A few days ago I made it through the 450th day as a bereaved mother, the day I took this photo. If I’m going to share how much pain I’m in, I might as well show it. I came home from a hard day and went straight to my deck. I needed to clear my head, feel the fresh air and decompress. Everything about life felt heavy and as I looked up at the stars, one in particular was shining so bright. I thought of my Caleb and how brightly he shined in our world for 17 years. My heart was hurting so bad in this moment as I physically felt how much I miss him. I have logged my days in writing and in photos as a way for me to look back and see how I’ve managed and lived my life since my best buddy died. I count the days because early on I could not picture life even one minute in front of me, let alone a day, month or year. I haven’t been able to wrap my mind around what happened that horrible Monday evening, but life has pulled me forward nonetheless and counting the days reminds me that I’ve come a long way since day two, the first full day without him. Day two, I hate you. Waking up that morning with a new identity, reality slapping me in the face, the most horrid, agonizing pain I’ve ever felt and saying to myself, “Caleb, I cannot and will not be able to live without you.” I often ask myself, “How is it possible?” It shouldn’t be and I didn’t think it would be, but it is.
Out of nowhere with no warning at all, a hurricane demolished my life. We’ve all seen the devastating aftermath a hurricane leaves to a community and how it can take years to clean up and rebuild. Just as there is clean up and rebuilding after a hurricane, it’s no different when a tragedy strikes and leaves a wake of devastation behind it. When the reality of grief set in, it was extremely difficult to understand and navigate. It was very confusing, heavy, messy and painful. I learned early on that I needed to respect my grief and give it the attention it deserved. I had to learn and find ways to release it in healthy ways…cry, scream, journal, mediate, walk, read, talk to God, talk to Caleb, talk to others and accept help. I found this visualization of grief very relatable.
Recently I went on a trip with my girls and sister to a resort on the Coast of Maine. It was absolutely gorgeous and I truly was glad to be away, for a change of scenery and a chance to make new memories. As we were walking around the resort looking at the all the fun things it had to offer, we came upon the swimming pool. What caught my attention right away? A sign next to the pool that said, “No Lifeguard on Duty.”
As soon as I read it, a big painful wave of grief took me down. My son Caleb was a Lifeguard, so my focus went from enjoying my walk to staring at this sign while sobbing at the picnic table. My sister sat next to me and asked, “What can I do?” I answered, “Nothing.” She put her arm around me, grabbed her phone and held it up to take a selfie. I said, “I don’t want a picture of this!” She said, “This is a real moment that you can share about later.” So here it is. A picture of my red face and teary eyes smack dab in the middle of a lovely walk at a resort on the Coast of Maine.
That is a real moment in my life where joy and grief is captured perfectly. I was happy to be where I was and who I was with, but grief came along with me on that trip and when I felt it, I gave it the time it needed then stood up and continued walking and playing games for a few hours and enjoyed the rest of the day. Here are a few pictures of what we did right next to that pool where grief hit me so hard and a few of what the rest of the day looked like. This is me living, while grieving.
I try to see Caleb in everything I do and this is how I have seen him recently. In a difficult moment in the car I looked up to see this van in front of me. Caleb’s jersey number, 28, were the only two numbers on the license plate. Later that week, his dad and and I were walking across a bridge and saw the word “Goose” etched into the wood, which was one of the nicknames we called him all his life. I felt him with me telling me he loved me and he was sorry he’s caused me so much pain.
I have found that some of my worst days were from pushing my grief down because I didn’t want to feel it, who wants to?! No-one! Grief is a horrible ugly monster! My better, more manageable days have come from recognizing it, feeling it, processing it and letting it go again. Another wave will come, it will always be here with me and it will never go away, so I do my best to manage it the best way I can.
On day 255, I took a walk in the rain by myself. Thankfully, no-one was around on what is normally a very crowded trail. As I walked and cried I said to myself, “I can’t do this anymore! It’s too painful!” I heard God’s voice, Caleb’s voice, my family and friend’s voices saying, “You are doing it!” It’s the day I recognized that I was in fact doing it, and I made a choice to move forward in life with my husband and girls. I don’t want my girls to grow up and say that their brother died and nothing was ever the same. Nothing will ever be the same, but my love for them has not changed and I want to be better at showing up so they know it. It’s the day I realized that I cannot lose what I have, to what I have lost.
I used to call Caleb everyday as I was leaving work and we’d catch up with each other and talk about what we were having for dinner. Recently as I was leaving work, I had the strongest urge to call him and talk about what we were having for dinner. I saw a McDonalds in front of me so I pulled up to the drive thru, ordered a meal and drove to his graveside. I sat down, ate McDonalds with him and cried with each bite I took of that Quarter Pounder. I said what I needed to say, cried as long as I wanted and when I was done, that painful wave of grief was gone.
Why do I share this with the world? Because I know I’m not the only one hurting, grieving and suffering. I share my heart in hopes that others will be encouraged in their pain and sorrow. I share because while I am a bereaved mother, I have hope and a lot to live for. I share to bring awareness to families about the silent epidemic that is stealing children from us and I share to show how normal and real grief is and that it’s okay to talk about it.
Living without Caleb is extremely painful, but it is possible.
I have watched your journey from afar as we worship at the same church. I lost my son at 24. He was a Marine veteran and came back with more burdens than he could carry or let go of. I walk this journey of grief with blistered, raw feet. It hurts. It will always hurt. I always describe it as an ebb and flow of grief. Sometimes there room for more joy than grief and other times the wave of grief drowns me. I have prayed for your family every. day. My heart has ached for you knowing how dark it can feel. In my darkness there has always been a light…either a flicker or a raging fire…that has beckoned me back from the edge. Jesus has held onto me as I have punched my way out of his embrace. He never let go and, my sister, He will hold on to you so you don’t lose yourself. All my prayers.
Theresa, I’m deeply sorry for your loss. Thank you for your kind words and encouragement. It will always hurt and sometimes that’s what scares me the most, but I know now that with God I can walk this path with bravery and courage. I will not lose myself, just sharing my raw pain honestly for those who grieve silently. I would like to meet you in person, thank you for reaching out.
Beautiful words and I love what you are saying. I just had to comment, because I had that same urge one day; I went through the McDonald’s drive through and went to what we call, Jay’s garden and had lunch with my boy (lots of tears). Hugs to you from a fellow bereaved mother. ??❤️
I love that you call it his garden. Instead of saying that Caleb is buried, I think of him as being planted and he can still grow through everyone he loved and influenced. The song, “Graves into Gardens,” inspired me to think that way. Hugs right back to you, thank you for reaching out.
The first time I went food shopping and came
Across one of his normal snacks it took the wind out of me. I sat on a bench and cried. In the middle of the store. It took the better part of a year before I could food shop without it being traumatic. It’s been 3 years since I’ve hugged him or had him flip his wet hair at me and it still hurts but it’s manageable. I try to remember how blessed I was to have him for 18 years.
Also… I see Cardinals around my house all the time now. And I never noticed them before.
Every time I see one on my porch or back fence it makes me smile and it feels like my Derrick is with me.
Food shopping, meal planning and cooking have been incredibly hard for me to get back to. I did not food shop for nearly a year and I have to go to a totally different store than I did before he died. Seeing his favorite food and snacks, cooking his favorite meals…it’s just so hard. I see Cardinals all the time, too. Thank you for reaching out and sharing a little about your boy with me, xoxo.