The Occupied Tomb

April 3, 2015

Easter is as difficult as Christmas to experience since Justin’s death. I loved everything about Easter, from the beginning of Lent to the wonderful indulgence of leftover ham from Easter dinner. We would dye dozens of Easter eggs, and then play with the colors in the sink as we were cleaning up, so much color and life.

Perhaps it may seem counter intuitive to feel Justin’s loss so keenly at Easter. I know it was a source of  my greatest hurt and confusion, being told not to feel my grief because of the resurrection of Christ. I could not bring into reconciliation my grief and my Christianity. I had been basically told the two could not live together, that if I could just muster up some faith, surely I would feel joyful. So I basically checked out of the church. I was welcome, but only if I could confine my grief to the prescribed parameters of Christianity.

My son’s tomb is still occupied, his body lies entombed in a little bit of ground that we used to walk and tread silently when we made our visits to remember other family members. I remember the little boys in the grotto, the grounds of the church being as familiar as our own backyard. I remember the scents of the Liturgy and the weight of my children in my arms. A part of me is always watch keeping at Justin’s grave, my heart, my flesh lies there also. The bond of mother and child transcends all definition and earthly understanding. It is a bond that should be honored and acknowledged in life and in death. Beware invalidating a mother’s grief by quickly quoting scripture at her, you will get a polite half-smile and glazed eyes.

I have a thought this Good Friday as I meditate on Christ’s Passion, beyond the physicality of the cross, Christ suffered emotional and mental torture, he was abandoned, isolated, mocked, so utterly alone. People around him, Photo Credit: Doug Jacksonbut alone. I feel as I am putting to death the last remnants of what remained of my spirituality and beliefs that I had before Justin’s death. I question all of them now, examine them all for validity, for application to real life, messy life, a life where children die. If I allow them to be nailed with Christ, then I can have complete confidence that they will die with him, be entombed with him, and rise with him. I can have complete confidence that they will ascend with him to Father God and can expectantly wait for a new spirit to descend on me that it sculpted uniquely for the life I am to live. Is that not resurrection? We live this reality in our lives, a constant dying, a journey to new life. And it does not happen in three days, three months, three years, we work out our own path of discipleship according to his call. For some Good Friday lasts a lifetime.

I am a new creature, the slow emergence from the tomb reveals a new life. The surprise should not be that there is new life —  no, the surprise is that the new life is not seen or acknowledged as a lived experience of the indwelling spirit. I listened to a gentle German monk yesterday, and he said that we do not have to be grateful for violence or bereavement. We can be grateful for the opportunity of the moment, to see what opportunity is in that moment. He captured my heart completely. I chose to be grateful for the opportunity of small moments where I can crawl in a cold tomb with someone and be unafraid. I can’t take away their pain, there are no words, but I am not afraid of the dark. And dare I say it, there can be found both joy and peace in those moments. Christ said not as the world gives, but as I give. Peace and joy cannot be measured by worldly standards or preconceived images of peace and joy. We re-write definitions of joy and peace.

I honor those who have been called to suffer the chill of the tomb in their lives. They are a true witness to life. Their lives bear the visible scars, and when they smile or offer a kindness, your heart it touched beyond measure. Their gift comes from a precious place of suffering, not from an abundance of good fortune.

I am including a link to the gentle monk, I probably would not have appreciated him two years ago, or even last year – I don’t even remember 2014, but this year his words made sense. I printed out a transcript of his talk, I wanted to be able to highlight those words that jumped out at me. To write them in my affirmation journal.

Brother David’s words “think again” brought me hope. I have my Easter message to hold on to, our Easter will not resemble Easter’s past, they are memories, we must grasp the opportunity of the moment.

Wishing all moments of gentle opportunity,

Love, Terri


Categories: Dark Night, Easter, Grieving, Hope.

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“Actually, I still am a calm person.”

March 31, 2015

Experiencing anxiety after a traumatic event is not being nervous. The two are not even remotely connected. If we were not so quick to jump to conclusions and make presumptions, real dialogue could take place about anxiety. When I share with others honestly about the anxiety that I have experienced after Justin’s death, I have had some interesting responses. People are surprised because I am a calm person, they didn’t think I was the “nervous type.” Sigh. I am calm, I still am calm. I am a calm person who after experiencing losing a beloved child in a violent vehicle accident now experiences anxiety triggered by events, memories, body sensations, smells, that relate to the way my child died.

