much heartbreak. So much grief.

I don’t know what to do with it all. Normally I am able to do all the self-care stuff, sit in my emotions, seek out joy; yet this time, this week, last week, it’s just not working. The pain is weighing a little heavier and isn’t as easily reconciled. And when your partner in life is also stricken by pain and doesn’t know what to do with it, it creates a very precarious position. The universe has always allowed one of us to be filled with pain, while the other absorbs it. When you both feel it heavy at the same time it’s just hard.

I keep telling myself it’s okay to not be okay, but then I go out and people ask how you are and well… I can’t bear it because while outwardly I smile and say I’m fine, internally I swallow my scream of I’M NOT FINE!

I’m not okay. I’m lost. And I can’t seem to get my shit together.

I am heartbroken, plain and simple.

WATERFORD MOTHER LAUNCHES NON-PROFIT FOR MENTAL HEALTH EDUCATION AND SUICIDE PREVENTION

In late 2019, following the death by suicide of her 15-year-old son Nikolai, Waterford resident, marketing professional and in the midst of a two-term stint as the Waterford Area Chamber of Commerce Board President, Kris Miller started social media platforms and a grief journey blog housed on the website called On a Dragonfly’s Wings (www.onadragonflyswings.com).  

The intent was to not only share her grief journey with other survivors of suicide, but to generate conversations, programs, and initiatives to start talking out loud and boldly about mental health issues.  Miller says, “As parents, my husband Joe and I did all the things we thought we were supposed to do to help Nikolai. It is always after the fact that you realize you didn’t do nearly enough because you didn’t know enough. This began my mission of educating about mental health, mental illness, and suicide ideation. The more we know, the better chance we have of preventing suicide.”

Her maternal boldness and her gifted prose started an online movement… she connected to other survivors, families started calling her for resources and referrals, sponsors stepped up to support her marketing efforts, invitations came for her to speak at public events or suicide prevention trainings, and the late State Representative Andrea Schroeder stepped in and supported the Save our Students bill, which became a Michigan law on October 14, 2020.

Then Miller, boldly again and feeling a calling, hung up her professional marketing hat and filed for On a Dragonfly’s Wings to become a federally registered non-profit 501c3 after realizing the impact the movement was already making. The official paperwork was approved on ironically, Valentine’s Day 2022, and Miller is now On a Dragonfly’s Wings Founder and Executive Director. “It’s a calling I never expected,” says Miller, “yet I just can’t stop feeling intense compassion and love for the adolescents who are struggling with mental illness. We need to do better.”

Miller added, “I may never know if a death is prevented, but I will know that I have advanced the conversation, that my organization is advocating for those who struggle in silence, giving them a voice that will help us break the stigma of mental health and suicide.”

To get involved or to make a financial contribution, contact Kris at kris@onadragonflyswings.com or call (248) 978-4987.

Grief for two

I had been home less than 24 hours after leaving my dad in a hospice facility, before my mom texted that my dad started the death rattle. This is actually a thing if you Google it like I did. I drove faster than I should have back to Kalamazoo to sit with my mom and my sister as we held vigil waiting for my dad to die.

Two weeks prior to this, my dad had us all meet as a family with a funeral director because if you know my dad, you know that he wants things taken care of up front and with his input. The funeral director talked about his obituary and stated that she would write up a draft for him to review. He quite sternly said to her that his daughter is a professional writer, and he would like her to write his obituary.

While she explained to him that she teaches a class at a community college on obituary writing and is capable, he was adamant that his daughter takes on this task. I’m sure she was mildly offended, and I was completely shaken. I am definitely not a professional writer for one thing. And two, write the obituary for my own dad? How does one approach this?

So, it is during this time holding vigil in that darkened room, listening to my dad’s death rattle, that I wrote not only his obituary, but the very words my sister and I would speak at his funeral. These are some of the hardest words I have ever put down on paper. How do you write about your dad in past tense, when you are watching his chest rise and fall gently across the room?

It took better part of the day to write those two pieces, summing up his entire life in just a few short pages. It isn’t fair. You live 74 years and your whole life is done in a few measly paragraphs.

And shortly after I finished, my dad took his last breath. My mom, my sister, and I were present, we held his hand, we kissed him goodbye. And every single day since then has been harder.

My dad died on January 20th.

Nikolai died on June 20th.

My dear friend, Pastor Kate, told me that shared dates are Holy. That Nikolai and my dad are truly paired souls and that shared dates are the mercies God uses to continue to fan our hope and the promise of being together again. These are the exact word I needed to hear.

