Category Archives: good grief

Of Dogs and Grief

First off, I’m so excited to read that some of you have asshole dogs.  I mean, I wouldn’t wish an asshole dog upon anyone, but if you have one, well, we can all sleep well at night knowing that our asshole dogs are most certainly not a reflection on their owners or caretakers.  I guess some of them just get the asshole gene!  Come to think of it, I know some asshole people, too…

Anyway!  Step one in the Dog Training Class is having Duncan associate a clicker noise with a treat.  Unlike obedience training, this asshole doesn’t have to do anything to get the treat.  Just hear the clicker, I guess.  So for the last week, I’ve been LITERALLY sticking my fingers in… uh, processed meats, freeze-dried chicken liver, and most recently, wet cat food, in an effort to keep his asshole attention when I click the clicker.  OF COURSE the wet cat food is his favorite.  I should have just started with that shit…

I tried little tiny treats, but a) he’s not interested after, like, three of them, and b) he tries to eat my damn fingers (and he has sharp teeth).  So I did this thing where I caked something delicious into a Kong opening, but then he all assholed out and kept trying to take it.  Then I caked something on the edge of a teaspoon (SHARP TEETH), but then he kept trapping the spoon part in his sharp mouth.  The winning method (ta da!) was using the handle end of the teaspoon and dipping it in cat food for him to lick off.  Click > lick.  Click > lick.

This is only week one, so I assume I’m laying some kind of positive Pavlov reinforcement.  Hopefully.

So that was your dog training update this week.  I go to class tomorrow night with him, where he gets to be in the same building (but separate rooms, THANK GOD) from three other asshole dogs.

In other TOTALLY UNRELATED news, I made a Facebook group (Invite only?  Closed?) for parents of small children (like, under 12 or so) who have lost one/both of their parents.  I think we’re up to 13 members?  I’m hopeful that we’ll develop a kind of small, nurturing, supportive community where people can have discussions, ask for advice, or just openly grieve.

I know that sometimes I feel like the Grief Window is closed.  And that if I am seen grieving that I am assumed to be weak, or “not over it” (never will be), or wallowing in my sorrow, or doing whatever in a way that is hampering my ability to “move on” and “remember the good times.”  Or some shit.  When sometimes, you just wanna fucking grieve.

If you’re interested in joining (the only qualifier being that you have a small child, and you yourself have lost a parent), send me your email address to and I will email you an invitation.

Two Years

I’m wrapping up things here at work before being off for a few days.  March 15 is this coming Saturday, and the plan is to be spending that day with good friends and the familiar and comforting sights of DC tourism, alongside my wife and RR.

Last year, we spent March 15th on the cusp of a weekend trip to DC, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.  It wasn’t a conscious decision to make plans for this weekend, but in hindsight, I’m glad that I did.

It took me years to move past September 16th as just any old day, and not that Day My Father Died.  I never forget, though.  Two years seems to be an unreasonable request to operate as if March 15th is any old day, and not the Day My Mother Died.  I’m cutting myself some slack.

I still have so many feelings.  I’m still so sad some days.  Most days.  I imagine I feel how she must have felt on September 16th, when she was so sad that my then eleven year old self wouldn’t have any more experiences with my father that weren’t just memories or stories from other people.  I still hear people tell me about how nice and generous he was.  I feel sad that RR will never know how much her grandmother loved her, aside from the brief memories and stories that I will share with her.  I’m sad that I’m out of memories and stories, too.  Again.  Crap.

I will hug my family and my friends.  I will be thankful for every day that I have with them, and that they have with me.  Two years feels both like yesterday and forever ago.  Yet I’ve done this before, and I will reluctantly do it again.  I admit that it was easier when I was eleven, though.

365 Days

My wife warned me yesterday that Caemon’s family had written about his death.  I decided to read it, knowing in the back of my head that the manner in which his death progressed was similar enough to my mother’s that it would be hard to read.  To digest.  And in the end, in addition to feeling overwhelmingly heartbroken for the family, I felt a sense of community with them.  Watching someone close to you die in front of your eyes is not anything anyone should do more than once.  At the same time, it indoctrinates you into some kind of unfortunate club where everyone has this unspoken thing in common.