Nerves are that almost welcome shot of adrenaline right before you go on stage, when your legs feel all quivery, your heart just flip flopped so loud you are sure the wireless mic amplified it, you are wondering why you ever said yes, and at the same time, you can’t wait to get started. You learn to channel that “nervousness” into pure energy, it gives vibrancy to your voice and lights up your face, you can feel it extending right out of the tips of your fingers to the audience. That’s fun. Anxiety feels nothing like the above. Nothing.

I can only speak as I have experienced anxiety in my body — we are all snowflakes, unique in our experience. Anxiety feels cold, icy, a dump of adrenaline into an adrenal fatigued body with heightened cortisol levels, the heart trips and stumbles, vision can become very narrow as the brain tries to focus on the threat, there can be the sense of an unnamed fear, an impending disaster. It can happen once a day, it can happen once a week, it may only happen once a month. I know my triggers. Water. Innocent retention ponds on the side of the road, especially unfenced retention ponds or bodies of water. Justin drowned in a body of water, a deep retention pond, they are a visual stimulation of a past traumatic event. Bridges. Bridges are over water. Justin was unconscious or not, either way he was trapped. In water. Do you see the correlation? Water does not make me nervous, water is a trigger of a very real event. I learned that if I know I am going to be driving over water, that the anticipatory dread is a non-stop adrenaline fest in my body. Driving over bridges at night, oh, not good. Justin went off the road at night, into water. I am not afraid of dying, it is not the fear of death, it is my brain revisiting the trauma. I have successfully driven over bridges during the day and know the anticipatory fear of experiencing anxiety is almost as bad as dealing with the adrenaline dump itself. But I can hold on to the success of driving over the bridge and allow that success to be my focus. I call it challenging myself to explore the trauma and to see where it will lead, what will it reveal about myself?

I have learned that I most likely will never babysit again or be responsible for a classroom of small children. I was shocked at the anxiety that being responsible for someone’s precious children brought to me. That may be one I have to accept, some things we cannot change, right? We seek the wisdom to know the difference. I can’t imagine something happening on my watch and being responsible for the cause of another parent’s anguish and sorrow. As parents we are supposed to keep our children safe, I will always feel a bit of lingering guilt that my son died and I didn’t do enough to keep him safe.

Going through TSA at airports. We don’t travel until July and I can already feel that dread building. I hate everything about it. I can never remember what to do and people are so horribly impatient and unkind, and those are my fellow travelers. Shoes off, they go in a bin. What is in my purse? Where does the laptop go, separate bin. Always afraid of appearing stupid or holding someone up from their very important travel. I hate forgetting a tissue in my pocket and then be patted down for a Kleenex. So many people, it is hard to be an intuitive mind and sense so many thoughts and emotions from the crowds, it is overwhelming. Doug reminds me to breathe, to not let other people and their impatience trigger my anxiety, the Norseman is the most calming color of blue to me.

The death of a child leaves one with a vulnerability that is beyond description, like having every inch of your body scoured with sandpaper, it takes time to grow new skin, it takes time to learn the whole new you. I have found that investing in creative outlets is the single most effective way to take anxiety and channel it into something positive. Learning new skills and discovering talents that have been exposed by the trauma can be like mining jewels. Those jewels may not look like much when you find them, but with nurturing they shine. The brain is resistant, it is convinced that there is sufficient need to shift to “flight or fight” status, but it can be lovingly coaxed into down shifting. If we shut out all the “helpful” voices that tell us what we should do, our souls will tell us what we need. We will be guided instinctively to those things that gently detach those triggers and new patterns in our brain are formed. A new person emerges after trauma, but time, it takes time, and it takes someone to believe in you. Affirm and delight in new growth no matter how small, we are only given enough light for one step at a time.

Be good to you.

Outer Banks, South Nags Head

Outer Banks, South Nags Head, Soul Restoring

Categories: Doug, Grieving, Justin, Self Care.

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One Boot Closer to Santiago

March 27, 2015

We made it through your 30th birthday Justin and today we are 4 1/2 in grief years. I can look back and see how much we have grown in six months, now we start the climb to the fifth anniversary of your death. We had a plan in place for your birthday yesterday and it actually worked. The nausea was intense in the morning, reminds me of the first two years of grief where I didn’t go anywhere without pretzels, they could quell the nausea. We have learned high protein knocks it back also, an invaluable lesson.

