The Jonah Complex

I went down a rabbit trail on the internet the other day – as one tends to do – and happened upon something I didn’t have any intent on finding. We all have things come in this kind of parenthood that we can’t explain in any other way – our children are reaching out for us, letting us know they are ok. Letting us know that we are ok. My path took me to a theory about people striving for something but stumbling on their fears. It was called the Jonah Complex. Of course, I bought an entire book for its six-page excerpt that was the only thing I really cared about… also as one tends to do.

We hear so much about people who are afraid of failing. As the thought goes, we become paralyzed by the fear of failing that we never take that first step to change our situation. What’s funny about that theory is that while it applies to so many situations in life, I can’t actually say that I think it applies to my Almost Fatherhood. I’m not afraid of failing them anymore. I don’t even think I could define what failing at this would be, save forgetting them in some way and let’s be honest – that isn’t something we can do. It goes against every cell in our bodies.

What I am, is afraid of succeeding.

The Jonah Complex is about the fear of one’s own greatness and I immediately clung to it. We get so paralyzed by our loss and all of the things come with it, and when we begin to come out of it we want to do something to carry their life and spirit on. We create non-profits in their honor or write books. We fundraise for a cause, create retreats for loss families, and establish doula networks nationwide. We do our part to effect change in the world around us, be it a small support group or something larger. We build furniture and take on races as a way to channel our heartbreak. Greatness in the world of child loss isn’t necessarily about a level of success as it is about finding something you can use to build trust in yourself again and find some peace.

Jonah is challenging me – challenging all of us – to step outside of the walls we’ve built and live a good life in his spirit and in that of all of our children. Maybe you’ve wanted to write a book but it seems like SUCH a daunting task – start it anyway. Maybe you’ve been looking to find a way to stay home with other kids or start a business. Or maybe you just want to get to a place where you can go through the day and smile when you think of them instead of break down.

Take the challenge.

Live your best life, knowing they are cheering you on and want to see you achieve your dreams. It doesn’t have to be a multi-step plan and it doesn’t need to be anything you don’t want it to be. It just has to be something. Fear of failure is real, but a fear of greatness shouldn’t keep you from being a shining beacon of hope for the world.

If you’ve made it this far you’re already powerful. It’s time to take it a step further – do it for them, and do it on purpose.

#TeamJonah

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A Christmas for All of Us

I used to think about what it would be like when I didn’t feel like I needed to write anymore. I used to love writing years ago, telling stories and sometimes making things up as I went were just another way to lighten the mood and make people laugh, and the story-telling nature of writing for Jonah came as a natural outlet. I’m not crafty, I’m not as musical as I once was, and there’s a pretty decent chance that the dog that won’t quit barking down the street can draw better than I can… so I wrote.

Lately I’ve been talking about it in those terms though – the need to write. There aren’t many resources for dads and going to meetings that are 100% populated by moms before I arrive don’t really bring about the kind of comfort that makes you want to share no matter the intent or inclusion they allow me. This became my most honest grief space – where I could digest the things that I have a harder time feeling comfortable saying to other people around me in the course of conversation. But it wasn’t an impulse and it was far from a desire to write. It was desperate. I needed to get a message out our send something to my boys, or just get enough out that I could function again. There were times that I couldn’t see the screen because of how emotional it was to get the words. I don’t know what would have happened had I not had that outlet, but I can tell you that it wouldn’t have had anywhere near the impact.

But the curiosity called – when would the time come that I didn’t feel the need to write as strongly as breathing? Would I be ready to step away and live a life that didn’t include sharing the messages of an Almost Father? What would change in my life that would allow me that freedom? Lastly, an most important – would the things I have said and done been enough? And that’s the kicker, because nothing will ever be enough to stop sharing Jonah’s spirit. There will never be something to take the dreams I had of our life with Luke and shape them into something that fits their space in my heart.

Thankfully, that’s not what any of this is about. I’m realizing that I don’t feel that desperation to write like I used to because I’ve finally learned to trust that I won’t forget them – I remember exactly what Jonah looked like. I can see his delivery, the sunrise the morning after he was born, and I have him around me in one form or another every day. Losing both of my children taught me lessons of grace and resilience that have changed my life, and give me a place to compare peaks and valleys with as my days go on. We’ve been to hell – twice – and made it back to share the spirit they would have carried themselves. I’m still writing because I want to share their story, not because I have that deep-seeded yearning to – most of the time. (And really, who better is there to tell their story than the parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends who all dreamed-dreams along with us?)