A couple of days before my mom died, I remember sitting by her bedside in the ICU. Doctors coming in and out, technicians testing this and that, and nurses checking on her vital stats.  I sang her songs and held her hand.  I remember her moving her left arm and hand around, up and down, back and forth.  The way you would do if you were in the deep end of a swimming pool, and were just out of reach of the wall beside you.  In hindsight, I was watching her brain, body, and soul struggle and try to make sense out of what was going on.

The event in her brain (either a bleed or another stroke) that led to her death happened overnight, and the next day when I saw her, she was gone.  She was physically there, but her soul had moved on.

This morning, I decided that it was time.  Time to go through my phone and download the 40 (!) voicemails from her sitting, haunting me on my phone.  Despite help from great friends, I dug around the office here and found the blessed cable that would do the job.  It took me a moment, but then I finally got the audio to come out of the speakers and low and behold, there was my mom wishing me a Happy Valentine’s Day, which was the last voicemail I ever received from her.

I downloaded two voicemails from March 15, 2011, which was exactly one year before she died.  She was telling me all about how she was moving out of the assisted living facility on St. Patrick’s Day and she was so excited.  She starts most messages with “Hey Babe, it’s your mom,” or “Hi darlin’.”  She ends most of them telling me how much she loves me, and to kiss RR for her.

I’m incredibly fortunate to have her voice here with me, and the sense of closure I have from listening to them, taking them all in, leaves me without words to describe it.  I’ve been struggling coping with her death since the first of the year.  Like some part of my heart is still so very numb.  But today, hearing her voice, woke it up a little.  Made me feel warm and loved inside in a way I haven’t felt in nearly a year.

I thought I’d share one with you; this one is from New Year’s Day, 2012.  It’s pretty typical – she says Hi, apologizes for missing when I’d called, told me about her day (usually involving food or a trip out for dinner), Love You, and Bye.  This one, though, ends a little bittersweet, as she would have no idea what kind of year 2012 turned out to be.


As someone who has been dealing with substantial death grief for almost a year now (can you believe it?  yeah, me either), the only thing I can think to say to this mourning family is – it’s hard now, it’s gonna get harder, then, if you can imagine, even harder.  But then you will heal.  Time will heal you.  Friends and family will heal you.  You will have scars.  You will smile again, and laugh again, and learn not to feel guilty about it.  It’s coming, but you have an enormous mountain of pain to crawl over first.  You have to keep moving your feet, even if you want to sit down and stop.  The wave will consume you, you will think you’re absolutely drowning, but you will come up for air.  Keep breathing, keep moving.  Don’t feel the need to “be strong.”  Be weak and brittle and broken for as long as you want.  But time will heal you.  Eventually.

Of For Pete’s Sake

We say that a lot in our house.  Rather, I say that a lot.

OK – first, for your patience as I’ve lost the blogging handle (read, sitting at my computer, doing all of my Christmas shopping online and not telling you all about it), here is a picture of RR talking a city stroll the other day, rocking her new hat and a juice box.
Thug Life

See!?  Rewards!

Blah blah, Christmas is over, blah blah, Happy New Year, blah blah, 2012 FUCKING SUCKED Y’ALL.  That would be the title of my end-of-2012 update.  For serious.

Can you believe that a) my wife and I have been doing this Paleo business for six straight months? and b) we’re closing in on March, which will mark one whole fucking year since my mom died?  Holy moly.  I will add that we did have non-paleo cookies last night (that were ridiculously delicious) and that I’m still seeing my therapist (He says “Hi!” again, along with “Thank you for listening to her for free!”) and on anti-depressants, so adapting to both of these changes is a work in progress.  I had a good, hearty, crying meltdown on New Year’s Eve (as ya do), which was my first in a good, long while.

