Things that still surprise me after four years.

October 10, 2014

Four years. We are on the other side of the fourth anniversary now, we observe from September 27th through October 4th as a time of being especially gentle with ourselves. We each walk alone those days, remembering Justin’s death, the preparation for burial, the funeral. I remember the last mass we attended together before Ryan had to return to Washington, it was the Feast Day of St. Francis, October 4th, at the Shrine of St. Anthony. My heart made a memory of being together on those narrow wooden pews and cool stone floor of the shrine, so still and simple, so aware that we were three not four. It may seem odd that I say we walk alone, but each one of us carries our own grief, and yes we stand shoulder to shoulder, but at our core we are still alone in solitude, deep solitude. As I was mopping off my face in the Safeway parking lot today, I was struck by the things that still surprise me after four years of child loss and how much I still have to learn about grief. Here are some of those things.

I am surprised that I can still melt down in the two tenths of a mile that it takes me to drive to Safeway. Fine when I leave the house, list prepared, and then the beauty of the fall leaves just wrench my heart, and the longing wells up inside for my child and spills out my eyes. Why the car? I have no idea, I often get my best crying done in the vehicle, alone.

I am surprised how the spark for the holidays has not returned, the stores are quickly becoming danger zones, you try not to look but to just focus on making a strategic strike for what you came in for and then to get out as quick as you can. Perhaps the holidays are the hardest hurdle to achieve, maybe a new plan needs to be put in place, something different this year.

I am surprised by how little memory I have of Justin’s life, flashes, bits and pieces, but honestly I can’t retrieve much at all. I feel like I had seconds with him, not years. And it scares me so, how fleeting time is, how many opportunities did we miss for memory making?

I am surprised at the pain when I do remember his smile, his laugh, when I imagine him in my head, and bring back those details and look on that much loved face and eyes. I am surprised that my endurance has not built up, I can hardly spend any time at all with my memories. Seconds, moments, but then I have to leave them.

And I am surprised by how quiet we continually grow, not in a withdrawn bitter sense, but in a deep quiet. I wouldn’t call it a passive quiet, for there is listening going on, just an economy of words used. I have found it surprising, not unpleasant, just different.

The question often gets put to me if the loss of a child gets “better” or easier after some years, it gets neither actually, it becomes different. And I think it is good to reflect on what surprises us, what is different, to acknowledge the continual evolution that is taking place within ourselves. We find we need to make room for all that is different.  Sometimes I am surprised how often I have to go back to basics, to count all the small victories of the day. To stop, breathe, and be grateful that we have never once ran out of Kleenex in the last four years, that we have always had food and running water, to be even grateful for all the pet fur because that means we have the great luxury of companion animals to make us laugh.

Justin, I am surprised after four years without you we are still standing. But you know, I just laughed out loud at a memory. I suddenly thought of being awakened in the night after one of your surgeries, you were an old hand at being cut by now and despised using crutches. You would hop on one foot through the house, holding up that heavy, bulky cast that stretched from your toes to your knee behind you, your  balance was amazing and you never fell – but oh did I want to call down and tell you to use your crutches. But I didn’t. I knew that it was your way of not being defeated, of not allowing your feet and surgeries to dictate to you what you could or could not do. For all your gentleness, you had a backbone of steel, such a will and determination to overcome any obstacle set before you. And with that thought, that memory of you, I will introduce a new word – legacy – that our surviving and thriving, will be part of your legacy and memory. One hop at a time.


Categories: Justin, Surgery.

Four years ago today we buried a boy. Rediscovering the…

October 2, 2014

We buried Justin on the Feast Day of the Guardian Angels, October 2, 2010.  I have been working on transcribing the homily given by Father Conrad at the funeral Mass. Fr. Conrad was Justin’s spiritual director and good friend at Franciscan University of Steubenville. We were honored and grateful that Fr. Conrad traveled to Maryland to be with us. This is one of the hardest days of the year, you wake up and your only thought is what you were doing on that day. It has taken a long time to listen again and transcribe these beautiful words, tears and sorrow can be overwhelming and it can take years to work through that sorrow until you can type and actually see the screen. These words have given much comfort, deeper insights into Justin, sharpens the pain of his absence, but also gives strength for the journey. Below are Fr. Conrad’s words, may they touch your heart with the love that Justin has for each of us.


