Sticks & Stones
It’s been a while since I have been truly “gut-punched.” And no I’m not talking about being physically hit in the stomach, but rather, emotionally having the wind knocked out of me.
I had honestly forgotten the feeling of a giant sucker punch to my core … hunched over, hands on my knees, lungs gasping for air, tears at capacity and ready to spill from eye to cheek. I scan my surroundings looking for what just hit me. Nothing is there. A mixture of frustration, sadness, anger and pain run rampant though my body. In no organized fashion, they aggressively bounce around, competing for who will win the inner battle of what I am truly feeling.
I start to physically shake. The tremors are apparent in my hands, that no matter how hard I try, cannot calm. Yet again, I cannot pinpoint what exactly is causing the reaction. Eventually the world swirling around me starts to slow back to a tolerable level and I realize I am clenching my teeth and taking in very big and very intentional breaths. My chest expands as large as it is able and exhales heavily. Looks like - for the moment at least - ANGER is the first to win. The anger eventually subsides but shifts to an immense SADNESS. Tears no longer trickle down my face. They pour. Another moment gone and my bipolar emotions continue the fight for who will get a chance to be first in line. Sadness has now taken a back seat and FRUSTRATION has set in deep. How long must I fight this battle? Will anything EVER change? The intensity of the moment finally passes and I am left with an old and familiar “friend.”
It’s always there. Often times (most times) hidden under layers of other emotions, but dig down deep enough and there it will be. Pain is ok in this space. It’s familiar. I have learned to tolerate, temper and harness this emotion when it comes to this part of my life. This piece of me is much more rational than angry, sad or frustrated Jamie. My pain is a part of my strength. It took years to recognize, but is something I have now learned to fully embrace. It’s where my words come from. It’s where my voice comes from. The very voice I have - and will continue - to use in order to fight for others who may not have one.
At this point, you are probably wondering what derailed me so badly. How was it possible to have such a physical reaction, when nothing actually touched me? What wields such power? What has the ability to inflict that kind of instant distress?
Opinions. Naive statements. Ignorance. Stigmas. Misguided, misused and misinformed ways of thinking. An email. A text. A social media post. A seemingly innocent statement from a friend. All of these things hold power because … words hurt. They are capable of causing damage - that although unseen - can be equally painful as an open and gushing wound. They are sharp enough to pierce through the skin, the bone and the marrow … all the way to the core of us … with little to no resistance.
Sticks and stones may break my bones but (I know you can fill it in for me) … WORDS … will never hurt me. I cannot think of a more ill-advised and completely inaccurate statement.
My specific incident was because of an email. I asked a question, that now in hindsight, I never should have asked. Then - surprisingly for me - I was blindsided by the response. I opened a door that did not need to be opened and because of it, allowed doubt to slip where it never belonged. I am part to blame. Lesson learned.
Here is the backstory.
Sullivan is in preschool and it was finally his week to be the, “Star Student.” He has waited patiently all year to have his moment and couldn’t have been more excited. Part of this day is a poster and presentation of all things Sully … pictures of his family, his friends and things he loves.
Well, as most of you know, our family is a bit different than others. Sullivan’s big brother is in Heaven and he wanted to tell his friends about him. This is where I got myself in the beginning of a mess. I’m new to the school thing and am still learning how it all works … what is and is not ok. What I SHOULD have done is nothing. I should have made Sullivan’s poster exactly how he wanted it and let his beautiful, unfiltered and innocent little heart share about his family in whatever way he wanted to. But I didn’t. I was worried he may have a negative response. I wanted to give his school a heads up. And so … I asked.
“Is it ok for Logan to be apart of the presentation?” Seemed like an innocent enough question.
The response came from the principle of the school and went something like this, “ … I hope you understand the decision we made, but Sullivan is not to tell his classmates about his older brother in Heaven. We are afraid it may upset the other children … ”
Now … go back and reread my first few paragraphs, but this time with a bit more clarity.
My mind was swirling with all the things I wanted to say. I sent a ranting text to my sister and my crew of bereaved mom friends. I felt like a mama bear, who in an attempt to protect my cubs, ended up laid out on the ground and licking my wounds. And yet, with the click of a button, I had a herd of ferocious mama bears standing behind me and roaring in my family’s defense. It felt good. I felt validated. Protected. Seen. I was once again reminded how impossible this road is to walk alone.
Over the next few hours I upset myself into a migraine. I had so many … WORDS. My fingers were dying to find a keyboard, but with limited eyesight, I was forced to wait. Probably a God thing, because by the time I could see again, He had soothed my anger and calmed my words (well to an extent at least). He reminded me as a woman of faith who exactly it is that I represent. He reminded me the platform He has gifted me and my obligation and duty to respond tactful and gracefully in representation of that very platform. Very late in the night my vision returned and it’s almost as if God finally said, “Ok Jamie … go.”
This was my response to the school:
I just wanted you to know I have removed the photo that represented Logan on Sullivan’s poster. I will of course respect your decision and understand where you are coming from, but need to make it clear that understanding is very different than agreeing. I “understand” because it is exactly what I have comet to expect from our society in how it deals with grief and loss (especially when the loss is a child). I “understand” because it’s a battle I have been fighting for nearly 7 years. At this point I expect the reaction, thus why I asked in the first place. I was hopeful, but also realistic in my expectations. It was not something I wanted Sullivan to have to field on his own tomorrow, and so I reached out for his sake.