Actually four boots closer to Santiago

Actually four boots closer to Santiago

We escaped the house and its memories and found ourselves at REI in the shoe department. Our quest, hiking boots so that we can start to challenge ourselves with day and weekend hikes in preparation for our Camino in 2016. Our first experience last September in REI was overwhelming, we were six months older this trip, much better prepared. The young man in the footwear department graciously pulled out pair after pair of shoes and boots for us to try on and easily answered all our questions. We both loved the Keens we tried on, and I thought of you, Justin, your feet so scarred from multiple surgeries, we will walk this for you. We grabbed some Darn Tough wool hiking socks, no excuses now, we have all we need to walk any terrain. I have my boots beside me as I write, I was unprepared for how attached I would become to them in a day, but they are a symbol of hope and a dream.

Love that they are crafted in Vermont

Love that they are crafted in Vermont

The very best sort of dream, a dream where there is not much money to make it real and the odds are stacked pretty high, impossible dreams force us to be impossibly creative. Impossible dreams sharpen our focus, they bring clarity.

We contentedly stacked our boots and socks in a cart and meandered over to backpacks. And this experience truly revealed the growth we have made, I have made. The gentleman in backpacks rudely snorted when we shared with him that the end game for our backpacks was the Camino, but we wanted something that would suit us well for shorter journeys. He said something about everyone doing the Camino since the movie came out and was snarky and deprecating in his tone. Then he asked if we saw the movie, Doug replied “which one?” A bit of spluttering, “well, you know, the one called “The Way” I think.” We replied in the affirmative that we had seen that particular film. He waited for us to offer more information, other than a simple “yes” to his question. I realized that he was bordering on being a jackass, and that jacksasses have no right to our story. I would not tell him that it was our eldest son’s 30th birthday, I would not tell him of a boy’s scarred feet and body that would never walk the Camino, I did not tell him about sandals that sit by my desk waiting for their ticket to Spain. Those are soul stories, reserved for those who are kindred spirits. I fixed him with a quiet stare and replied that our Camino started long before the movie and that we would like to see some backpacks. Justin had sent us an email July of 2010, the year he was killed, it included a link to this article, Prayer Filled Run Along the Camino. You see, he had the Camino on his mind long before we did, he was dead two months later. Yes, the movie “The Way” might have been a catalyst for our journey, but I believe it was started as a collaboration between our boy and St. James. A journey that has been nurtured by a beautiful soul who has taken time to write back and forth and answer my questions as I reached out for guidance from the American Pilgrims on the Camino.

We listened as he prattled on about how we needed to bring everything to the store that we would be taking on our trip and see what size backpack we would need, yeah – no. He was busy showing us 65 liter packs that were as big as I am, we humored him and I tried on a couple, oh to have had a picture. I dared not catch Mr. Jackson’s eye, we have warped senses of humor and it is not always appreciated. We thanked him for his time and made our way to the checkout sans enormous backpack, very satisfied with our boots and socks. I actually am dreaming of an Osprey Kyte 36, the “go anywhere, do anything” day pack. But there is no rush to have everything, there is no need to have everything. I believe that we will have all we need when the need arises, not before.

We had mugs of hot cocoa and flourless chocolate cake for your birthday dinner, Justin, both were exceptional. We didn’t talk much, I still can’t say your name to your dad, all that rests bottled up bubbles to the surface and I can’t see or speak for the tears. But I feel we did a good job honoring your birthday yesterday, we got out of bed – anything beyond that was extra credit. You and Ryan are in our every heartbeat, our every thought, we never walk alone.

Puss in Boots

Puss in Boots



Categories: Doug, Hope, The Camino, Traveling.

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Oh, you’re back. A birthday letter to Justin.

March 19, 2015

“Oh, you’re back.” Me speaking to grief as I find myself in a trifecta of events. Your 30th birthday is next week, Easter hard on its heels. And then Mother’s Day with all its weirdness will confront me. Your birthday has crept up on me, settled itself on my shoulders, my legs feel like they are moving through molasses. If only I could see you for a minute, one last smile, one last time to catch your eye.