Yet, even with this promise, I find my grief so hard to wade through right now. I still grieve the loss of my child, every single day. And I don’t believe that will ever go away. He is a part of me, a part of my heart, and I long for him to still be here. At the opposite extreme, I have lost a parent. Someone who raised me, who supported me and loved me through all things for 49 years.

Family get togethers will never be the same. My dad will never sit at the head of the table ever again. I will never get frustrated over how hard he is to buy for at Christmas time. I won’t ever hear him tell me to keep my head down when hitting a golf ball.

And yet, things haven’t been all that “normal” for me for two years. My dad’s death just complicates it.

I feel overwhelmed with this grief. No, suffocated by this grief. One compounded on the other. How am I to walk through the day to day of life? So much heartache and no where to put it.

I know this darkness will be filtered by light shining through in ways reminding me that joy abounds if I choose it.

Show me the light you two.

He’s really gone.

My son died.
I know this isn’t news to any of you; however, some days it feels like new news to me. Like, I can’t honestly believe he’s gone. He’s really, really gone. 

Thank God for the saved voicemails and the YouTube videos he did because I can’t believe how long it’s been since I heard his voice or that laugh that starts at the bottom of his toes and works its way all through his body. It’s contagious. Was contagious. 

It’s been a million days since I talked to him or ran my hands through his hair telling him he needed a haircut. It’s been a million more since I told him I loved him and he smiled back at me with that twinkle in his eye. 

Some days I think I’m going to walk into his bedroom and expect to yell at him for how messy it is. And yet, when I walk in his room this morning, it’s neat and tidy and I sit down to work at my desk like he never lived in this room. 

My son died. 
He’s really, really gone. I try so hard not to look back at that fateful day, but every bit of it is burned into my brain and I relive all of its horribleness over and over again. And my heart feels shattered in a million pieces again and again. 

Coulda, woulda, shoulda. Regret and forgiveness tangled up in this mess that looks vaguely in my head like a ball of Christmas lights gone bad.

How can this be? He’s gone. He’s really, really gone.  

Sometimes I sit in front of his gravestone and trace the letters on his name. It’s like I am willing him back to life and if I just touch his name, say his name out loud, then poof it will magically all be okay again. But it’s not. It never is. 

Talking to that stone just isn’t the same. Dammit. It’s all different and wrong. It shouldn’t be this way. And, yet, it is. 

My Nikolai is gone. He’s really, really gone. 

The holidays are filled with joy. Or are they?

This month began with tragedy in Oakland County, Michigan. For those of you who don’t know, one of our small communities experienced a horrific school shooting in which four young high school students lost their lives, many more were injured, and now an entire school of youth and staff have to figure out a way through trauma and grief. Every community in our county empathizes deeply with Oxford and our hearts are shattered for them. 

I simply can’t get these four families out of my head. These teens were children, babies really when you look at the average life span of a human. And I know this pain, this deep grief all too well. Loss of a child. It is a pain like no other. 

This is our third Christmas without Nikolai. And to say it’s been weird is an understatement. I don’t know if it is the pain I carry for these Oxford families has made me not realize my own grief or if it’s all mixed up. 

Putting up our Christmas tree for the past two years has sent me spiraling. Pulling all of Nikolai’s ornaments out of the box and hanging them on the tree usually brings me to tears. This year, I decorated the entire tree by myself and never shed a tear, like it was any old year. Nothing. Zero emotion. This scared me. Have I placed my grief somewhere else with other families to the point that I have misplaced my own grief? Or have I somehow come out the other side? 

The answer is neither. 

I believe I have compartmentalized my feelings, as if I can only be sad about one thing at a time. I wonder if it is my way of protecting myself because too much grief may destroy me. I will feel all the things for these other families because I truly ache for them and at the same time, I will ignore my personal pain. It makes me feel stronger. Look at how much I can endure and not fall apart. 

I mean how emotionally unhealthy can you be? Sad is not bad. 

I have been to the cemetery more in the last eight days than all of October and November combined, like almost every single day. And I cry every single time. It’s time to accept that I can’t compartmentalize my feelings, nor should I want to. It’s time to accept that my feelings are real and not bad. My feelings are valid and shouldn’t be closed off behind a door somewhere. 

All those things I tell everyone else… maybe I should start taking my own advice. 

The more days that pass since the Oxford tragedy, the more absorbed I find myself back into my own grief. And this is hard. It’s easier to grieve for other people’s loss; however, when you flip it back around, well, it hurts and at a much deeper level because it’s your pain. 

I miss Nikolai.

I miss his smile and his laughter. And it’s difficult because it’s getting harder to hear his laugh. Will there come a day when I can’t hear it at all? 

