Behind the Smile

imageIt’s been 23 months and 14 days since I’ve heard his voice, heard his laughter, or seen his smiling face. As I began this journey 704 days ago, I thought that as the year mark passed, that I would magically begin to feel some relief from the heartbreaking pain that had been so prevalent throughout the first year of grief. While the wound isn’t as raw, the pain is still so very deep. It’s similar to having a recent cut on your hand. While the cut is still sore, it doesn’t hurt like it did in the beginning….but then you accidentally get salt in the wound…and the pain is acute and sharp. Grief is very similar…except the cut never goes away….ever. The cut will be there as long as you live. And so, while you may have a smile on your face, the wound in your heart is deep and cuts to the core of your soul.

And as I sit here and watch Duke play basketball, the wound feels fresh. You were a true fan…you stood by your team no matter what, and you felt their wins and their losses deeply. I remember how you used to talk about Cameron indoor stadium and how much you wanted to go and be a part of the excitement and the atmosphere. It was your kind of atmosphere…intense and full of a contagious enthusiasm. It’s an atmosphere that is full of life…much like you were. We used to watch the games together and we were both huge J.J. Reddick fans…no one has ever been able to shoot a 3 like he did. And I can remember the passion with which you watched the games….it was almost as if you were a part of the team. You felt emotions deeply and the intensity of your feelings oozed from every part of you. I miss that. I miss so many things about you that I can’t even begin to express all that I miss. And I carry that longing to see, hear, and hug you…and I carry that loss behind the smile I wear on my face every single day of my life.

Many people don’t understand how bereaved parents carry that longing and the loss with us every single day. And I know that they can’t understand, but I’m going to try to put it into terms that might help. Those of you who still have all of your children…how much of your day and your thought process is taken up by thoughts of your children? Think about it…you talk to them every day…you think of their well being when you aren’t with them…you talk to them on the phone to make sure the make it home safely…you hug them every day…you hear their laughter every day…you see their sadness and their tears when they hurt. There isn’t a part of your day where your child is never on your mind. Yet, you get to see them every day. Think about how much it would hurt to still have the same thoughts, but not be able to see your child…EVER again. And so the once happy milestones and everyday interactions that you experience on a daily basis, become a painful reminder for us that our child is no longer with us. It’s amazing how the things that seem so insignificant in every day life, become so glaringly significant in the loss of someone that is such an integral part of your life. In essence, the small things in life are really the big things, because the small things are what takes place in your everyday life…they are the day to day, seemingly mundane interactions that we take for granted. Trust me….don’t take those for granted, because they are the things that will haunt you the most in the years to come.

And what’s even worse, the anniversary of their death never leaves your mind. I was talking to a friend the other day and telling her that the anniversary of his death was 3 weeks away. And she asked me, “And it’s already on your mind?” If my friend is reading this, please, please don’t feel bad about what you said, because I know that you cannot understand. And that is ok…but what I’m trying to help others understand is that even the milestone of their death is something that lives in our minds and our hearts forever. It is something that I think about every single day in some form, shape, or fashion. But your thoughts are consumed with your living children and where they are, who they are with, how they did on that test they studied so hard for, are they doing the right things…and your thoughts are consumed with their living actions. A bereaved parent’s thinking is much different. Our thoughts are now consumed with the fact that our child was ONCE alive, but now is not…and our thoughts don’t think in terms of the here and now thoughts. Instead, we think of, “Where are they now?”, “Can they hear me?”, “I just want to see their smile one more time…hear their voice one more time.” And yes…our thoughts continually, even if its in the subconscious mind, think of the day they left this world. Why wouldn’t we? It was the day that changed our worlds, our hearts, and ourselves forever. So…the thought of their death date never leaves our minds…as hard as that may seem to grasp…think of it this way. You are always aware of when your child’s birthday is…because it was a day that changed your life forever as well…it changed your world…and it changed your heart. So that date is important to you and it stays with you all of your days. And so, do the death dates….they stay with us bereaved parents forever, because it is the day that our worlds were broken and cracked open for all to see that gaping wound of loss. It will be with us forever, until we take our last breath on this earth.

