Collateral Losses

September 12, 2014

The dog and I filled multiple yard bags with weary plants, spent flower heads, and impressive weeds yesterday. Physical work always opens up pathways in my brain for thought. I reflected on the friends and family who were so much a part of my life when Justin was killed, and who no longer are part of my tribe. Collateral losses, those losses which are secondary in nature, losses that accompany an event. I read in grief literature about how our friends would change, that those you were close to before the death of your child may drift away.

I kept having the same re-occurring thought though as I was stuffing twigs and leaves into bags, the love and affection that was exchanged during that time of Justin’s death was real, the beautiful gifts of time, treasure, and talent were genuine in that moment. Love, generosity, kindness, these things are true and they are not tarnished by the separation of ways at a later time. People part ways for whatever reason, but the memories remain, goodness lasts, and that we can cherish, even smile in remembrance. I hold the memories of friendships before Justin’s death with great fondness, I can look back now and realize I can treasure those times even if the relationships will never be the same.

The parting of ways isn’t dramatic, but subtle, a drifting as different winds catch our sails. I have read where some friendships dissolve after the death of a child and some may be quick to say that those people really weren’t your friends. I thought about that all day and I don’t feel that to be true, at least not for me. I believe that they were true and good friends, but we undergo such profound changes, some of them rapid, some awaken in us slowly as we learn to live without our child, that we may become someone they would not choose to call friend. As we embrace those changes that can come from being open to post-traumatic growth, sometimes very little of the old self remains, we may not even look the same. Perhaps as I have grieved those secondary losses, those who were once close grieve the loss as well.

I have found with the collateral losses there have been gains as well.  I have friendships that have deepened and grown sweeter with time, new friendships that have blossomed and bring a lightness to my heart. I have found a new found peace about relationships, they are never ours to grasp or to hold forever. Relationships are like water, they flow, rushing, curving, meandering, but never static, we travel with someone for a bit, then our little stream may split off to travel a different course. And just like you cannot hold water in your hand, it always spills out, you only grasp it for a second, we can’t hold on to people either. So we open our hands and let go, everyone has their own journey.

I treasure those moments now when I am in the presence of a friend, knowing that this could be the last time we sit and share our thoughts, I try to make a memory of their beauty, what is dear to them. And the same with family, we never know what event may occur that may part us, that might change the dynamic that lends our gatherings its unique character, so my heart takes a picture of those moments.

Collateral losses can be deep and many, but so can the peace in choosing to remember the love.


Categories: Family, Friendship, Grieving, Hope.

Tags: , ,

Remember those Moonflower seedlings?

September 9, 2014

IMG_1305 I wrote about them here, as you can see they thrived! This picture makes me smile, today I see an elephant with his trunk reaching out for the front door handle. I have even caught tendrils creeping into the house. I am IMG_9137-001completely charmed by its presence. Two months ago I fretted at their fragile existence. A month ago I was encouraged as a single vine curled towards the sky. AndIMG_0210-001 last night we had the delight of watching three blooms open.

I had set a timer so that I would remember to go out an check on the buds. The buds seem to appear from nowhere, growing inches in a single afternoon, and you can start to predict if they will bloom that evening or not.


Every ten minutes the pup and I would go out to the front porch in the dusky light and check on the buds. We sat on the concrete steps and listened to the sounds of late summer and breathed the different air of approaching Fall. I could feel the familiar anxiety kick in my heart and the start of an adrenaline cascade in my body. We are two weeks away from the fourth anniversary of Justin’s death.  Anticipation of that date is the oddest thing, it arrives every September, building in intensity until the anniversary has passed.  I recognize it better this year, erratic sleep patterns, iffy appetite, a tendency just to stand and stare, brain fog, and tears.

Doug comes home just as I am muttering about losing daylight and not being able to capture the video of the Moonflower opening and he very kindly goes and gets out his film lights, such cool toys. My heart lifts several stories as there are few things that bring greater joy than working collaboratively on a project without planning or words, just seamless cooperation. He sets up lights on tripods and it made all the difference. There was no time to break out the video cameras, but I think my iPhone does a spectacular job of capturing the magical moment of the bud swirling open.

