Thursday, November 9, 2017

Seven Years: Where Is Seamus?

Gus and Greta pose with the moon as stand-in for Seamus
There are no guidelines in the parenting books on how to have the “Your brother died before you were born” conversation. So we’ve kind of been winging it with Gus and Greta, who will turn five tomorrow.  

We have always talked openly with the twins about Seamus and involved them in the rituals that honor their brother. They know that the yahrzeit candle burning on our mantle right now is for Seamus. Pictures of all three children hang in our house, and we’ve been careful to help them distinguish between blue-eyed redhead Gus and his blonde-haired, green-eyed brother.

They have outgrown most of Seamus’ books, but I am a Bunny and Little Blue Truck still sit on their bookshelf, and occasionally they will pull them out and crawl into our laps at bedtime to talk about Seamus and the funny way he said butterfly (“buddy buddy”) and blue truck (“boo twuck”). Until he turned two, Gus wore Seamus’ hand-me-downs, and we’d tell him how handsome he looked in his big brother’s clothes. (The jammies were especially brutal.) Now their little cousin Ben is wearing Seamus’ clothes, and we remark on that, too. We hope that a few pieces will survive for their youngest cousin Simon, while acknowledging that any clothing that can survive three boys should probably be sent to a NASA laboratory to help them build stronger space ships.

Every year I think that it will somehow be easier, that maybe I won’t torture myself by looking at pictures and videos of Seamus, reading books and poems that bring me back to that horrible night and horribler year. But as soon as the leaves start changing, I start to feel the pull of these mementos and these words, and I realize that it’s not actually torture. It’s nourishment. I need to hear his voice say “mommy,” to remember what it felt like to wake up to that face every morning and feel his heavy head on my chest. To remind myself that my suffering is one drop in a vast and mysterious ocean— an ocean that has been a breeding ground for art, beauty, compassion, and wisdom for all of human history.

Gus and Greta love to watch Seamus videos on our computer, too. Their favorite is the one where he walks around the house with a green grocery bag over his head, eventually smacking into a wall before removing the bag to reveal a huge grin. The camera shakes from Eric’s laughter.

It wasn’t until about a year ago that Gus finally asked, “Mommy, where is Seamus?” We were having dinner, sitting underneath the collage of Seamus pictures that hangs over our kitchen table. I don’t know why the question caught me off guard - we’d had years to prepare for it.

I took a deep breath and said, “Seamus is dead.”

If you’ve spent time with three-year olds, you know that they never stop moving. Even when they eat, even when they sleep. But at that moment, Greta stopped chewing and quit her wiggly chair antics. Gus stopped tapping his foot, banging his spoon against his plate. Even Eric stopped eating. He looked at me like, “We’re doing this now?”

“What is dead?” Greta asked.

“It’s when your body stops working,” I answered.

“Like a bug?” Gus asked.

I cringed, not wanting them to think of a person being smooshed like an ant.

“Kind of,” I said.

Their bodies frozen in place, they looked between me and Eric with eyes wide as their understanding of the world and their family shifted beneath them.

“Does that make you feel sad?” I asked.

They nodded in unison. Greta’s eyes filled with tears but she didn’t cry.

“It’s OK to feel sad. Daddy and I are sad every day. We miss Seamus so much. We wish you could have met him.”


Had I gone too far? I wondered.

“Do you have any more questions about Seamus?” I asked.

“No” Greta said and Gus shook his head no, too.

They resumed fidgeting and tapping. We moved on to other topics (What are boogers made of? Why don’t skyscrapers have chimneys? What happens when hot lava touches a rainbow?) We’ve since filled in some of the details of the accident, but only when they ask.

A few weeks ago, Gus and Greta’s preschool teacher pulled me aside at drop off. She told me that during circle time the day before, they had been talking about siblings. Gus and Greta told the class that they had a brother who died. The kids were naturally curious, and Gus and Greta explained the situation in the way they understood it: They said that Seamus was hit by a car because a driver was not being careful. That it was an accident. That even though Seamus is dead, they can still love him.

Their teacher told me that this inspired the other children to share their own stories of loss, mostly grandparents and pets. She asked the children if they would like to do something to honor their loved ones who have died and they responded in predictable four-year-old fashion: A party! With cake! Their teacher asked me, through tears, if that would be OK, and I responded through tears of my own that of course it would be OK.

I wish that I didn’t have to introduce this pain into my children’s lives at such a young age. Greta will frequently shut down a conversation about Seamus by saying, “I don’t want to think about dying” and we let her know that’s OK, too, and that she can talk about it or not talk about it any time. Both of them want constant reassurance that Eric and I are not going to die. We tell them that everybody dies, and that most people don’t die until they’re very old. But that’s not very comforting when you’re four.