I should first of all like to express the condolences of Franciscan University of Steubenville to Justin’s family that I have felt I have known for many years because I have been witness to Justin’s love for you. Three times a day the students gather for mass and some three hundred, three times a day pray for Justin as a member of the alumni. This being Parent’s Weekend and Alumni Weekend, at every Mass Justin is prayed for.

I express also the condolences of the Friars, you know not having sons and daughters of our own, we adopt the parents’ sons and daughters while they are students there, so we too grieve at the loss of someone that we have we loved. It is good to grieve, our Lord grieved at the death of Lazarus. Not to grieve would be to say that we have put no value upon the presence of the person who has been with us that we have loved. Put no value upon his love, his presence, and that we are not going to miss him. If we did not grieve that would be probably what we were saying.

But there is a limit and a perspective to our grief of course, because Christ has risen from the dead. The first fruits of those of who have fallen asleep, we shall all rise and after our death we shall be with Christ and eventually our bodies will be with Christ also in the general resurrection of dead. So there is a perspective to our grief, a relative grief, a grief being deprived of the presence we have known. But that presence isn’t totally taken away, Justin has not lost his memory, he is not in heaven saying “I did have a mother, a father, a brother, didn’t I, relatives, didn’t I?” No. He knows and he loves. We can pray to anyone that has died, trusting that they are in the presence of God. So our grief is relative.

There are those who would say of course that we mourn because Justin’s life has been cut short, been deprived of the fullness of life. But of course there never was anymore than what there was. God knew on Monday and told the angels in heaven I’m sure, to prepare a banquet because Justin was coming home and there would be a triumph in heaven at his arrival in heaven. We did not know that, he did not know that, but God knows everything. And with God all time is as a single day, so I think we have to temper whatever thought we would have had. We would say perhaps, “well it is to bad because he did not have a family, he did not marry, he did not have children of his own.” But, not long before he died, he became a spiritual father, becoming a godfather to a child. What a privilege that child has. Not only a guardian angel that we celebrate today on the Feast of the Guardian Angels, not only a guardian angel in heaven, but Justin to look over him and intercede for him, how fortunate he is and Justin did experience that spiritual fatherhood of becoming a godfather before going home to God

I would (there was a bit of a pause)…Justin has not lost his memory, I have lost lost mine (much good laughter). He is preparing a place for all of us assuredly. We would grieve perhaps he did not finish his studies. Finish his studies? Justin had a deep knowledge of what some of us perhaps lack, this is a knowledge of the ways of God. You see, well I always think of the quotation from St. Bonaventure “I have come forth from you the most high and I go to you the most high, and I go through you the most high. Justin knew that he had come forth from the hands of God. I think that is why we have a longing to back to God. Because we came into this world through God’s creative power, God holds us in existence, we belong to God as the violin desires to go back into the hands of the violin maker, we have in our hearts a longing, a yearning that can never be satisfied, it is a yearning to go home, to go back to where we came from to go back to the God who made us. St. Augustine expresses much more beautifully, in saying “you have made us for yourself O Lord and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” We have a longing for God within our hearts, a restlessness that can never be totally satisfied in this world until we are in the presence of the God who made us. I have come forth from you most High, Justin knew that, and I am going to you the most High, we live on a pilgrimage of return to the God who made us and Justin knew that. And he knew that he did not walk alone however along that road that leads back to God, because he walked with Christ. The completion of the sentence “I have come forth from you the most high and I go to you the most high, and I go through you the most high,” we return to the God who made us through Christ, through Christ our Lord, who is the way, and the truth, and the life.

In our Baptism we die and we are born again, we are born sharing in the life of Christ. So that Christ lives within us by grace. Doctrinally, the gift of uncreated grace, the presence of God within us communicating to us a share in his own life. As Justin tried through life, as we try through life, to see reality with eyes of Christ, to hear with the ears of Christ, to hear the suffering and the pain that is around us in this world and to try to do something about that. To serve with the hands of Christ, to walk with the feet of Christ, to love with the heart of Christ. Christ lives within us. That he is present in our heart, moving us to love, to love the Father, to love God, to love all humanity for which God died, Christ died upon the cross, that his love lives in us. Justin may not have completed his PhD, but he knew what is the most important knowledge of all, because it is the knowledge of life, of what my life is about, that I have come forth from the hands of God and I am going back into the hands of God and it is through Christ that I will return back into the hands of God. That is the great knowledge, the great wisdom which he had. And that presence of Christ within him he knew was strengthened each day with the Eucharist we receive. We receive Christ in the Eucharist and by that we are joined to him, But we all receive Christ in the Eucharist, we are joined to one another as we receive Christ in the Eucharist and that is the nourishment, food for the journey of life, the presence of Christ within in us nourished by the Eucharist that we receive each day. So that was the great wisdom that he learned, it was the great wisdom that he lived, it is the great wisdom which he leave to us.