I do truly believe you made what you believed to be the best decision for your students. I would expect no less. We have so loved this school and the teachers here. Sullivan adores you all. It’s certainly going to be hard to say goodbye when the semester ends. I know your decision was well intended, but unfortunately, misguided. I don’t blame you. I blame the broken society we live in and what we ALL have been taught. You don’t know because you don’t understand. Thank goodness for that. You have to pay the ultimate price to truly understand and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. But … I do understand … and it’s my job to educate. It is why I founded and now run an infant loss nonprofit in our state. I would be a hypocrite to the hundreds of families I have served if I did not speak up in this situation.
I truly wish you could have understood the significance and impact of your email. As I sat with Sullivan tonight working on his poster and having to deflect his constant stream of questions, I was reminded once again, just how broken our society is.
“Why did you take Logan out? I want Logan in!” “Where is MY Logan?”
This was the first time I ever had to hide ANY piece of Logan from his brother. It was heartbreaking.
It is a disservice to our children to teach them at a foundational level that loss and sadness and grief are things to hide ... things to be ashamed of. We are only exacerbating the issue. We can’t change our society ... yet ... but we CAN teach our children the healthy way to deal with difficulties they will face in life. Only then will the norm shift. And I think we would all agree that our children deserve a better world to grow old in.
I’m taking the time to explain this not for my family’s sake, but for the next one like me. When presented with this scenario again, I hope you will think of me. If you had a child whose dad had died, you never would tell him or his mother he is not allowed to speak of his father. If a child wanted to share of their beloved Grandma or pet who is now in Heaven, once again, that would be acceptable. I understand it makes people uncomfortable that my child died. But what makes an uncomfortable moment for others, is my life. I live it everyday. It is not merely a moment. I didn’t ask for my son to die. Sullivan didn’t ask to be born into a world where he would never know his older brother. But we make it a point to keep Logan’s memory alive in our family. Speaking of grief and loss is a normal thing in our house. Logan may not be here, but he is just as much my son as Sullivan is. And Sullivan loves Logan. He simply wanted to tell his friends he had a big brother.
I understand these kids are young and could be confused. Sullivan, without asking, has been exposed to more than most his age. We didn’t ask for it either. But we are using it to teach him to grow into a compassionate and empathetic and loving man. He has a huge heart that I am very proud of. Teaching him to be kind, empathetic and comfortable with what most people are not, is a top priority in our parenting. And because of that Sullivan is going to be different. We need to raise a generation of DIFFERENT.
I agree it’s not your place to fully teach these kids about death. A simple, “that’s a good question for mommy and daddy,” normally does the job. We live in a world where five year olds are learning of school shootings and doing active shooter lockdown drills. All school aged kids are learning how to turn off lights, hide, and stay quiet so they are not found and shot. And yet, we try to shield five year olds from hearing about a loved one in Heaven? Where there is life, there is also death. You cannot have one without the other. It is a part of life and all around us ... be it a bug, a pet, a grandma ... a brother. There unfortunately is a disconnect here, and that is what I’m trying so desperately to fix.
Either way, the picture Sully picked has been removed, and very likely without it he will not be prompted to say anything about Logan. I however, have not and will not tell Sullivan he is not allowed to talk about his brother. I hope you can understand. It goes against everything we have taught him for the last five years and would be incredibly confusing. Come tomorrow I know you will handle Sullivan’s presentation with tact and grace should Logan come up. Luckily, he’s five and easily distracted. A quick change of topic should do the trick.
Please know, none of this is meant as an indictment in any capacity. It’s merely an opportunity to teach. There are no hard feelings on my end. Hopefully that feeling is mutual. We truly appreciate your staff and the way they have loved on and supported our family this year. Definitely made a tough transition a bit easier.
The next morning I walked Sullivan into school, with his sweet little fingers in one hand and a poster in the other. I opened the door feeling like an elephant walking into a very tiny room … an elephant whose nerves were a bit on edge. Upon entering, I had something happen to me that has never happened before - I was called into the principals office. Took me 33 years and kinda makes me laugh now.
Oh how I am not cut out for this school thing …
I took a deep breath, asked God to give me words and spent the next 30 minutes in a conversation that was apologetic, loving and sympathetic … on BOTH sides. The principle was kind and compassionate and asked me to come back and educate willing staff and parents at a later date. In the end … I left knowing the bereaved parents that come in my wake will be a bit more understood. And in some form of beautiful irony, the very same thing that has the power to tear down, also has the power to build up.
Compassion. Understanding. Sympathy. The ability to admit our faults and FORGIVE others for theirs. The willingness to sit with someone different than us and LEARN.
The school is not to blame and neither is the staff. It’s a problem deep in the roots of our culture. I am part of the problem too. For too long, the bereaved community has been under the weight of feeling like it needs to continually appease societies demand to “walk on eggshells” when it comes to our stories and our grief. I thought I had already nipped that in the bud … but even I have much to learn.
The truth is, we all walk around carrying both a weapon and a medicine with us wherever we go. Let us not be naive and abuse the power we have been given. I encourage you all to use your WORDS. But let’s use them as agents for change. Let us lead by example and teach our children that which we have been so poorly taught. Let us raise a generation of DIFFERENT … a generation of CHANGE. Let us … #normalizegrief.
Much love to you all,
And just because I know some will ask …
No, I am not naming the school. I love and respect this school and if your only take away is wondering where this happened, then you have missed the mark entirely. So please don’t ask, unless you are genuinely looking for a great place to send your kids.