At the same time, it’s obvious that talking about Seamus’ death has carved a little groove in their hearts.

Gus likes to adopt insects on our hikes. He lets them crawl all over him while we walk and when they fly away or fall off, he gets sad and talks about them like they are friends who have moved away. Last summer when we went camping, Greta discovered stargazing. We sat outside as the sky darkened over a meadow behind our campsite, waiting anxiously for the first stars to appear. Greta jumped out of her chair and squealed when she saw the first one. We stayed up until stars became constellations and then finally a blanket of brilliant, shimmering lights over the Columbia River Gorge.

Neil deGrasse Tyson taught the twins that we are all made of stardust, although sometimes in our evolution lessons they get confused about the order of things (was I a star before or after I was a monkey? Was I a monkey in your tummy, too? Actually, I was a chimpanzee, right daddy? Did my star explode before Greta’s star?) I can’t say these things are directly Seamus’ influence, but they are picking up on the ways Eric and I soothe ourselves by placing our lives and our loss in context.

Most importantly, they know something about time, that it stretches out before and after our physical bodies, and that our love for each other is not tethered to these bodies. It’s how they know that Seamus loves them. It’s how they are able to love him, too.

It’s how our four-person household continues to feel to us like a family of five.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Letter to a Newly Grieving Parent

Perhaps this pamphlet was included in the manilla envelope that the social worker handed to you on your way out the door, after you kissed your child’s lifeless body for the last time. Perhaps it is the morning after, pre-dawn on your first day in a world where you exist and your child does not.

Platitudes and pamphlets aside, you should know that this pain you feel is permanent, though it will not always be the searing presence that it is right now. With time it will grow more diffuse, like a drop of ink into water. It will color every thought, word, and action for the rest of your life. It will continue to reveal itself, year after year, in ways that are surprising and sometimes even comforting. It will become a part of you, as immutable as your hands or your skin. The pain is enormous because it is built out of a love that is enormous. It can be no other way.

But right now, today, you have one job, which is to survive. Go back to the basics: eat, sleep, breathe. Warm liquids will increase circulation in your gut and help with the stomach pain. Ambien for sleep. Inhale, exhale. That’s it.

“This, too shall pass.” I know we’ve set platitudes aside but this one merits a closer look because you will hear it repeatedly in the coming months and it is widely misunderstood. Most people think that the saying refers to life events, as in: “This is a really hard thing you have to go through, but it’ll be over soon.”

Interpreted thus, you could be forgiven for punching the person who recites it. Your loss is permanent; it will not pass. It is your emotions that are temporary.

So it can be helpful when you are driving to work and you have to pull over because your vision has become so clouded by tears that you can’t see, and now you are late for your meeting and now you are fantasizing about joining your child in death but instead you ride the wave until it ends, because it always ends, and you press your cold fingertips to your eyelids to make them less puffy and you arrive late to your meeting muttering something about traffic and you discuss grant budgets for an hour with people who don’t even know about this weight that you are carrying. Because later, while you are having dinner with your spouse, it might happen that you have a memory of your child and it makes you smile instead of cry, and you will experience a new and exhilarating dimension of your grief.  Know that this, too shall pass, and be grateful, because later, when you are trying to sleep, the fear will come, and this, too shall pass.

Remember that cats can never learn algebra. It doesn’t mean that algebra doesn’t exist or isn’t true. Only that there are limits to what cats can know. So go outside on a cloudless night and look up at the moon and the stars and marvel at the vastness of the universe and the mystery of its origins and the infinite truths that humans will never understand - the things we don’t know we don’t know. There is freedom in accepting that you are the cat in this scenario, and no one expects you to learn algebra.

You don’t have to believe in God or heaven, but neither are you required to embrace a reductionist, materialist worldview in which consciousness ends at death.

You may have to battle an inner voice telling you that it is weak and pathetic to dream of a reunion with your child in a context other than life. Ignore the voice; it is not backed by evidence any more than the Pope or a street preacher or anyone else who pretends to know what happens when you die.

Gather your strength and pry open the door of possibility. At first you won’t be able to hold it open for very long. But if you work at this every day, eventually it won’t feel like such a struggle. You will grow stronger; the door will stay open long enough for your eyes to adjust to the light that shines through it. And though questions linger, they are comforting in a way that answers never could be. This is called hope, and it’s not to be confused with faith.

