Thursday, August 20, 2009

The second hardest thing after your child dies.

The three hardest things to do at all, in my experience, are:

1. Believe it.
2. Walk away from the grave after the ceremony.
3. Understand that the world can and will go on, as if nothing has happened to your child [and by extension, to you and your surving family].

I have been with four children when they died, and attended many more children’s burials.

When I worked as Manager of the Chicago Ronald McDonald House, I attended services with the parents I had come to know, oftentimes for children I had come to love. Later, I went to many more funerals as a police crisis interventionist, a first responder to critical calls. I did death notifications and provided initial services to families on behalf of the department (body visitation, funeral arrangements, standing by parents until after the funeral, and then referring them for ongoing counseling, if requested, and following up with them for special holidays and anniversaries).

And then, of course, I attended my son Daniel’s funeral when he died in a car accident at age 16, which made me a full member of “the club no one wants to join” instead of just a professional bystander.

I haven’t seen it all, but I’ve witnessed more than most folks.

I have witnessed most forms of parental grief. Parents have refused to open the door when I knocked in uniform, because they knew their child had not come home and, almost instinctively, many had a gut feeling I was on their doorstep to do a death notification. Some later told me that they thought that if they refused to open the door, they could perhaps superstitiously ward off the event as well as the notification. But eventually, after our dispatcher called and insisted they open the door, they did. Sometimes it took several hours, in which case I sat on their doorstep and waited, figuring they were calling the people they needed to come and help them meet me. And that was as it should be, if that was what they wanted.

Many times, when doing death notifications, I had an ambulance already positioned discretely a block away, waiting, ready to come if the parent should really go into physical shock. It happens. And I almost always had an officer standing respectfully off to my side who understood not to interfere or “help” me, but to facilitate in in whatever way I asked following the notification (parental reactions were always unpredictable).

I usually insisted that any siblings be present when I told the parent(s), and so we gathered the family together first. Otherwise children feel they were not important enough for an adult to tell. Also, most parents had no psychological training or the mental preparation for talking to a child about their sister or brother’s death, or to do it alone, when they are most vulnerable and had no answers themselves. Our calls were grounded in proven griefwork methods, and I rarely deviated from best practices learned through additional police chaplain’s training.

After I told one or both parents and step-parents as well, I always discretely offered to take the adults to view the body, if requested; we always left the harder decision — of whether or not to include the children in that viewing — up to the parents.

I have seen knees buckle and fathers faint. I have held sobbing mothers in my arms, and also screaming mothers, and some muttering muted denials. I have been called to “handle” mothers who refused to give up their children who died at home, and to “work with” one mother who threw things (every thing she could grab) when an officer was sent to help the coroner take custody of her infant’s body after he died of SIDS at home. All of those very normal reactions happen during step one, when belief is the first impossible thing these broken hearted people are asked to do.

A frank discussion — about to get even more so

Those descriptions likely seem harsh to those reading them who have not lost a child to death. To those that have, they are a fact of life. The shock value is gone. And we need to be able to have some straight talk about how hard step one is. We can’t find our own way through grief if everyone tries to cushion it (1) for us or (2) because it makes them too uncomfortable to discuss.

The second hardest thing is equally impossible to expect a parent to do — to walk away after burial or cremation or notification (if a body isn’t found).

The best funeral directors could benefit from this advice: You should not run the show according to a pre-set expectation when a child dies. You should (and I almost never “should” on people, but I’m making an exception now) — you SHOULD discuss with a parent how they would like to handle that final parting and respect their wishes to the extent that reason (dollars?) and the law allows.

I went to a child’s funeral which began routinely, and (up to a point) proceded very much as expected. The service was for a little boy, five years old, who died of cancer. Upon arrival at the visitation, we approached the small coffin single file, and we all shed tears as we first saw him. He had a favorite matchbook car and stuffed puppy dog placed in his little hands, and letters from his family were tucked in the satin around him. All of the parents in the room mentally substituted their own children in that spot (admit it – it’s natural to do it) and they cried from the horror that they could, at best, only allows themselves to feel a little vicariously.

This was before my own son died, and so I thought I would never know a sadder day in my life. I felt physically sick and a little faint myself as I hugged those friends close. I sat down, but they stayed close by their son, greeting the endless line of friends and neighbors, trying to smile through their tears.

After the religious service, the funeral director asked the parents, who by then were sitting in the front row with their other child, to say their final goodbyes first — in front of the public assembled. You can imagine that most of the town had turned out and it was a capacity crowd. Imagine further having to say that final goodbye in front of your entire world, and then being expected to gracefully walk out the door first, leaving others to follow in your footsteps.

A parent rarely opts to leave first, and that particular set of parents was no exception. The father barely maintained his composure as he tried to accomodate the funeral director’s request and gently tug at his wife to take that first step aside, but the mother smacked at her husband as he tried to pull her away. She began wailing and crying that no, she was not ready to leave. She begged to stay. The funeral director tried to talk her into it, instead of helping her back to her seat. Meanwhile, the daughter started crying, seeing her mother so distressed. And it went quickly downhill from there.

Everyone in the crowd turned an angry eye on the man. Obviously, that ending had not been discussed with the parents beforehand. I was personally outraged that he was such an insensitive ass and that he made their hardest day ever so much harder.

