Can a Bereaved Dad Smile on Father’s Day?

Can a Bereaved Dad Smile on Father’s Day?

Real Men Grieve
Real Men Grieve  Illustration by Mitch Carmody

The dogs were barking strangely one early morning in July of 1970; I was 15 years old. I knew someone had probably driven up our driveway and were taking their time to come to the door which was driving the dogs crazy. I was up early to get ready to bring my dog to the County fair as a 4-H project and was eager for the day.  I went to the window and peered out to see who could be there this early in the morning. I then spy my Mom walking up with two neighbors close by her side, arms around her, covering her in an obvious shawl of compassion and they were whispering. The dogs’ barking was a harbinger of despair. My dad had died

A few days prior to this my dad had gone in to hospital for a relatively new operation for clogged arteries to the heart and although in this century is now done routinely it was then a very risky operation.  My father had complications following surgery and later died.  Our neighbors brought my mother home to support her in breaking the news to myself and my sisters. My mother reached out to me and embracing each shoulder with her shaking hands she said: “you are the man of the family now son, you need to take care of yours sisters, and the farm…your father has died.”

I hugged her without a tear, without fear and just said…Okay… I love you Mom.  I never really did grieve or publicly lament my fathers passing.  I was the kid whose old man kicked the bucket over summer break. I was embarrassed by the quiet looks of consternation and thusly became the clown, to laugh it off preemptively and avoid the glares. I put away the grief, the pain, and did not lament, or mourn my loss.   It seemed almost too easy to pack away.  My mother soon remarried, then feeling somewhat abandoned, compounded with the strong feelings to stretch my own wings, I moved away from home at 18 years old.

Now years pass by, I get married and have a child, our firstborn, our only son. Soon we were blessed with the birth of his darling sister, life seemed again be joyful and the fulfillment of a dream.  Soon the dark clouds returned with death of my only son, nothing could have ever prepared me for the depth of pain that one experiences in losing a child. Nothing!  The world stopped and everything I ever knew had now changed forever. I was lost in hopeless pain for many years.  Father’s Day mocked my existence, for fate had slapped me in the face. Both my past and my future in fatal swoops were whisked away and I was left here in the present alone in so much pain. Why me?

I lost my father, then my son, it felt so violated, so cheated, earmarked by God for misfortune, It felt like I was playing a role in some Thomas Hardy tragedy where I played the main character whose life was built on misfortune.  I soon cracked under its weight, it broke my spirit, and I felt hapless, hopeless, innocuous and miserable, I wanted to die.  I had my daughter to care for and my wife who spoons my soul, but I had no zest for life, no passion, no feeling, no goal.  I struggled hard to free myself from the web of self pity, and I dug deep into my inner soul; from attic to basement I looked within myself to find a way out.

In my head with angels help, I went back to the day my father died. I literally went back and relived the moment, I screamed and I cried. I finally lamented for my father and let out the buried angst hidden for so long.  When that dam burst I could then make room for the lamenting of my son.  Only then did my road to acceptance begin.  Acceptance is not selling out, or letting go of their love, it is just accepting the challenge to survive and giving our selves permission to rebuild our lives the best that we can.

I finally grieved for my father and I am still grieving for my son. Accepting their death is not forgetting them, it is merely accepting the reality of life.  You cannot have one without achieving the other. Accepting their death is not the end of the bereavement journey it’s only the beginning.  We shall continue to grieve for associated losses from their deaths the rest of our life.  Father and son banquets, hunting trips with the boys, working on cars together, sharing a beer or two, having a pair of strong shoulders to hug, so many potential moments  that we shall grieve forever. No grandchildren, or great grandchildren, no retirement party, birthday parties or graduation celebration, no parties of any sort.  We are always reminded that their lives were cut short and we grieve anew for what should have been.

