Lessons From Tanner

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This morning as I sit on the back deck with my paper and coffee, I look up for a moment to see the bright purple flowers covering my lawn. It’s a  weed, they tell me, and it will take over everything. Something I should probably get rid of. Yet, to me, the beautiful purple blossoms remind me of Tanner, of his February birthstone, and the bright purple lupines that we used to collect for our breakfast table on spring mornings such as these. I realize, I have no intention of getting rid of these “weeds.” My definition of beauty is entirely different than it was before I lost him, and I find solstice in knowing that, wherever we are, signs of him emerge. Beauty no longer means a beautifully, well-pruned lawn that a hired hand created, but gardens created for Tanner by his sister and I, flowers specifically chosen and planted with our miraculous little Tanner in mind.

Our lives have come a long way since that day in August, since our world plummeted and grief was the only emotion we knew. I have come to call a wonderful man my husband, who stood by us as the days grew darker before we could find the light again. Nicole has learned to speak about her emotions after working through therapy, and mentioning the memories of Tanner now brings us joy instead of only sorrow. I’ve come to realize how blessed I must be to have had a little boy whose funeral was filled with hundreds of people whose lives had changed simply by knowing him.  His zest for life was unmatched, and it helps to keep me in check when I forgot that the little things often matter much more than I give them credit for.

I’ve watched Nicole’s compassionate ways unfold when she witnesses another child in emotional turmoil, and her passion to see others treated fairly and justly always leaves me beaming with pride. When I see my usually quiet child stand in defense of another who has been the victim of bullying or neglect, my emotions are mixed. I know that to get here, to this level of understanding as an eight year old, she has felt much more pain than a lifetime should hold…but, then I am reminded of this quote by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” I can only hope, that as she continues her journey through her grief, her compassion and understanding for what truly matters will continue to bloom.

It’s true that we emerge as different people on the other side of grief…it’s not possible to lose such a significant part of who you are and continue on being the same person. Spontaneity is something we embrace, as you really never know when your last day will arrive. We tend to stay up too late on weekends, with “too many” extra children filling our home, the laughter bouncing off the walls, often until 12:00 a.m. We eat ice cream probably more than we should, and don’t spend much time worrying about the latest fashion crazes. We can often be found curled up together watching a movie or diving into a good book, rather than worrying about the perfect order of our house. We’re too busy cherishing the time we have together, knowing all too well that tomorrow isn’t a guarantee. Our perspective on life has forever changed, and our journey through grief has opened our eyes to so many of life’s wonders that were often pushed away until “we found the time” to enjoy them. Sometimes tomorrow doesn’t come….you’ve got to remember to live today.

No matter what we are doing, the knowledge that our time together will eventually come to an end is never far from our thoughts. Because of this Tanner, we’ve learned that you’ll never truly be “gone.” You’re here with us when we see a beautiful purple flower emerge, when your favorite song comes on the radio and Sissy proudly does the “Tanner dance,” when we remember to walk a little slower & and be patient with one another when the bad days hit, & when we see somebody struggling and offer to lend a helping hand, even if it means sacrificing our own plans. You’ve taught us so many lessons that have forever changed the way we live our lives. We miss you every single day, and love you with a love beyond measure. These holes in our hearts that losing you created, are slowly beginning to fill with all of the beautiful memories you gave us, and a new understanding of what a “meaningful” life really is. If you were really only meant to be here for four short, beautiful years, I am so immensely grateful that I was the one whom you called “Mommy.”

Dreaming of You

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Since my last blog post, we have survived  the holidays, and are now fast approaching what would be Tanner’s 7th birthday. Though this time of year has become easier to navigate as time goes on, my subconscious mind is all too aware that these milestones will always serve as obstacles to overcome. In this blog post, I will share with you some of the dreams and nightmares I have had since Tanner’s passing, as every year around his birthday the dreams come back in full swing. Sometimes dreams serve as a refreshing way to see our child once more…to relive those beautiful memories…but other times it’s as if we have visited hell in our sleep. Keeping a grief dream journal is a useful way to work through the emotions that emerge when our alarms sound and pull us back to the real word.