My own experience was my hardest day, of course.

Daniel was buried by his grandfather, who was buried in Galesburg, Illinois. We lived in Milwaukee, so we had a first memorial service there, followed by a funeral service in Illinois. My police family were at my side in Wisconsin; my mother and my extended family joined me in Illinois. According to plan, I arrived in Illinois before other participants, and although the service would be held around a closed casket, due to Daniel’s many injuries in the accident, the funeral director opened the casket so that I and my three children could kiss Daniel goodbye in private.

When the director closed the coffin that last time, I thought it would be my hardest moment, but I was wrong. It was just another excruciating minute in a series of many to follow on its heels.

The funeral director offered me a rose during the service, which made me choke back sobs — I hadn’t expected that. Daniel’s stepmother leaned forward in her chair (she was seated behind me) and whispered in my ear, “You know, Daniel really loved you so very much”. The remark was likely intended to be a peace offering of sorts, as our families had, at best, been acrimonious over the years. I didn’t need her to tell me that my son loved me, and it stung that she would be so presumptuous, but I choked those feelings down, too, and in turn thanked her for being a part of his life and for giving him a younger sister herself.

I knew she had grown to love him as a son over the years, too, and we were both grieving mothers that day. Intellectually I knew that she was honoring that bond with her remark as well, but still, everything said that day hit a raw nerve.

That is what grief is like. It is a black hole that swallows you. Even though it swallows everyone around you, too, it compartmentalizes you in separate holes. I was trying hard enough to hold on to my other children as we were pulled into our separate grief holes over and over; I didn’t have the strength to really concentrate fully on anyone else’s needs.

Eventually, you really do have to walk away

Though I had helped scores of parents walk away from gravesites during my careers, I didn’t know how to walk away from my son’s grave. So I made darn sure that the funeral director (and Daniel’s father) knew I expected to do it privately with my children, after everyone else had left.

I’d taken two Valium just to make it through the service, and I was getting a little foggy by the end of it — though not foggy enough. There were awkward goodbyes with people I hadn’t seen for years, including my adoptive father, Lawson (who adopted me when I was 7, but didn’t want to stay for lunch with my mother, who by then was his ex-wife) and a step-father, Bob (my brother’s father, and my step”daddy” until I was six).

My mother didn’t want Bob invited to the luncheon, though he had driven to Ilinois from Iowa in a borrowed junker car, with money borrowed for gas. I hadn’t seen Bob since he’d come out of a coal mine to see Daniel when he was a baby. That he would also come to help me bury him really moved me, as did his present to me — a silver bracelet with large turquoise stones set it in. I looked up at him, bewildered.

“My mama was part Indian and she give it to me,” he said. “It’s the only thing I ever had worth anything, and I want you to keep it to remember me, Sissy,” he said.

It would be the last thing he ever said to me; that was the last time I ever saw him. Mom, who was still mad because I’d told her to leave her present husband back in Denver, took Bob aside and suggested he skip the lunch. She later told me that she didn’t want him to embarrass me in front of Amie, the police chief who had kindly driven the children and me to Illinois.

I saw him walk away, shoulder’s slumped. I turned to Amie to ask if it was okay to take another Valium yet. He said no. Too soon. I didn’t have the strength to take on my mother’s issues, or to reassure Bob that although he was a hillbilly, he was still MY hillbilly, and I wanted him there. I didn’t even want to be there.

Eventually I looked around and there we were, according to plan. Just me and the children, the police chief and the undertaker. Everyone else who was going to the luncheon were likely at the restaurant, waiting for us.

“Would you like me to offer a final prayer?” the funeral director asked kindly.

I was sort of prayed out, frankly. I just wanted somebody to stop all this foolishness, call it a day, and hit the rewind button to when my son was alive. I glanced at my children’s tear-stained faces, picked up my youngest son and took the girls’ hands. “It’s time to go, ” I whispered, and our friend Amie literally took my arm, and I leaned on him and he helped tuck us all into the car.
It’s what people expected me to do, after all. And it’s what I promised the funeral director I’d do. So I did. I hobbled away.

Much of my heart was buried that day, in a grave dug for my son.

The rest beats in the chests of my other three children and their children. It echoes in my husband’s heart, but it beats in time with my childrens’ hearts. My mother is gone, my fathers gone — all three of them. A brother has died. More of my childhood family are gone than remain, and every time another dies, they take more memories of Daniel with them, and I mourn anew that a little less of him remains in our collective minds here. But I take comfort that I will be reconnected with his energy when it is my turn to join them all again.

Meanwhile, I give my surviving children what they deserve — a mother who is present. A woman capable of authentic laughter and love and joy.

And I know, friend, that being expected to reconnect with the world your child left behind is the fourth hardest thing asked of you after your child dies.

But it is possible. I hope you will do me the honor of trusting the promise of this counselor and this stranger who has much experience with many bereaved parents.

It is possible.

Six more hurdles to jump following a child's death

In addition to the “Hardest Things After A Child’s Death” blogs already posted (, are these five bottomless pits that many parents fall into after the death of their children. For whatever it’s worth (validation that you aren’t crazy or alone?), I’ve added a personal note of how I approached each one – and am still approaching them.