Through the loss of my son and many family members I have learned much on the journey.  I found that I love deeper, I smell flowers longer, and I savor the sunsets more.  I feel the best when helping others and I thank God for my every breath.  These are all good things to have come to me in the midst and aftermath of horrific pain. How sad it would be if we were not compensated in some way for our tragic loss, for life would then truly seem meaningless.

Through the loss of my father and my son I discovered the randomness of death. That death can hit anyone, anytime regardless of genes, the environment, or the best of efforts to stave off the sting of its reality. There is nothing we can do that can adequately prepare us for a loss of our loved one; nothing.

Do I feel sad on Father’s day?  You bet I do?  Do I celebrate it?  Yes I do. I am proud to have been a son for 15 years and proud to have been a father to my son for 9 years. I am proud to be a Father for my surviving daughter Meagan. I am proud to be a grandfather. Everyday is Father’s day when you find yourself surrounded in love from this world and from the next.

Feel the sadness of your Father’s day; real men grieve. Feel the pain, but also feel, the joy, feel the love that alone makes it possible to feel the pain. If we have children that still live or  children that have died we still have the same pride… that makes me smile on Father’s day.

Love and light     Mitch Carmody  June 2014

Storm Damage to The Garden

Image

You may have heard the expression “God picks the prettiest flowers from His garden”.  Most people who find themselves in the pangs of grief are not comforted by this trite and archaic expression.  I do not believe in a God that “picks flowers”. I believe that God loves to watch them grow, bloom and nourish our planet.  I do not believe in a God who takes our loved ones or sends lightening bolts into our lives. I believe in a God that receives our spirit and comforts us in our sorrow.

 We are the flowers, we are the weeds, the earth is our garden, that provides for our needs; God is the sun, the wind and the rain, God doesn’t pick anything and doesn’t cause pain; He doesn’t snatch up flowers or remove unwanted weeds; our Creator only tends our garden with love, it is we who plant the seeds; we are the flowers, we are the weeds; all a part of God’s plan, all with different needs.

Using a garden as a metaphor for life can also describe our grief; it inherently implies that we shall grow from the experience.  Should we not be compensated somehow for our devastating loss?  Growth in spirit, growth in understanding can only be a good thing.  Growth provides for others and adds color to the world and to our life.  We would never in our “right” minds ask for the experience of losing a loved one to death to grow spiritually in our life, but we do have a choice in how we react to that reality should it indeed occur. 

The world is a dangerous place to live in; No one is safe. No one is immune to death. It is the cycle of life; we are the garden, we are the gardener.  We accept its seasons; we accept its harsh conditions.  Winter will come but so will the spring. We do the best with what we are given. To live is to  just breathe, to breathe is to grow, to grow is to survive, if we survive, we can thrive.

We can do everything right in tending to our garden, adding the right nutrients to the soil, watering just enough and removing every weed.  We can plot very carefully, allowing the right amount of sun, providing support for its vines and shade for tender shoots. We can protect it from varmints and spray for bugs, dust for the aphids and pick off the slugs.   We can do everything possible to nourish and protect our garden, and one storm, can take it all away.  Do we start all over again or let it go fallow?  We have choices. 

When our beloved dies, it’s like the straight line winds that flatten a garden.  The whole garden is affected. Some parts may never recover, some plants stand alone outwardly unscathed by the powerful winds. Some plants, after a few days, are seemingly pulled up right by the powerful rays of the sun. Some varieties come back from the root; some are taken with the wind and will set roots in new ground.  Some plants may grow bigger with no competition for the sun. Some plants without the shade of others will find themselves withering in the bright unyielding sun.  The whole landscape of the garden changes following a storm.  The garden will never be the same as it was, but it can bloom again and those plants that survived will be stronger in the weak places.

As a garden grows in size it must become a cooperative garden, with many gardeners that contribute to a bountiful crop.  This means accepting help from resources outside our self.  We soon find that we are not alone, we are many and we are connected.  There is an African saying, “it takes a village to raise a child”; I believe it also takes a village to grieve a child or grieve someone that we love.  We have choices in our grief. There is help.

