How can one person possibly be filled with such immense and intense feelings all the time. Sometimes I wonder if my heart is simply going to explode. My heart feels so tired one minute and then so completely filled up with love and joy the very next minute. The capacity our heart has to continue to make room for everything we pack into it amazes me.
I feel love and joy for so many things, people, moments, and memories. And yet, this same space holds me when I am sad and lonely.
I found myself spending more time than I care to admit feeling constantly disappointed by people, bitter, angry, and absolutely grief stricken. Yet, my darkest moments of this year were, and continue to be, always overcome by joy. Always.
This year of 2022 brought the death of my dad, the death of one of my dearest friends, and unrelenting grief over the senior year Nikolai would not experience. And yet, I was met with joy on every corner of that grief.
Nikolai’s graduation party.
Summer vacation of all vacations.
Memorial Day garage sale.
Strangers in the cemetery.
Random acts of kindness.
Love. Pure love.
Godwink after Godwink.
Are you looking for the joy? Because as much as I didn’t want it this year, joy filled my every day in some capacity, big and small. Thank God. I wanted to live in heartbreak this year but that isn’t what life is all about. I can be sad. I can cry. I can feel all the grief. My heart can take it, but it also doesn’t want me to sit in it.
I miss Nikolai. I miss my dad. I miss my friend. Yet, someday I will see them again. For now, I have a whole lotta people to wrap up in love right here on this physical earth.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
In third grade Nikolai had the best teacher. Don’t get me wrong, he had amazing teachers his whole school career; however, one teacher always stood out to me and this was his third-grade teacher, Mrs. Breen.
This was the one year of elementary school that I remember as being his most joyous. While he still had to get the work done, Mrs. Breen wasn’t the teacher that scolded him, made him feel bad for not doing his work, or held him back from recess (which he so desperately needed to burn off his energy). She softly redirected him, used wit and sarcasm with him, and tried to always make tasks a game. I know he was a handful and we talked frequently about challenges. However, his third-grade year was the year he smiled most. This was the year he thrived in school the most.
One particular class project they worked on was called “I Am Great.” The kids colored or painted those words in the middle of the page and then each child’s page was passed around to the other kids in the class to write something positive about that child.
Last week I was sifting through Nikolai’s box of treasures, as I like to call it. Each one of my boys has a box filled with all the things I want to save forever and ever – their first baby shoes, baptism gowns, homemade blankets, report cards, pictures they colored, Mother’s Day cards handmade with love and on the rare occasion, a meaningful assignment from one of their classes. It was through this sifting through his box looking for something else entirely, that I came across this “I Am Great” assignment.
I started reading all of the comments and I laughed and cried. Comments about how nice he was, what a good friend he was, how good he was at athletics, reading and coloring. Yet it was Mrs. Breen’s note that jolted me: “You are a super athlete with an amazing passion for life.”
“An amazing passion for life.”
This was Nikolai summed up in one sentence. The BEST sentence. And as a parent who struggled with this child constantly, I wish I had focused more on that one sentence. As a parent, I focused so much on what he didn’t do or did wrong and forgot to look at him as a person, as a friend, someone who was kind and joyful and who had a zest for life that few others had.
Chalk this up with the other millions of mistakes I made with my kids. Raising kids without an instruction manual is just hard.
Yet it got me thinking… why don’t we all have an “I Am Great” assignment posted somewhere where we can see it all the time? What if instead of looking at all of our flaws, we took time to realize all the great things about ourselves and each other? What if we looked at kids like Nikolai and instead of seeing a kid who can’t focus on a single thing and is crazy impulsive, we saw a child who had “an amazing passion for life”? It’s all perspective and perhaps it’s time to change that view for one that shows the light in someone, not the darkness.
Nikolai ended that school year with a “worm-off” with Mrs. Breen. If you have never heard of the worm, just google “Worm Dance Move” and you can watch hundreds of YouTube videos of it. This final moment of third grade was talked about his whole life as one of his greatest shining achievements, as he is convinced he beat her! After Nikolai died, Mrs. Breen messaged me the video of the “worm-off” that another parent had captured. I will forever keep this video and watch it when I need to be reminded that life is full of joy if only we choose to look for it.
People frequently say to me “you are so strong”, “you are the strongest person I know”, “how can you be so strong?”.
Being strong is the only choice I have. It’s either that or curl up into a ball and suck my thumb in a corner for the rest of my life, which honestly, some days, doesn’t sound like a terrible idea.
