Thursday, August 29, 2019

When you think you can't survive but you do

The tiny lady with the elderly black and white bulldog on a leash was peeking over the bush when Jim saw her. 

I was in the middle of watering the flowers at the accident site when Jim pointed her out to me. 

"Les," he nodded, 'I think she wants to talk to you." 

I looked up and smiled. Then I stepped through the tall, dry stalks of Bird of Paradise plants that lined the sidewalk. When I got close, I could hear her thin, soft voice.

"Did you know him?" she asked nodding at the flowers.

"He was my son." I said. Then I repeated it because apparently, she was hard of hearing.

She shook her head from side to side and asked me if they ever found the man who ran the red light and I said no.

"I'm from Sweden. I have a son too. We were looking at the pictures on the pole over there....and we saw the balloon. Was it his birthday?"

I told her yes, Patrick's birthday was August 6th. And that Jim -his Dad--is the one who rotates the pictures of Patrick up on the pole.

"Oh, it's so terrible." And I knew she was talking about the accident. The horrific randomness of a lone driver running the light at the exact second that Patrick was there. But I can't think about that now. I know I will succumb to those dark thoughts if I go there.

The woman keeps talking. "And he was so handsome too! He looks like Mr. Huntington Beach, that's what my son said. My son, he said what a terrible loss. He looks like one of those guys who-had-it-all, you know?"

I just smile and nod. Then she asks me if I have other children and we talk for a few more minutes.

Suddenly she looks at the ground and says, "Terrible things happen. I don't know why. But you gotta keep living. You know?

I nod. I've learned that people always struggle to know what to say to the mother. So, I just smile and turn back toward the flowers and I hear her call my name from the sidewalk.

"Leslie, right?" she pronounces my name with her Swedish accent.

"I'll keep praying for you dear. I will. I just don't know how you survive that."

Later, I decide that this might be the most honest statement ever.
"I just don't know how you survive that."

How am I surviving? To-be-honest. Even I'm amazed.
I do know that if you'd asked me on September 16th 2018, the day after Patrick's fatal accident I couldn't have envisioned any of the experiences that have happened in these last nine-plus months. 

The mere idea of breathing in a world without one of my children was simply unfathomable. My kids have always been my life. And I say this without a hint of hesitation. As a woman who happily waited for motherhood, who was star-struck with the idea of grad school and obsessively absorbed in a profession that I loved, I can honestly say that everything came to a gushing halt--the moment that Dr. Jeffery Graham placed Patrick's infant body into my arms.  

I know how it sounds. But from that second on, nothing else mattered more to me. Ever.
Did I ever consider a catastrophic loss like this? Never. Especially to Patrick. He was just …well, too special. 

Like most mothers, I actually felt protected by a deep spiritual faith. A hidden logic that was fueled by a love so feverish and wild for my kids that in the end, it was irrational. Surely God will know this one thing about me after all these years. I can survive anything dear Lord. Except something happening to one of my kids.

You learn so much about yourself when something traumatic happens to you. When your entire world comes crashing down around you when you least expect it.
This is what grief does. Grief asks you, “Who are you…really?”
Who are you when you’re stripped down to your barest soul?
Who are you when your entire body is flooded with the most gut-wrenching anguish you've ever experienced... and there’s absolutely no where to go to get away from it?  Nowhere to escape what is the unbearable truth that will always be there now. That my son is really gone.

Recently I was listening to a podcast with Dr. Gabor Mate--when I heard him mention the Japanese word, I-k-i-g-a-I, (pronounced A-kee-go) and I was instantly intrigued.
According to Dr. Mate, Ikigal is a word that describes that certain feeling when you wake up in the morning and think, 

“What do I get to do today?!” It's a word that describes that bounce in your step, that feeling of purposeful energy that propels you out of bed in the morning.

I mention this because the minute I heard this concept, I instantly remembered what a basically happy person I had always been. Funny how I never realized that.

Dr. Mate says that the Western Model of Illness asks 'What's wrong with you' instead of 'What happened to you?' And that's an important distinction. He explains that trauma is not simply an outside event that happens to you, trauma is something that happens within you. A wounding, a pain and a loss of functioning.
Although according to Dr. Mate, the absolute worst thing about trauma and emotional pain is the disconnection it causes with your Self.

I recently wrote a post about this sense of alienation I noticed from my physical body in, What I’ve been learning. How trauma and loss effects your body.

Afterwards I began to feel the heaviness of Patrick's birthday looming in the distance, like ominous clouds gathering at the edge of a blue sky. And each day I grew more aware of the date. The mere thought of waking up on his birthday without him seemed too unbearable to imagine. By end of July I could feel myself turning inward. My personal way to retreat.

Do you know that feeling when life feels so loud and overwhelming that all you want to do is go back to bed and pull the covers over your head? 

During these weeks I felt keenly aware of a rawness about my emotions. And this hyper-vulnerability was the reason I began to avoid social media, especially Instagram where a random glance at a photo could trigger a memory that sent me spiraling into an aching pain for Patrick.

Later Jim reminded me of the way I behaved during my labor and childbirth. 