Following the storm, following our loss, we have every right to run blindly screaming for help.  We find that we need to reach out to our village and global community to help tend and repair our damaged garden.

In accepting the compassion of others a natural bond is formed; a silent partnership of sorts.  We find that we need to depend on others for those times when we cannot function. Each one of us discovers that we are on a unique journey; a journey that we did not choose but that chose us.  Sometimes in the struggle to survive our journey we may miss or even dismiss the grief journey of others who are holding us up.  In our great pain we could not see their pain; when our cup is not full we cannot fill the cups of others. Forgive us for we are in survival mode.

When we are in transition from survival mode to coping mode, we may find we are a bit stronger. We can assess the collateral damage around us and ask ourselves:  Who else incurred damage from the storm? Which of my siblings have I not really “talked to“ in while?  Who should I call and thank for their support?  How is my loved one’s best friend doing who looked so damaged from the loss?  If the loss is your child, call the Auntie who almost claimed your child as her own; call the boss who always plopped your child on their knee and pulled a magic coin from their ear. Not only do others feel your sorrow and your loss, they grieve as well.

 After the storm many gardens are damaged; we are not alone in our loss.  Take time to reach out – in reaching out to others our hearts become connected.  A bond, a nexus of compassion takes place and we are fortified as are they. They too, want to talk of the loss and the grief that together you share. They need to heal as well and plant seeds of hope for better days ahead. It takes a village to survive a storm; you need not do it alone.

Men in Grief, a Paradox for Today’s Male

DSC02407

The loss of a loved one in our life can be crippling and can leave deep scars; it changes who we are, how we look at life and how we relate with the world. Five or six years out is still early grief but at a point where positive rebuilding can begin.

In the first few years we mechanically maintain, weep a lot and lick our wounds while clinging desperately to everything of our loved one and may in secret wish to join them. We rejoin the real world at our own time and it happens when it right for us. Every ones journey is different, but what remains the same is the huge void that is left in our lives.

In today’s society it is especially difficult for men to grieve openly, caught in a catch 22 of how to express the deep pain they are experiencing but yet not show weakness.  Men don’t cry, men do not emote, men do not hug (maybe at the funeral) men don’t go to support groups, men don’t call in sick because they are screaming inside, we are the man of the family.  Fathers are  viewed as the fix it guys, the protector, the strength and the rock the family needs for support.  More times than not people will ask a bereaved father “how is your wife doing? This must be hard extremely for her”.  I understand their compassion and intent but cannot help feeling marginalized.

Today fortunately men are now given (mostly by women and therapists) license to show emotions, to cry, scream, hug and express their deepest emotions and fears, to let it out. The irony of this is if he does emote and the family has never seen this behavior, it can be taken as a sign of weakness and the spouse and other family members may feel they have lost their safety net, their rock of support, and feel even more helpless and rudderless on an already difficult  journey. If this happens a man may again ‘clam up’ to help with his family and deal with his own pain later. He finds that ‘letting it out’ is an axiom of sophistry and in doing so he feels he is letting his family down. Indeed a paradox for the want to be sensitive Man.

Most men cry alone in their cars on the way to work and they explain that the red eyes are due to allergies or a late night.  When my father died when I was age 14, my Mom told me I was the man of the family now, I did not cry, I did not grieve.  It was not until years later and my losses became overwhelming did I finally let it out and express my emotions for the loss of my father.

It has been 26 years now since my son Kelly died and I still cry with my wife when we feel our loss together or even when I hear a special song on the radio and I do not care who is present; you love hard you grieve hard and it is supposed to hurt. When you recognize your own pain and express it, you automatically become more empathetic to others in similar pain and can help relieve theirs and doing so relieve your own..

People will often tell us to find closure, to move on, or put it behind us; forgive them they know not what they do. We may find resolution to our pain but we never have closure of someone we love.. We don’t move on, we move with; we don’t put it behind us we walk with it. Our loved ones are forever by our side, only in a new relationship. We live in one sphere of existence, they in another, but with faith, undying love and the desire we can connect at the seam where our two worlds meet. They become our rock.

