Saturday, August 30, 2014

Advice for Parents: What to do on a dead child's birthday?



A living child asks for a birthday party. Or you, as the parent, ask him what he wants for his birthday. There’s dialogue. There’s a cake and candles and presents. The camera captures the smiles as he tears open his gifts. It’s easy. It’s tradition. Parents fall into bed at night, exhausted, but grateful. Their son or daughter seemed happy with her birthday. Moms and Dads rest-—they did it!

But what exactly is a parent supposed to do on the birthday of her child when he is gone? Not gone, as in out of town or at the beach, or out of the country. Gone as in-—no longer alive.

A dead child doesn’t want. A dead son asks for nothing.

What does a mom or dad do? Where’s the rule book for celebrating birthdays for a dead child?

Every year I hope to come up with something creative. Every year something comes forth-—a poem, an article, an idea, some gift to a charity in Daniel's memory. Each year I recall a little boy who told me that he wasn’t supposed to say "customer words" (cuss words). A little boy who celebrated his last birthday, his fourth, with the help of friends, family, and a big red fire truck that stopped by to give him and his guests plastic firemen hats. (Daniel didn’t seem too impressed, but he wore the hat over his bald head anyway.)

Today, Monday, is Daniel’s 22nd birthday. I want to go to Daniel’s Place, i.e., the cemetery. My three kids are busy with work and the first day of school.

How many years since Daniel’s death has the first day of school come on his birthday? Another reminder that he never got to go to real school, just Mother’s Morning Out at a church and a few sessions with the teacher at the hospital school.

My kids are remembering their brother. Liz, the youngest, who was born three months after he died, tells me she remembered at school today. But she isn't eager about going to Daniel's Place. What she wants is a nap after the first day of her senior year, a nap before she has to go to work.

I decide. I make a decision, those things that were so hard to do right after Daniel died. I’d made so many when he was alive undergoing treatments for his malignant tumor. When he died, I wanted to not have to decide anything.

But today I will go alone to Daniel’s Place. Because I am going to do what I need to do. This is my son’s birthday and he’s not here and I decide that it’s perfectly acceptable to be a bit selfish. Even though I’m a mom and moms are always doing for others and neglecting their own needs, I’m allowed. I will go alone to sit by his grave and not wait for others to find time to join me.

Carl says he’ll go with me. He never met Daniel either.

We stop at the Dollar Store and buy a Happy Birthday balloon with a butterfly. We indulge in a few snacks. Carl gets pork rinds even though the sound of them crunching annoys me. I pick out a bag called Party Mix because it has a birthday hat on the packaging.

“Really?” says Carl. “Party mix?”


I suppose he thinks a party is not what we parents of dead children have. Actually, I think, as I eat from the bag while the two of us are seated across from Daniel’s marker, I’m not feeling in the party mode. Last year the kids, Carl and I celebrated Daniel’s 21st year with a picnic. This year, I feel undone by a life that is relentlessly tough. My maternal inventory: I have an adult child with Borderline Personality Disorder who came back to live with us last summer and another who left home and did not graduate high school. The youngest is not allowed to screw up because mama is tired of dealing with disappointment and the law. And yes, I have a dead child I have not seen since he was four.

But today on this birthday without him. I want to remember a little boy who loved Toy Store, stickers, laughter, and watermelon. I want to recall when he said, “You’re pretty, mommy, can I kiss you?” and then when I said, “Yes,” he smiled and shouted, “Hot dog!”

The tears come; this year Daniel’s birthday hits me terribly hard.

I write out a message on a sheet of paper to attach to the butterfly balloon. In the distance a hawk soars over the tree tops. From a tote bag, I remove a Fisher Price airplane and a heart-shaped box Daniel painted and place them both on the grave. I take pictures.

I take pictures of the sky, hoping to get the hawk in one of them. Standing with Carl, we lift the balloon into the sky. It sails to the left. Never before in all the 18 birthdays since Daniel’s death has a balloon headed in this direction. Perhaps this is a reflection of why this day seems super hard to live. If it sailed right, maybe things would be going better.