We pray that the angels may lead him into paradise on this Feast of the Guardian Angels, we pray the angels may lead him into paradise and we pray that Mary, the mother of Jesus may be there to welcome him. How many times, how many times did he pray “Holy Mary Mother of God pray for us now and at the hour of our death.” The Mother of God is not deaf! He prayed that she might be with him in the moment of death and we pray that Mary may present Justin to her son and say to her son, “my Son I have been reminded of you through him, I saw you living in him, I ask you now to accept him into your kingdom, to show him that dwelling place that you prepared for him from the beginning of time.” That is what we pray for. To be sure, one must be purified to enter into the presence of God, that is why we pray for him, that is why we say many prayers. Not to want that is to want the impossible, if one does not wish to be purified to enter into the presence of God, one either has a very low estimation of God, or a very high estimate of oneself. All the prayers that we say for him, all of the Masses that we offer for him, they are already present in the presence of God at the moment Justin appeared before him.

And so we enter into Eternal Rest. Oh perhaps rest, yes rest indeed. No more worry, no more anxiety, no more fear, none of those interior tribulations that we experience in this life. No, rest from all of that, rest from struggle. But the rest of sleep? I think not. The mind enters into union with God, God is infinite, if we started today and looked and saw God as He is in Himself, all the days that have existed from the creation of the this world to the end of the world could not exhaust our growth in knowledge of the infinity of God. And with that knowledge comes loves. We just don’t look and enjoy what we see, but we love what we see. No, our life after this world is a life of complete, endless, endless, plunging the depth of the infinity of God and our heats inflamed and filled with love and joy in God’s presence. And in all of that, his prayers, his love for us, for his mother and his father, and his brother, and all his family, and all his relatives, and all his friends. That love that moves him to ask that we might all be united with him forever. Yes, it is a time of grieving. Grieving because the way in which we have known him and experienced his presence is not there for us now. But he is here for us. We receive the Lord in the Eucharist we are joined to one another, we are joined to Christ. We pray that he is joined to Christ also, and so we are united as we come to the altar and celebrate the Eucharist with those who are present and those who have gone before us. So let us rejoice with Justin and this day even as we acknowledge that wonderful presence that we have had, that we can’t quite experience in this world as we did a few days ago. May the Lord bless us and give us His peace.


Categories: Family, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Grieving, Hope, Justin.

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What suffering has taught me, and why I don’t say…

October 1, 2014

We jokingly look at the animals sometimes when they are denied a choice bit of turkey and tell them to “offer it up.” We don’t tell humans to do that anymore. Why not? Because it is rude that’s why. Telling someone to offer up their suffering and sorrow has become a neat and tidy approach to not entering into another person’s pain. If we tell them to “offer it up,” we are off the hook then to be compassionate and tender. After all, no pain, no gain. And we are encouraged to suffer, or are we? And I could fumble this, but life has plenty of opportunities for suffering, we don’t have to look for it, life in its essence is sorrowful. We are fragile human beings, we feel pain, we get sick, we hurt others, and we are all guaranteed death, no way out of that one. Suffering is also a guarantee. So is loss, we will all lose people we love, people who were our security, our anchors.

Allow me to share with you a snapshot of my brain patter when told to offer something up, I get an immediate visual of a greedy God so eager for pain that he must be fed more suffering and pain in order to be appeased. I internalize the vision of a God who caused this suffering just so that I could be put to the test, will I offer it up or will I struggle and fail. When I am told to offer it up, I am introduced to a God that is cold and impersonal, who cares not for my pain, but just wants blind obedience. When I am told to offer it up my pain and suffering is invalidated and I have no where to go with my very real and physical heartache, and feel guilt for feeling how I feel. And then I walk away from the people, the church, and the God who have belittled me to search for a safe place to take my pain.