He said that whenever an excruciatingly painful contraction was coming, he would watch me get intensely focused and very, very quiet. No talking. Nothing. It was if I wasn't there. 

And so I’ve learned this now. That I get through my intense grief in the same way that I got through those moments of being fully dilated and in a state of simply enduring.

Joanne Cacciatore says that grief is a process of contraction and expansion. Which, I believe is the way we all get through our darkest times. Those days spent in the middle of the proverbial tunnel when you can't see the light yet.

We hunker down. We hold on with clenched fists. We contract and tighten emotionally and conserve our energy and attention focusing intensely on the grief and on self.

 During these times it feels like our very survival is at risk. And at its worse, we feel desperate, breakable and fearful. Then, right at the moment of excruciating and indescribable pain, there is relief. Inexplicable, when it comes.

This is the expansion that Cacciatore describes as that tiny post-contraction period of relief. It’s when your exhausted panting turns into a long inhale and exhale. A moment that offers you a glimpse of openness. A chance to regain a sense of trust and growth and connectedness and maybe even hope.

This is what my grief process has felt like during these past eleven-plus months. 

I suppose it's the ebb and flow of life.

According to Cacciatore you can't have one without the other. A contraction allows expansion. It's a process she notes is found throughout the natural sciences from astrophysics and cellular biology to thermodynamics and chemistry. 

We are at our core--no different than the aging, massive star that runs out of fuel and then withers and contracts. Gradually making way for the dramatic expansion of a Supernova.

Based on this analogy, I guess there is hope for me and the dying stars of the universe.

Of course, this means Me surviving the overwhelming contractions of anguish that flood me whenever I remember that I am still here and my child is not. It is sheer horror, believe me.

And Cacciatore warns us. There will be times during an intense contraction when we'll be afraid that this painful time is permanent. We worry that we're doomed to feel this way forever. Until we feel it pass. And this simple relief can keep us going.

Even though we may wish for expansion only, she reminds us that it's a phantom idea, and a path toward self-delusion that will only leave us worn-out from the persistent pretense of a life that doesn't exist.

But anyone who has spent time in their winter garden knows this.

Oh- And I did get through Patrick's birthday. And even though I fantasized about sleeping through the day, I knew I couldn't.
Instead, I spent most of the month creating and sending out a special tribute card in his honor. And I was so grateful for the periods of relief I felt when I was tapping into my creativity.
Elizabeth Gilbert says that an artist is someone who makes something so much more beautiful than it needs to be.
And I love that definition. All we need is intention dear friends, for beauty to happen.

Thank you for checking in with me today. You are such a blessing to me. If you would like to receive Patrick's card just leave your address on

I'd be happy to share him with you.

Wishing you a beautiful and nourishing weekend.

sharing this post at:
Grace at Home


  1. You've been on my mind in recent weeks (well, you always are but even more so the past two weeks)...I learned that a new friend at church who is in our Life Group and attending a weekly Bible study with me, lost her son 8 years ago. I can tell it's still raw. We are studying Lysa Terkheurst's book, "It's Not Supposed to be This Way". She had shared with me that she wasn't sure she could do it, but ultimately decided as she said "to put her big girl panties on and just do it". Thank for for sharing from your heart again sweet friend.

  2. I was just thinking about you when I opened my email and saw your post. I am always amazed at your strength and your giving heart. I will remember this idea of a contraction before expansion. It's true. I can see it in my own life. Thank you for writing this. Sending love.

  3. "Grief, bereavement, the personal loss of a dear loved one is complicated. There are no words, no consolation, no condolence. Healing is a scaled process that shifts randomly, up and down a continuum, without any sense of progress, and without any conclusion. Grief, like enduring love, is permanent. Every once in a while someone says or does something that is helpful." I find this continuum analogy to speak to me - grief ebbs and flows, at times more manageable and at other times extremely difficult. I recently had a weekend where I could feel I was at the edge of going over into sobbing that I feared I would have difficulty stopping - actually I was afraid I wouldn't be able to stop at all if I started sobbing (not crying, but sobbing and wailing). I managed to hold back the tide, but it was frightening and very difficult. After 3 1/2 years without my son these times still come and I know they will come for the rest of my life - likely more infrequently as time passes, but they will still come. People wonder how we cope, how we survive - we do because we have no choice.

  4. I was wondering where you'd been lately and I could only assume that you were having an especially hard time...I sent you a private message on IG simply saying I was thinking of you; I didn't want to overwhelm you. I totally understand the need to retreat, especially on Patrick's birthday and on his upcoming anniversary date. I do the same. Phil's anniversary date is coming up on September 25th and it will unbelievably be 10 years. The week leading up to that date (really, I hate the entire month of September) is especially hard for me; almost worse than the date itself. The anticipation is horrible.

    There's a lot of profound wisdom in your post. I need to go back and read it again, more slowly, and try to take some things away from it. Maybe even journal about it. Like I always say, your posts are painful for me to read, but I tend to bury some of my pain, so maybe it's a good thing for me. Thank you for your gift of sharing your heart and journey with us through your beautiful words.