IMG_1557-001See the Moonflower Opening.

I think about how the gardens have responded to the towering maples being cut down, how devastated we were when told they would have to go. We miss our old friends, they shielded the house, provided shade and privacy. But I also see how the other plants have thrived with being allowed to see the sun and feel the rain. The roses are flourishing, even the hostas have never been prettier, you can almost hear the Moonflower vines sigh as they bask in the sun. The landscape has changed, but I find I prefer the change, the possibilities that change can bring. I am reminded of a workshop we attended that focused on Green Therapy, bringing our grief to nature and allowing the gifts of the earth to heal our mind and body, to play in the dirt and catch the rhythm of the seasons.

Those silky white pinwheels with their lime green starfish that swirl inside them glow all night long until the IMG_1482-001dawn, you only see them if you are in the darkness of night.  As beautiful as they are, I am not sure they would be as stunning in the light of day, they belong to the night, they don’t fear the dark. My mind wrestles and teeters on the edge of embracing a truth and reality of being called to live the dark night and the elusive beauty it holds. The mind can’t embrace it all, nor could the soul hold such a light until it had grown roots in darkness, grown vines to support buds. The understanding must be reached that one cannot pluck the bloom and bring it inside to enjoy in a vase, it withers, it cannot be grasped and held at whim and fancy, you must wait for those fleeting moments and be present to its beauty, let it fill your senses, and then let it go.



IMG_1420-001 IMG_1432-001 IMG_1445-001

Related Posts:

Categories: Dark Night, Faith, Hope.

Tags: , ,

Rebuilding a foundation, the birdhouse way.

September 2, 2014

Rarely have workshops affected me as much as a workshop Doug and I attended at  The Compassionate Friends National Conference. It was entitled “The Birdhouse Project with Kris Munsch.” I wasn’t sure what we would be doing, but I was glad to see colored Sharpie markers on the table. I was hoping for something very tactile, it had been a very long and intense day, even in the most loving environment, exploring your grief is exhausting.  Kris introduced himself and I was immediately drawn into his story, the story of his son Blake. Our workshop was right next to another workshop that was very loud, with much laughter – not that I begrudged them their joy – it was just incredibly distracting, almost impossible to focus, especially when you are tired. I slipped a pair of ear plugs in, they filtered out the extraneous sounds, but I could still hear Kris. He spoke from his heart and I didn’t just want to hear his story, I needed to hear his story.

We had each received our own birdhouse kit, heavy cardboard pieces that would fit together. I felt really at home with the building puzzle part, it reminded me so much of my mother’s love for building gingerbread houses and 3D puzzles. Kris guided us through each piece of our building, starting with our foundation. I have written about how the death of a child smashes through your life, leaving it unrecognizable, the struggle to rebuild, picking up bits and pieces of our old life, and how it never looks the same. Kris’ concept of building a birdhouse brought that reality all together in such a brilliant clear way.  It was a lot to take in and process in one night, and I came home with some of my birdhouse walls blank, I simply could not define in words, or even pictures, what I wanted to express on those walls. But I did have quite a lot to say about my foundation.

We didn’t put our birdhouses together that night, we both had work to do on our houses, and they would not have fit in our suitcases assembled. I have spread my birdhouse out on the dining room table several times, have read through Kris’ book with highlighter in hand. I stared at my foundation and what I had written, and just about fell off my chair when I realized what I had not written. I counted four brand new items that made up my new foundation, they were not there before Justin’s death. Those things that I thought would always define who I was, were absent. I realized that I didn’t even miss them. I revisited those walls that I left blank and was able to express some thoughts, I surprised myself again with what ended up on those side walls.