I will miss hearing him get up in the middle of the night, even at 14 years old to sneak downstairs and look at what Santa brought and then begrudgingly stomp back upstairs because it was too early for everyone else. 

I will miss watching him try and crack open his crab legs at Christmas dinner and sending shell flying. 

I will miss him trying to burp like Elf and say “did you hear that?”

I will miss him singing “Dominic the Christmas Donkey” with me in the car because it’s silly and fun.

I will miss watching him hug his grandma and grandpa.

I just miss him. 

I sit here in Dragonfly Central (my office, his bedroom) and know that he surrounds me every day, giving me support, guiding me, and making sure that while I miss him, I still find and choose joy. Because he was joy. 

The pain I feel for these Oxford families has brought my pain to the forefront. And each time another young person takes their life, I relive this pain again. I want to tell all of these families that this pain will never go away. I’m not going to sugarcoat that. However, my prayer for you is that you remember the immense joy your child brought to you and I invite you to sit in those joyful memories along with your pain because joy and sadness can and do coexist.

This is how we remember. This is how we make sure that the world remembers. 

God Bless and Merry Christmas. 

He is really gone.

We have hit the two-year, two-month mark of Nikolai’s death. That’s kind of a long time, relatively speaking, I guess. Yet, what I find odd is that, after all this time, it is finally (26 months later) hitting me that he is gone and that he isn’t coming back.  

I know he’s gone. I know he’s not coming back. However, I’m just now realizing it. His death is final. It dawned on me a couple of days ago as I stood in front of his gravestone. I kept tracing his name with my fingers and saying his name out loud, like I needed him desperately to respond.

Almost every day, my FB memories reminds me of his life. I can’t stop staring at pictures, like I’m willing that time back, I’m willing him to walk back into our lives.

The depth of how much I miss him is hitting so hard.

We celebrated my granddaughter’s first birthday on Saturday and it was joyful and amazing and I kept thinking how much Nikolai would have loved to be there. How much fun he would have had with her and the things he would have said and done to make her laugh. He would have loved snuggling with Daley’s new puppy.

And yesterday, we had friends over and one of his best friends was playing whiffle ball with all the other boys in our yard and it made me immensely sad that he missed that, while also knowing his friend misses him and also silently wishes he was there.

My sadness lately seems on a whole new level, another level of grief to rock my world and leave me begging for this pain in my heart to stop.

Grief is not linear. It’s a pattern of loops and zig zags and most days doesn’t make an ounce of sense. There are definitely more okay patches than devasted ones, more joyful times than sad; however, this grief thing, this slow healing, is meddling in the way my life is supposed to go.

It shouldn’t take this long to grieve and heal, or so the world has foolishly led us to believe. Grief is tricky. It doesn’t ever really go away. We will always carry it. Some days the load may feel lighter and other days it will feel so heavy you don’t know how you can possibly carry it.

Grief is living two lives. One is where you pretend that everything is fine, and the other is where you want to scream out in anguish. And it’s a constant battle of will to keep that second one from coming out, to fake it until you make it, to convince those around you that you really are ‘okay’.

Until today. Today I realize that you are gone forever. You really aren’t ever coming back and I’m not okay. I grieve the loss of my kid. I miss him being a part of our family. I miss his laugh. I miss his smile. I’m tired. My heart hurts.

And, all of that… all those feelings… that is okay. It’s okay to feel broken sometimes.

“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.” – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Sometimes all we can do is love

How do we make someone with a mental illness feel seen and supported?

Through On a Dragonfly’s Wings, I post almost daily on FB and IG resources, tools, best things to say, what not to say, motivation and support, love, and as much information as I can to educate those of us in a support role and those who are struggling.

It’s just not enough.

I have a friend who struggles every day of her life to get out of bed, to put one foot in front of the other, to keep going day after day. And even with all that I know, it’s not enough.

I love her beyond the stars and back and I don’t know how to help her.

That’s the thing about mental illness, no matter what we say to the hurting person, their brain will tell them the opposite. We know all those things are awful, but to the person struggling, it’s their truth.

Nikolai used to say all the time how stupid he was. No matter how many bazillion times we told him he was so smart, he just didn’t believe us.

The Real Depression Project recently posted some of the best things to say to someone struggling with mental illness:

1. Your mental illness does not define you.

2. You are strong for fighting an invisible illness 24/7, 365.

3. Your struggle doesn’t make you weak.

4. If all you do is survive your dark days, that’s enough.

5. Don’t feel guilty for resting – it’s essential for your well-being.

I’m pretty sure I’ve said all of these statements to one person or another, including Nikolai, including my dear friend. It’s not enough.