1. The question (and intense pain and distress) of deciding what to do with your child’s room, clothing, and possessions.

This is especially hard for married couples or extended families in which there is disagreement about “how to live” after – some want all physical possessions and the room left the same, others want to make subtle changes, and some others will want to purge or rid themselves of any and all painful reminders.

Personally, for months after my son Daniel died (age 16/car accident), I slept clutching his pillow. I wanted to hang on to the faint smell of him left on his pillowcase… until even that scent was gone.

I set aside items that preserved or evoked the strongest memories – a few rocks he had picked up on our last walk; his favorite drumming sticks; his Ronald McDonald doll (given to him by the ‘real’ Ronald at the Chicago Ronald McDonald House); a football signed and given to him by the Philadelphia Eagles Football team.

I kept these items until my other children were old enough to receive them. I kept the football. It took a few months before I was able to begin removing things from his room, and slowly, so as not to “jar” my other children, I replaced this and that. When that didn’t ease the pain, we moved.

Moving is a common phenomenon. People say “don’t make a drastic change” for a year after a crisis. I say “do whatever feels best and right to you.” There is no “right way” or “wrong way” to grieve, and I know this as an experienced crisis interventionist and professional grief counselor — as well as a bereaved parent.

If images of your child in those rooms ambush you with pain to the point of driving you crazy, move. Martydom is not required by your child as a testamony of how much you loved them. If remembering him or her in those places brings you comfort, stay. No one else can or should tell you when “enough is enough.” It’s enough when your heart says “it’s enough” and that may be “now” or “never” for you.

2. Most grieving parents dread the coming year’s “firsts” — the first missed birthdays, holiday, or the first anniversary of your child’s death.

Daniel died in July. I put up our Christmas tree for Halloween and decorated it with bats. I put Thanksgiving decorations on the tree next. That way, when Christmas came and he wasn’t there to help put up the tree, it wasn’t quite the drawn-out affair of crying while pulling the tree out of the garage. It saved a few minutes grief.

Today, we still name him and include him in our opening prayers for every special event. His birthday and death anniversary, and Mother’s Day were hardest for me. I found a church for those days, and prayed and cried with a pastor.

For the first ten years or so, I took his birthday off as a vacation from work, knowing that I could be ambushed by grief. Now I can handle the grief, and prefer to be at work. There is no “right” way to do any of this, or even preferred way.

Make new traditions or keep the old. Do what feels right to you and your family.

3. “How many children do you have?”

It’s an innocent question, right? And if you ever make any reference to a living child of yours to a new acquaintance, the question of How many children do you have? is sure to follow. This makes some parents hypersensitive of ever mentioning any of their children – further isolating them from the natural joys of parenting (bragging about your kids or sharing their cute remarks or antics or irritating habits, depending on the audience).

On the other hand, if you don’t mention the dead child when answering that question, you may feel guilty, as if you have already erased their importance in your life.

But… If you do tell the person that you lost a child, it brings sorrow to your listener (and likely to you), and causes, at the very least, an awkward moment or situation.

My answer always depends on the listener. If it is someone I am meeting casually, and likely will not see again, I have decided that I don’t owe them an explanation, and it isn’t a betrayal of my son. I answer that I have three children, and say whatever else about those (now adult) children that seems relevant to the conversation.

If the person is someone I’d like to know better, or I think I’d like them to know me better, I may say, “My oldest son, Daniel, was killed in a car accident when he was a teenager, but I have three other children children that I’m happy to talk about – Summer, Brook, and Philip” and then tell more about them, highlighting the positives about their lives.

Notice that I gave the details and age of his death in the introduction so that the questioner doesn’t have to ask those natural questions to seem interested – or to prove they aren’t shocked by what I’ve just said (they are). And by continuing with the details of the other children, they can move ahead with me, or, if they are truly interested/comfortable knowing more about Daniel, they can direct the conversation back.

If you’ve recently lost a child, you may want to consider what you’re going to say, so you won’t be taken off-guard so easily. I never ceased to be amazed — as likely are infertile couples, or those choosing not to have children — at how often it comes up.

4. Someone you know from your past (or someone you know who was out of touch when your child died) approaches you and inquires about your child, not knowing….

This is a no-win situation. It requires that you deliver a death notice yourself and it can bring you emotionally back to those harder telephone calls you made that first day or night.

I’ve had this happen numerous times. The last time it occurred, I was anxious to hook up with a high school friend at a recent high school reunion. Nita and I had been best-best friends, double dating, in attendance at each other’s weddings — we even threw baby showers for one another. We had our first-born children (both boys) within a year of each other. But then she moved to a farm and I moved out of state, and then, well, you know the story. It was “back in the day” before email. Who had time to handwrite snail mail letters while working and raising children?

I knew the hardest point of the reunion evening would be telling Nita about Daniel’s death. But although she was on the list of people coming, I personally didn’t know any of her contact information, and it really didn’t occur to me to contact the organizers and ask. I thought, well, we’d surely have some time alone and I’d tell her then. At least, I’d be expecting the question that night, so surely I could handle it.