Perhaps you are searching for answers in this manilla envelope. Its contents will disappoint you, but the fact that you are searching already means that you are curious, and that is a good thing. Follow the threads of your curiosity. If you are learning, you are healing.

Say your child’s name every day.

If you need to believe in something, believe in love, in the love you felt and still feel for your child who is gone. Remind yourself that this is one belief that does not require evidence to be true.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Five Years

Seamus in April 2010, visiting Grandma and Grandpa in Colorado
I’ve been trying to organize my thoughts around the five-year anniversary of Seamus’ death into some kind of unifying theme or message, but not surprisingly, my thoughts are all over the place. This is such a difficult milestone, for so many reasons. Since I can’t seem to tie it up neatly, I’ll just share some of things that have been rattling around my brain over the last few weeks:

It’s still so painful. Five years and one day ago, 22-month old Seamus came running full speed into our bedroom at 7am, demanding breakfast, wanting to play, yelling “Mommy! Mommy!” Roughly 30 hours later, I crawled into a hospital bed where he lay bruised, broken, stitched together, and clinically dead, to say goodbye to him forever. The shock of the accident still resonates. Scenes from the hospital run though my head on a loop this time of year; they are vivid and irrepressible. And so I spend a good portion of early November giving myself “get it together” pep talks when I have to be cheerful for my children or participate in some stupid webinar at work.  It’s just hard. I miss him.

Get it together, but remember to fall apart later. It always has bothered me when “experts” make it seem as though we are somehow less evolved if we suppress our emotions. Sometimes we just choose not to feel like shit, and sometimes it’s absolutely necessary to stuff our feelings away in order to function in life. I think that better advice would be to acknowledge the existence of the bad feelings when they arise, stuff them if you need to and are able to, but (and this is key) make time and space in your life to experience them fully – not because there is any inherent value to the feelings themselves, which are horrible and ugly, but because experiencing them is necessary if you want to learn something, grow and heal.

In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back. -Albert Camus

Grief is multidimensional – Poet Khalil Gibran said “the deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” This has certainly been my experience, though I would add wisdom, compassion, humor, love, gratitude – everything just feels so much bigger and more meaningful now.  I know I hit on this point a lot, but I can’t think of anything I have ever learned that has been so astonishing and counter-intuitive. I think this perspective would have helped me in the early days after the accident when I basically assumed that my life was over, too.

Stephen Colbert, who lost his dad and two brothers in a plane crash when he was 10, said in a recent interview, “I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.” That sentence took my breath away when I read it. How confusing to love an experience that is so utterly devastating. But it rings true to me – I am a much better person for having gone through this, and I am grateful for the many ways losing Seamus has enriched my life.

I am an atheist who believes in some things.  I have in the past referred to myself as an atheist-leaning agnostic, but at some point it occurred to me that agnostics typically don’t outright reject religious narratives as false, and I do. (That is not to say they are without value.) I recognize order and I can entertain the notion of some governing force in the universe, but I don’t believe in “capital G” God, and I think that rejecting theism makes me… well, an atheist, in the most technical sense of the word, not an agnostic. So I’ve decided to embrace the label.

A popular misconception that I would love to light on fire and run over with my minivan is that atheists “don’t believe in anything.” It’s true that when Seamus died I didn’t have a spiritual framework to process the loss, and there were many times that I longed for the capacity to accept the comfort of religious explanations. But I am a hard-wired skeptic. Notions of life after death, heaven, and hell are completely absurd to me – I felt that way back then and if anything, the experience of losing a child has hardened me in that regard.

But… just because I don’t have religious faith doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in anything. And not believing in God does not mean that I don’t have hope or that I put 100% of my trust in science and materialist explanations of the world. (I believe in love, which is a thing I have experienced but not something that can be scientifically verified, for instance.)

I am well aware of the limitations of science, and I take great comfort in knowing that scientific and medical research has yet to unlock the mystery of human consciousness. So, I hope that my relationship with Seamus continues in some way after I die. And that’s actually good enough for me – I can breathe here. My solace has come from accepting the limits of human understanding.

Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.

(From Blackwater Woods, by Mary Oliver)

Grief is empowering.  A couple of years ago, I read a book by Andrew Solomon, called Far from the Tree, about parents who are different from their children in some fundamental and often tragic way (there are chapters on children who are autistic, deaf, transgender, dwarfs, criminals, schizophrenic, etc.) As the parent of a child who is dead, I found myself relating intensely to the struggles of the parents profiled in the book.  I was so moved by their ability to find meaning in these experiences, some of which made my situation seem easy by comparison.