I began to realize the impact of that single evening spent building a birdhouse only days after our return from Chicago. I was faced with an unanticipated situation that left me so confused. The most curious thing happened though, my mind automatically went to the foundation of my birdhouse. Mentally, my mind literally threw it down and told me to stand on it, to remember who I was and what I believed in, that my foundation was sound and strong again. So I stood on it, I pictured my feet standing on on those words I had written and I had such clarity. I realized that things, philosophies, and yes, even people had received eviction notices from my foundation, from my fledgling new house. Not in anger or ill will, but in recognition of the fight it has been to rebuild. This new foundation has been fought for, suffered over, been built with tears and pain, it has been built through nausea, despair, and isolation, hammered away at through my own internal screaming of not wanting to rebuild, but wanting to to die in the rubble. It has been built to honor a boy with dark eyes and winsome smile, it has been built to honor a surviving son whose strength and calm reminds me of an oak tree, it has been built to honor the father of my sons.

I am still sitting with other parts of my birdhouse, I am almost ready to put it together. I am learning to listen for and accept affirmations and add them to my affirmation wall. I am working on my shelter piece, and I like it, I find the lioness is still alive and well.  My perch keeps sliding out of my bundle of parts, that probably speaks to my reluctance to let others view my new structure, but I will. I shall never look at a birdhouse again the same way, they will always remind me to check on my own birdhouse, to check for soundness, to form new goals, to make sure my perch is out for guests, to keep my birdhouse a place of peace and shelter. Peaceful, but not sterile, I want it to be an organic place where life can grow and be nurtured.


I am profoundly grateful to Kris for sharing his birdhouse project and for sharing Blake with us, humbled by how he has transformed pain into a beautiful gift for those who are suffering a tragedy in their lives, be it the death of a child, or another life-altering event. I know that given the opportunity, I would gratefully attend another Birdhouse Project Workshop, eager to build on what I have learned, knowing I have only scratched the surface of what can be built out of the raw materials of pain and love.



Categories: Hope.

Tags: , , , ,

Vanilla Extract, Creativity, and Grief

August 19, 2014

Random, maybe. But the more I thought about it and read through old posts, I realized that I have been putting into practice much of what I have read these past few years. Creativity, especially using both hands, moves memories through our brain, helps us process trauma. Opens up new pathways in our brain, good thoughts and success lead to more good thoughts and success. I wrote more on that here.

Many folks have asked how I make my own vanilla extract, I thought a blog post would be the easiest way to share what has been working for me.

I start with buying good vanilla beans, usually from Amazon. I like Madagascar vanilla beans for extract and buy at least a 1/4 pound at a time.

IMG_0756-001My rule of thumb is 3 to 4 vanilla beans for every cup of vodka. So if you have a 1.75 litre bottle of vodka, about 7.4 cups, that is at least 28 vanilla beans. I cut them in half.


Sometimes I make a long slit in each bean half, sometimes I don’t.  I pour off some of the vodka to make room for the vanilla beans. I save the that vodka to use in our airlocks when we brew beer. Some recipes say use cheap vodka, it is just extract. I disagree. I use a mid-shelf vodka, I am going to be baking with my extract, why would I want off flavors from cheap vodka?

IMG_0774-001Stuff the 28 vanilla beans that you cut in half into the vodka bottle, top it off with some of the vodka you poured out and put the lid back on. Give it a shake, its fun to watch all the vanilla “caviar” float around. And this is my favorite part, place your nascent vanilla extract in a dark place and forget about it for about four to six months. Give it a shake every now and then, open it up and smell it just for the rush, and then put it back away. The longer the better.


I buy four ounce bottles to share with friends and family, plus the four ounce bottles fit nicely in our cabinet.

IMG_0758-001 I sometimes strain the extract, sometimes I don’t. I like the little specks of vanilla caviar in my baking. When I am ready to bottle I sterilize everything, even though nothing is brave enough to grow in vodka, proper sanitation is always appreciated. I do not add water to my extract, why would I do that? Some do, I don’t. I pour the extract, which is now this gorgeous dark brown and smells of all things good, into a large measuring cup, pour from the large measuring cup to a smaller measuring cup to fill each bottle with four ounces of extract. A funnel is a necessity, not a luxury. I add one of the soaked half beans to each bottle. Cap it, wipe it down, and label it.