I have zero answers.

Today my heart just hurts so badly for those who live in a mind that speaks lies to them.

Words don’t seem to matter today. All I can do is wrap her up in more love than I can almost bear and pray that it is enough.

Join me today in praying for all those who can’t see their worth, who struggle with thoughts of suicide. Please God cover them in light and love.

What not to say

Let’s talk about things you shouldn’t say to a grieving parent after their child has died.

Someone recently said to me, “At least you have two other children and now a grandchild.” Yes, you are right, I am incredibly blessed, beyond blessed. However, it would sure be nice to still have my other son here. Their presence does not somehow mitigate my loss.

I know this person wasn’t saying this to intentionally be mean or hurtful. Grief is awkward and I think sometimes people just don’t know what to say so they say really dumb things. Here’s the biggest piece of advice I can give to you: hug the grieving person and simply say, “I don’t know what to say, just know that I love you.”

See how easy that was? There’s no need to try and fill the space with anything else. I don’t want your advice. I don’t want to hear “he’s in a better place”, “thank goodness you have other children”, “at least you know he’s in heaven”, “you have a guardian angel”, “God has a plan”.

When talking to a grieving parent, if you start any sentence with “at least”, don’t finish it. You are already telling the person that your child’s life didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

Don’t ask “how are you?” UGH. I’ve written on this at least a gazillion times. How the heck do you think I am? I lost my child. How would you be feeling? Maybe say instead, “I know this is a really tough time for you right now.”

“I know how you feel.” Really? Even if you have lost a child of your own, everyone grieves differently. You have absolutely no idea how I’m feeling and it’s shameful to say that you do. Claiming that you somehow know how I feel is invalidating.

“Let me know if there is anything I can do for you.” Asking for help is incredibly brave and it takes humans immense amounts of courage to ask for help, let alone a grieving parent who at this point is just trying to get out of bed every day, much less even know what to ask for. The night Nikolai died, I texted one of my best friends in the whole world. As we pulled into our driveway after leaving the hospital that night, she was already there waiting. She sat with me, let me cry, and then promptly went upstairs to change sheets on beds for guests she knew would be coming to my home. She picked up and cleaned. My mom and my sister came that same night. My sister, in her own grief, went to the grocery store in the wee hours of the morning and bought food for our home and her and my mom made our family and guest’s breakfast. These moments of action not words meant the world to me, and it still brings tears to my eyes remembering all that was done for us in those immediate moments. When you are in the immediate stages of grief, doing laundry, running the vacuum, and getting groceries are tasks that take immense energy to even think of doing. Instead of asking what you can do, just tell the grieving person what you will do for them. It’s simply a change from words to action that make all the difference here.  

“You’re handling this better than I thought you would.” Gah. Just stop it. People put up fronts for others every single day. Would you rather I drop to my knees and sob and scream? I could and probably should, but I’m putting on a brave face to save YOU from the awkwardness. Again, you have absolutely no idea how I’m feeling or how I’m handling the death of my child – how dare you presume anything.

And for the love of all that is holy, do not choose to not say anything. This is almost worse than anything else you could say. By not saying anything, by not acknowledging the loss, you are telling the grieving person that you don’t matter, that your loss doesn’t matter, the life that was lost didn’t matter. I am here to tell you that Nikolai mattered. He had a whole lot of people that loved him and wishes he were still here. I know that it’s awkward and you don’t know what to say but saying nothing… it’s just not cool. A simple card, text or email that acknowledges the death and simply says “I have no words, just know that I am thinking about you,” speaks volumes to the grieving person.

When someone you care about is grieving, it is human nature to try to comfort them and help ease their pain. However, sometimes our good intentions can be more harmful than helpful, particularly the things we often say with the intention to make them feel better.

A large part of the problem is our own discomfort with grief and not knowing how to speak to someone who is grieving. Instinctively, we try to “fix” the hurt and make the pain go away. However, grief is a necessary process that cannot, and should not, be dusted under the rug so that the grieving person can feel good again. Grief sucks. Don’t make it worse by saying something ridiculous to make yourself feel better. If you want to support someone who is grieving, choose words that convey love and care, rather than offering advice and wisdom.

Journey into the light

If you are a suicide survivor, I highly recommend you read, “Understanding Your Suicide Grief” by Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD. Shortly after Nikolai died, an acquaintance I know in my community gave me this book.

It took me almost two years before I decided that I should read it, that I needed to read it. I ignorantly believed all this time that I was fully in touch with how to handle my grief and heal myself.