And so, we carry all of this behind a smile that we put on every day. And, I’ve gotten pretty good at putting that smile on and making people believe that I’m ok. But really…I’m still struggling. I smile so that others don’t have to wonder what to say to me when I shed a tear about the son I lost. I wear that smile so that no one has to pass me in the hall feeling uncomfortable about what to say or not to say. I wear that smile, because that’s what society wants us to do. The bottomline, society is terrified of grief. Society and people in general don’t know how to react around the grieving. They don’t know what to say and they don’t know how to act around grieving people. I know…I’ve been on that side of it too…it is very uncomfortable. But I am now on the other side, and to discuss grief in our society is almost taboo, because it’s not a positive way of thinking. Well, let’s be real….if we don’t deal with the grief, we surely aren’t going to be able to think positively. Talking about grief and all of the crazy emotions attached to it are healthy and normal. And what we all feel when we lose a close loved one is all normal….but that is rarely discussed in our “positive” culture. Let’s face it people, to get to the positive, you have to get through the bad…and what makes feeling sad, angry, helpless, depressed such a bad thing? I mean…the way through those negative emotions is to FEEL them…to experience them…not to stifle them. We all live under such a false sense of positivity and only saying positive things, that we forget that humans were made to experience all emotions…not just being happy. Our society has to have a paradigm shift in thinking about grief…grief is normal…and just because people don’t move through it in the time frame set by others, doesn’t mean that they are stuck in their grief. It means they are processing their grief in their own way and in their own time.

So, here’s a quick example of how I am still struggling with my grief coming up on the two year mark. I was in the store the other day….something I rarely do anymore, because it causes me severe anxiety… and I was fine. I was looking for what I needed and was just in my own little world until I looked up. When I looked up, I saw a boy of about 9 years old that reminded me of Aaron. He didn’t look so much like Aaron, but he had the blonde white hair and the fair skin that Aaron had. Almost immediately, I began to feel anxious, but I wasn’t really sure why. I began to get agitated with people in the store and just couldn’t wait to get out of the there. We had a few more stops to make…..which was very painful…but we made them. By the time I got home, I was almost in a full blown panic attack….and had no idea why. I just knew that I was feeling extremely anxious and didn’t want to be around others. Later that night, I was talking to my husband about seeing the boy, and the floodgates opened, and I then realized why I began to feel so anxious and why it grew into a panic attack. See….it’s those things that hit you out of the blue…you’re not expecting it…and you don’t see it coming…so you can’t prepare…and often you can’t identify why you are feeling the way you feel.

My whole family has walked around behind these smiles as well. All who loved Aaron, carry a loss in their heart behind the smile they wear on their face. Sadly, that has become a part of our new normal. So, as you pass others on the street, at work, or in the hallways…remember, they are carrying something behind that smile. We never know what our fellow humans are carrying behind their smiles….so be kind, because what’s behind that smile, might lurk a very painful experience.

Taylor – Behind her, smile she carries the loss of her brother and her uncle

Tom – Behind his smile, he carries the loss of a stepson

Me – Behind my smile, I carry the loss of my son and my brother

Mom and Dad – Behind their smiles, they carry the loss of their son and their grandson

Mike – Behind his smile he carries the loss of our brother and his nephew

Zach and Jeremy – Behind their smiles, they carry the loss of their dad and their cousin

Susan – Behind her smile, she carries the loss of her husband and the loss of a nephew

Katie and Sarah – Behind their smiles, they carry the loss of their stepbrother

And Aaron – Behind his smile, he carried more than you and I – he carried the struggle with addiction, he carried the depression, the anger, and the disgust that he couldn’t just quit…he carried the struggle of an addict….which you and I know nothing about.

Everyone carries something behind their smile….think on that when you pass someone on the street.


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