Carl and I watch until the balloon makes its way safely over the electrical wires, over the tree tops, and over the Interstate. We watch until the balloon is no more.

When it comes to celebrating the birthday of a child no longer here, my advice to parents is do what you need to do. Take the day off if that's what you need. Who cares if no one else understands? Sit at the grave, take pictures of the sky. View the clouds, look for dragonflies. Write long messages and attach them to helium balloons. Drink a Corona or glass of chardonnay to your child’s life and try not to think of how unjustly short his time on earth was.

Take care of you. You, the one who lives with a hole in your heart. Be kind to you; you need to stay healthy. Surround yourself with those who get it, who encourage you, not belittle you, who let you tell the stories, who don't judge your tears. Hold on and drink deep from that well called hope.

Remember that your love for your child expands beyond the sky. Always.

On your child's birthday, give yourself that gift of remembering love.



~ First posted at The Patchwork Quilt Blog, Alice J. Wisler's blog.
Alice is an author, writer, speaker, and writing instructor. She'll be the speaker at the candle light service at the regional conference for The Compassionate Friends September 26-27, 2014, in Frankfort, KY.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Battle We Lost



It can make you feel that you're sinking or suffocating, or going through a little of both.

Eighteen years have passed and you'd think the damage would be over. Battle complete. Troops moved out. Rebuild. On to business as usual.

If only we were made that way.

As the holiday weekend approaches, I watch the men and women in uniform being honored, the waving Red, White, and Blue, read the grocery store specials on ground beef and chips, and feel this overwhelming ache. There stands what only I can fully see---a little boy in a Barney T-shirt and a pair of shorts. The boy needs a hair cut. His Mama wishes she'd taken care of that.

But in one second, a hair cut is forgotten. Because the boy needs so much more. He needs immediate surgery, a Broviac catheter inserted into his back running to his heart for chemo. Later he will need radiation. And stronger chemo. And prayers.

After the first week of chemo, hair falls out in clumps, sprawled out on the back seat of the dusty green van. A hair cut is not needed. His five-year-old sister cries when she sees his blond strands and balding head. "It's so sad," she whispers. We buy him a red ball cap to wear, one with dinosaurs. We buy him a blue one, too. He wears them for a few days, but when his head is smooth and shiny, he goes cap-less.



I recall how friends from church were driving in their van and passed us. I saw their smiles and knew that they were on their way to the Memorial Day church picnic. They turned right; we veered left toward the hospital. That image remains.

Every year for me, Memorial Day marks the beginning of the end. Eighteen years later and it feels just like yesterday when I sat on the sofa the Friday of Memorial Day weekend in 1996. The cordless phone was in my hand. The pediatrician told me that my son had a malignant tumor in his neck. The war raged from that day on, and on February 2, 1997, it ceased. All the surgeries, the chemo, the fight, the hope, the prayers-----over.

There was no victory; we lost.

Every year on Memorial Day weekend I am reminded of how much we lost.

Pushing it aside does no good. I have to acknowledge my heartache-----own it, for it is mine.

That's how we mamas are made.

And so I write on my blog and for some reason, that helps. Writing unleashes some of the ache so I can go to the picnics, hear the bands play, watch the fireworks. Writing keeps me from shattering like a bullet fired in the dark night.

For me, Memorial Day honors all of our soldiers---those here and those here only in the delicate arms of memory.





[This post first appeared at my Patchwork Quilt Blog.]



Thursday, March 27, 2014

Do you journal?



Recently, I was invited to Career Day at Erwin Elementary School in Erwin, NC. I didn't even know our state had an Erwin, although I'm quite familiar with Erwin Road. After driving in the rain for an hour and a half from my home in Durham, I arrived at the school.

The staff in the office ushered me into a big, old library. Immediately, I was glad that I was to be stationed there. One of the things that captured my writer's heart was the cozy nook. What an inviting spot for young readers and even for me, an old reader.


The librarian set my novels on a podium in front of a white board. I barely had time to thank her when the door opened and in came a group of fifth graders. Full of questions, they were attentive. When I asked how many of them journaled, a dozen hands shot up. I was impressed.