As I have thought about suffering and God, I have come to see that we cannot tell each other to offer it up, it is akin to telling someone to go have sex without having a secure relationship first. I cannot separate my body from my heart and soul. That will happen at death and not before. And that separation of body and soul is unnatural – it was not meant to be – I am both body and soul. It is why a ghost or a dead body is so frightening to us, it is unnatural. To open up and extend to God my suffering and pain can only happen when I feel loved and secure, when I can trust that He will not scoff at me and tell me to suck it up. To offer up my pain to the unseen God, that is done in intimacy, a naked, vulnerable moment. When Christ was stripped naked and paraded for all to see, who among us would have told him to offer it up? Why then do we say that to each other so callously? Why can we not see the naked Christ in all who suffer? And in humility and compassion, tread so lightly before their wounded souls and offer the cover of our love over their vulnerability instead of falling back on learned responses that foster no grace.

Perhaps we have misconstrued when we have read of saints offering up all their suffering to God and thinking that yes, what an excellent proposition that we all should follow. But as I read more and more about these very human people, they struggled, the offering did not come easily. The offering came after a relationship was established, and relationships take time and energy, their seemingly “one-liners” came from hours of meditation, common work, ordinary days of ordinary life. So we cannot simply take “offer it up” and apply it as a curative, that is not compassion, nor is it discipleship, and it certainly is not effective mentoring.

Suffering has taught me that a person’s story is paramount, to listen is to share in their story. Suffering has taught me that I cannot tell anyone what to do with their pain, I can only offer my story in their safekeeping. Suffering has taught me to trust that there will be growth from the pain, that if embraced it will sculpt my being. In that same trust, I see how suffering has sculpted those I love. I see the lines, the shadows, the eyes that no longer judge by merit or worth, they look with love.  Suffering has freed me from fear of entering into another soul’s pain, there is nothing to fear in my pain or their pain.

It is said that suffering makes us better people, if that were true then the entire world would be saintly. Suffering can make us bitter and angry, most especially in the absence of loving relationships. Suffering can indeed transform us into beings of peace, suffering can grow our hearts beyond what we every thought possible, but not unless we are loved first.  Only in that place of trust, can an offering take place.


Categories: Faith.

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I Miss You My Friend

September 27, 2014

I Miss You My Friend


I cannot bear the silence,

yet I shrink from every sound.

I ache from loneliness,

but desire no company.

I miss you my friend.


You knew my heart,

before a word was spoken.

You caught my eye,

an entire silent exchange.

I miss you my friend.


Hearts shattered,

torn, and bleeding.

Lives unraveled,

edges raw.

I miss you my friend.


A minute at a time.

Only exist for now.

But it is a lifetime

cries my heart.

I miss you my friend,

my son.


Miss you, love you forever Justin.

September 27, 2014, Fourth Anniversary

Categories: Friendship, Grieving, Justin.

God Memes, Sound Bites, and Roast Chicken

September 26, 2014

I think a lot. I think about God, His nature, who He is, who I am to Him. I think of God and then I think of those things I have heard spoken of God, or what God has been quoted as saying. I sit or walk with God, sometimes we talk, sometimes not, but I think it is still prayer. I don’t have prayer books or cards, but I sit and tell Him the truth of all I don’t understand, including Him. I tell Him mostly that life is too big for me, and He tells me to be small, see the small things, do the small things, my task is not to do great things, but if I could roast a chicken He said, that would be good. Create a sanctuary of peace wherever you go, be that sanctuary of peace.

I asked He, who descended into Hell, if it was true that He was not allowed in public schools or public places anymore, for people said that He was not. I heard a distinct laugh, and then a question, “What do you think?” I think that if you are who you say you are, then you exist everywhere, regardless of what some popinjay declared by civil law. I believe you to be bigger than civil law. I think that you would still remain in every believer’s heart whether the law permitted it or not, if truly you indwell in our souls, then we can never be separated from you. I sensed a Divine smile, His great patience with a four year old wrestling with awareness for the first time.  I pressed again with a question, “It is said that you are too much of a gentleman to force your presence on anyone and that if asked to leave, you do, what say you to that?” Did I hear the Divine snort? Again the question turned to me, “what do you think?” I think that a gentleman woos a lady ever more gently even should she rebuff him. I think that the heart of the beloved ever pursues his love. And, if it is true what they say of your attributes, should you ever leave us, we would cease to exist, we are always on your mind, so to speak. Again I sensed a smile.