As soon as Nita and I saw each other (and sneaked a peak at name tags to be CERTAIN it was our old best-best friend), we flew into each other’s arms. She then introduced me to her (second) husband and I introduced her to my husband, and in the same next breath, she said “How’s Daniel?” and I said “How’s Peter?”

Her son Peter had been killed a couple weeks earlier in Iraq. He was a career Army ranger.

Soon we had a group of old high school friends around us – people we barely even recognized anymore – asking what happened, why we were crying what obviously were mournful tears instead of “happy-to-see-you” tears, and holding each other, sobbing. And we had two husbands standing by our sides, not sure what to do or say to make us feel better.

The message is that this is a no-win situation. And it may not get easier over the years. It may always be a flashpoint for emotions you thought were finally in check. If so, you’re in good company and no, you aren’t mentally unstable or weak.

5. A mother’s grief does not automatically trump a father’s grief… or a grandparent’s grief, or a sibling’s grief or an aunt’s grief.

Everyone is usually devastated following the death of a child, though they may express it differently. Fathers often get overlooked because sometimes they express grief in a more “manly way”. Or they are expected to “get over it” more quickly by society. We all, being human, judge the quality or depth of others’ grief based on what we see on the surface — and how we’ve been taught to interpret that.

Society also (unspoken, unwittingly, but truly) has an standard for when parents should “recover.” When grandparents should stop talking about a deceased grandchild, or an adult brother should be over a sibling’s death that occurred during his childhood.

I am never going to be “over” my son’s death. I am never going to move beyond it. Daniel-Paul will always be my son, always in my heart and in my life. That doesn’t mean I stop loving or laughing with the ones left in my life who deserve to have me present and authentically in their lives.

6. This is a landmine many people don’t expect: If you have other children, you may want to talk to people in their worlds about what happened, and help them help you to best support the children and not tell them things contrary to your belief systems.

You may need to help others to understand it from your perspective — teachers, school counselors, and (as would be age-appropriate) your child’s peers. Well-intentioned people (including family members) may want to help you “fix” your surviving children. If you are Jewish, for example, be prepared for well-meaning Christian adults to tell your children that their brother or sister is now “with Jesus”. A babysitter may try to assure them that their sibling “is sleeping in heaven.”

Many people are uncomfortable with the language of death. So they often describe death as “sleeping”, which can have traumatic effects on children who lack the age or maturity to understand that the sibling they saw with eyes closed in a coffin was not buried or separated from family because they fell asleep the wrong way. This is a common misunderstanding that can cause serious anxiety or even a continuing sleep phobia.

You may need to be very precise in your expectations of others (including your own parents or loved ones) as to how they approach your children. And if they do it “wrong”, you’ll want to be compassionate and not make your disappointment (or anger) an issue obvious to your child. Seeing you angry may make them fearful of bringing up the subject of their sibling’s death with others. It cannot be a “secret” they are expected to keep.

Tell support people what you want privately but clearly. Be as compassionate as you can, given the circumstances, but say what you want and how you feel. And don’t hesitate to explore professional help if this becomes overwhelming for you – choose one who specializes on informing and supporting children with griefwork and mourning, and make sure their own approach is also consistent with yours, or at leat something you can support when you get back home.

The night Daniel died, our pastor arrived with what she thought was a great book – it was a children’s book that addressed the death of a pet. She wanted to read it to my children. I forbid it. I did not want Daniel’s death likened to the death of a dog. But I asked her to join me in the other room and gently but firmly told her there that I appreciated the gesture, but I would handle the children’s grieving that evening. I needed her there to support me by being present and silent.

I hope these references are helpful, and please feel free to add your comments and experiences as well. Please forward it to others if it helps express your perspective, or to start a conversation with your support system as to how to best help you.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The third hardest thing after your child dies.

1. Believe it.
2. Walk away from the grave after the ceremony.
3. Understand that the world can and will go on, as if nothing has happened to your child [and by extension, to you].

It's this third point I want to talk about first.

On the night of my son Daniel’s death, after my other three younger children finally (finally!) fell asleep curled up together on blankets in the living room in a makeshift cocoon, I put myself on the front door steps.

It was July 1991, and I left the front door open, screen door closed, so that I could hear if one or all of the kids woke up. I sat on the porch steps and chain-smoked menthol cigarettes. I was all cried out (or so I wrongly thought), and I was trying very hard to think nothing thoughts. Meaning not to think at all. Rationally, I knew I couldn’t scream as loud as I wanted to, or hit something as hard as I needed to. I couldn’t turn back time. I couldn’t will him home with us instead of lying on a ... I couldn’t even think about where my baby boy was lying that night. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it, either. So I had to stop thinking period. Except I couldn’t do that, either.

Certainly, I felt like I was losing my mind. Actually, I think I did for awhile. The safest place to be seemed to be on the porch steps, away from my gun in the bedroom and my knives in the kitchen – both of which held a very seductive promise. But there remained three traumatized children mourning their big brother; that was the reality that kept my butt on that porch instead of in the bathroom with a bunch of pills in one hand and a glass of water in the other.