RR is insane.  In that good, belly-laugh sort of way.  She asks “Are you OK, mama?” every time one of us sneezes.  And she says, “Good job!” when one of us does something, like… pass the salt, or follow directions that she gives us.  She got a Dr. Curious George stuffed doll for Christmas, along with a Dr.’s kit, so there are a lot of procedures at our house, when Dr. RR puts on her stethoscope.  When putting on George’s band-aid, she offers him a lot of support: “I know, I know… It’s OK… I know, I know.”


You would trust this face, right?

She’s growing a lot these days.  Her hair (in her face), her fingernails (dirty), her appetite (salty and briny things – olives, pickles, Funyuns), her mannerisms (“Fist bump, mama?”).  She’s an adorable hoot, and adds perspective to everything.  We’re all healthy and looking forward to coming out of this Spring unscathed and ready for warmer weather and sunshine.

Thanks, if I haven’t said it lately, for reading, commenting, not commenting, just being here.. there.. wherever you are.

Returning the Favor

I have a friend.  We’ll call him Mark.  Mostly because that’s his name.

Mark and I have been friends since he became a member of my band in 2005.  He was only a member for a few months until we kicked him out of the band, which is similar to three people breaking up with one person.  Kicking someone out of the band sucks, but Mark never held the grudge, really.

My wife and I even went to his wedding about this time of year in 2009.  We often refer to it at the time we conceived RR, since we had a lot of fun (and a LOT of tequila) and RR was conceived shortly thereafter.  I was surprised at how small Mark’s side of the wedding party was – he had three groomsmen, three dogs, and his mom and dad.  Everyone else was on the bride’s side, which made me even more happy to be standing on his side.  Next to his super nice mom who was so happy to see him getting married.  She was also so happy that we were there.

We kept in touch after RR was born, and even had a reunion jam with the band last year.  He’s an “out of the blue” texter, which suits our friendship fine.  Every few months or so, we check in with each other.  Then in January of this year, he told me that his mom died suddenly of a heart attack.  My heart hurt so much for him, and his small family.  He quit his job and nursed his anxiety and pain.  Soon after, his wife was pregnant with twins.  Soon after that, my mom died, and I looked to him for words of wisdom.

Cry, he said.  Don’t bottle things up.  Ask for help.  Lean on family and friends.  Cry some more.  And then some more.  Mourn out loud.  Allow yourself to be overwhelmingly sad.  Exercise.  Don’t forget to eat.  Time heals.

He checked in with me after the months had passed, asking how I was doing, telling me about the progress of his babies (one boy, one girl), and eventually sending me ultrasound pictures and names they picked.

A couple of weeks ago, she gave birth to the kiddos.  I don’t know how many weeks she was, but they were preemie enough that they’re still hanging out in the hospital putting on weight.  Every other morning, Mark and I talk.  How the fuck are you supposed to get the car seats level, he says?  He sends me a picture of his botched job.  I just want to take them home, he says!  He’s angry. He’s impatient and overwhelmed.  He wants to know how we managed to not check to make sure RR was breathing every 15 minutes as soon as she got home.

My practical advice is sound – learn how to master the swaddle.  Take the car seat to an inspection station if a YouTube tutorial doesn’t help.  You’ll be home sooner than you know.  My emotional advice is too similar to what he told me when my mom died:  Cry, ask for help, lean, be patient, take it one day at a time, time heals.

It’s funny how death and birth affect people similarly.  Thy make us overwhelmed with emotion – bursting at the seams and overflowing.  They make us cry and forget to eat.

I’m glad he and I are in touch.  I’m glad I can return the favor.  I still remember how raw I was when RR first came home, and right after my mom died.  I think I cried all the tears I have in those moments.  I want him to know that he’s not alone.  And that it’s hard for everyone.  And he’s doing everything right.  And to hug his wife so hard, and tell her that the empty feeling in her belly will go away eventually.  And it’s OK to be scared shitless.  I only wish I could be up there to bake him a lasagna and give him a hug.

