On loss and friendship

Recently my friend, Debbie, lost her 21-year-old son, Roma, from a fall off a ladder. It was a shocking thing to the many people who knew him and his family. It is one of those things that is hard to wrap your mind around when it happens. A young person who seemed to have a long life ahead of them doesn’t get the chance.

It is more than sad. It is devastating.

My heart broke for Debbie and her family. It is a parent’s worst nightmare to bury a child. I wept for their loss and for a life that won’t get to be lived. I wept when I thought what if that had been me. I wept because imagining the loss of my own child upset me.

How does one survive that? —I am not sure.

I have always been inspired by Debbie’s very loving spirit and strength and her deep faith in God. She has helped me during our friendship more than she may even know. In her time of grief I want to be a comfort to her. I have been thinking about how best I can do that.

Words of sympathy, anecdotes, and many pictures have been pouring onto her Facebook page. She told me they were comforting for her. But I imagine as the days after the funeral creep on and other people get back to their lives these things might quiet down some. This is the time that I hope to be helpful.

Sometimes when a tragedy happens such as this we may find it hard to know what to do. Some people may distance themselves because even talking about the loss of a child is too painful even for the one who might be trying to provide comfort.

I can see that. But I knew her son…not well but I knew him – and I knew him better because of how she shared him with others. Her son was adopted and she wrote a book about her journey to adopt him. She also had a blog where she often wrote about him and then recently she wrote an amazing story of how they found his birth family in Russia.

But the best sharing we did was together in our conversations. I also have a son who is adopted and who was having some problems. She not only helped get support for me and help for my son she listened to me talk (vent!) about my fears and worries for my son.

When she spoke of her son -who had also had some challenges during his teen years and had just seemed to turn a corner before he lost his life- she spoke of him always with love. She never lost hope for him. She had such compassion and care for him despite the frustrations and fear she also had for him. She is an inspiration to me.

So from all of these conversations I had with her, I learned about him and I learned a bit about compassion (and I have tried to emulate that in my relationship with my own son and others).

Things with my son had become difficult. It stressed the entire family. Kevin and I tried to get help for him and tried to let him learn through natural consequences. It was really taking its toll on me. I wanted to make him right. I saw his potential even if he couldn’t see it.

What I learned from Debbie is that we can guide with love and though we hurt terribly to see them falter or have to learn the hard way that we can just love them.

Debbie has written in her own blog that things got better for her when she realized God didn’t intend on her to fix Roma- only to love him. Reading her words was a changing point for me. I still have my moments of anger and sheer frustration but I am better able manage that and I try to see my son through the eyes that Jesus would have seen him through.

If anything comes of Roma’s death for me is that it puts so much of life with my own kids into perspective. I realized after I heard about Roma’s death how so many things I got upset about with my kids really didn’t matter. That what really matters is to love them.

And these are the things I can talk to her about. What she gave me and what her son gave me through her. Perhaps this will be a comfort.

Sometimes words aren’t needed though. When I got cancer I know that some people really didn’t know what to say. And that is ok. Some of the nicest things I got from people were simple cards. I loved the Bible quotes and sometimes little pictures. Sometimes just a few words of encouragement – “good luck today” or “I prayed for you today” were just the thing I needed at that moment. It doesn’t have to be a dialogue.

When my friend died last year of thyroid cancer I had no words except “I am so sorry” and how many times was I going to say this? So I stopped saying it. Instead I posted pictures on her face book page of my photographs. In fact, I did this in her last weeks of life. I had no words then so I would take a photo for her and attach an encouraging quote to it and post it on her page. I wanted her to know I was thinking of her and I hope in some way it was comforting. Posting on her page after her death was perhaps more of a comfort to me but maybe it made someone else feel good that saw it.

With Debbie, I hope to provide some comfort in these ways. The other night my family was out to dinner at a local Italian restaurant and I looked up at the décor on the walls and I noticed a wall clock and under the clock was the word “Roma” – her son’s name. I had my daughter snap a picture and I posted it on her Facebook just to let her know I was thinking of her and of Roma.

I hope to get together with Debbie after the holidays. I told her I wanted to come over and chat about Roma and maybe have a glass of wine. I want her to tell me more about him if she feels like it. I want her to cry if she feels like it. I just want to be there for her. I want to do what I am not always great at- just listen.

I think having had cancer was a huge turning point in my life.  One of the most important things I learned was what a gift it is to just have someone listen to you. My husband who is a great listener became a sounding board for all my fears and angst and anger and depression. He listened with love.

I had a few friends who had been through breast cancer and they were the ones I went to when I had a question or just needed to vent. It was just good know they were there. I didn’t always need words – I just needed ears.

And then there was the touch. During some really bad days hugs really helped. Kevin hugged me fierce. He caught my tears. I have not always been comfortable hugging on people. I didn’t grow up in a huggy family but over the years I have grown to be more of a hugger. So sometimes when I am in doubt of my words I hug. It brings connection and human touch is one of the most comforting things.