Still, I couldn’t go to sleep. In truth, I was terrified at the idea of ever sleeping again, as I knew my first waking thought would be that Daniel, 16, was dead. Why would I do that again – face it again? So I would not go to sleep. And I would not think, because all I could think about -- if not about Daniel -- was how to keep my other kids safe. How could I lock my remaining children in the house until they were adults, so that none of them could ever be in danger? I couldn’t quit my job to home school them, because I was their primary financial support. And it occurred to me that they could still get electrocuted from a bad outlet, burned in a house fire, or pulled out by a tornado. Most accidents happen in the home.

Anything and everything horrible that I had never let myself think before was suddenly comprehendible and possible. And yet I knew these were irrational fears that no friend would want to hear. These were fears I could never express aloud, because people would tell me that I was just in shock. They would dismiss me as a grieving mother and talk about me to their group of friends or, worse, talk about me to our mutual friends. Say things like, “Jody’s really lost it; I’m worried about her. Do you think the other kids are okay with her right now?”

But really, they would also tune me out. What I needed to say would make them afraid for their children, too, and so they would try to avoid my calls in the future if I told them my thoughts. Put some distance between the messenger and the message.

Eventually, the sun came up. My neighbors, mostly strangers to me, woke up, got dressed, backed cars out of driveways, waved if they noticed me, and went to work as if it were just another day. I really resented that it WAS just another day.

For them.

For me and my family, it was Day One: “After”.

It was the day I’d have to pick out flowers, call extended family, and make arrangements with the pastor. It was the day I’d send Daniel’s beloved police jacket (he was a police explorer scout) to a mortician. The day I’d encourage his siblings to write special words to be read at his funeral. The day I'd ask my mother not to find fault with my ex-husband at the funeral, and not to bring her new husband with her from Denver, if possible.

Friends would show up to help walk me through the steps. They would sit and drink coffee with me and smoke with me, and tell me that time would lessen the pain, if I could just get through the day, and blah, blah, blah, so many words. So many people reminded me that I was “lucky” I had other children. So many stupid remarks backed by broken hearts and good intentions and casseroles.... So many words... after awhile, I stopped listening. I watched their lips move and waited for the lips to stop moving, and then I would whisper, “thank you” though I had no idea what they said. It didn’t matter. Words meant nothing.

The doctor gave me sleeping pills and Valium. I took them. Not all at once, like I wanted, but enough so that I could read to my youngest without sobbing, thinking back to what it had felt like to read to my first born all those years ago. Adding (compulsively) to my mental list of all of the things I’d never do again with Daniel.

Today, it is years past that first night. And even my world has moved on.

The nights that it feels like Daniel died very recently, I take an extra sleeping pill. Some nights, I remember what Dr. Seuss wrote, and I repeat it to myself. It has become my mantra: Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened. [Don't cry, don't cry, don't cry.] Most nights now, honestly, I fall asleep thinking about something going on at work, or upcoming plans with grandchildren. Or I think nothing at all -- I real until I'm too tired to think and fall asleep with my glasses on my face and the light shining on the bed until my husband wakes and turns it off.

I still self-censure what I say to other people – all of those who have not lost a child, anyway -- because people really do expect you to "get over it" in time, even if they say they don't. Most of my friends today, after a couple moves to new cities, never knew Daniel anyway. I remarried years after Daniel’s death, and even my husband never knew him. My parents have since died, and a brother. Daniel’s life means less, if feels like, every time a family member dies, because another person’s memories of him die with them. It makes my grief for them all so much more profound, because it deepens my grief for him, too, which I never think is possible, but somehow it always is. So I talk about him to the neices and nephews who will never know him, and I show them his picture. I put up his memorial on to perpetuate him just a little longer....

In Madison, to all the people I know and love here, he’s just a sad thing that happened to their friend before they knew her -- Daniel is not, for them, a beautiful boy who had a black belt in karate. They don't know (or care) that he was an Eagle scout, won first place in state for playing the drums, and wanted to be a policeman. They don't know that he was the best big brother who ever lived [in his siblings eyes] and a magnificent son. But now you do.

The good news is....

The good news is that I’ve gotten over my guilt for enjoying the high points of my life “after”. Even a bigger surprise is that we’ve come to a truce, Grief and I. I now acknowledge Grief so that it doesn’t have to sneak up behind me to get my attention so often. Usually I see it coming and we now deal with each other on familiar terms, alone and in private.

Though... at a women’s retreat only a couple weeks ago, we were sharing our job histories, and I burst into tears while telling my lifeline, since I changed jobs after Daniel died. The women actually cried with me, hearing it, and I was ever so grateful that they did, because the opportunity to cry with other people for him is a rare gift.

But don’t cry [forever] because it’s over, I remind myself. Smile because it happened. And I do, to honor all of the love, laughter and light Daniel brought into my life.

I do.

Friday, August 14, 2009

"Two and "Two" - The real miracle.

[The last of a three-part series, and continued from Blog #2: The Second Sign - road trip to St. Louis. For all this to make sense, you might want to start with #1: Daniel's Blue Rose - it is what it is.]

Donna called to inform us that the medium John Edward was being televised live on Larry King. Instead of allowing Edward to walk through the audience and select his target, as was the custom on Edward’s Crossing Over television program, King had pre-selected people (winners of different affiliated radio program promotions) in different studios all over the nation. He was going to test Edward himself by having them far from his direct influence.