The assembly line set up.

Be creative with your labeling, it is part of the fun. We have a story about our laughing “Belgian” which you can read here.


The finished product!

I like to keep a container of vanilla sugar marinating on the shelf, vanilla sugar adds another layer of flavor to whatever you are baking. Makes the best vanilla frosting, tastes like vanilla ice cream. I use it in egg custards, cookies, especially biscotti, oh and homemade chai, a little vanilla sugar just sets everything apart from the rest. This batch of extract I had some vanilla beans left over with plenty of caviar left in them. I simply scraped the caviar out into a bucket of sugar and mixed it well, threw the beans in there as well, and it is already smelling heavenly. You can also just cut vanilla beans in half, scrape out the caviar and mix with sugar, does not have to be vodka soaked beans.


The vanilla caviar scraped from the soaked vanilla beans.


Vanilla Sugar after the caviar has been well blended.

I have a bottle of bourbon vanilla extract started, I think the bourbon will add yet another layer of flavor to all my baked goods and custards. You can also use brandy. I wouldn’t use Everclear, I haven’t read of great results with that product.

Bourbon Vanilla Extract

Bourbon Vanilla Extract

My kitchen is my place of peace, it is a place of creativity and healing. At times bittersweet, I miss little boys on step stools going through the spice cabinet and smelling all the different spices. I could let Ryan sit on the counter when he was just a little guy and he could name all the spices.  I came across notes Justin had taken about cookie baking, he had handwritten some of my recipes down in his notebooks. Taken notes on how to properly fluff flour and measure. I cry a lot in my kitchen, and that is a good thing, tears are healing. My hands and body move, memories move, new things learned, the ache is always there, but it gives birth to beauty. Scents and textures connect me to the present moment, they open up new pathways of experiencing life in small ways. They become the path of my grief journey.

Categories: Grieving, Hope, Justin, Ryan.

Tags: , , ,

The Wisdom of Pooh, Whispers of Love

July 24, 2014

“If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.”

– A. A. Milne

I have been asked what is written on a thin leather bracelet I starting wearing recently, and as I can’t speak without crying, I thought I would tell the story of how I came to wear this gift.

Snapshot-Scans115-001Justin was our Christopher Robin and our Tigger, it all depended on the day. He would sing the bouncy Tigger song much to the delight of whoever could hear him, and with his rain boots and slicker, he could easily be Christopher Robin. We spent many a happy moment watching Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day and would have tea parties in our own make-believe Hundred Acre Wood.

This was a hard spring, and the precious gift of new pictures of Justin caught me unprepared. That smile, those eyebrows, the joy on his face, they were such unguarded pictures of him, so beautiful. I could recognize the grief wave, knew what it was, but it still beats you up pretty good. I wanted to reach through those pictures and touch that face, hear that laugh that had just left his lips.

It was right around the same time that I came across an artist on Etsy, a marvelous on-line assembly of artisans from all over the world. I am not even sure how I found C. Johanesen Studio, maybe it just found me, but the first bracelet I saw was the Christopher Robin quote on a thin leather wrap. I cried the rest of the afternoon and wasn’t sure why. I kept coming back to it over and over again, and the same reaction, tears. Tears are good, they upset the puppy, but tears are cleansing, they move through us, release chemicals that our brains need, they can bring clarity. I knew I desperately wanted that bracelet, I read the quote over and over, but I would be crying too hard to place an order. I thought about that quote all the time, out in the garden, doing dishes, and then I caught a flicker of recognition. Justin, is that you? “If there ever is tomorrow when we are not together”, yes that tomorrow came. “There is something you must always remember”, okay, but you know that I struggle with memory now, “you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” Yes, but can you see me Justin? I am surrounded by a mounds of tissues, curled in a ball from the pain, dodging the pup’s tongue as he tries to lick my tears, I am not really feeling the brave and strong right now. “But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart…I’ll always be with you.”