  5. Leslie,
    I always love hearing from you and your ongoing wisdom through this impossibly difficult time in your life. You've given us lessons along the way of dealing with life's challenges. I realize all of us might respond in a different way, need different things, but you've set a wonderful example of how you managed to inch along. The woman that lives near the site of the accident was nice to talk to you and share her empathy.
    Keeping you in my prayers.

  6. I have been thinking of you lately, especially as September gets closer. I have never thought about the idea of contraction and expansion but it makes sense and I know I have felt it on different levels before. Thanks for checking in to let us know how you are doing. Sending you love and strength.
    xo Shelley

  7. Your acceptance is so remarkable, although you may feel like you are not accepting, that it's still a fight to survive, remember, function, expand, contract, but all along the way it's a choice to keep going, with grace. Writing here, with grace. That's the part I admire when I see it, but it's also the most elemental human part to recognise. Keep writing, keep sharing, even when you want to turn inward, because what you share is golden. Lou x

  8. You are such a wonderful teacher, Leslie. Your words as an artist always awaken things buried within me, things worth re-examining. I so honor your willingness to stay awake. To write down these thoughts is to commit to wakeful sobriety and brave the fire death has lit. I think we have journeyed quite differently in our faith which I count as a rare blessing since I can deepen from yours and maybe offer gifts from mine. I grew up sheltered within a church and never felt my faith protected me did not. I wasn't tempted to buy into any rhetoric that I was more valuable or more precious cargo because of my beliefs or prayers or identity as a Jesus follower than say souls in the Amazon forest who call Love something other than Christ. I was covered in prayer yet harmed. I was not protected at age 4 or 20 or 30. But I was sustained by a holy force. It has taken work to learn to see and lean into emptiness after so many sermons about fullness. Since my faith has always wavered, I think I realized it wasn't what would nourish or sustain me - nor would steadfast belief or an absence of doubt. But the Word and Presence. Ahhhh. To feel the radiant gaze of mercy and love upon my little diamond soul. To sense that the very pain in the wake of injustice and suffering is in a sense the divine weight of loving hands holding me, joining me, guiding me into a more trustworthy's the stuff of transformation I think. It still feels unnatural and naive to look up when things fall apart -- while I cannot profess to know what those depths of hell feel like to your grieving motherheart -- there are all these lovely fragrant meadows and healing waterfalls flowing beyond "knowing," beyond "certainties." I long to be in that flow. xox

    OF COURSE I WANT A CARD............I did as I was told and went OVER to YOUR EMAIL!
    SENDING HUGS.............XOXO

  10. It's good to hear from you, Leslie, and like so many others, I'm touched by your words of wisdom and especially, how you have weathered this heart wrenching event and aftermath. More than anything, I'm forced to examine how I sometimes retreat from hurt and conflict, and that one day, life could change dramatically. The loss of a child would devastate me.

    I can identify with you on those emotions you felt when you held Patrick in your arms after giving birth. I was a totally different person than the one who walked into the hospital that morning. There was such joy, and a feeling of someone in my world who was far more important than me. I felt totally fulfilled for the very first time in my life.

    As always, I'm sending that big virtual hug. And a belated Happy Birthday to Patrick.


  11. The horror and anguish of what you've been, and are still going, through is not lost on anyone who reads your words. But your resilience, contracting and expanding, also shines through. There are times when we reach deep within ourselves and find strengths that we did not even know existed. That is what you are doing and, as I've probably already told you, you're an inspiration.

  12. Hello Leslie,
    I have been praying for you. I too was a totally different person after I had Sam. I also knew I would become a stay at home mom. I stepped away from my career as an accountant and became Sam and Atticus' mom. Looking back, I would have it no other way.
    That is exactly why I clicked with you so many years ago on the blog. A mom to boys.

    As you share Patrick with us and your journey, I have learned so much.. most of all to remember to LOVE everyday.

    Love you,

  13. This post is so enlightening, Leslie. I know that my way of dealing with grief and pain has always been to withdraw and be quiet. I always felt like I was doing something wrong, but you've made me understand that it is a time of contraction...protecting myself and trying to heal. So profound. You have shared your heart in so many ways while you have gone through the unthinkable.
    I'm sending love your way, Leslie...I know this month must be so hard for all of you. I would love to have one of Patrick's cards...I'll email you. xo

  14. Thank you for your beautiful thoughts & words. Sending a hug. X

  15. Thank you for your beautiful thoughts & words. Sending a hug. X

  16. Hi Leslie,
    I'm in London right now, wandering around, and wanted you to know I have thought of you, especially on Sept 15th, and sent a few thoughts to the universe in and around this date for you. This is a beautiful post and wish we could all ease your pain, even a little bit. You hang in there girlie, there are so many of us that have you in our thoughts, and will always be there for you. Isn't blogging such a weirdo world, where kinship & sisterhood are as solid as face-to-face relationship? It sustains me. Love to you xx Nancy

  17. Often in my thoughts, I still love visiting your blog you write so beautifully, even in heartache you give hope. Much love, Vikki XXX

  18. My heart weeps. I just wanna hold your hands, hug you or just be there and listen to you. At least I can read your raw emotions which is healing and inspiring as much as it is devastating. I silently sending you love and support. We are with you.