In America we are allowed a few weeks to “get over it” and get back on track.    I find this totally unacceptable; it has been 26 years and I still talk about my son everyday and always will.  If you are a man in grief you can be strong and still weep all night long. Regardless of gender we are human, we feel, we hurt, we need comfort, we need to express our pain, we need hugs, allow them and give them. There is no shame in grief and honest emotions, it happens on a chemical level for men and women. Grieving outwardly helps return or brain chemistry back to equilibrium.

We will always be bereaved but we will not always be experiencing the pangs of grief. Like arthritis we learn to live with it the rest of our lives, we will have flare ups of pain and discomfort as we move forward through the years, but good days will come as well. Grief is hard work but finding joy again is our birthright and worth the effort, so keep on keeping on.

Mitch Carmody

www.heartlightstudios.com

http://www.proactivegrieving.org

The Hobbit’s Journey to Mordor, a parable of grief

 

IMG_4138

When we lose someone we love dearly we embark on a journey, the hero’s journey if you will, to find meaning in our suffering and help heal the ache that throbs so deeply in our soul. We are on a mission, a spiritual quest to heal our heart, traveling into uncharted territories and bitter realities. The bereavement process is not unlike the brave Hobbit’s journey to Mordor in the Tolkien’s story “The Lord of the Rings”.

Like Frodo the main character we embark on an odyssey of seemingly impossible odds; a journey we did not choose but the where the journey chose us. Feeling small and infinitesimal against the looming gargantuan mountain of grief, we rest for a while in its long deep shadow and watch the rumbling clouds of storms gathering threateningly in the distant.

We rest; we gather strength for our long journey and find the courage to take that first step. We cannot go back, we have to cross the mountain, and leave what we have known for our whole life, leave behind our comforts and begin our journey. As Frodo wore the ring of power around his neck, so do we wear the ring of grief around our neck, “my loved one is dead, this is all I have it is my grief. We clutch on to that grief, it’s ours, it is our precious. If we hold it very tightly we too can become invisible, but like Frodo and worse yet Gollum if we stay there too long, we can get lost in the dark.

We continue on our journey using the ring of our grief to aid us in our survival. We struggle forward, always feeling the draw of the ring, our grief, our burden, our protector, our precious. There in lays the paradox for in Tolkien’s Tale, Frodo must throw the ring back into the fires of Mordor to save the world, yet lose his precious, his ring that can make him invisible and safe. The goal in our grief journey is to throw our ring of grief into the fires of acceptance to help heal our pain. The ring is a symbol or our cocoon of grief where we can hide in plain sight; it has been our safety net for a long time and not easy to release.

We soon learn it is not the metaphorical fires of Mordor in Tolkien’s trilogy that heals the hurt, anymore than The Wizard of Oz’s mechanical ticking heart allowed the Tin Man to feel compassion nor the medal that was given to the Cowardly Lion give him courage. It’s the journey itself that is the healing process. Slowly we feel our own heart beat again, we gain courage to move forward; reluctant warriors we face the dragon and fight for our lives.

We find out who our real friends are and who we really need in our lives. Like Samwise the hobbit that was Frodo’s best friend, we have friends who stay by our side, protect us when we are not looking, give us bread when they are hungry, put up with our intolerant moods; always there when we need them.
We meet angels, and monsters, good people and trolls, madmen and magicians; we see and experience more death, more pain on our journey. Everyone’s journey is different and it takes as long as it takes; a journey we cannot escape. Returning the ring is the acceptance part of grief, the ring to rule all the components of grief. We no longer need to become invisible or deny our own destiny. The components of grief come and go and they come when they are needed; the teacher comes, when the student is ready.