I woke up in the middle of the night, looking around for the little boy I had just been playing basketball with. He was running up and down the court, playfully passing the ball back and forth between his sister and I before going in for the perfect layup. The ball went through the net with its signature swishing sound, and he ran up to me and wrapped his four-year old arms around my waist… “I love you Mama!” I twirled him around in the air, and we stood up to get ready for the next play….this time, he was going to try for a three pointer just like Michael Jordan! I watched as the little boy with my strawberry blonde hair turned to dribble the ball towards the hoop, the laces of his favorite black hi-tops waving behind him. He had on his green “Rondo” shirt with black basketball shorts…..so alive…so real. Bzzzzz! The buzzer went off! My alarm clocked sounded early, like a thief in the night, and brought me back to the dark reality. The last time I saw him was not on the basketball court, but wearing his favorite shirt that read “My playground is the basketball court,” lying motionless in his casket. Though, it wasn’t really him…it couldn’t have been. His face was too swollen and his hair too neat. His basketball sandals wouldn’t fit over his puffy toes, & he wasn’t jumping at the chance to see all of his friends as they walked by. No, my Tanner does not sit still this long. This wasn’t my rough and tumble little boy in front of me, and now I would spend a lifetime wondering where he had gone.

As a grieving parent, we learn to maneuver through the stages of grief as time goes on, but grief holds onto us as we latch onto the memories of our deceased child. Just when we think we have tackled those “surprise” moments, they jump out at us in mysterious new ways. “Where are you taking him?!” I screamed. Tanner was being whisked away by somebody after he had fallen and hurt his leg. Was it a doctor? Why couldn’t I get to him? Why do new doors and walls keep emerging…why is he getting further away?! I could see the look on his face…scared, hurt, alone… but with every step I took another obstacle surfaced. “I’m coming Tanner!” I could hear myself breathing more rapidly as I ran towards each door that slammed in my face..my heart beating a million times a mintue. I could see the details on his clothing, small colorful dinosaurs on his white cotton pajamas as he was carried further and further away from me. The walls were made of glass, taunting me with his face as I was pushed further away. Finally, I reached him. I grabbed him and swiftly pulled him into my arms…..only to have him ripped away from me seconds later. “Tanner!!” The nightmare began over again….trying desperately to reach my little boy who so urgently needed my help.  When I woke up I could feel the beads of sweat dripping down my face. It had been a while since a nightmare like this had consumed my dreams. I quietly got out of bed to get a glass of water, quickly followed by my dog Riley. We sat on the couch for a while in silence, her chocolate brown eyes looking up at me….I can see her concern. We normally aren’t up this time of night…this isn’t part of our routine. I grab my labtop and insert the DVD that was mailed to me shortly after his funeral. I watch in the dark as his vibrant face flashes across my screen….I remember what it felt like to hold him in my lap as he dozed off to sleep, the scent of his strawberry shampoo and the sound of his breathing as he drifted off. I remember singing him his favorite lullabies on nights like this, when he had had a bad dream and couldn’t get back to sleep. Perhaps that’s why I don’t sing anymore, perhaps that part of me died with him, too. I turn on the videos of him singing “Big Green Tractor,” and I hear him quietly say “Did you get it, Mama?” before the recording stops. Yes, Tanner, I did. I sit back and watch the next few videos that he and his sister made…dancing around on the coffee table singing their favorite songs. His infectious laughter echoing through the room. Yes, Tanner…I got it. I’m so happy I did. I lay back, using Riley as my pillow. She turns to look at me as if to say, “I miss him, too,” and we doze off once more.

 

There are many theories as to what dreams mean to grieving parents, and I suggest reading this book if you are in need of some help deciphering the dreams or nightmares you are experiencing. The author also walks you through the steps of how to keep a grief dream journal, similar to the two entries above.  Remember, grief is a delicate and complicated emotion. You don’t have to navigate it alone.

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Falling In Autumn

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     Prior to Tanner’s death, I loved everything about Autumn. The beautiful colors, the apples, the pumpkins, the brisk fall air…everything. We loved raking the leaves, hiking through the woods, and heading to soccer games bundled up with blankets and sweatshirts. Now that he is gone, I sometimes find myself struggling to enjoy a season that took so much away from me. I’d love to be taking his goofy “first day of school” photos with his big “sissy,” but instead we find ourselves getting ready for another year without him and his infectious laughter. Tanner passed away in August, and now the fall brings painful memories of what should have been. 