When I was in the hospital I was rolled into rooms prior to my surgery for icky procedures – my husband was often banned. He was my resident hand-holder and when he wasn’t there I just grabbed on a nurses hand for comfort and I told them it was a comfort. They were more than happy to lend a hand – pun intended.

So when in doubt of consoling words I hug or I hold a hand. I watched my friend the other day get hundreds of hugs. I bet she was tired but she told me that day that she and her husband really “felt all the love” from everyone…not just the days of the funeral and visitations but the days just following his death.

We all struggle with these things I think sometimes. We are lost for words. But it is ok. Any gesture that is from the heart is ok. It comes out of love. And that is a gift.

The loss of a child has got to bring unimaginable pain and sorrow. I can only imagine and I don’t like to – the imagining hurts. I feel such sadness over the loss of Debbie’s son Roma and such sorrow for her pain. I want to be present in my friend’s life- I don’t want to back away because I just don’t have the words or out of fear that I will make her cry because I do or say the wrong thing. I just want to her to know I care. I know I can’t make her grief go away but I hope to give support during it. It is all I have but I give it with love.

Debbie said it took a village to raise Roma. I know the village will be there for her and her entire family in their grief.

 

Debbie’s Author page here.

Photos courtesy of Debbie Michael

 

Rest In Peace Roma- though your mom says Rest and Roma don’t go together!

 

 

 

Finding Connection and Love

From Left to right – my father-in- law Richard, My husband Kevin, Allen, Doris (Mom) w Baby Reagan, and Rich

One quiet Sunday a few weeks ago, the door to my in-laws home opened and an unexpected but much hoped for visit had begun. My 90 year old mother-in-law, Doris, (I call her mom) reached out to hug her thirty year old grandson. Allen.

She was meeting him for the very first time. Allen brought his family, his fiancée and their baby girl. It wasn’t long into the visit that my frail mother-in-law looked over at the pretty 6 month old baby girl and asked in her quiet voice, “Can I hold her?”

And just like that -Baby Reagan was placed in her lap. Doris beamed.

It was quite a surreal moment for all of them. I don’t’ think they imagined just a few weeks earlier they would be meeting each other so soon. There were 30 years of life behind them -never having met before- yet family all the same.

I only wish that my father-in-law could grasp what a special moment this was – but Alzheimer’s has taken his memory so he was there in body but sadly he would not remember the meeting.

A number of years before I married into this family, my brother-in-law, Rich, told his parents that he had fathered a child who was given up for adoption. I can’t share all the details of the story as it is understandably very private but I knew that the adoption agency was able to share occasional updates over the years about the child with the biological family. Every little bit of information was a gift.

When Doris would fill me on what information she had, I could see that she cared very much for this boy that she might never know. She spoke about him like she did know him, like he was part of the family to her. It wasn’t in the words as much as it was her tone that gave her feelings away.

About 6 weeks ago, I had one of my regular calls from Doris. Her voice has gotten weaker from her Parkinson’s. She was just home from a hospital stay and was put into Hospice care at home. Things have been hard for her health wise for a long time. And they aren’t expected to get better but that day on the phone she had more pep to her voice.

“Rich heard from his son!” She said. I was surprised and excited at the same time. A while back, Rich had put out word that he would like to connect with his son if he was open to it. I was still stunned from the news when she added ”And guess what else?’

“What ?’ I answered.

“There’s a baby girl! She’ s 6 months old!”

Whoa – you had her at “baby”. I am not sure I have met anyone who loves babies more than Doris. She raised six sons, she helped with every grand baby if she was able. I remember once when she was visiting my neighborhood where I lived some years ago we were outside and my neighbor was walking with her newborn. Mom took a peak and the next thing I knew she was holding the baby – smiling ear to ear.

To say she was excited about this baby news was an understatement. She was elated. She wasn’t even sure if they would ever meet but already she loved that little girl.

On that quiet Sunday a few weeks ago, the day began routinely for my in-laws. My husband, Kevin, was spending the day with them so he had gone over early to make them breakfast. My in-laws are in need of constant care 24 hours a day. Three of the brothers share that responsibility but Kevin fills in from time to time. To his surprise Rich walked in. He came down from Philadelphia and was on his way to meet his son and family for the first time. They were meeting in Chevy Chase, MD at a restaurant for a late lunch. Everyone was very excited for him. I imagine he was pretty nervous.

Later that day, Rich called to see if Mom and Dad Sweeney wanted to meet Allen and the baby. I guess lunch went well. They said they would be over in 30 minutes. Doris at first wasn’t sure it was a good time for them to come. But Kevin asked when is there really a better time. She agreed.

When you are an ailing 90 year old person the present is all you really have. There might not be a day where she feels better – there will be a day where she isn’t here at all. My heart breaks just typing that, but it is the truth and I have to face it and accept it. None of us will live forever, not even the people we love. One thing I have learned along my life’s journey is that sometimes you have to seize the moment and I am so glad they decided to seize it that day.