In a subsequent TED talk, Solomon expanded on this theme, talking about the human tendency to construct narratives of personal triumph out of our tragedies. The message of his talk, which is borne of Solomon’s personal experience as well as his journalistic pursuits, is simple: Out of painful events, he says, “Forge meaning. Build identity.” It is my hope that every person who runs around telling traumatized people that “Everything happens for a reason” will watch this talk and adopt Solomon’s mantra instead.

This year, I testified in front of a legislative committee in support of insurance reform that will help people who are injured in auto accidents. The bill passed and was signed into law in March. I was told afterward that representatives who had long opposed this type of legislation changed their votes after hearing my story. It was incredibly empowering and made me think about other ways I can channel my grief into something positive and helpful. I’m going to keep working on this and other things I can do to forge meaning, because in Solomon’s words, “We cannot bear a pointless torment, but we can endure great pain if we believe it is purposeful.”

Be vulnerable. Five years later, I still lose sleep over whether/how to tell people that I lost a child. I remember thinking after the accident “Thank God I have good friends, because I will never make another friend as long as I live.” That probably seems like such a strange thought, but I felt it with absolute clarity at the time. The way I saw it, making new friends would be impossible because the thought of dropping the “My son is dead” bomb into a conversation was horrifying, and yet I could never feel emotionally at ease with anyone who didn’t know this important fact about me.

Not surprisingly, I spent the first couple of years hiding from everyone and everything that was not familiar, even missing a good friend’s wedding. At work and in social situations, I was completely preoccupied with keeping track of who knew and who didn’t as a way to gauge my comfort level – a task that became harder as time passed.

Gradually, though, my anxiety has eased and I’m so grateful for the handful of new friends who have come into my life since the accident. An interesting thing happens when you tell someone that you lost a child. Almost without exception, the person responds by sharing a story about his or her own loss. In the fog of our own grief, it’s easy to forget that everyone is carrying something painful, and it’s so rare to have the chance to talk about it. I think we all crave that connection with other humans, and when it happens, it is amazing and powerful - another way we can forge meaning out of terrible loss.  

There are many important things. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where a parent who loses a child throws herself full throttle into parenting subsequent children, at the expense of other things that are important to her. This has not been my reaction, though, and I’ve thought a lot about why I don’t have more angst about parenting or some pathological desire to spend every single moment with my children.

Here’s what I’ve figured out. After losing Seamus, those other important things (my marriage, friends, family, career, hobbies, interests, etc.) were the only things left. And these other important things carried me through the worst of it.  So, to anyone who is surprised at the energy I devote to work, exercise, reading, writing, spending time with people other than my children, I guess I would say that this is absolutely intentional. It’s important to make time for all the important things, children being one of them of course!

My story is not finished. Tonight, we light a candle for Seamus to honor his place in our family, probably fielding some difficult/funny questions from Gus and Greta. And tomorrow, the twins will turn 3 - cue the emotional whiplash! But I am grateful for all of it, and to everyone who has supported us in ways big and small over the last five years. You all have eased my pain in ways you will never fully know.

I was going to say, there are no words, but obviously there are so many words -maybe too many! Thanks for reading, and thanks for thinking of Seamus this time of year and always – nothing is more comforting than knowing that he is still loved and remembered by so many.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Holiday 2014 Mashup

Happy New Year to our loved ones near and far, and to those we've never met but who continue to check in on us. Here are some photos from Holidays 2014:

Karaoke Thanksgiving

 My mom (Grandma O) came out for Thanksgiving. 

Linda, Patty and Annie were also in town, along with the usual suspects. It was the first time in more than a year all the siblings had been together - so fun! 

Mister was allowed in our house, and we were reminded of how thankful we are that he is staying with Katie and Barry. 

Did I mention, it was a Karaoke Thanksgiving? Eric and Barry brought the house down.

If you're not making your children cry, you're doing it wrong.

Sister duet.

Stephen and Laura are "Extreme"
When Katie and Linda chose "Circle of Life," from the Lion King soundtrack. Mister didn't stand a chance.


We got a ton of mileage out of the Santa hats that Eric's Aunt Amy made them last year. The twins love them and wore them every time we left the house. Here we are on a walk to see Santa Clause at our neighborhood community center.

Santa arrived on a fire truck, which was SO EXCITING. Naturally, Gus and Greta would not get within 10 feet of Santa, but they loved the fire truck! (I spliced 2 photos together here b/c they refused to look in the same direction at the same time.)

 Christmas Tree shopping...

...and decorating.