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    As I watch my daughter get ready for a new school season to start, I know that she is thinking some of the same things I am…..what grade would Tanner be in? What would he pick out for new school shoes? Would he still be wearing the same basketball themed wardrobe like the one he left behind? I know this because, in the fall, she speaks of him every day. Not just the occasional mention, but with detail. “Tanner would love my Nike shoes, wouldn’t he, Mama? They are like his basketball shoes. He would have needed all basketball clothes, and he would want soccer cleats, too. He would have been great friends with Rylan, and they would have been in the same class! They would be crazy together. I miss him, Mama.” To hear her speak of him so openly is music to my ears, as it took her several months to learn how to speak of her loss without emotions taking over and shutting her down. She now has her own way of coping with his absence, but hearing her say “I miss him” and watching the pain appear across her face opens the wounds as if they were new. She tucks his picture into her folder and walks to the car as her “Tanner” key-chain dangles from the front of her backpack. To us, the beautiful leaves remind us that Tanner isn’t coming back. 

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     You see, in the fall, we lost our son, little brother, family athlete & clown, our snuggle bug, protector, green eggs and ham lover, crazy dancer, playmate, and all that his future would hold. We lost the ability to photograph his first day of school, take him camping, enjoy late night movies, watch him play in a championship game, attend his graduation, meet his beautiful bride, to hold his children, to have afternoon coffee together….we lost all of those memories that we were not given the time to create. Losing a child is a horrific experience, but what so many fail to realize is that it’s not just the child you lost, but also all that he would become. I too, thought I had all the answers before it happened to me. I remember reading articles about children who had gone too soon and thinking “Oh, that is horrible. I just couldn’t go on.” The thing is though, you can go on, and you do…and you’ll need to find a way to cope. Eventually, the good days will outweigh the bad, but you’ll need to realize that the pain of your child’s loss will never “go away,” and you’ll always have moments in time that are more difficult to get through than the others. For us, Autumn is that moment. 

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       To ease the heartache of Autumn this year,  we took a vacation to Maine and walked along the beach by our old house. When we lived there, many hours were spent combing the shoreline for sea glass and small crabs to pick up and befriend. After losing Tanner, my daughter and I liked to pretend that every special treasure we found was one that he had left for us. Somehow, I had forgotten this, until she ran up to me with the most beautiful piece of blue sea glass and said “Mama, Tanner must have known we were here…look what I found!” It amazes me that she continually finds ways to feel connected to him even at her young age. Through her I remember that he’ll never really be “gone.” For the rest of the trip, we found more treasures than we ever found while we were living there….starfish, sand dollars galore, sea glass,  & sea urchins……and each one convinced us even more that he was watching and enjoying our vacation with us. We chose to visit “our beach” the week of his death, and apparently he knew that we needed him and knew just where to find us. Even though we’ll never really know where he is now,  it’s memories like this that keep us from falling in Autumn. 

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Tanner’s Room

One of the first of many hurdles we face when losing a child is what to do with their room once the funeral is over. It seems as though everyone has an opinion, but often times the ones who are trying to give this advice have thankfully never found themselves in our shoes. Perhaps the most helpful decision I made for myself early on in this journey was to not worry about what other people thought of how my family and I dealt with the loss, but to just do what helped us survive. So many people are willing to judge, yet so few of them can really relate to the emotions of waking up every morning to relive the harsh reality that their child is gone. One of the quotes that helped me realize that we simply needed to do what was necessary for us to move on to the next day was this emotional sentence by an unknown author: “Do not judge the bereaved mother. She comes in many forms. She is breathing, but she is dying. She may look young, but inside she has become ancient. She smiles, but her heart sobs. She walks, she talks, she cooks, she cleans, she works, she IS, but she is not, all at once. She is here, but part of her is elsewhere for eternity.”

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I remember walking in to Tanner’s room the for the first time after his funeral and sinking to the floor. I knew that if I picked up his toys and tidied up from his last session of space jam basketball, that it would be the last time I would  do this for him. I’d never again walk in there in the mornings and see him putting on his favorite jersey and grabbing mismatched “basketball socks”….. his cars and race tracks would stay in the toy box where I put them, because he wasn’t coming home. And then I let myself sink into his pillow and fall apart. Not because this was the “healthy” or “logical” thing to do, but because I needed to. I needed to let some of my grief escape me allow the tears to flow…to leave my state of shock and let the reality hit…even if only for a moment. Whether or not there were people in the living room expecting my presence below didn’t matter to me…I just needed to feel closer to him…I just wanted my little boy back.