As Frodo did in the story we can become invisible when we feel the need too and escape from the world but we cannot stay there too long as it becomes harder to return each time. We need to hold on to our grief but not let it become our ‘precious’ and take over our life forever and define us. We must carry it with us on our journey, because it is the journey. We shall need many different friends to help and aid us as we travel to our own Mordor. We shall lose old friends, gain new friends, find friends in unlikely places, find warm kinship with strangers, and cold hugs from good friends.

As with Frodo it can be a struggle to let go of our grief, it has been our ‘precious’ for a long time and paradoxically can be hard to give up. Like Frodo we must return the ring, and find acceptance or become a miserable creature like Gollum enslaved to his catharsis, and a causality of his own avarice. We shall rest when weary, we will doubt our mission to survive, we will collapse from exhaustion, we will lose our way, and we will want to give up. But like Frodo we carry on wounded, hurting, forever changed and move slowly across those mountains.

Eventually like Frodo we release the grief, the grip of our precious and live by what we have learned on the journey itself. We don’t release the love for our child or the essence of our loved one; we release old expectations and lost dreams. We release guilt and anger; we accept that we have a new relationship with our loved one and accept our ‘new normal.’ Like Frodo, where he was wounded, it too will ache the rest our life, we shall always be bereaved… but not always be in grief.

We must live with our loss, we must experience it fully, we must express our sorrow, show our lamentations, wallow in our pain, and swim in our grief; it is supposed to hurt and we do not need someone to fix it. Grief is a natural process we have to allow to happen; not to be rushed, circumvented, delayed or medicated forever, it needs to be experienced and absorbed before true rebuilding can begin.

Recognize your journey and do not opt for the short cuts. Letting go is not letting go of love, it is letting go of what will never be. It’s not getting over it, is going through it, it is not moving on, it’s moving with, it’s not closure, its acceptance, it is not concentrating on what you no longer have, its embracing what you still have. It’s seeking joy and finding peace once again; living the loss and becoming an intentional survivor.

Proactive Grieving Post 1: Taking Emotional Risks In Grief Processing…learning the dance

IMG_4659

Original drawing I created for and borrowed with permission from www.thegrieftoolbox.com

When my nine year old died in 1987 I was thrust into a dark womb of despair and I felt my system shutting down. How can I possibly survive this? I did not want to, nor did I know how. The foundations of my existence were shaken, “this cannot be happening to me” I said over and over again as though it would somehow awaken me from the nightmare.  For the first time in my life I could use word “surreal” with an understanding of its meaning, as it seemed the only way to describe my waking hours as I experienced them.

One pivotal day  in those early years of gray I found myself holding myself in a deep soul embrace; I  was really unsure who was in control, yet deep inside from some internal gyroscope I felt a faint harmony  that I had never felt before; a quiet  sacred balance, a moment of new direction, of moment of new meaning. Just a flicker of hope, a spark in the abyss, but it was real. I was stirred from my slumber of dried tears and as surely as a butterfly emerging from its cocoon I said “I need to breathe…I need to fly” and I broke through the chrysalis, a chrysalis that always seemed so imposing but yet I soon discovered to be so very thin.  I emerged a newborn baby into a world of the unknown, and although exhilarated that I could breathe I did not know how to fly…and I was frightened.  I found that I missed the womb of deep grief, its protection, its security and its lostness. I had to rest and dry my wings before I could fly, but fly again I did.

We start over again in real years, in real time following a major loss. What is vitally important in our journey is what we do with those years. I proclaimed to myself “If I am going to start all over again I am going to take risks.  I am not speaking of physical risks, I am not going sky diving or mountain climbing although that may be healing for many, for me it was a needed shift in consciousness. I am going to take emotional risks. At risk of sounding prosaic I wanted my light to shine.

Through grieving my son I have discovered myself and have begun to like what I have found beneath the layers of emotional armor. I am a much better person, more compassionate, a more affectionate person, a more feeling person than I have ever been in my life; I laugh harder; I cry harder.  I take emotional risks to reach out to those in pain. I find it helps my own pain and builds my own hope in the process. It can also provide us a platform for change, our future and the world’s.  We can use the power in our grief to become better or bitter; or we become apathetic and another life is gone. We have choices.