Both the interviewee and Edward would wear headsets and microphones; although the television viewing audience could see the interviewee on television, Edward could not.

We turned it on to watch, too. The King show was impressive, with cameras at remote sites to bring close-ups of the people selected to get the “messages” via phone.

I looked at Kevin, sitting in his chair. “This is a live broadcast,” I reminded. “Wouldn’t it be a hoot if Daniel came through again, this time with John Edward?”

We had a good-natured laugh together. “He could,” Kevin agreed. “And if you’d been picked for the show, he sure would. We already know he inherited your strong will.”

The cameras locked in on the next interviewee; John Edward was in one studio, she was sequestered in another.

They were getting along until he said to the woman that he felt the presence of a young man killed in a car accident.

She said she didn't think that message was for her.

“He dies of injuries right here,” he said, pointing to his neck with a chopping motion.

It was his first miss on air, but a dead-on hit with us. Daniel’s neck had been broken in the car accident.

“I’m here, Daniel,” I murmured. Kevin laughed with me, but we were both a little freaked out.

The woman said she wasn't connecting with the message.

“He said his mother had four children,” Edward answered. He held up two fingers on one hand and flipped his wrist. “Two and two. Two boys and two girls.” It was the exact sign that medium Suzane Northrop had told us to watch for.

Seconds later, our phone rang.

“Oh, my God,” Donna breathed.

Yes. God and his sweet angel Daniel.

It is what it is.

Since that program, Kevin and I accompanied Donna and Dave to interview The Ghost Whisperer’s James Van Praagh for [we had lunch with him in Chicago] and we saw Northurp again, too. A famous English psychic named Kevin told me, during another interview, that he saw me in front of a big microphone addressing thousands of people – he interpreted that to mean a radio show.

“No way,” I said. “I’m a magazine publisher. Maybe you meant that; I write for thousands of people.”

He said, “No. I don’t mean that. You already know that. I definitely see radio. I see airwaves.”

Can you imagine?! I laughed with my friend, Tammy Rozek, about it afterwards. I told her I thought he was a fake, and we both thought the radio thing was a real hoot! [Seems I owe him an apology now, since a year later, I did the first of over 650 weekday radio shows.....]

And at a memorable psychic fair party thrown by the advertising agency Hiebing for 400 "of the company’s best friends", a gypsy (she had the outfit to prove it) told me that I had two collections in my house that suggested I had been a nun in a prior life. I have to admit, I found that idea even more absurd than the radio idea. But when I later told my husband Kevin about that, he pointed out that I have 23 crosses hung on our kitchen wall and 21 Willow angles in the display case – my only two collections.

“You had psychic amnesia,” Kevin said kindly, wise now in the lingo because I’ve dragged him to all of those shows. “It happens all the time. Psychics hate that.”

I’ve been told I’m “easy to read” because a deceased grandmother (my beloved Nana) and a pervasive male energy (you know who) supposedly speaks to psychics on my behalf.

But now I feel I should say (I’ll put this in capital letters like I’m shouting): I’M NOT SUGGESTING THAT YOU GO PSYCHIC-CHASING TO FIND DEAD RELATIVES. I don’t go myself anymore. I don’t need to. I know what I know.

Like a blue rose, sometimes it just is what it is.

The Second Sign: Road Trip to St. Louis

[Story continued from Blog #1: Daniel's blue rose - it is what it is.]

The strangeness of the Blue Rose Appearance opened my husband’s mind to the possibility of energy surviving physical death. For many of us, such a thought is a huge leap of faith. For some people, I know it runs counter to faith.

My own belief system has no problem “crossing over” to that conclusion, as I had been involved with death work for a long time. During previous jobs (Manager of the Chicago Ronald McDonald House; Director of Western Illinois University's Crisis Hotline), children and adults had recounted near death experiences to me. I was no stranger to the belief of a soul surviving the body.

But nothing quite prepared us for the next challenge – or confirmation of my beloved son Daniel's continued energy.

Friend Donna Gray was asked to critique a new book for for its New Age genre. Author Suzane Northrop had earned great acclaim as “the psychic’s psychic” because John Edward, a famous medium with the television program Crossing Over, was among her tutelage. Suzane was to appear in St. Louis, Missouri the coming week, her closest rendezvous with our city (Madison, Wisconsin) that year.

“Why don’t you write an author interview to go along with the book review?” Donna suggested. “Road trip! We could go to St. Louis and meet her! It might be fun.” Why not?

Road Trip!

I contacted for the assignment, and Donna handled all the trip details. “Northrop’s people” agreed to the personal interview and gave us the secret name she was listed under at a downtown St. Louis hotel. We promised our husbands a riverboat gambling trip and a good dinner to lure them in, thinking it would be a lark at best, and that Northrop would be a sham at worst. So we hit the highway in search of a latest adventure. (We often travel together and it is always an adventure).

Despite all the hype in the press at the time about Suzane’s abilities, Donna and I decided that the medium – sitting in a drab hotel room without makeup or assistants, nursing a glass of red wine, answering perfunctory questions that she’d obviously answered hundreds of times before – was nothing spectacular. Most interesting was that she was royally ticked off because some lunatics had called a local radio station with death threats, proclaiming her to be a channel for the devil.