Every thirty minutes after that, a new group of students entered and I repeated my spiel about what being a paid writer entails. Each time I asked, to my surprise, there were a number of third, fourth, and fifth graders who admitted to keeping a journal.

As I do with every student I encounter, whether young or old, I encouraged each of them to keep writing and reading.

~*~*~*~

What does journaling do for you?

*Gives you a safe place to write your thoughts
*Allows you to unleash your hurts, worries, and fears
*Teaches you about yourself
*Shows you how you handle your joys and woes
*Helps you solve many of your problems

If you have lost a loved one to death, journaling about your grief is an excellent way to deal with all the tough emotions. Instead of keeping them bottled up, the act of writing them out provides a healthy way to heal.

Whether you use a plain notebook or a fancy book, why don't you enter the world of journaling today?

And if you'd like to explore more writing opportunities and discover what writing can do for you, join us on April 7th for the next Writing the Heartache online workshop.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Power of the Simple Letter


When you write to someone who has died, the experience can be emotional. So my first rule—-have a tissue box handy.

After that, you are pretty much free to do what you want. The beauty of so much about writing through grief is that there are no rules. Don’t worry about grammar or punctuation or spelling. Get rid of that image of your third grade English teacher peering over your shoulder. If you write sloppy, it doesn’t matter. No one has to read your letter but you.

Some students ask me where to start. You can start like you would with a letter to a person who is still on earth. “Dear Daniel” is how I’ve started every letter I’ve written to my son Daniel who died at age four.

After you have the salutation taken care of, go from there. Tell what you are doing today, how you’re feeling, what’s been happening.

Perhaps you have something to say to this loved one you wished you’d said when he was living. Write that. Maybe you have some regrets and want to be forgiven. Write those. Be real. Keep in honest. Can you be humorous? By all means! Should you recall a shared experience? Taking the time to recall an experience can be therapeutic.

Letters are great ways to remember the ones we love who are no longer with us. Pick up your pen and see what your heart will discover when you write a letter today!

[First posted at Carol Stratton's blog.]

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Why Entering a New Year Can Be Tough



When the ball at Times Square drops, champagne corks pop. Ample hugs and kisses are dispensed all around.

A new year, new hope, new ventures, new possibilities. Wow, it’s all so exciting!

However, for the parent who has lost a child in the previous year, the dawning of a new calendar year can be rough. In fact, most of the time, it is.

Daniel died at age four in February 1997 and entering 1998 was hard. My mind was filled with questions like: What am I doing entering a new year without him? How can this be? Why do I get to live and he died?

I was overcome with the feeling that I was leaving him behind. Because there it was, a fresh untouched year and I knew that none of the 365 days in it would contain a hug from him. There would be no new memories, no sixth birthday to watch him blow out the candles. 1998 was the year he was to start first grade and be in school with his big sister.

How could I be excited about a new year?

Change isn’t easy for many of us. While most want to get rid of an old used year, and enter something new and hopeful, for the bereaved mother or father, that is not always the case. Many can say, “Good riddance to 2013; it was a lousy year.” But for others, that was the year their son or daughter died, and moving from it, means a parent is moving further from the last time he or she saw her/his child.

Bereaved parents have fragile hearts. They might look okay, wear matching socks, use the correct salad fork, and even smile, but deep down in the fibers of their heart, they are struggling. Life seems so normal for everybody else-----but them. They can think life is easy for others---but them. Getting out of bed can be a major accomplishment. Celebrating holidays can be consumed with sadness instead of happiness.




If you have a bereaved friend, help her/him by letting this year be a year where she/he can freely share stories about a deceased son or daughter. Let those in your lives with broken hearts speak of the memories etched in their minds. Let your friends know that you will not forget their children for however short or long these children lived.

So, it’s a new year. May we all strive to make it an empathetic 2014 where we learn richly from one another.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Is it a cheap shot? "You'll see him in Heaven"

It was not the first time someone told me this and I suspect it won't be the last.

Talk about bittersweet.

I suppose I should explain. I'm talking about when people hear that your child died and immediately----I mean without even pausing to take in a breath----say, "You will see him again in Heaven."

Is that supposed to make it all okay?