Grief doesn’t ever leave, but it can pull back like a wave on the sand, and you have some breathing space as smaller, gentler waves ebb and flow. And then the storm starts to form, it starts small, like a small pool of black ink, and then it spreads, little inky tendrils spin out and touch your heart. Your birthday, still have not figured out what to do with that day. I try so hard Justin, I re-invest my energy into positive outlets, I challenge myself to make new memories, I try to focus on having a purpose in life – but then a picture of you catches my eye, and I am undone. I have to be honest with you Justin, I am tired of waking up to this everyday, everyday it is new, every morning my brain has to process that you are dead. I do a good job most mornings, but this week before your birthday, too many memories.

I am frustrated and confused. There are good things happening, exciting avenues opening up for me, a new found confidence, your dad and I even laugh now. I didn’t expect to feel like the early days of losing you. And yet, here I am, no colors, just grey and brown. Your dad and I are working on your legacy website, could have a lot to do with getting thrown back into this sharp edged grief. Going through pictures, story boarding your life, trying to form words and ideas without crying, wanting to give up on the project, but that does not feel any better – so you just keep working, right? Do the next thing, whatever the next thing is. But it is hard, hard to see pictures of you and Ryan together, it just makes it all so real and in your face.

I know you didn’t mean to die that night, you would have never wanted us to be in such pain, I wonder if it grieves you, do you suffer because your heart hurts for us? If love never dies, then the capacity for suffering with and for the ones we love does not die either. Love and suffering intertwine together so it is impossible to say where one begins and ones ends. You are heart of my heart, we are forever bound.

Frustrated and Confused. Bewildered by grief. I will try and visit your grave before or on your birthday, what a strange thing to say. I wish I had Frodo’s cloak of invisibility, I could place it around me and visit you unseen. Thanks for listening this morning, I can breathe again. I will never understand all there is to know about grief. Grief is neither friend nor foe, more like an uneasy alliance, not exactly traitorous, but it arcs and twists like a serpent.

I think of what C. S. Lewis said, so true:

“First, I do not sit down at my desk to put into verse something that is already clear in my mind. I should have no incentive or need to write about it. We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.”

Miss you Justin, love you forever.




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Categories: Dark Night, Grieving, Justin, Ryan.

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A Letter to My Younger Self

March 17, 2015

I came across a list of suggested writing prompts for March and one grabbed me and sent me on a journey back in time. I had not intended to take down carefully taped boxes off the back shelves of my memory and dump them out, it just sort of happened. A wise Franciscan once said that sometimes it is good to have someone around if you are going to empty boxes, now I understand what he meant. I was unprepared to feel those same emotions that I had felt at the time of the memory, it has softened my heart for my younger self, made me far more empathetic to her failings and mistakes.

I am standing in the yard looking for the ambulance that had been called the morning my father suffered a major coronary. We could hear on my brother’s scanner that it was looking for the housing development which was new and the ambulance had become lost on unfamiliar roads. I remember begging God to not let my father die, but I knew he was dead already. He was not quite 55, I was just 13. There was no acknowledgement at that time of the trauma that grief has on a family. The next four years were chaotic, confusing, I was in three different high schools, but I graduated with a Senatorial Scholarship to Towson State majoring in Biology. I had the standard English class, met once a week as a group and then individually with the prof to go over our writing assignment. I will never forget that first individual meeting, he excoriated my writing sample, and my younger self, the tough-as-nails younger self, melted and fled. He called after me, I never stopped. I dropped the class. I was only seventeen. I lived off campus, took the bus to college. During that first month at school I was stalked by a man who had stopped me asking for directions. I have never been able to verbalize the actions he was doing, or his threats. I can still see his face and his vehicle 36 years later. I left school and came home. I forfeited the scholarship, years down the road I had to pay it back.

So to my younger self, my young, young self, I love you. I see now that we didn’t “drop” out of college, we used what coping skills we had at seventeen and we chose to go home, out of the reach of both abusers. You kept yourself safe, safe from the stalker who rang the phone, the stalker who would appear in a parking lot. My younger self, you didn’t fail. You didn’t allow yourself to feel at the time the terror of being watched, you took action. Now you and I can feel that terror together and the anger, and we can let it go, he is weak and powerless. We rocked those martial arts classes, perhaps no one understood why self defense was so important to you, but we knew. My favorite memory younger self of martial arts? Taking a hard hit, blood dripping where the stick had cut us, blood on our snow white uniform, and bowing to receive our red belt, strength and courage sang in our veins, it was good.