When Kevin heard that Allen and family were on their way, he was very excited and was staring out the living room window waiting for them to arrive. He went to check on his mom and there she was staring out the sitting room window also waiting in anticipation. (Like mother like son!). She wasn’t saying much but the excitement was apparent.

This is how she has always been. All love.

My mother-in-law has a rich history of loving people on contact. You have her instant love no questions asked. She loved me right away – not because I was so good at winning her over- I didn’t have to – she loved me simply because her son loved me. How many mothers-in-law are like that? I hope I am like that with my children. We have grown very close over the years and we have confided much with each other. We have had many laughs and some good cries. My own mom and I are very close so God must have known I needed two Moms in my life and he gave me my mother-in-law  as a bonus gift.

My Mother-In-Law is such an inspiration to me. Kevin and I have tried to open ourselves up to a loving life in the same way she has. In adopting our children we took a step that many would be fearful to take. Could you love a stranger’s child? Yes you can – the human heart is capable of huge expansion. Mom is a perfect example of the “love first, ask questions later” approach I think I have embraced much of my life. It can be risky – you open yourself up to hurt -but no risk – no reward. And there is great reward.

I will never forget the day Doris met my son, Luke, for the first time- he was 8 months old and fresh off the plane from Kazakhstan. It was also the first time I was meeting my son. My husband had flown alone 16 days earlier to Kazakhstan to adopt our baby boy and was arriving at the airport early in the morning. My in-laws had arrived at the airport before I did. I was with my own mom and step-dad and I think I may have broken their necks as I flung the car in park and jumped out the door and ran into Kevin’s arms. My sweet mother-in- law was standing next to Kevin -outside in the arrivals area- cradling a tiny baby -my son. I will never forget seeing the look in her eyes as she handed me my son for the first time. That baby had her heart before he ever touched U.S. soil.

Maybe I am more sensitive to this story of Doris meeting Allen because my three children are adopted. She is a symbol of my life too.

I have wondered what would happen if my own kids got to meet their own biological family someday. Would they be welcomed, loved? Or would they be rejected? This is a huge fear any adoptive parent has for their kids. These kids live with a type of rejection their entire lives. Knowing a person gave them up is hurtful no matter how much love it took for someone to do so. I thought of Allan and how he must have been feeling about it all. I can only imagine.

I bet he was excited and nervous together. I hope he realized 5 minutes in that he has always been a part of the family.

It was like a dream when Allen and his family came to see my in-laws. It was something anyone might not realize how much they wanted until it actually happened .The conversation went well. Kevin asked a lot of questions and Allen had stories to tell. And Baby Reagan was the prize of the day. A wonderful gift to a 90 year old woman that has kept on giving weeks later.

Later, when I spoke with her about it she said, “It was so comfortable- like we always knew him..and Oh that baby.” Oh that baby.

My mother-in-law is the type of mom I strive to be. My life was not always filled with people that are so accepting when I was growing up -people who just love you for who you are warts and all. When I was growing up I always dreamed of being part of a large family. My parents divorced when I was 13 and I have one brother – who lives in another state. My dad was an only child – so no aunties and uncles there – and we didn’t see my mom’s side of the family often. There weren’t cousins to play with on family get-togethers. I flocked to my best friends homes to try to find some sense of connection.

Like many lonely children, I had a great imagination and I would slip off into my world of a Pretend Family. I added big sisters and a little sister and big brother and even another little brother. I spent hours making up stories with these imaginary siblings. It got rather hairy one day when I decided to take a picture of me as a 5 year old to my sixth grade class– telling everyone it was my younger sister. That didn’t go over well with the head priest at my Catholic School when he found out. In my defense, Catholic families were large back in the day and I had schoolmates that came from families with nine kids – there was one family had fourteen and a pet raccoon – I had to do something to feel I measured up!

It wasn’t until I married at age 35 that I found the sense of family I was hoping for.

Kevin has 5 brothers, there are cousins and aunts and uncles. Is it perfect? No! No family is perfect. It would be too boring if it were. But to be loved and accepted as a sister and daughter has been a dream come true. To know my kids are accepted with such love has been so comforting.

Maybe I have always looked for a sense of safety. Maybe I have used adoption of my children and maybe even the adoption of dogs to build that cocoon of safety around me – I am not sure. But I think there is something to that. I know that when you grow up, you often seek the things you didn’t have as a child.

I now have the family I had hoped for long ago it’s not always easy and it can be messy but I have that sense of belonging and safety, which has helped me to grow as a person.

I am blessed to be loved by Doris -aka Mom – and to see the look on her face when she met her grandson and great-granddaughter for the first time – one of love and complete acceptance and happiness brought back all the gratitude I have for this family that has made me a better person. I hit the jackpot and got more love than I could ever feel worthy of but I will take it.

Thanks for reading.

Photo Credits – Freeman Marine and Kevin Sweeney

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