Tell me, what exactly do these kind folks mean when they toss out that line?

If I were to watch a mother or father crying over the loss of an infant that only breathed for a few moments or a son or daughter who lived to be forty, I would never say that line.


It's a cheap shot. My opinion. To me, it makes it seem as though there is no reason for tears. Or makes it seem that if I had real faith, I wouldn't be sad.

Don't get all ruffled up now. It's not that I don't believe. You see, I do believe in Heaven. I wish more was written about it in The Bible. On many days I wish for just a glimpse. When I'm at the ocean and the breeze blows and the waves dance against the shore, I feel I'm closer to Heaven. Or when I go for a walk and the scents and sights of spring fill my vision, I think, "Ah, this is heavenly."

I believe when people die they go to Heaven. The criminal on the cross next to Jesus was promised he would be with Jesus in paradise. Love is perfect there because the Creator of love, God the Father, lives in Heaven. There is no sin, no sorrow, no tears and no human frailty in this place of eternity.

Yet sometimes I wonder if those who tell me not to worry, that I'll be with my son again in Heaven, are not using their God-given mind to think, to ponder.

Do you really think I am going to be serving animal crackers and reading bedtime stories to my Daniel in Heaven?

There will be reunions, yes. But I will never be Daniel's mama on earth again. Gone is the dream every mother holds and that is to watch her little baby grow up. That ended for me with Daniel's death at age four. When he died, so did my need to buy Cocoa Puffs for him.

I was thirty-six then. I'm fifty-two now. That's been a lot of time for me to wonder and pray and think, and oh, yes, bite my tongue. Especially when well-meaning folk try to cast off my pain by quipping, "We'll just think, you'll see him again in Heaven."

"If Heaven is going to be just like earth where I have to take out the trash, worry about paying bills, and discipline my kids, I don't want it," a mother said to me.

Some seem to think Heaven is an extension of earth. That Heaven to many will be a repeat, only without mosquitoes and a place where consuming a pound of milk chocolate won't make one fat. Many act like it's going to be where I can see my Daniel again as he was on earth. Folks, that little body that took a beating to cancer is gone. It is no more. The Bible promises we'll get new bodies, and I imagine that they won't age. In fact we probably will all look the same age----young and flawless, like the women in all those Oil of Olay commercials.

So before you tell a mother who is sorrowful over the death of her dreams, who is questioning who she is now without her son or daughter, who dreads Christmas because it means one less stocking to fill, who has seen her family diminish in size, and who has a hard time putting one foot in front of the other on most days---even years later----THINK!

There are so many healthy and nurturing ways in which we can comfort each other. Consider them. Instead of giving a pat, "Well, you'll see your child in Heaven," why not sit down, hold a grieving mother's hand, and listen?

You just might cry when you hear her aching heart. Don't you think Jesus would be weeping if He were seated next to her, too?

She knows she'll see her child again in Heaven. Right now she needs more than that reassurance. She has to learn how to live the rest of her life without him. She has to conquer sleepless nights and inappropriate comments, criticism, and push herself to believe that she will get a day free of tears.

Let her know that she is going through the hardest journey a mother ever goes through.

Let love coupled with understanding be how you bring comfort.

~ Alice is the author of five inspirational novels and the new devotional on grief and loss, Getting Out of Bed in the Morning: Reflections of Comfort in Heartache. Read the reviews and order a copy here.

[This post was first posted at Alice's Patchwork Quilt Blog]

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Workshops for you!





Writing produces clarity and freedom. It's wonderful therapy. When we feel stressed, sorrowful or disappointed, putting our thoughts onto paper releases the tension.

Consider one of my upcoming writing workshops.

1) Writing the Heartache starts July 29th and can be completed in the comfort of your own home via your computer. I email you the lessons and you complete them and send them back to me. Sign up here.

2) Journey through Life's Losses is an all-day workshop on July 27th at the Hampton Inn in Raleigh, NC (near the PNC). Sign up today.

3) Broken Psalms is an all-day workshop on August 17th in Forest City, NC at the Carolina Conference Center. Set in the western part of the lovely state of North Carolina, a great place to retreat. Sign up by clicking here.