And that’s the nugget in all of this that has been so hard to find – that’s this year’s gift that I could never have had the perspective to ask for. A time comes where you form a relationship with them that is so strong that no one else could understand. The days where you feel absolutely crushed but see a rainbow on the drive home. Where you are fighting through the most emotional of days and see the sun shining through dark clouds as far as you can see, illuminating a field in the distance that looks like an oil painting. Or – as happened to me last week – you go swimming to help the recovery of a back injury and find a whale-tail sticking out of the kids pool, greeting you on the way out of the locker room. I’ve walked past that darn whale so many times and looked right past it to the people around or the pool I’m headed to, but it hit me that at this time in my life – where I’m having trouble walking upright, playing with my nephew, and helping around the house because of an injury – Jonah pops up right in front of me three days a week. I’m sure there are ways to explain how these things came to line up, but you can’t explain the emotional impact they have on my heart.

As you go through this Christmas Day looking at stockings that won’t get used, at children opening gifts knowing there are always some missing, or holding ornaments in your hands instead of children in your arms, don’t looked past the things they are putting right in front of you. They show up in our lives in so many different ways to carry us through and we spend so much time doing the most ridiculous adult things that we don’t stop and see them. In all of the heart ache we both have this Christmas without our children, there is a fullness in knowing that they find me just as often as I look for them.

May the grace of the season find you and keep you. From all of the pieces of my broken heart being held together by four little hands, I hope your whales find you too.

Merry Christmas, from our entire family to yours #TeamJonah

 

Photo credit: BJ McCartney

They don’t tell you everything

As I continue in my grief journey as an Almost Father, I’m learning there are a million  things they don’t tell you when it happens. Little ones, like when your heart skips a beat after finding out someone is pregnant or doing your best not to say something that would bring up your pain instead of encourage their excitement. They can’t describe how strange it is that everything has changed even though very few things look like it. And there will never be a way that anyone can coach you through how you need to grieve – they can only share things that helped them (or didn’t). In the spirit of speaking up about the difficulties we face after loss, here are a few things I wish I had been told.

Self care means something different now. Where before you would go for a spa day or golfing to get away and relax, it’s more likely to happen now because you need something else to focus on. Time helps you to learn how to get used to keeping your guard up – which makes things easier – but it doesn’t ‘heal all wounds’ as they say. After losing a child, more time means keeping your guard up every. single. day. But if you don’t do things to find some form of outlet – to let as much out as you can or need to – you’ll find yourself in a place you didn’t mean to go and don’t know how to return from.

Empty arms hurt more than an empty crib. We’re coming into Jonah’s second birthday in a few months and three years since we found out that we lost Luke, and having all of the nursery things still hurts, but it isn’t what breaks us. Seeing the memories we have made now with them in mind, knowing we can never hold them again… Empty arms will always be more painful than all that other stuff for me. Our Jonah bear and the others help with that, but the ache will always be there.

The conflict is real. Life doesn’t stop because we came home by ourselves. You will have a hard time with pregnancies and births around you and the guilt doesn’t help. Sometimes you’ll want to say something but not know what, and you’ll take a step back instead – that’s okay. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve needed to ‘keep scrolling’, text instead of call, or leave early because of that very conflict. There is nothing wrong with wanting all of the wonderful things for those around us while still needing to protect our hearts.

You are strong because you have to be. So many people will say things like ‘I don’t know how you do it’ or ‘You seem to be doing well”, and you may be. But the kind of strength we find after loss came about because the only choice we have is to get out of bed and participate in life. The greatest honor we could give those who didn’t come home is change in their name and sometimes that means taking that first step, every day. Some days you’ll have less to give than others, but give it all to do well by them. We’re still parents – we just teach life lessons in different ways now.

I don’t know that there will ever be a day that I don’t carry them with me, both in my frustration and in my celebration. But the more things I do in their spirit the further their impact goes, and that’s the only victory I need. Protect your heart and do good things.

#TeamJonah

We’re Back. I’ve missed you

Hi, friends.