I tried therapy and that didn’t work for me. It was probably more me than him, but either way, I walked away from it. I got a few things off my chest and decided I was good to go. Then as you all know, that season of anger hit me like a fan on full blast in your face. The last few months has been trying to figure that out and what to do with it. Per my last blog, I read “The Choice” by Dr. Edith Eger. I believe that book saved me in many ways. It gave me a different perspective and helped me pinpoint the anger. I was angry at me. The need to find a way to forgive myself and truly heal has been at the forefront of my mind ever since.

So when I saw this book gathering dust on my bookshelf I decided to finally take a peek.

It didn’t take long. On page 34, Dr. Wolfelt writes, “In large part, healing from a suicide death is anchored in a decision to not judge yourself but to love yourself. Grief is a call for love. So, if you are judging yourself and where you are in this journey, STOP! Judgment will not free you to mourn, it will only make you afraid to do so. When you stop judging the multitude of emotions that come with your grief, you are left with acceptance, and when you have acceptance (or surrender), you have love. Love will lead you into and through the wilderness, to a place where you will come out of the dark and into the light.”

I have found that I am afraid to let go of the pain, I want to hang onto it; yet, at the same time, I want to be free of it. This is making me so angry. And, really, it all begins with forgiveness and love. Nikolai’s death is not my fault. His death was not in my control, it was in his. He is responsible for it, not me. I was a good mom. I wasn’t perfect, but I was good enough.

All of the what if’s and why’s have to stop. These are only questions Nikolai can answer. They aren’t for me. To continue to try and relive every step of his life serves no one.

It is time for me to surrender, to forgive, to love and let peace finally settle inside me. Easier said than done? Perhaps. But it’s time.

Grief work is hard, yet necessary. This journey through loss and healing does not mean we forget those we have lost. It doesn’t mean that our feelings of loss will ever disappear. However, if we do the work, the devastating feeling of loss will soften and peace and joy will re-enter our lives. We will never go back to “normal,” we will discover a new “normal” and that is where forgiveness lies and love lives.

We have a responsibility to live. While it hurts to suffer lost love, we owe it to those we lost to continue living with passion and love on our heart.

“Your joy is sorrow unmasked…

The deeper that sorrow carves into your
being, the more joy you can contain.

When you are joyous, look deep into your heart
and you shall find it is only that which has
given you sorrow that is giving you joy.

When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart,
and you shall see that in truth you are weeping
for that which has been your delight.”
– Kahlil Gibran

“The Choice”

I have read so many books, both fiction and non-fiction, on the Holocaust. There is something so captivating and horrific about this time in world history. About a month ago, I was listening to a Brene’ Brown podcast. Her guest was Dr. Edith Eva Eger, an author, therapist, and Holocaust survivor. She just released her new book “The Gift” and was sharing a little bit about her personal story and the reason for writing her second book.

Her story is so raw and unfathomable, so traumatic, yet it is a story that all humanity needs to hear.

After listening to the podcast I found her website and started reading more and more about her. I decided to order her first book, “The Choice.” At this point I have about 40 pages left, yet I keep rereading the last three chapters because I am discovering something and it is in these pages.

My last blog piece was me releasing the angriest parts, the most vulnerable parts of who I am right now. And today I am still angry; however, I’ve realized who I’m most angry at… it’s me.

Since the day Nikolai died I have been consumed by guilt. And I am realizing now that even my work with On a Dragonfly’s Wings has been out of guilt. The blog was to capture my grief journey; however, the social media platform’s sole purpose was to educate about mental health and suicide, to prevent more deaths, to give aid to those who are struggling, to let people know they are not alone. I have lived and breathed these last many months telling myself that I couldn’t save my child, but I can save someone else’s by all this work. I was not enough for my child but I will be enough for someone else’s. I am consumed by guilt in not knowing more, not doing more, not being enough of a mom for my son to help him. I have allowed these thoughts to devour me whole.

But what if I didn’t? What if I CHOOSE freedom? What if instead of beating myself up, I choose to accept that I am human and imperfect? What if I CHOOSE to forgive myself and all my flaws?

Dr. Eger writes, “It was the inner work. Of learning to survive and thrive, of learning to forgive myself, of helping others to do the same. And when I do this work, then I am no longer the hostage or the prisoner of anything. I am free.”

This has profoundly changed me.  I have put myself in a mental prison and until I can fully accept forgiveness, I will never be free. I have much work to do here; however, it feels good to be onto something, LOL.

Perhaps by forgiving myself, setting myself free, I can find meaning and purpose from what hurts my heart most. I can’t change the past yet I can move forward with patience, love and compassion toward myself and others. I will be able to CHOOSE my work as a mental health advocate, rather than it be my redemption.