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As the days passed I slowly began cleaning up and putting his belongings in their rightful place. I wrestled with what I wanted to do with his room, as so many of the grief books that were sent from the hospital made it clear that it was unhealthy to allow your child’s room to become a shrine. I sometimes found myself bitter and thought how on earth could somebody give a grieving parent advice on what is healthy if they’ve never lost a child themselves. No amount of schooling could ever prepare you how to cope. Even so, I didn’t want his room to become a shrine. It seemed as though the hinges always forced his door half shut, and it felt like he was being closed away from us. I didn’t want his room to become a place that visitors felt the need to avoid and his name unmentionable. It was then that I decided that I needed to find a way to incorporate his furniture into the rest of the house…I didn’t want to feel as though his memory needed to be locked away.

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The next day, I moved Tanner’s train table into the living room to be used as the coffee table, as it was made to convert into one as he grew older. My daughter, Nicole, asked if his twin bed could be moved into her room, and she helped to make the transition. His toy box was carefully placed in the playroom, and I moved his dresser to my bedroom. I cannot tell you whether any of the text books or bereavement books will recommend this solution, but we all find our own ways to survive and put one foot in front of the other. Having his furniture & belongings throughout the house made it easier for Nicole and I and to talk about our favorite memories of him, what we missed the most, and how we would manage to get through those first holidays. It just felt more natural to have his belongings incorporated in our everyday lives.

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That first realization of knowing it was okay to find our own ways to cope really helped us find our way through those early days of the grieving process. After previously always having a routine, we learned that if we wanted to walk down to the ocean shore in our pajamas to let the sounds of the waves sooth us…then that was okay. If we wanted to pretend that every butterfly or rainbow was Tanner telling us he was watching over us, then that is what we were going to do. Keeping him in our everyday conversation has been our way of processing the fact that he’s no longer here with us in his physical form, but he will always be here with us in spirit.

The “Before” and “After” of Losing a Child

I think all of us who have lost a child would agree that there is a very definite “before” and “after” timeframe that develops the moment you get the news that your child is gone. More often than not, there are so many things I wish I would have known in the “before.” I wish I would have realized that I’d never regret leaving dishes in the sink or the laundry unfolded…I wish I would have spent less time focusing on the fact that he always had to wear the same basketball outfit everyday and more time embracing how utterly adorable it was. More time spent building epic forts in the living room and less time worrying about the house being clean. Even though we had so many amazing moments together in his short four years, I always find myself wishing I had made time for more while I had the chance….but no matter how much I knew in the “before,” it never would have been enough to make the “after” any more bearable.

 
You see, when you first learn that you child is gone, you drift into a haze…perhaps a protective mental state that allows you to process the reality slower than normal…because, if it hit you all at once, there’d be no chance of survival. Then, each morning when you awake, a new memory hits. Perhaps it’s a memory of a dreadful moment in the hospital…when the doctor dealt the earth shattering blow and you felt your legs collapse beneath you. Maybe it’s remembering how you read stories to him as he lay there motionless amongst the tubes, hoping that your voice could miraculously awaken him. If you’re lucky, it will be the memory of how he used to tell you how beautiful you were every time you put on a dress…and then you realize how much you miss that adorable little voice. How you long to hear his giggle and forget the nightmarish reality that he’s no longer there, waiting for you to come cook him green eggs and ham for breakfast. Sometimes, these memories make the pain feel like it’s new.

This is why, every day, surviving parents learn to make the conscious decision that they are going to survive….that they will ensure that the memory of their child lives on in the world. Sometimes every moment feels as though it’s a battle to remember the cherished memories, to forget the tragedy, and to find a sense of peace. Other days, it will seem as though you’re story has inspired another to cherish & embrace the little things, and, even if for a moment, you may feel as though your child has not died in vain.

Every story is different, as we’ve all learned that there isn’t a text book answer to dealing with such devastation. We all find our own ways to get through the minutes, then hours, then even days. Sometimes other suggestions are helpful, and sometimes they’re not. One thing we’ve all learned is that it’s always a bit easier to know that there are other people out there like us who fight the same struggles to learn to cope. Whether or not my story will help you, I cannot say. But, in the chance that it will, it’s time to share how we’ve learned to live Life Without Tanner.