 Christmas Eve photo shoot - Gus overseeing some last minute light adjustments.

Sort of both smiling at the same time.

Most of the photos turned out more like this.

On Christmas Eve we had Stephen, Laura, Katie and Barry over for dinner and opened some presents. Gus and Greta were extremely helpful, even opening presents that weren't for them.

Christmas came bright and early at 6am. Santa brought the twins a toy kitchen and a Thomas the train starter kit. 

An art easel from Omi and Dan was also a big hit.

Some new books from Grandpa and Grandma Hassie

A nutritious breakfast of Crème Brûlée French toast.

And then a walk around the neighborhood to burn off some of those carbs.

Greta is very into bags and purses. She insisted on carrying her "purse" on the walk. A few weeks ago, I was folding laundry and she was wearing a pair of my underwear around her neck ("scarf") and carrying a tank top on her shoulder ("purse.) Having a girl is a trip!

Gus is such a big brother. I think after this photo was taken he gave her a noogie. (Christmas outfits courtesy of Grandma O.)

 Eric made me this ornament for Christmas out of stainless steel - he designed it himself and carved it on the water jet machine where he works. It's too big for the tree (about 8 inches across) so I am going to figure out a way to mount it and frame it. I got him a cheese/cutting board made of olive wood (also pictured here.) For people who don't normally do gifts I think we did all right this year!

Christmas would have been Seamus' 6th birthday. It's such an emotional, bittersweet, and exhausting day. I was able to escape for a solo walk later in the afternoon and was rewarded with this beautiful Christmas sunset, a few tears, and many sweet memories of our Christmas baby.

New Year/Birthday

After going to bed early on New Years Eve (as is my tradition), I woke up early and went for a very cold, very beautiful run. Later that day, we drove up to Puyallup to spend a few days (including my bday) with the Gilberts. I turned late-thirty-something the day after New Years, and we all went up to the mountains for some sledding. There wasn't much snow, but we didn't let that stop us. The twins had a blast and are still talking about it!

 Maddie and Greta shredding.

 Me and Greta about to take off - Yavonne with the assist.

 Greta loved the snow!

 Gus, too!

After sledding, Matt and Yavonne took us out to dinner and we even went to a bar afterwards. I was definitely feeling my age the next day!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


We had a really fun day with Gus and Greta yesterday. In the morning we greeted them with a rousing and off-key rendition of "Happy Birthday," then taught them to answer "How old are you?" by yelling, "TWO!" My dad and Hassie were in town, and we had everyone over for pizza and cupcakes. All in all, a very low-key but wonderful celebration. Pictures below.

We tried to recreate the first year photograph series, but as usual they would not sit still in the same place, so we had to settle for individual shots.

Eric took some cardboard and cut out the number two for a photo prop, and you can see how much that impressed Gus and Greta. Greta kept pointing at it and saying, "Five!" which is actually pretty smart when you consider she was looking at the 2 backwards. No wonder she was confused.

 Eric and I got them brand new, exceptionally shiny low-rider tricycles. They were a huge hit.

 Photo credit Grandma Hassie.
Off roading
 Grandma, Grandpa and Uncle Stephen in party hats.

 Everyone except me.

Family portrait with Gris, our au pair. Gris will return to Mexico in February. After two years, it feels like losing a family member. We are so sad, but looking forward to spending these final months with her and excited to see what life has in store for this amazing woman. 

I took Gus and Greta in for their 2 year check-up (all is well) and was surprised to learn that there is not another well child visit until 3! So many things like this leave me feeling like I graduated to the next stage. We are so excited for our journey into the unknown!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Four Years

Yesterday marked the fourth anniversary of Seamus' death. It was a tough one because the twins are now older than he ever was (more on that later!) and my memories of him feel so much farther away as the twins start to surpass him in size and abilities. BUT... we are so grateful to have two year olds. I actually woke up at midnight today, looked at the clock, then the baby monitor, and thought, "We made it!!"

My Dad and Hassie are in town and we are planning a small get together with our family later today. I'm sure there will be birthday photos. Here's hoping the twins cooperate!

Thanks to everyone who has reached out and for all your lovely and kind words. It helps so much to know that others are thinking of Seamus, too.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Happy Halloween!

I don't think we will ever top last year's costumes in terms of raw cuteness, but I am doing my best to savor this Halloween, too because I suspect that this is the last time Eric and I will have carte blanche to choose their costumes.

We didn't take the twins trick-or-treating this year, but we had some friends over whose children were kind enough to do some recognizance for us so we know which houses to hit up next year.