I feel the need to make an apology, though I’m not sure if it’s to you or to myself. These last few months have been a whirlwind – I started a new job and left some people I consider family behind, Cassy and I went through the buy/sell process AT THE SAME TIME (more to come on that), and I’ve had some pretty interesting shifts in my fatherhood perspective. All that to say, I’ve taken some time away and haven’t been spending as much time here as I typically would have. I’ve found ways to keep Jonah and Luke with me as I go through some of these changes which has been one of the biggest developments thus far, but this is my processing space – where I download all of the wonderful and horrible things that go through a parent’s mind in a real, (hopefully) relate-able way.

So here I am, letting you know that I’m okay. Jonah and Luke still visit with me when I least expect it and sometimes when I do, and I’m making progress in one way or another. We’re unpacking here at the house, but I’ll do my best to unpack a few things here too – out loud, for my boys. I hope you come along with me

#TeamJonah

What should you do?

I was talking with a friend recently who didn’t know about Jonah. He didn’t know our struggle with Luke, he didn’t hear about what it was like to fight for a chance at life for Jonah, and he didn’t know who I was before I became an almost father. We talked about several things across business and life, but what struck me was a question I hadn’t heard before because it was so honest and forward. I listen often for messages from our boys and try to find paths to walk that could beat down a trail for those who come after me, but I hadn’t actually stopped at the place this took me before.

Eventually we hopped onto the topic of writing as a place to process my grief but also as a way to reconnect with parts of myself that I’d lost over the years. I explained that I tried to avoid some of the more common topics in grief writing because no matter how necessary they are, all of us have stories about things that are better left unsaid. Whether I agree or not with the fact that we are still young and can have more children, that is not helpful when I’m fighting to hold onto the two I can’t see let alone when it drives my anxiety at the thought of losing more. There are a million examples because they are repeated over and over to all of us who have become a part of this kind of parenthood. So when we were discussing how often we hear these things and how little they help, he asked a question that brought me to a new place.

What should you do then? 

Well, a few things, but it’s such a simple question that I never think to talk about it. For one, I’ll never forget my children so know that you don’t ever have to avoid bringing them up. In the same way, no one asks about a child they don’t know lived (or died) so I don’t often get the chance to talk about them in a way other parents do. There’s no soccer or baseball practices to navigate in the evenings or homework to fail at explaining, so give me the chance to talk about them. Every place we go we see children who could have been Jonah and Luke, running and playing and learning things about themselves. Every single child could have been either of my babies, and there are times where it breaks me down – so sit with me in it. I don’t need to hear about God’s plan in that moment, I need to feel like I’m not falling further into the abyss and knowing you’re there with me will give me a type of community that helps keep me off the edge.

It’s going to be uncomfortable and emotional, no question. You’re going to wonder if you should hug or leave us. You’re going to want to say something to break the mood, but we don’t need to hear any of the platitudes of the situation that break awkward silences but won’t ultimately make progress for either of us. We need to be surrounded by real people who can tell that we’re breaking and want to do what they can to hold us together. We’re going to be fighting to hold onto whatever sense of normalcy we have left whenever we venture back into the world of parenthood again and we don’t know what life holds for us. Every plan we’ve put into place has fallen apart and every precaution we took the second time put us in the position to experience everything we could, but we will always hurt for two lives cut short and two versions of parenthood we could have had. So be present with us – that’s the only thing we can ask for.

To Luke

Sixteen Weeks. This isn’t supposed to happen.

I remember how absolutely ecstatic we were to be your parents. All of the progress boards, craving memories, and pregnancy notes are still so fresh, even two and a half years later. We held it as close to the vest as we could for as long as we could, waiting for Christmas to come before sharing with family and taking my most favorite Christmas picture, heartbreaking as it is now.

We spent so much time figuring out how we wanted to tell your grandparents, from the old Bun-in-the-oven for Nana to a jar of Prego for Grandpa and Grammy Brown. complete with due date. We took that picture in front of the fireplace – our favorite place in the house – just to show everyone how incredibly happy we were to get to join the fraternity of parents. I chewed on whether or not to tell Dee about you since we hadn’t told anyone else yet, but she passed before I had made the decision… she would have been so happy to hear about you, even if she wouldn’t have been here to see you.

So many things were coming towards us now – replacing the window in and painting the nursery, finding enough of the correct type of chocolate for your momma (who never eats chocolate), making the inevitable cloth vs plastic diaper decision. But before we could get there, you left us. I remember the room so clearly, hearing from doctors we hadn’t seen before and feeling so absolutely angry that this could happen to us.