See You Soon

Disclaimer:  This is a very long, and somewhat detailed account of my mom’s death.  I needed to write it down, but don’t feel the need to read it.

No one should watch their mother die.  Well, I take that back.  The idea of knowing that she died alone, not knowing I was there, holding her hand and stroking her hair, would have haunted me more.  But then again, the technicalities of when she actually died could be debated.  Is it when she had a stroke sometime over the weekend, and my sister found her unresponsive Monday morning?  Or maybe Tuesday afternoon, when her lungs filled with fluid and they were forced to intubate her and put her on a breathing machine?  Or maybe Wednesday night/early Thursday morning, when another catastrophic event occurred in her brain, completely shutting her system down?

No one knows.  She was never coherent enough to say anything, and the times her eyes were open, she was gazing vacantly to the ceiling, while moving her left arm up and down, almost out of habit.  Or trying to grab onto something, someone.  Her left leg twitched constantly, something she would do in her sleep.  Nothing on her right side ever moved.

I saw her that Tuesday afternoon and that Wednesday.  I sent RR and my wife away to the local children’s museum and to the beach to kill time both days.  I had hope.  The nurses (many of whom were there the last time) had hope.  The doctors were being realistic.  I sat at her bedside and held her hand, sang songs, cried, and prayed – all in disbelief that this was happening again.  Her eyes open, I would stand in the path of her gaze and say, “Hey Mom!” and ask her to squeeze my hand, which she never did.  I examined the skin on her pale, freckled hands – such soft hands, such delicate nail beds.  Modest-length, well-manicured fingernails.

She told me once that my dad made her stop biting her nails when she was younger, but she couldn’t  break the habit entirely until she got braces in 1977, which tweaked her bite so much that she couldn’t bite them if she wanted.

We left to head back home on Wednesday night, and it was eerily warm in the house for mid-March.  I barely slept – hot, restless, my cell phone by my head.  We had planned on coming back to regroup, pack, and head back down that weekend.  My sister texted me sometime around 5am, telling me we had better come back.  Mom’s pupils were dilated and fixed, her eyes rolled in the back of her head.  No more leg or arm movement.  No movement at all.

I woke my wife up and cried more tears than I’ve ever cried.

At daybreak, we made a plan to drop RR at school from 9am-12pm, in order to pack, line up dogsitters, and plan to be away for two weeks.  At 12pm, we started racing on the interstate, my wife at the wheel, RR asleep in the back seat, and my ball of emotions in the passenger seat.  I made hotel reservations on the phone.  My sister texted me updates.  We ran into traffic that haulted our progress, and I almost threw up.

Around 4pm, we pulled into the hospital parking lot.  We raced to the second floor ICU waiting room to find my family – sister, brother in law, nieces/nephew, my sister’s in-laws, and some nice ladies from church.  We all sat down, and I waited patiently to go back and see her.  At some point a nice lady from church answered her cell phone – she says with a thick southern accent, to the person on the other end: “Helen’s dyin.'”

My wife, RR, and I went back to see her, and she was an unrecognizable shell of herself.  RR looked scared, but not so scared that she wanted to leave.  Concerned, perhaps.  I told RR, “Can you say ‘Hi Grammies?'” and she did.  With prompts, she said “I love you” and kissed my mom on the forehead.  Kissing, of course to RR, means pressing foreheads.  My wife and RR then left, leaving my sister and I there to discuss things with the doctors and nurses.

It was all too apparent that this was the end.  The neurologist wanted to know if we wanted them to do a CAT scan to see what went wrong, but my sister and I agreed that wasn’t necessary.  She was very much already gone.  So we decided to have the nurses unplug everything and let her go.  The palliative care folks came to talk to us, and my sister and I collapsed into each others arms, sobbing.