Take the risk to be you, reach out to yourself, and reduce or remove filters (with discretion), express yourself, admit your pain, admit your flaws, admit your misgivings, admit your dreams, admit your joy, admit your potential…admit your gifts.  Use your masks whenever you need to get through a bad day, and to survive -but not every day.  Use your gifts to rebuild your life. Grief is hard work and there is no shame in hard work. It takes guts to be an intentional survivor. As Winnie the Pooh said “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think”.

We as a society and a species we tend to process personal loss from the experiences of those around us processing theirs; it is a skill that is not taught in basic education but only in the school of hard knocks. Death is a natural flow in life and it cannot be denied; we will experience grief every day that we live, it happens.

The death of a loved one in your life is like coming upon an imposing river on your journey. It has no bridge and is deep, cold, dangerous and swift. We have four choices when we stand on its shore, we can try to cross it somehow,  we can try to fight the current and go upstream, we stay on the shoreline or we go with the flow downstream… all valid options. When someone we love dies we find ourselves standing on the shoreline unsure what to do and where we are truly confronted with our own fears and ignorance of the great mystery.

When my son was diagnosed with cancer we came to an imposing river and we chose to go upstream to try and save his life; when he died we went back to the shore and again looked at our options. The shore was not the same shoreline we left; we had no strength to go upstream, no desire to cross to a new shore, so we went with the flow and were open to see where it would take us. That is what I call faith.

When coming to grips with death and dying, our own death or someone we love we come to a crossroads of faith.  We may cling to our religious beliefs with more tenacity than ever before and strive to understand its teachings with a different eye or we may fall away from our faith feeling detached and abandoned. We may even turn our anger toward God for not preventing the tragedy.

We have those that claim God can heal everything with enough faith, including miracle cures and a even resurrection from clinical death. When that does not happen, the most ardent of the faithful may be tested and be at odds with a creator that would not answer their prayers. Often times it is this passionate believer that seems even more frightened of death and fight death as the enemy when paradoxically they strive to live a life with a goal to get to heaven.

On the other hand some say there is no God, and that there are no miracles. Interestingly enough these people that do not believe in a God or an afterlife  often feel just as frightened and alone in regards to death and dying as are some of the deeply devout find themselves .

The angst of death seems most apparent in these extremes of spiritual philosophies.  The more we know the more, the more we know we what we don’t know. The grief experience that we find ourselves in is a new slate, one we did not choose but one in which we have a choice in how we process it into our reality.  We can survive loss but I believe that to truly thrive again, that a belief in a divine intelligence and an afterlife is critical.

Everything in life is in a cycle of polarization, a sine wave to maintain equilibrium with no exceptions; darkness/light; heat/cold; pressure/vacuum; concave/convex on and on ad infinitum. This includes human birth and death. Life is not linear it is a true circle.  Then light at the end of a tunnel is the same on either end.  Going upstream or downstream whether you reach the spring or the delta both are source. There are no real endings only new beginnings.  Basic physics concludes that energy does not die nor is it consumed, it continual reinvents itself.  There is no real death only transformation, which in turn allows for hope of some kind of continued existence beyond our corporal one.

Through the experience of suffering a significant loss in our life, our faith and endurance is tested to its limits. We become are stronger in the broken places or we become crippled for life.  Our grief is an opportunity to use all that we have, and all that we can muster to let our heart light shine; we take the risk to be better than we have ever been. What can hurt us more? We can become bitter or better; we have choices. Grief is the price we pay for love, and it is directly proportional to our investment in that love. Allow that love to continue to give us proceeds as we rebuild our lives proactively by living the loss and not postponing its grief.

Sorrow yields hope when we discover our part of the symphony -is just that; the music goes on and we have the choice to sit it out or dance. I hope you dance.

Peace , love and healing

Mitch Carmody