I made a promise to myself the day Nikolai died that I would always at least get out of bed every single day. What I did after that was up in the air, but I had to at least get out of bed. As humans it is in our nature to fight this constant battle of wanting to just let ourselves drown while also wanting to stay afloat. But I had two other children to worry about, a husband to love, a funeral to plan. There was no choice but to keep moving forward, no time to really feel, especially when other people are depending on you. Once the distraction of funeral planning has ended and your house empties of people and the cards and texts are fewer and fewer, this is when being strong really comes into play. This is when you have to dig deep and try to put things back together. This is when you make decisions that impact how you are going to heal.
I decided to run head on into the belly of the beast. I decided to be resilient and strong, brave and courageous, a fighter. I made the decision to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves; those who struggle with mental health, those who live moment to moment never knowing if they want to live another second. To do that, I had to be strong. It was like going into battle some days with a full armor suit and shield, preparing to take on whoever and whatever to get things done.
Yet along that path, I forgot to tell myself that it’s okay to not be strong every single day. Fighting internal demons while trying to slay dragons and save the world – well sometimes those just don’t mesh. Some days that is a battle all on its own, with no clear winner.
To survive any form of trauma in our lives we have choices – choices on how we want to come out the other side and how we are going to get there. I guess I chose strong. For me, this was the only choice I had. It’s not part of my DNA to sit out the hard stuff. Yet every time someone tells me how strong I am, I cringe. I hate that word, yet live by that word. It’s so confusing.
I think more times than not, people choose strong over thumb sucking in a corner. I think, as humans, we are resilient and standing in the middle of a fire waiting to burn just isn’t an option. That fire forges something new in us and wakes us up to new possibilities. It doesn’t mean that the flames don’t sometimes still ignite and hurt, it means that we can withstand the heat long enough to get to water.
What I have found is that even though I am able to get through the days, not all of those days are strong days and that being strong is relative. Find YOUR strong and be that. All we need to do is get out of bed and the rest of the day will sort itself out.
I was listening to a podcast recently and the guest speaker, Lori Gottlieb, said this, “Part of getting to know yourself is to unknow yourself. To let go of those limiting stories that you’ve been telling yourself about yourself so you can live your life and not the story you’ve been telling yourself about your life.”
I feel this quote in my soul. This process of getting to unknow myself began the day Nikolai died. When your child takes his own life, you can’t help but to evaluate your own story. What kind of parent was I? Was I the kind of person I really want to be? Could I have acted or done something different? What if I had just done this or just been this kind of parent/person, maybe things would have turned out differently. This is guilt talk telling me that I wasn’t good enough.
Over the course of several months after Nikolai’s death I felt more and more broken. Broken to my very core and guilt ravished my brain. And then I just started to get mad.
When I began the work with onadragonflyswings community, it quite literally stemmed from a guilt complex I just couldn’t let go of – that feeling of I was not enough for Nikolai and so I owe it to him to do this thing, to put myself out there and become very uncomfortable. Insert therapist here and I began the hard work of letting go of this self-loathing that was devouring me. At the same time, I started to really research, read and listen to everything I could get my hands on about mental health and suicide. I participated and spoke at several suicide prevention trainings. This is when I discovered that it wasn’t that I wasn’t enough, it was that I didn’t know enough. And, that my friends, is the shift in my story.
Stories are the way we make sense of our lives. The guilt I felt then is something I will continue to feel, possibly for the rest of my life; however, the heaviness of it is so much less now. This isn’t the story I want for my life and I’m sure that it isn’t the story that Nikolai would want for my life either.
Before Nikolai died, I set the first meeting for a book club called Girl Stop Apologizing (The GSA Club). This book club was made up of myself and six other women who all shared a passion for Rachel Hollis and her new book “Girl Stop Apologizing.” That first meeting was delayed for a couple of months until I felt the timing was right to get back to living. I wrote these six women into the first chapter of my healing and my transformation. And there isn’t a chapter in my story since that doesn’t include them and the power they have wielded to help me change who I am and realize who I want to be. They have shown me that I can choose to play the hero or the victim in my story. I will choose hero every day.
I am a changed person and I don’t mean that subtlety – I mean like a whole 365-degree change. I question everything. I try to view every person and situation with compassion and kindness. I thrive on my faith and my God. I have tightened my circle, yet at the same time completely opened it up. There is movement in my soul, and I love this person I am evolving into. This is my real story. This is the story I want to tell.
You choose your narrative. Make sure it’s the story you want to live.