They took out tubes and the leg-cooling devices that were trying to bring down her 104 temperature.  Interestingly enough, though, her body at 104 degrees felt ice cold to the touch.  They extubated her, and her blood pressure immediately dropped.  My wife and RR, along with my sister’s close friend and my nephew, stayed in the family waiting area outside.  I held my moms hand, and sobbed into her shoulder, telling her I loved her over and over.  My sister, on the other side, kept petting her head and taking a wet washcloth and wiping her mouth, which was sore from all of the tubes.

At some point, I started singing this ridiculous song:  Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.  Ridiculous, I know.  But she used to sing it all the time when we were kids, and it just came out of my mouth.

By 5:59pm, the heart rate monitor stopped completely, and her chest had stopped moving up and down.

My sister and I lingered with her for a little while after.  For the last time, I threw my arms around her body and kissed her cheek, saying, “I love you.  I’ll see you soon.” which is what I always said when we would hang up the phone with each other.

Moments later, we soberly walked out of the ICU unit, and my sister started making arrangements with the funeral home to come get her body, and talking to the organ donor program about having my mom donate some tissue.

My wife, RR, and I walked out and got in the car, and the rest of the week was filled with tears and funeral arrangements.

Some days, like today, I find myself walking to the corner deli to get lunch.  As I cross the street, flashbacks of my mom’s death hit me like a car.  My breath hitches and my chest feels tight.  I want to forget.  I want to never forget.  I guess you can’t have it both ways.

To my mom: I love you.  I’ll see you soon.


Since my mother’s death, I’ve dreamed about her a couple of times.  Once, very soon after, she was alive, much younger, and standing in front of me.  She was with my father.  That’s all I remember.  All of the times since, though, I’ve been dreaming of her funeral.  Of her casket, draped in an off-white pall.  Or last night, of people hugging me over and over at her funeral, and her urn sitting in a shopping bag, waiting for me to take it home.

It’s amazing how, two months later, it still doesn’t feel real.  It just feels like I’ve forgotten to call.  Like her number is going to pop up on my work phone caller ID any minute now.  How is that possible?

I opened a piece of mail yesterday addressed to her.  Another outstanding bill from a medical company.  This one, though, was for about $30, and referenced a request she submitted to have a copy of some of her medical records.  The first page looked like a normal invoice, but the second and third pages were copies of paperwork she filled out on 3/5.  Ten days before she died.  Ironically, my wife’s and my anniversary.

She didn’t list a reason for requesting them, but her handwriting, her signature, the copy of her driver’s license shook me harder than I had anticipated.  Shook her right into my dreams again.

Most of the mail doesn’t do that.  Some of it makes me laugh – the Latina magazines (wtf), the Catholic Virginian (is it sacrilegious to use them as paper when I start my charcoal grill?), and the letter reminding her that it’s time for her annual mammogram.

It’s just amazing how grief becomes a part of you.  How it settles in, make a nest, and taints every day thoughts and actions.  I accept the grief, the sadness.  It doesn’t make it any more comfortable, though.  I know the acceptance is part of grieving.  The surrendering to the pain, the discomfort, and the pangs that make my eyes well with tears.  The hollowness always sitting in the pit of my stomach.

Every day is different.  Some days are better – filled with laughter and joy, smiling and eagerness to go home, cook dinner, sing songs and dance with RR in the kitchen after a family walk around the block with the dog in a rainstorm.  Some days are worse – where I sit thinking, “What is wrong with me today?”  When my work calendar is clear, the sun is shining, the promise of a long weekend with good friends is hours away.  But I still feel hungry.  But not for food.  For my mom.  For her voice.  For her hugs.  For her nagging me to come visit soon.  For her asking about RR and sending unsolicited boxes of clothes and toys.

It’s only when the world stops moving long enough, that the weight of my grief sits on my chest.  It doesn’t care if it’s sunny or raining.  If I’m at work or at home.  It does get a little lighter each time.  I guess that’s something, right?

A little less death, a little more rock and roll

… or something like that.