Sixteen weeks. This isn’t supposed to happen.

All we wanted was for you to stay with us, to grow and play and learn and do all of the things little boys are supposed to do, and every day it feels like you were stolen from us. Everyone says things like you were too precious to stay or it’s all part of the plan, but the only thing that mattered was that you weren’t here with us any more; we weren’t going to get to do the things we had been dreaming of. Our first baby, now only a dream we once had and are forever chasing after. We found out that we had lost you on February 6th, which is the coming of baby Jesus in the book of Luke (2:6)… I had to name you. I had to give you a reality that wasn’t just losing you. Because you belong to me, still.

There are times I feel guilty for talking about your brother so much more than I do about you. It’s so different knowing his diagnosis ahead of time, hearing about the likelihood that we would meet him, fighting for care let alone for a life with him. We met him, got to see his face and feel his hands and feet. We knew that he had my hair, and that he had his momma’s heart by how much he loved when she would lay down to cuddle with him. It’s hard to come back to these days, when my most cherished of dreams was extinguished before it become reality.

If I’m being fully honest – as this space is being dedicated to being – losing you taught us more about parenting than anything else could have short of having you here with us. Those sixteen weeks were the greatest of my life, and they taught us to be absolutely present with Jonah. We recorded everything we could, wrote everything down to preserve the experience, and kept every moment as precious as it deserved to be because we knew that it could be taken from us at any moment. Your legacy, sweet Luke, carried on in teaching us about how truly significant and fragile this life is. You keep my feet on the ground when I get caught up in changing winds, and you keep my heart soft. As these last few years have come through, you were the only thing that could have kept it from hardening under the pressure.

On this July 24th – the second anniversary of your due date – I want to tell you that you are the source of my greatest sense of self. You are my greatest achievement, my first dream come true, and my very first angel. My sweet baby Luke, I’m sorry we couldn’t do more to bring you home. You were our first love, and you will always be my baby.

Sixteen Weeks. This wasn’t supposed to happen… but thank God we had them with you. We love you

The Loneliest Day of the Year

Being an almost parent requires keeping your guard up. Everywhere you look is a trigger of some sort, a reminder of the things you wish for more than anything. If it isn’t some family – or every family – when you go out, it’s the commercials and billboards. I walk through my house without feeling like something is missing. I’ve been on an edge for a few weeks now after struggling to keep my guard up through Father’s Day. I call it the Father’s Day Hangover, and it’s been real life for a few years now. I was still close enough to Jonah’s passing last year that my gratitude and memories of our six hours were still fresh, even though his hole in my life was so large. This year, I’m learning of the evolution of grief.

I’ve long felt that the loneliest day for me would be Father’s Day. The celebration of a thing I feel so close to; a redefinition of success as I matured put under a spotlight. Even while I work my way out of this pit of grief, I’m learning every day that the things you expect rarely come in the way you anticipate. We had some things come up leading into that weekend that didn’t allow for me to reflect on and process what I was feeling. Making it through the weekend without breaking felt comforting in some way… maybe I thought I found a secret in dealing with it. Either way, I got comfortable in how I go about my days now. I let my guard down.

Becoming the man I want to be includes finding ways to identify myself as a dad to my boys and working to be the husband my wife deserves. The struggle is this, however – working through this kind of grief is trudging through the mud, knee deep in the memories you don’t get to make. It’s trying to talk to them through your heart and prayer because you can’t talk through the tears. It’s watching the world interact in joy and feeling like you only get to watch through a window, waiting for someone to open the door to let you out… and it never comes. The loneliest day comes when I let my guard down enough to get swallowed in the darkness. Most days I remember recognize a trigger coming and can posture for it – Shoulders back, steady mind, preparing to weather the storm. When I don’t, it takes weeks to find my way back.

I’m in the middle of a storm right now and I feel like I’m fighting with one hand tied behind my back. I have to remember that when I’m in this space, the locks are in the inside of the door. I locked it the moment I let Jonah’s loss creep in, and the very second I unlock it his life will fill my heart and brighten my world.

It’s never one step backwards when you’ve lost a child, it’s three or four. But remembering the time we had with him, preparing the nursery and finding whales in unexpected places brings me to a place I never could have found on my own. I just miss him, and that’s ok. He misses me too.