“And you people wonder why all the psychic mediums live in New York instead of the Bible Belt,” she quipped. [Actually, her real quote had lots of swear words in it.]

I was disappointed – not in the swearing, but because a psychic didn’t know what to expect before coming. [Okay, she's technically a MEDIUM, not a "what's going to happen before it happens" PSYCHIC]. She also wasn’t as, well... different as I’d hoped. She didn’t wear cool jewelry or bright colored gypsy scarves or even have an enigmatic smile. She was just a regular person wearing a nondescript outfit who drove a four-wheel drive jeep to all of her gigs across the country because she was bugged by the hassles of flying.

And yes, we did wonder why it was that she and John Edward and the two other headliner psychics popular at the time (James Van Praagh and George Anderson) were tied to Long Island.

“Is it something in the water?”

She smirked. Turns out she’d heard that question hundreds of times before, too.

I didn’t think we impressed her any more than she was impressing us, so it was a surprise when, as Donna and I gathered our tape recorders and started for the door, Suzane suddenly offered four complimentary seats in the reserved section at her sold-out evening performance. “You have to come,” she pressed. “I want to see you when I walk out on that stage.”

Okay.... But there were still husbands to convince.

“We think maybe the Bible Belt will crash the show to stage a Devil protest,” we suggested to them. (Yes, we offered up the potential for chaos or live wrestling to get them to go along). However, as bereaved mothers, Donna and I probably both privately harbored some hope that we’d get something we needed out of it. She had never gotten any signs of an afterlife after her son David, 33, died. At least, she hadn’t gotten a message as clear as the blue rose. And I can admit I wished for another blue rose.

Suzane dressed for the show in a tuxedo, with makeup. She looked incredible. Not new age "out there"; she looked like she took it serious and she was ready to take charge of the stage.

The show followed a typical protocol. Suzane began with an explanation of a “medium” and then offered a guided meditation for participants. Following that, she did “readings”. She began to speak rapidly as she called out clues to audience members, asking who “owned” a particular energy.

What wasn’t typical of such productions, however, was her specificity. Although she has been tested for psychic abilities in university studies, and consistently scores in the highest bracket for intuitive knowledge (imagine a batter who hits 300 most games), the things she said that night were nonetheless unsettling.

“Who owns an Uncle Frank, who hung himself in the back yard?” for example. That’s pretty specific. Not like “Who lost a loved one whose name begins with ‘G’?”.

A woman stood up, crying, and "claimed" the uncle.

She must have placed stooges in the audience, I thought. This has to be a sham. That, or group hysteria or hypnosis. Maybe the woman THINKS she had an Uncle Frank now....

"I have a Betty here."

We were nearing the end of the program when Suzane announced, “I have a Betty now. This Betty only planted gladiolas in her garden. No other flowers. Only gladiolas. Who in this audience owns Betty?”

My husband raised his hand as his face drained of all color. “That’s my mother,” Kevin confirmed in a surprised voice, standing. “It’s all she ever planted.”

Now it was my turn to feel the blood rush out my head. I didn’t know that weird fact about Betty. But my husband was no stooge for Suzane Northrop! (That I did know.)

“She didn’t come to talk to you,” Northrop stated, all but dismissing him. “She came to open the door to bring through two sons.” And with that, she crossed the room to where we sat conspicuously in the front of the room.

In the next few minutes, she told us that Donna’s son was named for his father (David Sr.). She said he was onstage standing by a microphone, like he was telling jokes, and she reported that he was talking about the movie business and about a large collection of keys. She threw facts at us faster than we could catch them. “And he says he opened in Las Vegas,” Northrop said. “What does all that mean?”

David Sr. had a look on his face that I’ll never forget. But he managed to speak: “He was a comedian who had just made a movie. And he was a Second City comedian who opened for some big stars in Vegas.”

“The keys were a family joke.” Donna was unable to stand to face the audience as Northrop requested. She was shook up, but she added, “He traveled and was always locking himself out. We had made several copies of the keys for his house. Everyone in the family had a set.”

Suzane turned away from Donna to repeat the words for the audience, who applauded the confirmation.

Then she turned back to us. “The other son had a mother who had four children,” she proclaimed. “Two and two.” She held up two fingers on one hand and then turned her hand, indicating four children total. “Two boys and two girls.”

This can't really be happening, I thought.

My heart beat even faster, if that was even possible.

“This son,” she added, looking right at me, “is showing me his mother wearing a headdress of some kind. A wrap. A covering over her head. He says to the man with her, the man by your side” [she pointed to me and then to Kevin] “‘thank you for taking care of my mother’.”

I had survived breast cancer since my son’s death, and had worn a scarf, turban or wig for many months. Because Kevin and I were married after Daniel’s death, it also would have been appropriate to use those words for Daniel to express his gratitude to Kevin for being my caregiver. Daniel was that kind of a thoughtful kid, too.... an unusually thoughtful child....

But wait a minute... I thought. My hair is still super short because of ongoing therapy – could she make a reasonable conclusion from that? Would she have a way to know I’m a cancer survivor? Yes, maybe ... if she Googled....