My wife flatteringly noted about my last show with my band a couple of weekends ago, but this isn’t about that.  It’s more about moving forward.  Living within grief, acceptance, and blossoming and exploding love of my wife and daughter.  And my dog.  And sure, maybe one or both of the cats.  Maybe.

I’m trying to find myself again in their eyes, in their hope and optimism.  In the amazement that my daughter can count and spell.  I’d like to come back to the place where I’m asking you why people REALLY want RR to call us two different names.  “How does she tell you apart if you’re BOTH ‘mama’?!?”  How I single-parented from a Thursday morning until a Saturday night and lived to tell about it.  How I’m apparently really awful at bath-time.  Just ask RR.

For Pete’s sake, people, if I keep going on and on about this, I’ll have to change the name of the damn blog.

I haven’t even told you that I shaved my legs (less for social acceptance, and more because I just didn’t like the looks of them with long hair anymore) and am contemplating cutting off all of my hair (on my head – not really all of it, but something much different).  Oh, and that my doctor commented about my boxer shorts (nicely, in a “Seriously, I cannot picture you pregnant!  How’d you negotiate that with the boxers??”  I do love her so much.)

So we’re moving forward here.  Not into the land of the forgotten, but into the land of reflection and movement.  And cammo shorts.


First of all, I’d like to thank each and every one of you who commented, sent cards, CD’s, virtual casseroles, and hugs.  This whole experience has been harder than I could have ever imagined, and to have this forum along with this huge network of support has helped me process my thoughts and feelings in a nice, safe place.  So thank you, thank you, and thank you.

I recognize (well, from what my therapist tells me) that this next year will be the hardest.  All of the “firsts” without my mom.  At the same time, I haven’t permanently lived in the same town as my mom since 1995.  Haven’t seen her on a regular basis since the winter break before I graduated college in 2000.  So 12 years of weekly phone calls, holiday visitation arrangements, trips to see her and my family, and visits from them.  She never figured out how to use email (God bless her), so she’d occasionally write me long, hand-written letters.

This is the part that’s made it so surreal.  Every day, I wake up and think, “Gee, I need to call my mom.  I haven’t heard from her in a while.”  Every day.

Unlike my sister, who saw my mom regularly, talked to her on the phone most every day to coordinate when she was watching her kids after school, I didn’t have that constant presence with my mom.  It’s not like I’ve forgotten that she died.  I see her urn in the living room.  I can still hear her voice in my head without trying really hard.

My dad died when I was 11, and I had a similar, distant relationship with him, too.  My parents divorced when I was two.  I saw him every other weekend at his new house with his new wife.  I slept in the spare room with my sister and we spent our days down by the creek skipping rocks during low tide.  It’s been nearly 23 years since he died, and I can only tell you tiny slivers of my memories of him – the scar on his chest from his first open heart surgery, the kindness of his eyes, the ease of his laugh, the dark tan color of his hands.  But I can’t remember his voice or how he walked or sat or even anything he ever said to me.  I think he used to call me “darlin’.”

So I’m afraid to look down the barrel of 23 more years without my mom.  It’s not unreasonable to think I’ll live to be 57, right?  RR to be 25.  My wife to be 61 (seriously, her people live to be in their 90’s).  In 23 years, will I be able to remember her voice, or the way she would sit on the couch with her arms folded way up high, hands tucked in her armpits?  Do I need to write these things down now, before I forget?  Do I need to figure out a way to permanently save the dozen voicemails from her still sitting on my phone?

The people that I know who have lost both of their parents are all of a different generation.  My mom’s generation.  Your dad’s generation.  These are the people giving me insight as to how to live as an orphan for the rest of your life.  These are not 30 or 40 year old’s.  Hopefully, the rest of my life will be long, long, long.  My wife’s, too.  And RR.  That’s an awful lot of time to be an orphan, though.  23 years from now seems so far away, both in the past and in the future.  For RR’s sake… for my sake, I need to start writing things down, so that when RR wants to know what her grandma was like, I can tell her, even if I don’t immediately remember.  And, well, so I can tell myself.