Not unlike putting a puzzle together, I started to fit the pieces together, Winnie the Pooh, Christopher Robin, “I’ll always be with you.”  It took me a good month before I could pull myself together enough to focus on placing an order, and when it arrived it was perfect. I can hear you telling me those words. I am new to this, this new way of relationship, building a different sort of relationship with you, I am very slow to catch on. And hesitant, the world might think I am crazy, but I don’t care anymore. I have more leads to follow, now I can see them, we have your journal and notes for a reason. You had such a rich interior life that I didn’t know, and the loss of your companionship is such a heavy fog, but maybe I am learning. Learning to hear your whispers.

My love for you didn’t die, and if love does not die, then your love for me did not die, your love for your father, and Ryan did not die. Your love for your aunts, uncles, cousins, friends still lives and has the power that only love has to touch lives. Whispers of love. May love be your legacy Justin. And I will try very hard to remember, I promise.



Categories: Faith, Family, Hope, Justin.

Tags: , , ,

Cardonnacum, a place with thistles, the accident site.

July 20, 2014

A place of thistles, small purple heads nodding in the Minnesota wind. A sky so blue and wide, it seems to go on forever. Milkweed growing wild, a natural butterfly garden. Cattails growing so dense you cannot reach the water’s edge. Wind making waves of the wild wheat and grasses. Many ponds and rivers crisscrossing the landscape on either side of the interstate. We had reached Luverne, MN, the place where Justin died.


Doug drove us a few miles outside of town so that we could retrace his steps. We came down the highway the same direction Justin would have been heading and parked the car, and my heart knew, a keening cry came from the very bottom of my soul. We had to cross an exit P1010877ramp and then walk down a hill to the body of water, the wild grasses and thistles pulling at our jeans. Doug had stopped to retrieve something from the trunk of the rental car, I don’t know how he managed to surprise me, but he had packed a beautiful cross in his luggage for a roadside memorial. The cross that Doug had made during his journey through RCIA and had laid in front of the altar the night of Easter vigil long years ago.  How hard to watch a father walk with a cross to mark his son’s passing, my IMG_9631-002heart took a picture, the blue of the sky and smell of summer in the air. We had to watch where we walked as the ground was marshy and wild, an area undisturbed. We got as close to the edge of the water as we could and Doug rested the cross down in grasses and cattails. I had not imagined the body of water so large. We could only see the water through the cattails and I understand why Justin’s vehicle would have gone unnoticed except seen from certain angle.

We were blessedly alone, just the wind for company, and flowers. Wild purple thistles, pink milkweed, wild daisies, and hundreds of cattails. I had thought that maybe the accident would replay in my head, that God IMG_9679-002would let me see it, to see how the car flipped and landed upside down in that pond, I thought perhaps I would hear the tires screech, hear the roof hit, but I didn’t. And kneeling there, peering through the cattails I felt all desire to know the details drain away. In the stillness I heard birds, the hum of insects, and the wind, the glorious wind that made the flower dance. I could not have created a more beautiful memorial garden. There was no sense of a spirit at unrest, I know his ghost does not haunt that pond, there was no distress in the wind. That pond and ground have been forever hallowed by his passing, his sweet spirit kissed that place and left some of his gentleness behind. Holy ground, we walked holy ground, sacred ground.


We stayed as long as we could, it was hard to leave. I laid purple thistles on his cross. I wished I had remembered to take a few to keep as a remembrance.  The thistle is an ancient Celtic symbol of nobility of character, it also represents survival, as it will flourish where others cannot. So hard to turn our backs and walk back to the car, I remember how warm the sun was, how I let my fingers touch the different plants as we walked back, how peaceful that hallowed spot was, virtually hidden from all eyes.

Grief turned up like fresh earth in the garden, soaked by tears. We have stood at Cardonnacum, a place with thistles, and I can hear our gentle son tell us, you are survivors, mom and dad, just like the thistle.



From an elevated rise, you can see the pond more clearly.


Categories: Doug, Grieving, Justin.

Tags: , , , , ,

Page 1 of 2812345»1020...Last »