Northrop interrupted my thoughts, continuing her hurried report: “He says his mother was worried about the hot air balloon, but he wants you to know, he was there. You asked him, and he went in the hot air balloon, too.”

Oh my god, I thought. This can’t really be happening. This can’t be real!

After Daniel’s death, my father offered my other son, Philip, then seven years old, a ride in a hot air balloon. I’m petrified of heights and I didn’t want him to accept the birthday gift. Philip called me “a meannie” and Dad called me “overprotective,” so I caved in. As the balloon soared, I mentally begged my angel Daniel to protect his little brother. I asked him to be there, and to keep his brother safe. “Please, please!” I had begged.

“He says you are known in your family for your mega albums,” Suzane added, snapping back my attention. “What’s that mean?”

I blanked out. It meant nothing to me.

“She scrapbooks,” Kevin offered. “She’s made over 30 albums for the family.”
I prayed she would stop. I mean it. It was wonderful, but I couldn’t process any more. It was just too much. I felt naked in a room full of strangers.

"Two and Two"

However, she had one more message: “He says he will appear to you again, to take away all your doubt,” Northrop said. “He says not to spend your money looking for him; the message will be delivered to you. You will know the message is real because a true medium will give you this sign very clearly” – here she held up two fingers again, and again she rotated her wrist to displayed two fingers again. “Two and two,” she confirmed. “There will be no ambiguity in the message. Two boys, two girls. Always two and two.”

With that, I think she closed the show, though I can’t remember for sure now. Everything after that last pronouncement was less important. When we left the room, not one of us ever imaged we would be able to sleep again because we were so mystified and charged up. Yet we didn’t want to talk about it, either. We ordered coffee in the hotel bar and then couldn’t even finish that before leaving. It was all just too much. Too much.

Still, that evening wasn’t the miracle. I thought it was at the time, but now I recognize it as only the second sign of the real miracle, which was delivered, as promised, about two weeks later.

[Continued in Blog #3]

Daniel's blue rose: It is what it is.

My son Daniel died when he was 16. He was my firstborn and he’s now been physically absent longer than he was here. You can’t know how strange that is for me even to contemplate, because there is a difference between getting over shock and getting over disbelief.

At the time of his death, I was a police crisis interventionist who, among other duties, did the death notifications for all shifts of a suburban Milwaukee police department. I also wrote a Greater Milwaukee area newspaper column titled “Person to Person” that was a lot like this blog - up close and personal. Two weeks before Daniel died, I had written a column about his new driver’s license, admitting it made me crazy with worry because he was still so young and inexperienced. The fact that he was adamant about organ donation moderated my concern a little, because that was such an adult decision. Maybe, I concluded, I should practice the Serenity Prayer and loosen the apron strings a little.

If I were a superstitious person, I’d be afraid to ever write another word, since he died in a single-car accident two weeks after that column was published (loose gravel on a country road).

But I’m not superstitious. I’m spiritual.

A Miracle? The First Sign...

Many years later, my husband Kevin accompanied me on one of my many pilgrimages to Daniel’s burial place in Galesburg, Illinois. Because Daniel’s favorite color was blue and his favorite flower was a rose, it remains a family custom to leave blue plastic roses in the vase on his grave to mark our visits.

That’s how it happened that Kevin and I went to a Galesburg Wal-Mart, where we found the expected floral display – a tall, free-standing four-sided vertical box with flowers in the slots up all the sides of it. Unfortunately, what we didn’t find was a blue rose. Ivy was a second choice, but we couldn’t find that, either.

We must have walked around the cluttered display four or five times; I was quite frustrated and dismayed that I couldn’t fulfill the tradition. In a separate aisle, I finally did locate some ivy in a big planter vase, but it wasn’t suitable for my purpose.

Finally, after a little prodding from my husband, I agreed to settle for a handful of blue daisies from the rack. I don’t remember my exact words... probably something like “this really sucks” as I plucked them from the wall. But my husband was his usual kind self as he insisted the type of flower didn’t matter nearly as much as the visit.

“It all matters to me,” I muttered, angry even though I knew it was my own fault for not hunting for the right flower before leaving Madison. Why was I so sure I’d find it in Galesburg? (Because I always had, perhaps?)

As we turned away from the floral display, something fluttered in my peripheral vision. I felt compelled to look back, and to my amazement, a long sprig of ivy now laid on the floor, seemingly having just fallen there of its own volition.

“That is really weird,” Kevin mused aloud. “But ivy?” He looked up and quipped, “Are you kidding me, Daniel? If you can do that, why not a blue rose?”

“I must have knocked this out when pulling out the other flowers,” I said, bending to retrieve the ivy. “But it is really weird that we didn’t”—

And at that exact, precise moment, a blue rose fell forward above my head, separating itself from all of the red flowers in the same slot.

No other blue flowers were on that side of the display, either.

For the first time in our marriage, Kevin and I jointly were speechless. It was a moment of breathtaking incredulity that must be akin to winning a lottery. It was simply impossible, yet... it was what it was... a blue rose.

You might think the blue rose is the miracle I intended to write about. Surely we thought it to be a major omen at the time, but it was only an omen. A first sign.

The miracle would come later, after yet another sign.