Sitting on the sand with the wild onshore wind stirring huge waves, I felt more long held illusions being cleansed from my being. The importance of being in nature, to feel the elements churning and pounding, to be utterly incapable of changing the waves, and to let go of trying. It seems so often the sound bites of God, the cutesy memes, the self-righteous scripture quoting artfully sculpted to push an agenda, clouds and distorts the face of Mercy. Perhaps it is no wonder that folks are a bit skeptical of having God around, especially when reduced to such a single note. He is a full chorus, He is every note of a cello, He is every dear cat that purrs so loudly your heart can not resist calming to its rumbles, He is every kind act of a stranger. I think
we bought into a horrible illusion that we have chased God away, that we are a forsaken nation, but we are not. I am convinced that God has a merry heart and engages us in the Divine hide and seek. To find Him in the unexpected places we need to shed the illusion of being grownups and abandon ourselves to flip flops and play clothes. To stop hiding ourselves behind the things that are not God, but only give us the illusion of being righteous and good.

I think I would like to construct a meme, a picture of a beautiful roast chicken. No words, no pithy quote, just a chicken. It would remind me to give thanks for the humble bird and the Great God who created the humble bird, to give thanks for those who may join us in sharing the finely roasted fowl, to drink wine, to listen to stories, to create a sanctuary of peace wherever we may dwell, despite the terrors of life. To be present in that moment, in the knowledge of who I am, and at peace with the God who is.

Categories: Faith.

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And I thought “What are we doing here?”

September 25, 2014

I found a small collection of notes I had taken at the first workshop at The Compassionate Friends Conference we attended in July, it always takes a couple of months to process those three days. I remember the first morning of the conference being so tired, in sticker shock with how much a single cup of coffee cost, totally disoriented in the huge hotel, and more than a small part of me was still in Minnesota at the site of Justin’s accident. I sat there thinking “What are we doing here?” I even wrote that as my first note before the speaker had even started. We were tired, had just dropped almost eight dollars on large coffees – plain coffee – black coffee, I was already stressing about how much meals were going to cost us, nothing was in walking distance, for frugal planners this can pave the way for serious stress. I had started the litany in my head, this is stupid, we should not have come, this is not a prudent expenditure of resources, and why bother with learning more about grief? Justin is dead, no amount of knowledge will change that, life will always suck. Welcome to a snapshot of my head noise.

And then Mitch started to speak, and these were my next notes:

“realized during the first presentation how much we suppress through the year. How thin the crust is, how fresh the pain is right under the surface.”  “We store grief in our bodies.”

I think the above are Mitch Carmody’s words, my notes and memory lack continuity, and the pain is still so fresh, right under that thin crust. The tears start and my body shakes in relief almost, relief that someone can put into words what I live everyday, can explain it to me in terms I can grasp, can look at us sitting in the chairs with love and compassion. My notes are like splotches of ink in my conference book. A few stand out, I wrote down that it takes five years for our stress slate to return to where is was stronger than before the trauma of the death of our child. And that it is okay to “Stop and Drop.” I remember being glued to Mitch’s words, he had captured the scientist in me as he shared how our bodies respond to grief and stress, and how toxic it can be to our bodies if we do not care for ourselves. I forgot how much we paid for coffee, I forgot how much lunch was going to cost us, but I remembered the most important thing – what we were doing there.

We were there to learn how to live our reality. Every penny spent was an investment in us, it was an investment for our surviving son who lost his only brother, so that maybe he wouldn’t completely lose his parents as well. It was an investment in thirty three years of marriage that it would not buckle under the stress of loss. We were there so that for three days we could let that crust disintegrate and let that lava of grief flow out and away. And we were there for him, for Justin, to remember that because he lived, we got to love, and because we love, we grieve.

We thought that we would skip next year’s conference, we had tentative plans for another journey, my heart pulled a little, but I knew we could not do both ventures. Now another opportunity has presented itself that changes the landscape for next summer even more so and will perhaps bring us to revising our plans for pilgrimage until 2016. I have a sense of peace knowing that we could attend next summer’s national conference, I feel in my heart I need that yearly gathering of the tribe, to hear that challenge to live that can only be spoken by seasoned grievers. I see the small fruit growing from intentionally reinvesting in our new life, from intentionally taking that time to be affirmed in our journey.  I am afraid that if I miss the clan gathering, I will ask myself “Why wasn’t I there?”

Maybe I will get to see Texas after all.


Categories: Uncategorized.

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