And that jackass of an English professor, the worst kind of bully, the intellectual bully, the verbal bully, the lofty ego bully who feeds on demoralization and criticism, I believe he suffered the worst punishment, he had to live with himself. He too is weak and powerless. We came to that realization looking out the kitchen window last week, it is where we do our best thinking. We didn’t write again for over thirty years, it took burying that boy of ours to realize that nothing could ever hurt us as much as we had been hurt. It was fitting that we were home alone when we opened the magazine and realized that we had been published, no one can take that memory from us.

Dear younger self, you did good. Yes, there were plenty of mistakes, but let us embrace, you are a part of me, and together we can gather all the past and allow it to ascend to Father God, His name is mercy and love. We begin anew today, at peace and integrated, unafraid of the future. You and I, we write for us now. We write because when we don’t our skin gets two sizes too tight and we crack. When we write, balance and peace come stealing into our heart. We breathe through unblocked channels of thought and memory. Unfettered, unchained, unbound, standing with our face to the north wind, we are cleansed. Life and people run through our lives like water, we neither grasp or clench, but keep our hands open to allow freedom and movement. You and I are part of every wave that crashes on the sand, we know the heart of every horse that when loosed from its bonds, tosses its head and gallops, suspended in air for moments of absolute freedom.

Peace to you my younger self, peace and all good.

Ascending to Father God Angel in the Sand OBX 2014

Ascending to Father God
Angel in the Sand


Categories: Faith, Grieving, Hope, Self Care.

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“You grab my waist, I’ll grab the fish.”

March 15, 2015

IMG_8327-002Today would have been our mom’s 92nd birthday. We celebrated her last birthday with us 19 years ago, I remember it so clearly, brilliant sunshine, many faces around the table, mom at the head of the table, smiling. Six weeks into radiation and chemo for palliative treatment of pancreatic cancer, but she was smiling. Her birthday and St. Patrick’s Day were always linked together, and celebrations could last a week. I would watch for when the daffodils came in from Ireland, they were extra special, and we would fill vases with them. Mom loved daffodils, she would call them her Daffy-down-dillies, so bright and cheerful, yellow heralds of spring.

The treatments left mom weak and tired, but she never lost her sense of adventure or fun. She lived with us and hers’ was a gentle spirit to have around. We always had at least one fish in a bowl and her last summer we had goldfish from the local carnival who were remarkably healthy. We also had a collection of cats. Krinklebein_009-001Penny was a buff colored stray that came to live with us and he was an avid fisherman. He would spend endless hours watching the fish and attempt to scoop them out of their bowl. We had great fun watching his antics, and he was never successful, except for the afternoon when it was just mom and I home.

I came around the corner to the kitchen to find one of the small goldfish flipping and flapping on the kitchen floor and I tried to pick it up, at the same time yelling for mom. Dear soul, she comes out, she had been resting, nightgown and robe, socks on her feet, and she tells me the obvious, “Theresa, pick up the poor fish!”

Krinklebein_005-002I can do many things, I was the one they called when a dead mouse was found at work, he was in a bag of chocolate, I believe he left this world happy. I have three older brothers and two sons, lived for seven wondrous years on a farm, crabbed off piers for hours, mucked stalls in exchange for riding lessons, but my Waterloo be live, wriggling fish. I love watching them, but I do not like holding them all wiggling and cold, gives me the shivers.

Mom loved all creatures and truly nothing phased her, “grab my waist” she says, “I’ll grab the fish.” I remember grasping her around her waist as tight as I could and holding on for dear life, while Doris the Brave scooped up the frantic fish in her hands and dropped him back in his bowl. We were laughing so hard by now, her little socks wet, I was afraid we would both slip on the wet floor, Krinklebein_007-001and it just got funnier and funnier, we must have sounded like loons. Moments frozen in time, we were mother and daughter, but also the best of friends. I remember getting her tucked back into bed, still laughing, both of us better for the laughter and the fishing expedition.

She was fearless, would drive anywhere in a heartbeat, rode her first horse when she was sixty, and withstood a regime of radiation and chemo treatments like a warrior, a warrior with matching socks and outfits. Always a lady, but not above telling someone to go scratch their ass with a pineapple if they had crossed a line with her. I miss her.

Happy birthday Doris Claire, may there be countless daffodils and merriment this day for you. I hope my boy is with you.

Doris Claire Sharkey Dyer

Doris Claire Sharkey Dyer


Categories: Family, Stories.

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